MonthNovember 2005

New job, and stuff you realise

Wow, it has been a long time between blog posts, hasn’t it? Started the new job at The Guardian, and realised – afresh – a few things about this big debate on “why doesn’t the print industry simply reinvent itself overnight to compete with all this stuff on the web, because after all the print guys have all the money and they’re there already and the web is small and yet they’re faster…

You know why print is slow to change? Because it’s damn hard to do right. You get a daily newspaper working, and you interfere with those workings at your peril. Being fired would be the least of it. Once you get inside a huge citadel like The Guardian, you’re reminded once more that there are so many bits, and they all have to work smoothly together for the paper to appear. Copy has to get to pages. Pages have to be laid out. Corrections have to get incorporated. Deadlines have to be met. Only when this symphony of effort is complete and performed without (significant) error do you get a paper in your hands the next day.

So, in that situation, it’s not surprising if the IT department looks at you a bit askance if you say “Which year did you say this version of Quark Copydesk/Express came out?” The answer is simple: the year when they could get it to work. And which year is it going to be replaced? The year when the replacement works, every single time.

By contrast the web is easy. If you need to, really need to, you can hand-code web pages when things go a bit awry. (Try doing that down at the printing press. Ha.) That’s quite an advantage, in that medium. But of course the web side of the print thing (does that make sense?) can move quickly, and use the latest stuff.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think the print side is guaranteed to lose out in the shift to web. Print publications, at least dailies, have the advantage of knowing how to do this sort of thing, again and again.

G4: you’ve got a talent for.. what was it again?

The other day XTC’s Funk Pop A Roll came up on the MP3 player, and I dreamt, fervently, of someone performing it on The X-Factor.

Because I’d just love to hear the audience and judges’ reactions after lyrics like

Funk pop a roll beats up my soul
Oozing like napalm from the speakers and grill
Of your radio
Into the mouths of babes
And across the backs of its willing slaves

Funk pop a roll consumes you whole
Gulping in your opium so copiously from a disco
Everything you eat is waste
But swallowing is easy when it has no taste

They can fix you rabbits up
With your musical feed
They can fix you rabbits up
Big money selling you stuff that you do not need

Funk pop a roll for fish in shoals
Music by the yard for the children they keep
Like poseable dolls
The young to them are mistakes
Who only want bread but they’re force-fed cake

Funk pop a roll the only goal
The music business is a hammer to keep
You pegs in your holes
But please don’t listen to me
I’ve already been poisoned by this industry

But instead you get those pointless acts like… hey, remember whatwastheirnames? Seen on the latest Popbitch email:

>> Ex-factor < <
Has anyone seen our fans?

Louis Walsh’s old X Factor muppets G4 aren’t exactly enjoying career longevity. This email was circulated by the production team of Top Of The Pops this week.

“Anyone know of a G4 fan (a Mum/Granny) that would like their own private performance as a surprise?? We can’t track any fans down!!

“Pass on to anyone you think might like to get involved!”

Gee, you think that my prediction is any closer to coming true?

More on music pricing: what does price really tell us?

  • On pricing

    Pricing has always been a combination of economics and marketing and luck. My hero Joel Spolsky (best engineer who knows how to write) has a piece on this at Joel on Software.

The thing is, I disagree with him.

Pricing is a very effective signaling device, no doubt about it. People (and businesses) assume that good stuff is worth more. People pay for stuff on eBay for stuff based on the velocity of the auction instead of the innate value of the item. Real estate brokers warn you that a house that doesn’t sell right away is hard to sell because people look at a house that’s been on the market for a few months differently. All irrational and all based on signaling.

The reason that lousy movies cost the same as blockbuster movies, though, doesn’t have to do with signalling.

Seth Godin Finkelstein weighs in on the “how much should music companies charge, and ought they to?” He thinks Joel Spolsky is wrong about music pricing – but his conclusion doesn’t go where you’d expect. Godin Finkelstein is worth reading on just about anything; I’ve seen him around the Net for more than ten years, always stirring things up (Seen at Seth’s Blog)

This space for rent!

  • The Million Dollar Homepage – Own a piece of internet history!
    The marvellous, hilarious thing is that along there with all the (sigh) p*ker and c*sino and other completely stupid things is The Times. Ho yes. But this page is like America squeezed into a little space on your screen, all at once. All the crapulousness, all at once, all the time. Any change it could just stay there? (See also American Copywriter’s misery at the sight – including a comment from someone who saw it when it had 2 pixels bought up.)
  • | Media | How Lost viewers lose out to the ad breaks

    Short-changed fans of the mysterious Channel 4 show Lost have been given the answer to at least one nagging question as Ofcom revealed that each 65-minute episode contained just 36 minutes of new footage owing to the onslaught of advertisements.

    This is how the creeping advert culture is eating up your time. Half an hour of ads to see a half-hour program? No wonder PVRs and DVD-recorders are getting so popular.

So long, and thanks for all the fish: last Independent column

My last column for The Independent is on the best strategy for dealing with the changes in technology. (Well, you can’t just leave people completely in the lurch, can you?)

It’s interesting: writing columns tends to be what most journalists aim for. I went out with a woman once whose principal aim in life was to get a column in The Sun. (She nearly managed it too; she was a feature writer there. Breast cancer killed her too soon.) When I was at The Independent and Tom Wilkie, who had been science editor from the beginning, said he was going to leave, I asked his advice on how to move forward. “Get a column,” he said. “It raises your profile.”

Which is true. So does a blog, of course. But, you know, they let anyone do those nowadays, whereas getting a column on a national is still a challenge.

That said, I think the statute of limitations has expired enough for me to say that I think Johann Hari’s work brings new depths to the word jejune. The other day (after Tony Blair’s defeat on the terrorism proposals) he began an article thus:

The idea of detaining people without trial for 90 days did not die in the voting lobbies of the House of Commons last Wednesday.

Stop right there! The Commons didn’t vote on 90-day detention without trial. They voted on 90-day detention without charge. Huge difference. (It was a grumble about remand, which is actually a rather useful mechanism for detaining people you’d rather not have on the streets.)

That’s the sort of sleight-of-hand you have to watch out for. I’m amazed it wasn’t spotted and sliced out by the editors on the comment page. Possibly they were busy.

Ah, roll on Farringdon.

Music biz seeks digital price rises – but why? To keep the artists in line

  • iTunes price rise a cert – EMI boss | The Register

    EMI Music’s chief executive Alain Levy has said that there’s now a consensus that the price of hit songs will rise on digital download sites. Apple charges 99 cents per song on its iTunes Music Store regardless of the song’s popularity – something that the industry is keen to change.

    “There is a common understanding that we will have to come to a variable pricing structure. The issue is when. There is a case for superstars to have a higher price,” Levy told the Wall Street Journal.
    Click Here

    .. and as Kate Bush is on EMI this may begin to go a little way to explaining why her new album Aerial is still not listed on iTunes.. it’s all going to get ugly, very ugly, I think. Where’s that P2P app?

  • Joel on Software on variable music and movie pricing

    this [varying the price between ‘old’ and ‘new’ songs and artists] is what the recording industry is telling you that they want to do on iTunes. But they don’t do it in movie theaters. Why not?

    The answer is that pricing sends a signal. People have come to believe that “you get what you pay for.” If you lowered the price of a movie, people would immediately infer from the low price that it’s a crappy movie and they wouldn’t go see it. If you had different prices for movies, the $4 movies would have a lot less customers than they get anyway. The entertainment industry has to maintain a straight face and tell you that Gigli or Battlefield Earth are every bit as valuable as Wedding Crashers or Star Wars or nobody will go see them.

    Now, the reason the music recording industry wants different prices has nothing to do with making a premium on the best songs. What they really want is a system they can manipulate to send signals about what songs are worth, and thus what songs you should buy. I assure you that when really bad songs come out, as long as they’re new and the recording industry wants to promote those songs, they’ll charge the full $2.49 or whatever it is to send a fake signal that the songs are better than they really are. It’s the same reason we’ve had to put up with crappy radio for the last few decades: the music industry promotes what they want to promote, whether it’s good or bad, and the main reason they want to promote something is because that’s a bargaining chip they can use in their negotiations with artists. [my emphasis]

    EasyCinema has I think tried variable pricing on films in the UK. However, it’s struggled to get first-run films, though that’s to do with distribution. Anyone been to one?
    But this is a killer argument from Joel Spolsky about what’s really behind the scheming by the record biz. Whereas Apple, he points out, wants to control the record companies by getting to choose who features on the front page of the iTunes “Music” Store.

Incomplete web feeds, the bane of aggregated life

Woe unto the world. Good Morning Silicon Valley’s blog, which has some of the funniest headlines above the stories of the dumbest tech execs – for example, one of their tales about Sony’s rootkit messups was headline “And we would have got away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids” – has moved from a full feed to a partial feed.

Agh. I hate partial feeds. I don’t follow them, for the main part. After all, what does a partial post in my newsreader tell me? That the page has updated, and that it might be worth going over there, but on the other hand, who knows? Not many people are good enough at writing to the constraints of the few hundred characters that you feel compelled to go to the page, rather than move on to the next (full?) feed in your aggregator. You don’t get told if the article is enormously long (in the blog, it’s not).

Why have they done this? At best it only halves the amount of data they’re putting out, and it’s only TEXT for God’s sake. It ruins the whole experience. I’ve created a folder in NetNewsWire called “partial feeds” for those who don’t deign to let me read what they’re blogging. One of my first decisions on setting up this blog was to make it full-feed. (It’s an option on WordPress.)

Yes, I know. (1) They want people to come and see the adverts. Well, why not put the ads into the RSS feed? (2) The Guardian does partial feeds. Not much I can do about that at present.

What’s the future of photography?

The Independent today has a special digital photography supplement, for which I’ve written a few things, including a consideration of how the analogue/digital issue is moving.

The old expectation that more megapixels would solve your problems is gradually fading; once you get beyond four megapixels, your picture is not going to improve, unless you’re making posters. So digital cameras with replaceable lenses, and particularly programmable shutters (which let you adjustthe depth of focus and exposure time) will become much cheaper, and so more common.

The phone companies aren’t going to stand still either; though their purpose is not to give us the best possible cameras. It is to encourage us to upload our phone photos directly to online sharing sites, because that is a data transfer (which earns the phone network operator money). People also like the idea of sharing photos, and browsing them on phones (which more of the photo sharing sites are enabling).

It’s a world that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago. But it’s coming..

Done a book review on Amazon? …. oh, so you have

Updated: OK, as everyone has commented, the reviews are there. Clearly some sort of database glitch. It just happened long enough for a bunch of writers to notice it and get a bit annoyed.

I’ll leave what was up, but struck out, since it’s all completely wrong, and Amazon hasn’t done anything bad. Hope that’s clear.

Where have all the user-contributed reviews for books gone on Amazon UK?

They used to exist; I know, I did one (for Louise Wener’s “The Big Blind” since you ask).

Now however you go there and there’s just a load of rubbish from newspapers and magazines.

Has Amazon gotten sensitive about the idea that some authors (no names, since I’ve no idea who) might comment on their own books? But that was demonstrated as possible five years ago by Robert Blincoe – see his demonstration at The Register.

If it’s truly taken Amazon UK five years to get round to dealing with this, then there’s a couple of things to say.

1) You’ve really annoyed a lot of authors, who liked having punters’ comments on their books. Yes, really. They don’t want the anodyne crap spouted from papers and magazines (“Fabulous!””Mimsy borogroves!””Like a kettle with a spout!”), they want to be in touch with their readers.

2) It would be nice if you have some sort of explanation. As it is, Amazon UK’s press releases for 2005 has no mention of this move.

These days, one can say “Just look what happened to Sony..” to companies which try to do things by stealth and annoy folk. Come on, Amazon, cough to it. Then put them all back.

Eddie Izzard vs US Customs, Pete Townshend enblogged, and Harry Potter vs the bureaucrats

  • Seen on Popbitch’s latest mailout:

    Virgin_flyer writes: “I shared a flight to New York with Eddie Izzard last week. At immigration Eddie was dragged off to a private room for further questioning over a ‘parole issue’. After about 45 minutes one immigration officer came out looking cross and puzzled and asked his fellow officers –

    “‘Has anyone heard of Eddie Izzard? He’s some weird British guy in there claiming to be a comedian but he’s not making any of us laugh.'”

    Laughed aloud at that one, imagining the conversation in the room: “so tell us one of your jokes, huh?” “Well, washing. Is it the shirts? Noooo, it’s the socks…” And so on.

  • Pete Townshend (oh, you know, The Who) has a blog. And too much time on his hands when he should be writing “Quintophenia” or whatever the followup to Quadropenia would be, as the whole blog is a sort of book-thing called “The Boy Who Heard Music”. As he says there: What is well known is that I’m a rock star. You are not worthy etc. In fact you are worthy. And so am I. We deserve each other. OK, backing away slowly now…
  • As my daughter is now nearing the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (the second book, if you don’t know the genre) I’m not sure when I should tell her about the portrayal of government by JK Rowling in the Harry Potter books (the abstract is entitled “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy”):

    Consider this partial list of government activities: a) torturing children for lying; b) utilizing a prison designed and staffed specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; c) placing citizens in that prison without a hearing; d) allows the death penalty without a trial; e) allowing the powerful, rich or famous to control policy and practice; f) selective prosecution (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); g) conducting criminal trials without independent defense counsel; h) using truth serum to force confessions; i) maintaining constant surveillance over all citizens; j) allowing no elections whatsoever and no democratic lawmaking process; k) controlling the press.

    It all sounds very like a country beginning with “I” and ending with “q”. Then again, there’s no mention that the Ministry of Magic uses white phosphorus – that has to count in its favour.