Monthly Archives: October 2004

Weird American politics and technology standards

In the current NYRB Joan Didion mixes bile and incision beautifully in a long and detailed analysis of the simultaneously etiolated and hyped-up language of ‘the new normal’ in post-Iraq American Politics. Brilliant writing.

I learnt a lot from this really meaty VoIP special issue and from this equally meaty essay about standards in ACM Queue (Gordon Bell link from this Slashdot thread).

What’s the opposite of sustainable software?

Government IT projects are out of control. That’s a given. 30 billion quid is a lot of money (for something visible from space it would be a lot of money – in fact, it would get you quite a long way up your space elevator).

I don’t want to trivialise the task of integrating dozens of creaking National Health systems and putting something useful on hundreds of thousands of desks but I do want to make a simple (naive?) comparison – what does it cost to build and run, ooh, Hotmail (200 million users and climbing) or eBay/PayPal (95 million members and $7.5B in transactions) or Yahoo (274 million users) or Google (4.28 billion pages and 100,000 servers)? What does it cost to build complex and meaningful applications like Flickr and MySQL and Asterisk and Linux itself (or even Windows)?

Answer (let’s be frank): bugger all. Absolutely nothing. Well, a trivial sum – at least in comparison to these consultant-built monsters (how many trees would you have to plant to make the NHS system carbon neutral?). Since we seem to be constitutionally incapable of building sustainable, appropriately-scaled applications to deliver public services via the conventional route, it’s about time we took a chance and handed one of these projects (or even a tiny slice of one of them) to the hackers to see if they could do a better job…

Jacques the clown

An old, black & white picture of Jacques DerridaBlack & white picture of Jacques Tati smoking a pipe in Monsieur Hulot character
Wild guess: Jacques Derrida, demon of empiricists and humanists (and newspaper editors) everywhere, will, now that he’s gone, quite soon be reduced to a cuddly, French caricature – a sort of philosophical Jacques Tati: an eccentric, provocative, language-obsessed clown. His unsettling ideas will be neutralised by nostalgia for a period already mostly forgotten. I expect a Hollywood bio-pic: Robin Williams for Derrida (Jack Nicholson for Lacan?).

(lovely Tati site, by the way)

Brands brought low

Parkinson's Prudential mouth
Crass television advertising is not dead. In fact we seem to be enjoying a renaissance. To begin with, there are the braindead sponsorship ‘bumpers‘ (I think that’s what they’re called) wrapped around Parkinson‘s new slot on ITV. Tightly framed mouths read ugly little poems clumsiliy themed on ‘plain speaking’ or something – about the silliest attempt to tie together programme content and brand values that I can remember. A very close second position goes to Leerdammer cheese, whose bumpers for Midsomer Murders (are you getting a picture of my weekend viewing?) are also stupid but at least have the self-knowledge to attempt a joke that probably works for the audience (the hard-of-hearing).

Worst of all, come to think of it, are those gut-wrenching ads for The Times, in which celebrities artlessly read scripted ‘conversations’ that are meant to suggest erudition, debate, robust to-and-fro, wisdom freely shared, blah blah. They’re embarassing and succeed in pegging the once-awe-inspiring Thunderer as a witless wannabe (a ‘used-to-be’, I suppose), tagging along behind its smarter competitors. I feel sorry for the handful of really smart and provocative journos who still work there (busy polishing their CVs as we speak, I should imagine). An important brand (and an institution) on its last legs. Sad.

Digital guilt

Kodak are laying off 600 people in the UK because of digital cameras. Now I feel really bad about finally going digital. It’s easy enough to damn a big firm like Kodak – they should have responded differently to digital, they should have repositioned as a service business for digital consumers, they should have dumped analogue sooner, they should have bought this company or that… but these giant, technological or social changes are almost impossible to respond to with panache.

Kodak’s survival into the digital era is now uncertain – the analogue generation is aging faster than we expected, middle class families want the immediacy of digital and the next generation of photographers won’t know how to load a roll of film. There’s a reasonable chance that Kodak won’t make it, that the business will be carved up by opportunists or fade away entirely. A few weeks ago, Ilford, venerable UK supplier of B&W materials, went into administration for the same reason. Only the nimblest of companies could manage a transition as dramatic as analogue-to-digital and these businesses are not, by any definition, nimble.

help reproducing fairies

It’s like this: I want to photograph some embroidered fairies (bear with me). They’re embroidered on paper for framing so they’re pretty flat but have lots of flounces and beads and other pretty stuff that sticks up – this rules out scanning (I’ve tried it – it’s horrible). So I’ve bought a proper copy stand and some lamps and I’m using my brand spanking new 6MP digital SLR to take the pictures. Here’s the thing: the results are crap.

The best pics (and they’re really good) are the first ones I ever took, using a kids’ easel, my old 35mm SLR and hit-and-miss natural light out in the yard. I can’t get anywhere near the same quality using my new set-up, despite lots of tinkering with lighting, white balance, contrast and every feature my new camera offers. If you’re an expert on photographing flat(ish) artwork for reproduction (or if you know anyone who is or if you know of a good book or a good forum for this sort of thing), then please drop me a line!

My new thing

Some Thinner Media business cards on the kitchen table
So I’m up late making some improvised business cards for my new thing – which is called Thinner Media (and which doesn’t strictly exist yet and certainly doesn’t have a web site so don’t ask). I’m going to hand the cards out at tomorrow night’s ‘An Internet Decade’, one of a string of ‘the net is ten’ events over the next few months. This one’s organised, as far as I can tell, by the DTI, NOP and e-consultancy. 100 of us (of uncertain pedigree, for sure) are to be ‘honoured’ for our contribution to the UK Internet over the last ten years. We are to be addressed by Tim Berners-Lee, our only authentic grandee. Ivan will, inevitably, be there…

I’m entertaining a fantasy that, once we’ve all had a glass or two of warm white wine, we’ll be taken out into the alley and given a good kicking – “and that’s for the ridiculous online petfood store, and that’s for the stupid lawn in the middle of your fucking office and that’s for sticking .com on the end of your name in a pathetic attempt to boost your share price and, you bastard, that’s for the string of major league baseball teams you bought with the money you looted from my pension fund!” Think I’ll stay at home.

Institutionally dead

About 6 minutes into this RealMedia stream of Sunday’s The World This Weekend is about the most devastating analysis of the condition of the post-Thatcher Tory Party I’ve yet heard and – remarkably enough – it comes from three prominent Tories (or fellow travelers): Dominic Cummings, Director of The New Frontiers Foundation (and one time adviser to Iain Duncan Smith); Peter Hitchens, columnist on The Mail on Sunday and Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph (retired). Hitchens says, of the Tories:

“They are institutionally dead. They ceased to reproduce about 30 years ago, They are pretty much like what marketing men call the ‘ghost brands’. Something like Capstan Full Strength or those single razor blades you can still buy at the backs of chemists’ shops that hardly anybody buys…”

(of course, the stream will be overwritten by next week’s pretty soon but I have an MP3 if you’ve missed it).