Media Technology

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Ooh lordy, it’s Lordi

This Google Video proves beyond doubt that Finland deserves to win Eurovision. Lordi (pictured) have recorded the country’s official Eurovision entry, and the song sounds like a cross between Slipknot, Kiss and Cher. Extra points for the superbly bad video, too…

[Video link via Metafilter]


The new MacBooks

It’s not a surprise that Apple’s replaced the iBook with the MacBook, but what is surprising is that they support external monitors both for mirroring and for extended desktops. In other words, you can use a MacBook as part of a twin-screen setup (albeit without much graphics horsepower: the MacBooks have on-board graphics). Prices start at £749.


ID cards, again

If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear. My arse. Devil’s Kitchen links to an Independent story that says:

An internal investigation at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has found that civil servants are colluding with organised criminals to steal personal identities on “an industrial scale”.

Ministers have been privately warned that the investigation will show that hundreds of thousands of stolen personal details have been ripped off from official databases, often with inside help. Key personal details such as national insurance numbers can be used to commit benefit fraud, set up false bank accounts and obtain official documents such as passports.


Sony’s sat-nav may be a bad buy until August

This wee beastie is the Sony NV-U50 in-car sat-nav system, which would be brilliant if it weren’t for one teeny-weeny problem: some of the map data is out of date, particularly in Southern Ireland and parts of the West of Scotland.

Sat-nav without up-to-date map data isn’t ideal. It means encountering huge scary roundabouts that the sat-nav doesn’t know about, or discovering that the sat-nav thinks you’ve gone off-road when you’re pootling along a dual carriageway. I mailed Sony to moan, and they say:

While there are no updates at present, there are plans to release these in DVD format in the near future. This has been tentatively arranged for August/September. These maps are currently under development by Navtech.

No indication of whether those updates will be free, mind you. I suspect not.


The Bad Pint

The following scenario should be familiar to any Guinness drinker. It’s the morning after the night before and you’re dying. Your head’s pounding, your eyelids are like lead and you expend what little energy you have making far-too-frequent trips to the bathroom. It’s not just a hangover, though. You’re suffering from the aftermath of A Bad Pint.

The existence of the Bad Pint is hotly denied by some people. These people are usually called “girlfriends” or “wives”. So you have a conversation that goes like this:

Wife: Jesus. You look terrible.
You: Yeah, I feel terrible too. Must have had a bad pint.
Wife: Oh, of course. The Bad Pint. Nothing to do with the way you drank your own body weight in booze.

Your wife or girlfriend is right – but so are you.

The Bad Pint really does exist, and it’s the reason why I stopped drinking Guinness when I moved to Glasgow. With lager, you can be pretty sure that you’ll get a safe pint no matter where you go. With Guinness, on the other hand, the quality varies widely – particularly if you drink in the sort of pubs where people don’t usually order Guinness, such as pubs whose customers are younger than eighty.

When you order a Guinness in a pub that doesn’t cater for many Guinness drinkers, there’s a 50% chance of disaster. That could be a contaminated pint that tastes distinctly of bleach, or whatever foul chemical pubs use to clean out their beer pipes, or it could be a pint that’s bad in some other way, such as a watery gloop instead of the creamy goodness you’d expect from a pint of Guinness.

If you’re sober and someone gives you a Bad Pint, you make a face and immediately take it back to the bar. However, when you’ve already slugged back a half-dozen pints, moved to a new pub and then been given a Bad Pint, you’re pissed enough to think “ach, I’ll drink it anyway.” The thought of fighting your way back to the bar, persuading a dead-eyed barman that the pint’s crap and then choosing something watery instead of Guinness is simply too horrible to contemplate. So you drink it, with no thought to the horrific consequences.

You’re right: the Bad Pint really does exist. But unfortunately, your wife or your girlfriend is right too. While the Bad Pint is a terrifying reality, the only reason it goes down your neck is because you’re completely and utterly pissed.


A routine matter

Something terrible happened this morning: my newspaper arrived an hour late. I know it sounds daft, but it’s completely buggered up my day.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point over the last few years I realised my mornings took a specific pattern – and if that pattern was disrupted, it cast a shadow over the whole day. I don’t know if it’s an age thing or just a weird brain thing, but each day I follow the same pattern: go downstairs, put on the coffee machine, grab the newspaper and then read it in a very specific order. So weekdays are the Guardian, and the order is:

* If it’s Monday, read MediaGuardian first; if it’s Thursday, Technology Guardian.
* Pick up the G2 supplement and read the back page first, then start from the beginning
* Pick up the main newspaper

On Saturdays, it’s:

* The Guide supplement
* The magazine
* The financial and business bits, and then
* The newspaper proper

And on Sundays, it’s:

* Sunday Times first: Style, then Culture, then money and business bits, then the Ecosse supplement, then the Driving supplement, then the paper proper, then News Review, and finally the paper proper
* Now, the Observer: magazine first, then business & media section, then the financial bits, then the weekend review, and finally the paper proper

I’m a bit like Rain Main in this respect: if we have guests and they grab a bit of the paper just as I’m due to read that particular section, it feels really weird if I skip a bit and read a different supplement. If the paper’s late (or on Sunday, if one of the papers doesn’t arrive, or a supplement is missing) then I end up mooching aimlessly around the house, and if I have to go out and get the paper mid-morning then it’s pretty much a waste of money, because I won’t be able to concentrate on it because the Paper Moment has passed.

I do the same with the Web, too: there’s a particular order in which I do things online, so I always start off by checking email and then looking at my various RSS feeds in a particular order – so reading Engadget before checking out my friends’ blogs, or reading MetaFilter before checking out The Register is a major no-no.

Do any of you have similar routines, or am I just weird?


I trust I can rely on your dopes

One of the things that really bugs me is when street teams fill the internet with promotional crap while pretending to be Just Another Punter. It’s something I was going to be talking about on Radio Scotland this morning, but unfortunately time constraints meant we didn’t get to the problem of vested interests editing Wikipedia entries. Never mind, I can blog about it instead.

Stealth Marketing: Penny Arcade has been covering how it works in the games industry, while over at Metafilter they’ve spotted this ad by Epic records:

Do you blog, have lots of friends at your MySpace page, and love music?

Epic Records is looking for skilled, motivated interns to promote artists on social networking sites like MySpace, purevolume, Facebook & others.

This isn’t a new thing: since the initial success of Christina Aguilera – arguably the first artist who owes her career to street teams – everyone from unsigned indie bands to stadium bands has an army of (usually unpaid) marketing shills. As I wrote last year in .net:

A typical street team will lobby radio stations to play the new single, vote in every conceivable internet poll, and spread the word in chat rooms, message boards and weblogs. It’s very successful, but it’s also very controversial. Speaking to The Guardian about record companies’ teenybopper teams, John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers fumed: “It exploits children for the benefit of the record company alone. There are many ways of marketing to children, but these methods are unacceptable.”

Xavier Adam agrees. The md of the Adam Media Consultancy ( says: “Using children is not ethical… These tactics can and do backfire. They are seen as unethical by the public at large, despite what the industry may think.” He continues: “It’s a form of spam, although it is more targeted than general email spam.”

It’s not just record companies, though. One of the things I like about the net – one of its most important features – is its ability to let you see real opinions rather than corporate spin. Street teams put the spin back in, whether they’re fixing online polls, rewriting Wikis or reviewing books they haven’t read on Amazon.

On the subject of which, MetaFilter user NailsTheCat points to a very sensible suggestion for fixing Amazon’s reviews, which are prone to PR puffery and fanboy crap:

There is, in my opinion, only one solution to’s fraud-ridden book review system: Only customers who purchased the book from should be able to post a review on that book.

It all comes down to my favourite subject, the tragedy of the commons: whenever you’ve got something open to the public, a small minority will do their best to ruin things for everyone else.

Shills’ activities are self-defeating. For example, when I first used Amazon I used the reviews to help me find things I might be interested in; now, I assume every single one of them is written by an idiot or someone with a vested interest (unless it’s a review of a game or console that isn’t out for six months, in which case I *know* the review’s by an idiot). When I see an online vote for new bands, I assume the winner is the one who mobilised the most people, or who hit reload most often. And when I see a post praising some hitherto-unheard-of band, I assume it’s the singer’s girlfriend. I’m usually right.

There’s an irony here. Thanks to review sites, blogs, newsgroups and forums, I can get a wider range of opinion than ever before – but because corporate shills, fanboys and nut-jobs are doing a fine job of turning the wisdom of crowds into the mooing of herds, I rarely make buying decisions on the basis of strangers’ opinions. If anything, street teams and shills are turning back the clock for me: if I want to know about a game I’ll see what Edge and Eurogamer think, or ask my brother; if I want to know about gadgets, music, movies or TV I’ll again turn to reviewers and the people I know (both in real life and via this blog). While I do use the net, the sites I turn to are the ones that resemble traditional magazines: engadget, eurogamer and so on.

Put it this way: you’re considering a PlayStation 3. Here’s the verdict from “W from England” on

This beast of a console is nearly as powerful or as powerful as some computers. This shows the amount of effort that Sony have put into this Super console. From the disgin of the the look of the console to the smallist micro chip no expense has been spared and no short cuts have been taken. This Consle will more than likly blow away all the comption. The playstion 3 when speaking off the graphics and power is in a different league to microsofts X-box 360.

The games that i have seen are so life like that it will feel as thought you are in the game.

I can not what until the day the console comes out because ill be waiting at the door for the postman. Just order yours so you are no disappointed. You may have to book time off work or school that how important this console is!

I think I’ll wait for Edge’s verdict.


What if… the oil runs out?

Originally published in PC Plus magazine

We live in a world where technology delivers a multitude of little miracles. From the ubiquitous Blackberry to the sat-nav systems in our cars, we’re living in an always-on world of instant global communication, on-demand data and computing power that would have been undreamt of a few decades ago. Our economy is overwhelmingly electronic, from the zeroes and ones of electronic banking to the ecommerce sites killing big-name retailers, and in an increasingly cashless society we’ve replaced notes and coins with chip and PIN. The problem with these little miracles is that they all require power – and it’s running out.

In October, UK businesses were warned that they might need to close during the winter due to the double whammy of fuel shortages and rocketing energy prices. The predicted cold snap didn’t appear (or at least, it hasn’t so far) and an energy crisis was averted, but we’re not out of the woods yet. In early February we were stunned by a 22% increase in the cost of gas; by the end of the month, an explosion at the UK’s main gas storage field left the entire country with just two days’ worth of gas – one-seventh of the usual capacity, and one twenty-sixth of the European average.

The gas problems will go away, in the short term at least. However, when you look at the bigger picture the UK is in a very vulnerable position. Less than four percent of our electricity supply comes from renewable sources; if something were to restrict our fuel supplies, we’d be in trouble. According to think-tank the Foreign Policy Centre, if extremists controlled the world’s oil supplies and increased the price to $161 per barrel, we’d suffer “devastating economic problems” and energy rationing. The FPC even suggests a return to the days of the Blitz, but instead of air raid wardens we’d have “energy wardens”. The group suggests that “the mentality at community and householder level must be similar to that of the war years, or Britain will have no energy future.”

The FPC’s doomsday scenario assumes that any fuel shortage will be artificial rather than natural. However, many adherents of the Peak Oil theory believe that not only will our finite fuel resources run out, but that the process is already well underway.

Peak Oil was first proposed in 1956 by geophysicist Marion King Hubbert, who predicted that US oil production would peak by 1970 and that global production would peak in 2000. He was partly right: US production peaked in 1971, but global production continued to rise as 2000 came and went. Then again, Hubbert couldn’t have predicted the mid-70s oil crisis, which reduced demand and, perhaps, postponed the global peak.

As the Washington Post reported in June 2004, conventional oil production is indeed in decline: “For every 10 barrels of conventional oil consumed, only four new barrels are discovered. Without the unconventional oil from tar sands, liquefied natural gas and other deposits, world production would have peaked several years ago.” According to the Worldwatch Institute, in figures quoted by oil firm Chevron, oil production is declining in 33 of the 48 largest oil producing countries – but as developing nations grow more industrialised and our own insatiable desire for energy shows no signs of abating, demand for oil continues to rise. The most pessimistic estimates suggest that if demand stays relatively static, global oil production will peak in 2015.

The oil will not run out overnight – we’ve got a few decades after the peak – but as demand begins to significantly outstrip supply, energy prices will soar. In the absence of alternatives – how many of us drive hybrid cars or have energy-neutral homes? – and with promising technologies such as fuel cells still stuck in the labs, things could get nasty. Increased transport costs and energy costs will have a huge impact: they’ll increase firms’ costs and push up the prices of all products and services while taking an ever-larger chunk of our incomes; blackouts will become the exception rather than the norm, and we may have to endure 70s-style three day weeks. And that’s the best-case scenario. Pessimists predict that oil-producing nations will hold the rest of the planet to ransom, and that the oil-dependent nations will use force to secure fuel supplies.

So what are we doing about it? Not as much as we should, it seems. The government wants 10% of our energy to come from renewable sources by 2010 and 20% by 2020, but it seems that we won’t hit those targets in time – and if Peak Oil theorists are correct, by 2020 fuel supplies will already be in steep and irreversible decline. If new technology is going to save us from our dependence on oil, it really needs to get a move on.


What if… Luddism returns?

Originally published in PC Plus

In 1812 thousands of textile workers attacked a mill near Manchester, determined to destroy the power looms they believed threatened their jobs. Ten of them were shot dead, and in the aftermath a further four men were arrested, convicted and executed.

The men were Luddites, and if they thought power looms were scary, today’s technology would give them heart attacks. Technology is transforming everything: the way we work, the way we live, and even the genes inside us – and one day, it could become our master rather than our servant. As technology’s reach extends ever onwards, will Luddism live again?

Like King Canute, the Luddites get a raw deal from history: Canute was demonstrating his fallibility, not his power, and the Luddites weren’t a bunch of thugs protesting against technology for technology’s sake. They knew that the new mill machines – coupled with the abolition of price controls and the arrival of a free market – would destroy their jobs. They were right, and the issues they faced are back with a vengeance today.

The Luddites’ big problem was that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about their jobs. Sure, it was a tragedy if you were a skilled knitter whose job was replaced by a machine, but if you weren’t then new technology and the abolition of price controls meant cheaper fabric. The same thing happened in the 20th century as technology moved on to hot-metal printers, to car assemblers and to factory workers. Again, bad news for the people in those industries, but hey! Cheaper, colour newspapers! Better-built cars! Cheaper goods!

In the latter part of the 20th century, the combination of new technology and a free market was good news for lots of people. Areas such as Scotland’s Silicon Glen created new jobs in the form of circuit board population, computer case moulding and mobile phone assembly. Cheap imports slashed the cost of consumer goods as Asian firms perfected high-volume, high quality, low-cost manufacturing. Clothing had never been cheaper. Yes, the old jobs were gone, but we had new ones: high-tech firms! Retail! Call centres!

By the late 1990s, though, the cracks were beginning to show. The same electronics firms that had brought new hope to depressed areas started upping sticks, moving to other countries that offered the same level of technology but much lower labour costs (and in many cases, fewer environmental or workers’ protection regulations). In the first few years of the 21st Century such firms were leaving the UK en masse – and technology had turned its attention to the service sector.

While we were setting up call centres and teaching former shipbuilders to use PCs, technology’s march continued. We didn’t notice until we got our first telesales call from Mumbai, when we lost a lucrative contract to a cheaper, smarter, overseas firm, or when the tech support staff were made redundant and first-line support transferred to Bangalore. Suddenly everyone’s job was at risk, and Luddism was back.

Of course, nobody calls it Luddism – but when record companies demand government action against file sharers and new laws to criminalise copying; when IT workers campaign against outsourcing; when unions and tabloids protest as insurance firms shift their call centres to Bangalore; when retailers are wiped out by low-margin online shops; when book publishers attempt to stop Google from digitising everything ever printed… they’re all fighting against the relentless march of the terrible twins, technology and a global free market. In many cases it’s selective Luddism – anti-capitalist protesters make good use of cheaply made, imported mobile phones and computers to co-ordinate their protests, and video cameras to record them; the very firms that want protection from the relentless march of technology are quick to implement IT within their own businesses – but it’s still Luddism.

Stereotypical Luddism – a knee-jerk reaction to technology – is back too. You see it in the fringes of the environmental movement, in the reaction against GM crops, in campaigns against mobile phone masts, in the proliferation of quack homeopathic “cures” and in conversations with people who buy organic because “chemicals are bad”. While many – and probably most – of the people concerned about the environment, genetic research and so on have sound concerns, their concerns act as a magnet for the anti-technology crowd whose motto might as well be “if I don’t understand it, it’s evil.”

So should we expect angry mobs roaming the streets, destroying Dells and assaulting iPod owners? Probably not. However, whenever a speed or CCTV camera is destroyed, when GM crops are vandalised or anti-capitalist protests turn violent, it’s clear that neo-luddism has a distinctly ugly side. As technology’s influence on the way we live grows ever stronger, it’s a side we may see much more of.