MonthApril 2007

Which John Brunner novel are we living through today?

From RTE News, 28 March 2007:

Tests carried out in laboratories in Wales have also established that the strain of cryptosporidium parasite which has been found in water reservoirs and treatment plants can be transmitted from human to human.

The Health Service Executive says the situation remains a very serious one and it is of the utmost importance that all water is boiled before use. Experts have told RTÉ News it could be up to six months before tap water is safe to drink in parts of Galway affected by pollution.

Up to 90,000 householders and businesses are affected, and today the number of cases of the cryptosporidium illness in the country rose to 125.

And now let’s compare..

“Did you go down to the beach?”

“Who’d want to?”

“Exactly. Who’d want to? Masochists with a yen for pharyngitis and bowel upsets! Who goes swimming anymore except in a private pool? It isn’t safe. Hell, I know girls who won’t wash their faces except with bottled water, in case it runs into their mouths.”

The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner, p130 (first publ. 1972).

Brunner’s (science fiction) book is about the collapse of American civilisation… (You know what I mean..) Link to the RTE stuff from John Naughton’s Memex.

Part of the plot of Brunner’s book assumes that bees have become extinct in the US. I think it was science fiction.. this is also the writer, by the way, who wrote a book including the internet some years before it had been invented. Scary.

Embargoes: why we hacks hate them

Chris Edwards dissects, in truly remarkable detail, the many ways in which embargoes can screw journalists, PRs and companies up. Very well worth reading; he reckons there are four sorts of embargoes – including the “psychically transmitted”:

the story was the result of a more general interview which was, apparently, to have been issued on a release some time later. There is a belief among some PRs that journalists are unwilling to write some stories, even from face-to-face interviews, without some form of release. Do not believe them. They are misguided, even if experience does suggest to them otherwise. Similarly, some PRs believe you can impose an embargo unilaterally. Don’t try that at home. You might be dismayed by the results.

And then there was the other, worse time..

The one that is truly burned into my memory is the launch of some vapourware that involved a trek to Berkshire to a startup’s offices. I can’t remember why I agreed to it as the product was vapourware of the purest form – it did finally arrive, but it took a while and what finally appeared had a rather vague connection to the original plan. On arrival at the office, the PR presented me with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I handed it straight back and asked for her to call for a cab. She was a bit surprised – presumably expecting a bit of grumble but, ultimately, compliance. She asked, why? “Because there’s no point in me staying here, is there?” I replied. “I’m not signing it.”

I too hate NDAs (non-disclosure agreemnts). I think I shan’t sign another; these days, with embargoes and NDAs getting exploded all over the web by the fact that loads of people are discussing everything and putting them together, there just isn’t any point. You’ll probably find it out somewhere else anyway.

That’s the trouble with embargoes: they’re almost always artificial, unless they’re something to do with finance, in which case are you sure you should be briefing people anyway? Product launches, oh, sure, except shipping dates can slip. And really you have to have used a product for about a month before you really know what its benefits and drawbacks are.

Cover versions, pt 1: of Joni Mitchell, bad and brilliant

I’ve grown to love Joni Mitchell’s music; it’s a gradual thing where you discover that she just couldn’t do a bad song. Well, she could, but then she did a great one to make up for it. And the other thing is that people do really rubbish cover versions of her songs, in general. Which is what has made the release of an album of cover versions of Joni Mitchell songs – A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (iTunes Store) or the website itself, where you can listen and compare the songs. Oh dear.

For example, Bjork says “The first record of hers I discovered was Don Juan’s Daughter; I was around fourteen, fifteen and I knew it by heart (still do, every instrument, every noise, every word).”

Except as Andy Kershaw apoplectically pointed out on the BBC’s Front Row arts program, it’s called Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. And Joni’s version is just miles better.

OK, so kd lang has a great voice and has done some nice versions on 49th Parallel. But in general, covers of her songs just go nowhere because they don’t have her swooping voice.

Except for Nazareth’s version of This Flight Tonight. You’ve not heard of it? Not surprising. It was in 1973. I remember it really well because I was just a kid, really into the charts, and the sound of it (and the drumming pattern, which is what I was into those days – four on the hi-hat per beat sounded so radical) is just amazing. It really sounds like being in a tiny crate of a plane in the blackness with the lights down below. And very heavy.

To quote Nazareth’s history site:

it was their knack of coming up with totally fresh covers of strong songs written by other people that broke them abroad. They became huge in Canada after This Flight Tonight soared up the singles charts there, whilst reaching number 11 in Britain. Taken from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 Blue album, Nazareth’s version – produced by Deep Purple’s Roger Glover as part of the Loud’N’Proud sessions – is more than a re-working. What they’ve done is taken the song from its folk-ballad roots right through to heavy metal. Small wonder then that Joni Mitchell both was stunned by and loved this version, reportedly even calling it a Nazareth song from then on.

Here it is on iTunes – thanks, macuser.

The weird thing is that the Joni Mitchell original (at the iTunes Store) does sound rather watered-down compared to the Nazareth one, which has all sorts of weirdness going on in the background. There’s only a small number of cover versions which are better than the original. And there’s only a miniscule number of people who ever do a better version of a Joni Mitchell song. But this, amazingly, is one.

Travis did a good cover of “River”. But I can’t think of any others where the cover is better than the original apart from Nazareth’s. Any offers?

It’s not often I feel sympathy for PR people.. but then you read.. and laugh

I’d sort of forgotten about The World’s Leading, which is the Private Eye of PR blogs; it had just sat there in my feeds, because it doesn’t offer a full feed (big mistake, guys and gals; I do most of my reading offline, on the train).

But sometimes something catches your eye. Once I’d shaken off the annoying person ringing me up to tell me that WofflyWoff conference would be having an exciting forum next week (me: “send me an email, sure”; PR bod: “and when should I ring you to find out what you’re going to do?” me: “never, or possibly slightly after that”), I passed by and came across what looked like an interesting post.

And it is. A month in the day in the life of a PR person trying to set up some meetings with, dear God, won’t anyone come and meet the chief executive.. sod it, head of sales and marketing.. in the 8.30am slot on Monday in Slough?

OK, so The Economist didn’t return your email, and FT Digital Business is looking more likely than the FT proper, but all is well. CBR is up for it too – should be a nice tour.

Then [marketing boss] calls. The CEO isn’t coming after all. But not to worry, the global head of sales and marketing is coming over instead. “He’s the company’s fourth-most-important exec, so we’ll still get some really good interest.” You’re not so sure. You ask if you can tweak his job title. You can’t. His agenda isn’t fixed yet, but you’ve got his PA’s details and she can fill you in.

A really, really good post. Hell, shouldn’t it author be chasing up some press releases or something?

Oh, and a final note while we’re on topic. There’s been an uptick in the number of completely crap PR emails I’ve been getting lately. Things like “the healing crystal powers of naturally abrogated sea salt” and “51 biscuits that can really help your tan!”. The sort of thing that would only make sense to the fluffiest of magazines.

Who gave you this email, I growled at one?

“PR Planner,” she gasped, deleting my name forever from her lists.

Never heard of them. Google search. Flipping heck. “PR Planner from Cision (formerly Romeike)”.

You can change your name, folks, but you’re still rubbish.

Hey, Alanis Morissette *does* know what irony is – and has the video to prove it

Alanis Morissette. She became famous for apparently having no idea what irony was, when she wrote a song called Ironic in which she described loads of situations asking “Isn’t it ironic?” and they weren’t. Like a spoon when you need a fork, rain on your wedding day, etc.

But now she’s got a dictionary. Oh, man, she has. She’s covered the Black Eyed Peas’ horrible “My Humps” (sample lyric: “My humps, my humps, my lovely lady bumps” – it’s a sony whose multifold depth has puzzled pretty much nobody at all, though if you do find it puzzling the video will clarify). In her own, slow, plangent way.

The result: brilliance. She has copied the video style, the hairstyle, the lack of style in the original and simply torn it very slowly apart just by singing it as though she were singing one of her own songs.

It’s absolutely brilliant – if you’re reading this on the web page, here’s the embedded video:

For those of us who thought L’Alanis had lost her edge since under rug swept, well, she’s still got something going.

Two things that persuaded me that journalism absolutely will carry on, and get paid

The first was that I wandered into the kitchen while The Message, compered by Steve Hewlett, was on. They were talking about blogs and new media and stuff. One of the guests made the point that “In all the years I’ve listened to Radio 4, I’ve never heard anything useful on Any Answers. But on Any Questions, where you have professionals answering the questions, I have.”

The point about Any Answers is sooo true. It’s open mike for anyone who can’t be bothered to think beyond the headlines they might have seen. Last Saturday it was full of people who thought that the captured British sailors in Iran should have stuck to name, rank and serial number and refused to comply with demands to do daft TV pieces.

Name, rank and serial number must be one of those stuck memes – those things we think are still the form in which things are done (I mentioned the one of climbers making ascents by banging things into the rock, even though in rock climbing in Britain that’s been pretty much totally abandoned – because it damages the rock – since the 1970s). NR&SN was abandoned by the Allies some time ago – during the first Gulf War? – because they recognised that it simply doesn’t work. They are going to torture you, and it is going to hurt like hell, and precisely what is it you’re keeping from them? Any sensible command structure won’t have told you anything useful beyond your mission, else they wouldn’t have sent you. Military instructions have for some years been: don’t be obstructive. Don’t help, do escape if you get a clear chance, don’t volunteer stuff, but make your time there as pleasant for yourself as you can, and bear in mind that it’s all head games, apart from the bits which are really unpleasant, which aren’t.

So, no intelligence on display in Any Answers.

The second was trudging through the Technorati-discovered responses to Vic Keegan’s piece headlined “To the Average Joe, blogs aren’t cutting it“. There are 70-odd of them, so I’ll save you, but the reason why (on about the 30th, parroting the same response: “I’m an average joe and I like my blog”) this process persuaded me that journalism is here to last is that so many of the people whining hadn’t read the original. They had a link to it, but they’d not managed to go through it. They hadn’t managed to read it, absorb it, think of the questions it did and didn’t raise. They hadn’t been to look at the State of the Blogosphere report. They hadn’t checked primary sources. They hadn’t done the footwork.

Journalists do that: they do check, they do ask, they do look for inconsistencies, things left out, things unsaid. They do ask what procedures are, they do go looking for notes on what those procedures are, they ask people who’ve been captured what it was like, if they can tell them what they’ve been told.

You can’t get the average person to do that. It’s a skill, one which can to some extent be learnt, but the drive to know what’s going on comes from somewhere inside. And it’s absolutely the sort of thing that will be essential in future. It’s weird that it takes the counter-evidence to show it, but the exception proves – where “proves” has its Old English meaning, of “tests” – the rule. It’s exceptional for people who aren’t journalists to have those abilities. But as a rule, journalists do this stuff. And always will.

Astronauts.. Customs.. yeah, been there, written that.

So I see that the top story on Reddit (atm) is about how the astronauts had to come through Customs when they returned from the Moon.

Yup, I recall writing that one.. ooh, was it really as long as as February 2001? Yes it was. Text below: it appeared on February 19 2001. Maybe it’s still there somewhere on the Indie site. (Update: yes it is.) Nothing new under the sun. Tom Wilkie, who was science editor when I joined, felt it was time to move on when the same story came around the third time (life on Mars, are we all doooooomed, how old is the universe, etc). Now I think: only three times? With the web, that only gives you about four years maximum.

Which reminds me that I must get my full-text articles database up. Code is written, only remains to load it in and generate an interface.

First published in The Independent February 19 2001; you can link, but please don’t copy. A side note: this appeared as the “basement” (the story on the bottom of the page) of the broadsheet, light relief from whatever was the main news that day. No room for such frivolities these days.

It was a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind, but for the US Customs it was just another day at the office. Which is why when the triumphant crew of Apollo 11, led by Neil Armstrong, returned to Earth, one of the first questions they faced was: are you going through the red channel or the green channel?

Documents which have just come to light via the Internet show that even if you’ve just travelled to the Moon and back – especially if you’ve just travelled to the Moon and back – the US Customs wants to know what you’ve got. Anyone who has visited the US will be familiar with the huge litany of items which travellers are required to declare, such as plants, drugs and other preparations.

Historians at the US space agency Nasa have confirmed that the document, headed “General declaration” and signed by the three crew members, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins, is authentic. It lists the departure point as “Moon” and arrival as “Honolulu” on July 24, 1969, where the travellers set foot on Earth again after splash-landing in the Pacific Ocean.

But what, Customs wanted to know, was in those bags? “Moon rock and Moon dust samples”, the crew responded. How many people had disembarked or joined the round trip from Cape Kennedy? Thankfully, the answer to both was “nil”: no lost souls and no extra aliens. And was anyone ill, and were there “any other conditions on board which may lead to the spread of disease” – which in this case would presumably be mysterious space viruses? “To be determined”, the crew responded to the latter question, though the test of time suggests that nothing untoward happened.

It is unclear whether this practice became the pro forma for returning lunar astronauts from Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17? “We have a lot of records here, but that would be something really for Customs,” said Colin Fries of Nasa historian’s office. “We think that maybe it was one of those cases where everyone was trying to get in on the act, because it was such a big thing, after all.” But he is not certain that other crews did not also have to fill out a similar form: “it’s hard to prove a negative”, he commented.

And here’s the scanned image, from (I think, from memory) Steve Bellovin.

120 channels and everything on

“Buh-bye, Dad-dee.” The sort of words that fathers head from their two-year-old children every day. Always accompanied by that little wave they do.

Odd to think that it’s almost exactly two years since we got the confirmation that this now two-year-old was born profoundly deaf, and on his own can’t hear pretty much anything except perhaps artillery.

Since then another 1,680 babies have been born deaf in the UK. That’s 1,680 parents who’ve had to cope, in whatever way, with knowing their otherwise perfect child can’t hear. (Some are happy, of course.)

What’s so different about us now is that we understand how it can be that a child who was born deaf can hear, and speak, and what’s more speak with diction that’s comparable with his hearing peers. Really: things are that good. Two years ago, things just looked bleak.

That’s the wonder of cochlear implants; and especially of the device that child3 is using, an Advanced Bionics with the new Hi-Res system, which simulates having 120 hearing channels (which means being able to distinguish 120 different tones) rather than the 16 or so his implant really has.

What’s odd, looking back, is how we completely didn’t know about cochlear implants. Didn’t know about a 20, 30, 40-year-technology that is almost routine to implant, whose effects (benefits and risks) are well-known. Isn’t that strange, in retrospect?

But then again – most people think that rock climbers make their ascent by banging things into the rock. There are all sorts of other things that people have misconceptions about, because they’re slightly out of the mainstream but somehow a bit well-known. I’m tempted to blame the media..

Still, to any other parents of a newly-discovered-to-be-deaf child: things can work out so much better than you expect. Work on it. And the reality may be so much better than you expect.

Not to dance on their grave or anything, but.. sayonara G4.

So G4 have split, citing not that old problem musical differences, but rows (about what?) and the desire to stay friends.

Er, what?

To quote the Daily Mail’s We’re an X group because we fight so much, says G4:

The quartet have been living out of each other’s pockets for the best part of five years after meeting at university, busking together, appearing on the ITV series, making and promoting three albums, then touring the world three times.

After a string of heated rows which have frequently verged on the physical, the four went to see their management company two weeks ago to say their fourth tour would be their final one.

Their record company tried to persuade them to make another album together, but they all decided they would be happier concentrating on their own solo projects.

Yea, I bet the record company wanted another album – it’s all upside for the labels. Group breaks up? “Your last chance to hear!” Or just sell it as back catalogue.

One has to feel they haven’t been doing that well out of the music business. After all, as one commenter to the story noted, the Rolling Stones have been not getting on for decades, but all that cash somehow proves attractive.

So G4 become the second group ever to split up over, er, musical similarities. (Go on, name the other one.)

I gave them two years from February 2005. They managed two months more. I’ll take that as near enough to call a win.

One other thing about the Daily Mail story:

He added: “We have had a great two and a half years. We’ve sold a million-and-a-half albums and will have done four sell-out tours, Going their separate ways: The boys of G4 (from left) Jonathan Ansell, Matthew Stiff, Mike Christie and Ben Thapa and we don’t want to cheat our fans by not being able to give G4 110 per cent commitment.

Read it carefully, and you notice there’s a phrase in the middle that doesn’t make sense. It’s the caption to the photo, but the Mail’s CSS, or something, hasn’t quite done it right. Tricky stuff, this interweb.

(Thanks to Crawford for the tipoff.)

Well, I laughed: “you have been evicted from the Big Iranian House”

From Popbitch: “British sailors, you are live on Iranian TV, please do not swear. You have been evicted – you have 30 minutes to leave the big Iranian house.”

The point about it being that I’m sure lots of rather subtle Soprano-style diplomacy went on here. Like “Nice contract with the German government you’ve got there.. be a shame if anything happened to it..” – even if France and Holland wouldn’t play.

Diplomacy in these situations is much more subtle than any tabloid paper can really describe.