Media Technology

Recommendations wanted

Never mind blogging about blogging: I’m so hardcore that I’m blogging about writing about blogging. And if it works, I might write about it and then blog about the writing about the blogging about the writing about the blogging.
Er… anyway. I’m doing a feature about great British blogs, and I thought I’d ask your good selves whether you’ve become addicted to any good ‘uns. I’ve already got politics, personal and sci/tech/web stuff covered (although if you know of something that’s utterly, blindingly brilliant then by all means let me know) but I’d be interested in any lifestyle/entertainment blogs you like.

As you’d expect, I can’t plug friends’ sites, or my own. Bah.


The best Xbox 360 game is £4.25

…if you buy it second hand, or around £9 if you buy it new. And it’s…


Okay, it’s not actually *for* the 360 but Bungie’s tweaked the graphics via the 360’s backwards compatibility and I reckon it looks much better than, say, Perfect Dark Zero. There are a few bugs, but not too many and not too often (you get the odd ghosting on the screen when textures don’t disappear, but at least you don’t get permanently trapped under vehicles like you do in the 360 version of Far Cry Predator). I’m currently playing through it again from scratch and I’m consistently surprised by how good it is.

Technology Uncategorised

Flickrs of talent

One of the reasons I stopped playing in a band (other than the obvious ones: geography, a face only a mother could love and the increasing feeling that once you’re over 30, you’re too old to rock) was frustration: while a lot of the stuff we did was really, really good, I never felt it was good enough.

To me, there was always a yawning chasm between the stuff I was writing and the stuff I was listening to, so while I could easily write a 1,000 word forensic analysis of, say, Red Dress by Sugababes, There There by Radiohead or (yes!) Biology by Girls Aloud that tells you exactly why they’re great, what sneaky musical tricks they use and what particular moments elevate them from ordinary tunes into something special (in Red Dress it’s the chaotic “woah woah woah” bit before the second part of the chorus; in There There it’s the chord change underneath the line “just ’cause you feel it / doesn’t mean it’s there”; in Biology it’s the spooky backing vocals that come in halfway through the chorus), no matter how hard I tried (or how talented my fellow band members) I could never reach the same heights myself.

I feel the same thing on Flickr when I browse other people’s photos. Sure, I know a bit about composition and photography so I can tell a good pic from a bad one; I can also tell when a pic’s benefited from professional lighting or from sneaky Photoshopping. But the really good ones aren’t just about technique: the really good stuff comes from people who could take better shots on a crappy cameraphone than I could ever manage with ten grand of camera kit. There’s things I can do – I can (and did) upgrade from a basic compact camera to a pseudo-SLR, I could learn about shutter speeds and other technical stuff (if anyone can recommend a good book for digital camera owners who’ve no idea beyond autofocus and pre-defined picture modes, I’m all ears)… but while those things would certainly help me take better photographs, they can only help with the technical stuff. What differentiates the really good pics from the quite good ones isn’t equipment or technique, but talent.

The best example I can think of is in my day job. I’m not suggesting I’m some literary giant, but I do think that there’s something going on that means unlike many people, I find writing easy. The something is this: 99% of the time I have absolutely no recollection of writing an article. One day it’s a blank page and I’m howling with frustration, then something clicks in my head and the words start flowing. Before I know it I’ve got a finished piece, but my involvement is a bit like when you drive somewhere and arrive with no recollection of actually driving.

I’m reminded of a comment by a musician (I can’t remember who): the songs are just floating through the air, and it’s your job to catch them before some bastard like Mick Hucknall gets his hands on them. But that’s not just the case in music; I reckon it’s the case with writing and photography too.

Writing, then: there’s technique in there – planning out a structure, editing and refining, editing again, particular word choices, deciding the whole thing’s shite and starting again from a different angle – but the bit that matters to me, the process of turning a bunch of ideas or facts into a feature, or story, or book, happens on a subconscious level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Notepad, Word or some amazingly clever document editor: if you don’t have that subconscious thing going on, then no matter how good your software (or your pen and paper) the process of writing is bloody hard work. The tools you use can make things easier, but they can’t write the words for you.

And that’s the big lie behind a lot of tech marketing at the moment. Sure, programs such as GarageBand put amazing power in the hands of would-be musicians (when I started playing in bands, the only way to get even a crappy recording was to spend hundreds on kit and then hundreds or even thousands of pounds on studio time), but if you want to create a Red Dress, There There or Biology you’ll need to bring the same alchemy to GarageBand that those songs’ creators brought to the studio. Yes, upgrading from a crappy cameraphone to a digital SLR will enable you to take better photographs, but it won’t make you a better photographer. And using a state-of-the-art word processor or blogging system will make the nuts and bolts easier, but it can’t help with the actual writing. Technology firms can sell you the tools, but they can’t sell you the talent.


Total Broadband

I’m quite impressed by BT’s Total Broadband service, which gives you 8MB broadband, a wi-fi phone, 250 minutes per month of BT OpenZone Wi-Fi access and if you go for the most expensive option at £22.99 per month, the Fusion service that turns your mobile into a landline when you’re at home. I nearly ordered it, before spotting the bandwidth limit: the most expensive offering gives you just 40GB per month – fine for your average home punter, but not for your humble demo-downloading, ISO-burning, huge zip file-chucking technology hack. Boo.

Hell in a handcart Media Technology

Fascinating and disturbing

The camera never lies, but here’s yet more proof that what appears in print often bears little or no relation to what was actually photographed. Brian Dilg is insanely talented, but his description of a Ralph Lauren job involving a child model has made me utterly depressed:

This is a good example of some very tricky retouching for a very picky client – Polo Ralph Lauren. In addition to making the clothes fit better, they decided they wanted the blouse to be short sleeved. I ended up photographing an adult woman’s arms and compositing them in, as well as extending the background considerably. I was very proud of how I made the lean, muscular adult’s arms plump to to match the girl’s body type, but Polo asked to have them made skinny, just as anorexic as adult models.

Via Metafilter

Music Technology

Ripping CDs to iPods is illegal, says BPI boss. No it isn’t, says BPI boss.

Q: Do you believe people who are buying CDs legally and copying that music to an iPod should be punished – as they are, in fact, breaking the law?

A: Consumers don’t have the right to copy CDs in the UK and never have…

BPI boss Peter Jamieson speaks to BBC online, January 2006.

On a separate issue, the BPI’s chairman, Peter Jamieson, reassured the public that they were not breaking the law by copying their own CDs to iPods.

The Guardian, this morning.


You don’t need to spend a fortune on Word

As I mentioned yesterday, I was a guest on Edinburgh’s Talk 107 radio station to talk about piracy and things like that. I ended up in a (good-natured) argument with the presenter about software piracy, and he argued that people pirate Word because they need Word. It’s become the de facto standard for documents, so if you want to read ’em you need the software.

Of course, the whole point of talk radio presenters is to wind up people and say “bad” things, but it’s an attitude that I’ve come across quite a lot. I do think the “must have Word” attitude is quite pervasive, but you don’t have to spend a fortune on Microsoft’s flagship to read Word documents. In some cases you can get Word for free; in others, there are cheap and free alternatives. Here’s a few:

  • Get it for free with your new PC. Most big-name firms bundle Works with their PCs, and Works includes Word.
  • Works itself’s around £50 if you shop around.
  • Ability Office is an excellent Office clone, and the cheapest version is £29.99.
  • ThinkFree Office has a free online version. It’s another Office-a-like and it’s quite nifty.
  • is a fully-featured, free office suite, and there’s a stand-alone download for £30ish.
  • is a basic Word-a-like that runs in your Web browser. It’s free (and the block on new sign-ups has been lifted).

And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.


Google Spreadsheets: so what?

Michael at TechCrunch is clearly in a bad mood, but he’s bang on the money:

After I wrote about the launch of Google Spreadsheets this morning, one commenter said “Its very nice and sleak. Will be very useful for keeping track of money etc”, as if this was the first spreadsheet he’d ever seen. Some of the other comments were also overly effusive…

What drives this kind of blind enthusiasm? When is the last time Google released a product that really changed our lives? For me, it was (and is) their core search engine. And I do appreciate the POP access to Gmail (this was the one thing that converted me from hotmail for personal email). Everything since has been, well, somewhat underwhelming.

I think he’s right: Google search is ace, Google Notebook is a useful utility, and I quite like GMail (but not so much that I’d use it for my main email account), but everything else it’s done recently has been okay rather than OMG. Picasa was nifty when it first came out, but the latest iteration of Flickr is miles better (and on the Mac, iPhoto’s still the program to beat). Pages is GeoCities for the 21st Century, Google Talk is just a chat system, Blogger feels as if it’s stuck in a timewarp, Google Desktop is Yet Another Desktop Search program with added widgets, and so on.

As Michael puts it:

Google-love is getting out of hand.

Music Technology

If it’s too loud, you’re too right

Stylus Magazine has published a superb feature about music, which answers the question: why does so much modern music sound crap? It’s all about loudness, apparently: not volume, but compression that’s designed to make tracks sound as loud as possible. That’s why Keane are twice as loud as Nirvana, which is wrong on so many different levels.

Levels have crept up over the last decade though, and alarmingly so. Nevermind is 6-8dB quieter than, say, Hopes & Fears by Keane—to contextualise this, those 6-8dB will make Nevermind sound approximately half as loud. On most modern CDs the music is squashed into the top 5 dB of a medium that has over 90 dB of range. It’s like the oft-quoted myth that humans use only 10% of their brain, only real—imagine what we could do if we realised potential. Think of the classic, exciting Pixies formula again—it doesn’t exist anymore, because those dynamic leaps have been ironed out. Keane should NOT be twice as loud as Nirvana.

Media Technology

Future’s launching two heavyweight sites

So says Rob Mead, and he knows things. They’re not live yet – the launch is scheduled for the Autumn – but TechDaily and TechTested sound really interesting. Me, I don’t know anything about them, but I do know some of the people beavering away on the sites in the background. Judging by their track record (and attitude to this internet malarkey) I’m quite excited by this news.

No doubt any jobs going will be advertised on Futurenet…