January, 2012

Following the US Election in the UK

As the US gets into the swing of things in 2012, the contest between Republicans to become the candidate who will fight it out with Barack Obama gets more intense with each week.
The best place to follow the ups and downs of the electoral combat would be on The Daily Show, and its sister programme The Colbert Report. We used to be spoilt for choice on this with The Daily Show airing nightly on More 4, and The Colbert Report running on FX UK.
Unfortunately, first FX, and then latterly More 4 dropped the shows. Now you can catch the weekly highlights “Global Edition” late at night on More 4 once a week, and that’s it. In this election year, no UK channel is showing the programme that’s unmissable. Even the brief excitement when The Daily Show’s website seemed to allow UK viewers to stream viewers is tinged with sadness. No streaming for us (at least unless we play around with various proxy settings and so on). You have to hunt elsewhere online…
(I could also point out that Radio 4 ending Americana at the end of 2011 was grossly ill-timed too. Yes the excellent Matt Frei has upped stakes to Channel 4, but this was an essential programme to enlighten UK and World Service listeners about what was happening in the US. Stopping broadcasting in an election year was a miss-step.)
So where else to look? Well there’s always the big papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and our own Guardian.
But for columnists, you really can’t do a great deal better than James Fenton, back in reporter mode, and filing weekly columnns for the London Evening Standard. I remember him as an Independent reporter in Far East during The Independent’s early years, and would never miss a report. And you also shouldn’t miss reading Carl Hiaasen’s columns in the Miami Herald – particularly right now a couple of days before Florida Republicans vote.
Finally, Howard Kurtz’s Reliable Sources on CNN for another media view – perhaps a little more measured than Jon Stewart.
Obviously there are hundreds of other sources – probably thousands. But these are my favourites.

Apple and its Suppliers

Four Apples
Apple has just announced some staggering profits. $13bn in the last three months alone. Once again, it’s close to being the most valuable company on the planet.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published this devastating report on Apple’s suppliers, including Foxconn, and the pressures it puts to bear on its employees.
Then there’s the report from The Daily Show (not viewable in the UK), based in part on reports from CNN.
And there’s the superb recent edition of This American Life on he same subject, based on the experiences and subsequent stage monologue performed by Mike Daisey who visited factories in China in 2010.
This morning, these pieces were followed up by CBS with a further report.
You do have to ask, at what price are we getting our iPhones and iPads?
Now these factories in China build products for lots of other companies, including many major computer and mobile phone manufacturers. So while everyone’s concentrating on Apple products at the moment, the same is probably true for many of the technology you and I are using.
But the fact is that Apple is seeing perhaps the biggest profits of any company in the sector, and seems to fight harder to reduce supplier profit margins, means that the guns are inevitably trained on it. If you’re the market leader, then you have to accept a greater responsibility – and culpability – than your competitors.
Were it not for the fact that Apple seems to work harder to drive prices from its suppliers down, then they perhaps wouldn’t need to be finding themselves with so much to answer.
In the western world (whatever that may mean, as Hans Rosling noted in an excellent piece on China in Newsnight on Tuesday), we have long become used to pressuring companies that make cheap clothing or footwear into ensuring that there are ethical production techniques. But over the years, the Nikes and Gaps of this world have sought to improve standards. Is the world perfect? Are there not child labour issues in places like India, China and Indonesia? Certainly. But things are improving.
So it’s time to place more emphasis on the same for our electronic products. The reason that companies like Foxconn employ 1.2m employees who live in virtual factory townships is that China has become the world’s manufacturer. What’s more, we’re sometimes putting unsustainable pressure on those supply chains. I’ve talked before about our desire for instant gratification. The whole world wants the new tablet the day after it’s announced. We can’t wait. We want it now!
But think about what that means down the supply chain. It means that lots of workers are being forced to work some extraordinary hours assembling these highly technical, and often very small devices, mostly by hand. That beautifully milled aluminium case? Done by hand.
Yet we expect availability, globally, tomorrow.
Recently I was pointed to a terrific website that published some online scans of an old 1976 Argos catalogue. It was entertaining reading for a number of reasons. But I couldn’t help notice that Argos sold the cine camera my dad owned (and that I now occassionally use), but got a couple of years prior to that. It was actually manuafactured for a number of years. There wasn’t an annual replacement cycle. Similarly, a camera that I was given perhaps two or three years later than that catalogue’s date was also still in production. Compare and contrast with today, where by the time we come to the end of our phone’s two year contract, we feel that we’re using a prehistoric device so fast has technology moved on.
We expect updated new devices at least annually, and preferablly more frequently than that. We get frustrated when a games company only releases its new consoles – manufactured in China – on a territory by territory basis and we have to wait to get our hands on one.
And its China that’s making “our crap” as Mike Daisey puts it in his piece.
Apple obviously does do a lot of good things. For starters, lots of people in developing countries are being pulled out of poverty and into a new middle class as they begin to earn money. Apple’s put in place lots of programmes and reports to ensure that it’s suppliers adhere to its practices and standards.
But it’s clear that it’s not doing enough. As a “leader” it has to do more.
With the colossal profits its earning on just about every device it sells, it’s not the poor China factory worked who should be feeling the pinch.
Yes, in some respects, China is going through a similar set of labour practices that the Western world went through when the industrial revolution hit. We made our workers in mills and colliaries work long hours with lots of overtime in conditions that were tantamount to slavery. Slowly we improved things, we allowed unions to develop and in the 21st century we have more of a conscience about these things. We expect our chickens to be free range, and our vegetables to be organic.
We also need to demand that our phones and laptops are being assembled in humane conditions.
Things will improve. One of the most shocking things I learnt from the edition of This American Life is that some of these factories turnover upwards of 10% of their staff every month. That’s unsustainable. These businesses need to improve working conditions and levels of pay. The CEO of these companies should not be liken his employees to animals at a zoo.
The challenge also rests with the one party system in China. There’s a great piece in this week’s Economist discussing some of these issues. Without change, the explosive growth we’ve seen the country manage can’t continue. Factories are closing. China needs to be in a place where it’s not just exporting its goods. They need to be selling to a domestic market. One of the most shocking things I learnt was that few workers even ever see a finished device that they’re working on.
In the meantime, Apple deserves the pressure it’s getting. It’s the biggest electronics manufacturer in the world by market capitalisation, and with that comes enormous responsibility. It can’t play the cool outsider anymore.
And as consumers we all need to take a long hard look at our devices, and their manufacturers. We need to care about how they were assembled and in what conditions. And we need to make sure that those manufacturers are prepared to answer those tough questions.
[Disclaimer: I typed this piece on an Asus laptop, and own many other products, several of which were probably assembled in China, and quite possibly at a Foxconn plant.] UPDATE: A really interesting take on how Apple does – or rather doesn’t communicate – and how this might have to change, from Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC News site.
UPDATE 2: And on a related note, an interesting point here made about how it’s cheaper to have devices manufactured abroad from a tax perspective rather than importing the pieces and assembling them in the UK!

Borgen

With two series of The Killing out the way, it’s time to move on to the next big Danish TV drama. And that would be Borgen. I say “move on to” it, but as of yesterday we’re eight episodes into the first ten part series.
According to Wikipedia, Borgen is the nickname of the Christianborg Palace – something I suspect that even six hours in, only the most astute viewers will have picked up upon.
Last week I was at the launch of a new Danish crime novel (more anon), and one of the surprises expressed by the authors during the Q&A was that British viewers were remotely able to grasp the intricacies of Danish government.
The only real link between Borgen and The Killing is that they’re both made by DR, the Danish public service TV and radio company. And you might recognise a few faces between the two series, not least Søren Malling, the much missed Jan Meyer from The Killing, here playing a non-too likeable TV news editor. The series isn’t a mystery drama, and there isn’t an especially broader “arc” running throughout the series beyond character development.
What Borgen really is, is The West Wing set in Denmark. Instead of a President, we have a Prime Minister (Denmark still has a royal family). And each episode is essentially dealing with a singular event such the visit of a foreign head of state, or the discovery that the CIA has been using a Danish controlled airport in Greenland for extraordinary renditions. In that way it’s very similar to The West Wing, with sub-stories running alongside. By the end of the hour we’ve moved on.
The cast is necessary smaller than in The West Wing, and everything feels more compact. Denmark is, of course, a smaller country, so there will be fewer people around.
I’d guess that they did film a fair few exteriors in the real “Borgen” building. It certainly looks like it.
If I had a criticism, it’s that sometimes the characters feel quite naive. One episode was focused on a bill to force corporations to have equal numbers of men and women on Danish boards. This causes one of the biggest industrialists in the country to come out against the move and throw his weight around. It was presented as a major revelation that various bodies and media outlets were owned by the same firm. In reality these things are not even remotely secret.
And the constricted nature of the piece sometimes works against it. “TV1” is the only TV network in town, with nearly all political interviews taking place on one of its two evening news programmes. “Express” is the only paper in town, sometimes making our own tabloids look good in comparison. You have to wonder what all the other journalists in the regularly packed press conferences are actually doing!
Katrine, one of TV1’s nightly news presenters lives in a flat so small, many students would reject it. Clearly Danish television presenters don’t earn the kind of money that ours are reputed to earn!
But I do quite like the family life. So Prime Minister Birgitte is always up against it with her family with whom she spends too little time. I must admit that it’s sometimes a little layered on, and if I was her, I’d very quickly get fed up with the attitude of her husband who seems to view her premiership as an irritation in his own career progression.
It’s fun hearing elements of English in the dialogue though. Perhaps more political jargon has seeped in Danish politics than in other areas. The opening episode showed the soon-to-outgoing Prime Minister getting PR from a London based team of consultants.
Despite some of its short comings, it feels quite genuine, and the story is never scared to move into difficult areas – certainly places that The West Wing would have found tougher to address in a conservative US.
If you’ve not been watching, then hit the iPlayer, or wait for the inevitable DVDs. It all finishes next weekend, and we just have to hope that BBC Four has another interesting import up its sleeves… [Update: It’s The Bridge]

New York 1986

New York - Autumn 1986-35
I’ve been scanning in some old prints of my first visit to New York. A selection are viewable on Flickr. Not perhaps the greatest set of photos ever, and in retrospect it’d have been better if a 16 year old me had taken some photos that actually included a few New Yorkers in the photos.
But of course a visit to New York in 1986 (the Mets were winning the World Series while I was there), would have to have included a visit to the World Trade Centre – bittersweet today.
New York - Autumn 1986-58
More viewable over on Flickr.

Channel Four Shuffle

Media Guardian has details of a proposed new Channel Four service that’s supposedly going to appear on-air later this year. From what I can tell it’s a traditional linear channel – just one that gives multiple additional opportunities for viewers to catch Channel Four programmes at other times across the week.
The odd thing is that for the most part, there are already plenty of opportunities already to catch up on that programming. There are +1 versions of most of the Channel Four services, although admittedly their availability varies by platform. And just about every major Channel Four programme gets at least one repeat on the main service later in the week at a later hour. When it comes to E4 or More 4, there are usually multiple opportunities. Indeed, looking at E4 and More4’s schedules, I’m surprised that they don’t repeat their premium series like Skins more than they actually do.
In a day and age when more and more, people are watching services like Channel Four’s very own 4OD service, on their TV sets, the idea of scheduling narrative repeats seems less relevant.
It’s interesting, for example, that Sky One – a channel that you might expect to repeat programmes many times over the course of a week – is only broadcasting a single same week repeat of their big new series Mad Dogs. Of course Sky does already have Sky Anytime (And the programme does get a couple of outings on Sky 2).
I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea. But Freeview spaces aren’t cheap, and I can’t help thinking that a better strategy would be to broaden the availability of 4OD on connected devices. For example, my 2011 Sony Blu-ray player has BBC iPlayer and Channel 5’s catchup offerings available, but nothing from either Channel Four or ITV. With the growth of streaming services, lots more people are going to be using the likes of LoveFilm, Netflix and Sky to view on demand programming during 2012. Get in the mix!

From Gutenberg to Zuckerbeg


In 2012, I’m going to try to write a little more about books. I say this every year, but I am going to try!
First up is John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerbeg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet. This is a follow-up, of sorts, to A Brief History of the Future, Naughton’s 2000 book that examined the internet to date at that point. Since then, much has changed, and Naughton starts from first principles in this book. Indeed, as the title suggests, he actually starts from the introduction of the printed word. He then imagines a time – around 1470 – less than 20 years after the first book had been printed, and points out that we’re still at the dawn of a new internet era in 2012 as we try to imagine quite how the internet is changing our world.
I’d probably argue that development is much faster these days than it was in the fifteenth centry. But it’s certain that we don’t truly understand how much things will change in the future standing at this point in time. Google only launched in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005. Can we imagine a world without them in 2012?
This title feels like it’s probably going to be a text book on a number of courses. I can imagine a 15 year old reading it, never having known a world without the web. So the history presented is recent. But it also explains to the interested (and especially, the non-technical) reader things that people tend for forget like the web is not the internet, and that many webpages don’t actually exist until they’re “called”. So, for example, estimating how many web-pages there are in existance is a spurious thing to compute. The copious footnotes suggest an academic future for the title.
If anything, there are probably a few too many ideas in this book, and some of them deserve a little more attention and time. For example, the chapter on copyright and “copywrongs” is probably deserving of a book of its own. In particualar, I think Naughton missed addressing the issue of patents with regard to software. Although it might be a little directly off-topic, the issues surrounding patent trolls severly impact on just about anyone attempting to deliver a web-service these days. You only have to look at the arsenals of patents being built up by the big players like Google and Apple to defend themselves against one another, to realise that it’s a major concern for anyone attempting to built a business online.
If I had a criticism, it’s that Naughton includes slightly too many extensive quotes throughout the book. If, like me, you read Naughton’s blog, you’ll be familiar with this, many of his entries being formed by little more than brief introductions to a chunky quote, and a link to the full piece. And some authors – particularly Nicholas Carr – probably get a few too many mentions. I prefer original ideas as much as possible, rather than repeating those of others. I suspect that, again, the academic nature of the book lends to the latter approach.
But overall, this is a very worthwhile title.

Redefining Radio

Because I was somewhat involved, I can’t really present an unbiased view of yesterday’s Redefining Radio conference presented by Absolute Radio at the Houses of Parliament (But I did think it was very good).
So instead, let me link to all the videos from the morning, as well as some external reports generated from the day.
Here’s James Wigley’s presentation which explains Absolute Radio’s efforts to personalise on-line advertising:

The rest of the videos, including Director of BBC Audio & Music, Tim Davie’s speech, can be seen over here.
Here’s an interview with Tim Davie from The Guardian, and Tim and Clive Dickens feature in today’s Media Talk podcast.
The Telegraph has a good piece, as does Music Week. And there’s a piece in Media Week – but you may find it’s paywalled.
Matt Deegan said some nice things, as does Radiowork’s Simon Pearce.
And you do follow Onegoldensquare on Twitter don’t you? Just checking!

John Arlott – Cricket’s Radical Voice

You have just under two days to listen to the most recent Archive Hour on Radio 4 dealing with John Arlott’s political nature.
As well as being famous for having one of those wonderful Test Match Special voices that I’d listen to when I was growing up, he was also a regular on programmes like Any Answers which this programme used quite a lot to source audio.
And with the death last year of Basil D’Oliveira the story of how he came to get D’Oliveira over from South Africa and into a Lancashire league side – something that would eventually lead directly to the sporting boycott of South Africa – I had tears in my eyes at times.
But I was just wanted to highlight a clip of someone else who appeared alongside Arlott in a 1957 edition of Any Questions. Although the question was a light-hearted one on BBC pay, Street – about whom I know nothing – pointed out the lack of commercial competition to the BBC at the time.
It’s interesting to hear him speaking on the BBC about that lack of a rival when of course commercial television had already started.
Arthur Street on Any Questions 1957 (mp3)
I’ll let you draw your own allusions to today and FM versus DAB spectrum allocation…

Mirror Box

Mirror Box 2
These photos were made by placing a camera on self-timer in a “mirror box” built with mirrored tiles.
All based on a very smart idea I saw on Photojojo and detailed at Digital Composting. The box that I built was built precisely to those specifications.
Mirror Box 1
I used 12″ square tiles I bought from Mirrorworld who you’ll be pleased to learn package the tiles very well indeed.
I used Duct tape to hold the hole thing together, taping the four walls together so that they fold flat, leaving the base mirror untouched, and taping a handle onto the top mirror for “closing” the box. I just need to add some kind of overhand to allow the top tile to sit comfortably.
I need to try a few more things, but now I’ve fashioned the box (which I can semi pack down), so look for some more photos soon. In particular, getting some smoke into it and trying a laser-pointer could be fun…

Boxsets

This week Boardwalk Empire season one came out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week. So anyone who doesn’t get Sky Atlantic is able to see what the fuss is about.
But I was a little surprised to say the least. Wasn’t it already out? Here’s the thing, Sky Atlantic launched with the series in February last year. The series had originally aired on HBO in the autumn of 2010, but Sky unsurprisingly held it back for their big channel launch.
When the second season aired in the US during the autumn of 2011, Sky Atlantic aired it the same week – a near simultaneous scheduling strategy.
So it’s very odd to discover the only now are we getting the first season. Why’s that?
Well it’s an HBO production and that means that HBO’s UK DVD label has to follow the US release schedule.
In the UK we’re used to seeing a DVD release essentially the Monday after the series has finished. Perhaps you missed some episodes, or you want to rewatch the series.
For big blockbusters like Frozen Planet or Downton Abbey, there’s the Christmas present season to aim for. In general then, DVDs get a swift release for new series (Doctor Who perhaps being the exception to the rule).
In the US, the thinking is that the DVD is less about customers catching up or watching again, but becoming part of the marketing campaign leading into the next season. That tends to mean an August/September bun-fight as series get released. And UK distributors have to follow US release patterns for their imported series.
That still doesn’t really explain why Boardwalk Empire only surfaced some 18 months after the show first aired on television.
I can only think that HBO which invested so much in the series wanted to ensure that they (and therefore, their international partners) got full repeat value of the series before releasing it into the wild.
They don’t seem to be doing the same thing with their other big series – Game of Thrones. That finished on air last summer, and certainly Sky Atlantic has shown it complete on several occassions now. But the DVD/Blu-ray release will again tie into the start of the second season.
At least there are only ten hours of that. Try watching 22 hours of a series in the fortnight between the DVD release and the next season starting!
Still at least we get these series. Pity the fans of Breaking Bad or Friday Night Lights, neither of which series continued to get an airing in the UK after a couple of series, despite production continuing. So UK airing means no UK DVD boxset. And while it’s no skin off my nose to import a set via Amazon for my multi-region DVD player, it’s more complicated for some. And you’d better hope the US distributors made their releases A&B regions if you want to watch in HD.
Which brings me round to Justified. Next week FX in the US kicks off season three. 5 USA has had the first two seasons of this – perhaps my favourite US show. But so far, they’ve not announced plans to buy season three. Indeed worryingly, they’re just beginning a repeat showing of season one. That suggests a minimum 13 week delay before it airs over here, and more likely a 26 week delay since they’d probably follow series one with series two. That’s assuming they buy it at all.
Well let’s make it clear. As a massive Elmore Leonard fan, and someone who’s fallen in love with these characters, I’m not waiting six months. I will look “elsewhere”.
What’s more Elmore Leonard has just written a new book – Raylan – which is published in the UK in a few weeks and is about the main character in this series.
I should also mention that this season feature Carla Gugino as “Karen Goodall” who works as US Attorney. Some may remember her previously playing “Karen Sisco” in a shortlived series (based on the character from the film Out of Sight where the character was played by Jennifer Lopez) also a US Marshall, and an Elmore Leonard character. Some of us remain very hopefull that “Goodall” is in fact “Sisco”. But we shall find out very soon!
Either way now would be the time to show the third season.
Well more fool 5 USA if they miss out.
Oh yes, and while you can buy Justified DVDs in the UK, the distributor didn’t release Blu-rays. So you have to look to the US for those…