Update to Big Iron – Fingers Crossed

About a year ago I wrote about a project to start an experimental video lab. And since then, very little to report.

It started well as we leased the digital switching gear, but ran into trouble when Stephen R Jones became unwell, and as often is the nature of visual music only he was able to prepare his equipment. There’s been plenty of other things to do at work so we took time out. But a year is a year and suddenly there had to be a plan B or the whole deal was off.

Big Iron 2 copy

One of the things I have learned over the last few years is whenever you reissue old albums, there’s a whole bunch of unfinished business that comes back to life. You have an equal chance that everyone is sweet, or that people are ready with a pump action shotgun. There was some business here as well, in-between these two extremes, but I have to get on with it, so the plan became to get a functioning rig now and sort out who shares the credit later. I don’t have the technical skill to trace that (I’m a middle manager).

By strange coincidence Ant, the Severed Heads ‘mother hen’ for many years, also works in A/V at the university and knows some of the local people who make contemporary video synthesisers. We’re hoping for a catch-up soon, where we can check out the latest toys. But it turns out they know the guy that bought the “Supernova 12”. That was Stephen’s last video synthesiser design, and is quite different to the “Fridge”, which is the one we used in Severed Heads.

Noting had been heard of it in years, when suddenly Ant got a mail to say, it exists, it needs some repairs, but if we can find a way to move it, it can come to the video lab. Which is kind of like when somebody says, ‘I found a box with MASTER TAPE written on it, do you want it?’.


In fact there was another Supernova based machine shown last year at Campbelltown. Maybe that can join its sister – I’ve asked the current user about joining in the project.

Catching Light, Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2013

Stephen agrees that the Fridge does some things better – the SN12 is a bit more brutal, doesn’t have quite same range of expression due to the way the colour is mixed. But I’m more hopeful now that we will have something to show for this and perhaps some day as many as three of Stephen’s machines in the one space.

Operation “Big Iron”

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many artistic opportunities – but I don’t need to tell you that opportunity rarely equals reality; good ideas often fall apart in the planning stages. When I was young and even more stupid, I would tell everyone wonderful things were going to happen, then eat socks in penance when nothing came of it. But I still get very excited & so I only announce project code names – if they die I can always pop them in a memory hole. There’s mystery in project naming as well as making merry with corporate culture. But at risk of sock eating I’d like to break protocol and talk about Big Iron because I think it’s on the verge of coming together and it relates to the last post.

2013 and the new broom.

I work at an art college, which sometimes feels like being a waiter on the Titanic. Of all the things that are waiting to be swept away, the art college is the one with KICK ME pinned to its backside. In consequence our executive are dragging the place over to be a research laboratory of some sort. We have a robotics lab now, which says, ‘do not shut us down we make potential weapons,‘ I guess.

My area is the sound and image coursework. That’s been about production – making movies, recording music. Given that plenty of places do that, there’s a need to be unique and not second fiddle to the competition. I have formed an idea – and it relates to the old band.


First you should know that Stephen R Jones wrote a history of the synthetic image in Australia. The book stops in 1975, but the study goes on – he has collected the original masters of important works going back through the complete history of the subject. The collection is private but some of it may be seen online through the Scanlines website which was put together by a team at the college including Stephen, Ross Harley and John Gillies.

Stephen wants to find a home for some of the hardware he’s built. Part of the old studio is on display at the Powerhouse Museum – but in a glass case where you can’t touch it. We both think that a museum should be a living place. So the idea comes to build a space on campus where the history of the synthetic image can continue to be made.

Experimental Television Workshop?

I want to build what used to be called an Experimental Television Workshop. ‘Television’ is no longer the right word, and there’s a few problems that need discussion.

A workplace that pools production equipment for artistic access has been tried all over the world many times. Perhaps the best known is the Experimental Television Centre. In Australia we’ve had Bush Video, Heuristic, Metro Screen, and more. They provided people with access to new equipment that was too expensive for their alternative ideas. One reason why the workshops have declined is that you can now buy a HD camera, a copy of VDMX and a laptop and have more power than the pioneers could even conceive. Access is no longer the problem.

Rather, this ETW is planned to disrupt the historical lineage. ‘New’ and ‘old’ are worthless ideas and the value is only in the outcome. If you use a tissue and comb and the result is beautiful, then all is good. The only reason to collect historical devices is that they encapsulate ways of thinking otherwise unavailable and therefore expand the creative potential.

I can illustrate this with tape recorders – I find no importance in recording to analogue tape compared to a digital system that emulates tape. But I do find value in analogue tape as a way to grab and bend and scrub sound recordings.

Big Iron 2 copy

Some of the ‘Fridge’. Needs some love.

The heart of the system would be the Stephen Jones ‘Fridge’ video synthesiser from the mid 1980’s. There were models before and models after, but this one has a story that Stephen and I share, and for this reason alone I wish to fund its reassembly. I think the colour that this version makes is nicer than the models afterwards, due in part to the included Fairlight Paintbox.

The college owns equipment which is suitable as well. One favourite of mine is the Panasonic MX-30 mixer which I use to do things like this:

These old things will need to be tied to new things in such a way as it doesn’t matter whether you’re using The Fridge or VDMX, just that the outcome is what you wanted. I see a lot of Blackmagic Design in my future.


The workshop will be part of clearly structured coursework that covers the history and meaning of synthetic video. It must never be allowed to degenerate into a meaningless VJ fetish, and that means carefully chosen artists in residence and plenty of background research before people get to twiddle.

It’s fair to ask why synthetic visuals should be the focus. Why not high definition or interactivity? Why not documentary, after all that’s one of the courses I teach?

I think that linear documentary and narrative are not dependent on video, they are film. Sure, video solved issues of community access and cost and there’s live broadcast, but these are not things unique to an art college and the Film & Television school is a better venue for this. An art college should first consider the relationship between painting and video.

Interactivity is the business of iCinema. The ETW should cover performance, which is a very different thing.

High Definition is nice to have but hasn’t prevented great work that inspires this project, and at worst aspires to be filmic. You can think I’m being bigoted and I welcome the guidance, but in the long run somebody has to put their personality into a creative environment, just as much as an artwork.

What happens next.

I have to make sure everybody at the college is in agreement. There is much to build and repair, it will probably be a year before the facility could be working. In America all the bits and pieces I need are all over eBay, here they are rare and I will have to meet people who have collected the parts I need and see if they have unwanted things they would like to contribute.

So if you happen to have a Video Cox Box sitting in storage, do let me know!

Walking through the biggest book.

I recently attended a lecture by Professor Lewis Lancaster in which he described his collaboration with what he calls ‘Long Data’. Best if I first quote from a 2011 paper about the process:

Blue Dots

This project integrates the Chinese Buddhist Canon, Koryo version Tripitaka Koreana, into the AVIE system. This version of the Buddhist Canon is inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage enshrined in Haeinsa, Korea. The 166,000 pages of rubbings from the wooden printing blocks constitute the oldest complete set of the corpus in print format. Divided into 1,514 individual texts, the version has a complexity that is challenging since the texts represent translations from Indic languages into Chinese over a 1000-year period (2nd-11th centuries). This is the world’s largest single corpus containing over 50 million glyphs, and it was digitized and encoded by Prof Lew Lancaster and his team in a project that started in the 70s.

OK, so a young academic who studies East Asian Languages is put in charge of documenting a 166,000 page book that’s been translated from ancient Indian to Chinese over 1000 years. The biggest book, the oldest copy. For the first 6 or so years he reads it. Reaching some kind of crisis as I think you would, he decides that reading it was not going to get anywhere. So he talks to Samsung and they help him digitise it. He feeds it into a computer and adds metadata behind each glyph (where it sits on what page and so on).


So now you have 50,000,000+ glyphs stored in memory. (Which reminds me a bit of the 9 Billion Names of God). What do you do with that? At this point I was a little cross with taking a text and chopping it up into ‘Big Data’ cubes, but he seemed to be an honest prof so I waited for the explanation.

He had the computer make all the glyphs blue, and the one glyph, one word, he made red wherever it appears. So he can see patterns. He can ‘feel it’. He picks another word, feels how they are ranged closely, or far apart, intuits a problem. He asks the computer to plot a graph of how often those words appear together over the 1000 years of transcription. There are peaks as new words are developed and then discarded. There’s two peaks that seem oddly similar, but 200 years apart. The computer has found that pages have been accidentally jumbled up about 500 years ago.

The AVIE is the 3D environment built first at Kunst Kamp, now with a bigger version over at City University of Hong Kong. The Blue Dots were fed into the system so that Lancaster could walk through the book, touch any dot and read the glyph right there.


It is charming, and rather like a short story by Borges. But similarly it’s like the infamous German Video Artist who when asked about his work said ‘It is 4 minutes long and in colour’. The computer has seen the book as a whole, it has not seen what the book says. I think that when Lancaster sadly dies the computer will fall mute. It’s a jotting, the structure is in the brain of the man who knows which way to walk and touch.

There is a monk in Korea I am sure that can walk through the actual plates that hold the book and see it – just like Lancaster sees it now. He doesn’t know that the pages are mixed up. He might not really care.

There were other examples and discussion but one part really got me thinking – about Obama’s first presidential speech and how it was seen as far more effective than his second, and how a computer analysis found that in it he employed a rising repetition; a circle of introduction, point, point, point, re-phrase, affirm, affirm, affirm, summarise. This circle apparently can be found in The Book as well.

When Lancaster asked the audience how else could the data be visualised, it was immediately obvious to me that (a) Obama was using church sermon patterns that (b) you would also expect in a religious text and (c) are found also in the epic poems of antiquity because (d) it is easier to memorise text if it is sung because (e) the part of the brain that handles music is a long term storage processor. Which is why we teach children with songs. Do Re Mi.

That is, you can sing songs you heard and recited years ago, and will until you die because that how the brain lays down text for long term storage – connected with tonal ‘meta data’. Even the profoundly senile can sing a song. Music soothes the savage breast but it also parses language and dare I say, the kind of vague and intuitive information that ‘Big Data’ is supposed to offer.

I stuck up my hand and asked – wouldn’t it be better to sonify the data? Because music recognition is a powerful pattern recognition system? He kind of looked like I’d said rubber baby buggy bumpers. It’s a hunch, prof, it’s just a long shot, that bird songs and big data have more in common that you think. People used to track game and find water and know when winter was coming because of nothing in particular but everything at once. Maybe that’s what brains do that computers can’t.

Before the Dean got too anxious I told an anecdote about Silliac and LeapFrog, which made it all about computers again, which made it alright.

But I still got that hunch.


Everything you didn’t want to know about MOOCs

Every few years we concoct a new iconic shorthand for the same old modernist drive to social efficiency. It wasn’t too long ago that virtual worlds were the buzz. Micro blogging has been the firm favourite for the last three or so years but we’ve got a new one; the Massive Open Online Class which has a killer mix of cyber culture, ‘gamification’, white man’s burden and push button convenience. Sounds like I’m down on it, but actually I’m in the race to win.

For the student, a MOOC is the chance to study (for example) poetry at Harvard for free. So long as you understand that (a) you are not really studying or graduating at Harvard and (b) that your assessment and feedback is going to be done by some other amateur, it’s a deal. For the university it seems a way to do all the rote teaching by the least expensive means, until they remember it’s free, and are left scrabbling for any kind of payment system.

For Pearson, a publisher in the textbook game, it’s a nice bit of roots organisation that will hand over a platter of intellectual property for them to gatekeep. Like the indie labels did for the music industry, like lonely people do for Facebook, there’s nothing like enthusiasts jumping into your fishing net.

But for teaching staff it’s what MP3 did for the music industry – good for the very top and very bottom – genocide for the middle. If you’re staff at a regional university and doing your best to teach poetry on limited means, having Harvard come to town is death. Not that anyone needed them to explain poetry, but the lure is in the brand (burned on your rear). The regional university wilts, the university town wilts, an arid patch appears with consequent economic and political damage.There will be cheer squad of course – same people that thought that transferring music rights from EMI to Apple represents some kind of progress.

For me, teaching at a GO8 University with a lab of specialised equipment and my eccentric library; not as worrying. You can’t really learn camerawork over the telephone, nor can any practitioner assess 10,000 student movies. Sure, you can have peer assessment, it’s called YouTube and no one is fooled. That’s why you come to me. I will tell you how not to suck, to your face, with examples.

I’ll state my position up front – MOOCs are the opposite of everything we’ve been told is good teaching practice. The best classes are small with a close mutuality, have a strong practical component, have a teacher that is a practitioner that provides targeted attention and feedback to the individual student. If you are unsure of something I come up to your desk, listen to your questions and provide help, often with physical demonstration. When I assess you, I do so from a rubric, my expertise and my discussions with you. Personal service – and why ANU is top Australian university every year.

It’s the same poor idea that has run over the last decade – cut the cake until you get a big crowd then obsess on the size of the crowd, not the size of the slice. Part of the advertisement is how MOOCs are great for people in extremely poor parts of the world. That’s partly true. But it’s not really contributing to their local educational structure, in fact it’s subverting the development. Harvard comes to town, everywhere.

Put it another way, I bet the idea would be less popular if the MOOC was coming from Beijing. And it will, it surely will.

No, my interest in MOOCs is purely selfish – to not have to deliver the same lectures twice a year for the rest of my life, yet to perform in front of larger circuses. Some things, like how to frame a shot – that I would like to write down once and not again. Plus as an old hand at making interactive publications it’s cute to see it bubble up again. I’ve got 20+ years of computer aided learning experience to sell. 

We had a seminar. That’s one good thing about these icons – something new to research and hold seminars about. Keeps academics fed.

Our first speaker was Curt Bonk an enthusiastic American MOOCher. A nice man who accepted that his name is a perfect shit storm in Australian slang. He should be excused for having less time than he normally needs, but the talk was a blurry top 40 of who had the most students and when, a hit parade of audience size. Perhaps he thought to demonstrate how he engages his online audience – to my eyes it was more manic than empathic. He helpfully mentioned one of his books about every 5 slides – a good demonstration of one way to monetise free teaching.

Richard Buckland was next – a home team speaker and a complete delight. I can’t do him justice, only report some of the best bits: That the least interesting part of ‘MOOC’ is the ‘M’, and that the worth is there if even one underprivileged student was empowered by it. That universities shouldn’t fear MOOCs eating into their entry level courses, because if your entry level can be taught in that way, it needs improving. That once teaching is open, we can all steal ideas from each other and get better at it. That finally you can earn praise for teaching in public, the way a researcher is praised for their publications. And so on. There wasn’t a moment that didn’t kick ass.

Simon McIntyre did an interesting report on COFA Online’s experiments with publishing teaching material and then tracing who picks it up and uses it. Without the cool animated graphics it’s not nearly as fun, so I’ll cut to the conclusion – that a different world map emerges when you trace the flows, one in which a tweeter in New Zealand may the hub of learning spokes in Europe and the USA. I didn’t find that too surprising, I was more impressed by a graphic prepared by a student of all the technologies that person used in their learning, a horrible mesh of boxes with Blackboard squeezed up into one corner. Imagine a Bosch painting made out of Applications. I wish I had that to show you.

Rick Bennett talked about RukSac which looks like a prettied up fork of the Omnium software we use for teaching. You can learn more the site than from me, although I am not sure you can just take a tool that works for 100 people and make it work for 10000 – which might be the point, although it wasn’t clear.

Plenty of questions – the ones that mattered the most to me was the business of IP. I am not going to start giving lectures on the films of Stanley Kubrick on YouTube. To that there was the usual mumbling about Creative Commons. I would have asked about how any course based around essay writing was supposed to have 10000 members. I didn’t because the answer is obvious.


Lots more (MIT article).

Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist

…and other mind fucks. Happily for me while compiling a list of weird games for a lecture, a discussion opened up on Something Awful on that very topic. Pleased to see that I had already nominated some of the finest, and also to learn of new wonders to behold.

First: this promo for Octodad is something I will forever treasure in my heart. Video art.

The game itself simulates an octopus in a suit attempting to convince people that it’s a completely normal dad; mind numbingly difficult, pathetic and wonderfully spiteful. I’m more into their using a messed up ’tilted cart’ version of  the game as the sales pitch –  it instantly holds an unreasonable position.

Randy Balma probably started just as a simulation of repeatedly driving a school bus into oncoming traffic high on mushrooms, but as the high highs higher it launches a rocket propelled Big Ben into collisions with space junk. Messhof (Mark Essen) has followed an Art Game path since graduation in 2008 – his latest Nidhogg won big in the 2011 Game Developers Conference. But to my mind he’s lost that intense distaste for all life that marked Randy Balma’s contribution to civilisation. Which I share.

I hadn’t heard of The Adventures of D. Duck before. Apart from appearing to be designed by a traumatised 6 year old it’s a reasonably standard point and click adventure starring grossly deformed animals.


But if you are going to truly Adventure, then go straight to the obsessive compulsive side of the field – the outsider Role Playing Games. Queen of the pack is Dream Diary, hatched by ‘Kikiyama’ in 2005. Like nearly all such outsider RPGs it’s built on RPG Maker, a Japanese authoring kit for depressingly similar landscapes of castles and armed dwarves. Dream Diary, or Yume Nikki probably first gained praise for eschewing all dwarves – which grew wildly when players realised that the AUTHOR IS PROFOUNDLY DISTURBED. Maybe.



For a game where you spend most of your time lost in an 8 bit pixelated nightmare it’s created a rabid community of fans who are obsessed with every aspect of the hero girl Windowed (‘is she a transexual?’), her tiny apartment that she can only leave when asleep (‘post traumatic stress’) and the vaguely threatening wildlife that live in her dreams. Like the ‘Bird People’:


All of whom look like Julia Gillard, but are said by fans to represent childhood tormentors. They’re harmless unless you stab them in which case they’ll confine you to dreams where the only escape is to wake up. The subject of most fan obsession is a cross eyed piano player who looks a little like Michael Jackson meets Ryuichi Sakamoto who crash lands a space ship on Mars so …

Hell, it’s too complicated. Just watch this small bit.

I don’t particularly like RPGs (not into dwarves) but I’m currently working through a French one called OFF. This one has more traditional heroes and battles, but your main character is a baseball batter, aided by angelic hoops and guided by a pretentious cat judge. I managed to get through a city made of meat fountains and fought against a giant bird which lives inside another cat. I’m told it’ll all make sense if I can get to the end of it. It’s that promise of hidden knowledge that drives me on (and probably why people become Scientologists). I’m just a bit tired of fighting whales in the shopping centre.

Normally I choose peaceful stories, like The Woodcutter.

Should have sent a poet.

Then there are the Art Games. LSD Dream Simulator is a Playstation title allegedly based on 10 years of dreams had by a lady called Hiroko Nishikawa. If so, the poor thing dreamed in very blocky low resolution graphics. Walk around blocky streets finding blocky animals floating in the sky, or blocky corpses on the ground. Touch something and another dream starts. They get more dour and morose over the 365 days of game time. Sometimes a bad thing may happen. That’s about it.


Since the days of LSD the graphics have got better but the attention whoring and lack of genuine engagement remains the sure sign of an Art Game. There’s a common texture to Yume Nikki and LSD but the differences are most helpful. Whether it’s a prank like Randy Balma or a warped world like Yume Nikki, it’s the insularity of the game that makes it appealing, the complete disregard for audience. They’re a personality you have to engage as the Other, as you do with real people you first meet.  Art Games want to be agreeable – LSD even comes as a coffee table book. That’s too comforting and controlled, like small talk with a celebrity*.

The phrase Inscrutable Energy popped into my mind today (the birds** are busy at the moment.) I think it requires that the appeal of a work is a bipolar force – the positive is represented the sweet, brightly coloured game like Angry Birds. The negative is much harder to create and to define but it’s equally powerful in inspiring playfulness.

I’ve a couple of projects looming for 2013 in which I’m being asked to justify a theme appropriate for the art of this moment – a hard thing (deservedly hard) for anyone as old and cynical as me. The New Aesthetic is not it. I really think it’s The Inscrutable. Only the inscrutable can withstand the forces that would apply metrics to art and devolve it into recipes and academies. The only power that can defeat Research is The Inscrutable. That should be our goal.

* For reasons I won’t go into I shook hands with Kevin Rudd today. He spoke to me like The Queen addressing a Commoner. I bet it was as tedious for him as was for me.

** It’s hard to answer when somebody asks about sudden inspiration. I tend to say that ‘the birds put it there’ because that’s how it seems to come, and the image is (hopefully) less offensive than claiming to be inspired. Sometimes the birds get too busy – right now a month or so of depression has lifted and the manic chattering of birds is driving me a bit nuts. It’ll end with a bang in about a week from now.

Ralph Balson – paint musician.

When I was working on The Shape Of A Note I was assisted by the Penrith Regional Gallery in trying to find works that could be described as musical. Obviously it’s easiest to do that in the era when painters themselves used music as a guide – Kandinsky and Mondrian are the obvious references but the students around the Penrith region weren’t going to see these in person. But, said the Gallery, perhaps you could use Ralph Balson?

Ralph Balson? Damn! Here was a painter that (and OK painting isn’t my big thing) I knew nothing about and yet it was immediately obvious that this was exactly the mind I was seeking. It’s a bridge over to the theosophists and their colour music, the video synthesists of the late 20th Century, maybe even The New Aesthetic if I’m really lucky.

Here’s someone that lived in the same place as I did and overlapped with the people I learned from. He died 2 years after I was born otherwise I’d be around to his place with a case of VB and a lot of questions.

Socially, Balson was shy and reticent. Between 1949 and 1959 he taught part time at East Sydney Technical College. Students respected this near-sighted, suburban painter, with his tradesman’s clothes, who made no display of ego. – Aus Dict. of Biography

(East Sydney Tech College is now the National Art School, it’s where I did the Barbara Island show, which I hope Balson would have liked.) I’m not sure what I’d ask him. Probably, “Oh adopted Wise Master can you see what’s burning a hole in my head trying to figure out what this MUSIC thing is?” “Oh ascendant house painter, why am I concerned with shit that was last important in 1915?” The answer would vary on the amount of VB.

Maybe you’re looking at this stuff and thinking you saw a rug at the local shopping centre that looks a bit like this. It’s true that Balson and his crew inspired more design than fine arts. That’s OK, film is still an artform despite BATTLESHIP. Also it must be said that he moved on to other more complicated work that I am still coming to terms with, and I may be a clifford. For reasons of research I am tweaked on this constructed art at the moment and probably the little things are overly big in my mind. Still, it’s a part of the painterly arts that needs connection to those that are trending at the moment.

I am glad to hear he had a friend. I don’t know why I am less religiously transformed by Grace Crowley’s work – I like it but for some reason Balson is doing some trick with my brain. Perhaps she is less ‘musical’.

At home with Ralph and Grace

She certainly deserved more respect. “It was not until the 1950s, when Crowley was in her sixties, that a public gallery exhibited her abstract works.” And you complain.

Roy de Maistre is worth a mention, but then he never really dedicated himself to the ideal the way this pair did. In quickly and out the door fast. I’ll stick with Ralph.

The Academic Industrial Complex

Right now: Work is renovating our curriculum. Fan shen is not the stated goal but you’d be crazy to miss the chance to scorch earth and build a new church you’d be proud of in 2016, when the first graduates come plopping out the other side. Years of frustration are bubbling up along with the usual academic flights of fantasy. Kind of like pink champagne.

The stated goal (put simply) is that students choose a more flexible structure in their degree. They choose a kind of ‘spine’, for example sound production or mathematics, then they add modular tracks that create a good collaboration. So for example Built Environment and Game Design, or Video Production and Performance, or what ever becomes useful in the years ahead. Then sprinkle Electives on top. The idea is good, but mind numbingly difficult.

Figuring out what to do with Audio is a good example. You might want to make Audio a spine to which other courses are connected. But a bit of analysis (pushing pieces of paper around in circles) makes it clear that a wide range of artforms can benefit from sound design. You’d thus place it as a secondary track. But then you have people who just want to create sound work. It has to be both a primary and a secondary track… and also an elective for people who just need basic skills in sound production – hell, put it in EVERY possible configuration. Now you have to make versions of every course for the level of specificity and your attempt to simplify everything ends up making it more complicated.

Or my area – video production. Let’s say I place their first documentary production at the start of year two. That means that they haven’t had a photography course yet, so either I move it along a bit so that photography gets them first, or I bring photography into the course as ‘cinematography’, which then duplicates some of the photography course. If I move it along, then Audio has to move along, because they’ll need to be composing later and … So maybe then I could require a photography course in year one. But year one is earmarked for conceptual learning and one of the things we want to do is have the students actually build concepts before whining about how-big-is-my-camera. And my conviction is that in 2012 anyone that needs to write an essay also needs basic camera skills – so Electives.

It’s like doing multiple jigsaw puzzle at once, where the pieces move on all of them. Which leads to…

I keep reading about how the university system is doomed. Usually the author goes on to tout some kind of ‘online revolution’. That’s a nonsense. People are still squabbling about how to provide a single course online. They are nowhere near figuring out how the hell to guide people through an entire programme of courses. Not. even. started. Go and have a look at Open University or iTunesU courses – they’re all isolated bits and pieces – hobbies and enthusiasms. Popular Mechanics. The word ‘university’ encapsulates that which online libraries cannot achieve.

It’s a good thing that we’re not relying on online teaching because it’s a toxic dump. Any time a paradigm is danger of forming you can bet on some structural weakness causing an embarrassing collapse, finger pointing & excuses. Since I’ve been at Kunst Kamp we’ve had three Learning Management Systems come and go, wasting effort and breeding more Luddites. Last time the Death Star shelled out maximum dollar trying to force some stability – but overspending has not stopped the latest tower from visibly leaning. I’ve backed down from such ideas until a system lasts more than 2 years running.

BUT: I must admit that having delivered the same lectures 7 or 8 times over the last few years, I’m ready for some other way to deliver the goods. The temptation is to change things to keep yourself from being bored, but the students are still arriving at the ideas for the first time every semester, and the Lumière Brothers still created the Cinematographe whether or not I’m over it.

I need textbooks, electronic documents, with movies and quizzes and all that. Must be the hot spot because that’s where a battle is raging: on the left are Adobe with their InDesign/Folio system, to the right Apple with iBook Author, in the middle are muddles of middleware for Moodle.

That iBooks are poison for information should be clear to anyone (even that utterly predictable shill John Gruber momentarily denounced the idea before his leash was yanked). There is NO WAY I am ever going to make a document that can only be seen on a ‘book’ sold by one publisher. People that defend this because ‘Apple doesn’t owe anything to publishing in general’ should try to remember THE ENTIRE DAMN POINT OF A TEXTBOOK. Jesus, people it’s not football.

That leaves Adobe by default. There’s been an awful lot of leaving Adobe by default recently.

I’ve peeked at InDesign and the folio format. Maybe. I think Acrobat is probably a better idea, even if it’s not designed for Pads it will run on most things and even on paper. The ambition for the coming years is to start making teaching aids that will do the lectures for me – adds work at the front, takes it away at the back. Means that I can segue from running ten tutorials a week to running a script on Mondays. And if indeed universities are going to crumble, well I’ll be on the life raft won’t I?

Pip pip!

Software! Feck! Arse! Part 2.

(In which your host visits Apple and finds Enlightenment.)

I went to Apple. Despite the presentation, I found out what I needed to know.

Before we go any further they want to dispel some rumours. I am now sure that they are not abandoning the professional market. They are not dumping Logic. The new look of FCPX doesn’t represent a dumbing down of the software. Nor is the retail division taking over the professional division.  That’s all BS.

The pity is that much of the furore could be avoided if they would just stop talking like North Korean Central News. Because Final Cut X does represent a forward looking paradigm. Just hopelessly marketed in Jobspeak and not tested in the real world.

First I was shown the pre-canned demonstration. Yes, I know that Apple is the leader in NLE. Yes I know that Final Cut arrived around the same time as DV. I have seen the car race footage plenty of times. Can we please talk about my particular needs?

Nope. The presentation was going to be made and all bullet points ticked off. Apple are so ‘on message’ that they ran as if I was 200 people. So I just sat back and watched it again, keeping my story lines and compound clips magnetised, taking in the practical needs. Two days later I clicked & suddenly thought WHY THE HELL DIDN’T THEY JUST SAY THAT IN THE FIRST PLACE! Well they did. Just not to me, as much as to their phantom 200 audience. My own subconscious had to translate it.

I’ll give you an exaggerated comparison. Suppose the whole of YouTube was all one videotape. The bit you wanted to watch was 23 hours and 15 minutes ‘down the tape’ and so you fast forwarded to the bit you wanted and played it from there. The next clip was at 7 days, 13 hours and so you fast forwarded to that and so on. Sound stupid? Yes, and yet that’s the way we think when edit on a time line – as if we were using tape. We use timecode and bins because that’s the history.

Instead YouTube has many small clips (< 10min) that we sort by filters and keywords and jump between them making playlists. And that’s more how Final Cut X is supposed to work. Load up your footage and it starts by auto tagging, for example with face recognition, hue etc. You then define the sections that have semantic meaning – the example given was ‘splashing water’. Tag those and they become a new folder. Your project becomes a semantic web.

Bring those clips down into the storyline. Snap clips or side stories to the main storyline. Instead of scrubbing, jump through the timeline by selecting from the metadata over at the left. You’re not cutting a clip so much as you’re arranging a report from a database – which has as much to do with Filemaker as Final Cut. In a world where assets and storage are exponential the idea is not one of cutting but gate keeping.

Now this sounds brilliant in theory, but right now it’s really clumsy. For a start they’re still trying to conform everything into ProRes by background rendering (versus Adobe’s reply where they assemble mixed resolutions of MP4 straight off the camera card). Final Cut X is very much ‘of the moment’ in that it fulfils current engineering challenges – not based around file management in the OS, not bound by physical volumes, non linear, semantic etc.  But the actual file organisation must be rigid for the apparent file organisation to be flexible. Once you’re inside it all seems fine. Outside, in reality, the way that the files are managed is unusable by our systems.

(At some point OSX might become completely free of folders, and group files by searches and tasks. It will then be a super version of Sugar. I don’t know if that is really a great idea, but software companies keep having it.)

They have forgotten that people need familiar metaphors. Pro Tools is a big tape recorder when there’s no actual need to be a tape recorder – but people are happier for that. SONY Vegas has most of the benefits without the drawbacks – it is exceedingly fast, gives real time previews, has a database system, and yet it follows the familiar metaphor. If Apple had made a variant of Vegas the world would sing their praises.

Having completed the demonstration we got into questions. While acknowledging my requests, the reps followed the now familiar reply: each time Apple moves everyone adapts. We will adapt to their ideas, or else.

And that was really the crux of the meeting. They want to play chicken, which works great with individual users. But I can’t steer an entire university, revise IT structures that have taken 2 or more years to put in place. I can’t retrain myself, to then retrain my staff, then have them retrain the students in time for next semester. And why the hell would I want to? It won’t make better art.

FCPX stemmed from bleeding edge engineering, it has met reality, and now needs a rethink about what is needed rather than what is clever. In a few years it will be ready.

Software! Feck! Arse!

(In which your host is summoned by Apple to answer for insubordination, and learns how little he knows about Ableton Live.)

So the various imps and demons of Kunst Kamp finally got together and debated what to do about this Final Cut Pro business. No one was particularly interested in ‘upgrading’ to the new version, instead voting by raised claws and chain rattling to keep the older version 7 going as long as possible. We have a few more years of a service contract – I don’t know how that will work given that any service would be ‘here, use this new one instead’. But we paid for it, so by Jove we’ll get served!

The Grand Master of Evil Imps got up and made a speech on behalf of Lightworks, which led to a zesty pounding of skull drums and fireballs from the chorus until it was pointed out that it didn’t run on Macs (“story of my fucking life”, I said) and the Dungeon Keeper got that look he gets when he thinks someone is talking about PCs in his dungeon! I hid under the table for a while.

The eldest Ghoul made a point about Media Composer, and that the children would all likely get jobs if that was taught. This was my time to stand on all three legs and take a contrary view. In my time in the Kamp, be it so short in comparison to the esteemed gentlemen I addressed, I had never heard any student evince any interest in Media Composer and what is more, I wished to point out that it was in fact an AVID product (and what howls were raised at that word) which meant DONGLES (more howls) and the DAE! (laments, and howls at crescendo). Nay, I said, pressing the advantage, we have already collected most of the runes – PS, AI, AE, ID, DW etc. etc. and what seemed best to me was that we just go ahead and add PR to that, particularly as that was what they used in China. And then sat down with a knowing air.

There was grumbling. I knew that grumbling was going to result. The Ghoul was still sure that AVID was how jobs were to be had. I agreed, and suggested that we install it and then HE could be the person that answered all the questions. That put an end to that and the vote was to just get Première and maybe a few Media Composer seats as punishment for postgrads.

Strangely enough just after the vote we were sent an invitation by Apple to come see their new version again. Perhaps we had not understood the worth of joining the New Order? It would be a pity to be wrong and besides there would be lunch. The Local Genius would himself do the mousing. Lunch. Very exclusive, only people from the Death Star to be invited. I don’t have time for lunch (I actually work, amazingly enough) but I thought we should give them one more go. Maybe the Genius will reveal the hidden switch that allows the user to save files where they want them, or just save files at all. Myself and the Dungeon Master will go, the Imps just bared their rears at the idea as they are wont to do.

Today I was invited to the local Live School. The topic was Max For Live and perhaps they thought I knew something about it because of my gnome. Everybody agreed that Max For Live was a wonderful thing that would be wonderful to know about. Wonderful, but rather tricky. While we fumbled about, one fellow taught MaxMSP to a much younger participant with a disturbing ability to learn things like other people eat peanuts – he had a working synthesiser in a few minutes and live video in about 15 minutes. God knows what he’ll be like when he reaches Year 10.

I asked some foolish noob questions about Live, but damn I didn’t know that you could name scenes with the BPM. Or how you can merge multiple sets into one by using groups. RTFM – I thought I had. I’m just getting to the point where I get Live and I think this is going to be it from now on. Particularly when we played with some of the stuff people have been recently making in M4L – I was shown a tool that morphs between mixer scenes with regions designated on an X-Y surface. So you can do a live cross morph between the full set up of two or more songs. This solves the question of how I was going to have multiple tracks segued in the upcoming show without needing to load anything.

So long as I don’t have to actually author this stuff…

Detecting ghosts using Picasa

The family home having been put on the market all the children have taken their burden of the artefacts that filled our parents’ lives. As the parents were in competition with the British Museum to pillage the planet for statues, carvings, parts of UFOs and weapons of mass destruction, I haven’t been able to fit much share in my little house. What I have taken on is the media including photographs that go back to the late 1800’s. I have catalogued and scanned about 4,200 so far. I think there are a few thousand more to go.

Each photo is scanned and added into Picasa, where I add tags and comments that e.g. ‘the baby in this shot went on to World War One and then must have survived because he’s the fat man holding another baby sometime later’. I turned on face recognition which was annoying at the start, but soon proved useful when it recognised Uncle Something Or Other over the decades. What I didn’t expect was that Picasa is determined to find every person in the shot no matter how bleary and distant they may be. I was deleting them when I noticed that Picasa was finding ghosts.

Here’s a typical Picasa face:

Nothing weird going on here. Ancient Ellard relative with beer.

Here Picasa insists that a face is somewhat to the left of what you or I might expect. But look again.

I am aged 8 and sitting on a couch. Picasa is much more interested in whatever is looking in the window. I can’t see it but then again Google is better at searching.

Quite typically our first real ghost is holding a ghostly beer. At least that’s what it looks like to me.

It’s the Invisible Man!

It’s not easy being green. That’s probably why he looks so down.

Keep in mind that all these showed up with face detection set to high confidence / low errors. I’m going to back up the database and then do another search with lower confidence – that’s going to really flush out all these spirits!


Our move to BandCamp seems to be slowly working. We have reached our first sales benchmark and so we’ve been given free downloads. If you would like a free download of bonus tracks from the Haul Ass album, why not click here?