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3 December 2009

Radio Times 'Letter of the Week'

After sending a letter to the Radio Times concerning a specific Horizon programme and the James May Toy Story series, I was delighted find my words published as 'Letter of the Week' for the 5-11 December 2009.

The letter is reproduced below, with kind permission of the Radio Times Reader Services.

Social Science
I was impressed how the presentation, format and flow of the Horizon programme How Long is a Piece of String? successfully handled its unfamiliar, irrational and complex subject matter. The involvement of many scientific individuals in conjunction with the continuity provided by the ever quizzical Alan Davies, worked extremely well. A vast improvement over the very disappointing attempt to handle similar subjects in the Who's Afraid of a Big Black Hole? episode.

On reflection I noticed a number of style parallels with James May's entertaining and extremely successful Toy Stories series. However, a key ingredient of his series is the involvement of the general public, often in large numbers and always with great enthusiasm and commitment. Could the much improved Horizon style be enriched further by the addition of a similar social element?

I think it would. Maybe James May himself could be coaxed into making an appearance.

22 November 2009

Mouse Extinction

Ever since the Apple Macintosh launched in January 1984, with its radically different windows based user interface, the mouse has been an ever-present PC accessory.

We needed the mouse to interact with our windows based operating systems: selecting the desired window; minimising or maximising a window; resizing a window; using the scroll bars and selecting icons, menus and text. Subsequently it proved the simplest way to navigate around the Internet with the web browser's hypertext links.

From these basic beginning the mouse slowly evolved. Additional buttons appeared for context sensitive options, a centre mounted scroll wheel was added and the, often troublesome, rolling ball has been replaced with laser sensors. Even now innovation hasn't stopped, with Apple just releasing their new wireless magic mouse - effectively a sleek-looking integration of multi-touch pad and mouse - with touch and gesture support.

But the mouse about to disappear?

Today we have touch screens to facilitate finger pointing selection and swiping actions for scrolling. Multi-touch to resize, zoom and rotate. Gesture recognition to perform all kinds to generic and application specific interactions. Motion, orientation and acceleration detectors to assist with presentation, layout and 3D control. And even GPS technology to help deliver location-specific content, features and functionality.

Starting with our present day smartphones we can also see a trend for simpler, more intuitive user interfaces, with highly integrated touch, gesture, movement and location capabilities. The next evolution of notebooks, netbooks and tablet devices will include and extend this smartphone derived interface functionality.

As we move towards a cloud computing future, where local applications and storage are not required, there will be further opportunities to simplify the user experience. Examples of what we can expect include the Intel/Nokia MeeGo project and Google's Chromium OS initiatives. These much simpler, browser-like, task-specific user interfaces also facilitate the integration of intuitive touch and gesture control.

So does all this interface innovation, advanced technology and simplified user experience finally sideline the mouse? Well the desktop PC will still benefit from a mouse, but desktops are a rapidly declining market. More innovation could help prolong its lifetime. Maybe Apple could add motion control to its magic mouse to act as a 3D pointer or games controller. But, as our ever expanding range of pocket, mobile, entertainment and navigation devices will be touch, gesture, motion and location enabled, the mouse is destined to become more and more like a quaint accessory from the computing past.

Click to read more analysis articles and posts.

10 October 2009

Jodrell Bank Thoughts

Iconic, historic, engineering marvel, local landmark; words people associate with the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank.

Located deep in the heart of the North Cheshire countryside, many local roads offer fleeting glimpses of the towering structure over the hedgerows. On any particular day you can never predict the orientation of the parabolic collecting dish. It may be parked, off-line, in the cornflake bowl position, or aimed at a particular part of the sky, slowly and steadily gathering incredibly faint electromagnetic waves, constructing images of the universe we inhabit.

Sir Bernard Lovell's vision, drive and passion gave birth to the telescope in the late 1950s. A succession of upgrades and enhancements over the following decades has ensured the telescope maintains its position at the forefront of scientific research – this in an age where most technical and scientific equipment exhibit useful lifespans of, at best, a few years.

The surrounding picturesque grounds include not only smaller radio telescopes and associated buildings but also an arboretum, walking trails and nature habitats. A quiet and patient observer is treated to the richness of the resident wildlife; a multitude of birds including grouse, pheasants and water fowl, plus rabbits, hares and countless pond creatures.

Timeless and unchanging yet pioneering and world-centric; words I associate with the Jodrell Bank Observatory after a weekend visit, the highlight of an Introduction to Radio Astronomy course.

On entering the Lovell Telescope's control room your visual senses are confronted by the instantly recognisable scene from televised interviews and documentaries, the images unchanging across the decades from the iconic black and white footage to the present day broadcasts. However, appearances can be deceptive. Behind the original panels and classic dials, modern computer systems and control software are busily setting and maintaining the telescope orientation with pinpoint accuracy, to satisfy the needs and aspirations of modern scientific research.

The main library too appears timeless in nature, and best imagined in a sepia tone. Seated around a large table, surrounded by tall shelves crammed with a wealth of academic literary, you cannot fail to notice a heightened sense of gravity at the sheer weight of historical tomes. Indeed, you may ponder which famous people might have previously sat in your chosen chair.

Whilst not apparent to the casual visitor, the Lovell Telescope's significance and influence goes far beyond the confines of the site. It is a major player in both the UK's MERLIN and the European VLBI networks, which electronically connect a number of radio telescopes together. The UK's MERLIN network has an apparent dish size of 134 kilometres, providing significantly improved imaging of faint or distant objects. However, the European VLBI is even larger, connecting radio telescopes as far apart as Spain and Italy to Sweden and Poland, enabling astronomers to peer back in time to the origins of our universe, over 13 billion years ago.

Visit the comprehensive Jodrell Bank Observatory web site or be entertained and informed by the bi-monthly astronomy Jodcast.