Software as the key artform of the 21st Century

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Isn’t it time we stopped talking about media and returned to the term artform?

A medium is ultimately physical in our understanding of it, no matter how enhanced or extended it may be.

For me, one of the main achievements of the digital revolution is to have separated creative content from media. Now, no longer bound by the existing hardware models with all their limitations, we are free to explore our various artforms via software, a far more natural environment for creative material.

Technology has always impacted upon cultural development, in particular the arts. All you have to do is look at the Russian avant garde and the impact of the machine on art, or in the explosion of media in particular, from radio on up throughout the 20th century.

The rising tide of digital technology as the end of the 20th century which has matured at the start of this century, given the wide dispersal of computers and the emergence of broadband globally, gave birth to a new internet culture which has impacted hugely on existing media.

We’ve been distracted by how digital technology mimics a medium really well, how it extends them and combines them with other technologies. Those three steps are present in each of the creative fields, most clearly in music. There it took on the genre of music completely, extended the creative options for musicians and spearheaded the new distribution channels for music. These cultural forces, experienced as rapid changes to humanity, are almost alive in how unstoppable and progressive they are.

Not all existing media fare well out of this, television as a medium was in trouble long before digital culture emerged. The structure of television, top down, one to many, rigid control of content, only a few outlets per nation, had been incredibly limiting over the years, and it had ended up myopically examining itself as the last century closed with top ten shows focussed on television’s own inventory. If music had faced similar limitations it would have withered and died.

The net disbands completely these kinds of structure, they have no place there. The recent economic downturn and the shift away from advertising saw those old models crumble alarmingly quickly, it became clear that the boom and advertising were all that was holding up the existing ways of doing business.

This dispersal of content creation opens up the very basics of each artform for questioning. As a creator of course, It matters not whether it’s individuals or groups of individuals, active independent content producers or production companies, all bets are off. And ultimately one major question we all face is that of production finance. Who’ll finance these?

Our focus now, both on creative work and it’s dissemination should be on exploring developing software with a view to creating work and it’s expression and communication. The creators of software whether it’s new services online or applications, are the structuring limitation or future liberators, the new artists in our mix. If Film was the artform of the 20th century. Software is the key artform of the 21st.

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Earlier thoughts on software here and here.
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32A in Cinemas

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We’re finally in the cinemas in Ireiand with our feature, 32A. It’s been a long haul and the final step is one we have to take ourselves.

Independent cinema faces a lot of new challenges. On the one side, there’s competition for audience eyeballs from the internet and computer gaming. And on the other, filmmakers encounter increasing distributor nervousness. The studios are pumping out bigger and bigger tentpole movies, pretty soon you won’t be able to pick out the big movies in the cinema, they’ll all be big. And those smaller films find it harder and harder to get a release. We’ve forged some relationships with exhibitors and are putting the film out in Ireland ourselves. So a risk, but hopefully with a good outcome. We’re going with our gut, hey, it’s got us this far.

As a filmmaker, exhibition is very necessary phase. The film only becomes real when you sit with the audience and you feel and hear them respond. It’s almost physical, the sense of an audience going with a film. I’d say the other side is true also, losing them can be as painful as it gets. We’ve been very fortunate however, and had really great audience response and feedback in screenings at festivals so far. I can’t wait until I pick a random screening and pop in to see how it plays.

Dublin: IFI Cinemas
Booking office: 01.679.5744
Book Online

Carrick on Shannon: Cineplex
Booking office: 071.967.2000
Book Online

Sligo: Gaiety Cinema
Booking office: 071.917.4001






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Ira Glass on storytelling

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This American Life is one of my favourite podcasts. A recent episode, The Giant Pool of Money, outlining the background story to the sub-prime mortgage crisis was a standout. It was almost Wire-like in how it interwove high end financial shenanigans, the systems people have to work within, and the trials of ordinary citizens.

The episodes are free on the feed in iTunes for a period but after a while, you have to pay about a dollar for a show. And just to say it, your broker made a lot more telling you a lot less.

Frankly there isn’t a dud episode in the whole series.

Here Ira gives some pointers on his approach to storytelling, basic but very good. Part One is above, There’s four in the series and well worth checking them all out.

Part Two, Part Three, Part Four




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Whatever happened to Computer Art?

I was asked a while back to give a talk on creative applications on the Mac and it set me off thinking about the early days when I first got into this.

I have to say, it was much to the bafflement of loved ones and friends at the time, about 20 years ago. It’s an interest which has continued to this day, my wife says she has no equivalent to it. I counter, rather lamely, pointing out her yoga and interest in alternative healthcare, but it doesn’t really wash.

Back in the day, 1988 to be a bit more precise, I spent a lot of time debating just exactly what Computer Art might be. I was working in the visual arts, primarly with young and emerging contemporary artists. I was intrigued by the new technology which was arriving. I bought a Commodore Amiga which was definitely the artists platform, launched by Andy Warhol painting Debbie Harry.

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Computer Art is a topic that has by and large disappeared from the landscape. The Wikipedia article on it reads like a genre from the fifties, no sense of any current activity at all.

Artists, like everyone else, use a lot of technology these days, but no one particularly calls it Computer Art any more. They’re either film makers or graphic designers or just plain old artists. How it’s made is neither here nor there.

Of course, most clearly with Photoshop and 3D modellers, it’s easy to see how necessary a computer and set of software was to create the work, but that’s now realised as not all that important really. Photoshop is just a set of digital tools after all, generally used to create images which don’t look processed in any way. And while these digitally created images may form a subset of image making, it’s not in any form, a separate medium.

And that was what people were discussing back in the day, the emergence of a new medium.

For me, coding was always key to that. There were people, like William Latham, who worked within IBM in the UK, used coding in particular to generate work but they didn’t mesh with the art world all that well, the work didn’t speak to people, either the artistic community or the general public, in a way they could relate to, it’s protean and exploratory by it’s very nature.

What was central to them was that the work did completely come from the code. And I think coding is the key to the future of this, but just perhaps we shouldn’t put the limits of the word ‘art’ on it.

Recently I had a small sense of something emerging from quite an unexpected source.

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I, like everyone else, use Google Earth more and more. And yes it’s very useful, any trip or hotel choice is checked out there first and location based services will be more and more prevalent. But that’s not why I look there sometimes.

There’s something in the experience of Google Earth, I have a true sense of wonder there. This experience, unimaginable a century ago, unimaginable in fact to my own Dad who died too young. There’s a flicker in the back of my head more akin to encountering a work which speaks to me, a sense of wonder. Is this is landscape re-invented, is this is a new sublime?

What if software finally emerged as a new creative genre? What if it became, much as film defined the 20th century, the key defining medium of the 21st?

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The Problem with Punk

Peter Carlton of Film Four in the UK has said that they make films your mother wouldn't like. If you're a filmmaker it's a constant mantra from financiers... "hip and edgy".

A few years back, I went to the local supermarket and was loading up the aisles when I noticed the music over the tannoys. 'White Riot' by The Clash. I laughed to myself as I loaded up the pizzas. "White Riot, I wanna riot. White Riot, I wanna riot on my own..." Someone must have been asleep at the scheduling wheel or having a laugh. But no... the dulcet tones of Larry Gogan followed; "That was today's Golden Oldie..."

Hold on, that was White Riot... on Radio 1... in the mid-afternoon... on Larry Gogan... as a Golden-Freakin'-Oldie.

I recalled the NME during the punk era and what they called men of a certain age. 'Boring Old Farts' was the term they coined. Is this what's happened, have all the punks become the boring old farts who run the show?

My generation sneered at those hippies who were becoming middle-aged guys, still with the long hair and beads. But hey now, it's my generations turn. Angry Punk Dads, pushing shopping carts, loading up with stuff for the kids, somewhere inside still giving the world the finger.

When I ask my students who watches TV every day, a handful put up their hands. When I ask who goes online everyday, they all do. They are the Add Me generation. The current crop of Gen Ys and Millenials are a far nicer, more connected and more concerned bunch than the set of Angry Punk Dads that have preceeded them.

They're not that hip or edgy really, in fact they're rather nice. My mother probably would like them... perhaps she should have a word with Peter. Television might be losing it's audience in more ways than one.


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Podcasts worth listening to

I've moved away from live radio almost completely now.

A surprising thing for me, given that the spoken word has long been my favourite medium for news and politics by far. My earliest personal relationship with media was listening to Radio Caroline and later John Peel chronicling the arrival of punk in the mid seventies. From those early days radio was a constant companion as my interest in current affairs deepened. This was a medium that has always felt personal to me. Over the years I've listened to RTE Radio 1, the BBC World Service, Radio 4, Today FM and latterly NPR/PRI , in particular WNYC.

What's different now? Changes at RTE lost me. RTE's Radio 1 was the mainstay of talk radio here. When you're a talk radio listener, turning on the radio was one of the first things you did upon getting up, letting it witter away in the corner of the kitchen or office. You tuned in and out as needed. As life and work progressed, you'd keep current, ignoring the odd show which irritated. The dumbing-down of RTE Radio 1 over the last year or two left me with little reason to turn it on, so much of it was sheer rubbish.

So I turned to iTunes and a set of smart playlists that brings me a good mix of news and current affairs, interesting stories from around the world including Ireland. RTE have finally gotten their act together on podcasts, though for a while they were on the wrong track there. I pleaded with them via email not to embrace Real back when they started to go online to no avail. Sadly RealPlayer and Windows Audio still form their principal offerings for live listening, so it doesn't matter if you're online or using an old fashioned transistor radio, RTE Live sucks either way...

The shows I list below form my listening now. I have a playlist which automatically keeps things current. I just set it off in the morning, picking either News and Stories or Technology, and let it run. I list my News and Stories podcasts here, I may do the Tech ones later. Looking at this list, I'm aware of how much I tend to like people with strong personalities, shows with clear voices. The News and Stories are from existing media outlets and the Technology podcasts from newer providers, it will be interesting to see how things progress, to see if new voices on current affairs emerge from the independent sector.

News and Stories

WNYC - Radio Lab - Add to iTunes
Inventive and experimental, a show which researches and explores a single theme, from Time to the Wright Brothers, by weaving interviews with key figures, sounds and conversations between the two hosts.

PRI - This American Life - Add to iTunes
Ira Glass, Philip's son, has developed an iconic (or whatever the audio equivalent of iconic is..) show. Wonderfully produced, it brings together several stories around a single idea, humorous and intelligent, and with a great set of writers.

WNYC - The Brian Lehrer Show - Add to iTunes
I keep up to date with New York and US politics via Brian's show. Perhaps a tad parochial for a global audience, you'd have to know and love NYC to care about some of the stories. That said, it also covers national and presidential politics in a lively and accessible fashion.

RTE - Tonight with Vincent Browne - Add to iTunes
Ireland's best politics show bar none. At times rather odd and like something from another era, it's at the centre of political reporting in Ireland. It's also an excellent guide to major figures from history. Essential listening, who is going to be this man's successor?

RTE - Conversations with Eamonn Dunphy - Add to iTunes
I liked The Last Word when Eamonn was at the helm over on Today FM. With his departure it's now just another drive-time show. At times erratic and irritating, but at his best...he's unique. He certainly engages with his subjects in a very real and personal way, providing compelling listening.

BBC - In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg - Add to iTunes
Wonderful radio, a lecture in a podcast, covering topics as diverse as the Fibonacci Sequence to Avicenna. (Okay... a set of numbers which turn up everywhere in nature and an ancient Iranian philosopher.) Bragg is brilliant here, you get a real sense of how television limited him.

BBC - File on Four - Add to iTunes
Investigative journalism as it should be done. I wish there was more shows like this.

BBC - From Our Own Correspondent - Add to iTunes
The Beeb at it's best, covering news and current affairs from all over the world. It might still have the whiff of colonialism... but it's excellent stuff.

PRI - Selected Shorts - Add to iTunes
Leading actors read leading authors short stores to a live audience. I believe the word is 'delightful'. I particularly like this driving home late at night.

The New Yorker - Fiction - Add to iTunes
Sadly only out once a month. The New Yorker's enviable list of writers and stories read by other writers. Theroux reads Borges, Jhumpa Lahiri reads William Trevor.

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Don't try to be original, just try to be good...



Nothing quite an old geezer who knows his stuff.... Paul Rand discussing his approach to work.


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The Digital difference...



Whooo.... my first lecture on the internet compressed by Michael Wesch into about 3 minutes and way more entertaining. I love the sense of joy and wonder, empowerment and personal responsibility he clearly feels now, in this moment.

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Honouring The Dalai Lama...




A great interview from Charlie Rose with this eminently reasonable and intelligent man, his Holiness The Dalai Lama.

China today still takes no real heat from the rest of the world over it’s treatment of Tibet and Tibetan life and culture. As the Dalai Lama was honoured in Washington, China redirected any online searches towards state sanctioned search results. They surrounded the largest monastery in Tibet with 3,000 troops.

Meanwhile the world’s economy marches along with China, and nations around the world prepare for the upcoming Olympics. Have a look at Amnesty International’s latest information campaign, the level of shock required to shake our complacency speaks volumes...

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Charlie Rose



Given the role of American television globally, we often overlook the differences between the experience of television in the US and Europe.

Particularly when it comes to public television and the values and styles employed.

To an American, UK and Irish public broadcasters put out a lot of shows which look like they belong on a private network, shows with little or no merit, playing to the lowest common denominator. Even the shows with an obvious public remit, there’s a lot of gloss and packaging involved, they compete against private networks using public money, making the networks look impoverished and low-end.

It’s quite different in America. Often the best output of PBS is very plain and simple.

One of the mainstays in New York living is checking into Charlie Rose and who he’s interviewing each evening. He employs a simple relaxed style, a minimal studio, no audience, sofas or graphic overlays, this is a format which permits serious conversation with some of the most interesting people in the arts, politics, science and current issues.

The good news is a lot of the content is now available to a wider audience, they’ve put 3,600 hours of interviews online at his website Charlie Rose. It’s well worth a peruse, you only pay for a downloaded version and you can watch them for free on the site. It's going to be one of my favourite places to check in for informed commentary as the upcoming Presidential campaign unfolds.

I include a sample interview here with Fred Rogers, another mainstay of public television in the US. His show is the opposite of what you might expect from the likes of Barney, say. A show where he talks straight to camera, treating kids, very young kids, with a lot of honest respect. Europe would be too cynical for this, but it works a charm in the USA.

The man is a wonder and he’s done some pretty impressive work over the years not least of which was an influential address to the Senate commission on public broadcasting for children.

I’ve remembered this interview for one moment when Fred tells Charlie that he too is special and... well... it’s a moment.



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Four Eyed Monsters on YouTube

I blogged about these two before. They have now put their feature, all of it, on YouTube for free and legal viewing for one week only.... They have a promotion whereby for each viewers who sign up with Spout, a film review site, Spout will give them 1 dollar. Sign up and help these guys get out of debt and hopefully working on their next feature.



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Tell the World....

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It appears I am blocked in China. I thought initially perhaps it’s the name, even though I never thought it would sound like trouble... but then I checked out the discussion board on the site. There's a long list of perfectly innocuous sites which are blocked. So I tried my other two sites, Janey Pictures and my undeveloped www.filmfinance.eu site. They’re both blocked. Go figure.

Well, let’s give it some credence then.



This June 4th is the 18th anniversary of this terrible day. It is still moving to hear Kate Adie’s broadcast from Tiananmen. ‘Tell the world...’ a student said to her. Perhaps the world has stopped listening....

China hosts the Olympics next. They are the worlds fastest growing economy and every major corporation in the world have set up there. Half the world’s concrete was poured in China last year and they are heading to take over the US in terms of environmental impact. China may be hot right now, but it doesn’t take any heat over how it denies it’s citizens rights, it's policies in Tibet, or, indeed, for the brutality shown that day in Beijing.

This coming June.... Embed this.







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Word Processors

Back in the day... that would be 1986 to be precise, the year i bought my first computer. It was an Amstrad PC1512, all of 512k ram and twin 360k floppy drives. It came with a choice of operating systems. MS-DOS or CP/M and two windowing systems, Windows 1.2 and GEM.

The principal reason for the purchase was word-processing. My girlfriend had an earner typing up a science journal for a publisher and the Amstrad could run a dedicated mathematical wordprocessor which would turn out pretty respectable typeset pages, well respectable given that it was 1986.

People used to drop by and ask us to show them ‘cutting and pasting’. These were heady times....

The main application I used for wordprocessing was Wordstar. It was a tough piece of software to love, it got in your way and had no redeeming factor other than it worked. We got a hold of Wordperfect which was like driving a BMW in comparison. WP was kinda cool, especially when they did a version for my new Amiga which rapidly became my main machine. I stuck with WP for quite some time, until the computer in work had Word on it, and then that became set in stone, of course, for me and for everyone.

Now, nearly fifteen years later, I find I’ve been avoiding Word. i have so many writing tools available to me, even the most basic of text editors is more pleasurable to use, it seems ridiculously cumbersome to me. And the fact that I’ve been using it for so long and I am still at sea on how to use whole chunks of it, annoys me. So I’ve set about finding an alternative.

I checked out Mellel, (very impressive, if I was more of an academic I’d be thrilled) and Pages, (real potential, but too much of a design tool for what I was looking for). Finally, I came across Nisus Writer Pro, which is in beta, and it’s been a joy. There’s a sixty day trial period, long enough to persuade you that you can’t ever go back...

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It’s fast and responsive, nothing sluggish about it at all. No hangs or waits, no spinning balls.... the beta is very polished, it’s never stalled on me once. I’m using it every day and, yes, in work.
Overall they have struck a very good ratio in how they handle the balance between interface and functionality, you can do a lot, and the interface is designed to make that potential very manageable and not at all intrusive.
- Number one in my book, I want to write, a nice clean toolbar with just what you need on it. There’s no massive list of buttons you can put on the toolbar, so it stays nice and simple. They use palettes for pretty well most options instead.
- The palettes live in a pop out drawer. It’s a simple thing with a big result, you can make them disappear. If you want them available at all times, you can have them float like other applications do or simply keep the drawer open, but I love being able to put them away.
- On top of that, you can configure different sets of palettes into groups in that drawer, so it’s very customisable. And you can set up as many different groups of palettes as you want. There’s huge functionality here, the range of palettes is very thorough.
- It handles styles better than any other writing tool I’ve used, ever. It’s very easy to set them up and implement them, again handled visually in an unobtrusive and straightforward way, a small set of icons at the bottom of each window.
- And every software should borrow how they handle setting up keyboard shortcuts, it’s that easy.

Generally, the UI is great. There seems to be a real focus within Nisus on getting the heck out of the way and keeping it simple. All the while delivering real high end functionality, certainly covers all of the uses I’ll be needing.

It can import and export Word docs, especially RTFs, but the quality is no better than okay. The same applies to most alternative word-processors, but this isn’t a deal breaker for me, I can certainly deal with the table that’s imported slightly longer than it should be very easily in NW Pro. Far easier than I can in Word if something went wrong there....

Best of all, It’s got a simple full-screen mode which is configurable. I’ve been struck by the Full-screen mode we are seeing everywhere, from MacJournal to Montage. The screen blacks out and you just see... crazy after all these years... your words on screen, nothing else, not a menu or palette in sight. Naturally, it recalls all those early experiences, I have actually gone to an amber on black background. Nothing else on screen, just these glowing amber words. Back home... punching in text, but knowing, when I need to do something fancy, it’s going to be easy and quick to do.

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Susan and Arin

I’ve followed these two for the past couple of years... it’s been amazing to watch them fulfill what the ongoing development of digital media has promised.

Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, and their project Four Eyed Monsters.

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They are two filmmakers who, like many others, set out to make their first feature.

They were perhaps unwitting pioneers in a way, building an online presence around their project which ultimately absorbed their film and became bigger than it. it’s been great to follow it, each step of the way, not just uploading video, but building a community around their project, exploring everything from a premiere on Second Life to Google mashups for screenings.

They give me heart in that it’s not the future, it’s now. It’s the first time I’ve seen filmmakers act like musicians, making their stuff and marketing and distributing it themselves and operating at a certain level. The entire project is open and brave and full of humour and life, genuinely engaging...

The podcasts track the development of the film, its trials and tribulations through production and festival runs and now distribution. They’re funny and touching and really one of the best things on iTunes. I’d recommend watching the podcasts in sequence, including all the little bits promotional stuff... and then catching the film. They have the DVD on sale on their site.

It might tell you something of the impact of this project when you watch the purchasers of the DVD upload videos to YouTube of them opening the packages and popping them in their players. I love the fact that an audience felt that kind of connection, especially for an indie low budget feature.



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TED 2

Ted Robinson on Creativity in Schools.

Al Gore on Averting a Climate Crisis

Great examples of the good things in TED.

I think this might just be the best thing to happen this week... and I've a feeling more to come...



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TED

First came across TED a few years ago and thought how great it would be to attend that... a conference by leading thinkers in technology, entertainment and design. My cup of tea altogether.

The great news is they have put over 100 of the presentations from previous years online. Terrific. All posted under Creative Commons licenses so freely repostable and linkable to. I wish only that there was one RSS stream so I could download whole chunks of the conference for viewing in iTunes. But even one by one, it’s worth the trouble.

Free Good Stuff, what’s not to love?

Go to it....



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The Morphing of Interactivity...

While shooting the breeze with Brian Mulligan, who heads up e-learning at our College, we went through our histories, it’s always nice to talk to someone who knows what an Amiga is and who had worked with them.

What I also like is chatting to someone else who knows the sweep of things, who remembers the issues which emerged of the Seventies and Eighties as personal computing spread when interactive multimedia was the vanguard of creative applications.

We were discussing what approaches would be achievable as the College moves forward. Brian is very active in Moodle and other enterprise level solutions and is leading the IT’s rollout of e-learning generally. I was keen on discussing blogging, podcasting and using RSS to disseminate media from the lecturers to their students and beyond.

Discussion wandered onto CBT, computer based training, and the problems inherent in developing interactive education. We shot the breeze and then slowly came to the consensus that... the whole idea of a non-linear document, a multithreaded experience was probably not worth developing.

It felt very odd to actually say it...

Kind of like something had been lost.

The rise of search

There’s many ways of interacting with material on screen.
        - Choosing, I know I want this
        - Browsing, I’ll check this out
        - Searching, Find this for me

It’s as if we move through levels of certainty as you progess through this list. A steady abdication of authority from the user to the net, whatever that is.

Has interactive multimedia in the main come down to this; gather a big enough pile and make it searchable? Search is probably all the interaction most people want now. I want to find something out... just give it to me, as Google says, I’m feeling lucky.



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Look Shiny

Look Shiny’s very funny take on Getting Things Done. As a follower of The David, it all rings horribly true... For all you list generators out there struggling to focus on your next action...

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Not Getting Things Done


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Look to the music industry for pointers

People often talk about business and it’s quick adoption of the IBM PC.  Depends on the business really, just as the Mac started to invent a whole industry around desktop publishing, one of the more interesting early computer platforms, the Atari ST, was quickly adopted by the burgeoning digital music industry.  CuBase and Logic originated on the platform and small studios were built around them.

People often talk about digital music, but the fact is All Music Is Digital now, from folk through classical and every which way in between.    Music is recorded digitally, created digitally, mixed and produced digitally, distributed and consumed digitally.

Other media have tracked music and it’s steady submergence in the digital realm by a couple of years.   The widespread adoption of the iPod, not the first digital music player, completed the circle.  Video is about to do the same.

We have had a steady progression away from film to ever better video formats, analog to DV and now HD.   Acquisition has made the transition, editing and mixing is already there.  Broadcasting is moving to digital, cinema transmission is too.

When we see video on the web, it is for me, digital production finding its home.

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