Archive for July, 2007

BBC iPlayer: Get Real (hey, geddit?)

July 30, 2007

iplayer3.jpgGrrrrr. My instincts told me not to mess with the new BBC iPlayer. But what the heck. I love the BBC, and I wanted this to work. Kind of like how I used to want Bob Dylan to sing on key, and could more or less ‘will it’ to happen. Kind of like how I used to want RealNetworks to succeed. Now the only thing I want (as far as new media technology is concerned) is a simple and robust end-user experience. So the sad ‘joke’ in the headline is that I fear that the BBC has suffered from its long-term association with Real, which for a long time bugged me with its over-complex download/install/signup ‘procedure’. This is ironic, given that iPlayer is dependent on Windows Media Player (rather than Real Player) underneath – all the more painful then, as it now appears to be the worst of multiple worlds.

So what went wrong? How do I know? I merely struggled for a while, and have temporarily given up. Here’s the lowdown:

I can forgive the Windows XP dependency (just).

I can forgive the Internet Explorer dependency (just – this one actually caught me out briefly).

I can forgive the Windows Media Player dependency (just – but aaargh, during installation it forced me to branch off to a separate Media Player update, although that side of things is normally pretty up-to-date on my machines).

I can forgive the special and unmemorable login/password combo needed to unlock the iPlayer.

I can forgive the special proxy settings required to get past my corporate firewall.

[Man, I am one forgiving son-of-a-gun. You think I was kidding about wanting Bob Dylan to sing on key?]

I can understand (just) why I need a separate membership ID, but when it comes to mandatory double-login to ‘do the business’ (iPlayer and BBC), my forgiving mood starts running out.

When the most salient feature of any mouse-rolloever graphic on the site is the number of days left before the rights to any media clip expire, then I start thinking I’m living in a time warp. It’s 2007 for goodness sake. And the second most salient feature is some tag that is not strongly relevant, like ‘Northern Scotland’ (for a Mountain programme) or the date of the programme, used as a tag.

When the ‘automatic proxy fixer’ says it is modifying my REGISTRY, my forgiving mood has long since expired.

When the proxy settings appear to ‘test’ OK but no downloads ever succeed, I start getting cross.

[UPDATE: aha, now my first two downloads have suddenly succeeded after a long stretch of “0%”. That’s the good news. The bad news is that going ‘full screen’ crashed the player.]

Forget about ‘why would I ever watch any of these clips on my PC anyway’ – I just might, and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But the download/install/signup procedure is too arcane by a factor of three; the overemphasis on glitzy graphics at the expense of easy indexing/search is too annoying (the alphabetic list is chunked like that of a PlayStation or mobile phone, which is fine for certain devices, but seriously annoying on a more flexible PC: I suppose this is ultimately designed for a ‘sit back living room’ experience, so I’ll suspend judgement on this element for now); the proxy settings are simultaneously ‘too smart’ and ‘too ineffective’ (I can handle one or the other… e.g. Skype is smart AND effective, QuickTime is dumb, but you can make it effective with manual modification); the heavy date-expiry-dependency is both intimidating and confusing.

Yes, I can understand why they have to do all this. But no, I cannot forgive the arrival of such a poor user experience by such a powerhouse organization at such a late date on the Internet-media-timeline.


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Living Legends III: Van Morrison @ Woburn Abbey, 27 July 2007

July 28, 2007

Following from my Living Legends posting I (Satriani/Vai, 2004) and posting II (Eagles, 2006), I thought I’d better add a quick comment on last night’s Van the Man outdoor gig. I’ve always had an on-again/off-again appreciation of the guy, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. Plus, we escaped rain (luckily, given the current spate of awful weather), and had pretty decent seats.

In my view, Van Morrison has the stage presence and charisma of a turtle, and since I’m a sucker for strong presence, I suppose that was one big strike against him – but hey, he has written some great songs, and wow can he SING. His backup band was fabulous. The highlight for me was in fact not one of his own classics (which were there in ample and satisfying number), but rather his rendition of the Don Gibson-penned’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” made famous by Ray Charles in 1962. That is one TOUGH number to cover, believe me: I’ve been a Ray Charles fan since before that 1962 hit (!!!) – and I didn’t think anyone could pull it off. But it was very moving, in fact, with a sequence of great surprises: wow, that voice, and then wow, those backing vocalists, and then wow, a wonderful pedal steel guitar solo and then wow, an even more wonderful fiddler… very enjoyable stuff! Plenty of G-L-O-R-I-A and Brown Eyed Girl, etc to get us old fogeys up out of our seats; nice evening!

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Niigata 3: ICALT 2007 Notes, “Elearning fails”

July 24, 2007

False promises of the 70sI’m now back in the UK after an interesting visit to Japan. Although I’ve run out of steam after blogging several papers in previous posts, at least some mysterious ghost writer has kindly reported my own presentation, writing

KMi Chief Scientist Marc Eisenstadt delivered a stinging condemnation of elearning at his keynote address to the IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies on Friday in Niigata, Japan. The keynote, entitled “Does elearning have to be so awful? (Time to mashup or shutup)”, took objection to decades of false promises and research that had high intellectual merit but either failed to deliver in the real world at large scale, or alternatively delivered, but made for an awful end-user experience.


Although the intellectual content of the massive volume of papers (with only 23% acceptance rate, incidentally) was high, I was indeed disappointed at the lack of massive very large scale rollout experience, and even more so at the lack of take-up of social software [i.e. less than 10% of audience members actually using anything one might call ‘social software’].

A useful comment I received at the end of my presentation from Kinshuk was that I had not made the ironclad case for the use of social software from the viewpoint of the very practitioners I was addressing. This is a good point: the arguments were (too) self-evident to me, but it’s no good preaching to the converted — I need to make the case for an audience that is just as sceptical about the virtues of social software as I am about the virtues of elearning. Touché. I’ll be sure next time to include some more obvious links to relevant papers from an educator’s perspective such as “50 things to do with RSS“, etc.

Click on the ‘Slides‘ link at right for a copy of the actual presentation (and onward links to the supporting paper).

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Niiagata 2: ICALT 2007 notes

July 19, 2007

Day 3 of my trip = Day 1 of ICALT 2007, The IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies, Niigata, Japan, 18th-20th July 2007 [conference website and programme]

Prof. Tim O’Shea showing off U of Edinburgh Virtual FarmAbout 300 attendees showed up, 90% of expectations (10% cancelled their trips due to either transport disruptions or anxieties caused by the nearby earthquake the other day). What follows is my retrospective account of the first conference day. There are several hundred papers being presented, typically in 7 parallel sessions all day long for three days, so I’m only giving a one-line ‘gestalt summary’ of my selective list. I encourage you to visit the conference website for pointers to the authors and links to their papers.

After the formal conference opening and some welcoming remarks from Prof. Toshio Okamoto, the opening keynote address, ‘New educational technology models for social a personal computing’, was presented in a nice double-act by Eileen Scanlon and Tim O’Shea. Eileen set the background and surveyed the landscape, overviewing the framework she and Tim have been developing over the years (they assesses some 15 key dimensions of elearning environments, including contibutions to simulation, motivation, discovery, and serendipity. Tim then talked about the phenomenal range of activities underway at the University of Edinburgh, where he is Principal (Vice-Chancellor) – his challenge has been to balance the relationship between Tradition (a 400-year-old University, consistently one of the world’s highest-rated) and Innovation (particularly in IT and Medicine, where staff and students love to do their own thing). This balance is precisely what they have achieved, and Tim gave numerous examples of the hundreds of programmes now underway in Virtual University of Edinburgh, including virtual farms for observing and monitoring (real) livestock in real time (click thumbnail at right to enlarge), award-winning simulation environments from the School of Medicine, and an amazing array of Second Life activities [linked here], some of which I have blogged previously courtesy links from Austin Tate.. Tim felt that, having lived through waves of optimism and pessimism in his 37 years in the area, he was now in a highly-optimistic phase, as current Web2.0 zeitgeist was a harbinger of great things to come. This is indeed the optimistic portion of what I’ll be expressing in my own keynote on Friday, though I’m going to be much grumpier about the state of elearning today – I think that some of Tim’s infectious optimism rubbed off on me when we were office-mates some 33 years ago, but my grouchy pessimism is probably home-grown!!]

Below are random snippets of other talks I attended – bear in mind that these are already pre-selected by me from among the hundreds of presentations, based on perusal of the one-foot-thick proceedings.


Niigata Diary 1

July 17, 2007

Heading to ICALT 2007 in Niigata Japan.

Day 1 (16th July):

Rush-hour traffic woes meant shlepping suitcase on London underground was actually more reliable. Worked fine, though even a wheeled suitcase and nice rucksack are tiring – glad I’ve taken featherweight laptop – thanks Lewis!! Dell Latitude X1 saved the day when my old fave HP TC1100 tablet had a nasty virus prob, my slick MacBookPro was too much of a shoulder-buster to lug all the way, and my little Fujitsu Lifebook has an RSI-inducing keyboard

During checkin discovered that my ultimate destination (Niigata) had just suffered a 6.8 quake – trying to soak up relevant stories, both via gadgets and even in mid-air through in-flight news. Conference website says conference will go ahead, but to expect possible train/transport disruption. News reports talking about ‘minor radiation leaks’. YEAH, RIGHT – sounds very nasty to me!

Smooth flight – finished talk in the pathetic low battery time allotted. Watched “Blood Diamond” – thought it was great, even with the “too-many-implausible-escapes” and improbable reporter; would have been too intense for me on the Big Screen.

Day 2 (17th July): Arrived Tokyo 9am ‘next day’ – took Shinkansen / Narita Express into town, then subway to Takebashi via Otemachi. Navigating was no problem thanks to advance printout and so many years spent on New York and London systems, which deploy a lot less logic (like stations numbered by the line they’re on, e.g. station M08 is on the Marunouchi line, T09 is on the Tozai line, etc.)

Visited National Information Institute, courtesy Prof. Honiden and Dr. Abdullah – both of whom increasingly collaborating with the OU, the former on requirements analysis / software engineering and the latter on fine-grained dialogue modelling, based on a sample of BuddySpace transcripts and shortly on the same for FlashMeeting. Also met Paul and Eric who are working on multi-agent systems, particularly open heterogenous architectures which involve arbitrary ‘fresh’ negotiation strategies, of which the archetypal case is real-time electricity supply/demand and finding the optimal buy/sell strategies. Paul worked on a related system for mixed-initiative (multi-human + multi-agent) problem solving, devising a series of scenarios to enable to collect real ethnographic data. Prof. Honiden’s secretary kindly helped me out with train bookings for Niigata, and (more importantly) wrote down a few key instructions (a) for me, in English regarding a quick route to finding the train and (b) for a few taxi drivers en route, in Japanese.

Evening caught the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Niigata – got mildly drenched getting to the hotel… and then… presto-mundo.. .here I am in… YIKES… the TALLEST building for miles around (that’s it in the nearby photo on the right!)… as if my anxiety levels were not already high enough entering the ‘earthquake zone’…. hmmm… and the news, as I suspected, is reporting quake/radiation damage side-effects are a ‘worse than reported at first’, but ‘no threat to the environment’. As I said above, YEAH, RIGHT: what are the odds?

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