Helen Purves All you need to know about Helen Purves. And, indeed, much more.


The Paralympics: like the Olympics, but interesting

Paralympics poster art

The Olympics have been great - exciting, compelling, energetic... and I'm already running out of adjectives, because in actual fact I'm far more excited by the imminent arrival of the Paralympics. Why? It's about stories. Compare and contrast.

Brought up in Yorkshire (statistically likely, anyway), enjoyed sport as a child, did lots of it at local sports club. Had problems securing funding last year after coming third in the European champion league commonwealth game titles, but is back to compete today using ground-breaking new trainers with a brand new design which... Well they look a bit different.

Um... there isn't one.

Born with a rare condition called glycomylian hydrolomengy, was left to die outside an orphanage in Brixton and was brought up by wolves. Cannot read, write, speak or breathe without assistance. Nearly died after horrendous accident involving Iraqi militia in 1995, but after years of daily physical therapy and emotional counselling is here to compete today using £5.5k worth of ground-breaking artificial limbs made with lightweight alloys which will allow disabled people all over the world to gain physical independence.

See what I mean? That's a story. Okay, not a true story. But let's look at some of the real paralympians: try telling me these aren't compelling back-histories.

Matt Skelhon, ShootingMatt Skelhon
As a kid, Skelhon used to shoot tin cans off a wall. Left paralysed from the waist down after a nasty car accident in 2005, this guy already has a gold in shooting, from Beijing: he got a perfect score in the qualifying round and broke a world record in the process. He's renowned for rocking a mohawk and has also tried out archery and basketball: but in shooting, he's ranked first in the world.

His legs might not work but the guy's got massive guns (fnar): and frankly, the fact that he comes from Peterborough and yet people still know who he is is impressive enough.

Liz Johnson, SwimmingLiz Johnson
One of my best mates has cerebral palsy so I have a soft spot for anyone who can battle through it to become a world class athlete. Not sure how Liz'd feel about that though, because she seems pretty hardcore. Swimming is extremely painful for her and knackers her out - she's usually in bed by 8pm, but despite all that she has enough medals to sink the Titanic.

Her mother died of cancer the day Johnson set foot in Beijing at the last Paralympics: she still went on to win a gold medal, because she kicks arse. She's broken a world record or two as well: mainly because she swims better than a bloody dolphin.

Simon Munn, Wheelchair BasketballSimon Munn
This guy has more medals than the vault in Jimmy Savile's secret dungeon. This is his sixth and final Paralympics, and even on dour old Wikipedia his disability war story's dramatic. He had his left leg amputated after a rather gory accident back in 1989: "Taking a shortcut home from the pub, he slipped and caught his foot in a set of points. Unable to free himself, his leg was severed when the next train passed, after which he was able to crawl towards a nearby road where he was discovered and taken to hospital." Jesus.

Despite being a contactless sport, wheelchair bakkeball's violent as hell (women's as well as men's) so look out for matches. Oh, and the £5.5k ground-breaking wheelchairs made with lightweight alloys which will allow disabled people all over the world to gain physical indepen- hang on, deja vu... Anyway, read Munn's story in full on Sportsvibe.co.uk.

So, could you do that? I couldn't. I don't think I could do *any* of that stuff, ever, in my wildest dreams. And that's just a tiny sampler of the amazing sportspeople competing at the Paralympics: just three of Team GB. I haven't even started looking at Paralympians from other nations.

It would be awful to suggest all Olympian athletes have had an easy ride - I mean Christ, one look at Fatima Whitbread's upbringing and subsequent achievements (MailOnline link - sorry) makes this blog post look overwhelmingly fatuous - but Fatimas are few and far between in the Olympics. In the Paralympics, everyone has a story to tell; the ever-compelling story of astonishing triumph over deep adversity.

For me, BBC Sport's excellent 2012 coverage is what's made the Olympics worth watching: the ability to flick from one sport to another in the same fickle way my kittens fall in and out of love with their wide range of squeaky toys. But one only has to compare the different ways each event has been pitched to the audience to realise the monumental difference between the value of these athletes' stories.

Compare and contrast: here's a trailer for the Olympics, from BBC One. You've most likely seen it already - it's hard to avoid.

The emotional emphasis here is granted by the bombastic imagery - the fast cuts, the dramatic storytelling, the stunning animation and the climatic music. It's a fantastic trailer: but fantastic in its innovation. The BBC's emphasis here (and I speak as a viewer, not as an employee!) is on the impact of the Olympics event on our nation and the variety of sports on offer, not on the athletes as individuals.  Sure, it shows lots of athletes: but not real athletes - it's more a visual TV listings, without the dates and times.

Now here's a Channel 4 Paralympics trailer I spotted fronting a YouTube video the other day.

When directly compared, the difference in creative approach hits you in the face - and that's intentional. The trailer is dramatic in its simplicity; shot more like an edgy documentary the point is to showcase the story, and the story alone. There are no graphics or dramatic flourishes here. Channel 4's Paralympics videos are not all embeddable which is why I didn't put their main trailer up, but here's a link to it - it's called Meet The Superhumans.

I cannot think of a more fitting title. In my mind these people are as close to superheroes as it gets. There might not be 26 channels for the Paralympics, or hugely innovative red button content, or breakthrough web technology: but there are stories. Mind-blowing stories, of amazing athletes. And that's why, despite my general apathy towards the Olympics, I expect to find myself glued to the box for its sister event.

Roll on, Paralympics: the nation's waiting.


Britain in a Day: Practically *made* for YouTube

Whoever it was that came up with the Britain in a Day concept is surely onto a winner. In case you haven't heard about it, the idea is that you film your day - Saturday 12th November - and shove it on YouTube.

Approximately 100 million billion people are already filming their days and putting them on YouTube, but thankfully Britain in a Day is looking for something slightly more inventive than just whining into a video camera about how you like cats and messed up your fake tan and how hard it is being ginger.

I'm definitely going to be taking part and will post my video up here after I've made it. I really hope this goes viral - it's a really interesting project that's bound to appeal especially to existing vloggers. I also like the idea of capturing a day in the life of the general public - what does Britain really get up to on its Saturdays? There are bound to be some pretty interesting videos.

Here's the Britain in a Day YouTube channel, complete with a timer and help videos etc. I particularly like the video about planning, featuring Dan Snow, because as everyone knows, Big Dan is pretty epic.

*EDIT* - here you are. I was only able to create a rough-cut in the end, and missed out a whole load of boring stuff I did like making rocky road and soap and bunting and stuff. I have literally no idea why I bothered to do that stuff. Oh well.


George Auckland and The Internet v2.0

Ever seen this sequence from The IT Crowd? It's my favourite:

I've arranged a trip to the pub to celebrate the 56th birthday of Tim Berners-Lee (and because I wanted an excuse to go to the pub with my colleagues/mates one last time before I leave London for Salford Quays), and as we're all geeks/Graham Linehan fans I thought it might be funny to take along my very own internet. When I took a black box, a car security LED and a battery to our brilliant Innovations team to check I wasn't going to break anything, I didn't expect George to be there, because he's recently retired.

A little about George Auckland, in case you don't know about him. He worked for the BBC for over 40 years - latterly in my department, BBC Learning. I feel I can safely assert that at the BBC - and particularly in all things educational at the BBC - George is legendary. Check out some of the members of his Facebook fan page - you'll notice people like Bill Thompson in there. In fact, the joke goes that although Tim Berners-Lee might have invented the world wide web, it was George who hit the Enter button.

George is a busy man. Over the years he's been involved with the original BBC Micro, set up the Beeb's first web production unit and has worked on all sorts of things - including things like Blue Peter, Bitesize, good old WebWise and - well, I can't list everything here, but he's won more awards than it's worth mentioning and far fewer than he deserves. I didn't expect George to help out, but it was jolly nice to see him.

However, I underestimated the sheer awesomeness of George Auckland. Not only did he make me my very own version of the internet, but he added a brand new function that Berners-Lee either never thought of looking for or was never brave enough to make use of when he originally kick-started the world wide web: a switch. However, times have now changed: HTML 5 and CSS 3 are increasingly popular, IE6 is finally being turned off, and the world is ready.

The default position is hibernation (i.e. usual, day-to-day running of the internet - it is of course impossible to turn the internet off without breaking it), but you can activate advanced functions such as a fully semantic web, DSL rings, cold fusion and world peace by lifting the cover and flicking the switch. At this point the red light starts flashing, to indicate that the internet is working at maximum capacity. However, it's not advisable to do this for long, as the battery wears down fairly quickly. Luckily it's replaceable, but you know, batteries can get expensive etc. and it's a bit of a faff, since they're held in with blu-tack.

Here is a picture of George switching on The Internet v2.0 for the first time this very afternoon. Please excuse the fuzziness - it was a very emotional moment:
George Auckland and The Internet v2.0

Thanks George. I shall treasure my internet forever.

P.S. I found this very interesting talk by George on YouTube, in case you're interested in the future of learning/mobile platforms - particularly interesting given that it's from 2007.


Jay-Z has 99 problems – but what are they?

Recently, I've been thinking about Jay-Z. Or, more accurately, his many problems.  I don't know why, but I just have.  If you're wondering what I'm talking about (i.e. are not Down With The Kids) here's his delightful tune accurately named "99 Problems" which begins to outline his difficulties.

Jay-Z: 99 Problems

In case you can't be bothered to listen to what amounts to the pinnacle of human musical achievement, Jay-Z repeatedly states that if you're having girl problems, he feels dreadfully awful about it - but not one of his 99 problems is caused by "bitches". Having consulted Urban Dictionary I have concluded that he's talking about women, not female dogs.

This upset me greatly. What are all these problems? I set out to find out. I guessed that Jay-Z himself is very busy, so I have instead written a letter to his UK agent. Here it is.

Jay-Z letter - page one of two (see blog entry for transcript)Jay-Z letter - page two of two (see blog entry for transcript)

Dear Sirs,

I write in regard to the well-known song "99 Problems" by your client Jay-Z. This track has deeply troubled me for some time, and I very much hope you might be able to clear things up (or forward my letter on, in the event that you are unable to do so).

In the song, Mr. Z quite clearly states that he has 99 problems, none of which are related to bitches. I cannot help but feel that this is a very large number of problems for anyone to bear, even someone so talented and adept at multitasking as Jay-Z.

In his song, Mr. Z lists several of these problems, including issues with local law enforcement agencies, his impoverished upbringing and the extortionate rate he was requested to pay in bail after an altercation with a contemporary. However, he makes no mention of the other problems he faces, leaving his audience to guess at the others.

My younger brother has suggested that Jay-Z might be referring to smaller, more everyday problems such as mosquito bites, paper cuts or possibly a slight headache, but I can hardly conceive that these would constitute problems significant enough to warrant the authorship of a song so successful that Rolling Stone Magazine conferred upon it the honour of the #2 spot in their list of the top 100 songs of the previous decade. The same applies to my initial thought that perhaps the song relates to some algebra homework: besides, I believe Mr. Z was around the age of 34 at the time, and would therefore have left formal education some time previously.

This leads me to conclude that Jay has a great many problems, and I would very much appreciate some clarification as to whether or not these have been resolved. It is possible that you have some kind of list of these which you can send me, hopefully in electronic form: my email address is [email address]. In addition to this I would be more than happy to try and alleviate some of his problems if I am able.

Yours sincerely,

Helen Nina Elizabeth Purves

I'll let you know when I hear back, dear readers. In the mean time, if you can think of what any of his many problems might be, do let me know. It really does concern me that one man can have so very many problems.


The importance of Ray William Johnson

For me, Ray William Johnson is the most interesting person on YouTube. This is a daring statement, not least because, aside from the odd comedy song video, the man spends his time pumping out two extremely light videos a week which to all intents and purposes follow a very strict and very childish format. He's almost always in a corner of his house, with his Watchmen wallpaper behind him; he greets his followers, gives a lively commentary on between three and five popular videos, introduces the "comment question of the day" from one of his followers, then displays the answers from the week before. The video then finishes with an advert for t-shirts and a very quick clip of either out-takes or a highlight from one of the videos he's featured.

There are several key points to Ray, though, which everyone seeking to become immensely popular on YouTube could learn from.

1. Format. People watching one of Ray's videos know exactly what to expect. Ray has picked an achievable format, and then expanded on it over a considerable period of time. To showcase this I have embedded a video from July 2010 above - at the end of this article I'll embed another, more recent example. Having a format like this means that his users know what to expect from him: it also no doubt means that he gets maximum effect with minimum effort. His tools have been developed over a period of time - if he's having an off week, he can just use the graphics, sounds and general formula he already has set in place, but if he's having a good week he can try adding something new into the mix.

2. Regularity and topicality. By having a set format, Ray is able to keep on trend: he can react quickly to new memes and because he summarises them fairly and accurately his audience feels like he helps them effortlessly stay on top of the internet. He does his research, too: he tells his viewers how popular something is, how quickly it's taking off and tries to give an assessment of what the source of its popularity might be. He does the work so they don't have to. What's more, he's now so popular that he himself is a meme-maker - he can feature videos which really aren't that popular, but because he provides links in the video description he can help videos go viral. At the time he made the video above, the "Double Rainbow" video was new on the market - now it's massive, and there are t-shirts. Ray might not have been the driving force behind this phenomenon, but at around five million views per video he must have helped.

3. User engagement. By cleverly featuring his followers at the end of each video and giving them an opportunity to essentially ride off his fame by doing something relatively easy - video a few seconds of them asking an unusual question, or showing their answer (given via YouTube's comment section, or more recently, Facebook or Twitter) Ray is offering to share his popularity at a price he can easily afford. Choosing what to feature can't be a difficult or time-consuming thing to do, and users have nothing to lose by sending in comments and responses via systems they already necessarily have access to.

4. Personality. Whether or not Ray's YouTube persona is the same as his offline one is irrelevant: it's believable. To his core audience he comes across as likeable and yet cynical, and someone that users can identify with. He champions them over anyone else: and notably, he acknowledges trolling but doesn't pass judgement on it. This shows great audience awareness: he knows who his audience is, what they like, and how they might be reacting to the videos he's showing them. He keeps the tone light and interesting, and best of all succinct - and although his videos are well-planned, I very much doubt that they are scripted.

I salute you, Ray William Johnson. Controversial as you might be, you know how to be successful: and in that, we can all learn from you.

Get Adobe Flash player