Putting together a simple website

I finally got around to putting together a simple personal homepage.  I guess it’s something I’ve vaguely been meaning to do for a while, and was recently prompted into action by WordPress notifying me on my blog that this domain was available.  To get it up and running quickly, I decided to make it just be a little window onto the blog – the “highlights” if you like.  That way I didn’t have to spend time writing any content for now :)

Here are a few notes on what was involved.  As context, my goal here was to make something very simple with static files only (no server-side software or dynamically generated content).  And while the page itself is incredibly trivial, I wanted to approach it as though it was a more serious project and do things as “properly” as I could.

Hosting

I decided to do the whole thing on Amazon S3 after reading this post by Amazon’s CTO on how he moved his blog to the service (I guess this feature is about a year old now).  I’m sure there are other decent options for hosting, although it’s unfortunately one of those poisoned search terms that make it impossible or at least highly frustrating to research through Google searches.  So I’m probably unaware of all kinds of good options; this was essentially the first acceptable one I found.  When I saw it, I knew immediately to stop looking further:

  • It’s extremely simple to use; I already have an Amazon account so it was just a case of clicking to enable the service, clicking to create a ‘bucket’ (their unit of file containment), uploading the files, making them publicly readable, checking the “website enabled” box, and telling it which is the index file.  My website was then immediately live at a URL that looks like lukehalliwell.com.blahblahblah.amazonaws.com and I just pointed my DNS settings there.
  • It’s cheap.  For a small website, the storage is essentially free; bandwidth obviously depends on traffic but would also be essentially free most of the time.  If I look at the busiest day my blog has ever had (about 100,000 views right after Realtime Worlds fell apart and I had incoming links from the front page of every major gaming news website on the planet), it would have cost me about $4.  I can live with that for such a freak day.
  • Amazon have my trust – for reliability, security, performance, being around in the future … no worries.
  • This doesn’t apply to my crappy personal homepage, but if I was building a site that I was trying to grow, I love the fact you can turn on their Cloudfront CDN with a single click and have instant worldwide scalable awesomeness :)

Finally, the whole thing is very vanilla – you don’t end up using any wacky Amazon-specific features that would tie you in.  It just serves up static files in a simple to use interface.

Graphic design

As usual, I reached for my trusty design-for-beginners book:

If you know very little (or like me, even less than very little) about design, it’s well worth a read.  I can’t pretend my finished result looks good to a connoisseur but I think it’s a lot better than it would otherwise have been – it’s good enough for my taste :)

I also enjoyed using Google web fonts.  They’re super fun and very easy to use.  Perhaps a little too much fun and I did go a bit over the top with the main header … but then the book repeatedly says “Don’t be a wimp!”

Turning design into CSS was a bit frustrating – specifically, getting the DIVs to behave properly and lay out the boxes of content the way I wanted to seemed hard.  Probably 70% of my time making the site was just on this and I sort of gave up a bit and hard-coded some pixel count measurements in there.  This is another area where Google searches are poor – not the worst case, but lots of mediocre content at the top of the results.  But other than the main structural layout, the CSS was simple and fun.

Licensing

I love Creative Commons.  Without it:

  • Do I make no mention of licence terms?  That’s fine for a crappy personal home page, but if I start adding content to it … where do I draw the line between ‘this is a crappy page that nobody will ever care about’ and ‘who knows, I might unintentionally create something good or useful one day’.  Most likely I will never cross this line but I don’t want to have to waste time thinking about it.  If I do cross it, have I just been naive by not spelling out the licence terms?  Or have I just pissed off anyone who wants to use it with good intentions and can’t tell what’s allowed?
  • Just slapping a copyright notice on it isn’t really any better.  It also massively overstates the level of importance I attach to what I’ve created here.

So Creative Commons is awesome because it allows me to give away what I’ve done for non-commercial use, be precise about my intentions, and never have to spend time thinking about it again.

Other miscellaneous bits

I integrated Google analytics just to see what that was like (this falls under the umbrella of doing things as though it were a more serious project!) … apparently trivial.  There’s a lot of data there that I’ll never use for this site – but at least I can see the page view count is working.

I also tried out Google’s webmaster tools – again, trivial to use.  With my page in its completely-newborn, no-incoming-links state, it wouldn’t show up in Google searches at all.  By submitting it there, it appeared within a day.  There are a few interesting options in there that aren’t relevant to this simple page but could be useful to controlling how a more complex site appears in Google results.

All in all, the set of tools available for creating a simple website is extremely mature and simple to use.  Not that surprising I guess for the year 2012 :)  My only complaint was using CSS to create the overall structure of the page!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An exciting time for camera technology

I’ve toyed with the idea of upgrading from our point and shoot for a few years, but this is the photo where I’d finally had enough:

Most people’s reaction is ‘SO CUUUUUUUUUUUUUUTE’.

Well, ok … yes they are.

But while they’re cute, when I look at this photo I also see a wonderful moment captured incredibly poorly.  And it’s not like I got unlucky with this one shot.  It’s the best of maybe 15 that I took.  And there are so many wonderful moments that I fail to get any decent pictures of.

It’s so hard to catch a moment when they’re all smiling properly, all looking at you, all with their eyes open.  And my camera is frequently too slow to catch those fast toddler movements sharply.  As you can see, it’s also very noisy at times (I think light was a little low here and I also had to crop fairly aggressively).

So I finally decided to look for a new camera in earnest – and not a point and shoot this time.  I have my phone for when I want a casual snap; if I’m going to go and “get my camera out”, it needs to be substantially better!

And that’s when I discovered that, at least in the ‘upgrading from point and shoot’ market segment, this is an amazing time to be buying.  Here’s what I’ve been looking at.

This is just one example (the Sony NEX-7) of the new generation of ‘mirrorless’ cameras.  The idea is to get rid of the SLR’s traditional moving mirror, replacing it with a fixed but translucent mirror that diverts just enough light for autofocus sensors, and also replacing the traditional optical viewfinder with an electronic version hooked up to the sensor.

In practical terms, this means autofocus can work continuously, allowing autofocus during video recording and also very high burst speeds (around 10fps is typical).  The quality of the electronic viewfinders is supposedly still below that of optical ones, but the tradeoff is that you can get very rich overlays of information as well as the ability to preview exactly what the camera is going to shoot.  The lack of moving mirror also allows these cameras to be smaller and lighter than they’d otherwise be.

The result is a series of cameras that are ridiculously feature-rich for their price.  I sense a real atmosphere of excitement in all the online photography gear communities, including plenty of serious photographers.  Here’s an excellent article about them from the awesome Trey Ratcliff:

You don’t name a category of technology by what it is not. I suppose we did use to call an “automobile” a “horseless buggy,” but now we look back on that quaint term and laugh. So, of course we will not call these cameras “mirrorless” for long.

The number of these cameras just coming out around now is incredible.  Sony’s range (both the NEX and the SLR-sized alphas) have been out a while but are only just becoming available after the flooding in Thailand.  Pentax have the K-01 on the way; it looks ugly to me but the backward compatibility with all their lenses is pretty cool.  Olympus have the OM-D coming soon.  Above my price range, there’s the Fuji X-Pro1.  And there are a few older models around from Nikon, Panasonic and Olympus.  I think Samsung have one too.  And I’ve probably forgotten some!

So I’m now looking forward to a month or two of waiting for these new models to come out, and possibly a few rumoured new ones too – all while exhaustively reading every review under the sun.  Because like any good geek, I love the evaluation phase of a new gadget almost as much as the purchase itself :)

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Science is not a popularity contest

Here’s a story that’s been all over the online news this week: the Wall Street Journal published a piece, signed by 16 scientists, about how climate change isn’t cause for concern.

So obviously there’s some nonsense in there, that plenty of people have already picked up on.  For example, quite what CO2 being colourless has to do with anything, who knows.  There’s a set of anecdotes and little in the way of facts discussed (it would have been nice to have seen the reference to the UN climate projections visualised or quantified, at least).

Next, a group of climate scientists got annoyed and wrote this letter to the editor.

This seems to have been met with hurrahs by many, but when I read it, it drives me crazy.

They open with the argument that the original 16 scientists don’t have the right credentials to be heard:

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

This is such a dangerous path to take, such an incredibly poor way to engage in public science debate.  These things shouldn’t be decided by wheeling out experts in white coats and arguing over their “reputations”.  I realise not everyone can read every piece of research out there, and we do need experts to summarise things for us, but the debate should be about summarising this research and providing links and references for anyone who wants to read more or check the arguments presented.

Instead, we now have a perfect example of public science debate descending into this: let’s debate the credentials of some experts, try to win on that ground, and then hope people just accept whatever they say as fact.  The original article did a bit of that with their 16 signatories, and the respondents just got baited into working at that level.

It drives me crazy.

It happens with all science, but climate science feels like one of the worst areas for this.  Perhaps it’s because it’s such a highly political issue, and so heavily debated in public.  Perhaps the random element of the weather provides extra opportunity to dig out facts to support whatever you want to say.

Back to the letter – it gets worse:

Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused.

Since when did we need to do research on how many scientists believe in whether something is true or not? I thought science was supposed to be about the evidence, the observable facts of the matter? Not how many people believe in something?  What the hell kind of research is this?  Why are they quoting it here?  [It's so bogus that it doesn't really matter, but they also don't even back it up with a reference]

Often, this debating approach can be blamed on journalists or others using scientists to make their points; but this is a letter direct from scientists.  They have nobody to blame for this one.

If you’re a scientist talking about science publicly, please, we deserve better.

Posted in Rants | 6 Comments

Five questions about the future of television

This is the year we gave up on having cable service and a traditional phone line. We have joined the ranks of the internet-only!  There’s not much to say about the phone line; I sort of miss its reliability but it really didn’t offer much else.

TV is more interesting. The idea of watching pre-recorded shows broadcast at set times is obviously doomed. But it’s less clear what the future holds. Here are 5 questions about the future of TV that intrigue me.

1. Will TV shows as we know them survive?

I say yes, broadly speaking. Humans need storytelling.  Kenneth Burke called stories “equipment for living”; Robert McKee expands on this in his book Story:

Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours.  We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream … Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.

There is enormous demand for storytelling, and in particular for the filmed variety right now.  Not only that, but movies are too long for everyday modern life; we need something more bite-sized, and TV shows are just that.

Freedom from a broadcast schedule, with its half-hour and one-hour time slots packed with as much advertising as people can take, might open up some leeway in the length of a show. But there are limits – at the upper end, production costs, audience attention span (and why not just make a movie anyway). The interesting place to explore is probably by going shorter. There could also be some freedom from current season lengths, if business models change.

Will lavishly-produced, big-budget shows survive? Or will people come to watch the work of talented amateurs, making stories cheaply? While the internet democratises distribution, and equipment like cameras and software gets cheaper, making stories is hard, and filming stories is a huge amount of work.  Meanwhile, the demand is there for large volumes of high quality content.  I don’t see professional shows going away any time soon.

In fact, the really interesting thing for me is that we could simply see shows get better. More on this below.

Brides-to-be compete in stupid challenges to win plastic surgery procedures from their wish lists!

2. If TV shows survive, how will we pay for them?

One of the big things that drove us away from cable service was the pricing model. The overall cost is way too high and you pay for so much crap that you never watch. In our new world, we have Hulu Plus at $8/month, together with Amazon instant video for movie rentals – they’re usually something like $4 and I love the depth of their catalogue. We’ll probably flip Hulu for Netflix at some point when we need something fresh to watch. And I can see us adding the BBC iPlayer when it comes here next year. We have Amazon prime but I don’t really count that because we got it for the 2-day deliveries – the video archive is a strange extra. I also paid for $20 for a season of NFL game rewind – more on that later.

Anyway, the point is – we may not quite get everything we’d like to watch, but there’s enough, and the price difference is astonishing.

People saving money ... on groceries ... with coupons. Lots of coupons.

Looking into the future as a consumer, I’d like to:

  • Pay less!  And not in a cheapskate way … I mean that I don’t want to pay for stuff that I don’t watch.
  • Have some more flexibility, e.g. between subscribing to stuff versus paying per view
  • Know how much it would cost to buy myself out of all adverts?

Apart from simply saving myself money, I’m very interested in the longer term in how this affects the nature of the content produced. If the future includes a more direct connection between what you watch and what you pay for, that has some big implications. For example, shows no longer need be measured by audience share alone. It should open up the possibility for niche shows that have small but passionate fanbases who are willing to pay for them. Maybe – please – shows like Firefly could thrive in this world? And if creators don’t always need to aim purely for audience share or advertising demographics, maybe TV shows can lose some of the generic, bland, formulaic traits they suffer from too often.

That’s pretty exciting, and should be good for consumers and content creators alike. The only person hurt is the middleman … speaking of which:

3. Will cable companies survive?

Easy: yes! At least for the foreseeable future. Here’s why:

  • A depressing reason: inertia. A large number of people will keep paying their cable bill without thinking too hard about it. Just check out these incredible stats on how much AOL still make from dial-up users, including charging those users extra for things like email – yes, partly rural customers, but still …
  • They have a complete monopoly on the wires to your house. So whether you’re paying for their TV service or want to watch streaming video over the internet, they’re going to make you pay them somehow.  Hopefully projects like Google Fiber can start to break this, but it will take a lot of time.
  • They are going to cling onto content rights. Average users don’t have any emotional ties to old technology; they just need the time of the new tech to come. But they do have emotional ties to their favourite content. Bet on the cable companies to make exclusive deals where possible and withhold their own content from other channels. The really ‘premium’ content (live sports, big movies, big-budget shows) is so expensive to licence that it will be hard for other startups to just pay for rights.  Netflix is just about getting big enough to begin doing this, but only a little.
  • Oh and they are hedging their bets anyway – Comcast owns Hulu …

It’s sad, because for me, dealing with Comcast was just miserable:

  • Tied in on long contracts (we were in for a year; many of their deals hold you for 2 years)
  • Paying a large amount of money per month for a ridiculous number of channels that I had no interest in
  • Paying silly extra charges (when can we all just get over HD and realise that it’s normal?) and equipment rental fees
  • The most horrible user experience imaginable. Take their on-demand movie service for example: a maze of ugly menus. When you watch a trailer, half of the screen is blocked with a “Buy now?” dialogue box, making the trailer almost unwatchable, and making me scared to touch the remote. It’s never clear which of the two buttons on the “Buy X?” dialogue boxes are highlighted … am I saying yes or no? Should I just turn my box off and start again to be sure? Now we use Amazon Instant Video and I wish we’d done it all along … it’s the way it should be.

The real question is, what horrible contortions will they go through, what misery will they inflict on their customers, as their business comes under threat?  I have a feeling things may get worse for customers before they get better.

I'm just trying not to shudder right now.

4. What about live sports?

9 of the top 10 most-watched TV programmes in America in 2010 were NFL games – the other one, at number 9, was the Academy Awards.  Yes, live sports are enormously popular.  I read an interesting theory recently from Gregg Easterbrook, that sports have become especially successful because of their lack of predictability, contrasted with seemingly ever-more-formulaic TV shows. He wonders whether this also explains the success of dancing/singing/skating/whatever shows, which for all their faults, offer that same sense of unpredictability.

I too love watching sports, in fact more than anything else on TV. So how did I just walk away this year? The simple answer is that we had triplets! I don’t have time to watch much any more, and when I do … it’ll be at some random moment of their convenience (i.e. when we finally get them to sleep), which is not necessarily when sports are on. So this year, I paid $20 for NFL game rewind. You can watch any NFL game in full, in HD, ad-free … just not live (that’s why it’s $20 and not $300 for the season).  It’s not the same knowing the result, but it bizarrely suits my life right now.

So live sports are always brought up as TV’s unique advantage, because there isn’t a good internet-only service for watching them.  But I feel like you have to add ‘yet’ to that sentence.

Of course, if the cable companies have any sense, they’ll cling onto these rights for dear life (presumably they’ll then squeeze every penny they can out of their customers).  This will be a hard situation to break for a startup.  The rights are so expensive, get negotiated so infrequently and have various legal restrictions around them too.

Is there any hope for the consumer? Maybe. The most hopeful avenue is the big sports leagues deciding to go direct to consumers.  In fact, the NFL already do, provided you don’t live in the USA. I don’t know how much of a cut they get of a cable sports package, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they could charge a consumer more and still be a very appealing option.

Why bother cleaning when you could just watch it on TV?

In the long run, I’m not convinced I’d want to maintain paying relationships as a consumer with multiple different leagues. Here’s what I’d really love: a single web service where I could view all my live sports, and be billed in one place, with flexible options:

  • Subscription to a specific league or sport. Perfect for the big leagues like the NFL and EPL. Ideally, different options of subscription length.
  • Pay-per-view for big games. Maybe I don’t have the time to watch enough EPL in general, but I’m dying to see the Manchester derby. Maybe I’m one of those only-watch-the-Super-Bowl football fans.
  • I’m not sure whether the less-popular sports would warrant their own subscriptions, or whether some kind of bundling would make sense there.
  • Free highlights (the NFL is worth mentioning again for the quality of free highlights on their website).

There’s an awesome business idea.  At least, it’d be awesome to be a customer!

5. What about the BBC?

Unlike the situation with cable, I actually love the BBC.  I really hope they do well in whatever this new world becomes.  The licence fee is a bit of an odd thing, tied to old technology concepts, but I don’t think that’s an insurmountable problem. It’s a very reasonable amount of money, hard to undercut.

They also produce plenty of content, of course.  And I like the fact that they’ve adapted pretty well already, technologically. iPlayer has been around for a long time now and is by far the best streaming video experience I’ve used. I can’t wait for it to come to the US next year – sign me up already! It’ll be interesting to see if they manage to build a decent number of paid users overseas, or whether it’ll just be a bunch of homesick expats who miss Have I Got News for You?

Looks dodgier than all the other TV shows pictured on this page!

Who to kill

Paul Graham wrote this piece that did the rounds after the SOPA debacle called “Just kill Hollywood”.  I could probably have framed this piece as “Just kill cable”.

While he’s right that there are great businesses to be built finding new ways to entertain people, I don’t see them reducing the importance of TV shows or films to people.  TV watching has continued to rise throughout the recent years of Facebook/Farmville/Angry Birds; being glued to TV shows doesn’t seem to be incompatible with newer forms of entertainment.

Because people love stories.  And sports.  And fat people crying about losing weight, women competing to marry a farmer, beauty pageants for 4-year-olds … WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?

But I agree with him fully on the idea that distribution and funding models seem ripe for creative destruction.

I am highly optimistic about the future, for both content creators and consumers.  And whoever ends up in control, please can I have some new Firefly?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A brief encounter with the US public school system

So we started Lexie off in kindergarten at our local school back in August.  Four months later, and we’ve taken her out of school to do home schooling instead.

While it wasn’t for us, it was most certainly worth going for these few months.  We have no regrets.  Firstly, it was important to make some friends in the area, and we met a number of wonderful families through school that we’ll continue to meet up with.

Plus, we had to try the school education out to see just how wrong it was for us.  Four months ago, we didn’t even consider the idea of home schooling.  The idea that Lucy could teach a 5-year-old while looking after 2-year-old triplets would have seemed nuts.  It’s really taken us these four months to come around to the idea, trying everything we could to fix the problems at school.  We worked so hard on making school work out that we now feel sure we’ve made the right decision.

Anyhow, here are a few things that surprised me about our school experience.

Parent involvement

Americans love to get parents involved in school.  Looking back at our short time there, we did an almost ridiculous amount.  We did about half the baking for a fundraising bake sale.  We helped run the book fair.  We bought stuff for the classroom, from pencils and craft supplies to tissues and hand sanitiser.  We organised a basket of gifts for auction.  We organised a ‘book swap’ event where every child could swap out two books, including getting hold of several hundred books to seed the event initially.  We sent in the fruit for their Thanksgiving feast.  We photocopied, and emailed, and organised.  We went to meetings to vote on proposals for upgrading classrooms.

And when I say ‘we’, I mean Lucy!

We never even got around to volunteering in the classroom or driving kids on field trips (two other things we were down for) because the background check process still hadn’t completed when we left.

I love the principle, and I think it’s a deliberate culture.  From what I can gather (I haven’t seen this written down explicitly), the theory is that the more invested the parent, the more they care about their child’s education, and the more they do outside school to set up their child for success in school.  The child sees that they care, that school is important.

I hope it works.  I think the danger is that maybe the parents who need to care a little more about school, aren’t the ones running the bake sales.  But overall, I liked the attitude.

Fundraising

You’ll notice that a lot of what we did in my ‘parent involvement’ list was raising funds for the school.  And this is where I worry, because some of the parent involvement may be less about getting parents to care, and more about making up for a desperate lack of funding:  buying tissues and pencils for the classroom concerns me.  For a while I kept telling myself, it’s just a way of getting parents involved.  Then I learned they just cut teacher pay in our district this year – 5 schooldays cut in the first half of 2012.  So maybe not.

Many countries are struggling to make ends meet in their budgets just now, but no pencils in classrooms?

I also wonder about the effectiveness of some of the fundraising approaches.  None of the fundraising involved donating money directly to the school.  It’s all of the form where some parents provide some goods or services, other parents pay for these goods or services, and the payment goes to the school.  The problem is that the parents providing stuff are spending money and time which does not go to the school.  And the other parents are probably buying stuff they don’t really want!  So there’s an inefficiency there.

If I spend $50 on baking ingredients and sell $200 worth of cakes at the sale, then the school just raised $200, but parents collectively spent $250 and a load of time baking.  My question is, what if those parents had just donated $250 and volunteered that baking time directly to the school instead?

The book fair is arguably worse.  Parents simply spend money on books.  The school must get some kind of cut or perhaps some free books, but fundamentally it’s money going into Scholastic’s pockets (they did $2 billion in revenue in 2011).

It’s not a simple question to answer.  Perhaps the bake sale approach encourages people to give more than if they were just asked for money and time.  It helps foster the school community.  It provides a good way for lots of parents to give small donations.  The book fair encourages parents to provide books for their children.

But I found it frustrating that I saw very little analysis of the efficiency element in all this fundraising.  So much effort is being put in, and I wonder whether a little extra thought could help.

Pledging allegiance

Now this part is just plain weird.  Every schoolchild here, every single day, has to stand, place their hand on their heart, and say these words in unison:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As an atheist, I was kind of irked by the God part (which isn’t even part of the original wording – it’s a 1950s amendment and the subject of various lawsuits), but mostly, I found this just a little bit creepy.  Suitable for special occasions with patriotic significance, sure … but every morning at school?  Sorry America, but it’s something a cult would do.

One speed fits all

The main, perhaps only reason, we ended up taking Lexie out of school, is the approach to dealing with different ability levels within the classroom.

I should start by saying that we thought Lexie’s teacher was pretty amazing in some ways.  Most of all, she took this class of 30 children, some of them rather unruly, and had them under an impressive level of control.  They lined up neatly, were quiet at the right times, tidied up their room, and approached their learning pretty seriously.  Not all of the classes in the school looked this way.

What they weren’t terribly interested in, sadly, were the children’s individual abilities.  I don’t want to turn this into a rant about how special our child is, but will stick to one very simple example: Lexie was prevented for a long time from writing her own name on her artwork.  Apparently that’s the teacher’s job, because if you’re writing, you’re too far ahead.  There were hundreds of things like this.  It felt as though her enthusiasm for learning was being crushed.  She began to be afraid to try hard or show what she could do, lest it was against the rules.

We asked again and again for some differentiation in the teaching, and while there was some token effort on the school’s part, the message came back consistently: just relax, she can wait for the other children to catch up.  With a bit of added disbelief that she was actually capable of doing things like reading.  CHILDREN OF THE SAME AGE ARE ALL THE SAME, DIDN’T YOU KNOW.

For some reason I thought modern education was all about being child-centered, recognising that different children are at different stages and have different learning styles.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure that’s the impression I got from my mother training to be a teacher recently.  I thought we were on a continuing process of evolution and improvement from the rote learning style of the 50s.

Is that a difference between the UK and US systems? (I didn’t think the UK system was anything to shout about!)  A difference between idealistic teacher training and the realities of one teacher looking after 30 children?  Is it impossible to pay attention to each child individually and also maintain class discipline?

Is school just babysitting?

I recently came across this post on public schools and home schooling, which just hit the nail on the head for me with this idea:

Because then I noticed how the US school system is really just the biggest babysitting institution in the world. My first clue, probably, was that I was dying to have my kids back in school so I could have my life back. What else can I do to get time alone? How else can I do some work? Work is very fun.

Whether or not it’s supposed to be … that’s exactly how it felt to us.  A babysitting service.

I disagree with that post though on the idea that it’s doomed to failure in the way that Social Security is.  Social Security is in trouble because of the basic age distribution of our population, and constantly increasing lifespans.  It may well be doomed.

Schools may be facing budget shortfalls, but it feels like they’ve also just made some bad decisions on how to approach teaching.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

Posted in Education | 10 Comments

The Power of Often

I’m not into New Year’s resolutions in a huge way (trying to improve your life – good; waiting for Jan 1st – why?), but I do find the turn of the year sometimes puts me in a reflective mood. This time around, I feel more backward-looking than usual – and I’m not sure if that’s some kind of artifact of getting older (please no!) or just the fact that it’s a little over a year since we moved to the US.

In looking back, a couple of things stood out for me from our family’s life in 2011. Did that really happen in a year? It’s pretty inspirational when I think about the possibilities for next year.

I know Kung Fu!
The first example is watching my daughter learn to read. Roughly a year ago, we started getting her to read a story to us as part of the bed-time story routine. It was hard going to begin with; the stories were essentially along the lines of “This is Tom. Tom has a mop …. This is Pat … “ and even then, they were often a struggle.

A year on, and she’s reading me the “How to Train Your Dragon” series, a chapter a night. I guess they’re like novels aimed at 10-year-olds or so. She reads all these long words perfectly, even when she has no idea what they mean.

Ok, so that was cheating a bit … it helps to be five years old! Sometimes she reminds me of the training scenes from The Matrix, with the speed she can pick things up.

Follow this one simple rule
The second example is about losing weight, the classic new year’s resolution. I didn’t actually make a weight loss resolution last year, but I did lose nearly 60lbs (27kg for my euro-friends) over the year. It’s truly incredible, looking back. I’ve tried so hard and failed so many times before, and it didn’t even feel like I tried too hard this time.

Obviously, you can boil it down to eating better and exercising more, but specifically, a rather wonderful set of random factors combined to make this time work for me (and I have Dreamworks to thank for all of them!):

  • Unlimited free food. No, really. Maybe my mother drummed into me not to leave food on my plate, or maybe I’m just inherently gluttonous, but I’ve never been able to turn away from free food … until Dreamworks. Here, they put an unlimited amount of delicious free food in front of you, at breakfast, all morning, at lunch, and all afternoon. And it turns out that this is exactly what I needed. Once my subconscious greed reflex grasped the fact that the pile of delicious breakfast pastries was going to be there again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, it began to become less important that I ate one RIGHT NOW.
  • Seeing a nutritionist. I’ve found this really helpful in making a series of small changes to my eating habits. The way I eat now is very different than a year ago, but at no point have I had to go hungry or feel like it’s been a hardship. It’s just been a series of simple, incremental changes, for example not having dessert with lunch every day, but picking my favourite from the week’s menu and just having that. It’s amazing how these changes add up over time.  Also, having to talk through my food choices with someone put an immediate end to all the inner excuses I could come up with for eating crap.
  • Lunchtime sports. I find it incredibly hard to exercise hard for the sake of exercising. I need a game to play, a ball to chase. With 4 young children, I also find it impossible to justify spending time on myself after work or at the weekend. Lunchtime sports are the solution to both these problems, and we have the most amazing facilities at work … full-court indoor basketball and a bunch of outdoor fields. Over the course of the year, I’ve honed my sports choices to get maximum benefit for losing weight. Firstly, I’ve minimised hard-surface sports like basketball as much as possible, because my knees started to get sore and became the limiting factor to how much I exercise. Instead, I try to play on grass every day if I can. Secondly, I’ve determined that ultimate frisbee contains more running than any other sport I can find. It’s unbelievably lung-bursting. Finally, I make choices within the game to maximise my exercise rather than to prioritise winning: run deep upfield routes whenever possible, try to guard the faster players on the other team, get back to the line fast after a score.

Little and often
The lesson for me in both of these is that the changes you can make to your life, your body or your mind in a single year are just incredible – almost certainly more than you can imagine right now. All you have to do is pick something and work on it.

Have a great 2012.

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Dreamworks first impressions

My first few months have flown by pretty fast, so I wanted to get a few of my early thoughts down before they become not-so-early.  I had a lot of trouble linking these disconnected impressions into prose, so it’s now just a list of interesting differences between Dreamworks and my previous employers.

From pre-revenue startup to established company
Ok, so RTW wasn’t quite pre-revenue – I guess we brought some money in from Crackdown – but we were pre-revenue in our ultimate endeavour, to build an online self-publishing outfit with a lot of VC money.

Revenue obviously makes a huge difference to the way you can treat your staff.  RTW’s heart was in the right place, but ultimately early startups need to attract and retain employees by passion and opportunity alone, not a life of luxury.  So I feel very, very spoiled at Dreamworks!  Sure, they provide breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks, the best gym I’ve ever seen, and a train pass, all for free.

But the thing I like best is all the extra-curricular stuff they put on: lunchtime classes (figure drawing and screenwriting recently, improv just now), talks about film-making from internal and external speakers, and a movie screening every week.  I suspect you become somewhat used to food etc over time (when I met someone at breakfast early on they said “I wish I could taste the breakfast like it was my first day again”), and that the artistic development stuff holds the real long-term value. Learning is tremendously important to me.

From secrecy to openness
Coming straight from the world of RTW’s secretive and bumbling management, it’s refreshing to be part of somewhere far more open.  Part of that’s down to being publicly traded (quarterly earnings reports!), and part of it’s down to the public availability of box office receipts.  It’s more than that, though.  I particularly like Jeffrey Katzenberg’s ‘blog’.  Closer to a text message than a blog, with its hurried, highly abbreviated style, and the blurriest photo attachments I’ve ever seen, it tells everyone, pretty much every day, what he’s been up to – who he had ‘bkft’ with (seems like he can’t eat without working!), how our projects are going, deals and partnerships he’s working on, thoughts on the future, and general company news.  He is absolutely relentless and it’s wonderful to get some insight into what’s going on at the top level.  Along with the fact that he is very good at dishing out praise where it’s due, it’s one of the reasons I’ve noticed unusual fondness towards him here, compared to a lot of executives.

(there’s an example here – leaked by someone naughty!)

Rules and procedures
My biggest fear of going to a larger company was bureaucracy and an environment where people can’t use their initiative.  Dreamworks pretty much exacerbated those fears with the welcome pack they sent alongside their offer letter – including a fair amount of “corporate policy”, some of it on some pretty trivial topics, like taking “rest breaks” and filling out weekly timecards.

Thankfully, it seems to be an incredibly relaxed place to work in practice, and people apply common sense over policies – in fact, many people seem to be unaware some of the policies even exist.  I’m not sure why they’re there – was it just the done thing when they started the company, a legal necessity, or are they a result of having some unionised staff?  Whatever the reason, I’m glad to say I haven’t filled out a timecard yet, and in several ways, I’d say Dreamworks is actually more relaxed than RTW, where we continued to use a clock-in/clock-out system to the end.

Development environment
The biggest downside I’ve seen of our size, so far, is when it comes to centralised software services (source control, bug database etc).  It seems like it’s hard to choose such software and configure it in a way that keeps everyone happy.  This was already a problem by the end at RTW and it’s an even greater magnitude here.  I do miss the days of 40ish people when a few of us could agree to switch source control and get it done fast.

I’m not a big fan of their choice of Accurev here, although the more I use it, the more it seems like the server is robust and fast, and it’s the client that’s awful (unfortunately that includes the command-line interface, not just the GUI).  Over time I seem to be collecting the necessary quirky recipes to get things done, and it’s becoming less of a problem.  If there were 30 of us I’d still want to change, but for a few thousand?  No chance!

When it comes to the local development environment, things are much better.  It’s been fun getting back into Linux development after years on Windows – simple pleasures like the shell :)   We’re free to choose whatever open-source tools we want here, and we have a couple of proprietary options on top; I’ve already seen at least 3 different choices for each of compiler, editor and debugger in common use.  I got frustrated with a couple of the default options and am now on the tried-and-trusted gcc+Emacs+gdb.

Most of the code here is either C++ or Python.  Sadly, the stuff I’m working on is in the former.  I was going to say I’d forgotten just how awful C++ is, but I think it would be more truthful to say I never knew this last time I used it – it’s taken using C# heavily for a few years to see the difference.  Waiting to build is horrible, even though we have pretty short build times by C++ standards.  Simple changes seem to take so much typing – change the header, change the source, change all the constructors, copy constructor, assignment, destructor … ugh.  Just to add a member!  The lack of breadth in the standard library and the lack of sugar (foreach!) and power (lambdas!) in the language adds verbosity everywhere.  Sure, 0x adds some of that stuff, but I dread to think when it will be widely usable, and I won’t be surprised if it brings all kinds of new ugliness too.

The *one* thing I like compared to C# is deterministic destruction.  Oh, I guess const can be useful sometimes, although you learn to live without that pretty fast.

Anyway, back to Dreamworks.

Cross-site development that works
I realise my past experience isn’t a lot of data, but VIS and RTW both struggled with the relationships between their various offices, with a similar pattern of tension and distrust across geographic lines.  With VIS it wasn’t too bad with just the occasional flare-up, but with RTW it was rife.

Dreamworks have managed to avoid that, and I’d love to understand better how.  One thing I’ve noticed that’s probably important is the way teams are organised: while VIS and RTW reinforced the site division by letting it affect the org chart (e.g. keeping teams entirely within one site), here it’s the opposite.  Many teams are simply spread across both sites (explaining why so many of their job openings are advertised at both locations).  They make so little of the division that I have a very poor awareness of who is at which site, at least for the people I deal with less frequently.

Asset management
Something that struck me early on here was the sophistication of their approach to managing assets.  They need to: the sheer number and size of assets made for a show makes even the biggest of games look tiny in comparison, and there’s a big focus on eliminating inefficiencies in the production pipeline.  Of course, they have the benefit of many years’ experience doing this, and a great deal of stability in their toolchain over that time compared to constantly-changing game technology.

The other thing that’s interesting is the Technical Director (TD) role.  They have programming skill, but are part of the content production team – so they can do technical things such as setting up character rigs, writing shaders or setting up simulations – but they’re also available to help organise assets, and do scripting, automation and tools to improve the pipeline.  As part of the content team, they understand what the artists are doing far better than central tech teams.  While I’ve met people with this skillset in games, not every team makes best use of them – I’ve seen them treated as interchangeable with core technology programmers – and I think game art teams are too often left to organise their own assets, or struggle with managing their budgets.  I have seen some game teams make good use of someone like this, but I don’t think it’s always recognised or hired for as a skill in its own right.  I’m certainly not one of the “games should imitate films” brigade that you sometimes come across, but this could be a useful idea for some teams.

Lots to be excited about
2010 was a tough year in many ways – severe sleep deprivation, losing a job and leaving our beloved home.  But I also see it as a wonderful one – bringing the triplets home from hospital in good health, starting at Dreamworks and moving to California.

With 2 to 3 films a year, and several years’ worth of original projects at various stages of development, there’s a lot going on here and quite a buzz around the place.  It’s opened up whole new areas to learn about and lots of amazingly talented people to meet.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few months, and I hope 2011 is just as good … perhaps with a bit less of the upheaval :)

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