Day of the Social Media Day

Research on Iran. by Negar Mottahedeh Social M...
Well I suppose that's one way to look at it

By the time you read this, Social Media may already have had their day.

That is, if you’re reading after midnight. Otherwise, it’s Social Media Day! So we should all get out and… Actually I suppose we should all stay in.

Do social media really need another day though? They’ve already got most of mine. And while I’m an enthusiastic user and positive overall about their influence and possibilities, I am a little disturbed by the vast power now in the hands of so few. Twitter hasn’t even monetised its success yet; I have paranoid visions that it’s waiting until it’s utterly indispensable to our working and personal lives before sending the ransom note.

Actually this is an apposite time for a Social Media celebration. MySpace, the first great success and first great failure of the sector, was sold on by News Corporation yesterday. I’m very tempted to start using it again just to piss Rupert Murdoch off. There may be several reasons why MySpace crashed, but surely being from the people who brought you Fox News was the kiss of death.

Another good thing happening right now is Google squaring up to Facebook. It would be nice to see some real competition – if you can compete with what looks awful like a natural monopoly – and if anyone has a chance of taking on Zuckerberg¹ it’s Google I guess. Their Google+ system does looks promising. Going by published details that is. No I don’t have invites. Or know anyone who has invites.

Of course I’d prefer if the competition came from someone else rather than Google yet again, and I’m glad to say that the Diaspora alternative… still exists. Any day now, it may start to… begin. OK, it’s taking ages; but even Twitter took years to get it right; when I joined back in 2007 it was just me and two other guys talking about how we combed our hair. And Diaspora are right to be careful, because I think their idea has the potential to be roughly the biggest thing ever.

Hopefully I’ll find some time today to explain why!

  1. Whose name, I’m afraid to say, Firefox thinks should be corrected to ‘C****sucker’. Editorialising?

Danger Is My Middle Name!

French Horn
Galway Traffic? You'll Need One Of These

Unfortunately, my first and last names are “Runsawayfrom” and “Likealittlekitten”. But I can get that changed by deed poll now. I have proved my manhood.

So what fine, brave, reckless thing did I do? Perhaps you should sit down, or else these words might make you stumble. Gentle reader, I drove in Galway City.

I’d been putting that one off. Encircled by roundabouts, fiercely peppered with student bicycles, crammed up a one-way system rumoured to be based on the French horn, Galway is famously difficult for the inexperienced. And I am certainly that. Though I have in fact driven in Galway traffic before, it was twenty-five years ago when there were hardly any one-way streets and no roundabouts at all. The good old days, before the planners ruined it. By planning for all the cars people went and bought.

My only real experience with the traffic circle therefore was in our ecclesiastical capital Tuam, where they’re mostly of the mini variety. You know, those marked-on-the-ground ones that you can drive straight through if you’re not in the mood. Did I mention I failed my test? Anyway the ones in Galway City are big, with two or – for one particularly confusing segment – three lanes. To someone ignorant of the simple principles involved, they seem impossibly dangerous. Six months ago, I was that someone.

It was OK, he said nonchalantly. Not easy, but not the ballet of knives it appears to be either. Mirrors are your friends. No wait, they’re not your friends. They’re your enemies. Watch them. Basically the town driving is about the constant swivel-headed vigilance. All you need to do is look in as many directions as possible simultaneously.

I did get tooted, but just once – not bad for a first time. I deserved it too, I cut someone up. And yet somehow I don’t feel too bad about this. Possibly because it was a white van.

But It’s OUR Corruption

This is a good one. Michael Healy-Rae, the son of one of our finer politicians, won a ‘reality’ TV show thanks to a public phone-in vote. Several thousand of these calls, it turned out, came from his father’s place of work. As his father is a lone-wolf independent, not exactly popular with other TDs (representatives), it is beyond belief that this was a spontaneous outpouring of support by his fellow deputies. Government phone lines, which are free for representatives of course, were used to call premium numbers – were used in what can only be honestly described as an orchestrated attempt to cheat.

On his father’s retirement at the last election, thanks in part perhaps to the publicity received from the TV show, Michael Healy-Rae took over the seat.

He has now agreed to repay the cost of the calls. Not, he wishes to emphasise, because he admits any liability or responsibility for this wonderful outpouring of support from government offices. Rather, simply so that the House can get over this and go back to concentrating on the country’s real problems.

What he does not understand, or wishes to pretend not to understand, is that the contemptuous abuse of position and privilege to get an advantage over everyone else is precisely the country’s real problem.

My First Failed Career

Still not quite finished with that attic, would you believe. Right now I’m cleaning and repacking my old darkroom equipment. Not sure why. Did anything ever become so suddenly and so profoundly obsolete?

Maybe one day it’ll be retro-chic to take analogue pictures. After all, it had so many aspects you just don’t get with digital processing. Like handling poisonous chemicals in the dark. The gear seems OK, mostly. A few negatives chewn¹ by rats who apparently thought film was still made out of cellulose. No harm really, they were of a band I’d covered for a magazine in about 1984. Goth, but with lingering traces of New Romantic. Robert Smith Hair and Simon Le Bon pants. What I’m saying here basically is that the tooth-marks of rats have improved these images.

I wanted to be a photographer for several years. Right up until the day in fact that I finally understood it was real work. You’re running around with a box that has about fifteen knobs on it, trying to capture the moment. Set one wrong, and you lose. This is stressful.

And the costs! The film costs money, the developing costs more money. The printing costs really fantastic amounts of money. Eventually I did my own developing and printing, but it didn’t save much and it was even more hard work – especially as I’d had to settle for the cheapest, crappiest equipment going. This LPL 3301D enlarger didn’t even cast an even light, which is really the least you should expect. Possibly the worst thing ever made in Japan.

I don’t think of myself as a photographer any more, yet ironically I take far more pictures these days. Because I can. Since my camera turned into a phone the cost has become too small even to quantify – plus I actually have it when I see something worth photographing. And whether doing it more has improved my eye or just the odds, I think I get better results. Take that one up at the top there, from last April. That’s closer to being a good photograph than anything I ever took with a proper roll film SLR.

This is a new golden age of photography. And it happened so fast. Imagine if I’d appeared in my darkroom and said to my younger self “Some day soon you’ll take better pictures with a telephone.”

Actually I did, but at the time I just put it down to the chemicals.

  1. I’m quite convinced it’s a word.

MeeGo – Born On Death Row?

It's the only phone in the world to be made entirely out of licorice

A few days ago I suggested that Nokia’s lovely N9 might be the last as well as the first phone to use the MeeGo operating system. Now it would seem that speculation is confirmed. Well, it is if you want to go by a single short article in a Finnish daily paper, but that’s the sort of scrap of information people are grabbing at – particularly people in the MeeGo development community, who of course are desperately invested in this.

It isn’t true. Not on a literal level at least, because there are in fact two MeeGo phones. And though the N950 will be available to developers only and not the general public, why would they be releasing a phone to help people develop apps if they don’t plan to have anything to run them on? I think CEO Stephen Elop means only to counter the opposite rumours – that the good reception the N9 received was going to make Nokia switch back to MeeGo as its main strategy. That was only ever a fantasy.

I strongly suspect however that Nokia plan to keep MeeGo going as a little back-burner project – much as it was until quite recently. Remember, MeeGo is not a new thing but just the latest in a line of semi-experimental products based on Linux: the 770, N800, N810 and N900. These were never big sellers either, but Nokia is a company that has done well in the past by fielding a range of niche products.

Is there any point in buying one though when, no matter how good the hardware is, it lacks the ingredient that makes or breaks a phone in the world today; If MeeGo isn’t going to be a commercial product, who’s going to make apps for it?

Well they don’t necessarily have to. Don’t forget that all software for Symbian phones – which are going to be with us for some years yet – is actually built for Nokia’s Qt framework, also used on MeeGo. Maybe Symbian apps haven’t exactly set the world on fire, but good recent phones like the N8 have revived them somewhat. Then of course, under the MeeGo skin the OS is basically Debian Linux. The Open Source community will be able to provide many heavy-duty applications, just as are currently available for Nokia’s earlier Linux devices.

And, it has Java. OK, big whoop. Java on phones has always been a should-have-been. Except… Android apps are basically Java, aren’t they? Running on a version of Linux too. With that similar basic structure, it should be fairly easy to port Android apps to MeeGo.

Easy, or even trivial – if an application that rejoices under the name of Alien Dalvik fulfils its promise. This is not an emulator; it allows Android apps to run natively under MeeGo. Now that would be something; the vast supply of Androids apps, on mobile Linux, on Nokia hardware. The user would have to assemble it themselves I guess, but they’d get a combination that could easily rival the official Windows product. The only question, I suppose, is whether it will be allowed to happen.

More Fun With QR Codes

€5, though you'd hardly know it

I’ve been looking out for people using these things in unexpected ways – and finding surprisingly few. There’s this fairly effective decorative example. Or this portrait made up of thousands, each of which is a link to a video. Or the guy who proposed via code – God would he have looked like a loser if she hadn’t accepted. But I think the prize goes to the Netherlands, which to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its royal mint is circulating €5 and €10 coins with codes on them that link to a *surprise*.

I’ll save you the trouble of pointing a phone at the screen (yes, that works), it goes here. Though to be honest, the surprise isn’t all that.

But the coins are kind of funky, even if they’re not really Euros in that they aren’t legal tender outside the Netherlands. (Perhaps just as well. How would you react to finding that weirdly realistic image of Queen Beatrix in your change?) And even at home, the €10 ones won’t be seeing a lot of circulation. Made of gold, they’re worth more than their face value.

Naturally there was a brief insta-panic about having ‘tracking codes’ on money that might secretly be scanned by vending machines, etc. But as every coin has the same code, all it actually tells you is that €5 has been spent. Which, let’s face it, you probably knew already. So it’s a rather pointless and gimmicky application of the technology really. Now if all the coins had a different one you could have some fun. Prizes maybe. Or say one in ten thousand links to a really fierce porn site.

Just one thing still bothers me. If the Dutch Royal Mint is only a hundred years old, what the hell did they use for money before?

Click On My Face

This is a artistic steganography try. It talks...
There could be a link encoded in this image. There isn't, but there could be.

Yesterday I was discussing QR codes, and the possibility of turning the actual text in magazines or on posters into links. I see no reason why in the very near future you couldn’t go to a Web page, video or other online resource simply by pointing a phone at a printed URL. These methods could help revive the flagging newspaper and magazine industries, by introducing a much greater integration between the printed page and the Internet. For example you could easily share a magazine article with Facebook friends.

An idea that I can see supplanting even this though is a form of steganography – that is, encoding links and other data into pictures, in such a way that they can be read by machine without being visible to humans. Actually this is already used for anti-forgery systems; Adobe Photoshop for example will refuse to handle scans of Euro notes because it recognizes a pattern hidden in the design. The same method could turn photographs into clickable links when you look at them through your phone.

And print designers will absolutely love this. Not only do they not require blocky codes or funny fonts, they can make tired elements like www and .com finally vanish from their pages. So these I think will be with us pretty soon. Until they’re eventually replaced by RFID ink.