The Magazine Diaries

I’ve contributed to The Magazine Diaries, “a little book publishing project designed to let magazine people tell the world how they feel about making magazines in the middle of the biggest disruption in publishing history and raise some money for a great charity.” The project is asking magazine people to submit 100-word articles about their jobs, and my one is here:

I worry about thinning walls between advertising and editorial, about writers who don’t need paid because someone else is picking up their tab, about slideshows and pop-ups and weird tricks for flat bellies.

But I still feel lucky.

You’ll find a full list of contributors here.

A black hole, not a black dog

There’s an honest piece about depression in this week’s Sunday Post by the very talented and exceptionally nice Chae Strathie, whose books make lots of children very happy.  For Strathie the illness wasn’t so much about feeling down – it was about not feeling anything at all. As he puts it, it was more a black hole than a black dog.

It sounds melodramatic now, with the benefit of hindsight. But at the time it was all too real and impossible to see a way out.

Of course, being a Scottish male in public I put on a brave face and told no one about what I was going though. If bottling up emotions was an event in the Commonwealth Games, Scotland would sweep the field. When it comes to keeping schtum about feelings, we’re world-class.

I’ve experienced similar issues, and like Strathie I went to the doctor about it. If you can relate, you should go too.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason.”

While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.

Flies and death and stuff

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.

The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.

It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.

Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.

In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.

There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”

Life through a lens

This nice piece by my friend Craig Grannell on experiencing life through a smartphone screen reminded me of this, a column I did for .net in 2009.

I was visiting the BBC recently, and I arrived just after a large delegation of Japanese visitors. As I waited to be ushered inside, I watched the group unwittingly living up to the stereotype of gadget-wielding photography obsessives. They filmed and photographed the receptionists at work. They filmed and photographed the security guards. They filmed and photographed people coming in and out. Most of all, they filmed and photographed each other filming and photographing.

The first thing I thought was: I’m glad I don’t have to edit all that footage into something interesting. But my second thought was more serious. Photos and videos are hyperlinks to memories, icons that your brain double-clicks to bring back the full experience – the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of a happy day or a crappy one. Increasingly, though, we’re using gadgets to record the whole experience. That makes us passive observers, not active participants.

As soon as you start fiddling with a piece of technology, your attention is on the technology – so if you’re filming the bit of a gig where the singer hits those emotional highs, you’re removing yourself from the very thing you paid all that money to experience. When you tweet about the cute thing your kid just did, your attention’s on Twitter, on making your point in 140 characters, not on what your kid’s doing.  When you check email during a conversation, you’re temporarily tuning out the person or people you’re with. And when you film every waking moment you’re giving your attention to the framing, to the focus, to the F-stop, to the battery warning light that’s flickering in the corner of the viewfinder.

What you’re not doing is experiencing the thing you’re photographing, or twittering about, or filming. You’re not paying attention to the sounds, the smells, all the little details that make the moment special and burn it into your brain. For all our fancy trousers and our clever gadgets we’re a fairly simple species, and our caveman minds weren’t designed for multitasking.

That means that your gadget – your iPhone, your HD camcorder, your Blackberry – is the digital watch in the Biblical epic, the Ford Mondeo in the costume drama. It’s the bit of the novel where the author suddenly addresses you directly. It’s the drunk who bumps into you at the rock gig. It’s the noisy crisp eater behind you in the cinema. It’s the faraway music that stops you sleeping. It’s the thief that steals your attention, ends the immersion, takes you out of the moment and leaves you outside, looking in.

Of course gadgets have their place, and the world would be a lot poorer without smartphones, camcorders and other devices. But we need to be careful, because if we give them too much of our attention, if we experience our entire lives through a lens or lit by a screen, we’re no longer creating hyperlinks. Instead, our photos, our Facebook updates and our tweets are dead links, shortcuts that can only ever lead to a mental Page Not Found.

I thought about this at last week’s Eels gig, when the woman next to me filmed the whole gig on her phone. As she watched the screen throughout, that means her video isn’t a reminder of what the gig was like; it’s a reminder of what filming the gig was like. It’s an important difference.


“The constant scream of OMG OMG WHAT A DORK from family, friends and passing members of the clergy”

Me, on Techradar, writing about wearables.

It’s often said that smartphones are driven by fashion, but that isn’t really true. There are trends, of course, such as the current vogue for gold. But ultimately if a phone’s good enough and doesn’t actually frighten small children you won’t care too much what it looks like, because you’re either using it or it’s in your pocket or bag.

Wearables are different, and watches especially so.

The coffee machine is broken. Everybody panic

My ongoing coffee machine destruction derby continues: this time the casualty is my Dualit Expressivo [], which managed to live for a comparatively lengthy 17 months before refusing to make anything other than faintly coffee-flavoured water while trying to flood the kitchen. That’s twice as long as lesser firms’ products ever managed.

That means it’s time to go shopping again. I suspect that cheap espresso machines are a false economy, but I’m hardly in a position to spend stacks either. I’ve heard good things about the Gaggia Classic. Any passing coffee geeks know whether that’s worth selling one of the children for?

JK trolling

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the disproportionate media coverage given in Scotland to the so-called “vile cybernat abuse” of No supporters seems odd when most of the online bile moves in the other direction.

I liked Ian McWhirter’s column in the Sunday Herald about it:

No woman in public life will be unfamiliar with the language used, because the sad reality is that almost all women in public life are subject to misogynistic hate speak – Nicola Sturgeon in particular, whose inbox is full of this stuff, including death threats. A number of Yes-supporting women, to my certain knowledge, wanted to talk about this last week but simply feared the consequences.

You find what you look for on the internet, but to claim as the Labour spin doctor John McTernan did on STV’s Scotland Tonight that this was “co-ordinated” by the SNP in a conscious campaign of intimidation of JK Rowling was absurd. The SNP hate this stuff because they know how damaging it is, and have been trying to stamp it out for years. But unless the tweeters are actually members of the Scottish National Party – and few, if any, apparently are – there’s little they can do about it.

Six stringed joy

I’ve been letting my inner Bob Mould out a lot recently (his new album, Beauty and Ruin, is a cracker) and I just wanted to mention this guitar:


It’s a Fender Modern Player Marauder, it’s dirt cheap and it’s fantastic fun. Especially if you like guitars that go GNNNNH or fancy something that can sound like a Strat but that isn’t a Strat.

Don’t re-use passwords for your iCloud account

Australian Apple users are encountering a pretty nasty problem: someone has got into their iCloud accounts and is locking them out of their devices.

The iCloud hack appears to be a case of people reusing the same passwords, and those passwords somehow falling into the bad guys’ hands – possibly because someone has broken into the user database of some ecommerce site or user forum, or because somebody with access to such a database has sold it on – and that’s enough to enable complete strangers to lock them out of their own hardware and demand a ransom to unlock them again.

If your iCloud account doesn’t already use a unique password and two-factor authentication, you could be next.