Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

SXSW Breakfast, Anyone? #

I’ve been a regular at Austin’s SXSW for far longer than I care to remember. It’s a heady mix of music, film, and ‘interactive’ stuff and I’ve always met many old friends, made new ones, and had my creative batteries refilled from spending a week or two in Texas.

This year is no different, and I’m flying out today.

The other thing that happens every year at SXSW is Saturday morning breakfast at Magnolia Cafe on South Congress. As usual I’ll be there a little bit ahead of 8am to grab a table and see who else turns up. A few of you have already asked and got the date in your diary, for everyone else reading let me know if you plan on turning up.

And if you want to meet at SXSW for any reason, I’m there for the full duration through to Sunday 19th March.

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Monday, February 27th, 2017

A familiar podcasting voice from MWC #

For those following MWC remotely (or need something to listen to on the hike to the Barcelona gatherings), Rafe Blandford is part of the DigitasLBi UK team who are bringing (hopefully) daily shows now MWC is under way. Start of with the preview that aired over the weekend – listen on Soundcloud – and check there tomorrow for more! 

Friday, February 24th, 2017

I thought M*A*S*H answered the laughter-track question in the Eighties? #

Apart from the curious fact that Lucille Ball’s mother is the ‘Wilhelm Scream’ of chuckles on US TV’s canned laughter track, it still surprises me that the debate about whether a laughter track is a good idea continues to this day in America. Anthony Crupi on AdAge is the latest voice:

There’s actually very little research to justify the practice. The last comprehensive study to suggest that a laugh track could precipitate genuine peals of merriment was published in 1974, or a good three years before DeDe Ball chortled her last. A far more recent inquiry into the matter arrived at a different conclusion; a 2011 study of British and Norwegian subjects found that contemporary viewers have all but built up an immunity to laugh tracks, characterizing them as “cheesy” and “manipulative.”

I think there’s much less debate about this in the United Kingdom, and that’s down to BBC 2 airing M*A*S*H in the eighties. As far as I can remember, it was a fixture at 9pm every Wednesday. Someone was smart enough to decide that the audience didn’t need to be told when to laugh and the BBC leaned on Fox to strike new prints with clean audio for the UK audience.

Except one week. One week there was a technical hiccup and it aired in the laughter-fuelled American format. With no Twitter to channel the anger, the only outlet was the weekly ‘Points of View’ show that aired at 8.50pm every Wednesday on BBC 1. That week there was nothing but indignation…

The BBC never aired M*A*S*H with a laughter track again.

Monday, February 20th, 2017

Tracking Your Phone’s Tube Journey #

During November and December last year, Transport For London used the London Underground’s Wi-fi network to track the hashes of MAC numbers as they moved through the system. Although tracking the start and end points of a journey is relatively easy, how a large volume of people move between stations has been harder to understand.

Perhaps the number one reason to do the trial was to better understand the journeys that people actually make on the Tube. At the moment, TfL can tell what station you started and ended your journey at based on your Oyster card – but it can’t tell how you got between two locations. [In the example] you can see how popular different routes between Liverpool Street and Victoria are.

So if you travel via Oxford Circus, you do the same as 44% of other people. If you lazily sit on the circle line you do the same as 26% of people making the same journey. And if you change twice – once at Holborn, then again at Green Park, then congratulations, you’re a psychopath.

Big data wins again, and no doubt ‘better adverts’ is the trade off for being anonymously tracked.

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

What if The Doctor had always been black? #

A delightful counter-historical for the entertainment world, as Peter Judge’s post has been brought back to the wold. What if the BBC had cast a black actor in Doctor Who in 1963, through all the regenerations, and into the new series?

One thing’s clear. The fourth Doctor would still be everyone’s favourite:

4: Derek Griffiths
The most outlandish and best-loved Doctor, Derek Griffiths was the first to be born in Britain, His previous TV work included Play School and Please Sir! but Doctor Who gave him somewhere to express himself. He made the character something of a hippy, with flamboyant clothes, and an anarchic manner. Fans still copy Griffiths’ large sideburns and wide collars, and of course his scarf.

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The New Yorker’s differnt approach to print and online #

The only constant in publishing today is change. While many print empires have passed away, others are working through the transition towards digital. The New Yorker has been smart and adapted for the new environment while preserving its identity. Benjamin Mullin for Poynter looks at how it’s working out:

In those days, the print schedule reigned supreme, which meant that the magazine’s famously rigorous system of copy editing and fact-checking held sway over The New Yorker’s metabolism.

In the years since, The New Yorker has undergone a massive digital remaking. It’s established a separate web operation that’s unchained writers and editors from the time-intensive print edition. It’s colonized platforms like podcasts, YouTube, mobile applications, Instagram and Snapchat. And it’s built a digital staff of about 40 people, hiring several full-time journalists tasked with writing primarily for the website.

How The New Yorker brought the soul of the magazine to the web.

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Is this not the end of the Voicemail? #

Podcasts should, like people making a Terminator TV series, plan for a final episode. Even if it’s ‘go on hiatus’ think about what you leave if it is the last one. As it is with genre TV, as it is with The Voicemail:

This isn’t the last episode of The Voicemail, but it’ll be the last one you’ll hear for a while. In it, James and Stefan discuss what’s been happening in their respective lives since the last time they recorded, what news items caught there eyes during the show’s brief hiatus, and what they’re looking forward to in 2017.

Goodnight, guys, it’s been fun. Sleep well, you’ll most like kill The The Voicemail in the morning…

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Landing a rocket in front of a camera #

Basically you try, try, try again. Keep trying until you get everything lined up. And in the process you’ll also be working on a reusable first-stage rocket. The Verge’s Sean O’Kane on that picture:

It appears that there was some post-processing done on this photo, which adds to its dramatic nature. But even without the added contrast and vignetting, the photo is still a rather lucky sum of a number of fast-moving parts. The rocket is in the middle of using its engines to remove itself from its free fall from space. The drone ship had been positioning and steadying itself against the ocean’s waves while it waited for the rocket to descend. And all this obviously happened while the Sun slowly “moved” through the sky thanks to the Earth’s rotation.

That said, Elon Musk proves that you can be a Bond Vilian in real life…

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Why It Is Important That China Has Perfected The Ball Point Pen #

Not your low-cost ten-a-pen pen, but the more high-end pens with well fitting barrels and balls for smoother writing experiences.

Ballpoint pens aren’t actually new to China. Its 3,000 pen manufacturers make around 40 billion of them a year and fulfill 80 percent of the world’s demand. There’s just one problem: China doesn’t possess the advanced alloys and machines necessary to make a high-quality pen ball and socket. As a result, 90 percent of China’s pen tips are imported. Pens made from Chinese components are widely acknowledged to be inferior — a point made by Premier Li Keqiang in a 2015 television appearance. “That’s the real situation facing us,” he said. “We cannot make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.”

And while it’s a curious story, Tim Worstall spins it out to illustrate a point about national wages and productivity in China compared to the west.

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Gene Cernan RIP: Speaking To The Last Man On The Moon #

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Gene Cernan died today.

He was the last man to walk on the moon, an astronaut from a time of heroes, a pilot from a time where best friends didn’t come home. He also drew his daughter’s initials in the moon dust. They’re still there…
I was very lucky to speak to him in 2014 as he promoted Mark Craig’s documentary/biography ‘Last Man On The Moon.’ 

I’ve posted it above, and I’m going to listen to it again.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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Monday, October 24th, 2016

The twenty albums on the first iPod #

Fifteen years after the reveal of the first iPod (with a world changing 5GB of storage), Nobuyyki Hayashi recalls the presentation,the first sample machines handed to journalists (for the flight home), and the twenty hand-picked albums that were loaded up on the iPod.

Of course there was a big push to not ‘steal music’ so alongside the iPod were CD copies of those twenty albums. Hayasi still has them, and it makes for a fascinating playlist.

I love the fact that Jobs and his team included two albums from The Beatles (‘A Hard Day’s Night‘, and ‘Abbey Road‘), a band that would be one of the last groups to appear in digital form in the iTunes Music Store.

Trivial Posts #30: Reality is but a figment of the imagination #

I’m travelling a lot in November, so a quiet week at home with virtual reality, reality TV, and a picture show are exactly what I need to prepare to gather a clutch of air miles. What have I been reading to while away the hours? I’m glad you asked…

You can sign up to have this posted out to you every week, subscribe to the newsletter version here.

VR’s Biggest Problem

I posted this on the blog over the weekend, but it deserves another airing. Virtual Reality has a problem that is not far from the surface. Can anyone ensure a harassment-free environment, asks Jordan Belamire?

What Next For Twitter?

With the news that Disney is not going to bid for Twitter (nor will Salesforce, Google, Facebook, etc…) what next for the no longer limited to 140 character messaging service? John Brandon has a radical idea. Nothing. It’s done. Go home. Start again:

I use Twitter all day, but the truth is–tweets are becoming like white noise on a lost FM radio station.

…Do we ever check Twitter? Not at all. Never. It’s becoming a rat’s nest of nonsense, a place to grumble about the debates. I used to post questions on my Twitter feed, which now has about 11,000 followers, and expect a few people to send me some tips about how to fix a Wi-Fi signal at my house or troubleshoot a laptop issue, but fewer and fewer people respond these days. They’ve grown silent. The service has 313 million users but Twitter can’t seem to attract any new attention at all.

Why You’ll Be Deleting Your Twitter Account In The Next Six Months.

Why Is The Internet Hard To Read?

Kevin Marks (one of the key developers in the history of podcasting who never gets enough credit) is struggling on the web. Is it age catching up and failing eyesight? Or are the designers out to get him and make text that’s impossible to read the standard look for the web? Turns out its the latter.

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

…if the web is relayed through text that’s difficult to read, it curtails that open access by excluding large swaths of people, such as the elderly, the visually impaired, or those retrieving websites through low-quality screens. And, as we rely on computers not only to retrieve information but also to access and build services that are crucial to our lives, making sure that everyone can see what’s happening becomes increasingly important.

We should be able to build a baseline structure of text in a way that works for most users, regardless of their eyesight. So, as a physicist by training, I started looking for something measurable.

How The Web Became Unreadable

Never Trust Anyone Who Updates Shakespeare Rocky Horror For The Kids

Frankly I still feel both apprehensive and uneasy about this remake, why it was needed, and if it’s going to be able to stand on its own. I mean, surely Brad and Janet can just call for an Uber instead of heading to the scary castle? And then there’s the music… Lou Adler talks about updating the music for the 2016 TV remake of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and that’s perhaps the part I’m confident that the show will get right.

There was also the matter of Richard O’Brien’s music for the show, which decades ago tapped into the prevailing glam-rock sound of the mid ’70s — and spawned a stand-alone hit in the deathless “Time Warp.”

…Today, though, rock hardly dominates the mainstream the way it once did. So Cisco — known for his group Whitestarr and his work with the rapper Shwayze — saw himself as a kind of a translator: someone who could reinterpret “Time Warp,” “Dammit Janet” and “Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” for younger viewers raised on hip-hop.

“These songs are rock standards,” he said. “I didn’t wanna flip the music on its back and make it EDM. But I did wanna flip it on its side — steroid it up, give it fatter drums.”

Steroids? Yes. EDM? No.

Simulating Brexit In Football Manager 2017

Put this down to unintended consequences but the ‘make Football as lifelike as possible’ gaming franchise is now simulating the various Brexit options in-game because of the direct impact it will have on Football:

There is also the option that sees us adopt a system like Italy’s, where there is a limit on the number of non-EU players in each squad. The limit of non-UK players that British clubs are allowed could range from anything as high as 17 to as low as four.

“If you only had four non-UK players per squad, that’s going to make things difficult. All of a sudden Championship-quality players are moving into the Premier League to fill up slots. That could mean the overall quality drops, and that means the TV money goes down.

…Jacobson goes on to highlight further potential scenarios: referendums on independence could mean players from Scotland or Northern Ireland need a work permit to move to the UK and the Bosman ruling, which allows players to move for free at the end of their contracts, could be scrapped in the UK. Jacobson is keen to stress that these really are all possible within the new game.

Brexit is simulated in Football Manager and its going to make it harder than ever.

Quick Links

What happens when you ditch a smartphone and go dumb? Documentally finds out.

The BBC puts episodes of ‘The Adventure Game’ on digital sale. Gronda, gronda!

The winning pictures from 2016’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year are, as you would expect, stunning.

What I’ve Been Up To

Two items of note from me this week in addition to the usual coverage of the mobile tech industry over on Forbes.

The first was an update to ESC Buzz. Inspired by Popurls, Alltop, and other headline-displaying sites, ESC Buzz gives you all the headlines from the ongoing world of the Eurovision Song Contest. Head over to for more. Secondly, I made a second appearance on Keep Dancing, an unofficial Strictly COme Dancing podcast, to talk about the three-act structure and plotting in reality TV shows.

At the start of November  I’ll be attending the Web Summit (Lisbon 7-10 November 2016), before heading to Malta for a week of radio broadcasts (more on that in the near future). December will see me in the capital for TechCrunch’s Disrupt London (5-6 December 2016). Next year’s plans include attending SXSW (Austin, 10-20 March 2017). If you want to meet up at any of these events, let me know.

‘Trivial Posts’ is a mostly weekly series of posts that brings together interesting posts, ideas, video clips, essays, images, and anything else that catches my eye on the Internet. Read it online, or subscribe to the email newsletter version here.

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Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

An Old Problem Threatens Virtual Reality #

Virtual Reality is (still) the brave new world, and like any new world it’s going to get polluted. If the experiences of – and I fear it will be – then VR has a problem. And it’s one as old as the digital hills. Female harassment:

So, there I was shooting down zombies alongside another real-time player named BigBro442. The other players could hear me when I spoke, my voice the only indication of my femaleness. Otherwise, my avatar looked identical to them.

In between a wave of zombies and demons to shoot down, I was hanging out next to BigBro442, waiting for our next attack. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.

…Remember that little digression I told you about how the hundred foot drop looked so convincing? Yeah. Guess what. The virtual groping feels just as real. Of course, you’re not physically being touched, just like you’re not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

There are a lot of players in VR right now. Who can build VR for everyone, and not just replicate a Trump Locker Room? I’ll happily cheerlead for that team.

Friday, October 21st, 2016

A little Falconry for the weekend? #

Because a heap of junk can look graceful in two supercut videos, one of the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars trilogy, and one from The Force Awakens.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Down, Down, Deeper And Queen #

Sneaking out last week on its YouTube channel was a recording of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You‘ for a John Peel Session. It’s the faster version used to open a number of live shows.

…and every time I listen to it I can hear Status Quo’s 12-bar boogie-woogie trying to break out.