An encounter with the Dutch wheelchair basketball team

My daughter has weekly ballet lessons at recreation centre that has three basketball courts.

Parents aren’t allowed to watch the ballet, so during lessons we repair to the downstairs cafe.

Last time I went, I could not help but notice the Dutch Wheelchair Basketball team practising on the courts. Their orange outfits make them conspicuous.

After practice, the team came into the cafe so I said hi to one of the players. Here’s what happened afterwards:

Me: Hi

Basketballer: Hi.

Me: Who are you playing here?

Basketballer: We’re here to play against Australia and South Africa.

Me: Aha! The old colony.

Basketballer: Two colonies.

Me: What do you mean?

Basketballer: You’ve heard of Arnhem Land?

Me: You can’t claim that as a colony: you named it and sailed away.

Basketballer: You’re right.

That dialog is from memory, but the Dutch guy’s English had no trouble keeping up with my questions. And his knowledge of history was top-rate.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Dutchman 19 years ago, when I visited the obscure Minoan Palace of Phaistos as a backpacker.

I visited in winter, so tourist buses weren’t running. The bus I and a Dutch visitor named Oscar had hoped would come by was running late, and Phaistos is out-of-the-way enough and the season cold enough that there was no-one on site to help.

So we flagged down the first bus that passed to ask for information.

Oscar spoke English, Russian and Dutch to the driver, before German did the trick.

Afterwards, this dialog ensued:

Me: That was impressive Oscar. You just went through four languages.

Oscar: It was not good.

Me: WTF?

Oscar: I only speak four languages. In Holland smart students learn eight or nine. And in English my vocabulary is poor and my syntax is full of mistakes.

My jaw hit the floor.

At the end of this all I felt very smug about sending my kids to a school where learning a language is compulsory.


I’m sick of the Foxconn bullshit

In 1996, I was invited to visit a factory in the USA  which produced laptop computers for a colossal global technology brand.

The visit was conducted by a supervisor who walked us around the factory floor. At one point, within earshot of workers, he said words to this effect:

“These people don’t need any skills. In fact we want them to be just like robots. We just want them to do the same thing over and over all day. That’s why it is a minimum wage job. When we need new people we just hire them for as long as we need them. We can train them to do this in half an hour.”

That incident is a vivid memory 15 years later,  because of the extreme bluntness of the comments and the fact they were made within workers’ earshot.

Now let’s fast forward to late 2010 and the present, when it has become fashionable to write about – and then wring one’s hands about – working conditions at Chinese manufacturers in light of reports of suicides at Foxconn and followups like this one in Wired or this one in the SMH.

I have no problem with these stories premises, although the latter inhabits that grey zone between conventional journalism and techniques that see journalism almost but not quite admit it’s a secondary or tertiary source.

But what I am sick of is the moral relativism that comes when we analyse one company and ignore others, and consider one issue but ignore others.

My personal experience means I know that workers who assemble consumer electronics get a shit deal. Living in the USA on minimum wage as a casual and being told to your face by a supervisor that you have no valuable skills is not a good gig. Is it worse than life in the Foxconn campus? Is the forced overtime worse than the economic reality of being offered more hours as a casual knowing that you have no power to negotiate?

For me, there are parallels.

But where was the media when I was touring that factory? Why has it taken a “sexy” product to get this debate started? Why is  our collective sense of social justice aroused by one manufacturer and the company it serves?

Where’s the inquiry into the many, many other issues that accrete around our consumption of gadgets and the companies that make them? For what it is worth, the plant I observed is now owned by a Chinese concern. Why aren’t we reading about investigations of its practices?

I’m partly to blame. I could have  reported on what I saw. It was beyond my remit at the time but I could have found somewhere to run a story about the working conditions I observed.

I chose not to.

And lots of journalists and readers around the world are also choosing to ignore things that are probably at least as bad as what goes on a Foxconn.

We can all vicariously slough off  some guilt  by tut-tutting about these stories, but that won’t make a difference. And I suspect, as I also read reams of speculation about the next shiny gadgets, that we don’t really want to.

A tale of global stupid

I like The Strokes, so when I saw that I could pre-purchase the band’s new album for just $US7.99 I jumped at the chance.

The official Sony Music download site offering this service is US based and has made the album available on March 22nd.

So fancy my surprise when I learn that the album has already been released here in Australia. I can even buy it on iTunes.

Without waiting for the 22nd.

I’ve argued before that territorial copyright just ain’t working no more. Giving away distribution fiefdoms to subsidiaries or rights-holders in different nations makes little or no sense in an age when no matter where you disseminate information it can reach the whole planet.

But this incident takes the whole thing to  new dimension of stupid. We’re all used to the USA being the “master market” where stuff gets released first. Now territorial copyright is making even that assumption unreliable.

I just wanna buy the entertainment I wanna buy, when I wanna buy it?

Can someone get rid of all these arsehats who decide on the dates it suits THEM to release something ?

I bet the iWhatever is useless outside the USA to start with

Here’s a prediction or three about the iWhatever, Apple’s new geegaw.

We all know it’s a tablet-y e-reader thing that will do books, newspapers, videos music and the web, probably with some kind of subscription model.

I bet that subscription stuff is not available outside the USA for ages. I reckon Apple has done deals in the USA, probably Disney-centric deals, and that the subscription stuff is limited to start with. So the company won’t bother selling the iWhatever outside the USA until it gets more deals up.

This will demonstrate, yet again, how odd it is that we have a global network to excite people about content but national arrangements for its release and distribution. Apple treads carefully with its content partners, so I suspect the iWhatever will not begin to erode these odd arrangements. But just as the music industry took a while to wise up to digital distribution when the iPod came along, I suspect the iWhatever will start the process of eroding national content fiefdoms.

Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and, as often happens these days, the topic turned to getting more traffic for web sites.

One of my colleague’s foremost requests was for me to stop using British English in my writing, and to stop applying it to stories we source from our content partners.

The reason? “Virtualization” is a mighty search keyword, requested by hordes of folks around the globe every day.

But “Virtualisation,” our genteel Australian alternative, is searched for several orders of magnitude less often. So it makes no commercial sense for us to make the small adjustment to our copy to spell the word with an “s” rather than a “z”.

Some would argue that changing the single letter was a futile act of pedantry in the first place. I argued against because I think that small elements like this can be an important marker of identity that is appreciated by readers, even if only because it shows you care enough to make some small adjustments.

Right now, however, the fact that commercial online publishing is driven by the need for good search engine optimization* outcomes seems to me to be a likely source of homogenisation of the English language.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I find bland opposition to change stupidly antediluvian. But I think it is worth noting that the combination of commerce and technology are creating forces that work upon language in interesting ways.

* Yes, that is a deliberate and ironic reversion to “z” there, folks

Post 72:08 Green IT is a dead meme

Throughout the year, I have been pitched countless stories about green IT.

And a couple of weeks back, when I attended a PR training session, it was the ace in many PRs’ hands.

I didn’t fall for the bluff because in my opinion greent IT is a dead meme. Or at least a dormant meme.

I say this because most of the “green” IT I have seen this year has involved technologies that lower power consumption. But non have done so to a startling degree. Most have hit somewhere between 5% and 20%. With the price of power to rise dramatically and device proliferation continuining, that’s a small achievement. It also ignores the other ways in which IT consumes resources all the way along the supply chain, from the mine where raw materials come from upwards.

The other reason it is a dead meme is that everyone is now proclaiming their green-ness, meaning that being green becomes a bit like being secure. A vendor would never bring an insescure product to market. As of any second now, it will also be unthinkable to create technologies that cannot include some claim to green-ness in their feature list.

But hang on … I also said it could be a dormant meme. That’s because, I hope, there are big green innovations out there tat can differentiate a product. I hope I get to write about those in 2009. I expect to instead repel dozens more pitches about incremental power savings.

Post 69:08 Globalism schmobalism

A few months ago, a large software company invited me to the USA for one of its events. I would have flown at the nice end of the plane and been entertained grandly for the duration at a cost of $15,000-$20,000.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the local outpost of the vendor for a briefing on the product with the local experts. Response to the product has been varied and I wanted to learn more.

It seems I cannot have that briefing form local spokespeople. And the folks in the USA won’t talk to me about it either.

I recount this story not to get grumpy with the PR, but to bemoan the lack of globalism I see every day. The fact I cannot get this interview is just one example of political boundaries creating pointless policies in an age when ideas and information can cross borders in a heartbeat, yet some insist on controlling them by country.

It’s not just PR departments. TV shows I want to watch are being shown in free-to-air in the USA and may take a year to get the same treatment here. iTunes rents TV shows in the USA that I cannot purchase here.

Now I know that there are licensing and distribution agreements behind these restrictions. But from a consumer’s point of view, all I perceive is an industry uninterested in giving me choice. When that attitude crosses over into my work life, it’s even dumber given the various online media – both legitimate and back channel – that are already global.

Post 56:08 Can PR 2.0 and Web 2.0 co-exist?

I’ve just seen a deck of slides that represents Web 1.0 as companies controlling the message to the community and Web 2.0 is all about the community controlling the message.

So here’s my question: can PR and Web 2.0 co-exist?

My belief is that PR is all about helping companies control their message, the better to protect their reputation.

Journalists are pretty good at picking up when that message is BS and saying so. (Most of the time, anyway. There are distressingly high volumes of crap journalism that swallows and regurgitates corporate crap)

I wonder if communities won’t be even more hostile at attempts to have their collective outputs shaped.

In fact, I can imagine that some PR people could even prefer current media structures, because they offer easier, more-defined groups of influencers to target.

Either way, getting to a 2.0 state could be hard. Either communities get “infiltrated” by corporate messaging (which means the community message is contaminated and compromised) or PRs try to retard 2.0-style openness for their own protection.

This is very off the top of the head stuff here, obviously. But at this stage it is making scary sense to me!

Post 53:08 I’m back, good and grumpy about social media releases

Press releases are the most predictable documents in the world.

They contain little or no news, plenty of self-congratulation, and offer little value to most journalists I respect other than for their role putting things on the record, i.e; when the CEO says something so turgid you are actually better off using the canned quote in the press release. The real story, the one that adds value to readers, almost always lies elsewhere.

The same, sadly, applies to the new creation of the “social media release.”

Those of this genre that I have seen do a few things differently to a normal media release. They have links to a Facebook group or some other social networking site. They have links to photos, which should really have been standard issue in press releases a decade ago, but let’s not go there. Sometimes they have podcasts or videos.

It’s the latter two I want to take issue with, because I am yet to see one of these social media releases in which the multimedia do more than offer dull, low-production-values, versions of the same kind of PR corporate-speak you get in a written release.

Here’s a good example. The videos in this social media release are just garbage. I fell asleep after two minutes. The Chalk Talk video, IMHO, is the worse of the two. Why waste my time filling a whiteboard with theory? Why not just SHOW me the software in action? This, to me, seems like the most basic idea imaginable. Now that video lets you show things to people, why not do so? Cut out the boastful self-promotion and let me have the visceral experience of watching the software actually DO something.

So it’s the same old useless content. But in a different medium.

At this point, readers might have one of two reactions. If, for example, you are privvy to the knowledge that I have recently had a spat with a representative of the PR firm that does some work for the company whose social media release I have linked to, you could think this is a get-square. Nothing could be further from the truth. I just like to blog about this stuff. And I am a gnat on the vendor’s ass anyway.

Another thing some folks have done when I raise this topic is to accuse me of being an old fogey, a digital immigrant and therefore unfit to comment on anything 2.0. Bullshit. You could be a 14 year old who spends all day with a pair of iPhones glued to your eyes and still find stuff like this SMR dull as dishwater.

Post 52:08 More big questions

There’s a very interesting OpEd in today’s SMH, in which the authors describe YouTube as ” home port for lip-syncers, karaoke singers, trainspotters, birdwatchers, skateboarders, hip-hoppers, small-time wrestling federations, educators, third-wave feminists, churches, proud parents, poetry slammers, gamers, human rights activists, hobbyists.”

They go on to say that they see YouTube as having a role similar to zines in the 1970s, when zines offered a medium to present ideas incapable of reaching the mainstream. Communities and movements coagulated around zines, making them a forerunner of social media.

The piece also says that YouTube is now sufficiently adopted to enable it to bring down a government, partly because (and yes, I am making some context-disrespectful jumps): “While most people can read, very few publish in print. Hence active contribution to science, journalism and even fictional storytelling has been restricted to expert elites, while most of the general population makes do with ready-made entertainment.”

This all gets me wondering. I like ready-made entertainment. It is elaborate and rich in ways that sail beyond anything I have ever seen on YouTube. There is no YouTube Sopranos equivalent, for example.

And I disagree that active contribution to these other fields is somehow crimped today. Sure, there are rules before one can be published in a scientific journal, but those rules help to produce rigourous work. And I’m sure we’ve all encountered crackpots with odd theories. Let’s not even get started on climate change denial here!

I also wonder what the heck it is that the collective us will do on YouTube that will make a difference and bring down a government?

Perhaps we will all be so inspired by some content on YouTube that a social movment will coalesce around it.

I’m not so sure. I believe apathy is not only rampant, but encouraged. I remember watching political rallies in the 1970s. Today, PRs prevent such things from even happening, lest they be hijacked by someone off-message.

In any case, politicians may not see any benefit to social media interaction. Stilgherrian’s tweets from today suggest they are disinclined and under-resourced to deal with what is already coming their way.

I suspect that to take YouTube and other social networks from amusing curiosities to world-changers, new lines will need to emerge.

These things are called “social” tools for a reason, because people use them in their social lives. The web apps we use to organise our social lives are therefore designed to help us do that. Sure, they are good tools to link us with like minded people. And email etc means we now have tools that make it far, far easier to let our elected representatives know what is on our collective minds.

I suspec that “political networking tools” cannot be far off, that will aggregate opinion to enact change. At the moment we are 20 million lone voices, who sometimes get a lot more attention than was possible before YouTube. Once we can network ourselves more effectivley than GetUp rounding up money to make ads, things might just get to the transcendent place the OpEd hints at.