Category Archives: communications

Lust for Power

This fabulous article written by George Gilder and published in Wired magazine, deals in some depth with recent advances in processing power following Moore’s Law – you know that one about exponential advances in technology. Anyway, George writes brilliantly and yet another good piece from Wired I found when researching Disruptive Technology….

The desktop is dead. Welcome to the Internet cloud, where massive facilities across the globe will store all the data you’ll ever use. George Gilder on the dawning of the petabyte age.

power…….

THE DRIVE UP INTERSTATE 84, through the verdant amphitheatrical sweep of the Columbia River Gorge to the quaint Oregon town of The Dalles, seems a trek into an alluring American past. You pass ancient basalt bluffs riven by luminous waterfalls, glimpsed through a filigree of Douglas firs. You see signs leading to museums of native Americana full of feathery and leathery tribal relics. There are farms and fisheries, vineyards arrayed on hillsides, eagles and ospreys riding the winds. On the horizon, just a half hour’s drive away, stands the radiant, snowcapped peak of Mount Hood, site of 11 glaciers, source of half a dozen rivers, and home of four-season skiing. “I could live here,” I say to myself with a backward glance down the highway toward urban Portland, a sylvan dream of the billboarded corridor that connects Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Then, as the road comes to an end, the gray ruin of an abandoned aluminum plant rises from a barren hillside. Its gothic gantries and cavernous smelters stand empty and forlorn, a poignant warning of the evanescence of industrial power.

But industry has returned to The Dalles, albeit industry with a decidedly postindustrial flavor. For it’s here that Google has chosen to build its new 30‑acre campus, the base for a server farm of unprecedented proportion.

Although the evergreen mazes, mountain majesties, and always-on skiing surely play a role, two amenities in particular make this the perfect site for a next-gen data center. One is a fiber-optic hub linked to Harbour Pointe, Washington, the coastal landing base of PC-1, a fiber-optic artery built to handle 640 Gbps that connects Asia to the US. A glassy extension cord snakes through all the town’s major buildings, tapping into the greater Internet though NoaNet, a node of the experimental Internet2. The other attraction is The Dalles Dam and its 1.8‑gigawatt power station. The half-mile-long dam is a crucial source of cheap electrical power – once essential to aluminum smelting, now a strategic resource in the next phase in the digital revolution. Indeed, Google and other Silicon Valley titans are looking to the Columbia River to supply ceaseless cycles of electricity at about a fifth of what they would cost in the San Francisco Bay Area. Why? To feed the ravenous appetite of a new breed of computer.

Moore’s law has a corollary that bears the name of Gordon Bell, the legendary engineer behind Digital Equipment’s VAX line of advanced computers and now a principal researcher at Microsoft. According to Bell’s law, every decade a new class of computer emerges from a hundredfold drop in the price of processing power. As we approach a billionth of a cent per byte of storage, and pennies per gigabit per second of bandwidth, what kind of machine labors to be born?

How will we feed it?

How will it be tamed? Continue reading Lust for Power

Nokia CEO speaks out with uncanny lucidity

This was published yesterday from an internal memo to Nokia employees from Chief exec Stephen Elop about abrupt changes in the fast moving world of the smart phone. Brilliant stuff. Found on a blog called iClarified.

There is a pertinent story about a man who was working on an oil platform in the North Sea. He woke up one night from a loud explosion, which suddenly set his entire oil platform on fire. In mere moments, he was surrounded by flames. Through the smoke and heat, he barely made his way out of the chaos to the platform’s edge. When he looked down over the edge, all he could see were the dark, cold, foreboding Atlantic waters.

As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters in to the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a “burning platform,” and he needed to make a choice.

He decided to jump. It was unexpected. In ordinary circumstances, the man would never consider plunging into icy waters. But these were not ordinary times – his platform was on fire. The man survived the fall and the waters. After he was rescued, he noted that a “burning platform” caused a radical change in his behaviour.

We too, are standing on a “burning platform,” and we must decide how we are going to change our behaviour.

Over the past few months, I’ve shared with you what I’ve heard from our shareholders, operators, developers, suppliers and from you. Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned and what I have come to believe.

I have learned that we are standing on a burning platform.

And, we have more than one explosion – we have multiple points of scorching heat that are fuelling a blazing fire around us.

For example, there is intense heat coming from our competitors, more rapidly than we ever expected. Apple disrupted the market by redefining the smartphone and attracting developers to a closed, but very powerful ecosystem.

In 2008, Apple’s market share in the $300+ price range was 25 percent; by 2010 it escalated to 61 percent. They are enjoying a tremendous growth trajectory with a 78 percent earnings growth year over year in Q4 2010. Apple demonstrated that if designed well, consumers would buy a high-priced phone with a great experience and developers would build applications. They changed the game, and today, Apple owns the high-end range.

And then, there is Android. In about two years, Android created a platform that attracts application developers, service providers and hardware manufacturers. Android came in at the high-end, they are now winning the mid-range, and quickly they are going downstream to phones under €100. Google has become a gravitational force, drawing much of the industry’s innovation to its core.

Let’s not forget about the low-end price range. In 2008, MediaTek supplied complete reference designs for phone chipsets, which enabled manufacturers in the Shenzhen region of China to produce phones at an unbelievable pace. By some accounts, this ecosystem now produces more than one third of the phones sold globally – taking share from us in emerging markets.

While competitors poured flames on our market share, what happened at Nokia? We fell behind, we missed big trends, and we lost time. At that time, we thought we were making the right decisions; but, with the benefit of hindsight, we now find ourselves years behind.

The first iPhone shipped in 2007, and we still don’t have a product that is close to their experience. Android came on the scene just over 2 years ago, and this week they took our leadership position in smartphone volumes. Unbelievable.

We have some brilliant sources of innovation inside Nokia, but we are not bringing it to market fast enough. We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones. However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market.

At the midrange, we have Symbian. It has proven to be non-competitive in leading markets like North America. Additionally, Symbian is proving to be an increasingly difficult environment in which to develop to meet the continuously expanding consumer requirements, leading to slowness in product development and also creating a disadvantage when we seek to take advantage of new hardware platforms. As a result, if we continue like before, we will get further and further behind, while our competitors advance further and further ahead.

At the lower-end price range, Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than, as one Nokia employee said only partially in jest, “the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.” They are fast, they are cheap, and they are challenging us.

And the truly perplexing aspect is that we’re not even fighting with the right weapons. We are still too often trying to approach each price range on a device-to-device basis.

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem. This means we’re going to have to decide how we either build, catalyse or join an ecosystem.

This is one of the decisions we need to make. In the meantime, we’ve lost market share, we’ve lost mind share and we’ve lost time.

On Tuesday, Standard & Poor’s informed that they will put our A long term and A-1 short term ratings on negative credit watch. This is a similar rating action to the one that Moody’s took last week. Basically it means that during the next few weeks they will make an analysis of Nokia, and decide on a possible credit rating downgrade. Why are these credit agencies contemplating these changes? Because they are concerned about our competitiveness.

Consumer preference for Nokia declined worldwide. In the UK, our brand preference has slipped to 20 percent, which is 8 percent lower than last year. That means only 1 out of 5 people in the UK prefer Nokia to other brands. It’s also down in the other markets, which are traditionally our strongholds: Russia, Germany, Indonesia, UAE, and on and on and on.

How did we get to this point? Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved?

This is what I have been trying to understand. I believe at least some of it has been due to our attitude inside Nokia. We poured gasoline on our own burning platform. I believe we have lacked accountability and leadership to align and direct the company through these disruptive times. We had a series of misses. We haven’t been delivering innovation fast enough. We’re not collaborating internally.

Nokia, our platform is burning.

We are working on a path forward — a path to rebuild our market leadership. When we share the new strategy on February 11, it will be a huge effort to transform our company. But, I believe that together, we can face the challenges ahead of us. Together, we can choose to define our future.

The burning platform, upon which the man found himself, caused the man to shift his behaviour, and take a bold and brave step into an uncertain future. He was able to tell his story. Now, we have a great opportunity to do the same.

Stephen.

Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

I loved this story well put together by Tom Lamont in the Observer this weekend. My keep-fit-mad 17 year old son is a prime candidate for this US survivalist stuff. Hand him an AK47 and wait until you see the whites of their eyes.

Abandon any notion of surviving the apocalypse by doing anything as boringly obvious as running for the highest hill, or eating cockroaches. The American firm Vivos is now offering you the chance to meet global catastrophe (caused by terrorism, tsunami, earthquake, volcano, pole shift, Iran, “social anarchy”, solar flare – a staggering list of potential world-murderers are considered) in style.

Vivos is building 20 underground “assurance of life” resorts across the US, capable of sustaining up to 4,000 people for a year when the earth no longer can. The cost? A little over £32,000 a head, plus a demeaning-sounding screening test that determines whether you are able to offer meaningful contribution to the continuation of the human race. Company literature posits, gently, that “Vivos may prove to be the next Genesis”, and they are understandably reluctant to flub the responsibility.

Should you have the credentials and the cash, the rewards of a berth in a Vivos shelter seem high. Each staffed complex has a decontamination shower and a jogging machine; a refrigerated vault for human DNA and a conference room with wheely chairs. There are TVs and radios, flat-screen computers, a hospital ward, even a dentist’s surgery ready to serve those who forgot to pack a toothbrush in the hurry. “Virtually any meal” can be cooked from a stockpile of ingredients that includes “baked potato soup” but, strangely, no fish, tinned or otherwise. Framed pictures of mountain ranges should help ease the loss of a world left behind.

Vivos says it has already received 1,000 applications. Continue reading Survivalists ready to hole up now for £32,00 per head.

People are now dying to get on cheap flights.

Only in Liverpool. Two women try to smuggle a corpse onto their easyjet flight, The Ottawa Citizen reports. Obviously these low cost flights are now producing some stiff competition.


LONDON — Two women allegedly put their dead relative in a wheelchair, dressed him in sunglasses and claimed he was simply asleep as they tried to check in at Liverpool airport for a flight to Germany.

The women convinced a taxi driver that 91-year-old Curt Willi Jarant was well enough for the 45-minute drive to the airport.

However, when they arrived, staff at John Lennon Airport in Liverpool noticed something was wrong.

Andrew Millea, a worker who greeted the group with a wheelchair, said one of the women asked for help lifting her father from the car.

“I did my best to help by lifting the man from his seat,” he said. “To my horror his face fell sideways against mine, it was ice-cold. I knew straight away that the man was dead, but they reassured me that he ‘always sleeps like that.’

“I could see the driver of the taxi was shocked too, he was white as a sheet and looked very shaken, so I placed the body into the wheelchair and pushed the man to the back of the easyJet queue.”

Millea contacted security who tried to check the man’s pulse, but were ushered away by the women. He claimed the younger woman, who was with two children, “encouraged them to ’tell the man that’s how your grandad sleeps’”.

When officials established that the man was dead, one of the women asked if she could still board the flight.

The German women are thought to have decided to sneak Jarant — thought to have died of natural causes — on the flight rather than pay up to $7,650 in repatriation fees for the body.

Police arrested Jarant’s wife, Gitta, 66, and his stepdaughter, Anke Anusic, 44, on suspicion of failing to give notification of death.

Police sources suggested that Mr Jarant died from natural causes on Good Friday – 24 hours before his arrival at the airport. Anusic said: “They would think that for 24 hours we would carry a dead person? This is ridiculous. He was moving, he was breathing. Eight people saw him.”

The Real Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow has always been one of my favourite film makers ever since Strange Days – a film I would most highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it. I was delighted to hear she won an Oscar today, the first woman to win Best Director. My son has just got The Hurt Locker for us to watch – which is why this piece from the New York Times particularly caught my eye today. It kind of speaks for itself– written by Michael Jernigan, a man who knows.

I was eager to see “The Hurt Locker” since it is one of the first movies about my war.
I found it very interesting. I saw a lot of reality there. I have seen and dealt with, to a limited extent, the addiction to adrenaline. I do not know of anyone who loved it more than their wife and child, but I do know that it can be extremely addictive. Jumping out of an airplane affords great odds of survival. Combat or disarming a bomb does not afford such great odds. Your body will react similarly but with more intensity. When this occurs daily or more than once daily your body craves it like a drug addict craves a drug. I found the movie entertaining, but given my experience, I imagine it was scary to me on a different level than most.

War movies in general are great for what they are: entertainment. I grew up in the 1980s and saw almost all of the good war movies of that time. I was in the theater for “Full Metal Jacket” and have a copy of “Platoon” at home. I own “The Boys in Company C,” “Kelly’s Heroes,” “Sands of Iwo Jima” and a few others. Like I said, they are good entertainment. But of course there is a darker side.
These movies glorify a situation that has no real glory in it. Turn to one of your relatives or friends who has been in combat and ask them what they think of war. I am sure that they will tell you that it is scary, gruesome and requires extreme intestinal fortitude. There are no Sgt. Strykers or Gunny Highways in the real Corps. We don’t have a director who can step in when all hell is breaking loose and yell, “Cut!”
I joined the Marine Corps because I was looking for a way to get my life on track. My grandfather did 28 years in the Corps (Korea and Vietnam) and my father did eight years in the Corps (Vietnam), then 13 in the Army. When I was given the opportunity to go to war in Iraq I was as happy as you can imagine. That was what I grew up watching in the movies. I wanted to be my own “Animal Mother” (see: “Full Metal Jacket”).
When I got to Iraq I soon learned that it was not the movies. In my first few weeks we drove over an I.E.D. We caught the guys as they were driving away by riddling their car with bullets from machine guns and few M-16’s. The driver was struck twice and the passenger was not shot but I think he was having a heart attack when we got over to them.

A few days later while on a foot patrol I spotted a blue blinking light in the road and walked up to it. It was a phone taped to a canister. While running for my life the thing exploded. I was not injured but was very shaken up.
We went to Falluja in April of 2004. Our company saw two to three firefights a day. It was the first time I saw one of my friends get shot. In one month we took light casualties (thankfully, no dead Marines). We then went to Zaidon and a handful of Marines received serious wounds. Our radio man lost his foot; one of our rifleman lost his arm. A friend of mine took shrapnel to the throat and there were other serious wounds. Thankfully, no dead Marines. After that it was back to Mahmudiya: on the second day there we drove over an I.E.D. The only casualty was our Marine “Big Country” getting a concussion from the overpressure.
Later in the deployment my Humvee was hit by a large I.E.D. I had my forehead crushed in, lost both eyes, had to have my right hand fully reconstructed and took severe damage to my left knee. One buddy lost a foot; one of the others took shrapnel to the forehead but lived; one took superficial shrapnel wounds to the arm and one of my best friends died.
Would you bring your children out to the battlefield to witness it live and in person?
On a later deployment to Iraq that I did not go on, I lost three more friends to I.E.D.’s. One of them was the Navy Corpsman (Marine medic) who saved my life on the battlefield back in Mahmudiya. I have a tattoo over my left breast (where my heart is) that says “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps motto. It is Latin for “Always Faithful” and refers to always accomplishing the mission. Around the “Semper Fidelis” are four names. “Thompson,” “Belchik,” Cockerham” and “Hodshire.” All great guys that I would let date my sister.
“The Hurt Locker” and all the other movies I mentioned, whether they are good or bad as entertainment, Continue reading The Real Hurt Locker

Voyeur sex games spread on chat site.

I heard on Steve Hewlett’s Radio 4 media show that the Observer has declined in circulation again – this story is from there – and for once I have kept the original headline because it is great, real “surgeon priest in palace sex probe” material. I wonder how many people will read this without thinking about trying some of this strange…new….chatroulette….

An addictive new website that links strangers’ webcams is gaining popularity – and notoriety

A new website that has been described as “surreal”, “addictive” and “frightening” is proving a sensation around the world – and attracting a reputation as a haven for no-holds-barred, explicit material.

Chatroulette, which was launched in November, has rocketed in popularity thanks to its simple premise: internet video chats with ­random strangers.

When users visit the site and switch on their webcams, they are suddenly connected to another, randomly chosen person who is doing precisely the same thing somewhere else in the world.

Once they are logged in together, chatters can do anything they like: talk to each other, type messages, entertain each other – or just say goodbye, hit the “next” button and move on in an attempt to find somebody more interesting.

Chatroulette describes itself as a “brand new service for one-on-one text, webcam and microphone-based chat with people around the world”, but no one is sure who started the site. The owners did not respond to an attempt to contact them by email, and they have gone to great pains to protect their identities. This may be because ­Chatroulette appears to operate largely as an ­unregulated service and, as a result, has rapidly become a haven for exhibitionists and voyeurs.

A large contingent of people seem intent on using the service’s string of random connections as the basis for some sort of sex game.

Users regularly describe unwanted encounters with all sorts of unsavoury characters, and it has become the defining aspect of the site for some. Veteran blogger Jason Kottke, who has spent years documenting some of the web’s most weird and wonderful corners, tried the site and then wrote about witnessing nudity, sexual activity and strange behaviour.

“I observed several people drinking malt liquor, two girls making out, many, many guys who disconnected as soon as they saw I wasn’t female, [and] several girls who disconnected after seeing my face,” he said, adding that he also witnessed “three couples having sex and 11 erect p******s”.

Yet despite the highly offensive nature of much of the site’s content, Kottke – like thousands of others – has been hypnotised by the glimpses the site offers into other people’s lives. “Chatroulette is pretty much the best site going on the internet right now,” he wrote.

Although the site says that it “does not tolerate broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material” and offers users the option to report unsuitable content, the restrictions do not seem to prevent users from broadcasting explicit videos of themselves online.

However, like the chatroom explosion in the late 1990s or the early days of YouTube, spending time inside Chatroulette is becoming a peculiarly modern form of entertainment, particularly popular with students in campuses around the world. In just a couple of months the site has expanded significantly as it tears through universities by word of mouth, spreading virally in a similar manner to sites Continue reading Voyeur sex games spread on chat site.

Facebook flash mob goes AWOL

This story just had everything: social networking, police, anti-banks, riots, drink, drugs, parties you name it it’s all there. Quite a few papers ran it at the end of the week — — the version I’ve chosen is from the Telegraph

A Facebook-organised party at a squat in a Park Lane town house was broken up by police after hundreds of youths caused havoc in the streets around the £10 million property.
Riot police dispersed crowds in the streets and cleared the building after partygoers pelted them with bottles and bricks from the roof and balcony.

Officers had been summoned to the party, allegedly organised by two teenagers from London, at 11pm after a wave of complaints from terrified neighbours.

Two members of the public were thought to have been injured as the partygoers jumped on cars, threw fire extinguishers and plant pots from windows and drew graffiti before the chaos subsided in the early hours of yesterday morning.

The property was bought for £10m in 2007 by Continue reading Facebook flash mob goes AWOL

Google to become broadband provider. And that means broad.

Saw this in today’s Washington Post. Sign me up.

Google, the world’s biggest online search engine, wants to turbocharge your Internet connection.

The company said Wednesday it is getting into the broadband service business with trials for fiber networks that will deliver Internet access speeds that are 100 times faster than what most Americans are getting today.

The company said in a blog that it will build fiber-to-the-home connections to a small number of locations across the country that will deliver Internet access speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The company didn’t say what areas would be part of its experiment, but said prices would be competitive and that its network would reach at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people. A source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the company doesn’t currently have plans to expand beyond the initial tests but will evaluate as the tests progress.

“Our goal is to experiment with new ways to help make Internet access better and faster for everyone,” wrote product managers Minni Ingersoll and James Kelly in the blog titled, “Think big with a gig: our experimental fiber network.”

Some of the fastest connections through cable, DSL and fiber access cap off around 20 to 50 megabits a second. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told The Washington Post during a visit late last year that ultra-high-speed Internet connections were imperative for a next generation of applications to take off for the Web. Currently, he said, most network services fall short.

At such speeds, a rural health center could receive streaming three-dimensional medial imaging over the Web and discuss health issues with a physician in a Los Angeles, for example. Downloading high-definition, full-length feature films would take about five minutes, Google said.

Talking to people in a coma. I do it all the time.

We have all seen and heard this story about successful attempts at communicating with people in a Vegetative State – this is a very well informed article about the topic from the New Scientist this week written by Celeste Biever.

THE inner voice of people who appear unconscious can now be heard. For the first time, researchers have struck up a conversation with a man diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. All they had to do was monitor how his brain responded to specific questions. This means that it may now be possible to give some individuals in the same state a degree of autonomy.

“They can now have some involvement in their destiny,” says Adrian Owen of the University of Cambridge, who led the team doing the work.

In an earlier experiment, published in 2006, Owen’s team asked a woman previously diagnosed as being in a vegetative state (VS) to picture herself carrying out one of two different activities. The resulting brain activity suggested she understood the commands and was therefore conscious.

Now Owen’s team has taken the idea a step further. A man also diagnosed with VS was able to answer yes and no to specific questions by imagining himself engaging in the same activities.

The results suggest that it is possible to give a degree of choice to some people who have no other way of communicating with the outside world. “We are not just showing they are conscious, we are giving them a voice and a way to communicate,” says neurologist Steven Laureys of the University of Liège in Belgium, Owen’s collaborator.

When someone is in a VS, they can breathe unaided, have intact reflexes but seem completely unaware. But it is becoming clear that some people who appear to be vegetative are in fact minimally conscious. They are in a kind of twilight state in which they may feel some pain, experience emotion and communicate to a limited extent. These two states can be distinguished from each other via bedside behavioural tests – but these tests are not perfect and can miss patients who are aware but unable to move. So researchers Continue reading Talking to people in a coma. I do it all the time.

Furry story. True of course.

Hooray for Scunthorpe. This story in the Economist adds a certain ambiance to the town that put the umber into South Humberside…as well as casting light upon the growing publicity surrounding the workaholic beaver and its eponymous publication. No the beavers are not in Scunthorpe they are in Canada….anyway read the story

CANADIANS have long been proud of the industrious beaver, an animal capable of cutting down 216 trees a year with its teeth and of surviving the long winter in a purpose-built lodge made of mud, twigs and bark. The largest rodent in North America is a national emblem. The first Canadian postage stamp, the 1851 Three-Penny Beaver, carried its image. And one of Canada’s oldest magazines carries its name.

But soon it will not. From April The Beaver will be renamed. A journal of popular history founded in 1920 by the Hudson Bay Company to celebrate its 250th anniversary, it is now owned by others. Its evocation of the fur that had made the trading company’s fortunes no longer struck the right note—especially since the word has become slang for female pubic hair.

The editors had known for some time that a name change was needed. Market research indicated that many women and people under the age of 45 said they would not subscribe solely because of the name. But it was the internet that struck the fatal blow.

The Beaver website was attracting (albeit briefly) readers who had little interest in Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe or what prairie settlers ate for breakfast. They lasted about eight seconds before moving on. E-mails to potential subscribers were blocked by internet obscenity filters. This is known online as the Scunthorpe problem, after the town in Britain whose residents were initially unable to register with AOL because its name contained an obscenity.

The Beaver Club, a classy dining room in Montreal, and the SS Beaver, a replica of an 1835 steamship operating in British Columbia, remain unperturbed by any ambiguity. As for The Beaver, it hopes to expand its 50,000 circulation as Canada’s History. Dull, yes, but at least it will do what it says on the tin.

Stay here for a cent a night

I saw this report from Reuters in Rome today. Thanks to a mistake in the online booking system thousands of punters booked a room in this rather nice Venician hotel for one cent a night….

Hundreds of holiday makers struck lucky when they chanced upon a very special offer — a mistake in a hotel booking system which offered a romantic four-star weekend in Italy’s lagoon city of Venice for 1 cent.

The offer, a tiny fraction of the Crowne Plaza Quarto D’Altino’s normal rate of up to 150 euros ($214) a night, was quickly withdrawn when staff realized the mistake, Italian state TV reported.

In just a few hours, some 1,400 nights had been booked under the tariff, costing an estimated 90,000 euros for the hotel, part of the Intercontinental Hotels Group, the world’s largest chain, media reported.

Staff at the hotel, some 25 km (16 miles) outside Venice, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Intercontinental Hotels Group was not immediately available.

Slight mistake with the GPS….or is that GSP?

I found this story from Reuters today. Two tourists make a classic mistake with the sat nav. This is close to home for me because my wife actually picks fights with the sat nav woman (she has a nice lady’s voice, of course). “No, she’s wrong. We’ll go this way.”

ROME (Reuters) – Two Swedes expecting the golden beaches of the Italian island of Capri got a shock when tourist officials told them they were 650 km (400 miles) off course in the northern town of Carpi, after mistyping the name in their GPS.

(MY Mum says I should explain what GPS is for older readers – do I have any older readers? If so there is a short explanation at the base*).

“It’s hard to understand how they managed it. I mean, Capri is an island,” said Giovanni Medici, a spokesman for Carpi regional government, told Reuters Tuesday. “It’s the first time something like this has happened.”

The middle-aged couple, who were not identified, only discovered their error when they asked staff in the local tourist office Saturday how to drive to the island’s famous “Blue Grotto.”

“They were surprised, but not angry,” Medici said. “They got back in the car and started driving south.”

The picturesque island of Capri, famed as a romantic holiday destination, lies in the Gulf of Naples in southern Italy and has been a resort since Roman times.

Carpi is a busy industrial town in the province of Emilia Romagna, at the other end of Italy.

*The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) developed by the United States Department of Defense and managed by the United States Air Force 50th Space Wing. It is the only fully functional GNSS in the world, can be used freely by anyone, anywhere, and is often used by civilians for navigation purposes.

Gormley not gormless.

 

Love him or loathe him, Adrian Searle writes a really mean article. In the Guardian today the way in which he elevates Antony Gormley’s efforts with the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is an art in its own right. (Not to denigrate Mr Gormley of course, I think he is ace.)

In encouraging the public to act, react and interact around Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth, Gormley’s One and Other is timely – and invokes a rich tradition of living art

At a little before 9am, today a protester scaled the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against actors smoking. He was followed by the first official occupant, who stood with a giant lollipop emblazoned with the logo of the NSPCC. Strangely, all this was somehow less compelling than the man in shorts and red T-shirt who came next. He had no apparent agenda at all, except being there. Most of the time, he stood near the lip of the plinth with his hands in his pockets, like a character in search of an author. His presence was what counted. Just as some sculptures have more presence than others (a tiny bronze Giacometti can somehow fill a whole room), so it is with the living.

Not everyone here will be a living sculpture. Some who are lifted on to the plinth will be living advertisements for themselves, craving attention, fame or notoriety. I expect numerous hapless performances, a bit of nudity, protests and declarations at all hours of the day and night. There’s always the chance someone might immolate themselves, or defecate, urinate, masturbate or vomit. Are they allowed shoelaces or belts up there? Are they frisked for weapons or secret intentions? Is there a contingency for those who might wish to give birth, or any potential suicides? Taking a running jump, it would be easy to hurl oneself over the safety net to the paving slabs below. Anyone attempting to recreate the artist Yves Klein’s famous 1960 Leap into the Void, a photograph of him suspended in mid-air above the street, should be warned – his image was doctored. And what about snipers on nearby rooftops, kids with catapults, miscreants with rotten eggs, bricks, guns? A stoning is entirely possible.

Living sculpture has a long and intriguing history. On 1 January 1901 the bullfighter Don Tancredo López covered himself in whitewash and stood on a box in the middle of the bullring in Madrid; the bull circled him but did not attack. López was a statue of himself risking death. When Gilbert and George covered their hands and faces in gold paint, stood on a table and performed Flanagan and Allen’s song Underneath the Arches in a London gallery in 1969, they risked only the derision of the art crowd.

In 1974 Chris Burden spent 22 days on a platform in a New York gallery; and in 2002, the Montenegran artist Marina Abramovicć spent 12 days and nights on a platform, eating nothing and only drinking water. She slept and performed all her ablutions in full view of the public. An hour on a plinth isn’t long, but Trafalgar Square is a different, far more public context, with live action from the plinth streamed on the web 24 hours a day.

So far the most memorable work since the fourth plinth was turned over to contemporary art has been Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, a life-sized cast of a young man in a loincloth, which appeared in 1999. The white resin cast looked like marble. Standing on the edge of the plinth, facing the square, it had more presence than the people who have so far been hoisted there; asking why this might be is a question both about sculpture, and about ourselves.

Yet Gormley’s idea is a rich one. It combines a very old idea about images, and sculptures on plinths in public spaces, with the digital age and the spectacle of reality TV. We know that paying attention to an experiment often changes its outcome. Those who stand and watch have all sorts of expectations and fantasies. The square below is a space for the curious and the ghoulish, for voyeurs and louts; it, as well as the plinth, is a space of transit and for waiting, and for all sorts of performances and gestures. We are all actors here, under the watchful cameras of Sky Arts.

Gormley offers the possibility both for action and inaction. This is where the project’s magic lies – and also its danger. It is probably his best work, even if it risks bringing out the worst in people. The artist has set up the conditions, and what follows is unknown.

For the first time in forty years, road traffic falls.

My week has been disrupted by health issues – so apologies to regular readers for the non-appearance of stories in the past fourteen days. I may well post a separate story about this – as it is interesting – still under consideration.

This story in the Independent  caught my interest. Road traffic levels – ie the number of cars and lorries actually using the road has dropped for the first time in nearly forty years. Some commentators have said that this points to real problems in the road haulage business – there’s no doubt that’s true. However, one of the dads watching school sports with me the other week told me that his car (a vintage Mercedes) had been stolen from outside his house a couple of weeks ago and after much discussion they had decided not to replace it. My kids have been pressing me for a year now on the vehicle issue. I wonder how much of the current decline is due to impulses like this – as well as the obvious economic pressures?

Traffic on Britain’s roads is decreasing significantly for the first time since the three-day week of the early 1970s, suggesting the car economy is heading for a crash, official figures revealed yesterday.

In a sign that the country is already in recession, fewer car and lorry journeys on motorways, rural and urban roads were made over the last six months compared to the same period a year ago.

The Department for Transport (DfT) recorded two consecutive quarters where road traffic has decreased year on year – the first time for more than 30 years. If the trend continues to the end of the year, it will hugely undermine the “great car economy” championed by Margaret Thatcher.

At the same time, sales of new cars have fallen by 23 per cent and are at their lowest since 1996. The motor industry is suffering across the world, with Volvo, the Swedish giant, selling just 115 heavy trucks over the past few months, compared to 41,970 during the same period last year – a 99.7 per cent fall.

And the jobs of 3,700 people at two UK car plants are at risk after General Motors warned it would be bankrupt within months unless it received a bailout from the US government.

The new traffic figures emerged as the Government prepares to announce car-related tax cuts as part of Gordon Brown’s strategy to get Britain through the recession. Planned vehicle excise duty increases for older cars are expected to be scrapped, while ministers are examining plans by the German government for tax reductions on green vehicles. On Friday the Prime Minister said he would work with other EU leaders on fiscal policy to support economic growth – a signal that tax cuts to reinvigorate the economy are being considered.

As Mr Brown and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, battle it out over the economy, a poll today puts the Conservatives 13 points ahead of Labour. The ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph suggests that despite Labour’s surprise win in the Glenrothes by-election, the “Brown bounce” could be short-lived.

Besides the three-day week in 1973 and two world wars, traffic has steadily increased since the beginning of mass production of the motor car more than a century ago. But the new DfT figures show a 2.2 per cent decrease between July and September this year. This followed a 0.5 per cent decrease between April and June. The decline runs against the official predicted trend of an increase in traffic of 1-2 per cent a year.

Traffic congestion has also decreased on motorways and A-roads. The average vehicle delay on the slowest 10 per cent of journeys was 3.67 minutes, down from 3.95 minutes for the year ending September 2008.

Britain is in the early stages of a recession, with unemployment rising and industry shrinking, leading to fewer cars and HGVs on the roads. But during the recession of the 1990s, traffic remained static, suggesting there are other reasons for the decline.

It would appear thousands of motorists are giving up driving, either because of soaring fuel costs, rising parking and car taxes or because of the environmental cost.

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said: “It is too early to say there is a definite long-term trend here, but there is no doubt these are the best figures we have to go on suggesting a decline in traffic.”

Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth said: “The Government must help people to use their cars less – and tackle climate change – by giving them better public transport alternatives, and making it safer and easier to cycle and walk.”

Adrian Ramsay, deputy leader of the Green Party, said: “It’s good to see that people are making better use of other travel options as they feel the pinch of the rising cost of using the car. There will be a limit to how many people can make this choice. Too many towns and cities have such poor and expensive public transport that people are stuck using the car.”

When she was Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher hailed the car-based economy as the ultimate expression of the individual over the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, road traffic rose substantially from 215 billion vehicle kilometres in the year 1980 to 378.7 billion in 2000. Last year traffic reached 513 billion vehicle kilometres.

Car ownership has steadily increased over the past decade, with the proportion of households in Britain without access to a car falling from 30 per cent in 1997 to 25 per cent in 2007. Homes with two or more cars outnumber those with no cars, increasing from 25 per cent to 32 per cent.

Road transport produces around a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions. Nearly 60 per cent of this is from cars. This summer petrol reached 118p a litre, but many retailers have since lowered this to below £1 a litre after criticism from the Prime Minister.

Gary Mahoney, 50, from Liverpool, works for the council’s environmental protection department. He gave up his Toyota Corolla seven months ago.

“The car was something of a family heirloom and I used it for the five-mile trip to work, as well as to take my mum round for her shopping. The car died about seven months ago and I decided to scrap it. I was sentimentally attached to it but it was the right time to get rid of it. I was increasingly uncomfortable with having the car because of my job. I am aware of the damage cars can do, particularly in terms of air pollution.

“Now I cycle to work, car-share with a colleague, or I take the bus and I walk a lot more than I did before. I feel a lot fitter physically and I get to work feeling a lot more alert than I used to. I also feel better about myself and better about the environment. I would encourage people to think about doing the same as me, if their circumstances allow it. I don’t miss having a car at all.”

Ian Griggs

Tornado coming. You have seven minutes to get out.

I read this story this morning by Kari Lydersen in The Washington Post.  Apparently the current tornado warning system in the States gives ordinary people an average of  13 minutes warning. That means some people only get 7 minutes to get out. Presuming you are fit and able of course.

When a tornado is about to cut a devastating swath through an American town, those in its path get a warning lead time of 13 minutes on average to try to reach shelter.

“If you live in a trailer community, is 13 minutes enough to wake your family and get them bundled up and outside?” asks tornado researcher Joshua Wurman, head of the nonprofit Center for Severe Weather Research. And “if you are elderly or handicapped, you’re going to have a hard time getting to a shelter in 13 minutes,” he said.

And that’s the average; many times people are warned about six or seven minutes earlier. That is because although scientists know that certain kinds of “supercell” thunderclouds can spin off tornadoes, they know very little about the exact conditions that indicate a tornado will occur and whether it will be a mild twister or a violent killer.

In the mid-1990s, a two-year study called Vortex had a phalanx of scientists chasing tornadoes around the Great Plains, inspiring much public fascination, daredevil amateur tornado-chasers and the 1996 movie “Twister.”

Vortex (which stands for Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment) resulted in significant advances, including the revelation that tornadoes can occur on smaller time and space scales than previously thought and that sometimes they do not show up on radar. Knowledge gained from the study led to an increase in average warning times, but it did not unlock the secrets of exactly when and why tornadoes form.

As a result, predictions about tornado occurrence are successful only about a quarter of the time.

“Sometimes people will choose not to take shelter even if they’re told to,” said Yvette P. Richardson, a meteorology professor at Pennsylvania State University. “In general, the more we can reduce the false-alarm rate, the more seriously the public will take warnings.”

Now comes Vortex2, a five-week tornado-chasing project beginning next month that scientists hope will finally provide the knowledge to accurately predict when and where a tornado will develop.

“Ultimately we’d like to get to the point where we can put sufficient data into our models so we know when a tornado will happen,” said Stephan P. Nelson, a program director in the atmospheric sciences division of the National Science Foundation, which, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provided the $12 million funding for Vortex2. “Then you can get first responders to be better prepared — police, fire, medical personnel, even power companies. Now, that’s not even remotely possible.”

As part of Vortex2, about 80 veteran scientists and graduate students will chase storms across a wide swath from South Dakota to Texas and from eastern Colorado to Iowa and Minnesota, with their nerve center in Norman, Okla.

They will be armed with a host of tools, including lasers that measure raindrops, Doppler radar mounted on trucks, high-tech balloons, unmanned aircraft and instruments on tripods anchored in the tornadoes’ path.

“We’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it,” said Wurman, who has chased 141 tornadoes over 14 years. “We’ll have a whole potpourri of instruments surrounding the storm, all measuring different things in different ways.”

The technology available this time is far superior. The inaugural Vortex used Doppler radar on planes, which would pass over a tornado at about five-minute intervals. Now radar mounted on trucks, which can get within two miles of a tornado, will provide uninterrupted data.

“We will be able to distinguish between rain, hail, dust, debris, flying cows,” said Howard Bluestein, a meteorology professor at the University of Oklahoma and member of the Vortex2 steering committee.

Two ingredients are necessary to form the supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes: a source of buoyant energy, namely warm and moist air near the ground, and a rotational force generated by winds at the surface blowing at a different speed or direction than winds high in the atmosphere.

A typical thundercloud develops as warm air rises into colder air masses above, then usually dissipates quickly once rain falls. Supercell thunderstorms, by contrast, can last for hours and can move rapidly, tracking over 100 miles. Supercell thunderstorms may also create “mesocyclones,” swirling winds embedded within the larger thunderhead that can be as much as six miles in diameter.

About five to 10 percent of these storms actually spin off tornadoes, which are typically about 500 feet in diameter. Scientists know what forms a mesocyclone, but they are largely lost when it comes to understanding which ones will spawn tornadoes and how violent they will be.

“A number of things have to happen sequentially and at the same time and in the right order,” said John Monteverdi, a meteorologist at San Francisco State University who has been chasing tornadoes for 24 years. “You have to start knocking the dominos down to find out what happens in that last stage. I think we’re getting close, and this project should help.”

Risky though it appears, members of the project note that their crews have never logged a death or severe injury. But they say amateur tornado-chasers who follow scientists around with video cameras are endangering themselves and others. Not only do these adrenalin junkies put themselves in harm’s way, the scientists say, they often speed and park their cars in the middle of the road, endangering other motorists and distracting highway patrol officers.

Scientists warn that it is only a matter of time before a major tornado sweeps through a densely populated urban area and causes horrific damage and loss of life.

Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, in particular, are in regions prone to violent tornadoes. Wurman said in a 2007 study that a tornado cutting through Chicago could kill 13,000 to 45,000 people and cause tens of billions of dollars in damage.

“Tornadoes have a great beauty to them sometimes,” Wurman said. “There’s a great elegance to the vortex itself. But when you see it going toward a town or city, there’s a quick change in your impression, and it’s like a tiger: Something beautiful becomes deadly.”

Antisocial media. Would you like some snot with that fast food?

Two employees of Domino’s video themselves horribly messing up food they are about to deliver to people and post it on YouTube. The result isn’t very funny – and it’s not even interesting viewing. However, it does totally wreck Domino’s carefully nurtured brand image, according to this story published in the New York Times. The thing about “social media” like YouTube is that it gives everyone a voice and the chance to publish their views to millions of people. I think anyone who works on the internet knows the downside of this. How many times have we had to consider how to deal with people who think it’s funny to be totally obscene to other undeserving people for no good purpose. Call me conservative. I don’t think I am. I’m certainly no fan of fast food. I’m certainly no defender of “big name brands” at all costs. I’m not sure where this leaves me with my view of social media – other than that perhaps we should rename it antisocial media. Or perhaps – media that reflects society like it really is, and it’s too much to bear.

When two Domino’s Pizza employees filmed a prank in the restaurant’s kitchen, they decided to post it online. In a few days, thanks to the power of social media, they ended up with felony charges, more than a million disgusted viewers, and a major company facing a public relations crisis.

In videos posted on YouTube and elsewhere this week, a Domino’s employee in Conover, N.C., prepared sandwiches for delivery while putting cheese up his nose, nasal mucus on the sandwiches, and violating other health-code standards while a fellow employee provided narration.

The two were charged with delivering prohibited foods.

By Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. References to it were in five of the 12 results on the first page of Google search for “Dominos,” and discussions about Domino’s had spread throughout Twitter.

As Domino’s is realizing, social media has the reach and speed to turn tiny incidents into marketing crises. In November, Motrin posted an ad suggesting that carrying babies in slings was a painful new fad. Unhappy mothers posted Twitter complaints about it, and bloggers followed; within days, Motrin had removed the ad and apologized.

On Monday, Amazon.com apologized for a “ham-fisted” error after Twitter members complained that the sales rankings for gay and lesbian books seemed to have disappeared — and, since Amazon took more than a day to respond, the social-media world criticized it for being uncommunicative.

According to Domino’s, the employees told executives that they had never actually delivered the tainted food. Still, Domino’s fired the two employees on Tuesday, and they were in the custody of the Conover police department on Wednesday evening, facing felony charges.

But the crisis was not over for Domino’s.

“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” said a Domino’s spokesman, Tim McIntyre, who added that the company was preparing a civil lawsuit. “Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years, people are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s, and that’s not fair.”

In just a few days, Domino’s reputation was damaged. The perception of its quality among consumers went from positive to negative since Monday, according to the research firm YouGov, which holds online surveys of about 1,000 consumers every day regarding hundreds of brands.

“It’s graphic enough in the video, and it’s created enough of a stir, that it gives people a little bit of pause,” said Ted Marzilli, global managing director for YouGov’s BrandIndex.

The Domino’s experience “is a nightmare,” said Paul Gallagher, managing director and a head of the United States crisis practice at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. “It’s the toughest situation for a company to face in terms of a digital crisis.”

Mr. McIntyre was alerted to the videos on Monday evening by a blogger who had seen them. In the most popular video, a woman who identifies herself as Kristy films a co-worker, Michael, preparing the unsanitary sandwiches.

“In about five minutes it’ll be sent out on delivery where somebody will be eating these, yes, eating them, and little did they know that cheese was in his nose and that there was some lethal gas that ended up on their salami,” Kristy said. “Now that’s how we roll at Domino’s.”

On Monday, commenters at the site Consumerist.com used clues in the video to find the franchise location in Conover, and told Mr. McIntyre about the videos. On Tuesday, the Domino’s franchise owner fired the employees, identified by Domino’s as Kristy Hammonds, 31 and Michael Setzer, 32. The franchisee brought in the local health department, which advised him to discard all open containers of food, which cost hundreds of dollars, Mr. McIntyre said.

Ms. Hammonds apologized to the company in an e-mail message Tuesday morning. “It was fake and I wish that everyone knew that!!!!” she wrote. “I AM SOO SORRY!”

By Wednesday evening, the video had been removed from YouTube because of a copyright claim from Ms. Hammonds. Neither Ms. Hammonds nor Mr. Setzer were available for comment on Wednesday evening, said Conover’s chief of police, Gary W. Lafone.

As the company learned about the video on Tuesday, Mr. McIntyre said, executives decided not to respond aggressively, hoping the controversy would quiet down. “What we missed was the perpetual mushroom effect of viral sensations,” he said.

In social media, “if you think it’s not going to spread, that’s when it gets bigger,” said Scott Hoffman, the chief marketing officer of the social-media marketing firm Lotame. “We realized that when many of the comments and questions in Twitter were, ‘What is Domino’s doing about it’ ” Mr. McIntyre said. “Well, we were doing and saying things, but they weren’t being covered in Twitter.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Domino’s had created a Twitter account, @dpzinfo, to address the comments, and it had presented its chief executive in a video on YouTube by evening.

“It elevated to a point where just responding isn’t good enough,” Mr. McIntyre said.

Blitz mentality sadly lacking according to the States

 This story appeared on the website boing boing this week.I was quite taken aback by the tone of it at first and then found it interesting – because naturally there’s quite a strong liberal American consumerist feel to the site….but surely they don’t feel an affinity with bomb-makers?

The London police have bested their own impressive record for insane and stupid anti-terrorism posters with a new range of signs advising Londoners to go through each others’ trash-bins looking for “suspicious” chemical bottles, and to report on one another for “studying CCTV cameras.”

It’s hard to imagine a worse, more socially corrosive campaign. Telling people to rummage in one another’s trash and report on anything they don’t understand is a recipe for flooding the police with bad reports from ignorant people who end up bringing down anti-terror cops on their neighbors who keep tropical fish, paint in oils, are amateur chemists, or who just do something outside of the narrow experience of the least adventurous person on their street. Essentially, this redefines “suspicious” as anything outside of the direct experience of the most frightened, ignorant and foolish people in any neighborhood.

Even worse, though, is the idea that you should report your neighbors to the police for looking at the creepy surveillance technology around them. This is the first step in making it illegal to debate whether the surveillance state is a good or bad thing. It’s the extension of the ridiculous airport rule that prohibits discussing the security measures (“Exactly how does 101 ml of liquid endanger a plane?”), conflating it with “making jokes about bombs.”

The British authorities are bent on driving fear into the hearts of Britons: fear of terrorists, immigrants, pedophiles, children, knives… And once people are afraid enough, they’ll write government a blank check to expand its authority without sense or limit.

What an embarrassment from the country whose level-headed response to the Blitz was “Keep Calm and Carry On” — how has that sensible motto been replaced with “When in trouble or in doubt/Run in circles scream and shout”?

Is Match of the Day a Dead Duck?

It’s unusual to find someone writing intelligently about football. I watch Match of the Day most Saturday nights because I love football and  frankly I can’t afford to pay £75 (and the rest) every Saturday to watch a premiership game. This writer, Amol Rajan,  is The Independent’s Sports News Correspondent, and tries to put his finger on just what’s wrong with the programme. He’s nearly there I think. I like the highlights, but hate the pundits.

The very first Match of the Day highlights package was broadcast on 22 August 1964 and it featured only one match – Liverpool v Arsenal at Anfield.

Saturday’s Match of the Day programme covered seven matches but only one headline-stealer. Just like that summer night 45 years ago, it was the Liverpool fans greedily glued to their TV screens to watch their side win a five-goal thriller.

Were the BBC’s standards of editorial excellence higher then or has “MOTD” always disappointed (which may explain its substitution by basketball highlights in the mid-eighties)?

Like hundreds of millions across the globe, I watched the game live on TV and, like most of the Premier League’s global audience; I witnessed Liverpool start the match with the sort of vibrancy they normally reserve for Real Madrid at home.

Nine hours later, I joined 3.5 million people to watch the BBC regurgitate this season’s finest football lesson; but rather than approach the task with the care and relish of an Emperor Penguin feeding her chick, the BBC approached it with all the regurgitating relish of a recent diner to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant – say Jim Rosenthal for context and relevance.

At lunchtime Liverpool dominate possession for the first 20 minutes, as Rafa Benitez set about his game plan of starving Manchester United of the ball, disabling the effectiveness of Ferguson’s introduction of Anderson and Carlos Tevez’s energy to the side. Then, when the opportunity arose, Liverpool – through Skrtel, Hypia, Lucas and Reina – four times caught United’s defenders dreaming of quintuples with what can only be described as a series of devastating Garryowens.

On Match of the Day, those first twenty minutes ceased to exist.

According to the programme editors they had no relevance to the narrative that Benitez had crafted with all the intricacies of a footballing Tom Stoppard. But the culling of the first quarter of the game made the watching experience akin to turning up twenty minutes late to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and hoping to understand what the hell is going on.

Match of the Day is failing in its public service remit. I was lucky enough to see the game live and be shocked by its misrepresentation, for many others that was their one chance to view the footage and the BBC failed to tell the whole story. This isn’t the first time and it is far from being MOTD’s only failing but it is glaring and relevant.

But do you agree and how would you change the programme to make it not only more representative of what happens on the pitch but also more representative of what happens throughout the league in general?

YouTube prevented from broadcasting key music videos

I heard comments about YouTube yesterday on BBC radio 4 which surprised me. YouTube has overtaken Yahoo and MSN as the search engine of choice. Mainly because people are looking not just for music videos, but for things like DIY videos, and recipes, which makes sense – especially when you consider that the “how to” market has grown incredibly rapidly on the internet. However, this Performing Rights development looks quite serious with regard to music’s future on YouTube….as reported in the Guardian today

YouTube in the UK is to be stripped of its most popular music videos after the site failed to agree a new licensing deal with the Performing Rights Society for Music, the trade body that collects music royalties.YouTube said today that after the expiry of its former deal, PRS had proposed new payment terms that would be financially prohibitive for the site and would require YouTube to pay out more than it makes from the ads next to each video. It also said that PRS would not agree to identify which artists and songs are covered by which licence, something essential for YouTube’s content ID system to identify and reimburse rights holders for each song that is viewed.”We value the creativity of musicians and song writers and have worked hard with rights-holders to generate significant online revenue for them and to respect copyright,” said parent company Google in a statement.

“But PRS is now asking us to pay many, many times more for our licence than before. The costs are simply prohibitive for us – under PRS’s proposed terms we would lose significant amounts of money with every playback.”

Google said it is still negotiating with PRS but in the meantime, premium videos from artists on EMI, Universal, Warner and Sony BMG and some indie labels have started to disappear for UK viewers and will be systematically removed over the next few days. YouTube’s has separate deals with the major labels who control the sound recording rights but PRS controls licencing for the music and lyrics, without which live or pre-recorded songs cannot be performed.

Patrick Walker, YouTube’s director of video partnerships, said he couldn’t give a figure for the proportion of site traffic generated by music videos, but that music videos are some of the most popular content on the site and generate a lot of activity including remixes and on music blogs.

“This is about long-term viability,” he said. “If the next Arctic Monkeys is going to surface we need to get this to work. It’s in the interest of the music industry – we’re not just doing this for us. The record industry needs a new business models so it’s kind of a shame that this has happened. But sometimes you have to step back to step forwards.”

PRS said today that Google’s announcement was made without any consultation and in the middle of negotiations, and that it is “outraged on behalf of consumers and songwriters that Google has chosen to close down access to music videos on YouTube in the UK”.

But it also appeared to contradict Google’s claim that PRS had asked much more money for the new licence, saying the tech giant wants “to pay significantly less than at present to the writers of the music on which their service relies”.

“We were shocked and disappointed to receive a call late this afternoon informing us of Google’s drastic action,” said PRS chief executive Steve Porter. “… which we believe only punishes British consumers and the songwriters whose interests we protect and represent.”

Clearly pre-empting the fury of YouTube users, PRS emphasised that it did not ask YouTube to remove the videos and “urges them to reconsider their decision as a matter of urgency”.

But even if PRS is completely squeaky clean in this episode, it comes soon after the closing days of the Pirate Bay trial and for web-savvy consumers it will confirm the gulf between the traditional music industry and the technology they love.

It also follows some bad press for PRS over licence chasing; PRS has allegedly been pestering small businesses demanding licences if, for example, they have more than two staff and listen to the radio.

Britain’s most popular Twitterer

We were talking about Twittering at the weekend….. re who did and didn’t do it – it’s a no from me -and found this story in the Telegraph today by Claudine Beaumont and Ian Douglas about Britain’s most popular exponent

Only one other person, President Barack Obama, has a greater number of followers at 225,520. CNN, the american news network, has 124,286.

Fry’s 100,000th follower, Hayley Elliott, has 33 followers herself and follows no one but Fry. He welcomed her to the micro-blogging site with a reply: ‘Hi there Hayley! You are my 100,000th follower! And I’m proud to be your first. Welcome to Twitter xxx’, shortly after exclaiming ‘Holy ARSE. Thank you all xxxxx’. Ms Elliott has yet to post.

At 3.30pm Fry had 100,536 followers.

Fry uses the service to keep fans and followers updated about his travels and latest television projects, as well as his thoughts and views on world events, and the more mundane aspects of daily life.

There was a surge in Twitter traffic after Stephen Fry discussed the service with fellow user Jonathan Ross on the BBC presenter’s chat show last week. Fry issued a set of tips and hints for new users in a bid to manage the huge number of extra followers he was attracting on a daily basis.

He said that he was “touched and pleased” to have such a loyal Twitter following, but was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with all the messages sent by his followers.

There are a number of other high-profile British Twitter users in the top 40 list. Jonathan Ross is number 26 on the list, with 43,289 followers, just ahead of John Cleese, who has 43,046 Twitter fans. Russell Brand set the record for fastest-growing account with 8,000 new followers in one day, but has not posted since.

Gordon Brown’s Downing Street Twitter account, meanwhile, is the 59th most popular, with 26,579 followers.

Good background info about recent growth in the art of Twittering from the Independent last week:

It was established as a communication tool for geeks and now counts showbusiness stars and the American President among its users.

The popularity of Twitter, the micro-blogging service used by President Obama to remind Americans to vote and tennis player Andy Murray to update fans on the weather, has risen so much that it has seen its visitor numbers increase by nearly 1,000 per cent among UK users.

Latest figures from Hitwise, the online intelligence service, show a 974 per cent increase in traffic, jolting Twitter from the 2,953rd most popular site among UK users to the 291st most visited by mid-January.

Widely feted as the follow up to the networking site Facebook in the evolution of web communication, the service allows users to post short updates about what they are doing. Established as the preferred communication tool for members of the tech community, the service has now entered the mainstream as a form of instant news alert and marketing technique.

The recent explosion in user numbers is largely a product of enthusiasm for a new form of citizen journalism. President Obama has a Twitter profile, although it has been quiet of late, while news of the recent plane crash in New York’s Hudson River first emerged from survivors’ Twitter updates.

Jonathan Ross, the disgraced BBC presenter, has been using the service to chat with fans during his enforced absence from the BBC. He has said he will Twitter live with Stephen Fry, another celebrated Twitterer, on his BBC television programme tonight.

“Twitter was one of the fastest-growing websites in the UK last year, and shows no signs of slowing down,” said Robin Goad, director of research for Hitwise. “If anything, the service is even more popular than our numbers imply, as we are only measuring traffic to the main Twitter website.

“If the people accessing their Twitter accounts via mobile phones and third party applications [such as Twitteriffic, Twitterfeed, and Tweetdeck were included, the numbers could be even higher. Many people seem to find Twitter addictive: the average amount of time that people spend on Twitter.com has more than trebled from less than 10 minutes a year ago to half an hour now.”

Twitter does not provide official figures for its usage, but industry analysts believe that more than 2.25 million “tweets” are posted every day, on top of more than 1.1 billion such messages since the service was launched in early 2007.

And the site is about to open a radical new arm of its operation by integrating search functions into the home pages of users. Until now, users who wanted to search for “tweets” had to go to a separate website, search.twitter.com.

That obstacle is thought to have put off many members of the public. But over the next 10 days, Twitter will start putting search functions into the home page of around 1 per cent of users, asking them for feedback about its efficacy. Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, deflected criticism of his creation as simply a platform for narcissists. “Search integration is a way of introducing relevancy to people”, he said. “This is not just about, ‘What are you doing?’ but about what everyone else is doing. Twitter is about finding out what is going on out there right now in real time.”

The fastest growing group of users in the UK is in the 35- to 44 year-old bracket and accounts for 17.3 per cent of UK visitors. Growth in the UK is likely to be accelerated by the reintroduction of free two-way text messaging of “tweets” to countries outside the US.

The service was withdrawn in Europe last year because it was too expensive for the company. For all Twitter’s success, it remains a small player in online networking. Facebook is the most-visited networking site in the UK, with almost 38 per cent share of the market, followed by YouTube, Bebo, and MySpace, with 17 per cent, 9.1 per cent, and 5 per cent respectively.

A poem more than three kilometres across in the Chilean desert

I heard a rumour about this poem which had been written by a Chilean poet using huge bulldozers in the Atacama desert. The poem says “ni pena ni miedo”. Always hard to translate poetry – but a good approximation is “Neither shame  nor fear.” The poet Raúl Zurita had been persecuted in Pinochet’s rule through the 70’s and 80’s. I found the story by yipero on geo2web.com, as below.

This is a big one! A poet wrote a 3 kilometer-wide message – visible from space – in the desert of northwest Chile. The message says “ni pena ni miedo” which translates in English to “neither shame nor fear“. The poet’s name is Raúl Zurita, and he used a bull dozer to write the message in the desert sand. According to an interview at Jacket Magazine (about half-way down the article), the poet “…doesn’t like abstract poetry. He says that in those days of brutality and distrust and terror, the reign of Pinochet, he began to imagine writing poems in the sky, on the faces of cliffs, in the desert. His words…are gradually fading away, joining thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in fear and pain during the Pinochet years.” Fortunately, his words are now immortalized in satellite photos and Google Earth! Check out the entire message in Google Earth. It’s huge, and it’s really there – not a photoshop.

Paper thin bendy screens are here already.

I found this article in the Economist.  Apparently we will all be rolling our screens into a tube and slipping them into our pockets before departure.

OVER the years, the screens on laptops, televisions, mobile phones and so on have got sharper, wider and thinner. They are about to get thinner still, but with a new twist. By using flexible components, these screens will also become bendy. Some could even be rolled up and slipped into your pocket like a piece of electronic paper. These thin sheets of plastic will be able to display words and images; a book, perhaps, or a newspaper or a magazine. And now it looks as if they might be mass produced in much the same way as the printed paper they are emulating.

The crucial technological development happened recently at the Flexible Display Centre at Arizona State University. Using a novel lithographic process invented by HP Labs, the research arm of Hewlett-Packard, and an electronic ink produced by E Ink, a company spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the centre’s researchers succeeded in printing flexible displays onto long rolls of a special plastic film made by DuPont. To make individual screens, the printed film is sliced up into sections rather as folios for magazines or newspapers would be cut from a printed web of paper.

The resulting “electrophoretic” screens are lightweight and consume only a fraction of the power of a typical liquid-crystal display (LCD). Their first use is likely to be by the American army, which helped pay for the project. It hopes its soldiers will be able to use the screens as electronic maps and to receive information. The idea is that the flexible screens will replace some of the bulky devices that soldiers now have to lug around. If that works, the retail market beckons. The first trials of consumer versions could begin within a few years.

Flickering beginnings

Although printing flexible screens in this way will help to make them affordable, they still have a long way to go to catch LCDs. For that, two things need to happen. One is that the displays must turn from black-and-white to colour. The other is that they must be able to refresh their images at a rate fast enough to show moving pictures. Researchers at the Flexible Display Centre and elsewhere are working on ways to do that, and there seems little doubt it will happen. Yet even with their present limitations, flexible screens have some important advantages over LCDs.

For a start, LCDs are difficult and costly to make. Most are produced in huge, ultra-clean factories using batch processes similar to those for making silicon chips. Layers of material which work as filters, electrodes, transistors and the liquid crystal itself are deposited onto a thin glass plate to form a sandwich that is covered with another pane of glass. At each stage the layers are etched to make electrical connections. This is a fractious, finicky process and tiny defects in the materials, or failures in the alignment of the different layers, can result in 20% or more of a batch being scrapped. Moreover, the glass means LCDs are heavy and easily broken, as anyone who has dropped a laptop knows to his cost.

Another drawback is that LCDs consume a lot of power because they are lit from behind. An LCD works because, when an electrical field is applied to the transparent liquid crystals that form each picture element, or “pixel”, within the screen, the crystals become opaque. Red, green and blue filters then allow different colours to show within each pixel, but light has to be shone through them for this to happen. That, plus the fact that the liquid crystals will revert to transparency if the power goes off, mean an LCD eats batteries. It also means that the image can be hard to see in bright sunlight.

Electrophoretic displays work in a different way, using a form of electronic ink that has been under development since the 1970s. E Ink’s version employs tiny capsules filled with a clear fluid containing positively charged white particles and negatively charged black ones. The capsules are arranged as pixels and electric charges applied to each pixel pull either the black or the white particles towards the top of the capsule (and the opposite colour to the bottom). Unlike an LCD’s, this image does not require backlighting. Instead, the user relies on reflected light, as he would if he were reading a sheet of printed paper. Moreover, once the particles in the capsules have settled down they stay put. That means the image remains on the screen without drawing power. A further dose of electricity is required only when the image changes; when a user “turns” to the next page, for example. Not only does this mean that electrophoretic displays are cheaper to run, the lack of constant refreshment makes them more comfortable to read—as comfortable, it is claimed, as printed paper.

Kindling the fire

In fact, electrophoretic displays are already available, but they are built on glass in a similar way to an LCD. One such device is the Kindle, launched by Amazon, an American online retailer, in November 2007. Thanks in part to a ringing endorsement by Oprah Winfrey on her television show, it is now a big hit and prospective purchasers face long delays getting their hands on one. The Kindle, which costs $359, is about the size of a slim paperback (see picture below). It can download books and other publications directly using a built-in wireless connection, and offers electronic editions of some newspapers.

It is not alone, though. Its rivals include Sony’s Reader, and a device with a larger screen launched late last year by iRex, a Dutch company. And, later this year, an electrophoretic reader that is built the LCD way, but on plastic, rather than on glass, will also be launched to take them on.

Plastic Logic, the firm that makes this reader, was founded by researchers at the University of Cambridge, has its headquarters in Silicon Valley and does its manufacturing in Germany. The firm uses an adapted version of LCD manufacturing which employs electronic ink and plastic substrates to make its screens. Plastic Logic’s prototype reader, which has a screen about the size of a magazine, is a mere 7mm thick and weighs less than 450 grams. It should run for a week in normal use before its battery needs recharging.
All the news that’s fit not to print
Plastic Logic says its reader will be aimed at businessmen who might want to store, on a single machine capable of being slipped into their briefcase, all the paper documents and spreadsheets that at present they normally print out. Books and periodicals can be read too. And for those who think they would miss the ability to scribble comments and underline things that paper provides, the reader’s screen will be touch-sensitive, allowing such annotations to be made.

Even Plastic Logic’s approach, though, is likely to be transitional. If Hewlett-Packard’s “self-aligned imprint lithography”, as it describes its new technology, can be commercialised, it will take the manufacture of screens through what has proved a crucial transition in every industry in which it has happened—from batch processing to continuous manufacture.

The breakthrough here was to work out a way to simplify the process by which the electronic circuit that controls the pixels is carved out of layers of conducting, semiconducting and insulating materials. In standard silicon-based electronics, this involves the repeated application of resistive materials to protect those parts of the layer being etched that need to be preserved. Hewlett-Packard’s scientists, however, have worked out how to print a layer of resistive material of variable height on top of all the other layers. After each stage of the etching process a fixed depth of this is dissolved away, exposing a different part of the circuit to the etching chemicals.

The result is a continuous process, much like a printing press. This promises to become a cost-effective mass-production method which Hewlett-Packard will license to other producers, says Prith Banerjee, the company’s research director. Once that happens, he hopes, flexible screens could be used in all sorts of devices.

Colour section

The one feature these screens do not yet offer is colour and, though colour versions will surely come to market, no one is yet sure which version will succeed. Electrophoretic displays can use coloured particles and filters to produce red, green and blue subpixels, but as each colour occupies only one third of a pixel’s area, the brightness of the image is correspondingly reduced. Liquavista, a spin-off from Philips, a big Dutch electronics company, is trying something called “electrowetting”. This uses an electrical field to modify the surface tension of coloured oils and water within pixels that are mounted on a flexible Teflon base. As each pixel is activated, the wetting properties of the oil and water change, making colours visible.

Another approach is to use materials that emit light. Some firms, such as Sony, are looking at organic light-emitting diodes composed of thin films of organic molecules which generate light in response to an electric current. This approach is reckoned to have potential for use in ultra-thin, wall-mounted television sets.

Photonic crystals are a further alternative. These are tiny particles that have a crystal structure which influences the flow of photons, the particles of light. By changing the structure of such a crystal slightly, using an electric charge, the colour of the light reflected by that crystal will change too. Tune the crystals appropriately and you can create different colours.

There are also hybrid methods, like that used by Adrian Geisow at HP Labs’ campus in Bristol, England. He has taken a conventional approach to generating colour, using liquid crystals and red, green and blue filters. However, he has done so in a plastic film produced in a printing-type process. The screen can be backlit, like a standard LCD, but it is capable of retaining its image because the material the liquid crystals sit on encourages the pixels to stay transparent or opaque once they have been switched. However it is eventually done, Dr Geisow is convinced that putting colour into flexible screens is what will turn them into a very big picture indeed.

Introducing the virtual personal trainer

This article ran in the G2 section of the Guardian yesterday – nicely put put together by writer Alok Jha, who had to  wear a wrist band that records walking and exercising movements in order to link up with a computer based personal training system.

Like so many who have gone before me in the fight against flab, I am engaged in an unending war with my body. I don’t mind exercise – I jog, cross-train and swim – but I do love food. Children learn early that when your stomach is full it is a good idea to stop. It is a skill I have yet to develop.

These two sides – the exercise and the eating – are finely balanced. For months at a time, exercise will prevail, but it takes only one missed gym session for the discipline to fall apart.

Enter MiLife, a web-based system that claims to be the world’s first “personalised online coaching system”. As I am never going to get an actual personal trainer (why pay for someone in a tracksuit to shout at you?), I thought a virtual one could keep an eye on my progress and shame me into action.

The system comes with a wristband that records all the movements you make in a day and, when connected to a computer via bluetooth, uploads this data to a personal profile on the MiLife website. Every week, you track your performance with a plethora of bar charts and line graphs and the MiLife software advises you on how to get the best out of your exercise.

To start, you tell MiLife what your goals are. Perhaps you want to raise your activity levels or lose some weight? The website’s virtual trainer will come back with a personalised plan, broken down into daily targets. As you progress, the software automatically adapts the plan during a weekly coaching session to take into account the exercises you seem to be good at and those you’re not.

I chose to give myself both exercise and weight targets, but rapidly regretted the latter. Weight control involves recording a daily food diary, an activity as tedious and irritating as filing tax returns. Every day. I tried, I really did. MiLife even allows you to use your mobile phone to text in how many calories you eat but, seriously, how do you know exactly how many are in a salmon mousse? I gave up after just a few weeks of semi-completed diaries and, during my weekly online coaching sessions, the software duly reminded me of my laziness.

I was more successful with the wristband, which I wore obsessively. MiLife breaks down activity into low, medium and high. Shuffling around my flat was low activity, a brisk walk counted as medium-to-high and a jog or even the odd dash for a bus would rack up minutes in the high-activity section. Like anyone given a target, I did everything I could to get the daily totals up: I walked into work more often, went walkabout at lunchtimes, and avoided buses for all short journeys.

All the information about my activity was recorded with no need for my intervention, and it was useful: days when I took the bus home, for example, instead of walking, appeared as conspicuous gaps among the skyscrapers of activity in the days where I had been more diligent. I could monitor my minutes of high activity from jogging or cross-training to ensure that I kept up the levels suggested by the software. All of this was motivational, too – I was surprised how far I would go to get a perfect set of bar charts.

If you choose, MiLife will email or text to get you exercising, and chide you if you miss too many sessions. The virtual trainer is powered by something called the “Idapt engine”, a computer model that MiLife says is the result of five years of research collating data from hundreds of people to tease out successful strategies to, for example, lose weight or keep motivated to exercise. During the first few weeks of use, this builds up a profile of the kinds of exercise that seem to work for you. By matching this to the profiles it stores, it can suggest exercises or ways to break consistent bad habits. I was advised, for example, to try an exercise bike and do more gentle jogging, but the longer you use the programme the better the suggestions should be.

In a randomised controlled trial of 77 people over nine weeks, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2007, those using the MiLife system ended up doing, on average, two hours more physical activity a week than the control group. This is a good result, but bear in mind that these were probably active volunteers, so likely to be motivated to exercise.

There are niggling problems with the system: the website is slow, badly designed and frustrating to use. As a Mac user, I found the software a small nightmare to set up and the system lost two weeks of my weight and activity data. That meant my programme was all but shot to pieces because the software assumed I had been lying down for a fortnight.

I didn’t manage to make MiLife record my activities for long enough to complete a 12-week programme but, on the evidence I do have, my feelings are mixed. Just knowing that all your movements are being recorded is surprisingly rewarding and motivational. Small bits of low-level exercise can add up, and visualising all the jogging and cycling with the bar charts every day was (when I was wearing my geek hat) addictive.

The weight-loss part of the MiLife programme was defeated by my lack of willpower. But the exercise plan definitely recorded an increase in my activity in the weeks that I used the system. Whether that was entirely due to MiLife, I’m not so sure – most of the increase came in the low-level exercise – the jogging or other aerobic exercise I would have done anyway.

So a partial success for me, but is it worth the £99 it costs for the basic equipment and a year’s subscription to the website? It might not be as expensive as a personal trainer, but if MiLife is hoping people will put their hands in their tracksuit pockets, the technology needs to be more impressive.

• For more information, see milife.com

• This article was amended on Wednesday 14 January 2009. Milife, a computer based personal training system, costs £99 for a year’s website subscription and all the basic equipment, not £200, as we said above. This has been corrected.

Use the force, Luke. On sale now.

The New York Times ran this today as part of their coverage of the huge technology trade show C.E.S. The giant toy firm Mattel have launched a mind control toy – no really. We have one of these gadgets already in our house of course. I think I’ll have a go…

Each year at the Consumer Electronics Show there is at least one bizarre novelty product that captures folks’ attention. This year, the honor belongs to a game coming from Mattel that challenges players to control a ping-pong ball with their minds.

Mindflex, as it is called, is drawing large, amused crowds and lots of interested press coverage. Players strap on headsets that are designed to read theta brainwaves, typically associated with alertness and concentration. By focusing or relaxing, a player can control the speed of a fan that elevates a lightweight purple ball, and then must try to turn a knob by hand to guide the ball through various hoops in an obstacle course.

I took a stab at it, and maybe it was Obi-Wan’s instructions to Luke from “Star Wars” distractedly reverberating in my head, but I did not get the ball anywhere close to the hoop.

Mindflex will go on sale this fall for $80.

This surgeon will nip off your love handles and use them to power his vehicle

I heard about this just before Christmas Eve and thought it was a joke, then found the story on Forbes.com – about the US surgeon (Mr Bittner) who used the fat he sucked from patients to power his vehicle – and his girlfriend’s SUV too. The writer has tagged his story “biofuels.” Only in America.

Liposuctioning unwanted blubber out of pampered Los Angelenos may not seem like a dream job, but it has its perks. Free fuel is one of them. For a time, Beverly Hills doctor Craig Alan Bittner turned the fat he removed from patients into biodiesel that fueled his Ford SUV and his girlfriend’s Lincoln Navigator. Love handles can power a car? Frighteningly, yes. Fat – whether animal or vegetable – contains triglycerides that can be extracted and turned into diesel. Poultry companies such as Tyson are looking into powering their trucks on chicken schmaltz, and biofuel start-ups such as Nova Biosource are mixing beef tallow and pig lard with more palatable sources such as soybean oil. Mike Shook of Agri Process Innovations, a builder of biodiesel plants, says this year’s batch of U.S. biodiesel was likely more than half animal-derived since the price of soybeans soared.A gallon of grease will get you about a gallon of fuel, and drivers can get about the same amount of mileage from fat fuel as they do from regular diesel, according to Jenna Higgins of the National Biodiesel Board. Animal fats need to undergo an additional step to get rid of free fatty acids not present in vegetable oils, but otherwise, there’s no difference, she says.Greenies like the fact that waste, such as coffee grounds and french-fry grease, can be turned into power. “The vast majority of my patients request that I use their fat for fuel–and I have more fat than I can use,” Bittner wrote on lipodiesel.com. “Not only do they get to lose their love handles or chubby belly but they get to take part in saving the Earth.” Bittner’s lipodiesel Web site is no longer online.Using fat to fuel cars might be environmentally friendly, but it’s definitely illegal in California to use human medical waste to power vehicles, and Bittner is being investigated by the state’s public health department.

New York Times reports the demise of the Chicago Tribune.

I am posting this story today, lucidly written by Michael J. de la Merced in The New York Times about the forthcoming demise – to my surprise – of what has been a key source of stories for me – the consistently robust (or so I thought) Chicago Tribune. The picture shows “billionaire real estate investor Samuel Zell”. Looks like a nice guy to me.

The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection in a federal court in Delaware on Monday, as the owner of The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs baseball team struggled to cope with mountains of debt and falling ad revenue.

Tribune, which was acquired last year by billionaire real estate investor Samuel Zell, had hired bankruptcy advisers like Lazard and the law firm Sidley Austin in recent weeks as it negotiated with creditors over debt covenants. (Read the bankruptcy petition here.)

It is only the latest — and biggest — sign of duress for the newspaper industry yet. Several newspaper companies have struggled to cope with declining revenues and mounting debt woes. Tribune has pared back the newsrooms of many of its papers, and it sold off Newsday to Cablevision’s Dolan family earlier this year. It is unclear what Tribune’s filing means for other newspaper publishers on the brink.

“Over the last year, we have made significant progress internally on transitioning Tribune into an entrepreneurial company that pursues innovation and stronger ways of serving our customers,” Mr. Zell, who holds the titles of Tribune chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, at the same time, factors beyond our control have created a perfect storm — a precipitous decline in revenue and a tough economy coupled with a credit crisis that makes it extremely difficult to support our debt.

The Tribune Company owns 23 TV stations and 12 newspapers, including two of the eight largest in the country by circulation. As of Sept. 30, The Los Angeles Times had weekday circulation of 739,000 and the Chicago Tribune had 542,000.

Tribune has been trying to sell the Chicago Cubs baseball team; the team’s stadium, Wrigley Field; and the company’s share in a regional cable sports network. Such a deal, which could bring the company more than $1 billion, has been a crucial part of its strategy since last year.

But the sale — originally expected to take place before the last baseball season — has been delayed by several factors, including the tight credit market.

It is not clear how recent federal allegations of insider trading against Mark Cuban, believed to be the highest bidder, could affect the sale.

In a court filing, Tribune said it had nearly $13 billion in debt, compared to $7.6 billion in assets. Most of that debt was taken on when Mr. Zell acquired the company — a deal he struck using mostly borrowed money. All of the now privately held company’s equity is owned by an employee stock-ownership plan, which is likely to get wiped out. (Because the ESOP is relatively new, its losses are likely to be small. When United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002, its employee plan, created in the mid-1990s, suffered much bigger losses.)

The company had to contend with hefty interest payments over the next year. In its court filing, Tribune listed a $69.6 million bond issue that was to mature on Monday.

Another pressing problem was a maintenance covenant on some of its debt that limits its borrowings to no more than nine times earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization.

Even if the company continues to make interest payments, failure to maintain that level of debt means technical default — which does not always lead to a bankruptcy filing. Other newspaper publishers have halted making interest payments on their debt, but have yet to file.

Tribune said in a statement that it has enough cash to keep operating as usual. Barclays, one of its existing lenders, agreed to amend an existing $300 million financing facility, as well as to provide a $50 million letter of credit. The latter is part of an overall debtor-in-possession financing package, which is usually extended to companies that file for bankruptcy. More details of the DIP financing could not be learned.

The top creditors listed by Tribune in its court filing include big banks like JPMorgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank. JPMorgan listed some of the firms it had syndicated its debt to as well; that list comprises private investment firms like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s KKR Financial, Highland Capital Management and Davidson Kempner Capital Management.

A CreditSights analyst, Jake Newman, wrote in a research report published last month that Tribune avoided technical default in the third quarter partially through some accounting adjustments. “We think the company will have difficulty meetings its year-end covenant compliance,” Mr. Newman wrote.

Tribune hired Lazard several weeks ago to assess its options, these people said. It also hired Sidley, a longtime outside adviser to Tribune that has a well-respected bankruptcy practice as well.

In its filing Monday, Tribune also said that it has retained Alvarez & Marsal, a restructuring adviser, as a consultant. Alvarez & Marsal is also advising Lehman Brothers, the collapsed investment bank whose filing was the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history.

Tribune’s problems have long been reflected in the price of its bonds. Tribune bonds maturing Aug. 15, 2010 with a 4.88 percent coupon traded at $13.25 on Friday, suggesting severe levels of distress.

–Michael J. de la Merced

Makes yer think….

Today is World Philosophy Day. I haven’t been posting many stories on justastory this month because the news has all been dark, dark, dark…..to quote T.S. Eliot as indeed David Bain, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow, does at the end of this lovely article which appeared on the BBC website today. I think we all need to consider some philosophical questions right now. When my oldest son was eight I put half a glass of water in front of him and asked him if it was half full or half empty. He considered this carefully for some time, looked at me and said “both.” David Bain asked some questions equally worthy of serious consideration…..

1. SHOULD WE KILL HEALTHY PEOPLE FOR THEIR ORGANS?
Suppose Bill is a healthy man without family or loved ones. Would it be ok painlessly to kill him if his organs would save five people, one of whom needs a heart, another a kidney, and so on? If not, why not?

Consider another case: you and six others are kidnapped, and the kidnapper somehow persuades you that if you shoot dead one of the other hostages, he will set the remaining five free, whereas if you do not, he will shoot all six. (Either way, he’ll release you.)

If in this case you should kill one to save five, why not in the previous, organs case? If in this case too you have qualms, consider yet another: you’re in the cab of a runaway tram and see five people tied to the track ahead. You have the option of sending the tram on to the track forking off to the left, on which only one person is tied. Surely you should send the tram left, killing one to save five.

But then why not kill Bill?

2. ARE YOU THE SAME PERSON WHO STARTED READING THIS ARTICLE?
Consider a photo of someone you think is you eight years ago. What makes that person you? You might say he she was composed of the same cells as you now. But most of your cells are replaced every seven years. You might instead say you’re an organism, a particular human being, and that organisms can survive cell replacement – this oak being the same tree as the sapling I planted last year.

But are you really an entire human being? If surgeons swapped George Bush’s brain for yours, surely the Bush look-alike, recovering from the operation in the White House, would be you. Hence it is tempting to say that you are a human brain, not a human being.

But why the brain and not the spleen? Presumably because the brain supports your mental states, eg your hopes, fears, beliefs, values, and memories. But then it looks like it’s actually those mental states that count, not the brain supporting them. So the view is that even if the surgeons didn’t implant your brain in Bush’s skull, but merely scanned it, wiped it, and then imprinted its states on to Bush’s pre-wiped brain, the Bush look-alike recovering in the White House would again be you.

But the view faces a problem: what if surgeons imprinted your mental states on two pre-wiped brains: George Bush’s and Gordon Brown’s? Would you be in the White House or in Downing Street? There’s nothing on which to base a sensible choice. Yet one person cannot be in two places at once.

In the end, then, no attempt to make sense of your continued existence over time works. You are not the person who started reading this article.

3. IS THAT REALLY A COMPUTER SCREEN IN FRONT OF YOU?
What reason do you have to believe there’s a computer screen in front of you? Presumably that you see it, or seem to. But our senses occasionally mislead us. A straight stick half-submerged in water sometimes look bent; two equally long lines sometimes look different lengths.
Are things always as they seem? The Muller-Lyer illusion indicates not

But this, you might reply, doesn’t show that the senses cannot provide good reasons for beliefs about the world. By analogy, even an imperfect barometer can give you good reason to believe it’s about to rain.

Before relying on the barometer, after all, you might independently check it by going outside to see whether it tends to rain when the barometer indicates that it will. You establish that the barometer is right 99% of the time. After that, surely, its readings can be good reasons to believe it will rain.

Perhaps so, but the analogy fails. For you cannot independently check your senses. You cannot jump outside of the experiences they provide to check they’re generally reliable. So your senses give you no reason at all to believe that there is a computer screen in front of you.”

4. DID YOU REALLY CHOOSE TO READ THIS ARTICLE?
Suppose that Fred existed shortly after the Big Bang. He had unlimited intelligence and memory, and knew all the scientific laws governing the universe and all the properties of every particle that then existed. Thus equipped, billions of years ago, he could have worked out that, eventually, planet Earth would come to exist, that you would too, and that right now you would be reading this article.

After all, even back then he could have worked out all the facts about the location and state of every particle that now exists.

And once those facts are fixed, so is the fact that you are now reading this article. No one’s denying you chose to read this. But your choice had causes (certain events in your brain, for example), which in turn had causes, and so on right back to the Big Bang. So your reading this was predictable by Fred long before you existed. Once you came along, it was already far too late for you to do anything about it.

Now, of course, Fred didn’t really exist, so he didn’t really predict your every move. But the point is: he could have. You might object that modern physics tells us that there is a certain amount of fundamental randomness in the universe, and that this would have upset Fred’s predictions. But is this reassuring? Notice that, in ordinary life, it is precisely when people act unpredictably that we sometimes question whether they have acted freely and responsibly. So freewill begins to look incompatible both with causal determination and with randomness. None of us, then, ever do anything freely and responsibly.”

IN CONCLUSION
Let me be clear: the point is absolutely not that you or I must bite these bullets. Some philosophers have a taste for bullets; but few would accept all the conclusions above and many would accept none. But the point, when you reject a conclusion, is to diagnose where the argument for it goes wrong.

Doing this in philosophy goes hand-in-hand with the constructive side of our subject, with providing sane, rigorous, and illuminating accounts of central aspects of our existence: freewill, morality, justice, beauty, consciousness, knowledge, truth, meaning, and so on.

Rarely does this allow us to put everything back where we found it. There are some surprises, some bullets that have to be bitten; sometimes it’s a matter simply of deciding which. But even when our commonsense conceptions survive more or less intact, understanding is deepened. As TS Eliot once wrote:

“…the end of our exploring,

Will be to arrive where we started,

And know the place for the first time.”

David Bain is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Glasgow

Monumental issues in Utah.

I found this great article in The New York Times which ran at the start of the week. In Utah’s Pleasant Grove City Park, there’s a monument which bears the Ten Commandments on public display. So….. why shouldn’t other religions – under the American Constitution – also have the right to put up their own monuments in public places, bearing their own key aphorisms or sayings? Good question. So thinks the Summum church anyway – with an interesting set of religious beliefs rather like a Gnostic/Egyptian hybrid.  Personally I’m a fan of Gnostic thinking but then again….ah…um….perhaps best for me to stick to reading the suppressed gospels of St Thomas. Known as the doubter for good reasons. Adam Liptak in his well written article is a little less kind – but undeniably amusing.
I couldn’t find a list of all the Summum aphorisms – any contributions from readers would be welcome – but I do have a list of Seven Summum Principles: Psychokinesis, Correspondence, Vibration, Opposition, Rhythm, Cause and Effect, and Gender. The Summums believe that “knowledge does not come from things such as the intellect or obedience or faith, but from revelatory experience.” Could be. I could buy that. The photo shows Summum leaders, Bernie Aua, Su Menu and Ron Temu, at their headquarters in Salt Lake City.

PLEASANT GROVE CITY, Utah — Across the street from City Hall here sits a small park with about a dozen donated buildings and objects — a wishing well, a millstone from the city’s first flour mill and an imposing red granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Thirty miles to the north, in Salt Lake City, adherents of a religion called Summum gather in a wood and metal pyramid hard by Interstate 15 to meditate on their Seven Aphorisms, fortified by an alcoholic sacramental nectar they produce and surrounded by mummified animals.

In 2003, the president of the Summum church wrote to the mayor here with a proposal: the church wanted to erect a monument inscribed with the Seven Aphorisms in the city park, “similar in size and nature” to the one devoted to the Ten Commandments.

The city declined, a lawsuit followed and a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment required the city to display the Summum monument. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in the case, which could produce the most important free speech decision of the term.

The justices will consider whether a public park open to some donations must accept others as well. In cases involving speeches and leaflets, the courts have generally said that public parks are public forums where the government cannot discriminate among speakers on the basis of what they propose to say. The question of how donated objects should be treated is, however, an open one.

Inside the pyramid, sitting on a comfortable white couch near a mummified Doberman named Butch, Ron Temu, a Summum counselor, said the two monuments would complement each other.

“They’ve put a basically Judeo-Christian religious text in the park, which we think is great, because people should be exposed to it,” Mr. Temu said. “But our principles should be exposed as well.”

Su Menu, the church’s president, agreed. “If you look at them side by side,” Ms. Menu said of the two monuments, “they really are saying similar things.”

The Third Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

The Third Aphorism: “Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.”

Michael W. Daniels, the mayor here, is not the vibrating sort.

Sitting with the city attorney in a conference room in City Hall, Mr. Daniels deftly drew several fine lines in explaining why the city could treat the two monuments differently.

Only donations concerning the city’s history are eligible for display in the park as a matter of longstanding policy, he said, and only when donated by groups with a long association with the city. The Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated the Ten Commandments monument in 1971.

The donations, Mr. Daniels went on, are transformed when the city accepts them. “Monuments on government property become government speech,” he said.

Under the First Amendment, the government can generally say what it likes without giving equal time to opposing views; it has much less latitude to choose among private speakers.

Asked what the government is saying when it displays the Ten Commandments, Mr. Daniels talked about law and history. He did not mention religion.

Pressed a little, he retreated.

“The fact that we own the monument doesn’t mean that what is on the monument is something we are espousing, promoting, establishing, embracing,” Mr. Daniels said. “We’re looking at, Does it fit with the heritage of the people of this area?”

Brian M. Barnard, a lawyer for the Summum church, said the city’s distinctions were cooked up after the fact as a way to reject his client’s monument. The local chapter of the Eagles, Mr. Barnard added, had only been in town two years when it donated the Ten Commandments monument.

“We have a city that will allow one organization to put up its religious ideals and principles,” Mr. Barnard said. “When the next group comes along, they won’t allow it to put up its religious ideals and principles.”

Last year, the federal appeals court in Denver sided with the Summum church and ordered Pleasant Grove City to erect its monument.

Although the case appears to present questions under the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion, the appeals court said the case was properly analyzed under the amendment’s free-speech protections. That distinguishes it from most cases concerning the display of nativity scenes and the like on government property.

The city, supported by more than 20 cities and states, along with the federal government, has told the Supreme Court that the upshot of affirming the appeals court decision would be to clutter public parks across the nation with offensive nonsense.

A town accepting a Sept. 11 memorial would also have to display a donated tribute to Al Qaeda, the briefs said. “Accepting a Statue of Liberty,” the city’s brief said, should not “compel a government to accept a Statue of Tyranny.”

The brief for the Summum church said the relevant dispute was much narrower. “The government,” it said, “may not take sides in a theological debate.”

Governments seeking to avoid accepting donations they do not want have several options, the Summum brief contended. They can choose to display nothing. They can speak in their own voice by creating or commissioning their own monuments. And they can adopt the messages conveyed by donated monuments as their own, but only if they do so expressly and unequivocally.

The Ten Commandments monument here stands in Pioneer Park, which pays tribute to the city’s frontier heritage, one that is mostly Mormon. The two sides differ about how best to honor that heritage.

Mayor Daniels said the monument broadly reflected local history. Mr. Barnard, the Summum lawyer, said the Ten Commandments did not play a central role in the Mormon faith. “If they wanted to quote from the Book of Mormon,” he said, “that would, at least, relate to the pioneers.”

“Mormons came to Utah because of religious persecution,” Mr. Barnard added. “The pioneer heritage in Utah has to be escape from persecution.”

The Summum church was founded in 1975, and it contains elements of Egyptian faiths and Gnostic Christianity. “Summum,” derived from the Latin, refers to the sum of all creation.

Followers of Summum believe that Moses received two sets of tablets on Mount Sinai and that the Ten Commandments were on the second set. The aphorisms were on the first one.

“When Moses came down from the mountain the first time, he brought the principles of creation,” Mr. Temu said. “But he saw the people weren’t ready for them, so he threw them on the ground and destroyed them.”

Summum’s founder, Corky Ra, says he learned the aphorisms during a series of telepathic encounters with divine beings he called Summa Individuals.

Mr. Barnard has represented the Summum church for many years. “They’re odd,” he said of his clients, with an affectionate smile. “They’re strange. They’re different.”

Bernie Aua, the church’s vice president, said the court case should not turn on how his religion was viewed.

“We have this thing called the Constitution,” Mr. Aua said. “The fact is, it’s a public park. And public parks are public.”

President Sarkozy tells Palin his wife is “hot in bed”. Another day, another doleur.

Oh dear. On a live radio phone-in two notorious pranksters deceive Sarah Palin this weekend that they are in fact French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. I found this story on the  website Boing Boing.

The popular Montreal comedy duo Marc-Antoine Audette and Sebastien Trudel, aka “The Masked Avengers” ( Les Justiciers Masqués ) are notorious for prank-calling heads of state and celebrities who take themselves a little too seriously. Surely none take themselves so seriously as Sarah Palin. She was pranked by the pair today when they social-hacked their way past security and convinced her she was speaking to Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France. Fake Sarkozy tells Palin that his wife is “hot in bed,” drops plenty of hints it’s a fake call, and suggests Palin would make a good president “one day you too.” She replies, “well, maybe in eight years!” Snip: He tells Palin one of his favorite pastimes is hunting, also a passion of the 44-year-old Alaska governor. “I just love killing those animals. Mmm, mmm, take away life, that is so fun,” the fake Sarkozy says. He proposes they go hunting together by helicopter, something he says he has never done. “Well, I think we could have a lot of fun together while we’re getting work done,” Palin counters. “We can kill two birds with one stone that way.” The comedian jokes that they shouldn’t bring Cheney along on the hunt, referring to the 2006 incident in which the vice-president shot and injured a friend while hunting quail. “I’ll be a careful shot,” responds Palin. Playing off the governor’s much-mocked comment in an early television interview that she had insights into foreign policy because “you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” the caller tells her: “You know we have a lot in common also, because … from my house I can see Belgium.” She replies: “Well, see, we’re right next door to different countries that we all need to be working with, yes.”(…) He also tells the Alaska governor that he loved the “documentary” made about her and referred to a pornographic film with a Palin look-alike made by Hustler founder Larry Flynt. She answers tentatively, “Ohh, good, thank you, yes.” Perhaps most damning of all: at the very end of the call, despite the prank caller identifying himself as phoning in from MONTREAL, Palin tells “Bexie” as she hands the phone back that it’s a “radio station from France.” Don’t forget to vote, folks!

What the Governor of the Bank of England said in his address to the CBI yesterday – apparently he is throwing a hip hop party

It’s about time I ran a serious article about the economy after weeks of crisis – and Melvyn King gave an interesting analysis of what’s been going down in his speech to the Confederation of British Industry this Tuesday, which I am publishing in full here. However when I searched for an image of “King addressing CBI” this one came up, so I thought I would include it anyway. Pound drop, don’t stop….or something.

My first memories of Leeds are from a wet summer in 1958. I was ten years old, we lived on the moors above Hebden Bridge, and my father took me to my first Test Match – England against New Zealand at Headingley. It rained all day on both Thursday and Friday, and, when play started in mid-afternoon on Saturday, on a drying wicket New Zealand were bowled out by Laker and Lock for 67. So I became a slow bowler. I was taught to bowl – slow left arm – at Old Town primary school by the headmaster, Alfred Stephenson. During the morning break he would mark the wickets in chalk in the playground, and draw a small circle exactly on a length. If we could pitch the ball within that circle he would give us a farthing. As we improved, and the payout of farthings increased, the morning break became shorter and shorter – my first lesson in economic incentives, or what is known in the trade as “moral hazard”.
So let me move forward 50 years to the events of 2008, and describe the nature of the financial crisis, the steps that governments and central banks have taken to deal with it, and, most important, the implications of recent events for the UK and world economies. Since August 2007, the industrialised world has been engulfed by financial turmoil. And, following the failure of Lehman Brothers on 15 September, an extraordinary, almost unimaginable, sequence of events began which culminated a week or so ago in the announcements around the world of a recapitalisation of the banking system. It is difficult to exaggerate the severity and importance of those events. Not since the beginning of the First World War has our banking system been so close to collapse. In the second half of September, companies and non-bank financial institutions accelerated their withdrawal from even short-term funding of banks, and banks increasingly lost confidence in the safety of lending to each other. Funding costs rose sharply and for many institutions it was possible to borrow only overnight. Credit to the real economy almost stopped flowing. In financial markets, confidence in others fell to a point where investors sought refuge in government instruments such as US Treasury Bills, which at one point yielded a negative return. Central banks around the world were providing enormous amounts of liquidity to some institutions while at the same time taking large deposits from others. Eventually, on 6 and 7 October even overnight funding started to dry up. Radical action was necessary to ensure the survival of the banking system. And on the morning of 8 October that action was taken when the Prime Minister and Chancellor unveiled a UK plan for recapitalising the banking system on which the Bank, FSA and Treasury had been working for a while. Why was radical action necessary? When the financial turmoil began in August 2007, markets for a number of financial instruments, including mortgage-backed securities, dried up. Most observers expected this closure to be short-lived, and the predominant view was that the crisis was one of (a lack of) liquidity. But, as time passed and markets did not re-open, it became clear that the problem was deeper seated, and concerned the solvency of the banking system and the sustainability of its funding model. Attempts to deal with the problem by injections of liquidity from central banks led to temporary alleviations of the symptoms, but, after an initial improvement, conditions would deteriorate again. The scale of central bank liquidity support during the crisis has been unprecedented, and all central banks have increased the scale of their lending in broadly similar ways. The UK taxpayer now has a larger claim on the assets of banks (in the form of collateral held by the Bank of England) than the total equity value of UK banks. Massive injections of central bank liquidity have played a vital role in staving off an imminent collapse of the banking system. Such lending can tide a bank over while it is taking steps to remove the cause of the concerns that generated a run or lack of confidence. But it can also serve to conceal the severity of the underlying problems, and put off the inevitable day of reckoning. I hope it is now understood that the provision of central bank liquidity, while essential to buy time, is not, and never could be, the solution to the banking crisis, nor to the problems of individual banks. Central bank liquidity is sticking plaster, useful and important, but not a substitute for proper treatment. Just as a fever is itself only a symptom of an underlying condition, so the freezing of interbank and money markets was the symptom of deeper structural problems in the banking sector. So let me explain why a major recapitalisation of the banking system was necessary, was the centrepiece of the UK plan (alongside a temporary guarantee of some wholesale funding instruments and provision of central bank liquidity), and was in turn followed by other European countries and the United States. Securitised mortgages – that is collections of mortgages bundled together and sold as securities, including the now infamous US sub-prime mortgages – had been marketed during a period of rising house prices and low interest rates which had masked the riskiness of the underlying loans. By securitising mortgages on such a scale, banks transformed the liquidity of their lending book. They also financed it by short-term wholesale borrowing. But in the light of rising defaults and falling house prices – first in the United States and then elsewhere – investors reassessed the risks inherent in these securities. Perceived as riskier, their values fell and demand for securitisations dwindled. For the same reason, the value of banks’ mortgage books declined. Banks saw the value of their assets fall while their liabilities remained unchanged. The effect was magnified by the very high levels of borrowing relative to capital (or leverage) with which many banks were operating, and the fact that banks had purchased significant quantities of securitised and more complex financial instruments from each other. Not only were these assets difficult to value, but the distribution of losses across the financial system was uncertain. Banks’ share prices fell. Capital was squeezed. Markets were sending a clear message to banks around the world: they did not have enough capital. At the Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in Washington ten days ago, the message was reinforced by our colleagues from Japan, Sweden and Finland, who, with eloquence and not a little passion, reminded those present of their experience in dealing with a systemic banking failure in the 1990s. Recapitalise and do it now was the lesson. Recapitalisation requires a fiscal response, and that can be done only by governments. Confidence in the banking system had eroded as the weakness of the capital position became more widely appreciated. But it took a crisis caused by the failure of Lehman Brothers to trigger the coordinated government plan to recapitalise the system. It would be a mistake, however, to think that had Lehman Brothers not failed, a crisis would have been averted. The underlying cause of inadequate capital would eventually have provoked a crisis of one kind or another somewhere else. So where does this leave us? The recapitalisation plan is having a major impact on the restoration of market confidence in banks. Perhaps the single most important diagnostic statistic is the credit default swap premium – an indicator of market concerns about solvency of banks. These premia have fallen markedly since the announcement of the UK plan. From the close of business on 7 October to now the premia on the UK’s five largest banks have more than halved. We are far from the end of the road back to stability, but the plan to recapitalise our banking system, both here and abroad, will I believe come to be seen as the moment in the banking crisis of the past year when we turned the corner. As concerns about the viability of our banks recede, banks should regain the confidence of the market as recipients of funding. There are already some signs of greater activity. But the age of innocence – when banks lent to each other unsecured for three months or longer at only a small premium to expected policy rates – will not quickly, if ever, return. In itself that does not affect the ability of banks to fund lending, but confidence has been badly shaken after the traumatic events of the past few weeks. New sources of funding will develop only slowly, although the temporary government guarantees of new lending to banks will help. So it will take time before the recapitalisation leads to a resumption of normal levels of lending by the banking system to the real economy. And we cannot assume that there will not be problems in other parts of the financial system and in some emerging market economies to be overcome before the crisis can truly be described as over. With the plan for recapitalisation in place, the focus of attention has moved to the outlook for the UK and world economies. Over the past month, the economic news has probably been the worst in such a short period for a very considerable time. The most recent activity indicators for the second of half of the year have fallen sharply. In the UK, unemployment continues to rise and, over the past three months, has risen at the fastest rate for seventeen years, albeit from a relatively low level. House prices declined by about 5% in the third quarter and are 13% lower than a year ago. The recent weakness of the housing market is likely to continue. And if the news on the domestic front were not sufficiently discouraging, the rest of the world economy also appears to be slowing rapidly. Why has the outlook deteriorated so quickly? The banking crisis dealt a severe blow to the availability of credit. Growth in secured lending to households fell to an annualised rate of 1.9% in the three months to August, its lowest level in more than a decade. The Bank of England’s survey of credit conditions suggests that the terms on which banks provide credit to companies have tightened even further. And, on some estimates, the supply of finance to the UK corporate sector has ground to a halt. This credit shock has come on top of a fall in real disposable incomes resulting from the rise in energy and food prices earlier in the year. So, taken together, the combination of a squeeze on real takehome pay and a decline in the availability of credit poses the risk of a sharp and prolonged slowdown in domestic demand. Indeed, it now seems likely that the UK economy is entering a recession. At the same time, consumer price inflation, our target measure, has risen from around the 2% target at the beginning of the year to a worryingly high rate of 5.2% in September. Oil and other commodity and food prices have all been rising very rapidly. In those circumstances, it was sensible to allow those price changes to be absorbed by movements in consumer prices. The alternative would have been an even sharper slowdown in the economy. Central banks in other countries also find themselves in a similar position. Over the past year or so, CPI inflation rose from 2.0% to 5.6% in the United States and from 1.7% to 4.0% in the euro-area. It is surely probable that the drama of the banking crisis, which is unprecedented in the lifetime of almost all of us, will damage business and consumer confidence more generally. But two pieces of good news should temper the gloom. First, the banking system will be recapitalised and, in due course, the banking system will resume more normal lending, although by normal I do not mean the conditions that prevailed prior to August 2007. Second, oil prices have now fallen from a peak of $147 a barrel only three months ago to around $70 today. And wholesale gas prices have now also started to follow oil prices down. That will help to support the growth of real incomes as well as bringing down inflation. So, what should the Monetary Policy Committee do now? It must continue to set Bank Rate in order to meet the 2% inflation target, not next month or the month after, but further ahead when the impact of recent developments in both credit supply and world commodity prices will have worked their way through the economy. This is the time not to abandon but to reinforce our commitment to stability. The slowdown in demand, and the recent falls in energy prices, will bring inflation back towards the target. The Committee must balance the risk that a prolonged slowdown in domestic demand pulls inflation materially below the target against the risk that today’s high inflation rate becomes embedded in inflation expectations. During the past month, the balance of risks to inflation in the medium term shifted decisively to the downside. And the MPC – in an action co-ordinated with six other major central banks – cut Bank Rate by half a percentage point to 4.5%. Looking ahead, the outlook is obviously very uncertain – both for the world as well as our own economy. The MPC cannot simply extrapolate the past into the future. The prospects for oil and other commodity prices are difficult to assess. So too are the period over which bank lending will return to normal and the extent of the damage to business and consumer confidence. Moreover, the credit crunch affects not just demand but also the supply potential of the economy, complicating the assessment of the inflationary impact of changes in the level of demand. The associated shift of resources away from those parts of the economy that have flourished in recent years towards other areas of economic activity will moderate the increase in potential output while that adjustment is taking place. The MPC must monitor carefully all the available evidence about fastchanging patterns of spending, supply and prices. It will act promptly to ensure that inflation remains on track to meet our target.
The downturn in the economy will affect not just monetary policy but fiscal policy too. That subject is for another occasion, but there is one point I do want to make tonight. The cost of supporting the banking system will inevitably raise the level of national debt. Managed properly, however, such a rise in national debt need not prove inflationary. Indeed, within a reasonable period it should be possible for the Government to reduce its stake in the banking system, for example by selling units in a Bank Reconstruction Fund, and repay the additional debt that had been issued. That is one difference between past increases in national debt in times of war and the increase now to pay for recapitalisation of the banking system which involves the acquisition of an asset. Let me take you back again to 1958. In the very first television interview given by a Governor of the Bank of England, Cameron Cobbold explained national debt to Robin Day on “Tell the People”, the highlight of ITN’s Sunday evening schedule fifty years ago. Here is the exchange:
Cobbold: The National Debt represents the sums of money which the Government have over the years borrowed from the public, mainly in this country and, to some extent, abroad. That is really the amount of expenditure which they have failed over the period to cover by revenue.
Day: Have we paid for World War II?
Cobbold: No.
Day: Have we paid for World War I?
Cobbold: No.
Day: Have we paid for the Battle of Waterloo?
Cobbold: I don’t think you can exactly say that.

On this occasion, we should have little difficulty in evaluating when we have paid for the recapitalisation. There are, though, questions about the source of the funding and the level of borrowing by the country as a whole from overseas. For several years, the UK banking sector has been relying extensively on external capital flows, principally shortterm wholesale funding, to finance its lending activities. Those external inflows have 9 fallen sharply – a mild form of the reversal of capital inflows experienced by a number of emerging market economies in the 1990s. Unless they are replaced by other forms of external finance, the adjustments in the trade deficit and exchange rate will need to be larger and faster than would otherwise have occurred, implying a larger rise in domestic saving and weaker domestic spending in the short run. With the bank recapitalisation plan in place, we now face a long, slow haul to restore lending to the real economy, and hence growth of our economy, to more normal conditions. The past few weeks have been somewhat too exciting. The actions that were taken were not designed to save the banks as such, but to protect the rest of the economy from the banks. I hope banks will come to appreciate, just as the New Zealanders at Headingley in 1958, the Yorkshire virtues of patience and sound defence when batting on a sticky wicket. I have said many times that successful monetary policy would appear rather boring. So let me extend an invitation to the banking industry to join me in promoting the idea that a little more boredom would be no bad thing. The long march back to boredom and stability starts tonight in Leeds. ENDS

Don’t shake hands with a Northerner.

The further north you go in England, the more likely you are to have faecal bacteria on your hands. And if you’re using the London Tube (underground railway) it’s an even bigger pile of sh*t than you ever thought. This story by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that one in four commuters have faecal bacteria on their hands. So the North-South divide is perhaps more fundamental than we realised.  And I speak as a Northerner. Are my hands clean? Does a bear go to church? Does the Pope……..

The further north you go, the more likely you are to have faecal bacteria on your hands, especially if you are a man, according to a preliminary study conducted by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

But women living in the South and Wales have little to feel smug about. In London, they are three times as likely as their men folk to have dirty hands, and in Cardiff, twice as likely. The men of London registered the most impressive score among all those surveyed, with a mere 6% found to have faecal bugs on their hands. Overall more than one on four commuters have bacteria which come from faeces on their hands.

The Dirty Hands Study was conducted in order to provide a snapshot of the nation’s hand hygiene habits, as part of the world’s first Global Handwashing Day today. Commuters’ hands were swabbed at bus stops outside five train stations around the UK (Newcastle, Liverpool, Birmingham, Euston and Cardiff).

The results indicated that commuters in Newcastle were up to three times more likely than those in London to have faecal bacteria on their hands (44% compared to 13%) while those in Birmingham and Cardiff were roughly equal in the hand hygiene stakes (23% and 24% respectively). Commuters in Liverpool also registered a high score for faecal bacteria, with a contamination rate of 34%.

In Newcastle and Liverpool, men were more likely than women to show contamination (53% of men compared to 30% of women in Newcastle, and 36% of men compared to 31% of women in Liverpool), although in the other three centres, the women’s hands were dirtier. Almost twice as many women than men in Cardiff were found to have contamination (29% compared to 15 %) while in Euston, they were more than three times likelier than the men to have faecal bacteria on their hands (the men here registered an impressive 6%, compared to a rate of 21% in the women). In Birmingham, the rate for women was slightly higher than the men (26% compared to 21%).

The bacteria that were found are all from the gut, and do not necessarily always cause disease, although they do indicate that hands have not been washed properly.

Dr Val Curtis, Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, comments: ‘We were flabbergasted by the finding that so many people had faecal bugs on their hands. The figures were far higher than we had anticipated, and suggest that there is a real problem with people washing their hands in the UK. If any of these people had been suffering from a diarrhoeal disease, the potential for it to be passed around would be greatly increased by their failure to wash their hands after going to the toilet’.

For more information, or to interview the investigators, please contact Gemma Howe in the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Press Office on 0207 927 2802 or gemma.howe@lshtm.ac.uk

Notes to Editors:

Global Handwashing Day was initiated by the Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing (www.globalhandwashing.org), which is dedicated to promoting handwashing with soap to reduce diarrhoea in developing countries and implement large-scale handwashing interventions by combining the expertise and resources of the soap industry with the facilities and resources of governments. Global Handwashing Day activities are being implemented in more than forty countries and focus on raising awareness among policymakers and the public about the role handwashing plays in public health.

For more information about Global Handwashing Day, please go to:
www.globalhandwashingday.org. All materials on the website are available to be downloaded, or can be used in publication.

The Chinese search engine that’s a rival to Google.

Rather than run a story today about the demise of Lehman Brothers or the financial problems of AIG, or the imminent coming of a second 1930’s style recession – in my view these have all been well covered by the mainstream media and perhaps later in the week I shall pick a particular aspect of them to comment upon……….

I had dinner with friends in the banking sector  two weeks ago. They are not prone to using the word “Armageddon” very often – so I guess I will have to include some financial sector stories soon enough.

In the meantime I was interested to read about something new today, a rival for Google in China called Baidu – which works in a different way from our oft-used engine –  this very good and full account below is written by Andrew Orlowski for website The Register. Andrew’s well-written article gives more detail if you want to visit the original feature. Baidu is huge and different – and I had never even heard of it before.

Baidu is renowned as China’s glittering internet success story, and as the start-up that gave Google a bloody nose. It dominates the web in the world’s second biggest economy with 70 per cent market share, and on Wall Street carries a market cap of almost $12bn.

But Baidu’s success comes at a price, for the legitimate music business, for the development of China and of its intellectual property (IP) law, and for any internet company wishing to do business in China.

Baidu owes its success to its MP3 Search service, which takes surfers directly to music. It’s known as “deep linking”, and early this year, sound recording owners represented by IFPI filed a copyright infringement case against Baidu, claiming damages worth $9m.

Yet the scale of Baidu’s operation, uncovered by a forensic six-month investigation conducted in China for The Register, has surprised the music business.

“Although we already had some doubts about Baidu mp3 search, when we saw the investigation results presented, it was really a shock,” Susanna Ng, EMI Music Publishing Managing Director, Asia Pacific told China’s Fortune Times.

Music searches using Baidu return results that are heavily skewed in favour of unlicensed music, while they rarely return search results for licensed music sites. Meanwhile, the unlicensed MP3s appear to systematically move around a complex network of domains in response to infringement notices.

Chinese web surfers may be forgiven for missing the news. Baidu fails to link to news stories critical of the company, including some of the findings below; these have been covered only by a handful of publications within China. It’s a chilling reminder of the ability of a web search engine to control and shape public discourse.

We’ll explain what Baidu does, and why it’s in trouble. And the grim prospects for anyone hoping to build an internet business in China – with an unstoppable Baidu.
What does Baidu do?

Most full-length recorded music in China is unlicensed, infringing material. Some estimates put the figure as high as 98 per cent. A popular act can expect to sell as few as 2,000 copies. Yet China is not quite the lawless frontier these figures suggest.

In March this year, another Chinese top five music search engine, Zhongsou had its servers seized and subjected to the maximum fine for copyright infringement by state administration authorities. This was the first public case of a music search engine being convicted for hosting MP3 files. Government appointed bodies such as the Music Copyright Society of China (MCSC) and the China Audio-Video Copyright Association (CAVCA) are both active in attempting to support businesses that reward the creators. Baidu’s notorious MP3 Search is the biggest problem they face.

MCSC’s Director of Legal Services Liu Ping used the following real life analogy to describe deep-linking:

“If Google’s search works as a guide by giving directions and telling you the address while taking you right to the door of your destination, Baidu’s search brings you directly through the door, right inside the room and helps you take away the CD from shelves without the owner’s permission.” Liu Ping considers this to be beyond the scope of a search engine, and a practice which moves Baidu into the area of transmission of music.

Baidu has amassed numerous lawsuits over the practice, with MCSC and the IFPI involved in a number of these. Baidu’s defence is that as a network service provider it cannot be responsible for the legality of the sites it indexes and is therefore not liable for damages. Nevertheless, Article 23 of China’s Copyright Law says that it is jointly liable “where it knows or has reasonable ground(s) to know” that the linked works are infringing material.

However, our investigation suggests close enough linkage between Baidu’s business and the infringing material for it to be viewed as something more than ‘just’ a network service provider.

Baidu’s MP3 Search was monitored for six months at the end of last year, analyzing search results using 600 songs spread across multiple genre. A number of areas that seemed incongruous to a pure and neutral search engine were discovered, and three details emerged.

Firstly, a network of mysterious sites with closely related domain names contributed more than 50 per cent of the search links returned by Baidu. The songs hosted on the mystery sites were unreachable except through the Baidu search engine. Furthermore, infringement notifications resulted in unlicensed songs simply moving from one of these domains to another.

Secondly, Baidu does not link to the two leading paid download sites in China, 9Sky and Top100. While Google for example will return results for a song search to licensed providers (7Digital, Amazon, eMusic or even iTunes) as well as Torrent trackers, Baidu is much more selective.

Thirdly, music blogs and forums naturally form a significant source of music search links for any search engine. But with Baidu, these contributed to only 30 per cent of the music search links on Baidu’s MP3 Search.

The cumulative effect is to keep the “free music flowing” for Baidu’s users – with devastating consequences not just for creators, but for rival internet businesses.

Fake entries on Facebook cost £22,000 in libel damages

I found this story in today’s Independent. Interesting because someone once messed around with one of my son’s Facebook entries which caused him some distress – but building a whole fake one is a different story and proved the undoing of the guy below.

A businessman whose personal details were “laid bare” in fake libellous entries on the Facebook social networking website was awarded £22,000 damages today against a former friend who created the profile.

Mathew Firsht, managing director of Applause Store Productions Ltd, sued an old schoolfriend, freelance cameraman Grant Raphael, for libel and misuse of private information.

A judge at the High Court in London ruled that Mr Raphael’s defence to the action – that the entry was created by mischievous party gate-crashers at his flat – was “built on lies”.

Deputy Judge Richard Parkes QC awarded Mr Firsht £15,000 for libel and £2,000 for breach of privacy.

Mr Firsht’s company, which finds audiences for TV and radio shows and provides warm-up services for live audiences, including the evictions on Big Brother, was awarded £5,000 for libel.

Mr Firsht accused Mr Raphael of creating a false personal profile, and a company profile called “Has Mathew Firsht lied to you?”, from a computer at the flat where Mr Raphael was living in Hampstead, north west London, in June last year.

Mr Raphael claimed that “strangers” who attended an impromptu party at the address that day sneaked off to a spare bedroom and created the profiles on his PC.

The profiles were on the site for 16 days until Mr Firsht’s brother spotted them and they were taken down by Facebook.

The judge heard that the private information concerned Mr Firsht’s whereabouts, activities, birthday and relationship status and falsely indicated his sexual orientation and political views.

It said that he was “Looking for: whatever I can get” in terms of relationships and was signed up to groups including Gay in the Wood…Borehamwood, and Gay Jews in London.

Mr Firsht complained about allegations that he owed substantial sums of money which he had repeatedly avoided paying by lying, and that he and his company were not to be trusted in the financial conduct of their business and represented a serious credit risk.

He accused Mr Raphael of bearing a grudge against him since they fell out in 2000 and of creating a false Facebook entry with the aim of causing him anxiety and embarrassment.

Recounting the “unfortunate dispute between two former friends”, the judge said Mr Firsht’s company provided audiences for popular shows such as Big Brother, The X Factor and Top Gear.

He was personally involved in overseeing the audience operation, and his credibility and reputation were very important to him.

Mr Raphael, a freelance lighting cameraman, also spent much of his time working in television.

Mr Firsht, now in his late 30s, became good friends with Mr Raphael in Brighton, where they went to school together.

They fell out around six years ago over a business dispute. Mr Firsht, who said he did not hold grudges, forgot about the episode and moved on to become very successful.

“He is plainly a businessman of single-minded drive and dedication, and he did not strike me as being the kind of man to waste valuable time on ancient disputes,” the judge said.

By contrast, Mr Raphael’s company went into voluntary liquidation and, by the time the present dispute arose, “Mr Firsht was prospering and highly successful, and Mr Raphael was not”.

The judge described as “utterly far-fetched” Mr Raphael’s claim that a complete and random stranger visiting his flat for the first time used his computer for more than an hour, without being observed, to create a false and hurtful profile containing information that few people apart from Mr Raphael could have known.

Mr Raphael, as a witness in court, was “glib and loquacious, always prepared, it seemed to me, to talk his way out of a difficulty, with no apparent insight into the implausibility of some of his answers”.

The judge said Mr Firsht, a very private person, was shocked and extremely upset by the gross invasion of his privacy and the fact that personal details, including false details about his sexuality, had been “laid bare for all to see”.

The damage he suffered was made worse by his being compelled to endure an expensive and time-consuming court process to achieve vindication in the face of Mr Raphael’s lies.

He would have accepted an apology if Mr Raphael had offered one at an early stage, thus avoiding the distress and expense of litigation.

Branded.

I found this story about adverts tattooed onto people’s bodies often in conspicuous places on a blog called divine caroline in which she cynically and ironically (too harsh for me to laugh out loud out, though) details other ways in which you can make money with your body parts and fluids which are – shall we say – a bit off the beaten track. After a little more reading I found a whole host of these tattooed ads. Look at it. Wonder. But Don’t do it.

What was that? Oh, yes, ten grand for the forehead job. US dollars, not pounds.

Technorati Profile

An invasion of privacy for web surfers?


Hmmm. Personally I don’t like anything which impinges upon the privacy – and rights to browse without policing- of the individual – but as a marketing person I can see where this idea is coming from. Difficult, but interesting. This article appeared in the Economist and enjoys their usual high standard of reporting and writing. I’ve asked my ISP whether they have signed up for this. I don’t expect a reply.

IS IT a worrying invasion of privacy for web surfers, or a lucrative new business model for online advertising? A new “behavioural” approach to targeting internet advertisements, being pioneered by companies such as Phorm, NebuAd and FrontPorch, is said to be both of these things. The idea is that special software, installed in the networks of internet-service providers (ISPs), intercepts webpage requests generated by their subscribers as they roam the net. The pages in question are delivered in the usual way, but are also scanned for particular keywords in order to build up a profile of each subscriber’s interests. These profiles can then be used to target advertisements more accurately.

Suppose a web user is idly surfing a travel blog one Sunday afternoon. He visits pages containing words such as “holiday”, “flight” and “hotel”. The behavioural-targeting software watching him inside the ISP’s network registers and categorises this apparent interest in travel. Later, when he logs on to a social-networking site to see what his friends are up to, advertisements for an airline or hotel chain pop up alongside the postings and photos. The depressing prospect of having to return to work the next day prompts him to click on an advertisement and book a minibreak for the next weekend.

To advertisers, this all sounds great. Behavioural-targeting firms are doing the rounds in Europe and America offering the prospect of working out what web surfers are thinking, perhaps even before they know themselves. If this really works, advertisers will be prepared to pay more to place ads, since they are more likely to be clicked on. That in turn means that websites will be able to charge more for their advertising slots. A small cut also goes to the ISP that originally gathered the profile information.

The companies involved suggest that internet users will welcome all this, since more accurate targeting will turn internet advertising from an annoying distraction into a genuinely helpful service. “This idea that we don’t provide a service by doing this is as far from the truth as it’s possible to be,” says Kent Ertugrul, the boss of Phorm. “It creates a situation where there’s less rubbish bombarding you.”

But not everyone likes the idea. Opponents of behavioural targeting have kicked up the biggest fuss in Britain, which is where the technology seems to be making the most progress: the three biggest ISPs (BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk), which together account for around 70% of the market, have all signed up to use Phorm’s technology. Since news of their plans emerged in February, over 13,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the system. Legal and networking experts have argued that it constitutes an unauthorised wiretap, and is therefore illegal. Richard Clayton, a computer-security expert at Cambridge University who has taken a close look at Phorm’s systems, did not like what he saw. Proponents of behavioural targeting, he concluded, “assume that if only people understood all the technical details they’d be happy. I have, and I’m still not happy at all.”

Phorm, which is now trying to get American ISPs to adopt its technology too, emphasises that consumers will be given the option to opt out of the system if they do not wish to use it. It points out that information about individuals’ surfing habits remains within the custody of the ISP (which already has access to such information anyway), and that user profiles merely associate keywords with an anonymous serial number, rather than a name. Its profiling system ignores sensitive pages, such as those from online-banking sites, and will not be used to target advertising for pornographic sites.

Critics worry, however, that behavioural targeting fundamentally undermines the trusting relationship between ISPs and their subscribers, by allowing a third party to monitor what millions of people are doing. They also worry about Phorm’s previous behaviour. Until last year it was known as 121Media, and it gathered information about internet users’ interests by getting them to download “adware”, which was included in bundles with other pieces of software. This software then monitored users’ surfing habits and used the resulting data to target “pop up” advertisements of the kind that once blighted the web.

All this was legal, but it won 121Media few friends among PC users, who found its software difficult to remove from their machines. The revelation that the company, since renamed Phorm, conducted a secret trial of its new technology with BT in 2006 and 2007, monitoring thousands of customers without telling them, has not helped its image.

As the controversy swirls, Google, the 800-pound gorilla of the internet-advertising industry, is quietly watching. ISPs around the world have looked on jealously as Google has grown rich on their subscribers’ web-browsing, while the ISPs have been reduced to “dumb pipes”, ferrying internet traffic for subscribers but unable to win a share of their online spending.

Phorm and its ilk promise to change that, by offering ISPs a chance to get their hands on a slice of the fast-growing online-advertising pie. Behavioural-targeting firms also like to portray themselves as feisty underdogs taking on mighty Google, which is itself the cause of concern about online privacy. Phorm points out that its system does not retain detailed information about web usage as it builds its user profiles—in contrast to Google, which keeps records of users’ search queries for up to two years. (The European Commission recently called upon Google to delete such information after six months.) “If people knew what was stored right now, they’d be shocked,” says Phorm’s Mr Ertugrul. His company’s system, he says, is “the model for privacy online”.

Even so, most web users are happy to strike an implicit deal with Google: it provides an excellent free search engine in return for the ability to display relevant advertisements. The quid pro quo with behavioural targeting, says Mr Ertugrul, is that ISPs will start making money from online advertising, which they can then spend on upgrading their networks, without raising prices for subscribers. “This is a way of funding the internet,” he says.

Behavioural targeting is not necessarily a bad idea, but imposing it without telling people is likely to annoy them when they find out about it. Without adequate disclosure, an “opt out” system looks like snooping; but an “opt in” system, given all the fuss, now looks like a tough sell.

Talkin’ bout my generation. X, Y or boomer?

Generation X was a term coined by Douglas Coupland. (Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, 142). Tammy Erickson uses the term when she writes in a very interesting way about the differences between our recent generations. She posted this article as part of a series called Across the Ages – it is all about generational differences in the work environment. In Across the Ages she had written earlier about gender differences amongst generation X’ers – such as when asked to mark the most important historical event of our age, X men had chosen the dropping of the atomic bomb and Pearl Harbour whilst X women had highlighted the first flight by the Wright Brothers. Hmmmmm. Her article was originally entitled 10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work

I’m worried about Generation X and corporations. As far as I can tell, these two have a tentative relationship at best – and are likely headed for some rocky times ahead.

Corporations really need Gen X – folks in their 30’s to early 40’s, who should begin to serve as our primary corporate leaders over the next couple years. But I fear many current corporate executives are taking this small and therefore precious group for granted.
Many of you X’ers are not thrilled with corporate life. You tend not to trust institutions in general and deeply resent the Boomers’ confident assumptions that you will be motivated by the same things that Boomers have long cared about. Many of you have told me that you are planning to leave corporate life “soon” – to start entrepreneurial ventures or work for smaller companies – options you feel will suite you better than the corporate roles looming ahead.

Why are many X’ers uncomfortable in corporate life?

1. X’ers’ corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain. You graduated when the economy was slow and the huge bulge of Boomers had already grabbed most of the key jobs. As an article in the May, 1985 issue of Fortune said: “[T]hese pioneers of the baby-bust generation are finding life on the career frontier harsher than ever . . . they’re snarled in a demographic traffic jam . . . stuck behind all those surplus graduates of the past decade.”

2. When you were teens, X’ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X’ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case. Many of the adults you saw laid off and then struggling to reintegrate were in their 40’s – about the age X’ers are reaching today.

3. Most corporate career paths “narrow” at the top – the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X’ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path. The sense of narrowing career paths and increased vulnerability is often most palpable at the transition from middle to upper management – just where many of you are today. This step also often brings demands for relocation and separation from established social networks – an additional assault on your sense of self-reliance.

4. Just your luck – the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again – just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management. Stepping into leadership roles right now looks more difficult and the roles themselves, more vulnerable than they have at any point in the past decade.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y’s. Many X’ers are charged with “managing” Y’s which – let’s face it – is an impossible task, at least if you define “manage” as controlling their channels of communication. While vying for promotions and trying to look good, many of you feel that Y’s are doing an end run around.

6. X’ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest – and not feeling the love. As I wrote in last week’s post, Boomers and Y’s are learning from each other – and enjoying their interactions. It’s easy to feel left out.

7. X’ers are the most conservative cohort in today’s workforce – and you’re surrounded by “shake ‘em up” types on both sides. In your personal lives, X’ers are not particularly keen on rules, but you had to follow them in the workplace – and you resent it when others now don’t. It seems unfair to be rewriting corporate etiquette when you’ve had to toe the line for so long.

8. Many X’ers’ are guarding a closely held secret: you’re not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are. While it’s perfectly acceptable for Boomers to feign ignorance and ask for help, it’s embarrassing for X’ers to do so.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top. X’ers can’t believe the frequency of Y-parent interactions and are deeply turned off by parents who make their presence felt in the workplace.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak. You’re deeply committed to spending more time with your kids than your parents did or were able to spend with you, but juggling is getting more and more difficult.

Is it time to jump off the corporate train?

I hope not – at least not for most of you. Corporations really need your leadership. But I understand that we need to create corporate environments that are more conducive to your needs and preferences.

I’m in the middle of my latest writing project – a book on career options and strategies for Gen X’ers. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences, frustrations, and success. What works? What doesn’t? What do you worry about? What would you most like to know?

“If you think you are depressed, you probably are.”

I don’t usually go in for these “lifestyle” and “health” kind of stories, often finding them a bit limp and self-indulgent and wishy-washy – but reading this one, it turned into something a bit more real. It’s about a woman recognising the symptoms of depression and starting to deal with them. I suffered from depression just like the stuff she describes when I was sixteen and seventeen – and was fortunate enough to come through it – and have continued to do battle with it and found ways to defeat it as life went on. Churchill called it his Black Dog, always rocking up when you least needed it. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to ever get it yourself, I hope this article is useful for you.

It appeared at the start of the week in the Guardian.

After more than 20 years with depression, Zoe Lewis thought she would simply have to put up with her illness. But a friend persuaded her to try group therapy. What happened next changed her life.

‘Hello, I’m Zoe and I’m … depressed.” Twelve faces stare back at me, nodding sympathetically. I am in therapy for depression and I can’t believe I’m here. Why am I here?

I mean, I know I suffer from depression periodically and take antidepressants, but I’m not depressed depressed. I’m just not that bad. I’m a busy woman, and to take the time to attend to some silly little person like me seems to me the height of overindulgent selfishness.

I look around the room and imagine that the other people are all here for proper depression – bipolar or unipolar or compulsive disorders that mean they can’t leave the house. OK, so I get a bit down from time to time, but what’s the biggie?

Well, the biggie was that my best friend decided that she had had enough of my weirdness.

“You need help,” she told me, as she sat opposite me on the sofa, annoyingly entrenched.

“I’m fine.”

“You are not fine,” she persisted.

“OK, so I spend a lot of time alone,”

I snapped back. “I dislike the phone. I write every day. I’m driven to the point of obsession. OK, I want to be perfect – but don’t we all?”

“Er, no we don’t,” she said, following me into the kitchen. “You walk up to eight miles a day. You take an unnaturally long time to recover from the break-up of relationships. You feel safer being alone …”

“OK, OK, stop! I accept that I’m weird and I might need help for my weirdness but it’s my fault I’m weird. It’s not because I’m depressed.”

“You need group therapy,” she countered.

“Group what?” I shuddered at the thought.

I couldn’t help feeling that sitting in a sort of “depressives anonymous” would send even the most Mary Poppins-like of us over the edge, but being an extremely nosy person, as well as a writer, I decided to go along.

A few weeks later, confronted by a roomful of expectant people, I am desperate to be anywhere else. Frankly, burning in hell seems an attractive option.

“Would you like to tell the group a little about why you are here?” asks the counsellor.

“I get a bit depressed sometimes, but it’s just not that bad.”

“All depression is bad,” she says sympathetically. Like I deserve sympathy.

“I’m not depressed; I’m just not a very nice person. I get angry with people I don’t even know – like bus drivers and people in news-agents. When anyone ever asks me how I am, I am rude because I want to cry, because how I am is bad, always bad, and they should damn well know not to ask such a stupid question, and when people call, I don’t answer my phone. You see? I’m just a terrible person.”

“You’ve just described the classic symptoms of depression,” she says.

“No, no, no,” I say. “You don’t understand. This is what I’m like all the time.”

“Well, have you ever considered that you might be depressed all the time?”

“Oh no, I’ve always been like this – well, since I was about eight, I suppose.”

“Have you considered you might have been depressed since then?”

“No, no,” I smile at her patiently. “You don’t understand. I know when I’m depressed. When I’m depressed I can’t leave the house. It overwhelms me like a physically sickness. It comes in waves and often I just drive around or sit in the car and cry.”

“So could you possibly accept that these times you describe are serious major bouts of depression?”

I shrug and inspect my fingers, hoping that she’ll move on. She doesn’t.

“Do you know that a lot of people do not get out of bed for days in these bouts?”

My fingers are, at this stage, fascinating.

“The symptoms you describe are accurate for dysthymic depression – mild constant depression interrupted by occasional serious episodes.”

After that first session, I take a walk. It has become stunningly obvious that my noticeable traits of character – things I had put down to personal idiosyncrasies – are actually symptoms of depression: isolation, difficulty having relationships, feeling sad, rejecting affection.

I will save you the sob story, but my parents were unhappy together and finally divorced when I was eight. My childhood losses and my feelings of rejection and abandonment could have kick-started the depression.

From both my own experience and what I have learned from psychiatrists, depression is the same feeling as grief. Grief occurs naturally after a major trauma such as an accident, bereavement or physical or emotional abuse. A person can be genetically predisposed to depression (ie, the body doesn’t produce enough serotonin or some other “happy chemical”), but there is also a medical theory, to which I subscribe (promoted by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon) that the brain, being a clever little sod, can learn to grieve all by itself. It says that lots of little traumas happening regularly throughout childhood and beyond (such as abandonment or the departure of a parent, or bullying or rejection) mean that the brain starts to recognise the feelings associated with grief and starts to repeat them whenever it feels like it, in the end not needing any traumatic event to stimulate it. Hence one starts to feel sadness and loss seemingly for no reason.

The knowledge that I am suffering from a depressive illness, coupled with my ability to discuss it with others in the same position, is nothing short of an epiphany. As the other people in the group talk, I find myself thinking, “My God, that’s me – that’s what I do” over and over again. Suddenly seeing that I am not alone in my weirdness is liberating. Perhaps I am not so terrible after all.

Then the group gives me feedback.

“I see a woman who is very hard on herself. Super-critical with impossibly high standards that she can never meet,” says one man.

“I see a woman who is sad and needs to show herself a little compassion,” says a lady with bipolar disorder.

Compassion? Me? Ha! That’s a load of bollocks. I don’t need compassion. I just need to do more, work harder – compassion is for other people.

My inner critic rages. Up to now I have relied on it to urge me forward, to keep me driven. Now I find that my negative voice is a manifestation of my illness, the lack of serotonin asserting itself, telling me I am bad and worthless.

“Are you ready to give yourself a break now?” The therapist smiles kindly. “It’s been 28 years – you deserve a bit of peace.”

I bite my lip and nod. Suddenly I feel like an eight-year-old again. I am made to write a letter from the adult me to the eight-year-old me, telling her that I love her.

I feel more than a little uncomfortable loving myself. I’m so used to hating myself.

You see, all those years, I thought it was normal to wake up in the morning and just see grey pointlessness. I thought it was normal to cry whenever you heard music. I thought it was normal to stare at people in the street and feel overwhelmed by sadness and futility at the sight of their pointless lives. I thought it was normal to avoid my friends most of the time. I’ve been seeing life in grey – like a rainy day in winter – and thinking this is what everybody sees. Happiness, whenever it has come, has been fleeting and so unfamiliar that it makes me sick with anxiety.

All of a sudden I can see that I have an illness that has gone untreated – perhaps dangerously so, because there are times I have felt so destructive or despairing that I have had no regard for my health. Now I am getting the help I need.

Of course, I am not the only person who has difficulty accepting this nebulous illness. Many people do not believe depression is real. There is no blood test that proves it, no physical handicap. Unless someone is crying in front of you how, can you tell they are depressed? They are probably just making it up, trying to get sympathy, attention, a day off work … But let’s turn this round. Why would someone want to be unable to get out of bed or go to the shops or talk on the phone or raise a smile?

I’m just thankful for the friend who loved me more than I loved myself, who stepped outside of her – and my – comfort zone and pointed it out. If you think you are depressed, you probably are – and there is no reason you should miss out on the everyday happiness that most people take for granted.

If you are a man suffering from depression, it can sometimes be a little harder to acknowledge, or to share with friends, because of all the stuff we are conditioned for – being men. This is a good source of advice if you would like to read more about help specifically aimed at men.

Your life in six words. Well?

Hemingway’s six word story, the original idea for this theme was:For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.

I remember reading this years ago. However an American online magazine called Smith has picked up the reins on this and now brought out a whole book of the six worders. There’s a fab looking graphic novel about New Orleans there too. Nice work, Smith people. Today, Smith CEO Larry Smith spoke on the Today programme on BBC radio 4. This inspired listeners to write in with their own six word life stories, as below. Mine is: Traumatic experience. Eyes now wide open.
Any contributions?

I knew I could be happy!
Sandra Quigley

Foetus, son, brother, husband, father, vegetable.
Dick Hadfield

Head in books, feet in flowers.
Heather Thomson

Trust me, I did my best.
Ray Kemp

Wrong era ,Wrong Class, Wrong Gender.
Patsy Wheatcroft

Love Mountains both ups and downs.
Dennis Lee

Wasted my whole life getting comfortable.
Richard Merrington

An embroidered sampler, with some unpicking.
Sian Martin

Worry about tomorrow, rarely enjoy today!
Richard Rabone

Dazed and confused? No. Existential angst.
Chris Miles

Pass the bottle before clarity returns
Gail Edmans

Luckily, never got my first wish.
Theo Matoff

Lifetime partner, love, laughs – what now?
Peter Elvish

I’m just happy to be here!
Graham Marsh

Four Weddings, Three kids, then cancer.
Gillian Johnson

Intermitent loves here, there, now, then.
Paul Wingett

30 years two girls now branching.
Davina Marshall

Not quite finished, tell you later.
Dave Nicholson

Really should have been a Lawyer.
Gules Fallan

Hasn’t Been A Jane Austen Romance.
Alexandra Lackey

Bored, so bored, so very bored.
John Doyle

Run over twice, thankfully still alive.
Trudi Evans

Aged child actress still seeking fame.
Doolallydaisy

Married childhood sweetheart. Two kids. Content.
Steve McMullen

Born London, lived elsewhere, died inside.
Patric

Partner, pension, motorhome, life is good.
Bob Lindblom

Some no-balls but several boundaries.
Di Attwood

Apple leads to eviction of two.
Una McMorran

Unfortunately I didn’t buy the t-shirt.
Caroline Ryan

Philosopher, fire-eater, barrister, careering through life.
Duncan Roy

My life? Six words? God knows.
Helen Underwood

Knight on white charger never showed.
Jane Kirk

No A Levels but a millionaire.
C North

Jennie, Emma, Jane, Sophie, Rose, happiness.
Peter Graham

Any chance I could start again?
Sunny Tailor

Lived, loved, laughed liberally and left.
Vince Horsman

Found it, Lost it, Found it.
Lucinda Lavelle

Worked all life still paying taxes.
John Ball

What the papers – or should I say, screens, say.

The second of the two articles featured here appeared in the online edition of the Guardian today, but it was actually about the Telegraph. Journalists of my acquaintance have complained bitterly about the bloodletting and culling done at the Telegraph, which used to be one of the bastions of good journalism in this country. The jolly tone of the Guardian article does not match the dark mood of the journalists. So I have done what papers (screens?) sometimes do and balanced this by preceding it with an article from a journalist from another source. It’s almost like seeing a government-sponsored article against one from a more radical perspective. And in a savagely ironic twist the incredibly well written feature on journo life by the Grey Cardigan, from the press gazette website, is now only available in print.

The Grey Cardigan: 2007.10.5

5 October 2007

A FEW weeks in and here at the Evening Beast we’re finally getting to grips with Crystal Tits and Alistair – our new editor and her fey, handbag-carrying deputy. (That’s her handbag, by the way.)

Conference still takes an age. You can actually watch the bowl of flowers on the table wilt as we stagger from indecision to impasse. (The exotic flowers are replaced daily and the fridge is restocked with expensive varieties of mineral water every night, a matter of little amusement to our van drivers, who’ve just had their hours cut as another tranche of our print run is handed over to wholesalers.)

Nervous Nigel, the current news editor, reckons he’s got it sorted, slipping in a supermarket story at number four on the list. We discuss the first three contenders – ongoing murder, council cock-up and overcrowded trains – for what seems hours before she takes the bait. “Ah, this story about Tesco selling clothes online. That’s interesting.”

A features department functionary points out that it’s hardly a local story. Yes, we’ve got four different varieties of Tesco on the patch, but this is all about the internet. And yes, it’s worth a run, but not on the front … His shins are viciously hacked beneath the desk until he subsides. So, bang, in it goes and we can all crack on with the job in hand.

Later that day, Crystal Tits takes delivery of her company car. She climbs into the back while Alistair gets behind the wheel as they set off on a test drive. One of the aforementioned van drivers swears that, when they went past him on the bypass, Alistair was wearing a chauffeur’s cap.

AS EXCLUSIVELY revealed here a couple of weeks ago, our old friend Liz-f*****g-Jones has been given Peter Dobbie’s prime slot at The Mail on Sunday – and I’m not sure it’s working.

(my asterisks)

Apart from the eyebrow-lifting admission that she’d had a breast reduction at the age of 20 for “fashion reasons”, it’s been run-of-the-mill stuff. (Do we need hyphens there? If the publishers of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary feel they can dispense with 16,000 of the buggers willy-nilly, so changing our written language without as much as a by-your-leave, then I’m going to stick them back in wherever I fancy.)

Of course, it’s difficult to maintain standards when you’re still eking out the pitiful detritus of your miserable marriage in You magazine – and presumably still entertaining the mad and abandoned 40-year-old divorcees who live their lives vicariously through your jousts with the toy boy – but I do fear that the Derry Street bigwigs might have overestimated Liz’s appeal to mainstream readers.

This week, Liz was upset that people were constantly being rude to her. I obviously wouldn’t stoop that far, but has it occurred to her that anyone who admits to feeding her “fur babies” human food, stalking other women and wearing gloves and socks to bed might be regarded as a sandwich short of a picnic by the rest of the population?

MEANWHILE, mother-of-three Lowri Turner admits that if she’d known how much fun dogs were, she’d have thought twice about having children.

“Having a dog is fun in a way that having children is simply not. When I return from work, my four-year-old is apt to wail ‘Where have you been?’ in a pathetic yet accusatory tone. Vanilla just runs round in circles, barking excitedly – always pleased to see me.

“There are no nappies or bottles to sterilise with puppies. No teething granules or measuring out Calpol while a mewling infant struggles in your arms… puppies do have a habit of disgracing themselves on your carpet, but when you’ve dealt with dirty nappies for seven years you are battle-hardened.”

Surely I can’t be the only one who thinks that if only dear Lowri had been introduced to the delights of canine ownership a decade ago, she would have been spared the anguish of childbirth.

NOT A great day for The Guardian last Monday. Hence the following day’s Corrections and Clarifications column, which had to: apologise over a picture of a completely innocent man being used in a story about a fake drugs gang; wring its hands over the mysterious re-use of a story that was actually first published in the paper last November about a council selling off a Lowry painting; and shuffle shamefaced towards the dunce’s corner after over-estimating by almost 90 per cent the number of boys who leave school each year without a GCSE to their name.

(Do they have subs any more? Do they care? Don’t they read their own paper? Don’t they check difficult sums?)

But worse, much worse than this, was the fact that the Inkies on the press also stuffed them by leaving out the page carrying the Media Monkey Diary from that week’s supplement. Again, why did no-one notice? It is, after all, the only thing worth reading in that section.

Things weren’t exactly looking up by Friday: “We misspelled the word misspelled twice, as mispelled, in the Corrections and Clarifications column on September 26, page 30.”

Roll the acid tones of that around your tongue then spit it onto your screen while you read this more restrained piece from the guardian page –

Much has been written about the hub-and-spoke editorial floor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph — but I have to say that it is a terrific working environment, not least because of the wall of giant ever-changing screens and the lofty space. From the inside it has the vitality of an old-fashioned newspaper but with the benefits of a 21st-century building. Down on the floor, with 4pm conference approaching, there is a familiar hubbub as a newspaper nears deadline. Although, of course, the paper now has many deadlines following editor Will Lewis’s famous “big bang” integration.

The group that is credited with having been the first to introduce a national paper website — and subsequently fell way behind in the online stakes — decided it needed to take a giant and swift stride into the future. In a breathless couple of weeks it moved offices, dispensed with scores of staff, and announced itself as a multi-platform, all-singing-all-dancing integrated paper. Now it is engaged in another form of integration by gradually merging the staffs of the Daily and Sunday titles.

My visit came in the wake of the decision to create a seven-day business division under the leadership of Damian Reece. He gave me a detailed hypothetical example of how a writer is expected to treat a running story. Stage one: a quick text story on the website to break the news. Stage two: updates as and when necessary on the site. Stage three: if a video or audio clip seems appropriate then he/she will go into the studio, located on the same floor. Stage four: as the day progresses the writer gets both extra background and reaction, some of it from contributions to the site. This will help in the writing of a more analytical and contextual piece for the paper.

That is a rather mechanical description of what tends to happen. As Reece says, it’s fluid in practice. He was also at pains to stress that the seven-day coverage by what amounts to a pool of business journalists will not rob the Sunday title of its distinctive quality. It does retain a dedicated City editor.

Lewis, for internal political reasons, avoids the “seven-day” phrase. For him, the quest for integration between screen and newsprint has built what he calls “brand reciprocity”. He says: “The biggest issue we face is serving a growing market across the globe. Integration helps us pursue this aim, providing us with a structure that makes best use of our resources.”

Both he and Reece stress that writers are discovering a new rhythm to their working day as they adjust to new rotas and the continual deadlines. Many journalists work on two screens. Chris Lloyd, the assistant managing editor, explains that staff find it helpful to move between the two, having one permanently logged on to the content management system, the other for email or a TV channel. Evidently, the Sydney Morning Herald is considering a two-screen approach too.

Meanwhile, all the staff know which are the most popular stories online from a projected wall screen which provides instantaneous feedback.

There was no discernible panic. But I did get the feeling, enhanced by some private comments from staff, that the Telegraph had tried to accomplish too much too quickly. I’m also unconvinced by the double-screen approach. But Lewis, backed by the owners, has bounced the papers into a new multi-platform era from which there can be no turning back. “There is a virtuous circle between print and web,” he says.