Archive for November, 2010


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If you’ve never heard of them before, don’t fret; the concept is simple. Screencasts are much like screenshots—only better. Screencasting features a video-feed comprised wholly of partly of someone’s computer screen. Often, they’re supplemented with audio narration and sometimes they’re even incorporated into their close cousin, the videocast.

Screencasts are not new technology. They date back to the heady days of 2004, when Twitter was but a twinkle in Jack Dorsey’s eye, and when Livejournal was still the preeminent social networking site.

Since then, however, the screencasts have evolved and been used for everything from tutorials to product demos. The tech has become near ubiquitous—prominent enough for the eponymous Ze Frank to provide his own screencast on how to passive aggressively punctuate emails.

But beyond the obvious, screencasting’s potential ranges farther than just broadcasting how-to’s. The tech also helps germinate dialogue; it provides a way for users to provide suggestions in real time—to layer on feedback to a real-time demonstration of a piece a software. Namely, for those inclined to care about trivial pursuits, a screencast provides a way for gamer and developer to communicate.

Case and point: Cynical Brit. This particular screencaster publishes under the alias TotalBiscuit. His youtube profile hosts numerous screencasts of popular MMORPGs; namely, screencasts of beta gameplay of Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming expansion: World of Warcraft Cataclysm. TotalBiscuits’s screencasts serve the obvious purpose of providing eager gamers with previews of upcoming content and tips on how to pass it. But the videos serve another purpose: they provide play-by-play feedback, including what quests are too long, what’s glitching, and where the plot could be improved.

The only question remains is whether or not Blizzard developers actually watch some of TotalBiscuits’s videos. If they do, kudos. If not, they should. For developers in the beta stages of a game, the sort of detailed criticism provided by TotalHalibut, for example, is golden.

(If you’re looking an article on how to create screencasts, Jon Udell provides one on digitalmedia. The post is dated, written back in 2005, so the tips on software have expired. Nonetheless, the article is still worth reading for those interested in learning the fundamentals of screencast creation and design.)

Podcasted novels, recorded novels available for download online, have stirred controversy since they were first made available back in 2004. In his blog, Howard Vincent Hendrix, an American scholar and science fiction writer, lambasted authors posting free podcast novels as “webscabs” responsible for “converting the noble calling of the Writer into the life of the Pixel-stained Technopeasant wretch.”

The less-than-subtle insinuation of Hendrix’s comments—asides from that webcasted books were ruining writing as a profession—was that podcast novels would quickly saturate their niche, and that a flood of “novels written by 15-year-olds” would make it impossible for respectable publishers to sort wheat from chaff on sites like podiobooks.com.

Admittedly, successful podcasting authors like Scott Sigler, who’s featured in articles in The Times and San Francisco Chronicle, are the exception. Most who post on podiobooks.com are likely to remain unpublished pixel-stained scribblers. Nonetheless, podcasted novels still hold advantages over tradition print books for budding authors and for you the listener.

First, podcasts give authors a way to circumvent traditional publishers and directly access an audience. Publishers like Random House have been shedding jobs for years and, as a consequence, crimped the unpublished aspirations for getting their work into print. For some authors—mainly male and mainly science fiction writers like Sigler—podcasts have provided a much-needed venue for publicizing their work and attracting an audience. In Sigler’s case, tens of thousands.

For listeners, podcasted novels have multiple advantages. They’re portable; you can download them onto your iPod, sparing you the need to lug around 300 pages of text. They’re also free and filterable. You’re not bound by the tastes of a publisher or a broadcaster; rather, you can filter them for which authors and genres you prefer—whether that be science fiction, military history, or otherwise—and you can download only what you want to hear. But, most importantly, podcast novels can be enhanced acoustically; authors can add ambient noise, sound effects, and even voice actors for characters. The result can be a highly compelling package reminiscent of 30s radio broadcasts, akin to Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on Air, only now recorded in someone’s garage rather than in a company studio.

So, while podcasting novels won’t guarantee you fame, they still provide a quick way to attract readers and offer a portable, entertaining experience for listeners.

What is Google Maps Good for?

Google Map, at first glance, looks simple. But used well, Google Map is a powerful tool for plotting info onto pretty much wherever you’d like–whether that be your neighborhood, campus, or otherwise.

Here’s a simple sample of what Google Map can do:

The map contains a selection of places to eat on my campus, the University of Victoria. UVic’s website offers lists of different cafeterias and coffee-stops, but those lists don’t show location–for that you have to access a separate pages. Obviously, a hassle for someone whose blood sugar is bottoming out. So, all I did was take what’s already online and plunk it on a map. Now famished students (like me) can skip the usual  web-surfing or wandering and get to what’s important: the eating.

To get started creating maps of your own, you’ll first need to get a Google account. After that, you only need a few moments tinkering to get the gist of the program; making a Google Map is easy (the map above only took me twenty minutes to create), and Google Maps’ help tab has a list of easily-assimilable video clips to help you along the way.

A View of Google Street View

Is this your backyard? It could be—it could be online for everyone to see thanks to Street View, one of Google Maps newer features.

The program, first implemented for select cities in 2007, has spawned several privacy-related controversies over the unscrupulous capture of everything from celebrities and cats in windows to domestic violence shelters and men leaving strip clubs. (A good list of early responses to Street View is available on the Boingboing tech blog.)

Nonetheless, if you haven’t used Street View, you should at least give it a looksee. The program offers more than just a way to explore neighbours yards. Street View also allows you to see the streetside sights of Tokyo, London, Paris, and numerous other cities for free by providing an interactive worms-eye view to complement Google Maps’ birds-eye. Google streetcars have already patrolled cities across all continents save Antarctica, and their reach expands daily:

Starting Street View is easy. Just open google map, zoom to the preferred urban locale. Now grab the orange “pegman” (the little guy standing above the zoom bar) and drag-and-drop him onto the highlighted section of asphalt you’d like to visit. (For more help, Google offers several videos to teach new users how to navigate Street View.)

If you’ve chosen a road near a landmark, like the Eiffel tower, Big Ben, and so on, Google has added an extra feature to enhance your experience. Namely, photodecks drawn from google images. The decks offer pictures of your preferred locale under different lighting and weather conditions, and from closer-up; and as you navigate around, the photo-decks change to match your perspective.

Your experience is limited only by your monitor’s resolution—and the fact you’re not actually there to enjoy the sounds, smells, and climate that accompanies the sights. But Google might one day change that too, making things a little bit more real, and creepier.

Digg is Dead; Long Live Reddit

In 2009, TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington predicted Twitter and Facebook would soon overshadow Digg as the go to resource for newsworthy stuff.  But while Digg is dying, Reddit.com continues to grow, says Vadim Lavrusik at Mashable.com. Social news sites persist, offering a streamlined feed for news, gossip, and other critical info (like the dangers of methanol fires).

For example, just say, hypothetically, you’ve an interest in news on global warming. Say you spend much of your free time scouring newsfeeds and your favourite blogs for tid-bits on Copenhagen, the IPCC, Al Gore and what have you. Say you’ve devoted a third of your waking life—forgone shaving, sleeping, and eating—to scrape new climatological content from every obscure e-nook, e-niche, and e-cranny you could locate. As it happens, you didn’t need to. Sites like Digg and Reddit spare you the sweat of having to pick through google searches or Twitter  feeds by aggregating everything your climate kith and kin are interested in into one resource.

Interested in climate change? Heck, interested in anything? Alright, type http://www.Reddit.com into your browser of choice, then your soup de jour into the search box. Next, click “submit query.” Done. No need to investigate google trends; no need to consult Twellow for the right #hashtag. At your fingertips now rests a smorgasbord of related articles, videos, pictures, cartoons, and charts.

Admittedly, some of the entries are obscure; a few border on the crackpotish: e.g., “The Sexy Side of Global Warming.” Most of the links, however, are nutritious and have something of substance to say; and if you don’t like an article, you can always vote it down. (On Reddit.com, click the down arrow left of the headline.) Articles live or die based on their submission scores—something users define together by voting for or against.

Also, Reddit.com offers “sub-Reddits”: subjects grouped by tags and that operate similarly to Twitter hashtags, allowing you to refine your Reddit feed. (Note: /r/ sustainability.) Several sites give you the tools you need to examine and select a sub-Reddit that’s right for you; namely, metareddit.com, subreddits.org, and subredditfinder.com.

So next time you’ve an obsession, save your friends, family, and yourself some grief, and subscribe to a social news site.

Update (November 2):

Today I spent a couple hours scoping out del.icio,us—an actual, bonafied social bookmarking site (as opposed to a social news site like Reddit). On examination, you’ll find Del.icio.us—the supposedly tasty site—has some advantages over Reddit:

First, Del.icio.us is more intuitive. Articles, rather than having sub-Reddits, have tags. Basically, tags are keywords, and a single article can have lots of them. An article on food waste, for instance, carried eight tags: food, storage, waste, garbage, research, environment, climate, and change. (Delicious doesn’t put any limits on tags.)

Another advantage of Del.icio.us: it’s more focused and just seems more mature. Despite its sugary name, delicious.com’s links have less empty calories—less on things like hypothetical roadtrips to mars and Parisian women surviving six storey falls—and more substance. If you’re looking for a credible resource on climate science, for example, a quick “climate change” search pulls up some authoritative resources; namely, realclimate.org.

Thus compared to Reddit , Del.icio.us isn’t as up-to-the-minute, but compensates with more credibility and an easier-to-search format, offering a good second stop for any research project.