Trying a tripod

tripodI got a new tripod yesterday, and took it out to play today (just very briefly while I was ostensibly walking the dog).

One thing I’ve been enjoying recently is stitching together multiple images to create a panorama, and a tripod makes this work very much better. But how to display the very wide images that can result?

Well, here’s one way.

And here’s another image from a slightly different viewpoint.

I quite like this effect, but even in this form, I’m using images that are 1/5th of the original size in each dimension. Here’s the smaller one as a 60 Mpixel image, for example, albeit not at full quality.

Now, interestingly, I have a printer which can take rolls of photo paper, meaning that I could actually print out something like this at a decent size. Anybody got a spare corridor in which to hang it, though?

Mail, man!

Those of you who are kind enough to read my random musings on a regular basis often do so via the RSS feed or Twitter, and many others got their updates via Facebook until I started my period of abstinence.

But this is just a reminder that you can also get Status-Q in your inbox, and what could be more exciting than that?!

I used to do this via a rather cobbled-together system based on IFTTT, but there's now a button on the right hand side of the Status-Q pages (which links to here), where you can sign up to a much more sophisticated system based on MailChimp.

Thanks to those of you who have already tried it out! Hope it's useful, or at least occasionally helps you start your day with a wry smile…

Tennis balls, my liege

I often wonder whether the manufacturers of tennis balls see their primary market as:

  • tennis players, or
  • dog owners?

Mmm.

Can’t resist?

Here’s a lovely clock created by G. Wade Johnson, which should appeal to any electronics geeks out there.

(I’ve put a copy here for posterity.)

The best medicine, canned

the-power-of-laughterIf you go back and watch (or listen to) comedies from an earlier age, one thing that often stands out is the volume of the audience laughter track. The fashion for including laughter, whether from a live audience or from a canned track, has changed over time, but has generally declined in recent years and, to modern ears, too much laughter can make the show sound fake, or at least dated.

I’ve sometimes thought this would be a good use for multi-channel sound: if there were a separate laugh track, you could include it or not, or turn it up or down, according to your own taste, when watching those old Blackadder or Seinfeld episodes.

Who knows, fashions may change in future and go the other way, and then we’ll want to turn it up again.

But it turns out that the history of laugh tracks is quite interesting. People do laugh more when they aren’t laughing ‘alone’, so including laughter in comedies was seen as beneficial from the start. But because early studios usually had limited numbers of cameras, and recordings involved multiple takes of the action from different angles, you couldn’t rely on an audience to laugh consistently, or indeed at all, after they’d seen the same gag several times. So appropriate laughter had to be added back in to the final product anyway, and after a while the idea caught on of using recorded laughter without actually needing an audience there at all.

The Wikipedia page on the topic is surprisingly long and interesting. Here’s an extract:

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Charley Douglass had a monopoly on the expensive and painstaking laugh business. By 1960, nearly every prime time show in the U.S. was sweetened by Douglass. When it came time to “lay in the laughs”, the producer would direct Douglass where and when to insert the type of laugh requested. Inevitably, arguments arose between Douglass and the producer, but in the end, the producer generally won. After taking his directive, Douglass would then go to work at creating the audience, out of sight from the producer or anyone else present at the studio.

Critic Dick Hobson commented in a July 1966 TV Guide article that the Douglass family were “the only laugh game in town.” Very few in the industry ever witnessed Douglass using his invention, as he was notoriously secretive about his work, and was one of the most talked-about men in the television industry.

Douglass formed Northridge Electronics in August 1960, named after the Los Angeles suburb in the San Fernando Valley where the Douglass family resided and operated their business in a padlocked garage. When their services were needed, they would wheel the device into the editing room, plug it in, and go to work. Production studios became accustomed to seeing Douglass shuttling from studio to studio to mix in his manufactured laughs during post-production.

The sophisticated one-of-a-kind device — affectionately known in the industry as the “laff box” — was tightly secured with padlocks, stood more than two feet tall, and operated like an organ. Only immediate members of the family knew what the inside actually looked like (at one time, the “laff box” was called “the most sought after but well-concealed box in the world”). Since more than one member of the Douglass family was involved in the editing process, it was natural for one member to react to a joke differently from another. Charley himself was the most conservative of all, so producers would put in bids for son Bob, who was more liberal in his choice of laughter.

Douglass used a keyboard to select the style, gender and age of the laugh as well as a foot pedal to time the length of the reaction. Inside the machine was a wide array of recorded chuckles, yocks and belly laughs; exactly 320 laughs on 32 tape loops, 10 to a loop. Each loop contained 10 individual audience laughs spliced end-to-end, whirling around simultaneously waiting to be cued up. Since the tapes were looped, laughs were played in the same order repeatedly. Sound engineers would watch sitcoms and knew exactly which recurrent guffaws were next, even if they were viewing an episode for the first time. Frequently, Douglass would combine different laughs, either long or short in length. Attentive viewers could spot when he decided to mix chuckles together to give the effect of a more diverse audience. Rather than being simple recordings of a laughing audience, Douglass’s laughs were carefully generated and mixed, giving some laughs detailed identities such as “the guy who gets the joke early” and “housewife giggles” and “the one who didn’t get the joke but is laughing anyway” all perfectly blended and layered to create the illusion of a real audience responding to the show in question.

The world’s biggest reality-distortion field

facebook-hq-sign

Everywhere, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Actually, now I think about it, that’s not really true. On Facebook, I see people complaining about what a terrible year 2016 has been. Yes, it’s certainly had its downsides: the Brexit vote was a disappointment and may prove rather inconvenient if it ever actually happens, and the Trump election makes you realise that there’s no need for Spitting Image any more, because it just couldn’t live up to reality. But, in real life, these things don’t absorb much time when chatting to friends in the pub, or to customers in the meeting room, or to fellow dog-walkers in the wood, or to neighbours in the street.

Now, I’ve often joked that the word ‘fury’, at least outside the realms of Greek mythology, is only found in the headlines of the tabloid press and local newspapers. You know the kind of thing: “FURY AT COUNCIL GRASS-CUTTING SCAM!” This artificial heightening of emotions, or the publicising of one or two unbalanced individuals’ feelings as if they were a general reaction of the populace at large, is one of the oldest sales tricks in the book.

But Facebook, it sometimes seems to me, encourages this tendency from all of us: it’s a place for users to vent their opinions — I’m not immune — and the more extreme expressions tend to get extra attention from others and so be rewarded by the FB algorithms, with the result that on some days I go to the site and it feels as if I’m walking along in the middle of a protest march.

Protest marches are all very well in their way, because they allow those with strong feelings on a particular topic, or insufficient faith in democracy, to let off steam from time to time and feel they’ve accomplished something, without inconveniencing others too much. But these outbursts are clearly segregated from the rest of life, which is important if a civilised society is to continue. Someone who brought their protests or their political campaigning into the workplace would be a bore, and rightly ostracised. But Facebook is a broadcasting medium to which people turn when they get upset about anything, without having to wait for someone to organise a protest, and before even knowing that they have a sympathetic ear. There’s no easy way to tell it, for example, “I like Fred – he’s a witty and intelligent guy – but I don’t want to go on any of his protest marches.” If the line between outbursts and normal conversation is not clearly defined, you can get a rather distorted view of somebody, and of how much you might have in common with them. And the problem with Facebook, unlike, say, Twitter or an RSS reader, is that even if I subscribe to Fred’s feed, I may only see a subset of the things he writes. Facebook decides what appears in my stream, not Fred. So how accurately can I even judge my friends’ opinions? Facebook may well decide that it’s not in your best interest to see this post either, now I think about it.

Facebook can be a place for useful discussion, but the general newsfeed may not inspire very balanced or considered debate. It’s worth remembering, for example, that whichever way you may have voted on Brexit, or in the presidential elections, almost exactly half of the populace voted the opposite way to you. Is that balance accurately reflected in your Facebook feed? Did you really get a fair chance even to consider the other point of view? Jenna Wortham’s article is a nice discussion of this:

I’ve spent nearly 10 years coaching Facebook — and Instagram and Twitter — on what kinds of news and photos I don’t want to see, and they all behaved accordingly. Each time I liked an article, or clicked on a link, or hid another, the algorithms that curate my streams took notice and showed me only what they thought I wanted to see. That meant I didn’t realize that most of my family members, who live in rural Virginia, were voicing their support for Trump online, and I didn’t see any of the pro-Trump memes that were in heavy circulation before the election. I never saw a Trump hat or a sign or a shirt in my feeds, and the only Election Day selfies I saw were of people declaring their support for Hillary Clinton.

If you believe that half the population are just idiots, and only the smart people are your friends, then you’ve already fallen into this trap.

We’ve always had biased news sources, of course — pick your favourite newspaper — but in the past you were at least subconsciously aware that you had chosen your bias, and since the editor’s ideas didn’t correspond quite precisely to yours, you would see dissenting opinions from time to time. But Facebook is everybody’s tabloid. It tells you what you want to hear, and me what I want to hear, and we reward it by clicking little buttons when it does so. It, in turn, rewards us, like pigeons in a laboratory experiment, by giving us more of that kind of food when we tap the button. Dopamine is a powerful drug, and Facebook is a highly-tuned delivery mechanism for it. I’ve started to realise that I’m spending too much time absorbed by it, and have rather too Pavlovian a reaction to its notification bells.

Now, let me be clear that Facebook has lots of good stuff on it as well – I have been much more active on it this year then in the past, largely because of two special-interest groups of which I’m a member. It is a very good discussion forum for those kind of things if they’re well-curated (something that the general newsfeed isn’t). I have also had some of my opinions challenged in a useful way, when I’ve gone out of my way to engage with those who thought differently, and I hope that some others have too. I’ve discovered good stuff, funny stuff, educational stuff.

But in general, have the gains outweighed the negativity? I think not. I could have read the good stuff in other forums without so much of my reading being accompanied by complaints about Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or whichever politician, corporation, or policy is the bête noir du jour, and without the margins being full of “X did Y and you’ll never believe what happened next!”, “The most amazing video you’ll see all year!”, and “10 things you really can’t live without!”. It’s like walking through a circus or amusement arcade while people tell you what a terrible time you’re having! Remember, good news doesn’t sell papers, and it doesn’t in general sell web advertisements either.

True, 2016 hasn’t been the greatest year on record, but, unless you live in Aleppo, it certainly hasn’t been the worst. For the rest of us, let’s keep things in proportion, shall we? Yes, I liked Alan Rickman and Leonard Cohen, too, but lots of good people died in 2014 and 2015 as well, and no doubt we’ll lose a few in 2017. Their work lives on. Don’t like the way some vote went this year? Don’t worry, governments and politicians come and go, international treaties change and adapt, and remember that every election result in the past that you did like made lots of other people grumble.

On balance, I was lucky enough to have had a rather pleasant, interesting and productive 2016, and I expect that many of my Facebook friends did so too, if they were to look back and count their blessings in an objective way. And I can’t help feeling that it might have been even more so if I hadn’t had a Facebook account.

So 2017 is going to be Facebook-free. That’s my New Year’s resolution. I won’t actually delete my account, but I’ll change the password to something I don’t know, delete all the apps, disable all notifications and bin all incoming emails. I can’t actually deactivate it completely for a year without too many other adverse consequences if I decide I want to return in the future — see how deep the rabbit hole goes? — but I’m going to get as close as I can. In the interest of fairness, I won’t post anything on Facebook either: if you’d like to keep track of what I’m doing, subscribe to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter or on LinkedIn, subscribe to my videos on YouTube, check out my website or get emails when I post on my blog.

When I was an undergraduate, I decided to be a teetotaller every other term. I believed that if I ever found that process too difficult, it was an indication that I had a problem, and it was in my own interests to get an early warning! This is probably a good discipline for any product on which one might become dependent. So here’s my recommendation for the New Year: ask yourself how easily you could give up Facebook, or any other addiction of your choice. If the answer is “not easily”, then it’s probably a good idea to consider doing so!

Wishing you all a great 2017, wherever you get your dopamine from!

The Millennial Question

I assure you, this is well-worth 15 minutes of your time. Simon Sinek talking on Inside Quest about what makes the ‘Millennials’ tick and why, and the challenges they can face as they enter the workplace.

There are a few over-generalisations here, but in general it’s good stuff, intelligently and amusingly presented, and most of it certainly doesn’t only apply to those in their twenties!

The Power of Competition

Rather sad to discover that walking to my local Post Office to send a parcel costs me three times as much as having a courier pick it up from my door!

Lesson of the day

It’s a bad idea to get super glue on your fingers, I discover, even if you don’t get stuck to anything. It messes up your fingerprints and you can’t log in to your phone any more!

If, on the other hand, you’re planning to commit a crime, it’s probably quite a good idea…

For love of a Rose

2009-09-12_08-37-06-600Today, as it happens, is our silver wedding anniversary.

It doesn’t feel much like one, because Rose is currently in the suburbs of Detroit helping to look after her parents, and will be getting on an economy transatlantic flight tonight, and I’m about to rent a van and shift some furniture around the M25! The traditional celebrations, you see.

We had a nice trip to Venice for our 20th anniversary, though, and so I told her we’d adopt a more decimal approach and do something nice for the 30th!

Rose probably won’t see this, since she reads neither my blog, nor Twitter, nor Facebook, but I think she knows I’m rather fond of her anyway! If the next quarter-century is as good as the last one, I’ll be a very lucky chap.

Ghosts of Boxing Days past

Christmas is a good time for looking back… Blog archives can help you do that…

🙂

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser