Friday, December 11, 2009

Dragon: Just Say the Words

The new Dragon Dictation app for the iPhone is incredibly impressive. It even understands my strange foreign accent. You want proof? Well here it is. This post was dictated within a single mistake. Okay, without a lot of mistakes. But for a free application it really doesn't get any better than this. Download it now (before you have to pay for it).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Best iPhone App Review Site, Reviewed

Actually, it's not just the best iPhone app website, it's also the only one I've seen that's any good at all. One might imagine that anyone setting out to help users sift through the 85,000+ programs now available via Apple's app store would take a cue from the gadget itself by creating a website that's reasonably simple and intuitive. Instead, pretty much all of the dedicated app review sites available are bloated, hard to use, and ugly.

In contrast, First & 20 takes a simple idea and executes it beautifully: it has asked a growing collection of "designers, developers and tech writers" to provide a pic of their iPhone home screens and to write a little about some of the apps they use most. The website's simple design also takes many cues from the iPhone's user interface. But most of all, it answers the first question if want to ask anyone with an iPhone: what apps do you like and use the most?

Of course, it would be even better if the net was widened a little to include people from some other, less techie industries. Judging by the choices up there right now, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everyone who uses an iPhone is also obsessed by Twitter (the two most popular apps are Tweetie and Birdfeed). And the running count of white/black phones seems rather superfluous. But, these small grumbles aside, I love it simply for introducing me to a bunch of excellent apps people with brains actually use.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Post: When and How to Close a Blog

I've just posted the final entry on my other blog Strange Things Will Happen. I started it a couple of years ago when I moved to the States from Britain, and it was my first adventure in blogging. Closing it was therefore a difficult decision to make, but ultimately the central idea -- me writing about life on the wrong side of the pond -- had run out of steam. Over time, the lack of desire to write fresh posts tells its own story. But, after realizing that it's time was up, I decided to finish with a definite full stop rather than just let it die through neglect alone: hence the concluding post.

Still, I feel slightly weird that it will continue to be available online for the foreseeable future. Part of me wants to delete it now, rather than let it grow old and stale in plain sight. But I realize that this is just my inner print journalist talking. Sure, libraries always do their best to make sure printed copies of newspapers and magazines don't ever disappear completely, but prior to around 1996 the effort you would have to make to find any publication more than a few months old meant that, to all intents and purposes, it had ceased to exist. The same is still true for many print-only publications. Being put in an archive box or relegated to microfiche may not be death, but it's close enough.

Here online, everything stays as it is -- or at least it's supposed to. Google is even digging up old books and resurrecting their pages through the god-like power of scanning. Soon nothing will disappear, and everything will be available with a few taps of a keyboard -- unless one of those taps is marked "delete," that is.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Euphemism Watch: Working for Free

As a freelance writer and an editor, I feel a strange compulsion - no, a duty - to check the writing/editing job listings on Craigslist on a regular basis. It has become a depressing and humbling ritual in recent times. In fact, about the only pleasurable part of it for me is marveling at all the creative ways the only prospective "employers" left these days attempt to infer that working for them for nothing is somehow a lucrative opportunity, while simultaneously avoiding any explicit mention of, you know, having to work for them for nothing.

Indeed, I heartily recommend this sleazy exercise in euphemism-spotting to others. Rubbernecking through these lonely missives from a dying industry can be a darkly amusing experience, especially if you're the kind of person who greets news of any major disaster by packing a picnic and loading the kids into the car, or if you enjoy seeing the English language being abused to within an inch of reality.

To give you a taste, today I saw perhaps my favorite attempt yet at turning a lack of meaningful pay into a benefit. This ad seeking a voluntary editorial manager for some unnamed, underfunded internet startup helpfully mentions "... if you happen to be on unemployment insurance, this work will not jeopardize your benefits." No, and it won't trouble your bank balance either.

Interviews will be taking place soon; please leave your dignity at the door.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How Stupid Is the US Postal Service?

This letter arrived at our house yesterday. I've messed around with the photo a little (to protect our privacy), but on the original you can clearly see our house number and street address, under a long-departed previous resident's name. Well, you can as long as you ignore the large black cross my wife added to the envelope the first time it passed through our mailbox about a week ago, along with the big circle round the return address and the lettering that says "return to sender addressee unknown."

Maybe we missed some detail of the US Postal Service's protocol for correctly marking return mail, but the intention seems fairly clear. While I realise that much of the sorting system is automated these days, I was still labouring under the delusion that someone human would look at a letter before it gets delivered. Perhaps not.

We've now released this salmon-like letter back into the wild, intrigued to see if it manages to find its way to the wrong destination for a third time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Stationery Porn 2: Black n' Red Notebooks

black n red notebooksI blame Moleskines. I had never even though about notepad brands until I picked up one of those expensive little tarts in a store. Then I saw the little sticker they all have that boasts about how they were once the workbook of choice for Hemingway, Picasso, Jesus, or whoever. I wasn't immune to the romance of the idea. In that moment I suddenly had a vision of a bookshelf loaded with pleasingly battered-but-matching notebooks, each filled to bursting with my scribblings. What could be better?

Well, them not being Moleskines for a start. Regardless of their rather ridiculously high price, I discovered that I don't much care for them. The paper is too shiny and doesn't seem to absorb ink very well (an important factor when you're trying to write in a smudge-prone hurry). Plus, they make you look, well, a bit pretentious.

So now I'm going steady with the Black n' Red notepads pictured above instead: hardback, casebound, A5, ruled.

As well as being pleasingly European, the A5 size (148 x 210mm, or slightly wider than a sheet of letter paper folded in half) is just right for my needs. The books are small enough to be portable, but big enough to make writing on my lap reasonably easy. I'd already discovered that smaller pocket-sized pads are hard to write in when you don't have a desk handy as they offer no wrist support, which is the same reason a hard cover is also essential.

black n red scruffy edges Black n' Red offers similar books with a spiral wire binding, but I've never really cared for these: the pages can be ripped out too easily (often by accident) and the looser binding makes the whole thing feel flimsy and cheap. In contrast, these casebound pads have proper sewn-in pages, as well as a handy marker ribbon to make up for the lack of a place to store your pen.

But the thing I really love about these notebooks is the way that, as they wear and get scuffed around, the black around the edges rubs off to reveal red colouring underneath; sometimes it's the little things in life that are the most pleasing.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

San Francisco's Sidewalk Street Signs

One of San Francisco's many little quirks is the way that its street names are written on the sidewalks – either embossed or inlaid into the concrete – on each and every street corner. Unfortunately, the concrete guy seems to have had a little trouble at the meeting of Howard and 2nd streets, a discovery which led me to discover a whole Flickr collection of misspelled or mutilated street names from around the city.

But, while lots of people gleefully post pictures of similar mistakes, I can't seem to confirm the story I've heard about why the names are there in the first place. Supposedly, the practice began after the 1906 earthquake and fire, when parts of the city were devastated to such an extent that the emergency services had trouble finding their way around – with large areas razed to the ground, all the normal buildings and landmarks they would have used to navigate by had disappeared. But, while walls may still collapse and street signs fall in a future quake, these sidewalk signs should remain.

Indeed, they already help people to find their way around; as this Flickr user says, "It's hard to get lost in San Francisco." But what I like most about them is that they reinforce a powerful sense of place for those of us lucky enough to live here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dead Bad Timing

A little while ago - around the same time I realised I had a better than moderate chance of outliving Jesus - a great idea for a website popped into my brain. First you would input your date of birth, and then a message would pop up telling you about dead people you had recently outlived, something like: "You are 28. Jimi Hendrix was a guitar god and changed rock'n'roll as we know it, but he died at 27 and you didn't so who's laughing now?" - or words to that effect.

I even started compiling a list of notable persons who had shuffled off this mortal coil before their (and my) time: Sid Vicious at 21. Buddy Holly, 22. River Phoenix, 23. Lee Harvey Oswald, 24, and so on. Not only that, but I foresaw a time after the site was up and running when I could begin to milk the obvious spinoff potential, particularly in the greetings cards market: "Happy 25th Birthday and Congratulations! You've totally outlived James Dean ..."

But then I saw this: Dead At Your Age. The bastards.

The moral? Even though I've now lived longer than Jesus, I still haven't quite completed that world-changing religion project I've been talking about.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Great Ideas: Grolsch Guitar Strap Holder

These two pieces of minor-key music memorabilia were retrieved from the stage of San Francisco's Great American Music Hall after a Tindersticks gig on 15 March.

A British roadie, on-hand for helpful observations, pointed out that the plectrum is of a type available at pretty much any music store "for pennies." But that was kind of missing the point: thanks to an accident of circumstance, this particular piece of grey plastic had become more valuable - at least to me.

However, the other item is definitely the more interesting of the two. Originally a seal from a traditional ceramic Grolsch bottletop, musicians the world over use these little pieces of rubber to help keep their guitar straps fixed to their guitars. (This isn't so much of a problem when straps are new, but as they age the leather ends become softer and more pliable, and therefore more prone to coming unfixed).

Of course, you can buy much more elaborate metal or plastic devices to lock your strap in place but, like the aforementioned plectrum, this version is both cheap and easy to get hold of.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hero Worship: MacGyver

Forget your A-Team movie ideas, cancel that rubbish Knight Rider rehash (oops, too late), and please don't give these geeks any more reason to discuss what kind of helicopter should be cast in the title role of an Airwolf remake. Instead, it's time to stock up on chewing gum and get your Swiss army knife ready. That's right kids, a real hero of Eighties television is returning: MacGyver.

The only mystery is what took him so long. Despite his occasional use of non-ecofriendly ingredients (that pesticide, soap flakes and tile cleaner smokescreen in season one, episode 16, for example), his improvised gadgets introduced a whole generation of impressionable youngsters to the principles of recycling. And it's probably no coincidence that, as they've grown up, a thriving subculture has emerged surrounding the MacGyver-esque use of household objects in all kinds of DIY gizmos and projects, as exemplified by the Maker Faire, and magazines like Make and ReadyMade (the latter even features a monthly competition called the MacGyver Challenge).

So welcome back, Mac - at last, the world is ready for a sustainable action hero.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Career Has Cancer

As a writer and editor, I've been forced to face some hard truths about my profession lately. Basically, it's fucked. Regardless of the impact of the economic crisis, the publishing industry has been going through its own internet-generated shitstorm of change for some time now. And no matter which way you look at it, there seems to be dwindling amounts of money available for people like me.

The evidence is clear. I'm writing this for free, for example, a rate that is only marginally worse than some of my recent paid jobs. Shrinking income is nothing new for journalists, but when I started out in the mid-1990s staff salaries and freelance rates were contracting at an almost imperceptibly slow rate, mainly by failing to keep pace with inflation; now pay is crashing faster than a dropped brick.

Increasingly in the new media economy, the creators of content can't seem to make enough money, if any at all, from the content they create. What was once a proper job and a reasonable way to make a living is fast turning into a hobby.

There are lots of people out there trying hard to come up with a new business model for publishing that will change this, but so far they've failed. There is no iTunes for journalism, and the ideas designed to create one seem to range from the hopelessly idealistic to the plain dumb. Holding out for a solution like this is increasingly looking like hoping to be saved from a terminal disease by a miracle cure that hasn't been invented yet. It's a nice thought, but not a very realistic one.

Of course, these changes have been happening for some time now, so it shouldn't be so much of a shock. But it is. At first I wondered optimistically when things were going to take a turn for the better, and I looked for any encouraging signs of recovery, or at least remission. I got online, I started a blog or three, I embraced the new media revolution in the hope of not being left behind. But all the while the good jobs have been drying up, leaving more journalists chasing fewer jobs that are paying less.

Lately my thinking has changed, and I've found myself wondering about how long I should fight this. At what point should I simply give up and go do something else instead? My career has cancer. It has spread. The prognosis isn't good. But, like a smoker who keeps on puffing cigarettes even when he has to do it through a hole in his throat, I just can't give it up.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UPDATE: It's Still Hard to Be Wealthy

When is the New York Times going to get it? In the midst of our current economic clusterfuck, almost no one is feeling sorry for the rich bankers who caused it. Well, except for rich bankers themselves and NYT hacks that is.

But today sees publication of the latest in the grey lady's series of poorly judged articles about poor rich folks, this one hilariously titled "You Try to Live on 500K in This Town." It's all about the harsh choices faced by top executives forced onto the breadline by President Obama's proposed limits on pay for incompetence:
"As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable," said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, The Manny, and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. "Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale."
Apparently rich bankers also spend lots of money on designer clothes, big houses, and fancy cars. I mean, they're practically broke but for their stock options, property portfolios, and other valuable assets. And it's not like they caused the current financial shitstorm, is it?

Oh, actually, wait a minute ...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Death, Satire, and President Bush

Since the US election in November, The Onion has also been pondering the death of satire, or at least satirising death, by marking Bush's final days in office with a series of brief reports on the almost-ex-President's demise.
Almost as amusing (or not, depending on what you consider funny) is the debate and hand-wringing these stories have caused in places such as the Huffington Post (scroll down for the first of many pages of comments).

UPDATE: The Onion found time to squeeze in one more on inauguration day: Bush Dies Peacefully In His Sleep (January 20).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Situations Vacant

When the frequency of layoffs in the publishing industry has increased to the point where they seem almost commonplace, you'd think that the announcement of a print publication actually expanding its workforce would be a cause for celebration. However, this report about hipster bible Vice taking on seven new staff seems profoundly depressing next to the news that The Economist is losing 13 staff.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Palm Reading: I see an iPhone in your future

The news that Palm is about to re-enter the smartphone market with the Pré is unlikely to tempt many users away from buying a BlackBerry or iPhone. That includes me, a long-term Palm PDA user.

The one thing that has given me cause to reconsider is the realisation that my Palm Zire 71 has worked without hassle or serious complaint for six years now. That's six whole years. Translated into human terms, it's the gadget equivalent of living to the age of 200. But, while senility hasn't set in yet (it still remembers my dates and addresses without error), it doesn't have the energy it used to and now requires far more frequent trips to the charger. The end, I fear, is nigh.

Of course, there's no place for silly feelings like nostalgia or pity when it comes to technology (unlike, say, blind adherence to trends and the whims of fashion) so I will soon be replacing it with something shiny, new, and - more likely than not - made by Apple. Proof, if any were needed, that even making really good, reliable products is no guarantee of success these days.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Who's First Against the Wall?

In these economically troubled times, why can't more layoffs be reported like this, courtesy of Keith J Kelly last week at the New York Post?
Stone cold: The recession isn't bothering Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, at least in his personal life. He's busy skiing at his multi-million dollar home in Sun Valley, Idaho on his annual prolonged winter ski holiday. But that doesn't mean the minions at Wenner Media are being spared. About 10 people were axed so far this week, including the head of production, Lou Terracciano, hired only six months ago, and more are expected to go today, insiders are saying. Men's Journal is expected to be particularly hard-hit.

And then there's this article in the Telegraph on the financial problems faced by billionaire publisher and businessman Anthony O'Reilly. After outlining "the parlous state of the Independent, the flagship newspaper, which is losing between £12 million and £14 million a year," the normally business-friendly Torygraph dares to point out that:
"The [Independent News & Media] group's five senior directors were paid a total of £7.97 million, including bonuses and pensions last year, with Sir Anthony receiving £2.2 million – a 20 per cent rise on last year. However, the board has approved large-scale redundancies as a cost-cutting measure."
Of course, both these examples have something in common: they're media stories. Publishing companies are suffering acutely in these hard times, and rival publications seem to be taking particular relish in turning on each other like starving dogs. But what of Wall Street?

I long for the day when the business executives whose catastrophic mismanagement got us into the current financial crisis are tarred and feathered and run through the streets like the criminals they are. In the meantime, I'll settle for them being named and shamed. It isn't much, but it would be a start.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Stationery Porn: Leitz Folders

I recently took delivery of these Leitz hanging files. I won't bore you with the reasons I needed to source some longer European A4 folders rather than standard US letter ones, but it took a surprisingly long time to find an American supplier that stocked such subversively sized pieces of stationery. I guess there isn't much call for metric filing round these parts; indeed, the mere act of ordering them probably means my name will shortly appear on some Homeland Security watch list or other.

And little wonder: these functional, utilitarian beauties certainly look as if they might have Communist sympathies. They are German-made, and look bleakly efficient in a Lives of Others sort of way. The simple act of filing may never be quite the same for me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

UPDATE: Satire Not Dead After All

I spoke too soon: satire isn't really dead. It's not even resting. It's just a bit ill. In his introduction to Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine, Roger D Hodge agrees there is a problem, but he identifies it as a mere disease, one he calls "self satirizing syndrome":
The disease manifested itself almost everywhere at once, but the superficial effects were most spectacular in our national mirror: the Media, which absorbed and digested the once proud opposition of the Press and made of it a mere legitimizer of horrors. The self-refuting absurdity of the Bush presidency, with its pretensions to manufacture an imperial reality, parallels the rise of the aggressively oxymoronic genre of “Reality Television,” with all its unintentional ironies. Among so-called news programming, Fox’s “Fair and Balanced: We Report, You Decide” is of a piece with Anderson Cooper’s “Keeping Them Honest” ... More perniciously, the self-importance with which the quality newspapers fawned on George W. Bush and his retainers in the decisive years after September 11, 2001, particularly in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, bears comparison with the bitter satires of G. K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh.
Put in this context, Obama's election victory didn't represent the final death knell for satire (as so many commentators seem to think) but the opposite, a day when the world become slightly less ridiculous. If nothing else, the inauguration on January 20 will mean humorists finally having to put some effort into lampooning the president, rather than just pointing and laughing like they can just now.