January 2009 Archives
January 30, 2009
January 27, 2009
January 26, 2009
I was a late adopter of Twitter, joining just a little under a year ago, and tweeting mostly about making tea. I’ve written about Twitter here rather a lot in the year since, either referencing it directly when discussing OhMyScience or my favourite STEM engagement project of 2008, the Mars Phoenix Lander twitter stream, or simply reposting things I learned from people I follow.
One convention on the service is to tag tweets about specific events or subjects with ‘hashtags’, short unique strings prefixed by #. For example, for the BIG Event this year we’ll likely use #BIG09. They’re only a convention (at least for the moment), but they do at least allow people to define ad-hoc groups around events or shared experiences.
Looking for that group, however, is not straightforward — the tools are lagging the convention somewhat. However, as an aide-memoir (and a post for posterity, for some indeterminate time in the future when this all seems so primitive. Perhaps three months from now), here are some services that help:
- Search.twitter.com does a decent job of finding hashtags, and updates the page to alert you to new hashtagged posts.
- Hashtags.org attempts to catalogue hashtags, but seems more about trending topics than ‘finding everything under a given tag.’ Twitter search also collates trending topics, but from a straight keyword frequency plot, rather than by hashtags.
- Twitter Groups looks interesting — using hashtags to define groups by interest rather than event. Anyone using it?
- Twemes is another attempt to pick out what’s hot and trending in the Twittersphere.
- Twitterfall is something that’s been asked for regularly — a constantly-running search that updates as a column flowing down your screen, so you don’t have to refresh.
Ultimately, I worry that the ‘trending topics’ type analyses can’t conceivably scale, as Twitter grows. I can sort-of believe Twitter Search being able to sample a representative proportion of tweets, but surely anything else is going to be flaky, with access to only a tiny fraction of ‘the firehose’? In which case, they’re simply showing what lots of people are talking about. The whole point, surely, is to spot fast-growing minority topics?
Twitterfall is nicely done, but I fear it’s not necessarily that useful in practice. If I’m following, say, #omc09 (the Oxford Media Convention), I’m more likely to want to see everything tweeted there, not miss stuff if I blink. But there may be situations when I want auto-refresh, I suppose. Nice to know it’s there.
Finally, there are activity aggregators, Friendfeed being the principle player here. Many people swear by it, but I’ve never quite got my head around it.
An interesting development is the next version of blogging/CMS software Movable Type Pro — Motion is a roll-your-own activity aggregator, based off the system driving the Action Stream page here. I’ve yet to play with it, but look forward to doing so — I should also play around with Action Streams stuff, and integrate it with the main flow of the blog somehow.
There’s something rather appealing about being able to pull content from around the web — people talking about your product or project, for example — and catalogue it in real time, on your own branded page. It’s a dangerous concept, but a powerful one.
January 21, 2009
January 19, 2009
Insight of the day:
Don’t waste time trying to influence decision-makers. Just make decisions.
January 14, 2009
Apple’s Compressor, which ships as part of Final Cut Studio, comes with a distributed processing/rendering system. In principle, one can turn networked Macs into processing nodes, and push compression jobs across the network across all the nodes. This is of interest to me because:
- I have ~300 short films to compress, to several formats each.
- I have four MacBooks used for workshops as well as my MacBook Pro; each sports dual-core 2GHz-class CPUs.
- I have a wired gigabit network.
Unfortunately, I’ve never managed to get Compressor/QMaster to, you know, work. I’d follow the instructions, define nodes, add them to a cluster, and … nothing. No jobs pushed, no error messages, nothing. Reading around the boards, Compressor clusters are notoriously finicky, and setting them up is something of a black art. Nothing I tried ever worked, and a year ago I gave up entirely.
But today, I read (and did) this page of set-up instructions. Now, I have four CPUs munging through an H.264 compression batch at ludicrous speed, with three more MacBooks back home in Glasgow to add to the cluster.
January 6, 2009
An obvious gag absolutely made by superb production values. Lovely. Great work, Onion.
January 4, 2009
I’ve written before that the key question behind children’s television — indeed, behind education, child support, national strategy, and so on — is ‘What sort of people do we want in the future?’
Clearly, we want the next generation to be willing and able to take on the world, keen to shape it in their own ways. But we also want them to have perspective and informed views and all the rest. You can fill in the gaps yourself, but it boils down to something like ‘capable, but keen to explore entirely new mistakes rather than retread the goofs we made.’ That sort of thing.
Now, formal education tackles core knowledge and (ahem) thinking skills, and lots of government effort at the moment seems to be directed at ‘not being obese’ (which is less ridiculous than it sounds, if you believe the forecasts). What role, then for public-service media?
For the decade I worked in it, I think the key word in children’s TV was ‘empowerment.’ It wasn’t often vocalised, but on reflection I think it was central to most of what was done through the late nineties and into the early zeroes. Commissioners and executive producers wanted shows that empowered children, that gave them control and authority, that made their actions count and their decisions feel valued.
Hence lots of physical action game shows, from things like Fun House to Jungle Run. Hence also My Parents Are Aliens, which was a delicious inversion of the traditional family dynamic, with the world-weary kids looking after their annoyingly-naive-but-strangely-lovable alien ‘parents.’ MPAA was regarded as a classic series, and rightly so.
Empowerment is good. It was a necessary mantra, and I think may be almost as relevant now as it was 15 years ago, despite ongoing curriculum changes in schools shifting more decision-making into children’s hands.
But alongside empowering children, you also want to inspire them. You want to show them the wonders of the world, and reassure them that it’s good to feel awe, or joy, or excitement. You want to show them what other people have achieved, and invite them to say not just ‘I could do that,’ but ‘I will do that.’
Empowerment and inspiration are parallel concepts, but I’d nevertheless argue that TV shows can aim for one preferentially over the other. So, My Parents Are Aliens was empowering, but How2 was inspirational.
My concern about Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab, then, boils down from this epic monster nit-pick to a single accusation: I think it’s neither empowering nor inspiring.
See, the achilles heel of children’s media is that it has to be entertaining — it only works if children choose to watch it. My guess is that the CBBC commissioners were so delighted to have a proposal for a science series that they thought looked entertaining, that they failed to hold it to the higher standards to which they should aspire. If I’m cynical, I’d say they fixated on the idea that the series was aiming to show that science can be fun — which is frustrating, since in the last decade STEM engagement has been moving on from that naive approach. Science is fun: we don’t have to make it so, we simply have to reveal that reality.
The show is entertaining, certainly. Much more so than I expected, I’m happy to say. This in itself is a considerable breakthrough, showing the powers that be at the BBC that factual children’s series can be something other than worthily plodding. It’s been years since anyone’s achieved this with the BBC, really. Bravo, Hammond & crew.
But the show doesn’t empower the children in it, nor the viewer at home. Not really. And while the big stunt demo is somewhat inspiring, it’s buried in the middle of the show and not quite treated right to form a ‘Did you see that? That was amazing!’ take-home.
It’s close. Closer than I’d hoped. But I think, in the end, they’re aiming for entertainment, and forgetting that children’s media can — indeed, should — be that and more.
Blimey: xtranormal. Write a script, embed actions, and have your movie rendered and played out by not-quite-Lego-minifigs.
Unbelievable. Could be a tremendous tool for script development and storyboarding, especially for first-time film-makers. I love how the camera shots widget allows you to pick MCU, over-the-shoulders, two-shots, CUs, and all the rest, without having to know what any of them are called. All very slick indeed.
The biggest achilles heel is the speech performance. It’d be incredible if you could record your own audio clips in place of typing dialogue.
The days of rampant rumour, speculation, and leaks leading up to Apple announcements are, it seems, behind us — there’s precious little information out there on which to draw. We’re pretty confident of new Mac mini and 17” MacBook Pro models; there are likely to be new i7-based quad-core iMacs; we’ve heard nothing, so far, about i7-based Mac Pros, but the Pro hasn’t been touched for a year so I’d be surprised if we don’t get something new there.
But that’s it.
In fact, most of the speculation has been fueled by just one fact: the presentation isn’t being given by Steve Jobs. The various suggested reasons:
- He’s ill. Really ill. (Calamity!, etc). I hope this isn’t the case, and suspect we can take Apple PR’s flat denial at face value.
- He’s stepping down/back from Apple. Possibly, but I think he’d make this announcement himself, once it’s already happened for a good few months. So, his not giving the MacWorld keynote would be an early stage in that process, but not the end-point.
- He’s leaving Apple entirely, to join the Obama administration as Chief Technology Officer. This one, bizarrely, has legs. It could actually be true, except that if you were Obama, would you really want Jobs as the nation’s first CTO? Surely you’d be drawing on the social networking & participatory media phenomenon that helped get you elected, and looking for people who understand that, not the core computer technology that makes it possible? Jobs is a product design guy, not a population dynamics/group communication guru, surely?
- The prosaic option: iLife’09 includes a(nother) huge update to iChat — call it ‘iChat HD,’ you know you want to — which they’ll showcase by having him deliver parts of the keynote remotely.
I haven’t seen the last of these mooted anywhere, it just makes sense. Personally, I think (3) would be a giggle, but there you go.
Oh, and as for the oddball rumour doing the rounds, about iMovie moving into the cloud and becoming a web service: not ruddy likely. Microsoft are heading that way with Windows Movie Maker — it’s now abandonware, with Windows Live! Movies set to replace it later in the year alongside Windows 7 — but it sounds like a disastrously bad idea. Video editing needs to be quick, interactive, and not involve transcoding or uploading gigabyte-scale files.
A quiet MacWorld, then? I think so. No tablets, no netbooks, just an early Snow Leopard giving kick-arse performance on updated hardware running new versions of the iLife suite.
I’m just hoping against hope for new Pro desktops, too.
Way back, I wrote a lengthy post tearing into the proposed format of the BBC’s first children’s science series in years, then titled Richard Hammond’s Lab Rats. My main charges were:
they’d already tried this, with the execrable Xperi-mental, and you end up with big flashy gosh-wow stuff that may or may not be faked, interspersed with kids playing with balloons. Ugh.
You end up testing knowledge, not problem-solving. Which doesn’t work with kids (see the full post for the fleshed-out argument).
A comment (thanks Malcolm!) has alerted me to the emergence of the show into the schedules. It started yesterday morning. Saturday morning? Huh. No wonder I didn’t notice it in the evening slots.
OK, I’m going to watch this on iPlayer, and write up my thoughts as it unfolds. Bear in mind that I will be all snarky, that hindsight is a wonderful thing, and that it’s much easier to snark than spot the things they’ve done right. If there are any. Also bear in mind that this will be a long post.
The short version? I quite like it. Flawed, but Hammond is good enough to make it watchable. A whole series of it, however? I’m less convinced. I think it’s an entertaining show, but not an inspiring one.
There’s always exposition and explanation and edifice in the first show of a series, but
4 56 minutes of it, before we get underway? Sheesh!
Nan! Hah! I laugh mostly because this is a gag we did in the ultra-cheap Discovery make & do show Scrap It!. Our nan wasn’t a ninja, but at least they’ve spotted the interplay possibilities. Much less constraining than ‘mum’ or ‘big sis’ or even ‘gran,’ oddly. I’ve no idea what their Nan is for, but doubtless we’ll find out. (edit: we don’t. She shows the prizes at the end, that’s it)
Why are the children shouting? Paranoia about them being meek is one thing, having them shout quite another. Sounds like the remnant of some early-format pseudo-military ‘Yes, sir! We’re the team, sir!’ construct.
The usual problem of the studio audience looking dead bored, and hence having to find a cutaway reaction. Whether to have studio audiences of children or not is something of a religious battle in kids’ TV. I’m on the ‘not’ side. I don’t think they add much, really.
I quite like the studio set. It’s a big dressed studio with lots of free space, which is a huge constraint and leads you to blandish solutions. The wall textures are good, though, and the lighting is excellent. There aren’t many lighting designers who can do this: excellent work.
Round One (6 minutes in). Fact quiz.
A fact quiz? Where did that come from? Unexpected.
Oliver the car is a character too far at this stage, unless it’s used later in the show. (edit: it isn’t)
Nicely-written explanation, well delivered by Richard: offhand but not dismissive. And hey, an explanation. It doesn’t work as well when the team get it right — feels like a downer after congratulating them. Again, Richard covers well, but it’s… very BBC, facts shoehorned in because they’re ‘good for you,’ not integrated with the show. There are better ways of doing this, I think.
“How many seconds in a year?” Leap year? Astonomical year? Oh, non-leap calendar year. Right. Fine.
Round Two (9 minutes in). ‘Mini Science’
Ah, this is the DIY bit. Oh crap, there’s a child actor. OK, she could be worse, but … you know, I’ve no idea how this game she’s describing works.
Hang on — another character?!
Wait — they’re hiding a home experiment behind a big studio constructed game? Confidence in their material, much?
Also: the first demo we see in the show — the first bit of practical science in the series — comes ten minutes in, and is… a balloon running along a string. The first make in all the lazy ‘Fun Science 4 Kids!’ activity books. Oh, crap.
They’ve handled a tricky script well, here. There’s too much to do — introducing this ‘my old school science teacher, only there was a time machine accident and she’s 12’ character, having her explain the make, and have the two of them share the explanation of the game — crazy complex, and it all gets a bit lost. However, they just about pull it off. Decent writing and Hammond’s talent save the day.
Explanation gets held over until afterwards, which is fair enough. Again, decently-written (paging Greg Foot: did you write these?), though sloppy not to see even a replay of the trick. If something’s surprising or impressive the viewer wants to see it more than once. If it’s not surprising or impressive, why is it in the show?
Wait, we have a 50-second lecture on Newton? With bored-looking kids looking on? What? Sorry, that’s a straight piece to camera about Newton’s Third Law. How the monkeys did they get that past the exec?
Suspicious-looking help going on in the first game. They’ve cut around it, but… eh?
If I was a kid watching this, I’d be wanting to know how they’re threading their straws onto their strings after they’ve put the strings up. As it happens I know how, because I’ve used the same trick myself. On telly. And I remember writing an explanation of it. If there’s something like this that’s crucial for repetition, in an experiment that’s intended to be repeated, don’t hide it from the viewer! Celebrate it!
“The reds look like they’re having problems” Do they? How can you tell?
firstsecond game thoughts:
- We’re 14 minutes in when it finishes. Blimey, that’s slow.
- Turning a basic make&do into a game is a good idea. Hell, we built a whole series around it, in The Big Bang.
- There’s one idea too many in the presentation, with some flannel about ‘saving your teammate’ when really, abstract challenges make more sense.
- I like the basic concept: my concern is that you normally put your best content in the first show. ‘Best content’ shouldn’t equate to ‘balloon on a string.’
Round Three (14 minutes in). Jetpacks.
Hah, nice gag with the crane lift and zoom-pull.
It’s Dick Strawbridge! Oh no, wait, it isn’t. Similar moustache, that’s all.
Hmm. OK, so not-Strawbridge has two fire extinguishers on his back, and he tries jumping. Only, we never really see the fire extinguishers (too cruddy a build to show in close-up?), and the effect is only seen from long distance. Which is never impressive. Fire extinguishers are violent, explosive things, making lots of noise — that they’re woefully inadequate for lifting a person would have helped frame the problem, but it’s thrown away here with a duff gag. Shame.
Nice graphics explanation of the (real) jet pack. Clear, satisfying, and very concise. That sort of stuff is hard to do.
This is a great idea for a stunt, too: get a jetpack man to dunk a basketball, with the ring at 30 metres. Funny, pointless, indulgent, impressive, and the sort of thing you can only do for TV. Great stuff.
Oh. We’re back in studio for ‘Will he succeed? Place your bets!’. This is XperiMENTAL, all over again. Nice way of allowing your stunts to fail, though — always a problem with straight factual shows. Impressive stunts involve some degree of risk, but TV execs usually insist on guarantees of success. Which perversely leads to less-impressive stunts.
OK, this is the first show because of the jetpack, isn’t it? This item is the bit they consider the strongest moment of the series. Hmm… that’s interesting.
Back outdoors… repeated footage? Unusual.
! Paraglider in the background, taking off, being distracting! Gaaaah! Oh, I’d be furious, if that was me directing. Poor sods.
OK, impressive stunt, but again, we’re very distant. No long-lens cameras at all, all the shots are the same size, and the sound is unimpressive — music is up in the mix, and the live sound is way down. Bad shooting this, folks. Sorry, but you’ve three cameras on the ground: two are on the same shot from opposite sides, and the third is a huge wide. Dreadful.
Really, this needed a bit of a candid ‘What do you reckon?’ moment with the jetpack guy. ‘Gee, I don’t know. I haven’t done this before. Control is quite precise, but flying with a ball on my feet? I might not be precise enough.’ Big ask, though — done right, it raises tension and gets you close to the action. Done wrong, it’s cheesy as hell. Scrapheap did this sort of thing very well: Robert Llewelyn was excellent at catching people off-guard.
OK, so the interview is once we’re back in the studio. And they’re gabbing away about having 800 horsepower strapped to your back, and how it’s easy to make a hash of it, and … gaaaah! They’ve shown the stunt as seemingly-effortless, then made it more impressive after the event? Isn’t that backwards?
Round Four (21 minutes in). ‘The Messy Messy Mess Test’
(catapult rugby balls across gunge tank, for prizes)
Richard’s really rather good at delivering straight-up gag lines. He’s uncannily similar to Will Andrews (Scrap It!, again), which is slightly surreal from where I’m sitting.
OK, this is a straightforward gunge-based kids’ game show game.
Nice live commentary moment from Richard. Brave of them to do that.
Oh, OK, no, they’re drop-ins. Still, nicely done — very hard to pull off, quick-thinking and lots of nerve involved.
Shame that one team basically can’t get the knack of the catapults.
Prizes, etc (24 minutes in)
Not at all clear how the points up to the last game work. Odd. Is this a game show, or a science show? If it’s both, it should work as both.
Prizes are ‘we went to the Science Museum shop, and bought stuff.’ Hmm, OK. They’re also clearly showing the packaging and naming the product, which I don’t think we’d have done so brazenly on CITV. Ah, compliance rule anomalies, don’t you love them?
Blow up the losing team’s prizes (25 minutes in)
‘Bidet goes bang’. Er… what? They’re going to gratuitously blow up the prizes the losing team would have won, had they not lost? What?!
Oh OK, we don’t see the prizes going in. Faked! Or at least, nil verisimilitude. My guess is that, off-camera, the losing team got to take their prizes home anyway. Again, there are religious wars about this in production offices. I know of at least one series where what the producer mandated should happen, and what the production team actually did, were quite different. Heh.
Oh. Blow up the losing team’s not-prizes, remind us of Newton’s third law, then roll the credits. That’s… odd. I’m not convinced by the tone of the teaching point recap, and Hammond doesn’t sound certain either. Unusually off-key writing for what’s mostly been a strong show in that regard.
Huge production team. Hard to know how many were really involved, though, these days.
OK, so: what do I think?
It’s a bit of a giggle, actually. You weren’t expecting that, were you, after all my snarks above?
At least two of the three characters (Nan, Miss, Oliver) are redundant and should never have made it out of the production office; it’s sloooooow, and feels like it needs another item/round; it’s an odd mix of gunge-tank and preachy/teachy, but thankfully there isn’t too much of the latter.
One of my biggest gripes lies with the direction of the big stunt. The unique selling point of kids’ TV is the ability to convene huge/daft/impressive set-pieces, and I’m delighted to see them do this. We struggled on The Big Bang: we never really had a budget line for it, after the first couple of series, so we gradually did fewer and fewer ‘lifting presenter with helium balloons’ or ‘dropping Land-Rover out of Hercules’ stunts, and the series suffered for their absence.
It’s excellent to see this sort of thing back on children’s TV, with decent explanations rather than merely ‘gosh wow look at that.’ However, merely doing the stunts isn’t enough. You need to make the audience feel involved, to feel privileged to be part of the effort — even though their role is simply to witness. They have to be involved emotionally, not standing behind the safety line looking on. This can be done much better than in this particular show.
However, in the show overall, Hammond is good enough that he mostrly manages to paper over the cracks. Explanations are present, concise, well written, and well delivered — enough that I could take a little more, actually (though not the bizarre ‘teaching point’ Newton lecture); the stunt is conceptually spot-on; and the whole thing moves surprisingly smoothly between demo and gunge tank. Only the make&do element feels shoehorned in.
Yet, oddly, it’s that make&do element that’s lacking. The balloon-on-a-string was one of the weakest moments, was early in the show, but was the only part I could repeat at home. If the show needs another round to take up the slack, it needs it late on, and it needs it to be make&do. The knock-on effects are pretty nasty, but a structure like:
- Intro package
- Make & do / demo round 1
- Set up big stunt — pose challenge, intro guest, etc.
- Quiz round
- Make & do / demo round 2
- Pay off stunt.
- Gunge round.
- Prizes/outro package
…feels like it would have much more pace, building momentum towards the end. It also uses the quiz round as a tense mood-change mid-way through the show.
Something like this is the sort of tweak you make after the first series, when you’ve had a while to reflect. No show gets it right first time out of the gate. Heck, The Big Bang evolved constantly, and arguably only got it right right in series — count ‘em — nine. Oof.
What’s worrying, then, is that as far as I’m aware they’ve made two series back-to-back. 26 episodes. Without a break. Ow ow ow ow ow.
…which also means that this show was, by their decision, the best of the bunch. You always lead with the best. I’ll be interested to see what an average show is like. Poor shows, well, we all have those — it’s the average ones you want to watch.
And I will be watching, willingly, and not merely for snarky professional interest. I’ll be watching skeptically, right enough, but I’ll be watching.
At the very least, I’m delighted CBBC have finally put decent money behind ‘science for children’. It’s the best attempt they’ve made in almost a decade, and the only such thing nine year-olds are going to get from ‘big media.’ Is it good enough? Is Hammond the new Johnny Ball we’ve been clamoring for? On the basis of this show, I’d say not. I think they’ve made an entertaining show, but not an inspiring one, and it’s inspiring kids with factual content that’s really lacking from children’s TV.
But we’ll see.
January 3, 2009
The crazy fruits over at Aquafados have a new application coming out at MacWorld next week, called ‘SnapFlow.’ There’s not much about it on their website as I write (one brief mention in their blog, from September), but their mailing list the other day had this to say:
SnapFlow is a new way to turn your videos into a source of high quality pictures.
Easily extract images from your videos, enhance them using the supplied tools, integrate them on your web site, use them for print or export them in bulk. SnapFlow brings photographic tools inside a digital video processing application.
Snapflow is built around the idea of workflow: if you need to use digital images from your videos, chances are, we have a workflow for you. Snapflow not only supports the extraction of high quality images, it also lets you create contact sheets, DVD covers, posters, etc…
Ooooh, shiny. I need a new way of extracting clean, deinterlaced stills from DV, and ideally of handling other formats too. I’m still using Evological’s ImageDV, but it’s increasingly clunky and hasn’t been updated in years. In particular, it can’t handle long filenames, which is damned annoying, and it never quite seems to get aspect ratios right.
On the other hand, its deinterlacing is actually quite good, and the whole app can be driven from the keyboard rather well, which makes it very quick to use.
If SnapFlow can replace ImageDV in my workflows, I’ll be leaping at it. All I really need is sane filename support (just add ‘-poster’ to the end of the movie name, that’d be great, thanks!), but (S)FTP support would be good too, or at least integration with Transmit.
Happy New Year, and all that. I hope you’re all in for the best 2009 you’ve ever had. In fact, I can personally guarantee that you are. Special offer. This year only.
I’m writing one of those ghastly ‘year in review’ posts, but you know — they take forever to piece together, and end up as one big list. I may not even bother finishing it, though it is fun to go back and re-read some of the drivel I’ve posted here, and try to work out what the monkeys I was doing all year. Well, it’s fun for me, anyway.
Normal service, blah blah blah. Hurray 2009, etc.