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Posted by Jimmy Maher

Ian Hetherington made for a strange choice as the guy to clean up Imagine Software’s confused finances. Brought in very late in the day to serve as the company’s financial director, he had no background in accounting whatsoever. Ironically, Bruce Everiss, who was serving as Imagine’s marketer and operations manager, had gone through an accounting program — yet he was, according at least to his own telling, always kept well away from that side of the business.

Hetherington, for his part, had worked at British Oxygen as a mainframe programmer before trying and failing a few times to get his own computer companies off the ground. The most recent and prominent of such efforts had been DAMS Business Computers, a partnership with DAMS International, a manufacturer of office furniture. The venture produced a number of hardware add-ons for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 that added memory and features to the machines, but it never took off, and was wound up late in 1983 after lasting barely a year. It was at this point that Hetherington moved on to Imagine.

The trio who had run Imagine to this point were, with the possible partial exception of Everiss, a little in awe of Hetherington. Though he was a Liverpudlian like them, he came from a different social strata; he was a polished, charismatic fellow whose public-school education helped him to talk a very good game indeed. Despite his checkered entrepreneurial career to date, he knew lots of people in the local business community, and knew in the broad sense how business worked — the very connections and competencies his new colleagues so conspicuously lacked. Indeed, it was likely his business connections, and the potential sources of desperately needed financing they could represent, that convinced the others in their naifish, literal-minded way to name him “financial director.” By this point, they were ready to clutch at any straw that might offer an exit from the mess they had created for themselves.

Of course, any hopes along those lines were doomed to be forlorn. No businessperson with an ounce of sense would invest in a company in Imagine’s state, no matter how silver a tongue Hetherington might possess. As we saw in my previous article, each of the principals dealt with the situation in his own way as the death spiral continued; the one consistency in their responses is a heaping helping of denial. Bruce Everiss tried to work his way out of the crisis, believing that if he stayed the course, showed up every day, and kept trying to get the megagames completed it must all work out in the end. (Such optimism may have had its roots in his lack of access to Imagine’s real finances.) All of the others simply checked out, spending less and less time at the office in proportion to Everiss’s increasingly long work week. Mark Butler, perhaps the most likable but certainly the most benighted of the group, adopted a “what I don’t see can’t hurt me” posture, spending his days out and about behind the handlebars of his racing motorcycle or behind the wheel of his BMW. Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson also disappeared — but they, it would only slowly materialize, were busying themselves with something far more devious.

They made for an unlikely team. Initially, Hetherington, the smooth, cultivated businessman, hadn’t taken at all to Lawson, the plain-spoken Scouser. Hetherington may even have been moved once or twice to deploy the dreaded middle-class epithets of “common” and “peasant” to describe his working-class colleague. Over time, though, they bonded in a growing conviction that the ship of Imagine was going down, and that they didn’t want to go down with it. They would happily cede to Everiss the captain’s role; let him remain on the bridge until the bitter end.

Hetherington, being the more worldly of the pair, evidently came to the conclusion that the Imagine story could only end one way somewhat earlier than Lawson. When Paul Anderson of the BBC first came out to discuss making his television documentary about the company, probably in March or very early April of 1984, it was actually Lawson who carried the day for him, convincing his skeptical colleagues that the publicity was simply too great a chance to pass up. When cameras started to role a few weeks later, however, both he and Hetherington wanted as little as possible to do with them. We can theorize, then, that reality hit home for Lawson at some point during those intervening weeks.

The plan Hetherington and Lawson were soon hatching was a bizarre combination of guile and naivete. They would form a new company, which they would name Finchspeed. They would quietly go about among the current Imagine staff, offering jobs to those they deemed both personally loyal to them and necessary to finish up the megagames, a total of about twenty people. This group would most definitely not include Everiss, whom both men by now openly loathed; the passive Mark Butler, on the other hand, was a question mark. Once they had the personnel lined up, they would transfer all rights and all ongoing work on the megagames to Finchspeed, leaving Imagine to crash and burn while they enjoyed that most precious thing in life or business: a second chance. So, that covers the guile. Where the naivete comes in, of course, is that neither life nor business usually makes it quite that easy to wash one’s hands of one’s past choices.

The pair did finally decide to include Butler in the conspiracy. The hard fact was that they needed his vote to go forward with the plan; Lawson owned just 45 percent of Imagine, with another 45 percent belonging to Butler and the other 10 percent to the deeply embittered Stephen Blower of the former Studio Sing, who could be expected to vote against anything proposed by the other two shareholders as a matter of principle. Although Butler was fond of Everiss, Hetherington and Lawson believed — rightly, as it transpired — that he would be a fairly easy mark if given the choice between having a second chance as a software mogul or going back to selling computers in some shop somewhere. With the pliable Butler on board, they now had an overwhelming voting block for anything they might choose to do.

Before they did anything publicly, though, there was other secret business to take care of. Hetherington claimed he had investment contacts in the United States that would let Finchspeed raise £1.5 million to finish up the megagames and get them published. Therefore, after secretly forming Finchspeed and recruiting Butler and the other loyalists, Hetherington and Lawson flew across the Atlantic to try to secure the money. Thus they weren’t in the country for most of that fateful June of 1984, as the writs flew thick and fast and creditors pounded at Imagine’s door. Rumor back in Britain had it that they had fled the country in a panic, perhaps permanently; the real truth, as we’ve now seen, was far more devious.

One of those in the know inside Imagine finally leaked said real truth on June 29 — truly a bombshell of epic proportions for Bruce Everiss and everyone else remaining at the old company who hadn’t been invited to join the new one. An enraged Everiss walked out at midday, threatening all sorts of public consequences. Hoping to put a lid on the situation before it blew up in the press, Hetherington and Lawson rushed home from the United States the very next day. They hadn’t, needless to say, secured the financing Hetherington had so confidently predicted they would. He would later blame Everiss and the anonymous leaker of the bombshell for this failure, saying they had been about to seal a deal when forced to cut their trip short — truly an audacious attempt to play the aggrieved party, given the unconscionable dereliction of executive duties the pair’s leaving the country just as their company was collapsing represented.

Despite the lack of financing to see through their plans, on Sunday, July 1, hours after landing back in Britain, Hetherington and Lawson called an emergency meeting of the three-person Imagine board. Here they officially transferred the copyright on the megagames from Imagine to Finchspeed, who would also be allowed to use Imagine’s offices for free, for however long they still existed. In return, Finchspeed would need to pay Imagine £40,000 for the equipment they would use to develop the megagames, and would have to pay 50 percent of net profits from the games to Imagine after their release, up to a total of £625,000. These last stipulations may sound generous, but it should be remembered that Imagine was already a company well past the point of no return; as Hetherington and Lawson were in a position to know better than anyone, it was exceedingly unlikely that Imagine would still be around when any of the payments came due. Thus these stipulations were more about creating a veneer of plausible deniability than they were a good-faith business negotiation. After the entity that was Imagine no longer existed, Finchspeed could expect to walk away free and clear with the megagames.

Meanwhile Everiss was venting to anyone who would listen in the press, spawning an ongoing soap opera which the public could follow via magazines like Popular Computing Weekly and Home Computing Weekly. “They have set up Finchspeed in order to own Imagine’s megagames and assets for themselves,” Everiss said. “Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson [were] in the States to raise funds for Finchspeed. Imagine will not see this money.” Everiss claimed that, incredibly, even the pair’s supposed partner Mark Butler hadn’t known they were going to the United States. “The only person they told,” he said, “was Andrew Sinclair [no relation to Clive Sinclair or the computer company of the same name], who basically is just David’s gopher, and Andrew had been spying on Mark and myself and reporting on a daily basis to them in San Francisco.” To add more fuel to the fire, Everiss noted that Hetherington and Lawson had taken their significant others with them to the United States, and claimed they had all traveled in high style, at a final cost of some £10,000 that was charged not to Finchspeed but to Imagine — presumably in the expectation that the whole trip could be written off once the latter went bankrupt.

Hetherington and Lawson’s defense was, to say the least, unconvincing. Speaking from the United States on June 29, Hetherington had claimed that “Dave Lawson and myself have been in Silicon Valley to try to raise money for Imagine for the last two weeks. We set up Finchspeed as an off-the-shelf company to get money into Imagine. There is no point in discussing Finchspeed since it is dead and burned. It’s forgotten.” But if it was “dead and burned,” why were they suddenly transferring Imagine assets to Finchspeed two days later? And what on earth did he mean by an “off-the-shelf company” anyway? It was the kind of phrase that sounded like some sort of business-insider language, but it really didn’t mean anything at all. Hetherington said that “it is important that the megagames go out with Imagine’s name on them, and I will do anything to ensure that they do.” Did that “anything” for some reason need to include transferring their copyrights to another company? At least one of his comments, at any rate, rang true for anyone who was aware of the petty infighting that had been going on for the past several months inside Imagine: “Staff will have to be sacked who are now loyal to Bruce Everiss.”

In the end, this attempt to pull a fast one, like just about everything anyone at Imagine ever touched, turned into an embarrassing failure. When hatching the scheme, Hetherington and Lawson had neglected one stipulation of the law: that any contract entered into by a company that already had a “winding-up” petition filed against it — which Imagine had had since April — could be set aside by the liquidator after said company is declared bankrupt. The law, in other words, had already foreseen the possibility of bright young sparks attempting exactly what Hetherington and Lawson had been trying to do, and had made provisions to prevent it.

It was announced in August that the arrangement between Imagine and Finchspeed dating from July 1 was null and void on these grounds. The megagames, like all of Imagine’s other assets, passed to the liquidator for disposition in whatever manner would most benefit Imagine’s creditors. Dave Lawson, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, tried to claim this had been understood all along: “There was never any doubt that the megagames were with Imagine’s receivers because the contract between the two companies was not honored.” And again, it wasn’t entirely clear what some of these words were supposed to mean. In what way was the contract “not honored?”

But still the pair refused to give up on their dogged pursuit of the megagames. Whatever else one can say about their business ethics or lack thereof, it’s clear they were deeply, genuinely passionate about the concept, and so attached to it that they were willing to expend enormous effort trying to finish what they had started at Imagine.

In light of such passion, the question of what the megagame concept actually was arises yet again. As I noted last time it reared its head, that was always very difficult to say. Perhaps the best description of the megagame dream was ironically provided by Hetherington and Lawson’s arch-enemy Bruce Everiss, many months after the Imagine collapse. He made them sound much like the “interactive movies” that would soon become the signature products of the American publisher Cinemaware, describing them as a “film which you, the player, take part in”:

You become one of the cast of characters that each have separate and identifiable personalities. What happens when you meet them depends on their personalities and also on what you do, as in real life. Characters then remember how they have been treated by the player and act accordingly on subsequent meetings.

There are no lives or score. It is a matter of trying to achieve what you, the player, wants. There is no status line to ruin the realism. The whole screen is action.

The Commercial Breaks episode dealing with Imagine included a brief, tantalizing glimpse of Bandersnatch, the first of the megagames, in action, and it did indeed seem to conform to this rough description.

Hetherington and Lawson’s hopes of reviving the megagames were given new life when word went through the industry that Sinclair Research was interested in funding and publishing software for their new QL computer. The QL had made its debut at the beginning of 1984, the first machine available to British users that was built around the powerful new 16-bit Motorola 68000 processor instead of the old 8-bit 6502 or Z80. Unfortunately, it was able to beat the competition to the market only through being released months before it ought to have been, with both hardware and operating system still in a shabby, untested state. Sinclair had been struggling ever since to rehabilitate the machine’s image. One way to reverse the QL’s fortunes, they decided, would be to make it play games that would never be possible on a Spectrum. By way of getting that ball rolling, they were ready to fund a number of such projects and then publish the results themselves.1

There was a certain synergy here which it didn’t take Hetherington and Lawson long to spot. The megagames had needed to add new hardware to the Spectrum because they would have been too big and ambitious to contemplate otherwise. That, anyway, had been the old Imagine company line. Now, much the same argument could be used to justify porting them to the QL, without all the complications of the hardware add-on they had planned for the Spectrum version; the QL had 128 K of memory, more than the Spectrum’s 48 K of internal memory and the 64 K of the proposed hardware add-on combined. The advertising practically wrote itself: the megagames are made possible only by the 16-bit power of the QL!

The tireless Ian Hethrington worked out an arrangement and got Sinclair to agree to it. First, Sinclair bought the rights to the megagames at the liquidation auction; these cost them the princely sum of £700, plus a stipulation that Imagine’s creditors be paid a portion of any income they might eventually generate. Then, Hetherington and Lawson and a handful of their loyalists from Imagine set up yet another company, for the older Finchspeed was too beset with questions, too mired in the scandal of the Imagine collapse to continue with — and then there was also the problem of the now-superfluous Mark Butler, who had been given a third of Finchspeed; he would be cut out of the new company, thus ending his brief but colorful career in games.

Hetherington and Lawson’s latest company was named Fireiron. The day it was formed, Sinclair signed a contract with its owners, paying them to port the megagames-in-progress to the QL and then to finish them off on the new platform.

So, Hetherington and Lawson were seemingly back in business, picking up where Imagine had left off. This included, unfortunately, the same tendency toward wildly overambitious pronouncements. “Originally at Imagine we were working on seven megagame titles,” said Lawson. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue with them all.” In reality, only two megagames had progressed far enough to have titles, and only one, Bandersnatch, had had significant programming done. Given these realities, it was perhaps dangerous to trust too much in Lawson’s assertion that the old Speccy version of Bandersnatch was “90 per cent complete, ” and could be ported to the QL and completed there in very short order. Still, the new arrangement didn’t seem a bad one, all told. There was even something in it for Imagine’s long-suffering creditors, should the megagames prove successful.

Of course, all of Hetherington and Lawson’s efforts were still dogged by the sorry collapse of Imagine, and the less than standup way they’d responded to it. Judging a good offense to be the best defense, Hetherington took to calling up the most aggressive journalists to throw a mixture of bluster and threats of libel suits back in their faces. He was, he said, “sick to death of people insinuating that anything untoward happened at Imagine.” Sometimes his efforts could lead to uncomfortable juxtapositions, as when he called Crash magazine to push back against a lengthy article on the Imagine collapse they were planning to run, only to be connected with the accounting department, who were more interested in finding out whether the magazine stood any chance of ever being paid for the £5825 advertising bill that the bankrupt Imagine still had outstanding.

For understandable reasons, Hetherington and Lawson wanted more than anything to put the whole Imagine debacle behind them and focus on the future. Ian Hetherington in January of 1985:

My attitude has always been that it’s all over now, and what we’ll do is quickly get our lives back together again. I don’t want people bringing back something that happened six or seven months ago. What we’re doing now, Dave and I, is improving on megagames to produce something quite startling. We want to bow out at the top.

The many creditors who had had faith in Imagine, only to be bilked out of many thousands of pounds — not to mention the many dozens of employees who had lost their jobs — weren’t quite so willing to declare the events of just six months previous to be ancient history. “The lying and deception” Hetherington and Lawson had engaged in, Bruce Everiss said, “were almost boundless.” Assuming he was correct, it certainly did seem like those actions ought to have consequences. Still, there was only so much outrage to be generated; the scandal of Imagine did gradually fade into the past, giving at last to Hetherington and Lawson the fresh start they looked for.

Yet their new life as Fireiron showed every initial sign of following the same pattern as their old one with Imagine. Relations with Sinclair steadily worsened in 1985, with the latter claiming Fireiron was spending far too much of their money in the course of missing deadline after deadline. The original plan had been to release Bandersnatch in the first quarter of 1985, a goal that would most definitely not be met. Meanwhile the Sinclair QL’s position in the marketplace was going from bad to worse, such that it seemed highly unlikely that Bandersnatch or anything else could save the machine. Sinclair unceremoniously dropped Fireiron in the spring of 1985.

But still Hetherington and Lawson refused to give up on their megagames. They hatched yet another scheme, this time to port Bandersnatch to the new Atari ST computer, a machine based on the same 68000 processor as the Sinclair QL — thus making the task of porting the work-in-progress QL version to it dramatically easier — but one which looked to have a much brighter future. The only problem was that Sinclair still owned the copyrights to the megagames. To get around that issue, Fireiron simply renamed Bandersnatch to Brataccas and dropped the old “megagame” buzzword entirely. (Good riddance, said an exhausted industry!) This move introduced all sorts of new legal jeopardy for the Fireiron folks, but they were fortunate in that Sinclair, who would soon sell off their entire extant computer business to Amstrad, never seemed to pay enough attention to realize what Fireiron had done. Ditto the Imagine liquidators and the creditors, who would no longer be receiving their cut of any royalties the rechristened megagame might generate.

In lieu of Sinclair, Hetherington was able to scare up some alternate financing, this time from one Richard Talbot Smith, a big wheel in the world of Liverpool business, owner of the only steel foundry and the only Mercedes dealership in the city among other ventures. Also coming aboard at this time, perhaps at Smith’s insistence, was an experienced businessman named Jonathan Ellis, who could hopefully serve as the steady hand at the wheel in terms of finances and day-to-day operations that Imagine had never had. The company got yet another new name in the process of making these changes, this one destined to stick. When the rejiggered Fireiron brought a prototype of the Atari ST Brataccas to the Personal Computer World Show in September of 1985, they did so as Psygnosis. The name, according to Hetherington, “just happened.” Beyond the obvious echoes of Psyclapse, the planned second megagame from the old Imagine days, the only clear logic behind the made-up word was an intimation of “knowledge of the mind” in badly garbled Latin.

Roger Dean’s iconic Psygnosis owl logo, one of the most immediately recognizable in the games industry.

Having earlier made a deal as Imagine with the well-known pop artist Roger Dean, only to see it collapse along with the rest of the company, the new Psygnosis now reached out to him again for help in crafting their visual identity. “They kept throwing names at me, and wanted something that said ‘knowledge,’ ‘the future,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘fun,'” Dean remembers. What he came up with in response was one of the more enduring logos in videogame history: a slightly robotic-looking owl, rendered in his trademark airbrushed style. It seemed, to him anyway, a perfect representation of “knowledge,” “the future,” and “wisdom”; as for fun, it was after all to be attached to games, so presumably that would be self-evident.

In a way, it was starting to feel like old times again, with the old hype machine once again kicking in. Brataccas was given pride of place inside Atari’s own booth at the Personal Computer World Show, running on four screens in order to be sure it wasn’t missed. Even Eugene Evans was there, hired by Psygnosis to serve as a temporary spokesman, doing the charming PR thing he had always been so good at as smoothly as ever. Rumor had it that even Bruce Everiss had been seen skulking about the Atari booth with a sour expression on his face.

That said, life at Psygnosis wasn’t quite all it had been at Imagine. The company’s new offices, located in a disused warehouse behind Roger Talbot Smith’s steel foundry in the midst of Liverpool’s downtrodden dock district, were a far cry from the old digs. One former employee describes the setting as “a dirty part of town,” remembering how he’d return to his car every evening at quitting time to find it covered in the “crap” spewed by the foundry’s smokestacks. Speaking of cars: the Ferraris, BMWs, and Porsches that had been the company cars at Imagine had been replaced by a fleet of Vauxhall Cavaliers. But Hetherington and Lawson’s megagame dream was still alive, even if it could no longer be described using that word. Against all the odds, it looked like they might just manage to finish Bandersnatch — woops, Brataccas.

Brataccas for the Atari ST shipped in the first week of 1986 in an elaborate oversized box painted by Roger Dean. Hetherington and Lawson had kept the faith through two years of hype and rumor and scandal and conspiracy, through four separate company names, had violated ethical norm after ethical norm in order to reach this fruition of the megagame dream. With a buildup like that, the end result was perhaps doomed to smack at least a little of anticlimax.

What was surprising, however, was just how thorough the anticlimax was. There was no kind way to put it: Brataccas was a hot mess. The unabashedly high-concept game attempted, as its billing had always suggested it would, to be a genuinely new, more dynamic and emergent approach to an adventure game, including context-sensitive conversations and action-oriented combat. Sadly, though, it was just about unplayable. The control scheme was based on mouse gestures; in this it was, like so much about the legacy of Imagine, ahead of its time in conception but atrocious in execution, making things the game seemed to expect you to do with relative ease all but impossible. This alleged animated adventure turned into a slideshow every time other characters were on the screen — if it ran like this on the 68000-based Atari ST, one shuddered to think how it would have performed on the 8-bit Speccy! — and the design of the puzzles and other adventurey bits were even worse than one might have expected from a development team that had never made an adventure game before and had never thought deeply about how to make a playable one. It was impossible to know how to even begin the task of solving the quest, impossible to know what the game really expected of you. And, despite or because of all the time spent in development on all those different platforms, it was horrendously buggy to boot. Even the graphics, in marked contrast to the Psygnosis games that would follow it, weren’t much to write home about.

A cynical observer of Imagine’s history would have said before the release of Brataccas that it was doomed to be a disaster, that no one at the company had ever demonstrated the ability to pull off a concept like this one — and, it was now clear, said cynical observer would have been exactly right. Computer and Video Games magazine wrote that Brataccas “still bore all the scars of its unenviable pedigree. Brataccas is definitely a game whose origins are more interesting than the end product.” Oh, well… Roger Dean’s box sure looked nice.

“A space fugitive walks into a bar….” The unique thing about Brataccas in contrast to contemporary adventure games is its dynamic nature, its focus on simulation. In other words, the young lady whom our hero appears to be chatting up actually will go to Calypso foyer. It’s only a shame that it’s all executed so poorly.

Brataccas’s one saving grace was timing. It hit the market at a time when few games were yet available for the Atari ST, and most of those that were were ports of older 8-bit titles. Despite its own 8-bit origins, Brataccas was, whatever else one said about it, something unique, something you couldn’t play on a Spectrum, a Commodore 64, or a BBC Micro. This factor drove what modest sales the game was able to rack up on the Atari ST, as it also did sales of the Commodore Amiga version which appeared shortly thereafter. The same factor helped Psygnosis set up distribution to North America through a deal with the publisher Mindscape — something Imagine, notwithstanding their stated goal of becoming the preeminent name in computer games “throughout the world,” had never managed.

Still, the “success” of Brataccas, dwarfed as was the game itself by all the hype that had surrounded it for so long now, based more on historical happenstance than the game’s intrinsic qualities, didn’t portend a stable, prosperous, or that matter lengthy future for the company that had made it. Our aforementioned cynical observer doubtless wouldn’t have hesitated to note this reality as well. In this case, though, the observer would be unexpectedly proved wrong. Psygnosis was about to make a pivot from such high-concept fare as Brataccas to something else entirely. And in doing so, Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson, along with their new partner Jonathan Ellis, would evince a rare and precious quality, one that few would have dreamed that they had in them based on their record to date: they would demonstrate an ability to change.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Popular Computing Weekly of April 7 1983, July 5 1984, August 16 1984, September 27 1984, October 11 1984, and September 19 1985; Commodore User of June 1983; Crash of January 1985 and February 1985; Home Computing Weekly of July 17 1984; Your Computer of January 1985 and October 1985; Sinclair User of October 1984; Personal Computer Games of September 1984; ZX Computing of February/March 1985; Crash of January 1985, February 1985, and October 1985; Computer and Video Games of August 1986; The One of May 1991; Retro Gamer 50; the online articles “From Lemmings to Wipeout: How Ian Hetherington Incubated Gaming Success” from Polygon, “Dams Double at Nemo” from Channel Info, and “The Psygnosis Story: John White, Director of Software” from Edge Online.)


Comments
  1. One other company to benefit from their largess would be the text-adventure maker Magnetic Scrolls; Sinclair would wind up funding much of the development of their in-house adventure system, and would publish The Pawn, the first game made using it, first for the QL. 

Cheap 52mm filters

Sep. 22nd, 2017 10:26 am
ffutures: (Default)
[personal profile] ffutures
Someone on eBay UK is selling sets of 52mm UV filter, polarizer, and lens cap - for 99p! I always need 52mm skylights/UVs and caps for the lenses I sell so I just bought a few which arrived today, and they appear to be exactly as described. Probably not up to the highest quality standards, but I'll be honest, I can't tell the difference at all, and they'll certainly keep the dust out. Annoyingly they don't have any other size at anything like this price.

http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/253149121163

Probably not worth it outside the UK

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

Sep. 22nd, 2017 12:30 am
[syndicated profile] floggingbabel_feed

Posted by Michael Swanwick


.




Here's a story with the names rubbed off, lest I unintentionally give offense. Back in the Eighties, when I was what Gardner Dozois would persist in calling "a hot new writer," for a full decade, a small press published s series of small, cheap SF paperbacks, each containing half a dozen or so stories by a writer whom I considered one of the best of my generation. I eagerly bought them all... and was invariably disappointed. Because they'd all saved their best work for an eventual hardcover collection.

Years later, I was talking to Jim Turner, the extremely valuable editor of Arkham House and later Golden Gryphon Press, about these collections, and he said, "There was no reason not to use their best. I wasn't in direct competition with those books."

I remembered this later, when Chris Logan Edwards suggested I put together a slim collection of stories for his Tigereyes Press. So I went through my uncollected works and chose the very best and because they all were written in recent years, they had an underlying unity that worked well. Chris created a beautiful book with a wonderful cover by artist Lee Moyer

A Geography of Unknown Lands placed on the ballot for the World Fantasy Award for best collection.

The moral here, I think, is obvious.


And the reason for the picture above is...

So off I went, out into the countryside, on what I would have called a "mental health day," back when I pulled down a salary.

The picture above is of a cormorant drying its wings in the sun. Cormorants work hard. Usually, I do too. But not every day.


Above: Photograph by M. C. Porter. Marianne is a much better photographer than I'll ever be.
[syndicated profile] 512pixels_feed

Posted by Stephen Hackett

Apple has published a new support page explaining the ins and outs of these updated standards in the iTunes Store:

You can buy or rent movies from the iTunes Store in high-definition (HD) or 4K resolution formats. These videos might also feature high dynamic range (HDR) or Dolby Vision.

When you buy or rent a movie from the iTunes Store, it automatically plays in the highest-quality format available for the device on which you’re watching it.

That works for me. I have a 1080 TV, so why use bandwidth I don’t need to? This, however, does bug me:

You can download a local copy of an HD movie, and you might be able to download HDR and Dolby Vision versions, but you can’t download a 4K version.

I assume this is some sort of licensing thing, but I don’t like it. If I pay for something, I want it taking up space on my home media server. If I buy a new TV, I could stream previously-purchased movies in 4K, but I can’t play them offline unless I download the 1080 versions.

Word of the Day: Dotard

Sep. 22nd, 2017 01:31 am
[syndicated profile] daringfireball_feed

Posted by John Gruber

Choe Sang-Hun, reporting for The New York Times from Seoul:

Responding directly for the first time to President Trump’s threat at the United Nations to destroy nuclear-armed North Korea, its leader called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” on Friday and vowed the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

I’d never heard it before, but dotard is a real word: “an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.”

[syndicated profile] daringfireball_feed

Posted by John Gruber

Maciej Ceglowski, demolishing a “news” story that spread around the world claiming that Amazon’s suggestions were helping people make bombs, when in fact they were helping people conduct high school chemistry experiments: 

The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

There is no real penalty for making mistakes, but there is enormous pressure to frame stories in whatever way maximizes page views. Once those stories get picked up by rival news outlets, they become ineradicable. The sheer weight of copycat coverage creates the impression of legitimacy. As the old adage has it, a lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.

How to Pose a Photo

Sep. 22nd, 2017 01:00 am
[syndicated profile] basicinstructions_feed

Posted by Scott Meyer

basic170922.gif

This comic was inspired by the official portrait of Steve Jobs, in which he holds his hand in a way no human ever does unless they’re getting their official portrait taken.

steve_jobs.jpg

I think it’s meant to look like he’s thinking deep thoughts, but to me it looks more like he’s deriving pleasure from tugging his own beard hairs. Or, it kind of looks like he’s smelling his own fist, and he recognizes the smell.

This is why I’ve always related more with Bill Gates. In every Picture of Bill Gates, especially the official pictures he posed for, he looks self-conscious and uncomfortable. I suspect he’s often self-conscious and uncomfortable in real life, so the pictures look more genuine. They look bad and awkward, but genuinely bad and awkward.

 

As always, thanks for using my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada).

[syndicated profile] daringfireball_feed

Posted by John Gruber

Speaking of the A11, I missed this feature for Mashable by Lance Ulanoff last week when it came out, but it’s interesting:

“We’re clearly on a path now where, with generations of our products, one of the core elements is the chips in them that, to us, they’re intrinsically part of the definition of the product,” said Apple Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller who, along with SVP of Hardware Technologies Johny Srouji, sat down with me 24 hours after the big unveil for an intense chat about silicon, the Apple way.

I had many questions about the A11 Bionic, Apple’s fifth-generation CPU that sits inside not only the iPhone X, which ships in November, but also the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus — mostly about just how many things this new system on a chip (SoC) could do. Srouji, who runs the silicon team, and Schiller were taking me deep, or at least as deep as Apple is comfortable going on its proprietary technology.

[syndicated profile] daringfireball_feed

Posted by John Gruber

Mark Spoonauer, writing for Tom’s Guide:

The “Bionic” part in the name of Apple’s A11 Bionic chip isn’t just marketing speak. It’s the most powerful processor ever put in a mobile phone. We’ve put this chip to the test in both synthetic benchmarks and some real-world speed trials, and it obliterates every Android phone we tested. […]

If you’re wondering how all this translates to real-world performance, we have more good news for iPhone 8 shoppers — and bad news for everyone else. To really put the A11 Bionic chip through its paces, we put the same 2-minute video, shot in 4K by a drone, on the iPhone 8, Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8+, and then added the same transitions and effects before exporting and saving the video.

The iPhone 8 finished this strenuous task in just 42 seconds, while the Note 8 took more than 3 minutes. The Galaxy S8+ took more than 4 minutes.

More than 4 times as fast in a legitimate real-world CPU-intensive task. Android is literally years behind.

Sep. 21st, 2017 06:09 pm
meganbmoore: (why trick icons are rare)
[personal profile] meganbmoore
 I watched the first season of The Good Place a few weeks back when Netflix added it and the season 2 premiere last night.  It's excellent, but it really is a show best watched knowing nothing but the general premise.  I actually did go in spoiled, due to tumblr fandom's need to gif one actor's perfect comedic timing in the season 1 finale, and it was interesting to see all the clues as I watched it, but I also wish I'd gone in unspoiled.

I'm not usually a fan of sitcoms (including this, I just barely need two hands to count the US sitcoms I've watched as an adult) and this one is rightly loved both by sitcom fans and people who don't usually watch sitcoms.  Season 1 is on Netflix and season 2 is on Hulu, and I think NBC's website has all episodes.
[syndicated profile] raptitude_feed

Posted by David Cain

Post image for Could I convince you to meditate with a single sentence?

I think maybe!

I am a fan of the information-age truism called Bettridge’s Law of Headlines, which states, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” For some of you it will hold true in this case, but not everyone.

Registration for Camp Calm’s fifth season opened earlier today. Another group of eager, fledgling meditators is forming, and naturally I’d be thrilled if you would consider joining it.

Over the past two years it’s become increasingly clear to me that I’ll be spending much of my life trying to get people to try meditation. When you are an enthusiastic advocate for something, it’s easy to be long-winded. There are so many great things to say, so many reasons to give.

So I thought about how to be short-winded instead. What would I say, for example, if I had to restrict my mindfulness evangelism to one sentence? 

I think that’s a worthwhile project for a writer. I’ll be working on this important sentence for a long time. Honing, polishing, tinkering and rebuilding. In a decade or so it will be absolutely riveting.

For the moment, this is what I’ve got:

If you meditate ten minutes a day, you will freak out a little less often.

That little bit of time learning to be mindful will result in fewer eruptions of work- or school-related panic, less brooding, milder levels of dread, fewer internal (and external) diatribes, and many more occasions when things feel even-keel and a-okay.

That is a pretty good deal. Ten minutes of an activity that’s harder than watching TV but easier than most people’s jobs, and you will almost certainly experience fewer bad moods and fewer bad days.

Assuming you spend seven or eight hours sleeping (or trying to), you have about 100 or so of these “ten-minuteses” per day to invest in a lifestyle. Work and other standing obligations will claim most of them, but aside from that we still have a number of ten-minuteses to invest in whatever activities we think makes our lives easier.

So this habit we’re considering constitutes less than 1% of a normal daily schedule, and boy does it pull more than its weight. Meditation is the army ant of the lifestyle habits world.

Why ten minutes a day? Well, I think it’s a long enough session that it produces considerable benefits, and short enough that it still seems quite doable, even for those of us who insist we have no time at all (even if, while at that very moment, we are reading a blog on the internet).

Once you reach the modest but important benchmark of a solid ten-minute practice, you are a daily meditator, and you can take it as far as you wish.

If you come to this little project with the modest expectation that you will invest ten good minutes a day, and in return, avert a bad mood or three every week (although I think you will see many more rewards than that), it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth it.

I will refrain from saying “And wait! There’s more!” even though there is.

I guess I snuck a lot of extra supporting sentences in there. But that proposition can suffice on its own—you can invest that small amount of time, and gain a skill that lowers reactivity, and spares you the fallout of the self-defeating behavior goes with it.

You can register for Camp Calm here. We’ve got a good crew so far, new faces and some old veterans, already making friends in the discussion forum. The price is the same as the last time, $69 USD*. [How does Camp Calm work?]

If you would like to learn to meditate, but not take the camp, just email me and I can point you to some excellent resources in your local library. The how-to information is out there, but it’s nice to have community support and a bit of hand-holding until you are doing it daily.

***

*VAT may be added for EU residents.

Photo by Bobby Burch. Thanks Bobby.

Game Review: Overlord

Sep. 22nd, 2017 12:07 am
green_knight: (Skyrim)
[personal profile] green_knight
[expanded from the review I posted on Steam]

Review and Discussion )


Bonus review-let: Forced.

Forced, Gamification of Games, Player vs. Designer )

So, yeah. I am learning something about gaming, game design, or myself from every game I play, and I am glad I seem to have broken through the mountain of shame (OMG, so much stuff I've never played, best never look at them) and guilt (OMG, so much wasted money). I no longer feel compelled to 'give every game a fair chance' just because I once spent money on it. (Frequently, in bundle deals, I did not even set out to buy all of the games.)

Overall, I spend less than £5/month on games and, overall, I enjoy gaming. I'm not going to get the same amount of fun out of every game, but if I can average a couple of hours of fun for every £5 I pay, that's actually not bad value for money.

★ Thoughts on Apple TV 4K

Sep. 21st, 2017 09:58 pm
[syndicated profile] daringfireball_feed

Posted by John Gruber

I’ve been testing the new Apple TV 4K for a few days, but I don’t own a 4K TV, so there’s no way I can pretend to write a full-on review when I can’t make use of the tentpole new feature. I do have a few thoughts, though:

  • Initial setup was amazingly simple. Plug it in, it boots up quickly, and it asks if you want to share setup information like your Wi-Fi network info from your iPhone. Hold your iPhone near the Apple TV and boom, Apple TV is on your network, and it knows some information like your iTunes Apple ID. This is true too for setting up a new iOS 11 device — you can get a headstart on setting up a new iPhone just by holding your old iPhone next to it. But this is especially helpful on Apple TV, where entering passwords and email addresses through the on-screen keyboard felt like a form of punishment. When you do need to type things, Siri dictation works like a charm — fast and accurate.

  • It is baffling to me that Apple didn’t redesign the remote control to make it obvious at a touch which way it’s oriented. The raised white ring around the Menu button is an improvement, but it’s truly the least Apple could have done. I really wish they’d either made it asymmetric (wedge-shaped, perhaps) or used texture to denote orientation along the back and sides. Nobody loves this remote. Most people I know outright dislike it. And Apple left it almost unchanged.

  • It seems to me that navigating around the Apple TV 4K interface is improved over the previous generation. Everything feels snappier, Siri seems to be faster and more accurate, and even navigation via the remote control feels more accurate. I’m not sure if that last one is thanks to improvements in the Apple TV 4K hardware itself, improvements to the remote control touchpad, improvements to tvOS 11, the reviewer’s placebo effect (I want navigation to be more precise), or some combination of the above. My guess is that it’s a change to tvOS to change the on-screen physics of navigation.

  • Apple TV 4K is tiny compared to a Mac Mini, but judging by Geekbench scores (Mac Mini; iPad Pro, which uses the A10X in the Apple TV1) it’s a slightly faster computer than even the maxed-out Mac Mini configuration. Apple TV 4K probably has better GPU performance too. In addition to all the performance problems stemming from the fact that the Mac Mini hasn’t been updated in three years, it’s also inarguable that it’s no longer even “mini”. You could arrange four Apple TV units in a 2 × 2 square and they’d take up the same volume as one Mac Mini.

  • I did get to see Apple TV 4K in action last week in California, in a product briefing with Apple. They had it connected to a gorgeous 70-inch display from LG. Apple’s remastered videos for the Aerial screensaver look amazing. There’s a daytime flyover in Dubai in which you can now see that one of the skyscrapers has a pool on the roof with two sharks in it. It’s on the left-hand side of the street. That’s some serious James Bond villain’s lair shit.

  • Upgrade advice: I often don’t give upgrade advice in reviews, because everyone’s situation is different. Instead, I try to write reviews that help you decide on your own whether it’s worth upgrading to this new thing from whatever you’re using now. But with Apple TV 4K, upgrade advice for people who already own the previous Apple TV is easy. If you have a 4K TV, you should upgrade (especially if you watch a lot of movies and TV shows from iTunes). If you don’t own a 4K TV, you shouldn’t.

In short, it’s the Apple TV you know and love (and/or hate), only faster, and with 4K support I can’t test.

Nilay Patel’s Review for The Verge

Apple is firmly at the high end of the market: the Apple TV 4K starts at $179, much more than competing 4K HDR-capable devices like the $89 Roku Premiere+ or the $69 Google Chromecast Ultra. I was really expecting — hoping! — this thing would blow me away.

But the new Apple TV doesn’t support Atmos. And it doesn’t support YouTube in 4K HDR. And it doesn’t have Disney or Marvel movies in 4K HDR. And it makes some 1080p content look less than great.

I’m going to explain why these limitations exist, but you’ll have to bear with me. I suspect most reviewers will focus on the interface, the TV app and the various content deals that populate it, and the bare fact that the Apple TV now supports 4K HDR playback. But I need to tell you about video format arcana, because Apple’s decisions around some very wonky specs directly influence what it’s like to use the new Apple TV 4K.

Put some tape on your glasses. This is going to be nerdy.

This is a great review, and I really enjoyed the focus on the technical aspects. In terms of user-interface, Apple TV is clearly the best, because Apple is the only company in the game that values the user experience so highly. (Matthew Panzarino: “Interface and OS still best in class. All other TV box interfaces are like sticking a fork in your eye and swizzling it around.”)

The omission of Atmos support seems baffling. As Patel points out, for the premium price Apple charges — at $179 for the 32 GB model, it’s double the price a Roku Premium Plus — you expect support for premium features like Atmos. According to Patel, though, Atmos support is coming in a future update.

It’ll be interesting to see how the lack of 4K YouTube support plays out. The issue is that YouTube encodes its 4K content using the VP9 codec. No Apple device supports this format. Apple has thrown its weight behind H.265.

With regular HD content, YouTube supports H.264. If YouTube dropped H.264 support for HD content, you couldn’t play HD YouTube videos on any Apple device. There’s no way YouTube is going to do that — the iOS market is too big and too valuable. And you don’t need 4K to play at native resolution on iPhones — HD is enough. And even on iPads, the displays are small enough that upscaled HD is still good. But on a 70-inch (or bigger) 4K display, 4K content matters.

Unlike the iPhone and iPad, Apple TV doesn’t have enough market share to force Google’s hand. I think Google can stick to its VP9 guns and it’ll be Apple that pays the price. YouTube’s enormous popularity is more likely to force Apple into supporting VP9 than the Apple TV’s middling popularity is to force YouTube into supporting H.265. Even worse for Apple, the whole point of Apple TV is that — like with all Apple products — its entire reason for existence is to provide a premium experience for discerning users. Apple TV users are more likely to notice and be annoyed by upscaled 1080p content on their 4K TV than users of generic set top boxes are.

Apple may well have good technical or legal reasons for not supporting VP9. Apple TV users don’t care. They just want YouTube videos to look great on their TVs.

Another non-ideal aspect of Apple TV 4K — rather than have your TV switch modes from 4K to 1080p when playing 1080p content, Apple TV upscales the 1080p on the fly itself:

If you have a previous Apple TV, this lack of mode switching is familiar, but remapping SDR content into HDR is a whole new ballgame, and unfortunately, Apple’s HDR video processing is hit or miss. It was great when I watched HD content from iTunes, but it fell down in other apps. I watched The Dark Knight in HD on HBO Go with our video team, and the Apple TV 4K HDR processing blew out all the contrast in the image, sharpened everything to hell, and turned the film grain into noise. The same movie looked fine on iTunes, but it just looked bad from HBO Go. I checked on my older 1080p Apple TV, and HBO Go looked fine. So there’s definitely work to be done here.

Matthew Panzarino noted the same thing, again, from content that wasn’t from the iTunes Store.


  1. There’s no Geekbench app for Apple TV, unfortunately. If anything, Apple TV 4K might be faster than iPad Pro, because iPad Pro runs on battery and Apple TV is always plugged in. ↩︎

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