Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

my first post *ever* about my PhD

May 21, 2010

I think I’ve fallen into a groove this  year of putting up one blog post a month. Not a brilliant track record but at least there’s some consistency. But then, I almost missed out on May. Just making it with this post. Sjoe!

So why the tardiness? I’ve been pretty busy – coding, modeling, texturing. All in the name of my PhD prototype which is, in a nutshell, a 3D storytelling environment for a certain museum in Cape Town. I’ve learnt a lot of things from scratch in building this prototype, picked up Blender and made a basic, animated human model, learnt C# (which was really easy if you know Java) and XNA (Microsoft’s free, yes free, kind-of-awesome games engine). I have also zoomed up my Photoshop skills to new heights in doing textures. This week  was a big deal for me. I demo’ed the first fluttering of the prototype to the museum where it was met with giggles and smiles (rather than the awkward what-the-hell-is-this silence I was dreading). I also made a video to send off to The Supervisor and demo’ed to a bunch of people in The Lab. So far so good. Lots to do but its finally on its way.

During this past month, I spent an inordinate amount of time texturing the first (of two) main storytelling models/avatars. It’s meant to be a representation of Noor Ebrahim, a guide at the museum and District Six ex-resident. Here he is in real-life:



I made a model whose geometry (and skeleton) was as simple as possible so that even a monkey like me couldn’t mess up the model too much during tweaking and animating. But, since the geometry was simple, I figured texturing his face  was really important. The ever-obliging photog Max Barners agreed to help out and took some awesome portraits of Noor (and Joe the other storyteller I am modeling) to help with this. So after much fiddling and diddling with UV map generation and painting in Photoshop, meet virtual Noor:

virutal Noor

virtual Noor

Ta-daa! Yeah, he’s not a patch the real thing and there are number of issues to sort out with him. Like, for some reason, XNA is lighting him with a blue-ish light for no good reason. I need to track down the reason for that. And I’ve coloured his shirt and pants and hands and shoes with solid colours for now. At some stage I should really give him some decent threads though. But he animates! He boasts a range of about 30 different short animation sequences and I’ve coded him so he can tell a whole story so far with scripted animations that match. Now I’ve moved on to making him a bit more interactive.



April 28, 2010

Well, well Gossip Girl you are just a feast of product placement and tech surprises! Last season there was the plot line featuring a lame technology for development scam and your blatant subtle placement of Vitamin Waters where ever possible (sometimes even obscuring characters in the shot!). I thought I was done being surprised but in an unlikely alliance I’ve discovered that you’re now pimping Microsoft of all things!

I thought I was seeing things in an episode a while back where Dan needs some polaroid film for some or other contrived reason relating to a party (you can *never* have an episode of Gossip Girl without some kind of party or event, in fact the show seems to be an exercise in concocting events since these seem to be the only places where dramatic things can happen in this story universe). Anyway, good ol’ dad (the obvious pick for a character introducing new tech right) was all like “Don’t worry” tinkered on he keyboard for 2 seconds while this shot flashed:

Hello! That’s Bing! How’d that get there? Is Bing more Upper East Side than Google? And literally 2 seconds later Daddy Rufus declares that Polaroid film has been sorted – no scrolling through lists or getting out a credit card, seemingly Bing just makes it happen like that folks! I thought this was of once-off thing, but I should have known better. Gossip Girl must make some kind of contract with companies that stipulates multiple product placements in a season because in another recent episode the made a play for instilling “Bing It!” as a new catchphrase. While other shows, like House, have accepted “Google It” as a well-established term, last night I was amused to hear Eleanor Waldorf barking at the help to “Bing It!” when looking for a wedding venue (a quickie wedding being this week’s contrived party). Now I am kind of wondering – the only characters to pimp Bing so far have been parents. So will we be seeing the “youngsters” surreptitiously picking up the Bing torch, or are the stealth marketers aiming to pitch it at an older market here? Mmm, perhaps the narrator could pick up the phrasing: You know you Bing me. XOXO.

Gossip Girl taps ICD4D

June 4, 2009

Gossip Girl is a total guilty pleasure of mine. Initially intrigued by its being set in two posh, private Manhattan schools, I knew after watching the pilot that this would be my mindless TV joy. But recently I was unable to suspend my disbelief when GG’s world of shiny things attempted to fuse with ITC4D. Preppy cad Gabriel and his faux socialite sidekick Poppy (a name that’s even more fun in Afrikaans, doll) have been running all over New York pitching a business idea so obviously profitable that they have heaps of rich folks falling over themselves to invest after only vague elevator pitches at swanky cocktail parties. Problem is it’s all a con and they plan to skip town with the money. But that’s besides the point – what is their super convincing idea? Its very vaguely described as “backing a company that wants to provide wireless access to the developing world”. The really fun this about this idea is that the investors don’t seem to be in it for the warm charitable glow, but because it is set to triple their money “by the end of summer”. As fang-toothed Gabrielle tells a googly-eyed Serena van der Woodsen this startling prediction at a party, she responds with the following blithely unaware gem:

yes that's chuck in the background looking rightfully suspicious

"Come on, without you how else will all those African teenagers send in posts to Gossip Girl?"

Yes because that’s what African teenagers really want Serena – to gossip about whose shack has the shiniest tin roof. Later, as Gabriel schmoozes with more potential investors, he explains:

"The governments, the ISP's and the big companies need to use these satellites. We can be the only game in town" and implies that the free wireless is a happy consequence of the big business "Doing well by doing good"

"The governments, the ISP's and the big companies need to use these satellites. We can be the only game in town"

Satellites? I am so intrigued but, oh no! Before he can explain more about those pesky techno details, he puts on the money squeeze:

“There’s a ticking clock, some of the major Internet corporations are looking to do a similar thing. If we act now we block them completely and we make at least triple on our investment”

Are you convinced? Lily Bass was:

"You can tell your backers I'm in!"

"You can tell your backers I'm in!"

After 5 seconds of thought? Perhaps that last husband of Lily’s should have thought twice about leaving his Trump-esque fortune and company in this lady’s hands when he croaked.

In the next episode this delicious con continues with Poppy stepping up during a swish lunch with Georgina at the Russian Tea Room spinning more wireless yarn while drinking martinis and eating caviar:

business lunch

business lunch

G: Who knew you could bring wireless to third world countries? What a great job!

P: Yeah it’s really more of a passion that a job. I mean it gives so much to the children.

G: Of course! I mean they can look at faraway places and read Bible stories. Oh! They can download Kirk Cameron movies!

Ah, it’s all about the children, Kirk Cameron movies for development, yay! Having been recently immersed in ICT4D during my internship at the Technology for Emerging Markets Group and attending ICTD 2009, this was a total laugh. The idea that wireless internet for people who probably don’t even have computers could be a free side effect of a profitable business in Africa where governments needed some other awesome ass satellites. That browsing the internet to look at faraway places and Bible stories would be its main mode of improvement for poverty stricken children. The preposterous idea that people would have the speeds needed to download whole movies (using which computers and what storage if I may ask).

But I am too harsh, truly I expect GG writers to be experts in Manhattan and debutant balls, not technologists so all is forgiven. (Though I do wish they hadn’t rushed it in the end, I would have liked to see the take down of Gabriel and Poppy rather than have it tacked onto the final episode as a btw)


The 5th National Oral History Conference

October 28, 2008
not bad at all

oral histories conference swag

About three weeks ago (i know tardy blogging right?), I got to attend the the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) 5th National Oral History Conference. I was presented a paper called Digital Storytelling Learning from Non-digital Narratives: Two Case Studies in South Africa along with Nic Bidwell from Australia and Xolile Sigaji from the Eastern Cape. The paper came out of a Royal Society workshop on User Generated Content (kind of like all that Web 2.0 stuff) and it’s about communities taking control of telling and preserving their stories NON-digitally, and what digital design can learn from this. My part of the paper describes District Six Musuem in Cape Town as a case study and Nic+Xolile’s part was about a workshop held in Lwandile, Transkei.

The conference was a weird one for me becuase (1) I was the only technical-type person there (2) there was a mix of academics, teachers and everyday storytellers there and (3) there was a heavy presence of historians. That last point was interesting because I got to think about what history actually is and what is means to be a historian. Turns out that it is to decide what accurate history is, especially when dealing with oral sources where memories are faulty and current contexts influence the stories told. The keynote was especially interesting and, dare I say, inspiring for my work. It was given by Pumla Madiba from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (phew!).She addressed how modernism continues to invade African traditions such that oral traditions are not being continued by modern, ubanised youth. Shel also pointed out that, while people are talking about using modern technology to preserve oral histories, we must not forget that orality is a technology in and of itself. Technology is a broad concept that can include all ways or tools that a species (yes its not only us humans that can wield technology) uses to survive or control their environment. Right now, the world is so computer-driven that I think there is a really narrow idea of technology around these as something bound to computers or digital technology. This precludes people from thinking of non-digial things as technology, like zippers (a major invention of the 20th century) and transmitting knowledge through oral storytelling. Anyway, Pumla acknowledged that, while current technologies can help with the preservation of oral histories, it should not replace them and that the person-to-person phenomenon of storytelling should be conserved.

Overall I felt there were lots of people talking about oral history as something unknown and distinctly African. There was lots of talk about how we don’t understand oral history well enough and need to figure out how to preserve it appropriately. And there was comparatively less pragmatic talk about how to go about doing this (more problematising than solutionising). I appreciate that oral storytelling, as a technology for transmitting cultural values and indigenous knowledge reliably, has been unvalued in Africa. However, oral history isn’t unique to Africa (however romantic it may be to think of it as such), it has been explored the world over. From the bits and pieces that I know there has been lots of work on this in anthropology and linguistics, such as Alessandro Portelli who has studied oral history in Italy and the US and Ochs & Capps who explore everyday storytelling in general. So it is not entirely necessary for South African historians to start from scratch – there is already a vast body of work to learn from!

On the peripheral details, this conference is subsidised by the government and… well it showed funding wise! When I was told that all the speaker’s accomodation was paid for by the conference I thought that I had misunderstood. I was so sceptical in fact that I contacted the only person I know from East London and asked if I could stay with her folks there if I happened to find myself on the streets! But they put us up and not too shabbily either, my hotel room was just a little smaller than my whole flat! It had two TV’s, two desks, a couch and a balcony (which overlooked a noisy construction site). There were lavish dinners with live jazz and the ‘swag’ was among the best I’ve seen – check out the beaded and embroidered conference bag! Unfortunately, despite all these conference goodies, a copy of the proceedings was suspicioulsy absent which was a topic that came up around the dinner table a number of times. On the last day we got taken out for an excursion of Transkei, Mthatha and Qunu (where Mandela grew up). All be open, beautiful and calm and a nice way to end of things.