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Weekly Column

Bob Tube: Yes, Virginia, There Will be a NerdTV

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Well, September 11th came and went, and Osama bin Laden was a no-show, at least in my neighborhood. And it is just as well because this column will observe al Qaeda week NEXT WEEK, when I will reveal some quite surprising things. For now, though, I want to write about Steve Jobs.

Here's the thing about Steve Jobs. If you are in any way a part of Steve's life, he is either seducing you, scourging you, or ignoring you. If you know the guy long enough, you'll go through all three stages more than once. Recently, I was getting positive reinforcement from Steve, which meant he wanted something, specifically a DVD version of my show, "Triumph of the Nerds."

"Nerds 1," as we call it in PBSland, was something of an amazing show in large part because Steve was so darned good in it, beating the heck out of Microsoft on-screen. Remember, this was only a couple of years before Apple needed Microsoft money to bail itself out of a mess. But now Apple hates Microsoft again, and it is okay to be proud of Steve's performance. "Nerds 1" has been very hard to find since it disappeared from Shop PBS after a five year run. And people are always asking me if there is a DVD, which there hasn't been until now.

Let me give you the bad news up front. The DVD version of "Nerds 1" that was released last month costs $145.(Thanks to the constant vigilance of reader John Strosnider, we now know that there's actually a $50 version of "Nerds 1" available from Amazon.com. — Ed.) It is aimed at the education market, not homes, and comes with the right to play the show in public, though not for a separately charged admission. You could take this DVD and show it, for example, at Burning Man, projected at night against some parachute cloth out in the desert. No FBI agents would arrest you for doing this, though they might arrest you for something else. So if you buy the DVD (you can find it under the Links of the Week button on this page), lend it to your friends and maybe to your local school.

If you do buy the DVD, you'll find the show is beautiful. "Nerds 1" was made for British TV, not American, so it was shot using the PAL system of video encoding, which is a higher resolution picture with greater contrast and better color than our own NTSC. Look at the show on a digital TV using a progressive scan DVD player, and it is almost like watching a film. Luckily this is the U.S. version, which lacks my big nude scene from the UK version. I am not making this up.

Thank Ambrose Video for making the DVD possible and blame RM Associates, the international distributor, for making it so expensive. I don't get a penny from it, but I was still gratified when Bill Ambrose told me Steve Jobs had ordered several copies.

Jumping from old TV to new, some of you may be wondering what happened to the downloadable video show I was threatening to do on this site? Remember, it was supposed to premiere in September. Well, nothing ever happens on time, at least not in my life. The show is still coming, but was held-up while we waited for money that was aging in a mayonnaise jar at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That money will appear sometime this month, I'm told, and I promise that the show will start appearing with disgusting regularity 45 to 60 days after that.

We've been busy all this time — John Gau and I — doing anything for the show we could that didn't cost money. We chose a title — "NerdTV" — and figured out how to make a show remarkably like the one I described so blithely months ago. "NerdTV" will still be downloaded, not streamed, and a single technical standard will be used for all viewers no matter what kind of Internet connection they have or what operating system they are running. The show will appear each week in a dizzying total of five versions. Of the three video versions, one will be for nerds, one for suits, and the third version will be all the raw footage so you can edit your own version and make fun of me at parties. There will be two audio-only versions — one MP3 and one Ogg Vorbis.

Viewers will be free to share and redistribute the shows under the General Public License, which is something no other TV network in the world is doing. So there!

I will now go into obsessive detail about the technology behind "NerdTV." If this bores you, I'm sorry, but the fact is that what we are attempting to do is something that really hasn't been attempted before at this scale. This is very difficult to do well and we are proud of what we've already accomplished.

To make the video editable, it will be distributed as an MPEG-4 datastream. Right at this moment, an encoder shoot-out is taking place to determine what software we'll use. So far, Envivio appears to be winning the encoder battle, and NewTek's Video Toaster 2 looks to be the editing system of choice, but that could still change since new products and versions seem to be appearing daily.

The "NerdTV" video player isn't a player at all, but an applet that is being supplied by the very nice people from IBM Research. This is not any shipping IBM product, but rather a custom applet IBM's Michelle Kim and her crew are whipping-up just for "NerdTV." Going with an applet means there is no player application to download and install. We don't have to make a choice between Windows Media, RealPlayer, or QuickTime (actually, I suppose what we've done is reject all three). And we'll run just the same under Windows, MacOS, Linux, Solaris, even on the odd IBM mainframe. No advantage is lost by going with this applet, which has surprisingly good performance and will run on even the grottiest old PC. You'll be impressed.

In order to get the most out of our 120 kilobits-per-second — a speed we chose because it would allow modem users to download a half hour show in approximately one hour — some production habits have to change. Rather than using one very expensive camera, we're using five fairly cheap ones — JVC miniDV camcorders. JVC is the only brand that offers true progressive scanned CCDs on its low end models. By going to progressive scanning, we save some bandwidth and avoid having to go through a de-interlacing process before encoding. By shooting in PAL, we save about 15 percent in overhead by displaying 25 frames-per-second rather than 30. Many streamed videos will run as slow as five to 10 frames-per-second, but we just found this to be unacceptable.

It is perhaps ironic that in order to present a less-than-broadcast-quality show, we have to start with better-than-broadcast-quality video. Our raw video will be progressive-scanned PAL with 576 lines of vertical resolution — slightly better than the quality Steven Soderberg got in his recent bad movie, "Full Frontal," which was shot using a Canon Dvcam. If any networks outside the U.S. would like to run a broadcast quality version of "NerdTV," please get in touch with me because we could sure use the money. Same for corporate underwriters — we need a couple of those — though don't expect me to not insult you.

In terms of content, the show remains as originally described. It will be primarily interviews, some with newsmakers and some with historical figures from high tech. Look, too, for a certain amount of recycling of my 200 hours of interviews from "Nerds 1," "Nerds 2" and other shows — interviews that have never been broadcast before. My primary goal is to be wherever interesting things are happening in high tech, asking the most intrusive questions I can think of. Someone has to do it.



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