Trakting My Media

I am an idiot.

Yesterday I wrote about my frustration that no Last.fm style service existed for TV and film. Last night I went home and found two such web apps in less than ten minutes. It turns out, I was Googling wrong.

There may actually be more than two out there, but it was Trakt and Simkl that caught be eye. Idiotic names aside, both appear to be healthy and robust options with exactly the functionality I was after. Simkl is clearly the baby of the two, with less interactivity with third party services and no current mobile applications on offer. Trakt, on the other hand, appears to have undertaken the Spotify model and launched with a robust API, resulting in adoption by dozens of third-party services. Only time will tell if they complete that model, eventually buying out the few they like and pulling the rug out from beneath the others…

Trakt also wins out in the aesthetics department, with a much more modern and refined style, layout and UI. Conversely, Simkl feels like a leftover remnant of the Web 2.0 era. Trakt does lose points for hiding some relatively key features behind a pay wall, such as in depth analytics and IFTTT integration, but all the features you absolutely need only cost your login credentials, so it isn’t a major roadblock.

I conducted some (very) informal testing last night to see which I might prefer long term. Both were pretty easy to setup, search and navigate though though I found Trakt simpler to retroactively scrobble a show to (a pattern begins to emerge). Trakt’s functionality enabling you to set when you watched a show, going back months, means that the hurdle of cinemas/analogue TV becomes fairly manageable. Simkl likely has these features hidden within its less intuitive UI, but I never found them.

Whilst watching a film in the evening, I tried to test out the mobile options. Simkl simply doesn’t have any at the moment, which is a fairly major black mark. Trakt, as mentioned, has a huge variety but none are actually that great. Most of the Android apps only cater for TV, whereas I need a service that does film as well. The remaining options were a mixture of poor design, buggy features and bad reviews. Even when I did work out the best way to search their archives I found all but one (Cathode) failed to actually return the film I was watching, despite it being present in the Trakt database. Even then, once found, I couldn’t retroactively scrobble the film, instead being forced to choose ‘just watched’ or ‘currently watching’.

To be clear, this is definitely not Trakt’s fault. It would be nice if they launched their own mobile app with a focus on their core features, such as scrobbling, but I can understand why they’ve gone this route. For me, it will mean I can use Cathode when I’m at a friend’s house or the cinema to scrobble as I watch; if I forget, I can add it in later from the Trakt interface itself. That’s a fair compromise and offers a level of flexibility I’m surprised isn’t also behind the pay wall.

For now, then, Trakt has won my support. I signed up to both with test accounts to try them out and both get top marks for making it easy and fairly clear how to permanently delete those accounts. I’ve since signed up to Trakt ‘properly’ and back-filled my viewing habits for 2017 so far. You can follow along here, if you’re at all interested.

It also turns out that my “New 52” challenge has already become more taxing than I had anticipated. Allowing myself a whole week should have removed any stress, but come Tuesday morning on week #2 and I was panicking. I didn’t have any ideas and realised that I’m away at the weekend. I felt like I was running out of free time and it’s amazing how that was sufficient to freeze out my rational mind entirely. The result was a rushed out, imperfect article on a non-existent issue. I felt a little stupid when I realised. I was tempted to remove the #2 from the title and stick it on this post instead, but I’m not going to. I’m going to leave that flag there as a reminder to chill out a bit more in the future. Hopefully it helps.

Scrobbling Movies [#2]

I find it slightly bizarre how popular Last.fm has become over time. I understand that the service now offers a plethora of features, including some powerful music discovery tools, yet at the core Last.fm is just an overly detailed extension of the play count found in every media player since Windows XP. It tracks what music you listen to; that’s it, the whole of their USP.

To be clear, I may find it bizarre but I am not surprised at the service’s popularity. Personally, I love Last.fm and thoroughly enjoy digging into my monthly/annual listening habits, seeking out new artists or rediscovering ones I had forgotten. It’s continued popularity proves that I am not alone and that, bells and whistles aside, being able to analyse your musical tastes and use them to inform future experiences is something that a decent number of people see value in.

So I find it all the more irritating that there doesn’t appear to be a similar service available for film/TV. There are services like Letterboxd that let me manually track what I watch, but I already do that. There’s nothing extra on offer and they are particularly lacking a visual media analogue to scrobbling. When they launched, scrobbling was a seriously weird idea, but it solved the single largest issue that Last.fm had: apathy. When I’m listening to music, I don’t want to have to pause every few minutes, break out of ‘the zone’ and write down what I’ve just heard. No, Last.fm had to find a way to make the data gathering automatic, ensuring their datasets are as complete as possible.

With movies and TV there are further obstacles, chiefly that the methods of consumption are not quite so intricately linked with the internet or computers in general. But with the rise and rise of streaming services such as Netflix combined with the increasing trend of buying media digitally should result in these roadblocks slowly eroding away. Hopefully, soon, someone will pop up to start taking advantage of that process.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue looking for options and pondering my own. I would love to be able to put something together here, just a quick notes section that I could easily type up and submit to directly from my phone. Perhaps I could get it running, but in reality it will likely remain as a Todoist task for months. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Cards Against Clarity

The concept of “card based” web design has been around for at least three years now. So why is it that the following quote from Khoi Vinh, written back in 2014, still appears to be a fundamental truth:

it hasn’t gotten much easier to explain to the uninitiated what, exactly, a card is.

Because here’s the thing: as much as I love reading about web design, I am still very much a member of the “uninitiated”. I can tell because I still have absolutely no idea what a “card” is.

I realised this (yet again) thanks to a recent article that cropped up in my RSS feed. I’ve been singing their praises recently, so hopefully Zurb won’t mind too much if I point to 5 Common Mistakes Designers Make When Using Cards in Design as a prime example of 1 Common Mistake Web Designers Make When Talking about Cards, chiefly, that what a card is fails to be defined anywhere.

Perhaps this whole situation is just down to me. Maybe I’ve fallen so far behind web trends that my outdated ways of attempting to understand “cards” are just not up-to-scratch. But, frankly, there doesn’t seem to be much help out there.

Early articles on using “cards” in design tend to paint a picture of API driven, cross-platform data sharing. A sort of standardised method of pushing/pulling content from/to various web apps; an ecosystem of information, if you will. That all sounds interesting and pretty great, yet presents a concept that is simultaneously vague and highly technical, creating a perfect mixture for people to be excited about yet confused over.

Yet “cards” are also used to describe certain design styles. In that linked Awwwards article a number of examples of “good card-based web design” are cited. Some, such as Dribbble and Pinterest, appear to be examples of the information ecosystem mentioned above. But then you have websites like White Frontier, which whilst being a great example of web design do not appear to have any form of content interaction or applicable data extraction methods. Yet these designs are, apparently, just as “card based” in their makeup.

As far as I can tell from Googling around the subject, “cards” are just rectangular content areas situated on a website. They might pull in information from a third party, they might just be a stock photo and a strapline. The article I initially quoted comes to a similar conclusion, that cards either fit into the “design” or “third-party” camps, which doesn’t seem particularly useful to me. If they’re just a design style then, really, they’re just a particular way of presenting content; a way which, ultimately, seems pretty much identical to how most people have always done it. If they’re only to be used when pulling third-party data then we need a tighter definition, because I don’t feel anyone would be happy suggesting iframes are all cards.

Currently, their only unifying factors appear to include being responsive, rectangular and online. So perhaps that’s all there actually is to them, which would be rather neat. If that is the case, then I can happily claim to have been making card-based websites since 2007, putting my well ahead of the trend!

Scrobbling from the Void

Looking back over what I’ve previously written about Last.fm is a little, well, shameful. Since as long ago as July 2015 I’ve been noting how the service has a large void: analog music. I love having a record of my listening habits, but that record currently lacks any music consumed on CD or vinyl which skews it quite heavily towards bands I’m just getting to know, rather than incorporating those I’ve listened to for years.

The solutions to this glaring issue have grown up a little since 2015. I’ve previously mentioned the Universal Scrobbler, which has become more feature rich than ever, supporting bulk scrobbling as well as integrating database searching from both Discogs and Last.fm to make scrobbling entire albums as easy as single tracks. There is also now a healthy competitor in the form of the Open Web Scrobbler, a brain child of Github and Reddit which does a fantastic job of letting you fine tune your listening record. It also has some surprisingly powerful little features, including the ability to customise a Scrobble’s time stamp which then self-updates with each tracks duration to keep it effectively in-sync.

Despite that, manually entering an entire album in the OWScrobbler is time consuming and prone to errors. Luckily, Last.fm does have an option to delete scrobbles, but still it was enough of an irritation for me to rarely use the service for anything more than a lone track here and there. Whole albums on vinyl or CD? To much effort.

Today, though, Last.fm released my “2016 in Review”, driving home which artists and albums have mostly been lost to the void. I briefly looked at API hooks to develop a self-hosted solution, but was quickly reminded that WordPress remains a barrier. Back to looking longingly at the Universal Scrobbler’s Premium service then I guess. But hold on… something else seems to have changed since 2015. Back then I wrote how I couldn’t “justify the price” of a premium subscription. Well, either the price has come down or my definition of expensive has changed,  because a life time membership only costs $4.99 (USD), which currently seems very affordable.

It’s half an hour later and, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve already made my money back. I’ve scrobbled several albums I own on vinyl multiple times over, effectively updating my listening records for each artist for this year. There’s plenty more I still need to add, but I can now take five minutes out of a day and fire in a months worth of listening habits that would otherwise have stayed lost to the void. As a result I’m hoping my “2017 in Review” will be a much more interesting and balanced affair.

The Great iWall

Well that’s that then. The great legal firewall has descended and the BBC’s iPlayer service is now firmly on the other side. As of today, you can no longer watch catch-up TV for free in the UK; instead, you need to have a TV license.

On the one hand I feel this is the correct direction for the BBC to be heading in. Allowing free use of the iPlayer service has always struck me as just a little bit silly. Sure, programs disappear from it with irritating regularity/punctuality, but ultimately if you can just watch everything 24 hours later and save £150, that’s a no-brainer.

On the flipside, however, I am annoyed that the switch has come with no middle ground. Basically, iPlayer is now worth £150 a year. Yesterday, it was worth a staggering £0. There doesn’t appear to be much rhyme or reason to this change, other than a possible “we screwed up, sorry”. Perhaps this is just a result of TV having evolved to the point where “live” is no longer a premium, but rather a hindrance. Personally I’m well aware that my own preference is to watch a series Netflix-style, in one extended sitting, rather than wait week in and week out. Still, I would have infinitely preferred a “web only” price (say £80?) to purely access iPlayer. Better yet, let the Beeb stick adverts before/after iPlayer content if you don’t have a license (like that’ll ever happen…).

Despite these flaws, the part I actually find the most irritating is how the BBC will determine if you are legally watching or not: a pop up confirmation box. That’s right, no logins, passwords, pin codes or accounts of any kind. Rather than using this opportunity to modernise their entire system and tie a TV license to an individual, rather than a property, we’ll be left with the same old, antiquated mess we had anyway. How they even vaguely hope to police this honour system is beyond me, though I imagine they will try, which is even more worrying.

I may never have been kept awake at night stressing about being falsely accused of watching live TV, but it has directly impacted my life in subtle ways. TVs, laptops, media players I buy can not, in any way, inherently s receive/play live TV; any ‘free’ setup boxes have gone straight to the nearest charity shop so that I can show I physically can’t break those laws. Now I’m stuck in a world where I can never prove that I haven’t been watching BBC programs.

Personally, I doubt I’m at much risk, but others face more serious threats. WiFi sharing has just become a lot more dubious, for one, and although I would never advocate leaving an open access router to your personal web connection I still know plenty of family friends who do so. Living in a block of flats I’m also worried about the potential interlinking of powerline tech (probably without cause).

As someone who sees £150 just too steep a price to watch Doctor Who, QI, HIGNFY and maybe 1 more series a year (The Night Manager?), I won’t be jumping at this new, expensive, identical iPlayer service. Maybe if they add some extra features or make some of the BBC’s back catalogue available on demand I’ll think again. Only time will tell.

It’s Been A While; Plus Thoughts on Pluses

So… it’s been a while.

It’s been a while since I last posted an article. Part of that has been due to a month of incredible busyness where even the planned “down time” became frantic research time for car insurance, holiday planning, present purchasing etc. The rest has been Pokémon Go!, which has eaten free time like nothing else in recent history.

It’s been a while since I reviewed a movie. Sort of. The reality is, I’ve actually managed to keep on top of those over the last week or so, but I have a couple annoyingly outstanding from a time BPg (Before Pokémon Go!) and I’m not 100% happy with the current state of some of the others. July’s MiM is coming, with some interesting new ‘features’, but it may be a week or so late.

It’s been a while since I spent any time working on this website. Again, in a time BPg (historians will catch on, I’m sure of it) I was getting close to making some pretty big, radical changes to the backend here. They hit a slight snag which morphed into a major roadblock simply because I still haven’t really sat down to mull it over. Still, plans are slowly creeping forward!

It’s been a while since I did any photo editing. Despite weekend after weekend of major events in the past month, which have produced hundreds of photos I’m genuinely proud of, I haven’t posted to Flickr in coughmumblemumble… I’m not proud of that, but again, plans may finally be moving forward.

It’s been a while since I saw something truly exemplary online. There have been some great videos and some new passions, but nothing that’s made me sit up and go: yes! I agree! Let’s think about/act on that right now! Luckily, this waiting period has actually ended thanks to the ever inspiring Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I don’t want to go too deep into my thoughts right now because, well, this post has ballooned into something else which I quite like, but lets just say they’ve struck a nerve.

In a handful of recent Youtube videos, they both touched upon a worrying trend online, specifically that angry voices, ranting and outrage are becoming increasingly prevalent. In some ways, that’s totally okay, but the ubiquity and degree of rage is getting out of control. Between the two videos they discussed why anger leads to poor conversations, why it builds so much traction online, why that may provoke certain elements to create and foster this emotion above others and, most importantly, presented one method for potentially combating this trend. In terms of the “whys”, rather than regurgitate their words I’d urge you to just watch the videos. If the virality of anger is something that interests you, I’d also thoroughly recommend this analysis by CGPGrey.

What really made me sit up and take note, though, was their suggestion to combat saltiness and flame wars on Youtube: “+” comments. Because Youtube ranks comments based on the number of Likes and Comments they get, but comments are weighted higher than likes, angry/flamebait comments tend to rise to the top, causing a circle jerk of ever increasing rage. Hank Green, instead, suggested that people should leave a comment with a simple “+” symbol on any comments they felt worthy of praise, discussion or both. In doing so, they’ve hacked their own Youtube comments section into one where bile and trolling isn’t rewarded and genuine discussion/ideas are. It’s by no means perfect, but I thoroughly agree with both brothers when they say that it is as much the community’s job to police themselves and maintain order as it is the platform’s.

Personally, I’m a big fan of “+” comments. It may be that Youtube eventually begins to remove them or negate their importance, but in the meantime they seem to be a power for good. In particular, I feel they may be much more effective than reporting negative/trolling/abusive comments. I’m a firm believer that a carrot will be more likely to provoke change than a stick (plus, over reliance on the stick reduces it’s power/thorniness).

Design Tool Survey 2016

For the second year running, Khoi Vinh of subtraction.com is asking for designers/developers to fill out a survey detailing what tools they use in their day-to-day workflow. I’m probably not the true, intended participant, as it would be hard to argue that I am actively developing anything at the moment (dabbling here aside), but I’ve followed the process and outcome of the 2015 survey with interest and wanted to get a more hands-on feel for it this time around.

If you are at all interested, I’d definitely recommend it and you can do so here. Personally, I was a little disappointed by the lack of scope. The results of last year’s input were both insightful and very well presented, but now I’ve actually seen how those results were garnered I feel they’re certainly a little biased.

My main issue was the lack of personal detail requested. To be clear, the survey absolutely does not require email addresses, personal names, locations (outside of country) etc. and, correctly, refrains from these clear breaches of privacy. However, I would have though that determining the OS or main software environment people use would be fairly crucial. Similarly, asking what software you use right now is great, but I’d personally love to see what people want to use as well.

I’m a prime example of the warped outcome you can get without these details (if you ignore the fact that I’m barely an example, that is). My answers will likely group me in the box of “outdated dinosaur”; someone who is using the same tools now that they were a decade ago. Though this is largely the case (iPad aside), the reality, however, is that this isn’t my choice. I choose to use Windows as my core OS; I would do even if I was still actively freelancing as my main income source. But that means I can’t choose to move away from Adobe – at all. Would I preferentially wireframe in Sketch? Absolutely! But that isn’t an option because Sketch, like the vast majority of tools being surveyed, isn’t available to the vast majority of the world.

The gap between innovation and accessibility in the design world is becoming truly enormous, especially now even the iPad is undergoing large scale price hikes. Unfortunately, I don’t feel it will be possible for Subtraction’s survey to adequately reflect that issue, which I feel is a missed opportunity. Personally, I’d love to see how much of an impact this gulf is having in the West – it scares me to think how negatively impactful it may be elsewhere in the world!