Friday, October 24, 2008

it’s George’s birthday, and people are gathering for our trip to the aquarium tomorrow. Mum and Dad have arrived and Lucinda, Livia and GQ are expected later on. Lisa’s still not very well – don’t like to leave her, but the tickets are booked and she’s got Sam and others around her…

I’ve just found out that Andrew won’t be there for George’s birthday do tomorrow – he’s making a delivery in Spain. I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. He just doesn’t seem to be able to tell the bosses that he’s not taking work – and that means he often misses out.
Ok – so the phone arrived on Wednesday and I’m actually quite pleased with it. It does do several things other than just make phonecalls and I’m sure I won’t end up using any of them. Most of them won’t work anyway as I’m on pay as you go. The “free” £10 voucher you had no choice but to buy with the phone didn’t of course work – it was tied to the sim card you also had to buy with it which I didn’t want. Still, it’s quite smart and I’m waiting for someone to call me on it…

Meanwhile, George has learned a new trick. I put him in his pram to take him swimming and nipped upstairs. When I returned, the pram was on its back and he was crawling up the stairs…I should have seen that coming!

He’s better from his most recent bug and has stopped throwing up after every meal. I too seem to be better. Lisa isn’t though and is off work – for the first time in years - today. Yesterday she went to pick up Lucinda from the airport where she and George met Livia for the first time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The shortest party ever
One of Lisa’s friends is moving to Saudi Arabia and invited us to a leaving party on Saturday night. We really wanted to go, but we’d also earmarked that evening for ourselves. We were determined to get some “US” time, so we booked in for a late dinner at a restaurant in Godalming (the Bel and Dragon – it’s a converted church which offers a really good menu).

By the time we got to the party, we only ended up having half an hour there before going on to the restaurant, and all the rushing around meant we arrived there so tired we could barely make it through the meal…

I guess we don’t just need to schedule “us time” we need to schedule it with big gaps around it…

From Saudi Arabia to Egypt
Sunday was the South London Food Club again – with Egypt as its destination. I’ve actually been to Egypt, but it was a bit of a package deal and we were very firmly discouraged from eating anything Egyptian throughout the trip. And we weren’t inclined to either after seeing a few Egyptian markets – where the backside of a donkey covered in flies seemed to be the display item of choice for most buchers.

Anyhow, the food we ended up cooking and eating was really good – we made falafels, humus and stuffed vine leaves (which went completely wrong – the recipe required wrapping the rice in the leaves uncooked – and of course we forgot that as the rice cooked it would expand, so we ended up with everything as a tasty but unattractive mush).

We spent the morning doing lots of cooking, and by 4:30 in the afternoon, I was so tired I fell asleep on Sam’s sofa and had to come home and go to bed. The work of the last few months has really got to me by the looks of it, and the mouth ulcers I acquired on holiday have been coming and going ever since. Mexico will hopefully be a break and I’m not taking on masses of work after I come back (it’s not just work of course, George is always there to make sure neither of us are ever off duty).

Still, Lisa seems to be bearing up well, and hopefully with a bit of rest, I’ll be back to normal by the end of the year.

Voiceovers and showreels
The trilobite animation is nearly done – and last night, the voiceover artist came over to record the narration. It was good to finally meet him – he’s narrated both my documentaries and we usually only speak by email.

This project was a bit of an exchange. He needed his acting showreel edited, so I spent the evening cutting that in exchange for the voiceover.

Editing somebody else’s work is actually quite relaxing – when everything’s working. You can immerse yourself in the finer details of getting cuts right knowing that somebody else is worrying about the bigger picture.

Somebody needs to explain growth to me
Somebody needs to explain economic growth to me. Everyone (even the lib dem leader on the Today programme this morning) seems to thing it’s essential, to a good economy, but I’ve got this nagging feeling that if that’s true then the whole system is some kind of a pyramid selling scheme…

See, the way I understand growth is in biological terms. You plant a seed and it grows into a plant – and that’s how people understood it for a long time. Then they realised that plants didn’t just grow, they had to take energy from somewhere to do it. And that somewhere was the Earth. if you kept planting plants and never put back the nutrient taken out by them then pretty soon, the soil was useless.

Ok – so the green analogy is pretty predictable, but it’s just the first one that occurred to me. This is actually a fundamental law of everything – it’s the law of thermodynamics. You can’t get more energy out of anything than you put in.

So if economic growth is what it seems to be then it’s not possible - the different parts of the world economy can grow – basically by nicking stuff off each other – but the whole – the global economy itself can’t grow except by taking something from outside. So what’s this economy thing (whatever that is) feeding on? The only things I can think of are people’s hard work and the resources of the Earth itself. Which is fair enough, but so long as its expanding, surely it’s needs have to expand too don’t they? In which case, it doesn’t matter how much we like the idea of an expanding economy, we can’t have one.

Maybe I just don’t understand what growth is – that’s quite possible – or maybe economists are just living in cloud cuckoo land. That again isn’t unlikely given recent events.

Meanwhile there seems to have been a lull in the economic crisis – a slowdown in the slowdown, but it’s not a lull, it’s just a gap between what you can call news and evidence. The news headlines aren’t full of people talking about calamity any more – which is good because as I said last week, they’ve run out of superlatives. And that means it’s easy to think it’s all gone away. But still in the background there’s the steady drip of figures coming out – each one pointing down further than the last. Nothing big enough to be Shock Horror headline news, and nothing on its own people weren’t expecting. Still, taken together, it’s not got any less momentous than last week…

As an economist said on the news this week “a few billion pounds here – a few billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money”

A survey out today says the gap between rich and poor has been narrowing since 2000. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t have got wide coverage if Gordon Brown had been on the ropes… it’ll be interesting to see if it gets buried now.

Don’t recycle
I learn from “Confessions of an eco sinner” that recycling isn’t quite as green often as it’s made out to be. Although aluminium can recycling produces massive savings over mining “fresh” ore, paper and cardboard seems to be being transported around the world so much and recycled with very little efficiency. At the same time, most “virgin” paper comes from sustainable forests in Scandinavia which actually help reduce global warming – so all in all, recycled paper takes twice as much energy to produce than fresh paper.

In addition, the treatment of sewage now means that many of our rivers and seas are now too clean to support the filter feeding creatures at the base of the food chain.

Mind you, as with all the problems with recycling, these things are only true because it’s not being done in a sophisticated enough way – and the only way it gets to be done in a sophisticated enough way is to keep on doing it… recycling is still the way to go in the future.

The mobile phone language
There’s a strange language understood only by mobile phone users. I’m not talking about txtspk – I’m talking about the language you have to learn to even buy a mobile. The language of roaming, tribands, tarrifs and 3g bandwith.

My mobile has been fading for some time, and I now have to assemble it from a sequence of shattered parts every time it rings before I can answer it. I also can’t hear anything anyone says to me since the speaker is now rattling about somewhere inside the casing.

In short, it’s failing to provide the only service I want from it, and since I’m going to Mexico, I figured I probably needed some way to keep in touch, so I went into sainsburys (I just couldn’t face the idea of talking to someone at carphone warehouse – five minutes of being told about price plans makes my brain begin to shut down).

I was surprised and pleased by the sainsburys assistant who quickly admitted she didn’t know the answers to any of my questions (for example, “what kind of phone works in Mexico?” and “why on Earth can’t I use any sim card in any phone?”) and said I should go to Carphone warehouse.

Anway, I’ve eventually ordered a phone (from carphone warehouses website).

What I want from a phone
I already have pockets full of techy devices -a palmtop PC for word processing, an ipod, a GPS, a phone (OK – not very often, but I should) a camcorder, a camera, etc. etc.

I either want a mobile that does all those things so I can dump all the excess techno crap, or I want one that just makes phonecalls (I specifically don’t want one that does texting – it’s a dreadful pointless habit. If I could find a phone that wouldn’t receive texts, I’d definitely go for it.

The phone I really want will give me instant access to my phone numbers, my email, my music, and videos. It will let me write word documents (on a proper keyboard), it will let me record HD video and take 6mp photos with a decent lens. It will let me browse the whole of the Internet with a perminant connection wherever I am in the world and it will know where I am and provide me with maps to wherever I want to go along with information about any service I want along the way.

But I don’t want it to have any of this information on it – It must allow me to access all my data, but not store any of it on the machine. I’m bound to loose it and when I do, I want to be able to pick up any other device and immediately treat it as my own with all my information available.

I don’t want to have to charge it up, I want it to charge using the motion of my body as I walk with it.

Oh, and by the way I want it to replace money – I want it to detect whatever I pick up in a shop and deduct the money automatically from my bank account when I walk out. Likewise, it needs to replace tickets to trains, busses, live events, and anything else.

And as for phonecalls, they need to be free – no reason why they can’t be – if someone can tell me why putting up a few transmitters costs more than the whole underground wired telephone network, then I’ll understand why land lines have lower call charges than mobiles.

The funny thing about this phone is that it’s perfectly possible – all the technology is there to do all these things, it’s just that nobody’s built one yet. Instead, we have to fill our pockets with devices, change and paper.

So in the meantime, the phone I’ve ordered is the most basic, cheapest one I could get with coverage of mexico (apparently that’s what “triband” means – although there’s some debate about whether I really needed to have “quadband”), and I’m going to continue using pay as you go because I really can’t face trying to understand the various insanely complex contracts.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The credit crisis and the end of the dinosaurs

I haven’t updated this blog in a week or so – mainly because I’m right in the middle of a piece of work that’s difficult, complicated, large, and has a tight deadline. What’s more it’s something I really want to do well, so it’s a bit exhausting.

Last week, some of the rest of the financial world collapsed – that is, the bits that were still up after the week before’s crisis are now tumbling.

People are using words like “blind panic” and “historic” – in fact, I’m quite concerned that the economy has a long way further to fall and everybody’s run out of hyperbole already. I’m expecting some new words to be invented to describe what happens next week.

“polytasrophic” and “plumultuous” are my predictions.

Gordon Brown seems to be having fun, though – going from “Lame Duck within weeks of being toppled” to “global saviour and hero” in the time it takes to nationalise the banking system. And it’s because he’s suddenly done something brave – rather than cautious. Who knows, he might have got a taste for it.

I must admit a little sympathy for him there though, I quite like a good crisis. After all, when everything’s going pear shaped, you can get away with doing just about anything and whatever you achieve, people will be delighted that you managed to do anything. It’s easier to be a hero in a burning building than in a library.

I also must admit to being quite fascinated by it all. Rarely do we get to see the raw workings of the system that supports us quite so exposed. It’s only in a real crisis that you get to see what really makes our world tick. Not just money – although that’s part of it, but also a desperate fear of the unknown, the banding together of the people that make up “the system”, and the suspension of disbelief which allows us all to assume that those with money and power are somehow brighter than the average guy in the street.

Actually, it’s fascinating in the same way as watching sharks in a feeding frenzy – along with the same thrill of knowing your shark cage isn’t really that secure.

The credit crisis and the end of the dinosaurs

People seem to describe the credit crisis in apocalyptic terms, but there have been apocalypses in the past – at least five of them – which have wiped out most of the planet.

And there are some similarities.

When the meteor which destroyed the dinosaurs hit the earth, it wasn’t the meteor itself which killed the dinosaurs. What happened was that the sun was blotted out for some months and the plants stopped growing.

In other words, the energy which fed the base of the food chain dried up. The grass itself didn’t suffer much – as soon as the sun came out again, the seeds could regenerate, but for a time, there were no plants – and that’s pretty much what’s happened in the financial crisis. It’s not that there’s no money – it’s just not moving around the food chain.

So what’s the anatomy of an extinction?

Well, the first thing that happens is the biggest creatures which feed directly on the plants are the first to be hit. it’s those that need lots and lots of grass, 24 hours a day that will fall first.

And in the credit crisis, that’s the banks.

So far, so metaphorical. The thing that palaeontologists tell me about global catastrophes though is that when times are good, the specialists do well – that is, those who have found a specific niche that nobody else is covering and exploited it. When there’s a catastrophe, the niches vanish very quickly and unpredictably and it’s the generalists – those who can turn their hand to anything – that do well.

They tell me something else too. Just after the catastrophe, there’s invarably a huge blossoming of scavengers. When there are a lot of dead bodies lying around, the rats, the flies and the carrion feeders come out.

That’s the period we’re in for most immediately if the palaentologists are to be believed.

Who are the scavengers? Well, there’s obvious ones – asset strippers, pawn shops, debt collectors…

If Al qaida has any power left, it must have realised that right now is its best chance of bringing down the west and the fact that they haven’t done anything suggests they don’t really exist in any meaningful way anymore. The war on terror was always a bit of a sham - and if they don’t act now, it will be very obvious they’re not the threat they’re made out to be.

but there are bigger scavengers lurking too – When the Soiviet Union collapsed, the scavengers did very well – to the extent that they now control Russia and many have enough money to pick up anything they want from the falling stock markets… When the dust settles, will the Russian billionaires own more than just our football teams? Will they want to pull the same trick on the Western authorities they did on their own government?

As for effects closer to home – well, my advertising site is currently suspended because I’ve got too much work, so I can’t tell you if there’s been a drop off in enquiries. In fact I don’t know if I’m going to put the site back on when my current work comes to an end at the end of November – It’s been a bit rushed over the last few weeks and I might just slow things down a bit and get to work on a couple of my own projects…

It looks like Claudia, Sam’s flatmate is going to loose her job (she works for a German bank in the Gherkin) so while I’m in Mexico showing off my trilobite animation, Sam, Lisa and a few others are going to eat at the Gherkin restaurant (and presumably nick anything valuable before the repo-men get there and gut the place).

I, on the other hand have done rather well initially – what the credit crisis has meant to me is that I’ve made a profit.

The trilobite animation pricing was agreed before all this, and it was agreed in dollars – and it’s been paid in instalments. Last month I got $5,000 – which translated as £2,600. This month, I got $5,000 more – and that’s come in as £2,900 – so, the less the pound is worth against the dollar, the better I do.

Also, for future work, as the pound goes down, Americans are more likely to employ me because to them, I’m cheaper!

This weekend was fairly relaxed. On Saturday we took George to the zoo for the first time. He loved it – particularly the butterflies and the coloured birds. He’s also got a bit of a thing for lions (even though the ones at the zoo do little other than sleep).

His cuddly lion is his favourite toy – so much so that while at the zoo, we found another identical one so we can swap them over to wash them.

Because we don’t want to buy him any more toys right now (he’s got as many as he needs) we decided that for his first birthday we’d sponsor a lion cub at Howlet’s zoo (<>


Work is frantic – trying to get the trilobite animation finished in time to take it to Mexico for the opening (I’m leaving on the 26th) is quite a job – mainly because I’m being very fussy about getting it right.

Well, actually it’s because it’s so long (10 minutes of animation) and complex (trilobites have many many animated legs!) and has to be scientifically accurate.

However, I’m getting there and I think it’s going to be really good.

I’ve had to down-size the rendering – even though I’ve now got 3 dual core pcs and 2 quad core machines working on the rendering. I’ve gone from HD to SD video – mainly because I know they’re not going to show it in HD and I was just doing HD to give them the option in the future.

SD feels very low resolution now, but it’s solved my rendering problems – what was going to take 20 days was done over a weekend!

I’m now at the stage of choosing music and writing the script – I’ve gone for the blue Danube which gives the whole thing a graceful, but unusual feel…

My Mum’s finally got a date for her hip operation. It’s while I’m away, but at least it’s getting done. I was beginning to worry that once winter set in, there’d be emergency operations to be done and Mum would end up at the back of the queue, but it sounds like it’s all going ahead.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My computers and poisoned baby milk

So on Friday my two new PCs arrived – fresh from (and I’m assuming here) a factory in China. Ordered, built, packed, transported and delivered in around 48 hours. They’ve already clocked up a good few thousand airmiles and are filled with rare and unpronounceable metals. Their mining “rucksack” is huge and as they’re purchased as render machines they’ll be running pretty much continuously day and night consuming electricity.

They and the components they contain have been assembled in Chinese factories by young women from rural villages. Apparently, the companies prefer to use young women because their fingers are faster on the production lines.

I’ve come across this idea myself. I once, when Britain still had manufacturing industries, worked as a temp in a factory putting bottles of peach schnaps into gift boxes. Crates of the stuff moved through a production line on which about 10 girls packed the boxes. Girls were said to be much faster. When there weren’t enough girls, they reluctantly bought boys in, and I was one.

It was indeed true that the girls small hands packed the boxes faster and more nimbly and I struggled to keep up.

However, as they days wore on, it became clear that I had an advantage in terms of body mass… The girls, being smaller got drunk faster, so in the afternoon, the boys caught up.

Anyway, back to China.

Because all the young women from the rural villages are working in factories in the towns, their babies are left with their grandparents. The grandparents obviously can’t provide breast milk, and that’s why so many Chinese babies are fed bottled milk. And that’s why, when a scandal blew up last week about chemicals being put into baby milk to artificially increase protean levels, it affected not just a few but tens of thousands.

Apparently, the chemicals affected milk from 20 or so companies – which I found odd, because why would they all start using this chemical at the same time. However, I’m told by Mary who works as a journalist out there, that stories don’t tend to break until they’re ready to – in other words, this has probably been going on for a long time – but the communication in China is such that the media hasn’t got hold of it. It’s not a sudden outbreak but a long term problem.

Sam – a friend of Lisa’s visited with her two children on Friday, and we spent the weekend at Sarah and Chris’ with their two, so George has had a good chance to play with other kids. There’s an age group, a few years older than himself, but still playing with similar toys – that he seems suddenly absolutely fascinated by. He can pretty much be left to his own devices with them, playing and laughing with them.

There really seems to be a level of communication between very young children that us adults just can’t key into.

Both Sarah and Chris have pretty high pressure jobs in management and the credit crisis isn’t doing them any favours. Constant reorganisation of management structures and changes of direction over the past few months are making everyone feel as though the ground is shifting.

They’re both under pressure, but when it comes to the weekend, children help to bring them both back to Earth. When we went for a walk in a local park on Sunday, they seemed as relaxed as ever.

Maintaining that division between work and home life is tough sometimes, and it doesn’t mean pretending there’s no crossover – sometimes I end up thinking about work stuff at weekends and sometimes I actually need to do work. Equally, sometimes, I have to stop work in the day to deal with home stuff. However, those boundaries need constant attention.

As usual, we returned with a boot full of Sarah and Chris’ old baby stuff for George’s age group. A set of new toys including a baby walker which he took to immediately. In fact, I think he’ll be walking any time now.

George has been feeling out of sorts over the weekend. He’s had gungy eyes, and today, his temperature suddenly shot up.

We called the Doctor, but because they’ve got a new system to allow them to meet government targets, it’s a lot harder to book appointments (because, if yo don’t have an appointment booked, the doctor can’t have a long waiting list). The nurse who saw us sent as to accident and emergency - which he didn't need to, but he obviously didn't have the confidence to treat George as normal because of his heart problems.

We've always been told that after the operation he wouldn't need any special consideration, and it seems to be true. However, everyone still uses a "better safe than sorry" approach so it looks like we can look forward to going to A&E for a couple of hours every time he has a cough only to be told to go home... still. Better safe than sorry.

By the time we got home, the world had colapsed.

George bush's plan to save us from the end of all banking failled to get through congress because althugh everyone agreed with it (not for any particularly good reason), their voters were a bit pissed off about having to bail out people who earned far more money than them.

Nobody was expecting the vote - which seems a bit odd in itself because noowadays we don't tend to have surprise votes.

The plan isn't dead yet, and will be voted on again, and again they expect it to pass. However the main reason for this expectation is the same as the reason for the confidence in the plan itself - it's that "this just has to work!".

That's never a particularly good arguement as it's based on the idea that people generally can't comprehend change on a huge revolutionary scale. Everyone's got so much invested in the status quo they can't imagine it falling.

However, history doesn't back up this belief. Empires do crumble and systems do fall. "because it just can't happen!" didn't stop the Roman Empire falling and it didn't prevent world war II (which was one of the results of the 1929 crash).

Everyone's talking about catastrophe but nobody has really explained what that means. What if the American plan doesn't work (and frankly why should it work?)? what happens if nobody can trust banks again? what happens if the suspention of monopolies law means that the world comes out of this undr the control of one or two massive organisations - or if states come out of it owning so many private companies that there's no difference between publicc and private companies?

The trouble is that the only people who know about the system are the people who are up to their necks in it. So when they say the world is ending they mean that their world is ending. Quite how their world is connected to ours we'll find out in the next months and years. Once the US plan has been passed and has failed.

having set up my new PCs, the render farm is having a few teething troubles. One or more computers in the network seem to be dropping off randomly so rendering isn't going as fast as it should.

I've also come to the conclusion that my schedule is impossibly tight for the trilobite animation. I've stripped it down a little. listing only those shots which are absolutely essential and concentrating on getting them rendering rather than working through the project scene by scene as I was doing.

hopefully there will be the chance to go back and finish off with some of my more interesting shots later, but I'm cutting it fine. I've just been contacted by the yacht people asking when the other project will be ready and I've proomised them something by early next week. in addition it's time to do the newsletter again and I've been given a small writing job by Computer Arts. This is something I can't turn down just now as I want to keep my hand in with the magazines.

All in all, I'm going to be doing overtime for the next couple of weeks. I'm not happy about that. but doing a couple of nights should make things more doable. Once my current projects are done I can relax the schedule a little, finish my documentary and look into developing the children's tv show I've just had an idea for....

Today I had to take most of the day out to go to the Avid offices in Pinewood studios for a meeting about the newsletter I'm writing. Most of it was stuff I already knew well, but it's always good to go to these things because it's the only chance you get to meet the people you're working for.

Pinewood seems to be about the only place in the UK you can still see people building things. There are carpenters, metalworkers, plaster of paris moulders, all busy building sets and props. In fact the site isn’t just a studio, it’s everything you need to make a movie – including the post production which is why I was there.

Our part of the complex was named Broccoli road – and went right past the Bond soundstage. You couldn’t see in though…

On the way back, my taxi driver gave out some free tips on the benefits of declaring yourself bankrupt… how to have £100,000 on credit cards and have them all wiped clean. He spoke from experience apparently.