Monthly Archives: March 2003

Enlightened old men

I wonder if there’s a generation of scientists, artists and technocrats ready to succeed Freeman Dyson, Arthur C Clarke and all those other admirable, enlightened, imaginative old men who came of age before the bomb. Clarke dreams of a time when a majority of humankind can’t quite remember which way to point when asked where planet Earth is. Dyson of extending the range of life, infinitely adaptable, to the the furthest edges of the universe and of rearranging the Solar System.

They, I’m sure, would have no patience with the narrow-minded campaign to retreat from manned space flight. BBC 4 has an excellent documentary about Dyson’s Orion project. He planned to send people across inter-stellar distances by exploding hundreds of Hydrogen bombs behind their space ships. The programme will probably repeat half a dozen times so you have time to catch it and you can hear Dyson speaking at the programme’s web site.

You’ve got hate mail!

I’ve had lots of email in response to my latest Guardian article, which is a pretty unremarkable slice of nostalgia, but it’s not the nostalgia that’s got people going, it’s the couple of positive lines about the USA at the end. I won’t quote any of the really rude messages but something from Steve H in San Francisco:

“I don’t mean to deflate your baloon, but my country really is not the “optimistic, open, self creating” place you describe it to be, far from it. I have seen friends murdered, had people pull guns far too often on me, seen people get the shit kicked out of them by police with batons leaving them a bloody mess…the list goes on and on, there is terrible racism and injustice here. This is a rough place. Yes there is optimism, but far too often it is borne out of ignorance and/or denial. There is great, great suffering here under the phony facade you see in your lecture halls. You just don’t know. Anyways I had to write and warn you about this place. You have it DAMN GOOD in Europe/UK…in many ways much better than America and don’t you forget it young man!”

Guardian.jpgBlame Waldman

Simon Waldman, the big boss at Guardian Unlimited, thinks we should start to assemble a kind of community history of the UK Internet business on the occasion of its sort-of-tenth anniversary. I think it’s a good idea and it got me thinking, so my Bowbrick at Large column this week is a snapshot from my own Internet history and a reflection on what I’ve learnt about America over the years:>pr?

“Looking back on those strange meetings from the other side of the bell curve of boom and bust, on each occasion my main motivation wasn’t the money or the likelihood of getting a US foothold for my business. I think I was falling in love with this exotic and utterly alien way of being, with the whole business of American optimism, openness and self-creation.”

Wolff on the war

Execellent writing on war frenzy in the American media from Michael Wolff in The Guardian.

‘The story now is about the war as a fighting-man event, not a political event. It’s 90% a Pentagon story. No context, just blow by blow. The excitement is about going along, about having access, wearing war clothes, eating war food – a desire, finally, to be part of the scene, to be an “embed”, to hang out in Doha at the $225,000 briefing stage. It’s all spectacle. The war is not just a ratings gift, but a personal, professional plum.’

In the distant past (starting in 1994), Wolff played the game with a clever but ultimately doomed media play called NetGuide. I met Michael a couple of times. Once in the mid-nineties in a dark corridor at one of those terrifying Venture Capital smack-downs – this one was in New York – where you join a queue of bushy-tailed entrepreneurs to present your idea to a roomful of half-asleep vultures and they give you the metaphorical (sometimes literal) thumbs-up or -down in a ‘break-out room’ afterwards.

Wolff was on a roll. He was already funded and he had the untouchable Greek God look of a nearly-billionaire. The next time I met him was several years later in London. His business had been brought low by the usual combination of hubris, opportunism and venality (and members of the Maxwell family). He’d written an excellent book about the experience (Burn Rate) that turned out to mark the beginning of the end for the whole sorry adventure and he’d returned to the (presumably) saner world of New York journalism, from which he now despatches this kind of sanity on a regular basis.

Too easy

Timothy Garton Ash is doing heroic work on both sides of the Atlantic – more important than ever as the fog of war thickens – to articulate the complicated, nervous, ambivalent support for Blair and the war amongst lefties and liberals who think the ‘no war’ stance is just too easy…

The Guardian, New York Times (requires free registration).


Thanks to for image:
On Tuesday, in The Guardian, before the war began, I wrote:

“Our proximity to the fighting is unarguable. The collision of network-era news gathering tools, weblogs and interconnected internet communities will produce a kind of ecstasy of information and communication. The war will be fought as if it were on the other side of the thinnest sheet of glass. It will be as if we are there.”

I didn’t anticipate the ‘video phone’ coverage, though. Something about the personal, portable nature of the kit makes the images transmitted even more immediate than I’d imagined – almost intimate… The choppiness and urgency of the footage gives you the sense you can almost feel the reporter’s pulse and breath. The reporter and his technology are merging. A Gulf War reporter is a borderline cyborg.

These cheap cameras seem to be velcro’d to aircraft carrier masts, to the outside of tank armour, to fighter pilots’ helmets and, of course, to dozens of reporters. I think we’ll remember this war as the war of the ubiquitous video phone.

I don’t understand how these things work but the chunky, lossy compression suggests clever, adaptive transmission and very low bit rates. Presumably the video is transmitted via sat-phone channels intended only for voice (possibly even analogue transmission?).

This story, from an NBC reporter in Kuwait City, doesn’t get me any closer to understanding how the video phones work but lays out the Gulf reporters’ new tech tool kit. This one is better. I learn that TV reporters in the field are using essentially the same kit as any amateur (a Mini DV camera, a Mac Powerbook and simple editing software) to produce their own packages for transmission back home (but I still don’t know how those video phones work!).