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If Findus made vfx

March 1st, 2013 by innerhippy

In the UK, the “Findus” food brand has become synonymous with “horsemeat”, which is the consequence of outsourcing the supply chain for the sole aim of putting price over sustainability and quality. The product may look ok, but it’s the result of deceit and exploitation. This is resonant with what’s happening in the visual effects industry where the “Green Spring” has taken centre stage since last week’s Oscars. One of the vfx facilities involved in the making of Life of Pi, Rhythm & Hues, filed for bankruptcy, unable to pay the hundreds of artists whose work earned the gong. This is scandalous as the projected revenue for the studio is $500m. In short, the studios have the vfx facilities by the balls, and there’s certainly no “market force” to help.

My interest in the story is in how this impacts the infrastructure that underpins the artist’s work – the software. I work for one of these post production facilities, like Rhythm and Hues, in the software department, in London.

The general view of vfx artist is that they are young, creative, highly (and precisely) skilled, available all hours – and crucially, they have mobility to follow the work where ever it may go. The industry is racing towards the next country that offers tax incentives and low wages (eg Canada and India). For these people, the industry does not provide “luxuries” like pensions, healthcare, parental leave, it does not nurture long term careers. The only people who can tolerate these conditions are the young, un-routed people – anyone with a family is not going to be tempted. The studios have done a great job in convincing people that vfx doesn’t have to abide by normal employment rules.

The problem is that this culture has infected software development. If you also treat software development as a relay-race for young people then you have a serious problem.

The software that runs vfx facilities is highly complex. It has to support concurrent specialised productions, stereo, high frame rates, and no doubt 4k as standard very soon – and the facilities are usually expected so absorb the extra costs. And as the work gets distributed around the world, it’s the job of the software department to shrink the world back, creating an instant, homogeneous platform that happens to span multiple countries. Forget this new fangled “Cloud” computing thing, we’ve been doing this stuff for years on minuscule budgets. Software of this complexity requires careful architecture, planning, technical expertise and continuity. Without this, your software becomes a hack-stack resembling the Tower of Babel that consumes as many resources to limp along as it does to react to new industry demands (known as technical debt). Everyone loses; the artist, the facility, the studio and the movie-goer.

Incidentally, I once worked for a bank (sorry), where the guys in the testing department outnumbered developers by about 4 to 1. The result was that in my last 12 months there, we had 4 system failures but only one down to our software. One. One! Software development in vfx is very different. We don’t have the luxury of “2 months in testing”, the timescales are sometimes measured in minutes, with artists impatiently tapping their fingers.

The studios have created a race to the bottom so that facilities cannot afford to properly invest in the software infrastructure that the artists use to do their magic, and it affects all of us. If you cannot provide a congenial environment for software developers, they’ll leave. We have plenty of choice in the market, unlike vfx artists, and we choose this industry because of the technical challenges and, mostly, because of the people. Developers can afford a lower tolerance of bad working conditions, but if you treat them too badly, they’re gone. Facilities, such as mine, are really trying to make this investment, but they simply cannot if the studios are turning the financial screw.

Investing in software is always a long term strategy, and whilst it may seem that developers are expensive, the real expense is when they leave. Staff turnover is very expensive. Don’t give them the excuse to leave, give them proper employment conditions, give them proper benefits, look after them, give them a reason to stay and flourish.

So should developers be treated better than artists? No. Everyone deserves proper working conditions and not to be treated as transient commodities, but the reality is that bad software creates a cancerous legacy that has damaging long term affects. Much of what we do is to make the artists working life easier, better, more efficient, etc – see it as our contribution to try and improve their working conditions.

What we need from the industry is fairness. Not exploitation. We are not horsemeat, we are people.


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ESTA Tourist Tax

August 1st, 2012 by innerhippy

So I’m off to good ol’ USofA on Saturday. Whoop, whoop.

Like any other foreign visitor to the US, I had to “register” my travel with ESTA by filling out an online form, stating who I am, passport number, where I’m staying, if I’m a terrorist, blah, blah. It takes 5 mins to complete and seems mostly useless. Ah yes, and you also have to pay $14 for the privilege. So, it’s just a tax after all.

You’d be right in thinking that $14 is not a huge sum of money in the grand scheme of things, so, so what? It’s all in the message dude. And for me the message says:

– America is penny pinching and mean

– America is obsessed with money, mostly yours.

– America doesn’t like foreigners

That’s not good, is it.

Of course these are all subconscious thoughts, embedded somewhere inside me – perhaps forever, waiting for their turn to have a say.

So next time I think about taking a holiday in the US with my family, I might just forgo the glitz of Disney World and settle for the tranquil banana trees and volcanic beaches of Tenerife. Or when I think about expanding my growing (and sadly fictional) international business, I might just feel that Toronto is – on balance – a better slightly better choice.

We absolutely need taxes for society to function fairly, but if those trusted with collecting them abused that trust, then folks will just try and, well, avoid paying them altogether. Sound familiar?

Often big decisions are made from gut instinct. And it is in my gut where the legacy of that $14 tax also lives.


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Beware the google book

July 5th, 2011 by innerhippy

Last Saturday morning, I was greeted with a message on my Android HTC phone from the Google Book app congratulating me on the successful download. What download? On further inspection, I was now the proud owner of Jane Austin’s Pride And Prejudice. Downloaded at my expense over 3G.

The problem is that I never asked for this book. Furthermore, I have never even used the Google Books app before.

It would appear that Google decided to download this book for me. Surely not? Perhaps there was an innocent explanation? A software bug?

So I contacted Google and asked how this could have happened, how I can prevent it from happening again and what Google proposes to do about my network data charges. This is their reply:

Thanks for writing in to Google eBooks. As the Google Books app comes bundled with a suite of Google apps, it cannot be removed from your Android device.

Please go to Settings > Accounts & Sync > your accounts > Uncheck the “Sync Books” option for each account you have.

This should prevent the Google Books app from downloading any more updates or books.

As for the data issues, Pride and Prejudice is the only book that will download without your permission. It’s about 44KB. Can you please estimate how much this data cost you and I will talk to my supervisor about compensating you?

I suspect that because I have never used the Google Books app before, they have decided to push a book onto my phone to encourage me to start using it (and presumably to start buying books). So I am being charged for receiving an unsolicited service – a cold call, calling collect! Would this have happened whilst abroad, incurring astronomical roaming data charges?

Furthermore, I checked the Sync options on my phone, and guess what – the Sync Books option is unchecked. Another email to Google, another reply:

I am going to pass this information on to our engineers so that they can provide us with the information you requested.

I apologize for the inconvenience caused and will put all the efforts from my side to provide you with the information as soon as possible.

To be honest, I never thought I’d receive a reply from Google about this, let alone from a real human, and I certainly didn’t expect them to be so frank in their admittance.

The crux of the issue is this: how can a company like Google with their track record for doing slightly evil things ever consider that this is not a totally idiotic and stupid thing to do. This is not a software issue, this is not an edge case quirk: it is a deliberate and cynical policy in order to gain profit. The fact that I cannot even uninstall this app  indicates to me that Google still don’t “get it”.

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Census 2011

March 12th, 2011 by innerhippy

Just got my census form through the post and the prospect of picking up my pen is making me very uncomfortable.

I came across this article in Computer Weekly:

Glen Watson, the census director, refutes claims that data would be subject to the Patriot Act (as it is being processed by the US company Lockheed Martin), on the following grounds:

“Under the contractual and operational arrangements we have put in place, no employees of Lockheed Martin UK or of its US parent or of any other US company will be able to access personal census data. The US Patriot Act could not therefore be used to access such data,” he said.

What he is saying is that they will be processing the data without actually having any access to it! Wow. I’m just imagining what the grant permissions would look like on their database…

So, does anyone know if there are safeguards to prevent our data from leaking over to the US? If the director of census doesn’t understand how a computer works, can I assume the entire operation is flawed?

Can I object to completing the census on conscientious grounds? (ie the conscious part of my brain is saying it’s being run by a bunch of fools)