January 2007 Archives

Watching the detectors

29 January 2007

Gary Marshall asks on his blog: X-ray cameras on lampposts, is this a wind-up or what? Sadly, I reckon it isn't. Today's story in the Currant Bun describes a Home Office plan - well a memo in which some civil servants think aloud what might be possible having watched Total Recall in a quest for ideas - to put 'X-ray cameras' on various bits of street furniture.

The reasoning is simple. If you can see through people's clothing you can see the weapons they might be carrying. Luckily, the UK government does not want to join other shadier groups in wanting to irradiate us with high-energy photons. The Home Office proposal looks like it is actually referring to terahertz waves rather than X-rays. Being a bit less energetic than infrared light, terahertz waves would merely give our bodies a gentle tickle rather than a good bludgeoning in the way that X-rays would. My guess is that The Sun's editors realised that X-rays would get the point across more quickly and simply than trying to explain terahertz waves.

The giveaway on terahertz is the idea that the images would look through clothing and reveal people - as opposed to people's bones. The technology has been tried in airports and, with some techniques in research at the moment, it will be possible to shrink the electronics needed down to about the size of a shoebox in a few years. So, that bit is almost certainly not a wind-up. Whether the policy behind it is a wind-up is another matter.

Robert Scoble has discovered several things about the media although I'm not sure he has consciously realised any of them. On Saturday, he was mightily annoyed that very few bloggers had linked to his 40-minute video of a visit to one of Intel's fabs in the wake of the chip giant's claim of a breakthrough in chipmaking.

He particularly railed against sites like Engadget ignoring him, saying that they were prepared to link to mass media but not bloggers and that it's all to do with snobbery. Several people beat me to the main reason: it probably has a lot to do with the video being 40 minutes long. Who, in the short-deadline world of gadget blogging, has the time to watch 40 minutes of video just to find out if anything interesting happens. It doesn't get much better if you start the video. You get the usual fab-tour stuff of "it's really clean", "it's bigger inside than I expected", "people wear bunny suits for real". Where's the news content? You'd have to dig for it.

One thing struck me about Microsoft's wrangling with Wikipedia over the entry on its XML file formats. The procedure by which people try to change entries that involve them is surprisingly close to that used by traditional publishers, whether of newspapers or encyclopedias. That is, it would be if the publisher had a bureaucratic system based on China's.

Want a correction or clarification in a newspaper? You complain to an editor or ombudsman. There is some discussion that might lead to a correction, depending on how good the claim is. Or they tell you to go away.

According to Wikipedia supremo Jimmy Wales, if you want something about you or something you are directly involved with corrected on Wikipedia - which anybody can edit as long as they're not somebody - you complain on the talk page and an editor will do something about it. Or they tell you to go away. However, it's all a bit like dealing with local bureaucrats in rural China - each one does it differently, and attitudes can change dramatically in the space of days, although they will refer to the same rule book and come back with some obscure answer like: "WP:FOYC". In this case, the answer, apparently, was to go away and write a white paper. Next week? Fill in Form ZZ3BQXL in triplicate and have it countersigned by an accredited software developer.

The evolution of Wikipedia from egalitarian vision to unpaid bureaucracy has been fascinating to watch. Its value as an accurate encyclopedia may be questionable but as social experiment it's wonderful. It has compressed social developments that took years in other industries into a matter of a few years - and demonstrated how bureaucracies self-organise.

It also acts as an argument against Wales's idea of having newspapers host wikis for news they otherwise can't touch. In his interview with Oliver Luft of Journalism.co.uk, as he talks grandly how doing it is all about people, he seems unaware that the model he proposes for tomorrow's newspaper looks, every day, more like the existing model. Except that people don't get paid. So, it's more like a British local newspaper then.

Edelman got a market-research company to go out and ask people: "Who do you trust?" They seemed somewhat surprised to note that trust is in short supply, particularly in the UK. The recommendation? You could probably have guessed this one without even looking at the answers:

"If companies want to build trust in the UK, then this survey demonstrates that they must engage with their audiences more effectively than ever before, using a range of traditional and new media."

That's Stuart Smith, CEO of Edelman London. Whatever you were doing before, do more of it. OK, your trust rating has been going down for five years but, at some point, it might start working.

The interesting thing is Edelman's focus on peer-to-peer communications. That is, bloggers. In the bullet-point filled Social Media Press Release, David Brain, president and CEO of the PR company is a bit opaque about it:

"The growing trust in ‘people like me’ and average employees means that companies must design their communications as much on the horizontal or the peer-to-peer axis as on the vertical or top-down axis."

I see. I think. Maybe we should bung the idea in the mental microwave and see if the cat salutes it.

"PR people nowadays just can't write for shit."

That's Jeremy Pepper writing on the undedifying spectacle of a bunch of people arguing about whether press releases should come pre-equipped with Del.icio.us tags. Yes, I know those people refer to it as the Social Media Press Release, but the former just seems a better explanation given that a group of PRs and non-PRs can't actually define what is meant to go into the new-format release without falling out.

After Jeremiah Owyang and Stowe Boyd - who you might regard as being at the happy-clappy end of the social-media revolution - wrote about how they could not understand why PRs were trying to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the resolutely Media 1.0 press release, the PRs rounded on them with rebuttals along the lines of: "You silly boys, you just don't understand how PR works." I've never been under impression they want to know how PR works - and a lot of people like it that way.

I think I'm going over old ground here, but the whole idea of the Social Media Press Release is pointless. It's solving a problem that doesn't exist without actually addressing problems that do. For the last few years, I've been saying to PRs that their contact with the press, particularly those in trade media, is going to go away. They need to go direct to the user. And the press release is a piss-poor way of selling things direct.

I can't help thinking that the curse of the Newton lurks behind the Apple iPhone. During his keynote at Macworld, Apple CEO Steve Jobs went out of his way to put down the stylus as a way of getting things done on a handheld machine. That may be because everybody else working in this space is wrong - pudgy fingers are best after all - or Jobs was very keen to ensure that nobody ever turned round to him and asked: "Didn't you have a go at this before?"

If it was the case that the team was forbidden to make any mention of a stylus in the iPhone's development or - the horror - handwriting recognition because of Apple's legacy, then corporate vanity will have played a part in turning a promising, good-looking device into an expensive but dispensable toy. Image was more important than usability - the iPhone's vaunted selling point.