Monday, March 31, 2008

Just one week to go - April wefcpug

A reminder that the April meeting of wefcpug is back at the BBC, Monday next (April 7th), 7pm.

What's in it? The usual very good question. I'm reviewing several books and products at the moment, and it's extremely likely some of them will feature in the wefcpug running order. For amusement value, there'll be a quick demo of Automator and whether it lives up to the hype of being a) easy to use and b) useful. My best pals at Peachpit provided a 'Visual Quickstart' guide for the raffle. More pertinent to FCP will be a look at current standards for web distribution, and I'm hoping some of the homegrown experts will join in here.

Plus some genuine boxed software prizes (yes, boxed) from newer best pals (for more details, you have to be there), and whatever else you bring to the table in the fast fault-finding round. And any offers to 'show and tell' or feature requests (be quick, folks).

Pre-bookings to me, Phil, please, for the benefit of the guys at the gate. email is philatbrightfilamentdotcodotuk

Friday, March 28, 2008

Book Review - Visual Quickstart Guide for Automator

Automator for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard

Visual Quickstart Guide - Ben Waldie

Automator is one of the small apps supplied within OS X that, let's face it, most of us never get round to opening, let alone alone using regularly. The promise is there to liberate us from the tedium of repetitive familiar tasks and yet the learning curve seems quite steep when the app is run. The latest version of Automator, with Leopard, has a cute robot motif but, of course, no printed instruction manual - out of the box, it's all down to you and the Help files. Fine if you know what questions to ask, and are happy with online or on-screen instructions, which are, shall we say, sparse.

The Visual Quickstart guide seems designed to fill this gap, to act as a hand-holder for novices, and as a practical reference for intermediate users. It follows the format of other books in the series (which includes the recommended Lisa Brenneis guides to Final Cut, copies of which must be on every editor's desks), with plenty of screen shots and a straightforward, one step at a time, walk through the steps required to achieve what's required. Early chapters deal with simple jobs: taking the reader through the interface, building basic workflows, working with 'Actions' which are the fundamental procedures that Automator includes. This approach works well for me, it's a useful second stage to my first approach to any new app (in concise terms: run it, press all the buttons, see what breaks, see how quickly I get lost), and I appreciate the structured progression of the book.

Later chapters plunge deeper - or at least, as deep as Automator currently allows. There are good walk-through examples of saving Workflows (Automator's equivalent of a project), as applications or plug-ins, and the advanced features of integrating Automator with Applescript and running Shell scripts. These advanced features are the most promising development in Automator with Leopard, and this guide does a fair job of introducing them - but to use UNIX scripts especially requires a good deal of background knowledge, and familiarity with Terminal commands.

What drawbacks there are lie not with the book itself, but with Automator. The app performs well with those 'Actions' allowed it by other applications in the system. So for Safari, for instance, there are a range of actions related to current URLs and Feeds, that can be passed on by an Automator workflow for further processing. Automator is well endowed with file-type actions: most examples on the Apple website, and in this guide, relate in some way to graphics files (re-sizing, converting format, changing name to include date). Maybe this is because there's a lot of tedious work, for sure, to be done with graphics files, which tend to arrive in the dozens or hundreds. But not all applications offer hooks for Automator. One on my system that does is Fetch, an ftp program - but Firefox, for example, offers nought.

Another limitation to bear in mind is that Automator isn't quite a scripting environment, and certainly not a programming one. It is possible to build workflows with variables that can be passed between blocks, and there are looping facilities, but beyond that it's necessary to integrate AppleScript or Shell commands. Conditional branching, for instance, or Boolean operators, don't exist as such within Automator Actions. What's most obviously missing is a method of debugging workflows - my first attempts generated Error Codes but with no means of interpreting what the errors were. To do much beyond the simplest of repetitive actions, it's the very deep waters of Xcode and the resources in the Apple Development Centre (ADC).

Maybe it's not possible to have the best of both worlds. If you want the flexibility and programmability that comes with programming a shell script, that comes with the price tag of acquiring the knowledge of same and working at a terminal shell. If you want a modest set of defined actions and a simple way of putting the building blocks together, the flexibility has to be curtailed. Within the limitations of the allowed actions, then, Automator offers a highly visual and intuitive method of building a sequence of actions to form a workflow. It's not the cold bath that a sudden exposure to C or Ruby scripting offers, and if you need a helping hand into the warm waters, the Visual Quickstart Guide is for you.

------Phil Ashby

I'll be going into more detail about Automator and the book at the next wefcpug meeting, which is Monday 7th April.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Headlines and links from the March Meet

I gave a short resume of what's happened in the Mac and broadcasting worlds in the last month - or at least the bits that came to my notice!

OS X - the big update to 10.5.2 arrived, weighing in at 343.4MB for the combo update. iTunes and QuickTime have had various facelifts too. The changes in the OS that I've noticed are improved wifi and bluetooth connections (meaning stability), the new ability of TimeMachine to backup to networked drives (provided these are hosted on other Leopard Macs), the look of the Dock and the ability to customise the stacks that pop up (or out) for Documents and Downloads. All in all, a worthy update to have (not that you'll have a choice, really).

There's a new version of Aperture, selling at a reduced price to version 1.
Newly updated too are Skype and XQuartz - the latter is essential if you wish to use the X11 program (required for OpenOffice and the Gimp as well as a myriad of other apps which were written for the XWindows system).

Best of all, a new version of news feed reader Newsfire - and now it's a free download.

Panasonic have announced that 64GB capacity P2 cards will be available in Autumn 08. This will offer some 2hrs 30mins recording time at DVCProHD resolution, 5hr + DVCPro. Price to be announced (North of £1750 my guess).

Broadcasting: The BBC now offers a limited selection of TV programmes for sale on the iTunes Music Store. Maybe this presages a new version of the iPlayer for Mac, given that the iTMS now offers movie rentals in the US (so there is a DRM system in place). Ashley Highfield, the Beeb's digital boss, has been hinting in interviews and in his blog that there will be a Mac-compatible iPlayer offering downloads sometime (as opposed to the streaming-only option at present). That said, which is good news, the streaming service isn't TOO bad, at least on small screens. (Blame Flash encoding for this).

Also noted that the previously announced BBC target for full HD commissioning by 2010 is now regarded as 'aspirational' according to Broadcast mag.

For other news items, not covered here, including exciting sponsorship offers new to wefcpug, watch this space.