Hunting the light

Hunting the light

Just spent four days in Ireland. It’s a wonderful place for a photographer because the weather — and therefore the light — is constantly changing. But this time it was boringly stable and the light was almost always flat. I came home with only two passable pictures — this one, taken early in the morning on the road to Dingle…

… and this, taken in Barrow, near Tralee Golf Club’s stupendous new course.

How Apple saved the music business

This morning's Observer column uses the case of the music industry to ponder the mystery of why established companies seem to find it impossible to innovate. Text version here. Audio here.

Mr Marilyn

Mr Marilyn

To read some of the pop media, you’d think that the only significant thing Arthur Miller did (apart from writing a few plays) was to have been the husband of Marilyn Monroe. But he was unhappily married to Marilyn only for five years — and was happily married to a wonderful photographer, Inge Morath, for decades. (She died in 2002.) Here’s her Magnum portrait.

For many commentators, though, Inge was just a footnote. Oddly, I couldn’t find any portrait of Miller that was taken by her, but Google Images did find a few charming pictures of the two of them together — for example this:

Other images here, here and here.

Inge’s Magnum Portfolio is online. (See her wonderful picture of John Huston.)

The nicest valedictory essay on Miller was a beautiful piece by the Literary Editor of The Times, Erica Wagner. Miller’s America, she writes, was “a place of freedom and a place of orthodoxy. Miller’s life, and his work, seemed to contain it all. His later plays never brought him the acclaim of his earlier work, but that matters only in the present moment, the moment of newspapers and critics. The moment of history, the moment of literature, is longer, and lasts. What is of worth will be remembered, and what Arthur Miller brought not only to America but to all the literate world — both his passion and his polemic — will always be remembered.

In the East London school where my husband teaches, the students who read Death of a Salesman weep as much as I did when I first saw it, and as did that Chinese woman in a rehearsal studio in Beijing. Call the 20th century Miller’s century: a time and a man to trouble us, to inspire us, to call us to question each other and ourselves.”

I had a vague memory of reading a piece (Google found it, naturally) about how Miller and Morath were once invited to dine with Fidel Castro in Cuba. When they arrived, a security guard forced Inge to hand over the Leica that she always carried. She reluctantly complied and then had to watch as the goon casually let it fall onto the stone floor. That’s the kind of story a photographer never forgets!

Blogging: an interview

Blogging: an interview

An Argentinian journalist, whom I know and like, interviewed me by email this evening about the Blogging phenomenon. Here, for the record, is what I said.

Q. Is blogging a new form of journalism?

To a limited extent, in the sense that the technology enables a immensely wide range of observers to publish their thoughts. But most bloggers are not reporters in the accepted sense of the term. Part of the difficulty in understanding blogging comes from the fact that the term encompasses a fantastically wide range of publishing activities — from personal journals (diaries online — see for examples) to filters (pages of links to stuff the blogger finds interesting or important — see or BoingBoing) to really serious, thoughtful essay-type sites (i.e. or

Q. Is it a threat to traditional media?

Yes, in the sense that it means that traditional media cannot get away with pretending they are the only conduits for information or reporting; no in the sense that serious reporting requires training and resources and most bloggers have neither. My view is that you need to take an ecological view of this. Blogging is a new ‘species’ in the media ecosystem. It feeds off conventional media, and increasingly contributes to it (in the sense that mainstream media pay increasing attention to blogging). I see a symbiotic relationship developing between blogging and old media.

A key aspect of the Blogging world is RSS (really simple syndication) software, which you can think of as a kind of hidden wiring. There are millions of blogs out there, and so on average you’d expect that each one would have only a tiny audience, because nobody knows about them and nobody has the time to go to a million websites a day. But RSS changes that. A RSS-enabled site (and most blogs are) has a piece of software that creates a text file summarising the changes to the front page every time it is updated. Most bloggers have another program running on their computer which enables them to ‘subscribe’ to Blogs that they like. This program then checks the RSS feeds of each site once a day, and pulls down the headlines to the user’s computer. This enables one to monitor a huge number of blogs in a very efficient manner. I monitor about 250 blogs every day using this technology. But I only go to a site when an item in its RSS feed intrigues or interests me.

This means that ideas spread like wildfire through the ‘blogosphere’ as it’s called.

Q. How do you deal with issues of ethics and reliability?

You can’t enforce either — bloggers are a pseudo-random sample of humanity (well, of Western, industrialised humanity anyway). Some are truthful and honest and conscientious. Some are lazy and ignorant. Some, no doubt, are fantasists or liars. But we’re talking about a huge marketplace for ideas. What tends to happen is that interesting and reliable bloggers build up big audiences, and dishonest or uninteresting or unreliable ones don’t. There’s an important difference in metaphor here: in traditional media the model is: edit first, then publish; in blogging it’s: publish first, then edit. But the ‘editing’ is done by readers filtering out substandard or unreliable stuff — in other words, it’s done at the edges, not the centre.

A big issue never properly discussed in traditional media when they consider blogging is the issue of ethics and reliability in such media. For example, look at US radio, Fox news, the Murdoch press everywhere. Where are the ethics and reliability there?

Q. Which would you say were the most important examples of bloggers getting scoops before journalists, and of giving better information?

The most celebrated examples are (a) the way Dan Rather and CBS were brought down by bloggers who exposed the fact that the documents about Bush’s dodgy national Service records were forged, and (b) the way a combination of bloggers and traditional media brought down Senate majority leader Trent Lott. This last case was extensively analysed by the Harvard School of Government in a major case study which highlighted my point about the emerging symbiotic relationship.

Q. What is the incentive that moves a blogger? And you in particular?

Mass media are built on the assumption that the consumers of its product are passive and uncreative. That’s simply not true. Almost every human being has some element of creativity, but until the Web and the Net arrived there was no way of expressing that other than in personal, non-published form. The Net changed all that — it enabled anyone to be published, without having to go through the gatekeepers who traditionally controlled access to the printing press and the broadcasting studio.

I think most serious bloggers publish because they want to have their thoughts read and considered by others.

The statistics on blogging are not terribly reliable but most estimates say there are about 10 million blogs out there at present. Of these probably no more than 50,000 to 100,000 are updated regularly. But that’s still an astonishing number — 50,000 thoughtful, informed and creative people publishing every day or every second day. It’s a major change in our media ecology.

I have had a Blog since 1997. I keep it because I want a place to note things that interest me — and which may interest others who are concerned about the same things.

Q. You say [in your Observer column]: “First, there is the contempt for ‘amateur’ writers, endemic in professional journalism. Hacks are always astonished by anyone who writes for no pay, so upwards of half a million such amateurs now publishing blogs leaves the pros speechless. It also leads them to deride blogs as an epidemic of vanity publishing rather than the glorious outbreak of free expression it actually represents.” Could you explain that a little more?

Many professional journalists — in Britain at least — have a contempt for, or a patronising attitude towards, their readers/listeners/viewers. They see them as essentially passive and ignorant consumers of the product who will accept the reporter’s view of things. But the fact is that journalists are always generalists, skimming over the surface of things, and out there are readers/listeners/viewers who know far more than journalists about many of the things they report and comment on. Dan Gillmor, who’s just published a book on this stuff (‘We Media”, O’Reilly Press) says “there’s always someone out there who knows more about any particular story than you do”.

Until the Web/Blogging, there was no effective back-channel for readers/listeners/viewers to have a say. Now that they are able to respond, some journalists don’t like it — and they express that dislike by trying to deride or belittle blogging as ‘vanity publishing’ by sad folks who couldn’t get published any other (i.e traditional) way. I think this attitude is indefensible. Blogging is a serious phenomenon which professional journalists need to heed, if only because they are likely to learn things from it even about the stories on which they so confidently report.

In the technical fields in which I am interested, I would never turn to mainstream media first for information because (a) they are generally so ignorant about technology and (b) months behind what’s actually happening. So I read blogs first in these areas — and trust them more, because I know the Bloggers.

One of the lovely things about being quoted in newspapers like La Nacion is that my linguistically-adept friends — who regard me as a retard in these matters — are thrown by the fact that I appear to be speaking fluent Spanish! I look forward to the next batch of astonished letters.

Charles and Camilla: Day One

Charles and Camilla: Day One

If you haven’t already booked to leave the UK for the day on April 8, can I respectfully suggest that you do so now. On that day Charlie will wed Camilla. The media are already teetering on the brink of madness about the story. Even the relatively staid BBC Today programme had three daft items on the subject this morning. The first was an interview with a wedding dress designer who talked about the challenge of dressing a well-upholstered blonde d’un certain age. Apparently ladies who do not go to the gym every day should avoid sleeveless dresses. Then there is the problem of how to buy a wedding gift for ‘the couple who have everything’. And finally, there is the tricky issue of how to placate the thousands of toffs whose noses will be out of joint on account of not being invited to the ‘small family wedding’ that is planned. Ye Gods! If it’s like this now, what will it be like in April?

I am tempted to look on eBay for those tasteful mugs of Charles and Diana that were all the rage in 1985 or whenever they were married. Meanwhile how nice to see that the Guardian‘s Steve Bell focussed with unerring accuracy on the mug angle.

HP loses CEO to testosterone poisoning

HP loses CEO to testosterone poisoning

So Hewlett Packard, or HP as it prefers to be known these days, finally dumped its abrasive CEO, Carly Fiorina. (She got $21 million in severance: would that I should be so dumped.) But the company is apparently still on the crazed trajectory on which she had launched it. HP used to be a company which had a great printer business and an indifferent PC business. Fiorina’s Big Idea was straight MBA-rookie stuff — go for a big merger/takeover. The unlucky bride was Compaq, a PC maker in terminal decline. It didn’t work. HP is now a company with (still) a vibrant printer business and a duff PC business. Seven wasted years. What I hadn’t quite realised was how hated she was in the company. HP was famous for its civilised, unaggressive collegial atmosphere. Carly was primadonnish and abrasive (and female). A measure of the antagonism she aroused is Invert, a satirical website devoted to the affairs of the PH company and its abrasive female CEO Karla Fidora. Here’s a flavour:

“She came to PH from the Great American Wire and Cable Company, where she led the divesture of the firm’s wire and cable businesses.  She later admitted ‘that left us with just the Great American Company and no real products. Clearly we should have thought that one through a little more.’ She then focused on finding Great American a great new name and facilitated its strategic plunge into bankruptcy.

Fidora was then hired to re-invert the PH Corporation, a company known for little more than world class products and happy employees. It was a status quo that worried competitors and Fidora was committed to turning it around. With a twin strategy of abandoning high margin businesses or selling them to competitors; and acquiring struggling companies in low margin industries at exorbitant premiums, she was able to execute one of the great turnarounds in corporate history.

Fidora was a favorite of employees and personally helped tens of thousands of them move onto their dream of early retirement or new careers in the fast food industry.”

Paul Sraffa, of the Institute for the Future, observed of Fiorina that she had “the worst case of testosterone poisoning of any CEO I’ve ever seen”.

The Big Secret

The Big Secret

One of the terrible things about being a Mac and Linux user is that one has less and less in common with the mass of humanity, which is still enmeshed in a Windows world. In the last few days, I’ve run into one friend and one colleague who are both at the end of their respective tethers because of the fact that their Windows machines have been penetrated and terminally compromised by malware. Both have the haunted look of people stuck in a nightmare. And the terrible thing is that while I mutter words of consolation and encouragement, I don’t really feel their pain because I’ve been out of the Windows world for so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like. And of course I daren’t say what I’m really thinking, which is that it’s about time they learned from the experience and moved away to something more stable and less vulnerable.

This is what Larry Lessig castigates as the Mac Mindset — a kind of smugness which comes from being in on a secret that the rest of humanity doesn’t know. In my anxiety to avoid this trap, I keep quiet. But here is someone who has Shouted It Out Loud. He’s Mark Morford, a columnist on SF Gate and the headline on the piece says it all: “Why Does Windows Still Suck? Why do PC users put up with so many viruses and worms? Why isn’t everyone on a Mac?”

My only quibble is that I’d add “… or Linux” at the end. Thanks to Dale and Quentin for the link.