Lotus Driving Academy · Jul 20, 10:17 AM

After my PhD viva I swore to myself I’d never sit another exam again. Clearly a fib, but then at the time I didn’t think they’d be as fun as driving small cars around fast corners fast in deepest Norfolk…

Yesterday Laura and I took a day out from our hectic work schedules to do part one of Lotus’s driving school, over at their factory and test track location in Hethel, just outside Norwich. I love playing Forza Motorsport, and wanted to see what it was like for real, but in a way that was unlikely to get me in to trouble – so a day’s basic track tuition in a car that is famed for handling seemed just the trick.

The level one course is just your basics of car control on a track – no technical trickery, just getting used to handling a car at speed around a twisty track. And it’s the corners that are the things that terrify you at first. Anyone can go fast in a straight line – it’s carrying that speed through corners, or shedding that speed so that you can come out of corners fast, that is the trick, and this is where the real learning for the day was.

As a motorcyclist, you might expect that this is something I’d be used to. I’ve done the advanced motorcycling test, and a lot of that focussed on flowing your corners to maintain speed, but a bike behaves so differently in corners to a car you just can’t compare the two.

On a car I have (or rather, had) no understanding of how far you can push a car around a corner, and as such was quite apprehensive. It’s hard to articulate, but fundamentally it’s about a level of faith that what you’re doing will work before you do it. The idea of doing a tight hairpin at 50 mph is not something I trusted a car to do. But thanks to a safe space in which to learn and an expert to guide me, I now know better.

The north loop of the Hethel track superficially looks quite dull, but when you’re flat out in a car the 1.3 miles vanish quite quickly and you’re left with a series of quite tight turns: a twisty chicane, a wide hairpin, and a series of flowing corners at Clark that all need to flow well for you to take the incredibly tight Windsock.

The day was split into three sessions. Session one was mostly getting used to the car and the track, and the idea of travelling quickly through these bends. For the last six years I’ve mostly drive a semi-automatic car, so I was also getting used to using a manual shifter again: I have nothing but the deepest of sympathies for a little Elise with plate LDA 2 having to suffer my mangled shifting. I should probably send it a card or something.

But by the end of that first session I felt quite good. I’d even squealed the tyres in some corners. I was learning new things about the limits of how you can push a car in these circumstances (albeit in one that was designed for exactly these circumstances!). I was still struggling though with that trust in the car thing – at the speeds you’re going and the way you have to react you don’t have time to look at the dial before every corner to set your speed, you have to just feel how fast you’re doing. I know for a fact that the Elise dashboard has lights telling you the optimal time to shift, but that’s only because I’d read it before; never once did I see those lights on the track as I was too busy watching the road for my break/corner markers and reacting – I entered some weird tunnel vision where all my brain took in was the track.

Session two was very ragged. My gear changes were just all over the places, and I was messing up the very tight Windsock turn by going from 3rd to 4th rather than 3rd to 2nd, over and over. Terrible. The problem is everything happens so fast at that point – you need to turn, break, change, turn all within seconds, all with someone shouting advice at you at the same time. 3rd to 2nd for the chicane was not a problem, as there I had more space to think.

In session three I discovered part of my problem in session two was that having got used to a fast exit on Rindt, I was getting up to 5th rather than 4th on the long straight that followed, and this to me felt like progress. But actually, although there’s three corners between the end of that straight and my nemesis Windsock, the extra cognitive load of coming down that extra gear set me up badly mentally for that series of corners, leaving me feeling rushed all the way through to the end, and causing me to fluff it. By making a more relaxed entrance to that series of turns meant that at the end of it I was nailing Windsock every time, flying out of the tiny hairpin with a squeal of tyres and a big grin.

At no point in the day did I get a perfect lap, far from it. But by the end of the day I’d managed to get to a point where each part of the course I could do well several times over, and I was starting to be able to understand where coming on power early or late was upsetting my next state of the course. After three sessions, thanks to my instructor Tony, I’d gone from abject terror to only mild terror at flying up to Rindt hairpin.

But alas session three was the end of the day. We had one last lap though, this time with our instructors showing us how they took the lap. There the terror was back, though I had every faith in Tony not to leave us in a field of potatoes, but he was halving the breaking distances I’d used quite easily, and generally tearing up the track a lot faster – even with a similar top speed. Clearly I still have a lot to learn :)

The day as a whole was greatly educational, and greatly entertaining. Those little Lotus Elises may only have 134 bhp, but they let you wring their necks quite well, and dynamically they were wonderful. Now to work out where in our busy lives we can fit in the next two levels!

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A branding exercise · May 26, 07:48 AM

Being a somewhat consistent person, my personal and work laptops are the same, Apple’s MacBook Air. Add to that, Laura has the same laptop. As you can imagine, this leads to occasional confusion. Now, I can tell my two laptops apart, as one has a slight chip in the lid where you go to open it, but that means I’m now reduced to fondling them all before I can work out which is which, and leaving the issue in that state is just going to lead to me getting a worse reputation for technology love than I already do.

Previously, I solved this with the application of a macslap, wonderful vinyl cuts for adorning the top of your MacBook, but that is now sadly a defunct endevour. And although there’s a thousand copies of the original macslaps out there, I decided I wanted something more personal, and given I’m trying to hire people, something that would cause geeks to enquire.

Thankfully, I’m a fully paid up member of Cambridge’s Makespace, so I have access to the appropriate tools for making my own vinyl cuts, so I took the Bromium logo artwork and made my Bromium laptop stand out amongst the stack of identikit Macs that surround it at the office, at home, and just about any conference I go to:

Making a custom vinyl was surprisingly easy (if a little fiddly if your company brand guidelines insist on the ® symbol), so I do recommend it. I’ve already had people ask me where to get copies, both inside Bromium and out, so I take that as somewhat of a success.

I did learn one thing though that I’ll need to note for my next startup design – you can’t size the Bromium hexagon such that it covers the Apple light on the lid, and at the same time have the “Br” part stay within the glowing section. Logo designers take note!

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Radiolab · May 25, 09:24 AM

Like a lot of commuters, I listen to podcasts on my way to and from the office, and I’m always on the look out for something new and interesting. I though I’d share a new one, Radiolab, to which I was introduced by my good friend Dan.

I often feel I don’t know enough about the world – I listen to some of my friends talk and realise that although I know a lot about technology, there’s lots of other things out there that I know nothing about. Radiolab helps fill that gap, at least on a general science front, covering three related topics in each hour long show.

Some particular good episodes I can recommend include: speed, which covers topics from human reaction times to slowing down light to 15 mph; and colors, which talks about how different animals perceive colour, and why Homer’s Iliad doesn’t talk about blue.

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Simulating that which can't easily be simulated in driving games · Nov 11, 04:11 PM

In which I explain why motorcycling video games are, and always will be, rubbish.

I’d never been particularly interested in cars, until a friend of mine showed me how fun driving simulation games can be when you remove all the driver assists. Modern driving games, such as Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo have wonderfully accurate physics simulations in them, and so become suitably challenging when you expose the underlying car. At that point I saw the joy of the challenge of driving well. It’s a skill that I find rewarding on a motorbike, that hitherto I’d not seen in cars. I’m still not interested in cars as objects in themselves, but I am now interested in them as a tool to enable me to drive.

Add to the game’s physics modelling a force feedback wheel and simple pedal inputs, you suddenly have a very interesting simulator. The inputs are like those of a real car; indeed, the inputs on the Microsoft Force Feedback Wheel I started with match those of the Smart Roadster I regularly drive pretty much exactly. One of the things I find very fascinating about these wheels is not that they provide feedback of say, the road texture, but rather how they convey a sense of weight of the car.

I’ve never really thought deeply about the steering wheel as a output device before, only of an input, but I guess that’s because on real roads I drive at a suitably sedate pace, such that the G-forces on my body in cornering tell me what I need to know about my cornering. In driving a video game simulation of driving, they can’t provide that feedback so readily in my living room. Instead they convey it through the steering wheel, and it works remarkably well. You can feel as you throw your car around a tight corner it stringing at the limits of grip (if it’s a nimble car like a Lotus) or it giving up an wallowing off the road in disgust (if it’s a Mustang). I’m not sure if they’re modelling a real feedback loop I’ve just never noticed before, or a synthetic feedback loop that happens to convey the right sensations, but either way it works remarkably well.

What’s interesting here is they’ve found an alternative output mechanism to make up for something they couldn’t otherwise recreate.

This works for other outputs too. Typically if you get a set of pedals for such games, there’s no feedback via the pedals – they’re just input devices. For some of the pedals at your feet they take care of the feedback loop visually – you can see who quickly your car is accelerating on the screen when you press the rightmost pedal. It should be the same for the reverse process, breaking, but it isn’t. Yes, you can see your car slowing, but if you press a break too hard it’ll lock up, and normally you get feedback on a real car by feeling when the break starts to bite between your foot and G-force changes, and with dumb pedals you can’t feel that, and the result is you often lock the breaks more than you would otherwise.

On the Fanatec wheel set up I have today, they’ve solved that by simulating the ABS shudder via the force feedback in the wheel. So if I press the break too hard, the wheel starts to have a subtle shudder, and this tells me I’ve pressed too far. Over time this enables me to learn how far in the break pedal needs to be pressed before I lock up. Again, one output is made to substitute for another output that they couldn’t recreate.

However, not all senses are so easily catered for.

When approaching a corner you (or at least I) rely on the rate of change of depth to tell you how much speed you’re carrying, and more importantly, how much speed you need to lose. Most games (and gamers) don’t yet support 3D televisions, so you have to make do by default with a sort of rate of change of scaling on the screen – how much bigger the corner appears as you approach it – but that doesn’t work nearly so well. In an attempt at being a simulation purist I’ve tried relying only on this, and it does doesn’t work. You get a lot less information than you need, or at least than you’re used to driving in the real world, so the simulation falls down.

In Forza Motorsport there is a stop gap solution. As part of trying to make the game easier for people, Forza will enable you to turn on the racing line, showing you where you should be driving, and that line changes colour between green and red, depending on whether you should be speeding up or slowing down. It also has the option only to show the red bits, aka breaking line.

The breaking line is then something that helps make up for the lack of depth perception, but isn’t quite perfect. For one, it tells you where you should be racing, which is more than I want to know; I’d like to learn the lines on my own terms thank you very much. But also it doesn’t tell you when you should be breaking for your current line, only the ideal line. But, it’s close enough that you can use it as a reasonable indicator as to when to start breaking (unless the car in front of you obscures it, but then if you’re that close to the car in front you’ll find out you’re in the breaking zone soon enough as your bonnet goes into the rear of their car).

At first, using the breaking line felt like cheating, having the game tell me when I should be breaking. And ideally I’d not use it. But the fact is that unless you use this, you’re missing out on an important sense in driving that you’d not otherwise get from the simulated experience. Ideally they’d make some slightly purer visual feedback just to overcome this limitation decoupling it from showing the racing line.

Thanks to all these alternative input methods, be they on screen or via the force feedback motors, you get pretty close to driving a car, and it’ll enable you to safely and cheaply enjoy driving perfomant vehicles in your own living room.

All of which leads me to why motorbike based games generally are about as fun as something that’s not much fun. I love motorcycling, but games that try to recreate it without fail leave me cold. And it has to do with this using other outputs to make up for things your video game console can’t do – on a car that gap is sufficiently narrow you can make it up mostly, but with a motorbike that gap is a gaping chasm.

In a car you start with an unfair advantage – you’re usually sat down when you play driving games, and most cars expect you to be the same. Your typically isolated from the elements in both situations. Both the car and your living room typical remain on the same plane. On a bike, you have none of these similarities. A high amount of riding a bike is how you place your body, not just what you do with your hands and feet. And that movement is in reaction to the environment of the bike. The way you lean your bike and place your body is relative to the speed and corner radius, but there is no “right answer” – they’re four variables that you constantly tweak, almost subconsciously at times, through the corner. Neither input nor output on games console or PC gets close to recreating this.

So you’re not simulating motorcycling – you’re simulating a very bad car that you need to slow down on the corners for and will mostly fall off of. For the bike games that do let you adjust the angle of lean – you have no haptic feedback mechanism to convey to you how much you should lean by and what effect that lean is having in your dynamics. So motorcycling, which should be this raw, exciting, thrilling experience, feels limp by comparison to simulated driving, where we can provide the sort of feedback you expect.

Kevin Schwantz, former motorcycling world champion and now car racer once said that car racing is 80% car, 20% driver, and motorcycling is 80% rider, 20% motorbike. This feels like the right analogy for why car games work and bike games don’t – convey the 20% of senses required to engage with a car is far more achievable (and still have it be fun) than the 80% required for motorcycling.

But it’s okay, as we can get very close with cars, which is hugely fun for those days I can’t get out on the bike, and means I don’t need to save up for a Lamborghini.

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We got healthy and safety sign off for this... · Oct 7, 10:40 AM

No artistic merit here – just testing :)

Testing IPhone 5 On Long Board from Michael Dales on Vimeo.

Testing taking video on the iPhone and uploading to vimeo via iMovie (the iPhone version of iMovie). To think this was a chore on a “real” computer with a “real” camera until not long ago. Here I am taking, processing, and uploading an HD film with my phone. It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this, but it still amazes me.

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Meanwhile, over on app.net… · Sep 22, 03:34 AM

Yesterday I finally signed up for app.net, which if you’ve not seen it is a sort of paid for version of Twitter. You can find me over there as http://alpha.app.net/mwd. It has a bit of a silly name, in that it’s a boring name, but I plan as an experiment to head over there, and wind down using Twitter for anything other than reaching those on Twitter and not on app.net. I shall consume from Twitter, but only post new things to app.net for now.

A lot of developers are doing this, I suspect partly as a reaction to how Twitter has taken to treating developers of late as it tries to make money. Lots of what we take for granted on Twitter came from the third party app community: hashtags, the noun/verb “tweet”, retweeting, for example. And now Twitter in an effort to become sustainable is making those same developers unwelcome. Third party clients are now definitely on the endangered species list.

But that’s business for you, and Twitter certainly needs to somehow show a return for all its investment. My friend John Naughton summarised all this recently in an article that concludes:

“This new disenchantment with Twitter seems daft to me … as for the API restrictions, well, Twitter isn’t a charity. Those billions of tweets have to be processed, stored, retransmitted – and that costs money. Twitter has already had more than $1bn of venture capital funding. Like Facebook, it has to make money, somehow. Otherwise it will disappear. Even on the internet there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

I agree with John’s reasoning, but not his conclusion that it’s daft. The reason why is this: in an effort to make money, Twitter is changing the product. I think it’s similarly daft to me (sorry John :), to assume that just because I liked product A, when it’s changed into product B, I should like it just as much. I don’t disagree that Twitter needs to find a revenue stream, or object that it should make changes to make that happen. I don’t agree however that I should like the new Twitter just because I liked the old Twitter. (John’s article also talks about free speech fears, but there I agree with his conclusions, so I’ve skipped over those).

So what is it about new Twitter that I don’t like? I don’t want adverts in my stream of tweets. I’d rather pay a small amount than see adverts. I don’t want expanded tweets – Twitter’s benefit to me is that tweets are short messages I can choose to follow through or not. I don’t want to use the web client – I use a third part client because I like that particular way of consuming twitter.

I’m sure a lot of people will be happy with Twitter in it’s new form, and that’s awesome. They get something they don’t have to pay for, and Twitter can make money. But thankfully market forces seem to be at work here. There’s a set of people who’d rather pay a little for a basic Twitter like service free from adverts and expanded tweets and will let third party developers in to play, and that’s what app.net seems to be offering. I’ve no idea if it’ll work out long term, but then you can say the same for Twitter :)

Ultimately thought the value of any social platform is whether there are enough people over there for you to engage with, and as ever the incumbents have the advantage here – just look at Google Plus vs Facebook. So it’ll be interesting to see if there are enough people who liked old Twitter enough to pay for it, or they’re happy to use the new, noisier Twitter for free.

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Flying the flag · Sep 3, 11:50 AM

This weekend I hoisted the flag for the Bromium OS X team:

arrrrr

The pirate flag was the flag of the original Mac team at Apple – and if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for the Bromium Mac development effort.

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Car rental desks - the nth level of hell · Aug 19, 10:31 PM

Upsell is such a terrible word really. It basically means you, the customer, have not bought enough already, and how can they, the seller, make you buy more stuff that you didn’t want when you started.

The worse example I’ve hit of this was yesterday, at the Avis counter at San Francisco Airport. I had a car booked. The type of car was already selected. The price was nicely printed on the bit of paper I had printed out to give to the person at the rentals desk. I’ve just spent 11 hours in a single seat in a dark metal tube (they make you close the windows on International flights so luckier people than me might sleep). I’ve just spent 2.5 hours in a queue with over a thousand other people at immigration due to some computer failure. Can I just have the car I asked for and you agreed to provide?

No.

The woman at the Avis desk was going to first try and upsell me on every little variable in the transaction. I’m sure she’s normally a nice person and is made into this upselling demon by company policy and a desire to keep her job, but boy did I want to shout at her to just stop it and give me the car I had asked for (I didn’t, I just politely smiled and said no thank you a lot).

Did I want a bigger car? No thank you (polite smile). But it’s a really small car you have. No thank you (polite smile). How about a nicer small car then? No thank you (polite smile). And you’ll definitely want the many levels of insurance we have beyond the basics (this one wasn’t even asked as a question if memory serves me correctly). No thank you (well, I took the break down cover, as I was too tired to fend off every upsell by this point). Did I want to buy all the petrols? No thank you (polite smile). It’s really much cheaper (if you use a full tank, which I won’t as I’m only going to drive 80 odd miles). No thank you (polite smile).

Arghhh. Please, just give me the thing I’d already specified and you’d agreed to give me for the price you originally said you would.

In the end, the woman behind the counter gave me a car, charged me some random amount over what I expected, which by this point I was too tired to quibble with as all I wanted to do was collapse in my hotel as my body clock told me it was way past my bedtime, and she did so with bad grace as I clearly wasn’t going to be a nice customer and spend an order of magnitude more than I originally wanted.

It really gives you a bad start to your trip when given you’re at your lowest ebb and people just try to take you for a ride (when really you want to drive yourself, thank you very much). Otherwise everyone I’ve met over has, as ever, been rather kind and pleasant. Even the man at immigration, usually a steely faced bunch, apologised to me for the delay.

Rant over. At least till I return the car I guess…

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Can you dig it? · Jul 14, 09:44 AM

After a year and a half, the original M&L minecraft server has seen most of us burnout a little (amazed that it took that long), so Laura and I thought we’d mix things up, and run a second server that has monsters on, and is running the Tekkit mod, which includes all manner of engineering/magical based goodies. For an idea of what to expect, you could watch this informative documentary series on building a jaffa cake factory.

To join in the fun you need 2.75 things:

0: You’ll need to grab the Tekkit Launcher – because Tekkit has so many mods involved, they’ve made a nice launcher app to take care of it all for you. Go here and grab the launcher for your preferred platform (Xbox alas not an option). Fire it up, and select the “Tekkit” option in the big button thing in the top left, then sign in. It’ll pull a bunch of mods for you, then present you with the familiar Minecraft login screen.

1: You’ll need to be on the white list. If you were on the white list before, then you’re set. If not, drop me a missive, and I’ll forward it to the review commity.

1.5: (optional) Given how big a change Tekkit is from regular minecraft, we’re using an alternative skin, as to us it’s really a different game. We recommend this one, which is Tekkit friendly. If your machine is up to it the 128×128 version is nice. Installing it is also a bit of a pain – once you’ve launched tekkit once (no need to connect to the server) you should find you have a directory like this (on the Mac):

~/Library/Application\ Support/techniclauncher/tekkit/texturepacks

That’s where you should drop the zip file. It’ll no doubt lock up the UI for half a minute whilst it loads too, so you need to be a little patient.

1.75: (optional) If you’re on the Mac you’ll probably want to remap how tekkit uses the left control key, as it maps it to zoom and boost, but if you’re on a laptop that’s your right click modifier too.

Finally, all that done, head over to the usual server, but use port 2556 and join in the fun.

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