The Medium Is The Extra Large

I’m applying for some college courses. After I fill out the online form and pay my money, one springs me with a surprise: They also want an idea for a “digital media project”. Huh. If I had an idea for digital media project I wouldn’t be applying for college.

So I’m staring at this, trying to figure out what they mean. What is a digital medium anyway. Someone who signs seances?

OK, seriously. Seriouslish. A medium is any means of communication more complicated than direct conversation. A telegraph, a town crier, a tombstone, a talking drum, a cardboard tube if sufficiently long. If you’re speaking through it, it’s a medium, and so the vast majority of human communication is via some medium or another.

What is digital? People use the word to mean “Things on the Internet and… stuff”, but it’s really anything that can be encoded as numbers. An analogue recording is a model of one physical thing (say a sound) made in another physical thing (say a groove), and so a copy of an analogue recording is a model of a model. Digital recording models the physical thing purely as an abstract number, which is why it can be copied forever without any loss of detail. That’s a huge boost in efficiency, so not only is most music and television digital now, but digital technologies also play vital roles in apparently analogue media like newspapers and radio. Really, a better question is what isn’t digital media now.

Which gives me my idea. What, indeed, has yet to be made digital? I should make some outrageous proposal to digitise a thing that everybody thinks of as quintessentially analogue. A digital… cloud? No that’s already a thing. A digital aeroplane! What could be less like a string of numbers than a solid object flying through the air?

Except, even planes are digital already. The joystick connects to a computer now, not to the wings and tail. It’s like they’re playing a flight simulation game and the game is flying the plane. But they’re in the plane, so they’re in the game… All a little head-wrecking when you think about it.

So I turn my attention to that third word. What constitutes a “project”? Any plan of action, really. That being the case I have a number of digital media projects lined up – first thing tomorrow morning in fact. Turning off the digital alarm on my phone and checking my digital email. Getting up and turning on the digital TV. Seen this way, pretty much my whole life is a digital media project.

Ladies and gentlemen of the admissions committee, I submit: Myself.

Truth – There’s An App For That

Back in the day – which, to clear this up once and for all, ran from 1997 until 2003 – I was a big fan of The Brunching Shuttlecocks, perhaps the first really successful Web-based comedy team. Sure there were funny sites before, but they tended to be collections of jokes that could have – and often had – been published in other forms. There were Web incarnations of humour that already existed in other media, such as The Onion. There were webcomics, but again they could have appeared anywhere – if anywhere much still published comics. The Brunching Shuttlecocks though did humour that was, to a large extent, native to the Web.

Which didn’t just mean it was geek humour – though yeah, a lot of it was. More importantly though, much of it was among the first comedy that simply could not have appeared in any other medium. Items like The Bjork Song or Tina The Troubled Teen took advantage of technologies like scripting and object embedding to do jokes in new ways.

The Brunching Shuttlecocks are with us no more alas. The website isn’t even available now due to a hosting dispute, (though word is it will return soon). Main contributors Lore Fitzgerald Sjöberg and Dave Neilsen have long moved on to other things. Despite its eight-year lack of existence though, there’s still a surprisingly active fan community.

And now, you can Brunch (as we say) on your favourite portable Apple product. One of the best-loved items on the site was Good Or Bad?, an interactive feature where readers could vote on whether a random range of bizarre things were, well, good or bad. Votes were collated, and their fundamental value discovered. The free app actually expands on the original idea because it allows you to add your own items for the crowd-sourced assessment of other users, though it comes with the original (and hilarious) Good or Bad? content as ‘seed truth’.

Ever wanted to know whether that feeling you get in your stomach when a lift goes down, or the weirdly satisfying sensation of accidentally treading on a snail, or the big button at the pedestrian crossing that doesn’t apparently do anything is a good thing or bad? Now you can, definitively.

A Prisoner Of Fantasy

Not really anything to do with the story. My friend Abi just won a prize for this in a photography competition. Isn't it lovely?

Just watching J K Rowling giving evidence to the UK’s press ethics enquiry (“Quest For The Lost Ethic”). She speaks movingly about what it’s like to be a parent in the telescopic eye of the tabloid press, how it feels to be quite literally stalked by these agencies, the stomach-twisting feeling, as she put it, when you realise someone is watching you. How you wonder what is it they intend to write, what they’ve heard or expect to find, what they may know about you that you don’t even know yourself.

It’s interesting that she’s a fantasy author. We generally consider this something of a minority interest, but far from it; people avidly consume stories about the famous that are mostly or wholly made up. I’m not a particular fan of her writing, but she does speak interestingly about the language of the situation. For example she says she has enormous respect for journalism, which can involve reporters risking their lives to get important stories. Yet people who dedicate themselves to harassing others and getting photographs of children are also called journalists. Should there not be different words for these professions? She also uses the verb “to long-lens” someone, rather than to photograph, implying that to take a picture in situations where you cannot be seen to be taking a picture is a wholly different thing and, almost perforce, an invasion of privacy. It’s a useful distinction.

A picture emerges of someone effectively forced into hiding by the need to shield her children from the life-warping effects of publicity. She’d never make the analogy herself, but her success at, of all things, children’s fiction has brought her to a situation only a step or two away from that of Salman Rushdie. Yet the Press Complaints Commission, as currently constituted, seems unable and indeed unwilling to do anything meaningful about this sort of persecution. Even when it upholds a complaint, the tabloids seem able literally to laugh it off. After one such reprimand a paper responded by publishing a picture of her daughter as a baby. It would be hard to imagine a more subtle yet simultaneously barbaric threat.

I’m reminded of the time that one paper published a map to the home of George Michael, another known non-fan of News International and its ilk. Forced to apologise, they stated that it “had not been their intention” to reveal the location of his home. Can you think of an intention to a map other than revealing a location? But it seems that in the strange world of press regulation, a bare-faced, transparent and risible lie counts as an apology. It’s clear that the UK needs a better mechanism to punish the fantasy press for its transgressions.

The question as always is how you can do that without endangering the freedom of other papers to do good things. Well there is one simple way: Don’t buy them. Don’t ever buy them. No matter how tempting the pornography they put on their front pages, don’t buy them. It’s the only regulation that they understand.

The Guardian Monster

London Underground roundel logo
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Oh the Guardian, that normally well-regarded major UK newspaper, has had a ****ing brilliant idea. You see, if you read a story in the online version of the paper, you can share it on Facebook using their app.

Actually if you are logged into Facebook – even in another browser window you’ve forgotten is still open – it automatically posts the article you’re reading. It does say when you install it that the app will share what you read, but I don’t think the casual user will immediately realise this means “without even asking”. I certainly bloody didn’t.

So at long last, the Guardian has managed to fully automate the process of having someone reading over your shoulder. In this way online readers all over the world can partake of the authentic crowded London tube experience.

But that’s not even the worst part. The link it posts doesn’t actually go to the article, it – yes – offers to install the app. So you accept because you want to read the story. All your friends will then see what you’ve read and install the app so they can read it, which will tell all their friends what they’ve read… This thing is going to spread exactly like a virus.

Indeed the figures seem to be bearing that out. Two weeks ago, after being out only a month, they had their millionth install. At that rate we have about one week left to enjoy Facebook before it collapses under the sheer weight of Guardian links.

Electric Car Wars

Nissan Leaf at Tokyo Motor Show.
Fill it with your mighty juice

In an exciting clash of great British institutions, the Guardian’s George Monbiot has taken the BBC’s Top Gear to task over their review of electric cars. You can guess most of it – Top Gear promotes all that threatens safety and the environment, the Guardian takes life too seriously and should relax once in a while. Both these things are true.

Monbiot is wrong though. I watched that episode, and I don’t think it set out to grossly mislead. Yes, the Nissan LEAF running out of power in the city of Lincoln was staged. But everything about the program with the exception of the laptimes – and I’m not even sure about those – is staged. They drop pianos on Morris Marinas, any caravan they come near inexplicably catches light, and if they get an electric car you can be sure the battery will go flat. The programme is blatantly childish, and this is part of its attraction.

“But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly,” claims Monbiot, “leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.”

Well I for one did not get that strong impression. I saw it as Clarkson and May taking off without considering how they were going to charge up, like fools. It was silly, but it highlighted some practical problems with electric cars – problems programmes with an environmental brief are perhaps too happy to make light of in a different sense. To be out of charge in an electric car could make you long for the simple days of a hike with a can to a distant filling station.

Is there any real danger of that? When new, the LEAF has a claimed range of 160 km (100 miles). And though in practice you’d rarely if ever be charging from completely flat, a full recharge at ordinary voltages for Europe will take around 8 hours. (A figure of 11 hours under some conditions was mentioned on the programme, but that does seem to be misleading.) This isn’t actually bad at all. It means it’s capable of a daily commute of anything up to a hundred miles each way if you can recharge at work, which sounds like more than almost anyone would ever want. However it’s not allowing for the unexpected – which always happens. So for a comfortable margin of error you really want to be travelling only half that far, at least until a network of fast-charging stations becomes a reality.

But that’s still absolutely fine for about 90% of the journeys that cars actually make. So when the Top Gear team conclude that “electric cars are not the future” (and that that future is – somehow – hydrogen), they’re clearly wrong. Already a practical proposition for a lot of people, the electric car is the present.

The future is probably no cars at all.

Beginning Of The End Of An Empire?

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...
"Let me see, what to call a tedious, overweening news editor... Evertrue Pratthandle? Raphael Trundlethroat? Ted?

Like many others, I bought the News Of The World for the last time today. Like many others, I also bought it for the first time today. Morbid curiosity. Of course this issue is hardly representative. It’s devoted to showing what a loss it is to the news publishing world.

To this end they reprint their very first front page from 1843. It sets out the paper’s stall in prose which, if you didn’t know was the real thing, you’d take for a parody of long-winded Victorian pomposity:

The general utility of all classes is the idea with which this paper originated. To give to the poorer classes of society a paper which would suit their means, and to the middle, as well as the rich, a journal, which from its immense circulation, should command their attention, have been the influencing motives that have caused the appearance of “NEWS OF THE WORLD”. We shall make no apologies for these motives, because, we conceive, that in their accomplishment we shall attain an end, that in the present state of England is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Journalism for the rich man, and journalism for the poor, has up to this time, been so broadly and distinctly marked, as the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich, are from the customs, the squalor, and the dens of the poor.

Can’t seem to decide there whether the poor are objects of pity or their market. Maybe the adverts said “Read it in the comfort of your own hovel!” And what was, with all of those, freaking, commas?

It carries on in this vein for – Christ – over three thousand constipated words. You couldn’t make it up. Hell, Dickens would have had trouble making it up. All reprinting this seems to establish is that the News Of the World was every bit as much a piece of unbearable crap 168 years ago as it was, for the last time, today.

Though presumably it was at least less criminal.

Speaking of which, Murdoch may be in even more trouble than previously thought. As the Telegraph points out, his News International is a US-based corporation, and the US has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) outlawing bribery payments abroad. If found guilty of making payments to British police, News International may be facing fines of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It will be interesting to see how that gets reported on Fox News.

Beginning Of The End Of An Empire?

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...
"Let me see, what to call a tedious, overweening news editor... Evertrue Pratthandle? Raphael Trundlethroat? Ted?

Like many others, I bought the News Of The World for the last time today. Like many others, I also bought it for the first time today. Morbid curiosity. Of course this issue is hardly representative. It’s devoted to showing what a loss it is to the news publishing world.

To this end they reprint their very first front page from 1843. It sets out the paper’s stall in prose which, if you didn’t know was the real thing, you’d take for a parody of long-winded Victorian pomposity:

The general utility of all classes is the idea with which this paper originated. To give to the poorer classes of society a paper which would suit their means, and to the middle, as well as the rich, a journal, which from its immense circulation, should command their attention, have been the influencing motives that have caused the appearance of “NEWS OF THE WORLD”. We shall make no apologies for these motives, because, we conceive, that in their accomplishment we shall attain an end, that in the present state of England is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Journalism for the rich man, and journalism for the poor, has up to this time, been so broadly and distinctly marked, as the manners, the dress, and the habitations of the rich, are from the customs, the squalor, and the dens of the poor.

Can’t seem to decide there whether the poor are objects of pity or their market. Maybe the adverts said “Read it in the comfort of your own hovel!” And what was, with all of those, freaking, commas?

It carries on in this vein for – Christ – over three thousand constipated words. You couldn’t make it up. Hell, Dickens would have had trouble making it up. All reprinting this seems to establish is that the News Of the World was every bit as much a piece of unbearable crap 168 years ago as it was, for the last time, today.

Though presumably it was at least less criminal.

Speaking of which, Murdoch may be in even more trouble than previously thought. As the Telegraph points out, his News International is a US-based corporation, and the US has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) outlawing bribery payments abroad. If found guilty of making payments to British police, News International may be facing fines of hundreds of millions of dollars.

It will be interesting to see how that gets reported on Fox News.