June 12, 2009

Pirate World

This advert bothers me…

Movie World at PC World

It bothers me because I don’t quite understand what PC World are offering here. As far as I can tell, the only realistic use for their magic hardware is to stream pirated movies from your PC to your TV.

How many legal websites offer on-demand movies in the UK? I’ve found maybe two, but Google for ‘download movies’ and you’ll find the Pirate Bay and Mininova come up first.

Apparently in the cinema this advert is coming up right before FACT’s advert telling you how lovely paying for films is.

I’m not convinced PC World’s latest promotion sits easily alongside that.

P.S. I’m not even going to go into the creepiness of the main guy in the advert or the pointlessness of the Christian Slater cameo.


May 21, 2009

Why journalism and the market don't fit together

Robert Picard’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay (published Tuesday) will go down with the NUJ like a lead balloon. He argues that journalists deserve low pay because:

Wages are compensation for value creation. And journalists simply aren’t creating much value these days.

If we accept his first point – that wages are compensation for value creation – then his second point is right on the money.

But that’s a slavishly ‘markets-rule-the-world’ kind of mindset. In the real world, wages are compensation for our time, effort and experience. We get paid more (unless we’re a banker) because we put in the time, the graft and have the knowledge and qualifications to do the job that’s required.

Basically, my point is that if we’re going to pay people because of the value they create, then teachers and doctors would be multi-millionaires and journalists would earn 50p per hour.

Neither of those things are the case.

But let’s ignore that for now and move down Robert Picard’s piece, because much of it is a wake-up call to the struggling media industry.

Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing, and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.

Like much of the article, this is so right it hurts. But written from an American’s perspective (albeit via Oxfordshire), Mr Picard’s argument ignores the importance of public service broadcasting, which is fairly thin on the ground in the US.

There are lots of stories out there for everyone to chew on, many of them original, worth reading and worth paying for. But with public service organisations to compete with, commercial news providers find that the pool of original journalism is reduced in size and harder to find.

This makes it hard to have such a diverse, privately-owned, profit-making media in the UK. But I’m not going to complain about that. Too much of the commercial world (whether television, radio, print or online) has given up the fight and has little energy left for original, value-creating journalism. They should be left to wither or should face up to radical change.

But Mr Picard’s scenario, combined with the UK’s exceptional circumstances, make me think that the Guardian’s model of ownership (through a not-for-profit trust) might be the best way forward. It recognises the necessity for a pluralistic media industry while not relying on the distraction of profit above-all-else that most organisations have to live with.

Mr Picard’s article calls on journalists to change their mindset, and he’s right to do that. But the ownership model needs to change too. Unless journalism is taken away from shareholders and investment funds, it won’t just fail to create value. It’ll fail to exist.


May 20, 2009

Why the next Speaker has to be Sir George Young

I won’t predict the next Speaker of the House of Commons. My last prediction, that Michael Martin would cling on, proved to be somewhere in the region of wrong.

Instead, I’ll offer a few reasons why the Conservative MP for North-West Hampshire, Sir George Young, should be trusted with the role.

1) Independence
He’s not afraid to walk the difficult path. In Andover, the centre of his constituency, he disagreed with almost every Conservative in the town on plans for an enormous Tesco warehouse. They generally supported it – he was one of the leaders of the campaign against it. By doing so, he was against those who wanted the jobs, but probably caught the public mood at the time. Perhaps he was guilty of following that public mood for electoral gain, but nevertheless, don’t we need a Speaker who’s in touch with what the public wants right now?

2) Transparency
Sir George was one of the first MPs to publish their expenses online. I doubt there are any others who reveal their spending in as much detail as this. In 06/07 he claimed £165 for food, for instance. The one black mark on his record might be that he maxed out his second home allowance for the last two years.

3) Balance
If convention is that the Speakership rotates between someone from the Government benches and someone from the Opposition benches, it really is time for a Tory.

4) Form
As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, he knows how the system works but can’t be blamed for its failings. He’s also a man in tune with the times – he led a campaign to get broadband into rural areas back in 2001.

5) The X Factor
He’s likable. He’s not annoyed anyone on the opposition benches, and he’s a lover of Parliament (theyworkforyou.com says he has well-above average attendance). Yes, he’s a Baronet, and yes he’s what people might call a ‘Grandee’, but he’s also a safe pair of hands, from the right party, at the right time.

P.S. Make of this disclosure what you will, but I lived, for just over a year, in Sir George’s constituency and regularly met with him to do radio interviews. That fact probably colours/informs my judgement somewhat.


May 19, 2009

'Education, Education, Education': The Results

Figures released quietly on Friday reveal the success of some of the government’s education programmes.

Michael Gove, the Tories’ Education Spokesman, asked the government how children on free school meals (the widely used guide to childrens’ family wealth) had done at A-Level and in their Sats tests (soon to be abolished).

These are the answers he got:

Those on free school meals who sat Maths A-Level:
2004: 554 (13.8%)
2008: 705 (17.1%)

Those on free school meals who sat Further Maths A-Level:
2004: 31 (0.8%)
2008: 53 (1.3%)

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 Maths tests:
2002: 5,120
2006: 9,233

But it’s not all good news. While Maths has been a big success, English results have actually worsened.

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 English tests:
2002: 2,663
2006: 2,364

These figures only reflect successes (or otherwise) in English, Maths and Science. Many teachers say the focus on these three subjects came at the expense of other subjects, especially at primary school. Where maths figures appear to be good news, those for modern languages show the inverse. Those getting two language GCSEs at grades A* to C fell from 7.3% of pupils in 1996 to 4.7% in 2008.


May 18, 2009

The Speaker will cling on

I think the Speaker of the House of Commons did enough today to cling onto his big green seat.

He was, of course, awful. Woeful. Abysmal. He needed a good showing, and he summarily proved he didn’t know House of Commons rules by getting confused over the technical arcania of substantive motions. I was momentarily transported back to student politics.

Shudder.

But he was nice to Gordon Prentice and Douglas Carswell who did their very best to rile him.

This was out of character, and was the one solitary thing he did today that was different from last week. Hidden in his measured, if stuttered tone was a smidgen of a whiff of a note of change.

The Speaker didn’t give the people (nor the media) what they wanted though. No retirement date. No immediate release of every MP’s expenses. And beyond that faint dram of forced friendliness, no sign of change.

He doesn’t want to go. The PM may want him to go politically, but electorally a by-election in the until-now safe Glasgow North East seat would be disastrous. And a contrived band of Scottish friends, led by the ridiculous Lord Foulkes, don’t want him to go.

All they have by way of weaponry is the sharp sword of convention.

Rarely do five or six people stand up to sixty million and win. In this battle, full of history and precedents, they just might.


May 11, 2009

They're not all scum

I think the Telegraph, and others, have gone too far with MP’s expenses now.

Yes, some of them are money-grabbing little sh*ts who deserve the marching orders they’ll be given at the next election.

But some of the MPs who’ve had their expenses splashed across the newspapers really have done nothing wrong.

The Daily Mail have the news that Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under his tennis court. His response that:

I was served a statutory notice by the water company to repair the leaking pipe, which runs underneath the tennis court and garden. No improvements were made to the tennis court or garden.”

seems to have been pretty much ignored – the paper’s still run the story and painted him as an expenses cheat in the process.

Another overblown example is the Prime Minister – yes his cleaner seems to be flipping expensive, but suggesting he was siphoning off public money to line his brother’s pockets is pretty close to an outright lie, and yet it’s the impression most people will now have.

I’m not too worried about individual MPs being slandered though – their electorate will see through the media bluster at the next election.

But I think the general ‘they’re all at it’ mood of the press is going to be really damaging. With a change of government more than likely, you’d expect turnout at the next election to be higher than 2001 and 2005.

But if the public think politicians are universally a breed of tight-fisted, public money-stealing good-for-nothings then it wouldn’t surprise me if turnout actually dropped. What, after all, is the point of voting for anyone if every politician is bent?

Gordon Brown’s claim that the system is at fault is nearly half-right, but it takes a certain kind of person to exploit that system.

However, the media’s completely over-the-top wall-to-wall coverage of the 650+ liars, cheats and bastards will do nothing for the public’s faith in democracy. And if that breaks down, we really are screwed.


May 06, 2009

A weird Kind of company, a weird Kind of idea

I’ve already blogged about how silly I find the Amazon Kindle. The fact they’ve brought out a second version today (because the normal one’s too small for newspapers and textbooks) seems to perfectly sum up why paper is best.

But this new release has also got me thinking about Amazon. They’re not really a hardware company. Yes, there’s a lot of hardware behind their website and in their enormous distribution centres. But they don’t really understand how to make and market hardware yet.

The clearest sign of this is the fact that neither the Kindle, Kindle2 or the new Kindle DX are available in the UK, or anywhere outside North America for that matter.

And that’s not just because they haven’t got round to it yet – all three Kindles use EVDO, a wireless modem that’s completely incompatible with phone networks outside the United States. That, to me, is a crazy decision, and makes me think Amazon don’t really know what they’re doing when it comes to selling hardware.


April 30, 2009

2666 reasons to read 2666

2666Not really, that would take forever. Instead, here’s just five reasons to read Roberto Bolano’s book, 2666.

  1. It’s like The Wire. Endlessly complex, multiple sides to every story, characters that are rarely good or bad but usually a bit of both. It’s also in five parts, one of which is about the death of journalism.
  2. It’s not like The Wire. It’s tougher. If you thought the crime rate in Baltimore was bad, wait until you read Part Four of this book. It also makes less sense than The Wire, but if you’re prepared to read a 900-page book, that’s probably not going to bother you much.
  3. It’s unfinished. Roberto Bolano died before he completed the book, so any fault you might find in the book isn’t really his fault.
  4. You’ll struggle to find a critical review.
  5. In fifty years time, people might well ask you if you’ve read this book yet. You might as well get it out of the way while you’re young.

April 28, 2009

Bye Trees!

Media companies love giving you bundles. Bundles of telly, phone calls, broadband etc.

But they’re not very good at realising you’ve got a bundle.

Here’s two envelopes of ‘stuff’ I got from BT this morning…

BT junk mail

One envelope contained a bill for my phone calls (4 pages). The other contained a bill for my TV package I get from them (3 pages).

And both contained the same junk mail. Much of it’s promoting products which I already have.

Couldn’t BT save themselves quite a lot of money by just sending me one bill, in one envelope, containing (if they must) one lot of junk?

=====

Footnote: BT is one of the contractors working on the NHS’s highly successful new IT system.

Footnote 2: BT’s slogan is, no word of a lie, “Bringing it all together”.


April 23, 2009

From dunce to developer

Bill Thompson is something of a Great Uncle of the world wide web. He’s not the daddy – that’s Tim Berners-Lee. He’s more of a godfather, who Berners-Lee might trust if he had a nasty accident with some html.

In his latest posting on the BBC News | Technology site, he points out one of the many ways in which IT education in Britain is rubbish and how more of us are going to need to at least know about programming and development.

I’ve been writing websites since about 1999. My first was a sort of primitive blog, without comments. I reviewed music, films and games. It had about one reader. Me.

Then in 2001 I created a community website for my home town called Tetbury Online. Miraculously the internet archive has preserved my earliest efforts from 2002 and 2003. The site’s changed cosmetically since, but not a lot. It’s still just a static load of html with some code from Google thrown in to make it seem a little more dynamic.

I was already thinking about it before Bill Thompson’s column came out, but he might have tipped me over the edge: I’m scrapping the whole site and rebuilding it in something a little more Web 2.0.

I’ve chosen Drupal as a content management system as it seems to be well supported, relatively simple and infinitely flexible. Oh, and free. That unfortunately means heaving the whole website to a new hosting company and shared server so that I can install the cms. My old hosting provider didn’t allow databases, which I’ve recently discovered is what makes the internet go round.

Drupal’s based largely on php – a programming language with which I am as familiar with as veganism or Hungarian. But from what I can tell, that shouldn’t matter. Drupal, and other CMS’s, like Joomla are based on a system of menus, buttons, drop-down boxes and remarkably little code. All the hard work goes on under the surface.

The biggest advantage of using a content management system over just html is that for the first time, I’ll be able to let other people fiddle with the site. I’m hoping that local groups will add events, businesses will update their directory listings and employers will post their vacancies. In short, while re-writing the whole site will be a chore, once it’s done I can share the load of updating the site with others.

The new site will also be about six billion percent more dynamic. I can enable comments on any page at the press of a button. No coding. Just a click. I can have every article appear on an RSS feed without having to understand how. And I can create event calendars, audio slideshows, aggregated feeds, and Google Maps in 30 seconds.

It’s an awesome bit of kit – it’s just a shame the barrier to entry (having your own shared server space = £30+ per year) is high enough to put people off having a try.

Hopefully by the summer when the site should go live, I’ll be able to call myself a developer, of sorts. All without learning any code. Now that they should be teaching in schools.


March 12, 2009

What next for Spotify?

I, and I suspect everyone I’ve recommended it to, love Spotify.

It’s ludicrously simple, the adverts are reasonably unobtrusive, and it’s free.

But I can still hear the creaking of the floodgates. Spotify’s a step forward for making everything ‘free’ to the consumer, but I think there’s much more to come.

First up, a simple one: Spoken word. Spotify would be 100% better if it had comedy, drama and classic radio documentaries available. I suspect much of this material hasn’t been released on CD before because it wouldn’t be economic. Now it is. The long tail’s wagging and I hope BBC Worldwide et al will jump on board it soon.

Spotify logoSecond, a new medium altogether: Games. I’ve had a look, and unless I’m mistaken, there’s nowhere to rent PC games online. Even sites like Swapgame and Lovefilm will only let you rent console games. And then they choose to prop up Royal Mail rather than use something more modern like downloads. The idea of spending £35+ on a new game has always baffled me. My attention span isn’t long enough to justify that sort of outlay. And rather than a fee-paying model, why not rent the games out for free in return for some advertising?

Thirdly, a step onto other people’s turf: TV. Project Kangaroo’s skipped off into oblivion, and there’s still a big gap in the market for non-PSB online TV. Some services are on the cusp of getting it right – we have BT Vision and it’s great, if a little expensive. Surely the ad-funded model is the way forward?

The best thing about these ways forward, in my opinion, is that they could bring in much more money than just streaming music. There’s a lot of scepticism that an advert every 20mins will be enough to pay the conservative record companies what they want. Each of these three ideas depend on the support of industries who are likely to be much more open to ‘free’ than the music industry has been.

If I was Spotify, I’d Diversify.

=====

P.S. This article hints at Spotify trying to get on mobile devices. If I were working for Google, I’d be pushing Android to get exclusivity on it – it’d make the Apple. fall from its tree and splatter all over Cupertino.


March 09, 2009

Beating the recession with a bit of gardening

Successional sowing of cress, grown in the lid of a tupperware boxPerhaps the greatest rip-offs in our supermarkets come from salad. At the moment (admittedly out of season), 100g of rocket salad will cost you anything from £1.20 upwards, and that’s on special offer. Not only is 100g almost always too much for what you need, it’ll normally go off within 48 hours.

Spinach is another rip-off. £1.24 or so for a bag of the stuff.

Well, I reckon you can grow the stuff, nearly all year round, for perhaps just 10% of the price you’d pay in the supermarkets.

First of all, you don’t need a garden to grow your own salad. In fact, all you need is a windowsill, and some seeds. They’re normally about £1.50 for a pack that will last you at least a year, assuming normal usage. But Lidl and Aldi are getting into the budget gardening business at the moment. A pack of seeds there cost between 29p and 49p, and they don’t seem very inferior to me.

Next, you need some eggboxes or used toilet rolls (the cardboard bit, naturally). Cost = nothing.

You will need some kind of compost. I’ve tried stealing topsoil from public places before, and it just doesn’t work. A bag of the stuff can be had for about £1.99.

Micro-rocket! Great in sandwiches.Plant the seeds in the compost, itself shoved in the eggboxes or toilet rolls. Then stick them on a windowsill which gets some sun.

You’re unlikely to get huge great clumps of herbs and salads, but the smaller leaves you’ll get will be full of flavour. Rocket, spinach, chinese cabbage (like lettuce), parsley and of course that childhood classic, cress, all seem to be winners, and I’ve been harvesting them since early February.

The best thing about all of these herbs and salads is the use-by date. There isn’t one. Kept cool enough, they won’t really go off until you pull them out of the soil.

The key to growing your own salad is what the seed packets call ‘successional sowing’. Basically, a few weeks after planting your first batch, plant some more. By the time you’ve eaten your first bits you’ll then have some more ready for you.

So, salad all year round. Very little cost. And an end to 48 hour use-by dates.

And you don’t even need a garden.


February 25, 2009

Less is more?

Amazon don’t seem to have noticed the campaign for less packaging in consumer products. This is the Kindle2 – their electronic reader thing that I’ve already said I don’t see the point of.

The Amazon Kindle2 - image from Engadget

It comes with a monumental amount of packaging, none of which seems to have a practical use, and little of which is likely to be recyclable.

I know this product’s probably saving a few trees that would otherwise have been turned into books, but this is just silly.

[More pictures of the packaging from Engadget]


February 24, 2009

Jack Bauer – A shadow of his former kick–ass self

Oh Jack Bauer, how much I loved you in the old days when you were blonde and had a daughter that kissed you goodnight and a wife who wasn’t, you know, dead.

Jack Bauer. Half the man he used to be.

I started watching Season 1 of ‘24’ again yesterday. The wave of nostalgia emanating from the TV screen was awe-inspiring. Remember the days of Standard Definition? Of dodgy sound editing? Of bad haircuts?

Remember when 24 was actually good?

The experience was depressing. Because it made me remember just how face-crunchingly abysmal 24 has become. We’re now on Season 7, and the show should be on a life-support machine.

Every plot twist is recycled from an earlier season. Even characters Just. Won’t. DIE. and keep making miraculous returns, presumably to cut down on the need for casting directors.

But worst of all, the show just doesn’t know where it’s going, what it’s doing or what it’s about.

Villains come and go faster than Jack can say ‘sonofabitch’. Their dastardly plan changes from one minute to the next. Civilians die in their hundreds and the fictional CNN seems to forget about it ten minutes later. And Jack has to defeat his arch enemy Every Fricking Hour just to keep the audience happy.

Well I’m not an American simpleton with a thirst for blood and a desire for Jack to win every round.

There is literally a scene in the first episode of that first season when a character tells Jack exactly what will happen for the whole season. Terrorists will try and kill a Presidential Candidate. That’s it.

Now, the writers would be hard pressed to sustain an idea that simple for ten minutes, let alone 24 hours.

In Season 1, Jack had a team. Yes, two of them were moles, but he had relationships with people. Now he is, to quote Judi Dench’s M, a “blunt instrument”.

24 was revolutionary, and not just because of the way it was told in real-time. It led to hundreds of drama serials which rejected the traditional one-episode, one-story format of CSI, ER and Law & Order. Lost and Prison Break were just two of the more successful attempts to tell one story across six months of television.

And it was also the show that gave us hacksaw decapitations.

24’s not just a lurking shadow of its former self.

It’s as blunt as a spoon.


February 23, 2009

A prediction

I’m kicking myself a little for not blogging my predictions for last night’s Oscars. Or the Baftas before that.

Because I got it dead right. Not only did I know Slumdog would win best film – I blogged it so on January 16th – but last night I also decided (in my head) the film would win eight awards.

Which it did.

So here’s another prediction, one that I’m not so keen to make.

On January 31st I suggested to a friend that Man United had peaked too early in the season and would suffer a big dip in form before the prizes are given out in the early summer. I was heartily laughed at. Well, I think the dip starts tomorrow against Inter Milan.

I hope I’m only good at predicting film award ceremonies.


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