Media

Out of touch

We’ve been away and without connectivity for much of the last week. And what a week to choose. This summer will live in memory for its news and events. Some days, the real world is more like theatre than theatre is.

Through tools such as Reeder, and the many eyes and ears of Twitter, we just about kept abreast, snatching 3G, EDGE or feeble GPRS where location permitted, and quickly learning where towns and villages could give us WiFi. (A shout-out here for the excellent Toucan Café in Minehead, its good food and free wireless.)

Back home, I’ve caught up in detail on the accumulated reading. I wish it had been less dispiriting. It’s come to something when, as Euan said, Russell Brand is more credible than the Prime Minister.

Some of what I’ve been reading about the unrest in England, on Pinboard.


Kayaking

The internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it.
Scott Bradner, former trustee of the Internet Society (quoted in Here Comes Everybody)

The communications tools broadly adopted in the last decade are the first to fit human social networks well,
and because they are easily modifiable they can be made to fit better over time.
— Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody, p 158) 

Clay Shirky at the ICABack before Easter, I was at the ICA for the Eno/Shirky evening. One of the books I then read over the break was Here Comes Everybody. I’ve been meaning for some time to put down a few notes about it here. This has grown to be a long post as I’ve added to it, wanting to get a few things out on the page and, so, clearer in my own mind.

It’s a great book to suggest to friends who are not familiar with the technologies Shirky discusses as it hides its knowledge well — but there are still leads to follow up. The modest ten or so pages of the Bibliography threw up a number of articles I'd either not heard of before or hadn’t visited in a long while. In the former camp, I recommend: Anderson: More Is Different (Science — 1972); R H Coase: The Nature of the Firm (pdf) — a 1937 economics paper; Richard P. Gabriel — Lisp: Good News, Bad News, How to Win Big: worse is better (1991); Alan Page Fiske: Human Sociality. (There’s an online “webliography” here.) And chapters 8–11, covering so many big topics — social capital; three kinds of loss (some solve-a-hard-problem jobs; some social bargains; negative aspects to new freedoms); small world networks; more on social capital; failure (‘open source … is outfailing’ commercial efforts, 245); more on groups (‘every working system is a mix of social and technological factors’, 260) — hit my Amazon Prime account hard. (Incidentally, there’s a Kevin Kelly piece on “more is different”, Zillionics, that appeared earlier this year. See also Kevin Kelly’s The Google Way of Science and Wired’s The Petabyte Age: Because More Isn't Just More — More Is Different.)

Further reading to one side, a number of things discussed in the book particularly interested me straightaway. Firstly, sociality, privacy and exposure online. Leisa recently posted Ambient Exposure, an update (of sorts) to her post of last March, Ambient Intimacy. The titles tell their own story. Early on, Clay writes about ‘how dramatically connected we've become to one another … [how much] information we give off about our selves’. This took me back to Adam Greenfield’s recent talk at the Royal Society (I’ve also been re-reading Everyware). Our love of flocking is being fed handsomely by means of the new tools Clay Shirky discusses so well.

Privacy is always coming up in conversations at school about online life, and what I’m hearing suggests our students are beginning to look at privacy and exposure with growing circumspection. Facebook’s People You May Know functionality has made some sit up and wonder where social software might be taking us. We’re slowly acquiring a stronger sense of how seduction through imagined privacy works (alone in a room, save for screen and keyboard) and a more developed understanding of what it means to write for unseen audiences. Meanwhile, there are things to be unlearned: ‘those of us who grew up with a strong separation between communication and broadcast media … assume that if something is out where we can find it, it must have been written for us. … Now that the cost of posting things in a global medium has collapsed, much of what gets posted on any given day is in public but not for the public’ (90).  In the Bibliography, Clay refers to a post of Danny O’Brien’s — all about register — which is a longtime favourite of mine, too.

Then there was what the book had to say about media and journalism. Simon Waldman, well-placed to pass comment, on chapters 3 and 4:

The chapters most relevant to media/journalism - ‘Everyone is a media outlet’ and ‘Publish first, filter later’ should be required reading for pretty much everyone currently sitting in a newspaper/broadcaster. It’s certainly the best thought through thing I’ve read on this, and the comparison to the decline of the scribes when the printing press came in is really well drawn. 

The summary to Chapter 4 (‘Publish, Then Filter’) runs, ‘The media landscape is transformed, because personal communication and publishing, previously separate functions, now shade into one another. One result is to break the older pattern of professional filtering of the good from the mediocre before publication; now such filtering is increasingly social, and happens after the fact’. ‘Filter-then-publish … rested on a scarcity of media that is a thing of the past. The expansion of social media means the only working system is publish-then-filter’ (98). (Language like this can sound an utopian note that rings on in the head long after the book’s been closed, as if we’d entered a world beyond old constraints. And look!: the Praetorian Guard of elite gatekeepers is no more.)

I was interested, too, to read Shirky’s thoughts about the impact of new technologies on institutions. His application of Ronald Coase’s 1937 paper and, in particular, the idea of the Coasean floor (‘activities … [that] are valuable to someone but too expensive to be taken on in any institutional way’), was very striking: the new tools allow ‘serious, complex work [to be] taken on without institutional direction’ and things can now be achieved by ‘loosely coordinated groups’ which previously ‘lay under the Coasean floor’.

We didn't notice how many things were under that floor because, prior to the current era, the alternative to institutional action was usually no action. (47)

Later in the book (107), he comes back to institutions, taking what is happening to media businesses as not unique but prophetic — for ‘All businesses are media businesses … [as] all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences — employees and the world’:

The increase in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organisational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be. The linking of symmetrical participation and amateur production makes this period of change remarkable. Symmetrical participation means that once people have the capacity to receive information, they have the capability to send it as well. Owning a television does not give you the ability to make TV shows, but owning a computer means that you can create as well as receive many kinds of content, from the written word through sound and images. Amateur production, the result of all this new capability, means that the category of "consumer" is now a temporary behaviour rather than a permanent identity.

‘Every new user is a potential creator and consumer’ (106) is reminiscent of Bradley Horowitz in Creators, Synthesizers, and Consumers (2006).

*****

Continue reading "Kayaking" »


Talks, talks, talks

I get to do a lot of these within the school and I don't post about most. But a couple of weeks ago I talked to a group of some 80 parents of students about social software and I thought it might be worth saying something about this talk here. (I believe there's value in also saying something about a couple of other talks: clips from one follow below; I'll post about another shortly.) The slides are now on Slideshare, here. (Update: some of these slides have been rendered less than clear in the process of uploading and converting them to Slideshare. If you download the slideshow, everything returns to its original PowerPoint glory.)

Parents are worried about social software — and given the sensational way in which it is commonly reported in the traditional media this is no surprise. I was keen to convey how, from the outset, the web was conceived as social and how, in being so, it is fulfilling something fundamental in our nature.

Some of these slides are ones I've used before: they are, for the moment, useful reference points. Some have parts blocked out in the interests of others' privacy. Few need explanation to anyone immersed in Web 2 culture. The 'St Paul's: ICT Group' slide is a snapshot taken from earlier this term when we had just set up this group: the group is not a replacement for our ICT support but a recognition that communities of users have a considerable body of experience and can be their own best resource for help.

A section near the end, 'IV SPS', looks at what we're teaching this term to our first years (13 year-olds) at St Paul's School (SPS). I'll be posting more about this course soon. My job, as this section goes on to say, is very much about having an open office and my guiding star is danah boyd — whose writings are referenced, explicitly and implicitly, in the closing slides. I can't recommend the Congressional Internet Caucus video too highly. 

The social web: a cause for celebration, for thinking again about what we do when we teach and learn … and, as David Weinberger says, for joy.

***** 

During this term I talked to our top two year groups (17 and 18 year-olds) on three occasions. The subject of one talk was, again, the social web — its nature, the need for digital literacy, the implications for work (taking newspapers as an example) and the contrast between how long the technological changes have been coming and the perceived suddenness of it all. I don't think there's much merit in publishing all the slides on the web, but here are my favourites from some of the quotations I used:

David Weinberger

Hyperlinks … enrich, rather than reduce. Open-ended, decentralized, messy … Most of all, they are social.

Douglas Wolk

Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there's no sun they're all orbiting around.

Cory Doctorow

… there's no solution that arises from telling people to stop using computers in the way that computers were intended to be used.

Henry Jenkins:

… help young people place Wikipedia in a larger context, developing a deeper understanding of the process by which the its information is being produced & consumed. ... develop a more critical perspective on other, more traditional sources of information.

Clay Shirky

Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline. 

Journalism.co.uk, reporting Alan Rusbridger:

For at least 10 years we are going to have to have an act of faith and pump money into digital markets without significant return… [in] the expectation that things will change. 

Roy Greenslade, reporting Rusbridger:

The print-on-paper model [for newspapers] isn't making money and isn't going to make money. It's no longer sustainable. Though the future is unknowable, we are taking an educated guess about what we should be doing and where we should be going.

BuzzMachine:

Yesterday, Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian, told the staff of his newspaper that now “all journalists work for the digital platform” and that they should regard “its demands as preeminent.” 

A Deutsche Bank analyst says (from BuzzMachine): 

… newspapers are shrinking while Facebook is growing by 200,000 new users a day. A day. And those users spend an average of 20 minutes each day inside the site vs. 41 minutes a month on newspaper sites …

And on change, Tom Coates

'The snail! The snail!', they cry. 'How can we possibly escape!?. … the snail's been moving closer for the last twenty years, one way or another, and they just weren't paying attention.

 
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Freesheets: growing like Topsy

Last August, Bruno Giussani wrote:

The rapid growth of free newspapers in European (and, for now to a lesser extent, American) cities is one of the most interesting phenomena in recent publishing history.

His post is dense with information about this phenomenon, the newspaper and advertising industries and the subversion of both traditional newspaper economics and editorial mix. He concludes:

… many of the freesheets do not shy away from writing about that scarecrow of many traditional newsrooms: products and commerce. It always amazes me how a gigantic pan of our daily life is fenced out of most traditional newspapers because "it would constitute free advertisement": we buy clothes, use cell phones and cameras and tons of other gadgets, go to restaurants, play videogames, want to be informed if a new grocer opens in the neighborhood or a new Apple store opens in town or a new route is opened by a low-cost airline, but most of this stuff never shows up in the editorial pages of most dailies, or only within specific columns. Books and movies and music pass muster because they're "culture", but cell phones apparently aren't, and "serious" newsrooms want Nokia and Samsung to appear only in the ad pages. Free newspapers don't care about this: they know that most of us spend more time using our cell phones than going to movie theatres, and when a new cool model comes out, they deem it newsworthy. In this sense, free dailies are way more modern and in tune with the times than most traditional newspapers.

That's one take on the freesheet phenomenon. Here's another … On 12 February, 2007, the FT published this letter:

Sir, Surely by now every last Londoner has been approached on the street by a distributor of one of London's "free" daily newspapers. These papers may be free to readers, but they also carry real costs for other social groups in the city.

Free dailies externalise their production costs in at least three ways. They clutter and detract from the appearance of our streetscapes and public spaces (costs to all Londoners); they generate great volumes of rubbish which then become the disposal problem of boroughs (costs to borough residents); and they create extra cleaning costs for Transport for London when papers are left behind on trains and in stations (costs to TfL and therefore transport users). 

Given that 400,000 copies of each paper circulate daily (19m pages), these costs are not insignificant. We might be wise to ask whether free London dailies are really free - and if they are not, then who pays? 

David Grover, 

Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics, London

The letter was reprinted by Roy Greenslade who, today, highlighted Justin Canning's Project Freesheet. Firstly, here's Project Freesheet ('We want to see an increase in the number of freesheets being recycled and we want to see the freesheet publishers paying for the waste they are creating'), drawing on and quoting from an article published in The Ecologist by Jon Hughes (linked to below):

In 45 different countries around the world there are 35.8 million freesheet newspapers being printed every day. The environmental impact of a product that has a designed life span of 20 minutes is being seriously overlooked. (what's it all about?) …

The more sinister side of the freesheet phenomenon is its ultimate impact on paid for newspapers. The current crop of freesheets are aimed at those who are too busy to read a newspaper or have no inclination to buy one. Rather than address the reason why the paying public is shunning their products, newspaper publishers are seeking to create revenue by numbers alone. Advertisers will be seduced with the argument that while only half a million editions of say, Metro, are published, readership will be well over a million because it is dumped on the public transport system.

Freesheets such as Metro et al operate on very tight margins. As they become more nationally embedded, whole elements of them will become syndicated, beginning with TV pages and pop gossip through to national and international news. They might tell you the what, but not the why or the how. Investigations and campaigns will become rarer than they are now. Coverage of politics above the tittle-tattle of personality, less and less.

To supply the newsprint on which all this trash is printed, whole swathes of Europe are being turned over to plantation forests, which is wiping out bio-diversity. (the knock on effect)

Roy Greenslade (today):

Canning's major concern is about the environmental impact. He cites an article in The Ecologist magazine that deals with London's 1.5m daily freesheets. That equates to the felling of 400 trees every day after use of recycled pulp. Then, using those figures as a guide, he contends that 8,000 trees are being felled every day "for a product that has the attention span of about 10 minutes. That doesn't seem very good use of valuable resources." 

He continues: "On top of that, the product is not being recycled... [because] papers do not have any retention value. The second reason is the sheer volume that are being circulated. Most end up as street litter and go straight to landfill. Westminster council has said that it will need to spend an extra £500,000 over the next two years just to keep up with the quantities involved." 

Canning writes: "We are living in an age when corporate responsibility is supposed to be being addressed. Is it possible to carry on letting the newspaper publishers of the world churn out a product that serves no real purpose other than to provide opportunity for advertising? Basic economics is one thing. Stupidity and irresponsibility is quite another."

The Ecologist article dates from last November and claimed then that the London freesheet facts were:

… 1.5 million … are being given away in and around the capital’s Tube stations each day. The breakdown is as follows: Associated Newspapers’ Metro 540,000; London Lite (also published by Associated Newspapers) and News International’s thelondonpaper around 400,000 respectively, and City AM 65,000. Soon to be added to this is a free afternoon paper to be distributed, like Metro, on the underground system, rather than outside Tube stations like the other three. And on the last Friday of September, two free sports newspapers were unleashed on an unsuspecting public. This is a problem that is growing like Topsy, which has an unchecked motion all of its own.

 

The knowledge

From time to time, there's a flurry of memorable postings or remarks about knowledge, education and contemporary culture …

David Wilcox picked up on something George Siemens wrote:

Content is no longer the value point of education (it never really was...but we built our education models assuming this was the case).

David also noticed Kathy Sierra's 2 November blog post on Creating Passionate Users, Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?, and the image she uses there to help visualise her argument (we 'hear more and more teachers, experts, and employers railing against the sorry state of our advanced technical educations today … what do we do to try and improve things? We just do MORE of what's wrong. We redouble our efforts. We drill and test students even harder in facts and rote memorization … The Waterfall Model of education is failing like never before. We need Agile Learning'):

Add to this, David Weinberger:

… there will be a big demand for people who can help us find, understand and reuse information (or, as I like to think of it, create an infrastructure of meaning). We're going to need lots of help thinking through systems that will enable multiple orders to emerge from the behaviors of distributed groups.

When is a librarian not a librarian but a teacher? Is there a difference any more? And what kind of libraries do we need now?

Kathy Sierra winds up with a couple of quotations and a reflection of her own:

From Jason Fried:
"Hire curious people. Even if they don't have the exact skill set you want, curious, passionate people can learn anything."

And from Jacques Hadamard:
" Logic merely sanctions the conquests of the intuition."

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity.

I've also been taken by Henry Jenkins' Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape:

The Contemporary Media Landscape is: Innovative … Convergent … Everyday … AppropriativeNetworkedGlobalGenerationalUnequal …

Of these eight traits, the only one which might describe our current educational institutions is "unequal." Otherwise, our schools have not kept pace with the changing environment around them. If we were to start from scratch and design an educational system to meet the needs of the culture we have just described, it would look very little like the current school system. Our schools doubly fail kids -- offering them neither the insights they need to avoid the risks nor the opportunity to exploit the potentials of this new participatory culture. Indeed, the skills kids need to function in the new media landscape are skills which are often read as dysfunctional and disruptive in the context of formal education. Kids are, for the most part, learning these skills on their own, outside of school, with the consequence that they are unevenly distributed across the population.

Finally, some links (partly via headshift's del.icio.us links) — useful for passing to colleagues interested in how we got here/where we're going:

Such challenges. Education is a very exciting place to be right now.


Journalism and accuracy: Reuters and Adnan Hajj

From Journalism.co.uk:

  • Reuters has suspended a photojournalist covering the Israeli assault on Lebanon after an investigation by bloggers revealed an image had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of a bombing raid. 6 August
  • Reuters has dropped a long-serving Lebanese photojournalist covering the Israeli assault on the country after an investigation by bloggers revealed an image had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of a bombing raid. 7 August

  • A second allegation of altering war zone photos - made against a photojournalist by bloggers - has led to over 900 of his pictures being removed from Reuters' database. Adnan Hajj, who had contributed to Reuters on a freelance basis since 1993, was axed by the agency after an investigation by bloggers, last week, claimed an image showing bomb damage in Beirut had been digitally manipulated to increase the apparent severity of the raid.

    After right wing bloggers made further allegations of alterations to a second image - supposedly showing an Israeli F-16 firing missiles on Lebanon - Reuters withdrew all his photographs from its database.The two altered photographs were among 43 that Hajj had filed directly to the global pictures desk since the start of the conflict on July 12. Reuters said it had now put in place a tighter editing procedure for images of the Middle East conflict. "There is no graver breach of Reuters standards for our photographers than the deliberate manipulation of an image," said Tom Szlukovenyi, Reuters global picture editor. 7 August

Mitch Ratcliffe: 'Where Nicholas Lemann's critique of citizen journalism falls down is his lack of critical reflection on journalism itself.'

I've been pondering Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker article. More about that soon.

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UK schools and the net

BBC NEWS:

Pupils in the UK do not get enough access to the internet at school, a study by London University's Institute of Education has suggested.  Its report found pupils thought the internet was over-regulated by teachers, with an emphasis on prohibition rather than encouragement. Researchers also found youngsters in all countries needed help in tackling more complex issues, such as understanding the legalities involved in downloading music and handling social encounters in e-mails.

The project's UK director, Dr Andrew Burn, said: "While UK schools are getting some things right compared with other European countries, there are still too many children who do not get sufficient opportunity to use the internet in lessons. Schools need to do more to harness the communicative possibilities of this powerful technology, which allows children to communicate, co-operate, play and learn online."

Dr Burn acknowledged there had been much more emphasis on creative uses of information and communication technology (ICT) in the past five years, but he said web use needed even more "freedom, spread and tolerance" in UK schools. And the focus on information retrieval had eclipsed the communication aspect of ICT, he added. "It is alarming that the secondary ICT curriculum contains 16 references to information, and none at all to communication, given that communication is what young people use the internet for," he said. "This suggests a dramatic mismatch between school attitudes to ICT and the internet, and those which students find important and need to learn about. We want to tap into children's and young people's media culture."

IoE press release here.

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Stephen Colbert, satirist supreme

I remember Ian Hislop once saying how he had tried to take a satirical programme (a version of Spitting Image?) to the States, only to be met there with disbelief: 'You mean you want to make fun of the President?'. Which makes the performance of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner the more remarkable.

Thanks to Tom Coates (del.icio.us) for these links: a clip of some highlights (this may have been taken down; at least, it's not running right now — has CSPAN paid them a YouTube visit?); a BitTorrent link to a movie of the evening; an Editor & Publisher piece about the speech.

Botherer covered it well:

… what wasn’t reported in the UK and elsewhere, disturbingly including the USA, was the main speaker for the evening, Stephen Colbert. Currently riding high with the success of his excellent Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report (pronounced “Colbert Report”), the honour of giving the main speech at the dinner, which is intended to poke fun at the president, was his. From the reaction it seems no one was quite expecting what Colbert had to say.

In character, he addressed the audience from the perspective of his programme, ironically adopting a Fox News-like stance in order to make a mockery of it. Throughout, Bush was sat two chairs to his right.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Salon, too:

Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's a wonder the secret service let him so close to the President of the United States.

But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the DC press corps, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."

To my friends and colleagues teaching satire: teach this! There's a transcript of Colbert's speech at Daily Kos (excerpt below) and, in addition to the Torrent link above, you can download the full video at these links: Part 1, Part 2. It is compelling, very sharp and very funny.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world. …

And I just like the guy. He's a good Joe. Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America agrees. She's a true lady and a wonderful woman. But I just have one beef, ma'am.

I'm sorry, but this reading initiative. I'm sorry, I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist, telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American! I'm with the President, let history decide what did or did not happen.

The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. As excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the President's side, and the Vice-President's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the President makes decisions. He's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the Press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

Because really, what incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? I mean, nothing satisfies you. Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, "Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

You can leave a thank-you-Stephen-Colbert message here. There's a good Flickr photo from the evening here. And if you use Firefox and haven't yet got the Video Downloader extension, it's here.

Update! Inside Google reports:

The Google Video blog posts on how they’ve come to an agreement with C-SPAN to show the content, and agreement YouTube apparently failed (or never tried) to make. You have three options: You can watch the entire 1 hour, 35 minute video of the dinner, or stick to an 11 minute excerpt of President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, or go for the 25 minute excerpt of Steven Colbert’s speech. Of course, if you want to enjoy Colbert’s biting remarks, make sure you quit about 16:45 in, because the press conference/chase segment is as tragically unfunny as it gets.

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Ridicule, Machiavelli and political life

Sun_652006

How much derision can a national political figure take and remain a "viable political entity"? According to Michael Heseltine this morning (Today, Radio 4), John Prescott has gone beyond the point of no return.

The strong media and popular response to Blair letting Prescott keep the perks and salary of office without (most of) the responsibilities was not hard to foresee and the attacks came very soon after the news broke (my last post). Was retaining the pay and perks the price of ensuring Prescott's cooperation? Was there a deeper plot, in effect to put Prescott out to die in the amphitheatre of public opinion? Far too popular and important a figure within the Labour Party for Number 10 to decapitate completely, this halfway house might have seemed attractive yesterday to John Prescott but now (it must have dawned on him) makes him look at best contemptibly absurd, at worst indulged and rewarded beyond what any possible responsibility still remaining to him might justify. Prescott will emerge (at least for the all important short- to mid-term) as an utterly diminished figure.

Last month (30 April), Andrew Rawnsley wrote (Observer):

Even before we were treated to pictures of the Deputy Prime Minister pressing the flesh with his office squeeze, he was widely mocked as an absurd figure. Buffoonish though he might have appeared to many outside government, inside Number 10, he was still taken quite seriously as a potential menace to Tony Blair who could deliver the final, fatal blow to the Prime Minister. His allies were becoming increasingly nervous that Mr Prescott was intent on bringing on the reign of Gordon Brown, especially since he so flagrantly fanned the rebellion against the education reforms. It was in the power of Prescott to pull the trigger on the Prime Minister by making a public declaration demanding an early date from Mr Blair for his departure.

The one solace for the Prime Minister in a sea of troubles is that this threat has evaporated. The debagging of the Deputy Prime Minister contributes to the impression of a government that is simultaneously arrogant, ridiculous and reckless. But it does have this consolation for Number 10. John Prescott is now a much weakened figure whose residual credibility is threatened with more demolition from further revelation. Instead of John Prescott being in a position to tell Tony Blair how long he has left in Number 10, it is now John Prescott who is fighting to save his own job and what shreds remain of his dignity.

Prescott's Parliamentary job has gone in almost all but name. Now he's doomed to be roundly and totally derided.

There's a good BBC piece by Roger Preston on the implications of the Cabinet reshuffle in the context of Blair/Brown ambitions and "relations":

Tony Blair has no desire to quit any time soon. And when he does resign, it will be in his own time and his own way. Those were the conspicuous messages he sent out today in his sweeping reorganisation of the Cabinet.

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YouTube

Be it Frank Zappa specials, such as I am the Slime and Mike Nesmith and Frank Zappa on 'The Monkees', or Captain Beefheart — Lick my decals off, baby … or the loftier heights of The Hearts of Age (Orson Welles) and Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), YouTube is going to become compulsive viewing. (All links via del.icio.us, the first three via Merlin Mann, the last two via Warren Ellis.)

Wikipedia on The Hearts of Age:

The Hearts of Age is the first film made by Orson Welles. The film is a four-minute short, which he co-directed with William Vance in 1934. The film stars Welles' first wife, Virginia Nicholson, as well as Welles himself. He made the film while attending the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, at the age of 19. The plot is a series of images loosely tied together, and is arguably influenced by surrealism. The film is rarely seen today, but many point to it as an important precursor to Welles' first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane.

Meshes of the Afternoon, to my shame, is a discovery. Better now than never. Wikipedia here. An Uruguayan site here (Spanish). (Both these links via absurdita, who uploaded the film to YouTube.) IMDb entry here.

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