Monday, September 29, 2008

On the casting of pods

No, this isn't some crazy California bean ceremony or divination. This is about technology, specifically about the use of it to make audio files available after the manner of a radio show. There are many such shows, and many of them suffer from one or other of these problems. Let me explain the Seven Ways Your Podcast Can Suck:

1: Sixty Cycle
This is pretty self-explanatory; you can have a 60Hz hum on your podcast. This is caused by something in your setup picking up the power lines, and is incredibly annoying to anyone who has trouble picking voices out from background. European podcasts suffer from the related Fifty Cycle, as their powerlines run at 50Hz; either way, it's a hum, and it sucks. Please, please, get rid of the hum. Upgrading microphones so you use the balanced (and thus hum-rejecting) XLR plug rather than the plain ordinary jack can be enough. Many audio recording programs can automatically kill the hum. There are filters. The hum is one of those things that there's really no excuse for.

2: Wait, that was it?
Please, please, do SOMETHING to indicate "OK, that's it for this episode". Whether it be music, or simply a canned copyright statement, it's jarring to be dropped straight into silence or some other audio file. In extreme cases, your listeners will start wondering if their reader downloaded you properly.

3: Oh yeah, spoiler alert.
Self-explanatory. Yes, we know, the Dark Knight was cool, but unfortunately not all of us were able to go out and see it. Please, wait until it's on DVD before you have your nerdgasm over it. If it's on DVD, we all have Netflix or a local Blockbuster; we've nobody but ourselves to blame if we haven't seen it, so spoil away as long as you warn us, but if it's not out on DVD yet, you can't assume we've seen it.

4: Intermission
We don't need to know that you stopped recording for a couple hours so somebody could go poop. We don't need to have a minute of music to mark the gap. Transitions between segments, if you must have segments, are OK, but otherwise, try to keep it flowing. Remember, in most cases, we don't have video, so we can't see that Joe is now sitting to Bill's left.

5: Adverts
Sure, the equipment costs money. However, plugging your sponsor in the middle of the cast is jarring, and doesn't incline people like me towards checking out their offerings. Keep it to the opening blurb, and the closing boilerplate. If your sponsor won't accept that, you need to find a sponsor that doesn't suck.

6: Late This Week
If you're going to give a schedule, then please stick to it. Some casts don't have a set schedule; that's fine. Each episode of those is like a little gift. Howver, if you're going to say "every Tuesday", then you need to step up and commit to making sure it really IS every Tuesday. Once you've set a schedule, you've set your listeners' expectations, and you really can't fall back on the "It's free, so whay are you complaining?" defense. Remember, without a schedule, each episode is a little gift; with a schedule, each miss of your drop date is a little bag of flaming dog poop.

7: iTunes is coming
Really, this should go under "feed issues". Podcasts live and die by their RSS feeds; please, make sure you've set yours up correctly. First, you need to make sure that you have a podcast-only feed. Then, you need to make sure that nothing ever drops off this feed. Most feeds have a maximum number of entries; you need to set that to a LOT higher than you think necessary. Do NOT allow it to only be twenty items. That will mean your early episodes will drop off, and that is a very effective way to avoid gaining new listeners. Remember, people love going through archives; this is why so many pay-to-read-archives services for webcomics have been flops. If you want new listeners, they need to be able to download all your episodes in their reader. Speaking of readers, like it or not, iTunes is overwhelmingly dominant. You need to make iTunes support priority one; you simply cannot get away with saying "It's complicated", "we'll get to it soon", or "we're working on it" past a month. If you're not properly supporting iTunes, then you're shooting your potential listeners figure in the foot.

So, those are ways you can suck. As for ways you can be brilliant, that's up to you. There is no one path to success, but there are plenty of ways to hack people off. Avoid hitting the above seven points, and the likely reason for me not listening will be a lack of interest in your subject matter. However, there are plenty of people like me but with different interests. Of course, you may not be wanting to podcast at all, but that's fine.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On food preparation

I enjoy cooking. However, I have a tendency to stick to dishes which I know work.

Today, I'm branching out some. Starting with potatoes, tuna, a white sauce and some breadcrumbs and cheese. Hopefully the resulting baked thingummy will be nice...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On alignment, mechanics and roleplaying.

The more I think about roleplaying, the more things I see that are just plain daft. A wonderful example is Dungeons & Dragons' alignment. The basic setup is that every entity in the world has an alignment, on two axes: law versus chaos, and good versus evil. This gives a range of nine possibilities, from lawful good to chaotic evil, with neutral as the middle on each axis. Now, if this was strictly a roleplaying thing, I'd have no issue with it; it's a two-word summary that helps you make snap decisions on how your character reacts to something. However, D&D takes it further: it becomes an actual thing. Your character has, permanently marked, his alignment. He's been branded Lawful Good, or similar. There are actual mechanical penalties for acting in a manner not consistent with that. This, to me, is ridiculous. Making a roleplaying decision, which may be entirely in-character, have a mechanical penalty makes no sense to me.

There is, also, the problem of alignment-based spells, from "detect evil" onwards. These also make little sense; they seem to be a workaround for a GM who can't make his characters well enough for them to be believably evil-but-seeming-good. Again, this is a problem of insufficient attention paid to keeping RP and mechanics separate.

This is one of the reasons I won't run D&D. I don't really want to play it, either. Please, don't get me started on class, either. I'll accept level, but really, you shouldn't be developing characters through mechanics if you can avoid it.

On entomology

So, this morning the LA and I were going out to breakfast, and when we exited, we found on the porch a visitor.

This chap was just sat there, so I snapped some photos of him.

I should note that he was BIG. That rail is about eight inches wide.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On balancing profit and profit

Television networks, as we all know, exist to sell advertising. The BBC can, in this context, be ignored, as can the CBC and most definitely PBS. A TV network is a means to sell advertising. This does mean that they have a duty to their shareholders to reject ads which are too irritating (so I cannot for the life of me comprehend why, on every ad break recently, an unreasonably perky woman foghorns out a "HI! CAN WE TAKE A MOMENT TO TALK ABOUT YOUR COLON?", closely followed by the three bloops of a TiVo being told to floor it and get us past this horrific advert), and of course they must needs devise some method of inducing people to watch the adverts.

This is what TV shows are for. You might have thought that TV networks' primary purpose was to make shows, but you'd be wrong in that thought. The shows are a way to get you tuned in for the adverts. However, people being what they are, all the viewers miss the point entirely and get caught up in these expensive timesinks that the networks would really rather not have to deal with. However, if the networks didn't make shows available, they'd be unable to get people to watch their advertisers' productions, so shows there will be. Of course, in these days of the interwebs, viewers will feel safe in missing a show, because there's always a way to get it. For some time, said way was via people who would capture the show, edit it somewhat, and put it on the intertubes (YARRRRR!), but then the networks realised, after the advent of YouTube and the realisation that people really would watch a pixellated version of something in a tiny window and think it was wonderful, because they were getting it on demand, that they could do similar. Of course, this was unlikely to keep their advertisers happy, so they had to develop means to insert unskippable advertisements into their intertron versions of the shows, and did so.

All this is leading up to the fact that I was never a watcher of Lost, but the LA convinced me that I should give it a try. The TiVo concurred, and when one of the channels we get but don't know why we get started running it from the start, it recorded the first episode for us to try. Suffice to say, it's now under orders to continue recording episodes, but there is a slight problem. This is that the channel re-running Lost is doing so in four-hour blocks, and so there are three hours I can't watch. Not to worry, thought I, and hied me to ABC's website, where I found that full episodes were available. "Score!", thought I, bookmarked it, and then had a couple of Busy Days. Today, I returned to find that the Flash-based streaming has now given way to a "Download our player. No, we won't tell you what else it does. No, there is no alternative." setup. I promptly issued a California Freeway Salute, and went over to Netflix, to add the first disc of season 1 to the top of the queue over there.

My point is that there is a fine line to be walked between protecting your IP (the shows, which are valuable IP insofar as a) they allow ads to be sold and b) they can be sold as DVD sets (thus proving that people will buy anything; in the TV business, shows are actually the equivalent of pork scratchings to the advertisers' porkchops)) and keeping your consumers (not customers; the customers of a TV network are the advertisers) happy. ABC crossed that line when they required a download.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Storage of Fruit, and Cakes thereof.

So, the Mac had some... fun issues after its recent software update. After the LA had it drop to textmode on logout, and I had it fail to allow me to get out of screensaver without poking the power button, we took it to the Apple Store, for some Genius Bar loving. The LA was expecting some deep magic for a price; what we got was a free fscking and an install of Leopard, which meant we also got a free long weight. We also got a zonkingly huge external drive, which is connected via the rather lovely IEEE1394, otherwise known as FireWire (400; we don't have 800 on this Mac). Zonkingly huge in capacity, not physical size; it's quite petite.

We also got a free WTF entertainment, hearing someone else at the Genius Bar. I came to the conclusion that most Genius Bar customers don't actually need a genius, they merely need someone competent, but that Competency Bar is less of a marketing win. However, this person... did need a genius. Not so much for the problem as for their mental problems. When one of the things you hear is "A hard drive only has a finite amount of space" and another is "You have less than a gigabyte of space free", you start to realise that you're actually an ideal Genius Bar customer, because you do at least know what the hell is going on and that you want to keep your hard drive less than 95% full. Mind you, the later stages of the Customer of Doom were astounding; the Genius was attempting to explain the concept of VMWare to this person.

One of the odd side effects of installing Leopard on this Mac is that the CD drive, which has never before burned a disc that was readable, now works.

And returning to the external hard drive, there were actually two options at the capacity point we went for; one was a simple "1TB" drive (actual capacity, in Finder, being roughly 930GB) while the other was $50 more and claimed to be a 1TB "RAID". As it turned out, when I read the box specs, it was indeed 1TB (decimal, rather than binary), but only in stock configuration, which was RAID0. RAID0, for the uninitiated, isn't actually RAID, since it's not at all Redundant. It's more FAIL: Fragile Array of Inexpensive Liabilities. The box could be configured to be RAID1, which does give somewhat of a performance boost on reading, but that would, obviously, halve the capacity. Since we wanted "excessively huge" and I actually trust Western Digital to not balls-up, we decided to save the $50. However, the price point ($250 for a 1TB box) astounded me.

And in closing, Leopard is shiny. Stroke the shiny Leopard, and try not to be amazed when it turns round and bites your hand off.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On renovations

My sidebar is so Web 2.0 now. You may have noted the change from a list of links to a dynamically updated list of recent posts from the other blogs I read; this is a fairly recent addition to Blogger's functionality. You'll also see that it works with anything that has an RSS feed; Twenty Sided Tale has nothing to do with Blogger, but it works.

The "Follow this blog" only works for Blogger people. It puts a feed of this blog into your dashboard when you sign in; it also makes adding this blog to a list of recent posts like the one over there a little easier. There are also the non-Blogger subscription links, just because.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On the controlled deposition of graphite

Being a geeky type, I have a preferred writing tool. It is a Staedtler Mars Medium mechanical pencil, in 0.7mm, and I prefer to feed it 2B leads for extra legibility in its primary usage, which is completing the cryptic crosswords that one C. A. J. was kind enough to send me as a gift around the time the LA and I married. While said crosswords are distinctly fun, the paper upon which they're printed is rather cheap, and rapidly fades to yellow, making HB marks illegible. Note for the US/Canada readers: HB corresponds to a #2 pencil, while B, 2B and so on are softer ("Black"). Meanwhile, H, 2H and so on are harder ("Hard"). The difference is ratios of graphite and china clay, and the more china clay the harder the pencil and the lighter the line. My preferred hardness is a little softer than usual, and so is less than common, particularly in 0.7mm, since the standard for mechanical pencils is 0.5mm. Unfortunately, 0.5mm tends to poke holes in my crosswords.

Fortunately, tonight the LA and I passed through Staples, and found 0.7mm B leads. Not quite my preferred 2B, but perfectly acceptable. I can return to smooth writing and legibility in my crosswords, and cease worrying, since they were in packs of 36 leads. Since each lead is supposed to write for as long as a standard pencil, this is remarkably good value... you try finding 36 B pencils for less than $2.50!

Friday, September 5, 2008

On instability

So, I guess I'm now a for-real, honest-to-Bob Californian.

This event was palpable here. This is the first earthquake I've actually felt; it was unlike anything I'd ever felt before. I rather enjoyed it, actually.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

On how to tell you're in San Francisco.

Today, the LA and I had to go to the city. We needed to get lunch while we were there, and after finding a lovely little Chinese lunch place (their broccoli beef was the best I've ever had), we went back towards our appointment. We passed by an Italian restaurant.

The menu was printed in English and Chinese.

That's how you know you're in San Francisco.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On feedback and stability.

Most of you are aware of what feedback is. For those who aren't, it's what you get when you feed the output of a system into the input of the same system. There are two types. Positive feedback is what happens when the output reinforces the input. You know it as the howl you get when shoving the microphone of the PA system into the speaker. Positive feedback generally is unstable. The other kind, negative feedback, happens when feeding the output back in reduces the input. This generally results in stability.

Not always, though. The LA and I have a light on our balcony. It's on a light sensor as well as the switches, so when the switches are on, it still won't light unless it's dark. However, there is a negative feedback loop which occurs at a certain stage of the evening. "Oh", says the sensor, "it's dark. I should allow the light to come on." This occurs, and "Oh", says the sensor, "it's not dark. I should turn the light off."

It runs at about 2Hz. Negative feedback producing instability. Who'd have thought?

I'm attempting to distract myself. It's sort of working.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On good news...

Today, I received an e-mail.

Apparently, I ticked the right boxes when applying to BART for a job. They want me to turn up for a written exam on Monday.