Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Colour blind to radical change

BBC - EastEnders - Pictures - Galleries

Somehow I missed the press coverage of the fact that on Tuesday night BBC1 played its first ever episode of the long running hit soap opera, East Enders, with an entirely black cast. 

23 years is a long time to wait for such an event, thus explaining the media news coverage.

Anyway, I watched the show, munched my dinner, and the only thought that crossed my mind was that it was another sparkling episode, with good acting, a strong narrative, and important moral issues raised. Of course, the nature of soaps means this doesn't happen all the time, but when it does, the BBC scriptwriters tend to get it just right.

The drama centred round collective history, the early race riots in Notting Hill in 1958, how that led to the creation of the now world-famous August Carnival, issues of active and passive resistance, and the need to know one's roots. Family secrets was another narrative motif that drove the storyline throughout the episode.

I found myself reflecting on the time, many years ago, when I worked as a radio reporter, and went to interview one of the early organisers of London's Notting Hill Carnival (whose name, shamefully, I cannot recall). I was honoured to be invited into the family home, accompany a range of cousins, arts, uncles, nephews and nieces, out onto the streets for the day. I got to ride on one of the famous floats, and left late in the evening with a strong sense of community spirit. 

One of the slogans of the early Carnival events was, 'A people's art is the genesis of their freedom'.  Tonight, I hope that a stand for freedom was made by the BBC, when it showed us that when it comes down to it, good acting and strong scripts are at the core of great drama. Skin colour is a powerful signifier and brings with it numerous connotations that can be deciphered, mediated and interpreted by audiences in a myriad of ways. Let us hope that in future it's the story that grabs the headlines, rather than the skin colour. It's high time channel producers ensured mainstream drama encompasses the diversity of Great Britain, so that commentaries such as this need not be repeated.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Digital tools for online learning

One of the fascinating aspects of the Web 2.0 read/write web is the speed at which solutions appear.

Here are two that have grabbed my eye over the last week.

The first is an online Learning Management System (LMS) called Studeous. There are lots of LMS options around, most of them costing thousands of pounds to instal and administer. Studeous has taken a rather different business model and is very much focused on harnessing Web 2.0 tools (like blogs, wikis, secure email) into one interface that any teacher can use, without training.

The other innovative aspect to Studeous is that it's free for teachers to use. I've set up an account and will aim to play with it ove the next few weeks. I imagine that the aim is to get individual teachers who are interested in this personalised LMS approach to become pathfinders, and then use them as the marketeers within their schools. 

Should a school wish to purchase a whole-school system it runs at an afforable $2,995 a year. So far, I like the look of its design and think it offers some useful features. Sadly, I don't think the free text to all your students facility is available in the UK yet. Nonetheless, Studeous gives us a glimpse into how radically the transfer of information and knowledge is likely to be, and how the production of multimedia based learning resources and responses might possibly evolve.

The other tool that I found fascinating is aimed more at business training users, but again, shows how learning could develop in the near future. Chalk allows multimedia learning content to be produced easily and sent to Blackberry smartphones. Again, it's a pointer to the way in which many teachers and students now carry powerful computers in their pockets, whose use for learning has barely been explored. Expect that to change dramatically over the next couple of years.

There's no doubting that the ways in which teachers and students communicate and collaborate is on the cusp of great change. The trick will be in navigating both parties to the right solutions for the most appropriate of tasks.

Digital lives captured in a myriad of pictures

I've just come across the work of Jonathan Jarvis, a Master of Fine Arts student at the Art Center College of Design in California.

His work and thoughts are insightful and powerful. Jarvis is looking and thinking deeply about what the world of the digital native is going to look like. He has a specific interest in the spaces between humans and objects, as well as human to human interactions. How can these be captured? What do they tell us that we don't already know, and how might that be put to good use?

I'll give you three quick examples of where his skill in art, design, interaction, and communication are leading him. The first is a posting about how digital natives will be able to view their lives pictorially, thanks to the power of social networks and tagging. Read all about it here. The second is his observations on the act of drawing. Jarvis decided to set himself the task of drawing a sketch, on his computer, for thirty minutes, each day. He captured this process and turned the activity itself into a meaningful text. See more here.

Finally, Jarvis has produced an exquisite visual representation of how the credit crunch was created. It's both a stunning animation, and a fine example of how complex ideas can be represented in a moving image format. Watch it below. And watch out for Jonathan Jarvis. It's a name I think we'll be seeing more of in the near future.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Social networks, sociability, and a short film about love

Media pop psychologist Aric Sigman (who got his first broadcasting break on the LBC health show my dad presented and I produced back in the 90s)  has written an excellent report about the risks of using social networks,  in Biologist, the magazine of the Institute of Biology.

Dr Sigman was interviewed by the BBC and you can hear the report, and read more about his article here.

In brief, Dr Sigman warns that the aim of social networks - to keep people in touch - could be having a negative effect, especially on younger users, for whom online interaction increasingly is replacing face-to-face conversation. 

Naturally, there are pros and cons to this argument, with respondents to the BBC article arguing for both benefits and harm caused by the use of social networking sites.

Film stars repeat YouTube success story - News - South Manchester Reporter

As a brilliant counterpoint to Dr Sigman's assertion that too many young people are online too much, up pops a fantastic short film, made by two 20 year old Media students at Manchester Metropolitan University. 

How To Say I Love You cost £200 to make, was shot in a morning, and garnered 650,000 hits in its first 24 hours on You Tube. Since its first posting a month ago it's had more than 1.7 million hits! Its makers, Hayley Stuart and Francesca Sophia, have produced a sharply observed commentary on how the Facebook generation still wants old fashioned romance to sweep them off their feet. It's just that for teens brought up on rapid Status updates, there isn't always time to waste on small talk.

How To Say I Love You is a powerful short film, that warrants your attention. Stuart and Sophia's previous YouTube upload, Olivia - Explorer, made for £7, has received over 1.3 million hits. Expect to see more from these two in years to come. Exceptional talent.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Facebook backtracks. Loses face.

After 48 hours of intense user pressure Facebook has caved in and reverted back to its old terms. These, remember, still allow the company to hold on to your data, while their latest terms, had threatened to keep the rights to sell, re-publish and generally profit from your content forever - even if you deleted your account.

Given how many students and adults use Facebook (185 million at the last count) this had posed a real compromise of privacy, in ways that might not have become apparent to subscribers until years after content had been uploaded and profiles seemingly deleted.

Yesterday, the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg, tried to claim the change in terms of service were intended to ensure wall postings and the like remained online, even after the poster's account was deleted. What a load of tosh. It's quite clear Facebook was hoping it could slip in this important alteration and not be rumbled.

Now, Zuckerberg has been forced to climb down, at least for the time being.

What's my take on this? Remain cautious on what you post to Facebook and other sites like it. 

Monday, 16 February 2009

Facebook keeps your data - forever!!

A worrying change to the terms of service from global social networking behemoth, Facebook.

It's bad enough the media darling of online chatter wanted to keep your personal data archived indefinitely in their former TOS. Now it emerges that even if you deactivate your account, their new agreement with users gives the company perpetual rights to sell, market and re-distribute anything you've posted. Frankly, that's terrifying and users should think very carefully about what they upload to the site.

The only light at the end of this dark tunnel is that the company does permit a small get-out clause when it notes that these rights are 'subject only to your privacy settings.' In other words, if you don't let anyone see your content, by restricting access, then they might leave you alone. But given how people use Facebook it seems unlikely anyone will notice.

Read more here.

The advert is blowin' in the wind

A rare treat for lovers of Bob Dylan's music. 

The reclusive singer has allowed British ethical company, The Co-Operative, to use his iconic song, Blowin' In the Wind, in a forthcoming TV advert. You can watch it here.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Small town music from the global village

BBC NEWS | Programmes | Click | Tecnobrega beat rocks Brazil

A great story about the rise of Tecnobrega, a regional music phenomenon in Brazil. There, bedroom studios and the sale of CDs in market stalls has seen the rise of an alternative business model for the music industry; as well as a homegrown musical genre that's offering creative and commercial opportunities to those lacking formal training.

You can read more here.

A question of trust

It's always a risk relying on Wiki based sources for reliable information.

Wikis have the potential to be fantastic collaborative learning tools, but they need to be overseen by someone who's watching the History button, to ensure any changes to text are made in good faith, and not for malicious purposes.

The fact that anyone can alter the content on web-based Wikis in the public domain means they aren't reliable secondary sources of information, however high they might appear in search engine results.

This week's dodgy edit comes courtesy of the British Conservative Party, who altered the death of a grand master, in order to score a cheap political point. The BBC video below explains all.

Tories admit to Wiki-alteration

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Digital Life, Minimal Privacy

Last Friday, as the snow cancelled school for the fourth day in a week, and our website hosts went down, our Principal, Mark Steed, set up a school Facebook group.

Within a day it had over 900 members and what started was a quite polarised debate, initiated by students, regarding the degree to which teachers were invading their privacy. They also found it hard to conceptualise the fact we were using Facebook to communicate with them in a formal capacity - leaving messages about cancelled sports fixtures, and more controversially for the students, setting work to make up for the four days lost. 

This debate, which we have embraced, was timely. The Principal and I had been talking for some weeks about ways to cover European Internet Safety Week, which began on February 9th. Now we had our opportunity.

Interestingly, many students couldn't get their heads round the fact we ought not to be on first name terms, that TXT SPK isn't student-teacher speak, or that it's wrong to post inappropriate language on an official school group.

And so it came to pass that on Sunday I put together a presentation, ready to deliver this week to the various sections of our school. So far, we've spoken to the Sixth form and the girls' senior school. On Thursday we'll be chatting to the boys. 

I've turned the presentation I made into an online booklet, courtesy of issuu.com. It can be read either like a digital book, with animated turning pages (my favourite option), or as full screen slides. I've left out the opening animation for reasons of privacy, but let me tell you about it. 

Since so many students had made me a friend, I had access to much of their personal information. The idea of using privacy settings seemed alien to them. So, I helped myself to dozens of mobile phone numbers, and turned them into an animated opening sequence. As you can imagine, a fair few sixth formers were perturbed to see their phone numbers flashing up on the big screen. It certainly drove the message home.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the presentation and do let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The problem with technology....

The problem with technology is that it can take an age for it to become fully understood  and accepted by the majority of the public.

As this rather entertaining sketch shows, it's been a problem right the way back to Gutenberg.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Web 2.0 - what it means to education

An interesting overview of what Web 2.0 means to educators. There are some excellent resource links.

Friday, 6 February 2009

You're never too young to publish

BBC NEWS | Technology | Nine-year-old writes iPhone code

A great story on the BBC, about a nine year old boy from Singapore, who's written an App for the iPhone, that allows users to draw on screen.

Lim Ding Wen began playing with computers aged two, started programming aged seven, and thousands have downloaded his latest creation. 

It all goes to show that young pups can learn new tricks just as easily as older dogs. The technological revolution is opening up new lines of innovation and creativity. Long may it continue. 

Time for the typo?

BBC NEWS | Education | Education minister's online typos

Poor old England Schools Minister, Jim Knight.

The erstwhile MP has been found to have left a number of typos on his blog, having encouraged English school children to pay closer attention to what they have written. Whoops!

Read all about it here.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Christian Bale - true artiste or crybaby?

I wasn't sure what to think when I heard wooden actor Christian Bale letting rip with a string of expletives. At first, I thought his rant against the director of photography, on the set of the new Terminator movie, was a joke. But as his anger became apparent, I was struck by the inappropriate nature of his rage.

I understand that when an actor is performing, none of the crew are supposed to move. In this case, the DoP had gone to check a light and entered into Bale's line of sight. However, in all the years I worked as a TV director neither I nor any of the talent with whom I worked subjected our colleagues to the haranguing, foul-mouthed outburst that Bale thinks is acceptable.

The film director Michael Winner, interviewed on BBC Radio 4s Today programme, took Bale's side. You can hear the interview here. All I can say is, if that's how film folk talk to each other, I'm glad I stuck to TV!

Finally, as if to show how the postmodern and inter-textual nature of the web-connected world is altering the speed and nature of content production and syndication, an American DJ has taken the rant and turned it into a song! Apparently, it's doing well in clubs. The world has indeed gone mad....

Boston.com writer Ty Burr summarises the state of modern celebrity succinctly, when he writes, "it's now a technological cargo cult in which we own any and all chunks of a celebrity not controlled by the official machine." 

Media exposure, the Cinderella effect, and a tale of epic Greek proportions

Image (c) Rex Features

Jade Goody rose to fame as the face of a leering, ill educated section of British society. She rose to prominence in 2002, when she appeared on the reality TV show Big Brother. 

Since then, her life has been lived in the full glare of the tabloids. Now she has cancer and it seems to be terminal. Yet still the TV cameras are rolling. It's a messy, tragic, horrible business, and my heart goes out to this 27 year old mother, facing the cruellest of fates.

Yet, there is something about this voyeuristic journey that leaves me with a sense of deep disquiet. My sentiments are best mirrored in this excellent article from the Guardian.

Kangaroo bounced out of court!

An interesting development in the push for TV institutions to move to an online delivery model. The BBC has been running its wildly successful iPlayer for more than a year, and is now streaming BBC1 and BBC2 live on the Web. ITV, the other major terrestrial player, together with Channel 4 (whose public service remit is to offer innovative programming from under-represented quarters of British society) have both been offering a similar service.

All three, perhaps bizarrely, have been collaborating for the last 18 months or so on a joint venture, called Kangaroo. The aim was to offer consolidated services and, as I understand it, to sell on wholesale content.

Given the fact the three broadcasters between them produce the lion's share of TV content in the UK, it came as no surprise that the Competition Competition investigated.

Yesterday, it published its report, stopping Kangaroo from progressing. The report claims that to allow all three companies to effectively merge their online distribution and re-selling operations would be tantamount to creating a monopoly.

The Commission's view, which you can read in full here, was that audiences would be better served if the three were in competition with each other, and alternative suppliers.

Naturally, the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV are claiming that it's consumers who will lose out. 

Now, we'll never know. Personally, I always thought the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 made strange bedfellows. Given the ease with which content can be accessed online, I'm not sure what the benefits truly would have been to audiences. The main beneficiaries, I suspect, would have been the three companies, who could have leveraged economies of scale. 

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Stopped Frames and Time Lapsed

It's strange how themes can emerge from a seemingly invisible synchronicity in the air.

Last Saturday I spent a great couple of hours photographing a dozen Lacrosse matches at school. By the time I was done I had 452 shots, of which I decided to keep 352 after reviewing them at home. As I was scrolling through the shots on the camera I noticed a rather nice flip book effect occurring. Inspired by this observation I bought a copy of the excellent iStop Motion software, which is a stop frame animation program for the Mac. I dropped in all 352 shots sequentially from iPhoto, exported the resulting movie into the new iMovie 09, from where I added opening titles and a slight vignetting effect. Then, I slowed the film down by 40%, added a free soundtrack that came with iMovie, exported it for online distrubution, and hey presto, an afternoon of sporting prowess condensed down to 80 seconds. The whole process took 15 minutes.

Lacrosse: Berkhamsted V Benenden from Sacha van Straten on Vimeo.

I chose to use Vimeo over YouTube, as I find the compression on Vimeo produces fewer artefacts. I like the end result. Let me know what you think.

It's got me thinking that I should play around with stop-frame animations more. I've been put off by the thought of hours of time consuming shot taking, but actually I think there are ways to make mini-films without too much fuss. I believe I can shoot DV and iStop Motion will strip out the frames, to create the desired animation effect.

At the other end of the spectrum I came across this post for a new app for the iPhone at Digital Urban. It allows users to make time lapse animations from their mobile. I'm not sure how practical this might be, but there are some cool examples in the posting. 

So, time lapse and stop frame - they just might be the future of fast promo videos. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Never mind the on-screen action, feed me!

So, mobile phone operator Orange is aiming at the stomachs and cash-strapped wallets of its members in order to rustle up some tasty new consumer relationships.

It's coming up to five years since the Tel-Com began offering 2-for-1 cinema tickets to users of its mobile phone services, in what it's called Orange Wednesday. Users text a number and in return receive a code that gives them the second free ticket, when presented at participating cinemas.

A series of hilarious adverts has accompanied the campaign, which has proved successful. Evidently, with the recession taking a firm hold, Orange has partnered with Pizza Express to offer a more attractive proposition.

I'm not one to be a sucker for advertising, but a free pizza and cinema ticket sounds like a good deal in a harsh climate.

England Calling

Originally uploaded by svanstraten

The snow had begun to fall heavily, so I made my return journey along the main road.

I drive this route to work every morning, but walking it threw up some unexpected surprises. This was the biggest.

Red telephone boxes, part of the quintessential view of Britain, have become a rarity these days. When everyone has a mobile, who needs a call box? So, I was rather delighted to find that the owner(s) of this house have acquired a telephone box and planted it in their front garden.

It was a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise monochromatic day.

Stark Trees, Harsh Skyline

Originally uploaded by svanstraten

One unavoidable consequence of the weather was the merging of sky and earth.

I'd been walking for an hour when I glanced up the ridge to my left and saw these trees, defiantly making a stand against the elements.

It felt like someone had sucked the colour out of the day.

I like the closeness of the contrast between root, branch and ether.

Sheep in the landscape

Originally uploaded by svanstraten

There are a number of flocks of sheep grazing near to where I live.

The snow covered ground didn't seem to bother them particularly.

They just burrowed down and dug out what they needed from the earth.

This fellow graced me with a piercing stare, just long enough for me to squeeze off a frame.

Horse in a lonely field

Originally uploaded by svanstraten

School was cancelled yesterday because of heavy snowfall overnight.

Before I settled down to study for my MA I went out to capture some snowy photos.

As I trudged through the fields I came across this horse, taking shelter from the biting wind.

It sums up the strange feeling of desolation that descended on the valley, as the ground turned white and the sky remained resolutely grey.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

History of the Internet

I came across this rather lovely 8 minute film that explains how the Internet came into being. Its production values are reminiscent of a 1970s Open University TV show, which appealed to me as I'm about to begin an MA in Online and Distance Education with the OU; although the learning environment is rather more dynamic now than the shows I caught on TV as a youngster.

Anyway, this gives a great background to the system that allows us now to communicate visual, auditory and text based data with the minimum of fuss. It's worth watching to the end. Enjoy.