Programming Documentary

TV Camera manI’m a huge science and engineering documentary geek. I prefer watching documentaries over all other forms of television. It doesn’t really matter what the documentary is about, I’ll usually watch it. After getting ready for my wedding I had a bit of time before I had to walk down the aisle so I watched a documentary about pilots learning to land Marine One at the White House. There probably aren’t many people who would choose to spend that time that way.

Science documentaries have experienced a renaissance over the last few years, particularly on the BBC. The long running Horizon series has been joined by a raft of other mini-series presented by Brian Cox, Alice Roberts, Marcus Du Sutoy, Jim Al-Kalili and Michael Mosely. These cover a large part of the sciences, including Chemistry, Biology and Physics. Physics in particular is regularly on our screens. Whether it’s talking about quantum mechanics or astronomy or something else it seems that Physics has never been more popular.

As someone who writes computer programmes for a living this makes me worry that your average man on the street may end up with a better understanding of quantum mechanics than they do of the computer on their desk, or in their pocket.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1981 the BBC ran the BBC Computer Literacy project, which attempted to teach the public to program using the BBC Micro through a ten part television series.

Clearly if a project like this was to be attempted today there would be no need for the BBC to partner with hardware manufactures. People have access to many different programmable devices, they just don’t know how to program them.

Recent programs that have focused on computers were Rory Cellan Jones’ Secret History of Social Networking and Virtual Revolution by Aleks Krotoski. Neither of these were technical documentaries, instead they focused on business, cultural and sociological impacts of computers and the internet.

It’s not that more technical aspects of computer don’t appear as part of other documentaries, recently Marcus Du Sautoy announced that he is filming a episode of Horizon on Artificial Intelligence. It won’t air until next spring, so it’s hard to comment, but I suspect it will focus on the outcome of the software rather than the process of how computers can be made to appear intelligent.

Jim Al-Kalili’s recent series on the history of electricity, Shock and Awe, ends with a section on the development of the transistor. During it, and over a picture of the LHC, he says something rather interesting.

Our computer’s have become so powerful that they are helping us to understand the universe in all its complexity.

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERNIf you don’t understand computers it’s impossible to understand how almost all modern science is done. Researches in all disiplinces need to be proficent at programming in order to anaylse their own data. Business is run on software, often which is customised to the individual requirements of the company. It boggles my mind that people can be so reliant on computers yet have so little idea of how they work.

So, what would my ideal programming documentary cover? The most obvious thing is the internet. A history of computer networking could begin at the development of the first computer networks, describe how TCP/IP divides data into packets and routes it between computers. It could move on to HTTP and HTML both of which are fundamentally simple yet apply to our everyday lives. To bring things up to date it could focus on Google and Facebook and show people the inside of a data centre. I suspect that most people have no idea where their Google search results are coming from.

I doubt that there is much demand for the updated series as long as the 10 part original, but the soon to be released Raspberry Pi machine would be an ideal way to recreate the tinkering appeal of the original BBC Micro. There’s something magical about seeing a program you’ve written appearing on the TV in your living room, rather than on the screen of your main PC. An alternative would be to provide an interpreter as part of a website so you can just type in a URL and start programming.

Raspberry PIA documentary focussing on programming would have a difficulty that the original series never had – the fact that computing power is common place means that people are used to software created by large teams with dedicated designers. An individual with no experience can’t hope to come to close to something like that. Fortunately computers are so much more powerful today that much of the complexity that you needed to cope with can be abstracted away. Libraries like VPython make it very simple to produce complicated and impressive 3D graphics.

I’m certainly not the only person who wants to help teach the masses to program, but realistically you need an organisation like the BBC to do something that might actually make a difference. Do I think that you create a compelling and informative documentary that might inspire people to program, and give them a very basic understand of how to do it. Definitely.

Photo of TV Camera man by Chris Waits.

Photo of The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN by Image Editor.

Photo of Raspberry PI by Paul Downey.

Save BBC 6 Music

I’ve been a regular listener to 6music since about six months after it launched. Below is the email I’ve sent to the public consultation on the future of the station, as it has been proposed that the station be closed to save money which can be spent on making other programs.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have been a regular listener to BBC 6 Music since about six months after it launched. Apart from the Today Program and a few comedy shows on Radio 4 it quickly became the only radio station I listened to. It provided the sound track to much of my University life and and introduced me to a wide range of new music that I would have never found otherwise. It has been tremendously influential and substantially shaped my taste in music.

I believe that closing 6 Music will prove to be a huge mistake and a massive step backwards for the BBC. If the BBC is to stand for excellence then closing a radio station that is staffed by people at the forefront of music seems to go against that. 6 Music’s track record of finding a promoting new bands is something that BBC should be extremely proud of.

I believe that neither the BBC nor commercial stations offer a suitable replacement for 6 Music. Although 6 Music is associated with Radio 2 in style they are widely different. Although some assurances have been given that the best of 6 Music will be relocated to other stations I cannot see how this can be done during the peak listening hours without alienating the listeners of Radio 1 and 2. 6 Music is by it’s very nature targets a niche audience, but its influence stretches far beyond its reach.

The fact that 6 Music is only available on DAB rather than FM radio is a key factor in its limited audience reach. It is probably the most well known of all the digital-only stations and key driver in transitioning people away from the antiquated analogue radio infrastructure. I own three digital radios which enable me to listen to 6 Music throughout my house. DAB certainly has its critics and loosing such a jewel in DAB radio’s content reduces rather than increases the incentive to go digital.

I strongly believe that 6 Music is excellent value for money and I urge the BBC Trust to reject the recommendation to close it.

Yours Sincerely,
Andrew Wilkinson

Feel free to use my letter for inspiration, but please don’t copy it wholesale. That will not help to save the station that we love. Find details on how to response here.