Saturday, December 18, 2010

Smerins on 6Music part three

Having accepted the Christmas Challenge from Nemone on 6Music's, George appeared on the show last week to introduce the results. I love that Nemone calls him Mr Smerins all the way through, and I also love that the band are the official title of the episode in BBC /programmes (as a guy who updates these all the time, that's a strange little personal thrill).

And don't forget to get your free copy of Walking In The Air from their website, and watch the making-of video.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Live from the interactive Xmas lunch

We had our xmas lunch today - a nice long lunch in a nearby pub, hats, xmas crackers, the usual thing. Greg James got wind of this and decided to call me three times during the show to get regular updates. The first time he called, it was out of the blue and I didn't really know what to say ("interactive telephone"??), but I was expecting if the second and third times. Thankfully I hadn't had too much wine, and didn't make a complete moron of myself.  Oh what a larf.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Smerins on 6Music part two

Smerins have been played on 6Music again, this time with an added challenge from the show to record a Christmas Song in a Smerins stylee (or "a Christmas track, version of your deciding" as Nemone eloquently put it. I'm hearing rumours that East 17 Say Another Day, or Aled Jones' Walking In The Air might be coming out of a studio near Bristol some day soon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

My brother's band, played by the BBC!

UPDATE: They've now been played by Rob da Bank on Radio 1.  Here's the audio clip -

And because they've been played on the BBC, they're now entitled to a BBC Music artist page, which is here -


My brother's band, Smerins Anti-Social Club, were played on the radio! This is very excited, so I clipped the bits for posterity. Obviously I cut out the track (Doctor Who) - you can download that for free at their website.

On 6 Music with Nemone on Monday -

Then mentioned again the day after -

And then played on Janice Long on Radio 2 -

I also took a snapshot of them being listed on Janice Long's tracklistings. Very weird to see their band name on something so familiar as a BBC /programmes tracklisting page!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

e-books should be free

Last Christmas I got a blu-ray movie for Christmas, and it came with a free digital copy.  Very easy to do - inside the sealed package was a redemption code to download the movie from iTunes.  Absolutely brilliant (and perfectly targeted, as the film was Star Trek, the geek movie event of 2009).

The logic of this (Spock would be proud) is quite progressive if you think about it.  When you buy a movie, what you're paying for is the intellectual property, not the piece of plastic (which costs pennies when produced at this scale).  So why not sling in an alternative version of the same intellectual property.  It costs them nothing, it instills a huge level of audience satisfaction, and there's a strong chance it helps to prevent piracy (as the geek doesn't have to rip the movie to put it on his devices, and the copy he's downloading from iTunes is DRM protected).

So I'm really surprised I haven't seen this business model anywhere else since.  Admittedly, I've not bought too many blu-ray movies in the last year, but the one place I'd expect to start seeing it is in the book publishing industry.  Why aren't publishers packaging free/cheap e-books when you buy their hard copies?

Earlier this year I bought Tony Blair's autobiography, on release weekend, for half price at WHSmith.  It's a mighty heavy tome!  I do most of my reading (limited as that still is) on the tube, and there were days when the book was simply too heavy and bulky to fit in my bag.  But I do have an iPad... so I found a hooky PDF copy of the book via bit torrent, complete with appallingly ripped punctuation symbols, and have started to read that instead.  Morally, I don't feel bad since I have paid money for that intellectual property (and contributed to The Royal British Legion in the process), but of course I have technically committed an illegal act.

So come on Amazon, drag your Kindle-loving business model into the 21st century.  For every hard copy purchased, throw in a free or cheap copy of the e-book.  I bet you'll sell more hard copies, and you'll probably persuade people to buy more Kindles in the process.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Back to the Future

I went to see the digital re-release of Back To The Future tonight. It's one of my favourite films, and I fear this will be one of the last times I'll be able to say I'm watching a 25-year-old film on the big screen for the first time. I've seen this film maybe 20 times, on video and DVD, perhaps mostly recently only a year ago. I honestly didn't expect to say I appreciated it for anything more than the rip-roaring tale I know and love.

But something weird happened in the cinema - I and the other people around me found the film funny. I've never found the film funny before. I've found it thrilling, massively entertaining, tense, spectacular; but never laugh-out-loud funny. I was laughing at it like I'd never seen I before, and I think other people (plenty of 20- and 30-something blokes in the audience) were too. So why?

The main source of humour was the nuance of Doc Brown's facial expressions. I'd never noticed how clown-like and comical Christopher Lloyd's performance was. I'm sure part of noticing this was the sheer size of the image in front of me, and the digital clarity. That, combined with the film getting probably the closest attention I've ever given it (as there's nothing else to distract you in the cinema).

The collective viewing experience surely has a lot to answer for here as well. I may have imagined it, but as soon as one person laughed, it was like the cinema had given everyone else permission to laugh, and the giggles got more intense as the film went on.

I guess it's also easy to forget that this movie was a massive family blockbuster. It being a classic had somehow made me forget how really silly it is. Moments like "buffoon Biff" bringing in a box of books for "new George", and like the daft historical society lady collecting money for the clock tower, had the audience guffawing; I remember them being in the film, but never being that worth noting.

I'm left with a hunger for more classic movies that I never saw on the big screen. But there's not a lot left. Other people have mentioned Ferris Bueller, Goonies... but somehow I only managed to see these films once I was a student. I remember being aged 5 reading a Back To The Future comic that I got in a box of Shreddies, and not seeing the film until I was 10, and that was on VHS. To see it on the big screen tonight was a joy, and I don't think that's going to happen again.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

US Midterm Elections

On 2nd November, it's the U.S. Midterm Elections. I nerded it up quite heavily during the 2008 U.S. General Election, even finding a way to go to President Obama's Inauguration. I've remained interested in US politics during the last two years, but it's taken a new election for me to really get bogged down in it again. So here's what I know!

Who's being elected?

All 435 members of the House of Representatives will be elected (as happens every two years).

34 Senators will be elected (the bi-annual churn of 1/3 of the Senate) and 3 special elections will be held for the Senate seats vacated by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and the late Robert Byrd.

37 State Governors will be elected, plus the Governors of the Territories of the US Virgin Islands, and Guam. I get the chance here to use one of my favourite words - gubernatorial. Though, not in any meaningful context.

There will also be a bunch of local elections, judicial elections, and state ballots and referenda.

Who will win?

The polls are showing that control of the House hangs in the balance. There is a very strong chance the Republicans will take back control of the House, elevating John Boehner (is that pronounced "boner"? Surely not) to Speaker.

It is likely the Senate will stay with the Democrats. Of the 37 seats up for election, 19 of them were Democrat and 18 were Republican. The Democrats would effectively have to lose 9 seats to lose their voting majority. Most of the polls only show 6 or 7 seats as "too close to call".

Those 39 governorships are pretty evenly split as well - 20 (D) to 19 (R). There's no "balance of power" with governorships per se - they only have power in their states - but the big ones that are too close to call are Florida (I), Maryland (D), Mass (D), New Mexico (D), Minnesota (R), Vermont (R), and California (R - Arnie is retiring because of term-limits).

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

U Ctrld Katy

Two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, the Executive Producer of the Scott Mills Show came to me and said "we want to put Katy Perry in a room for an hour, streamed live on the Internet, and for the audience to be able to tell her what to do. Can we do that?". Sure, I said, when? "On Thursday". Oh, OK then.

Well it wasn't exactly like that - we'd been thinking of Katy Perry ideas for several weeks, since her management had come to us and said "lets do something other than just a straight interview - Katy's up for most things". Various ideas had come and gone through the process of feasibility and approval, and I'd had wind of the U Ctrl idea a few days earlier, but it was only on the Tuesday morning that it was green-lit by Katy's management, meaning we had 48 hours to make it happen. The first things that go through my mind on an occasion like this are the following.

Where will we do it?

It obviously has to look right (in this case a big white space, like off of Willy Wonka), but it also has to be easy for Katy and Scott to get to (within 10 minutes of the radio station). We toyed with the idea of dressing one of our meeting rooms at Radio 1 Towers, but ultimately decided this would look crummy, and besides we had only 48 hours to build it (in fact less, if you consider the time needed to then rig cameras etc). Wherever it was we also had to consider the need for a strong upstream internet connection to get the thing online. Which brings me to the next point...

How will we stream it?

Our technology plan for streaming is well established - we designed it two years ago when we live streamed from Scott Mills' house, and it's done well or us all that time. It involves a video signal, an audio signal, an AV-DV converter that turns them into a combined Firewire signal, and a laptop running free Flash Media Encoder software to upload the stream to the BBC's Akamai accounts. To do this, we need a 1mbps upstream internet connection, with little or no contention.

Thankfully, we found a cracking location just around the corner from Radio 1, which had everything we needed. As a post-production studio, it was used to handling large files, and had something insane like a 40mbps upstream connection. It also had a small but perfectly formed infinity cove studio
with a lighting rig. So, we could put Katy in a room, film her, and put it out online. But the last piece of the puzzle...

How will we the audience control Katy?

We have a number of tools at our disposal for this - our Facebook pages, our Twitter, our SMS system, and a chat product called Cover It Live that we've used for more than a year now. The problem here was not the tools, but developing a human process to filter the good stuff out of those various sources (it's fair to say we were expecting a lot of, ahem, unusable suggestions from the audience).

We devised a system where three members of the team would select good suggestions from the audience, and filter them into a shared Google Document - sorting the wheat from the chaff. Scott's producer Emlyn was then the final filter, sorting through the wheat to decide what would get put into the... cake (sorry). He then published chosen instructions to the 'auto-cue' facing into the studio, as well as the Cover It Live window online. I hawked this diagram around all day Wednesday to help explain it to people (made using Popplet on iPad - show off, I know).

A note on Cover It Live - we decided not to use this for audience input, just for reflecting output. We felt that having a constant flow of suggestions alongside the video, with only some of them being carried out, would be quite distracting for the viewer. Having the audience input in a different place to the performer output was a peculiar user journey, but important to create a meaningful presentation.

Build-up and prep

We announced U Ctrl Katy on that Tuesday, on-air and on all our social spaces. During that time we deliberately encouraged people to think wildly about what they'd have Scott and Katy do. Obviously, during an hour-long broadcast we couldn't materialise props etc out of thin air, so this time was important to let us know that kind of things we'd need to bring to the party. My favourite here was the Potter's Wheel - a listener called Marshall Line on Facebook suggested that Scott and Katy should recreate the famous scene from Ghost.

We also knew that an hour of two people stood in a white room wasn't going to be completely sustained entirely by audience suggestions, so we planned a few other surprises like balloons, paints, swingball etc. During the show, we gave the Facebook and Twitter audience advance notice (5 mins or so) that these props were going to be brought out, to give them time to offer suggestions for instructions.

How did it go?

Well... you really had to be watching it to completely get the surreality of it all. Several people described it to me as like "being inside somebody else's weird dream". We served a good number of video streams - not our highest ever, but good for the time of day. Here's the highlights video and the photo gallery.

The main thing we learnt about this project is about volume! We received more than 7000 suggestions during that hour - that's two every second. Inevitably that led to some disappointed people. Some people even suggested it wasn't live and we'd made it all up - I can assure you it very much was live, which a read-out of my heartrate would have attested. In particular, a popular movement toward the end for Katy to put a shoe on her head wasn't picked up by the process, and was used by the doubters to 'prove' that it wasn't live. I wish that one had got through to us in the studio, but it didn't.

There are undoubtedly better ways to flow that data, perhaps using some automation/aggregation technology, a central control panel, etc. But given we had 48hrs to develop the whole proposition, I'll forgive us not getting this perfect the first time.

Where next?

I'd love to do it again. In a way, I think it's a shame that we started with one of the biggest stars in the world (though, that's clearly at the core of the audience appeal) - I like the idea of a series of U Ctrl, building up through the chart until we have people controlling Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, R-Patz. Whether anyone else is as open to doing it as Katy though, remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Google Instant A-Z

So, Google Instant is out. As soon as you start typing into Google, it offers you immediate results. No more hitting "search". It's scarily fast. And what are the nation searching for? It turns out we're a nation of shoppers!

A = Argos
C = Currys
D = Debenhams
E = Ebay
F = Facebook
G = Google Maps
H = Hotmail
J = John Lewis
K = KLM Airlines
L = Lotto
N = Next (clothes shop)
O = O2
P = Paypal
R = Rightmove
S = Sky
T = Tesco
U = UTube (no, honestly!)
V = Virgin
W = Weather (Google Weather inline, then BBC Weather as a search result)
X = Xbox
Y = YouTube
Z = Zara (clothes shop)

I love that nothing beginning with U is more frequently searched for than the mis-spelling of YouTube. Brilliant.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What I did on my holiday

It all started 4 months ago when Freya read an article in the Sunday Times about a guy called Greg who runs Under The Thatch - specialising in quirky, interesting places to stay in Wales. Freya knew of UTT because she'd been trying to let their Romany Caravan for years, but found it to be always unavailable. The news that the Romany Caravan was for sale, along with 19 other Welsh properties, was quite exciting.

Alas it was also too expensive. We're not rich - my BBC salary plus Freya only having been in work for about a year, don't add up to much - but I did buy my first house in 2000 and have benefitted from the rise in the house market over the last ten years. I've been keen to do something with that equity for a while now, and when we saw Greg's three welsh log cabins on sale for about £40k each, they seemed like the perfect investment.

Alas again, all of his were already under offer. But he was kind enough to put us in touch with some other people selling theirs, and so we came up at Easter Weekend to stay at Penlan Holiday Village and visit a few cabins. 

We were worried at first, as a lot of the ones we saw were quite chintzy or bland, and we've always had quite strong views on how places to stay should have character and individuality. And then we saw our cabin - owned by the same couple for more than 30years, and broadly unchanged from the 1970s, we fell in love with it immediately.

Pine panelled throughout, it instantly felt warm and cosy, bright and inviting. The kitchen was adorably cute, made out entirely in red and white. And out a large picture window, this stunning view, over our deck, across fields on to the Preseli hills. 

We put in an offer immediately, had it accepted the same day, and three months later, the cabin - rechristened Cabin Ishbel after my tidy Welsh Gramma - was ours.  So this past week has been about sprucing up the cabin ready to receive guests, the first of whom will be the aforementioned grandmother who has no idea we've bought it!

Jobs have included replacing the kitchen (same layout, just new cupboards), making all new curtains (Freya and her trusty sewing machine), replacing mattresses throughout (that's seven in total), destroying built in wardrobes, tearing up tired carpet, and lots and lots of cleaning.

Seven days later, we're ready to receive guests, but quite knackered. Not much of a holiday maybe (a change is as good as a rest?), but we've now got this amazing place we can come and stay at any time of the year, and just look out at that view, and it'll all be worth it!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Hospital adventures

On Tuesday morning I was riding to work on my scooter. A driver pulled out without looking, and I had to slam the brakes on. I skidded, dropped the bike, and broke my wrist. Here are some tweets from the last few days -

  • I'm Nil-by-mouth now, whilst everyone around me is eating breakfast. Rubbs!
  • This is so they operate on the correct arm. Which is reassuring.
  • Hello world. Am alive and back on ward. Arm dead weight due to nerve blocker. Quite surreal. Op all as planned.
  • I am the bionic man now -
  • Arm is waking up. It's as if a hundred frozen cars have defrosted and are trying their engines, one by one. Vroom (ow), Vroom (ow) etc
  • Look what's right outside my hospital doors?
  • SHUT THAT FUCKING BEEPING UP!!! #tryingtosleepinahospital
I've decided not to ride a scooter again. I normally don't allow things like this to set me back, but my other half has asked me not to. She very rarely asks me not to do anything, so I have to take notice. Thing is, I'm an excellent rider, driver, and cyclist - all in all, a very aware road user. But accidents like this happen completely out of your own control, no matter how good you are. So I'm going to stick to the tube and the camper from now on. Was fun while it lasted and I'm glad I learnt to ride and had some fun.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lots of stuff has happened

I just got an email from my day saying "lots has happened in the last few months, you should blog", and he's right. Though, I suspect he's the only person that reads my blog, and so this is a pointless exercise. However, using the headings he gave me in his email, here goes.

1. Vespa

I bought a Vespa! I've wanted one for ages, and I kind of bought this one as a spur of the moment thing, without having passed my test of ever having ridden a scooter. So I bought it on ebay, then took my CBT, and picked it up on the way home. Since then I've ridden it into work a bunch of times, and left it at home in the snow and rain a lot more times. I'm sure I will ride it more when the winter ends!

I've only had one drama - thought someone had nicked all my petrol but it turns out the bike fell over so all the petrol poured out. Damn. I've also bought a ridiculous amount of kit so far, including a jacket, gloves, two covers and two helmets. Now bugger off winter, so I can actually ride it!

2. Promotion

Back in September, I had a job interview with the hope of becoming Senior Content Producer at Radio 1 and 1Xtra. I didn't get it. But it turns out I didn't do so bad after all, because I was told in December that our other SCP was leaving and that I could have his job. Well, kinda. It's a BBC thing. So yeah, that's good. I started officially last week, and so far have been doing my old job as well because other people are on holiday. But the next few months look like they could be a bit different workwise.

3. Christmas

I'm not sure what Dad wanted me to write about Christmas. It was lovely, and was spent as usual in Loughborough and Nottingham with the two branches of my family. A noteable absence from the Loughborough leg was Gramma Gorman who couldn't make it due to a wobbly turn and bad snowy weather for driving. Santa got me a waterproof ipod, a new steering wheel for Billy, a new camera (yes another one), and a dazzling array of teeth-rotting delights.

4. Lanzarote

Freya and I decided to get away from the chilly UK for some winter sun and after much searching, opted for Lanzarote. It's popular for winter sun because it's only 4 hours away, same time zone as the UK, and is about 24-degrees at this time of year. Yum. £300 from teletext holidays.

Far from being 'Lanzagrotty' it was really lovely. Yep there's plenty of egg-and-chips British and Irish bars, and if you didn't explore you could really get stuck in that and come away thinking it was sunny but naff. But we hired a car for just one day, and explored a lot of the island, which has every type of terrain you can think of, and some really gorgeous spots.

So thanks Lanzarote, you were just what the doctor ordered. Apart from the last 24 hours that is...

5. Lanzarote the Return (flight)

We had a bit of drama getting home. I was so glad when we took off on time on Tues 5 Jan because it meant we would most likely land hours before winter gripped the South of England and close the airports. But with the plane just a minute off the ground and climbing, the air conditioners above the overhead lockers started spurting out smoke. This got lots of people panicking on the plane, with shouts of Smoke Smoke and Fire Fire (original huh?). Whilst the cabin crew came on the PA to explain it was just the warm air and cold air mixing, the Captain was less comfortable and decided to turn the plane around and land it back at Lanzarote. Balls.

A wait, a bus, a wait, a hotel, a meal, a sleep, a bus next morning at 6am, a wait, check-in, another wait, some more waiting, and then a two hour wait on the plane finally led to us taking off at 2pm the next day. Because of snow, we were bound not for Gatwick but East Midlands Airport near our parents' houses. Not the end of the world, but still annoying enough for a small uprising to insist on getting their bags off the plane and staying put instead, hence the two hour delay on the runway. In the end, we had the last laugh because just as we approached it, Gatwick had re-opened. If we'd arrive any earlier or later, we wouldn't have got that window to land there, as they closed it again shortly afterwards.

6. Boilerlessness

Just before we went on holiday, the boiler packed in. It's been a temperamental old thing for ages, and has usually responded well to a firm thump on the side of the cabinet. But before Christmas, the magic thump was no longer solving the problem. As we were not going to really be around for a couple of weeks we decided to leave it until after Lanzarote, and booked a plumber for the day we returned.

But he got snowed in didn't he! So we were ruddy freezing for a lot longer than planned. Luckily we had electric heaters and immersion tank so it could've been a lot worse. And THEN, when the plumber did finally get here, he turned the boiler on and it worked first time!!!!!! I was so annoyed, as I'd been trying that every day just in case. There was nowt he could do really, he just packed up and left again - and was kind enough not to charge us a penny.

But that evening, of course, it wasn't working again. Icicles return. So I resolved to get to the bottom of it. OK here's the science. A motor, turns a fan, which blows air up a pipe, which pushes a diaphragm pressure switch, which sends an electrical signal saying it's therefore safe to let the gas flow and light the boiler. This wasn't happening. The fan was blowing, the pressure switch was switching, but there was no spark. Having found a circuit diagram on the floor of the boiler cupboard, I traced the wires to the point where they join the circuit board and, erm... I gave them a little prod.

Yep, thumping the boiler has been replaced with prodding the circuit board. Dad has a thing about how engineers used to carry rubber mallets or something, and I suppose all I've done is narrowed down my field of interferance from something 2 feet wide to something 2mm wide, but it did the track. There's clearly a lose or dry connection there, and it is now, for the time being, connected. Phew.

Now don't report me to those Corgi's, because I'm sure I'm being naughty doing that, but I'm comfortable with the fact it's electrical not gas, and I've been very cautious and sensible. And I'm now warm, so whatcha gonna do about it?

OK you're all up to date. Enjoy reading it, Dad!