A Curious Artifact

Christopher Hitchens died last week. He was an arrogant and abrasive man and a souse. He was also a frightful intellect and a dazzling writer, capable of holding forth on any topic from oral sex to the ten commandments. One obituary writer describes him as “an excitingly dangerous orator.” Although I did not always agree with him, in a weird way, I felt sorry for him.

Some years ago, a friend and I organized a debate between Hitch and political scientist Michael Parenti. It was a learning experience. Even with support from a motley coalition of faculty and student groups, we managed to run a debt. A few weeks later, we graduated. My friend ended up in Venezuela, and I ended up in New Zealand.

When I learned that Hitch had died, I dusted off my DVD of the debate. Unfortunately, the quality was not great. There was a gap where the cameraman switched tapes, and the second tape ran out before the end of the event. So I had to do some creative editing. I swapped out the original soundtrack for a more complete audio recording and used Handbrake to encode to mp4. The original DV tapes from which I had authored the DVD were long gone, so I had to transcode from interlaced mpeg2. I think, in retrospect, it would have been better to convert the VOBs to DV using ffmpegX, edit the DV stream in Final Cut or Quicktime, and then export to mp4. If you ever need to extract and remaster a DVD, this is the method I would recommend. By the time I figured this out, however, I had already invested too much in the direct-to-mp4 method.

Surprisingly, uploading to YouTube was the hardest part. YouTube’s transcoding engine did not care for my spliced edits, which introduced several different tracks and bitrates. The mp4 container is wonderfully robust, capable of supporting a range of tracks and even chapter markers, but it took four days of uploads before I found a way to merge everything together in a way that YouTube would accept. The resulting copy is less than spectacular, but it’s better than nothing. The timecode at the very end is still corrupted somehow. Since mp4 is YouTube’s container of choice, I find it frustrating that they insist on running videos through an additional layer of encoding, over which I have no control. Why not provide their specs and allow users to upload directly to the back end with little or no downsampling?

The video is freely available under a Creative Commons license. A curious historical document, like Hitch, it now belongs to the ages (but definitely not to the angels).

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as Princeton & Slavery and Runaway Connecticut.