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Stephen Flanagan
Works at Google
Attended NUIG, DCU
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Stephen Flanagan

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Went for a breezy 4.5k on Sandymount Strand tonight. Oh yes folks; it's not enough to go out running, I must tell you about it after. I am starting to believe a very large proportion of the fun in running overall is tied up in the feeling of smugness that follows it. 

In the reality of it though, and away from the manufactured social media picture, it was hard going. My calf was OK after much early stretching and a long-ish warm-up walk, though it ached from time to time. The base of my spine was also not pleased to be out- it seems to have evolved to a place where it prefers being moulded to the couch, and it made its dissatisfaction known. I don't know how long the full run took but it was definitely more than 7 minutes per kilometre. I'm not bringing out the tracking watch this year yet as I don't want to put myself off, and there is a surprisingly large pyschological gulf between timed and untimed runs.
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Almost ten days managed to slip by between Run Two and Run Three of 2014; it requires a lot of discipline to keep regular outings in the face of everyday life. And alas when I did get out it I managed only a mile before my occasionally-troublesome right calf decided it just wasn't up for it. So I had to walk home again with a slight limp. Disappointing, but failure is the foundation of success. I put ice on it for a while then had a hot shower and it feels fine today, so I'll rest it for a few days and then give it another go. 
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Stick with it buddy - try some light stretching before your next run
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Second run of the year. Cold outside and bright enough to see some stars over the light of the moon and the city, but not as frigid as some other recent nights. I finished the full 4.2K but the first half was hard. My legs felt heavy and mistimed, like an engine not running smoothly. I started to think about how it would be to be finished, and then it started to seem unlikely that I would finish. These thoughts are like acid eating away at a metal support; sooner or later it will fail. I managed to distract myself by daydreaming about things I would like to do in the future. I think when people say that running is largely in the mind, this is what they mean - that you need to distract your discommoded conscience like it's an over-tired toddler. I feel great now, even though it's late and I was tired earlier. 
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Glad to hear it. Post-run regrets are few and far between.... enjoy the ride.
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Amusing intro in the Herald today about the plans to knock Liberty Hall:

'DUBLIN'S first ever skyscraper, Liberty Hall, could be razed to the ground after plans for the site were given the green light.'

Razed to the ground, eh? What I suspect happened is that the journalist wrote 'could be razed after...' and then the subeditor didn't have the nerve to change it completely so added the explanatory and redundant 'to the ground'. They should have changed it to 'demolished', or the more tabloid-ish 'flattened'. It wouldn't have been tolerated in the Star back in the day...
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A virus designed to find information to help the creation of future viruses, from the same people who wrote the virus to attack Iranian nuclear enrichment... We are getting a glimpse into a fascinating world here.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/technology/stuxnet-computer-worms-creators-may-be-active-again.html
Stuxnet, a worm that infected computers in 155 countries and was used to vandalize an Iranian nuclear site last year, may have struck again.
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My friend works for symantec and first told me about it. Crazy stuff. For any non-nerds watch the video by Patrick Clair that explains it:
http://vimeo.com/25118844
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In 1954 an American psychologist called Paul Fitts produced a mathematical equation that describes the way a person moves a targeting device on a screen from an initial position to where the target is. It became known as Fitts' Law. He was probably thinking about aviation at the time he developed it, as he was in the US Air Force, but it became instrumental in the design of the computer mouse and later in video game development. It gives us a structure to model how someone would move an on-screen gun to where the alien is, and it allows the designers to help the player in little ways they might not notice. 'Friction', for example, is the artificial slowing down of the reticle when it passes over an item of interest, like an enemy solider. 'Adhesion' means that if you are aiming at something, the reticle will 'stick' to it slightly if it moves. 'Acceleration' is the factor that makes your gun move faster over a long arc but slower over a small one, making it easier to react and yet be accurate with your virtual gunfire. All of these are ways to tinker with the terms in the equation and alter the experience of aiming and shooting at an on-screen enemy.

I know all this because friction, adhesion and acceleration are brilliantly explained in a thoughtful essay in small book called 'The Art and Design of Gears of War'. The book came with the special edition of the game that I pre-ordered more than six months ago, when I first knew of its release. It shines a light on some of the process of video game creation, and what it takes to build a world.

I've dabbled in this myself over the years, writing short stories and even the occasional book set in an imagined universe. It's easier in some ways than writing about this world, where there are irritations like facts and actual events that may be difficult to understand. Easier to be the omniscient master of your imagined domain. But still it is hard to bring together a convincing history and culture to create something that is different yet consistent and plausible, and I was talking about that very thing with the Lord of the Rings on G+ not so long ago. And in writing, the minds of our readers make things easier because they fill in so much detail that we can leave out - what the lighting is like, how exactly our characters look, how they sound, what they do when they think no-one is watching. To create a game, all of those questions must have explicit answers, even more so than a movie where the director can decide exactly what we see.

In a video game like Gears of War 3, world-building reaches its highest expression. Thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars are involved in the development because of the complexity that they need to address - not only the culture and history and lighting and characterisation, but the artificial intelligence of the enemy, the range of the guns, the length of the levels, the different paths a player might take, the difficulty of climactic sections and a near-infinity more. From the book, I know about friction, adhesion and acceleration in the way the gun moves, but in each of the other areas are similar layers and layers of complexity, of specialised knowledge and study and experimentation. Expertise from a multitude of fields is required, and its ouput in many places is going to be sub-conscious to the player.

And on top of all the technical challenges, somehow all of these things need to add to emotion. There is an event in Gears 3 which causes a cut-scene to trigger, a pre-rendered segment where you just watch the action unfold before getting to the next section of the game proper. Usually cut-scenes are short, a rest from the action of the game. But this one was long. Music started to play. After watching for a moment I found myself putting down the Xbox controller and sitting back to take it in. I don't want to spoil what happened for those who are reading this and might intend to play the game. But for only the third time in my videogaming history - after Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption - I was genuinely moved by what was happening to a character I cared about.

I've had a few days to think about it, and though it affected me at the time it seems on further reflection unsubtle, contrived, the outcome of a set of steps in the story which were included to lead to this particular moment. It doesn't have the organic weight of a pivotal moment in literature. But the point is not that the character was roughly sketched or what happened didn't quite ring true - the point is that it's there at all. It reminds me of that comedy sketch doing the rounds on YouTube where someone first discovers there is WiFi on the plane on which they are traveling, and then discovers it doesn't quite work perfectly, and then complains about it. We take things for granted with remarkable swiftness.

I've often seen people wonder over the years whether video games can be art or not, often in long tracts of increasingly impenetrable verbiage. In my mind, that question doesn't really matter. A game like Gears of War 3 is already the most fascinating mixture of science and art in its traditional sense that I am aware of, a layer of story and emotion over a base of hard science and mathematics. I fully expect that within the next ten years there will be a game where each layer have developed to a point that it will have the same effect for me as a great book. That's an incredibly exciting future to look forward to.
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Sunny Dublin
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taken sometime in 2001?
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Stephen Flanagan

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2014 is underway and I'm six months into my new role and it's a quiet evening on Nutley Lane, so thoughts turn to the future. Earlier today I watched a video about some guys who are rebuilding the OS for the Cray 1 supercomputer, which in the early 90s was the bleeding edge but now is far outmatched by your smartphone. That's a lot of progress in 20 years. Elsewhere though, I've read some people speculating that we have been spoiled by Moore's law and the explosion of computing over the last half-century, from the lab to the desk to the pocket and soon to the body. Maybe that rate of change is not sustainable and we will fall back to a slower pace of innovation. I've been so immersed from childhood in the story of the world progressing faster and better as our knowledge of science and technology grows that I find it hard to even picture what that would be like. 

Anyway. In the often over-estimated short-term we should see more development in 3D printing this year. We're in the process of hitting the part of the development where the normal non-technical public gets frustrated with them and finds out (1) They're slow (2) They're expensive (3) They're hard to use (4) They can only print weird random stuff and not cool things, e.g. something ‘simple’  like a toy car with wheels to amuse the kids, at the very least. Headlines will be that 3D printers were just over-hyped marketing buzz with nothing behind it, like 3D televisions. But the potential is there, and the technology will improve over time. The internet likes to distribute things that are localised, and manufacturing is very localised right now. Before we see 'useful' 3D printers in the home (for a definition of useful that allows the fabrication of desirable things, so something most likely customised to the purchaser)  we'll probably see large, expensive printers in some collectively-accessible space, like we did with internet cafes. The move from there to the home might actually take a long time - prices will need to drop and printer quality increase so that it becomes easier and cheaper to print something rather than go out and buy it or order it online. We could be talking about decades here, rather than years, before a significant percentage of homes have 3D printers. 

Which bring us nicely to: drones. Stories like to hit in the next year: someone killed  or seriously injured by a drone falling out of the sky, someone using a drone to spy on their hot neighbour in the shower, someone shooting down a drone they found objectionable, mysterious drones being sighted at particularly objectionable places like a school or a beach, a drone interfering with air traffic control, calls from politicians for drone control. There will actually have to be some sort of regulation - heavy objects being moved through the sky by under-qualified people over roads and cities is not likely to end well. So fly 'em while you can, kids. I recommend the store at 3D Robotics if you haven’t seen it already.

Also in 2014 the death of social media will continue, except that it's not death at all but merely an evolution. Kids don't want to be where their parents are, so the procession of post-Facebook sites will continue. People of all ages are becoming more aware of privacy and identity issues around the internet. The early days of Facebook where people posted actual meaningful revealing things about themselves are going to seem impossibly quaint, they way we look at 1920s horror movies now and wonder if anyone could ever really have been scared by them. On the 2010s internet everyone knows that anything you post can and will be used against you unless you post it with full anonymity. And if you do that, how do your friends know it's you? Tricky. Partly it comes down to a question of risk. How badly do you want to send those naked pictures of yourself? This question though does lead to related issues with Facebook's long-term strategy because they can't continue to acquire ever large pseudo-social-network - Instagram, Snapchat et al - for ever, with Sheryl in the role of Canute trying to show that the tide will come in regardless. Internally they probably figure that people will have one primary public identity and other sub-identities for specific groups and functions, and that as long as they're the home for the primary identity and it's associated purchasing power, all will be well in the advertising future.

Stepping back, though, and looking at the 2014 internet it's tempting to wonder if advertising as a whole is its Achilles heel. I can't see from here how that could be, but if something fundamental happened to the way people buy things that significantly reduced the power of marketing, several very large empires would suddenly find the barbarians at the gates and not enough money to pay the legionaries, to stretch the metaphor into very dubious historical territory. What could disrupt advertising? There could be some grassroots things against marketing manipulation and being taken advantage of by giant corporations, but it's hard to see that getting any traction that would be significant at a global scale. Indeed, any change would need to be large enough to affect the very roots of capitalism and the societies based thereon, and depending on how that worked out internet shopping may be the very least of our worries. But certainly a lot of the online world right now is built on advertising, and history teaches us that even things that look like they will last forever do not actually last forever. 

But even in the constant change of the technology world, though, there do seem to be some truths that are universal. The idea of better business through storytelling and reaching people emotionally in a way that resonates with them has taken off over the last few years, and has formed a large part of my role at work over the last few months. We are all natural tellers and receivers of stories from our earliest days, and in that sense they are a much more fundamental way of seeing the world than the scientific method. The people who write advertisements have known this for a long time, but it's appearing elsewhere in business and in the development of people now. If only our friends in Dublin had understood the potential goldmine they were sitting on by asking 'What's the story?' We're moving on from a place where businesspeople can say they are driven by data and rationality alone, an assertion that never stood up to the least analysis, and business will be more honest and hopefully more engaging for it.

Certainly there are interesting times ahead, and we’ve hardly touched on the fact that wearable computing is the first step towards constant-access computing, where at every second I will have access to information, or that we're moving towards a place where the 'right' information is pushed to us rather than us going out and searching for it. (A threat vector for advertising itself? Possibly.) 2014 and the years to come will be interesting, God willing we get to see them. Good things come to those who wait.
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Insightful remarks + I always liked historical digressions :)
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A splendid London light fixture 
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It's tech geek book heaven week with the release of biographies on Jobs and Bezos!
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It's a curious one because a lot more normal people have heard of Jobs, but then Bezos controls the actual charts...
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RIP Steve. This is a good day to watch his 2005 Stanford address: Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement Address
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I've just finished reading the Lord of the Rings for the fourth time, and I feel as though I have returned from a great journey and must now pick up the threads and tasks of the everyday again.

I read it first when I was 12 or so, the copy bought through my Confirmation money. and I remember the surprise that there could be a story book that had an index, an imagined world deep enough to have its own language and alphabet. I followed the Fellowship through Middle Earth over the course of a summer, and when I finished it I went outside and kicked a ball around for a while and then I cried. It felt like I had lost a friend, that something special had passed from my world.

I read it again in my late teens, and then in college, and now in my early thirties, and if I am given the time I will read it again and again and again as the years and the decades gather pace. And yet I cannot say for sure what it is about this book that appeals to me so deeply. Part of it is that it was among the first adult books I read, so much more complex than Narnia and the wardrobe door. (A few years after my first reading I told my English teacher with the irritating certainty of one missing the point entirely that I had no need to read the proscribed books on the Junior Cert course because I could answer all possible questions based only on that one book.) And part was the time when I read it first, those early days of independent exploration, when a whole summer was a timeframe so long it was practically geologic in its endlessness.

Mostly, though, common to boy and man, is the attraction of how believable it all seems, as though it is a genuine chronicle from another world. I have never longed so much to visit an imaginary place; in all the reading I have done since, nothing has taken such a hold on my mind. And in many ways it is better than believable - valour and honour are the standard rather than the exception; all seems lost but hope comes from the most unexpected quarters; the worst of death and torture are possible but unexplored. It is a world where somehow I feel that I too could be a hero, finding the courage required to be part of the great sweep of events.

Reading it now I have questions that I never would have thought of as a 12-year-old. Why are all the women either ethereal things of uncommon beauty and power, or happily hidden away far from the action? Why is Sam content with his lot of being a servant when he is so clearly a man (or rather, hobbit) of action and intellect and ability? Why does Gandalf hold back so much and tell so little when open counsel would seem to be so much more valuable to those around him? Why can Gandalf and Sauron and the other magical figures use their power to see and learn some things, but not others?

But none of that matters, or it doesn't matter to me. Tolkien was a man of his time, and in his books he idealised an earlier time still, of honest men and women in an idyllic 'old England'. The harsh fluorescent-lighting thought of our own time tells us that such a thing has never existed, and that even to dream of it can be dangerous, twisting and turning to lead to the BNP. But again we come to Tolkien's crowning greatness - that in Middle Earth he not only wove magic and history and great deeds and tides of events imagined, but he took with him the best of what this world can be.
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You should have a blog :)
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