That One Time We Were Ramsay Street

My street isn’t anything like those on TV – we don’t get together every other week to do a BBQ. We don’t share a perpetually connected backyard where anyone could waltz in and have a cuppa. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t even know who my neighbors are, and I’ve lived on this street for almost a decade.

The thing is, we’re not the other end of the spectrum either. Apart from some unpleasantness a few months back concerning some idiots down the street, a carton of eggs and my front porch, we all leave each other well alone. If we pass each other, we would nod, or pretend it didn’t happen. I suppose, of course, that everyone had the same thoughts I did: What will it take for the street to get together?

Then, one morning a couple weeks back, there were sirens. I crawled out of bed, in time to see billowing smoke rising from the roof of a house three doors down. A quick glance around, and sure enough, the entire street population was also billowing from their houses, rubbernecking at the site of what could very well turn out to be a massive tragedy. Some of us (myself included), started patting our hair consciously, in case TV crews turned up.

Fortunately, I guess, no one turned up but two fire trucks and a couple of police cars. Turns out (and this is just whispers passed from one lips to another) that the tenants had left something on in the kitchen, and it in turn burned half the house down. The people were all out, thankfully, so all the only hurt was on the wallet.

So, several weeks on, the chicken wire fencing is still up, and the workmen have been doing their job to fix up this house. But even as they clear away the burnt out wall, I realized that the wall between neighbors still hasn’t come down. We’d all stood there, gaping at the smoke, mutually coughing at the fumes, and acting like this was a blow on us all, but no one had asked for each other’s name. We recognize the model and make of the cars, but if we had to connect a face to those, much less a name, we’d be at a loss.

Is it even possible to be as neighborly as the houses on Ramsay Street? Is there even a point? Surely, people know when something is wrong, and will do something, right?

Except no one would notice if an elderly couple hadn’t surfaced for a few days. No one would see bruises covering someone’s arms when they go out. Aren’t these the things that neighbors should watch out for?

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I could not get the permission from the builders to walk inside the location (beyond the chicken fence), and I definitely didn’t want to do something illegal like sneak in after hours.

The QR code will work perfectly with a decent scanner. I used the Barcode scanner Android app, but you Apple people out there should be able to find one just as good.

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How do I drive? – I dunno, Google it!

You know that it is nearing submission time when I suddenly post boatloads, in the same way that you know something special has hit the stream of consciousness when many publications suddenly all talk about the one thing.

Two pieces of news that had flooded my RSS feeds more frequently than any other in the last two days are: Watch_Dog reviews, and this new driverless Google car that has been put properly on the table as a working prototype. Since all I seem to talk about are video games, let’s go with the latter.

So, what is it? And what does it look like?

You look like a dweeb, but you will look like one while doing nothing at all. Image courtesy of The Guardian and Google.

This piece of engineering and computing genius has enough space for two people, and reaches a top speed of 25mph, or ~40km/hr.

Basically, it’s aimed towards people who didn’t want to get anywhere in the first place.

Alright, enough skepticism. The fact is, this car really drives itself. How does it do that?

Driverless car

The Google car contains “no steering wheel, no pedals and no brakes”, and relies on a sensor mounted on top (yeah, that thing that looks like a blender) to “see” where it’s going.

It also has newer and better sensors that give it the ability to see what’s going on up to a distance of two football fields. For example, on the most current version of the retrofitted self-driving Lexus, a mounted laser has about a 12-degree field of view that it uses to essentially zoom in on details of points of interest. On the prototype car, the lasers have full 360-degree views. “It’s going from looking just in front, like a flashlight, to a lantern all around the car,” said self-driving car project director Chris Urmson.

Re/code

Of course, that explains why its top speed is so slow. Having said that, 25mph is the average safe speed for driving in most American cities, and while it’s unfeasible here on bigger and busier Australian roads, 40 km/h is probably a good speed to drive around in the suburbs. The car is also made with lots of foam and safety materials to ensure that a crash, should it ever occur, would hurt a lot less.

What’s it like in there?

I think this video sums it up perfectly.

The testers all seem very happy with their experience, although it must be noted most of them seem to treat it as a rollercoaster ride. I wonder what would happen if in real practise, the driver suddenly decides to stop at a Maccas drive-thru? Or they get a message to go pick someone else up suddenly? I suppose on-board GPS would be so good by this time that they just need to speak “let’s go to McDonalds” and the car will pick the nearest one and drive to it, but I still feel like it takes away from the spontaneity of manually driving around.

Safety

The most important issue is obviously safety. The fact that there is close to no way for a human to interrupt the machine and take over, save for an emergency stop button, can be a problem.

The controls are needed to comply with the law in California which along with Nevada and Florida allows autonomous vehicles but only if a driver can take charge.

The Guardian

And with technology such as these making their way into the mainstream use, sooner or later laws will have to reflect the changes. Perhaps jumpy technophobes will push for laws to stop complete automation. I think, maybe, the problem lies in the way we think about safety, being that we always regard it as something that we need to prevent from not happening instead of something that we act to let happen. But, that’s an issue for another debate.

The main thing is, as the project director pointed out, having a human suddenly wrench themselves into control can be even more dangerous: have you ever had someone grab your steering wheel suddenly while driving? Doesn’t end well, does it?

The cool factor

I don’t think that having a little golf cart cupcake car is going to make you look cool, but if this is the direction that vehicular travel will head, then obviously a prototype from one manufacturer won’t dictate the eventual norm. Still, imagine trying to do burn-outs in one of those babies!

The really cool part is you really can drive and not-drive, text and not-drive, etc etc. That can change the landscape of traffic laws almost entirely, since things like rear-ending and side-swiping would end up being the issue with manufacturers, not the individual driver.

“Hey, this guy was on his phone when he crashed into me!”

“Well, what do you want me to do? I did call 911 as we were crashing to get a head-start!”

Alex

The Great Console of China

Using RSS feeds is a fantastic way to get news on your favorite websites without having to actually click into the website every time. I’ve been using the RSS feed reading app Flipboard for a few months now, and I’m now also using The Old Reader.

One of the things that have been popping up lately, but not garnering front page news, is the fact that current generation video game consoles are heading over to China.

Consoles banned in China

So far, the two major players in the console war, Microsoft and Sony, have not been able to sell their gaming consoles inside mainland China. The reason, according to Kotaku:

“Consoles have been banned in China since the year 2000,” Lisa Hanson from market researcher Niko Partners tells Kotaku. “The government thought that was the best way to protect Chinese youth from wasting their minds on video games, after a parental outcry.” The following year, online gaming exploded, and the market size hit $100 million. So the ban, Hanson says, “didn’t stop the ‘problem’.”

 

Then, there’s piracy:

Sony did sell their PS2s in mainland China, but as the same Kotaku article reminded us, the pirate tendency that runs rampant in China has rendered the move a disaster.

Sony released the PlayStation 2 in China in January 2004. The launch was a disaster with rampant game piracy and of the hardware itself. While it wasn’t exactly the financial success Sony might have been hoping for, it did build a brand name for the company. Nintendo’s Wii has been copied by a Chinese company and released as the “Vii”, a game system that runs preloaded motion controlled games. Sony’s PS3 has been knocked off as “The Winner”. Pirated versions of console and PC games are prevalent.

 

10 years later…

So 10 years later, I’m reading about the consoles being optioned to sell in China again. First, the XBox One is announced late April, and just today, the PS4 is also announced to be going to the most heavily populated nation.

While on paper, it may seem like a fantastic idea, but considering that the PS2 was one of Sony’s largest console triumph, and it was still pirated to an early grave, what would be in store for the PS4?

Gaming digitally

One thing that has really changed since the disk-based PS2 days, and that is digital gaming. However, stringent DRM on digital game files still won’t guarantee that piracy wouldn’t swallow the profit margin entirely, as the current piracy market has proved that there is always a workabout around digital locks.

Possible preventions

  • Cheaper hardware and software

While this may not be fair to other markets, the fact that other, knockoff products are extremely cheap (under $100 AUD, or even less) mean that to create a competitive product, Sony and Microsoft would have to put onto the shelf an equally cheap product.

  • Exclusive content

This would have to be done concurrently with the previous point, but having exclusive content for the region (the way that Australia and New Zealand gets special ANZ editions) could be enticement to spend some extra money for the official versions. This might not work if piracy gets their hands on it, however.

  • Locking software

The last, and antagonistic suggestion, is to simply ship consoles that lock up if it detects a pirated game being played. This can be maintained through mandatory firmware updates – that is, to not allow the console to function without updating to a new firmware update – so to overcome any hacking that may occur between firmwares. This might be the least pleasant option, because it creates a distrustful atmosphere that places onus on the consumer instead of the publishers to fix a problem.

In any case, it seems that the console war is going to wage on the biggest (and most flooded) market in the world. Whether that would work out, only time would tell.

Alex.

Basic Audio Editing

When it comes to editing audio, the most important part for newcomers like me, is to know how each sound is supposed to work with each other. For example, if you are editing a scene where a person is speaking, and an ambulance drives by, it is important to know how the dialogue sounds should interact with the ambulance.

On a very beginner level, and using basic programs such as Audacity, the main things to look out for in this situation would be the volume and the direction.

If you had a simple synthesized ambulance sound, to create the audio space of an oncoming ambulance, you’d have to edit the sound to become louder and louder. You also need to make sure that the sound is coming from one direction to begin with, and slowly moving towards the center as it becomes louder.

On a more advanced level, there is obviously a lot more to creating the sounds of an ambulance driving by a speaker, because you would also need to edit in ground sounds, or sounds that speak to the context (such as other voices speaking, the rushing of cars on a road) as well as field sounds, or sounds that are in the atmosphere (such as wind, or light rain, etc).

(Ground and Field Sounds are mentioned in Leeuwen’s 1999 Speech, Music and Sound, and is a great way to think about the context and meaning of each sound depending on if it’s Ground, Field, or Figure (being the sound that is being actively listened to).)

Audacity is a fantastic beginner’s editing tool for audio editing; because sound editing can be a lot trickier and more nuanced than visual and graphic editing, having a simple workspace like Audacity means you can easily understand how to cut, copy, and mix in levels of sound. As a beginner in sound editing, I used Audacity for a podcast assignment in my undergrad classes. It was extremely simple to upload the audio materials that I’d collected and recorded, and the menus work according to many familiar programs such as Photoshop or MS Word, so buttons to export or to save are where you expect them. It would probably be simpler for beginners to use Audacity as their first tool to edit sounds, before uploading the edited sounds onto video editors such as Adobe Premier, in order to lessen the jumble of materials on the ‘cutting board’.

Kindle your relationship with reading

That sounded a little like an advert for Kindle – and it sort of is.

Ebooks – electronic books – are extremely popular for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons is also the same reason that makes having a MP3 in your pocket a lot more popular than cramming a few dozen CDs in there: mobility.

Ebooks, for those living under a hardcover rock, are essentially special digital files of a book (novel, non-fiction, whatever), that can be opened and read by certain devices and/or programs. Not all ebooks have to be in those special digital file formats, but all special digital file formats need a dedicated program that can open it.

Here are some of the most common formats for ebooks:

PDF:

The first format that would have come to your mind would be PDFs. They’re great when you’ve typed up your 30-page long manuscript, all in 12pt Garamond, and all you have to do on your Microsoft Word is hit “Export” and the computer does it all for you. Then, you can send it off to anyone with the proclivity to read it, and you know that it won’t mess up, because almost all devices can recognize PDFs. PDF is even better if you have images, because we’ve all had to deal with images going on a walkabout whenever you try to move some text around it.

Then you hit a snag: Ralph wants to read your 30-page on his 5-inch phone, except because the PDF was made with 12pt Garamond, it’s too wide for his screen! He has to zoom in, and keep swiping and moving the PDF around, and he keeps losing his place.

No PDF

Alright, Ralph, calm down. There is actually a way for him to read your manuscript on his little screen, without any compromise on anyone’s behalf.

Ebook formats are formats that allow the text to be resized, and free flowing. Imagine your text to be a box of nails: PDF sees those nails hammered into a piece of wood, and you just can’t move them around. Ebook formats, on the other hand, is more like having those nails on a sheet of metal, and the user is a magnet. They can freely move the nails around so there’s more or less of them clumped together. This is what they call ‘free-flowing’ text.

Alright, that was a terrible analogy, but you get my drift.

There are two major ebook formats, firstly, we’ll look at EPUB.

EPUB:

Epub is the industry standard for ebook formats. That means, most publishers or software developers would work with Epub in mind. Epub is most commonly used on Apple devices, like your iPad or iPhone. It is also used on many other, third-party apps for tablets and such.

Here, let Wikipedia explain it better.

MOBI:

Great! You’re super excited about being able to read A Song of Ice and Fire without building up biceps. You go to your nearest electronic store, and you tell them you want to buy an ebook reader. The gal points at the nearest Kindle, and that’s what you go home with. You’ve already got a few DRM-free ebook files from a Humble Bundle that you paid for, and since epub is the way to go, you try to load them up into your Kindle.

Except…it won’t work!

Amazon’s Kindle is probably the most ubiquitous and well known e-reader (electronic reader) around. And they do not read epub files.

Apart from their proprietary, DRM protected AZW files (for the ebooks you buy off of their Amazon store), Kindles accept only PDF, and mobi.

Fun fact: Mobi might not even stick around for Amazon…who could be moving onto something else that’s not epub.

Let’s make an ebook!

So, you’re looking at your 30-pager, and Ralph is ralphing on about his 5-inch deficiency. You know that as an author, you need to please your readers, so you’re going to make your manuscript into an ebook. Here are some ideas:

Bookbaby has a great series of articles that explain some preliminary steps you need to take before publishing.

The first step is to know what you are publishing. If it’s text-only, then epub (or mobi, if you are wanting Kindle readers to access your product too) is the way to go. Otherwise, if there is a large quantity of images, such as photo-books or instructional booklets, then PDF may be the easiest course of action.

After that, it is a matter of deciding which platform you will publish in. Remember that epub is the industry standard, and will work on iPads, as well as other e-ink readers such as KOBO, NOOK, etc; mobi is the only one which Kindles will accept (apart from their proprietary AZW format).

There are electronic publishers for your ebook, which also help you format your work. Jutoh; Lulu; and Smashwords all offer publishing in epub. Mobipocket, the people who made the mobi format, obviously allow you to publish in mobi.

What to take away:

Ebooks are much more sophisticated than reading as a PDF; a well formatted ebook an be read easily on any device, using any sized font.

There are many different kinds of file formats for ebooks, depending on the device you’re using to read. Generally, epub is the way to go, being the industry standard. However, the format decision need to ultimately be made with the knowledge of intended audience and platform in mind.

There are several online electronic publishers who can help you create an ebook and distribute it.

Finally, Ralph needs to find himself a better reading device.

Focus on auto-focus

Having finally found the time (and good weather) to do my proper photoshoot of my subject Meg, I thought that my project would be at the 75% mark: get the photos that I want, then it’s off to creation.

I had a whole list of photos that I wanted based on the rough scripts that I’d outlined for the different strips that I wanted. I’d purposefully written them simple and repetitive, using poses that I’ve seen Meg do before.

On the day, I brought my 50mm prime lens. They have manual focus only. I’d been predominantly using this lens for all my previous photos, including the photo project that I’d uploaded earlier.

I also have shortsightedness, and can’t take photos with my glasses on.

What I’m building towards is that, for my first photoshoot, 70% of the images were nearly unusable because they were out of focus.

Nonetheless, I did manage to get some gems. which are usable:

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So the next time, I brought along my 18-55mm, and was able to use its autofocus to take many better photos.

DSC_0517

The only issue is, I hardly managed to get any of the photos that I’d planned for, meaning that most of the scripts that I’d written are entirely un-executable.

This leaves me with a conundrum, which I think I can solve rather easily.

Most of the photos that I took are still natural poses for dogs, so now it becomes a fact of writing a script around the material that I’d procured. Perhaps this should have been my plan from the very start, which would have freed me up to many more photos during the photoshoot.

In the next few days I’ll create a mock up of one of them comics, based on the first image that I uploaded. I’ll also attempt to create it with my publishing format in mind – Tumblr and Medium – to see and troubleshoot any issues that may arise.

Here, have another Meg:

DSC_0572

Alex.