Archive for September, 2006

Conservatives discover Web 2.0

30 September 2006

From this morning’s Grauniad, Dave Cameron takes to the web:

David Cameron will today unveil radical plans to harness the power of the internet by reaching out to a blogging generation that is disaffected and disconnected from mainstream politics. At the heart of the initiative, which is designed to make the Tories one of the most technologically progressive parties in Europe, is “webcameron” – a website for video blogs by their leader.

Well, it’s a nice idea but let down by an ugly pun of a name. Why they went for that, when they could have gone for the much more amusing “BlueTube”, I don’t know. Anyway, full devastating critique to follow…

Update: OK, I went there – very Web 2.0ish design, they’ve got tagging, while there no mention of the word ‘Conservative’ on the front page at all – and watched the current featured video. And to be honest, it’s not a bad piece of work. It’s obviously been carefully set up and framed; Dave is in the kitchen, one of his young children in the background, doing the washing up – very much the intimate portrait of a family man, caring man image – there’s even a bottle of Ecover bandied about to keep the Waitrose-shopping lot happy. But despite the blatant scenesetting, he still comes across as an OK guy, if he weren’t a Tory; it confirms the suspicion that while I probably wouldn’t want to take David Cameron for a pint down my local pub, he’d be at least tolerable company if you met him at a dinner party.

However, I somehow doubt that David Cameron is going the next LonelyGirl; the Conservatives (and to be fair, most other political parties and campaigns) still really don’t yet get how the internet is being used these days; sermons from the Great Leader work for a certain demographic but it still does nothing to alter the public perception that Cameron is just the smooth-talking, cuddly face of a horde of fusty undesirable old-fashioned Tories, nor does it help alter the current political mindset that is focused around individual leader that the public is rapidly tiring of.

What would be a lot more fun would be not to get the leader doing the occasional piece to (a professional-quality) camera but give ten or twenty Conservative activists, MPs and candidates of all ages and demographics proper bog-standard webcams, make them do an unrehearsed piece once or twice a week when in their bedroom (preferably at the end of their working day) and stick it on YouTube; allow people to make comments (constructive or not), and post video responses back. Would it win an election? Nope. But it would be a lot more honest and refreshing, totally different from how campaigns are currently centralised and micromanaged, and would be a much better way of showing the public who a political party is, and what they are really made of.

Further update: Hahahaha (via doctorvee)


Underwhelming journalism

20 September 2006

Last night’s Panorama that made allegations that they had promised would “rock football” turned out to be a rather hit and miss affair that was still disappointingly vague.

The main problem was that it was highly confused in its targets. Their inside man was involved in a number of deals, but they focused on two quite different sets of alleged activities; the first is tapping up – i.e. approaching a player without the permission of his club. The second is more serious, of bungs, i.e. that managers are being given a cut of agent’s fees to sign particular players.

Of the two, you’d think tapping-up would be easier to prove, not least because clubs as big as Chelsea have been caught doing it red-handed, but the programme’s undercover work was poor – all it was was an ambiguous discussion with several senior officials of various clubs, who expressed in an interest in signing players offered to them by an agent actively soliciting for business. That was it. Nothing that suggested that the clubs mentioned were actually involved in tapping up players; the evidence was pathetically flimsy.

The coverage of these affairs diluted out the real blood and guts story of allegations of bung-taking by a Premiership manager, as related by several agents. While tapping-up is unethical at worst, bung-taking is basically a nice way of saying bribery. Levelling charges of corruption against a major figure in the game is a serious undertaking, yet the BBC crowded it out with side stories of little relevance and even less substance. This was probably in an attempt to broaden the scope of the documentary so they could say they had exposed the entire workings of football, so as to live up to its overblown title.

It’s a classic case of trying to make news more like entertainment – you always end up overstating what you’ve actually got, and you end up overplaying your hand. No surprise then, that the reaction from this morning’s newspapers is a touch cooler than it really should be – substantial bung allegations haven’t been made against a top flight manager for a decade, but the overexpectation has subdued the effect. Investigative journalism, especially into closed and secretive worlds such as football deals, is unlikely to produce smoking guns; without the resources of an official or police investigation that’s understandable, of course it is going to rely by a large part on circumstantial evidence and unreliable testimony. By making the mistake of presenting this as earth-shattering hard evidence that will rock the entire system, rather than acknowledging all you have is circumstantial evidence about the activities of a few individuals, you only undermine your already weak case even further. A little more perspective and self-restraint from the BBC’s investigative teams is needed, or else sooner or later they will make a terrible mistake at someone’s expense.


You think you’re funny, do you?

18 September 2006

How a typical John O’Farrell column is, or rather was, laid out:

  • Intentionally misleading introduction hinting about something topical yet heavy such as MRSA or international terrorism…
  • …which turns out to actually be about something trivial, like the Lib Dems, or foxhunting
  • Mock dialogue between imaginary protagonists which flogs this dead horse to tedious shreds
  • Highly unoriginal observation – George Bush a bit fond of war, David Beckham not the sharpest tool in the box, Royal Family slightly on the German side
  • Blindingly obvious “turn the concept on its head” joke – “Of course, we all remember when Hitler courted controversy by dressing as a Nazi”
  • Dig at the Tories to prove he’s still right-on, eh kids?
  • Talks about self for a bit in a smug self-congratulatory “I’m a satirist, this is what I do” tone
  • End on a vaguely serious note and a question in a desperate attempt To Be Profound

Christ. It’s a bit like those segments on programmes like That’s Life! where the host would go “And now here’s John with an irreverent look at the week’s news”, with a flick of the eyebrows and an insincere grin that is a sure sign that whatever’s going to come on, it’ll be about as funny as root canal surgery.

Having long ago deciding to blank his horrible unfunny writing out of my vision I barely noticed him leaving the Guardian last year, but now he’s back. Whoop-dee-do. John O’Farrells’s launching a website with some crushingly awful name like NewsBiscuit.com and is given a free opportunity by the Beeb to relentlessly plug it as the saviour of British ‘net comedy, because apparently, according to John, there aren’t any funny sites out there.

Well, actually that’s bollocks. There are plenty of funny UK satire sites (or sites with a large UK contingent), but they operate in a variety of comedic forms and are much more decentralised than the “look at me, I’m being funny” column of old. As the web allows for all kinds of other visual representations, written satire on current affairs have had to share with other forms of media, such as photoshopping, animations, webcomics, audio and video. For someone who runs a comedy satire website, he is shockingly ignorant of internet humour; he thinks the Popbitch mailout is a humour newsletter, rather than a collection of gossip and links when the only real attempt at deliberate comedy is an intentionally bad joke at the end. He doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the satirical content of community sites such as B3ta or Something Awful, or the current explosion in comedy podcasts, or productions hosted on YouTube (which he seems to think is an online version of You’ve Been Framed).

Of course, within this menagerie of different media, there is still find old-fashioned, written satire, but much of it is now spread over a wide range of blogs, rather than a centralised collection of sites. Dedicated satire sites do still exist of course, such as the Rockall Times, DeadBrain, The Framley Examiner or Social Scrutiny, but the bar is now much higher than it used to be. John O’Farrell’s problem is simply that isn’t much demand in the real world for the forumulaic, schoolboy-style rehashing of stereotypes that makes up his flaccid routine.

What’s worse is that the web reduces the separation between real-world demand and the producer. Nobody buys the Guardian for the jokes, so your boring column can carry on for years without it damaging reading figures or causing your editor any worry. On the web it’s different – if you’re not funny, you’re just not going to be read or linked to. You’ll just end being one of the million Onion wannabes that sit there, eventually abandoned and gathering dust. That’s the real reason why John O’Farrell can’t find anything he thinks is funny on the web, and why in one or two year’s time his site will be a half-forgotten relic.

Update: Tom has more:

And of course, what O?Farrell doesn?t realise is that his ?plan is to get young talented humourists all over the world to send their stuff to me? is the antithesis of how the web works. They don?t need to send their stuff to John O?Farrell (sweet of him to offer, though). They can just do it themselves, and it might be superbly constructed comedy gold, or it might just be a picture of a willy drawn with MS Paint. That?s the fun. And if they do choose just to draw pictures of willies with MS Paint, well? it?ll still be funnier than NewsBiscuit.

Further update: Hahaha. That’s more like it.

Final update, I promise: The Guardian’s Organ Grinder cites me as an example of “blog bitching” about the whole thing. Oooh, get her. The comments made by users broadly agree with me, though.


Back to BASIC

15 September 2006

David Brin’s Why Johnny Can’t Program (Salon article, so ads etc.) is an interesting op-ed on how the kids of today aren’t given an instantly accessible programming environment like he and many of the previous generation of geeks had. Sample:

…if you want to give young students a grounding in how computers actually work, there’s still nothing better than a little experience at line-by-line programming. Only, quietly and without fanfare, or even any comment or notice by software pundits, we have drifted into a situation where almost none of the millions of personal computers in America offers a line-programming language simple enough for kids to pick up fast. Not even the one that was a software lingua franca on nearly all machines, only a decade or so ago. And that is not only a problem for Ben and me; it is a problem for our nation and civilization.

Brin calls for the return of a line-interpreted BASIC or a BASIC-like environment to come pre-installed on all new PCs. His nostalgic call to arms has resulted in a bulging virtual mailbag at Salon, your typical heated Slashdot conversation, and plenty of blogchat about it.

I can see Brin’s point, and agree with it, partly. Programming is no longer one of the up-front applications supplied with a computer, when in the past it was so different. My first programming ever was tinkering around with Locomotive BASIC – sorry I actually meant Mallard BASIC (my memory failed me when I first wrote this piece) – which came with my father’s Amstrad PCW 9512. I started out inputting programs from magazines, before starting to make my own. Soon after, at school I became the class whizz with BBC BASIC – but I don’t recall it being that fun. BASIC involved lines and lines of boring stuff, and some downright tedious parts (Locomotive Mallard BASIC suffered from not having a clear screen function, so you had to learn all about control codes just in order to do that). Most other kids who used BASIC got bored quickly and ended up just end up doing this:

10 PRINT “POO”
20 GOTO 10

Instead, I remember having a lot more fun with Logo. Logo’s visuality meant you could simply and quickly render, like drawing pretty polygons and stars with the Turtle (the onscreen version anyway, the floor one never really worked in our school). There was even the hidden delight that if you mucked up your programming in some way, you sometimes produced weird and interesting patterns – that leads to the wonderful moment of realisation, when you work out that a computer language can do stuff you couldn’t imagine, and you have the potential to find out how to do it.*

So while I agree that more accessible languages need to be made available I don’t think a return to BASIC is the way forward. Python is mentioned as an alternative – I love Python, but it is perhaps a bit too high level for Brin’s tastes – he’s more interested in exposing the underlying mechanics of an algorithm, like searching a string or walking through an array – a glimpse at the nitty gritty, to gain an appreciation in how computers work under the hood.

But for all its illuminating simplicity, BASIC teaches you very bad programming habits, and it isn’t as fun or intuitive as Logo was, but Logo suffers in the modern day; while when I learnt to program 15 18 years ago, most of the computers I used were command-line interfaces with limited graphical capability, so what you made on the screen wasn’t too far off what you saw normally. That no longer applies – make anything in Logo these days and it’ll probably be a bit, well, crap compared to what you’re used to seeing.

So a better language for learning needs to appreciate and incorporate the improvements in computers’ graphical and UI capabilities; I don’t know enough about scripting languages for million-colour 3D environments to know if any out there that are suitably simple and intuitive enough. Additionally it needs to incorporate networkability – learning how to start out on a computer is no longer a solitary activity. Find some way of getting your code to be more social, provide an environment that allow kids’ code creations to interact (I dunno, some sort of collosseum for hackable virtual robots that fight each other to the death, fuelled by 3D fractals that you create with your code, or something) and you could have the basis for a viable social network; it would never get the millions MySpace does but even a few tens of thousands of enthusiasts would produce enough interest to get talented kids who may not have thought programming can be fun to change their minds.

* Alright, I’m sure I didn’t frame it in those words, nor did I fully actually appreciate it at the time. But looking back on it, it was probably one of the key moments that set me on the path to being a geek for the rest of my life.**

** Second nostalgic post in a short space of time. I should just rename this blog I *heart* the 80s and get it over and done with…


Naughty but nice

12 September 2006

I like this idea, but especially the quote at the end:

Council chiefs have admitted they will be breaking the law by halting street cleaning in a Lothian town. But they have vowed to go-ahead with the tactic in a bid to shock the public into clearing up after themselves.
[...]
East Lothian Council will withdraw street sweeping services and allow rubbish to build up in Tranent from tomorrow. The council says if the scheme is successful, it will be introduced across East Lothian, in towns including Haddington, North Berwick and Dunbar. But the scheme is in breach of the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, which places a statutory duty on the council to keep the streets free from rubbish.

The council today admitted it was “being a bit naughty”.

From today’s Scotsman (via kevan). Legal or not, I have to say I kinda like the idea, it just gets depressing seeing most urban streets or public transport at the end of the day, covered in litter and filthy as hell. More infruriating is the extreme casualness with which people litter these days, idly dropping anything without a second’s thought. Cunts. If the authorities withdrew the provision for litter sweeping in urban areas and channelled the spare money and workforce into better bin provision and more frequent collection (naturally, you would have to retain a small cleanup force for any genuine environmental emergencies where animal or human life was actually in danger), then the consequences of people’s actions would suddenly be much more apparent. You can see some problems immediately coming in (large increases in vermin for one) but these would be hopefully temporary. It might be tough going the first few weeks, but soon the seemingly endless miasma of chip wrappers, coke cans and chocolate wrappers that contaminates our cities would clear away once people realise what they’re actually doing. Here’s hoping East Lothian Council sticks to its guns.

Update: After a bit of thought (see comments) I’ve changed my mind – I don’t think the council should go ahead with it now. It’s clearly unfair to pick on one single town for what is a national problem, and there are practical issues of natural litter (especially in autumn) and loose debris that is not deliberately dropped, which means withdrawing services would not be a good idea. But there still remains that fundamental problem – how to bridge the disconnect between actions and their consequences, especially as in this case the disconnect is entirely institutional and can be abolished at a stroke. Littering ticks all the “tricky” boxes – it is impossible to police effectively and in any case, each individual act is not particularly harmful and thus any sort of individual punishment is draconian. Neither taxation (what exactly would you tax?) nor markets (what exactly would you trade?) can be made to specifically target the root causes of the problem. So I’ve got stuck on this one, which is what made me look at the most prominent part of the problem, the disconnect. With that too difficult to bridge, what other option is left?


Va-va-voom

7 September 2006

Observing Gordon Brown is a bit like watching Arsenal trying to score the winning goal; there’s an awful lot of delicate, artful approach play. Movements and attacks are the culmination of hours and hours of intricate choregraphy and setup. The attack is oriented around a supremely talented individual up front. The opposition are backpedalling, not sure what’s coming next, a goal seems inevitable. But at the crucial moment, the ball is overplayed; everyone’s spent so long positioning and working out the little moves nobody is in the right position to strike; not sure what to do, the team over pass it amongst themselves, the moment of certain goal fizzles away, and when the shot does come in it’s weak and ponderous. Supporters everywhere hurl howls of frustration at the team, crying “why didn’t you just lump it in, you bastards?”

Tony Blair has to be thankful that Gordon Brown is more like Thierry Henry rather than Frank Lampard. Too many times he’s been on the ropes – after his defeat over the anti-terror laws, the disastrous showing in the 2006 local elections, and now this latest leadership crisis. Blair has somehow managed to wriggle through yet again – a vague commitment to quit within the next 12 months that’s on no worse terms than the May 31st deadline that was leaked to The Sun; he’s fobbed of Gordon with yet another “deal” that he’ll likely bend or break like all the others, and he even got a snotty “I apologise for the naughty members of my party – I won’t name names but they know who they are, and I want them to know how disappointed I am” in for good measure.

All political careers end in failure, and Blair’s is destined to do the same, but he’s going to fail on his own terms, make no mistake.


Pages: 1 2 Next »