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Australia Decides 2010: It's On!

Well, it's on folks! After several weeks of endless speculation (the kind you get every time there is a chance of an election inside of 2-3 months), August 21 was chosen yesterday as the date of the next Federal Election. Julia and Tony will be going head-to-head on the campaign trail over the coming 5 weeks, even if right now it would appear that all of the polls (despite Laurie Oake's attempts at Nine to suggest otherwise) are pretty much stating the fact that unless there is a major stuff-up in the next month, the ALP will be returned to power (with something in the region of 80-odd seats in the House of Representatives), and the Greens having the balance of power in the Senate.

All of which sounds fine to me, to be honest. I am yet to be convinced that the LNP have learnt the lessons of the 2007 Federal Election, and while occasionally Tony Abbott might say something that is of national interest, for the most part he is a leader that is not fit to govern, and nor does the party he lead show any real signs of being ready for a return to power. Maybe given another election loss they might start to sort themselves out, but for now, it's a case of the Opposition do not look like a good alternative Government at present. It's taken them 2 years to sort out how to be an effective Opposition (after 18 months of in-fighting and leadership spills), let alone how to govern in their own right.

At the time of writing, it would appear that the two campaigns are focussed on a couple of key themes - asylum seekers seems to be the issue that just won't die (why do I feel like we're back in 2001 again?), while debate over the economy (and in particular the handling of the GFC) rages on, despite all of the evidence from the OECD and IMF (as well as the obvious facts that Australia is a lot better off than pretty much anywhere else in the world) clearly stating that what the Government did last year was excellent. Still, I guess it wouldn't be a Federal Election if there wasn't a whole heap of lies and FUD chucked about the place.

This is most likely going to be quite a boring election campaign, since there just isn't the money in the Goverment coffers to really allow for any big-budget spending commitments. But I do hope we hear some firm policy announcements over the coming month in the areas of health, education, and the environment - particularly that last one, where I do feel thus far that has been the biggest stumble the ALP Government has had (and was ultimately one of the key reasons that brought down Kevin Rudd). In some ways, the lack of action from the major parties on the issue of climate change should allow the Greens, who have been seeing a slow and steady tracking up of their primary vote, do quite well out of this campaign. Not sure if they will get a House of Reps seat, as some commentators are suggesting, but hopefully it will result in them getting the balance of power in the Senate, and therefore, some real action.

The only thing that did annoy me slightly about yesterday's launch of the 2010 Election was the silly practice of closing off the election roll so early in the campaign. I did not like it in 2007 when John Howard pulled this stunt, even less so this time around given Julia Gillard is essentially giving those who have yet to enroll less than 8 hours in which to do so. In all honesty, I really wish it had been a week or something, just to let people enroll properly. Oh well.

Anyway, I will be keeping track of the election here on The Sunday Talk, so please join me for the ride ahead. Will try and post a weekly update on the campaign where and when time permits, or more often depending on the sorts of announcements we get from the various parties. In the meantime, allow me to leave you with some clips from yesterday's Election 2010 lanch, the opening press statements from both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, the latter of which seemed very unprepared and nervous. Did no one tell poor Tony an election was coming?

And just for fun, here is the GetUp Australia campaign promo for the 2010 Election. If only reality were this awesome...


Why Some Web Hosts Suck, Like Mine

You know, I really hate the web hosting company I have to deal with. I am not referring to Square Space here - so far, my dealings with SS have been universally excellent. No, I am talking about the web hosting company that I use to host the old BTR Productions web site. I am not going to call them out here by name, but if you were to undertake 5 minutes of research, you would quite easily find out who they are.

Put simply, after having dealt with them for many years now, I simply cannot recommend them as a web hosting company, simply because their tech support service is absolutely terrible.

A few years ago, when I was spending a lot of time on the BTR web site, I used a variety of CMS platforms to publish from. But these days, I am not after something cutting edge or brand new - I just want something simple, that allows me to have a web presence for the old content, so that people can access the downloads if they are interested in hearing and watching what we used to get up to. So I use the CM4All Web Site Creator, a freebie Web platform that comes with the hosting package. It's simple, doesn't do much, but it is OK for my needs.

There is only one problem - since the web hosting company implemented a policy of requiring you to update your password on the site every 28 days, it seems to have broken their back-end systems. Whenever you put a new password in, said password does not go any further than the primary login gateway that gets you to the Control Panel. So even if you try and do anything, nothing basically works. Not one single element of their hosting platform works, because the password does not filter though.

So you approach their tech support people. Who tell you to change the password (at least several times whenever I find I have to deal with them), which never fixes the problem. And then they declare they cannot help you anyway. Which means you've wasted your time dealing with them. At which point they shut down the live chat support program, and they're gone.

Good tech support, eh?

I find I encounter this problem every time I try to update the old BTR web site, which is something I am trying to do right now, given we've got some new material to release. Hopefully things can get sorted out soon, but somehow I doubt it. Would love to push out an update this coming weekend, but I shall see how things go.

In the meantime, my advice to you is this - choose your hosting company wisely, lest you get screwed in much the way I am here. I've found premium companies like Square Space to be the best in their field, while these lower-rate two-bit hosting companies really are not worth you wasting their time on...


Doctor Who: Series 5

Source: Flickr On Sunday night here in Australia, the fifth series of the revamped Doctor Who came to a close. In many ways, this was as brand new a series as the 2005 series was under the leadership and direction of Russell T Davies. A brand new showrunner, Steven Moffat, had taken over. The show featured a brand new Doctor (Matt Smith), a brand new companion (Karen Gillan), a new TARDIS interior, a new title sequence and theme tune et al. All of which has resulted in the creation of a series that while not perfect, it wasn't totally poor.

The tone for this new series seemed to be "fairytale" - something Steven Moffat seemed keen to point out in most interviews he did about the show. It was a good choice, especially given RTD's desire for using "epic" storylines in series gone past. This made for a nice contrast, since we ended up with stories that were more personal, more intimate, and less about galactic conquest. Whether this was down to the reported BBC budget cuts I am not sure, but if nothing else it helped to keep things fresh and interesting.

Speaking of the budget, it was clear that at times there was less money being spent on this new series than in years gone by. This was a shame, as while it did help contribute towards a nice tonal shift in the show, the knock-on effect was that some effects seemed less polished (some CGI was evidence of this), and it also seemed that the number of CGI shots in the series were considerably less than in years past. Was this being the first full HD series part of this decision? Not sure. I've never wanted my Doctor Who to be effects-driven, but I did notice the drop in quality and frequency of the CG elements.

The cinematography of the series also seemed to step up a notch, particularly in how pace was used, with more use of establishing shots and tracking shots. While this did at times slow things down a bit, it helped to make things feel more cinematic, without the need to rely on CG effects. It also seemed at times as thought the colour palette and temperature was changed to reflect this new quality of "fairytales", with lots of saturated colours and shadows being used. The new set of Directors that Moffat employed for the show worked well, and I look forward to seeing some return contributions in Series 6 next year.

Another element that seemed to generate a fair bit of debate within fandom was the re-design of some of the iconic classic series monsters, principally the Daleks and the Silurians. While I don't really have a problem per se with the new-look Daleks (I like the use of different colours, and the slightly larger size does mean they now have to be a lot more careful which angles they film the props at), the Silurian re-design I was not at all happy with. What they gained in actor flexibility they lost in reptile / alien appearance, which was a real shame. I would have been a lot more interested in a much more faithful re-design, including a return of the 1970s style voice effect and third eye ability. We know the production team can do these kinds of effective yet faithful to the past designs - look at the Sontarans and Cybermen for good examples of that. So why wasn't that possible here? A real missed opportunity.

At least they did get some major re-design work right this series - the new TARDIS interior was glorious to behold. It was about time we got a proper and decent sized console room for the show, one that really made good use of levels and angles. This is the closest set we've yet got to either the original Hartnell set (with its multiple rooms and spaces) or even the McGann TV Movie set (still my favourite of all time), and I hope to see a lot more of this set in future series. I particularly liked how it had small rooms off to the sides of the main set, which helped to overcome the big limitation of the Eccleston / Tennant console room, which was a single dome-shaped set with nothing else to it. This new one has lots of nooks and crannies, which were put to good use this year.

Similarly, the new title sequence and theme tune did take me by surprise when first viewed, but after 13 episodes I have really come to warm to these latest iterations. Murray Gold did a good job here with the theme, even if we do seem to be moving further and further away from Delia's classic original with each new version that comes along. As well as that, the new title sequence complemented the theme tune nicely. I particularly liked how the TARDIS interacted with the tunnel effect, and the integration of the new logo was also well done.

As I said above, this was a series full of newness. This extended to a new Doctor and a new companion, Amy Pond. Matt Smith's Doctor is certainly a delight to watch, and never once did I feel the show was suffering by having such a young actor play the Doctor. There was a certain Davison-esque "old man trapped in a young man's body" about Matt's performance, coupled with a touch of Patrick Troughton's "play the fool, then snap into being totally serious instantly". Even though at times I did feel Matt still needs to further develop his skill as an actor (especially in how he manipulates his face), he has demonstrated himself a worthy successor to David Tennant, even if Tennant to me is still King of the Doctors (New Series).

Karen Gillan's Amy Pond was a lot of fun, and worked well with Matt's Doctor. Even though some elements of her personality were, shall we say, a little bit dubious (the poor girl clearly has no shame), I thought she made for a nice departure from the Rose / Martha style of companion we got under RTD. Utterly contemporary, yes, but in a more rounded way. She herself was complemented by the surprise inclusion of a male companion for the show, Amy's fiancee / husband Rory Williams (played to perfection by Arthur Darvill). Rory was not the Mickey to Amy's Rose by any stretch of the imagination, with the character reminding me a lot more of Troughton's male offsider Jamie. Certainly, there was a lovely dynamic and rapport between the Doctor and Rory that made things feel free and interesting. In some ways, the scenes between the Doctor and Rory were at times more interesting than those between the Doctor and Amy.

Am so pleased he has joined the TARDIS team full-time now. Long live the Crew of Three!

The scripts themselves were a fairly mixed bag this year. Opening with the homage to the RTD era The Eleventh Hour, we had a pretty decent run of quality episodes for the most part. From the excellent two-part Time of Angels / Flesh & Stone, through to the emotion of Vincent and the Doctor, the almost rom-com The Lodger, and the finale The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang, which nicely juxtaposed the epic and the intimate, there were only a few episodes which seemed to elecit a response from fandom. The Silurian two-parter, The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, copped a fair bit of negative reaction from fandom, although I really rather liked it. Certainly the most traditional set of episodes this year, it reminded me a lot of a Pertwee episode, and in fact the two-parter could quite easily be classed as this year's love letter to the classic series, in particular that Pertwee era its monsters hail from. What I do agree with fandom on, however, was the awful Victory of the Daleks. While I always love seeing the Daleks, the episode just seemed to serve no purpose other than to introduce the new Dalek design. I had hoped we'get a pay off in the final episodes, but that never came. So I feel that said episode is easily the most disappointing of the entire set on offer this year.

In which case, that ain't a bad track record at all.

There are so many other things I could comment on with this series, but I don't want this review to go on for another 1500 words. Sufficed to say, I liked the 2010 series of Doctor Who, and I look forward to seeing where things go next year.


Why I Bing And Don't Google

When Microsoft re-launched their search engine service Live Search as Bing in June last year, I decided to give it a very tepid go as my primary search engine. I'd given Windows Live a go about 18 months prior, but after a month found myself going back to Google. Why? Simply put - the results you got from Windows Live were generally rubbish in comparison to Google. Google always gave out good search results, while Windows Live didn't. So I wasn't really convinced that Bing would be much better.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Since making the switch to Bing, I've not once looked back. I now have Bing set as my default search engine on all of my computers, both at home and at work. Whatever the new algorithm Microsoft is using under the hood to power Bing is, it seems to be generating very good results. This alone has made me pleased with the service, because if nothing else it can at least match Google when doing basic Web searches.

But not only that, Microsoft's "decision engine", as they call it, also seems to do very well with the "value added" options it features. One early feature I found I liked was the Video preview feature, whereby you could search for a video clip, and hover your mouse over the clips in the search results to get little 30 second previews. That is definitely a good use of the Silverlight technology powering the site. Not only that, the integration with other Microsoft elements like the Bing Maps feature really does give Google Maps a nice run for its money.

Microsoft even keep pumping out a lot of frequent updates to the search engine, which I find quite pleasing. Most recently, Microsoft added a massive Entertainment section to the site, which includes such elements as "allow(ing) users to view and search for detailed information and reviews for music, movies, television shows, and video games. Bing Entertainment partners with Microsoft Games to allow users to directly play online games within Bing Online Games." (Source: Wikipedia). The fact that you can search for this information, and have it presented to you without even leaving the Bing web site, is a simple idea, and yet so good. Helps on the trust level, for one thing. In another way, it helps Bing to differentiate itself from Google.

The integration you get within Windows Vista and 7 are also great elements to the overall Bing experience. Microsoft have produced Web Slices and Accelerators for use in Internet Explorer 8, as well as a few Sidebar Gadgets for use on the Windows Desktop. Not content with offering an integrated experience on desktop Windows, you can also get apps for both Windows Mobile and iOS, and the forthcoming Windows Phone 7 platform has Bing very firmly entrenched at the core of pretty much your entire search experience on that platform.

Aside from all of this, though, if there was one "killer feature" in my mind that cemented Bing as the search engine for me, it was the most obvious, and yet most simple, UX element - the daily home page image. The simple idea of presenting a new image each day, with inline links to relevant pieces of information about said image, keeps me coming back, just to see what is presented each day. The fact that the idea works on Bing, and failed when Google recently tried to do it, suggests that Bing has at least one completely original element to it.

So my advice? Give Bing a go. And I don't just mean spend 15 minutes playing with it. Use it as your dedicated search engine for a month, and see what you think.

I did, and I love it.



Source: Microsoft

So it would appear that Microsoft’s much touted entry into the featurephone space, the KIN, is being killed off this month. It would seem that while details around why the platform is being killed off are scant right now (even if there are a few well-informed theories floating about the place), the simple fact is that from a personal perspective, while the tech blogosphere did not seem to “get” the device, I do think that the death of the KIN project is a sad thing.

Let me explain why.

I am a high-school teacher. That means I work with teenagers 5 days a week. I see them interact with technology, in particular, mobile phones. The mobile phone has now become an essential part of any person’s “carry around” items, much like a wallet or a watch. The fact is, it is no longer a luxury item, and this is particularly so with teenagers. Even if it’s just so the parents can keep in constant touch with their child, the mobile phone has become the central pivot around which a teenager’s digital experience now revolves.

This is why I know that Microsoft’s market research on the KIN target demographic was completely on the mark. What the KIN attempted to excel at, while not reaching the levels of the iPhone or an Android smartphone device, was perfectly suited to the 13 – 19 market it was aiming for.

So what is it that teenagers in the 21st Century seem to do with their phones? Well, first and foremost they text message. A lot. They also, strangely, make voice calls on them. Mostly, from what I can tell, to their parents, the “oldies” who don’t get this funky new-age stuff we call the “Simple Messaging Service”.

So that means any dumbphone would be perfect fodder for them, yes? Well, not quite. The problem is, most dumbphones (your typical cheapie phone sold over the counter at Woolworths and Coles) don’t have great data connections, nor the software to back them up. Teenagers today are heavily invested into Facebook, and MySpace, and even to an extent now Twitter. They like to keep up-to-date with what their friends are doing, and these services provide such a means.

Teenagers today also take a lot of photos, and record hours of videos. There’s a great reason why Microsoft coined the phrase “Generation Upload” when referring to the modern teenager. This generation will be the most heavily documented generation we’ve ever produced, because of the billions of photos, and literally unlimited hours of video footage recorded by them, during their day-to-day lives.

Almost all of this video footage and photographic material ends up on Facebook, or YouTube, or wherever they can host it for free, so that it can be enjoyed by their friends.

This is what KIN allowed teenagers to do. This was the feature-set it focussed on. Give the kids a decent piece of hardware, with a good camera on the back, and allow them to connect the device into the social networks that they themselves frequent. Put their friend’s updates front and centre on the device, and presto – you have the perfect formula for a great device.

Teenagers also listen to a lot of music, and don’t seem to have the means or desire to pay for individual songs or whole albums. So the decision by Microsoft to tie KIN into their Zune music subscription service also made a huge amount of sense.

The single most impressive part of the whole experience was the KIN Studio, the cloud-based software platform that ensured the entire contents of the device were constantly backed up, using an attractive Silverlight-powered front end that I seriously hope becomes a part of Windows Phone 7 later this year. This addressed another big issue with teenagers owning mobile phones – they lose them frequently, or break them quite easily. So having their recorded experiences backed up makes a lot of sense.

In essence, the KIN had all the makings of the perfect teenager-centric phone. It featured all of the elements that they seem to use their phones for. Am sure that future software updates would have added more functionality to it, including some decent games, which I think would have also further helped the platform.

Except now that does not look like it is going to happen. Which is a shame. I used to see a lot of Sidekicks around the place, but not so much now (mostly because the old Danger product lined died off to make way for KIN).  They were at their most common when Telstra was offering them for free on a 24-month $30 per month contract, which offered unlimited texting and data services. That was a winning combination, in all honesty. And it did result in Telstra selling a lot of Sidekicks.

So why do I think KIN failed? Well, leaving aside the politics for a moment, I think the problem here was quite simple – the KIN was a featurephone being priced as a smartphone. That’s what results in teenagers not owning iPhones or Android phones. The devices and associated data plans are too expensive. The KIN was just priced out of its own target demographic. Put up against an iPhone, it was never going to win over many people. Why get a KIN when for the same price you could get an iPhone? It’s a no brainer. But if the KIN had of been priced accordingly, it would have found itself a great niche to live in.

The KIN could have been a great success for Microsoft, and one it sorely needs right now in the phone space. It was just a shame that it wasn’t given more time to find its place in the market, or indeed be priced at a reasonable amount by it’s US launch partner, Verizon.

Guess we’ll just have to wait now for the formal Windows Phone 7 launch in October…