September, 2008

Shoddy Google Ads

There really are some poor Google Ads kicking about at the moment, and the worst of them seem to be appearing in Gmail (for me at least).
Here’s the latest example of something that’s thoroughly misrepresentative on many levels.
“Eastenders is Axed”? No it’s not. The link is to a strange site called “”.
If you click through you’re presented with the following:
Seemingly this is a “BBC Poll” – which I suppose could mean that it’s some research commissioned by the BBC (Obviously it’s not), or their get-out might be that it’s a poll about a BBC programme.
It’s strange that someone not connected to the BBC is paying Google to get some response their question of the day. Still, that’s what advertising’s there for, and if I want to find out the answer to something via research, I’m likely to need to pay someone to get me the answer.
Curiously, the links to both “Yes” and “No” in their “poll” are identical. Hmm.
Clicking through takes you to a random “shopping” site. Goodness knows how I’m supposed to win one their 23 “prizes”.
In other words the whole thing is just a traffic driver, and a not very good one at that. Yet Google lets this sort of thing through. I just think that as Google and other online advertisers become bigger, this kind of non-advertising causes me to lose trust in Google as a brand. The top of my email is prime real estate, and it feels like the centre-break of the News at Ten has some kind of Dellboy advertising. It wouldn’t happen on ITV, and shouldn’t happen on Google.
No doubt if I go through the frustratingly hidden process of reporting the advertiser to Google, I’ll eventually get the ad pulled, but since Google makes that hard, I wonder how interested it really is. Yet it should care, and I shouldn’t see garbage like this.
Gmail’s spam filter works pretty well, but then I get served spam as advertising!

Audio To Text

Over the last few years, I’ve tried to look at lots of different ways to turn audio into text – ideally cheaply or even freely.
Working for a radio station, even one that largely plays out music, being able to search audio to find when a presenter said or mentioned something would be incredibly useful.
I’ve seen a very expensive product tested a couple of times which has been pretty fitful in working well – and even though one radio group did buy it one stage, it’s never been fully utilised. There are also services like Blinkx that seem to do a pretty good job in a controlled environment.
A regular example seems to be based around the BBC News channel. The transcription of what presenters are saying is remarkably accurate – even for far flung place names. But systems can be pointed towards the BBC News website for appropriate names and words to help those trickier phrases.
So it was interesting to see two different takes on this problem in the last week or so. First of all Andy Baio has published details of how he went about getting an interview he’d conducted transcribed so that he could place it on his website. Essentially he chopped the interview into small nuggets, and then used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get transcriptions of what was said. He’s very happy with the outcome.
A couple of years ago, Virgin Radio tried something very similar with our “Snoop Log.” Everytime a DJ opens a fader, we record what he or she is saying. That’s put into a database alongside details of track listings and adverts so that we have a record of what was played out. If we could also get hold of a transcription of what was said, we’d have a fully indexable database of our output.
DJ links tend to be pretty short – often well under a minute. So the individual “chunks” are ready made. It’s easy to transcode them to mp3 or whatever would be appropriate. The difficulty comes from the song titles and artists. If you live in India and English is perhaps a second language, then the exact spelling of “The Kings of Leon” might be tricky for you.
The test wasn’t a success. Now it might be that we didn’t offer enough cash to get better quality translators, or perhaps if we’d embedded the audio in a Flash player, that might have helped. One way or another – we didn’t take it forward.
There are other transcription services that ride on the back of the Amazon Mechanical Turk and cost more than the DIY option. But then they offer higher quality output. It’s a question of cost for a commercial radio station versus value of the output. It’s certainly something to revisit.
The other fascinating development has come from Google and its “Gaudi” service which has just launched. Initially concentrating on political speeches, the service allows you to search for words within those speeches and jump to the correct part of the video.
Now obviously from a radio perspective, this could be done just as easily with an audio only stream.
But I’d still love to know to what extent the service is only using audio. It’s quite clear that pretty much every political speech is captured in text form in one place or another. That’s what allows talented souls to put together videos of politicians “singing along” to songs like “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So is Google using text alongside video/audio to pattern match?
Anyway, it’s promising, and surely in time, we’ll truly be able to search audio.

The Emmy Award Winning…

Sunday night in the US saw the Emmy Awards – theoretically, the most important American TV awards. Now their credibility is obviously nil since the best TV series to emerge from the US (and arguably the English speaking world) has had precisely two nominations in five years and no awards. That’s The Wire. It’s got a black cast and is set in Baltimore. Emmy voters are white and live in LA.
But the big winner at the weekend was another HBO show that I’ve been looking forward to – John Adams. It’s a seven part drama that aired in 90 minute ad-free chunks on HBO earlier this year. It won a grand total of 13 awards including one for Paul Giamatti who plays Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of America.
So I’ve been looking forward to it, and next weekend it starts on UK TV. Now whereabouts in the schedule do you think this 7-part epic is going to play?
Well it’s not on BBC1 or ITV1 – certainly. Nor Five… BBC2 would work, but nope. Channel 4 would be a good fit, but nope.
You’re getting warm.
BBC Four? It’d work nicely there. But no.
Instead it’s on More 4.
Now that’s a good fit. More 4 shows some challenging and interesting programming. In particular they bring us the nightly delight that is The Daily Show (Incidentally, did they give last Friday’s episode with the Tony Blair interview much cross promotion on C4? I don’t really watch much C4 these days so don’t know).
If I tell you it’s on at the weekend, when do you think you can catch it? 9pm or 10pm on Saturday or Sunday nights? Well Saturday night has “The 30 Greatest Political Comedies” – a list show presented by no less than Michael Howard (who I saw in the street in Golden Square the other day oddly enough) and Charles Kennedy. Not quite BBC Parliament’s coverage of the Labour and Tory conventions is it? That’s followed by a recording of the previous evening’s US Presidential Debate.
Earlier in the evening there’s a double bill of Property Ladder – and we’re all thinking about moving just now aren’t we? So there’s no space on Saturday night in the schedule clearly.
What about Sunday? Well there’s a repeat of a Jamie Oliver programme, then a repeat of a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall programme, followed by repeats of two Gordon Ramsay programmes. Clearly everyone’s cooking on Sunday nights.
So when can this 13-time Emmy Award winning mini-series air? It cost over $100m to make afterall.
5.30pm on Saturday. That’s when.
Now on the one-hand, you could argue that it’s good counter-programming to things like Merlin or X-Factor that are on BBC1 and ITV1 at the same time. But it just feels completely hidden, and it’s a real shame. Surely there must have been some kind of primetime slot for the programme?
It reminds me of another cracking HBO show that was thoroughly hidden away in the schedule by Channel 4 years ago – From The Earth To The Moon. Produced by Tom Hanks no less, this dramatised the Apollo space race and was made at great expense. It was shown on Saturday lunchtimes or thereabouts here, and consequently most people will have seen it in repeats on something like FX or on DVD.
While I’m highlighting shows that you really should see, More 4 has another Emmy Award winning one-off next week that is airing in primetime, and is absolutely unmissable. Next Friday they’re showing Recount, which tells the story of the Florida part of the 2000 Presidential Election. You know, the one that Al Gore should have won.
The scene early on shows us mostly clearly what “hanging-chads” really were and it’s a masterly dramatisation of an important, but fairly dry subject. It’d be easy to have made it uninteresting, but a cast that incldues Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson and a wonderful Laura Dern, makes this an exceptional film. It’s followed by the intriguing sounding Vice-Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
[UPDATE] I’ve just listened to the most recent Guardian Mediatalk podcast and More4 controller Hamish Mykura talks up his channel’s showing of John Adams (and Recount) with great proudness. What a shame he’s scheduling it at teatime on Saturdays.

Maths on Hole In The Wall

Hole in the Wall is BBC One’s new Saturday teatime game show. Imported from Japan, it involves two teams of celebrities dressed in lycra space suits and crash helmets trying to form shapes to fit through the holes in a polystyrene wall that heads towards them.
If they don’t make the correct shape, then end up in a small pool behind them. It’s very silly and is taking the world by storm.
You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for a week or so here.
Anyway, one of the rounds is a “question” in which the team playing must select one of the two answers and stand behind that answer to go through a hidden door. The wrong door is solid and means that you’ll end up in the drink.
This week’s question was a maths problem, and you can see it below.
Anyone who’s studied GCSE or O Level maths should also see the problem. The answer’s neither 11 nor 12. It’s 38.
There’s something called Order of Operations in maths and it means that you calculate things like multiplications and division first – particularly when there’s no more information to help you decide which order to do things.
So, in effect, this sum is the same as saying:
(3 x 12) + (8 / 4) = 36 + 2 = 38
You can’t just read it from left to right as the producers (and indeed the contestants did). It’s just wrong.
If it was worth it, I’d have complained to someone at the BBC. But it’s not, although arguably the points different might have meant the other team won, and their (undisclosed) charity might have missed out on £10,000.
It’s just a shame that the solitary question in the entire show was, er, wrong.

Copyright On YouTube

So David Lloyd is leaving Virgin (soon to be Absolute) Radio today, and in the time honoured fashion, we made a leaving video.
The video was edited to a couple of copyright songs – It’s Getting Better by Mama Cass and We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters.
I uploaded the video to YouTube.
Now I’m obviously breaking rules here. Those aren’t my songs to go sharing. YouTube has a “Content Identification Program” which obviously looked at the audio at recognised it as being owned by “UMG” (I take this to be Universal Music Group). Before the video had even been processed, an email had pinged back to me informing me of this.
Yet UMG’s policy is to allow the audio to remain up, but in return it has to feature advertising on that YouTube page, and allow the owner access to the logs of that title.
What a sensible proposal. Now I’m aware that at some time in the future they might change their mind and pull “my” video. But that does seem to be a relatively forward thinking way of doing things. And it’s not often that you can say that about record companies.
Anyway, that’s alll a long way around of giving me a reason to embed the video here.

(Video shot largely by Paul Sylvester and edited by me. It could be better in places, but it’s still quite fun I think, and it worked a treat).

Ray Mears v Bear Grylls

You know how I love watching Bear Grylls’ programmes – particularly since he had to tone down what he was claiming in his second series of Born Survivor.
Back in May, when Ray Mears was promoting his latest series – set in the Australian outback – he laughed off Grylls. Now Grylls is conceding defeat in the battle of TV survivalists. Grylls has a new series of Born Survivor starting on Discovery next week and C4 in October.
This sounds like the perfect opportunity for a Children in Need or Comic Relief stand-off: first person to Uluru or the North Pole is the winner. Something like that.

Newspaper Archives

It’s an unfortunate coincidence that just days after I’d first used The Times’ archive for a little project that I’m working on, that they announce to registered users that it’ll have a paywall from the end of this week (confusingly, they list the date as Friday 18 September when there isn’t such a day).
Still I did at least find what I was looking for on this occassion.
Sadly it mirrors what Guardian newspapers have done with their archive. The Times is a little cheaper with access charged at £4.95 for a day, then £14.95 a month and £74.95 a year. The Guardian is £7.95 for a day, £14.95 for three days and £49.95 for a month – so significantly more.
I fully understand the value of these archives, and the work that must have gone into digitising all those papers. But it’s a shame that the prices are where they are. Plenty of people will still be visiting their local reference libraries for access.
This comes a week after Google announced that it was digitising a number of US papers. The Google effort seems to be ad-funded, although I can’t see a clear promise that these will be available free in future. And Google doesn’t seem to offer an easy way of downloading the articles, something you certainly can do with The Times’ archive.
Still, I did enjoy this side-story from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage of the Apollo 11 landings in 1969:
Pittsburgh Gazette-Post Moon Landing Story

Picnic Shelved

I never knew that it had been given the working title “Picnic”, but it seems that Sky has decided to put the whole venture on ice.
Let me explain, 18 months or so ago, Sky suddenly announced that it wanted to take its three current Freeview services – Sky News, Sky Sports News and Sky Three – off the Freeview platform, and use the space to put four or so new subscription channels on in its place. It would use a higher spec of encoding that would mean consumers needed new boxes to both decode this, and to provide a slot for their subscription smart cards.
Ofcom wasn’t too happy and the whole thing disappeared deep into Ofcom’s Southwark Bridge offices for further consultation. Sky was an original partner of Freeview, and suddently DTT wouldn’t quite be so free.
The cynic in me thought that this was a chance to get back at Setanta who was soon to be launching with Premier League football. And due to their tie-up with Top-Up TV, they’d be on Freeview, unlike Sky.
At Sky News, they were a bit unhappy as not only were they off Virgin Media (and still are, I believe), but now they were coming off Freeview.
Ofcom has quite forceably responded to Sky’s press statements regarding the suspension of development work on Picnic. In particular they highlight a tardiness on Sky’s part to get responses to them on deadline and in full detail.
So a questionmark must hang over how serious a proposition this ever was. On the one hand, the venture had employed as many as 70 people (doing what, exactly, beyond technical work and responding to Ofcom, is a little unclear)., but the original hope had been to put something in place in time for the start of the last football season. The idea was surely to confuse a marketplace that Setanta was then entering into.
I suspect that Sky is now not so fussed about Setanta. They’ve certaininly come out well following last week’s debacle. As yesterday’s Observer noted, they’ve made Rupert Murdoch look like the good guy.
It’ll be interesting yet to read what Ofcom has to say, but adopting MPEG 4 still feels like something to do further down the line, when Freeview HD starts. Still, it’ll be worth watching what happens to this most popular of digital television formats.

Terminal 5 Is Working

Terminal 5 Is Working
A friend mentioned the other day that when BAA were determining their marketing plans for Terminal 5 at Heathrow, post its opening, “…Is Working” probably wasn’t what they were hoping to use. But following the initial fiasco, that’s what they’re having to do to prove you can fly from there.
I wonder if “Planes Still Flying” mightn’t be a better option following the collapse of XL, and the possible-collapse of Alitalia.