Archive: 2008 October

Unfortunately I won’t be around for practice, but the F1 Fanatic liveblog is here nevertheless.

Friday Practice 1

Click for more »

The Scotweb2 event is tomorrow at Edinburgh University’s Holyrood Campus. I think all of the tickets have been hoovered up now. But if any readers of this blog are going along, let me know and we can have a chat.

Here is the agenda:

0930 Registration

1000 Introduction – Alex Stobart

1015 Presentations by Simon Dickson, Puffbox and James Munro, Patient Opinion

1115 Workshops

1. Stewart Kirkpatrick – W00tonomy – Content

2. Alex Stobart – Web 2 engagement and networks in Scotland

3. Simon Dickson – Using WordPress

1215 Feedback

1230 Lunch

1330 Presentations by Iain Henderson, mydex and Derek Hemphill, BT plc

1415 Workshops

1. Mark Ballard – Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations – web 2 and civic society

2. James Munro – Better Public Services ; how can web 2 make a difference

3. Derek Hemphill – Web 2 corporate applications

1515 Feedback

1530 Tea and close

I believe the venue has wifi so I might well attempt to blog or (more likely) tweet from the event.

The top story on the BBC News website is currently this on the furore surrounding Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross as Gordon Brown wades his sorry way in. I am sorry, but I really do struggle to believe that this is the most important story around at the moment.

In fact, once you put the pieces together, the whole thing looks as though the BBC has been completely stitched up. The phone calls may have been ill-advised, all the more so due to the fact that it was pre-recorded and yet was still broadcast.

But there are too many things about this that just don’t add up for me. I haven’t heard the clip, but having read the transcript it seems very much as though Jonathan Ross was easily the more offensive of the pair. So why is most of the criticism going the way of Russell Brand?

Then there is the time line of events. The story only entered the news agenda a full week and a half after the phone calls were made, and one whole week after they were broadcast. For something supposedly so shocking, people sure took a long time to realise it.

Alarm bells should automatically be ringing when you see that the paper that has stoked up this little fire is the contemptible Mail on Sunday. This has all the hallmarks of a despicable tabloid rag using any excuse to lay into the BBC.

Last Wednesday the Mail on Sunday phoned up Andrew Sachs’s agent, Meg Pool, for a comment. That was the first she — and, incidentally, Andrew Sachs himself — had ever heard of the phone calls. But, probably sniffing the opportunity to get lots of publicity, she began to kick up a fuss.

All the while, the amount of complaints the BBC had received by this time was a grand total of… two. And they were about Jonathan Ross’s swearing, not the nature of the phone calls. Post-Mail on Sunday foot-stomping, the figure stands at 10,000 and rising. It looks to me as though this story is all about the public’s love of a good old bandwagon.

And what does Andrew Sachs say? “[T]he producer called me on my mobile to ask whether they could play the recording in question out.” So the BBC sought permission before broadcasting it. And: “I think Jonathan [Ross] is in enough trouble as it is. I don’t want to add to that.”

That is how it should be. Of course Andrew Sachs should get an apology from both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross. It looks like he has got it (or in the case of Brand, will get it). Beyond that, the rest of this story stinks of a tabloid rag spying the opportunity to criticise the BBC for the most tenuous reason.

Update: I see that Will Patterson agrees with me.

Just a Souvenir cover

The premise of Just a Souvenir is most intriguing. “This album started as a daydream about watching a crazy, beautiful rock band play an ultra-gig,” says Tom Jenkinson on his website. He goes on to describe the mad japes that the band got up to in his daydream, setting out a vision of an eccentric, futuristic, science fiction-inspired rock band. Squarepusher then saw it as his duty to recreate his daydream in album form.

I can’t help but wonder if the story is just a bit of an excuse, explaining the slightly tongue-in-cheek nature of some of the tracks. Just a few minutes into the album the listener is asked to “re-spect the coat… HANGER” by a cod 1980s vocoderised singer (a giant coathanger being the fantasy band’s main prop). This is not a criticism. I don’t like music to take itself far too seriously, and Squarepusher remains on the playful side of things for most of this album which makes it a much more pleasurable listen.

The premise of the album also gives Squarepusher maximum opportunity to pursue his crazy sonic experiments. Then there is the fact that the band is apparently supposed to be a prog rock band. This mixture — a focus on technology and quasi-prog stylings — makes Just a Souvenir sound like the sort of album most bands in the 1980s would have dreamt of making. It’s the music that Tomorrow’s World promised.

But perhaps the most unique-sounding tracks are the ones which don’t have the pomp of the prog rock approach. The sonic experimentation is most evident on tracks like ‘Open Society’, ‘Fluxgate’ which presumably depict the classical guitar player who can travel backwards in time, taking the surrounding sounds with him to create “imploded sonic pin cushions”.

Stylistically these tracks are similar to some tracks that Squarepusher has been doing for a few years, beginning with ‘Itti-Fack’ from the Square Window EP. These tracks are brief and sound as though the audio has been recorded in another dimension. I can’t think of anyone else who makes music that sounds like this. It’s almost as though Squarepusher has created a new genre which, for the time being, is specifically his domain.

Elsewhere, Squarepusher’s sonic palette has been expanded with the surprising inclusion of some all-out rock songs. Although Tom Jenkinson is well-known for being a highly accomplished bass guitar player, his playing is typically of the jazz fusion variety, or perhaps set to some of his madcap Amen break-fuelled drill and bass, IDM or suchlike. I suppose since now that IDM is deeply unfashionable, it is sensible of him to move away from that sort of thing.

But it is nonetheless surprising that he has gone so far down the rock route. While tracks like ‘Delta-V’ are by no means like conventional rock music, the almost metal-like style of these tracks undoubtedly moves Squarepusher into brand new territory. Incidentally, what an enjoyable listen ‘Delta-V’ is.

What strikes one listening to this album is just how much it does sound like a full band. It has long been known that Tom Jenkinson is a truly multi-talented fellow, being a particularly accomplished bass guitar player while also impressing on guitars and drums, all while mixing it with electronic music’s oligarchy at Warp Records.

For his past few albums, Squarepusher has been increasing the eclecticism of his output, beginning with the amazing Ultravisitor (still my favourite Squarepusher album) which gave us a full taste of all of his talents from drum and bass stormers to gentile Spanish guitar performances, mixing studio-based and live performances to create a truly unique, odd-sounding album that can’t help but leave you impressed.

But in Just a Souvenir the tone doesn’t jump around uncomfortably as it sometimes does in Ultravisitor. Now all of Tom Jenkinson’s many talents are performing to such a high level, gelling so well that you would never guess that it wasn’t actually a band. What an achievement.

I have long been an advocate of full RSS feeds for reasons outlined in this post.

I do, however, understand why most news outlets opt to keep partial feeds. News websites, unlike blogs, typically show you just the headlines and a short summary of each story on the front page — just like a partial RSS feed. Blogs, meanwhile, normally show the full post on the front page. They tend to have less content, so a full feed would be perfectly manageable.

So it is a surprise that The Guardian has announced that all of its RSS feeds will be full feeds from now on. According to the people at Google Reader, The Guardian is the first major newspaper in the world to do this, so hats off to them.

It’s great news for the end user. But I have to admit that I’m feeling quite queasy just thinking about the amount of bandwidth guardian.co.uk is going to go through from now on. It’s one thing for a little blog to publish full RSS feeds, but it’s quite another for a large media organisation to do it. It might tempt me to start subscribing to some of their blogs again though.

Ferrari is the only team to have participated continuously in Formula 1 since the first Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. For many, Ferrari is synonymous with Formula 1. Its loyal tifosi, the evocative rosso corsa and the instantly recognisable Prancing Horse logo come together to build a huge brand that cannot be rivalled, much to the chagrin of some other F1 teams. It has been argued by Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone themselves that the presence of Ferrari is vital to the health of Formula 1.

But today, Ferrari threatened to quit F1 if Max Mosley continues with his madcap plans to systematically dismantle the sport as we have all grown up to know it. Today the Scuderia issued a statement which contained a section that will have many fans nodding sagely:

Whilst reiterating its wholehearted commitment to a substantial and needed reduction in costs in Formula One, starting with propulsion, the Ferrari Board of Directors expressed strong concerns regarding plans to standardise engines as it felt that such a move would detract from the entire raison of a sport with which Ferrari has been involved continuously since 1950, a raison d’etre based principally on competition and technological development.

The Board of Directors expressed the opinion that should these key elements be diminished, it would have to re-evaluate, with its partners the viability of continuing its presence in the sport.

This came in the same day that Toyota boss John Howett confirmed that the manufacturer would have no interest in participating in the version of F1 that Max Mosley envisages for the future. That statement in itself came on the back of rumours that Toyota is looking to pull out of F1 in order to concentrate on sportscar racing.

On the same day the FIA also reiterated that its invitation to tender for the supply of a standardised engine remains open. Each of the six manufacturers involved in F1 — Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, Honda, Toyota and BMW — has confirmed that it will not submit a tender.

If it wasn’t obvious before, it is now. Max Mosley’s grand scheme for the future of Formula 1 does not appeal to anybody. It doesn’t appeal to the fans and it clearly doesn’t appeal to the teams. Grand prix motor racing is not supposed to be about identical, and when manufacturers are not even able to design their own engines, really what is the point? They are bound to walk, and a Formula 1 without any names like Ferrari, Renault or Honda will be a pale imitation of its former self.

Let us not forget something that Max Mosley said at the height of the sex scandal earlier this year. In his letter that set out the reasons why he should remain in the job, he said that: “there has been a struggle for control of Formula One that goes back to the original Concorde Agreement in 1981.” Implicit in this was the notion that Max Mosley himself was the only person able to put a lit on such struggles for control.

Put aside the fact that Mosley has been FIA President for the majority of this period, and therefore is manifestly incapable of putting a lid on such power struggles. It seems to me that Max Mosley is the person who creates all of the division that gives rise to these power struggles.

As every week goes by, I increasingly hope that all of the teams just say, “enough is enough” and leave Formula 1 so that the poisonous meddlers at the FIA can find something else to stick their unwanted noses into.

I am not loyal to Formula 1. I never have been. I am, however, loyal to grand prix motor racing. I yearn for Max Mosley and his cronies at the FIA to have their power removed from their grubby hands.

By all accounts, the teams have never been more united. They have formed FOTA at the suggestion of Bernie Ecclestone, and apparently things are going incredibly smoothly. Here’s hoping that the teams can muster up the courage to leave Formula 1 and set up GP1.

People wring their hands about how bad a split would be. But let’s face it — such a Formula 1 might have the brand, but it would have little else. In fact, you could argue that F1 is an irreparably tarnished brand for a whole host of reasons — a lack of overtaking, dodgy stewards’ decisions, the various adventures of Max Mosley and so on. If it becomes a spec series, as Mosley apparently intends on making it, the best teams will leave and grand prix motor racing fans will struggle to maintain an interest.

My only real worry is that Formula 1 becomes the awful glorified slot car championship that Mosley plans on turning it into, and there is no alternative series for me to watch.

Keith at F1 Fanatic has more on Ferrari’s statement.

I wrote my dissertation about the paradox of voting, which is the problem that rational choice theorists have in explaining why people vote. You are more likely to be killed on the way to the polling station than affect the result once you’re inside it — so why vote? The puzzle interested me as soon as I heard of it and I still often think about it.

The answer is that people take into account not just the instrumental benefits of voting. They also take into account a variety of factors that can be loosely gathered under the umbrella term of “civic duty”. The benefits that people get from performing their civic duty outweigh the costs of voting.

But what about people who clearly go way beyond the call of civic duty? This guy travelled 600 miles just to vote in the US Presidential election (via Bernard Salmon).

That is a puzzle to me. But it is clear that this election is enthusing people to an extent that may never have been seen before. Barack Obama in particular is said to have engaged young people and black people in the US political process like never before. Early voting numbers are reported to be high. And now a person whose family has voted Republican for three generations has driven 600 miles to vote for Barack Obama.

It’s worth remembering that it’s not just Obama that is creating this extra interest. I heard a woman on the radio a few days ago saying that she will be voting for the first time in her life — for John McCain. She doesn’t trust Obama because of his inexperience.

It looks like the USA sees itself as being at an important cross-roads, for a whole host of reasons. They want to get this decision right.

There’s been a lot of chat recently about whether blogging is dead, sparked by this article in Wired by Paul Boutin. It’s easy to scoff at the article, and the idea that blogging is dead is obviously nonsense. But I doubt the claim would have got so much attention if there wasn’t a bit of truth in it.

I’m not sure that much of what Paul Boutin says is new though. The first time I heard about the article was through Mike Power who added:

…most people under 20 wouldn’t touch blogging with a barge pole, seeing it as old-fashioned and nerdy.

That’s an interesting point. A lot of outsiders tend to think of blogging and the like as something that young people do. But I remember a few years ago a survey finding that the average age of readers of political blogs in the UK is around 40. That might be younger than, say, the average age of readers of The Telegraph, but we’re not talking about the cast of Skins here.

Before that, I always wondered why there weren’t more people my age blogging. I started blogging six years ago when I was 16, but I am an outlier. I can’t think of anyone else who has been blogging for that long from such a young age (though no doubt there are some). I struggle even to think of many bloggers who are my age or younger full stop. There are a few that I know of, but I could probably count them on one hand.

This links neatly in with one of Paul Boutin’s points though. Blogging is being overtaken by social networking sites like Facebook. It’s worth remembering why I started blogging. It is simple: I was bored. My first post was written on a cold, boring night in the middle of the Christmas school holiday.

Moreover, if I had an aim with my blog, it was as a really easy way to reach a wide variety of friends in a really efficient way. At first I was peeved when I realised that my friends couldn’t be bothered reading my blog. What I had forgotten was that, while updating a blog was efficient for me, it was wildly inefficient to get all of my friends to keep on visiting my blog all the time.

Social networking sites fix that problem by giving everyone a central space to share their thoughts and news. No doubt if sites like Bebo and Facebook were around back then, I wouldn’t have started a blog. Indeed, I originally wanted to set up a LiveJournal rather than a blog, but back then you had to pay for a LiveJournal account, so I set up with Blogger instead.

The only reason I stuck with blogging was through the quite accidental discovery that, while my friends were seemingly uninterested in what I had to say, complete strangers would regularly visit to see what I was thinking. That amazing fact is what keeps me going as a blogger, despite some pretty dry patches over the years.

And I’m lucky to have discovered that. Blogging has given me plenty of opportunities that I would never have had were I a simple Facebook user. Undoubtedly my life has been enriched by blogging as it has furnished me with an armful of skills. A 16-year-old Duncan Stephen today would almost certainly not start blogging — but he’d be worse off for it.

But it is important for blogging that the landscape has changed over the past few years. Before 2004, the buzzword was blogging, pretty much exclusively so. Today you can add podcasts, social networks, Flickr, YouTube, wikis, microblogging, social bookmarking, tumblelogging and an increasing list of tools that are all lumped together under the “web 2.0″ umbrella. And when the landscape changes, blogging will inevitably have to evolve. As Rory Cellan Jones says, “its nature is changing.”

The evolution of blogging is nothing new though. By most accounts, blogging is now over ten years old, easily out-dating the web 2.0 phenomenon. The man who is said to have coined the word weblog, Jorn Barger, intended it to mean “logging the web”. That makes tumblelogging or linklogging services such as Delicious a much closer relative to the earliest blogs than what are today known as blogs.

Similarly, during a middle period beginning at the start of this decade, blogging was taken broadly to mean an online journal or a diary, often with very personal posts. Today, that would be seen as quite odd, since social networking sites such as Facebook are a much more appropriate, private place to talk about your personal life. It might seem inappropriate that people blogged so much about personal issues, but prior to the likes of Facebook, people had no choice.

Meanwhile, the stereotypical blogger writing about what he had for breakfast has now moved wholesale over to Twitter, a more relaxed place where there is no stigma to writing banal, inconsequential nonsense. Mind you, the advent of Qwitter may change that!

Over the years, my blog has evolved from being somewhere where I would (quite inadvisedly, and sometimes shamefully) leave personal rants, or write about what I had for breakfast, to a place where I would take part in conversations about current issues. Instead of writing a few short and snappy posts per day, this blog now more-or-less exclusively contains posts around 1,000+ words long typically published several days apart. Whereas a few years ago I may have written a stream of consciousness, today I might spend a few days (or even a few months!) mulling over a subject before writing it down. Places like Flickr and Twitter certainly wouldn’t allow me to do that, as Paul Stamatiou points out.

Instead of being a one-stop-shop for all things me, my blog is now just one part of a huge range of online activities. How all of these activities relate to each other and what I should publicise where is a problem that I still grapple with, and I probably won’t stop grappling with it any time soon. (I’ve currently settled on gathering everything in a ‘sidebar’ on the home page.)

A lot of blogs have undergone a similar transformation over the years. It’s notable how many people are now relatively quiet on their blogs, but are still updating Twitter regularly. As if to illustrate that, an item on the Today programme this morning was meant to discuss the death of blogging but ended up dwelling more on the popularity of Twitter.

But saying today that this shift to other services like Twitter is a sign that blogging is dead is just as daft as saying in 2004 that blogging threatened the death of the mainstream media. It would be deeply ironic if the once vibrant and hip blogging scene were to itself become threatened by new technology. But it won’t. The world evolves and blogging simply has to evolve with it, just as the mainstream media evolved with the advent of blogging. Rather than dying, blogging is maturing, as Gary Andrews notes.

I think Paul Boutin makes some really good points, but he misses the point a few times. Trolls and flamers in comments are a well-known problem. But let’s face it, that is hardly confined to blogging. That is a problem with the internet in general.

Meanwhile, the point about most bloggers being unable to compete with the top 100 is nothing short of bizarre. How many people really start blogging with the intention of being in the top 100? Though being in the top 100 would be nice, it is far from my primary motivation. Has Paul Boutain never heard of the long tail? As John Connell notes, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, is the father of the long tail. All-in-all, it’s just a really odd argument to be put forward in such an arena.

And the idea that Google doesn’t notice blogs any more is absolutely bizarre. This certainly does not chime with my experiences. Over three quarters of my visitors come from search engines. That figure used to be closer to two thirds. My friends often tell me that they accidentally found my blog when they were searching for something (that’s the only way I can get them to read my blog to this day!). I myself have, to my annoyance, had my blog come up as a high result in a search.

Then there is the idea that blogs need to be personal to be valuable to people. I hardly think this is so. In fact, this is a complete contradiction to Paul Boutin’s assertion that bloggers all aspire to be the next Huffington Post or Treehugger, not exactly the most personal sites in the world. As Robin Hamman says, Twitter and Facebook may lead to the decline of the diarist blogger, but the topical blogger remains unaffected.

Nowadays, with the likes of Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, there might be easier — and more personal — ways to publish your content than to start a blog. And there is absolutely no doubt that maintaining a blog is a major commitment. But that doesn’t mean that blogging doesn’t have an important role to play. In fact, I would argue that it makes blogging all the more important.

Earlier today I had written about a small pile of troubles that have hit the BBC over its choice of commentary team for next season. Today it has emerged that the BBC has yet another problem — and this time it is with that despicable little man, Alan Donnelly.

The Daily Mail reports that Alan Donnelly — former Labour MEP (explains a lot), the FIA’s representative on earth and chief defender of Max Mosley — is expending his energy trying to dissuade the BBC from employing Martin Brundle. This is despite the fact that Brundle is widely regarded as one of the best pundits in any sport, never mind F1.

There is clear evidence that the FIA has attempted to silence its critics on a number of occasions. Martin Brundle himself has been the victim of the FIA’s bullying tactics.

Last year, at the height of the Stepneygate controversy, Martin Brundle wrote in his regular column for The Sunday Times what many others believe — that McLaren were victims of a witch-hunt, a play in Max Mosley’s personal vendetta against Ron Dennis. For that, the FIA threatened to sue The Sunday Times.

In his regular column, reacting to that news, Brundle revealed that he has been threatened by the FIA a number of times in the past:

I expect my accreditation pass for next year will be hindered in some way to make my coverage of F1 more difficult and to punish me. Or they will write to ITV again to say that my commentary is not up to standard despite my unprecedented six Royal Television Society Awards for sports broadcasting. So be it.

Now the FIA appear to have stepped up a gear and are pleading with the BBC not to hire this immensely popular commentator. It is clear that, if there was not a witch-hunt against McLaren, there is certainly a witch-hunt against Martin Brundle. It is yet further evidence that the FIA is scared of open debate and is only interested in hiding the truth. Mosley’s father would have been proud.

Despite last month’s reports that appeared to suggest that the BBC’s commentary line-up for next season was set in stone, more recent rumours suggest that all is far from well in the BBC’s plans for next season.

It appeared to be a foregone conclusion that Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle would team up in the commentary booth. But the fact that no official announcement was ever made was quite odd. Originally, the BBC were going to announce their plans during the weekend of the Italian Grand Prix. The Monza race passed with no word from the BBC.

Since then, it has only been vaguely stated that an announcement will be made after the end of the season. If the BBC don’t have all their loose ends tied up yet, this suggests that their planned dry run at Interlagos will not be happening. As such, the team covering F1 for the BBC in 2009 will almost certainly go into the season “cold”.

Here is what one insider wrote on a message board last week:

So the rumour goes, the BBC’s first choice as lead commentator is not willing to accept the financial package they are offering, and won’t sign a contract without more money being offered.

However the BBC also has an issue with its second-choice commentator: Another of the talent they have already signed has a long-running dispute with second-choice commentator and refuses to work with him. Indeed he has it written into his contract that he won’t work with him.

Then there’s the matter of the BBC telling all of the other applicants that they weren’t “what the BBC is looking for”.

So the first choice refuses to sign a contract, the second choice is contractually unable to do the job and everyone else has been told to look for a job elsewhere! Quite a pickle.

The identities of choices numbers one and two are not known, but educated guesses have Jonathan Legard as the BBC’s first choice. Legard looked set to take the job, but was known to be reluctant. The former Radio 5 Live F1 commentator decided a number of years ago that the worldwide travel involved in covering the sport was no longer for him and opted to become a British-based football reporter instead. As such, it is easy to see why Legard might be in two minds about returning to F1 commentating.

Furthermore, it is said that there is some friction over the amount he has been offered in the role. Rumours suggest that Jonathan Legard has been offered £76,000 for a season. This is compared to Martin Brundle’s rumoured £1 million pay packet. Although that is a lot of money, it is said that this is less than what Brundle currently gets paid by ITV. Brundle is also in a stronger negotiating position because he is one of the most respected commentators in the business and has won several awards.

The BBC want to pay less for the main commentator, who is being offered a uniquely career-enhancing opportunity, whoever ends up getting the gig. However, it is easy to see why someone would be peeved at being paid just 7.6% of what his ostensibly junior partner earns.

The Daily Mail also suggests that Legard is wary of taking on the role because of “the inevitable comparisons with Murray [Walker].” This is understandable given the barrage of criticism that James Allen has had to face over the years.

Although it’s been easy to put the pieces together over the spanner in the works considering the BBC’s first choice, the issue surrounding the BBC’s second choice remains much more of a mystery. Most are guessing that the second choice is David Croft, current Radio 5 Live commentator. Whoever it is, what this person may have done to upset someone so much that they have had it written in their contract that they won’t work with him is a mystery.

During his commentary for a practice session for the Chinese Grand Prix, David Croft dropped a pretty heavy hint that he would remain on Radio 5 Live, saying that he didn’t mind if people switched to television to watch Formula 1, just as long as they pressed the red button. The red button service would almost certainly include the option to listen to Radio 5 Live commentary.

At least plans for red button services for Formula 1 appear to be going more swimmingly. Another insider on the same message board has uploaded a mockup of the BBC’s interactive F1 coverage. It suggests that the BBC will carry at least the FOM world feed, a dedicated on-board channel, live timing and a few other bits and bobs.

As for the commentators, it looks as though the BBC is in a right pickle. The BBC wants to keep an eye on the pennies and its budget for F1 is lower than ITV’s. They could increase their offer to Jonathan Legard, though the coffers obviously don’t have an unlimited supply of money. Given the bad feelings and politics that have already emerged, the BBC commentary booth could well be a frosty place next season, and that is not good for anyone concerned.

Let’s just hope the BBC decide to turn to Ben Edwards, who is easily the most desirable candidate if Legard and Croft are unable to take up the role.

To keep up with the rumours surrounding the BBC’s coverage next season, I highly recommend keeping an eye on this thread over at Digital Spy.