The Sun’s site’s future isn’t bright

Media guardian [free registration required] reports that The Sun is going to scale back its web site in an attempt to reverse a serious sales decline. According to a survey commissioned by the paper, it’s losing some 90,000 sales per day as people read the paper online instead of buying it.

This is where commercial reality meets the “everything must be free and on the net” ideal: reading papers for free online is great for net users and can certainly boost the international profile of publications, but if the ad revenues don’t make up for the loss of sales then the publishers are committing commercial suicide.

If my experience is anything to go buy, online newspapers do mean lost sales. I read the Herald, the Evening Times and the Guardian online, together with various other UK and US papers’ online editions, and on a Sunday I’m more likely to read the Sunday Herald, Sunday Times and Observer online than wander down to the newsagent to get the printed versions. It’s the same with magazines: I stopped buying Wired magazine because it’s a hassle to find in local shops, and because its articles all appear online within a few days of publication; I still buy various film, music and general interest magazines, but without fail they’re the magazines that don’t put all their content online for free.

In the long term technology will solve the problem: electronic paper exists and seems to be good enough to replace printed media, and we’re only a few years away from being able to subscribe to electronic versions of newspapers and magazines that are identical to their printed counterparts and that don’t require a full-blown computer to view them. However, it’ll be several years before such technology is affordable, and it’s entirely possible that consumers will decide that they’re not interested in e-paper at all.

In the shorter term you can expect more titles to do what the Sun is going to do, or what the Telegraph and Daily Mail already do (putting premium content – columnists, features etc – in a paid subscription section). There will no doubt be exceptions such as The Guardian who will continue to offer content for free, but if publishers are given the choice of embracing the internet or staying in business, they’ll choose survival every time.


Today’s surreal spam sender’s name

…is Buttocked S. Pinches.



Attention deficit is – ooh look! Kittens!

There’s an interesting discussion on about attention deficit disorder, with a typically witty headline:

Adults being diagnosed with ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperact… Chee-tos — I could definitely go for some Chee-tos right now. But they’ll turn my fingers orange. I wonder how the Dolphins are doing. I think I’ll go read fark for a while

The discussion stems from a CBS news story that suggests 8 million US adults have ADHD, although to date the focus has been on children with the condition. The US DSM-IV medical manual lists these as the most common symptoms in children:

often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes; often has difficulty sustaining attention to tasks; often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly; often fails to follow instructions carefully and completely; losing or forgetting important things; feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming; running or climbing excessively; often talks excessively; often blurts out answers before hearing the whole question; often has difficulty awaiting turn.

That sounds awfully like me. In primary school I was occasionally locked in cupboards (true!) because of my incessant and irrelevant chattering, and I’d always get into trouble for tuning out at the slightest distraction. It’s something I still have today: if I don’t write things down I forget them (and even then, I still forget to do things – when I go shopping, I always end up missing something from the list); in conversation, I zoom off on wild tangents or forget what I’m talking about halfway through sentences; I have a mind like a sieve (it’s a constant source of amusement to my friends that if I go to the bar to get drinks in, I’ll have forgotten the order by the time I get there); and I can’t concentrate on one thing for very long – so right now I’m zooming between a blogger window, six news sites, a few blogs, email, a magazine article I’m writing, a magazine article I’m reading, some software downloads, text messages on my phone and so on. In the living room I’ve got six magazines and three novels open; when I use the net I often open a new browser window to go to a site and then wonder what site I was planning to visit. I’ve always used the phrase “magpie mind” to describe the sort of person I am: a glimpse of something shiny and my mind wanders off immediately.

That sort of mindset is great for my job: magazine articles tend to be “bitty”, so in addition to the main article you have lots of sidebars, boxouts and tangents. And because deadlines tend to come in chunks, I usually work on three or four different jobs at once (so for example in the last few days I’ve been reviewing software, writing two magazine features, collating stories for a news thing, arranging interviews for forthcoming features, tracking down software for next month, chasing payments for published stuff, and so on). That suits me fine, because I’m never on one thing for too long (even the really, really big jobs are split up into little, independent sections); it’s also why I was a dead loss when I had a day job, because I found it almost impossible to focus on really, really important things for long.

I’d imagine that if I were of school age in America right now, I’d probably be diagnosed as ADHD, or perhaps ADD; that means I’d probably be prescribed Ritalin or something similar. However, this university study suggests that it’s not a disorder; rather, it’s a sign of creativity. The study notes:

the brains of creative people appear to be more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment. Other people’s brains might shut out this same information through a process called “latent inhibition” – defined as an animal’s unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Through psychological testing, the researchers showed that creative individuals are much more likely to have low levels of latent inhibition.

“This means that creative individuals remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment,” says co-author and U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson. “The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The creative person, by contrast, is always open to new possibilities.”

…those classified as eminent creative achievers – participants under age 21 who reported unusually high scores in a single area of creative achievement – were seven times more likely to have low latent inhibition scores.

The authors hypothesize that latent inhibition may be positive when combined with high intelligence and good working memory – the capacity to think about many things at once – but negative otherwise. Peterson states: “If you are open to new information, new ideas, you better be able to intelligently and carefully edit and choose. If you have 50 ideas, only two or three are likely to be good. You have to be able to discriminate or you’ll get swamped.”

It’s the “getting swamped” bit that’s controversial: in the Fark discussion, many people talk about their own experiences of ADD/ADHD and say that Ritalin (or self-medication with various things) helped tune out the distractions and enable them to focus on important things such as schoolwork or their job. As the Attention Deficit Disorder Association says:

Medication corrects their underlying chemical imbalance, giving them a fair chance of facing the challenges of growing up to become productive citizens.

Not everyone agrees.

Matthew Smith died aged 14 as a result of Ritalin side-effects, and his father has put together a site that warns other parents about ADHD treatment. He says:

Dr. Dorsey officially diagnosed Matthew with ADHD. The test used for the diagnosis was a five minute pencil twirling trick, resulting in me being handed a prescription for Methylphenidate/Ritalin.

He continues:

At no time were my wife and I ever told significant facts regarding the issue of ADHD and the drugs used to “treat it”. These significant facts withheld from us inevitably would have changed the road that we were headed down by ultimately altering the decisions we would have made.

We were not told that The Drug Enforcement Administration had classified Methylphenidate (Ritalin) as a Schedule II drug, comparable to Cocaine.

We were not told that Methylphenidate is also one of the top ten abused prescription drugs.

At no time were we informed of the unscientific nature of the disorder.

We were not told that there was widespread controversy among the medical establishment in regards to the validity of the disorder.

Furthermore, we were not provided with information involving the dangers of using Methylphenidate (Ritalin) as “treatment” for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. One of these dangers includes the fact that Methylphenidate causes constriction of veins and arteries, causing the heart to work overtime and inevitably leading to damage to the organ itself.

We were not made aware of the large number of children’s deaths, that have been linked with these types of drugs used as “treatment”.

Matthew died from heart damage, which the coroner attributed to long-term use of Ritalin.

There’s no doubt that for some people, Ritalin works; however, there’s a real concern that educators are a little too keen to say “your kid’s got ADHD” and for doctors to prescribe Ritalin. As the bereaved parent puts it:

Did you know that schools receive additional money from state and federal government for every child labeled and drugged? This clearly demonstrates a possible “financial incentive” for schools to label and drug children. It also backs up the alarming rise/increase in the labeling and drugging that has taken place in the last decade within our schools.

Did you know that parents receiving welfare money from the government can get additional funds for every child that they have labeled and drugged? In this way, many lower socio-economic parents (many times single mothers) are reeled into the drugging by these financial incentives waved in front of them in hard times, making lifestyle changes possible.

It’s certainly a controversial issue, and it’s a relatively recent one. As Spiked Online notes:

Ritalin has been available for 40 years, but again, its use for the treatment of ADHD only took off in the mid-1990s. In some states in the USA, between three and five percent of primary school children have been diagnosed with ADHD; estimates of the number of American children on Ritalin vary between 1.7 million and 2.5 million. According to NICE [the National Institute of Clinical Excellence], an estimated 366 000 children between six and 16 in England and Wales (around five percent of all schoolchildren) meet the diagnostic criteria for some form of ADHD. A core group of more than 73 000 (one percent) are believed to have severe ‘combined type’ ADHD, with all three features [inattentiveness, impulsiveness and hyperactivity]: this is the group for which it recommends treatment with Ritalin.

The article continues:

Advocates of ADHD, who consider that it is ‘underdiagnosed and undertreated’ in Britain, have welcomed the NICE report as a vindication of their campaign for greater recognition of this disorder (5). They believe that ADHD is a ‘genetic, neurological’ condition and that evidence of brain dysfunction has been found in various cerebral imaging studies. These claims regarding ADHD – which have been made about a wide range of conditions from schizophrenia and manic depressive psychosis to alcoholism and homosexuality – remain controversial.

…the key problem underlying the ADHD controversy is the trend for defining a wider and wider range of experience and behaviour in psychiatric terms, ‘turning a problem into a disease’. The tendency to medicalise social problems is encouraged by the availability of treatments – either tablets or talking cures – which offer a ready solution to difficulties experienced by individuals, families and communities.

In his paper Becoming Neurochemical Selves[PDF link], Nikolas Rose writes:

alliances are formed between drug companies anxious to market a product for a particular condition, biosocial groups organised by and for those who suffer from a condition thought to be of that type, and doctors eager to diagnose under-diagnosed problems (Moynihan, Heath and Henry, 2002; Moynihan, 2003). Disease awareness campaigns, directly or indirectly funded by the pharmaceutical company who have the patent for the treatment, point to the misery cause by the apparent symptoms of this undiagnosed or untreated condition, and interpret available data so as to maximise beliefs about prevalence. They aim to draw the attention of lay persons and medical practitioners to the existence of the disease and the availability of treatment, shaping their fears and anxieties into a clinical form. These often involve the use of public relations firms to place stories in the media, providing victims who will tell their stories and supplying experts who will explain them in terms of the new disorder. Amongst the examples given by Moynihan et al including baldness and Propecia, erectile dysfunction and Viagra, irritable bowel syndrome and Lotronex, and Pfizer’s promotion of the new disease entity of “female sexual dysfunction” is the promotion by Roche of its antidepressant Auroxix (moclobemide) for the treatment of social phobia in Australia in 1997. This involved the use of the public relations company to place stories in the press, an alliance with a patients group called the Obsessive Compulsive and Anxiety Disorders Federation of Victoria, funding a large conference on social phobia, and promoting maximal estimates of prevalence. These are not covert tactics, as a quick glance at the Practical Guides published on the Web by the magazine Pharmaceutical Marketing will show.

As Rose notes: “One of the criticisms of the private madhouses before the spread of public asylums was that they were generating what was termed ‘a trade in lunacy’ in which profit was to be made by incarceration leading to all manner of corruption”. It could be argued that we’re heading for a modern-day equivalent, fuelled by the endless appetite for health stories in newspapers and magazines (very few of which are written by people who have any particular knowledge of health, let alone science) that promise pills to cure all our ills. As Rose points out:

The most widely prescribed of the new generation of psychiatric drugs treat conditions whose borders are fuzzy, whose coherence and very existence as illness or disorders are matters of dispute, and which are not so much intended to cure a specific transformation from a normal to a pathological state as to modify the ways in which vicissitudes in the life of the recipient are experienced, lived and understood.

I was going to add something else, but I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.


Backups and utter bollocks

Writing in PC Zone, Stuart Campbell makes an interesting point:

According to Section 50(A) of the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, legal purchasers of computer games are explicitly permitted to make a backup copy of their purchase.

Yet ELSPA, the industry body for the games industry, ties itself in knots trying to get round that:

Am I legally entitled to make a backup of my original software?
The rules regarding back up copies apply to software; they do not apply to other copyrights such as film and sound recordings. Since computer games comprise of a number of such rights, the answer so far as computer games is concerned is that making a back up copy is not a permitted act under copyright law.

And thanks to our wonderful new copyright laws that make it illegal to bypass copy protection, Stuart points out that:

if you exercise your legally-enshrined right to make a backup of your legally-purchased game, you are automatically and necessarily breaking the law, with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment. Hmm. Bit of a mixed message being sent out there, don’t you think?

Stuart’s been a busy chap. On a related note, he points out that the current “Pirate DVDs fund Osama Bin Laden!” campaign is complete and utter bollocks. He makes a good point about the laws being used to crack down on legit purchasers rather than criminals, and if I wasn’t currently trapped underneath a giant scary deadline I’d throw my own comments in here. I’ll come back to this, I’m sure.

[Via NTK]


Impenetrable plastic pouches of death

Looks like my experience with the packaging of an M3 Power razor wasn’t unique: as Something Awful points out, such packaging is part of a trend.

Every single vaguely electronic device these days, from removable memory cards to battery-powered cereal spoons, ships in those handy-dandy impenetrable plastic pouches of death created by Lucifer himself in an attempt to raise the national suicide rate by about 10 percentage points. The corporate business world, serving up more evidence that the hottest consumer trend is “manufacturing products that nobody anywhere wants to actually purchase,” has decided the most effective way to prevent people from stealing their 38-cent Korean memory cards is by encasing them in 80 pounds of a titanium-plastic hybrid which can withstand point blank shotgun blasts and most meteorite impacts.

[Note: Something Awful is rarely safe for work]


The problem with digital music, in four screengrabs

1: Official REM web site announces worldwide digital release of new single:

2: iTunes US has it, but as a UK user I can’t buy it.

3: iTunes UK doesn’t have it. Here’s the full search results.

4: Is it on Kazaa? Of course it is.

Update, 11 Sept
The REM track has finally reached iTunes UK. Better late than never.


AcidSearch: a great add-on for Safari

This is brilliant. Use AcidSearch to customise Safari’s search box and to add lots of extra search goodness.


Silence is golden

This blog should be fairly quiet for the next week or so – I’m in deadline hell. Normal service will resume shortly.


Flyposting is evil

When I was about sixteen, I went flyposting with a bucket of wallpaper paste, a stack of photocopied A4 posters and a bass player. We put posters on bus stops in our home town, in the surrounding towns and in the town where our band was due to play, and it was nerve-wracking stuff: we were under no illusions that if the police had caught us, we’d be in big trouble. We’d have been forced to remove our posters, and we’d have been cautioned. Fifteen years on and I’m deeply ashamed that I ever did it, and I reckon that had the police caught us and forced us to lick every last drop of paste from the bus stops we’d defaced, the punishment still wouldn’t have fit the crime.

[Photo: BBC News]

Flyposting is vandalism, pure and simple. It turns entire streets into something that’s a cross between a pound shop and a teenager’s bedroom, it makes some of the most beautiful parts of the city into an eyesore, and it’s completely and utterly unnecessary. And in typical old curmudgeon style, I think Something Should Be Done.

Before I suggest a solution, I’d like to demolish a few myths.

Flyposting is essential for underground promoters.

None of the flyposters I’ve seen recently have been for underground events. They’ve been for some of the biggest club promoters and biggest record labels on the planet, organisations who engage in flyposting because the fines are a drop in the ocean compared to their marketing budgets.

Let’s take a real-world example. There’s a BT exchange box a few yards from my flat, and it’s constantly being flypostered. Without fail, the posters are expensive, full-colour jobs for struggling artists such as Muse (Warner Brothers) and Dogs Die In Hot Cars (V2, a subsidiary of Virgin). These are not local bands trying to pull in a few extra punters for a gig at Nice N Sleazy; these are bands whose record companies are multi-million pound enterprises. It’s worth noting that the British Phonographic Industry – the industry organisation that represents the UK’s biggest labels – has urged all its members to stop using flyposting.

Another example? Have a look at, whose posters are all over the city. The logos on its site – which I assume suggest the firms it wants to work with, rather than the firms it currently works with, because I don’t want to get sued – include Miller, Budweiser, HMV, Kickers, MTV, Schwarzkopf and Smirnoff. The last time I checked, these firms’ bosses weren’t busking for coins on Ashton Lane.

Flyposting is essential because advertising is too expensive.

See above. Sony can afford it. Warners can afford it. BMG can afford it. And it’s the music business – the big labels, not poor, broke indie types – who do the most flyposting. As the Tidy Britain Campaign notes:

Following a survey of some of England’s cities, Keep Britain Tidy revealed that while night-clubs, political parties, theatres, cinemas and religious groups (such as Gouranga) were advertising their messages illegally – the music business is still doing the most posting.

Even for small enterprises, you can advertise for buttons. Fanzines would appreciate the support; low circulation music magazines don’t cost the earth, and so on. You could argue that flyposting is attracting money that would otherwise go to these publications.

Flyposting isn’t vandalism. People who flypost are responsible.

That’s why every lampost is covered in stickers promoting bands who broke up five years ago, posters for events that happened six months back, and wrapped in plastic cable ties left behind from posters that blew away last winter. That’s why flyposters – again, for big clubs and record labels – have been placed not just on shopfronts, but over the plaques on monuments, bridges and other things that are a damn sight more valuable than a club night’s lineup.

Flyposting doesn’t harm anyone.

The Tidy Britain Campaign says:

a good proportion of the £342 million of public money that is spent every year clearing litter is used to combat flyposting.

It’s estimated that illegal music flyposting saves firms around £8 million per year in advertising, and the cost of removing the posters comes from people’s council tax. Doesn’t it give you a warm glow to think that your Gran’s council tax is helping big corporations save so much cash?

But of course, most flyposters don’t get taken down by councils. They’re replaced with others, or left to fade, tear and rot, a semi-permanent blight on the landscape.

So, Something Must Be Done. But what?

Learn from the continent.

In places such as Paris, you’ll see giant postbox-style drums where people can advertise for free. Edinburgh council is apparently considering introducing similar things, via a firm called City Centre Posters; other councils have introduced public noticeboards. Let’s have more of them (so that small venues, bands, political rallies etc can still promote themselves) – and let’s have limits on what can go on them. You want something the size of a billboard? Pay for a billboard. Can’t afford a billboard? Tough. I can’t afford an Aston Martin, so I drive a Renault.

Here’s an example of a public noticeboard in Dundee:

It’s still relatively small scale (and there’s some controversy over who can and can’t use the boards) but it’s a step in the right direction.

Fight fire with fire.

Some English councils have a novel approach: instead of taking down the posters, they post “Cancelled” notices on them. In some towns that approach has made flyposting virtually disappear. Here’s an example, from somewhere in England:

The image (from a council web site) is a pretty good illustration of what I’m talking about: the poster is an advert for a commercial operation, and you know damn well they can afford to buy advertising.

Get the organ grinder, not the monkey

Going after the individuals who put up the posters isn’t really a deterrent – remember, we’re talking about giant firms saving eight million quid a year here. So go after the organ grinder and ramp up the fines dramatically so they’re as expensive as advertising, and use the money to pay for better clean-up squads to get rid of the posters that will continue to appear. And if it’s unclear who’s responsible – a common ploy is to talk about independent third parties who just happen to put posters up, it’s nothing to do with us, we’ve no idea why they’d want to promote our products or artists – then fine whoever benefits from the poster campaign. So if the posters are for Dogs Die In Hot Cars’ new album, fine the record label. And make the fines count, so that proper, paid advertising looks much more attractive than flyposting.

I’m not naive enough to believe that these things will abolish flyposting altogether: as long as sixteen-year-olds can get easy access to wallpaper paste and a photocopier, posters will still appear. But it’s become a multi-million pound industry, an industry that holds councils and the public in utter contempt, costs you and me a fortune and looks bloody awful. Of course companies should be able to promote their products, but not by flouting the law, turning streets into giant billboards and defacing the environment.


Buy music, help charities. But not if you’re on a Mac

REM, David Gray and others have teamed up to offer a compilation album on the Net, with money going to charity – in this case, to help Oxfam’s efforts in Darfur. However, if you try to buy it from a Mac or Linux machine you’ll get this:

Sorry, but your computer is not correctly configured to access the music download site.

Yep, it’s DRM again: the Darfur album is via OD2, which means it’s in copy-protected Windows Media format. As Simon B from No Rock ‘N’ Roll Fun points out:

helping out a charity at a time of desperate need pales into insignificiance compared with ensuring the record companies can control their copyright, right?

Simon raises another good question: if the album is £7.99, the artists have waived their royalties and Oxfam gets £5, “where does the other three pounds go?” To other charities? To the record companies? To licensing bodies? If anyone knows the answer, please get in touch.