All posts by Cameron

“Turn that thing off! You’ll Crash the Plane!”

The woman next to me was looking at me as if I was some kind of terrorist. I was finishing up an SMS message and I might as well have been feeding cyanide to her baby.

The persistence of this urban myth about cell phones being able to cause a plane crash is unbelievable. No planes have ever crashed due to WiFi or cellular interference and I challenge anyone to produce one confirmed instance.

From David Pogue’s blog: “Cellphones were initially banned from aircraft in the U.S. at the request of the cell carriers and the FCC. Navigation issues were not the real reason for the ban; it was cellphone companies who asked for the ban, based on technological interference issues. The public wasn’t told the truth because many people would not care if they caused interference to wireless networks, but most everyone cares if an aircraft’s navigation might be affected.”

Basically, the cellular system does not deal effectively with a cell phone moving at 500 miles per hour. It can’t handle the handoff from tower to tower that quickly, and then there is the problem of determining the nearest tower when you are 5 miles up in the sky. The skipping around from tower to tower also runs down your cell phone battery in a hurry.

There are actually plane manufacturers and carriers who have piloted WiFi service on planes for travelers. Personally, I’m more concerned about solar radiation and microwaves than cellular signals.

There are many reasons to not allow cell phone use on planes — like the sound of 200 people all yacking away on a 5 hour flight — but crashing the plane is not one of them.

Black Friday: OK, I’ve learned my lesson

At the relations house on Thanksgiving, Grandma pulled out a bunch of newspaper ads for Christmas sales she had been saving. (Having been through the Great Depression, she saves everything.) “Door Buster” sales. 50% off! 5 a.m. ’till Noon. Hmmm. With nothing better to do I circled a few items from the Toys R Us ad, and got to thinking, “Hey, this might be a way to stuff the kids’ stockings on-the-cheap!” All I had to do was get up at 5 a.m. and fill my cart with fabulous bargains. How bad could it be?

List in hand, I arrived at the local Toys R Us at 6 a.m. (I couldn’t get up any earlier, the turkey was still wearing off). OK, no shopping carts — that’s strange, you would think they’d have carts out for the shoppers. Undeterred, I grabbed a basket from the parking lot and proceeded to work through the items on my list. Most everything I wanted was already sold out. (I guess I shouldn’t have been an hour late.) But I did manage to fill up my cart with some arts & crafts toys, four tubs of “moon sand”, some tubes of “Magnetix” magnet things, a tin of plastic tinkertoys (whatever happened to the wooden ones?), and a Ben-Ten wristwatch (sounds like the real thing.) All 50% off. Not a great haul, but at least I wasn’t one of these mom-uncle-grandmother teams all trying to keep a 6-foot stack of toys from falling off the cart.

All I had to do next was find the line. Cool, found it. I’ll be back home sipping coffee before the kids wake up.

A rather dour woman (probably from Oakland) in a red shirt approaches. “Sir, the line is back there. We are just keeping the aisle clear here.” “Uh, sure.” So, I head over to the line. Hmmm. Where is the back of this line. Keep walking. Around the corner. There it is. Odd. No one else has carts. “Yeah, this is the line to get into the electronics department.” “Huh?” “They have the Zune on sale.” “You’re kidding!?!” Right. Nobody, I mean nobody buys a Zune. Except, I guess, these people who got up at 5 a.m. I feel sorry for the poor kids who are hoping for an iPod for Christmas, but their loser parents are here buying them a Zune.

OK, where is the toy line? There it is. Nope. Around the corner. Down there. Nope. Keep walking. Down this aisle. This must be it. Nope. OK, this isn’t funny anymore. Keep walking. You gotta be kidding me.

Somewhere between the Lil’ Miss Glamour Makeup Set and the Enfamil was the end of the line. This sucker was snaking all throughout the store, doubling back on itself 6 or 7 times. This is nuts. Whatever. The kids are all asleep at home; I’ve got my StarBucks, my iPhone, and the “Ruby on Rails Cookbook” (I always bring something to read, even to school plays.) I’m set.

Now, the stupidest woman in the world has gotten in line behind me. I know she is the stupidest woman in the world because I’m listening to her chattering on her cell phone while she tries to push two stacks of toys along the floor with her feet. (She didn’t get the memo about grabbing a cart from the parking lot.) “Hi Stacy! You wouldn’t believe the crowd here! Oh boy, I bet there’s ten-thousand people here. Well, OK, maybe five-thousand. And, I’ve been in line for like, half an hour already.” (It had been 3 minutes.) She spots another toy that is on-sale. “Hey Stacy, do you know what the Millenium Falcon is? Is that cool? Oh, its Star Wars? Yeah, I think I saw that one. Oh. Its 30% off…. Well, it says its for an 8-year-old. Yes, I know he’s 3. Well… alright.”

I can’t concentrate on my Ruby-on-Rails book. I try listening to a podcast on my iPhone. My back is starting to hurt. We’ve been in line for 15 minutes and have moved 30 feet. Hmmm. 15 minutes / 30 feet. I should be able to calculate this. Let’s see, each tile on the floor is exactly 1 foot square. The aisles are spaced about 15 feet apart. There are 3 more aisles to go, down here, then 7 aisles, then a corner, then 7 aisles, then a corner, then 7 aisles, then down to the cash registers. OK, so that’s something like 28 aisles worth, or 14 30-foot segments, or, holy cow, 3 1/2 hours!! That can’t be right. But even if I’m off by 50%, that’s still an hour and 45 minutes.

I look at the stuff in my cart. Its all starting to look like a big load of crap. And there is always internet shopping where I bet I can find all this stuff just as cheap. The woman behind me is still blabbering on her cell phone. “But if you put a little vinegar on it, it clears it right up. Yeah, I saw it on Oprah.”

My body is moving out of line. Its parking the cart in an aisle. I don’t seem to be in control here. I’m picking up my StarBucks and Ruby-on-Rails book and heading out the door. My subconscious is firmly in control. Once outside, the cool morning breeze hits my face and I find myself back in my body crossing the parking lot. “Whoa. What was that?!?.”

I arrive back home and sneek in to the house. Everyone is still asleep. I’m logging in to Amazon.com. I’ve learned my lesson. No one needs to know.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I’ve been working from my home office, custom built off the side of my home for the last 15 years. Everything is there: my books, my video gear, my computers, etc. It is convenient. Its my sanctuary. I can work anytime I want, including odd hours of the night. I can go get a snack or help out with some problem with the kids just about any time.

However, I’m isolated. I don’t enjoy the buzz of a creative atmosphere. There is no “water cooler” time — unless you count finding a lost Tivo remote, or picking up a kid from school a creative refueling. Also, I’ve recently come to the realization that I’m “under networked”.

So, I’m considering a move to an office share situation, ideally one with other creatives in either graphics or video production. I can think of many positives including networking opportunities, creative energy, better focus and motivation, and human interaction. There are also negatives like not being there for an upset kid, not being able to pop into my office whenever the mood strikes and having to partition my work/personal life again after 15+ years of having them integrated.

Why now? Well, my coaches have been mentioning this as a possible action step for some time now. I’ve also become more aware of how my attention shifts throughout the day because of some very careful and detailed time logging. (On Mac, check out: http://www.timeslice.us/mac/TS3/index.html). On private forums I’ve been soliciting stories from other people who have successfully moved out of their home offices. Thanks to them, I’m starting to see how this could work.

Until now, I have been viewing the integration of my work/personal life as a good thing — but I’m starting to think that maybe it isn’t. By leaving my work at the office might I be more “present” as a dad after work? Could being out of the house give my wife more space to handle things independently and in her own way? Someone mentioned the hassle of packing up one’s things at the end of the day. But, I can see the act of preparing one’s bag (and/or memory stick!) in either direction as a way to mentally make the transition between home and work life.

Its a little scary: I’ve been working at home for so long that I don’t really know any other way. What will I use this room for if its not an office/studio? But it could be exciting. Would being in a dedicated “work environment” with other working people provide a clarity of focus that would to allow me to take my career to the next stage?

I’ve resolved to find some way to give this idea a ‘test drive’. There’s a big office 10 minutes away from here, I can start there. Then, if it looks like its working out, I’ll need to contact other creatives in the area and see if I can rent space and/or organize a new space.

Made to Stick

Here’s a little story I made up, distilled from my 10+ years in a sales organization:

“Yes, indeed, there is such a thing as a free lunch!” thought Joe as he piled the chicken salad onto a plate. These free presentations were his little indulgence — a welcome break from endless project meetings, impatient users and temperamental servers. The presenter wore a red power-tie. His words were carefully chosen like cut and polished diamonds that sparkled and mesmerized everyone in the room. The 3D animations distilled the concepts into simple metaphors, and video clips of credible people proved the truth of the message. The speaker was a master. The crowd seemed happy as it left. Back at the office, Joe ran into Jenny: “So, how was the seminar?” Joe replied, “Oh, very well done; great speaker.” Jenny asked: “Cool, what was it about, anyway?” Tom replied, “It was all about their software, I think… there was a lot to digest. Its hard to explain exactly… Hmmm, I can’t seem to remember what it actually does. Its probably too expensive for us anyway.”

Effective presentations are more than just slick graphics, good food and expert speakers. What you need is for your ideas to “stick”. You want to create that moment of insight that causes your audience to see a new truth, and thereby change the way they think and act.

Made to Stick is a book that explores the characteristics of “sticky ideas”, and explains why some ideas survive while others die out. What is a “sticky idea”? The authors start out with one of the most successful urban legends ever: the kidney heist. Do you remember the main points? The drugged drink? The bathtub full of ice? The cell phone and instructions to call 911? Most people do. A gruesome, but sticky, idea.

With lots of examples and stories, the authors identify 6 characteristics of sticky ideas:

  1. Simplicity: The idea must be stripped to its bare essence; if you try to say too many things, you say nothing. Also, “don’t bury the lead”, in other words, start out with the most important concepts first.
  2. Unexpectedness: The idea must tear-down resistance and preconceptions, readying people to accept a new paradigm.
  3. Concreteness: You must avoid corporate-speak and domain-specific jargon and bring in real examples, real people, even props to help people understand the idea in a visceral way.
  4. Credibility: Provide a reference point for believability: an expert or someone who has been through an experience, or someone who represents the viewpoint of the audience.
  5. Emotional: Information makes people think, but emotion makes them act. Appeal to emotional needs, sometimes even way up on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  6. Stores: There is something in the way our brains are wired that allows us to remember a story, and forget facts and figures.

All throughout, the authors use stories to drive home their points, and even do several message makeovers that show how to take an inaccessible message and make it stickier. Beyond business, this book applies to education, religion, charitable causes, and any area where people need to communicate ideas. And, the authors do a good job of practicing what they preach: for each of the 6 characteristics, I can remember at least one story from the book that illustrates the point. The end of the book contains a summary of all the principles for those of us too lazy to take notes. All-in-all, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.

Creating Lip Sync for 3D Characters

For a project I’m working on, we need to create a bunch of lifelike 3D people that speak to each other. This means animating lip sync to a voiceover track. Since this is such a labor intensive job, I did a little hunting around for applications to make this job easier.

First, I tried a quick test in Poser. I wasn’t super-impressed with the results because the facial morph would drift over time. Check this QuickTime sample. It could be that I need to learn how to tweak the software, or the resulting keyframing, but the initial result didn’t seem close enough to warrant further exploration.

The Softimage site has several examples of 3D characters talking and showing emotion for their FaceRobot software. You can see the videos at http://www.softimage.com/products/facerobot/videos.aspx.

Perhaps the best example out of all of the videos listed there is “Kitty Hunting: Side by Side”, mainly because the character demonstrates several different emotions, and you can compare it directly to the real actor on which it was based.

Very impressive, but even more impressive is what Image Metrics is doing with a regular video camera. Their proprietary software that allows them to shoot regular video of an actor’s face (without any tracking markers) and match those facial movements perfectly to a 3d character. They claim that the result is the most realistic facial animation you can find.

For a video explaining what they do check out this link: http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerIndex?id=2644947

Their website is at http://www.image-metrics.com

I have no idea what it costs, but I’m looking into it.

Checking out Ruby on Rails

My team at work is struggling a bit with getting a website up and running (the technology more so that the design) and I remembered today someone telling me about Ruby on Rails. Being as ADD as I am, of course I dropped everything and started to do a little digging around. I soon found out that the Rails framework, running on the Ruby language, is probably the most productive Web framework out there, comparing very favorably against J2EE and .Net. Rails implements a full-stack web framework incorporating a modern Model2 MVC architecture, similar to Struts, and seems to have built into it just about everything a die-hard Web developer might want: separate development, test and production environments, built-in testing framework, automatic stubs (scaffolding), database bindings, etc.

So far, learning about Ruby and Rails has been full of pleasant surprises. It seems that Ruby is a very modern, interpreted, truly object-oriented language with a natural syntax (to this Java programmer, anyway) and lots of nice built-in operators (actually syntactic sugar for methods, everything in Ruby is an object). I found a cool little tutorial site for Ruby (the language) that lets you type in commands right into an interpreter on the web page: Try Ruby! Its pretty basic, but it is virtually painless and leads you through a number of language basics — I might even have my kids try it.

I decided to run down to the bookstore and purchase a small book: Ruby on Rails: Up and Running (I like small books, they tend to be better written, and are easy to take on an airplane) which walks you through the process of creating websites. It does so in a direct and succinct manner. I’m just starting to work through this book now, but so far, the framework looks very interesting and powerful.

However, before you can really get started cranking out websites, you do need to set up Ruby, Rails and a slew of other dependencies. Depending on your platform, this could get complex. For developers on Mac OS X, there is a tutorial for installing all the important bits that you need to get started: Building Ruby, Rails, Subversion, Mongrel, and MySQL on Mac OS X.

There are easier ways to get all the parts installed and running on OS X, one of these being a package installer called MacPorts. However, the easiest and coolest way to get everything needed to start shucking Ruby on Rails (again on Mac OS X) is an open-source project called Locomotive. With Locomotive, you simply drag a folder to install, start the application, and create a new Ruby on Rails application. Everything you need is included in the packaged bundle; Locomotive sets up an environment for you including all the programs, packages, environment variables, etc. all set and ready to go. To get a bare Ruby/Rails skeleton app up and running was simply a matter of clicking ‘Create New’, giving it a name, clicking the Start button, and then browsing to localhost:3000. From there you can open up a terminal window (with the environment all set up for you), or start editing configuration files in your favorite text editor. Very sweet!

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