Book review: The Archers Archives

Most people who read this blog do so for technology content of some sort (although I have to accept there may be some stalkers too…). Readers seem to tolerate my occasional rants and wandering off to a bit of photography or motoring from time but I’m not sure there are very many fans of The Archers subscribed to my RSS. Or maybe there are?!

I’ve been listening to “the world’s longest running soap opera” for a few years now but the fact that Auntie Beeb makes it available as a podcast is a huge advantage. Now I don’t have to be close to the radio (or digital alternative) at a certain time and I don’t have to inflict my daily catch-up on family members who are less interested in the goings-on in Ambridge (although I was amused and maybe slightly concerned a few years ago when my son, then aged-about-4, started to repeat “for more information go to bbc dot co dot uk slash archers” and danced around to the “dum di dum” theme as I was listening in the car!)

My Archers addiction is only a few years old though (I did listen for a while on the radio a few years before that), but I sometimes start to wonder what a certain reference might mean, when the day’s script hooks back into something from the distant past. So I was especially pleased to receive a copy of The Archers Archives in my Christmas stocking.

Produced for the Archers 60th anniversary (so not covering the last couple of years), this book walks though all of the major events since the programme’s inception, including interviews with the actors and actresses who play the major parts, as well as key members of the production team.

There’s some interesting information on the BBC website but I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the Archers and is intrigued to know more about the history of Ambridge and its community.

The benefits of IP TV in my living room

Our living rooms have become a battlefield: Microsoft, Apple and Google each want to control our entertainment experiences, integrating TV, PC, smartphone (and games consoles); then consider Samsung, Sony and the other consumer electronics giants – all of whom want a slice of the digital media consumption cake – there’s certainly a lot at stake as existing media consumption models start to crumble and new business models are established.

Until fairly recently, I was resisting any temptation to bring more technology into the living room, especially as my “black loud crap” (19″ hi-fi separates to you and I) was banished when Mrs W and I became an item all those years ago. I’m not much of a gamer but I do have an Xbox 360, which also doubles as quite a decent DVD player/media hub (especially since the BBC released iPlayer on Xbox). We don’t have a BlueRay player, I think 3D TV is a gimmick and music is on an old iPod, hooked up to some speakers in our garden room, served up from Spotify on my phone/PC/iPad, or streamed from a iTunes/Spotify on a Mac using an Apple Airport Express. All very 2005.

But then I bought a new television.

Much to my surprise, the SmartTV capabilities on the new telly impressed my wife (who saw the potential for the kids accessing the CBeebies website, etc. from the TV, still under our control) as the Samsung rep took us through the motions in a local Currys/PC World store (by co-incidence, the same rep was working in John Lewis, where we actually bought the TV, a week or so later). I wasn’t sure how much we’d use other apps, but having BBC iPlayer, and to a lesser extent ITV Player (hopefully to soon be joined by 4oD and Demand5), running directly from the TV has real benefit.

Since finding that the Wi-Fi connection in my living room wasn’t up to the task, and putting in a HomePlug Ethernet solution from PowerEthernet, I’ve become more and more convinced that IP TV is the way forward. Catching up with the latest BBC natural history series, Africa, with my kids a couple of evenings ago I was streaming BBC iPlayer content in high definition without a hiccup. When the PVR failed to record a critical episode from Masterchef: The Professionals, our TV’s YouTube app came to the rescue. And, over the weekend, I decided that watching Vimeo on my computer screen was too restrictive, so I connected the Vimeo app on the TV to my account and started to surf through my “Watch Later” list. That’s more like it! New apps seem to be coming all the time – Spotify was a recent addition, as was TED (only a few days ago).

Of course, I can access the same content on a tablet, or a smartphone, or a PC – but the television is still the focal point of our living room and, by integrating my online video consumption into the broadcast mix, it’s suddenly a lot more convenient. I haven’t even started to consider the possibilities of streaming music, photos and video from the computers in the house although a neighbour did drop by to test his XBMC configuration on my TV before he commits to purchasing, and plugging a USB flash drive into the TV to look at some photos/home videos is certainly very convenient.

In less than two months I’ve gone from “there’s nothing wrong with my old Sony Trinitron” to “what, no high definition?” and “I’m sure we can stream from the Internet”.  Something else has changed too: whilst the majority of our TV content still comes from the BBC, or Channel 4, I’m watching more stuff from the ‘net – whether it’s Vimeo, YouTube, TED, the Red Bull Channel, or the BBC Sport app (which, incidentally, showed a great video of [Sir] Bradley Wiggins performing The Jam’s That’s Entertainment at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year after-show party).

For a long time I’ve heard talk of IP (Internet Protocol) taking over from broadcast TV. Now, it seems, this may actually have become a reality…

Embedding streaming video content (e.g. YouTube and BBC iPlayer) in a PowerPoint presentation

One of the reasons for the huge gap in posts here is that I’ve lost most of the last week to creating a presentation for an event where I’m speaking next week. The event is for The Society for Computers and Law, and I’m taking a look inside the black box of technology.  I was briefed not to expect much technical knowledge as the audience are junior lawyers but I figure they probably know quite a lot already as they do work in IT law, so it’s been pretty difficult to work out what level to pitch things at.  In the end, all I can do is take the event organisers’ advice and hope it works out on the night… we’ll see…

Anyway, I wanted to mix things up a bit and avoid death by PowerPoint.  My slides are pretty pictorial (at least they are if the brand police don’t make me change them to something bland and corporate…) but I wanted to mix in some video too. PowerPoint is quite happy to embed video from a file but it’s a bit harder if you want to embed video that’s streamed from the web, for example from YouTube.

There is a way though (without resorting to installing an add-in)…

I found a post from iSpring Software that goes through the process of manually inserting Flash into PowerPoint 2007 (the version I’m using). There’s more detail in the original post, so I recommend that you read it, but these are the basic steps:

  1. Make sure the Developer tab is visible in the ribbon – if not then turn it on in the Popular tab inside the PowerPoint Options.
  2. On the Developer tab in the ribbon, click the More Controls button (looks like a hammer and screwdriver, crossed over).
  3. Select a Shockwave Flash object and drag a rectangle on the current slide. Don’t worry about the size.
  4. Right click on the control and select Properties.
  5. Go down to the Movie attribute and add the path to the Flash movie. This could be a local file… but it also works with  YouYube URLs (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/v/PPnoKb9fTkA?version=3).

A couple of points to note:

  • You’ll need to save the Presentation as a PowerPoint Macro-Enabled Presentation (which is a .pptm file).
  • The video content may not actually show in the PowerPoint editor, but it’s there if you start the slide show.

So that’s YouTube… but what about other Flash content? Well, you may find that you can extract an appropriate URL from the embed code – and that’s what I did for BBC iPlayer content.  Note that this works for videos embedded on the BBC website, it’s not for videos downloaded to the iPlayer Desktop client.

I don’t normally rate Yahoo Answers but it did turn up a 2 year-old post from someone called wm1995 that gave me the answer.  Get the embed code for the video that you want to embed and look for the FlashVars parameter:

Add that FlashVars code to the end of http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/emp/2.10.7938_7967/9player.swf?embedPageUrl= and you can view the video in a browser (without the rest of the webpage). Similarly, you can take the same URL and use it inside PowerPoint so, the Movie attribute in the Shockwave Flash object will look something like:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/emp/2.10.7938_7967/9player.swf?embedPageUrl=”&config_plugin_fmtjLiveStats_pageType=eav1&playlist=http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/emp/7690000/7694400/7694471.xml&config_settings_language=default&config_plugin_fmtjLiveStats_edition=Domestic&holding=http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/45149000/jpg/_45149136_aef85a05-4b8d-4e24-8947-055f995745d2.jpg&config_settings_skin=silver&autoPlay=true&embedReferer=http://www.datacenterknowledge.com/archives/2008/10/28/a-look-inside-microsofts-quincy-data-center/&config_settings_autoPlay=true&uxHighlightColour=0xff0000&embedPageUrl=http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7694471.stm&config_settings_showPopoutButton=false&config=http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/emp/1_1_3_0_0_440234_441894_1/config/default.xml&widgetRevision=323797&config_settings_showShareButton=true&domId=emp_7694471&fmtjDocURI=/1/hi/technology/7694471.stm&legacyPlayerRevision=293203&config_plugin_fmtjLiveStats_pageType=eav6&config_settings_showPopoutButton=false&config_settings_showPopoutCta=false&config_settings_addReferrerToPlaylistRequest=true&config_settings_showFooter=true&config_settings_autoPlay=false”

My two minutes of fame

I was on the telly today!

It all started a week or so back, when I read my regular e-mail up date from the BBC Working Lunch programme and saw this:

WORKING LUNCH NEEDS YOU!
Some of you have told us about incidents of falling slightly into overdraft and then being hit by disproportionate penalties from your bank. If you’re in the same boat we want to hear from you.

I had exactly that experience a few weeks back and so I dropped them a quick e-mail, never expecting to hear anything more. Then this morning, I got a call from one of the producers – they wanted to interview me and asked if I could come in to a local studio for a live link up!

After a couple of quick calls to clear it with my bosses (nothing about IT, no links to my employer, only an hour out of my day – call it my lunch break), I was off to the BBC’s Northampton studios. Everything seemed to go okay although I was thinking that I probably sounded like a right bumbling fool because the link from Northampton to London went via Cambridge and Norwich making my voice echo in my earpiece (which is really distracting). Then when I got home I saw this on the Working Lunch website [my underlining]:

Screen shot from the BBC Working Lunch website

“One viewer’s unfair bank charges” – that’s little Me! I thought they’d have loads of stories and I’d be the good news one because First Direct did at least drop the extortionate £105 they charged us for a minor error on our part. Imagine my surprise when I was featured in the very first piece on today’s show!).

None of this is anything to do with technology – but it did make me happy! The next bit is the techie thing (and hence the reason for blogging it here)…

Of course, I recorded the programme but only on VHS cassette which is not fantastic quality so I decided to find out how to get the online version down to my PC (the show is available on the web for 24 hours after broadcast, but only as a Real Media stream). Thanks to the advice on Swen’s Blog, I have a copy of my two minutes of fame to keep for all time (although I still need to convert the .RM file to something which doesn’t need a bug-ridden piece of spyware to read it).