Saturday, January 19, 2008

Wanna have some fun in Windows?

Then go straight to Adam Dawes' website ( and pick up a copy of Highway Pursuit for free. And while you're at it, get three of the best screen savers you've ever used.

Then head on over to the Retrospec website and pick up a slew of free and excellent remakes of 8-bit classics. That's right... manic 80s gameplay, but with modern graphics. How could you possibly say no to Attack of the Mutant Camels 2??

Friday, January 11, 2008

Making Films

As I mentioned on my News & Commentary, my kids decided to produce machinima videos for their Roman & Greek history projects. In that piece I was focused on the VirtualDub software we found (it's incalculably easier than Windows Movie Maker), but I did want to comment on the process of the work itself.

Tim and his friend Adam decided to do two mini-reports: one about Roman roads and another about gunpowder. Inspired by Red vs. Blue, they would use a video game to provide the locations and characters. They chose their favorite online game, Runescape, as the world in which they'd shoot their video.

The process was remarkably like shooting a real video:
  • They had to acquire equipment. Tim and Adam chose Hypercam for their screenshots, which they downloaded and installed themselves. (Michael, working on his unrelated project in another room, chose the Open Source CamStudio. Way to go, Mike!)
  • They had to scout locations within the world.
    • Tim and Adam's entire presentation was in the video, so they were very careful to chose places that were appropriate to the period that they were studying and had just the right kind of roads.
    • Mike's video segments were used to introduce Impress/PowerPoint slides with his content, so he had a bit more leeway, and used it to find generally interesting places for his avatar to stand.
  • They had to make sure their avatars were properly costumed.
  • They scripted the presentations. That's "scripted" in the Hollywood sense. That's right, Writer's Guild, they crossed the picket line.
  • They rehearsed. This was especially challenging for Tim and Adam. They did much of their rehearsal, etc. in separate locations, but both had to play to Tim's "camera", and had to coordinate their activities. A bad take meant a bit of jostling around to get everybody back into position.
  • They had to deal with crowd control. Like a real movie shoot, there were bystanders or people who just didn't know that filming was going on. Occasionally a take would be ruined by someone walking up and striking a conversation.
  • After "principle photography" (screen capture) they still had to edit the raw footage. For that I got involved as editor, with the kids as directors. They transferred the files to my machine and I used VirtualDub to do the editing. In practice, this was the least time-consuming bit of the work.
  • When the AVI segments were written to disk, the kids took over again.
    • Tim and Adam used Impress slides to frame and size the videos, with slides for introduction, credits, and bibliography.
    • Mike's report was heavy on the slides for informational purpose... much more of a standard presentation. He broke his video into four segments that were used to introduce the various topics. (His avatar was sort of a virtual David Attenborough)
One thing I found fascinating was the amount of focus the kids brought to the task. I don't really think this was intended as a "project" by the teacher... she'd only given them two days to do it... but it grew into a project. The kids never noticed. I saw at least 6 hours of solid effort out of each of them, and this from a group for whom homework is usually a dirty word!

I was also struck by how fair the division of work was. One would scout locations while the other was looking for software, etc. They each scripted their own lines. They played to each other's strengths. It was a really good collaborative process.

Except for the final video editing (and that was in the interests of time. As I've implied, the work here sort of grew beyond their expectations), they didn't have to ask for my help. They knew what they wanted to do and did it. In fact, watching them work taught me a little about producing screen captures. I've been meaning to do some tutorials for VIC CRM and have never gotten 'round to it. They've helped me narrow my choice of tools.

I don't know what sort of History grade this will earn them, but between you and me... I really don't care. Knowledge of Roman roads will probably do exactly nothing for them in the long course of their lives. But they'll most certainly get a lot of mileage out of the videomaking skills; and the technical, team building, collaboration, and problem-solving aspects of the project have earned them an A+ in Computer Science from me.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More Silly Tech

According to Reuters, SanDisk is now offering a USB flash drive that simultaneously backs up your data to the Internet. The drive is $59.99 the first year and $29.99 every subsequent year if you want to keep the service.

Pardon me for asking the obvious, but if you can transfer your data across the Internet, why are you bothering with a flash drive at all?

Do yourself a favor... skip the payments and copy your data to a Gdrive.

Reflection: "Stupid Users" Aren't

Here's another reflection in the vein of my earlier post, The Sundowner. You might read this and think it's a "stupid user" story, but I don't think of it that way, as I'll explain below.

When I first started consulting in the late 80s, one of my earliest client was Mrs. Fragensagen (a pseudonym) of Fragensagen Marble and Memorials (also a pseudonym). Mrs. "F" was given a computer by her son, Bob, who lived in California (whom she described as being much more computer literate than she). However, when received it and plugged it it, she immediately called me to help... it was making a horrible grating noise.

The machine was one of those large IBM-XT clones so prevalent in the 80s... the brand wasn't important, as they were being assembled in every Mom 'n' Pop computer shop in this and a dozen other countries. Mrs. "F" was really concerned about the problem, because her son had packed it very well for the trip. When I opened the case I found out exactly how well.

The thing was full of styrofoam peanuts! I'm talking about the computer case itself. They were all over the motherboard, surrounding the power supply and disk drives... everywhere! Bob was so concerned about having the machine survive the trip safely that he stuffed it full of some of the most static-inducing material devised by Man. When Mrs. "F" turned on the machine, some of them had made their way into the power supply and had shot through the fan, spraying a static-laden foam onto the wall behind the desk. It took me a good couple of hours to remove all the packing material from the case extricate the loose foam from the motherboard slots.

It amazed me that the machine wasn't ruined by the static electricity. If the machine had been made today it probably would have been, but it was likely saved by the large size of the old-style components used at that time.

A short time later, Mrs "F" called me back. She had installed all of the software that came with the machine, and now she couldn't find it. I asked what she saw on the screen, and she replied that it was black with the letter C on it.

No problem, I thought. This was a simple matter of teaching her how to use DOS, and possibly installing a menu to make her life a little easier. However, when I arrived, I found that the computer's drive was completely blank except for DOS itself.

"Are you sure you installed the programs?" I asked.
"Oh, yes!" she responded.
"Well, let's try it again. Where are the disks?"
"In the computer," she replied.

I opened the case to find about a dozen floppy disks sitting loose on the motherboard. These were the five and a quarter inch Mylar disks. Mrs. "F" knew they had to be installed into the computer, but the slot was blocked by a lever. She never considered that the lever might move (and to her defense, it didn't move easily). Instead, she inserted the disks into the only actual slot she saw... a narrow gap between the floppy disk drive and the hard drive. I removed the disks, showed her how to install the programs, and installed a startup menu.

Now, neither Mrs. Fragensagen nor her son were idiots. They were intelligent people who ran successful businesses. But those of us who grew up with (and in some cases invented) computer technology tend to forget that things that are obvious to us aren't at all obvious to people who are focused on other things... things that are, to them, far more important. Rather than deride them for being "stupid users" we need to look at incidents like these as opportunities for improvement. They're an identification of those areas where we as designers have failed. Which is why this is the only "stupid user" story you're likely to get out of me.