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Rhodri Marsden

Journalist and musician Rhodri Marsden has been addressing common technology problems by stripping away the jargon and enlisting the help of readers in his Cyberclinic column in The Independent for the past two years.

Directing amateurish movies has never been so much fun

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Tuesday, 18 August 2009 at 08:48 am
The mission of Xtranormal, according to their website, is to bring movie-making to the people. Indeed, they say that it's going to be the most important communications process of the 21st century.

Cameraphones with MPG capabilities probably do more for the medium than Xtranormal, to be honest; its USP is to let you to turn text into a movie. You type, point and click, and the stilted action reveals itself onscreen via some three-dimensional but curiously one-dimensional character. There are many online innovations that you can imagine looking dated in a couple of years time, but Xtranormal achieves the remarkable feat of being incredibly cutting edge and looking dated almost simultaneously.

But apply creative genius to the medium, and you can get something rather special. Behold the effort of Mr Quickly, whose Amazon reviews are also quite something. Yummy. Yummy yummy.

Suffering from website envy?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 22 July 2009 at 08:22 am
Two friends of mine had a major spat a couple of years ago over their respective website designs. The fact that they didn't much care for each other in the first place didn't help the situation, but one of them claimed – with some justification, it has to be said – that the other had swiped the overall look of her website and indiscreetly applied it to his. His attitude was very much "No I haven't"; hers was "Yes you have", and eventually he was reluctantly forced to change his to "well yes, I have, but so what?"

Anyone who publishes stuff on the web gets website envy. Most website designers, when briefed by their clients, will be given a load of URLs and be told to incorporate that kind of background, that kind of navigation, that kind of font, that kind of colour scheme and so on. Website designers themselves generally learn their skills not through weighty tomes bought at great expense from the computing section of Waterstones, but by getting their hands dirty, viewing the source code of other people's websites, seeing how it works, nicking the good bits and then applying them to their own designs. This magpie approach is so widespread that those doing it scarcely give it a second thought. And you can't blame them – after all, the whole ethos of the web is about freedom, sharing, adapting, reworking and re-presenting. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?

Some companies aren't quite so sanguine, it seems. The web hosting provider Fasthosts recently revealed that it is having to deal with an escalated number of content disputes involving websites – almost doubling over the past 12 months. There have been accusations of swiping designs, images, whole chunks of text; Fasthosts are putting it down to tight economic conditions forcing businesses to avoid the expense of employing designers and copywriters, and just cobbling together their own versions of other websites on the cheap. But a far bigger factor is surely our slowly changing attitude towards copyright in general. These days, if you see someone slap a copyright symbol at the foot of their website, it almost looks laughable; you can understand why they've put it there – they've spent time, effort and cash creating their online presence and don't see why anyone else should use bits of it for free – but you'd have to be on another planet to think that letter c in a circle strikes fear into anyone's heart in this day and age.

In an ideal world, of course, people who work in creative industries (Note: the author of this blog works in creative industries) would have their considerable talents deeply respected, we'd be carried shoulder high by cheering crowds at the end of our day's work to a waiting chariot, and the average person would no more steal our work than they'd steal a Rolls Royce. But it's not an ideal world. Don't swipe other people's website designs wholesale, but if you do, well, you'll probably get away with it. Just as my friend did.

Sorry? You want 500 words on Michael Jackson?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Friday, 26 June 2009 at 09:34 am
I'm not sure that I'm up to the task, to be honest. I mean, I'm not used to grandly pontificating about the cultural significance of the passing of a pop star. I'm not sure that I can draw sufficient parallels with the unusual lives of other famous people who have unexpectedly died, skirt around the paedophilia accusations without saying something inappropriate, or indeed remember the name of his last album. And I usually write things about technology, I mean, I like music and everything, but my last attempt at rock journalism ended up with me submitting an incredibly lacklustre review of a Morrissey album because I couldn't believe that anyone would care what I thought of it (which wasn't much.)

But maybe it's my duty to dredge up some vague memories about what Michael Jackson means to me, but only if you think it would be useful. Uh... I can remember sitting in the kitchen at my grandmother's house in Cumbria in 1980 and hearing "Rock With You" on the radio and thinking it was quite good, but maybe that's not sufficiently overwrought to chime much with weeping readers, so I'll have to make something up instead. OK... My first wife announced that she was leaving me while a re-run of Lenny Henry's spoof "Thriller" dance routine was playing on the television. I was run over by a car whose megabass stereo was blaring "The Earth Song" at deafening volume. I was brought around from the subsequent coma by repeated playings of "I Want You Back." This is what I'd like you to think that Michael Jackson means to me.

I could quickly sum up the story of Michael Jackson's life in order to use up another hundred words, but you're probably better off heading over to Wikipedia, because that's only what I'd have to do in order to make perfectly sure I got 100% of the facts absolutely straight. Look, here's the link, I couldn't have made it any easier for you. That gives me more time to put this next thought to you – and brace yourself, because you might not have considered this: although the world has lost a great entertainer, the medium of recorded sound will, without a shadow of a doubt, ensure that we'll be able to enjoy his music today, tomorrow, perhaps even the next day. In that sense, Michael Jackson will live on, although in the more usual sense he certainly won't.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to trivialize the death of a man who was really, really good at singing and dancing. I adore the "Off The Wall" album. I'm listening to it now. It's breathtaking, although it sags a bit on side two. I just wonder whether I could have made a more fitting personal tribute to the man by sitting quietly and listening to it, without simultaneously typing some five hundred words of unutterable horseshit.

The quest for real-time search

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 24 June 2009 at 02:53 pm
A couple of years ago, someone predicted that Twitter would become "the pulse of society", and I remember thinking something along the lines of "nah, that's not particularly likely, because it's just full of people dispensing pithy one-liners or, more often, moribund observations about the weather." But as keying in status updates across services like Twitter, Facebook, Brightkite and others becomes a habit for millions, there's little doubt that this wealth of data slung online is starting to reflect behaviour, mood, opinion... and, yes, the weather. Against the odds, it's beginning to have some inherent value. You might even find yourself wanting to plough through it all to try and find something.

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The folding plug

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 24 June 2009 at 01:52 pm
I was just in the middle of writing a more lengthy post about real-time search, when someone sent me a link to this video. For those of us whose love affair with the British mains plug never really got off the ground – and let's face it, that's pretty much all of us – this is a brilliant idea that a) I can't believe anyone hasn't thought of already, and b) I hope makes the inventor a much-deserved pile of cash. Behold:

What's the point in online petitions?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 17 June 2009 at 07:19 pm
I'm aware that in even posing this question I'm setting myself up to be lynched as the kind of cynic who believes – in a non-committal, couldn't-really-care-less kind of way – that there's barely any point in doing anything, that expending any effort over and above the bare minimum is a terrible waste of precious energy that could be better allocated to lounging around and complaining bitterly about stuff. But actually, I've got nothing at all against petitions. It's often the only way that we're able to make our feelings heard about certain issues; I certainly remember signing some, and thinking yeah, I hope that a few kilos of A4 with my name buried somewhere in the middle will actually make someone take notice of this problem. What I'm not entirely sure of the value of petitions whose signatures are accumulated on the internet.

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The net's impact on the Queen's English

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 10 June 2009 at 01:16 pm
There's a post over at Everything2 which addresses the slow erosion of the proper order of fullstops, commas and quotation marks in online discussion. Apparently, keen to avoid mistakes being reproduced when placing code in quotation marks, geeks have taken to always putting fullstops and commas outside the quotation marks regardless of context. Serious stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. It's the kind of thing that might get Lynne Truss worked up into a frenzy, but it's something of a surprise to see the story gaining over 1300 thumbs-up over at digg.com – particularly when far worse breaches of the English language occur on every corner of the internet on a daily basis. Read more...Collapse )
Apologies for straying from the usual technology-related matters on this blog, but having woken up this morning and being confronted with a barrage of posts on Twitter like this one ("Okay people ... what happened there? I turn my back for 5 minutes and the North of England goes fascist."), and general despair and fist-shaking at the people of Yorkshire and Humber or indeed NW England, let's just look at the stats, taken from the BBC website.

In the two regions where a BNP MEP was returned, the actual number of people voting BNP has gone down since 2004. In Yorkshire and Humber, their vote shrank from 126,538 to 120,139. In NW England, it was down from 134,959 to 132,094. The reason the BNP got in was the massive slump in turnout that depressed the votes for the major parties and increased the BNP's percentage share of the vote overall: turnout was down from 42.6% to 32.3% in Yorkshire and Humber, and down from 40.9% to 31.7% in NW England.

It was notable last week that people on Twitter were becoming irate because of the constant badgering of other users to ask them to vote. While the BNP vote increased in the UK overall – indeed, it increased in every other region than the two that actually returned MEPs – people were right to badger. Because the BNP's new European statesmen exist purely because of disillusionment with Labour, Lib Dems and Tories.

Wikipedia bans Scientologists – but should they?

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Tuesday, 2 June 2009 at 10:44 am
When I saw the news the other day that Wikipedia had banned contributions from IP addresses used by the Church of Scientology in response to them relentlessly pushing a pro-Scientology agenda on the website, my first reaction was that it was fair enough. True, stories like this one don't make me feel well-disposed towards Scientology, but this isn't about the existence or otherwise of Operating Thetan Levels – it's simply about repeated violation of the terms of service of a website in order to further ones own agenda. If you ignore the terms of service, surely it's right that the service is withdrawn? Read more...Collapse )

The online business models that definitely didn't work

Posted by Rhodri Marsden
  • Wednesday, 27 May 2009 at 05:32 pm
With the news that Facebook isn't quite as highly valued as it used to be, that Twitter is continuing to prevaricate over exactly when it might bringing in any substantial revenue, and with doubts blasting from all sides about the ability of online ventures to subsist on the meagre proceeds of online advertising, it might be worth reminding ourselves of a few online business models that once seemed eminently viable, but crashed as commonsense finally prevailed. Read more...Collapse )