Thursday, 27 September 2007

Audio Described

When I was away last week I took some DVDs with to make sure I wouldn't be bored in my hotel room in an evening. Turns out I was bored anyway at which point I started to play around with the extra features on the DVDs I had with me.

Over the last few years my eyesight has unfortunately deteriorated to the stage where I now need glasses to watch TV (in fact to do most things but that's a different story). I'm not so blind though that I need to use the "Audio Described" soundtracks available on some DVDs. But as I was bored I thought I'd see what an "Audio Described" soundtrack actually sounds like.

The easiest way to describe the soundtrack, is to suggest that you could closes your eyes and have the entire film described to you. It's a bit difficult to explain so as examples here are the descriptions from the "Audio Described" soundtrack on the Music and Lyrics DVD for two of the studio logos:

"Rows of old film studio buildings reflected in a shiny gold surface. As the surface turns it is reveled to be the edge of a shield with the letters W B in it's centre against a blue sky."

"The beam of a lighthouse scans a rocky coast line and a calm stretch of water. The sun rises behind the lighthouse and spreads a golden glow across the sky"

Monday, 24 September 2007

Q: When Does A University Not Feel Like A University?

A: When it has no students.

I spent the second half of last week in Milton Keynes at a meeting hosted by the Open University. I work for a University so I know what the atmosphere is like, especially over the last week or so with students returning for the new academic year.

The Open University isn't like that though because they don't have any students. OK that is not entirely true -- they don't have students at the University, all their students study via distance learning courses. Now this might be great for academics who don't actually like meeting students (I've known a few of those) but it leaves you wondering exactly where you are when you walk around the campus. It is quiet and empty in stark contrast to any other University I have ever visited.

While I may often be heard moaning about there being two many students around I've now decided that too many students is immeasurably preferable to there being no students at all.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Amazing Amazon Offers!

You can often get quite good discount prices on DVDs and CDs at Amazon. Then again sometimes their offers seem to make little sense. Take for example this collection of Ingmar Bergman films with a retail price of £209.99 which Amazon is selling at the greatly reduced price of £209.98 -- a vast saving of just 1p!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Classic TV

ITV have recently (at least I only recently found out) started making all four of their channels available almost live on their website. Whilst this may turn out to be useful, especially as I can't get the other three channels where I live (no freeview signal!), I'm more impressed with their Best of ITV section.

In essence they are allowing us to watch some of the best dramas they have previously funded. So for example you can watch the first series of Cracker, Cold Feet, Cadfael and many more whenever you want! While the quality may not be such that they would be watchable on a TV screen they are perfect for watching on the PC while pretending to work.

Even in the week or so since I found the site they have added new content so hopefully they will continue adding more and more great British dramas for us to watch. Unfortunately it seems they are currently only providing the first series of each drama, although hopefully this will change in the future.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Film Review: Fracture

My brother bought me the film Fracture for my birthday after I'd said that the trailer for it looked interesting.

I finally managed to find the time to sit down and watch it at the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. It reminded me a lot of the John Grisham courtroom novels (such as The Runaway Jury or the Rainmaker). Without giving away any of the plot the film focuses on the game played between the two main characters: Ted Crawford (played by Anthony Hopkins) who has been arrested for shooting his wife and Willy Beachum (played by Ryan Gosling) the prosecutor who is trying to prove the crime occurred.

My one complaint about the film is that it could simply be viewed as a two hour Apple advert. I didn't actually see an iPod at any point in the film (although given my powers of observation I could easily have missed one), however, you couldn't miss the vast number of MacBooks placed prominently in many of the shots. As evidence I give you exhibits A through C:

There were also quite a few shots of videos being watched in QuickTime, although they were not quite as glaring as the MacBooks. I have no problem with subtle product placement in films and TV programmes but this was especially bad. In fact I'd go as far as to say it was worse than the new version of Casino Royale which, whilst a very good film, is basically a very long Sony advert.

My Rating: 5 Stars A truly excellent Apple advert film!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Strawberry and Cream Shortbread Stacks

Ingredients (Serves 6)
4oz unsalted butter
2oz caster sugar
6oz plain flour
1 large punnet of strawberries
1 large pot of double cream

Cooking Instructions
Beat the butter until soft with a wooden spoon. Beat in the sugar and then the flour. Form into a paste using your hands.

With some extra caster sugar lightly dust a work surface and then roll out the mixture to a thickness of about 3mm.

Use a 3inch cookie cutter to cut out the biscuits and place them onto a lightly greased baking tray. You should have enough paste to make 12 shortbread biscuits, and as each of the final deserts requires 2 you should be able to serve 6.

Bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 150C (300F or Gas Mark 2), remove from oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Wash, hull and quarter the strawberries. Whip the cream until thick and then fold in the quartered strawberries.

Assemble each desert by placing a single shortbread biscuit on a plate dollop a sixth of the cream and strawberry mixture on top and then place a second biscuit on top.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Starlight Express and Cellophane

On the 1st of September I was taken to see the travelling production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express at the Alhambra in Bradford. I'd seen the show before at it's original home at the Apollo Victoria in London back in the Autumn of 1995. A travelling production of Starlight Express has to approach things differently given that building the original set involved major changes to the layout of the theatre -- removing some of the stall seats and placing those that remained in a cage so the race track could run around the back of the theatre and building a section of the race track attached to the first circle.

The travelling production gets around the problem of building a race track by using 3D film to show the races asking the audience to don 'safety goggles' during the race so that they can see the 3D effects. Possibly surprisingly this works really well. My main annoyance with the original production was that no matter where you sat in the theatre there were sections of the race track you couldn't see -- using a 3D film means that everyone now gets to enjoy all the action and the theatre doesn't have to be half destroyed!

The 3D effect is achieved using two digital polarised light projectors and a set of polarised viewing glasses. Here are the glasses from Starlight Express:

One of the advantages of using polarised light rather than the old fashioned green/red anaglyph lenses is that the film is seen in full colour with no colour bleeding due to even the slightest mismatch between the colours projected and those used in the filters through which the film is viewed.

Briefly the effect works by projecting two slightly different pictures onto the screen (so without the glasses at best the film looks blurry and at worse undecipherable) with each projector using differently polarised light. Each lens in the glasses only allows through light polarised in one direction so one eye will see the output from one projector, the other eye seeing the light from the other projector. The brain then assembles an image which appears to be in 3D. You can see this visually in this image reproduced from an informative article on How 3-D Glasses Work.

With the advent of relatively cheap digital projectors this method of showing 3D films has become immensely popular. I've seen one other film before using the technique at an IMAX cinema, in fact you can even go see the latest Harry Potter film as an IMAX 3D experience (if you are so inclined).

So we finally get to the reason the post title mentions cellophane. It turns out that in 2003 a researcher named Keigo Iizuka discovered a neat trick with laptop screens and cellophane. LCD monitors emit polarised light which means that when viewed using 3D glasses you can only see the screen through one lens, through the other it looks as if the screen is turned off. Now while interesting this doesn't allow us to do anything new. However, it turns out that cellophane can change the polarization of light. So Keigo Iizuka simply covered one half of a laptop screen with the right kind of cellophane to change the polarization of the light allowing 3D images to be produced. Full details of this neat trick (and a second trick using two camera phones) can be found in an illustrated example titled Using cellophane to convert a liquid crystal display screen into a three dimensional display.

Not for want of trying but I've yet to find the right kind of cellophane!

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Annual Appraisal

We have unfortunately reached the beginning of a new academic year, and as I work for a University now is also the time for the heart warming Annual Appraisal!

Having to fill out a form detailing the highs and lows from the previous year seems to always leave me with an empty hollow feeling. The form gives me half a page of A4 to review my previous year and says that extra pages can be used although it shouldn't run longer than 2 sides of A4. My problem is that I usually have problems writing 2 lines let alone 2 pages!

I understand the need to check that staff are working and progressing correctly but surely there must be a slightly more humane way of doing it?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Stem Gall

At some point I will get back to doing longer posts but for today I give you another photo from my Grandma's garden.

Now this may look like an apple but looks can be deceptive. In fact this is a stem gall.

Galls are formed by a plant in reaction to an irritation usually caused by an insect. Unfortunately I don't know what insect was responsible for this gall but it must have caused an awful irritation as it was quite a big gall.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Toy Digger

At the weekend I was helping tidy up the garden at my Grandma's house when I came across this toy digger. Of course there is nothing amazing about this rusty old toy except that I can't remember a time when it wasn't sat in the same place by the back door to the house.

I spent many summer days at my Grandma's as a kid playing in the garden and this toy (then not quite so old and rusty) was always there. Given the amount of digging it has achieved over the years I'm seriously surprised that it is still all in one piece!