Saturday, February 10

Ever since I got my digital camera, I've had a growing sense of unease about the shakiness of some of the photos that has expressed itself into full-blown pissed-off-ness with the last few 'proper' photos I've taken. At the highest resolution (and sometimes below it) with 2048 x 1536 pixels even the most steady hand can't prevent wobble on a camera, which really explains why even my best and most steady photos have got a certain amount of blurring in highest res.

Clearly, the solution was to get a tripod. Tripods, in comparison to the cost of the camera are actually quite cheap. That is, if you're a professional amateur photographer, which I am not. Professional amateurs tend to spend over a thousand pounds if not more on proper SLR cameras, eschewing digital cameras (with the exception of the lustworthy Canon EOS D30, the best - and most expensive - digital SLR camera there is) and buying a nice set of lenses and film for it. A good lightweight carbon fibre tripod worth one or two hundred pounds is nothing, especially if it's top of the range.

However, I was looking for something in the sub-40 range which would also be relatively tall - not an easy task. After an expedition around town to various camera shops and quizzing shop assistants, I came to the conclusion that they didn't really know much about tripods at all and so checked out Photo.net. Photo.net is a perfect example of a good online community - it fulfills a well defined purpose, has great design, great features, no adverts and handles thousands of visitors and contributors seamlessly. When I did a search for tripods, I came up with an article discussing cheap and compact tripods. Unfortunately, despite the quality of the article, I couldn't find any of the tripods mentioned there online or in catalogues, so I settled for a very-slightly-above-average 155cm Centon tripod with the usual features.

I could have bought a cheaper tripod made by Jessops, but then that would:

a) be selling out.
b) result in my owning a tripod that was, in all reality, a piece of shit.

Note: Epinions was of absolutely no use here. There is not a single review of a tripod that I could find there. Shame on them.

Out of the following four choices you can make when buying this sort of equipment, I took number 2 since I'm not that bothered about it, and there isn't really any point getting something that is crap.

1. The cheapest.
2. The cheapest that will actually do the job.
3. The best you can afford.
4. The best there is -- but you can't afford it, so don't bother.
Actually, you should never get number 1, and you never have enough money to get 4, so the only proper choices are 2 and 3.

Remember when I wrote a post about the fact that lag in instant messaging often resulted in a whole load of misunderstanding and paranoia? Well, the guys at TBTF featured the word laganoia in their Jargon Scout section which looks out for new buzzwords before they become mainstream. The definition for laganoia sums it up entirely.

I've just noticed that I made an unforgivable grammatical error in yesterday's post by misspelling the word whose as who's.

Note: I have edited this post after realising that it didn't read very well.

5:40 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, February 9

Picture this - we have exactly one hour for our lunch break in the middle of a Biology of Cells practical, and we've already spent five minutes of that walking to our weekly pub. Everyone knows what they want to have (exactly the same food as they've had for the last ten weeks, in fact). And then comes the fatal question...

"Who's turn is it to order this week?"

Immediatley, the six people become a study in nonchalance. Two students who are known to have not ordered in the past two weeks suddenly become enthralled by the contents of the menu and special offers cardboard thingy. Another two whip out their mobile phones, cowboy-style and pretend that they've just received an important message.

Several seconds later, as everyone realises that no-one is going to volunteer, people start making wild accusations about the fact that they were sure that they did it last week, or that 'You did it so well last time, you should do it again.' Soon, it becomes into battle of wits where the only factors involved are stubborness and sheer hunger. Eventually, ten minutes later after much unbased comments have flown around, one person gives in and the rest of us lean back in triumph, forgetting that we will now have to eat our food in a ridiculously short amount of time.

From the Internet Oracle:

Jean-Claude and Michelle are a couple living in France. One day, Jean-Claude comes home from work in the snail factory and his super hairy legged girlfriend Michelle says: "Jean-Claude, today ze light-bulb, it has gone out. You must fix it for me."

And after guzzling a bottle of wine and reading a boring and absurdly incomprehensible novel about nothingness Jean-Claude says, "What am I? Ze Electricien?"

The next day, Jean-Claude comes home from work in his silly little car that has a horn that sounds like a sick duck and Michelle, who has spent the day posing at a cafe pretending to be reading a tiny newspaper while drinking sludge says: "Jean-Claude, today ze carpet eet eez dirty, you must beat eet for me."

Jean-Claude ponders capitulating without a fight to Germany and then says, "What am I? Ze Carpet-beater?"

The very next day, Jean-Claude comes home from work wearing a really stupid beret and wearing a striped shirt even though he doesn't play rugby and Michele who is carrying around two loaves of really long bread says: "Oh, Jean-Claude, today your friend Pierre came over. He changed ze light-bulb and he beat ze carpet for me."

Jean-Claude ponders taking a bath sometime within the next month, but instead says "Oh, but I know zis Pierre. He never does anysing for nossing. What did he want?"

"He gave me 2 choices: he said I can make him ze dinner fancy or... sleep wiss heem."

"Which one did you choose?"

"What am I? Ze Chef French?"

7:08 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, February 8

Review: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis at Cambridge Corn Exchange

I first heard of Wynton Marsalis during an educational music program for kids that was on TV several years ago - he was doing a masterclass with some kids along with Yo-Yo Ma and played possibly the best jazz I'd ever heard. Seemed like a pretty good speaker to boot. So when I passed a poster outside the Corn Exchange last month, I immediately contacted my other jazz-loving friend and proceeded to book the best tickets in the house (the concert was sold out fairly soon afterwards).

About fifteen members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra turned up at the concert, along with Tony Coe (the guy who played the Pink Panther signature tune) - his appearance was pretty surprising considering the relative backwater status of Cambridge. While fifteen might sound a little small, it turned out to be the perfect number - large enough for a great diversity of sound, and small enough so that each musician had at least a couple of solos during the various pieces.

But back to the beginning. I have to admit that I was initially astounded by the complete absence of students among the audience about five minutes before the start - in retrospect, this was a little silly since they all flooded in four minutes later clutching their ill-gotten gains from the bar. Even so, 'grown-ups' outnumbered students at least three to one. However, despite the mix of ages, the orchestra was received incredibly well - clearly most people in the audience had at least heard of the orchestra and Marsalis before and were fairly fired up.

Setting a trend that would last the entire evening, Wynton talked for about a minute about the piece and the players and generally made some amusing comments. The musicians also seemed to be genuinely relaxed and having a fun time as they'd often joke about and join in singing along to some of the pieces - this did no end of good for the concert.

The first half kicked off with an up-tempo number that saw Wynton give his first solo, playing continuously without a breath for about two minutes (they use a circular breathing technique) - needless to say, he received an enthusiastic round of applause afterwards. In fact, every single solo was (justifiably) greeted with applause. These guys are professional jazz players and when you listen to them, you are literally listening to the best jazz orchestra of their type in the world; they exhibit an admirable practiced poise and unity.

The rest of the first half was given over to the songs of Louis Armstrong, which I hadn't heard before and so for once I went to a concert and heard something completely new (to me). Some of the notable pieces in the second half (Duke Ellington had a pretty strong influence here) were original compositions and old favourites - a pair of pieces were played before and after a mock-funeral given to a generic jazz player - the eulogy was absolutely hilarious.

Both the drummer and the pianist were also excellent during the solos, where they were allowed to show off as much as they wanted to. These guys were still better than pretty much any other drummer/pianist from more contemporary bands (that's not to say that the orchestra members were old - I'd say thirties was the average age.)

Perhaps the best moment of the night was the encore (after we'd spent two minutes stamping the floor and shouting out for more), when the orchestra walked into the concert hall from the side entrance and filed out to every corner; a group of them were playing just two metres away from where I was sitting. Playing 'C-jam Blues', they had backing from the piano and drums on the stage and each took turns to play a part; you can tell how good these guys are when they can play seamlessly even when seperated by dozens of metres.

A friend of mine pointed out that after this, any other jazz orchestra I listen to is going to be something of a disappointment. It's probably true, but I'm not complaining.

11:47 PM | permalink | discuss

It's another miserable, cold, overcast and drizzling day in Cambridge, home of the World's Most Changeable Weather. However, the day's been getting increasingly better (stopped raining, for one thing) and I'm set to go to a concert given by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra tonight. It's going to be good.

Sitting in an Evolution and Behaviour lecture this morning, I reflected that the lecture was almost the complete opposite of my day - it'd started off extremely promising with a good introduction about how animals first became land-dwelling, and then trailed off into a series of disconnected points and facts about gaseous exchange mechanisms in freshwater fish, at which point fully 20% of the audience were happily catching up on some sleep.

Still, it's not been all bad as I had possibly the best Physiology lecture ever - the lecturer, against all odds, successfully managed to explain nerve conductances and membrane potentials in a way that I could actually understand! Because, you see, there are two ways you can go about 'understanding' membrane potentials. You can use the equations and the variables to spit out a number at the end, or you can actually figure out exactly what's happening at the molecular level, and that's what I managed to do today.

He was possibly the most teched-up lecturer I've seen as well; the lecture notes were available online as a PDF, he'd integrated a 3D model and animation of a membrane transporter protein in the lecture which - get this - wasn't just eye-candy but in fact facilitated the learning process. When he stuck a needle in himself and connected it up to an amplifier to demonstrate the way in which nerve impulses increase when you contract your muscles, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause.

Entry fees to all museums and galleries in England are to be scrapped. I can't stress how wonderful this decision is; it means that anyone can essentially walk off the street and have access to all of the knowledge stored in museums. And, yes, you could get it all off the Internet anyway but there's something intangible that affects you (or maybe it's just me) when you walk into a museum - the decades of accumulated knowledge and history compel you to learn at least something while you're there.

People simply don't go to museums enough. I visited the Zoology museum in Cambridge (photos to follow soon) for an hour in between lectures to check out the Evolution and Behaviour exhibit and learn about the evolution of the ancestors of animals, and there's nothing that beats wandering around a museum stocked full of skeletons and models in the complete silence with no-one else in the building. You have to be in the right frame of mind, of course - if you're not intending to learn anything and just want to mess about (e.g. you're a screaming prepubescent kid who runs around everywhere) it's not really going to do much for you.

3:42 PM | permalink | discuss

Wednesday, February 7

I've been doing a lot of work on Vavatch in the past two days as you can see from the redesign. I've also created a new page (which has been finished now) called Best of Vavatch - you can see the link at the top of the page. It's basically a collection of links to some of the better posts I think I've made since Vavatch was started and it'll save you a hell of a lot of time from trawling from my archives, which I have also incidentally spruced up; previously most of them weren't there.

Thanks for everyone's comments on the redesign - personally, this is the first design of Vavatch which I really feel happy with because it seems to fit in some inexplicable way. I will try to update the images on the page every so often and extra bits might get bolted on but the design as you see it now isn't likely to change for a long while.

There's a very interesting topic at Edge called The World Question Center 2001, where a group of (for want of a better word) modern-day technological and scientific gurus are mulling over the discarded questions of the year. The page is possibly one of the worst designed I've seen for a while considering you have to scroll down past a load of crap before you even realise that the meat of the topic is below and not, as I initially thought, somewhere else.

However, it's worth putting up with as there are some particularly interesting pieces of writing including discussion on rates of evolution, overpopulation causing starvation, why humans are smarter than animals and where does love come from. There are in fact 8 pages and 117 mini-articles of the stuff, which really should be on the same page to assist reading but you can't have everything.

4:07 PM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, February 6

I've finally bowed to the inevitable and started to write out my TED11 talk. Previously, I'd been trying to formulate the whole thing from scratch without writing any more than a few notes down. This had the unfortunate result that every time I practiced the talk, it'd be slightly different from the last time and the good bits would be in different places. "So," I thought to myself, "why don't I just write the whole thing down and I can combine all the good bits?"

And that's what I've done. It needs a bit of polishing up, and it could do with being even tighter, but it's not looking bad.

The problem with trying to create a talk while doing it at the same time is that you can't devote your entire mind to it - the act of speech is very 'processor-intensive' to the brain, and not only that but it also happens to use the same areas of the brain associated with cognition. That's not to say that whenever we speak our intelligence drops a few points, but when you're trying to really think hard about something, it's not a good idea to talk at the same time. This is the same reason why dictation isn't never going to take off and replace the humble keyboard as a method of input - just try recording the next essay you right. It's much more difficult. Conversely, typing via your hands uses the motor area of the brain which have got nothing to do with the speech or cognition centres.

Thus ends my pop-psychology session of the day.

New design - any thoughts?

10:27 AM | permalink | discuss

Monday, February 5

I've been having severe difficulties getting through to Blogger recently, so apologies for the lack of updates. Had an amusing Biology of Cells lecture today:

The 'central dogma' of modern biology, the basis which we seem to have known for so long that we don't ever question it, is that DNA is translated into RNA, and RNA codes for proteins which do all the work for the body.


Conversely, the central dogma of biotechnology is:


Anyway, we thought it was funny.

I downloaded a copy of FreeCiv (a legal, open source multi-platform multiplayer Civilization 2 clone) a few days ago and suffered the typical Civ symptoms - loss for memory for several hours of the day, only to awake startled in front of the computer in the wee hours to find myself embroiled in a bitter war with the Greeks involving chariots and knights. I fear what will become of me when FreeCiv truly realises its full potential and I start playing over the Internet... so, anyone up for a game?

10:07 PM | permalink | discuss