June 2009 Archives
June 30, 2009
I’m on a train heading to the World Conference of Science Journalists, but I’m following the ‘New Media, New Journalism?’ plenary via Twitter. Obviously. A couple of people ( @franknorman, @emmapotter ) have mentioned that the National Science Foundation is planning to distribute a large number of Flip cameras to scientists in the US.
This piqued my interest, partly because I’m hoping to do something vaguely similar in the UK, but also because I think Flips are so so close… but ultimately not quite there. Distributing them this year might, I think, set a difficult precedent for the recipients, and steer us into making a whole load of wrong-headed video.
Ideally I’d show you what I think is wrong in a video, but people might start getting angsty if I haul out the three cameras I’m carrying (including a Flip Ultra), and start demonstrating on the train. So:
Let me be clear — Flips remain the cameras I recommend to people starting out with SciCast, and my colleague Alom seems to be handing them out like sweets to labs involved in the pilot of a project we’re developing. Flips are terrific because they get lots of things right:
- Decently wide-angle lens, which places the camera (and hence microphone) closer than with most similar cameras. This is also why I prefer the Ultra to the smaller (but longer-lensed) Mino.
- Low-light sensitivity is far better than the competition. This is critical.
- AA batteries (in the Ultra).
- Surprisingly effective auto exposure and white balance. Mostly, it ‘just works,’ again in contrast to most of the competition.
Overall, they’re very well set-up for going from somebody talking to you, to YouTube, as smoothly as possible.
Trouble is, people making short science films don’t want to be limited to filming a person talking. They want to film close-ups of an experiment, or a wide shot that still features reasonable sound. Here, the Flip fails — the minimum focus is about 60cm, and the screen is too small to see when it goes soft. The screen also doesn’t swivel, so it’s hard to shoot from the hip or a low angle. Finally, there’s no microphone input, so audio is unfixable if the built-in mic isn’t enough. It’s good for somebody speaking at arm’s length, but anything else is inevitably troublesome bordering on useless.
I hear the same complaints about Flips time and again, from people who love them but have run into their limitations. I steer some of them towards the Canon FS100/200, but the low-light quality isn’t anywhere near and they’re now clearly overpriced at £280. However, I’m not aware of anything else below about £500. Crazy.
I think there’s a clear market for a Flip Pro. Something like:
- Same sensor as the UltraHD.
- Perhaps a higher bitrate recording option?
- Autofocus lens. I’d be happy without a zoom, note: ‘zoom with your feet’ is a reasonable mantra. Or, fit a little screwthread on the front and let people make accessory lenses.
- 3.5mm jack mic input.
- Fold-out & swivel screen.
- I’d be willing to forego an SDHC card slot, but that’s a tough call.
The hard bit here is, I suspect, the lens… and then the knock-on effects to battery life. But I’d love to see Pure Digital try something like this. With their current products they already make more appropriate/enlightened compromises than do Canon or Sony. Now I want to see them push the boundaries a bit.
Who am I kidding, though? The hard part, obviously, is working out how to sell such a product. The original flip sold into an obvious (in retrospect) target market that had a clear precedent — mobile phone video was rubbish, but lots of people did it anyway. Surely they’d prefer to make films you could, you know, watch?
A Flip Pro would be breaking new ground, and that’s an order of magnitude more risky. Are people ready for it?
June 19, 2009
Flossie’s gran turned a hundred last week, and the following day there was a big family party. She’s a wonderful woman, who brought the house down as she heckled her eldest son in the middle of his speech, for going on and on. He wasn’t, but that’s not the point.
Here she is, playing with some of her great grandchildren. Say hello to Mrs. Persis James, known universally as ‘Nain.’ She rocks.
June 18, 2009
Monks. On Segways. With fire on their heads. Playing Philip Glass.
Genius, if not just a little bit odd.
via — where else? — Metafilter, where one comment describes the performance as ‘debilitatingly epic.’
June 16, 2009
Glenn Murphy’s article in the Guardian this morning points to the Science Museum as an exemplar of science engagement, asserting that their learning teams are “internationally renowned masters of inspiration and discovery-based learning.” Are they?
Frankly, it’s hard to say. I grew up in the North of England, so I’ve no particular affection for the Science Museum. They have a terrific collection which I enjoy exploring, but here we’re talking about their engagement and outreach work, not their museum/collections work. I came to the wider STEM engagement world after a decade or so in science broadcasting. In the years since I moved across, the impact of the Science Museum on my thinking has been, well, minimal.
Most of the big science centres have hosted my workshops or employed my services, which isn’t necessarily a mark of anything other than gullibility on their part, but at least means I have a working relationship with them. I know their staff, and talk industry politics, policy, and practice with them on a regular basis. We share knowledge and experience through the mailing list of the British Interactive Group, on which all major national centres are active… with the exception, notably, of the Science Museum. I count three messages from them in the last two years; compare with 80+ for Techniquest, 100+ for the Centre for Life, and 70+ from commercial provider Science Made Simple (and… er… 230 from me and even more from Ian Russell. Oops).
These same contributors are notable by their active part organising sessions at the practitioners’ conference, the BIG Event — a glance through the programme will show much participation from the likes of Thinktank and Glasgow Science Centre also. Science Oxford, meanwhile, seems to have a deliberate policy of aiming for the most memorable sessions in any given year.
Traditionally, the Science Museum don’t much engage with this community. They do their own thing, but they don’t talk to us. Part of this is undoubtedly down to a cliquiness — perceived or actual — of the BIG regulars, but it’s a few years since the Science Museum re-engaged with BIG, and their level of participation is starting to look odd. It’s not just a BIG thing, either, as they’re not noticeably involved with next week’s British Science Association Science Communication Conference.
Hence: the Science Museum are not, one would have to say, significant behind-the-scenes contributors to the STEM engagement community, at least within the UK. I could have learned about some of their projects if I’d been willing to trek to Milan for the ECSITE conference the other week, but the Science Museum’s participation in the UK scene appears to be minimal.
Surprised? Me too.
I’m delighted, therefore, that they’re delivering one of their shows at the BIG Event this year. It’s high time we saw them engage with their peers and fellow practitioners, discuss approaches and insights, and contribute to the advancement of the sector.
In particular, there’s a standard conception in STEM engagement that ‘it would all be OK if only we were properly funded.’ This is, I believe, dangerously lazy thinking, and the Science Museum could contribute significantly by showing that even with core funding, centres must continue to grapple with quality and development issues.
They’re also one of the few centres to dip their toes into the murky waters of online media, but there’s little sign they’re willing to share any lessons they may have learned or challenges they may be facing with the wider sector. Business imperative, or missed opportunity?
I’m not sure we’d trust the Science Museum to lead the community — those of us outside the capital are fed up of London-centric management — but let’s go for participation, shall we? We can haggle about leadership later, once we’ve established who leads at what.
Author Glenn Murphy writes in the Guardian today:
You see, since the very beginnings of science education and the so-called Public Understanding of Science movement, the whole approach has essentially been an argument to ethos. Never mind what science is, you should learn it because it’s good for you. It’s the educational equivalent of shouting: “Eat your greens!”
Straw man. This hasn’t been the conception of science engagement for years. Perhaps a decade or more.
Instead, why not begin lessons, discussions or curricula with appeals to logos and pathos? Discuss why science is important, don’t just assert that it is - kids are too smart for that. Have them consider why they should bother with science, how their lives can be enriched and improved - what has science ever done for us, and what’s in it for them? And make it personal. Why did you study science? What was in it for you?
This isn’t going well, is it? By which I mean: this isn’t original thinking. However, stick with it, it gets better:
Above all, don’t make it feel like a lesson to be learned. Make it an emotional - yes, emotional - journey of discovery.
Ah. Now this — this is both valid and interesting. Also, the subject of at least one current doctoral thesis (no, not mine. You know who you are, and if you’re reading this, you’ll know that I’ll rant at you for faffing about. Paul).
The article’s worth reading, if only as a useful summary of the sorts of discussions one has with newcomers to the STEM engagement field. It’s rather brazenly a plug/love-in between the author and the Science Museum, the branding of which is plastered all over the author’s books, but so it goes.
Speaking of the Science Museum… actually, that’s another post.
June 10, 2009
Quick post pointer to Little Wheel — a simple Flash interactive story/game with a thoroughly charming style. Help the robots!
June 5, 2009
I love the last line of this BBC News story about a school soliciting encouragement from celebrities for their GCSE candidates.
That is all.
June 3, 2009
The BBC’s new science magazine series is finally official, and it’s not called Tomorrow’s World.
I’m not working on the show, but some good people are. I am, however, helping connect a bunch of academics with the BBC’s web team. More later.