Thursday, June 30, 2011

How I know I’m nearly famous

My wife often asks me when I’m going to get “rich and famous”, and today I was able to give her the good news: I’m still not rich, but well on the way to fame. I know this, because the name “rewboss” has been used for a scam.

One of things you should always do from time to time is to google yourself: not for reasons of vanity, but because it’s always prudent to know what, for example, a possible future employer might see when they speculatively plug your name into a search engine. That’s what I did this evening, and I was gratified to see that, for the first time I can remember, “rewboss” has made it into the exaulted realms of Google suggested search terms. Type “rewboss” into Google, and it suggests “rewboss YouTube”, “rewboss German” and, mysteriously, “rewboss manufacturing”. Which is odd, because I don’t manufacture anything, and as far as I know I am the only rewboss on the net.

Searching for “rewboss manufacturing” turns up some forum posts with titles like, “Has anyone ever had any dealings with Rewboss Manufacturing?” Well, I haven’t, so I looked, and apparently just a few months ago, Rewboss Manufacturing was a shady Malaysian company spamming forums with offers for TVs and smartphones at knock-down prices. The uninamous verdict of the experts is that this is a transparent scam and anyone who orders anything from them deserves whatever happens.

Well, I have nothing to do with Rewboss Manufacturing, so if you found this blog post looking for information about the company, I would advise you not to touch them with a bargepole (assuming you can find one long enough to reach Malaysia). This revelation leaves me simultaneously horrified, flattered and daunted. Horrified that people might think I’m a scam artist; flattered that I am obviously famous enough for people to stumble over me on the net and think my screen name worthy of pilfering; and daunted because there’s still a long way to go before I am so famous that using my name for a scam of this sort wouldn’t work.

It also explains why a few months ago I had a sudden flurry of new YouTube subscribers based in Malaysia.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Former Bond girl

Actress Michelle Yeoh has been denied entry to Burma, also called Myanmar, and the speculation is that this has something to do with the fact that she is playing the part of Aung San Suu Kyi in a biopic called The Lady. Although this is probably not, on reflection, all that surprising, it is significant enough to be a news story: the shiny new, all-democratic civilian Burmese government, like the pigs at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm, don’t look all that different from the old dictatorship.

Consequently, this has been widely reported, and for a while “Michelle Yeoh” trended on Twitter. But with a certain weary inevitability, many, if not most, reports of this event refer to her as “former Bond girl Michelle Yeoh”.

I suppose it could have been worse; she could have been remembered chiefly for the instantly forgettable The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. But still, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit rough on an actress who won a BAFTA for Best Actress in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an achievement all the more remarkable when you consider that she doesn’t speak Chinese and had to learn her lines phonetically.

Of course, I realise I sound as if I’m denigrating the rôle of Bond girl, but it still somehow jars. We’re talking about an actress selected to play Aung San Suu Kyi, and it might for that reason be more apposite to mention in this context Crouching Tiger..., or indeed Memoirs of a Geisha, another film she had a prominent rôle in, and which won a modest sprinkling of Oscars and BAFTAs.

The only real reason for referencing her Bond past is so that we will all go, “Oh, that Michelle Yeoh!” But does that really add anything to our understanding of the story? Does it matter if we don’t actually recognise the name, or even if we have no idea of any of the films she’s starred in? A prominent actress cast in the rôle of Dr Suu Kyi, and who has met her frequently in the past, is denied entry to Burma. That’s the story, and reducing the prominent actress to a particularly feisty sidekick in a piece of light entertainment is a bit... unfair.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

We don’t get thunderstorms

Even if you don’t understand German, it’s clear what’s going on in this video. Taken today, it’s an unusual event: a full-blooded thunderstorm in our village.

Normally, thunderstorms tend to avoid us. Coming in from the west, they usually go up either the Kinzig valley, towards Fulda, or the Main valley, towards Aschaffenburg, completely missing our little vale. Armegeddon can come to everywhere else, while we swelter in hot, humid air, listening to the far-off rumble of distant storms.

This one made an exception: it raced up the valley, unleashing not quite its full force, but a fair portion of it. We had at least 17 millimetres of rain; almost certainly more, but our rain gauge was knocked sideways. The sound sent our cats, normally not particularly fazed by natural phenomena, scuttling into the cellar, where I later found them watching with a mixture of trepidation and fascination at the spreading puddle of dirty water.

We were lucky. Our neighbour across the road sustained some minor damage to the roof: at the end of this video, he’s removing some other tiles to get at the dislodged ones and replace them before the next shower (he just made it).

The full force of the storm was felt elsewhere, though: we’re still very sheltered here. The radar showed a huge swathe of heavy rain and thunderstorms sweeping across central and southern Germany, and another of our neighbours, who is in the volunteer fire brigade, told us that every single brigade in the whole district was called out at least once, most several times, and a few were pretty much out and about for the whole afternoon.

Anyway, we’re fine, barring a few battered plants.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Filming woes

It seems such a simple idea: a camera, a tripod, and a microphone is all you need to make a video featuring yourself standing in front of various bits of landscape. After two days and nothing to show for it, here’s what I have learnt:
  1. Autofocus cannot always be relied upon to focus on your face even if it almost completely fills the frame. It does sometimes, but sometimes it will focus on the background instead.
  2. Manual focus is tricky when you have nothing to focus on because what you are focusing on — i.e., yourself — is standing behind the camera trying to focus. You can try focusing on the patch of ground you’re intending to stand on and then tilt the camera back up to start filming, but if you’re using a lot of zoom because you want to throw the background out of focus, that trick isn’t quite accurate enough, as becomes painfully apparent in high definition.
  3. Automatic Gain Control allows you to control the input level of the microphone. Use it wisely if you want audio you can actually use.
  4. Take note of where the telegraph poles are in an otherwise empty field, and don’t position yourself between even a very distant one and the camera.
  5. Trying to get your face evenly lit in bright sunlight will make you understand why the professionals use huge lights even on the brightest of days.
  6. Stand near a tree, and you’ll find it impossible to light your face at all without washing out the background. A camera’s backlight setting does nothing more sophisticated than increasing the brightness.
  7. Never, ever stand anywhere near an electric fence. Electric fences interfere with the camera’s circuits. Audibly.
  8. If you do clip a lapel mic to your jacket, remember that opening the jacket will mean you’re no longer speaking into the mic.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zombie attack!

I have every belief that the people who drafted the Freedom of Information Act in the UK had the best interests of the British public uppermost in their minds, and were seized of a genuine desire to make government more transparent, accountable and democratic. The Freedom of Information Act — the FOI for short — sounds noble and simple enough: anybody can submit to a government body a request for information and can expect a reply in twenty days. And some important information has come to light, such as the revelation that 74 Metropolitan Police officers have criminal records.

But things don’t always work out in a country like Britain, where a favourite pastime is making civil servants run around in circles. They’re civil servants, you see, and servants are people you give nonsensical orders to in order to watch them break into a sweat. Finished painting that room yellow, have you? Well, I’ve changed my mind — I’d like it green. Nothing pleases a British citizen more than watching fussy little men in old-fashioned suits and round glasses metaphorically jumping through hoops, and that’s what’s been happening. The latest one to hit the headlines was a certain Robert Ainsley, who asked Leicester City Council what preparations they had in the event of a zombie invasion. The Council has been forced to admit that they don’t have any specific plans, prompting a crowd of people with nothing better to do at the weekend to mount a full-scale zombie attach on the city. Other requests included somebody with a taste for men in uniform wanting to know how many male police officers in Hampshire were bachelors, a question about the number of sexual acts performed on Welsh sheep, and a retired sailor looking for an old Navy recipe for sautéed kidneys and curried meatballs.

Commenting on this, stand-up comedian John Holmes said that one of the worst offenders was The Daily Express newspaper, and went on to calculate how many billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been spent by councils and government departments answering frivolous FOI requests. The inference was clear: our money being wasted to provide a tabloid newspaper with non-stories designed to enrage the kind of people who would be lost without the little ritual of choking on their breakfast cereal every morning (the average Daily Express ready, in fact).

Actually, there are two reasons to take Holmes’s comments with a truckload of salt. The first is that having got his audience worked up about a paper that exists to get people worked up, he cheerfully went on to say that he had put in his own requests and was waiting to hear, for example, what the combined lengths of all his local council workers laid end to end would be. Even if that was a joke, it doesn’t work because it asks the audience to believe that he is a hypocrite and will waste taxpayers’ money in order to get self-righteous about the waste of taxpayers’ money.

The second reason is that Holmes’s calculations assumed that each request would be given a single person’s undivided and active attention for the whole twenty days, which of course isn’t what happens: for most of that time, it’s sitting in various in-trays and out-trays. Besides, an FOI request can be refused if it would cost more than £600 to comply with. That’s designed specifically to allow requests that just require a bit of sniffing around in the archives, while relieving agencies of the legal requirement to take exact measurements of hundreds of staff.

And when you look at these frivolous requests, they’re not so bad after all. Given a properly-designed database, it’s the work of a few minutes to find out how many police officers within a certain age range are currently single and how many arrests were made for bestiality in a given area. A zombie attack might be a remote possibility (well, pretty much impossible, actually), but actually the wider question of how well local governments are prepared for a completely unexpected threat — scientists did recently use a hypothetical zombie attack as a model for an outbreak of a highly virulent disease — is a good one. If, eleven years ago, you’d asked the government of New York City how they’d respond if a jet airliner crashed into a skyscraper, you might have been laughed at, too.

Besides, it gave some people the excuse for a bit of good-natured fun, not to mention some fresh air.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New video fail

I just spent a significant part of this morning filming a new sketch. I already knew I was heading for trouble because as I was filming the last, and longest, piece, a huge black cloud came over. But it wasn’t until I viewed the rushes (as we videomakers like to call them) that I realised that, despite my best efforts, most of the shots were horribly out of focus and unusable.

This is what comes of not having good studio lighting and not employing a cameraman.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Destination: Seligenstadt

The latest video in my “Destination” series is about the historic town of Seligenstadt, which is one of my favourites in my locality. From where I live, it’s a short train ride, then a bus ride to the ferry, which features at the beginning of this video. The view at the jetty is what you see on the video thumbnail: the journey bypasses the usual trek through nondescript residential and industrial areas and takes you straight to the heart of the matter.

This is a remake of a video I did some years ago, which contained a factual error regarding the legend of Einhard and Emma — I’ve taken the opportunity to correct it here. I fear, though, that another error may have crept in: having said that the town hall is the only building on the market square that is not half-timbered, I now notice that there seem to be several other non-half-timbered houses there. In my defence, I will say that it’s not always obvious: some types of half-timbered house are rendered with plaster, although I can’t swear this is the case in Seligenstadt.

Also, in the earlier version of this video, I suggest that with the lack of parking in Seligenstadt, it’s best to park on the Bavarian side of the river and take the ferry as a foot passenger. I wouldn’t recommend that now: there aren’t enough parking spaces there either.

For those in Germany wanting to get to Seligenstadt by public transport, the nearest long-distance railway stations are Hanau and Aschaffenburg. From Aschaffenburg, you need to take the number 50 bus as far as “Seligenstadt, Fähre” to pick up the ferry. From Hanau, there is an hourly local rail service to Seligenstadt, which is very convenient, but you miss out on the ferry. Alternatively, take any local train bound for Schöllkrippen, Aschaffenburg, Würzburg or Nürnberg as far as Kahl am Main, and from there the number 50 bus for the ferry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Debbie the crazy cat lady

This is the video that currently has the online world abuzz with speculation, in which “Debbie”, filming a video for a dating website, breaks down and cries because she just loves cats and can’t get enough of them.

The report in the UK’s Sun is typical of the kind of speculation currently making the rounds. Having described in detail the entire plot of the video, the paper admits that “some viewers have speculated it’s all an elaborate hoax”.

Well, let me just state quite categorically that this video is not “an elaborate hoax” or a “fake”. Neither is it a genuine bio for a dating site. Journalists are becoming increasingly lazy these days, it seems, and not bothering with any real research — odd, considering that these days, research can be a matter of a few mouse clicks and a bit of common sense. But this does represent an interesting departure from the norm: while the Sun has clearly missed the point, the Daily Mail actually gets surprisingly close.

The video was uploaded by somebody calling herself “hartmanncara”, and it takes a second or two to just click through to her YouTube channel profile page, where she lists her name as “Cara”. There is also another video up, which is clearly by the same young woman, this time pretending to be cojoined twins called Cara and Kara. The point here is that the “cat lady” video hasn’t been downloaded from an eHarmony profile and re-uploaded to YouTube by somebody else: it was uploaded to YouTube by the person who made it and appears in it. Who, presumably, is called Cara Hartmann.

She has now added links to her Facebook fan page, where she is listed as an “entertainer”, and her Tumblr page, which includes such stories as Rosie O’Donnell discovering that what she thought was breast cancer was actually a baked potato. Granted, those links might not have been on her YouTube profile before she became famous, but even without them everything pointed to “Debbie” being fictional.

Finally, of course, Cara (as we must assume she is called in real life) is also on Twitter as @hartmanncara (the same username as on YouTube, not hard to find), where she says nothing at all about cats, but does talk about going viral.

It doesn’t take a lot of time or effort to discover all of this, which is one reason I don’t think it’s an elaborate hoax. It’s certainly not elaborate by anyone’s reckoning. And calling it a “hoax” or a “fake” implies that Cara was deliberately trying to deceive us. I don’t think that at all: there’s no real attempt made to hide her real identity (unless this is an incredibly elaborate double bluff). I think it’s a young lady with the talent to amuse just having a bit of fun, and almost certainly never expected the video to go viral. It’s well-acted, but it is so clearly a parody, it’s hard to understand why anyone would take it seriously in the first place, or why anyone would be so disappointed to discover that it’s a complete fiction from start to finish.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Binned policies

Once again, the British government are in trouble for abandoning their policies, this time for backing down in the face of council opposition to reintroducing weekly rubbish collections.

For those not up to date with British life, the inhabitants of that fair isle have been suffering unbearably under a clearly misguided government policy to allow rubbish collections only every second week, and to force people to recycle anything recyclable.

Some explanation is required for the benefit of those who, like me, live in a country where exactly this policy has been very successful for at least a couple of decades now, and has byzantine rules involving exactly what must go into yellow sacks, what must go into blue bins, what must be returned to the store and what must be taken to which rubbish tip or bottle bank. You see, what for Germans is a chore is for the British near slavery: in the words of the Communities Secretary, the corpulant and delightfully-named Eric Pickles, weekly collections are “a basic right for every Englishman and woman” — what he thinks the Welsh, Irish and Scottish people are entitled to was left unclear.

But yes, it is the absolute undeniable right of all English people not to have to worry about where to put two dozen million tons of rubbish every year when the landfills fill up. This is every bit as important as free speech, access to education and Britain’s Got Talent. The defeat of the government at the hands of local councils is just another stage in the slow but inevitable slide into anarchy, communism and fascism (all three at the same time, it’s that serious).

It is fundamental to the very essence of Britishness that 57% of all rubbish goes to landfill sites. If Germans think they can get by with a measly 1%, that’s their business, and no doubt they’ll pay for it later, you’ll see. One day, stinking garbage will become a valuable resource for powering time machines made out of DeLoreans, and then we’ll see how smug those Teutonic grins are, won’t we?

UPDATE: Apparently, reports of a U-turn have been exaggerated.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The hidden pitfalls of YouTube’s CC licence

Last week, YouTube introduced a new feature: video uploads can be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. What this licence means is that anyone is allowed to use the video, or parts of it, for any purpose, including commercially, on condition they credit the original author. It’s the nearest thing to public domain without actually being public domain.

The really interesting aspect of this is that videos set to this licence can be found using the YouTube online video editor: if you want to add some zip to your own video, you can use the YouTube editor to look for CC-licenced videos and edit them into your own. There are numerous possibilities here: for example, I could upload the beginning of a sketch, set it to CC, and challenge you to film and upload an ending, and use the video editor to add my beginning to your ending. This is pretty much in keeping with the whole ethos of Creative Commons, and YouTube’s recognition of that should be applauded.

Unfortunately, using this option is one thing; using this option legally is a whole other thing. One of the things that has become obvious to me over the years (and bear in mind that I am not a lawyer) is that there is a whole lot of ignorance about copyright law, and this is likely to cause problems for many people. You can’t release anything you want under this licence. In fact, the list of things you can release is vanishingly small, and is restricted to videos that consist exclusively of the following:
  • content that is entirely your creation;
  • content whose copyright has expired (which can take as much as 120 years);
  • content which has been explicitly released into the public domain by the original author;
  • content which has been released by the original author under a Creative Commons Attribution, Sampling or Sampling+ licence, but no other type of CC licence.
That last point is especially nasty: it means that you cannot use most types of Creative Commons material in your video if you want to release it as CC-BY. The potential for users incorrectly (and illegally) releasing videos under a CC licence is vast.

This poses a problem for people wanting to use the YouTube video editor to make mashups of this kind. Let’s say I illegally upload a scene from an episode of Doctor Who and (also illegally) set it to CC-BY. A little later, you fire up the YouTube video editor and, browsing through the CC content, find my video. “Perfect,” you say: “the exact scene I need, and it’s Creative Commons Attribution so it’s legal for me to use!”

Obviously, it’s not legal for you to use, but you used it in good faith — after all, I’m the one who convinced you it was legal. But is that going to stop the BBC filing a copyright infringement notice against your video and putting your entire account one-third of the way towards termination? And what would be your legal position? To what extent are you liable? Should you have researched more carefully? Ignorance is never a good defence, but just how thorough does your research have to be? Suppose it wasn’t something as obvious as a TV show, but a music video from a no-name band of the sort that might legitimately be expected to release their music under a Creative Commons licence?

It’s a nice feature, but it could have lots of unintended consequences. Let’s just hope YouTube has thought about these questions.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The launch!

This is it. Ahead of schedule, the new-look rewboss hub is online, and this blog is now officially launched.

So welcome, reader, to the wonderful new world of rewboss. At last, you now have the option of answering me back, properly, by leaving comments on this blog. And please do: currently, it’s set to accept comments from anonymous users, so anyone can join in.

How is this all set up? Well, the online world of rewboss is divided up into the following areas, all connected to each other and (hopefully) complementing each other:
  • The hub is the centre of the rewboss world, and will also host longer articles that have more-or-less permanent relevance.
  • This blog, keeping you up-to-date with my activities and giving some background information into the bargain.
  • The Twitter feed, for quick updates and alerts, as well as some bonuses.
  • The YouTube channel, where (obviously) I host my videos.
  • The forum, which I have neglected of late. Ideally, it would be a community for people to get to know each other, but I realise that internet message boards are now old hat. I’ll be watching to see what happens to it.
All the old articles from the previous incarnation of my website can be found at, so they’re not lost. But from now on, this is where it’s happening.

So... onwards, to greatness and magnificence!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tidying up

Almost there. The new-look hub is just about finished, and apart from writing one or two more articles for it (just so that it doesn’t look too empty when it goes live), the only thing left to do is to write the .htaccess and robot.txt files.

Then I have to download the current site, remove the ad code so that it doesn’t do unexpected stuff, and reupload it to the new subdomain. I think that’s pretty much it, and I’m looking forward to see how well it all works.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Still tweaking

I think I’ve got the basic design and layout of the new hub working, which is gratifying, but there are still articles to write and things to tweak. The main navigation bar has undergone a small redesign: a tiny tweak, but resulting in what I think is a huge difference visually, and a bit more in keeping with the image I’m trying to project.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Even better than expected

When you try doing something you’ve never done before, you expect things to go wrong. In the case of that SimplePie class I was talking about, the difficulty was just finding the correct download link. Once I had the correct link and the class was successfully installed, a quick test script I wrote actually worked first time (once I’d corrected a couple of silly typos).

The real test will come later, when I upload everything to the web server. But for anyone writing in PHP and needing to read RSS and Atom feeds, SimplePie is the tool I’d recommend.

Sadly, Twitter no longer supports an RSS feed, which you’d think would have been an obvious thing to support. You can get a little widget to embed on a web page, but it uses JavaScript to write it in, it’s clunky and it’s slow; and I can’t get it to integrate nicely with the design I have for the hub. The other alternative is to roll up my sleeves and get dirty with the Twitter API, something I have never done before. I’m not sure I want to.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Goodness, that was easy!

My idea for the navigation bar on the new-look hub was, I thought, really ambitious. Imagine my surprise, then, when it worked perfectly first time.

There’s still some way to go, and the next big challenge is incorporating feeds from this blog and my YouTube channel. For this, I hope to use a nifty little piece of server-side software called SimplePie. I say “software”, it’s really just a PHP class that parses RSS feeds, and it’s just a lot more reliable than attempting to write my own. And this is also the reason I’m even writing blog posts before I officially launch this blog, so that I can get the feed working before I officially launch the hub.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Making progress

Everything’s coming along nicely. The new-look, slimmed-down, rewboss website (to be renamed the “rewboss hub”) is looking good before I’ve even done the first mockup. I hope to get the whole thing up and running... soon.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stitched up

A short video in German about the reason for the stitches in my mouth. (Subtitles available for non-German speakers.)

Hello, there.

As I write this, my new blog hasn’t officially been launched yet and is still in the very basic design stages. Which means that if you are reading this, either you have stumbled on this post by accident, or you are so fascinated by my blog that you just had to drill down all this way to read every single post.

Well, stranger things have happened.