Thursday, 31 December 2009

Well, that's Christmas done, now for the Easter eggs

Shortly before Christmas, regular users of the VLC media player will have noticed that the program's little orange traffic cone icon sprouted a tiny Santa hat - indeed, it still has one.

The original image can be found here.

What I've found myself wondering since is, firstly, why exactly did this little touch make me smile so much, and, secondly, why don't more of the (non-entertainment) programs and web applications we use every day contain more of these kind of hidden surprises, or Easter eggs? I mean, let's face it, we need all the smiles we can get in life.

An initial answer to the first question, of course, is that it was an especially incongruous and unexpected addition - when a program's noted for being so stripped-back and basic in appearance, the sudden whimsical appearance of a Santa hat is about the last thing you'd expect. It can't help but be a pleasant surprise.

More than that, though, there's something genuinely cheering about happening upon a sudden little touch of warmth and humanity in the often sterile digital world of computers, about seeing that a program's creator genuinely has in mind those who use it, and about them being bothered to offer an otherwise totally pointless and unnecessary little something extra to raise a smile.

As for the second question; well, doesn't all this remind you of another organisation?

VLC might have its Santa hat, but Google is a company that gives out all manner of Easter eggs and surprises - from its logo doodles to its April Fool's pranks, to iGoogle wallpaper surprises, to all those bizarre autocomplete suggestions, and more besides. On one level, it could arguably get away without doing any of these things - they're not practical, integral parts of its services; they're mere fripperies. But on an another level, it's those very moments of unpredictability, playfulness and creativity that humanise the organisation, make it seem accessible, benign, exciting, and add to the sense of discovery. They build goodwill - and not just of a seasonal kind. If Google offer Easter eggs, and benefit from them, shouldn't other companies consider it?

By way of contrast, let's take Microsoft; which formally stopped including Easter eggs in its software in 2002.

If you read the Wikipedia entry, admittedly you can see, to an extent, the reasoning behind such a policy; but what the decision seems to mean in practice is that Microsoft programs no longer contain much that will (pleasantly) surprise, little that joyously rewards or positively encourages discovery and doing the unexpected, no real suggestions of humanity, humility, fallibility, play, exploration or openness - and if Google, or Apple, is far more strongly associated with discovery and creativity than Microsoft, if people see truth in those Mac vs. PC ads, and indeed if the Windows strapline "Where do you want to go today?" tends to ring hollow, maybe a lack of Easter eggs is at least a small part of the reason why?

The human touch, of course, extends even further with Google, into the somewhat quirky way it routinely chooses to release its products and services. Calling them betas or experimental Labs features, despite their often being perfectly useful and usable already, admits fallibility, suggests humility, invites input, gives Google valuable leeway to get things wrong without overly alienating its users. Microsoft, on the other hand, by taking its more formal approach, gives the impression of offering a finished article, so that any updates feel (perhaps misleadingly) less like improvements, more like tacit admissions that the original release was rushed and incomplete, flawed rather than evolving.

Adopting a more human touch and the inclusion of Easter eggs isn't without pitfalls, of course: if there's one thing humans are good at, it's disagreeing with other humans, and if there's another, it's being offended. Even VLC's Santa hat initially led to a complaint (later partially rescinded) - never mind that a Santa hat is hardly a religious symbol, or that it didn't even seem to be the commercialisation/secularisation of Christmas the user was at odds with!

On the upside, though, by being human and open, at least any offence, or actual misjudgements, can perhaps be more easily and reasonably addressed, should they occur - as above. And wouldn't a few people being offended be more than compensated for?

Whatever the case, though, there are surely plenty of companies, not just Microsoft, that might see their image benefit from a less staid approach; from every now and then doing tiny unexpected things to brighten our day; and generally, from seeing users of their products as fellow human beings, rather than captive consumers. Handing out Easter eggs at Christmas might seem an odd way of going about it, but it could be one of the easiest ways to start trying.

Monday, 28 December 2009

More than words?

When you earn your living from words it's always interesting to find new lights in which to view them - new ways of responding to words, putting them together, or even reading them - which is at least one reason why I've found myself, over the last week or two, digging into the world of independent video games (the other: it's Christmas; anyone who isn't feeling too lazy and bloated to do anything even remotely productive really hasn't got the hang of it) - and specifically, I mean the kind of independent games that, in one way or another, depend to a significant degree upon words.

Some of you (i.e. those that still remember such computers as the BBC Micro) will probably be thinking of text adventures right about now - or interactive fiction as the overall genre tends to be called now. We'll get to those a little later.

However, the games I've happened upon lately, and which I most want to highlight here, are more what might be termed 'art games', which is to say games created with the intention that playing them might evoke the same kind of effects and emotions that viewing a piece of art, or reading a poem, say, might evoke. To generalise even further: these are games that perhaps seek to move, more than to entertain. These are games like The Company of Myself.

On the surface, The Company of Myself is a simple platformer, but with the twist that in order to solve a puzzle and reach the green door to the next level you often have to co-operate with echoes of your own playing character - and on that level alone, it's an interestingly different way to while away some time. But reading the overall story of love and loss (and something altogether darker) that appears at the beginning and between levels - and which, you realise, you are playing out as you play those levels - is what gives it a strong and unexpected emotional hit, the strongest part of which is only clear once you have reached the end, heard the full story, and understood the implications of some of the actions that you've had to perform to progress. It's the quality of the writing as much as the game mechanics - and in combination with the game mechanics - that make this such a poignant experience. (A walkthrough can be found here, should you need it).

Another game that might be of interest to anyone with a professional interest in words is Today I Die, a sort of interactive poem of a game. A main character is controlled with the arrow keys, but at the same time in order to complete the game a poem must also be manipulated (changing its mood and meaning with each alteration to its words), with your character's final action also determining the final line and ultimate meaning of the poem. Again, it's a very satisfying example of interactive storytelling, and for me at least sparked off a new way of looking at words. (Again, hints are here, should you need them).

A rather more literal (and very literary) take on games that rely on words is Silent Conversation, by Gregory Weir, a platformer in which the landscape of each level is composed entirely from the text of a famous poem or short story, through and over which you must try to safely manoeuvre a letter 'I', even as you read the words themselves. In the background, sandstorms of the word 'sand' might fly past; or you'll find yourself leaping off the words 'ledge' or 'leap'; or the text will sometimes mirror its content, by forming a tunnel, for instance. Also, particularly poignant or affecting words are highlighted in red, the resonances of which you have to avoid and neutralise if you want to achieve the full score for each level.

How successful it is as a game may be open for debate - during longer levels things can get a bit repetitive, sometimes you'd rather just get on with the story, rather than going back or stopping to complete a particularly difficult section, you could find yourself wanting to argue whether some words really are the most powerful in any given text - but it definitely hints at what might be achieved, and at times it does genuinely seem to add something to your experience of reading the stories themselves (in fact, an involving new way of reading might ultimately be the best way to take the idea).

(Another wordy Gregory Weir title worth a look is The Majesty of Colours, by the way).

As for interactive fiction; I haven't investigated nearly enough yet to confidently recommend standout titles, but nonetheless the highly ambitious Blue Lacuna, especially, seems to go far, far beyond those frustrating Tolkien-esque things in which, as a kid, I always seemed to just blunder around getting hopelessly lost typing 'GO SOUTH', 'HELP' and 'WHERE AM I?' over and over again. Of the very few I have played, Aisle's been the most inspiring so far - essentially it's a very short story, with numerous potential endings, suggesting larger, more complicated stories, mostly reflective of the sanity or lack thereof of the actions you type.

As yet, I haven't enough experience of the genre to say exactly what I think there is to be learned from playing interactive fictions, but it's definitely a different way of writing - one that's very much about involving and immersing the reader - and one that excites me with its possibilities.

So here's an early New Year's resolution: to write an IF title myself. That should keep me busy...

N.B. For more IF game recommendations, the Interactive Fiction Database is a great place for short reviews and downloads. (Most interactive fictions come in story files, but an interpreter like Gargoyle will run most of them).

And on another note entirely...

A belated Merry Christmas and an early-ish Happy New Year from all at Radix!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Radix appoints new account manager

A press release we have issued today announcing that Matt Godfrey has joined the Radix team:

Penryn-based communications company Radix Communications has appointed a new account manager.

Matt Godfrey joins the company after a successful 15 year career in retail. Godfrey said, "Radix is a rapidly expanding business and is perfectly positioned for further success in a highly competitive industry. I am delighted to be given the opportunity to be part of that success."

Radix Communications provides copywriting, editing, design and translation services to a range of clients in the technology industry, placing a strong emphasis on clear, consistent and compelling written communications. Founded in 2007, it saw annual turnover grow by 14% in 2009 despite the economic downturn, and is on course to exceed this rate of growth in 2010.

"I am thrilled to welcome Matt to the team," said Radix managing director Fiona Campbell-Howes. "His management experience and exceptional commercial awareness will make him a tremendous asset to Radix as it continues to grow."

UPDATE: Here's the story on Business Cornwall - thanks Jay!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Advertising on Facebook - is it really pointless?

"Facebook now has 350m users - and there's no point advertising to them," said John Naughton in last Sunday's Observer (or possibly that's what his sub-editor said, but in any case it's a pretty accurate summation). What's more, he had some numbers to back him up:

In 2007, the market research firm ComScore reported that 32% of internet users clicked on banner ads in a given month. By 2009, that number had fallen to 16%. ComScore also concluded that a hard core of 8% of all internet users – christened "Natural Born Clickers" – are responsible for 85% of all banner clicks on the web.

His basic argument: that because we are all now so adept at ignoring online advertising, Facebook and Twitter are deluded if they think that selling advertising can keep them afloat in anything but the short term; Twitter and Facebook are not effective advertising spaces.


Leaving aside that 16% - or even 8% - of 350 million is still a considerable audience*, and also leaving Twitter to one side (for now), since details on how it will eventually incorporate advertising are still thin on the ground, do the figures above prove that Facebook is necessarily any less effective a medium for advertising than any of the more traditional media, such as TV or print?

I would argue that they don't: all they show is that the majority of internet users aren't clicking on ads - and why would they?

I mean, if you could click on a TV ad, or a newspaper ad, would you? I certainly wouldn't very often. Just as with online ads, there would first need to be a fairly real chance that I might gain in some way, or the product being advertised would have to be in an area in which I'm particularly interested (for instance, a new model of mobile phone when I happen to be due an upgrade).

Moreover, why assume that clicks are the sole measure of whether an online ad is effective?

Many of us routinely try to ignore any kind of advertising, wherever it appears. But even offline it's everywhere, and at least some of what we see still lodges itself in the brain - either by being very entertaining, highly unusual, very annoying, or just unavoidably prevalent. That its effect isn't instantly measurable in the form of a click doesn't, though, lead us to assume it hasn't fulfilled some purpose - improving brand recognition, for instance. So why should we assume this of online advertising?

Is Naughton, then, perhaps confusing what an online ad can do with what it should do? (And no doubt some advertisers too).

What do I mean? Well, just because an ad is online, and clickable, does that mean that it has to be clicked on to be effective? Has it totally failed if it hasn't taken its viewer to a virtual cash register or to more information? This seems to be his assumption.

If this were true, though, there would be little point advertising anywhere - offline, or on Facebook. That online advertising can be clicked on, and linked directly to online stores, is surely a bonus over offline advertising, not necessarily its be-all and end-all. (Or perhaps that's how it should be seen).

What the apparent reluctance to click shown by the ComScore figures suggests to me, then, is: either a) a lot of online advertising could be much, much better; or b) most internet users simply don't want to click on ads - and if so, then perhaps advertisers need to find out why, or just accept it and reassess their expectations, their methods, and their measures of effectiveness. In fact, whatever the case, perhaps a lot of marketing departments simply haven't yet figured out the best ways to utilise Facebook, or the online space in general?

Any of them wondering where to start might want to study Dell's use of Twitter: according to Monday's Guardian, Dell has "made $6.5m in revenues through links on the micro-messaging site" and "its aggregated followers on social media... now number 3.5 million." Dell's senior manager for corporate affairs also points out that this kind of engagement with its customers delivers other benefits too, such as helping Dell improve its products and respond quickly to problems.

Agreed, this is marketing, rather than advertising, as such, but surely there are still lessons to be learned here - primarily that consumers aren't going to click on just anything without a very good reason.

So maybe the Observer headline should have read: "Facebook has 350m users - and there's no point advertising to them badly. Same as any other medium, really..." It wouldn't have been as snappy, I grant you, but it at least might have been the more accurate and workable conclusion.

To an extent, I've been playing devil's advocate in this post. Your opinions welcomed in the usual box...

*because, for the most part, that's probably an over-simplification: with one of the main advantages of advertising on Facebook being that ads can be more specifically targeted, many ads won't be seen by anything like 350m subscribers.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Lunch & copy

You never know quite what attending a Cornwall Social Media Café meeting might lead to. For instance, at last week's event Fiona and I found ourselves being invited to Truro College to speak to their FdA Media Advertising course: we write direct mail, they happen to be covering it in tomorrow's session. So, tomorrow, we shall head up there to dispense our wisdom...

Or something. At least I think that's the idea.

Anyway, it all sounded pretty informal and I'm fairly sure we get free lunch, so it should be great.

The students? Oh, I don't know, I'm sure they'll be fine. And anyway, if a little hunger and the knowledge that hard work can lead to a free lunch doesn't inspire them, nothing will.

(Actually the back-up plan is suggesting they watch this:

But what we'll do with the rest of the hour, God only knows).

I'm kidding. Of course we'll have advice for them. Plenty. I've written a handout and everything. (The advice: ignore my handout).

The synopsis for Art & Copy, for anyone that's interested:

ART & COPY is a powerful new film about advertising and inspiration. Directed by Doug Pray (SURFWISE, SCRATCH, HYPE!), it reveals the work and wisdom of some of the most influential advertising creatives of our time -- people who've profoundly impacted our culture, yet are virtually unknown outside their industry. Exploding forth from advertising's "creative revolution" of the 1960s, these artists and writers all brought a surprisingly rebellious spirit to their work in a business more often associated with mediocrity or manipulation: George Lois, Mary Wells, Dan Wieden, Lee Clow, Hal Riney and others featured in ART & COPY were responsible for "Just Do It," "I Love NY," "Where's the Beef?," "Got Milk," "Think Different," and brilliant campaigns for everything from cars to presidents. They managed to grab the attention of millions and truly move them. Visually interwoven with their stories, TV satellites are launched, billboards are erected, and the social and cultural impact of their ads are brought to light in this dynamic exploration of art, commerce, and human emotion.

UPDATE: Fellow copywriter, and friend of Radix, Rob Self-Pierson has actually seen the movie (he's 'up country', down here we'll probably have to wait for the DVD) - check out his Art & Copy review at the link.

Friday, 27 November 2009

A Facebook member? Or a Facebook user?

Back in June 2007 my colleague Fiona wrote on this blog about quitting Facebook. A couple of months later, she reactivated her account*, having by then become resigned to at least having a profile on the thing, mainly due to being "in charge of social media at Prompt" at the time.

But over the last month or so, and over two years later, that first post has unexpectedly started to attract a number of commenters looking for somewhere to share their own Facebook disaffections.

Now, admittedly, when I say "a number of commenters" I mean, well, er, four (plus one in Feb). But for this blog that's still quite a few, and combined with noticing my own increasingly infrequent visits to Facebook, I can't help wondering whether something is going on?

Is there, perhaps, a particular generation of Facebook adopters now reaching a natural tailing off point in Facebook use? Might there be a natural lifespan to how long one might continue to find Facebook interesting - or any other social network? Is it all the fault of Twitter?

Certainly, four or five comments isn't exactly what you might call sufficent evidence to prove any of those theories - and perhaps it's hardly enough even to begin asking the questions. Moreover, that the commenters variously complained of starting to feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, narcissistic or addicted when using Facebook, probably rules out the possibility that they've all decamped to Twitter (although conceivably you could at least be more anonymous on Twitter, if you chose). Nevertheless, it still strikes me that perhaps after a certain point there really isn't all that much to keep Facebook users interested?

In theory, the site has a lot going for it, of course: it combines group e-mail, a photo album, event invites, birthday reminders, gaming, etc., all in one place. But even so, how many of us still find ourselves spending anywhere near as much time on it as we used to, say, a year ago? And doesn't iGoogle, or the start page on Chrome or Opera, let you do more or less all of that anyway, only you'll have selected links to more useful and fully-featured sites and online apps than many of those on Facebook?

Granted, Facebook does remain of at least some value to me, as a (more or less) permanent contact point between myself and anyone I don't see very often, or whose contact details are prone to change. But leaving aside what is basically a passive function, what is there on Facebook to make me as active a user as I was for a long while after I first joined?

Somehow, it's all just lost its novelty, or it's provided better, or less clunkily elsewhere.

Perhaps it's just me, but I wonder: might there be a lot of others now who would more accurately call themselves Facebook members, and not Facebook users?


*Facebook is basically the Hotel California of social networking, you can check out, but you can never leave.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Blogposts found abandoned on Tube

While Rupert Murdoch might be having second thoughts about content from his newspapers being freely available on the net (even if his papers do sometimes "borrow" content from it, and his news organisations perhaps even encourage Google to index their contents), one group of people in London seem to have decided that not only is free web content the way to go, but why not create an entire publication out of it.

Currently in Beta, The Blogpaper aims to be a free weekly London newspaper made up of articles, photos and reviews nominated and voted for by an online community of readers and contributors. Presumably, once a strong audience has been established, and any early production and distribution kinks ironed out, the publication will support itself through online and off-line advertising, but as yet I haven't found any details on that (UPDATE: there are ads in the most recent edition). Already, though, it's looking like a pretty interesting project.

Some short standfirsts to introduce each article might be a nice addition to the mix* - headlines maybe aren't always enough - but otherwise, from first view: it looks fresh and colourful; simple, clear layout; commuter-friendly (and indeed web-friendly) article lengths; a nice eclectic blend of subjects (with the art and design coverage particularly catching my eye); and it certainly highlights some interesting items I mightn't otherwise have noticed, which ultimately might be the best test of a publication like this. All in all, then, a pretty handy way to catch up on and digest the week's
on- and off-line goings-on, even for those of us who aren't obliged to spend time hurtling around underground (or sitting around gloomily wondering why the hurtling's stopped).

I'll be very interested to see how the project progresses - and deals with any attempts to skew the voting that might come along as it grows - because so far (and, I'll admit, a little to my surprise**) it seems to be producing a genuinely worthwhile hybrid of print and digital media.

Now to just find out whether it's an idea that can also support itself...

*On the other hand, the space is fairly limited...

**I've seen some awful, cluttered and dull user-generated sites (as well as plenty of good ones), so when I heard about this I did wonder quite which way it would go.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Happy Halloween!

Or is Halloween supposed to be happy? I'm never too sure. Anyway, whatever it's supposed to be, here are some Halloween-themed links:

Nightmare pop

First up, a Halloween soundtrack: a podcast of Halloween music selected by the already gloriously spooky Fever Ray (registration required, to download). And as a bonus, here's their recent cover of Nick Cave's 'Stranger Than Kindness':

In much the same nightmare pop vein, Esben & The Witch's EP '33' is currently available as a free download from Soundcloud. Wonderfully creepy stuff.

But saving the most unsettling for last, here's a blood-soaked video by the Finnish band Eleanoora Rosenholm (I guess you could describe their music as murder disco; or at least I gather that the album's all about a serial killer, or something like that):

Eleanoora Rosenholm: Maailmanloppu from Sami Sänpäkkilä on Vimeo.

More Eleanoora Rosenholm videos here.

The obligatory pumpkins

If it's Halloween, then it's time once again for Wired magazine's annual gallery of elaborate (and generally quite geeky) pumpkin carvings. Last year's Star Wars efforts here.

Lego fun

Customised zombie mini-figures, Lego horror films, a short remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a shot-for-shot Lego recreation of Thriller, and various other Lego horror: all linked to by

Here's the Thriller one:

If you have a surfeit of orange bricks (and time), how about building a 3D Lego pumpkin?

Halloween games

Or if browser-based ghosts and gore sound more like your cup of time wasting, Jay is Games has a round up of Halloween-friendly casual games to while a way a few hours.

If you'd rather escape from all the pumpkins, though, how about Escape from the Pumpkin Room? (Erm, it does involve being in a room with a pumpkin, though, and trying to escape. So maybe not, then).

Goth Zombie Monster Linkorama

The weekly Web Zen link collection is always worth a look, and this week's no different (apart from being monster/goth/zombie themed).

Real life horror

Recently, in aid of charity, one man subjected himself to 24 consecutive hours of watching rom-coms - mostly, very bad ones - with nothing stronger than chocolate and Lambrini to ease the pain. If that isn't a waking nightmare, I'm not sure what is. Read the blog of his torment, then donate here.

And just because...

Goths in hot weather. Does exactly what it says on the trenchcoat.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 3

When people began listening to music on the iPhone and (iPod Touch) a number of programmers and musicians spotted an opportunity: with its motion sensors, touch screen, microphone, and processing power, why should the iPhone be just another device for playing MP3s? Why not use its capabilities to let the listener interact with music? Perhaps even enable the listener's ambient environment to affect the listening experience?

Not only might the iPhone offer new ways of creating and listening to music - that listeners might be willing to pay for, and that could go far beyond the CD, never mind MP3s - but in the form of the App Store (and your phone contract) it even has a simple, quick payment method built in.

Just what kind of a revenue stream the iPhone might represent for artists, and to what exciting creative possibilities they might put its capabilities, I guess time will tell. But for now here are a couple of recent applications that just might point the way:

Deadmau5's remixable album

Whether Deadmau5 was actually the first artist to offer remixable exclusive tracks as an iPhone app, I have no idea, but Touch Mix was certainly the first such app I became aware of. You'll see below exactly what it can do, but basically Touch Mix is simple mixing software (though only usable with the Deadmau5 tracks), allowing phrases to be looped, effects added, mixing and cross-fading between tracks, BPM adjustment, scratching, etc. - all the usual DJ tricks and techniques:

I expect other artists will have since done similar, and probably offered more options and innovations, but even so, you can see from the above how this kind of release might appeal - especially to fans of electronica artists, like Deadmau5, or to fans of any other genre where remixing is prevalent. And with that in mind, let's now have a look at just how elaborate things can get...

RjDj: reactive, augmented listening

According to the website, RjDj is a music application for the iPhone that "uses sensory input to generate and control the music you are listening to." Shaking the phone, tapping it, stroking its screen, letting it pick up noises around you, speaking into its microphone, or any combination of the preceeding, can be used to randomly and/or intentionally alter the music that you're hearing. Moreover, RjDj users can record what they're hearing and share their favourite tracks with other listeners.

As for the artists; RjDj enables them to create "reactive music", "music as software", music that can be "updated, upgraded, or extended" - and which can either be sent straight to the phones of fans, or distributed as stand-alone apps. As a format, RjDj, allows artists, firstly, to take music and their own creativity in new directions, but also it enables them to reach listeners on a more personal and involving level - and if the key to persuading music fans to pay for your music is to offer them something more than they would get by simply downloading an MP3, then for artists and labels something like RjDj might well be a distribution avenue that's more interesting to explore even than the remixable album.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 2

FM3's Buddha Machine

There are two very good reasons why vinyl records haven't died out: 1) that particular vinyl sound; and 2) turntablism. Value is to be found not just in the music the physical format contains, but also in the format itself: not only do records give a different, some would say warmer listening experience, but in skilled hands they can also be used creatively. If musicians want to make money from their recorded output, then, perhaps one way might be to find intrinsically useful, desirable, even unique physical formats on which to distribute it.

FM3, a China-based electronica duo, have done just this. Based on a popular Buddhist temple souvenir designed to aid meditation, FM3's Buddha Machine is a small plastic box with a speaker that allows you to play and switch between any of nine ambient music loops specially composed by FM3 (rather than the Buddhist chants played by the original gadget). Looped, the contemplative music that FM3 have created, as well as the nostalgic lo-fi crackle of the speaker, somehow combine to be at least as meditative and relaxing as the souvenir which inspired their creation. Here, format complements music - is almost indivisible from it.

The Buddha Machine, much like vinyl, also represents a creative medium: FM3 positively encourage other artists to use the loops in their own compositions (such as Light and All These Accidents by Track A Tiger), but moreover, the machines have given rise to live performances called Buddha Boxing. As the video below will illustrate, this essentially involves people taking a number of Buddha Machines and placing them, one at a time, onto a table to create a semi-random musical composition, then removing them one at a time until none are left (and the piece ends):

Recently, someone clever has even created a website that lets you play with a wall of 21 virtual Buddha Machines (well worth a try, if you're ever looking for a relaxing way of passing some time); the main difference here from actual Buddha Boxing being that the virtual Buddha Machines have no volume control, so unfortunately loops can only be stopped dead, rather than faded out.

But FM3 didn't just stop there. Last year, saw the release of a Buddha Machine 2.0, with a different set of loops and an additional pitch control wheel; an iPhone app version was released this summer; and, following collaboration with Christiaan Virant of FM3, next month Throbbing Gristle will release Gristleism, their own version of the Buddha Machine, containing twice the number of loops and a doubled frequency range.

But back to the loop player as a physical format. While the music can, of course, be lifted from a Buddha Machine (it has a line-out/headphones socket), even so, and even more than vinyl, this is a format that plays an integral part in the music's effectiveness. Not only is it the best way to play the music (unless you happen to own software that will play the music as loops and don't mind only listening via your computer), but it also allows the listener some input into his/her listening experience, and even provides musically-minded listeners with sounds they can create their own songs around. For the right bands, then, a loop player could be both a very interesting way of spreading their music and of getting paid for it.

NEXT TIME: Innovative iPhone apps...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 1

I expect everyone's seen what Lily Allen had to say about illegal downloading recently - and indeed what everyone then had to say about Lily Allen. So rather than rehashing the whole debate about pirating music, I thought this blog might instead take a look at a related matter: the various clever and intriguing ways that musicians and allied techie people have been inventing to persuade people to actually pay for music. Whether that be remixable iPhone apps, new music formats, or innovative distribution methods, for the next however long (i.e. until I run out of links) this blog will semi-regularly highlight as many of them as I can dig out of my bookmarks folder. Or at least the ones you might not have heard of.

Today, then, let's kick things off with a look at Kristin Hersh's Strange Angels subscriber project.

An introduction

As part of Throwing Muses, solo, and most recently as one-third of 50 Foot Wave, Kristin has been releasing music for over 20 years now, notably through 4AD; however, in October 2007 she took the decision to opt out of all her recording contracts and try things her own way. Her plan? To release a new song every month, as a free download - in both high quality MP3 and lossless FLAC format, complete with the raw recording files as "stems" for remixing, the lyrics and an accompanying essay - and for financial support rely primarily on optional payments, touring, merchandise and various levels of fan subscriptions.

Named Strange Angels, after a previous album - and presumably also in reference to angel investors - her subscribers, in addition, receive various levels of exclusive items and access to recording sessions and gigs, depending upon which level of subscription they buy. Furthermore, a non-profit organisation called CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders) was set up to facilitate the project, and now also provides a platform for a number of other artists.

As a model, though, this perhaps isn't anything particularly new - Einstürzende Neubauten, for instance, initiated a not entirely dissimilar series of supporters projects and internet community in 2002. So why highlight Kristin Hersh's version?

A social media natural

In terms of the success of a subscriptions and micropayments/free tracks financial model, it of course can't hurt that Kristin is already an established artist, and indeed that model might not even be an option for many newer bands, but where her project differs, and indeed where it excels, is that she is just an absolute natural with social media - an engaging and distinctive writer anyway, she also seems genuinely interested in the creative and artistic possibilities of an active and lively dialogue with her fans; notably, via her Twitter account.

Just click on that link, though, and you might assume that she ignores followers - she only follows two other accounts and rarely makes an @reply - but, in fact, you soon realise she just has her own way of using Twitter: rather than follow all the tweets of 5,000+ people, she takes the more practical and personal approach of Direct Messaging followers personally when they reply to her tweets, or from time to time using the account to (in effect) chair and participate in often very interesting discussions about the future of music, or where to take her own. Moreover, unlike so many bands who just tweet tour dates and the latest download release, Kristin actually gets Twitter - she has her own distinctive voice on it, with her tweets genuinely funny, persona(b)l(e) and worth the read.

Twitter, you feel, is simply another string to her bow, an extension of who she is and how she does things, rather than only a form of marketing. Ditto the essays and daily photoblog on her website. Without it ever coming across as forced or cynical she just involves people.

And that's why I highlight the Strange Angels project rather than another similar endeavour: because if selling music post the invention of the MP3 is about giving listeners something more than the music, Kristin Hersh does so in an unusually open, self-deprecating and involving way, without the slightest hint of contrivance. She understands and embraces that music is a two-way relationship. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. And as a result, two years down the line, her music making is now completely independent - giving her the freedom to just do what she does best, and what she does so engagingly: being Kristin Hersh. Which surely is the point.

NEXT TIME: something shorter.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It offendeth mine eyes! (And pretty much everything else)

I suspect the following video will either make you laugh until it hurts, or make you want to punch your own eyeballs for so carelessly allowing you to view such highly concentrated awfulness in the first place. In other words, yes, that's right, it's new Microsoft advert time:

If you watch hard enough you can almost see them desperately, popping their happy pills.* But you do wonder if that's part of the strategy: make such throat-burningly sickly and preposterous ads that sheer incredulity alone will drive it viral. It's not as if this a first offence. Witness, for example, the ad for Microsoft Songsmith:

They can't have thought that was a good idea. Surely? The little girl's laptop is even a Mac.

But if people like me are posting these dreadful things, however disparagingly, is it actually a brilliant strategy? Or are so many of us just so tied into Microsoft products that their marketing can produce any old glossy dreck and still sell the product? I wish I knew. Either way, though, if anyone knows a good cult deprogrammer, you know where to send them.

In other Microsoft news

Microsoft's free anti-virus software is available to download, as of today.

So that's good. A few security gaps will be filled, for some. And best of all every copy comes with a free soundtrack: the distant gleeful cackling of the world's virus makers.

Because that's what's going to happen, isn't it? Surely, every malicious hacker worth the name will be competing to crack Microsoft Security Essentials first - and indeed the one to crack it the most conspicuously. It might be brilliant against present threats, but who knows what attacks will be coming its way?

Frankly, I'd rather not find out.

On which note, if it's free you're after, and you hate all those pop-ups and slowdowns that seem to come with every other anti-virus - in some ways an anti-virus can be almost as annoying and controlling as an actual virus - this Panda Cloud thing sounds an unusually hassle-free and uninvasive solution - and better still, it's starting to get some very good reviews...

*Pause at 3:38 to see their true inner terror (you have to catch just the right frame, though, just a fraction before it hits 3:39).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Appendices omitted: it's all on Google

The video below is a review of 'Brecht At Night' by Mati Unt, a 'documentary novel' recently published by the ever-adventurous Dalkey Archive Press. I happened to find the review on the site of a promising new monthly literary journal, The Collagist. But this post isn't here to recommend the output of the Dalkey Archive Press (although I do, very highly), or to note that it might be worth keeping an eye on The Collagist (which it might), or even to highlight the book itself (pretty intriguing though it sounds), the moment where this video becomes relevant to this particular blog occurs at the 06:30 mark (click here if you prefer to watch only from that moment).

Apparently, the translator has decided to omit a bibliography and other appendices because, to quote the translator's note, "the internet, still in its infancy when the book was first published, has rendered [them] redundant. Nowadays you can find a great deal of the information included there by using a search engine" - in other words, they've been omitted because nowadays you can just 'google stuff'; a rationale which, for me, utterly misses the point.

Firstly, I generally don't read whilst next to an open laptop - that, of course, being the big advantage of books, that they don't have to be plugged in or connected to wi-fi, you can read them anywhere - but even more than that, often I've simply had enough of staring at a computer screen - books are a wonderful break from all that work and idle clicking. Therefore, if there's some additional information that might enhance my experience of a book, I'd much rather read it within that book - and indeed I'm much more likely to read it if that's where it's to be found. Even if you have got a phone or laptop beside you, it's still much quicker to just flick to the back of the book.

Secondly, omitting these appendices ignores the work done by the author in compiling them - sifting out the illuminating sources from the dull, the reliable from the less reliable. Why make the readers do this all over again for themselves? Moreover, much of the history that seems to be an integral - though also in some ways fictionalised - part of 'Brecht At Night' will be unfamiliar to the majority outside of Estonia, and while the novel itself is probably a very useful starting source for further research into that history, I'd be much more interested in the additional context the author himself had judged worth pointing us towards.

I suppose it's possible that omitting appendices may make a book cheaper to publish, perhaps cheaper to buy, and in turn perhaps more likely to reach a wider audience. But even if that was the case here, why not include a web address in the book and instead publish the appendices on the Dalkey Archive Press site? Hosting the information may even have helped drive a few potential customers to the site - via a search engine, in fact.

Ultimately, what concerns me most about the decision to omit information from 'Brecht At Night' is that in a world where almost everything can be googled there is huge value to having a reliable route through it all - a curator, a guide, an editor, someone to point you in interesting and reliable directions. Sure, cut costs by posting appendices online, if you must, but please, publishers, don't leave them out altogether. Navigating a world of near infinite knowledge can be hard enough at the best of times without some of the signposts being removed as well.

N.B. More usually, books from Dalkey Archive Press include useful additional information, such as critical essays or author interviews, rather than omitting it. And long may that continue. [ADDITIONAL NOTE] 'Brecht At Night' does in fact include a substantial context-setting introductory essay as additional content.

UPDATE: Eric Dickens, the translator of 'Brecht At Night', has responded in the comments - many thanks to him for taking the time and for clearing up the matter.

Just in case anyone should only see this page, however, I should just like to make clear that the book is in fact prefaced by an introductory essay in which Eric Dickens very much sets the work in its historical/literary context - as you'll see for yourself at Google Books - and that the decision to omit the appendices was not the publisher's decision. Also, from Mr Dickens' descriptions, and he should know, what has been left out does indeed sound substantially less interesting and extensive than the reviewer in the above video perhaps suggests.

A possibility that publishers could begin to omit appendices in favour of an assumption that an interested reader should resort to Google, does (or did) concern me; but, all in all, these particular appendices don't sound any great loss. My apologies for commenting solely on the basis of a review!

Monday, 14 September 2009

Losing Ada

Remember I blogged a few weeks ago about how the Early Learning Centre is doing its bit to write women out of the world of IT?

Well, yesterday it happened again. Nothing to do with wooden toy vendors this time, but I still got the same uncomfortable feeling that for whatever reason, women in IT are being quietly obscured.

This time I was reading John Naughton's column in the Observer, in which he pays tribute to Blogger - the blogging platform that brings you this very blog - on its tenth anniversary.

Here's what John has to say about Blogger's anniversary bash:

On 1 September, there was a party in San Francisco to mark the moment, attended by - among others - Blogger's founder, Evan Williams (who later founded Twitter), and the journalist Scott Rosenberg, who has just published "Say Everything" (, an absorbing book on the phenomenon that Blogger enabled.

Sounds accurate enough, doesn't it? But Blogger didn't have just one founder, it had two: Evan Williams, now CEO of Twitter, and Meg Hourihan, now...well, according to Wikipedia, now a wife and mother.

I don't know if Meg was at the party, but John's article certainly doesn't mention her. Instead, he chooses to credit Evan Williams alone with creating the application that led to the mass worldwide democratisation of the internet:

Blogging has revived - and begun to expand - the public sphere, and in the process may revitalise our democracies. If it does, then we will have Evan Williams largely to thank for it.

I don't know why Meg isn't mentioned. I sent a tweet to John Naughton to ask him, but no reply has come back. The feminist in me sees a worrying tendency to ignore women in technology, the realist wonders if Meg was mentioned but got edited out due to space constraints.

But at least, thanks to the very software they created, I can take the opportunity to correct the omission here and to congratulate Evan *and* Meg on Blogger's 10th anniversary. I've been using it since 2002 and can honestly say it changed my life for the infinitely better. Thanks to both of you for that.

More from the junction between Twitter and bad journalism

If Uri Geller is the world's leading spoon-bender, then Derren Brown is surely its leading mind-bender; Britain's best answer to David Blaine, that doesn't end in a preposition.

Last week the spookily self-assured brain tamperer, who once took a good couple of hours of TV viewers' lives to conspicuously and lengthily fail to take his own, decided to have a go at a less bullety game of chance, the National Lottery. First he correctly predicted the numbers live on telly, simultaneously with the actual draw itself, then, later in the week followed up with an hour-long show purporting to explain how he did it.

The first I heard about this was on Twitter, ditto the somewhat dissatisfied reaction to what passed for his explanation – not least from mathematicians. But this being news (or something like it) a story was also to be found on the BBC website, under the headline “Brown Lotto trick 'confuses' fans”. Clearly it wasn't about Gordon Brown, since it contained the word fans, so I took a look and near the beginning found this sentence:

And on blogging site Twitter one fan said he was "still confused", while another called it a "massive letdown".

Later came these paragraphs:

Twitter critics of the explanation show include Markpirie, who said: "I'm still confused about what way he did it to be honest."

Awwchristy called the 38-year-old a "massive letdown" and KimGVille said: "Is it just me or was Derren Brown's explanation last night very disappointing?"

But some fans enjoyed Brown's stunt.

Michaelvjjones posted on his Twitter page that the show had been "very interesting & entertaining".

Xolani1990 added: "Derren Brown is pretty cool... I can see why people are so skeptical [sic] about him, but I think he's on to something here."

Never mind that 'skeptical' is a legitimate spelling so doesn't really need a '[sic]' next to it, what bothers me here isn't the use of Twitter as a source, but the article's apparent assumption that just a few tweets is enough to demonstrate the writer's assertion that viewers as a whole – and presumably Brown had rather more than four of them – were a bit confused and letdown by the supposed explanation of his methods.

Certainly, quoting opinions from Twitter is not too much different to conducting a vox pop – though with the added advantage of not having to actually talk to people or subtly prompt them into succinctly saying whatever it was that you wanted them to say. Nor do I have strong objections to stories quoting individual Twitterers to illustrate a wider opinion.

But here that's not quite what's going on: the opinions of a few Twitterers seem to have taken the place of the show's entire viewing public – at best it's rushed journalism, at worst lazy. FIRST, establish the claim you're making with some kind of convincing quantitative source, THEN add the colour of individual opinions.

I mean, I don't really have any doubt that there was widespread dissatisfaction, and I couldn't really care much less about the story itself, but the point is, making a bald statement then dressing it up with a few unsupported quotes from Twitter is just bad journalism.

And now, if I could find the right stories to support the following statement, I'd like to say that I've seen this done too many times already...

But I can't, so I won't.

(But I have).

Monday, 31 August 2009

Video game publisher experiments with Radiohead release model

For once, some news that makes me entirely grateful that I don't have a top of the range computer: the developers of hellishly addictive football management simulation Championship Manager have made the latest edition downloadable for as little as 1p (+ £2.50 transaction charge) until its full release on 10th September.

Now, already I've wasted countless hours of my life on past incarnations of the wretched thing, and with Eidos seemingly going down the Radiohead release route this time around, I doubt the part of my brain that apparently hates me and wishes me ill would have kept quiet for long - "No harm in just giving it a quick try..." I can hear it whispering. "I mean, it's only one pence - how can you not? What? Oh, shush - having a life is so overrated..."

Saved, for once, by a rubbish graphics card.

But what that sorry scenario goes to prove, besides that I'm pathetically lacking in self discipline, is that with this new release model they're probably on to something.

Firstly, the price might tempt recovering users, like myself, into a relapse. But more than that, I'd be surprised if it doesn't actually improve profits, rather than see Eidos lose money.

Like Radiohead, Championship Manager already enjoys huge acclaim within its own particular field, not to mention an army of loyal obsessives who'll buy pretty much any release. And with this latest move Eidos can at the very least appear to be giving something back to them, for their years of support. However, factor in the publicity they'll have generated by becoming the first publisher to attempt a pay-what-you-like option, plus the later switch to a full price release, and the introduction of a new gameplay feature which requires a £5 payment to receive data updates at six intervals during the present football season (and the next one? and the next one? etc.), and it's not hard to see the commercial sense.

Most importantly, though, in trying this new release model Championship Manager could well steal a march on its closest rival, Football Manager - the game which many diehard Championship Manager fans still regard as the true Championship Manager (a few years back, the original creators split with Eidos, retaining the original base code and database of the game, but not the brand name or its interface) - and also perhaps grab back some of the original audience.

What might be most interesting, though, is to see a) how many other established video game brands try the Radiohead experiment, but also b) what potential it might have in combating piracy. As a distribution model, it's almost directly competitive on price, similarly convenient, arguably builds goodwill and loyalty, and may prove an effective loss-leader/trojan horse for selling later add-ons and updates. But as has been argued of In Rainbows, perhaps this is an option that's only viable for the already popular?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Being Oprah Winfrey. Or Patrick Bateman. Or just a bit grumpy, really.

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be Oprah Winfrey? Or Stephen Fry? Or even the estimable Dr Samuel Johnson? Well, tough. You'll probably never find out. What with not actually being them and all. But still, thanks to a new site called cTwittLike it's not impossible to get at least a tiny glimpse of life through their eyes. Or at least a glimpse of the feed on their Twitter homepage.

Cheerfully blurring the line between stalker and follower ever further, cTwittLike lets anyone type in a celeb Twitterer and see what all their followers are saying - almost as if you're IN THEIR HEAD! Seeing everything their ghost-Twitterer's seeing! RIGHT NOW!


Frankly, it sounds horrific. Like some kind of portal to bleak lonely psychotic delusion - which reminds me, I passed through Luton once.

But you don't have to use cTwittLike to look at the Twitter feeds of celebs, and feel all inadequate at the exciting and accomplished lives of their exciting and accomplished friends. If you're a star, you could always use it to see what it's like to be a copywriter complaining about having to think of yet another way to say "In the present economic climate" for the umpteenth time...

But that's never going to happen.

Anyway, back on the theme of voyeurism and inadequacy in the face of the accomplished, apparently there's now a site for exhibitionist job seekers, called Resume Race. Yes, that's right, people can now read, rate and comment on the CVs of others - or submit their own for judgement. It's basically competitive joblessness.

Well, OK, it's probably not like that at all; it's probably a perfectly useful place for getting crowd-sourced feedback on your CV, whether you're employed or otherwise...

But just why call it Resume Race?

It sounds like somewhere a latterday Patrick Bateman might go to brag about the fabulous career that's slowly eaten away his soul. When actually what you're really supposed to do is simply rate yourself in various categories and then see just how big of a gap other people reckon there is between your self image and your CV - and either ignore it enitrely, since you just know you're brilliant anyway, or tweak your CV to more accurately match up to your own towering ego. Which doesn't make we want to despair of humanity nearly as much, oh no. It makes me want to despair of humanity almost as much.

But anyway, let's end with something nice:, a collection of physics-based browser games. Well, I say nice. This one only made me despair of myself, rather than the whole of humanity, and only because I'm rubbish at physics and easily addicted - a fatally time-sapping combination on sites like this, if ever there was one. Even despairing of yourself can be quite cheering sometimes, though - what with everything being relative, and all that. As Einstein actually didn't say. Not that that bit of knowledge will ever help you rescue a frozen viking.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Backing up and the trouble with short URLs

40% of everything on Twitter is 'pointless babble', according to a new study by Pear Analytics,* with only 8.7% of tweets having 'pass-along value'. (The company neglected to comment on the possible existence of babble that has a point).

Despite these statistics, however, the existence of services such as BackUpMyTweets (among other options) suggests that at least some of those tweeting their babble (pointless or otherwise) may want to preserve it for future reference. Especially as there seems to be some doubt as to how long Twitter will store your tweets, or at the very least regarding how long tweets remain easily accessible and searchable. Indeed, you might want to back up your other online accounts too, just in case. But are these back up services capturing everything? Well, no, not quite.

The problem - as highlighted by the recent ructions over - which first died, then decided it felt a bit better, then finally dispersed into the universal consciousness (or something like that) - is with URL shorteners. What, if anything, is being done to back up their databases? Or to put it another way, is the connection between, say, and (or between signifier and signified, if you want to get all structuralist about it) being recorded anywhere, besides (in this case) on's servers?

Actually, I do want to get a bit structuralist about it, as it turns out. Because perhaps one way of looking at it is that URL shorteners, at present, represent a threat to the future relationship between what we are saying now and to what we are referring. A potential glitch in the language of history.

With the internet and social networks playing an increasingly significant role in current events themselves, as well as in recording them as they happen, and indeed with short URLs being employed by offline news media to reference the online world, it seems increasingly important that something is done to preserve the semantic relationships these URL services create. After all, on one level, the net is essentially a gigantic, complex, system of languages. A modern day Babel that somehow works.

Of course the net has always had to contend with broken hyperlinks. But a short URL deprived of its reference is something else again - a broken link at least hints at where it was supposed to lead, but a short URL is arbitrary. It isn't even a code that can eventually be cracked, just a random alphanumeric sequence assigned to whatever standard URL a user has fed into it.

Happily, though, a group called now seems to be attempting to deal with the problem. As yet, all we have to view is a homepage containing slightly opaque bits of blurb, but what the group appears to be aiming at is something a bit like the Internet Archive, but for short URLs.

Already, though, the project isn't without controversy - the people behind dispute the altrusim of 301works, hence their decision to release their code and database to the open source community, rather than signing up. But at the very least it seems that the issue is now on the collective radar and might soon be addressed - and lets hope it is, or much more than 40% of Twitter might one day be pointless babble; never mind various other parts of the net.

Still, if you really want to be certain about backing up your every online utterance, maybe you could do your own shortening? (Or, then again, maybe not. Life's plenty short enough already).

*Based on a highly representative sample... of, er, 2,000 tweets. Probably mostly from people bored at work, given the times and days they were selected.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

To catch a plagiarist

When you see a story of plagiarism these days it's not so much that the act took place that surprises you, more that the person in question thought that she could get away with it - especially when it seems the work she plagiarised was sourced from the web.

Samantha Beeston is an award-winning textile designer, and recent graduate. By all accounts, she seems to be going places. Well done her.

Except... well... various images that won her her prizes, as well as quite a number that until recently were posted on her personal website, were never hers in the first place. Instead they belonged to, and indeed were created by Lauren Nassef, a Chicago-based illustrator.

Fine. This is a mash-up culture now, you might be tempted to say, and she seems to be of the generation that has grown up with such things, so has she simply repurposed Lauren Nassef's images for use within a different medium? Have they, for instance, been cleverly juxtaposed with images of her own, or even someone else's, to make some kind of political point or original art? Artistic fair use, and all that?

Well, no. If only.

Just take a look at this page, if you haven't done so already. A minor colour change here, a new combination of Lauren's images there, but that's about as close to appropriation as it gets. It's such straightforward copying that it's hard to imagine even Samantha Beeston thought she was performing some kind of mash-up; though, as yet, it doesn't appear she's commented.

But what interests this blog most is not her motivations, so much as the possibility that while making plagiarism much easier than it used to be, the internet might also, to some degree, be self-righting in these matters - thanks, in part, to the sheer number of its users, but also, in the fields of art and design at least, to the continued success and proliferation of design and inspiration blogs.

These sites make it their mission to seek out fresh images, ideas and inventions in any and every field of art or design, with the intention of inspiring other creative people, again, in whatever creative field. Thus anything new and interesting, such as textile design awards, will pretty quickly come to the attention of all manner of people - all of them with a personal and professional interest in originality and integrity.

Perhaps also the same might be true of music now, given the popularity of MP3 blogs? Or even creative writing, with all kinds of journals, magazines and writers' groups existing online?

Doubtless much plagiarism goes unnoticed - and who knows what can be done about this, since by definition it's going unnnoticed. But does that matter? Perhaps the majority of plagiarism that goes unnoticed is just not very noteworthy, not very profitable? And of the succesful plagiarism: while rectifying matters in the short term could be tortuous for the original creator, what useful attention might their work be attracting during the fallout?

That's the optimistic point of view, of course, and there's every chance someone will point me to a horror story in the comments. Nonetheless, maybe in the old maxim that 'in the stealing of what's worthwhile the succesful plagiarist shall always be unmasked' there lies at least a grain of truth?*

Thanks to @laurasnapes for tweeting the original link.

*Actually it might not be an old maxim, I might have just made it up. But since I equally well might have just remembered it from somewhere, and this is a blogpost about plagiarism, let's call it old.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Bacon and Twitter: a marriage made in heaven

Would you be surprised to learn that the most followed British celebrity on Twitter isn't Stephen Fry? How about if I told you it was Richard Bacon?

Yes, really. He of getting sacked from Blue Peter fame. He of occasional not being the MP Richard Bacon confusion. And he of the voiceover to Blockbuster ads.

So, what is it that has made a former second or even third fiddle to a pair of annoying puppets at least two whole @wittertainments (i.e. more than 50,000 followers) more popular than all-round national treasure, Apple fanatic and cuddly uber-geek, Mr Stephen Fry?

The somewhat surprising answer would appear to be: late night national radio.

Certainly Richard Bacon has TV presence, too, but it's hardly on the scale or noticeability of Stephen Fry's, or even that of Jonathan Ross, say - much of it, for one thing, being voiceover work. Neither is he a renowned blogger and technophile, as far as I'm aware. But what he does have is a a late night national radio show - four nights a week, between 10pm and 1am, on BBC 5live - and, most crucially, the Special Half Hour.

Notorious as a time listeners switch off and go to bed, Bacon decided to make the last 30 minutes of his show into a sort of secret club or community. It isn't trailed or even mentioned during the rest of the show, but as soon as it hits 12:30am, to quote Jane Graham in The Guardian, "[w]hat changes is Richard's tone, which becomes honeyed and familial, and is used to punctuate the show with regular reminders that we are now cocooned within the Special Half Hour and we are his 'favourite listeners'", as well as - more recently - some SHH-only special features such as listeners recording Jeremy Kyle re-enactments (other listeners have to guess the show's subtitle). Supporting all this is a Facebook Group and Richard's frequently updated Twitter account.

We've probably all read about how the internet has been a boon to radio, but here what's also at play seems to be the live element of the show - listening later on iPlayer, or to the podcast of the week's highlights, you lose that sense of everyone listening together, secretly, at the same time. The internet plays an important role, certainly, but it's only a part of the SHH's success.

Ultimately, what I think Richard Bacon's overtaking of Stephen Fry on Twitter perhaps shows us most clearly, then, is an unusually good example of mutually beneficial symbiosis between "old media" and "new media" - not to mention the power of word of mouth, likability, and a flair for building community. Or on the other hand, maybe there's just a remarkable overlap in demographics between Twitter users and people who like Richard Bacon? Whatever the case, though, there's something to be learned from it all.

Talking of radio

Remember how teenagers don't listen to radio or use Twitter? Well, here's How 31 Year Olds Consume Media. As the author says, "Don't expect it to make the front page of the FT any time soon though."

Friday, 24 July 2009

Masquerade: the original alternate reality game?

"One of my pupils lives there," my Mum said once, as we were driving past a solitary farmhouse in the north of Scotland. She then added, quite wistfully, as Mum was secretly a massive sci-fi and fantasy geek who never really got to indulge her nerdy proclivities: "He's doing Masquerade."

"What's Masquerade?," the 11-year old me immediately wanted to know.

Mum explained that it was a fantasy picture book that had been published a couple of years earlier, which contained a series of puzzles that led to a real treasure - a golden hare ornamented with jewels - that was hidden somewhere in Britain. Whoever solved the puzzle first and found the treasure would get to keep it. Thousands of people all over the world were trying to solve it.

To my eleven-year old mind, this sounded like the greatest thing ever. A proper mystery that could only be solved by the application of a brilliant mind; something I was quite convinced I was in possession of. I resolved to buy a copy of Masquerade as soon as my pocket money would let me.

Sadly, by the time this came about, the mystery had already been solved. You can find the solution - and all the paintings - on this Masquerade Page-by-Page site.

Masquerade itself was over, but elements of it thrive into the present day: most notably the use of fiction to create a multimedia puzzle (Masquerade was a mixture of written text and a set of beautiful, detailed paintings, like the one to the left) that holds clues to objects and locations in the real world.

In some ways, then, Masquerade was a primitive form of the highly sophisticated puzzle games known today as alternate reality games, or ARGs. ARGs take Masquerade's premise - that clues to real objects and places can be hidden in fictional texts for people to solve - and updates it for the internet age. In an analogue age, my mum's pupil was trying to solve Masquerade more or less on his own, but ARGs create collaborative communities of players who can work together online to exchange information and solve puzzles. In the age of print, Masquerade's story was confined to the page, but in ARGs, characters spill out across a multimedia universe, behaving like real people and interacting directly with players by phone, email and on the web.

Masquerade took two years to crack, about the same amount of time as the first season of 2005's Perplex City, one of the first proper alternate reality games. But Masquerade laid all its clues out upfront, so players had all the information they needed to solve the puzzle right from the start. Modern ARGs reveal their clues slowly over time, in order to make the game last. The existence of Google, forums and Twitter mean that if Masquerade was published today it would probably be solved by Wednesday.

The internet would have done no favours for Kit Williams's second treasure hunt book, either. Published in 1984, it was an equally gorgeous multimedia artefact, which scattered arcane clues across text, minutely detailed paintings and exquisite marquetry. But the book itself was untitled: the aim of the puzzle was to work out what it was called.

Being nameless may have seemed like a clever gimmick in the 80s, but in the age of Amazon and Google, it's commercially suicidal. Like Prince's squiggle, a book without a name is deeply search-engine unfriendly. Personally, I still think of it as 'that bee book', but Wikipedia lists it as Book Without A Name, Amazon calls it The Bee on the Comb, and on the bookworms' favourite social media site, LibraryThing, it's simply called Untitled.

If something doesn't have a name, it's not only harder to sell online, it's also much harder for a community to form around it. Search - especially the real-time search provided by the likes of Twitter - is becoming vital to the creation of online communities of interest: if you like something a lot, your default reaction these days is to go online and find other people who like it too. If you don't have a definite term to search for, you're on to a loser.

But the internet may just be amplifying an existing problem. With hundreds of thousands of players worldwide, Masquerade 'went viral' by the standards of its day - and is even now enjoying a revival, thanks to media coverage of its 30th anniversary. The bee book never captured the public imagination in the same way. And if you try looking for 'bee book' online now, Kit Williams's puzzle has to compete in the search rankings with everything from a kids' school notebook to a new Nicole Kidman film. Proof that if you don't have a name, it's very hard to make a name for yourself.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Finding Ada? Not at the Early Learning Centre, you won't

In January this year the writer and technophile Suw Charman-Anderson launched a campaign to raise the profile of women in the technology sector.

In light of the misogyny that seems to persist in certain corners of the tech world, Suw wanted to highlight excellent work being done by women in technology and to identify strong role models to inspire women who are already working in technology or who may want to work in the sector in the future.

Suw called the campaign 'Finding Ada' after Ada Lovelace, who worked alongside the Victorian computing pioneer Charles Babbage writing technical and marketing documentation - and the world's first programming code - for the world's first computers, Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine.

Finding Ada is a global campaign now, with its own special day, countless media articles and blog posts, and a multitude of events, debates and other activities dedicated to raising awareness of outstanding technological achievements and contributions made by women.

I must confess, though, that I'm in two minds about Finding Ada and other techno-feminist initiatives. I've worked in the technology industry for the past 13 years, and I've found it to be pretty well populated with strong, articulate, intelligent, confident and authoritative women, who would doubtlessly tell you that they don't need anyone to stand up for them. In the multinational software company that I used to work for, for example, there are very many women in very senior positions, including the company's president.

So I think there's a danger that running campaigns that aim to 'empower' women in tech may in fact achieve the opposite. Portraying these women as victims of misogyny may inadvertently create the impression that they are unable to stand up for themselves; that they need protecting from their male colleagues; that technology is an unpleasant and unwelcoming industry for women. And although I've met some reprehensibly misogynistic individuals in the course of my career, I can't honestly say that I've found the technology industry as a whole to be unwelcoming to women; quite the opposite.

But on the other hand, Suw is absolutely correct that technology has very, very few female role models. Even Ada Lovelace herself essentially played second fiddle to Charles Babbage (for my money, the 18th-century French scientist and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet is perhaps an even better role model in the proto-female-geek stakes).

There must be countless women out there who are creating wonderful things with technology every day, and there shouldn't have to be a concerted campaign to bring them to light. But somehow, despite the fact that they undoubtedly exist, and with honourable exceptions like Six Apart's Mena Trott, Blogger's Meg Hourihan and Flickr's Caterina Fake, those women by and large remain invisible.

It's all part of that same curious bias in society that would have us believe that there are no female bloggers, or no female science fiction fans. Some things are just assumed to be a male preserve, despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

All of which is a very long-winded way of getting to my point, which is that yesterday, my 10 month-old daughter was given a present of a toy laptop from the Early Learning Centre.

I was very happy about this, as I'm all for introducing her to technology as soon as possible. She's already fascinated with my laptop and my digital camera and my mobile phone and the TV remote controls, and so she should be. Knowing how these things work and how they can be used is critical to getting ahead in modern life, and I'm not going to let my nostalgia for the toys of my own childhood get in the way of her technological development.

But what struck me was the way the toy laptop was packaged. Call me naive, but in 2009, I honestly just don't expect to read something like this:

Dad's laptop is nowhere near as fun as this? In 2009, what possible reason can there be for singling out Dad as the parent who has a laptop? And as if that weren't enough, there's a photo on the back of the box of a little boy using the laptop, but that's the only photo - there's no picture of a little girl using it.

You may think I'm making a fuss about nothing here. After all, the manufacturers clearly intend for the toy laptop to be used by boys and girls: the blurb on the front is deliberately - and ungrammatically - non-gender-specific. 'Watch your baby's face glow when they see and hear the magical light and music show'.

And yet it's tiny things like this, tiny, barely perceptible ways in which women are somehow made invisible when it comes to technology, that build over time into an overwhelming societal assumption that women in technology simply don't exist.

And it's because of that assumption that they actively have to be found, through initiatives like Finding Ada. I wish it weren't the case, and I can't understand why it still *is* the case, but there you have it.

Sort it out, Early Learning Centre.