February 2009 Archives

The deadline question

10 February 2009

I guess this was inevitable:

checksurvey.jpg

Earlier today, Charles Arthur at The Guardian wrote a pair of tweets about the deadline question that now seems to be part of the standard issue PR script and why it's not a good idea. I can't remember when this practice started but it never used to happen. Gradually, more and more PRs have taken to kicking off a call with the question: "Are you on deadline?"

Now, I know what you're thinking: what's wrong with that? And, according to the quickie survey put up by Dan Leach, only about half the journalists who voted, so far, thought it is. Personally, I'm in the "you've got something to sell, just get on with it" camp.

Consider these points. Number one: someone answered the phone; it didn't go to voicemail. It means one of two things. Either there is some time to hear about something interesting (I can dream, can't I?). Or you are not the person who was meant to be on the other end of the phone and you are now blocking the Very Important Contact from getting through. Deadlines? Shmeadlines. But, don't worry about it. If I need you to get off the line or hurry up, you are going to know about it. This is not a problem, but asking whether I'm on deadline isn't going to make a whole heap of difference other than lengthen what is already an interruption.

Number two: is this call really necessary? If it's that important to get an instant response, what difference does a deadline make? A story is a story and may trump whatever is sitting in the word processor right now (again, I can dream, can't I?). And if the response is not needed immediately, why not try email or a tweet? Asynchronous communication works. If you don't get a reply, it wasn't going to fly in the first place.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I reckon I'm about five times more likely to say no on the phone than having had a chance to look at something written down. If something is borderline but looks as though it might fly, email is going to work a lot better. And, you get a response you can show the client (after a bit of sanitising).

By the way, there won't be a prize for the first person to ask: "Is it OK to ask you if you are on deadline?"

Art education for kids

8 February 2009

A fine piece of real-life Competitive Dad overheard at Tate Britain today. A father and son come into the room that contains a bunch of pieces by Walead Besht in the Altermodern * exhibition that opened last Tuesday (3 February).

Fedex is a group of glass boxes mounted on Fedex shipping boxes in various states of distress. The work has the boxes shipped around the world with little more protection than the cardboard affords. So, they gradually get more smashed up the longer they're in transit.** Eventually, they wind up in an exhibition.

Enter father and son of about 10 or 11:

"Those boxes, they're all broken," he piped up.

"They're meant to be broken. That's the point," snapped Dad curtly.

And with that, they went for a quick look at the Projection Room installation and then out of the room. I wonder what happened when they got to Millais' Ophelia on the other side of the gallery:

"That lady's lying in the water."

"She's meant to be lying in the water."

Or Rosetti's The Annunciation:

"That lady looks a bit scared."

"She's meant to be scared."

* It is, frankly, a bit rubbish in parts but not half as bad as the FT makes out. However, the worst pieces tend to be those that best fit Nicolas Bourriaud's definition of altermodern. Oops.

** I'm guessing Fedex will not be using this for a PR campaign. Mind you, at least Besht hasn't been rude about Memphis. At least, not to my knowledge.

On the eve of Facebook's fifth birthday, it must have sounded like a great slogan: "All media is social and all social is media". This nugget, will apparently turn up in an Edelman white paper but was trailed on Steve Rubel's blog yesterday.

Other than the fact that the phrase is nonsense - noun meet adjective, adjective meet noun - only one half of Steve Rubel's assertion is even vaguely true. "Media is social": I can buy that, although if you talk about media consumption, then it's still possible to make distinctions between what is social - things that people remark to each other on - and stuff they just consume. But so much of what makes a story, video or podcast successful lies in the social web that forms around it. Rubel argues:

"We've seen time and again that social networks like Facebook, Friendfeed and Twitter are now essential sources of news and information for millions. This is particularly true around big events and breaking news.

The upshot is that today it's impossible to draw a line between social media and traditional media - it's all one.

When we get to the other half of Rubel's assertion, it all goes pear-shaped. "Social is media"? George Orwell would have loved that one. Social what? Social interaction? It's a classic ploy from the school of rhetoric. To make sense of the phrase, you have to make an assumption, which allows the creator of the phrase to turn round and claim: "You are Teh Stupid. You have misunderstood me."

Whatever it's really meant to say, the phrase underlines the continuing assumption among marketing types that no part of life is free from the promotional campaign. Weddings are social events but nobody expects the visitors to start recommending brands of nappy. Amway, Herbalife and Tupperware - they all tried the social sell but few have been willing to emulate them. They function more as reminders of how the introduction of commerce into social circles can disrupt how people view each other.

It's interesting how social marketers rarely refer to these pre-Web 2.0 word-of-mouth marketing schemes. Facebook's Beacon didn't learn these lessons. There would always be people who would happily sign up to it because they were fans of brands, of films, of products. But the majority were always going to be uncomfortable with the idea of being used as advocates for brands.

Even within a social network such as Twitter, there are fine distinctions between what people treat as personal and what might legitimately be seen as media. But there are no codes to separate these messages, just the context in which they appear. Social-media marketers will continue to step into bear traps until they lose their obsession with media and begin to comprehend the fine separation between public faces and their closer relationships.

The iTunes 4kHz upgrade

2 February 2009

After cutting a revised deal with a further set of major record labels on top of those signed last year, Apple decided to offer DRM-free files to existing customers as iTunes Plus upgrades.

Charles Arthur posed a question: was it worth going for the upgrade or was it just as effective to just have iTunes make CDs and then re-rip the songs? My first reaction was that it would be worth finding out. Then I had a closer look at the difference in bitrates: protected files use 128kbit/s encoding; the unprotected versions 256kbit/s. Given that MP4/AAC encoding is meant to be more efficient than MP3, the new bitrate seems luxurious.

I quickly updated my thoughts with a "it's probably a no-brainer: the iTunes Plus versions are likely to be better". But, curiosity got the better of me and I picked a couple of tracks to be guinea pigs. I assumed that I would stand a better chance of hearing differences in files that haven't been compressed for maximum loudness. This is signal compression as opposed to data compression, in which a filter jumps up and down on the signal until it's ironed out most of the peaks and troughs. You can spot a heavily compressed file a mile off when looking at its waveform: it looks completely flat. And, if you take into account what happened to Metallica's last album, it sounds it too.

My two victim tracks were A Strange Day, a 1982 song by The Cure from their album Pornography, and Can's Moonshake, taken from 1973's Future Days. There is nothing particularly special about these other than I had DRMed iTunes versions of them, were now 'upgradeable' and I know how they sound pretty well. A Strange Day remains one of my favourite songs.

I had iTunes write the protected version out to CD, downloaded the Plus versions of the albums and did the same. Then, I loaded them into DSP Quattro to make sure the starts lined up and compared them in Sony's Sound Forge. I had to go over to Windows XP because it's really hard to find a Mac audio editor that does sonograms without a lot of messing around. This doesn't tell you which are better but I wanted to see if there were obvious differences before I went any further.

The sonograms show how the frequencies in a sound file change over time and, in this case, were pretty revealing. Both of the DRMed files showed that Apple basically lopped off the top end at around 16kHz. You get 4kHz more on the Plus versions. You can see that in the picture, which is one sonogram subtracted from the first in Photoshop. This is a bit of a cheat but it shows what's going on more clearly than if you use a tool like Spear to do it for real.

moonshake-sonogram-diff.jpg

Initially, my reaction was: you're bound to hear the difference between these. Apple, you've been short-changing us for years. Then I remembered I'm over 40. I kissed goodbye to 20kHz a while ago.

Even someone who is half my age is probably not going to hear the difference between these files either, as the energy in those upper frequencies is fairly low and the peaks come mainly from Jaki Liebezeit's percussion work, which will reduce your chances of hearing that upper detail at all against the main body of the sound. However, I'm not going to argue with anyone much younger than me who feels that the Plus version is a little more airy.

I went onto stage two: actually listening to the differences. I rigged up Ableton Live to crossfade between each pair of tracks, phase matched as close as possible. Interestingly, I couldn't get clean cancellations between them when I inverted the signal on one side, which either indicates that psychoacoustic data compression does nasty stuff to audio or I hadn't got the setup quite right. Even so, when crossfading there was no obvious jump or phasing.

Having seen how much of the audio band Apple had filtered off the protected versions, presumably to make them encode better at 128kbit/s, I was expecting a difference. Maybe not stunning but something. And I got...zip. I reckon there was a subtle improvement on the Plus but if it was there it was really subtle, as in barely audible. I couldn't guarantee that if I did a double-blind test - which this clearly wasn't - that I'd be able to pick one from the other more accurately than tossing a coin.

So, try it out for yourselves but I reckon the burn-and-rip strategy is going to work just as well, if a bit less conveniently, than forking over the extra cash to Apple. And, frankly, it's a bit of cheek on the side of Apple and the record companies to demand a 25 per cent surcharge on material you already own just to release the files from DRM. A service fee maybe. In fact, I reckon it's worth hanging on to the protected versions just to make Apple keep its authorisation servers up and running.