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Archives for : August2008

My Facebook status is a few days ahead of itself

Oh, if only this were true:

Facebook status updates saying I've left the Atlanta network and joined Grand Rapids

I updated my status over lunch from the phone yesterday, using the full-blown Facebook webapp, while keeping the kids out of the way of the movers for a couple hours. Unfortunately, they stopped with the load-out incomplete due to rains from Tropical Annoyance Fay, which have yet to clear out. So, I’m still in Atlanta, in a half-empty house, while Kelly and the kids have headed on towards Grand Rapids.

By the way, has anyone else noticed that Facebook’s iPhone webapp has much more functionality than its SDK app? The webapp displays more information (edit: or makes it easier to get to quickly, like personal profile info or your wall) than the SDK app, whose advantages are a few features that the webapp can’t provide, like taking and uploading photos.

Apple continued to make a big point of iPhone webapps at WWDC, and even though I have little to no interest in mastering advanced CSS myself, I definitely Get It: if most of your functionality is in working with a webapp, a CSS-for-iPhone client can be developed faster and deployed much more easily than a full-blown SDK app. Hopefully, those of use who are mostly interested in SDK apps will focus our work in areas where the SDK provides functionality you can only achieve with real apps, and not just write heavy-weight webapp clients (or, heaven forbid, something like the Hotels.com app, which reviewers say is basically a link to the website in Safari, with inexplicable crashes thrown in for good measure).

Why I Won’t Be Taking Alex on the Drive

Problems with selling the house may force me to return to Atlanta shortly after the Grand Rapids move in order to supervise some work on the house (new carpet and countertops… putting more money that we don’t have into someone else’s house, sigh). Wanting to make good use of the 13-hour drive time, I wished I could soak up some useful information other than just gabby podcasts. There’s plenty of good Apple documentation on stuff I want to understand better, but I can’t exactly scroll through a PDF while I’m driving alone on I-75 or I-69/65/24.

Looking at apps that use text-to-speech to convert documents to audio, I came up with the idea of doing this myself by means of an Automator action. Here’s how the Automator action “Have Alex Read a PDF to AAC” works:

  1. Finder: Get selected items
  2. Preview: Extract PDF text, save to text files
  3. Finder: Open resulting items with TextEdit
  4. TextEdit: Get contents of TextEdit document
  5. TextEdit: Text to audio file, using Alex voice
  6. iTunes: Import AIFF files, converting with AAC encoder and deleting original files

Does it work? Meh. Sometimes it sounds plausible, sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s a best-case bit (AAC, 760 KB), read from the Instruments User Guide:

The PDF-to-text extraction is the hitch, as the justification sometimes crushes spaces, particularly from lists or tables,, as seen in this fragment from the extracted text:

Description
Feature
Thispaneholdstheinstrumentsyouwanttorun.Youcandraginstrumentsinto
thispaneordeletethem.Youcanclicktheinspectorbuttoninaninstrumentto
configureitsdatadisplayandgatheringparameters.Tolearnmoreabout
instruments,see“AddingandConfiguringInstruments”(page19).
Instruments

You can imagine how that sounds. Also, the text extraction picks up the headers and footers, which sounds like ass when read aloud (AAC, 604KB):

I could manually go through the extracted text, clean those up, and then do text-to-speech, but I suspect that will take at least as much at-keyboard time as just reading the damn documents in the first place. I’m chalking this one up as an interesting failure.

Nostalgical Vanity Tour

I’m packing for the move in a week, dealing with boxes of papers in the storage room that haven’t been opened since the last move, a pretty good hint they need to at least be considered for the dump.

Above is a betacam tape of one of my Headline News shows from 1997, looks like a day when I was producing a full live hour, with this half directed by Bruce Daniel (who still works there, and whose wife is a good friend of Kelly’s). I think I kept a couple of these tapes just in case I needed them for pursuing another producing job, though the rigid format of Headlines back in that day meant that one producer’s show really ought to look pretty much like anyone else’s, so there really wouldn’t have been much value showing anyone this tape, short of pointing to the back of my head in the control room on the show-opening Camera One zoom and saying “see, that’s me!”

One thing about the format is that different producers still had flexibility within the format to pick their packages (with the guidance of a supervising producer) and fill out their 13-minute news block however they saw fit. We had one associate producer (which is what I was) who, when he did live hours, tried to give the audience something different by using cold opens, or effecting through some VOs with a “in this half hour”, or stuff like that.

I rarely did that, but what I often tried to do was to get more new stories into the system by digging through the wires (especially state wires, features, business, and Reuters’ “odd” wire) and, if I didn’t have enough writers to take on extra work beyond the necessary updates, I’d just write it myself. There was a full-blown producer named Alicia who also did this. We thought it was good for the Headlines ecosystem as a whole, because the new stories could be duped into later shows, so there’d be more variety in the next 23.5 hours. But in retrospect, the downside of this approach is that were writing from the wires instead of writing to available video, and usually ended up only having a box right for our new read. So on the one hand, we had new content in a textual sense, but were we really creating new “television”? My older self argues against my younger self on this one: today, I think I would have used the time to look through the feeds and see if I could find some good unused video, even if the story wasn’t as good.

So, also in the boxes of vanity, I found this little embarrassment:

Yep, I tried to write a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine spec script. Not that I was alone. Trek was the only show that regularly accepted spec scripts from unagented writers. To wit:

As they point out, 99.9% of spec scripts are sent packing with a “thank you very much”, though a few writers were able to break through this way, and it’s to Paramount’s credit that they were so open to new writers, and to their fan base, in this way.

I didn’t submit this script, in fact, because I knew then that it was bad (and can’t bring myself to read it today). I had about two acts plotted out and started writing, which ended up pretty much how you’d expect: somewhere in the middle of Act IV, I was just throwing words on paper, not knowing what the fuck I was doing or where I was going. In fact, the only reason I don’t trash all remaining copies of this (for fear of my children finding it in my effects 30 or 40 years from now), is the fact that I also found some notes where I was radically re-breaking the story for a thoroughly overhauled second draft:

A rewrite might not have made it good, but it would certainly have made it better.

Before drifting into CNN, I think I ended up writing maybe four total spec scripts. Clearly not enough, and it was not something I did often enough for the process to get easier. Maybe you have to write 10 scripts before you write a good one, but if you don’t truly think the first 9 can be any good, how the heck do you turn them out?

I’ve felt this in an accelerated way with iPhone work since getting the SDK earlier this year. My first couple were tentative, confused, and sometimes appealed for Java analogies that weren’t there. Two things that helped were trying to do some ambitious work early on (my still-broken web radio client) rather than just “screwing around” with the SDK, but then getting into a groove of creating a number of projects and getting familiar with the process of creating an XCode project and being increasingly purposeful with where I wanted to take the code.

Writing an application and writing a screenplay have certain strange similarities. Aside from having to start with an empty “new document” window and needing to bring life to the void, there’s also a sensation that when things are set up right, they just run themselves. In code, those are methods, delegates, and program states. In writing, it’s character and situation (indeed, plot is sometimes defined as character plus situation… define both of them well enough and your story writes itself).

As for my spec scripts, they fell by the wayside while I worked at Headlines. I tried to write a Home Improvement spec to keep the Hollywood screenwriter dream alive, but aside from having some gags and a general premise, I could never get the feel for the straight sitcom. My two half-way decent specs are animation (a spec for Animaniacs which got a nice read from WB and a copy of a real script from the show, sort of a gentle “do it more like this”), and an off-the-wall sitcom pilot we did in grad school called Public Access, which was a finalist in a couple of competitions, but not a winner. It still has some of my favorite gags, the recurring show-within-a-shows like “Can You Fit A Hamster Through A Funnel?” and “Show Dyslexia The”.

Had I taken my chances in LA rather than playing it safe at CNN, I might have taken the next step beyond these scripts, but then again, I might also have crashed and burned and wasted even more time. Guess we’ll never know… short of finding a way to an alternate universe where things played out that way. Which, I think, is what my DS9 was about.

Cubeless

Just sold my old G4 Cube. I had put off dealing with it (more important move stuff going on), so when I listed it on Craigslist for the just-enough-to-weed-out-tire-kickers price of $50, I had two takers in the first 30 minutes, two more within the next two hours. Maybe I should have priced it higher, but I just wanted to make sure it found a good home.

For historical purposes, here’s the listing:

Moving on 25th and want to find my Cube (the last one sold at Marietta’s Micro Center in 2001) a good home before we go.

G4 450 MHz
832 MB RAM
120 GB drive (installed 2007)
CD/DVD drive (not a burner)
Mac OS X 10.4 and Mac OS 9.2 (Classic) installed

Also: 15″ Apple Studio Display (special ADC connector only works with Cubes and PowerMacs of this era)
Also: USB speakers (only work with Cubes)
Also: Keyboard, mouse, manual, original CDs

Buyer must pick up computer, monitor, etc. from our house in Marietta (near Town Center Mall, Sprayberry HS)

Please, no tire-kickers or dickerers; I can’t waste time before the move, but would rather find this Mac a good home than throw it out.

New host

Moving subfurther.com to a new host, rather than hosting it on the Mac Mini, which isn’t going to be practical during the move to Grand Rapids.

Update: thanks to Michael Ivey for getting me set up on the new hosting provider (he’s a reseller, along with a million other things). He’s also heading up a new online reputation/credibility company called Divvs which, like any halfway-intelligent social network application today, also has a Facebook app.

On taking your job with you

Our move to Grand Rapids is now a couple of weeks away (the non-sale of the Atlanta house continues to be a confounding factor, but that’s neither here nor there). Reading the Grand Rapids Press online, I note an interesting article that says Study finds young talent shuns Michigan.

My online comment, reprinted below, was removed at some point, presumably because of its use of the verb “fellate“. Vulgar or not, I happen to think it’s the mot juste in context.

I’m moving from Atlanta to Grand Rapids in a couple of weeks, bringing my family and my job (Java and iPhone software development and writing) with me. My primary motivation is to be closer to family in Michigan, which is something I’ve heard a number of other 30-40 types saying they want to do once they’ve had kids (countervailing force: nearly all the jobs are elsewhere, and in my business, the VCs want everyone to move to the Bay Area… you basically have to be completely location-independent to pull this off). Another factor for me: Atlanta’s climate and traffic suck.

One thing I think would really help Michigan’s image would be if the political leaders and media would stop fellating the auto industry and the UAW for five minutes, and instead become aware that There Are Other Things To Do In Life Than Build Cars (particularly when the Detroit Three and the UAW are so lousy at it). It’s bad enough to see the Detroit auto-makers say in the papers that they can’t compete on fuel efficiency with the Asian car makers; it’s worse when their ineptitude is coddled and encouraged by Michigan’s congressional delegation. The market is rightly punishing these companies, and Michigan is foolish to depend so much on their continued existence (Chrysler getting bought and dumped wasn’t enough of a hint?). Meanwhile, anyone who does anything else for a living gets completely ignored, and frankly, it feels like an insult. People, would you rather have the next Apple or the next Google get started in Michigan, or are you actually counting on GM and Ford to turn it around?

Android: Waterfall?

A new report claims the Android platform may be further delayed. Money quote:

Specifically, one of the handset makers that is thought to among the first to deliver a device, HTC, is “having structural problems to incorporate Google’s demanded feature set,” Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry says.

I forget where I posted this point (here, O’Reilly, JavaPosse mailing list, whatever), but the biggest difference I see between Android and the iPhone is that Android did a Big Design Up Front: they’ve written up a big Javadoc of how the platform works, and handset makers are obligated to deliver that functionality (or, perhaps, degrade out of it gracefully). Compare to the iPhone where the SDK is specifically tailored to what the existing hardware can deliver.

Is there an analogy here to waterfall versus agile? iPhone certainly comes from a unique situation, where the already-existing OS X and Cocoa could be adapated and tailored to the device. But then again, couldn’t Android have just been “Java ME on crack” (or Java SE with decent media support) running atop embedded Linux, two known and proven technologies? Actually, it kind of is: notice how many of the classes fall under the java.* and org.apache.* package hierarchies. So what’s the problem?

Actually, the real problem is that Android can’t just be “as good as the iPhone.” If it really slips to early 2009, it will be two years after the iPhone announcement. To compete, it will need to be wildly, obviously better than the iPhone, in the same way that the iPhone kicked the ass of the RAZR, BlackBerry, and other contemporary devices. Google had better hope that Apple is sitting on its laurels like Motorola and RIM did.

Production Philosophies: US vs. Canadian Olympic Coverage

I’ve been traveling the last two weeks, and obviously haven’t kept up with the blogging, alas. I celebrated a birthday on the trip, and my mother-in-law gave me an iTunes card whose design is remarkably similar to the classic logo of the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC):

iTunes card that resembles the CBC logo versus CBC logo

Which is just as well… actually, if I could get some Canadian iTunes cards, I could buy a bunch of great music that I can’t get from the US store (yes, I am a total tool of the CBC Radio 3 podcast and Shoutcast stream).

But speaking of Canada, we have the Summer Olympics coming up in a week, and having grown up in a border town (Detroit) that got Canadian TV, I can tell you how much better CBC’s Olympic coverage is than the American broadcasters. But don’t take it from me. Enjoy the quote from Wikipedia’s entry on the CBC which says that:

CBC’s Olympic coverage is also well-received, as it provides an alternative to NBC’s coverage, which, some have alleged, focuses too much on American athletes. CBC’s Olympic coverage is also carried live, regardless of broadcast time, compared to NBC’s tape delay.

We’ll hear the “NBC’s coverage is American biased” a lot over the next few weeks, largely because it’s absolutely true, and if you think it’s annoying to us Americans, feel bad for smaller countries that don’t have their own national broadcasters and get the NBC coverage instead (at least this was the case for the Atlanta games in 1996… maybe there’s a decent international feed now or something).

But getting back to the idea that NBC’s coverage is jingoistic, I think what I find annoying about it is that it’s really the symptom of a bigger issue, which is that American broadcasts of the Olympics are designed for viewers who don’t like sports.

This has been the operating philosophy of American Olympic broadcasts since even before NBC got the rights, back through CBS’ coverage of the Albertville, Lillehammer, and Nagano winter games in the 90’s. I don’t think the Olympics has actually been sport gratia sport since ABC’s yellow-blazered Jim McCay era in the early 80’s.

Don’t believe me? You probably won’t be able to see the CBC coverage, but let me try to typify it for you. Let’s say there’s an individual event with 20 or 30 athletes taking turns. CBC will show most or all of them taking their turn, one after the other. NBC will show one or two, then a human-interest package on one of the athletes, show their run, and then show two or three more… enough so you see the top-performing American and the gold medal winner compete (if neither of these two was the athlete featured in the package), but that’s it.

Or, let’s get the words from the producer’s mouth, specifically co-producer Nancy Beffa, as quoted in a DGA Monthly article on producing and directing the Olympics:

I don’t like sports, but I love human interest stories. They’re everywhere, but you have to look at a different angle, and you have to also know Olympic history and folklore.

And there you have it. The core production philosophy is that the viewers don’t like sports, so it’s just as well that the above-the-line staff doesn’t like sports either, so they’ll be in tune with the audience’s tastes. Which isn’t the sports. No, it’s about cut-away packages: Wow, people in this country eat strange food! Hey, road signs here are funny! Look, drunken sports fans at a bar! Here’s some old coot that charmed us, so we featured him in a package! This is what NBC will show, instead of the actual sporting event they spent $894 million in rights fees to acquire.

And, in purely economic terms, this production philosophy makes perfect sense. There is no way in hell you are going to find enough viewers in the US who actually enjoy track and field, fencing, judo, team handball, and the rest, to make back that kind of money in ad sales. Even if you assume the value of the Olympics is as a loss-leader to launch NBC’s fall schedule, it makes more sense to build it up as a family-friendly event and target the kind of taste-deprived bozo who might actually watch the new Knight Rider, rather than target genuine sports fans. I remind you: this is the network that re-launched American Gladiators as a prime-time program.

It’s a shame that we’re still stuck with the old broadcasting models, so that the fans who enjoy the games can’t get outside their national broadcaster and pick up an international feed, or a broadcast from a country that genuinely values and enjoys sports, like Canada. But the economic model that pays for the insanely-expensive Olympics doesn’t work like that. Perhaps in the future there might be some pay-per-view streaming option for the hardcore sports fan to purchase the broadcast they want, but we’re not there yet.

And we probably won’t get there anytime soon, considering that what NBC considers state of the art is to limit its net video streams to Vista only.