Posts Tagged ‘changing technology’

And what a time it was

 “Once you get a disk drive, you’ll see the difference. You won’t go back.”

TRS-80 model 1 computer

TRS-80 model 1 computer

It was about 1980. An industry colleague had just graduated to an Apple IIc computer. It included a built in floppy disk drive with a dizzying capacity of 760Kb of data. Enough for programs, heaps of documents, spreadsheets and who knows what else.

But I was still working with my Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. As it was my employer’s money, I’d chosen the bigger one – it had 16Kb of RAM, instead of the standard 4Kb. I supposed the extra would probably come in handy, though I wasn’t sure how, at first.

Ah yes, the old Trash-80. It hooked up to a conventional portable audio cassette recorder to save data, which it did at a speed that would have earned derision from a competent Morse code operator. My friend with the Apple offered kindly sympathy, but I was stuck with the cassette recorder. Still, if you wrote a program (in BASIC), you could save that on the cassette, provided you allowed enough time. At first, there were very few programs around – games, text editors – mainly for sale at weekend flea markets: but if you wanted to do anything else, you wrote your own software.

I wrote a computer game for it.

You must understand that there were effectively no graphics on the black and green display, and text appeared on the screen at about the speed you could type. So it was a very particular sort of game.

I called it “Fame and Fortune in the Film Industry”.

The year was 1979, and the company I worked for had booked a stand at a film and television technology exhibition. Whatever the rest of our stand showed – our services – got some attention, but I took along the computer – and it turned out to be the big crowd-puller. Almost no-one else had one on their stand, and certainly no-one else had anything so unusual as a computer game.

The program set you up as a film producer, and presented you with a series of obstacles in your project of getting a feature film made and distributed. (There were plenty.) Every decision you made would earn you fame points and fortune points, until you either made a million dollars or went bankrupt.

The challenges were all drawn from real incidents. We were in the exciting first flush of the Australian film renaissance, making period dramas like My Brilliant Career, the Australian Identity ones like Newsfront, the Not Quite Hollywood ones like The Man from Hong Kong and Patrick; and a whole lot in between: The Irishman; Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, to name just a few.

Films of 1979-81

We were the lab that processed the rushes for most of these films, so we got to witness all the upsets, the disruptions, the calamities and the miracles. With names changed (to avoid being sued) these incidents made great material for my game. For example:

  • The star of your action drama breaks his leg three weeks into the shoot. Do you (a) re-cast and start again; (b) use a double for the wide shots, and just do the static close-ups with the real actor; or (c) rework the script to explain the leg plaster and crutches?
  • There’s an emulsion-side camera scratch on the exploding helicopter shot. Do you (a) get another helicopter and reshoot; (b) use the takes from the B and C units (if you were thorough enough to have had B & C units); get the lab to rotoscope out the scratch on the master shot, frame by frame (it’ll take a month)?

Your decision had a certain effect on your costs, and on the box-office takings and critical success of the film, which added to (or took away from) your fame and fortune scores.

The program had been simple enough to write, and after the popular success at the trade show, I carried on adding more incidents to the library in the program, to add to the variety. The program effectively shuffled a pack of cards at the start of every game, so that the incidents came up in a random order: but it needed quite a few to ensure that players didn’t become familiar with them all after only a few sessions.

At first it would take something like five minutes for the program to load – and a little longer to save it each time after I’d added new material. Before long it had blown out to ten or twelve minutes. But it was becoming a rich vein of drama, suspense and agonising decision-making.

Then one day I set the tape to load, and after about ten minutes, the computer announced that the program was too big to load.

Computer wizards may assure me that it would have been simple to buy extra RAM for the machine: but at the time that didn’t seem possible, nor could I justify it. The computer was really for managing the sensitometric control of the film processing systems in the lab, and the programs I’d written to do that seemed to manage quite happily with the existing memory. So I was stuck, with, it seemed, no way of recovering the program.

I never saw it again. Those same computer wizards may now point me to TRS-80 emulators that will run in a microscopic portion of a modern computer, and some device that would remodulate the morse-code-like signal from a cassette player and pump it into a USB port.

But it’s all too late. I kept the cassette for some years, but where? I think it finally got trashed as a lost cause. I suspect the data would be corrupt by now even if I could track it down.

A few months ago I was interviewed in an oral history project about the film industry, and especially those magical times, when it seemed we had the world at our feet. I could remember so much, but so little. I wished I still had the tape: it’s probably a unique archive of some of those stories. Wouldn’t I have printed the program out from time to time (an even longer process than saving it on tape)? Yes, undoubtedly: but I recall that the printouts were on a strange-looking strip of heat-sensitive metallic paper, about as wide as a toilet roll. Even if I’d kept them, they would have faded many years ago.

Perhaps if I’d got an Apple and a disk drive at the time, I’d have had a better chance of recovering everything. But hindsight, the antithesis of memory, comes too late – and memories, however they are saved, go too soon.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

(Simon & Garfunkel, 1967)


No Smoke and All Mirrors

How to build a miniature Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) model.

TabletopCST model

Talking to people about renewable energy, I’ve found that most people haven’t heard of Concentrated Solar Thermal power plants like the Gemasolar one in Spain – so models and photos are really useful in explaining the concept.

Table-top models (like this one) that have been made are proving to be real attractions. But they’re big and heavy. Wonderful for larger venues, but I wondered if something smaller would work too. Something I could carry under my arm.

If you’re here looking for an explanation of how CST works, you might find this link useful. Otherwise,  read on . . . .


What I bought . . .

what I boughtI found packs of 20 mirrors, one inch square, for $2.00 in a craft shop. Previously I’d been planning a slightly larger model using clamshell make-up mirrors, but I couldn’t resist the bargain here, and so the ultra-miniature CST model was conceived.

To mount the mirrors at an angle, onto a baseboard, I bought a pack of ¾” paper fasteners, also for $2.00, and a tube of Tarzan’s grip.

The whole thing was going to be not much bigger than a sheet of A4 paper!


Gluing the fasteners to the mirrors

mirrors glued onto clipsI bent each paper fastener to about 30 degrees before gluing it to the back of a mirror. Tweezers came in handy to push the brass fastener down to the mirror and make sure it was as square-on as possible.



The baseboard

The baseboardThe baseboard was just a 30cm square of particle board I had. It needs to be something that will stay flat and not warp in the hot sun.

For my model I decided to have the tower in one corner, about 7cm from the edges.

I had found a fairly long bolt in my box of stuff, with a matching nut. I glued the nut onto the baseboard. That way I’d be able to screw and unscrew the tower to pack the model away for transport.

I drew a series of arcs centred on the tower, at 25mm intervals, and radiuses at 22½ degree intervals. This was going to give me enough room to fiddle with each mirror as I glued it on the board. Each row of mirrors also had to be far enough back from the ones in front to get a clear straight line throw to the tower top.


Placing the mirrors – first step

I glued the front row in place – 9 mirrors, all at a 75mm radius from the tower. At this stage I hadn’t built the tower, but in any event, I needed a larger screen to focus the reflected light.

I folded a sheet of white card and sellotaped it to the baseboard, with cross-hairs pencilled in about 18cm from the baseboard.

The important thing was to get each mirror aligned correctly in the L-R plane before the glue set.

Vertical adjustment would be easier later, by slightly bending the brass fastener. It helped to get each one right before gluing the next one into place.

( I actually did one row at a time – so this picture was taken at a later stage)

As I got more and more mirrors fixed, it got harder to see which reflects spot was the one I was trying to adjust. Placing a card to mask off the ones already fixed helped, so that only the newest mirrors actually produced a reflection, but then there was a danger of knocking them out of alignment before the glue set.

(I was concentrating on this bit so hard I forgot to take a photo of how to use a card to mask off unwanted mirrors. Here’s the second row in place, but not quite lined up yet.

Fast work needed, before the glue set too much.After the second row of mirrors, I found I needed sunglasses to do the job.


Let the glue dry

let the glue dryIt was important to let the glue dry before trying to adjust the mirrors vertically.







The tower – “your message here”

Now the tower. I was going to make a long and narrow box from white card (postcard weight): about 20cm high, and each side was 18mm. It would have five sides so that sides one and five would overlap for gluing. The box would fit over the bolt mentioned earlier.
To decorate the box, I drew up a pattern on the computer using a graphics program. Paintshop Pro is my favourite, but you could also do it with Word, making a table with five columns 18mm wide, and putting centred text (about 48-point Arial) into each column, and shading the background.



Assembling the tower

I discovered that a matching length of garden hose would exactly fit over the head of the bolt, and fit snugly into the card box. That made it easy to assemble the whole thing.



Aligning the mirrors – stage 2

With just the narrow tower, you can’t see the spots that are out of line – with a wide card you can. So I kept the wider card in place for the time being, to make sure all the mirrors were aligned.

In theory all the mirrors were aligned L-R, so the reflections should have fallen on the vertical centre line. In practice, a few had drifted a little as the glue set. The job was to tease each reflection into alignment – vertically by bending the brass fastener, with a slight horizontal twist if needed. I found the best I could do was to line them up to an area about twice the size of the mirrors (about 25mm square). After getting two lines of mirror settled I made up a third row and glued them in place in the same way.

You need to do this vertical alignment at the time of day you want the model to work best. Once set, the mirrors can’t be adjusted any more, and as the sun changes its elevation, the reflections will move.

I chose 1pm (solar midday in daylight saving). As the sun goes down, the reflections rise higher, and don’t converge so well. You can chase them a little by tilting the baseboard.


Other structures

The tower in actionI fiddled about with some scraps of things I had around the place, to represent holding tanks, pipes etc. I might add a few more blocks for pumps, turbines etc – though of course they won’t be functional in any way.

Here’s the finished result, in the midday sun.

I might add some more tanks and pipes and other structures if I get around to it.




The working model

No smoke and all mirrors

Last thing needed was a box to carry the thing in. I had planned to use a pizza box, but in the end I made one out of a cut-down wine carton which was exactly the right size. I put a little partition near one edge so the tower could be unscrewed and prevented from rolling about and banging the delicately adjusted mirrors.

The project needed a name. Since it’s all about replacing coal-fired power stations with solar ones, I called it  . . .



A Portrait of The Artist as an undone man


Critics and reviewers have spotted umpteen references to silent films, and films about silent cinema and the coming of sound, in Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist.They certainly provide many ways to interpret the film, although it has plenty to say for itself too.

Curiously, the most striking tribute has gone almost unacknowledged – at least in any review that I’ve read. Uggie, the faithful Jack Russell terrier, who does tricks on stage and on the dinner table, and eventually rescues his master George Valentin from certain death, may be descended directly from Asta (from Bringing up Baby) and Lassie, but what shouts out loud (in this not-so-silent film) is the striking reference to Nipper, the dog in the HMV logo (His Master’s Voice, for those who’ve forgotten).

The story, on the surface, is familiar. Silent movie star George Valentin, vain and successful, fails to make the transition to the sound era, and is replaced at the studios by Pepe Miller, who got her first break as a dancer in Valentin’s last film. As she rises, he falls, losing his fortune, his mansion and his wife in the Wall Street crash. All he has left, ironically, is Uggie the dog. Naturally he turns to drink, but Pepe finally finds a way to overcome his apparent obstinacy, and there is a happy ending.

At the beginning, it’s as though George Valentin isn’t just a silent film actor, he is a totally silent man in a silent world. After he is brought in to see a sound test at the studio, he realises the awful truth, in a clever gag scene where he is surrounded by a world of sound. The awful truth is not just that he won’t talk (as he insists, in character, in the spy thriller that opens the film), but that he can’t talk.

So, while his vanity and his obstinacy – and, if the film’s title is to be accounted for, his artistic purity, play a big part in his downfall, that’s not all. The studio boss (John Goodman) sums it up: Valentin is a silent movie star – the public don’t want to hear him talk.”

Here’s the wider proposition:  it’s not about whether you can change, and it’s not about whether you want to change, it’s about whether the public want you to change. Our culture is essentially a conservative one – in fact society generally protects itself by making sure that things change as little as possible. Once you are identified as something, or someone, of a particular type, that’s what you are fated to remain.

It is so interesting that this film should have been made now, in the year that cinema itself is finally dealing with the change that some say is the greatest since the dawn of the talkies – the switch to digital. Perhaps what has happened to Kodak – the once great giant of photography and cinema – is the same as what happened to George Valentin. I suspect some in Kodak – like Valentin – saw the digital business as no more than a passing threat to “real” photographic technology: that is, their entrenched business. They didn’t want to change. But that’s not the important point. What matters is that Kodak’s public saw then as a photochemical company: they no more wanted to go to Kodak for digital cameras than their fictional grandparents wanted to hear George Valentin talk, They wanted to get their digital cameras from a digital company.

There’s a personal angle too. Despite having moved away from film technology nearly ten years ago (shortly after the newer edition of my film technology book came out), and having spent the previous ten mainly concentrating in the film – video – digital interface, I still find many in the industry who almost apologize to me that they are shooting their latest project digitally. Please listen everyone: It’s All Right.  My world has moved on from a developing machine.

Of course I’m not writing off photochemical film any more than I’d write off silent film. Both have great strengths, but the new techniques have strengths too. The question is, whether it is at all possible for someone – a company or an individual – to change what the public expects them to do. And if not, can they, successfully, switch from being the star player to a minor role as cult specialist or character actor.