Thursday, 31 March 2011

Taking inspiration

I've been thinking about the things I hate about Powerpoint presentations and I've decided that, although minimalism can be attractive in some contexts, just having a lot of black text on a white background doesn't always help me take in a message.  Too often I find myself being turned off by what a speaker is saying if their presentation fails to show they've really thought about how they are going to convey their message.  This might be an irrational point of view to adopt, and I'm sure I've been guilty of doing this myself in the past, especially when under pressure to produce new content each week...

So, as I had a few spare hours (at least in theory) yesterday, I thought I'd try and spruce up a set of slides I presented to my Level 3 students on a New Media & Society module, taking inspiration from a few User Experience designers I admire from the world of video game design (especially this guy). You can find the results below.  The finished article took me way longer than I thought and I'm not convinced that all the extra effort (ie eye candy) was worth it.  Let me know what you think...

EDIT: For some strange reason, the embedded slides are showing some of the old template (slides 2 and 3!) instead of the new revised slides.  Click through to Slideshare and only the revised content is there. Weird. I guess this may be a caching issue on the site itself as I replaced the older slides from yesterday with these ones from today.


Monday, 28 March 2011

Stuart Hall thinking aloud on Thinking Allowed

Laurie Taylor recently had an interview with one of the world's leading cultural theorists, Stuart Hall.  You can find an extended interview with Hall below.  He discusses 'state multiculturalism', religion, recent conflicts in Libya and Egypt, globalisation, imperialism, British national identity and the ideologies of Thatcher, New Labour and Cameron.  This is 47 minutes of succinct analysis and worth a listen:

Stuart Hall on wikipedia
Stuart Hall Library

The basics of video editing

Over on Lifehacker, Adam Dachis has been putting together a batch of easy to follow introductory '101' sessions using non-linear video editing tools as part of their Night School series. These are aimed squarely at those people who have little to no knowledge of big software packages like Avid, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro but would like to know more.  These are some of the packages we use at the University of Sunderland so these videos might help function as simple intros for any of our students out there.

I've embedded all the videos below for ease of use, and included links to the original posts in the title:

#1 - Getting to know your work environment

#2 - Creating a project from start to finish

#3 - Effects and colour correction

#4 - Preparing and encoding your video for delivery

#5 - Additional resources

No video for this segment, I'm afraid.  However, there are some useful things provided in this post, such as a .pdf of all the lesson notes, and some hand links.  Go ahead and click the links and watch the vids.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Downloading Soundcloud tracks using Firefox's cache

Every now and then some of the people I follow on Soundcloud will upload a track that will never be officially released as a free or purchasable download, and my Interent streaming isn't always reliable (I'm thinking of when I'm at work, grrr).  This means that best option for audio playback will come from a downloaded version of the source.

So, I figured that anything that streams through my web browser must be downloaded or cached somewhere on my machine, meaning that if I can find the data, then I should be able to save that track.  This post will be a little tutorial showing you how to do the same using nothing other than Firefox 4 and Finder on my Mac (I'm sure Windows Explorer will do much the same job).

1 - Prep work

First thing to do, in order to make this easy, is I recommend emptying your Firefox browser cache:

Firefox -> Preferences -> Advanced -> Network -> Offline Storage -> Clear Now

2 - Pick your tune

Navigate your way to the appropriate tune you are after on Soundcloud and play it.  Your browser will cache the data.

3 - Locate the cache

Open another Tab (ctrl/cmd+T) and in the URL field type: about:cache and hit enter.  Under the header "Disk cache device" you should see your Cache Directory where the streamed tune will have been cached.  Navigate your way to the cache folders with Finder/Explorer (Mac tip: copy the text and in Finder hit shift+cmd+g and paste the text to get there direct).

4 - Find the recently used folders

Sort your folders by the date they were last modified and then check each of the subfolders within the cache for data files.  Some of the cache folders will be empty thanks to the prep work we did in step 1, making this a relatively quick exercise.  Providing you haven't used your browser to do lots of searches, you should see very few files, but their filenames will all be a mixture of random numbers and letters.  The largest one you find is likely to be the file you are after.  Highlight it, and copy the file your desktop

5 - Convert the file

What you need to do now is merely alter the file extension to include .mp3 and you should be done.  You can also rename the file to something more memorable.

What you should be left with is a 128 kbps mp3 file of the tune that the SoundCloud artist didn't want you to have.  If you can live with this ethical quandary then fine.  If not, please delete the tune and wait for the day it is officially released.  Obviously, 128 kbps is a terribly low bitrate and should never be played through a decent audio setup for fear of compression shame, but it will be okay for most portable media players until an official release becomes available (which you should buy if you love it so much).

#nb This should be achievable in other browsers like Google Chrome too.

Web blocking, Digital Economy Act and the judicial review

I've just written to my MP, David Miliband, about the impending Plan B for web-blocking. The Open Rights Group are currently campaigning on this issue and they've made it very easy for you to contact your MP too.  If you want to get involved, then click through this link and write to them (there's a pre-written email included but you can personalise it if you wish).  My letter is below:

With Internet providers like BT and Talk Talk demanding a judicial review of the Digital Economy Act this week, it has been reported that ministers are looking for an alternate means to block web access.  According to the Guardian, ITPro and other news sources this week, Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt are still considering web blocking as a serious option to tackle “illegal downloading” and copyright infringement 
Web blocking to combat copyright infringement is yet again being pressed forwards by big copyright lobbyists. Just like their previous suggestions, like cutting off people from the Internet, it isn't the answer. If anything, it will create a growth in circumvention technologies and services which may end up in a high volume of web traffic becoming encrypted or proxy services being used - which might hinder the hard work of our security services.
Music and film companies can already apply to courts to block specific instances of copyright infringement. They can also take the sites to court, and frequently do. They can even take individuals to court, and do. 
Web blocking sounds like a simple idea: but the reality is that copyright infringement is complicated and needs proving properly before a company is dealt with through a legal process. And what's more, such powers already exist, so we can safely assume whatever is being suggested will be easier for copyright holders and harder for innocent people to avoid harm.
And it won’t work. Website blocking can be easily circumvented by anyone remotely determined, but would be very likely to create means for competitors to harm each other and for companies to repress unwanted speech.
If you want to enjoy your current web freedoms then get involved

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

When is Dr not a Dr?

... when they teach Media Studies or so it seems according to The Register's resident snark. Orlowski is normally only worth reading for a laugh, such is his snarkiness and here's a wonderful example of his snake-like charm:
Co-author Dr Camaerts - he's not a Medical Doctor - is a senior lecturer in Media Studies who lists as his areas of expertise "trans-nationalisation" and "social change and resistance".
He was writing on a piece about his favourite bĂȘte noire, namely filesharing, and how two LSE Media Studies lecturers have called for copyright reform.  I particularly like how he makes the point that Camaerts is not a medical doctor - as if that would actually help in this context. If I want advice on my kidney stones I might seek the advice of a medical doctor, but not when it comes to piracy and the creative economy, for pity's sake...

He also claims 'No attempt is made to quantify the economic costs or benefits of any of the approaches discussed' - mainly because this is nigh on impossible to do with any degree of accuracy given the illicit behaviour involved. The fact that Orlowski asks for the kind of data that the lobbyists in the BPI or the IFPI are keen to provide indicates his entrenched position fairly clearly: he's only discussing this issue to dismiss any counterpoints without really giving them any credence.

I hate that I might even be driving traffic to his dross.  So, why not read the LSE page instead?  Or alternatively, read a totally different take on the report from Ars Technica, which suggests the downward trend in global music sales may due to many other reasons such as pressure on finite resources:
"Downward pressure on leisure expenditure is likely to continue to increase due to rising costs of living and unemployment and drastic rises in the costs of (public) services"
They suggest that only about 20% of the total decline may be due to file-sharing, which makes a lot more sense.

I sometimes think that Orlowski is the character of Freddy Rat Tooth in Cory Doctorow's Makers, an odious British technology journalist...

Monday, 21 March 2011

Founder of the world's largest bittorrent music site calls it a day

In a post entitled "Three years, four months, and twenty days", at 2:30am (BST), WhatMan, the founder of What.CD stepped down.  What.CD was one of the sites which grew from the ashes of the OiNK closure, and even went on to surpass its predecessor.

I've included the full post from the man who designed the Ocelot code which helps power many Tracker sites today:
Three years, four months, and twenty days
...Is a long time on the Internet. In that time, I've watched this site grow from a tiny tbsource site, buckling under the load of a few dozen users. to its current form - a record-breaking Internet juggernaut with over a million torrents. I've been with this site as it's moved country due to copyright threats, thwarted database crashes and hacking attempts, developed two cutting-edge codebases from scratch, hosted thousands of independent releases from artists worldwide, and passsed milestone after milestone, carving its way into BitTorrent fame. It's been one of the greatest experiences of my life, to not just watch this development as a passive observer, but to play a central role in it. 
Unfortunately, times change. I've always been willing to give all of my free time to this site, but as of several months ago, free time has become a luxury of the past. The less time I spend here, the less qualified I am to decide the future of the site and lead it in that direction. In these past few months, these duties have been impeccably overtaken by the current management, and I feel entirely comfortable leaving the site in their more than capable hands. It is thus, with great regret, that I have chosen to resign from my long-standing post as sysop of this site. 
To all the current and ex-staff: Even though we've occasionally differed in opinion, you guys are some of the nicest and most intelligent people I've ever had the good fortune to meet and work with. I'll miss all of you. 
To the users: From the casual downloaders to the hardcore rippers and uploaders, this place is an ecosystem that needs all of you to survive. We couldn't have gotten anywhere without you. 
To anyone I've ever insulted, hurt, or ignored (I hope there aren't too many of you): I extend my deepest apologies. I've always tried to maintain a level head, but I'd be lying if I said that the stress, responsibility, conflicting requests from different camps, and huge volume of PMs didn't get to me at times. 
I'd love to write more, but this has been hard enough already. If nothing else, I guess, I'd like to be remembered as the badass who coded ocelot. 
It's been a hell of a ride, What. I know you'll do fine without me. 

We wish him well for the future.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

What's the point of a degree?

Earlier today I stumbled across a student of mine expressing some doubt as to why, as a Sports Journalism student, he should be studying "audience research about batman"[sic].  Given that he clearly tagged his post with the module code (MAC201), I'm of the impression that he wanted me to read this post and and wanted a response - after all, as the module leader I'm responsible for the management of the content. I responded via Twitter but the character limit is a little restrictive, hence this post.  I need to make it clear that this module is in no way orientated around the study of Batman. Rather it is a module that deals with two distinct themes:
  1. The production of media content (in this case, the creation of news and its implications as a constructed form of discourse)
  2. The consumption of media content (in this case, the ways in which discourses around engagement with cultural forms have been mobilised)
In fact, this is what the module guide states:
Content SynopsisThis module aims to develop the concepts and approaches introduced in MAC101 through an analysis of non-fictional television texts and discussion of a range of perspectives on media consumption. It consists of two sections:
Television Texts: news and documentaryThis part of the module explores concepts such as ‘realism’, ‘discourse’, ‘ideology’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ in their application to contemporary developments in television news, current affairs, documentary and ‘reality TV’. The relevance of work on narrative and genre to these areas of television is explored, and the significance of the production and institutional contexts is assessed. Throughout, you are encouraged to engage in close textual analysis in developing your arguments.  
Media AudiencesThis unit begins by examining early work on media consumption within ‘mainstream’ mass communication research, before going on to explore issues raised by more recent work in the cultural studies tradition. A range of academic and industry perspectives on media consumption is considered, and you are invited to reflect on appropriate theory and method in audience research. You are also introduced to debates about specific cultural audiences for contemporary media output. 
In relation to the second half of the module, what a tutor or a student chooses to focus on by means of illustrating the arguments emerging out of audience research is going to be context dependent: it may be audience research about the reception of Batman, it may not.  It could easily be about audience research into BDSM practices, music consumption in economically deprived urban areas, violent video games, football consumption by hooligans or the middle classes, etc.  Focussing on the topic under analysis is to miss the point, but this can be forgiven at this stage, as the student above is responding to the first session in this section of the module.

What example is being explored is peripheral to the main point of the module - how is knowledge about these kinds of audiences produced (ie how does the approach and method impact on the kind of data generated?) and what are the implications of these approaches (ie how do we situate knowledge about any given example socially?). The point here is that students should complete the module familiar with the ways in which knowledge is produced and under what contexts and what limitations. It's very rare that any knowledge production is problem free.  

As students on a UK-based degree programme, it is expected that when they graduate they will be some of the brightest and articulate people in the country, capable of thinking laterally, being critical, interrogative and methodological in their learning, after all, not everyone is suited to Higher Education.  Let us not forget that a UK-based degree is one of the best in the world. Graduates should be able to understand the complex ways in which the world is constructed and recognise their place in that - especially if they choose a career which involves communicating information about the world to a wider public. One hopes they will never be uncritical of the information they are required to employ.

Reading for a degree should be intellectually challenging - it should force students to 'think outside the box' - or else, what distinguishes a degree from any other training qualification?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Google search-fu

Too often I find myself unable to locate content from a specific website despite me knowing it's on there somewhere, and too often do I find myself having to search for those advanced phrases/tools that help pin the required material down.  This post is a tutorial for helping people with their googling skills.  If you want to search Google for a specific site scroll the page a little...


These are basic tips and tricks that I guess everyone knows about:

Searching by phrase (" ")
- When you place quotation marks around a word or phrase you are telling Google that the word or phase in-between those marks is exactly what you are looking for.  Google will hunt for those words in that precise order only. A search for "John Kennedy" will omit any results for John Fitzgerald Kennedy (unless, of course, both search terms appear on the page!).  This kind of search is very useful for finding direct citations of famous speeches.

Exclusion searches (-)
- If there is a word that you do not want to appear in your search results then simply stick a minus sign in front of the word.  For instance you might want to find a review of the film Inception but not the Blu-ray version, then just stick the minus in front of Blu-ray (eg -Blu-ray) without leaving a space to omit the term.  This is stackable too, so you can add multiple exclusions (eg Inception review -CD -Blu-ray)

Exact search (+)
- This is a little similar to the "phrase" search above but is generally applicable to single words.  Google is good at locating similar words or phrases to the terms we type but sometime we don't want it to find synonyms.  It will bring search results for "green house" if you type "greenhouse", for instance.  Place a plus sign in front of your search term to get exact searches only.

Beyond the basics

These searches might be a little more advanced or refined for the typical googler but they can be very helpful

Number range search (..)
- Sometimes a search might need to include number data across a specified range.  In order to do this you need to add two numbers at the beginning and end of the range separated by two full stops (eg 30..105 will search for data in the range from 30 to 105).  It really comes into its own when combined with other search terms like dates "David Bowie 1969..1972" and weights "1..10 lb butter".  If you include the measurement you can be very specific, even finding bargains, eg. "Blu-ray player £50..100"

Site specific search (site)
- This search feature is tres useful. You better believe it. If you know you've seen something important on a specific site but you can't remember which page you will want to run a search that only hunts for your terms on that site and excludes the rest of the web.  If you employ the search query "Libya" the results will only include details about Libya from  There are variants on this search, such as "Libya" (excluding the term site:) but this might bring in searches from other (news) sites mentioning both Libya and the BBC site.  You can also specify a whole set of domains, for example, "Libya" will only search government sites while "Libya" will only search Libyan sites for the search term.

Wildcard search (*)
- The * icon, AKA the wildcard is a very useful little tool. It acts like a Boolean function that stands in for a number of variants in a search, and tries to find what it thinks is relevant.  Say for instance you run a search for "Apple *" will give you a list of Apple products and services - different to a search for just "Apple".  You can even use it multiple times in a search to find stuff out, for example "* gb iphone 4 costs * " will bring you results based on the different hard drive sizes and their relevant prices.

The OR search (OR)
- Usually every word in a search is counted (except for common words like "and", "the", etc) but you can use the common term "OR" in capitals to distinguish between certain results.  Say you wanted to find the year associated with a specific event like the FA Cup winners but you weren't sure of the date then you could enter a search like "FA Cup 1999 OR 2000" to find info about either one of these years.  A search without OR in it, "FA Cup 1999 2000", will include pages that show both those years on that page

Synonym search (~)
- If you want to look for some term and all the synonyms for that term then place a tilde ~ immediately in front of the word.  This is useful for finding related issues. A search for "~alcohol ~facts" will pull thought all sorts of information about health, nutrition and even support advice.

These are just a handful of the Google search operators that will improve your search kung-fu.  You can also use them in conjunction with each other.