TV Un-Festival: George Wright – BBC TV Backstage

Part of BBC Backstage, charter to educate and inform. Interactive TV – BBC is world leader, but find it very hard to find people who know what they are doing in it. Very niche, small talent pool. Focusing on MHEG, but relevant to all formats and platforms.

Going to be doing tutorials, teach people how do work with the technology. Starting off with simple tutorials, including podcasts, including examples. Currently Windows only, but cross-platform coming soon. Plug-in to MythTV, so you can play it from there, looking for extensions for full MHEG 106. Think it could give a kick to the market, the existing vendors, etc. Times we think that the barrier to entry to t his areas should be lower – this is part of the aim. Will also release internal tools and tests. By giving these away it will benefit the community and those who work with us to deliver code.

60 – 70% of interactive developer pool available in UK, so we’re not aiming this at everyone, but want to deliver the equivalent of View Source in web browsers – tiny steps. Going to tell people how we think we do things the right way, but we are going to expect people to tell us we’re wrong. Lots of new ways of doing things, but hoping that by opening it up we’ll get new ideas of how to do things.

Chosen MHEG because it’s an open standard, but increasingly MHEG is being used in a hybrid box, i.e. aerial and internet connections. Other platforms are likely to use MHEG, and it’s becoming more of a worldwide standard, e.g. New Zealand are using it, so code written here is also usable there.

Looking for a bigger developer community. Want others to embrace out code.

Q: Is this the wrong time to do this? People don’t want to interact.

Our figures don’t support that, we have lots of page views each week.

Q: Isn’t this just more about multiscreen?

There is some of that, but that’s not all interactive TV is good for. Yes, we probably should have done this 10 years ago, but when’s a good time to plant a tree? Do you think this is pointless?

Q: I work in this area, but there are very few programmes that you can actually enhance – people want to watch TV they don’t want to do other things. Interfaces are either too lightweight, or they distract from the programme, but generally it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be the future anymore.

I don’t think it needs to be the future. But that’s more about where’s the interactive TV going.

Q: In US, 36% of interactive TV through gaming consoles by 2012. How do you compete with that?

Two questions in there – is MHEG good to learn if you want to work on other platforms? We think it does. Should someone use proprietary stuff? Probably no. If you wanted to learn the most popular interactive TV language, need to look at Open, which is what Sky uses.

Regarding the console,I think it’s the other way round. If I was developing for a console, I’d look at MHEG. Many other things we could take a punt on is because it’s in Freeview, and you can get boxes that you can chuck USB key in and run code.

Q: MythTV is really difficult to get to work. Are you going to help them make it easier?

Not giving end-to-end support, but will be giving instructions for setting it up. Will have stand-alone MHEG browsers based on MythTV, so you don’t have to install it.

Q: You say people can play around with MHEG, but people can’t actually put it live. Is this just about teaching people?

We’re teaching people how to write MHEG, but also telling them how to deploy it. Apache can serve MHEG2 to a set top that’s on the same network.

Q: So you need the hybrid boxes?

We’re not saying that people are going to write this stuff and stick it up on the web. But we might take the best apps and push them out daily, so people can browse through them. Not just teaching, but want to do groundbreaking new ways of doing interactive TV.

Q: How much bandwidth does MHEG take for a typical app?

Overhead is never the text, it’s the broadcast quality video.

Q: What about Flash video? Why not write a Flash player for MHEG?

Have done experiments with SWF format, and there were good things and there were bad things. It’s not something we’re looking at right now. Surprises me that so many sites that use FLV don’t have any interaction in it, because Flash is good for that. We’re partnering with YouTube and other sites that use Flash but haven’t seen any interaction even coming from us. Could do an MHEG -> SWF converter, it’s an interesting thought.

Q: Is there a complete programming language in there? Is there a javascript converter for it?

On the latter, I doubt it, it’s a very different. But yes, it’s a real programming language and it’s complete. You really need to work at a large broadcaster to know anything about it, but we’d like to create the equivalent of a graphical MHEG creation tool as in a drag-and-dropy thing. Would benefit us internally and others who want to have a play.

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TV Un-Festival: Zattoo

Mario Costa, Alexandra Illes

Zattoo is regular straightforward TV as per free to air channels, but played across broadband. Live TV, not time-shifted, but available on your laptop. 24/7. Mac, PC, Linux, free client, all you need is broadband.

Each time you log-on, you get a channel line up, in Switzerland redistributing 52 channels. Quality pretty good, 400kbps to receive, what’s different to most of the other players, but the Zattoo is just redistribution – no catch up, no chat, no video on demand, no frills redistribution of television channels and do that with the most widely possibly channel line up in every country. Reason for being is that a number of interactive players on the market and Zattoo is a platform is focused on only one thing. Don’t want to compete with broadcasters IPTV, as they have more rights to do things with their content, but to be a compilation of different channels as an aggregator.

It worked really well this morning when the network is not being used by so many people.

Unabridged retransmission, limited by legal requirements for broadcasters. Signal protection and geoblocking, another requirement from broadcasters, so operate with the licensing regime and go country by country, and not receive outside the territory of the area we have the licence for.

Idea is to bring linear TV to a new medium, and bring people back to linear TV. Bridge to the old-fashioned TV, and to allow people to do interactive things at the same time. 700k users in Europe, available in Swizterland where co. based, Denmark and Spain. Very successful in Spain, word=of-mouth and blogs at core of success. Beta test in the UK with a couple of channels whilst going through rights clearance, aiming to launch in Germany, Austria, Belgium, then Poland, Italy, France, Poland and the Netherlands.

People use Zattoo because they want to do things at the same time, or use PC in another room than the TV is in. Not a substitute for the TV set, but complementary to it.

Aged distribution, primarily the younger, 25 – 34 is main user group, but that’s shifting. Young, early adopters first, but shifted in Switzerland and have a quarter of the broadband market.

Q: How do you make money?

Advertisements within channels, buffering when switzing channels, and have inserted adverts there. Users don’t mind that. For advertisers, people have focus on the screen as they are waiting for the channel to come up. There are also paid packages, so have a lot of free TV, the public broadcasters and commercial stations, then special interest and ethnic packages. Learn from traditional TV environment, but open to more new things. Think that people online are more interested in special interest. Feel want to make a la carte packages, which can’t be done on traditional TV environment. Foreign language packages too.

Security is a big issue, specially for the broadcasters signal protection and double authentication process that ensures geoblocking works.

Q: What’s the point of that?

We agree with you, that’s what we want, but from a rights point of view we’ll probably not get there. It is not 100% watertight enough, but it’s watertight enough for the reasons we do it. But we can’t get the rights for you to just watch international TV without the right clearance.

Due to launch in the UK, but it’s a question of clearing the rights.

Q: How are you doing the geofiltering?

Don’t know the answer to this.

Q: It’s a p2p service, what’s the upload bandwidth.

400kbps download, and as much upload as your ISP allows.

Zattoo developed by a professor at Michigan in five mins.

Beta testing in UK since July, focused on retransmission. If you want text access, can send an international invitation that will give access to the Swiss line-up to see how it works.

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TV Un-Festival: Chris Jackson – A community effort to improve metadata

I’ve been MCing the TV Un-Festival all day, and it’s been fun so far. Right now they are recording a podcast, which I’m not going to blog because at some point you’ll be able to listen to it yourself. Meantime, here’s a short burst of blog posts that I’ve put together throughout the day for your entertainment. (Note: There was no official schedule, so if I’ve misspelt names, please accept my apologies.)

Chris Jackson – A community effort to improve metadata
Chris is a freelance broadcast tech and strategy consultant, geek at heart, ideas for things that are more community based than big companies. At the TV Festival [of which this is the fringe event] hearing about Joost, wasn’t saying anything anyone in this room would be surprised about but it was news to the TV people. Big disconnect between us here and them there, who don’t know much about tech but do know about audiences.

Technically elegant ways that, say, torrents, work doesn’t make sense for the audience.

Two ways to watch TV – either watch what’s on, or you can dereferencing a pointer, i.e. look something up and make sure you are there. Bit torrent is not that simple for people to use, it’ snot something that works well after a long day. How can we make that process easier, that would turn it from looking through a long list of sites to find the torrent, to something that’s as simple as turning it on and see.

Would love to see:
– Permanent URLs
– List of locations for individual programmes, whether TV schedule, bit torrent, iPlayer, and gives the data as to what DRM there is on it, what sort of format it’s in.
– Wants that info to be flexibly improved, so if broadcaster wants to say “I have the definitive information” that it references the canonical.
– Wants the metadata to be simple, and standardised.

TV Anytime is comprehensive, but difficult to use.

Broadcasters should, ideally, be providing comprehensive information. But some broadcasters have different unique identifiers, e.g. the BBC has three for each programme. But a broadcaster might tell you the metadata but would never tell you where the torrent was. Community could step in and do this.

Need to:
– create a standard extensible format
– with an API
– data licensed liberally
– crowd sourced improvements

If this data was better, could make better clients, that could give you all the official locations, times etc. but would also give you all the other locations, and tie them together with a single URL. So people who have seen a programme could send a URL to someone who could then choose how they wanted to watch it, whether on BT, or iPlayer or old-fashioned TV.

Would be interesting then to gather information on how people like to access programmes, so you could see if they prefer to watch TV or use iPlayer or BT.

Risk with current systems is that you only ever get, say, the link to the RSS feed of Heroes.

Q: Broadcasters don’t see it on their interests, because the first thing that people do is tag where the adverts are and cut it out. And broadcasters don’t want to do anything that makes it easier. From our point of view, an extra person who watches it is an extra person, but they see it as a person that they couldn’t make money from.

CJ: Agree, but can do all sorts of other things.

Q: But this is the same as the Freeview programme scheduler.

CJ: What I’m saying is, why don’t we take that info, plus the torrent sites, and iPlayer, and put it all together.

Q: BBC say that “It’s illegal to do this”, but they have never prosecuted, and never will prosecute, but it’s illegal. The problem is that it’s technically possible, and no one has ever been prosecuted, so until the broadcasters either have a day in court and see whether it is illegal, no system will have any support from the BBC or any other broadcasters. EPG data is copyrights, sharing a programme onto torrent is illegal, so no one has been prosecuted. PACT, who represent non-BBC producers, and say “This is out content, so the BBC can only show it once and that’s all they can do”, and we all have a right to record and store on VHS, but transfer it over hte net and PACT say it’s illegal. So it’s not technical it’s a lawyer.

CJ: But there’s a distinction between content and metadata. My understanding is that you can republish the BBC metadata if it’s non-commercial, and have only been threatened by ITV.

Q: There are all these legal arguments, so why do have to bring them together as a service, because that creates a legal target for litigation. How about a client that pulls together different sources and presents it, differentiating the sources, and lets people choose.

CJ: Yes, we shouldn’t keep it all in one place, but we should have a standard.

Q: So what we need is a common identifier for each programme.

CJ: Or multiple identifiers that are cross-linked. But yes, the identifier.

Q: So you could do it the barcode way, there isn’t a global organisation that organises barcodes, so that would be an easily distributable system.

CJ: i presume the names are URLs. But there are a whole bunch of existing systems, and we should be able to make it better. TVAnytime has programme groups (series), programmes, and segments of programmes, and programme locations (like a URI). If the data format addressed these types of ID (possibly except programme segments), should be able to take the URI, and use that to reverse look-up to get the metadata, and then pass around the URL that describes a specific programme, and then others can use that URL to find the programme itself. Not the only way of doing it that, but doesn’t seem to need permission, or to modify streams, etc. If we did this it might help the broadcasters change their minds.

Q: Are there parallels with the music industry and iTunes. Do we instinctively favour solutions that are too complex.

CJ: This is like an equivalent of MusicBrainz, but with links to all the places you can get the programme, not just a link to one source – Amazon in the case of MusicBrainz.

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Suw and the Edinburgh TV Un-festival

Suw is helping host the Edinburgh TV Un-festival, hosted by BBC Backstage. Ian Forrester of Backstage set the stage by saying:

The whole reason that we are here is the clash of online and TV. I want you to go to the TV festival tomorrow and experience the difference in worlds. That is the whole reason that we are here.
Do people think that online is just this other place where people put their content out there?

I’ll be blogging here, and also on the Guardian’s media blog, Organ Grinder, where there are lots of posts about the main Edinburgh TV festival as well.

At 3pm, there is going to be a podcast called “Is TV dead?” That should be fun.

New, new uses, or new to you?

A few weeks ago, I blogged some thoughts about innovation inspired by the close of The Economist’s Project Red Stripe, to which Jeff Jarvis responded. Jeff’s post was interesting, as were the comments, but one in particular from Malcolm Thomson stood out:

John Robinson says rightly “A protected group from within can come up with innovation, but unless they require no money or commitment, then they have to go before some decision-making person or body.”

But ‘unless they require no money…’ is of significance. Now that the tools of video journalism are so incredibly cheap, now that tuition with regard to the essential skills is so accessible (CurrentTV’s tutorials, etc.), the reporting/storytelling innovators must surely already exist in growing numbers.

Many months ago, I collaborated on a project looking at the future of retail. I’d been asked to take part in two discussion sessions by the company writing the report, and four of us sat around a big whiteboard thinking about trends in retail, and what the future might hold 5, 10 and 15 years out.

Our main conclusion was that the final recipients of this report, a global company who wanted to be prepared for the future, were woefully unequipped to even make the most of the present. Many of the most basic things that you’d expect such a company to do online were not being done and it was clear that, given the culture of the organisation, they were not likely to get done any time soon. It wasn’t so much that they weren’t Web 2.0, more than that they hadn’t even made it as far as Web 1.0 yet.

Much of the media – and other sectors too – struggle to understand the developments of the last 5 – 10 years, and find it difficult to work existing technologies into their business, even when there are clear benefits to doing so. But it’s not like things are actually changing that quickly, especially if you stay on top of developments. As Tom Coates said about the broadband vs. TV ‘debate’ last year (his italics):

These changes are happening, they’re definitely happening, but they’re happening at a reasonable, comprehendible pace. There are opportunities, of course, and you have to be fast to be the first mover, but you don’t die if you’re not the first mover – you only die if you don’t adapt.

My sense of these media organisations that use this argument of incredibly rapid technology change is that they’re screaming that they’re being pursued by a snail and yet they cannot get away! ‘The snail! The snail!’, they cry. ‘How can we possibly escape!?. The problem being that the snail’s been moving closer for the last twenty years one way or another and they just weren’t paying attention.

When businesses talk about innovation, they frequently mean “new” in the sense of “brand, spanking, no-one-has-ever-done-this-before new” or “first mover new”. Because they see the landscape as changing at an alarming rate, and they see innovation with the same blank-paper fear as the blocked writer, the whole thing becomes terrifying. Add to that the fact that they do not have a good solid grip on the state of the art as it is now, and you end up with a group of petrified execs standing on the brink of a chasm they fear is too wide and too deep to risk jumping, because the only outcome they can see is crash and burn.

Another type of innovation is the “new use” – taking tools that someone else has created and using them in an innovative way. How do you use all this Web 2.0 stuff that people are creating all the time and work it into your business? How does it bring value to your audience? What symbiotic relationships can you nurture that will enable you to do something different? This is the sort of innovation that I think the media needs to focus on.

Some are trying very hard to do this, some are just paying lip service, but many aren’t trying at all. Comments are a great example of a relatively new technology – it’s only been around for a few years – which the press have embraced en masse, but entirely failed to use effectively. The point of comments is that it allows writers to have a conversation with their readers, and for stories to continue to be developed post-publication, yet in the majority of cases comment functionality is slapped on to the bottom of every article – regardless of whether that article would benefit from comments – and readers are left to fight it out by themselves. Little of worth is added to either the articles, the publisher’s brand, or the commenters’ lives.

Creating a boxing ring online is not an innovative way of using comment technology, it is obvious, old-school, and short-sighted. It’s creating conflict to sell newspapers, increase hits or get more viewers for your TV slug fest.

Equally, using video to replicate television is like using Thrust to do the shopping – it makes no sense and is a massive waste of money. There are plenty of big hitters already doing TV rather well, and in an era of 24 hour rolling news, the last thing that we need is to replicate that online. Rather, the media should be using online video to do things that TV cannot do, to get places TV cannot go, to examine issues with the sort of depth and nuance that 24-hour rolling news couldn’t manage if their very lives depended upon it, to tell the stories that TV has no time for.

Where are these media outlets – newspapers or otherwise – who can honestly say that they are using even just comments and video truly innovatively? In so many cases I see new-school technologies used in old-school ways that transform it from groundbreaking to mundane. One case in point was Ben Hammersley’s BBC project about the Turkish elections. Yes, he was using, and Flickr and he was blogging and using RSS, but with a distinctly old-school flavour that robbed the tools of their own potential.

A pneumatic nail gun can put nails through steel girders, but if all you do with it is build a garden shed, you might as well have used a hammer.

Finally, technology may not be new, but if it’s “new to you”, it can have real value. It used to be just blogs that provided an RSS feed, but then the tech press started using RSS, and now it has become standard across the majority of major news sites – no one sensible is without it. Other outlets might be using blogs or or wikis, but that shouldn’t stop you from assessing how best you can use these tools yourselves.

But businesses are inherently neo-phobic, and this has resulted in the Great Race to be Second: the burning desire of companies everywhere to watch what others do and see if it succeeds before they follow suite. Neo-phobia also leads companies into a state of group-think, where they use technology only in the same ways that they’ve seen other people use it. RSS is another fabulous example of this – news outlets will only provide a headline and excerpt news feed, rather than a full feed, because they are scared that if people can read their content in their aggregator, they will not visit the site and if they don’t visit the site then valuable page views and click-throughs are lost.

Every now and again I see an article saying that full feeds increase click-throughs, the most recent being Techdirt, and their argument is compelling (their italics):

[I]n our experience, full text feeds actually does lead to more page views, though understanding why is a little more involved. Full text feeds makes the reading process much easier. It means it’s that much more likely that someone reads the full piece and actually understands what’s being said — which makes it much, much, much more likely that they’ll then forward it on to someone else, or blog about it themselves, or post it to Digg or Reddit or Slashdot or Fark or any other such thing — and that generates more traffic and interest and page views from new readers, who we hope subscribe to the RSS feed and become regular readers as well. The whole idea is that by making it easier and easier for anyone to read and fully grasp our content, the more likely they are to spread it via word of mouth, and that tends to lead to much greater adoption than by limiting what we give to our readers and begging them to come to our site if they want to read more than a sentence or two. So, while many people claim that partial feeds are needed to increase page views where ads are hosted, our experience has shown that full text feeds actually do a great deal to increase actual page views on the site by encouraging more usage.

But even if the assumption that partial feeds drive traffic to ads is correct, there’s still no excuse for having partial feeds, because ads in RSS have been around for ages. I don’t remember when Corante started putting ads in the RSS feed, but they’ve been doing it for ages and I have never had a single complaint about it. I don’t know what the click-through rates are compared to the ads on the site, but I’m sure that it would be possible to experiment and find out. It is undoubtedly possible to design a study that would give you the right sort of data to compare the effectiveness of partial, full, or full with ads feeds, but I’ve yet to hear of one.

And therein, I think, lies the rub. We don’t always know what will happen when we introduce new technology, but instead of experimenting, the majority prefer to go along with group-think and the old-school ways. They want innovation but only as a buzzword to chuck around in meetings – the reality is just too scary. Yes, there are mavericks who get this stuff, but they are frequently hamstrung by the neo-phobes, and have to spend their time pushing through small, bite-sized changes whilst they wait for the dinosaurs to die off.

Going to the Edinburgh TV Un-Festival?

Kevin and I are off up to Edinburgh tomorrow, for the TV Un-Festival – a fringe event to the Media Guardian International TV Festival. Ian Forrester has been putting a lot of hard work into getting the Un-Festival organised, no easy feat when so many other festivals and fringes are on at the same time!

So what’s an un-festival? Well, it’s like an un-conference, but more unlike a festival than it is unlike a conference. In other words, it’s a:

Day-long event which takes place on Saturday 25 August [and] will centre around the clash of the well established TV world and the constantly accelerating Internet world using the unusual un-conference format, where the cost of entry is participation.

A ton of interesting people and companies have signed up already, including the BBC, Google, BT Vision, Microsoft TV, P2P-Next, Joost,, Mind Candy, MTV,, Freenet, Blip.TV, Zattoo, and Licorice Film. In addition, there will be a number of darknet people coming, some of them with names you might know, like Ian Clarke, and others more secretive. Ooh, now that’s intriguing.

There are still places available so if you want to sign up, so do now! And if you’re coming, there’s a wiki for participants.

Bring on the noise

Looking through my feeds, I noticed a wonderfully droll post by Steve Yelvington on yet another tedious bloggers versus journalists article, this one by Michael Skube in the LATimes. Mr Skube’s professorial tone befits the news as lecture model that he seems to be defending like a modern day Williams Jennings Bryan. Mr Skube writes: “One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more.” To which Steve responds:

One does? Perhaps one gets such an uneasy sense from not reading the blogs about which one is opining. Or from not writing what actually gets published.

It would appear that Mr Skube’s commentary is “a potpourri of opinion and little more”. You see Mr Skube, as Steve and others points out, hasn’t actually read many blogs. He hasn’t done the reporting that he’s chastising bloggers for not doing. But more than that, Skube refers to Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo as an example of a bloviating blogger. TPM and its sister site, TPM Muckraker, actually do journalism, and more than that, they have some of the more successful examples of crowd-sourced journalism to date. Josh e-mailed him and asked if he was familiar with TPM why had he included it as an example of a “dearth of original reporting in the blogosphere”.

Not long after I wrote I got a reply: “I didn’t put your name into the piece and haven’t spent any time on your site. So to that extent I’m happy to give you benefit of the doubt …”

An editor added the reference and Skube didn’t know enough to ask that it be taken out. Dan Gillmor calls on the LATimes to print at least a correction if not an outright apology.

UPDATE: (Via Jay Rosen at PressThink. Thanks for the link and quote, Jay.) The LATimes editorial page editor Jim Newton has published this note about the editing process:

Note from Editorial Page Editor Jim Newton

August 22, 2007

A number of readers have contacted The Times in recent days regarding an Aug. 19th opinion piece by Michael Skube. In some cases, readers have asked whether Times’ editors improperly inserted material in Michael Skube’s piece without his knowledge or permission. That was not the case, as this note from Skube makes clear:

Before my Aug. 19 Opinion piece on bloggers was printed, an editor asked if it would be helpful to include the names of the bloggers in my piece as active participants in political debate. I agreed.

– Michael Skube

Readers will choose to agree or disagree with Skube’s conclusions, but I hope the above resolves questions about the editing of the article.


Jim Newton

Editorial Page Editor

This reader doesn’t see a clarification, but a game of pass the buck. What’s even more shocking, is that this is the second poorly researched and reported piece by Skube on the subject, notes Paul Jones, who teaches at the University of North Carolina.

Skube unfortunately seems to fall in the trap of so many commentators who seem to think that style trumps substance and that a finely honed piece of prose somehow obviates the need for research. Dearth of reporting perhaps, Mr Skube?

I share Shane Richmond’s reaction:

What’s exasperating is that every time some journalist notices blogs (where have they been, for goodness sake?) and decides that they herald the end of civilisation as we know it, there’s some editor somewhere who will print their ravings.

These columns keep getting printed because they play to the professional biases of journalists. They play to the uninformed view that passes for conventional wisdom that there is a monolithic blogosphere, and that it is populated by wannabe columnists who try to get a foot in the door of the media by being louder and more irresponsible than the columnists they hope to replace. If you want the model those bloggers are emulating, look to comment pages and the head-to-head battles of cable news networks.

But the problem is that despite a consistent portrayal in the media of the blogosphere as political shouting shout match, this represents a fraction of the blogosphere. In the US, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that only 11% of bloggers focus on politics and government and only 5% focus on general news and current events. My hunch, and I won’t say that it’s a well researched one, is that these commentators only see political blogs because there is a professional selection bias. They comment on politics or current affairs so every blog they are familiar with, or indeed interesting in, is about politics. The blogosphere is a rich world to be explored, not just a political battlefield of the intemperate shock troops of right and left.

I’ve stated my view in the bloggers versus journalists debate frequently. Bloggers don’t want our jobs. Most bloggers write about their personal experiences. Yes, they write about their cats, their sewing, their kids’ footie games. But occasionally, they get caught up in a news event, and then they keep blogging. They commit random acts of journalism. As I just wrote this week for the Australian site,, it’s not a threat but an opportunity for those journalists willing and open-minded enough to take it.

links for 2007-08-21