Wednesday, April 03, 2013

That's no moon, it's a space station!

Get ready for the lame stream media (I know I shouldn't but I couldn't resist) to get everything wrong again when Facebook announces its new smartphone app/OS on Thursday. There will be talk about mobile migration, screen real estate and less intrusive/more useful advertising. Nothing you have not heard a billion times before because the people who tend to get invited to the swish corporate events where these things are announced are apparently incapable of looking beyond what you put in front of their face.

The British press, in particular, does not seem to have yet got to grips with the fact that Silicon Valley companies THINK BIG! So let's try it: Facebook is moving into the mobile telecoms space as part of a grand plan to become a carrier. That's right, it's going to side step the entire mobile phones war sideshow by making the OS an irrelevance.

The clues are all there if one knows where to look. Namely: Africa. There are already more than 500 million mobile phone subscriptions in Africa. More than 40 percent of Kenyan GDP flows through a mobile money service called M-Pesa (owned by Vodaphone). And by far the most important mobile brands are Facebook, Google, Nokia and the Chinese network vendor and consumer electronics giant Huawei.

Facebook already subsidises smartphone sales in Africa by paying carriers to provide Facebook for free on select handsets and data packages. Don't send a text or SMS, use Facebook to send the same message for free. Of course, in order for consumers to take advantage of this offer, individuals and their friends must first join Facebook. This has helped to generate enormous goodwill and brand value that will make the switch to fully fledged carrier service seem trivial. If all of your most important communications are already routed via Facebook, why not place it at the centre of your entire information ecosystem?

Meanwhile, Facebook has co-hosting deals with several of the largest local data centre and Cloud service providers capable of storing up-to-date versions of all the most visited websites (besides Facebook) in a local cache, thereby easing congestion on the long fibres that provide the only reliable connection to these rapidly emerging economies while also cutting the cost of terminating international traffic. In other words, Facebook already makes the entire 'Internet experience' available to many African consumers at a fraction of the price and with superior quality of service than any locally based alternative. Even if this involves a small subsidy over the longer term, Facebook will still be able to hoover up all that lovely consumer data shareholders seem to value so highly (why else do they keep buying stock?)

Still not convinced? Okay, Facebook has been working closely with Microsoft for several years now. Facebook is integrated into the latest Windows mobile OS in a very clever way. It is also integrated into the latest version of Office - Word, Excel, Access. Meanwhile, a couple of years ago Microsoft bought an IP telephony service you may have heard of called Skype, which is also starting to interact with Facebook in interesting ways. Now are you beginning to see the possibilities? Don't think OS or App Store (those can come later), Zuckerberg is thinking much, much bigger: the entire Web inside a Facebook homepage, accessible via multiple devices and software platforms, with Facebook in the background running big data analytics and plotting to take over the world!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Putting my head above the parapet

Facebook's latest unwanted privacy intrusion. Sorry, no, no. Let me start again. Facebook's latest 'product' innovation was last week greeted by widespread bemusement but no shortage of flim-flam. All of the reports in the mainstream media agreed that Mark Zuckerberg had announced something called Graph Search but the detail was - how should one say? - a little bit hazy. Some journalists suggested Zuck is positioning Facebook to compete with Google in the search advertising market (he isn't; he may have a long term plan to introduce a more sophisticated search product but that is a different story). Others suggested Graph Search may help Mark 'monetise' the site - how this might achieved was vague to say the least.

What the old media failed to grasp was the heart of the story: Mark Zuckerberg's failure to confront the truth about what he has created. Not what he would like to have created or what the shareholders would have liked him to have created or even what the site might one day become, but what Facebook *is* as it exists today. Here is a clue: it is the title of an Oscar winning movie about an awkward American college student who creates the world's most popular website. Hold that thought.
I have been thinking about this since before the miserable IPO but I think now is the time to go on the record with a prediction that will almost certainly leave me with egg on my face (as almost every prediction is wont to do) in years to come

Right, here it is:

Facebook will never make any real money. 


There it is. And, before you pile in, US$3 billion is not 'real' money - in Silicon Valley terms - when you have a user base of more than one billion people worldwide.

Google gobbles up more than half of all Internet advertising dollars, leaving scraps for everybody else - outside of the English-speaking or even the Western world things are a bit different, but, I digress. The point is first-mover advantage combined with 'enhanced network effects' make it very difficult for anyone (even Facebook) to compete with Google in the online advertising market.

What Facebook would really like to do (it would seem) is SELL YOUR DATA, which, it wants to claim as FACEBOOK's data!!!

However, consumer advocacy groups and (more importantly) independent Facebook watchers are quick to pounce on any explicitly privacy-related announcements and frequently force Facebook into humiliating climb downs. See the Instagram controversy just before Christmas, when Facebook tried to claim ownership of every image ever uploaded to the service in perpetuity. There was a mass exodus of users and, despite the climbdown, users are still drifting away.

I think it is helpful to think about it like this: Facebook users are like squatters, while Facebook is like an exploitative landlord who thought he could entice the hippies and the students with the promise of free rent and board, but who now cannot figure out how to squeeze any money out of his dungeon hoards. The squatters have no rights and are vulnerable to coercion or eviction. But, provided the landlord lacks the will to use force, they have little to fear. Plus, if the landlord gets too heavy handed, the squatters can just up and leave - the only thing that keeps them where they are is the conspiracy of silence amongst their friends about their awful living conditions.

The situation is very finely balanced. The landlord has put cameras in the ceiling and microphones under the floorboards. The squatters put up with this because the roof over their heads are still free and the only noticeable aspect of the intrusion is the junk mail that corresponds to their conversations. But that is easily ignored and, what is the harm? Meanwhile, the landlord is loosing money and the banks are getting nervous about whether posting junk mail through the squatter's letter box is going to every repay their loans.

The landlord has a few options, none of which are particularly desirable. If he gives the squatters the same rights as residents he will have to take out the cameras and the microphones, but their is still no guarantee the squatters will pay the rent he would like to charge. If he ups the level of junk mail the squatters may leave regardless.

There is no way out of this quandary without fundamental reform of the entire squatter-landlord relationship. But that carries with it too much of a risk for Facebook to countenance. Hence the battle for 'hearts and minds'. The landlord wants to convince the squatters he has changed, without actually doing anything of the sort. So, he promises the squatters all of the advantages of tenanthood - electricity, running water, waste disposal - along with a whole host of new electronic toys and games: higher resolution CCTV cameras, infrared detection systems and geolocative tagging for every item in the house, provided the squatters accept more and shinier junk mail as a pre-condition. Of course, there are plenty of other properties the squatters could rent at reasonable cost without having to accept excessive junk mail and spying for free, but whether the squatters are too enfeebled or distrcated by the myth of the benevolent landlord remains to be seen. I choose to be an optimist and think that the squatters will wake up in time to avoid disaster.

In short: Facebook is a Social Network, not a Business.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Occupational Hazards

Rory Stewart is a peculiar mixture of earnest boy scout and ruthless political operator. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Malaysia and Indonesia, he speaks fluent Farsi and in 2001 he trecked on foot across India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, relying entirely on the kindness and hospitality of the strangers who invited him to sleep in their homes and dine with their families. Occupational Hazards tells the story of his time as a Deputy Governor in the Coalition Political Office in post-Saddam Iraq.

Stewart writes clearly and concisely in crisp, clipped prose. He says what he means - no more, no less. But what else would one expect from a former diplomat. Even his account of a sustained bombardment under rocket fire is matter of fact, which does make one wonder whether he can truly be as unflappalbe as he seems.

There are several indidences during which Stewart makes it clear he is not above bending a few rules in order to advance an agenda, when he feels the ends justify the means. But because 'the ends' usually involve securing additional funding for schools building programmes in his impoverished province in the south of Iraq, our hero's manipulations seem justified. Not that Stewart is a propagandist; he does not shy away from contrasting his difficult day job with the degrading treatment of prisoners by unthinking junior army men in American military bases and specifically Guantanamo Bay.

What is given most emphasis are his day-to-day dealings with the tribal sheikhs, Sadr Islamists and Iranian-backed political parties in Maysan, located on the Iraq-Iranian border. Stewart goes to great lengths to describe the differences and draw the distinctions between these competing power groups, each group seemingly led by men who greet Stewart with exaggerated politeness in his office, but are equally as content to attack Coalition forces and indulge in gangsterish behaviour toward their fellow Arabs.

The situation sounds impossible (at least to my ears), but the brutal realities of occupation necessitate conversation and sometimes compromise with people it is difficult for a Western observer to understand. Stewart recounts these dealings without condemning or condoning, but as a fact of life for him during his 12 months as a provincial Deputy Governor. Meanwhile, developmental economists and human rights lawyers issue edicts about free markets and female empowerment. The situation Stewart describes in the tribal regions bears scant resemblance to the 'remedies' communicated by his superiors in the civilian and diplomatic corp.

The aims of the Coalition and those of the tribal leaders are ultimately irreconcilable. The Western forces who eat Big Macs and party until three in the morning inside the Green Zone are the epitome of the so-called 'Western decadence' that the Mullahs and Islamist preachers use to propergandise impressionable young Muslims. The few secular voices Stewart encounters and seems to see as the Coalition's best hope for a free and democratic Iraq, governed by the rule of law, are cynical and uninterested, scorning politics as an activity for 'bad men'.

The malign motives attributed to the Coalition - America and Britain in particular - are given short shrift. Instead, Stewart argues that the politicians and (to a lesser extent) even the generals, removed from events on the ground and with too little concern for deep-seated traditions, were in fact too fast to cede power to the Iraqi people. This is a complicated issue and Stewart offers no easy answers - a book like this can only really scratch the surface - but anyone wishing to find out more about what the intervention in Iraq looked like to a Western diplomatic insider is unlikely to find a clearer description than the one that is given in this book.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ask and you Shall Receive

I asked a question. I suppose you deserve an answer.

They are all 'British' films. That is, according to the BFI and the government.

All 10 passed the BFI Cultural Test in 2011 and were approved by the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport on the basis of "recommendations" made by the BFI Certification Unit (UK Film Council Certification Unit until April 2011).


Dear (former Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) Mr Hunt,

Please could you explain the basis upon which you decided that (for the sake of brevity) Captain America is a British film?

I mean, let's just run through a few facts:

Captain America has an American subject matter, an American lead actor, has mostly American and continental European locations, and an American director (with Americans at the head of all the key departments). Yet, it was decided that Captain America is a British film...? Sorry, let me try that again, Captain AMERICA is a BRITISH film... Nope, still not getting it... Captain AMERICA!!!!!! is a British film...

What am I missing?

American studio money (Disney via Marvel); American subject matter (the character was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941); an American lead actor (Chris Evans... not that one!); a mix of Americans, Brits and Aussies in supporting roles (Concession 1: the leading lady is a Brit and she plays a British character); mainly American and continental European locations (it's a WW2 movie!) with a brief stop-over in jolly ol' England (Concession 2: I have not checked but can guess that the vast majority, if not all of the studio work was shot at either Shepperton or Pinewood); and an American director, an American producer, a pair of American writers, a pair of American editors, an American composer and an American cinematographer... have I missed anyone? (Concession 3: At least some, although, I think, not all, of the VFX work was done by London-based Double Negative.)

You know what? When you put like that, it is tempting to consider think that Captain America might just possibly be you know (whisper it) American.

Are a British love interest, UK-based studio shooting and the participation of a Brit-based special effects house really enough to warrant the all-encompassing British film tag? Of course, if Captain American were an American film (it is currently classed as a 'co-production') it would knock a US$370 million hole in the global box office receipts earned by the so-called British film industry...

More to follow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Would you like to play a game?

Right, how many of the following are British films?

127 Hours

Oscar winning filmmaker Danny Boyle's follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire. Based on the true life story of go-getting American Aron Ralston, trapped for five days by a random rock-fall while climbing alone in Blue John Canyon, Utah. He eventually gathered the incredible courage to cut off his own arm to free himself and escape with his life.

The King's Speech

Stuttering King George VI visits an abrasive Aussie speech therapist and learns to cope with his speech impediment (more or less), just in time to announce the start of World War II on the wireless.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jnr plays the world's only 'consulting detective' as a Fin de Siecle fop with a lot of bad habits. Guy Ritchie's direction is stylish if bombastic and the film plays out exactly as one would expect of a film written by modern Hollywood screenwriters (which, of course, it was).

Captain America: The First Avenger

Steve Rogers is a plucky wimp who wants to fight for his country in World War II, but all of the army doctors say he is too small. That ends when he is approached by a mysterious German Jewish scientist who can see his true courage and offers him the chance to participate in a secret US government programme that will turn him into the world's first superhero, Captain America!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The world is in mortal danger. Boy wizard Harry Potter is in hiding. Meanwhile, the Dark Lord Voldermort marches toward a final victory that will spell the end of the world as we know it... Will the forces of good prevail? … Okay, I admit it. No, I haven't seen it.


Asif Kapadia's documentary about the life, loves and losses of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, possibly the most charismatic man to ever wear a crash helmet. The film charts his rise from carting – coming to the UK as a fresh-faced 18-year-old in order to pursue his life-long dream – his confrontations with one-time team mate Alan Prost, and his tragic death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

The Three Musketeers

A largely British cast lead Paul W.S. Anderson's steam punk-inspired adaptation of The Three Musketeers in a film that owes much more to the high-camp of Richard Lester's adaptation from the 1970s than to the classic French novel written Alexander Dumas novel in the mid-19th century.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas Alfredson's dispassionate take on the subtle betrayals and quite paranoias of John Le Carre's take on British spycraft during the cold war. The film's ochre colour pallet depicts a murky world drained of vibrancy, which despite a stellar British cast – Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch – is all too accurate a description of the film itself.

Jane Eyre

A handsome adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's first published novel, directed by American filmmaker Cary Fukunaga. Like Tinker, Tailor it has a stellar British cast – Michael Fassbender, Jaime Bell, Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins – with Jane herself played by American actress Mia Wasikowska.

X-Men: First Class

20th Century Fox's latest reboot of the X-Men franchise depicts the well-known comic book characters coming together for yet another globe-trotting adventure, this time centred around the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Written and directed by the British duo of Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman, who previously brought us Kick-Ass and Stardust.


Simon Pegg and Nick Frost lend their comedic talents to an American studio film, writing and starring in a film about a pair of ComicCon geeks who encounter a dope-smoking extraterrestrial called Paul during a road trip between famous UFO hotspots. Inept FBI agents, cliched southern hicks (with guns) and Sigorny Weaver all feature. 

So, what's the verdict? Three? Four? Five? Submit your answers in the comment box below. I will post another update soon.   

Saturday, September 01, 2012

We Can Remake It For You, Wholesale

The plots for almost all your favourite novels can be summed up in just one short sentence. Catch-22: war is madness. The Great Gatsby: 'success' is failure. Moby Dick: 'a nut chasing a big fish', to borrow from Harlan Ellison. But, like John Conway's Game of Life, that apparent simplicity belies a vast complexity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously described Hollywood as a "dump", so maybe I am expecting too much.

Total Recall (2012) is a passable piece of onscreen entertainment, it has some showy special effects and there are a few fleeting moments of interest, but it could/should be so much more.

Douglas Quaid is a disillusioned factory worker with a beautiful, loving wife. He lives in a ramshackle apartment in The Colony (present day Australia) and travels everyday on a turbo-lift, euphemistically known as The Fall, which passes through the centre of the Earth, connecting The Colony to The United Federation of Great Britain. We are told that as a result if some kind of natural disaster the rest of the Earth is now uninhabitable and that nothing can survive in what is known as The Exclusion Zone.

Let's pause there.

I love a good science fiction setup and would be willing to go along with this one if the detailing were better. What we are presented with is a starting point. When, how and why was The Fall created? Was it post-disaster or pre-disaster? What caused the disaster? How long has the Earth been this way? Why is the Exclusion Zone uninhabitable? Is anybody attempting to clean it up? In what universe would the Aussies willingly submit to colonial domination by the British? None of these questions are addressed, let alone answered. All you know is that The Colony looks like Blade Runner and is where the workers live, while The United Federation of Great Britain looks like Canary Wharf and is home to the bourgeoise.


The television tells us that both The United Federation of Great Britain and The Colony are under the control of a near-dictatorial politician called Cohaagen, who has accrued to himself emergency powers (and an army of law enforcement robots) to cope with the escalating 'terrorist threat' posed by a charismatic underground resistance leader called Quato.


This is powerful stuff, if the filmmakers cared to explore it. Unfortunately, they do not. 


Rekaal is a shady business that creates false memories by injecting special chemicals into the bloodstream. The advertisements promise that once the procedure is complete, the brain is unable to distinguish the imagined memory from any of your real memories. Turned over for promotion, Quaid goes out drinking and despite having been warned against it by almost everyone in his inner circle decides to visit Rekaal.

John Cho attempts to inveigle Quaid in the metaphysics of implanted memory.


But one cannot help but recall (pun intended) the far more dangerous character of Lenny Nero from Kathryn Bigelow's too little seen Strange Days, starring Ralph Feinnes as a black marketeer who sells other peoples' lived experiences, taken direct from the cerebral cortex.

"I'm your priest. I'm your shrink. I'm your main connection to the switchboard of the soul... I'm the magic man," he says.


And then the fun begins. Or should that be then the chase begins? Because like too many other Blockbusters, the rest of the film is one long chase - a chase across Chinatown rooftops, a car chase taken straight out of Minority Report, and a final confrontation on the vessel that carries passengers on The Fall, as it makes it's way through the centre of the Earth (what do you mean you knew that would be coming back?) The the fate of the entire World (what is left of it) is at stake - but nobody cares.


This the main problem with the film: the filmmakers are telling the wrong story. Their film is about an underground resistance leader who saves the world, whereas what the film should have been about is a man who does not know who he is. The viewer already thinks they know what is going on so why do the filmmakers not have a bit more fun with it? Play around? Mix it up? Throw a couple of curve balls? Crucially, at no point is there a sense that reality itself is up for grabs.


Having just killed a dozen gunman, drawing upon the kinds of skills he did not even know he had, Quaid's palm lights up and starts to ring like a mobile phone. In a reflect action (remembered from another life maybe?), he answers the call by putting his hand to his ear. It is someone claiming to be a friend from his former life. Quaid does not recognise him. The stranger tells Quaid about a safety deposit box where he can find more clues as to his identity (a trap?) and tells him that he should get rid of the device inside his hand because the authorities can use it to track him (slice open my hand? Are you kidding me?) Quaid cuts his hand open as if he were removing a sticking plaster and pulls out some bloody circuitry and a keypad. This is one of the best scenes in the film. But it also encapulates everything that is wrong with the film as well. Allow me to elaborate.

When his hand starts ringing, Colin Farrell looks slightly surprised, but I could not tell if it was a 'Who would be calling me at this hour?' kind of surprise or an 'Oh my God, there is a phone inside my hand!' kind of surprise. Are 'hand phones' just something people have in this future society? All the rage? A fashion accessory? Are they uncommon? Or even unheard of - except in elite spy circles? Furthermore, the decision to cut the phone out of his hand is taken far too lightly and it was nowhere near painful enough (a few little yelps is not enough, I don't care how tough you are) and why did he do it in broad daylight in front of a bunch of tramps who the baddies then bully when they find them playing with the exorcised erstwhile tracking device? Why not do yourself the favour of taking your own ideas seriously?

When David Cronenberg was developing what eventually become Paul Verhoven's Total Recall in 1990, he delivered what he hoped would be the final draft of the script to the the studio only to have the producer rebut him by saying, "You've written the Philip K. Dick version of the film".

"Isn't that what what we want?" said Cronenberg.

"No," said the producer. "We want to make Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars."

Cronenberg walked, although I am sure many of his ideas (albeit in a diluted form) helped to make the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle released in 1990 far more interesting that it might have otherwise been.

Unfortunately, the Colin Farrell remake does not even feature Mars.

With all those dollars, all those stars, all that CGI, I think audiences are right to expect more.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Modern Blockbuster

Just because a movie is big, does not mean it needs to be dumb. The point is made very well in Tom Shone's exhilarating book, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer.

The concept of the Blockbuster is tricky to pin down. It generally revolves around an axis of cost a lot of money/made a lot of money and Jaws is generally considered to be a 'turning point' of some kind. It seems to me that there are (at least) two different types of Blockbuster, largely drawn from two different eras - Classical and Modern.

Stated simply, a Classical Blockbuster is any film that makes a lot of money at the box offices. Modern Blockbusters are films that belong to the Blockbuster genre, typically cost a lot of money to make and are marketed to within an inch of their lives.

To that extent, ET, which, for a time, was the highest grossing movie of all time, is a Classical Blockbuster only. It did Blockbuster box office, but was produced for very little cost. Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Arc, which, although it was certainly made for a mass audience, cost (comparatively) little money, when measured against the most extravagant films of its era. Back to the Future was another big earner, but not a particularly big spender.

What we now think of when people say, ‘Blockbuster’ was not really invented until the 1990s and it did not evolve fully into the Modern Blockbuster until the 2000s. Of course there were Classical Blockbusters, which had made a lot of money - The French Connection, The Godfather, The Exorcist. But there was no Blockbuster genre, which is what really distinguishes the Modern Blockbuster from its earlier cousin.

Jaws - regarded by many as a kind of watershed - changed some things. It pioneered the summer release date, opening wide and saturation marketing across multiple media. But even Jaws was not a Modern Blockbuster. Post-Jaws, films started to be marketed as Blockbusters but it was not until the 1990s that the Modern Blockbuster genre was formalised.

In the broadest possible terms, the Blockbuster genre is a grouping of films set mostly in a fantastic or science fictional world (creating the need for state-of-the-art visual effects), featuring a romantic hero (usually male), who struggles against great odds, but ultimately triumphs to fulfil his destiny. The Modern Blockbuster encompasses a far narrower spectrum of thought, feeling and emotion than the old-fashioned Classical Blockbuster, as defined by box office success.

In that sense, the Modern Blockbuster is an avowedly self-conscious construct.

The enormous costs involved in producing a Modern Blockbuster has also contributed to the diminution of what is considered permissible under banner of Blockbuster. Given the astronomical financial figures this now involves, the Big Six studios are practically betting the farm every time they make one these behemoths; the film has to make its money back, lest it bankrupt the entire studio.

As a result, only the most anodyne ideas make it to the screen, with a few notable exceptions - take a bow Chris Nolan. If you can tie your investment to an established property - a sequel, a remake, a comic book character, a well known toy range or (God help us) a board game(!) - all the better.

This is what has changed.

The big studios were always setting out to make money (obviously). But it was not a financial necessity for that quirky film about a lonely boy who, struggling to come to terms with his parents' painful divorce, befriends a kindly alien, to make US$800 million. Although it must have been a nice surprise for everyone when it did!

With a property like TDKR, the expectation of a billion-dollar box office is almost built into from the beginning of the project. Not to say it is not a good film, but it is a very different kind of film to what we used to called Blockbuster. It is a Modern Blockbuster.