Friday, December 14, 2012

It's just data

A thing I have learned in the last couple of days is an important thing about our modern era of digital video: It's just data.

In the old days when I filmed something, it would be on a tape. I'd digitise that, and then the tape would go and sit in a box in a cupboard. If a hard drive melted, that's fine, cos there's always that tape in a cupboard.

It's all changed since we all moved over to the glossy, baffling world of HD Video (what is the difference between i and p? Can anyone ever explain that in a way that doesn't make you want to burn their star wars figures?). You'll film stuff. It'll sit on a card, which is like a tape but a hundred times more expensive - so you don't keep the card, you back it up onto a hard drive. Which... in theory is fine.

Until something goes wrong. A couple of nights ago, halfway through some work, a hard drive just wandered   away. As it went, I started frantically moving stuff off of it. I was glad of the warning, and so acted quickly.

In my completely calm and rational search for 500 gig of space, I noticed a project on a random hard drive. "Oh, that old thing" I thought, and deleted it.

A day later, looking for something, I realised. I hadn't deleted a random backup of an old project. I'd deleted the project itself. Months of editing work, gone. But, you know, I could always get it back from the rushes.... only, also gone were all the rushes. With the same click.

In the old days, if I'd had to, I could have reassembled the project - I keep copies of the project in dropbox, so it's just a matter of redigitising the rushes. Only the rushes no longer sit sleeping in a cupboard. There is no cupboard. They nestle snugly in the folder itself. Until I pressed "delete".

That's the difference between tapes and tapeless. In a crisis panic, I'd never open up a cupboard and throw out my rushes. Even if I'd bought an especially mimsy cardigan that needed hanging up really quickly, I'd never do that. But it's not the same with tapeless rushes. They're just space.

Clearly, I need to think differently about backing up projects - no longer is it enough to have a spare copy on a hard drive. I need to buy a hard drive that is effectively that box in a cupboard. And even so, a hard drive is not as reliable as a box in a cupboard. We all know that feeling where you plug in an old hard drive after a couple of years and it goes "hmmm" like a winky Sauron, its contents shifting into a Schrodinger state. Does that happen with a box in a cupboard? No.

A cameraman told me a relevant story about digital projection in cinemas. A hard drive of the "film" is delivered. Each time you play it, it needs a code fetching from a server to unlock it. A problem that cinemas (especially small, independent ones) are experiencing sometimes is getting onto the server to get the code to unlock the film. So they end up showing the film from the emergency backup DVD.

By the time I die, we'll all exist backed up on hard drives. Which will be fine. Until someone can't get onto the server, or find the right power cable. And then we'll sit there. In a box in a cupboard.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Once I had a stalker

And I've just found my old emails about it. It was a curious affair, so I'd better hide a few names.

It all began in the October 2000. I'd just got a job running the BBC Cult site. The BBC at the time had a Cult TV messageboard. Ironically, I didn't yet have access to moderate it, as I'd only just got the job. However, just before I joined:

  1. The BBC had changed the timeslot of the X-Files (nothing to do with me)
  2. There'd been a mistake in an X-Files quiz (nothing to do with me)
  3. Some members of the messageboard had complained that the atmosphere on there was unfriendly.
  4. One of the messageboard moderators had, without my knowledge, grandly announced I'd been appointed to run the new site which the X-Files messageboard would become part of.
With me so far? First of all (we'll call him) Mr Stalker posted an angry message to me, blaming me for changing the scheduling of the X-Files. This was removed, but not by me. IT being as slow to set up an account as it was, I couldn't have, even if I'd wanted to. I had no direct contact with the BBC Messageboard team (they were a pretty independent bunch paid for out of my budget). Mr Stalker then posted the following about "my actions":

This is without any doubt the strictest and most disgraceful moderation I’ve ever seen. I would like to propose a Week Long Blackout of the BBC X Files Forum starting from Monday Morning. If you would be interested in Operation ‘BBC BLACKOUT’ please say so here. I don’t want to do this, but the moderation is disgraceful. Does the host have any comments to make ? 

What? No posts about the X-Files? For a whole week? The Head of the BBC Messageboards sent him an immediate email:

"Hi [name removed],
It seems I need to sit down with the hosts and moderators and talk about this message board and how it is run.  It's YOUR message board... Let me sort this one out for you.

Please send me your thoughts.  Ring me if you like too."

I know she sent this email. Not only did she then forward it to me, the forum moderators, my manager, and my manager's manager ("Can we organise a meeting to discuss this urgently please?"), but... well, we'll see why later.

The moderators were actually quite unhappy with the Head of the BBC Messageboards' instant response (They copied me in on a lengthy report to her which concluded "It's simply not true that we delete 'whole threads of relevant posts' as Mr Stalker is suggesting. We're disappointed that in this instance you didn't feel it necessary to consult us first").

This is when it gets weird. A strange message appeared on the board from Mr Stalker:

"Jim, did you get my phone call?"

I hadn't. I was curious as to why he was calling me Jim, and to what phone call he was referring. I wondered if this explained the sudden number of empty voicemails we were getting on the home answering machine (mind you, at the time, we had "Livin' La Vida Loca" as our answering machine message). 

He then continued to post. Apparently I "had a nice house". Mr Stalker also had some observations of my personal habits. This was getting creepy. 

We now reached December. And Mr Stalker posted the following:

Maybe you should start by accepting help when you are offered it. You ignore me. Well... If your going to treat your regulars like sh*t then you can shove your fuc*ing quiz... Trust me Jim, you wouldn't appreciate help if it came up and bit you on the ass. And if the moderators are going to delete this, please advise Jim that I think that even rapists show respect to their victims, than James does."

It was eventually taken down, not because it compared me unfavourably to a rapist, but because he'd gamed the swear-word filter. 

I considered this was progress. Not only had he got my name right, but he was now sending me abuse. Perhaps he could be banned? Instead, here's an apparent response from the Head of the BBC Messageboards to Mr Stalker:

I thought you might want to have a 'between you and me' type discussion so that I can sort this out.  I can do some internal stuff to improve the situation.  I have already spoken to James Goss today about this, explaining that I feel you may have a point/deserve a hearing.

(I say "apparently" because this email wasn't copied in to me. However, as you'll later see the style is quite consistent with it being from the Head of the BBC Messageboards.)

As a result he wasn't banned outright, just suspended. Shortly afterwards, he was allowed to rejoin. At which point he posted the following thread about me. Its title? "how he likes 2beat himself". 

The moderators removed this (thankfully before referring it to me for fact-checking) and suspended his account for a short period of time.

Shortly afterwards, the BBC received the following email (edited) from Mr Stalker:

Mr. Stalker wrote:

Dear Sir/Madam,
Recently a new HOST has been appointed, Mr.James Goss. I have reason to belive he is conspiring to repress me.... A moderator/s also continues to harass me on the forum by deleting every single message that I post... He has intimidated me through private mail from his private AOL address... It's making me really upset, as there are no grounds for deleting my messages... I hope there is a line of investigation you can take for this matter. Could I have a BBC contact number!
, where I could telephone a complaint in person as this problem has reduced me to tears on many occasions.

Now, this was a serious allegation.  His email had come through to an inbox I had access to. I read it, and then duly passed it to my manager and asked him to start an investigation. Luckily, the investigation into me was helped by Mr Stalker. Here's a sample email I apparently sent him:


Good to hear from you! 

I know I can be a bit of a wally sometimes-like with the WMM topic- but would like to think that I am a fair and reasonable person and I don't mind a bit of good humour even if it is directed at me!

So as of next week I am going to start to email you the quiz for you to proof  read and I would welcome any other contributions/suggestions/ideas you may have in making the board the success it is.


Jim :0)

PS Ok Snowie is a bit fluffy but it is a nick name that was given to me by an 
ex-partner which has kind of stuck!  lol!!!! I will consider your suggestion 
of something a little harder!! lol!! 

It's weird reading an email that's apparently written by you. I didn't write it. Here's why:
  1. Why  would I email someone not from my BBC address about BBC business?
  2. This is "intimidation"?
  3. Much as I love Tintin, no-one has ever called me Snowie.
  4. lol!!
This didn't stop us all taking it very seriously. My manager looked into it. It was decided the emails were forgeries and we asked that Mr Stalker be permanently banned. Lol!! 

Instead, the Head of the BBC's messageboards continued to "reach out" to Mr Stalker, asking him for more evidence and allowing him to continue posting on the boards.

I'll look for your reply tomorrow. Hold tight and I'll try and improve things. Once I have your permission, then I'll have a quiet word with James Goss.

So, to summarize, Mr Stalker had likened me to a rapist, talked about my masturbatory habits, and claimed to know my home number and where I lived.... and, instead of banning him, the Head of the BBC Messageboards seemed to think Mr Stalker "may have a point" and that a "quiet word" needed to be had with me. 

Maybe she was just acting as a genuine peacemaker in the best interests of the community, but from my point-of-view I was trapped in a situation that was uniquely BBC Kafkaesque. I was the subject of a hate campaign, much of it published on the BBC website, and the person responsible for overseeing that bit of the site wanted it to continue. I was alarmed and scared and my flatmates wondered about changing the phone number.

Which is where my manager came into his own. I had an... interesting relationship with him. He could be very intimidating. But this was definitely his finest hour. He summoned the Head of Messageboards to a meeting. This is how I remember it going:

MANAGER: Ban him. Permanently.
Head of Messageboards (HOM): No. We can't. It's a community.
MANAGER: So, you intend allowing this persecution to continue? 
HOM: Persecution, that's a strong word.
MANAGER: Where does your traffic come from?
HOM: From the... er... users. The community.
MANAGER: But how much traffic comes from the links to the boards from the Cult site?
HOM: uh... I'd have to go through the logs.
ME: About 90%
MANAGER: And how long would it take you to remove all those links from the Cult site?
ME: Er, about half an hour.
HOM: Wait... wait!

This is when my manager played his trump card. You see, Mr Stalker had started up a website. Where he not only posted up all the email he had purportedly received from me, but also all the (seemingly genuine) correspondence from the Head of the BBC Messageboards. Such as:

Would you like to have a chat with me to discreetly air your views re: the Cult TV Message Board? Thought you might like to be given the opportunity. I'd like to help (discreetly and confidentially with no-one else knowing)...I promise, faithfully to do what I can to resolve your situation.

Best wishes...

Her reaction to finding this had been republished online was rather less conciliatory. We know this because Mr Stalker also helpfully published it:

I went over to see both the Host and Editor of the Cult TV message board this morning.  I have also had a meeting with the BBC Moderators, and our lawyers. You are presently breaking BBC Copyright/the law by hosting a website which is defaming a BBC employee - it also contains BBC copyright images. 

The site was taken down and he was permanently banned.

End of story?

Not quite. It became a case study for safer management of BBC Communities and the protection of BBC Staff. I was even allowed to host the BBC Messageboards, but under a pseudonym. A happy ending?

No. A year later, the BBC Communities team launched a series of chat rooms. Understanably nervous/terrified about this, I warily agreed that there could be a weekly "Cult Chatroom", but wanted nothing to do with it. It lasted three weeks and then, the morning after the third one, I received an email from one of the community team:

Something happened last night. Ask to see the log of the Cult chatroom.

Intrigued, I asked the manager of the Chatrooms. There was a long "I don't think you  need to see that" delay. Eventually, after some chasing, the log turned up. It made increasingly painful reading as the moderator clearly didn't know anything about any of the BBC's Cult television programmes, and the chat moved from gentle mockery, to abuse, to name-calling to angry chaos. The name of the moderator? "James Goss".

Worse, the chat ended with "James Goss" announcing  "We're closing tonight's chat and the Cult chatrooms until further notice." And then, "If you have any comments, please email [myemailaddress]"

Guess who emailed me? Mr Stalker.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A restricted view of tonight's Martian Invasion

War of the Worlds live.

Yes, it was all kinds of amazing, but... (oh, how hateful to carp about these things) but... but for £50 tickets I'd hoped for something a bit better than a view of some speakers and the lighting rig. I'm sure there's a very exciting, engaged debate to be had about non-subsidised arts, but really and honestly, I can't remember a notice when I was booking saying "There'll be a restricted view of your Martian Invasion".

Being a long way away from these things normally doesn't matter. After all, in these arenas, there are usually screens. And yes, there was one screen showing what was going on - it was the screen hidden behind the speakers and the lighting rig. Hum.

If you're going (and do, if only to marvel at the Martian War Machine on stage), then clearly, if you want to see death rain down on you, you're going to have to pay more. There, an actual Death Tax.

Not keeping up with 70s concept albums, I was unaware that this was the dubstep remix on tour. I had no idea a dubstep remix could tour. Indeed, I've only a hazy idea what a dubstep remix is, but it seems to be a bit of "wobblewobbleboosh" over samples of Liam Neeson saying "black clouds" (Note: the Gran in After Henry once peerlessly described Walkman music as "going wickaboom wickaboom, that's all it is"). Anyway, if you're going to fiddle with something, you may as well fiddle with it harmlessly. And it gave us the joy of watching Jeff Wayne conduct the dubstep bits using Dad Wedding Dancing.

Looming over the action was a big screen. The big screen we couldn't properly see. From our £50 seats. (Yes, I am going on about this, but you can't help sitting in a packed arena and doing "How much is this making?" maths). On the big screen are a lot of computer graphics. It's as if Jeff's popped down the local technical college and told them to go crazy for their summer project. And go crazy they duly did. Some of the results are amazing and impressive. Some of them... well, Jason Donovan's suffered a lot of indignity in life, but to see him dragged off stage and then rendered as a CGI barbie doll being devoured by a tripod against clip art of a church is possibly a new low.

Maybe I was missing the full beauty. Due to the speakers and the lighting rig getting in the way. Of my £50 seats. That's the real victory of the Martians. Making you feel cheap for only spending £50 on tickets.

Do go, though. There's a lot of spectacle you can enjoy, really enjoy. You can also marvel at how tiny the average human bladder is. War of the Worlds is not a long show - it's two 45-minute albums, after all. With an interval. And yet there was a constant trickle to-and-from the bogs. As the Artillery Man commented, the nice thing about the Martians invaded was that the sewers were flushed clean and sweet.

The final shame was that, if a stadium could be said to scarper, it scarpered before the end. This wasn't a matinee showing of 27 Dresses at the Vue. This was War!of!the!Worlds! Live!on!Stage! with a Real!Live!Tripod!, but the people of Manchester grabbed their coats and made for the exit before Jason Donovan had even finished his curtain call. Which is a real shame, as they then missed the genuinely impressive bit at the end where they let off all the remaining pyrotechnics. Which looked amazing. Even from my £50 seat.