9/11: The day I almost died

9 September 2001: took a trip downtown to one of my favourite buildings. Marvelled again at the view from the top of South Tower, which first captivated me as a boy.

10 September 2001: traveling by train to DC, I felt compelled to snap many pictures of the twin towers as we passed through the New Jersey Medoowlands. The towers were striking, shimmered majestically across the Hudson.

11 September 2001: walking across The Mall to the Washington Monument, I noticed it was very quiet. Several police cars approached, and I was told to leave the area. Back at my hotel it was clear I needed to call home. To the south west smoke was visible on the skyline, rising from the wreckage of flight AA77.

Six weeks earlier, at a travel agency in Oxford, I was hurriedly booking a round the world air ticket. Aged 23, I'd recently graduated and landed a job at management consultancy McKinsey, pocketing a handsome signing bonus. The reward to myself was the longest, most exotic trip I could imagine. A clear route had formed: US, Australia, South East Asia, an extended stay in China, then Japan. In the US I wanted to revisit New York, quickly see DC, then spend time with friends in San Francisco. Exact dates were quickly decided on the spot, based on availability. I was disappointed not to be able to leave the East Coast earlier.

12 September 2001: didn't use my ticket for flight AA77 that day. No commercial flights operated for several days, but flight AA77 never flew again.

Stranded in DC, I went back to the Mall. Surprisingly, the White House was open to visitors with little security. Taking in the view from the Diplomatic Room, I listened as a uniformed Secret Service officer described a flight passing unusually low the previous day.

I could have easily booked my flight a day earlier. Today my thoughts are with those who lost loved ones ten years ago.

Tagged: Life

Posted at 12:12 UTC, 11th September 2011.

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How should London evolve?

A walk throughout the modern city raises many questions about the benefits and downsides of the evolution.

Which changes are for the better, which for the worse? The overall evolution is one of sanitisation and order. Good thing, bad thing, indifferent thing?

Where small passageways crammed with danger and interest once stood, we now have big, clean corporate buildings for international accountants, lawyers, bankers. Where once a Sunday stroll would have offered an opportunity for the unexpected, good and bad, now the walk is entirely predictable. Closed and swept streets, immigrant contractors cleaners maintaining near-identical buildings.

In the St Brides quarter a foundation and the church maintain the two last links with a colourful past. A bar, "The Press House", plays on the modern history of the area. It is shut on a Sunday. The significant history of the church area is almost ignored.

At the corner of New Bridge Street and Fleet Street I found a nondescript pub that could serve a beer and snack, looking over a busy junction that was once a bridge over the notorious Fleet Ditch. Modern peoples of London walk, anonymously in the street. They buy pre-made sandwiches, they hurry up and down, left and right. They are for the most part safe and healthy. In the pub music is between 15 and 25 years old - Prince, the Lightning Seeds, U2. The few exclusively male, middle aged customers watch a widescreen television, showing a cricket match between England and Sri Lanka. The beer is poorly kept, the nuts pre-packaged in a bag that proclaims meagre health benefits for me, the almighty consumer.

Further along the street, buses and cyclists cross the Holborn Viaduct, oblivious that they would once have been crossing a river. The buildings almost all post-date the burying of the river, yet faithfully follow the lines of their medieval predecessors. There is innovation and sanitisation, but strictly within historic lines, set in the last 300 years.

300 years ago people walked carefully on the narrow roads either side of the repugnant ditch, or crossed via the narrow bridge, well aware that anyone interested in their progression across the city could catch them here. This was a place of danger, but a place that was alive.

If you lived in London in 1711, and wanted to go somewhere on a Sunday, it is extremely likely you would have passed by here. Today the many occupants of the city mostly give this spot a wide berth. Those who leave the house will stay in their suburb, or travel to another via trunk roads and an extensive railway system. But tomorrow, a working Monday, many will return to this area. They will occupy desks and conference rooms in the big modern building, many will fetch a sandwich or some simple cooked food at lunchtime. Most will arrive after 8am, and leave before 7pm. For 13 hours the city will be dead.

During their brief visit here tomorrow, the new Londoners will mostly engage in commerce of a thoroughly modern kind. The same could be said of Londoners in 1711. Progress, but within historic lines.

It's an odd compromise. Is it truly the best way?

300 years ago this was an academic question. London was considered by many to be the capital of the world, with unrivalled economic and transport ties to the rest of the world. Now it ranks as the ~20th biggest city by size, at the edge of a continent in decline, physically removed from the world centres of population and innovation, with transport links commoditised by plentiful jets. According to Airbus, in the next two decades Europe will order less than a quarter of the world's aircraft. China ordered 50%??

Ten years ago I spend a week in Beijing. Yet to embark on my career, I was at the end of a long trip, and almost penniless. I filled my days were by riding through the city on a rented bicycle, following the path of the population between new office developments, brutal modern housing estates, small ancient zones. A major feature was zones of cheaply built housing, interspersed with basic eateries, and many, many small trading stalls. The Victorian British called these areas slums, and the modern Chinese have since demolished them.

There is innovation in Beijing. And little respect for historic lines lines. Many Chinese believe they have little to be proud of in the last 300 years years - their major achievements were in earlier dynasties. They can bulldoze 300 years of history.

Meanwhile, in Paris new building since the mid 20th century has been confined to the outskirts, within new development zones such as La Defense. Very few new buildings are built in the centre of Paris. There is little progress, but upmost respect for successes of the 18th and 19th century.

For me, the approach in London looks like an ugly compromise. We're just another medium size, developed city, housing the same multinational companies, architecture and ways of thinking as every other medium size, developed city.

We must decide: Are we proud of our achievements in the last 300 years?

If we are proud, we should nurture those achievements. We should preserve and restore the ancient streets, and innovate within those constraints. We should build a distinctive, wise London, with a unique mindset and a physical streetscape that builds on the lessons of centuries at the centre of world trade. We should reassert that we know better than other cities, then work very hard to live up to that ambition. We should not just preserve, but strengthen the historic lines, and rediscover the wisdom of our history within them. We should build a distinct London, not import another chunk of New York or Paris or Tokyo, or Shanghai.

If we're not proud, we should embark on more radical change. More should be demolished, both physically and in our ways of thinking. We should give up on the historic lines, in favour of the boldest innovation. We should take risks, as we did 300 years ago, and as the big developing markets do now. We might have to accept a medium-term reduction in our standard of living to achieve something greater and more sustainable.

I would be excited by either approach. I have little interest in the current compromise.

Do you like the current situation? If not, which route would you choose?

Tagged: London

Posted at 14:29 UTC, 31st July 2011.

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What is the best media metadata format?

People ask us this all the time. I just got off the phone with some smart, smart people who are asking all the right questions about metadata formats for exchanging media content info between services.

The wisest thing I've ever heard on this topic was from a veteran of umpteen standardization committees in the audience of a conference panel. Unfortunately I did not catch her name, but she said something along the lines of:

"Deciding on a metadata format is like picking a database. The hard part comes next, in defining the fields/data model".

Ideally we'd have a small number of well standardized formats, each with a range of wonderful libraries and tools. In the early days of MetaBroadcast we thought it might be possible to get there quickly. We've stopped believing that.

The truth is that it's really easy to convert between metadata formats. URIplay converts between dozens, and we're pretty agnostic. The format is an operational issue, just like choosing a database. The main criteria is the ease with which a fresh developer can understand what's required.

The really difficult bit is getting the fields right. Building a user-friendly product is going to require a set of compulsory fields. In the case of VoD or AoD products, compulsory fields will typically include titles, description, pictures and a way to access the content. Unless you can deal with lots of gaps in your product, you have to specify this stuff, and content providers have to deliver. (Incidentally, this is one of the spots where RDF and the semantic web tend to fail. There's normally a lack of agreement on the compulsory fields, sidestepping the hard work of building an application from distributed data.)

The hardest fields to get right are those that allow the data consumer to identify an item of content. This is vital if you are going to figure out what's unchanged, old, or new as you update the content. Some standards do a poor job of identifying content. As a consumer of data you can't afford to get this wrong, and it can be really hard to explain to data producers.

So, back to the question. What is the best media metadata format? Well, there are three broad options:

  1. An "industry-strength" traditional standard – TV Anytime, MPEG 7, DAB EPG etc. Easy to understand they are not! But people expect profiles and rules to be applied. They look hard to handle, and they are hard to handle. That's OK if you're building something big and permanent, and telecoms/broadcast standards people will approve of your choice. But the world of the web thinks differently.
  2. Web standards – atom, media RSS, or more commonly a bastard cross-breed. People are familiar with these, so many will figure they're easy to handle. But they're not familiar with your set of compulsory feeds. So their standard feeds probably won't work, and their feed creation tools might struggle, too. Looks easy, probably has a sting in the tail. But at least you're building on something standard. You'll get some great generic tool support, but you're on your own for anything application specific, and you will probably have to define much more than if you started with #1 above. Still, your feeds will work in lots of generic readers too, and maybe your conventions are adopted some day?
  3. Roll your own – pick a simple base format that's easy to understand, like JSON. Reuse namespaces and field names where you can. You'll get basic tool support, ease of understanding, and clarity that this format requires special thought and development. Development effort for creator and consumer are probably similar to #2 above, but many people will accuse you of reinventing the wheel.

Maybe RDF and the semantic web will be added as a fourth option here, one day. These offer a possibility of really well described data that can be interchanged easily between many types of applications. But these bold aims require amazing tools, and levels of standardization that have not yet been achieved, and still seem a long way off. We consume and produce RDF from our systems, but most of our effort still goes elsewhere.

At MetaBroadcast we follow all of the three approaches set out above. None is perfect, and each is right in some situations. Big players should probably support several options.

Which would you choose, and why?

This was cross-posted from the MetaBroadcast blog.

Tagged: Media

Posted at 13:31 UTC, 16th April 2010.

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First TV Facebook Connect implementation in the UK

We're excited to launch Come Dine With Me Homemade, a project on which we've been working away for the last few months with the marketing, food and cross-platform teams at Channel 4, and in collaboration with ITV Studios.

As far as we're aware, this is the first time that any U.K. broadcaster has used Facebook Connect in support of a television show. The site allows viewers to make their own Come Dine With Me episode, using their own photos, adding custom soundbites from the show's fantastic narrator Dave Lamb, plus theme tunes and graphics.

Facebook and Come Dine With Me are natural partners - nearly 200,000 people are fans of the show on Facebook. A user of Come Dine With Me Homemade is often only a single click away from logging into the site, to then easily view friends' parties, and share content back to Facebook.

MetaBroadcast built the front and back ends of Come Dine With Me Homemade. Once things get into full swing, we expect to be handling very large numbers of simultaneous users, especially after a peak-time airing of the TV show. Each user receives a personalised social experience on the site, so we have made heavy use of Purple, our own broadcast-strength social integration system.

Purple previously backed Test Tube Telly, a prototype social TV guide commissioned by 4iP, and launched in summer 2009.

Many thanks to the extended C4 team who trusted us with this delicate and highly satisfying project, special recognition going out to Louise Brown (@louby), Julia Pal and Jane Honey, Andrew Pipes (@The_Pied_Pipes), Sarah Rogers and Stephen Hardingham. We couldn't have gotten this far without the help of Lisa Campana, Jamie Knight (@JamieKnight), Igor Volk, and of course John Ayrez (@ayrez) and Robert Chatley (@belgiano).

This was cross-posted from the MetaBroadcast blog.

Tagged: Media

Posted at 22:53 UTC, 17th February 2010.

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Sous Vide Practical Tips: Part 1

Over the last six months I have been experimenting with sous vide cooking at home. It's a wonderful way to cook meat perfectly, with minimal hassle - truly the future of food.

If you want the details about sous vide, check out this guide, read up on the scientific facts in one of Harold McGee's fine books (amazon us, uk), or get a Chef's perspective in Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook (amazon us, uk), or Thomas Keller's Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide (amazon us, uk).

These tomes make fascinating reading, but many practical tips are missing. I'm planning to share my own experience in a series of posts here.

Before I get started, a word about safety. Sous vide often involves cooking bacteria-ridden food like raw meat at low temperatures. This can be very dangerous if it's done wrong. Before you start, make sure you understand the circumstances in which food pathogens are killed, and in which they multiply. Any of the references mentioned above contain the necessary information. I won't risk repeating it incorrectly here.

To start with, the basics:

Sous vide is wrongly named. It means 'under vacuum', but vacuum is often incidental. The main thing is the low temperature at which food is cooked.

Top restaurants use thousands of pounds of expensive equipment for sous vide cooking, but great results can be achieved without any special tools.

You can cook sous vide by putting a piece of meat in a pan of warm water, inside a zip-lock bag, and monitoring temperature with a digital probe to keep it reasonably constant. If the water is at 55°C you'll get medium-rare meat. It's that simple.

This is not so different from conventional cooking - we're always looking to get meat to 55°C for medium rare. But normally we try to do this in a pan or oven that is much hotter. So it's really difficult to get all the meat to a consistent temperature. Normally it's much hotter on the outside, the middle keeps cooking after it comes out of the oven. Unless you use meat of the same shape every time you'll be hard pressed to get the times and temperatures right with conventional methods.

Minimum cooking times is based mainly on thickness. A 2cm thick piece of meat needs at least 30 mins. Times go up fast as the meat gets thicker. Use a table to figure out the minimum time. There's one in this document.

There's no maximum cooking time. Heston Blumenthal says meat goes pappy if left for two long. But mere mortals can leave the meat in the water until they're ready to eat it. This makes life much easier, especially when cooking a complex meal, or for lots of people.

Brown meat tastes good. In most cases you'll want to brown the meat very quickly before or after sous vide cooking. A blow torch on meat brushed with oil is a fun way to brown lean meat like steak. But a hot pan is fine too.

A vac-pack machine is helpful to keep everything together. I use a "Seal a Meal" unit. The main benefit is that all the juices stay neatly inside the bag.

Brining and sous vide are natural partners. Mix a liter of water with 5 teaspoons of salt, then soak your meat in it overnight, before cooking. Try adding pepper, herbs and other spices to the water.

I'll try to post more tips and some extra details soon.

Have you tried sous vide? I'd love to hear other tips and tricks here, or on twitter

Update : This primer also looks rather interesting, especially the rather handy visual charts

Tagged: Food

Posted at 21:43 UTC, 13th February 2010.

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