I’ve finally got round to reading The Circle. Now it’s being turned into a movie with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, no doubt lots more of us will be familiar with it soon. But if you haven’t come across it yet, it’s by Dave Eggers (he of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius fame) and is set in a near-future world in which one Silicon Valley tech firm has triumphed over Google, Facebook and the rest and has become almost omnipresent in everyone’s lives.
The protagonist is a young woman who manages to blag a job at The Circle courtesy of her college room-mate, but who quickly moves through the ranks until she is soon selected to go ‘transparent’ – have wearable tech on her every day, broadcasting everything she does live to millions of followers. At this point, things start to get ominous, but I won’t give any more away.
It’s good. Eggers can’t resist making some unsubtle points about the dangers of where-we’re-all-heading-if-we’re-not-careful, but it doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of actually reading the thing. He does a good job of capturing the general feeling of antsiness that can be a side effect of being offline for any significant period of time, and the Circle engineers’ view that tech can solve everything and don’t worry too much about the consequences (a critique often made of Google in particular) comes over, too.
The book was actually published in 2013 and it seems even more prescient now. I suspect the novel and, when it’s released, the movie, will be useful teaching aids as I try to make some of these points to students on a couple of new tech-related modules I’m planning at the University of Huddersfield. It’s well worth the £4 I paid for it from, naturally enough, the Kindle Store.
The picture shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in June 1914, minutes before they were assassinated in an incident which ultimately sparked off World War I. The 100th anniversary has been much in the news lately, and some of the best coverage I’ve seen has been provided by the BBC.
It used a very 21st century tool, the liveblog, to tell the story of that day in real time, including some new videos shot by BBC correspondents pretending they were reporting at the time. This sounds all a bit worthy-but-dull-schools-programme, but actually worked really well. NPR’s newish London correspondent Ari Shapiro is well worth a follow on Twitter for his perceptive insights on Britain, and he was in Sarajevo for the anniversary too.
Sky News has started its own ‘real time’ WWI Twitter account, although it’s been a little disappointing so far – just a daily tweet with no links to anything to put it in any context, let alone a mini-site to rival the BBC’s. Hopefully it will improve as time goes on. Reuters looked into its own archive for this fascinating piece on how close it came to confusing the assassination with the result of a French horse race.
An eye-catching story from the WTF department was this one about Phil Collins (yes, that one) and his obsession with The Alamo. The story behind the story is well told by Texas Monthly here.
On the subject of curious obsessions, this Newsweek article on the tunnel king of Brooklyn is great. Guardian-backed collaborative journalism project Contributoria is well up and running, and this Jon Hickman article on social capital is well worth a read this month. And, joy of joys, this classic 2011 Vanity Fair piece on how Chad Harbach’s modern classic baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, came to be published is now free to read online. It’s the best insight into the world of publishing I’ve ever read.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Ari Shapiro, BBC News, Contributoria, Jon Hickman, Liveblogging, Newsweek, NPR, Phil Collins, Reuters, Sarajevo, Sky News, Texas Monthly, The Alamo, The Guardian, Twitter, Vanity Fair, World War I
It’s just over seven years since Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey sent the first tweet, and I’ve just finished reading the most notable book so far on the company’s rise: Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton of the New York Times.
Bilton’s book is a good read, and has a focus on the battles between Twitter’s various co-founders for control of it. Central is the strife between Dorsey and Ev Williams, and the boardroom coup and counter-coup which has ultimately left Dorsey as its Chairman and Williams on the outside.
It’s easy to forget just how unreliable Twitter was in 2008/09 when the world began to use it in larger numbers: Bilton blames the regular sightings of the Fail Whale on Dorsey’s inexperience as a CEO. At one board meeting, new investors are aghast to learn that Dorsey had neglected to create any kind of backup for Twitter at all.
All the internal struggles left me wondering whether Twitter would have turned out rather differently under a more experienced management team with their eyes more on the ball. After all, it was Twitter users who came up with key aspects of the service such as @-replies and hashtags. Perhaps it’s just as well things went the way they did.
I’ve also been enjoying selections from the excellent Longform App, which picks out the best online long reads and puts them on your tablet for £1.99. I’ve been getting the free weekly emails for quite a while, but there’s something about reading the articles on a tablet which is more enjoyable all round.
Among the recent highlights was this January 1970 piece from Rolling Stone, written by Lester Bangs among others, piecing together the disastrous Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont the previous month. I also enjoyed this vintage profile of Johnny Cash from Playboy magazine, also dating from 1970.
But perhaps best of all was this recent article from Texas Monthly by Michael Hall, on a mysterious triple murder from 1982 – a complicated story which remains unresolved 32 years later despite various convictions. Well worth putting aside an hour of your life to read.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Altamont, Ev Williams, Fail Whale, Jack Dorsey, Johnny Cash, Lake Waco Murders, Lester Bangs, Longform, Michael Hall, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Texas Monthly, The Rolling Stones, Twitter
The best, and admittedly only, book I’ve ever read about snooker.
Three of the books I’ve read lately are about sport’s relationship with the media, and in particular TV. All very good, the best of them might be Black Farce and Cue Ball Wizards, an account of snooker’s unlikely rise to national prominence and the years of internal strife that followed, written by veteran snooker journalist and commentator Clive Everton.
It’s highly readable and there are plenty of revelations, including how Everton himself blew the whistle on a match-fixing scandal that ended an early experiment with televised snooker on ITV. The book offers an interesting case study in the relationship between sport and TV, especially when that sport’s success is so inextricably linked to certain broadcasting contracts. Just how interesting you find the book as a whole probably depends on your personal threshold for reading anecdotes about Doug Mountjoy, but happily it turns out mine is surprisingly high.
ESPN has retreated from the British market for televised sport, but in the US it remains the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader. A brilliant oral history of its rise from humble origins at the end of the 1970s is Those Guys Have All The Fun, by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. The book made headlines in America, particularly on Gawker Media’s sport spinoff blog Deadspin, for its claims about various incidents of sexist behaviour down the years at ESPN. The oral history format certainly seemed to help loosen a few tongues of those being interviewed.
Another book to recommend is Martin Kelner’s history of sport on British TV, Sit Down And Cheer. It’s as enjoyably written as Kelner’s columns on this topic, which for a long time appeared in the Guardian and are now in the Racing Post. There are plenty of memorable nuggets, including the detail that there was barely any pre or post-game coverage of the 1966 World Cup Final, and some magnificent passages taken from the autobiography of Frank Bough. Ask your parents.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Black Farce and Cue Ball Wizards, Clive Everton, Deadspin, ESPN, James Andrew Miller, Martin Kelner, Racing Post, Sit Down And Cheer, snooker, The Guardian, Those Guys Have All The Fun, Tom Shales
Well worth £1.99.
I was very kindly sent a review copy of the new ebook from Guardian Shorts about online communities. Called Connected: The Power of Modern Community, it’s by the Guardian’s Hannah Waldram, Ed Walker of Trinity Mirror, and the Cardiff-based publisher and journalist Marc Thomas. And having read it over coffee in Huddersfield this lunchtime, here are some brief thoughts about it.
Cardiff’s a bit of a recurring theme here, because Hannah and Ed both worked there on Guardian Cardiff and Your Cardiff respectively. And the book kicks off with a great story from the city, about how a remarkable trove of old pictures was found and then shared both online and off, culminating in exhibitions and the tracing of the original photographer.
The blend of online and offline features throughout the book. In the conclusion, there’s a list of ten principles for managing an online community, the first of which is ‘get offline’. This excellent advice might seem counter-intuitive, but the rise of Meetup among other similar services has helped take a lot of the hassle out of organising real world events.
A group I’ve joined this year, the Manchester Whisky Club, which runs tastings in a Northern Quarter pub and in members’ homes using Twitter, is a classic example of how those tools and others including Blogger and Paypal can all be harnessed to create a lively community. Even though the main aim is to get drunk and talk about whisky, rather than do something worthy like save the local swimming baths.
The book also touches on Reddit, Mumsnet and some good examples of current hyperlocal news activity in London such as the Brixton Bugle and the evergreen london-se1.co.uk.
You can get the book here. It’s well worth £1.99 of your money.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Blogger, Brixton Bugle, Cardiff, Communities, Ed Walker, Guardian Shorts, Hannah Waldram, Hyperlocal, Leeds, London SE1 community website, Manchester Whisky Club, Marc Thomas, Meetup, Mumsnet, Nick Booth, Northern Quarter, Paypal, Reddit, The Guardian
The Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen. (picture: Lizzie/Wikipedia)
If you grew up in Aberdeen you remember Piper Alpha. I was six at the time, in July 1988, and I vividly recall hearing the rescue helicopters flying directly over my house from the airport out to sea. They returned with just 61 survivors; 167 men were killed.
In the 25 years since, the tragedy has perhaps not been revisited by the media as often as others from that time, such as Hillsborough and Lockerbie. But there was an excellent documentary, Fire In the Night, shown on BBC2 earlier this year. And as a result I’ve read the source material for the film, a book by Scotsman journalist Stephen McGinty. It’s thorough but highly readable, with the descriptions of the chaos on board the platform as the fire took hold particularly devastating. Recommended.
Also recommended is Nieman Lab’s oral history of the impact of digital technologies on journalism, Riptide. It’s been criticised for being too simplistic and lacking a suitable variety of voices, but it’s still a useful guide to some of the key developments and experiments in the news business over the past three decades. And this video of a 1981 news report on an early digital experiment in San Francisco is ace.
Elsewhere, Damian Radcliffe published another useful assessment of the UK’s hyperlocal scene at the BBC College of Journalism, an abridged version of his chapter in the new edition of What Do We Mean By Local?. This guide from the BBC’s Marc Settle to using Apple’s new iOS7 is also worth a read.
A couple of sport-related articles which I’ve enjoyed lately: Andy Bull in the Guardian on cricketer Scott Boswell’s battle with the yips, and some interesting speculation from the New Yorker on whether playing American football might have contributed to Jack Kerouac’s early death.
The always-good This American Life radio show had another cracker earlier this month, too. Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame) tells the remarkable story of how Bosnian immigrant Emir Kamenica got into school and then college in the US. Listen to the whole thing: the podcast is here.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Andy Bull, Apple, BBC College of Journalism, Damian Radcliffe, Emir Kamenica, Fire In The Night, Hyperlocal, iOS7, Jack Kerouac, Marc Settle, Michael Lewis, Nieman Lab, Piper Alpha, Riptide, Scott Boswell, Stephen McGinty, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Scotsman, This American Life, What Do We Mean By Local?
Red or Dead, by David Peace.
I’ve read quite a few of David Peace’s books. The Damned Utd and his four-part Red Riding series, all set mainly in Leeds, are absorbing, unsettling and generally great. But I realised this week I may struggle to get to the end of his novel about Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, when I got to the passage in the image above.
Peace has taken his trademark style of repetition, almost incantation, a bit far this time. It turns Red or Dead into a dreadful slog, and I’m not even halfway through yet. Jonathan Wilson in the New Statesman has one of the best reviews. But in the week in which Elmore Leonard died, and his memorable ten tips for writing published in the New York Times in 2001 circulated online again, I’d suggest Peace is guilty of ignoring number 10: try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Still on football, Addiply founder Rick Waghorn posted some interesting reflections on his 20 years as a reporter covering Norwich City. On the cover of Sports Illustrated this week is Mario Balotelli, and the story by Grant Wahl is well worth a read.
Al Jazeera America began broadcasting yesterday. Brian Stelter had a comprehensive preview in the New York Times. Meanwhile, NBC has begun its high-profile coverage of the English Premier League, to favourable reviews such as this one from SB Nation.
Back to Yorkshire to finish. A couple of interesting snippets from the excellent Leeds Citizen blog: a welcome update on its attempts to record council meetings, and grim news about counterfeit booze found at a den of iniquity which I may have been known to frequent during my student days. And those interested in local commercial radio news will enjoy Richard Horsman’s latest thoughts at his always readable blog.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Addiply, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera America, Brian Stelter, David Peace, Elmore Leonard, Grant Wahl, Jonathan Wilson, Leeds Citizen, Mario Balotelli, NBC Sports, New Statesman, New York Times, Norwich City, Red or Dead, Richard Horsman, Rick Waghorn, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated
The Washington Post building. (picture: vpickering on Flickr)
This is the first in what I imagine will be a semi-regular feature on this site, with links to things I’ve enjoyed reading.
The biggest media news of the week came from Washington DC, where the Graham family announced it was selling the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250m.
That sounds like a lot of money, but everything’s relative. As Alex Massie points out, that’s basically what Johnston Press paid for The Scotsman as recently as 2005.
Of the American reactions to the deal, here’s the analysis on the Post’s own Wonkblog. It’s worth reading the thoughts of former Post staffer and New Yorker editor David Remnick.
Also at the New Yorker, John Cassidy offers a sceptical view of what Bezos’ motives might be. Back at the Post’s website, read this enjoyable open letter to Bezos from Gene Weingarten.
I’ve been checking out Medium this week, the writing-focused newish social network from the Twitter guys, Ev Williams and Biz Stone. Williams explains it all here.
A couple of things that I particularly enjoyed: Callie Schweitzer on how interviewing director David O Russell for her high school newspaper changed her life, and Dave Harte discussing a presentation on the internet he gave to a class of ten-year-olds.
Some rotten boroughs news to finish. Weep at Leeds Citizen’s account of councillors’ refusal to allow the recording of a council meeting. And, from Private Eye via the Telegraph’s Louise Gray, an explanation of how fracking permission was originally granted in Balcombe (there’s an easier-to-read follow up from the Independent here).
Just goes to show why it’s important to scrutinise even parish councils.
Posted in What I'm Reading
Tagged Alex Massie, Amazon, Balcombe, Biz Stone, Callie Schweitzer, Dave Harte, David O Russell, David Remnick, Ev Williams, Fracking, Gene Weingarten, Jeff Bezos, John Cassidy, Johnston Press, Leeds Citizen, Louise Gray, Medium, Parish councils, Private Eye, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Yorker, The Scotsman, Washington Post, Wonkblog