Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Top 10 TV Programmes of 2010

'Tis the season to make lists (yay!) Kicking off this year's run-downs is my top ten TV shows from the past 12 months. To be eligible, programmes must have have been broadcast in the UK within the calendar year (hence no 30 Rock or Breaking Bad). Feel free to let me know what I should have been watching / rating via the comments link below.

#1 Mad Men - television to luxuriate in



#2 Wonders of the Solar System - genuinely awe-inspiring



#3 Rev - note perfect first run comedy



#4 This is England '86 - they do make them like this anymore



#5 The Big Silence - bold and affecting



#6 Peep Show - six more episodes of comedy gold



#7 When Harvey Met Bob - captivating 90 minute drama



#8 The Trip - indulgent yet delightful



#9 Sherlock - deftly written and brilliantly performed



#10 Glee - the dictionary definition of guilty pleasure



The next ten (in alphabetical order): The Apprentice, Being Human, Doctor Who, The Inbetweeners, James May's Toy Stories, Miranda, Newswipe, Outnumbered, Wallander, Who Do You Think You Are?

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Aweditorium - awesome music discovery iPad app

I used to blog quite a bit about music discovery apps but then Spotify came along, I moved from the BBC's Audio & Music Interactive department (to its television equivalent) and general app fatigue set in...

Then, a couple of week's ago, online streaming service thesixtyone released its Aweditorium iPad app and I was shaken out of my music discovery lethargy by an app of such elegance and utility that it's become almost a constant companion, introducing another ambient screen into my life (but hopefully not forcing me to buy another iPad... ;)

Like many of the best interfaces, none of its paradigms are particularly new or revolutionary - it just assembles existing paradigms with such grace that it feels fresh and delightful, displaying a number of those small but significant interface touches that I've banged on about in the past.

Aweditorium

On opening the app, a monochrome splash screen announces the name of the app and introduces its wonderful tag line: 'Aural Happiness' before fading in a mosaic of rotating artist images and a 'Headphones Recommended' icon. (It had me at 'hello'...)

Aweditorium

Once fully loaded, the artist thumbnail in the centre of the screen glows seductively with a one word invitation to 'Tap'. Doing so expands the image to full screen and fades in a track from that artist. 'Tap, swipe or pinch' appears briefly on the screen; no long winded explanation of which each will do, just an irresistible invitation to find out through trying.

Aweditorium

Tapping brings up the title of the track, the name and provenance of the artist and a row of six icons. Pause is self-explanatory. The CND logo turns out to signify sharing (via Twitter or Facebook), with the number in superscript reflecting the number of 'earthlings' who have shared the track. The heart icon provides links to other tracks by the same artist within the app and a link to download the track in iTunes. The speech bubble pulls up a video about the band and plays it out in minature, while fading the volume of the track playing to background level. The HD icon plays the track's music video in high-def. The tiles icon returns you to the mosaic (as does pinching).

In this state, info bubbles appear on the screen, providing background on the artist. Tapping for a second time hides the icons and info bubbles and instead overlays the track's lyrics on the screen.

Aweditorium

Swiping in any direction moves you through the image mosaic and starts the next track playing. Left to its own devices, once a track finishes the image scrolls to one side and the next track starts playing.

Returning to the mosaic, you realise your musical journey is being visually tracked by unfading the thumbnails of the tracks you've played. Top left of the screen is a orientation map, plotting your journey across the mosaic in miniature and displaying how many tracks you've listened to and what proportion of the mosaic you've explored.

Aweditorium

The current mosaic is 27 x 27 squares giving you 729 tracks to plot a course through. Another nice touch is that the mosaic wraps so you move seamlessly from one side to the other, never reaching an edge.

Of course, all of this interface delight would be for nothing were the music crap. Fortunately (and entirely subjectively) it's great, introducing me to unfortunately monikered, but musically glorious, The Morning Benders, to name but one.

If I were to scratch around for a criticism of Aweditorium it would be its failure to implement OAuth, forcing you to enter your Twitter username and password if you want to tweet a track, but now I'm just being churlish. Update: Aweditorium have been in touch to point out that the Twitter implementation makes use of xAuth :)

If you're remotely interested in indie music or application interfaces (and if you have an iPad) I'd heartily encourage you to download Aweditorium and see why I'm waxing lyrical. Wish I'd built it.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Seven Days - a study of sudden celebrity in slo-mo

Seven Days promotional image

Finally managed to catch up with Channel 4's new reality TV show, Seven Days, which I'd thought I'd missed (having wrongly inferred from the title that it was stripped across a single week...)

Apart from finding it more engaging than I'd expected, what really struck me whilst watching it was how the nature of the format means it very quickly becomes less a study of regular people and their daily interactions and more a real-time examination of the impact of suddenly becoming a public figure / minor celebrity.

While contestants on other reality formats like Big Brother are well aware that simply taking part in the show will have turned them into overnight celebrities, they are usually shielded from the consequences of that new status (aside from a few overheard boos on eviction night) until they emerge from the experience (whereupon it no doubt hits them like a tidal wave, as they wade their way through the tabloid backlog).

Seven Days is different in exposing the participants to their developing public profile in real-time and letting them choose whether to let that feedback loop moderate their behaviour or not. What's more, it's a cocktail not just of the usual tabloid fare, but also of comments from Joe Public via the moderated ChatNav service and the unmoderated wilds of Twitter.

We're only three weeks in but it's already interesting to see the different participants (I like the fact C4 has hosted their profiles in a /characters directory - hopefully a knowing nod to the inherent artifice of TV portrayals...) respond very differently to the feedback they're receiving. Whilst Susanne appears to be deriving a new found confidence from her feedback (to finally challenge her son to move out), Samantha's feedback has put her in a tail spin about whether she cares what people think of her or not.

Whereas Big Brother was always rich with the reality TV equivalent of dramatic irony, as the participants carried on oblivious both to the public reaction to their actions and to many of the on-camera actions of their housemates, Seven Days affords the participants equal access to the public's perceptions and the broadcast behaviour of the show's other participants (so Hannah will see/hear Ben describe her as a "bronze medal"...)

It's almost like the mirror image of The Truman Show, where complete obliviousness has been switched out for maximum awareness of their daily lives as national spectacle.

As Matt Locke (Acting Head of Crossplatform at Channel 4) acknowledges, the formula's probably not 100% right yet, but it's certainly one of the most ambitious attempts to date to try and harness the differing (and to my mind complimentary) strengths of broadcast and IP to create a genuine feedback loop, with many thousands of viewers also acting as contributors/influencers.

Whilst there's already speculation that the show may not have delivered large enough audiences to secure its future, I'd be intrigued to see how this dynamic evolves in the longer term as the participants' lives become increasingly affected by their new found fame.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Video game legends trump cards



Along with marbles, Lego, roller boots, Star Wars toys and Rubik's Cube/Snake/Magic, Top Trumps were one of the defining play experiences of my childhood. In fact, my brother and I spent so long playing with one particular deck (cars), that I even composed an ode to my favourite card (the Ford Thunderbird), which I sang in a triumphalist fashion whenever victory looked assured.

Another source of defining childhood play experiences came from the virtual realm of computer games. From not getting enough forward momentum in Microsoft Decathlon on my American cousins' Apple II in the mid-Eighties, to the happy weeks and months spent puzzling my through LucasArts' adventure games in my teens, computer games sucked up even more hours than those beloved trump cards. Mercifully, the two diversions never collided.

Until now, that is...

Above and below are photos of the first few packs of my homebrew 'Video game legends' trump cards, which arrived from the printers this morning. They feature 32 of the most seminal characters in video game history, which can now be pitted against one another on the basis of age (number of years since first appearance), number of game appearances (according to the interweb), estimated height (surprisingly difficult to guesstimate), speed (on a scale of 1 to 10) and special ability (which introduces scope for an entirely subjective argument over how Luigi's Thunderhand would fair against Kratos' Blades of Chaos...)

I've done a modest first print run of five decks - mail me if you'd like one. Also feel free to drop me a line / comment below if you think I've made any major character omissions, so I can include them in the next deck.

The full list of character cards (in no particular order):
- Mario
- Sonic the Hedgehog
- Link
- Lara Croft
- Master Chief
- Pac-Man
- Solid Snake
- Guybrush Threepwood
- Donkey Kong
- Sackboy
- Agent 47
- Crash Bandicoot
- Lemmings
- Buzz
- Bomberman
- Sam & Max
- Kirby
- Luigi
- Ryu
- Gordon Freeman
- Diddy Kong
- Ratchet
- Big Daddy
- Marcus Fenix
- Niko Bellic
- Cloud Strife
- Rayman
- Kratos
- Fox McCloud
- Pikachu
- Samus Aran
- Dante

(It hopefully goes without saying that these are intended as an affectionate fan tribute rather than a copyright-infringing invitation for Nintendo to sue my ass... :)





Sunday, January 24, 2010

Who knows more about me - Tesco or Google?

I like to think of myself as relatively savvy about how data about me is captured and stored. I know that by having (and using) a Tesco Clubcard I am offering up a veritable smorgasbord of valuable data about myself; not only where I live and what I like to eat and drink, but also what newspaper I read and - were I to take Tesco up on their full range of services - what clothes I wear, what car I drive (and when and where I fill it with petrol), what books I read, what DVDs and games I rent, what medication I take, my mobile phone and home broadband usage and even my bank balance and insurance provision. To what extent Tesco (or rather dunnhumby) joins the dots on all of this data is unknown although it's status as poster boy for successful CRM suggests, er, quite a lot.

Google is another company I'm aware knows a fair bit about me, although it wasn't until the launch of Google Dashboard last November, that I realised quite how much. Sure, there's my web search history (although that's possible to pause), but there's also my email, this blog (published using Blogger), my website stats, my online documents, my YouTube viewing, my RSS feed subscriptions, my checkout purchase history and - since I started trying out Google latitude - my location. Sounds a little scary when you put it like that, no?

The quality, convenience and competitive pricing (in Google's case, mostly free) of the products and services offered by both brands is what's keeping them dominant in their expanding (and no doubt soon to be overlapping) sectors. To what extent consumers will start factoring the volume, usage and transparency of personal data collected by these and other companies and how that will weigh against factors such as cost and convenience remains to be seen.

Of course, Tesco and Google aren't the only pretenders to the personal data throne. Through a combination of launches and acquisitions, Yahoo! now has access to my photos, email, bookmarks, conference schedule and - most potently - my social graph. The injection of users' social graph into the data mix is particularly valuable and Facebook is right at the sharp end of the personal data issues this entails, exacerbated by the rapid uptake of Facebook Connect, which is making its walled garden increasingly permeable.

Google Dashboard is a welcome baby-step in providing greater access to and - crucially - control over the personal data Google holds. It will be interesting to see whether Tesco starts moving more in this direction, whether by choice or legislation (clicking 'My Account' on the Tesco Clubcard site today returned the following message: "Sorry but an unexpected error has occured. We are currently trying to resolve the issue. Please try again.")

(Aside: Interesting to note that Tesco has dropped out of this 'Most highly-regarded business brands' ranking - although clearly the opinions of a selection of prominent UK leaders are likely to be very different to regular consumers).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Top 20 Films of 2009

Belatedly following on from my rather meagre list of top albums, below is my slightly more meaty run down of the twenty best (imho) movies released at the UK box office last year. Not a vintage year for cinema but still a few diamonds in the rough.

Films which I haven't got round to seeing yet which I suspect would have featured in the list if I had: The White Ribbon, An Education, The Class, The Wrestler, In The Loop.

1
Slumdog Millionaire
(dir. Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan)
Wholly deserving of the plaudits heaped upon it, Slumdog is beautiful scripted, shot, acted and scored.
2The Hurt Locker
(dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Don't be put off by the opaque title (army slang for 'place of pain') or the subject matter (bomb disposal in Iraq), this will quite simply blow you away.
3
Fish Tank
(dir. Andrea Arnold)
Not the bleak kitchen-sink drama the synopsis suggests, but a powerful and strangely uplifting tale of working class Britain.
4Mesrine
(dir. Jean-Fran├žois Richet)
A gritty two-part French crime biopic which makes a mockery of most British and American attempts at the genre.
5Milk
(dir. Gus Van Sant)
A compelling true story and a barnstorming performance from Sean Penn.
6Anvil: The Story of Anvil
(dir. Sacha Gervasi)
Proving that parody is no longer necessary when it comes to the world of heavy metal.
7A Serious Man
(dir. Ethan & Joel Cohen)
A seriously well made film with strong performances from a relatively unknown cast and gorgeous cinematography from Roger Deakins.
8Let The Right One In
(dir. Tomas Alfredson)
You don't have to like vampires or subtitles - this is a powerful human drama, not the Swedish Twilight.
9Che
(dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro deliver a worthy companion to The Motorcycle Diaries in the pantheon of Che portrayals.

10Religulous
(dir. Larry Charles)
Yes, it's unnecessarily polemical, but Bill Maher's sideways look at contemporary religion is as enjoyable as it is alarming.
11Frost/Nixon
(dir. Ron Howard)
Transcends the limitation of playing out known events with captivating central performances from Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.
12The September Issue
(dir. R.J. Cutler)
If documentary subjects could win Oscars, you'd have to hand one to Vogue's editor-in-chief. A real Wintour-de-force (sorry!)
13Moon
(dir. Duncan Jones)
A hugely disquieting watch with shades of Kubrick and a bravura performance from Sam Rockwell.
14
35 Shots of Rum
(dir. Claire Denis)
Slow moving and slight, this intimate French drama won't be to everyone's taste but remains a masterclass in the artistry of film-making.
15Avatar
(dir. James Cameron)
Not what you'd call a nuanced plot, but as a piece of pure spectacle James Cameron's magnum opus delivers in spades (or should that be shades...?)
16The Hangover
(dir. Todd Phillips)
Not quite note-perfect (can people please stop employing Mike Tyson?) but still the best Hollywood comedy of the year.
17Vicky Christina Barcelona
(dir. Woody Allen)
Allen's most watchable film in years with engaging performances from Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem.
18The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
(dir. David Fincher)
An overlong but deeply affecting study of love and mortality. I challenge you not to shed a tear.
19Inglourious Basterds
(dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Whilst overindulgent in places (e.g. machine gunning Hitler in the face), Tarantino's intuitive feel for making watchable cinema wins out.
20Synecdoche, New York
(dir. Charlie Kaufman)
Bold, ambitious and - for much of the running time - downright incoherent, this is a must watch for any would-be (or has-been) film student.

Related posts:
Best Films of 2008
My Top 25 Films of 2007
My Top 30 Films of 2006
My Top 25 Films of 2005
My Top 20 Films of 2004