Clooney made me cry

The first thing I ever looked up on the internet was a photo of Sandra Bullock. I didn’t know what to do next, so I printed the picture out.

So baffled was I by the thrill of it all, that I didn’t know how to react.

Watching the film Gravity is a similar experience. However, it also requires the suspension of a few things.

1. Your belief that, due to escalating prices and reduced service, the era of attending cinemas is over.

2. Any opinion that Sandra Bullock should appear only in rom-coms.

3. SPOILER: You could not possibly enjoy watching George Clooney die, even after his Nespresso ads.

Clooney loves a pre-packaged coffee of no particular origin or ethics

Flat white acting

When I left the cinema, I had the usual pow-wow with my brother and we agreed that the film was excellent but also overrated. (Much of the world seems in awe of it – the film has an incredibly 97% average rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

I did not think the film had the legs to be a classic, let alone pull an Oscar or two, as some are predicting. It was pretty much Speed in Space – both films featured Sandra careening into things while struggling to maintain control of a vehicle she is ill-equipped to pilot.

Gravity is just Speed In Space

Gravity is just Speed In Space

But here’s the weird thing; when I went to explain a few pivotal plot points to my wife, I was overcome with tears. Twice I found a salty residue streaming from my eyes at the retelling of the corny yet believable story.

The movie had moved me much more than I had realised. Something about the moment of being faced with your mortality, with George in a dream, with yet another incredibly challenging life-threatening scenario.

 “I have to warn you, I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work. ”

 – Jack to Annie.  Speed (1994)

Some people have been moved in other directions. One Christian professor has said the entire movie points to a creator, with undercurrents of sacrifice and redemption, while the writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is more interested in his film’s Darwinian leanings.

jesus is an astronaut

Heavens above the stratosphere

WIRED magazine, rather than rejoicing that a film based around scientific breakthroughs is breaking box office records, has instead gone to town on its inaccuracies.

It’s a film, people. It is not Kubrick. It is not the messiah. But it may make you cry.

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Could comedy save us?

Currently, our national conversation feels like being stuck at a dinner party full of people tweeting into their mobile phones.

I’m talking about our political debate and the current state of our election campaign, the stupidity of which is becoming intolerable. And we need relief.

Why does Australia linger on pathetic, trivial stories for as long as we do? I realise we are a small country but we are big enough to know better.

Our water cooler conversation is truly tepid. We make scandals out of misquotes and feature stories out of insults when we all know the topic will usually have blown over in 24 hours.

This campaign lurches from one petty scandal to another, this week focusing on a sexist menu, a shocking shock jock, and our nation’s co-dependent relationship with Kevin Rudd.

It’s a cycle more vicious than Howard Sattler’s camera face.

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Perhaps what we need is a good comic to make light of the day’s events, someone to skew the national conversation, to spike the watercooler before the 24-hour news cycle is through.

We’ve not had a sharp-shooter like this since Graham Kennedy. (I am excluding half-baked attempts like Steve Vizard, Mick Molloy and Rove – do remind me if I have missed someone).

I’d back Adam Hills, The Chaser team in their CNNNN format, or News Limited’s Joe Hildebrand. (Give that man a talk show, seriously.)

Stephen Colbert and John Stewart have been doing this for years in the US (albeit to a much larger audience) bringing a hilarious new perspective to issues the nightly news will leave you thinking are actually important. (Scroll down for a good example)

We need talented writers and fast-working producers who will expose the shallowness of it all, shining a light on how pointless all the political hypocrisy really is.

John Clark and Brian Dawe did a great job of this but this stuff needs to be nightly. And sharp. And popular. Like, Daryl Somers popular.

Please, I can’t get no relief. Soon, the only option will be to ignore people discussing these trivialities, which I’ll probably do by tweeting into my mobile.

Print is dead and news websites are next

Not long ago I was all nostalgic about newspapers. Then, as most of us did, I got over it, I switched to reading the news online and I haven’t bought a paper since.

Now, in 2013, I am feeling nostalgic about newspaper websites, a format of news that is under constant attack from apps, syndication, aggregation and personalisation.

But I see a new future forming, where we can get access to headlines and stories with speed, ease, and in any format we want.

First, a quick review.

The paper era

I grew up with the father spreading the Sydney Morning Herald unhelpfully across the breakfast table each day. He would read from it aloud and with impunity. It didn’t matter if anyone was already talking… or even if anyone was listening. And the amount of paper used in a weekend was also overlooked. In retrospect, much of this glorifying of papers was absurd. In fact, kicking back with a paper used to act as a forcefield to any responsibility. That’s partly why it was so excellent.

I hit high school where one of the great schoolboy thrills of taking Economics was having the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) delivered to you each day.  It was as if you had arrived in adulthood a full two years before your peers. I flaunted it – I now realise – to people who couldn’t care less. But I loved it and consumed it like some of my friends drank Coke – recess, lunch and sometimes under the desk in class.

As a fully formed adult, I had The Australian delivered to my house. This routine was much less romantic than I had remembered when growing up in the Blue Mountains. Instead of venturing into the front garden to discover the paper under a shrub, my entire family would be woken at 6am with a thud the size of a bass drum on our front door. The newsagents were depressingly on target.

One day when I had had enough, I emailed to cancel my subscription, adding a note that News Ltd really should consider a digital-only option. (They replied quickly. It turns out they do.)

The website era

For some months now I have been able to access The Oz stories by putting in my password  – a process I repeat daily as I switch between devices – this is a major irritant). And I have now lost track and any memory of the what the subscription costs me. Both of these issues are deal-breakers when I consider signing up to multiple news websites.

Checking SMH used to be as routine as having breakfast. But thanks to their  sensationalised frontpage splashes, their bipolar design and their use of wires syndication, the Herald and other major Australian news sites have long since been replaced in my routine.

The SMH website – where content has, at times, been an afterthought. via/ blogandwebsitereview.wordpress.com

I realise they’ve been forced to prioritise traffic and I hope the introduction of subscriptions may see a return to more meat and less milk.

Thanks to the web, I consume news from about ten different news websites around the world each day. Different days lead me to different topics and different news sources. While this remains my routine, I can safely say that while I do consider journalism to be an essential part of a democracy and needs to be paid for, I will never sign up for ten accounts. I don’t care if they offer me paywalls, metred models, apps with freemium or some kind of thrilling Shop-A-Docket BOGOF adventure. It is simply to much for one person to keep track of.

Thankfully, my habits are changing and I don’t think I will need to buy into all this.

The feed era

Technology has largely replaced my need for the web. Some days, I will not even touch a news website, thanks to apps and syndicated stories I read on site aggregators or a ‘Read It Later’ service such as Instapaper of Pocket. What I don’t find there I scroll passed on Twitter.

With the death of Google Reader, I now start my day at Google News. I will then skip to several different sites where I save links to read stories later, or I copy the text and paste it into an app that reads stories to me as I travel to and from work.

The Herald used to hold sway over the city, defining Sydney’s mood so accurately and charmingly that you wanted to save those big moments and photographic spreads for posterity. Then, the website you had to visit daily became a chore, with conflicting multiple typefaces, what seemed like more ads than content, hideous full-page ads and auto-playing videos. Now, even with an ad blocker, the Herald’s frontpage feels like gratuitous click-baiting: superficiality up front, quality if you can find it.

Will I pay for it when the Fairfax paywall finally appears? Possibly. If by paying I can avoid their entire website and just get to the stories and links I want, I will consider the cost worthwhile.

Here’s the rub – If I pay to avoid your paywall, I’d also be glad to avoid your website. What I want most of all is a direct route to your stories and journalists. Strip back the entire interaction between user and news and I will engage fully not in your site experience but the content. Which would you prefer?

I realise site design is there to distract me, tricking me into spending more time reading and clicking, but the time for this kind of manipulation is short. The kind of personalisation I am talking about not just for early-adopters.  My 70-year-old father loves Readability, and the most old-school producer at my former employer Channel 7, was using Flipboard well before I was. The word is out.

I need easy, quick consumption.

I don’t want your website – I’ll use a reader.

I don’t need your curation – I’ll use Flipboard or Zite.

I don’t need your production – I’ll strip out the ads with an ad-blocker, any formatting using Readable and personalise it my own way.

If you did all this for me, I’d consume your content more readily, more often, and if I do that then social sharing will follow.

The future

I am optimistic that paywalls and premium content will lead quickly into an era of consume-it-your-way news services.

Flipboard

I’m already on Twitter and using it as a news feed, so how about premium twitter feeds that users must pay to access? The story loads within the twitter eco-system. The point is I got to the news where I was. Facebook or other social platforms could implement a similar model and it could serve targeted ads.

An aggregator app that charges a single subscription but provides me paywalled news from sources I respect?  Awesome. It’s like iTunes but for news.  Think Flipboard – with a Freemium model.

For those times when I have to use a website – a practice I liken to having to cash a cheque of pick up a parcel from the post office – can  we please give the designs a genuine overhaul. We’ve done little more than remove serifs and rearrange pictures since 1996.

Frontpage editors, save all your features that let me save stories, drag sections, or pin the article to Pinterest (what?!). How about an update that genuinely modernises it like the HuffPo’s glorious NewsGlide or USA Today’s photo-led tablet-ready makeover. Those sites make me want to explore the news, not grab and run. Until then…

Me and news websites? We’re done.

More reading:
A paywall is not enough —Fairfax must become bespoke or fail – The Conversation
Fairfax gives a taste of what is to come for premium content charges – SMH (in 2010!)
Top 15 Most Popular News Websites – ebizmba.com (June 2013)

If music is social, why can I only hear noise?

When U2 met with Steve Jobs in 2004, they came away with a deal for a rather baffling piece of cross-promotion. Apple would produce a piece of hardware designed to reflect the band’s latest album at the time, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. With 30 GB and the signatures of all four members of U2, the special edition iPod was priced at US$349. Source: Wikipedia)

But it wasn’t just the kit that fans could love – if they bought the U2 iPod, they would also get a different version of the album to anyone buying it the old way, in the shops.

U2 iPods gave the owner special privileges, such as downloading songs for free, they also scored a US$50 coupon for a US$149 collection of U2’s entire back catalog.

Together, the band and the brand appeared were redefining the music industry. But if they did, where are all the follow-up music/hardware integrations? Why can’t I buy a Foo Fighters album pre-loaded on an iPhone or even a Ben Folds LP on a USB stick? The whole plan stalled at the starting line, leaving us buying CDs and downloading MP3s, occasionally with bonus videos or imagery in a ‘digital booklet’. This is not awe-inspiring stuff.

The biggest movements since then have seen Radiohead offering their song in your choice of format and at the price you think its worth. Beck offered his album in sheet music only in 2012 (hoping for a mash-up that never came), while last week, David Bowie was lauded as an innovator for streaming his album for free. Oh please.

While streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora may already have rendered the purchase of an album irrelevant for the next generation, I still like to have a physical object to show for my money. I make exceptions to this rule when the digital offering is far better than what I would get from a CD with its inserts. But this remains rare, and so, record stores still have kilometers of shelving dedicated to popular bands and their back catalogs. I am certain the CD wil not phase out until a new replacement comes.

Here’s one way things might play out, according to Bono…

Music apps – sounds good right?

The App as Music

I decide to buy an album … I download an app to my smartphone or tablet … I get a preview of songs and a teaser video of what else is on offer … I can then opt-in for the album (together with bonus extras, just like a DVD) or just select some singles to download and be done with it.

Sounds good so far.

But what if the app took me even further? Perhaps it could unlock a back-catalog of videos, or a list of demos and b-sides that took me into the studio like a producer, watching as the band developed each track and sifted through snippets, hooks and riffs to find the gold?

Here’s how Bono describes it, speaking, as he does every few years, of the band’s need to reinvent themselves.

He shrugs off the fact that the band have just recorded the biggest-grossing live tour in the history of popular music and wonders whether U2 can still be relevant. “We can play the big music in big places. But whether we can play the small music, meaning for the small speakers of the radio or clubs, where people are living, remains to be seen,” he says. “I think we have to go to that place again if we’re to survive.

“There are so many U2 albums out there. We need a reason for another one. The whole point of being in U2 is that we’re not here to be an art-house band. Our job, as we see it, is to bring the art house to the mainstream; our job is to puncture the mainstream.”

Earlier, he was using an iPad with the Achtung Baby songs and videos on it. “That’s probably what our new album will look like,” he says. “I’ve been talking about this for the past four years.

“Our last album was the first album to be made available as an app with BlackBerry devices, but it didn’t work: the functionality was not what it could have been. New formats are going to happen. I’m always banging on about this. The app format brings you back to that world of gatefold sleeves, of being able to read lyrics – and [now of] being able to play the album at home on your plasma TV.”
(c) Irish Times, 2011.

Socially, an app as an album could lift the experience to another level again. Imagine if, while listening, I can read other my friends’ comments on the songs, just as I should be able drop comments into the stream for others to see, if they so choose.

An in-built forum should also capture fans’ debate of the lyrics or the band’s missteps.

I should also be able to share it with a group of friends, having a virtual listening party, helping promote the songs to my friends.

I don’t really see why this is all yet to happen. I guess it could have something to do with the all-powerful triumvirate of record labels.

Right now, Spotify tells me – via Facebook and ad nausea – what some of my friends are listening to. But this form of socialised music listening fails at the first turn.

If I have never heard of the song or artist, there ends my interest… I’m done. I know I said I’d like to find out music recommended by my friends, but it turns out an automated feed of what they are listening to right now does not equal useful recommendations.   (Now, please leave me alone to continue sifting through the already mindless landscape of posts from ‘friends’ I barely know.)

Moreover, Spotify makes me annoyed not just at the technology but even at my real life friends who should know better. This is all little better than Apple’s Ping – an ill-fated foray into social music sharing. Nor is it any more user-friendly than the Washington Post ‘social reader‘ – a Facebook experiment that gained massive notoriety for increasing traffic then even more infamy following the mass exit of millions of users who felt violated by its sharing of all articles they had read.

Turns out we don’t need Bono or Steve Jobs. I am simply longing once more for music parties, where your friends came over, you put on a CD and you just discuss it; You tell why you like it, who it reminds you of, or you tear it apart because it’s rubbish.

If an app or online service can deliver that, sign me up.

It’s not me, it’s U2

Funny short legs don't you think?

The poster on my wall from the age of 12 through 16

U2, the band I grew up with, collecting their limited edition vinyl and attending every concert, are done. It’s over. They haven’t quit yet but I am confident they should, right after their next album.

In the same way it’s important to leave a party when it’s still going well – it’s time for my favourite band to die now. And I hope they do while they are still linked with the joy of their most profound musical moments.

I know the Rolling Stones announced this month that they’ll be quitting the stage, but that’s not reason enough for U2 to step down.

Oddly, my earliest memory of U2 is of knowing people wanted Bono to go away.

And those KILL BONO T-shirts I spotted 25 years ago are still on sale (Thankyou Internet)

To the point. Unlike Bono.

I’ve never hated the man. I have, at times, loved him. Now, a few things convince me their next album should be their last.

Bono has said that the band will quit when they release two crap albums in a row. Based on that theory, and following their last album No Line On The Horizon, their next album will be their final production.

The end began when U2 became stuck in a rut following the album Pop. Pop was dazzling, bringing together the inventiveness of Zooropa and the courage of Achtung! Baby, and drawing on every musical trick they had in the bag. Problem was, their creative energy was exhausted just as their core of fans began to lose faith.

As a songwriter, Bono has mined the poetry and narratives of the Bible better than any other pop star. His decision to stop this brought him to a personal crisis. Could he really hide the part of himself that paraded his Christianity throughout their early albums? (Could anyone expect to hide a messianic complex?)

We broke the bread, we drank the wine, everybody having a good time… Except you. You were still talking about the end of the world.

Until the End of the World

The band claimed that the mega-hit LP Achtung! Baby was the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree, yet lyrically, the album was as full of biblical metaphors, just as any previous album. It did, of course, add industrial rhythms and spunk that had been missing and it stands out to most people as their best.

For me, the turning point came in the disappointing album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, which lacked sincerity, depth, and left us with the most radio-friendly/nauseating song of its time, Beautiful Day.

Elevation was the height of the nonsense…

A mole, living in a hole
Digging up my soul now
Going down, excavation

Elevation

The magazine Uncut said it best in their review, pointing out that U2 appear unable to write a song without an explosive chorus — think about it, it’s in nearly all their songs … and once the build up and climax is identified, it’s painful inevitability proves it a predictable, manipulative tool.

To be fair, songs like One and With or Without You are the exception.

There were reports around 1995, that the band had thrown out an entire album of songs only to start again from scratch – something they have a history of doing. They repeated it before the last album they released, No Line On The Horizon, when they not only sacked their producer but trashed an entire series of songs said to be taking them in a new direction. Instead, what we got was an album that avoided explosive choruses yet delivered confused tunes, some of which, I believe, lack a chorus altogether.

Mediocre reviews were only the half of it. When the band launched their latest hugely successful ‘360 Tour’, Bono’s voice was dead on arrival. I’ve just watched their DVD concert recorded at the famous Rose Bowl stadium. The stadium is packed and the stage looks phenomenal, but if this was the performance they thought deserved to be captured forever on film, I’ve got a feeling it is also the last one they’ll capture on film.

Dutifully, I went to the Sydney concert for the 360 Tour, and like the Vertigo Tour before it (pictured) the stage was an engineering marvel.

Childhood dream – tick.

Like many U2 fans still gripping on from the 80s and 90s, I continue to buy every album and attend every tour — a loyalty which puts enough money in their bulging pockets to make anything the band do look like a success.

But this loyalty conveniently disguises the fact their concerts are increasingly reliant on their greatest hits. At the last two concerts, I’ve been embarrassed to find, even a few rows from the stage, that no one is singing any of the new songs.

When the night takes a deep breath,
And the daylight has no air,
If I crawl, if I come crawling home
Will you be there?

In a Little While

I’ve read a few books on the band, and one early biography had great insights into U2’s belief in the power of a song. They don’t ever underestimate the ability of one pop song or one performance to transport people into a different mindset and a better life (if only for a few minutes). What’s even more powerful, Bono said, is that a rock song can change people’s minds and have them believe they can change the world.

He’s right, this time. I do think U2 have changed the world outlook of many people.

But that was years ago. I have been more loyal than most but now, even I must acknowledge that the exhilarating moments U2 brought me, the times I felt no other group could reflect my thoughts so well, were back in the 1990s – 15 years ago.

What’s left for U2, except to taint their legacy and possibly undo all the joy with crap pop songs in search of a chorus?

I don’t want to KILL BONO, but I do hope U2 die.

Zero-sum game: Why Coke wants you to switch

If you are like me you only drink Coke every once in a while. But recent television ad showing a cinema attendant who switches drinks on patrons still has me annoyed.

It could be the teenager’s smarmy style or it could be the fact that he’s failing at the one task he has now that the collection of movie tickets is largely automated. But the real problem lives in Coke’s attempt to change people’s habits because of rising commodity prices. It’s no surprise they want to save money and, as this graph shows, sugar prices have risen threefold in the last four years.

I actually think Coke Zero tastes fine and nobody needs the six teaspoons of sugar. So my question is why have we been dealt at an unhealthy alternative for years?

You can be sure that sales if Zero are set to climb in line with Coca-Cola’s ad spend, as the popularity of the regular drink starts it’s gradual decline into obsolescence.

(Surely, the sugar-free version will eventually become the standard version and, in a flurry of good PR, people will applaud what is really a cost-saving move cloaked as a health-conscious rebranding exercise.)

But, there’s a sting in the tail.

If the anti-sugar advocates are correct and sugar is an addictive ‘poison’, should we now expect to see a slump in sales without this lethal ingredient to hook in weak-willed soft-drink consumers?

Best tweets from #BDO (#BigDayOut 2012) so far….

The Big Day Out is, for many youths and music fans, an unrivalled day of Australianising – a chance to yell things only Aussies understand loudly and in any direction. The event appeals, primarily, to bronzed, boozed, southern-cross-tattooed teenagers.

And now, Twitter has given this much-maligned but witty bunch the perfect platform for their straight talking.

I promise to update this as #BigDayOut heads around the country…
(Well, I might.)

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http://a6.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/402866_10150632268662489_596022488_11519302_1174569486_n.jpg

@RupertMurdoch already more popular than The @Daily

Rupert Murdoch has tried a few things that did not work.

MySpace, News Of The World, taking his own Twitter profile picture.

However, with just one week of awkward tweets under his belt, @RupertMurdoch has already attracted more followers than his most recent online venture, the digital newspaper made for Ipad, the @Daily.

This shows that The Daily is yet to be fully accepted as a strong media force. The paywall restricts anyone but subscribers from reading most full stories. This is a terrible hindrance to the reach of any breaking news or potentially explosive investigative piece their team files.

This closed model cannot work in a world where the ease of sharing information is paramount, where the integration of social media into every nook and cranny of your daily life is becoming commonplace – e.g. I’ve just noticed my local $2 store has a Facebook page! – and where the next generation of readers’ first instinct is to tell someone about what they have just read or watched online.

As @RupertMurdoch enjoys the kudos of his follower numbers growing exponentially, (and, therefore, his influence) I hope he realises it is only occurring because of retweets, because of the free sharing permitted across other news websites that mention his tweets, and across other platforms like texting and within other social networks like Facebook and Tumblr.

Sadly, these are all elements of a strict paywall model that otherwise exciting forays such as The Daily seems committed to ignoring.

Cinemas are for suckers… like me.

I ventured out to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, along with thousands of other Aussies this week.

The main reason I went was to be convinced, once again, that despite his oddness, shortness, and proboscis, Tom Cruise, is still fantastic in action films.

Seriously, Cruise gets the same look hanging from the world’s tallest building as does a two-year-old in a sandpit.

But, the cinema experience was slightly betrayed by yet another leap in cinema ticket prices. Prices had even risen since I last saw a film… last month.

$21 per ticket. Twenty-One Dollars.

I can accept Australia’s high taxes as we receive great services. Likewise, I can accept Sydney’s preposterous real estate prices because it’s the best city in the world and supply-demand means I’m going to pay more to live here.

But why, when the prices of DVDs are still tumbling (thanks eBay) and my options to watch films are always increasing (downloads, file-sharing, smart-TVs, Netflix, RedRoom, T-Box streaming) does the cost of seeing a movie continue to rise?

Cinemas have had me annoyed ever since I had to confront the manager at Hoyts in Sydney CBD after I spent an entire Batman film sitting in the floor in the aisle. I was not alone in the aisle. The film was so over-booked there was ten or more of us who slummed it just to see a new release blockbuster.

And that’s not the only madness going on at one of Australia’s biggest movie franchises.

Cinema customers wanting to see a film at Hoyts these days must jump through several hoops that did not used to exist.

1. Plan your night early, allowing time to use the glitzy hoyts.com.au website.
2. First-timers must sign up to the Hoyts Rewards Program, which does offer one free introductory ticket.
3. Pay $21 per ticket for any friends you mistakenly thought to invite.
4. Pay a $1 booking fee per ticket.
5. Print tickets to scan at self-serve cinema.
6. Sell soul to devil to partially replenish your bank account.

Although that is only six points, there are several things wrong with this.

Being an avid user of the internet, I can’t help but use a web-based analogy.

If you had to install a Flash plug-in every time you used a particular website, would you return to that website often?

Or, if you like shopping, imagine you had to call Myer to warn them you were coming, prior to any trip. Absurd.

I certainly recieved a good movie on a big screen with loud sound, but, as the cinemas try to deter illegal downloading of films, what more are the cinemas offering me at this grand event?

They’ve replaced the staff selling tickets with vending machines. The toxic choc-tops are still a ludicrous $5. The chips cost so much I had smuggle in my own Cheezels to save $3. Why do I still put myself through this for two scenes that would still look pretty good on my own 42″ TV, assuming I sit really close?

The screen has been given a special name like Vortex or Mammoth-Vision or something.

This cynical strategy is to hide the fact that as prices have increased, screen sizes have reduced. More films can the be shown more often to more people.

In the industry, it’s probably called “Sucker-Churn”.

(It may also explain why the price of my ticket was $3 more than lat week but the website was unclear.)

Be warned: If your cinema screen is not called Senstadium, Mega-Visiontacular, or some such, be sure it’s barely bigger than your wall at home. And at home, you can put your feet up, make your own popcorn and tell people to keep quiet without risking a fight.

Plus, no one has to sit on the floor.

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