Monthly Archives: July 2004

Through the looking glass

When I was a kid I used to lie in bed at night with my crappy Sanyo radio and roam the shortwave bands. I loved those voices from distant places. My favourite was Radio Tirana. On the nightly English-language news a male/female duo with the plummiest RP delivery imaginable (accents presumably acquired at Oxbridge and barely inflected by their utterly unknowable lives in the most isolated nation on earth) read the latest tractor production figures.

The other-worldliness of Hoxha-era Albania was intoxicating for a curious fourteen year-old. I wrote to the address provided. My dad was sure my letter would never get there. As a stamp collector (and former postman) he knew that, in the 1970s, Albania was the only nation on earth not to have signed the various International treaties on the exchange of mail. He was wrong. Not only did my letter get to Tirana (I remember the address: Radio Tirana, Albania) but I got a gorgeous reply in a massive dun envelope of such crude construction it had practically dissolved in transit. I wish I could remember what was in it…

I do remember that the Albanians didn’t actually bother to print stamps at the time so I got a brilliant, smudged rubber stamp mark instead – even better. Kept it for years. Anyway, that’s really a very roundabout way of saying that I got a similar tingle of mystery and general oddness from my visit to what is, according to Slashdot, North Korea’s first official web site.

By the way, I think you should really take the trouble to sign up for the site (although I can’t be sure what the privacy/security implications of getting an official North Korean webmail address are). Once registered you’ll get access to a lot of North Korean music by artists like The Korean People’s Army Merited State Chorus and The Wangjaesan Light Music Band and also some streaming movies. You’ll be invited to provide your profession (just select ‘worker’) and choose from a list of password reminder questions that includes: ‘how will Korea change after reunification?’

(And here’s a lovely gallery of old transistor radios – not my Sanyo, though…).

Two kinds of business insight

Here’s a really fascinating peek inside the Movable Type machine from Mena Trott. Like a lot of inventors, she’s giving up the CEO role in favour of a more experienced operator. People usually keep schtum about this kind of thing… While I’m posting business stuff, a terrific piece from Business Week about the decline of Sun and Scott McNealy’s heroic mistakes. Incidentally, these two pieces are a good illustration of the difference between blogging (high concept) and journalism (high production values). Trott’s blog entry is an immensely valuable insight into her business and the way business is done now – from her own, properly subjective, perspective. The Business Week piece is a big budget production – written by a team. Forty Sun executives, past and present, were interviewed for the story. No blogger will ever be able to throw that kind of resource at a story. A recipe for coexistence, if you ask me…

Got Bokeh?

I sold a lens on eBay the other day and my buyer wrote to tell me he’d seen the pics on my weblog and that I have ‘great Bokeh’. So now I can confirm that Bokeh is not a Japanese sexual practice but the word photographers use for those blurred discs you see in the out-of-focus areas of photographs. Fascinating. Ken Rockwell has a pretty good explanation. Mike Johnston says he’s the man who added the ‘h’ to the end of the English transliteration and has some good examples. Some test images here are really quite lovely in their own right and here’s a technical explanation from Harold M. Merklinger.

A car for cartoon villains

The finger for a HummerHummer H2 bling
I can’t tell you how much it cheers me up to learn that the number 2 result for ‘hummer h2‘ at Google is a marvelous bit of brand mischief called Fuck You and Your H2. So far, 845 people have taken the trouble to give the finger to a Hummer, take a photograph and upload it to FUH2. How’s that for engagement with the brand? It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the H2 is the world’s stupidest car: 3,500 kilos of bog standard 4×4 wrapped in a brutalist pseudo-military suburban assault vehicle skin that resembles the original Hummer, as popularised by macho celebrities after the first Gulf War.

There’s one round the corner from our house – black with black glass, natch – sporting a set of bling bling chrome wheel rims that keep spinning even after you’ve stopped the car – perhaps the most childish aftermarket car accessory in history – “Look! My wheels keep spinning even after I’ve stopped! It looks like I’m driving along really fast even when I’m at a red light!”

Anyway, the H2 must surely represent the high water mark for the 4X4. Although it’s been a big hit and is already spawning clones from half a dozen manufacturers (and they’re assembling the damn things in Russia now), sales of the three-and-a-half tonne school run device are down by a quarter since the invasion of Iraq.

The H2 and its ilk are the contemporary equivalent of the muscle cars of the early seventies – killed off by that other oil crisis – only with less charm. Steve McQueen could drive a Mustang in Bullitt and Warren Oates a GTO in Two Lane Blacktop but only a cartoon villain (Emissions Man?) would drive a Hummer. Arnold Schwarzenegger has a lot to answer for.

MP3 thoughts

The esteemed Phil Gyford just digitised a decade-and-a-half of radio recordings from audio cassette. That sounds like a public service to me – if he now feels able to feed that lot into a respectable P2P network I think he’ll have markedly enriched the public domain and will surely one day get an MBE (Phil’s advancement can’t be far off now). Anyway, Phil’s effort reminded me that I’ve always thought it would be a pretty neat business idea to buy a little van, paint it with a groovy logo and run around collecting people’s vinyl record collections, digitising and returning them on nice firewire hard drives. The neat thing about this is that (copyright permitting – not a trivial matter), you’d be able to build a big ‘stock’ of digitised tunes as you encoded people’s collections. Ultimately, you’d hardly need to actually encode anything – you’d just pull the track from stock. Anyone got a van?

Why don’t more cars look like this?

Two Nissan Figaros on a Radlett forecourtA promotional pic from the Figaro's launch in 1991

Saw the two Nissan Figaros in the top pic on a forecourt round the corner – someone’s obviously developing a specialism. Why, meanwhile, in the ocean of car choice, is there so little real variation? The design vocabulary of cars is so restricted and advances so slowly. What are the keywords on the mood boards at the car designers these days: sexy, aggressive, practical, safe, sporty, flexible, successful, family, active, fun? Other designed goods have a much wider vocabulary – what’s wrong with: ‘eccentric, cheeky, brassy, edgy, funny, baroque, playful, green, chintzy, daft, alternative’? Why are clever cars like the 1991 Figaro stuck in a sort of experimental ghetto? Are we so inflexible, so blinded by decades of auto engineering convention that we can’t imagine ourselves in something new?

Ivan points out that what we actually like about cars might be different from what we tell the manufacturers in those focus groups – for instance, in the latest brilliant Peugeot 407 ad, the car I really want is the oversize wooden baby toy and not the very dull 407 itself.