In its right place · May 16, 03:15 PM

The chap sat next to me in the members room at the Tate Modern is currently working away on a rather aged first gen MacBook Pro, into which he has plugged a well loved A5 Wacom tablet (this sounds small, it isn’t). This for some reason makes me quite pleased.


The modern, the extreme, and the classic · May 11, 11:03 PM

One of the things I do enjoy about Forza Motorsport (some earlier ramblings on the current incarnation of said game can be found here) is the combination of the breadth of cars which it offers you the chance to pilot, coupled with its dedicated pursuit to realistic physics simulation it has.

The range means I can pretty much guarantee to find a few cars that will suit me and my driving style. If I’m honest, I’m not really that good a virtual driver, so it suits me fine to stick to the slower end of the spectrum, preferring to polish my lap times to perfection in an MX-5 rather than spend my time lapping Le Sarthe in an Le Mans Prototype car. At the same time, the realistic physics means there’s a reason and reward to spending the time to hone one’s skills in a given vehicle type, as they really do feel different to drive.

As an example of this, after having had a love/hate relationship with the KTM X-Bow, which I admire the engineering behind, but is at the same time very hard to master, I’ve was able to completely switch pace, and take one a slightly more refined class of car, in the old Aston Martin DBR1. Within the confines of the same game, the two cars feel and behave totally different; despite both being track focussed open top sports cars, when comparing driving the KTM to the DBR1, the latter is clearly from a different era of engineering – very much less efficient, rolling like an american hire car through the corners. Forza does such a good job of communicating that, giving me a fresh set of challenges with each car I opt to spend time trying to master.

Oh how I do wish there was a way to go straight from Forza to Instagram…

There’s one other thing that the range and realism together bring – a new appreciation for how truly maddeningly fast real race cars are, even compared to modern sports cars. You see things like F1 on the telly, and you can see they’re fast, but you don’t see them up against other cars to benchmark them. A while ago someone sent me this video, which starts to give you some insight as to how far removed modern Formula 1 cars are even from modern GT3 cars (the non-street legal supped up versions of production sports cars):

But with something like Forza, you can start to get a glimpse of that yourself. Although most cars in Forza are production cars or the sports car variations thereof, for Forza Motorsport 5 they threw in a single Formula 1 race car. Drive that, after driving your Ferraris and Lamborghinis, and it becomes very apparent very quickly just how much faster it is to drive, and just how much hard work it is to use. It’s hard to articulate it without experiencing it, so I won’t even try – if you’re interested go try it out for yourself. Even if you’re not enthralled by Formula 1 as a sport, which I’m not, it’s still fascinating just how different these beasts are.

Clearly the makers of Forza didn’t really intend to make an Formula 1 simulator out of their game given they included but a single such car, but by including this it serves as a great example of those two key elements of their game, and for us players articulates the range to what is out there, putting into perspective the different extremes of automotive engineering.


Getting started with hacking up Alfred workflows · May 4, 02:44 PM

One thing I do an awful log at work is deal with error numbers frown at me by the operating system. These generally are as annoying to us developers as they are to users – what does error 35 mean when I try deleting that resource? For ages I’ve wanted to make a quick way to help me look them up POSIX errno values, and finally on this bank holiday weekend I found time.

I’m a heavy user of Alfred, an app for the Mac where in response to a key press I get a text field into which I can type app names or files or google searches and have them carried out. It is literally one of the first things I install on any Mac I use. Given this is my go to for most actions, I thought I’d try teaching Alfred to report back error, like so:

The main thing that’s delayed me doing this is that although is very scriptable, the documentation isn’t that good, and leads to “go look in the forums”, and I generally don’t have time for that. Thankfully, other people out there have stepped up to the plate. I wanted to write my little tool in python, and thankfully Dean Jackson has both provided a very nice python library for talking to Alfred and also some great documentation on how to use it.

Thus over coffee this afternoon I was able to quickly knock up a very simple Alfred workflow that did just what I wanted. If you happen to have a similar esoteric need you can either grab the source or grab the compiled workflow.

Overall it’s a absolutely trivial amount of work, but getting here has taken me ages due to lack of time to site down and learn how to do it. Now I’ve started I’ll probably write a lot more, but getting over the activation energy to get started is very hard to justify when you’re already on a tight deadline. I wonder how many other tools I use day to day I could unlock properly if I had time and the tools themselves had more accessible documentation.


Who's looking after your digital rights? · Apr 21, 10:04 AM

I was recently at a formal dinner in Cambridge, where I found myself on a mixed table of computer scientists (including someone seniorish from IBM, and someone who made their living from open source software), along with some people from the finance sector. After some nice lamb, and glass or two of nice wine, talk got on to Google’s GMail, and the fact that they scan your mail in order to serve relevant adverts to you whilst using the service. One of the finance people at the table was particularly appalled that Google would scan your email and thought Something Should Be Done™.

Now, despite my hippy hair and generally liberal outlook on life, I’m also very comfortable with the idea of capitalism and I’m not particularly fussed about Google’s behaviour in this instance – when you get something for free, there’s generally bound to be a catch. Surprisingly I was alone in this view, with my dining partners all being unnerved by Google’s practices. For all my interjections, some of which they validly countered, and some not, it seemed the rest of the table’s option that this was The Thin End Of The Wedge™.

Now, this both amused and annoyed me. Not because I disagreed with the people at my table; I actually agree with the broader argument they’re trying to make about big internet businesses and access to our personal data, just less so this specific instance. No, what both amused and annoyed me was that there was a lot of very passionate Someone Should Do Something About This™, but this table of quite well educated local graduates with their variety of degrees and wealth of world experience had no idea who that should be. Which is odd, as that Someone does indeed exists. In fact, yours truly, the person at the table trying to defend Google against this swell of idealism, was not just the only person at the table who regularly donates money to this someone, but was the only person amongst our group who’d even heard of them.

Thus I found myself very quickly switching tack from standing up for a big internet business, to being the outspoken advocate for everyone at my table joining the Open Rights Group, who are indeed the Someone™ they seek.

If you’ve not come across them before, the Open Rights Group are a UK advocacy/lobbying group who are trying to represent the public when it comes to UK legislation about all things internet and digital. They are the people who, when such laws are being debated, provide the arguments on behalf of you, me, and the people at my table.

I joined up to the ORG when the previous government, in one of its final acts, rushed through the Digital Economy Act, which attempted to tackle copyright violation in the modern age. Despite the fact that as a profession I rely on strong copyright law, I disagreed strongly with this specific act’s details, so looked to support the one organisation lobbying against it – the ORG. And although the Digital Economy Act went through and in this instance the ORG were unsuccessful in preventing it, I was glad to discover there was someone there to make the counter argument in situations like this.

I want to stress that it is not the case that I believe all for profit organisations are evil and out to get us thus we need the ORG to save us (something that seemed to set my apart from my dining colleges, despite the fact that half of them worked for some for of big business). What I do believe is that to get the government to pass sane laws, you need people arguing all sides. Businesses are trying to optimise for profit, and sometimes the desire to shake up the system does us good, and sometimes it’ll do us bad. Someone needs to argue against them to provide the balance – that’s the ORG. Our elected officials are generally not experts in the areas they have to legislate on; a government minister will need to get outside information, and businesses are experts in the field and a good source of information so will almost certainly be consulted. But like all sources of information that source has a bias and an agenda, so other sources are needed. This is what the ORG do: the ORG will provide an alternative voice to government which wants to protect people over profit, ensuring that more than one opinion is heard.

This is why I send ORG money each month, and I believe anyone with concerns in this area, be they specific or general, should do similarly. The ORG play an important role in our new digital society, and exist solely on donations of those of us who care and care spare a little money.

Unfortunately the ORG isn’t well heard of outside core nerd circles. Even the person at my table who made a living from open source software, who is statistically thus the most likely to care about such advocacy groups, had only vaguely heard of them but assumed they were something to do with the US equivalent, the better known Electronic Frontier Foundation, which they’re not. If a well educated and well connected techie doesn’t know about the ORG, then it’s hardly surprising that the man from finance does not too I guess, and perhaps then no surprise that the ORG only has 2100 members in a country of 63.2 million people.

I suspect I failed to convince anyone at my table to sign up with the ORG – there was a lot of umming and erming once I’d explained that the mythical Someone™ already existed, and what they needed to do, if they really felt passionate about it, was send them a fiver each month to help fund the people lobbying for what they were a few minutes ago so very worried about. But this is what alcohol does to people – they briefly get very excited about a topic and then the next day forget about it. The only advantage I have over the others is I already have a direct debit set up, so I can forget about it too and still know someone is out there making the counter argument.

But I make the same argument to you reading this: you may not agree with everything the ORG says (I certainly haven’t), but they provided an important service as a check/balance in our legislation system, which is not only worth supporting, but needs supporting, as otherwise it’ll go away. If you want to ensure someone is arguing for your side in such debates, then you could do a lot worse than joining the ORG.


Some unstructured thoughts on Forza Motorsport 5 · Apr 13, 04:18 PM

I’ve rambled on before about Forza Motorsport 4 when it first came out and about some of the UX aspects of typing to communicate something quite physical when you’re sat in your living room. But I’ve not said much about Forza Motorsport 5, which launched with the Xbox One. I was waiting until I’d managed to group them into some coherent narrative, but I’ve failed to do so, so rather than put it off yet more, here’s some mixed thoughts, along with a few pretty pictures of cars.

I’ve mentioned in my original summary of FM4 about how I like Rivals, a mode in which you just get to see the fastest laps of your friends, and try to beat them. This is great for those of us gamers who struggled to get all your friends online at a single time – welcome to working adulthood. This is one of the nice things that server side services for games have brought to lots of games – asynchronous competition against ghosts of your friends. You can feel connected in the game even whilst your friends are busy doing other things.

In FM5 however, they take that feeling of being connected to your friends even further, thanks to what they call Drivitars. As you play, the game builds up an AI model of how you drive – how late you break into corners, how wide you typically are, how much speed you carry, etc. Everyone who plays FM5 has their AI model uploaded to The Cloud™, and then every AI driver you race in FM5 is based off a real gamer somewhere. This is great for Turn 10, as it means they get lots of varied AI for free, which will generally give a more interesting race than artificial AI, but the reason I love this feature is nothing to do with Turn 10 getting a free ride AI wise.

What I really love about the Drivitar system is that it will always prefer to fill the grid with AI models of your friends, so even though my friends span different timezones and work commitments make it hard to get everyone online, I end up racing against all the virtual copies of my friends, which makes the racing that much more involved. I know it’s not really Dave or Dan or Garry or Jonathan etc. I’m racing, but I still really do want to beat their AIs more than some random other AI. I feel that bit more engaged in the race, which makes it more fun.

It’s fair to say that most people playing Forza also don’t tend to race as clean in single player as they do in multiplayer – there’s no one to shout back at you, and you’re going to get a place up. But with Drivitar there now is someone watching you – if you play dirty in single player your Drivitar will play dirty too. Observer my good friend Garry’s Drivitar taking me out here:

And I’m sure mine is just as guilty of similar crimes. But it does make me think twice when racing in single player, as I don’t wany the AI model of Michael to be seen as an asshole when it’s out representing me.

On the input side, I’m still hugely saddened that my wonderful Fanatec wheel setup I have for the Xbox 360 does not work with the Xbox One, forcing me to play with the controller until such time as Fanatec can come up with some new hardware.

The one slight redeeming feature of the Xbox One here though is that they now have force feedback on the controller triggers, which gives me an indication of when under breaking I’m loosing grip, and when under acceleration I’m losing traction. This is a small thing, but in terms of communicating to the user what the car is doing, it’s a huge difference, and really helps you connect more with the virtual car.

Which is good, as the one technical difference I’ve noticed in the physics model between FM5 vs FM4 is that the tyres are more reactive to operating temperature, so understanding when you’re over stressing the tyres on accelleration/breaking is quite important. In FM4 it was there, but seemed (to me at least) fairly consistent over all tracks. But now I know I need to be careful on that first lap out in Yas Marina, but extra careful for a few laps in the much colder Alps tracks. As a result I play a much more conservative game for the first lap than before.

Overall, although FM5 is much prettier, and thanks to Drivitars more fun to play than FM4, I still get frustrated by some of the trade offs they’ve had to make as they balance being the best of in car simulation with the need to be accessible in terms of pick up and play.

An example of this tension is in the contrast to the fact that they boast about measuring tracks down to sub-centimeter accuracy, capturing every nuance of the course, but in single player you get 2 to 3 laps per race with qualify laps time to learn the track before hand, so you essentially are typically racing each car/track combo cold. Instantly accessible wins here, and I appreciate qualifying/learning laps are really only appreciated for nerds like myself who want to learn the track properly, but it does mean I spend most my time in Forza just doing hot laps rather than races. If I could change just one thing about FM5 it’d be the option to give those of us who want to appreciate all this accuracy Turn 10 pour into the game time to appreciate it.


Fast Lane · Feb 22, 03:01 PM

Unlike my boss, I do not lead the optimised travel lifestyle, but I do travel to the US enough now that I’ve made some moves to optimise the items on my itinerary to make the semi-regular pilgrimage from Cambridge to our Cupertino office go more smoothly.

First up is luggage. Before my regular US trips I used to either end up taking a large, heavy suitcase with me, or try to spooge everything into hand luggage. The first option is usually down to poor optimisations why buying luggage (why spend lots on luggage if you don’t travel more than a couple of times a year?), and the second option is letting the airlines win at your expense. My aim these days is to make transitioning through Heathrow and SFO as little of a chore as possible, whilst not having to use a shoehorn when packing.

First things first: yes, I do take hold luggage. Yes, this adds some time at the other end that a lot of my colleagues would rather walk over hot coals than endure, but in practice it’s not nearly as much as variance in immigration takes, so I think this is a bit of a false optimisation (at least for mortals like myself who don’t get to use the magic electronic entry devices at SFO, like said boss). Also, my flowery shirt and tweed habit is at odds with trying to compress everything I need for a week into a tiny hand luggage bag. So I take a full size case and a shoulder bag, as seen here:

Prizes for those that recognise the carpet there.

The above pictured suitcase is the simply wonderful Salsa Air from Rimowa. It’s wonderful for two reasons: firstly, it’s so very, very light, being made of polycarbonate with no rigid frame; and secondly, it has four independent wheels on the bottom rather than two fixed ones. All of which means even fully loaded with a week’s worth of outfits that would make James May jealous, I’m hardly pushing 12 kg, and it glides smoothly alongside me rather than my having to drag it along behind me. It wasn’t cheap, but I have no regrets at all given how much more relaxed it is to move through an airport with.

I used to take on a wheeled hand luggage case too, but I’ve stopped doing that in favour of the Crumpler bag you see above. I can easily fit my laptop, magazines, kindle, etc. in the Crumpler, at the expense of giving up some bulky items like my DSLR. That trade off is mostly because I don’t yet have a sense for when flights will be insanely packed, and I don’t want the stress of the “will they make me put my bag in the hold with all this sensitive electronics in it” game. That’s happened to others on a couple of flights I’ve been on, and I want to avoid that scenario, and more importantly, I want to avoid worrying about that scenario. The Crumpler will easily slide under the seat in front of me in a pinch too, so I have zero stress about getting onto the plane and worrying about where my stuff will end up in flight.

All of which means my travel on foot at either end is a much more sedate experience, which is what I’m optimising for, with hardly any sacrifice in terms of time through the airport itself.

The other recent purchase I’ve made to make the ten hours sealed up in a loud metal tube pass more easily is a set of noise cancelling headphones. Until I’d tried some on, it really hadn’t occurred to me how spookily good these things are. If you’ve not tried any, go find a shop selling them and experience it for yourself – the noisier the shop the better. They really are quite spooky at first, almost unnerving.

The popular choice of my co-travellers in the United Economy Plus cabin are the Bose QC15 over ear headphones, but I prefer something more discrete, and opted for the in-ear QC20i instead.

If nothing else, I like to think Batman would approve of their design.

Whilst they don’t cut out the noise by 100%, they do cut down the in-plane sounds significantly, making it easier to think, read, or watch inflight movies. If I’m working I’ll often have them on and not be listening to anything, sat in my own bubble of calm. The battery pack claims to be 16 hours, but the most I need them for is the ten or so hours it takes to move between London and San Francisco, so they are more than adequate for my purposes. The only downside is you need to pay more attention to when the person next to you wants to get by (a problem for aisle seat people like myself).

The final thing I find that makes my trips to the US smoother is one that probably is hard to follow for most people: don’t drive a car in the UK. Living in Cambridge, where it takes twice as long to get anywhere by car compared to bicycle, and being a motorcyclist, means I don’t actually drive right handed cars that often. This has the handy side effect that my muscle memory remains intact when picking up the left hand drive hire car for the final 40 mile trek from SFO down to Cupertino whilst my body clock things I should have gone to bed a good handful of hours ago.


Titanfall Beta · Feb 16, 08:53 PM

I must confess I wasn’t paying much attention to Titanfall until I saw some footage of the open beta that came out this weekend, but now I have, I’m really enjoying it.

Titanfall is a multiplayer only game, and the pacing seems just pitch perfect. It reminds me a lot of the last multiplayer only FPS I played heavily, Unreal Tournament 2004 (shout out to the old #playpen clan). Not in terms of specifics, but in the general pace and tone of the game. Not very serious sci-fi, keep running, double jumping, and a lovely mix of weapons. It’s one of the few games I’ve played where it has parkour elements that just melt away so that you’re not aware you’re using them, and the smart pistol is a boon for people like me who don’t have enough free time to be come expert sharp shooters.

You can see the chaps at Hat Films give the PC version a spin here:

The beta lasts until Wednesday Feb 19th, so I recommend you give it a whirl before it vanishes, although it’ll be back for good in a month, at which point I’ll almost certainly pick it up.

Unfortunately, the main difference for me these days is my friends list on the Xbox One is much shorter, and a good amount of fun with UT2K4 was playing as a team. We were rubbish, but we were rubbish together, and that’s what counted.


Beautiful Science Fact · Feb 16, 04:45 PM

If you trawl websites dedicated to providing desktop background pictures, you’ll find a lot of pretty renderings of science fiction scenes. However, this week, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter just upped them all by producing this image from Mars:

It’s an impact crater that appeared some time in the last two years on the Mars surface, showing up between successive passes. The crater is 30 metres across, and debris spread out as far as 15 kilometres. The above image, which now graces my laptop’s desktop, is a composite of a large mono image and a small area RGB image produced by the HiRISE team at the University of Arizona. Wonderfully striking, and an example of fact trumping fiction for visual drama.

The HiRISE guys did make some desktops, but only of close ups of the crater; I much prefer the overview picture they put together, so I made some variations at different resolutions incase others want them: 1024×768, 1280×800, 1440×900, and 1600×1200.


Coding and elegance · Feb 2, 10:53 PM

I was very pleased to see that the headline feature in this weekend’s FT Life & Arts section was devoted to the idea of artistic elegance in code – something familiar to those of us who do this for a living, but perhaps not to those who don’t practice.

I’m not sure coding can lay claim to this alone; all engineers I think are looking for elegance in their solutions. But I think the metrics by which elegance is measured is probably hard to comprehend outside each discipline, what is elegant takes domain knowledge to spot that elegance. I imagine most people who see a modern Ducati motorbike don’t see that the engine is actually also a load bearing part of the structure, reducing the need for an explicit frame, saving materials and thus weight and cost, and this is an elegant engineering solution. They just see a motorbike that looks like most others. And if they can’t see the elegance in physical engineering what hope have we that they’ll see it in something as abstract as code? To the lay person one screen of gobbledy gook is as weird looking as another.

A good example from another engineering discipline might be the Millau Viaduct, where the bridge is visually arresting due to the engineering, not because it was engineered to be so. In coding we’re always looking for a solution that functions perfectly, but is at the same time free of fat, complexity, corner cases. Programmers are famously lazy people, and as such we seek elegance as it makes our lives easier in the long term, whilst providing a satisfying intellectual challenge in the short term.

As computing enters more and more walks of life, it pleases me to have an article try and capture some of the more aesthetic sides of what I do for a living. The only time I’ve seen this done better is by the fictional Richard McDuff in Douglas Adam’s “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”, and that was probably only read by the kind of people who understood the argument in the first place. It’d be nice to think articles like this make computing a bit easier to relate to for those who’s lives are ruled by code but don’t understand how it comes to be.


I Like Trials · Jan 12, 09:49 PM

When we got the Xbox One I thought that that was it for new games for the Xbox 360, I’d play the existing games on the 360, but all new games would be on the Xbox One. And I was kinda right. I’ve not bought any new games for the Xbox 360, but I have got hooked on an old classic, Trials Evolution, which you can see demonstrated here by the chaps at Hat Films:

The premise is quite simple – you ride a dirt bike across a range of obstacles, trying not to fall off and do so as quickly as you can. The controls are very simple: you can go faster or slower, and you can shift your weight back and forward. That all there is to it, so it’s very easy to pick up and get started, but quite tricky to master to perfection; which sums up this game quite well.

I recall playing the demo for the precursor to this instalment, Trials HD, and being deeply unimpressed with it, due to it being very frustrating from the get go. This is why I avoided Trials Evolution until last week, but the new version gets it very right. It’s easy to pick up and play and have some fun; the basic bikes and tracks are easy to get to grips with, so you can have fun without frustration, blasting through the countryside on your dirt bike within moments of starting the game up. But, at the same time, there’s always the challenge to go one better and be a perfectionist on each track, so it can also be played as a very technical game. RedLynx did a good job of catering to both mindsets in a single game.

To add to the draw, if your friends have played at all, you get to see their ghosts as you play, so even though I’ve just been playing it single player, it’s got a competitive edge to it as I want to try and beat my friends. No doubt my friends are more hip than me and got the game when it was first released almost two years ago, but it matters not in this digital time shifted era – I can have fun challenging them even though I’m years late to the party.

It’s quite cheap as games go, and there’s hours of fun to be had here, so I do recommend it if you’ve not picked it up yet. Great pick up and play action.


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