29 January 2010

Right, podcast-phobes, listen up (part 2)

I'm repeatedly met with blank stares at the mention of the word "podcast". Even the techiest of techies can be at a loss when it comes to podcasts, it seems, so here is my attempt to demystify the whole business once and for all. In this post, I'm going to explain what a podcast is (and what it is not), how to use it, and what it's good for. There. Simple.

What a podcast is and what it is not...
A podcast is a piece of audio. Some publishers like to make video podcasts that they call vodcasts, but let's not concern ourselves with those for now. Like a television programme, the word "podcast" can refer to a series of audio shows, or just one audio file.

The clever thing about podcasts - talking now in the sense of a series - is that when you "subscribe", each new episode will be downloaded automatically and delivered to your computer without you having to go looking for it. (Just like if you have a favourite blog or news site and you add it to your Google homepage, new posts or articles will appear automatically... do the equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going "la, la, la" if you've never heard of Google homepage).

A podcast is not something you would usually have to pay for. Although you can download it in the same way you would a music track in iTunes, it will usually be very clearly marked "Free". (Although there will be the odd exception). What's iTunes? We'll get to that...

So by subscribing you are not signing away your life or making yourself a target for a barrage of spam. In fact, podcast producers tend to know relatively little about their audiences, so unless you email to announce yourself, it's very unlikely they'll have a clue who you are.

How to use a podcast
Now this is the bit that seems to get everyone in a fluster. But honestly, it's not hard and I'm about to nurse you through it. First of all though, you need to decide how you want to listen to your podcasts. As far as I'm concerned, the big advantage over internet radio or listen again services is that you can take podcasts off your computer and carry them around with you on your iPod/other media player. And if this is what you want to do, you're going to need to find a way of doing it.

Thus, I introduce to you... iTunes! Or... Juice! (Other podcast downloading thingies are available). Look, they're not scary, there's no charge - unless you want to buy something, like music - all you have to do is press the download button and wait for it to arrive on your computer.

So just because I've always used iTunes, let's proceed along that route. It's very straightforward. Once you've downloaded iTunes, open it up. Now go to the iTunes store (click the little green thing on the left), choose Podcasts (top bar) and make your selection. When you've found one you want to listen to, just click "SUBSCRIBE" and the latest episode will start downloading into the "Podcasts" section of your library (see the little purple icon near the top left?). That's it. From now on, every time a new episode of that podcast is published it will just drop into your library. Ta da! (And if it turns out to be bilge, just right-click on the name of the podcast in your library and choose "Unsubscribe").

You can also search for a particular podcast in the "search" box (top right) or if you see an iTunes logo on someone's website, you can usually click on that to open their podcast page directly in iTunes.

Once you've downloaded the episode you want you can either play it right there and then or, if you have an iPod, listen to it in the same way you would a music file - just use your mouse to drag the file across to your iPod.

And if you just want to listen to podcasts on your computer, that's pretty simple, but you'll need to find them through the individual websites they are published on. Then it should be obvious how to listen online or download them as audio files.

What a podcast is good for
How much time have you got? Personally, I'm a fan of listening to podcasts while running - a really good talk show will take my mind off the uphills/burning in my lungs/gale force winds quite successfully.They're also excellent for filling a long journey or for carrying out some mindless task that requires very little concentration. Like cleaning the kitchen, I've been told.

There's also a podcast for just about every bizarre niche interest or, dare I say, fetish. You can stick to BBC radio comedy programmes if you like, but far more intriguing are the likes of "Answer Me This", "Creeping with Armstrong" and "Knitting History" (okay, I haven't actually listened to that last one, but it sounds fascinating, huh?).

Any questions, leave a comment - at the risk of spending the rest of my life answering questions about downloading podcasts...

Right, podcast-phobes, listen up (part 1)

The word "podcast" seems to have a polarising effect on people in almost every situation I choose to use it. There are those for whom it refers to a component of their everyday media consumption, and those for whom it conjures nothing but confusion and technophobia. Thus, while I have been greedily gobbling up everything the RSS feeds can throw at me, others remain oblivious to this endless audio feast.

I am out to change this. But first, let me tell you what my reasons are.

Actually, first, let me tell you what my reasons are NOT. My reasons are NOT that I am continually frustrated by having to explain a relatively simple piece of technology over and over again (maybe a little bit). They are also NOT that I want to promote my own interests as a podcaster (oops). No. My reasons are that a) everyone could be so much less bored if they would only give podcasts a try and b) it would prove that I'm not surrounded by luddites, as is becoming my creeping suspicion.

I realise I've probably not started out on the best footing here - referring to podcast-phobes as luddites isn't going to help matters. Therefore, I shall begin with a completely non-condescending explanation of podcasts in a sparkly clean new post... to be continued...

26 January 2010

Buster Keaton and the era of imagination

On the weekend, some friends and I went to watch a silent movie "play-a-long" - the 1924 film Sherlock Jr accompanied by a mini-orchestra, with sound effects by the audience.

It was honestly one of the best things I've seen in ages. The play-a-long idea was brilliant, yes, but I'd never watched a full length silent movie before. It was quite simply mesmerising; the sheer invention and imagination of the film makers breathtaking. You've just got to watch this clip, which is from the main chase sequence of the film. (Iggy Pop didn't feature in the original version but I'm quite a fan, so I'll let it go.)

What struck me most was how much the kids in the audience loved it. They were absolutely enthralled from the word go. So enthralled, in fact, that there was barely a shake of a bell or squeeze of a balloon from them all the way through - the orchestra had to compensate for them - and every so often one of them would pipe up, "Mummy, how did he do that?" It was wonderful to see that something from a completely different era could still captivate a young audience.

On the way home, we all remarked upon how well the comedy translated. The kids obviously hadn't thought twice about the fact that there was no colour, or 3D, or CGI - they were quite happy watching a funny man on a bike, even in post-Avatar era. As were we. It was all in the timing, and the brilliance of Buster Keaton.

I don't know what this has to do with science communication really, but I just thought I'd share it... Perhaps it's a lesson in keeping things simple... Not even simple really, but, I guess, using your imagination and creativity over expensive stunts and effects.

Blimey, I sound old. Watch the film though.

11 January 2010

Copenhagen etc

In case you were wondering, the Copenhagen piece I was putting together was published over at Chemistry World last week. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, it appears the UK has been turned into something out of the Chronicles of Narnia (see sos_jim's snow geek below). Weather men are shouting about "The Big Freeze" and my housemates have been panic-buying milk and tins of tuna. (It seems they plan to live as cats when the snow apocalypse comes). Undoubtedly people will be using all this as another reason why global warming isn't happening... NEWSFLASH: climate change isn't all about warming; it basically means "bonkers" weather for Britain - as Giles Coren puts it.

Incidentally, I swear the Chronicles of Narnia was on at least five times over Christmas, and unfortunately didn't improve with multiple viewings.

I will write something more sensible soon. Toodlepip.