Sunday, 21 December 2008

Winter break

It looks like I may have been unsuccessful in my attempt to defeat the Cowell. Cohen must be making a bit of cash this Christmas though.

There won't be any posts around here until the middle of January as I'm getting married in a few hours and off n my honeymoon tomorrow. Have a nice Christmas and New Year all of y'all

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Don't let Simon Cowell steal Christmas...

.. with the cynical cover of the Leonard Cohen classic 'Hallelujah'. As of Monday the 17th, the winner of the ITV karaoke show X-Factor will release a cover of the aforementioned song as part of the annual strategy to convert the success of the show into the sale of musical units. Now, I'm sure Cohen isn't too bothered about his song being transformed into a highly polished and compressed equivalent of a musical turd by this year's winner, Alexandra Burke, after all there are royalties at stake here. However, there already exists a quintessential cover of the track by the deceased legend, Jeff Buckley - listen to it in full here.

I suggest that if you are going to buy the Hallelujah track this Christmas, you buy the Buckley version, which is sublime. Cohen will get the royalties from this track too so it's a win-win situation for him (and he needs it after his ex-manager stole about £5 million from him - good job he converted to Buddhism to transcend the confines of the material world).

There's a live version of the Buckley version here. Sony won't let the official video be embeddable over on YouTube:

I know I'm not alone in deploring the cynical attempt to bag the Christmas number 1 as there have been numerous Facebook groups setup. It's a fairly standard marketing ploy used by the show's creators over the past 5 years. Some feature petitions against the stunt which are going to achieve little. One group has decided to help do something affirmative by linking to a few online shops where you can purchase the Buckley version, which I will attempt to improve upon here:

7digital - £0.89 for the 4 min 15 sec abridged version in high quality 320kbps mp3 format

Tunetribe - £0.49 for the 6 min 52 sec full album version in WMA format, loaded with DRM (no good for iPod/iPhone owners)

iTunes - £0.79 for the 6 min 52 sec full album version in AAC format, also protected with DRM (but iPod friendly-ish), encoded at 128 kbps.

Amazon - £0.79 for the 6 min 52 sec full album version in 256 kbps mp3 format with no DRM restrictions.

Play - £0.65 for the 6 min 52 sec full album version in high quality 320 kbps mp3 format

HMV - £0.69 for the 6 min 52 sec full album version in high quality 320 kbps mp3 format

Go on, do yourself a favour and discover a wonderful version of the song. Don't forget to wait until Monday the 15th to buy it in order for it to be chart eligible.

I'm sure Alexandra Burke can sing and I wish her all the best for the future, I just object to the Cowell machine doing this kind of thing year after year. Stop Cowell being the Grinch this year!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

New Terminator: Salvation trailer

From the look of the new longer trailer it seems like the future world predicted in the first two Terminator movies (I have blanked the travesty of the third from my mind) has been altered.

I was hoping there would be some kind of cross-over or interplay with the excellent TV show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I thought I spied Stephaine Jacobsen who plays the suspicious human agent, Jesse, sent back from the future in the trailer (around 1 min 30 secs in) but imdb doesn't corroborate that idea. The fact that Season 2 of the television series is full of potential double-crossing and suspicion of John Connor's motives led me to think that the future the previous films promised had been changed significantly following the time traveling antics of the humans.

There could be lots of scope to explain the roles of Riley and Jesse in the movie but I guess the producers will ring-fence the two franchises and keep them relatively independent of each other. Shame, as Summer Glau makes a good Terminator

Oh yeah, there's also a video game tie-in dropping in May 2009

Saturday, 6 December 2008

MAC301 essay question 3

For any of the students interested in tackling the third essay question (the one with the McLuhan quote about the media being put out before it is thought out), I just want to recommend the Guardian Tech Weekly podcast. This week the team look at the problems facing new media start-ups in light of the economic downturn and they have an interview with the man behind micro-blogging service Twitter, Biz Stone. This comes on the back of the failed potentail acquistion of Twitter by Facebook.

Get the podcast from here

The Guardian are not the only media platform discussing the role of Twitter this week. Over on the BBC's Digital Planet, they were looking at the role Twitter played in keeping people informed during the recent Mumbai terror attacks. You can catch that show here, or at least until the iPlayer 7 day rule kicks in. Radio 4's The Media Show also has a feature on it - get it here (same rules apply, I think)

The use of social media tools during the Mumbai incident has caused a stir. The Guardian's PDA blog talks about the use of unsubstantiated claims from the general public here. The Independent's Tom Sutcliffe has been very critical in his opinion piece here.

Torturous sci-fi (MAC387)

One of the main themes I'm going to be exploring in next week's lecture on MAC387, the Science-Fiction Television module, is the necessity of human suffering. More specifically, I'm going to be looking at the use of torture as a plot device in the recent re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica.

It seems to me that the human suffering, or at least the very threat of human suffering plays an active role in those US television shows which are affiliated with the fantasy and science-fiction genres. Of course, human suffering is not restricted to these genres - after all the Fox show 24, has long used the device as an essential plot point. Jack Bauer both tortures and is tortured throughout the 6 series that have aired to date. I'll never forget the impact that Season 1 Episode 11 (10:00am) had on me, when Jack threatens the business man Ted Coffell with the Gulag technique - pulling the acid from the stomach up the windpipe using little more than a cloth. It was the idea or the threat of violence which was more affective rather than later episodes which 'showed' rather than 'told'.

Anyway, this post is mainly a listing exercise. I thought I'd put a few memorable torture sequences from fantasy/sci-fi series up here just in case I forget them during next week's sessions. Also, as the essay question I set deals with this issue I thought it would be a good place for students to find relevant examples. I've already lost a set of ideas/episodes that I had written down on a post-it note so the digital version might fare a little better

Battlestar Galactica Season 1 Episode 8 'Flesh and Blood'

Battlestar Galactica Season 2 Episode 10 'Pegasus'

Battlestar Galactica Season 3 Episode 13 'Taking A Break Form All Your Worries'
Video below

Firefly Season 1 Epsiode 10 'War Stories'

Lost Season 1 Episode 8 'Confidence Man'

Video below

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 2 Episode 4 'Allison From Palmdale'

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles Season 2 Episode 9 ' Complications'

Stargate SG1 Season 7 Episode 11/12 'Evolution 1 + 2'

Heroes Season 2 Episode 2 'Lizards'

Heroes Season 2 Episode 9 'Cautionary Tales'
Video below

Heroes Season 3 Episode 10 'It's Coming'

Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 6 'Chain of Command Part 1 + 2'

If you can think of any more stand out sci-fi/fantasy shows with scenes of torture be sure to let me know.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Far Cry 2 southern map (Bowa-Seko)

Apologies for the indulgent post, but this post is mainly for people having problems locating diamonds in the game Far Cry 2. Very little else. There's a small, scaled-down version below but you find a bigger file after the break.

After looking around the web I couldn't find a complete map of the south section (Bowa-Seko) of Far Cry 2, showing the diamond locations, etc. I could find lots of small subsection based maps so I quickly chopped them up and edited them into a larger 3x3 map which can be found as an attachment on this page.

It's not great but it might be a useful guide for other players.
You can download a 1200x1200 jpeg version from here. The file is about 1.3mb in size.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Can women in games ever be more than 'tits and ass in a steel bikini'?

A provocative blog post title? It's inspired from a quote by Tom Farrer, the producer of the recent first person 'parkour' inspired video game, Mirror's Edge. Farrer was responding to an MTV interview which referred to the different designs of the game's central protagonist, Faith.

The initial design, by the Swedish developers D.I.C.E., had the Asian character Faith looking quite distinct and supposedly orientated around Western concepts of beauty - a little bit edgy with facial tattoos and an athletic physique. The end result was a Western conception of Oriental beauty - something which is frequently criticised by gamers from different geographic regions. A few sites have carried series of contrasting pictures dealing with the idealised notion of beauty (see Kotaku, Joystiq, etc).

A different version of Faith appeared on a message board, produced by a Korean gamer, which depicted what he thought was a more appealing depiction of Asian female beauty. As you should be able to see from the images, the amended picture loses the facial tattoo, has a narrower jaw-line, larger eyes, a smaller nose and significantly larger breasts. The story is timely given the recent release of the latest Lara Croft game in the successful Tomb Raider series (despite the review scandal), no stranger to having been edited by fans.

The MTV interview with Farrer was quite revealing. He wasn't exactly overjoyed that the character design his team had worked on in an attempt to make Faith seem 'human ... more real' was rejected in favour of the new version. The following extract is taken from the MTV interview with Farrer:
We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing.

“We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real. It was just kind of depressing that someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job. That was kind of what that image looked to me.
What is interesting about Farrer's comment is the focus on the increased breast size - it seems to sidestep the more pressing issue about the rights and wrongs of pandering to stereotypical depictions of ethnicity within representational forms. Lots of blog discussions followed the initial posting of the comparisons last month in which questions over which of the images was 'more real'.

We have to ask whether or not this visual preference of one Korean gamer is significant? Does it merely pander to juvenile concerns (inflated breasts) or does it raise more intersecting issues about enforcing ideals of beauty onto ethnic 'others' (part of a process which Edward Said referred to as 'Orientalism')? Can Occidental designers ever transcend their geography?

What does this tell us about the perception of women in games? Is it symptomatic of what Dmitri Williams refers to as the 'consistent pattern of male technocratic privilege' typical of gaming culture? In a conversation I had about the issue with a colleague, Dr Vicky Ball, she noted that the images were interesting in that they pointed to how the inescapable codes of femininity appear regularly in media depictions of the female form. The amended image almost seems to want to bring about a retraditionalisation of gender codes, in terms of the established binary divisions which seem to exist between Eastern and Western conceptions of beauty.

This seems to be precisely the opposite intention of D.I.C.E.'s initial design, however, when one culture attempts to aestheticise another there is always going to be some contentious issues raised about the legitimacy of the output.

Monday, 24 November 2008

MAC301: GW2 and Al-Jazeera

This is a real quick post mainly to say that I've uploaded tomorrow's lecture slides to Slideshare and the VLE. They were pretty hefty at 7 mb due to the hi-res photos I used so some of the slides haven't processed properly, which is a shame. You should be able to see most of them below.

You might have to forgive the stupid type-o!

The advantage of Slideshare is that it forms a handy little repository of previous lectures I've written, some of which may be related to the current topic. I've also assembled a video playlist of related material over on YouTube which I will embed here too:

There's always a few quality control issues with public playlists, but, putting that aside, there should be an underlying logic in the selection. Most of it focusses on the ways in which Western media outlets were strategic pawns in a military managed game, with Arabic media outlets (and the blogosphere) offering useful alternates.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Ethnographic study into new media use amongst the young

I noticed a tweet by Howard Rheingold today which alerted me to a new study published by the MacArthur Foundation entitled 'Living and Learning with New Media'. The study was headed up by the cultural anthropologist Mizuku Ito, with a number of contributions from Heather Horst
Matteo Bittanti, danah boyd, and more (28 in total!). boyd has a variant of her contribution hosted here entitled 'Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life'

The larger project was started back in 2005 with the goal being to gain an understanding of
youth new media practices in the U.S. by engaging in ethnographic research across a diverse range of youth populations, sites, and activities
The study looks at the different media ecologies young people negotiate with on an everyday basis, taking in themes such as intimacy, friendship online, families, gaming and more. It promises to be quite interesting and initial press response has been quite positive in claiming the report should placate worried parents obsessing over the amount of time kids seem to spend using technologies and going online.

The project will culminate in a book to be published by MIT Press (entitled Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media) later in the year, but for now there is plenty material to get to grips with.

A short two page summary of the findings can be located here

A 58 page summary white paper can be accessed here

The final report can be found here (handily divided into quick access subsections)

The MacArthur Foundation's press release material can be found here with some video interviews with Ito. I've embedded one below:

This clip below is from June 2007 when the project was in its second year:

The study aims to look at how teenagers are using technology from the perspective of the participants rather than some distanced, academic viewpoint. Any of my students on MAC201 wondering what kind of case studies they should be thinking about for assessment 2, then look no further.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

War reporting essay

I've been away a while... Work has been manic the past month but I thought I'd update the blog with some advice for those Journalism students taking MAC373: Media Ethics and Contexts, who plan on attempting the following question:
2. Habermas (2004) claimed ‘the critical state of a democracy can be measured by taking the pulse of the life of its political public sphere’. He also claimed ‘the public sphere serves those who have gained prominence as a stage for self-presentation’. How does the public’s right to participate in political life measure up against the journalist’s responsibility to serve the democratic process when considering sensitive stories?

A good answer is likely to consider the role and responsibilities of journalists in informing the democratic process. It may be advantageous to consider these issues against the backdrop of examples whereby the media appear complicit in preventing the public from accessing accurate information in a timely manner, for instance the news that Prince Harry was serving in Helmand, Afghanistan
Most of the material I have covered on the module to date has been informed by the core concern of democratic action within public life as informed by the media. Obviously, the work of Habermas on the 'public sphere' is important to this essay in that it serves as the theoretical basis for starting the investigation. Those students on MAC373 attempting this question will need to engage with Habermas' ideas in some form in order to complete the assignment.

I've posted copies of the slides used in the session on war reporting as a way of showing one way into the assignment:
Mac373 Reporting War 2008
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: war mac373)

You can find all of my presentations in the relevant folders in the MAC373 module space on WebCT Vista/Sunspace. I thought it might be useful for some of you to recap the ideas raised on MAC201 last year so I've included those slides here too:
News And The Public Sphere
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: mac201 news)

Tackling the essay

Some of the things that you are going to need to do in order to answer this question:
  1. Explain what is meant by 'democracy'
  2. Define the 'public sphere'
  3. Relate the 'public sphere' to the press/broadcasting (the role of 'public opinion'?)
  4. Consider some of the failings of the public sphere (is the press free from commercial concerns? do the public interact freely with news? do some voices/perspectives dominate the news agenda?)
  5. By this point in the essay, it should be possible to make some over-arching claims about the role the press plays in lubricating the cogs of democratic action
  6. The next stage of the essay should revolve around an example of your choosing - the only caveat is that the story or case study should be 'sensitive' in some way (ie politically or militarily dangerous, perhaps even concerned with privacy issues)
  7. You will need to engage with whether or not the public has a right to know or if the journalist/publisher/broadcaster has a right to withhold the information
  8. Is press freedom sacrosant?
The example you decide to touch on is up to you, but you might want to check with me first to ensure that it is substantial enough to suit the purpose. I have suggested that you might want to consider the example of the media blackout surrounding Prince Harry's 10 week tour of duty in Afghanistan, which leaked via the Internet. This is not the only example that you can use but it is an accessible one.

The story was thought to be subject to a DA-Notice in the British context as the mission was militarily sensitive, until the US-based Drudge Report picked up on an earlier Australian story and broke the news. At this point the British media opened up - there are lots of interesting newspaper accounts of whether the public had the right to know the whereabouts of the Prince, or whether or not it was prudent to not reveal his location for fear that it may endanger his fellow troops (see the links in the first slideshow above)

Was the Prince a likely target for the Taliban? Or was the stunt a PR exercise in order to raise troop morale? Did the media blackout even matter given the reports that the Taliban already knew Harry was there? Who really benefitted from the blackout? Prof. Roy Greenslade makes a few interesting observations in his Guardian blog piece here that you might want to check out.

You could also approach the question from a historical perspective. A famous example of when the British media dealt with a controversial story which might have been militarily sensitive can be seen in the This Week documentary entitled Death on the Rock. In 1988 the programme investigated an incident in which 3 members of the IRA were shot in Gibraltar by British special forces. Conflictual evidence led to public uncertainty about the legitimacy of the shootings. Did the public have the right to know?

You can watch the broadcast below:

Another famous example of a gag-order being served came in the Spycatcher case, when a former MI5 published sensitive information. The Times was carrying a story recently about a forthcoming book entitled Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the D-Notice History by Rear-Admiral Nicholas John Wilkinson which was itself subject to D-Notice wranglings, and has been subsequently delayed by the publishers (Routledge). A couple of weeks back The Independent carried a story about palns to extend the powers of the DA Notice system, referring to a specific example

If you want to talk specifics then leave a comment or send me a plan or outline via email.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Far Cry 2: marketing strategy or missed opportunity for retailers?

Tomorrow is the day. Yes, it is THE day. The day that Far Cry 2 is finally released. This is a game which I have been looking forward to for a long time. At least since I discovered one of the lead developer's (Clint Hocking) blog last year. In that blog Hocking told of his aim to implement a new system of narrative planing that would take the immersive dynamics of the game to a whole new level. I've blogged about this before somewhere, and Paul Abbott even went so far as to come up with a Narrative Manifesto in praise of this type of development. The game promises a lot and has the weight of expectation on its shoulders (not least since the overall design meant that the production and release of a playable demo was impossible).

Suffice to say, I'll be purchasing the game tomorrow. I haven't pre-ordered the game (more on that in a moment) despite several retailers offering extra 'exclusive' unlockable content if you pre-purchase, which is unusual for me - I tend to be a sucker for these types of strategies. It happened with CDs and DVDs - why buy the 'standard' release when you can purchase a 'rare' version in a digipack or a release with bonus features for a marginal cost?

Many CDs come in different packaging for the collector out there - I purchased Sasha's Invol2ver album in the 'special' packaging at an increased cost because it looked unusual. Better living through design? Perhaps, perhaps not (the CD case has been nominated for a People's Design Award), but there is something both appealing and irrational about good design and the assumption that you are getting something unique. I'm sure Walter Benajmin might disagree with me. However, there are two interesting promotional strategies being employed here:
  1. Offer added value to the consumer
  2. Stimulate demand by restricting supply
Strategic marketing

Firstly, offering people something which seems like a bargain (in this case the 'exclusive' content) is a great tool for enticing people to part with their cash, especially if they were willing to do so already. Now, they feel they are getting something extra. HMV's exclusive deal might mean that customers will opt to purchase the product at their store for a fee of £39.99 instead of going to a cheaper retailer like Shopto (£36.99) or a simlarily priced one like Play (£39.99). It's worth noting that Play is offering a different exclusive to HMV - a 'Steelbook' case. Nice to look at, sure, but not really that much of a gameplay enhancement. Not to be outdone, Shopto are offering a 'Collector's Edition' (£52.99) where the serious gamer gets the following for the additional £15:
  • "The Art of Far® Cry 2" Artbook
  • Collector 50km² map
  • Map Guide Book
  • Making-of DVD, including the development team's thrilling African trip!
This is all well and good but I'm not convinced it will offer good value for money. Much of the material which constitutes this pack has already been made available in various forms online (via Ubisoft's website) and what hasn't is sure to appear on filesharing sites or on YouTube.

I've already touched on the second aspect, namely that preventing gamers from getting their hands on the game in advance of its release prevents them from forming negative opinions about the gameplay mechanics. Lots of game companies release playable demos to Xbox Live or PSN in order to wet the appetites of gamers, but Far Cry 2 was different, or at least so we were told. Talking to Eurogamer about the open nature of the massive 50 km2 environment, Hocking explained:
"One reason is, even if we were to give out what you played today - even if we put invisible walls around it and said, here's the demo, you can go anywhere you like inside these walls and play it how you want - that's potentially right there eight-to-ten hours of gameplay. I don't know too many people who are willing to give away a 12-hour game for free."
Claims like that are in of themselves useful promotional strategies which emphasizes a good sized playing experience to cost ratio. This game is meant to be B.I.G.

The rub

I want to go back to the reason as to why I haven't fallen foul of the HMV pre-order strategy. This is mainly because the Internet has allowed for a good deal of flattening when it comes to the relationship between retailers and consumers looking to secure brand loyalty (I make most of my online purchases on the basis of cost and whether or not stores are affiliated with consumer co-operatives like QuidCo). It took less than a minute for me to Google the term "far cry 2 extra missions exclusive" and find a Sony page with a code on it allowing anyone to unlock the so-called 'exclusive' content. In case you can't read the code from the image it is: 6aPHusewe

If a company really wants to secure customer loyalty then it might have to do a little more than what HMV are doing in this instance. What makes this an even more bizarre scenario is the simple fact that Sony made their games machine region free when it comes to purchasing games titles. There's nothing stopping consumers bypassing the inflated European prices and buying direct from Asia at a 30% discounted price. Although, that last option make mean longer delivery dates and that tomorrow is not THE day after all

[EDIT]I unlocked extra machete skins by registering with Ubisoft. The code I mentioned above didn't seem to do anything on the PS3 version I own. However, these codes unlocked extra missions via the Promotional Content menu (although I think they do the same thing!): 2Tuw5esw and 96CesuHu

Pause the game, and display the "Map Legend" menu. You will see a new envelop legend labeled "Special Mission". Successfully complete the tutorial and a few missions. You will eventually get a phone call from a distorted voice that sends you on your "predecessor's tracks". Go to the envelop map legend location to find an old bus that is now a shack, and continue.

These are also dud codes:

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Separating data within the same column (Excel)

A Problem:

This post is for personal reference but may be of some use to some people. Occasionally I export databases into Excel for work related business. One of the things which personally irks me about this process is that data which would normally be expected to appear in different columns ends up all jumbled up into one.

This tends to happen when exporting info associated with student names from the SITS database at work. So instead of getting a set of columns clearly separated by title, forename and surname I end up getting "Mr Random Person" all in one column. Not ideal if you want to arrange the data alphabetiacally by surname. Anyway, there is an easy solution to sort this mess out. I'm working with Microsoft Excel 2008 for Mac by the way.

The solution:

The solution is to delimit the selected text.
  • Select the cell or column you want to split into several sections, then choose Data from the top of the screen, followed by Text to Columns to open the Convert Text to Columns Wizard.
  • Excel will now ask you what kind of separation you'd like (Delimited or Fixed Width). Select Delimited, followed by Next.
  • The Wizard will then present a number of division tools which may be suitable depending on the format of the text in the cells. Choose the Space or Tab options and select Next or Finish
Your columns should now be neatly separated and ready for sorting.

NB: make sure you have enough space to for you columns to expand out into as Excel will overright material in the adjacent columns. Simpley insert a blank column by right clicking the cell range and selecting Insert

Not a particularly exciting or even interesting post but at least I know where to find the info as I forget every time I need to do this...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Engaging students 101?

It's been a while since my last post, mainly because I've been back at work preparing for a new semester of teaching (it was Freshers Week last week too) and my upcoming wedding. One of the things that has preoccupied my mind recently has been the issue of innovation in education and how to translate that to student engagement.

I run a large core module for my second students (MAC201 Media Studies 1) which I have modified this year to include an hourly workshop which focuses on helping the students apply what they have learned to an example. I did this mainly because I had a lot of students come see me through the course of last year needing personal tutorials outside of my established office hours and seminar times, effectively doubling my work load, but also because I recognize that not all students are suited to the lecture/seminar/independent study format. A quick show of hands in the workshop on Wednesday revealed most of my students hadn't been to the scheduled screening or read the required reading material.

This isn't in itself unusual. However, there are 180 students on this module and only about 35 turned up for the voluntary session. Now, either this is because 140+ are so confident that they know what they are doing or that the 35 that turned up were those with doubts and were seeking clarification, or that it can be difficult to engage students in the first week back. Who knows? Despite this, I felt the session went well and next week's session will build on the groundwork covered yesterday.

NB: any students reading this can go to WebCT VIsta/SunSpace and access the additional resources I placed there for you yesterday afternoon

I'm also developing a new module at level 3 (MAC309 Media Studies Special Topic) and I've been thinking about a completely different way to engage students and assess them. I've been taking my inspiration from two people in particular, namely Howard Rheingold at Berkely and Stanford University and Tarleton Gillespie at Cornell University. Rheingold delivers two courses, one in Digital Journalism and the other Virtual Communities/Social Media, and its the way he gets the students to interact with the course and its materials which I think is innovative and advantageous. Both of those courses are powered by Socialtext wiki software, and require students to actively participate in their own learning by keeping a blog and a personal wiki which is assessed at the end of the term (along with other modes of assessment too).

What is impressive about this model of engagement is that it encourages the students to take owenership of their own learning and evidence it on a week by week basis, with plenty self-reflection regarding the learners individual responsibilities to themselves and their academic development. I'd like to roll out a similar format myself. Week 9 of the Social Media course even has students meeting in Second Life! There may be problems in implementing this as I am not sure if we have a wiki or if the University's PCs are up to scratch to run Second Life. My 6 month old iMac on my desktop at work can hardly do that.

I think that this kind of course delivery would help to avoid the the situation I had in MAC201 earlier on in this post when the vast majority of students failed to turn up. I'm going to keep an eye on the attendance for this module and see how the students engage with the material. I also have an online discussion space setup in WebCT but, historically, this has been poorly utilized by students. Time will tell if these measures will help the students.

Friday, 12 September 2008

The Media Centre hits Twitter

In a desperate (heh heh) attempt to stay current, I have created a Twitter account dedicated to the University of Sunderland's Media Centre. If you don't know what Twitter is then you can describe it as free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows its users to send and read other users' updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length (source: wikipedia).

Essentially, it's a publicly visible site that post messages similar like a mobile SMS, except anyone can see providing the y know the address. You can find the Media Centre's Twitter account by typing the URL into your browser:

The idea is that I will pass the login/password details around the Media Centre staff so that we can keep students up to date with things specific to the building.

The kind of things we might post on Twitter will include:
  • notices for last minute room changes
  • cancellations of sessions (staff illness)
  • upcoming assessment hand-in dates
  • notifications of events (guest speakers)
  • important dates
This list isn't exhaustive by any means and is open to suggestions. If there are any students out there who want more specific things included then send me a message either here or via my normal work email address.

I think that it's a good idea if the person posting the 'tweet' (the message) identifies themselves with a either their initials or a short recognisable acronym. I've been posting as 'Rob' but I might just switch to 'RJ' in future as its shorter.

Students can access the updates anywhere they are online, via their laptops, web-enabled mobile phones and iPhones/iPod Touches, etc. Data costs may vary depending on how you access the site.

If you think this is a good/bad idea then get in touch. I'd like to hear your feedback.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Twitter + Digg = Twiggit

I've just been alerted to a new service which combines Twitter with Digg in an interesting way called Twiggit. Essentially, Twiggit allows you to update your Twitter feed with any story you have recently dug on Digg. Cosmetically, it looks pretty similar to Twitterfeed which updates your Twitter feed with posts from your RSS feed reader. Now I had a little difficulty in getting Twitterfeed to work at first as there seemed to be a mismatch between the two services (which is now fixed).

However, Twiggit didn't seem to have any of those problems - it was very easy to get started (you only need your Digg ID and then you provide Twiggit with your Twitter ID and login details). Once you are in you can customise the service to update either articles you have dug(g) (Digged?!) or just articles you have submitted to Digg. You can also get Twiggit to update frequently, from once every 5 minutes to just once per day. This is a bit of a Godsend in that if you are not a Twitter fiend who tweets every waking moment of the day, you can end up with a Twitter feed which is full of automated responses and seems pretty depersonalised. Twiggit gets around that by handing control over to you.

I'm more of a fan of than Digg but I'm interested to see how these two services combine. The convergence of social networking tools are on the increase...

Friday, 5 September 2008

Raptr: gaming social network site goes public

It would seem that Raptr, a new social networking site (SNS) dedicated to gaming, has gone live this week after raising $12 million in capital. The site first launched as a closed community in February 2008 whist testing was underway, but now it's free to join for all gamers. It looks like the move towards specialist niche SNS has taken a step forward with the addition of this gaming-focused portal. We've already got sites dedicated to music (Last.FM), photography (Flickr), and video (Youtube), so it makes sense to include a past time which is growing in popularity.

I picked up on details of the launch via the good people at Gamasutra, who are reporting that Raptr 'works with thousands of games across multiple platforms including PC, Mac, Xbox 360, Facebook, Flash, Wii, and PlayStation 3'. The site enables users to track their own gameplay as well as that of their friends in real time. You can share gaming identities and achievements, and exchange tastes and other activities via social networking services such as Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed. I've configured Raptr to work with my Twitter account but had a little trouble getting the Facebook application to work. You can also download and install a desktop client for computers, which works on the free Adobe Air platform.

Raptr was founded in 2007 by Xfire co-founder Dennis Fong. Xfire is a useful tool for enabling PC game players to send messages to each other even when a game is running. This has distinct advantages over using something like MSN Messenger which would force the game window to minimize to the Taskbar. It also enables you to see what games and which servers your friends were playing on in real time. Raptr looks to give the messaging service a community feel. You can follow the development of the site over at the Raptr blog.

You can find me there going under the under the 'robbo1337' moniker. I have yet to play any games since signing up for the service so my Raptr page is a little barren at the minute. I was also unable to import my Hotmail Live address book to add friends... I look like Billy-No-Mates over there. I almost give credence to the myth of the loner gamer.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Google announces new open source browser: Chrome

To quote Mark Pesce over on Twitter, "Jeeze. I go off-line (mostly) for 24 hours and Google announces a plot to take over the (online) world? WTF???"

Yes, today Google announces that it wants to take enter the browser market with what they are calling a "streamlined and simple" browser that promises to be "clean and fast. The official blog claims that the web has changed and so has the way we use
our browsers to interact with it, so a new tool is needed - built from ground up in the best open source traditions. Watch out Firefox, Flock, Opera, etc - it looks like they have already used Apple's WebKit and Mozilla's Firefox development tools to build Chrome.

It looks like the recent developments of the Google Gears (launched last May) project has played some part in this new development . Gears is an open source project that enables more powerful web applications, by adding new features to your web browser and enables offline work in online environments

One of the proposed benefits of the new browser is it's multithreaded approach to task management. We've all suffered at the hands of Javascript causing browsers to freeze - this is mainly because most browsers work process by process. Once Javascript is executed it's going to keep on going until it does what it needs to do, and the browser tends to be unable to do anything until it completes, hence the slowdown or freezing as the browser waits for the Javascript to complete. When this happens the entire browser locks up, and if you are tabbed browsing then you lose everything. Chrome aims to isolate these kind of processes so that if one tab fails you can still continue on with your others.

Of course, it will only be a Windows-only beta-release for now, with plenty more development to come but I am quite excited by this news, and not just for what it means in the world of computing, but for what it might mean about the future of mobile browsing. It's been a while since Google first talked about their (Linux-based) Android operating system for mobile telephones and I can't help feel that there may be the potential for some interesting developments just waiting to be announced in coming months.

I am currently using Google Desktop 5 (with its useful applications/gadgets/widgets) at the minute and I can see a day when I can we can synchronize those tools and data across more than computers (like we can do now), but across mobile devices. Imagine the benefits of being able to browse your home computer with your mobile phone whilst away to find that important .doc/.ppt/.xls file which you can then open up on Google Docs on your Android powered phone? Very promising. Functionality like that would have saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

You can see a Google produced web comic detailing the browser functionality here.

Update (20:43):
First impressions - well there's not much to see or do now that it's here. There's not much in the way of customization but this is just a matter of time. It won't be long before someone goes all Grease-monkey on it, or something similar. One thing worth noting is the Incognito mode which hides your browsing history - useful for public browsing. Now, can someone make it portable?

Friday, 29 August 2008

iTunes: The song could not be played because the original file could not be found

This morning I awoke to an iTunes nightmare, one which has happened to me a few times before and one that has caused me to lose whole days trying to fix in the past. The problem goes like this:
  • Boot up iTunes
  • Select some tunes to play only to see an exclamation mark beside the track name
  • A dialogue box appears telling me that the song could not be played because the original file could not be found. I've added a screen shot below (click through for full screen):
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I scanned through the rest of my library and little exclamation marks popped up everywhere.

Now I have a library of over 25,000 tracks the vast majority of which were missing. If you only have a few tracks missing then, okay, you can merely locate each individual track by double clickiing it and locating the file in Explorer/Finder which shouldn't take you too long. However, 25,000+ tracks is a serious time suck.

I will detail an easy solution to this problem in a moment, but before I do that I will detail exactly what happened.

It seems like iTunes had took it upon itself to create a subfolder within my user designated music folder and was only looking in there for my music, hence it couldn't see the larger library - see the image below:

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iTunes had created a new directory at D:\My iTunes\iTunes Music when it should have been D:\My iTunes\ as it had been 24 hours prior. You can find where iTunes stores your music by hitting [ctrl+,] on a PC or [⌘+,] on a Mac. Alternatively click Edit - Preferences - Advanced - General.

I have only recently just reinstalled XP on my office desktop, cleaned up all my files and created multiple partitions - one for system files and programmes, one for data, and one specifically for music in the event that if something went wrong on one, the others would be fine.


My solution to this nightmare was rather straightforward. I've learned from previous mistakes you see. In the past I had been told in the Apple forums (by some noob!) to select all my files in iTunes and hit delete, then reimport them again (be selecting File - Add Folder to Library). Be warned, this is a laborious process which takes an age and also erases all your ratings, playlists, and sometimes even your ID tags. Not ideal. Apple have a related article on their support site which advises similar, but is more a touch more cautious and involves the import command.

Other solutions I have seen involve hunting down your iTunes Library.itl file and rebooting iTunes by clicking on its icon (either in XP's Quicklaunch Toolbar or from OSX's Dock) whilst holding down the Shift key. You can then point iTunes to the library file. This solution only works if that file is intact and not corrupted in any way. It is a good idea to make regular backups of your important files - I have a folder set up in which I keep a weekly backup of the iTunes Library.itl file in the directory above my iTunes folder (see below):

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This has saved my music collection a few times and I can't recommend it enough! It's well worth backing this file up to an external source somewhere too, in case you have a total hard drive failure.

Anyway, like I said, my solution to restoring my iTunes collection was pretty straightforward. I selected Preferences - Advanced - General, changed the location of my iTunes Music Folder back to where it should have been (D:\My iTunes in this specific instance) and iTunes automatically did the rest. I had to do a quick scan through the library to see if there were any outstanding exclamation marks or duplicate files, which took a few minutes.

There were between 10-15 tracks which did just seem to have vanished from my hard drive, for which I have no explanation. As I said above, it is good practice to regularly backup files - I use the free version of SyncBackSE from 2BrightSparks to schedule a regular backup of my music to an external drive. It's easy to use and a godsend. It was a simple matter of dragging files from my external to the correct location on my internal with iTunes open - they played straight away.

I did notice some other strange behaviour within iTunes' preferences. I always have iTunes make a copy of the music it imports into my music folder but this option had been disabled - see below:

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I have no idea how or why all this happened but I'm glad I spotted it as files recently imported from utorrent had stayed on my E: drive which I usually erase very frequently. I did recently uninstall Adobe CS3 using a WinCS3Clean Script before reinstalling. I have had a few system problems since then, notabley utorrent reporting its inability to downloadsome files (error: requested operation cannot be performed on file with user-mapped section open).

Problems like this are few and far between but they do happen (too often!) and it makes me wonder why I persist with iTunes. However, being a PC and Mac owning household, the benefit of seamless file sharing from the PC into Front Row is just too good to give up on. I love being able to port my music around the house via the Macbook, connecting it up to any of the amps in the different rooms without having to clutter my smaller hard drive.

System: XP Pro SP3
Software: iTunes

If you've had similar nightmares, or if this advice has been of some help, be sure to let me know in the comments section.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer and narrative drives

I stumbled over a short piece on the CVG website which was previewing some early footage of a forthcoming PS3 adventure game, Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer (Quantic Dreams), which seemed very interesting. The game places the player in the position of a female investigative journalist who discovers the house of a suspected murderer.

There were two major things mentioned in the article which piqued my interest - how the player negotiates the game world and how the narrative progresses in relation to the former.

Apparently the game has a lot in common with classic titles like the Sega Dreamcast's Shenmue, in that the player has a great deal of control over how their avatar negotiates the game world, with multiple approaches to numerous problems and encounters they face. The degree of interaction with the world afforded to the player is supposedly unparalleled:
The whole game places emphasis on choice and making true-to-life decisions. For example, when you approach the house you get the choice of whether to knock or ring the doorbell. Speech appears around a SixAxis-shaped icon and you can choose to speak as you knock by tilting the pad in the direction of the phrase you want to say.
One sequence features a scenario where the journalist penetrates the killer's house and makes a grisly discovery, only for the killer to return home. The outcome of this scenario depends on how the player tackles this situation. Should they decide to make a run for it, then the killer may hear and give chase, or should they decide to tackle him, then a fight may ensue. They could even kill him there and then which would typically lead to the conclusion of a typical narrative adventure, however,
The real interesting thing is that Quantic Dreams promises that, no matter what happens, the story will progress, whether you kill him, escape or are killed yourself. Yes, even the main character can be killed and the story will continue, says Quantic.
Now, an immersive environment is one thing, but this type of story developemnt points to what might be a unique experience, and has an ally in the forthcoming game, Far Cry 2 (Ubisoft). The CVG article suggested that the developers of Heavy Rain were remaining tight lipped at the moment although "the whole plot is effected by every scene that you play, and your actions have consequences on the entire story" which bears a striking resemblance to some of the claims made about Far Cry 2. Michael Abbott post an interesting article on a similar theme recently and is well worth reading.

The potential for games to create new forms of immersive storytelling are looking brighter and brighter. This is another game I'm going to have to keep my eyes on in future.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Are the Daily Mail suitable moral guardians?

Of course, the answer is emphatically "no!" but I have to ask this question after being alerted to another game-hating article from them. C&VG highlighted that fact that the forthcoming game, MadWorld from Platinum Games, has come under fire from watchdog pressure groups who are calling on the title to be banned. The monochrome title has an adult-appropriate level of violence interspersed with comic book style moments of excess. Think Sin City mixed with the 1960s TV version of Batman & Robin.

Which pressure group is behind the push? It's only Mediawatch-uk. They are favourite moral guardians for the Daily Mail so no surprises there. The report reads:
A new computer game tipped to be the most violent ever is being released exclusively on the so-called 'family friendly' Wii console.

Nintendo will dramatically transform Wii's image with the release of ultra violent video game MadWorld which, 'revolves around the themes of brutality and exhilaration', according to its creators.
Fantastic. Just when the Wii was beginning to diversify and offer content for the more mature gamer, the pressure groups decide that this isn't acceptable on a 'family friendly' platform. Great. I wonder whether the Wii is a victim of its own success in that Nintendo tried to change the public perception of gaming only to limit itself to games that look, er, cute (for want of a better word).

The Wii does already have some adult orientated titles, some of which are damn good. I'm thinking of Resident Evil 4, No More Heroes, Manhunt 2, etc. Okay, so maybe Manhunt 2 is not so good - I wouldn't know saying as it isn't available in the UK yet despite heavy cuts in order to meet the BBFC's demands. All of these titles are third party releases for the Wii - Nintendo doesn't need to make these titles in order to be successful.

I'm a little angry at not being able to even try Manhunt 2 because it deemed too much. No More Heroes, with its excessive gore was cut in the UK market with the executions toned down. When I learned of that, it actually made me not want to buy the game. I want to play adult titles on my machine but the morale opprobrium which besets such titles, often from a moralising media, acts to stifle choice. This was one of the reasons I ended up buying a PS3. That machine isn't beset by the problem of the family friendly title and can get away with more.

Sunday, 10 August 2008


I have been trying to get the RSS feed from my Google Reader posts to appear in my Twitter feed. I stumbled across Twitterfeed, a site which purports to do just that with a limited if fair amount of customization options.

However, I have struggled to get the stories to feed through which is odd. I'm not sure whether the issue is with Twitter, Google Reader or Twitterfeed itself. I was getting a few 404 errors with Twitterfeed yesterday when I tried to signup for it using my OpenID.

I have set it to update every 3 hours. I guess I'll have to wait and see....
[edit] It seems like the URL for the Google Reader page couldn't be parsed so I went back and found the correct atom RSS link and that still had issues. Oh well, looks like I'll give up on this one.

Also, Twitter addicts might want to have a look at TweetDeck, an application based on the Adobe Air platform. Looks interesting and full of features.
TweetDeck's killer feature is its ability to separate the people you follow on Twitter into groups—like "Don't Miss," "Co-workers," and "Chatty types." That way while tweets by the prolific folks fly by in one pane, infrequent tweets from people you don't want to miss stay bookmarked on top in another
Sounds pretty useful.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Let's start at the beginning...

For someone who loves technology I have to admit to being part technophobe. By this I mean that I never ever really got around to learning the basics of writing for the web. I have enrolled on a free very short HTML course ran via I have always been a WYSIWYG kind of guy but I figured this road does lead to empowerment. This will be the third attempt at this kind of thing that I've embarked upon. I never finish anything.

The course should last 10 weeks and will hopefully make my sufficiently conversant with the basics that I can spruce up the template for this blog (although I'm not quite convinced of this point myself). I have no desire to setup and maintain my own site at a cost so I opted for the free Yahoo/Geocities route. Tight, eh? For anyone who is interested, but really more for myself that anything else, you can see the work in progress over on Geocities:

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Free PS3

A quick post just to say 'ha!' to the customer service operative who works for 02 customer retentions.  The Playstation 3 did arrive as part of the mobile phone deal I ordered, despite the scorn and disdain he poured upon me when I asked to cancel my 12 month contract.

Not only did my free PS3 arrive but it came with a free game (Gran Turismo 5 Prologue) and a free Blu-Ray movie (Spiderman 3).  Add that to the two free handsets that came as part of the package and I think I did alright.  I managed to get a cheaper deal with Orange than O2 offered with more texts and more than enough voice minutes for my needs.

The O2 operative also offered me a year's free line rental with my old network just so the company didn't lose a customer.  Result.  That sets me up nicely for the PAYG iPhone 3G in November.  Ha!
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MAC281 essay help

I've been AWOL for a while and this post is mainly for the benefit of my students attempting one of the essay questions I set for MAC281 Cybercultures on the music industry in the age of the Internet, so apologies if it is a little niche. I've just typed a long email response to one of my students and I figured instead of retyping the advice every time someone asks about the question, I'd post the advice here and refer them to it.

The essay question at hand goes like this:
“Illegal file-sharing has been a key factor in the recording industry’s 22% worldwide sales declines between 1999 and 2004 (Source: IFPI), and the halving in size of the British singles market over 1999-2004 (Source: BPI).” To what extent is file-sharing a response to the failings of an industry predicated upon an outdated business model?
For any of my students attempting this question I recommend the following:
  • The first place you should go is to WebCT/SunSpace for MAC281 in 2007-8 sem2 and download my lecture slides just to get an overview of the material and keep it fresh in your mind. (I will upload them to the web publicly later and link to them)
  • The second thing you should do is read the 2 articles I mention in the sessions in order to get a good overview of the major arguments:
  • - Andrew Leyshon, Peter Webb, Shaun French, Nigel Thrifty and Louise Crewe, 2005, ‘On the reproduction of the musical economy after the Internet’ in Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 27 (2): pp 177-209.
  • - Chris Rojek, 2005, ‘P2P Leisure exchange - net banditry and the policing of intellectual property’, in Leisure Studies, 24: 4, 357-367.
  • I also recommend that you visit the websites of the major bodies who act on behalf of the music industry:
  • - IFPI (global)
  • - BPI (UK)
  • - RIAA (US)
  • These sources are useful for getting an idea as to how the music industry functions, and also, how it looks to blame their decline in sales/profitability on the rise of the internet
  • For an alternate perspective to the music industry, it might be worth spending a little time reading some of the reports which appear on the 'pro'-filesharing (I use the term 'pro' loosely) sites like the ones below:
  • - TorrentFreak
  • - Zero Paid
  • - RIAA Radar
Once you've done that then you should have a wealth of material to help build an argument.

Now essentially this question is asking you to think about the way in which the present music industry is organised. My lecture notes cite the BPI which give a very short definition of how it works - 'find, fund, promote,' etc. This is a great starting point. You might want to contextualise the music industry today - its pretty easy to find figures on things like total sales data of things like CDs.

It would be handy if you could identify who the big music labels are and explain how they get their money - think of the typical cost of a new release CD - who gets the biggest cut, how much do artists make etc? With a little background digging you'll find that the music labels and the multinationals they are part of have an active interest in owning the intellectual property of artists, which they can then license to various groups:
  • - The PPL gather revenue from selling licenses to shops, bars, etc so that music can be played there and that the labels/artists get paid
  • - Every CD a consumer purchases is a license to play the music, not to OWN it (the labels OWN it, and they let us have a copy we can listen to - hence it is technically illegal to rip the legit CD to a computer in order to put it on our MP3 players!)
  • - Radio stations (both live and online like Last.FM) have to pay to play
  • - etc
The issue here is on ownership - the music industry is predicated on owning ideas (music) which is then sold as a license to all and sundry. The industry is always looking to make money from these licenses. Artists are lucky if they get a fair deal, but they need the support of big labels in order to get heard (or at least, this is how the old business model used to work)

In recent years, the profitability of music has declined (although some might dispute this - the BPI seem fine at the minute!). However, most of the blame is laid at the door of the internet which has made it very easy to made duplicates of an original copy and share them (as mp3s). What this has done is its effectively undermined the power of the record labels to control the distribution of music, and subsequently removed their powers to set prices for access.

In the past, if someone wanted to buy a CD of an obscure band they'd have to go through a big store like HMV and order it from a parent label and pay a premium. The easy availability of music on the web had radically threatened that situation. Now, if one person rips that CD to mp3 and then shares those files, there is no limit to the amount of times those files can be replicated. Bye bye goes the major label power to charge for access and claim profits.

The internet has transformed the way in which the music industry has to behave. You might argue that it took the industry too long to adapt. It took a computer firm to actually compete with the pirates (Apple's iTunes) by making choice and availability at affordable prices the new model. The majors labels are not very happy with iTunes (they see it as too big and powerful, owning too much of the new digital landscape), but they are attempting to reposition themselves in a new market place. You can now buy mp3s from places like Amazon and You can still get music for free from the PirateBay.

The industry has done a few things to play catch up which are worth mentioning:
  • prosecution - it has attempted to catch pirates and make them pay in the courts
  • competition - the labels are looking to sell their music as mp3s in lots of places
  • platform convergence - the music industry is looking for new avenues to promote and sell music (think MySpace, the upcoming Facebook Music, Last.FM, Napster subscription, licensing songs for movies and games like Guitar Hero)
  • alternative distribution - some musicians (Radiohead, Girl Talk, Nine Inch Nails, etc) are even cutting out the major labels and selling direct to fans in order to cut out the major label middleman
All of these points are relevant. You need to ensure that your argument touches on these points. Mainly, you need to argue that the old business model wasn't suited to the new media environment. They are now beginning to realize that people want their music on MP3 as well as/instead of (?) CD. It might be worth mentioning the popularity of the iPod too - there is money in music, it is just a little less obviously hierarchically controlled than it used to be even less than a decade ago.