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August 28th, 2009

Oh to be 14 again…

Oh to be 14 again…

When I was in my early teens, I would go to the local video shop and pine for their selection of 18-rated videos. Films like Robocop, Alien, A Clockwork Orange – the video boxes tempted my teenage self, promising thrilling action, excessive gore and – gasp! – swearing. But I never got to see these mysterious films. Because of the age-restrictions, it was illegal for retailers to sell them to me.

Or so we all thought.

The Video Recordings Act of 1984 decreed that all video content in the UK must be classified and rated by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Retailers faced legal action if they sold violent videos to kids, and the sale of… other adult material was restricted to licenced shops. But new information has recently come to light – an administrative blunder when the law was passed means that it is unenforceable.

It seems that government of 1984 forgot to tell the European Commission about Video Recordings Act. Many current prosecutions have had to be dropped as a result, though the current government insists that previously prosecuted people will not be able to overturn the decision.

Before it can be put back into effect, the law will have be passed again. This will take at least three months. To their credit, most retailers have said they will continue to abide by the law and refuse to allow children to buy material the BBFC has declared unsuitable. Still, I’m sure there are still a few unscrupulous people out there happy to sell adult rated films to minors.

It’s going to be an exciting three months for the kids of the UK.

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August 25th, 2009

R.E.S.P.E.C.T – find out what it means to me

R.E.S.P.E.C.T – find out what it means to me

It’s no secret that the US is going through a bit of a ‘transitional’ time. Like so many other countries and people around the world, Americans continue to deal with the rippling effects of the last year’s economic fallout. News of movement within financial institutions and up and down Wall Street continues to hold the attention of the media. But lately the headlines have been dominated by opinions on the plans for health care reform that President Barack Obama has supported since day one of his campaign trail towards the White House.

Americans from all walks of life have gathered to preach and defend each over their takes on Obama’s plans. Some have gone as far as attempting to draw similarities between our current administration’s policies and those of the Nazi party. Some have simply stood up to defend the President for the goals he’s put in place.

Just last week, we talked about unearthed health care opinions coming in to play from Whole Foods founder and CEO, John Mackey following his very direct stance in a published Wall Street Journal article.

While criticism has simply spawned from the general notion of change, I can’t help but think that some sort of line needs to exist. If for nothing else it’s important to preserve the integrity of the first amendment, which allows us all to openly state our opinions. I come from a home where all opinions were encouraged as independent thought, but I was also steadfastly taught that a level of respect was absolutely necessary from each side of any personal ‘argument’.

Why has this level of respect blurred in the public arena?

Town hall meetings, perhaps the most common stage for continued argument, have become a breeding ground for heated debate and mudslinging from members of both the Republican and Democratic parties – and everyone in between. Just last week, Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) had a run-in with a woman at a town hall meeting in Dartmouth, MA who attempted to confront him for “supporting Nazi policies” over his backing of Obama’s plans. See how he responded here.

While I agree that Obama and his administration have not yet been clear enough in their messaging and communication around their plans for health care reform, I can’t help but wonder why it is that people are readily available to resist change in such negative ways. Isn’t this after all, a similar situation to that which Roosevelt faced when he put Social Security into play back in 1935?

I’m not here to take a stance on what is or isn’t right or what will or will not work, but I can’t help but be more than a little appalled at the side of some Americans that I’ve seen during this time, and inevitably will continue to see.

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August 21st, 2009

New perspectives on the bigger picture

New perspectives on the bigger picture

Technology is a perpetually engaging and fascinating subject because of the extremes with which it deals. It continually throws up new perspectives on both the minutiae and the monumental of human experience, the overwhelmingly public and the deeply personal. It’s all things to all people, and for this we love it and loathe it with fickle abandon.

As monumental endeavours go, attempting to map the entire planet in 3D is right up there. And it’s not just the boys at NASA who are informing our topological and geographical view of our world. Bhuvan, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s answer to Google Earth and Wikimapia, was made available for public download earlier this week. Sanskrit for ‘Earth’, Bhuvan is a 3D online satellite imaging and mapping tool that has been in testing and tweaking since the Spring.

According to The Times of India: “If Google Earth shows details up to 200 metres distance and Wikimapia up to 50 metres, Bhuvan will show images up to 10 metres.” It continued: “Imagine if you could count the lions in Gir or let fishermen find concentrations of fish in the sea, just by dragging a mouse on a computer screen.”

Of course it’s actually camera resolution, application stability, speed of manipulation, regularity of updates and robustness under load that really count when it comes to public digital imaging on this scale, but we’re delighted to see ISRO expand its portfolio of ‘space applications’ in such an ambitious direction.

The other story that really caught my imagination this week crossed boundaries between the public, the personal, and the political.

“On a happiness scale of 1 to 10, the world scored a 6.16 on Monday, according to Emotionr.” This is how the San Francisco Chronicle opened a report this week which discussed online services that purport to gauge how happy our population is feeling.

Some might argue that emotions are intangible, and that attempting to overlay metrics onto the landscapes of 6.8 billion complex minds is always going to be an inexact science at the very best. But if pressed over how we’re feeling on a scale of 1 to 10, most of us will begrudgingly offer up “about 6 or 7?” – and that’s pretty much the level of data that services such as Emotionr and others feed upon.

Emotionr is a free online tool with an emotional slider that submits individual scores to the global happiness pool, while also allowing you to track your own state of mind over time. TweetFeel claims to use “insanely complex analysis” to examine tweeter attitudes to anything you care to type into a search box. Google Insights for Search compares search volumes and patterns for the marketing community. Our emotions, it seems, are not only measurable, they can be ‘monetized’.

As The Chronicle pointed out, even President Obama’s chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers recently cited the decline in Google searches for “economic depression” as a sign of optimism.

But are the Googling and Twittering classes really ready to become representative of the happiness of our world? How do you ‘feel’ about that? Please let us know. Also, please tell us what you think of Bhuvan. We’ll literally be watching this space…

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August 18th, 2009

Apple bites back at journalists

Apple bites back at journalists

The Times of London penned a 4,000-plus word profile of Steve Jobs. Almost anyone else would be envious to get that much space in the paper. Apple, however, instead of being proud to get a lot of prestigious ink, complained and tried to put a stop to it, according to Computerworld UK.

The company, much like the technology behind it, is very closed off in terms of how it deals with the public. When Steve Jobs was in ill health, the company was quiet even as he was visibly eroding before our eyes. But trying to prevent the press from publishing a profile on Steve Jobs is irresponsible. First, Jobs is a public figure and there is more than enough information that the paper could write about him even if Apple didn’t want them to. However, the paper wanted to get input on the story from Apple, and they were scorned by Apple’s PR team.

The piece was on the topics of Job’s life, from his childhood to his education, business success and recent health problems. It criticized Steve for his being a control freak, but was not a completely negative article. Apple’s PR team tried to use the excuses that they “discourage profiles,” but in calling the editorial department to try to get the story killed they just reinforced what the Times of London described as Apple’s “cult of corporate omerta – the mafia code of silence.” It even sends misinformation to various parts of the company to find anyone that breaks it.

The company is facing a lot of bad PR for its lack of openness. In trying to prevent the article from coming out, it has drawn more attention to the fact that it isn’t open. If they had just remained quiet about it, the article probably wouldn’t have received much attention across the pond. Microsoft, for all of its flaws, has been good overall in letting the press write about whatever angle they choose. Apple should take note: Microsoft doesn’t try to kill articles, and it seems to be doing pretty well.

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August 13th, 2009

A whole PR mess at Whole Foods?

A whole PR mess at Whole Foods?

There’s an interesting online debate brewing over an article in the Wall Street Journal penned by Whole Foods Market Inc. founder and CEO John Mackey.

In his article, Mackey offers some strong criticism for Obama’s proposed health care reform and offers his own insights and suggestions, which he refers to as “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare.” Following the publication of Mackey’s views a torrent of disapproval has exploded both on Whole Foods’ forum and on Twitter – with its very own hashtag #boycottwholefoods.

The most surprising element to this story is that Whole Foods Markets, which can be found primarily in the US and Canada with one impressively large location in London, are known for catering to the granola crowd, touting generally liberal ideas of social reform while providing organic foods at what many of us consider to be outrageously high prices. (For those in the UK who have very little knowledge of Whole Foods Markets, it’s similar to Waitrose except that it’s not collectively owned and in my opinion as a girl who has shopped at both is more expensive.)

From a PR perspective, Whole Foods stands a lot to lose. For current customers who love the store for its natural products and socially responsible reputation, Mackey’s conservative ideas may ruin their appetites and persuade them to look elsewhere for their all-natural, all-organic trail mix. Customers who agree with Mackey and love organic foods are probably already shopping at his stores, and those that aren’t may not have the resources to afford supporting him by shopping at his stores. It certainly isn’t helping that comments on Whole Foods forums opposing Mackey’s article are being removed as they’re posted.

Such responses to Mackey’s views range from polite boycotting of his stores to Tweets and forum posters declaring “I’d rather die from DDT poisoning than shop at Whole Foods ever again.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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August 10th, 2009

How deep is your digital love?

How deep is your digital love?

How would you rate your level of addiction to technology? Do you think you’re getting more reliant on gadgets and fingertip information as you get older, or do you think your youthful self was hooked on a harder tech habit?

It’s something that I thought about frequently last week while stuck in bed all poorly with a spinning head that refused to focus on any screen – handheld or HD.

Like a lot of other thirty-somethings, I do at least try to keep a reasonable grip on real-life priorities as I begin plotting the early stages of a truly spectacular mid-life crisis. But that doesn’t stop me from blogging at dawn or tweeting through lunch, checking my Exchange inbox while gardening or conjuring up a new iPod playlist in the middle of a sleepless night.

It’s only when you’re bereft of gadgets, travelling in a connection-free zone or nursing a migraine or similar, that you really notice how reliant on, or at least comforted by, technology you truly are. So it was with a mixture of glee and foreboding that I read about the lives of Karl and Dorsey Gude in the New York Times this morning. Online, naturally. Over breakfast. On my iPhone.

The Gudes of Michigan nostalgically recall mealtimes interrupted only by newspapers and TV, as if they were halcyon days forever lost. These days, you see: “Mr Gude wakes at around 6am to check his work e-mail and his Facebook and Twitter accounts. The two boys, Cole and Erik, start each morning with text messages, video games and Facebook.” Even Mrs Gude “cracks open her laptop after breakfast.”

It’s a scene repeated in household across the world where sufficient expendable income and comfortable lifestyles have enabled some families to replace or enhance face-to-face communications with global social media and entertainment. Despite her wilful fraternisation with her tech demons, Mrs Gude isn’t happy at all: “Things that I thought were unacceptable a few years ago are now commonplace in my house,” she told NYT. “Like all four of us starting the day on four computers in four separate rooms.”

Scary, do you think? Or perhaps aspirational? How has technology transformed your own home life? Do you think concerns at our increasing use of evolving tech are the woolly worries of deluded luddites? Or do you constantly harbour a hankering for a simpler, gadget free home-life? Perhaps you out-geek the Gudes and fancy sharing your own digital day with us?

Please share your thoughts – I’ll be monitoring the blog at every waking second, just in case you do…

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August 7th, 2009

How much would you pay to read news online?

How much would you pay to read news online?

(By Laura Beynon and Vicki Kim)

Would you pay to read news on the internet? If you read any of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper websites (likely, since there are a lot of them) then have your credit card ready – Murdoch has stated that users of sites, including The Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times, will be charged for access. Alternately, you could just revert to other news sites that will continue to be free, although they may not be free for much longer.

News organisations have been hit hard by the recession, faced with advertising downturn and huge structural change. News Corp reported that between April and June, advertising at Mr Murdoch’s four titles fell by 18 percent. There are fears that other papers may follow Murdoch’s strategy.

One such paper that may be taking cues from Murdoch is the Boston Globe, which is reportedly planning on charging readers for access to its online content. The Globe, currently for sale by parent company New York Times Co., says that charging readers is inevitable to increase revenues for the struggling broadsheet.

It has also been reported that Sky News may start charging for access to its website. Currently only one of Murdoch’s newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, charges for access to its website.

It hasn’t been decided yet how much people will have to pay. Mr Murdoch has said that, even though he’s the first to introduce the charges, he’s not scared of losing readers. I like his optimism, but only time will tell whether this approach will be successful.

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