Proof of…something

While I have a certain queasiness about the rapaciousness with which football (soccer) has sucked the life money out of so many other sports (and especially rugby league), and how what used to be a guilty pleasure is now a somehow unavoidable topic of polite conversation, the sport still consumes my imagination.

I recall watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his first season at Ajax about 11 years ago.  He was gangly, a misfit, overconfident and yet completely out of tune with his team-mates.  He was comical.  And I was resentful of  the praise he garnered in the 2004 European championships, while the graceful Henrik Larsson seemed to be so undervalued by the Swedish public (even after that diving header against Bulgaria).  And so, like many English football fans, I’ve always had a resistance to the notion that Zlatan is truly a great.  He’s the classic flat-track bully, winning a sequence of domestic titles by crushing smaller opponents, but conspicously failing in the Champions League and in major international tournaments.

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Last night, I finished work late, went to the supermarket, got home, made myself something to eat and sat down with my scrambled eggs and my jetlag late in the first half of England-Sweden.  England-Sweden – a fixture that has never set my pulse racing, and yet, is pregnant with memories.  The summer of 1992 was an poignant one for me, and I picture Graham Taylor’s England sliding out of control.  More importantly, I think of 2002, and watching a rather tedious game with the-then-future-Mrs Finch; and the rematch, 4 years later, which we missed as the by-then-Mrs Finch gave birth to our first daughter Emma; this past summer, being off work and with my family for what was one of the most enjoyable games of Euro 2012.  Alone with my memories, my eggs and my tabasco sauce, I drifted off.

I woke up late in the second half to the noise of a crowd going wild.  Well, going as wild as a Swedish crowd goes.  England’s 2-1 lead somehow pulled back to 3-2 to Sweden.  I saw a beaming Zlatan, fresh from completing a hat-trick.  Bleary-eyed, I focused on the remaining minutes of the game.  And then I saw this:

It’s like Zlatan scored that hat-trick just to wake me up to say, “you won’t want to miss this”.

There’s so much to love about this goal: the breadth of Zlatan’s imagination, his speed of thought, his sudden and total commitment to a wholly improbable outcome, and, yes, his ability to prove me wrong.

Still – he’s never done it in a big game, eh?

update: due to the parlous state of international copyright, these videos are being taken down.  In Sweden, you can see the goal on TV4’s website, once you’ve sat through a minute (literally a minute) of adverts for winter tyres, pasta sauce, digital cameras and various other things you might not actually need.

On being disintermediated

So, I’m back.
Back for 6 weeks already, in fact – how time flies – having spent an incredible summer with the family.  I reflected on my own situation when I read this in the Guardian, Forget the balance, this is the merge, a slightly depressing article for a number of reasons: firstly its conclusions (there is no balance), but also its assumption that only mothers need to consider time with their children (to the Swedish resident, it’s clear that fathers and children need to prioritise time together just as much).  Equally, those without children need their balance just as much, in order to grow as people.

Anyway, having spent several weeks largely away from screens (email, IRC… especially email), I felt refreshed.  And I had to consider this when reading the miserable story of a wretch from Lancashire who was “trolling” the family of abducted, presumed murdered, schoolgirl April Jones.

How does someone sink so low?  Well, people have always told sick jokes.  Not everyone – certainly I’ve always been too squeamish – but many do.  I tend to smile wanly, perhaps groan, to show I’m not amused but nor have I taken offense.  After all, once chooses to take offense, doesn’t one?

No.  Not always.  Not entirely.  Not when your daughter is missing, presumed murdered.  You’d have to be absurdly tranquil not to take offense.

Those of us in the Internet industry talk of “disintermediation” as the malaise afflicting network operators, excluded from being able to offer differentiated value-add to their users.  But the Internet disintermediates people too.  One only has to read a comments thread on -and I’m going out on a limb here- just about any online forum to find deeply uncivil exchanges.  People seem to delight in attacking each other online, and in hurting each others’ feelings.  There is almost a sense of liberation for so-called trolls: this piece, “Meeting a troll…” is very instructive.  The false sense of anonymity the Internet conveys allows people with limited imagination and empathy do very unpleasant things.  I pity the person who behaved so vilely towards the family of April Jones: he isn’t a fully-formed person, or at least, is capable of behaving like he isn’t one.  I’m sure he’s no parent himself.  I’m equally sure he wouldn’t behave like that in the company of that poor family.

But then, this isn’t just an Internet phenomenon.  In the mid 1990s, the term “road-rage” was coined, describing how recklessly and aggressively people could behave in situations of stressful traffic.  I’ve been a passenger in cars where the driver has “retaliated” for a perceived slight.  I may even have quietly cursed under my breath at being cut up myself.  Where does this come from?  I’m sure studies have been done, but my jaded perspective identifies three causes: busier roads seems fairly obvious; a self-righteous egotism or sense of entitlement (think Gordon Gecko); and the simple fact of being in your own isolated environment.  Or, as Gary Numan put it:

Here in my car
I feel safest of all
I can lock all my doors
It’s the only way to live.

Now, the clever souls at Wieden+Kennedy think that Facebook  is like a chair.  And the rest of the Internet cannot wait to tell us what other things Facebook is like.

Well, let me make my contribution:

Those of us in the industry need to pay attention to the harmful effects, the lack of humanity, that existence behind a screen can give rise to.

Parental Leave

In case you’re wondering where I am this summer – I am taking a couple of months to be a full-time parent, as is customary for both mother and father throughout the first 6 years of a child’s life in Sweden.  (i.e. we’re not expecting #3).  I’m very grateful to my employer and my colleagues for their flexibility in this.  Back in August.

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“What we laughingly call the real world”

The study of industrial economics is, what, 235 years old?  And it was only about 220 years old when I struggled through a joint honours programme.  There I was exposed to the eloquence of (inter alia) Dr Quentin Outram.  I recall his delight in exploring theory A and critique B before tossing both on the bonfire, with contemporary thought C, as he said with a chuckle, “in what we laughingly call the real world”.  His subtext (or what I understood it to be) was that our attempts to explain reality will always be doomed to revision, that there will always be a reality yet more real that the one we’re currently dealing with, just like in Inception The Truman Show The Matrix Fight Club.

So…is anyone actually using Google+ (at least, for what Google hope you’ll use it for?).  Facebook perhaps wasn’t a great original invention, but it generated what you might call “critical mass” and has quickly evolved into a platform.  Google+ seems to think it has identified the fatal flaw with Facebook: that one’s friends are not homogenous group but rather, several smaller circles.  Paul Adams of Google had demonstrated as much over a year ago. We have circles of friends.  That’s wisdom so great that it verges on common sense.

I read with interest the complaints of Violet Blue (if that is her real name) about Google+’s “drama”.  Google is, after all, desperate to get this right.  And they believe that they are fixing the fundamental flaw of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al.

Google+ will

make connecting with people on the web more like connecting with them in the real world.

Except it won’t.  It may yet be successful.  Google may yet bring to bear the massive quantities of information they have and gather up Facebook’s users, but let’s not pretend Google+ or Facebook or anything else are like connecting “in the real world” was, or is.  Facebook caters to (amongst other things) exhibitionism.  It’s partly popular because exhibitionism is easier in Facebook than it is in the real world.  And it keeps friendships alive that would not survive, or simply were not possible in the real world.

As for circles of friend – yes, they certainly do exist.  But “circles” is the wrong name for them, as they aren’t circles, at least, not from the perspective of the person who is at the centre of them.  They’re irregular, they overlap and you are not equidistant from all points.  Who has not, at some point, had a “best friend”?

Just as social media is changing friendships, so is the nature of friendship informing how social media works.  But after nearly two and a half centuries of the dismal science, events of the past two years tell us that we retain a great ability to wholly ignorant of how we “really” work.

Season 2011-2012

I read in May that the proportion of households in the US with television sets is now in decline.  Some speculated that this was still an after-effect of the 2008 crash, but I suspect more likely is that people are substituting TV for online video services.

Personally, I don’t watch much television apart from football, (which actually means I watch rather a lot of television).  And with a new season, comes a heightened appetite for footy-ogling restricted only partially by family obligations, my family’s generous but observably finite patience, and the fact that still most games are played concurrently.

But  hope beats loud in the heart of this Fantasy League manager, and so I therefore enjoy services like the Guardian’s minute-by-minute and clock-watch, which enable me to keep abreast of all games at once.

But this season, those services are no longer auto-updating; as Jacob Steinberg explained in Saturday’s season-opening clock-watch:

3.32pm: A lot of you are asking about the absence of the auto-refresh tool. Basically we’re not allowed to use it due to the media’s disagreement with the leagues. You’ll have to press F5 instead. STOP FOOTBALL, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Got that?  No more hands-free browsing of live football scores.

While this conjures up a rather fanciful image of today’s custodians of the sport, in some bizarre echo of the game’s founding purpose, being motivated still by a concern to preserve the eyesight of the nation’s youth, you might almost forget that these are live text updates of football scores we’re talking about.

So, yes, live text updates pushed to the browser now fall under some definition of broadcasting rights.  And yes, we’re reminded yet again that a powerful and flexible browser remains a bulwark against some fairly crazy legality – in this case, the definition of what “broadcasting” a game means.  But still, Firefox users can install an extension such as Reload Every and get on with enjoying automatic text updates.

It’s 2011.  And by the time this season ends, it’s 2012.  And yet, I’m reminded of something Asa wrote back in 2005:

the user is no longer just a spectator, he’s a participant.

…and that’s true even when he’s a spectator.

p.s. not all open web doom and gloom around the Guardian’s start to the season.  I loved this css-powered kit guide.

Bad good journalists and conservative rock stars

I’m jet-lagged, having just got back from a week in California, where I was also jet-lagged.  When in the States, I tend to watch (amongst other things) Fox News on telly.   This appalled some friends that I mentioned it too, but I have my reasons.  Fox News adds piquancy to any visit.  It’s genuinely weird to me, but it’s also mainstream.  I would probably find it upsetting if I lived in the US.  But as someone who just passes through from time-to-time, it adds a keenness to the experience.  I don’t say all this to sneer: but rather, when visiting somewhere that seems so easy to relate to in so many ways, it’s perhaps more interesting to see that which you don’t understand, like say, Mr Ted Nugent’s views on US foreign policy as expressed to Governor Mike Huckabee.

On my way home, I read about Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble, an investigation of the notion that various Web phenomena (in particular, Google’s personalised search and the goldfish bowls of social networks) mean that we will increasingly only hear our own views reflected back at us.

It’s an interesting thought.  And one that it’s hard to latch on to a counter argument for – presumably any source I could lay my hands on is part of my own echo-chamber.   But still, I was delighted that  This Week in Google addressed the topic.  As Gina Trapani pointed out, seeking out contrary viewpoints is simply part of being a developed person: and of course, your online habits will reflect the extent to which you exhibit this behaviour.   For example, my favourite newspaper columnist is Howard Jacobson, which is not to say that I agree with him all the time, but rather, I frequently find myself instinctively disagreeing even as I am swayed by the man’s clever and humane prose.  I am probably far more closely aligned with the unreadable Johann Hari whose only mode of expression seems to be the self-righteous indignation of the politics undergraduate and whose column I would only read out of condescension.

But then, I suppose there is still rather a lot to be indignant about.  And perhaps there are few books to be sold in writing about as well diagnosed a problem as the global digital divide, but it’s that, rather than people’s natural inclination to associate with those with whom they agree, that’s more worrying.  To take a rather gloomy example: the Faces of the Fallen website places an exact figure on American service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002: it’s 5,885 at time of writing.  But meanwhile, there seems to be no general consensus even to the nearest half million how many Iraqis have died since the invasion of 2003.  Estimates range from under 100,000 to over 1 million.  Obviously, there is no equivalent online epitaph to these people.

We aren’t in a filter bubble to my mind, or at least, if we are, it’s a trivial problem.  The issue is how much digital naval-gazing we’re able to do at the expense of our consideration of that part of the world that still remains predominantly analogue.  Only Ted Nugent would disagree.