Later this month, I’ll be attending a special book launch for the biography of Ronnie Le Drew, a professional puppeteer who has worked extensively in the TV, film and theatre industries.

For my whole life, I’ve always been interested in puppets and puppetry. I grew up with the likes of Zippy, Bungle, and George. Sooty, Sweep and Soo. Rod Hull and Emu. Basil Brush, Roland Rat, and many more besides. The Muppets were a big thing in our household too (if only I could find the photo of me and my cousins sitting around the TV watching The Muppet Show – it was the most 80’s photo you could ever imagine thanks to our tracksuits and furniture coverings).

When I was older, I wanted to work for the Jim Henson Creature Shop helping design and build the computer performance systems that powered some of their most advanced animatronic creations. I didn’t particularly want to be a puppeteer so much, though this photo suggests otherwise:

A Young Blofeld welcomes Mr. Bond whilst petting his vicious Emu
Signed DVD from Frank Oz (Miss Piggy, Fozzy Bear, and also a damn good director)

The irony was that I’d end up working for a visual effects company that would replace traditional puppets with all-CG versions – this was the case for the film Ella Enchanted in which Heston the Snake was originally going to be a practical puppet, but was instead entirely CG (and voiced by Steve Coogan).

But nevertheless, I still love the art of puppetry and the people behind the performance. I’ve already had the great privilege to meet Louise Gold about 20 years ago, who was an active member of Jim Henson’s Muppet performers during the time The Muppet Show was being recorded in England. She’s an extraordinary all-around performer and was most recently seen in Fiddler on the Roof in the West End.

So it’ll be nice to meet Ronnie and fellow fans at the launch of his new book in a few weeks time. I already have a copy of the book in Kindle format, but I’m going to wait a bit before reading because a good book is like a good wine. Best enjoyed slowly.

Zippy and Me: My Life Inside Britain’s Most Infamous Puppet can be pre-ordered via Amazon.co.uk.

Meanwhile, Ronnie’s antics as Zippy can be found in this infamous not-for-public (whoops) video:

And there’s also this 23 minute documentary about Ronnie on his career:

Welcome to crazy town!

It’s the time of year 
Now that Spring is in the air 
When those two wet gits with their girly curly hair 
Make another song for moronic holidays…

I’m sorry, that’s the opening to Spitting Image’s The Chicken Song. I’ll start again.

It’s the time of the year where everybody who enjoys a good game of tennis gathers in one place: Wimbledon, South London, to watch the best of the best thrash each other with their balls with the sounds of grunting and occasional comedic goings-on:

Ah, refreshing!

ALAS!

Most people will be getting to Wimbledon by train. And do you think South Western Railways has thought of putting on extra trains, extra carriages and making the suburban routes that little bit better? Of course not, that would be sensible.

It ha been absolute hell getting to Wimbledon – where I work – for the past week, and we have another week to go. At one point, the trains were so packed that after the next train arrived, a 4 car formation, I just gave up and went and worked from home.

With recent strikes, and a pitiful service that is not helping relieve the pressures of the Wimbledon championships, SWR is not fit to run a train service. I sincerely hope they lose their franchise. If I’m honest, I’m hoping the UK government will make it a public service again – just like the East Coast service.

Beep beep

This weekend was spent rewatching all 8 Harry Potter films. It’s nearly the 20th anniversary of the very first film, and I came onboard at MPC during the second film, the Chamber of Secrets when I was a mere pup of 26.

I own all 8 films on both Blu-Ray (HD only) and iTunes (4K). I bought both because I spent many of my 6 years working at MPC working on a Harry Potter film – in fact, I can’t remember a time when something relating to Harry Potter wasn’t happening. I went to Leavesden Studios a few times to set-up or remove kit too. One time I even had a bite to eat at the Warner Bros. café, sitting outside and looking at the scaffolding that made up half of the Dursley’s house in Little Whinging, Surrey.

No film credit (boo – Warner Bros. are stingy with credit allocation), but MPC did a Nice Thing(tm) by taking out this page in Cinefex

Growing up, the film that got my imagination going most of all was, of course, Star Wars. It was a film primarily aimed at kids, so it wasn’t difficult to get into or enjoy when I was 3 or 4. Harry Potter was very much a series that starts off as a tale for younger kids, but the story grows with them – as do the characters. Star Wars is difficult to place in this regard- these days it’s still very much a PG thing (and so repetitive to boot), whereas the last three films in the Harry Potter series are quite a bit more dark & violent.

The Whomping Willow. Destroyer of Ford Anglias.

As I made my way through the films, it’s intriguing to see the stars of the film grow up as well with each film. The storyline is compelling, and the characters are believable and relatable, even if it’s set in a fantasy world of wizards and witches and other supernatural delights. Hermione, in particular, is the kind of friend everyone should have. She does tend to put up with a lot of shit throughout the entire story, so how she remains sane by the end of it is anybody’s guess (the same could be said of Harry and Ron, though).

Harry Potter is essentially the story of three best friends, along with a vast array of weird and wonderful supporting characters, fighting the return of a dark lord whilst simultaneously attending school and learning the very skills to be able to defeat him. It’s very impressive. J. K. Rowling sets up her ducks in a row with each film (or book) and then presses the FIRE button when it needs to be pressed. She’s not frightened to put her characters in very dark, very risky situations. And not everybody makes it through.

The Prisoner of Azkaban resonates with me a bit because we had a massive model of the werewolf Professor Lupin turns into towards the end of the film in the office. And it had a removable head. And people would wear it like a hat – just because. That said, The Chamber of Secrets was the first film I got my hands dirty with, especially figuring out the ins and outs of the VPN system WB had set-up (against a 512Kbs ADSL line at Leavesden – but thankfully it got better with subsequent films) and other VFX infrastructure matters.

This version does NOT have a removable head

I also went along to Shepperton Studios during Azkaban’s production, though it was for another film called Wimbledon. Somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that many years later I’d be working IN Wimbledon. Anyway, on my way to the office at Shepperton Studios, I came across the trailers for David Thewlis (who plays Professor Lupin) and IIRC, Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). But even more interesting was this monstrosity poking out the top of one of Shepperton’s sound stages:

It’s big. Seriously big.

It was all good fun (except I got told off for replacing a broken PC on Wimbledon when the resource manager was away – yet the artist working at the studio had to use SOMETHING and that was the only machine I had listed as a spare – I’m glad to be out of VFX because it was things like that which drove me nuts).

Anyway, it was late on Sunday when I finished all 8 movies. I felt sad because we followed the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of plucky youngsters who risked a lot to get where they were, and now we were going our separate ways. Nearly 10 years in the making. And I was also sad because without J. K. Rowling, and as such without Harry Potter, the British film industry would probably not have had such a resurgence between 2000-2010. VFX companies sprung up around Potter. But within that was darkness.

During the Order of the Phoenix, Warner Bros. essentially made an ultimatum – give us more tax credits or we’ll move to Eastern Europe. It must have been a big deal because when the managing director sends every employee an email that wishes the PM (either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair at the time) would increase tax incentives for the studios, it makes you wonder about whether you’re going to have a job later down the road.

And it’s that reason why I feel that we must do something to get away from tax incentives for major US film studios and move to something fairer for the taxpayer. Fairer for VFX vendors. Stop the race to the bottom, and stop the displacement this causes. Besides, these kinds of incentives can lead to tax dodgers (Just “Google” the following: HRMC film tax fraud). State handouts to corporations, especially the film industry, need better management.

Nevertheless, Harry Potter remains one of the most beloved characters and stories this country has produced. And the films are just wonderful. Here’s to another 20 years (but please – no enhancing VFX like Star Wars did).

Yes, South Western Railways and smartcards again. But before I start there, I popped into Woking station’s platform 1 waiting room to check up on the lending library there:

They’ve expanded to VHS and DVDs now?!

Quite surprised to see the entire series eight of Inspector Morse there, along with a VHS copy of Carry on Up the Khyber. Good luck to the person whoever manages to find a portable VHS player (a joke I shamefully nicked off a work colleague).

Smart card. Fart card. Whatever.

My replacement SWR smart card has faired as well as the card it was replacing. Bought another single day return ticket to Wimbledon from Woking and went to check that it was valid on the same machine that issued it at Woking station.

The ticket machine managed to do its job properly this time! Give it a biscuit!

ALAS!

The Computer Says No

Went up to the barriers at Woking and the dreaded “Seek Assistance” popped up. Several attempts. No joy. Went back to the ticket machine to verify – yep, it was readable and the ticket was found. So I showed the image above to the ticket inspector who advised that I tap in on a yellow contactless terminal on the platform. That should do it, he said. So I did. Green tick.

Merry-go-round broken down

Then the train I was to get down had developed a fault and I had to make my way to platform three and endure a delay of stopping at every single stop to Wimbledon – but at least I didn’t have to change at Surbiton.

Got to the barriers at Wimbledon:

SWR’s ticketing systems are a useless pile of toss

So more explaining to the guards at the barriers and I was let out. The same will happen again this evening. I am so utterly fed up with the hassle South Western Railway’s smart card system has brought. It should not go wrong this often. I fully blame their IT department for this. It’s as if the ticketing system cannot communicate with the barriers properly to validate tickets.

Hard to believe it’s the 21st century

I’ll probably end up using paper tickets again. But I find these wasteful and a pain in the arse to have to take out of one’s wallet every time they need to go through a barrier or inspected by a train guard/inspector. Furthermore, by the time I’ve got home, the barriers at Woking are unmanned, leaving me with a useless paper ticket. They tend to build up in my wallet. If I remember, they’re discarded in the bin – but I’m sure that somebody will delve in there and try and find a way of reusing it.

I sincerely hope that with all these problems, the franchise owners, The First Group and MTR Corporation, lose the franchise at the earliest opportunity. Since they took over, the service (at least the suburban service) has been bloody dreadful. The ticket system is still stuck in the 20th century and is unreliable as hell.

Hand-written ticket!

On Monday I tried to buy a ticket on the smartcard at Woking station. Paid for it via contactless, and put my ticket on the reader to update it. Uh-oh, the machine had trouble updating my ticket. Tried again. Still problems. So I went to the counter and ask them what to do. They got a notebook which contains special tickets that are handwritten. So I traveled on that for the day – but encountered some resistance at Wimbledon as the guard was not familiar with the SWR smart card system and insisted that I had to get a return ticket from the ticket office. Nope, the ticket office said, the paper I had was sufficient as they couldn’t deal with SWR smart cards. And indeed, within the London zone, none of the ticket machines can handle smart cards. And none of ticket offices, regardless of location, can deal with smart cards either.

Learn. Improve. Maybe unite?

It’s about time that we started to go down the route of TFL and use contactless credit/debit cards. Whether they be physical cards, or virtual cards stored on our phones or smart watches. I’d much prefer to use my phone to act as my ticket than the current system. Travelling with TFL is almost effortless. It’s not without a few problems, but considerably less than that of SWR.

(*) Translation: I am in great pain.

So many announcements, so little time..

This year’s WWDC keynote was packed to the gills with a slew of announcements relating to upcoming software features in Apple’s range of products, including the Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Additionally, the company also announced a whole new redesign of the Mac Pro, a new high-end monitor, and $1,000 monitor stand (I kid you not).

Apple has a rebranding/versioning problem

The iPad is getting a whole new slew of feature enhancements that won’t be found on the iPhone, to the extent that Apple is now referring to the version of iOS for iPad as iPadOS. This now gives us the following OS derivatives based on the Mach kernel/FreeBSD from which OS X originally came from:

  • MacOS – for Mac desktop and laptop operating systems
  • iPadOS – for iPads
  • WatchOS – for the Apple Watch
  • tvOS – for Apple TV HD and Apple TV 4K
  • iOS – for iPhones

So why doesn’t Apple rename iOS to iPhoneOS to identify the operating system specifically for iPhones? I don’t know. I’m assuming iPadOS will be referred to version 13, the same as iOS rather than iPadOS 1. If Apple did change iOS to iPhoneOS, it’d still be version 13 too. Only WatchOS has had significant changes to the version number since it was first released. We’re currently on major version 5, but for iOS and tvOS it’s version 12. For MacOS it’s 10.14. Even I’m finding it difficult to keep up.

Goodbye iTunes – so long, and thanks for all the fish

I’ve been a heavy iTunes user since.. well .. since Winamp died. I migrated over to the iTunes platform on Windows initially long before I had my first Mac, and haven’t looked back since. I’ve tried to leave the iTunes ecosystem a few times, but quite frankly it’s very difficult – particularly because the integration and feature set is very good. The downside is that iTunes has been enormously clunky for quite some time.

So Apple is splitting out music, video and podcasts into three separate applications for the next release of MacOS (called Catalina). This makes sense. I’m an Apple Music subscriber and find that the iCloud Music Library to be extremely useful to sync my own tracks across my iPhone XS Max and Apple Watch series 4. The iTunes store will still be there if I do want to purchase tracks or albums, or movies or TV shows.

The Mac to get 4K movie playback

Apple TV on the Mac will also play 4K content (since many modern iMacs will have 4K or 5K displays) and Dolby Atmos content. It’s no longer limited to Apple TV HD/4K devices. However, my biggest disappointment with Apple in this regard is that iTunes is still not offering 4K television shows for sale. Or TV shows with iTunes Extras content. I feel that Apple’s upcoming video streaming service, Apple TV+, may have had an effect on that. If UHD Blu-Ray content is on the way out, we need a better alternative to just streaming services. People want to buy, download and keep. And they want the extras that come with physical discs.

Apple to stop BASHing MacOS and wants to zig-a-zig-zsh

Apple is, for whatever reason, not a fan of GNU v3 General Public License. As such, the version of the bash interpreter included with MacOS is a little out of date. The zsh shell is more modern, largely backwards compatible with bash and is, in theory, a better option. That said, a good amount of what I do involves bash, so I doubt I’ll be changing over anytime soon.

You’ll be able to use your iPad as a second screen with MacOS Catalina

Something that I look forward to using. The new version of MacOS Catalina will allow users with a modern iPad or iPad Pro as a second screen – with the added bonus that if you have an Apple Pencil, you can use something like Photoshop to sketch on the iPad and it’ll appear on your Mac.

iPadOS will make the iPad more computer-like like never before

Apple has been pushing the iPad and iPad Pro as fully fledged computers. The problem with that is that even with a physical keyboard, key features of the operating system are still incredibly limited.

As well as a new home screen with access to widgets in horizontal view, the icons are now more tightly packed together – allowing more icons per screen. There are new gestures to make it easier to select, copy and paste text – and the cursor should be much easier to reposition.

And you’ll finally be allowed to use a mouse with an iPad! Though it forms part of the accessibility features and effectively emulates fingers – thus it won’t be the same as if you were using MacOS. But I think the new gestures and cursor control should help a bit.

The biggest change is that you’ll be able to plug in a USB hard drive or thumb drive and copy data to and from the iPad like any other file. It’s been mentioned that Apple formatted HPFS+ volumes don’t yet work (which would be silly if you also have a Mac), but may change during the beta/development process.

The iPad will also be able to connect to network shares as well – also offering a way of pulling data into and out of the iPad over the network.

Access to files via USB drive or network drive makes me wonder what would happen if the iPhone XI models ship with USB-C ports instead of lightning ports. It would be a tremendous benefit to have USB-C on the iPhone, but it did, would the Files app also support the use of hard drives and thumb drives as well? And are the other features sufficient to rename iOS on the iPad as iPadOS in that case?

Safari, the default web browser on iPadOS, will be able to use the desktop versions of web sites. Previously this was not possible as Safari always identified itself as a mobile browser, and the web site/app would deliver a mobile-friendly version. It’s not clear whether this will be the default option, or if other browsers such as Chrome will follow suit as it will mean changing the browser identification string. Something I’ll need to bear in mind for work!

In short – iPadOS has more features in it to make an iPad last a good many years as a laptop computer. It’ll always be a locked system, but Apple have opened it up a little more in what it can do that will make it a more attractive option to those on the move.

iPhone users also have a few tweaks to look forward to

I’m so looking forward to disabling limits on the size of app downloads. I have a very generous data allowance with my phone provider, and few humongous apps. But that’s not all – it’s said that apps will launch twice as fast and be half the size. Some serious optimisation work going on there!

I’m definitely looking forward to the new dark mode, and even more so – I like the look of the new Photos app. I use Photos and the iCloud Photo Library a lot across all my Apple devices, so it’ll be interesting to play around with the new features there. Already loving the new layout and can’t wait to start using it.

Pro Macs and Displays

With potential costs of up to $35,000 for a fully tricked out Mac Pro, and the displays costing around $6k including the monitor stand, the new Mac Pro is going to be something for companies or individuals with very deep pockets. The performance will be phenomenal, but it will require substantial effort from developers to make use of those performance enhancements.

VFX, for example, has generally relied heavily on NVIDIA graphics technology – as has anything with big computational needs. That said, when I was working back in VFX, Macs were primarily used for 2D Photoshop work (working with giant size textures).

I think the Apple ProDisplay will do much better in terms of sales – the specifications alone are going to be very tempting for anybody that requires great colour accuracy. And cost point of those monitors – even with the stand – is considerably cheaper than other manufacturers.

Another question that I have is that if Apple is intending to switch from Intel to their own ARM silicon in the future – how far ahead is this, and what about people who have spent tens of thousands of pounds/dollars on these systems only to find that we’re going to be in the middle of another architecture change in 2-3 years time. That’s a very difficult question to answer right now, but I believe Apple *will* do it at some point. Given the number of speculative vulnerabilities that are cropping up in Intel CPUs, people (and Apple) are going to be fed up with Intel.


(*) From the Adult Sim cartoon series, Rick & Morty. “Wubba lubba dub dub” was Rick’s catchphrase.