Archive for February, 2009

Happy to say I’ve apparently come second in the British Journalism Training Council’s award scheme – well, second in the ‘long’ category. Seemed like a long time ago I started work on the RFID/Oyster card piece. In fact, it was cracked over a year ago. The piece that won – with a lot of help from people like Girish Juneja at Channel Four News, can be viewed here.

And big up to Apostolo Gaitainis who has apparently won third place for his excellent MA piece on corruption and pollution in Greece’s Eordea Valley. Al Jazeera English’s ‘People and Power’ strand picked it up, and seeing as he did everything on it (well, I did the script, ha!), well done Apo! (Correction – Apostolos’s film on citizen journalism was the prize winner. What a journo!)

No idea who came first at the moment.

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Mitchell as Mark Corrigan in Peep Show.
Image via Wikipedia

For years now I’ve been enraged, or at least a little peeved, at people dissing Wikipedia for its ‘innacuracies’. This massive wad of information that has been created by the general public often gets criticised, largely by ‘traditionalists’ who bemoan its lack of credibility (in part) because ‘anyone’ can update it. While I’m inclined to agree the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is deeply flawed (roughly speaking, that more or less means that every democratically-elected leader in the history of politics was a ‘wise’ choice; they weren’t), I use, rarely contribute to, and very much respect Wikipedia. But I couldn’t get my defence of it quite right until now. In today’s Guardian (or would that be The Observer? Doesn’t sound as credible, does it?), the unlikely source of David Mitchell (unlikely, as Peep Show kicks arse, but his columns aren’t always made of the same metal, even if I did click on it, yeah?) makes the following point – lifted in all its glory.

But please don’t think I hate or suspect everything on the internet. I think, for instance, that Wikipedia is brilliant. That such a vast resource should have evolved so quickly is amazing, in a way that its inaccuracies and those who vandalise it cannot seriously undermine. I read a very stupid article about it last week, saying that it was worthless or harmful because readers have to be aware that it could contain errors or lies.

This ignores two things. First, Wikipedia’s level of accuracy is remarkable considering its eclectic provenance. And second, readers should always question the veracity of what they read and the motives of whoever wrote it, and in the internet age more than ever. People who allow themselves to be made credulous by stylish typesetting and a serif font are screwed. And if Wikipedia, while being very informative in most cases, teaches a few lessons about questioning sources, then that’s all to the good.

And there we have it. People read and watch any old shit. Britain has the best printed press in the world, and it sure as hell as one of the worst as well. I will no longer have anyone slag off Wikipedia’s accuracy by anyone who has ever picked up a newspaper without constantly questioning every single ‘fact’ and assumption that makes our publish-and-be-damned media landscape so attractive in the first place.

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(FILES) A Comp USA...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Hooooray – justice for anyone not using Windows but still keen on watching Channel Four content online.

According to Media Week (following their relentless Twittering stream has paid off for me), Channel Four will soon be launching a streaming Adobe Flash based player for their catch-up content. In other words, you don’t have to be running Windows Media Player to be able to watch.  I smell freedom and justice and the end of Windows’ monopoly. Or maybe I just smell Dispatches when I actually want to watch it.  Either way.

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Trying to find an application that allows you to record Skype tools should be, I thought, quite easy.

Of course it was quite easy, but not without forking out – it turns out that if you’re a mac user, it is tricky to find an app to record Skype calls for free (we’re used to waiting for shit).

I’m sure many journalists still haven’t discovered the delights of Skype, but little gooey recording pads that run from the phone to a dictaphone really are finished now that you can easily record- my delight at discovering the open-source Audacity was palpable. No more frantic scribbles, no more gooey handset adapters, and no paying for recording software. Simply run Skype, call your guy, and hit record on Audacity – a reasonable quality MP3 or Wav is moments away. Sweet.

This is an article based on an interview I carried out in August ’08 with one of the founders of Hubdub – the news prediction game. It’s an interesting mix between something like Digg and fantasy football, and could become an increasingly popular way of engaging with the news. The interview appears courtesy of cmypitch.com and the start-up profiles page, where there are plenty more reviews of hot new, mostly UK and techy, start-up companies.

Securing VC funding last November before launching the public beta (test) phase on June 20th this year , Hubdub is essentially a community that takes on board the success of news-sharing sites such asdigg.com but adds the addictive element of prediction and gambling – for virtual money and league positioning.

In CEO and founder Nigel Eccles words ‘It’s a prediction and forecasting platform. It’s all about creating predictions with your friends. The mission is to have predictions on any topic of public interest.’ So, the fun is to make predictions with friends and see how it turns out a couple of weeks down the line (or whenever the time-frame is up), while there are also those using the forecasts as a useful tool to follow news stories. If you think David Miliband is a sure-thing for next Prime Minister of Great Britain, you can make the prediction and get friends and others to make theirs – with the low odds on you being correct, if it actually happens when the deadline is up, you’ll earn a virtual packet and shoot to the top of the league.

Eccles explains how the idea came to him: ‘I used to work forslotter.com (a gambling website) and so I was always familiar with the technology. We’d always use betting odds for things, such as Big Brother, but I realised most people don’t understand them. I thought here’s a way to simplify them… I was following the start of the London mayoral elections last year, and thought this would be a great way (giving percentage likelihoods). Plus, I’m really into news… You could read thousands of articles to try and know the outcome on something, or just come to the site to see what’s most likely.’

So why is it based in Edinburgh but focused on the US? ‘I’ve always loved US politics, but that isn’t the only reason – you kind of have to be in one or the other– US users aren’t interested in football, and it is a bigger market . Although in saying that we have an active premiership prediction area, and 10% of our users are UK based.’

And where is the money coming from, you may ask? For the last few months, they’ve been focused on user ‘engagement’ and distribution (not least through strong search engine optimisation), not marketing or revenue. But Eccles says there is a clear plan: ‘While advertising is an opportunity, we’re excited about market data and we’re building a revenue model around that. The forecasts are actually quite accurate – so for businesses it could be very valuable.’ Whether that happens, an accurate prediction is certainly needed to find out. In the meantime though,cmypitch.com predicts it will grow.

This is interesting. ProPublica, the non-profit news source with a focus on investigative journalism (‘in the public interest’), has hired a graduate from a journalism programming course.

The combination of programming and news judgement, meaning a focus on apps and interactive features, is, according to journalism.co.uk, the reason the Medill graduate has been taken on board.  It certainly seems a logical advancement for online news production. Is s/he as good at programming as working? Probably not. But the strings on my bow are all of varying tightness, if you know what I mean – and worried others will always whinge.

Should older journalists be quaking in their boots? Probably not. But any one-trick journalistic pony under the age of 40 should be – or should at least be learning. Mind you, if they havn’t seen the writing on the wall by now, there probably is no hope.

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Cover of "The Outsider"
Cover of The Outsider

Thought I’d post this old interview I held with DJ Shadow in Sydney, in what must have been late 2006 – around the time The Outsider came out. Haven’t written on music for a while, but just took on a job for a mate – so thought, hey, why not see if it this gets some traffic ;) Originally written for http://www.inthemix.com.au, it was published in the 2006 (print) annual.

It just so happens I’m drenched to the bone as I sit down with a relaxed Josh Davis in the club lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel. Our gazes wonder away from the well-dressed breakfasters, across the spectacular harbour, through the rain towards the Tasman Sea. I’m here with a man who has probably done as much for popular music as anyone else in the last ten years, a producer who, on the previous night, played to a packed Hordern Pavilion with an audiovisual display that left most of the crowd astounded. Nine mega-screens broadcast a plethora of eye-candy to thousands of eager fans, from hip hop heads to goths, many of whom spoke of this master of sample-driven atmospheric music in an almost god-like manner. Funny; I’d planned to ask him if he felt he was perhaps overrated. If, despite the status of the universally-acclaimed Endtroducing (‘First album to make the Guinness Book of Records for containing nothing but samples’ etc), the hype placed on ‘DJs’ in our day and age, himself included, is somewhat unwarranted. Yet after seeing an intrinsically detailed, impeccably well planned, and downright fucking fantastic show the night before, I decided, probably rightly so, that it might appear churlish.

‘The thing that’s hard is that I’ve done quite a few tours, and particularly as I’m working with songs from Endtroducing right now it’s hard to come up with better ways than you’ve done before’, he explains as a bowl of bran flakes is swiftly ushered towards the table. ‘So in the case of some parts of the set like what I did with ‘Organ Donor’, I was like “fuck it, I’m just gonna do what I did last time, ‘cos there’s nothing that could work as good as that” – that’s always the highlight. I try my best- the encore took like a week and a half to put together, just trying to figure out good ways of doing it’. And a great encore it was, like much of the show, welding together huge chunks of music from Endtroducing, The Private Press, music from Shadow’s Unkle projects with James Lavelle, and tantalisingly, sneak previews of his latest work The Outsider.

For despite having Mos Def in the support slot, you could be forgiven for letting it slip your mind that DJ Shadow is in fact a hip hop artist, so thorough is his genre-transcending. It was Shadow, along with buddies Latyrx and Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab, that set up Solesides, now Quannum Projects, the constantly expanding Bay Area label. And the Outsider, unlike earlier albums, has rappers on it. Crazy. ‘I just didn’t want to soften it this time, and wasn’t worried about people not being able to follow the thread.’, he explains. It almost seems as if Shadow may in some way be burning some bridges, so likely is the alienation of large swathes of his fan base. But power to the man – he’s just not that bothered. He denies, however, that it’s more of a straight hip-hop record. ‘No, it’s just very diverse’ he answers. ‘There’s rap, all different types, with Phonte from Little Brother, Q-Tip, E-40, David Banner, all kinds of different artists. Then there’s also rock music and folk music, and very ‘Shadowey’ sounding music’

Indeed, as amusing as it is to hear this modest man describe his own music as ‘Shadowey’, you know exactly what he means, in the same way ‘Pharelley’ or ‘Aphex Twinney’ could be applied to the music of those artists. Following the ominous introduction, the first of these ‘Shadowey’ tunes, This Time, provides a warning of sorts for what’s to follow. ‘This time, I’m gonna do it my way’, the sampled crooner explains. Once this short track hits its end, the barrage of hardcore Bay Area ‘hypie’ rap that takes up almost half the album starts in earnest. Not only is it unlike earlier DJ Shadow material, it’s miles removed from other Quannum artists, as well as other so-called ‘underground’ hip hop often placed on a pedestal. When you realise the first US-wide hypie hit was produced by crunk big-timer Lil’ John, with Bay Area veteran E-40 on vocals, along with young buck Keak da Sneak, both of whom also feature on The Outsider, you get a better idea as to how different this album is to either Endtroducing or The Private Press.

‘The type of rap I’ve been listening to for the last five to seven years is not the Jurassic 5/Quannum rap, it’s the hardcore gangsta stuff’, he clarifies when I look surprised. ‘That’s the music that’s been influencing me lately, and I wanted to make sure it was represented on the record.’ And to dispute the likely claims there was a commercial aspect to the decision, that of including radio-friendlier hip hop (he himself admits that ‘for the first time in my life I’m getting radio play’), one needs only to look at the rappers used to ‘slap’ the beats, as he puts it. With the exception of E-40, Q-Tip and Quannum’s Lateef, most are relative unknowns. ‘I was making beats which I put tried and tested MCs on who I’ve known for years, and it just didn’t sound right. It was only when I reached out to the kind of people I was listening to on the radio that it all kind of started to make sense.’ Funnily enough, despite Shadow’s global reach, the rappers contacted turned out not to be too familiar with his work. ‘Everyone in rap knows my name and knows who I am’, he puts it matter-of-factly, ‘But when you talk about people like Keak Da Sneak and Turf Talk, who are ten years younger than me, they know the name but don’t know my music. They don’t remember Endtroducing, they were too young, and everything I’ve done since then hasn’t been in a rap vein. Even stuff like Quannum – hardcore gangsta-rap dudes in the Bay maybe don’t even know who we are…Keak Da Sneak is huge in the Bay Area, he can’t walk down the street – he’s like the Pied Piper.’

Halfway through the album, The Outsider starts to move away from the hypie sound, with acoustic rock-inspired instrumentation resulting in music that Unkle fans might be pleased with, in the form of collaborations with UK vocalist Chris James. Yet work with Unkle-partner James Lavelle, perhaps disappointingly, appears unlikely. ‘What happened in 1998 when Mo’ Wax sorta got pulled out from underneath him, he sort of lost everything in a sense, and I think he became quite disillusioned with the way he had been treated by the majors, and unfortunately to some degree he has a hard time relating to all his old artists. I think he feels in a way that we all abandoned him or something. …He’s a passionate guy – I still consider him a friend but we don’t see each other that much.’ The same sort of label-mess that resulted when ‘a Liquor company bought a cigarette company or something’ in 1998 means Shadow now appears courtesy of Universal Records, and not Universal Music. After a long-winded explanation he describes the situation as ‘complicated and convoluted’, but is, essentially, satisfied as to how it turned out. ‘What happened recently is I ended up on Geffen’s doorstep, and I didn’t really want to be there. I was tired of being dumped off on people, and I feel it’s much better if somebody has to fight for me to be there, because then there is a vested interest in America for me to be a success – so I put my foot down and said no. So Universal Records, a part of Universal Music, said ‘Ok, we want him’.

And now that they have him, it remains all about the music for DJ Shadow. Fans will be aware of the obsessive record collecting, the work of a man in love with sounds. For him, the fame people perceive he experiences means even less than it used to, especially in light of the traumatic time he and his wife went through with the complications involved in the birth of their twins. ‘I’m not the type of person who walks down the street and gets recognised’, he explains, ‘I like the anonymity, I don’t wanna make millions of dollars, just enough to continue to do what I do. You always hear people like Woody Allen or Spike Lee say that they only wanna make enough in the movies to make the next one. I feel the same. I want to be in a position to make records and get them to as many people as possible.’ It’s the kind of laissez –faire, modest, confident and satisfied response he provides to all my queries. Apart from the shame he expresses at the actions of President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger, and the annoyance he says he feels when predictable questions from uninterested journalists are fired his way (‘Does Hip Hop Still suck in ’06?’), he’s a relaxed and amiable dude. ‘I’m not gonna pretend that I don’t wanna be here,’ he says almost coyly, as two suits march past the table, gazes peering down their noses at the bloke in scruffy wet jeans, across the table from the slight American in tilted cap and baggie-pants. ‘Actually, he’s probably one of the most important recording artists of or our age, you nob.’ At least that’s what I thought of saying, but only afterwards when I’m making the thirty-floor descent in the lift.

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