The Right Media at the Right Time

On Wednesday night, I was invited to a Wired UK dinner about ‘The Future of Entertainment’. At the end of the night, we were asked what we thought entertainment would look like in 15 years; some people predicted the death of copyright, others talked about the rise of videogames and live experiences. In a nod to the hosts, I talked about publishing, giving my usual doom-and-gloom analysis about the frankly obvious death of publishers, whether they’re in the music, TV, book or even videogame industry. I think that jolted them a little, and the guy from Conde Nast actually walked out of the room at that point (although, on balance, I don’t think that had anything to do with what I said).

That wasn’t the only time we talked about publishing though; earlier on, there were pointed questions about whether magazines had any future. Given that The New Yorker and The Economist are the healthiest they’ve been for quite some time, I’m not ready to call time on those two magazines yet, and I’m sure that the high end of the market (which Wired UK aspires to) will do just fine. Much of the reason for this is that their content is very expensive to commission and very hard to imitate. It also happens to be presented in a really good format.

Format is important. For instance, I can read a lot of text on the iPhone’s screen without strain, and there are plenty of people out there who spend over an hour a day browsing the web and reading books on the iPhone; it’s certainly more convenient than carrying a bunch of books around, and in any case, you can’t surf the web on a book.

Lately, most of my iPhone reading has been of RSS feeds. I use a great application called Byline that not only downloads and stores the latest news items from my Google Reader feeds, but crucially, it also synchronises the information back, meaning that if I’ve read an item on my iPhone, I won’t have to read it again on my computer. When I’m travelling any distance, it’s a very good way of keeping up to date, and keeping my unread items count from getting too big (I receive, and read, about 500 items every day).

That’s not the only reading I have to keep up with; I have weekly subscriptions to The New Yorker and The Economist, and a monthly subscription to The Atlantic. That’s a lot of pages to be getting on with every week, and if I neglect them – as I did when I spent a month reading Infinite Jest – then the resulting pile can take several days of concentrated reading to get through. During those days, I got the distinct sense that I was on the cusp of losing the battle, and something had to give; I just was trying to read too much, and I was starting to enjoy it less.

A few days ago, I realised there was another problem; I was reading badly. Sure, the iPhone meant that I could read my RSS feeds on the tube, saving precious minutes and providing me with news whole minutes or even hours before I sat down in front of a computer, but it was really a terribly slow way of reading them. At home, not only is the experience of reading RSS feeds much easier, since I have a faster net connection and a much, much bigger screen, but it’s also much better.

Now, whenever I’m tempted to read on my iPhone, I just open up a magazine. Whether I read it at home or on the tube, it’s still the same magazine, with the same high quality layout and high density of text, easily beating the iPhone’s little screen. So far, this is working out splendidly well, and I’m spending less time obsessing over RSS feeds and playing Flight Control on my iPhone, and more time reading quality content; and when I get home, I have more time to read my RSS feeds (which, as mentioned, actually takes less time), watch Mad Men, play games, and read books.

I might still unsubscribe from The Economist and The Atlantic though…

A New York Times Dream

This is a real dream I had, about four hours ago:

I was with a friend in a shop of gadgets and curios – the sort of place that has soap dispensers attached to D-ring clips, or electronic scales with keyboards – when I spotted a odd device on the bottom shelf. It looked like a fax machine with a big bowl on top, and it had the New York Times logo on it.

“What does that do?” I asked, picking it up – it was surprisingly light.

“It prints out issues of the New York Times every day,” said my friend.

“Sweet!” I turned it around, looking for the specs. “Is it a laser printer or an inkjet?”

“Laser printer,” he replied, peering at the shelf label.

“How much does it cost?”


“Wow! We totally have to get this!” Even with the weak pound, $300 was clearly a steal. “But what’s this bowl for?”

“Oh, that’s where you put the pulp in.”

“What, you mean you have to make your own paper?” I asked.

“Yeah, but think about it, you can change the consistency, leave bits in, use different colours…”

“I don’t know…” I said doubtfully. It seemed like a lot of effort to get the paper every day. I put the New York Times machine down, regretfully, and left the shop.

The dream was probably inspired by a quote I saw by Clay Shirky that said “But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button,” and this video:

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:


Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.


Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Who supports longer copyright?

Various news outlets today have been claiming that the Public ‘support longer copyright’. I quote from the BBC article:

62% of people polled by YouGov for the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) think UK artists should be protected for 95 years, as they are in the US.

I found this very surprising – I can hardly believe that many people in the UK really care about copyright durations, and I imagine that those that do are likely to be opposed to it. This survey, of course, shows that I’m wrong. Or am I? It all depends on the exact question that was asked int he survey. The Observer article puts a slightly different slant on it:

The study, by YouGov, found that 62 per cent of those polled believe British artists should receive the same copyright protection as their US counterparts.

Ah… this is obviously not the same thing as the British public actually wanting 45 years added to copyright. This is the public wanting copyright parity with the US, without necessarily knowing (or being told) what the US or UK copyright regimes actually are. If people were asked the question ‘Do you think British artists should receive the same copyright protection as those in the US?’, I’m hardly surprised that they agreed. Why wouldn’t they? The US seems to be a reasonable enough place, so surely we should have the same copyright rules.

Unfortunately for the BPI, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement for their aim of enriching their members. The simple fact is that they can’t risk an open question of prolonging copyright, because there’s a real chance that most people would be against it, hence the reason for disguising the question.

I would dearly love to find out the exact data gathered by YouGov for this BPI survey. Hopefully it’ll be released next week and we can find out whether I’m right. The problem is that even if I am right, it’s hardly likely that any newspapers will bother changing their articles.

One more quote from the Observer:

Just under 70 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds hold that view, the highest of any age group surveyed. That is likely to surprise some observers, as they are the generation most likely to illegally download songs.

If it surprised you, why didn’t you spend a minute to look into it? Or perhaps that’s not your job as a journalist.

The First Rule is…

If you are at all interested in Doctor Who and would rather not know any plot details of the last episode, do not read any stories about Doctor Who on the internet from now on. You might think that you can rely on places like the BBC and the Guardian not to spoil the ending, since they haven’t done so in the past, but that isn’t the case now. The BBC conducted an unembargoed press screening of the final episode recently, and all of the papers and news outlets are happily spoiling everything.

I fell afoul of this today, when I read a seemingly innocuous article in the Guardian Media Online about the show being renewed for a third season. “Why,” I asked myself blithely, “would anyone put spoilers in such an article?” Anyway, about halfway through the article was a huge plot spoiler. I could hardly believe my eyes, and immediately closed the window in fear of further infection. Within minutes, I dispatched an angry email to the editor of the Guardian Media section, Janine Gibson, complaining about it.

To her credit she replied extremely rapidly and apologised for it. Shortly afterwards, the author of the article himself, Matt Wells, also replied and pointed out that there was a spoiler warning in the fourth para of the article. True enough, but I tend to speed read stuff on the internet (like many others, I suspect), and just zipped past it. The offending paragraph with spoilers was already on my screen without any scrolling at that point, so it was too late.

Luckily it wasn’t all spoiled for me, but damage has been done. I’ll just have to be more careful from now on…

Here is the correspondence of this story:

Date: 10:55:37 BST
From: Adrian Hon
To: Janine Gibson

Dear Ms. Gibson,

I’m a regular reader of Media Guardian and often find it gives the best reporting on UK Media issues. However, I was severely disappointed when I read ‘Doctor Who fights on… and on’ by Matt Wells today. Is it really necessary for him to spoil parts (if not all) of the ending of this season in a discussion about the third season renewal?

Surely it hasn’t escaped the Guardian’s notice that a good percentage of the population of this country are looking forward to the final episode and really would rather not know the ending? Even people who work in media don’t always want to know all the details.


Adrian Hon

Date: 11:04:17 BST
From: Janine Gibson
To: Adrian Hon

Thank you for your email. I too was absolutely furious at the number of spoilers in the national press this morning and we have already shouted at matt. To be fair to him, he was filing late for the paper which was automatically uploaded onto the site. I think he has an excuse because he tried to warn fans not to read on.

I sympathise though. Everyone does it and it drives lots of readers nuts. He swears there are still secrets and the times was much worse…

Janine Gibson
The Guardian

Date: 11:14:56 BST
From: Matt Wells
To: Adrian Hon

Hi Adrian

Thanks very much for your email. We faced a tricky decision last night. The BBC held a screening for several hundred invited guests at Bafta for the last episode. Many were journalists, and many were Who fans who run fanzines and websites. The BBC did not place the event under embargo, which it could have chosen to do. Indeed, it released a load of pictures to the press of the final epsiode.

My feeling was that, given the number of people present and the likelihood of leaks, the Guardian had to run a story of some kind – leading on the line that the BBC had commissioned a third series. We then thought it would be fine to drop in a couple of teasers for Saturday night’s episode, without revealing the plot entirely. And given that it has already been revealed that Christopher Eccleston is not returning as the Doctor – and, for goodness sake, the BBC’s own Doctor Who site says the episode is called Parting of the Ways – we thought it wasn’t too much of a revelation to say that (removed because this is a great big spoiler).

We didn’t go as far as the Times, which has revealed a great deal more. In any case I can assure you there is LOADS more in the final episode, and your enjoyment has not been spoiled. It’s a cracker.

Beyond all of that, I wrote a warning in the fourth paragraph that some plot details would be revealed in the rest of the story. More fool you for reading on!

Best wishes,


Lots of stuff has been going on with my life lately which I should have mentioned here but just haven’t had time. I was interviewed by the Times a couple of weeks ago in an article on alternate reality games and a pop neuroscience book which I contributed to called Mind Hacks has been released (I wrote section 72, ‘Detect Cheaters’). It’s all very exciting.


The Guardian’s Life section (science) has an article about the impenetrable writing favoured by scientists when writing in journals. This is hardly a new development but it’s no less interesting or disappointing for it; what is disappointing is that the author, Chris McCabe, has reduced this interesting subject to a directionless and misguided article, which is rather amusing since he’s supposed to be a key member of the resistance against bad writing. The article basically consists of the trivial argument that no-one understands scientific papers supported by far too many anecdotes and examples of bad writing. It’s only until the last couple of paragraphs that he actually gets to the point, such that it is.

While I’ll be the first to admit that there’s far too much bad writing in journals, a lot of what people might consider to be impenetrable is always going to be impenetrable. McCabe uses the following excerpt as a prime example of bad writing:

“These findings support the hypothesis that spatial learning may depend on neuronal input from the entorhinal cortex to dentate granule cells via perforant path and LTP-induction at perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses in pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation.”

Now, this could have been written much more clearly, but the real reason why it’s impenetrable is because over 99% of the population have no idea what these words mean: spatial learning, neuronal input, entorhinal cortex, dentate granule cells, perforant path, LTP-induction, perforant path-dentate granule cell synapses, pathway-specific semi-interactive modes of operation. Is it any surprise, then, that it reads badly?

Scientific papers aren’t aimed for the general audience. They’re aimed for those highly specialised scientists, numbering in the tens of thousands, who actually care about and understand the particular field. Before I’m accused of being elitist, there are articles – called reviews – in journals that do attempt to explain specialised subjects like the one above to the greater scientific community. Most reviews probably wouldn’t be suitable for the general public because, like papers, they assume a certain amount of background knowledge. If they didn’t, they’d be far too long. As it is, journals impose very strict word limits on papers and unfortunately scientists have to be terse in order to meet them.

Yet even when scientists aren’t actively trying to be terse, they often appear like it. Take this sentence from the methods section of my dissertation:

“The slices were subsequently transferred to a recording chamber, also perfused with oxygenated aCSF at room temperature.”

Makes no sense at all, does it? But what’s the point of trying to pad it out when all of my readers know exactly what I’m talking about and just want me to get to the good bits, namely, the section where my methods differ from everyone else’s? Just in the same way, when I try to read this analysis of the Superbowl, I have no idea what they’re talking when they say ‘third down’ and ‘two point conversion’, but it doesn’t bother me because the article’s not written for those completely unfamiliar to American Football, it’s written for fans.

Even if writing in journals was improved (and it needs improving), it would still remain totally opaque to the general public. We only start nearing the general public at the level of newspaper article, TV programmes on science and (perhaps) New Scientist.

The problem McCabe is trying to address isn’t really about bad science writing for scientists, it’s about bad science writing for the public. To pretend that scientists get their negative image from their writing in journals is like claiming that Christina Aguilera is popular because of her wonderful personality – in other words, it’s completely missing the point. It might be a tired cliche to say that we need to ‘build a bridge’ between the scientific community and the public, but it’s still true.

Our entire culture’s schizophrenic attitude to science, one of simultaneous awe and hatred, of hope and despair and of magic and boredom, desperately needs mending. It’s not just a job for the scientists, it’s a job for politicians, teachers, parents, children, journalists – everyone.

So, long live terse journal papers – but more importantly, long live Science!

IHT unheralded

Does anyone know why the International Herald Tribune’s website hasn’t been updated for a good two weeks? Do they normally take a long holiday in December, or is something more sinister afoot? I need to get my international news fix, now! (Looks like they went back to work today, the website has finally been updated)

More inaccurate reporting

I was initially pleased to see that the Guardian Online had an article about Alternate Reality Games today, and then disappointed to see an inaccurate and overly simplistic piece of journalism. Soon after reading it, I wrote an email to the author, Andrew Losowsky, which I’ve included below:

I have a few comments on your article about ARGs in the Guardian today. While I think it’s great that you wrote about ARGs, there were a few things that were wrong in the article.

You mentioned that the AI game had roughly 10,000 players. At its peak, the Cloudmakers player group for the game had 7000 registered members; there were many, many more people playing the game who hadn’t registered. In a lecture given by the game’s designer, Elan Lee, to the Game Developer’s Conference in 2002, he claimed there were over 100,000 people playing. This seriously underrepresents the popularity of the AI game.

Furthermore, the ‘Matrix’ game could not be considered to be ‘the most successful ARG ever’ by any measure whatsoever – such as popularity, press coverage, quality or profit. In fact, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had a tenuous link to the Matrix, you could quite easily call it one of the worst ARGs ever, in terms of an opaque plot and lack of compelling story.

And of course that’s what the genre is about – ARGs aren’t about puzzles or ‘this is not a game’. They’re just a new way of telling stories – an immersive, interactive way, but it’s still just storytelling. It shouldn’t then be surprising that the most successful ARGs have been the ones with the best stories; if the AI game hadn’t been written by Sean Stewart (now a bestselling, award-winning fantasy author) then no amount of puzzles or strange clues would have made it popular.

Consequently, the fact that Warner Brothers is not bothered about fan fiction has absolutely no bearing on the future of ARGs. While people may make more fan fiction ARGs such as the ‘Matrix’ game, the real potential for ARGs lies in the telling of new stories that are not tied to an existing, copyrighted property – stories that can soar free of the restrictions of linear entertainment and take full advantage of their creators’ imaginations.

Adrian Hon

Alive and well

Some utter fool has written an article in the Times (part one, part two) on the failure of psychology. My views are reflected quite accurately in this Metafilter thread which I contributed to.

Psychology is alive and well, and if you want to attack the strawman of psychoanalysis and outdated views of early 20th century psychology, fine. Just don’t pretend that you’re referring to psychology as it has been any time in the last few decades.

Saying ‘Everywhere you turn, you find growing links between biology, or physics, and behaviour; more and more appears to be explained by physiology, biochemistry, genetics or neurology � and less and less by psychology,’ completely misses the point. Psychology is ‘the scientific study of the behaviour of humans and animals.’ It can use any number of methods, such as brain imaging, genetic studies, molecular and cellular biology and of course good old behavioural studies.