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Pure Spectacle at AWM

Perhaps it is me, but pure spectacle seems to lack entertainment value, at least, it does now that I am old and boring. This came to mind because of a recent trip to the Australian War Memorial. Now, AWM does a pretty good job of striking the baclance benwteen the sacrifices and appalling sadness of war and the ‘cool machinery’ like Spitfires and Me 262s.

A case in point is ‘the biplane movie‘ as we call it. In the ANZAC gallery, up one end, is the World War I aerial warfare gallery. It possesses an SE5a, an Avro 504 and an Albatros D.Va amongst other rare and unusual artefacts. And a few years ago they launched their movie about fighting above the trenches. Through the wonder of modern CGI film-making (Weta, I believe) we witness Sopwith Camels and Fokkers and RE8s battling it out over France and/or Belgium. We see the brave young men plummet, parachuteless, out of their burning planes. It’s really kinetic, using a curved split screen that forces the viewers to turn their heads to follow the action. As an accompaniment to the static displays it works brilliantly.

It’s not a feature film and should not be judged as one, but it does act as a jumping off point for some thoughts, because even the very first time I saw it I found that I was quite happy for it to end after the 15 or so minutes that it runs.


The lack of story, I think. At first while watching I was sitting there thinking, Wow! It really is time for a Hollywood special effects extravaganza about dog-fighting in WWI. It would absolutely shake you by the throat in IMAX, and would be so inherently life-and-death, because the pilots did not get parachutes (brass was afraid they might not fight hard enough, I read somewhere — another reason to be glad our military leaders are less of an elite drawn from the nobility than they used to be). Ten minutes later I was still impressed. I still felt like I’d been drawn into that world better than ever before. There was still the moment to moment excitement. But watching the swarm of buzzing biplanes dodging and weaving around (at a density I suspect was not exactly realistic) wore out surprisingly quickly. Soon technical admiration was the dominant feeling.

War makes me angry. So many people get hurt to salve men’s egos. War needs the story as well as the spectacle.

So I still think there’s a great movie to be made there; it’s a genre that could (profitably?) be revisited using today’s technology, to really bring out the intensity and the wind whistling in the wires of the planes.

But as always the primacy of story remains, especially when amongst the cool machinery we need to remind ourselves of the terrible truth.

Sanctimoniousness ends.


Whatever and ever.

A few random thoughts on The Peanuts Movie

I saw The Peanuts Movie in Goulburn recently, with family members aged from three to seventy, and I can say that it successfully entertained all of us. Key words are ‘charming’ and ‘faithful’.

It is quite visually inventive, but quietly. When Snoopy flies his doghouse amongst the Fokkers and Sopwiths, it remains a doghouse. Thus at one point he simply turns around to face the other way, and flies off in the opposite direction — on a doghouse viewed in profile, the front and back look the same.  This was indicative of a strength of the film.  In adapting something as cartoony as Peanuts, it was able to discreetly admit it was a cartoon, and therefore play visual games that for a Pixar-type movie might come too close to breaking the fourth wall. Sometimes Charlie Brown’s thoughts come to life in a bubble, and they are in flat black and white that is taken directly from the strips.

The flying scenes actually worked very well. I watched the film with one under ten who had read some Peanuts and one who had not, and the one who had not liked the flying scenes the best — I think some kids might have got impatient if the story was solely centred on Charlie Brown and the ‘real’ world, seeing as those scenes tended to be more contemplative and quieter.

As an adult who has been reading Peanuts off and on since I was under ten, I enjoyed watching it all come to life — it was not a disappointment, as could so easily have been the case.  Many scenes contain a moment, a frame which, if frozen, would be a direct lift from the comic strips.  Similarly there are episodes, dialogue and set pieces taken from the books. At one point Charlie Brown even has a sack on his head.  How much would I have enjoyed it had I not already been a great admirer of Schulz’s work?  Less, definitely.  Much of the enjoyment was in seeing the iconic images come to life, and in a way which did not clash with my inner vision of the works.  This also gave me the hint to stay through the credits — I had not seen Lucy pull the football away before Charlie Brown kicked it during the body of the film, so I knew it had to be buried in the credits — and it was.

There are a few minor fiddles — Peppermint Patty and Marcie are at the same school as Charlie Brown.  All the kids are in the same class.  Snoopy gets a love interest (Fifi, I think it was), although it helps drive the Red Baron scenes and functions perfectly well within the story.

So it is a close adaptation, very much in the spirit of Schulz’s work, though perhaps less melancholy.

This brings me to the most contentious point.  We see the little red haired girl.  She speaks.  She is in the movie.  In fifty years Schulz never showed us her face.  I don’t even know if the back of her head was in frame.

Some have complained, some don’t care.  I think it’s OK.  I found the red haired girl plot a bit schmaltzy and forced, but it sort of makes sense if the movie is considered as a capstone to Peanuts (though a sequel is always possible, I suppose…), as though Charlie Brown’s reward finally comes, and when it does, having watched him wrestle the kite-eating tree and fail to pitch any strikes and worry over nothing and make a fool of himself repeatedly and so on, it feels fair enough.

Just as long as he never gets to kick that football.


I don’t review movies.

Making little Physics Videos with a Document Camera

Here is my recipe for making little videos with a document camera. Please note that the recipe is specific to the make and model discussed (Lumens DC192) and set up particularly for videoing a human hand scribbling down a solution while speaking about it at the time. This is not flashy stuff, just material for a moodle page for a Physics course.

So the image on the video looks like this:

The sight of one hand doing Physics.

The sight of one hand doing Physics.

And I just talk about how to tackle the problem while the document camera grabs frames and sound. The resulting AVI files are then edited in Camtasia, proprietary software provided by my employer.

Sounds simple?

Well, it should be, but there can be a lot of trickinesses.  Anyway, here is my recipe.  I do not expect anybody to follow it closely (or at all), but the steps and the things I have to think about may be useful for some if they need to make little videos, often in relation to ‘flipping‘ a Physics course, which is very much the fashion these days.

 How I made a very simple video using the Lumens DC192 Document camera


Nov 2015


  • Lumens DC192 document camera.
  • USB memory stick.
  • VGA cable.
  • Monitor
  • Pens, paper, your brain, your script, etc.
  • Then computer and software for editing.


If using the camera on a desk rather than in lecture theatre, simplest is to use VGA cable from camera to monitor and that is all you need.

Figure 1: The overall set up.

Figure 1: The overall set up.



(1) Got a 4GB+ USB stick and deleted all files. Not necessary to empty the stick but this minimises chance of running out of space during a video capture.

(2) Picked a problem or two. Made sure I had good worked out solutions, and printed them out/wrote them up on paper – see image below (figure 2).

Figure 2: Worked solution

Figure 2: Worked solution


(3) Got some overhead markers. I find they give a dark line but are not too coarse. Staedtler ‘Lumocolor’ type pens with a fine tip were good.

(4) Printed out an A4 sheet with the problem occupying the top left of the page, landscape. Thought about whether more than the remaining white space was necessary, and had extra sheets ready. See figure 3. A few extra copies were useful too… made sure it was printed pretty dark and pretty big. (For scanned images I used ImageJ to Gaussian blur, then Brightness/Contrast to darken and turn the blur into thicker lines.)

Figure 3: An example of a sheet ready to be used.

Figure 3: An example of a sheet ready to be used.


(5) Got my sheet with the already-worked-out solution (figure 2) and marked a few key words on it for concepts I want to make sure I covered, things like ‘conservation of energy’ or ‘Newton’s laws’ or whatever.

(6) Also noted on it what colours I want to use where. I have a few pens — black, red, blue green and brown. No yellow (not dark enough on the white paper).

(7) Got remote control for DC192.

(8) Killed any sources of noise as I could – climate control, for example. Put ‘Do Not Disturb’ on my door. Shut all doors, turned on all lights. Used an extra lamp to avoid shadows on the page.

(9) Taped down an A3 sheet such that it filled the screen. Then put my A4 with printed problem on top of that, taped down with magic tape.

(10) Removed jangly things from my pockets — keys, for example. And coins. Do you write notes on the backs of your hands? Best wash them off. I didn’t…

(11) Inserted a USB stick into the DC. Screen said ‘copy to USB stick’ (it may not actually ask you this, depending on camera settings). Selected ‘no’ by pressing ‘Enter’ button on the DC. (Answer ‘yes’ if you want to copy the contents of the DC’s internal memory.)

(12) Adjusted the camera neck and zoom such that only my A4 page was visible. In fact, if the camera was positioned right it could only see the white A4 page. Made some small marks on the paper to indicate where the edges of the camera window were, so I would not write stuff off the edge.

May be good to use the remote to adjust the microphone level to about a quarter to reduce saturation and resulting lousy sound. This setting is remembered when the unit it on stand-by but should be checked if it has been turned off at the wall.

(13) Arranged my notes and pens ready for use while talking. Tested all pens, and placed so that they would not roll into camera shot.

(14) Reviewed my script. Thought about: How much intro? Dive straight in? Talk about problem solving skills in general or just do this particular problem? Talk about units, orders of magnitude, sanity checks?

(15) Pressed ‘record’ on the remote and got started. A picture of a camera appeared on the monitor to indicate recording was going on. (Note that the files will just have names like LUMN0001.AVI, so you either want to have a visual queue early in the video to identify the video or make a note as you go on a notepad or something — if you are making a bunch of them at a time, anyway.) I made sure I renamed the files to something meaningful when copying the files across to my desktop machine. Also, note that the files are AVI files, which are a non-compressed video format and therefore they’ll be much bigger than a final, produced mpg/mp4 type file — and may fill up the USB faster than you expect.

Some comments on recording:

  • Don’t be afraid to pause while filming. They can be cut out in Camtasia. I made sure I just paused then continued, if necessary repeating myself a little, rather than continually stopping and retaking the video.
  • I made some minor crossings out, and think that’s OK. Students don’t mind ‘warts and all’, but it should not interfere with clarity.
  • I found that the microphone is pretty sensitive, so I can afford to talk normally or even more quietly. It is easy to cause distortion in the sound. As noted above, low microphone levels can be set using the menu accessed by the remote control or by the menu key on the unit, and you may well find it useful to set this low – about 1/4 seems good. Do this before starting to record might be good idea.

(16) Hit the record button to turn it off. Done! I kept the A4 sheet with the working out so I could scan and upload it along with the video.

(17) Turned off, clean up after myself, not forgetting the USB stick.

(18) Fired up Camtasia (or similar).

(19) This is NOT a Camtasia tutorial. I did this, though: Opened a new project, imported the video, normalised the audio and did noise reduction (I use default values), then edited out my pauses and idiotic remarks and produced to 480p video without SmartPlayer (‘MP4 only (up to 480p)’). Other useful things include speeding up sections (places with lots of algebra I just shut up and wrote, then later sped up by factor of four) and using callouts to highlight things. I tried to keep that to a minimum.

In more detail:

(a) Opened Camtasia

(b) File -> ‘Save project as’ … gave it a name.

(c) File -> Import Media -> selected the AVI file. I created a ‘Videos’ folder somewhere, created the camproj file in there and put the AVI files in some subfolder.

(d) Right clicked on the video thumbnail and ‘Add to timeline at playhead’

(e) Audio tab, then checked ‘Enable volume levelling’ and ‘Enable noise removal’

(f) Started cutting bits off the video, leaving the good/least worst bits.

(g) Produce it: File -> Produce and Share -> Whatever format (MP4 only (up to 480p)) -> and done! Files are not that big (15MB) in this format.


That’s the procedure, such as it is.



How I fixed the USB hard drive attached to my set top box

I don’t have a digital TV, I just have a blocky old CRT TV fed by a set top box.  In fact, the set top box goes into the TV via a VCR, since the TV only has a coaxial antenna input, whereas the VCR can take the RCA input from the set top box and output co-ax.  I’m not what you call an early adopter… or, perhaps I’m more of an ‘if it ain’t broke…’ kind of guy…

My old CRT TV, showing the latest in video game technology.

My old CRT TV, showing the latest in video game technology.

Well, you know, someone pulled out the USB socket while it was recording, and pushed it in again and did something else that they’re not prepared to tell me about and lo and behold the set top box tells me the USB hard drive with all our shows on it we have not yet had time to watch is not a valid file system, or something.



Plug USB HD into a Windows lap top — does not see it at all.  Plug it into my Linux box — says it is an unformatted drive with no partitions… oh dear. Play with gparted. It says it is non-partitioned space. Let gpart have a look at it but half an hour shows up nothing.

Install testdisk. (It is available for Win, Mac, as well as Linux.)

Run testdisk.

It finds the USB HD and I step through the recovery as per here and I can see all the files. Yay! Write new partition information to the disk and away we go… except that while I can see all the files when it is connected to the computer (Linux or Windows) the set top box now says ‘incompatible file system’ or something.


(1) Copy the files off the HD, all of them, to a temporary directory on my Linux box.
(2) Connect the drive to the set top box and use the set top box’s own menus to format it.
(3) Copy the files back.
(4) Now all is well!

Set top box is a Bush High Definition, HD is a Seagate.

Just FYI.


Back in time.

It’s Always Popcorn Time: The Lilac City Cinema

If this sounds like an advertisement, well maybe it is.  A bloke’s allowed to like something once in a while…

Going to the movies can be really expensive.  What is it now, $18 for a ticket?  And you won’t get much change out of a fiver if you want even pretty meagre ‘snacks’.  One outcome of this is more and more people heading into the supermarket to top up on chips (crisps) and other junk food before heading into the cinema.  The other is that mum or dad does some maths and works out that if they take the kids to the latest Pixar blockbuster they’re not going to get much change out of $100 and they decide to spend it on something else.  It doesn’t take all that many lots of $100 to pay for a decently large TV screen, some speakers and a bunch of discs (or netflix or whatever).

We are lucky enough to live outside a major centre but close to a minor one.  Goulburn in New South Wales is home to the Lilac City Cinema ( where kids’ tickets are $7, adults’ are $8 and a regular popcorn (which is quite respectable in size) is $1.70.  I think this is reflective of a number of issues.  One is just how efficiently a cinema can be run in the digital age (and admittedly a couple of the screens are really not very big…).  Another is the effects of rents and costs of doing business, which I am guessing are much higher in a Westfield Shopping Gulag than in a backstreet in Goulburn.

The benefits are manifold.  We go more often, we don’t have to limit ourselves to movies we are dead set certain the kids will like, and if they don’t like it we haven’t blown a small fortune.  We can happily buy some movie snacks, which adds to the ‘feel’ of going to the movies.

The fare is rather mainstream Hollywood, so (but for the odd special presentation) it is not much good for the lover of art house movies.  But on a cold winter’s day it’s a pretty good deal.

Bowman should have known something was wrong long before HAL became homicidal

Open the microwave over door, HAL.

Bowman should have known something was wrong long before HAL became homicidal.

An Opening Sequence of Monkey’s

(The apostrophe is intentional.)

The title sequences on some TV shows just give the producers somewhere to put some names.  QI has just a tinny tune over some pretty dull visuals, probably because of supreme confidence in its content.  Some make you pause and look, and grab you in like a well-made advert.  And some just give you a great idea of what to expect and are fun in themselves.  A good example of this last is I think Monkey. Not, perhaps great cinematography or outstanding special effects by today’s standards, but effective, cheerful and completely appropriate to the spirit of the show.  And the words are also almost unequalled


Here are the words of the voice-over that accompanies it (

In the Worlds before Monkey,
Primal chaos reigned, Heaven sought order.
But the Phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown.
The four worlds formed again and yet again,
As endless aeons wheeled and passed.
Time and the pure essences of Heaven,
The moistures of the Earth,
And the powers of the Sun and the Moon
All worked upon a certain rock – old as Creation,
And it magically became fertile.
That first egg was named Thought,
Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha,
Said, ‘With our thoughts we make the world.’
Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch,
from it then came a stone Monkey.
The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

And this is all before we launch into the real theme song (“Born from an egg on a mountain top…”)

Perhaps it is nostalgia on my part…For a much more intelligent discussion on the subject, and the one that prompted this short post, go here.

Randomly stacking dominoes without gaps… I think….

Randomly stacking dominoes without gaps... I think....

Result of a (relatively) simple algorithm (FORTRAN77!) designed to stack dominoes ‘randomly’ but with the constraint that there are no gaps and that the total perimeter is a minimum. Made using Fortran, ps_routines.f, ImageMagick and gifsicle.  If you are red/green colourblind, I apologise for the selection of colours…