The Artist, LetterMpress, State of Play

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The Artist

The ArtistSo, everyone is raving about the film The Artist. A modern silent film that is styled like and set in the era of old silent films. I saw it over a week ago and still find myself asking if I thought it was good. Robert Elms didn’t think it was and has blogged his objections:

…I found this was laboured, hammy, uninvolving, clever beyond tolerance and thoroughly pointless…by setting it in the time of silent films and so obviously playing on those techniques, it simply became an exercise in stylised French retro chic.

Seeing Robert’s thoughts made me realise I agreed. Now, I didn’t hate The Artist, in fact I rather enjoyed it, but it didn’t blow me away. I’m wondering if people are getting over excited because it is different and they felt special at seeing something so retro. I did find myself wondering if I would have enjoyed a ‘classic’ silent comedy more.

Further proof that people have been caught in a whirlwind is the number of awards nominations it has. Why is it up for best sound at the BAFTAs? Best score maybe but The Artist’s sound design is nothing special (for obvious reasons).

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LetterMpressLetterMpress is an iPad and Mac application that recreates an old fashioned letter press and lets you make your own prints. It beautifully captures the look and actions of a real large letterpress.

You create prints by dragging individual letters or graphics on to the press. This is where you first realise how much effort goes into letter pressing. It isn’t just a case of dropping the letter where you want it because they don’t stick the press, they slide around as you knock other letters into it. To keep things fixed and straight you have to add magnets. Then you need to set up each colour separately and print them on top of each other. And you have to do everything reversed like looking in a mirror. Suddenly getting the multi-coloured print you want takes time and practice.

It is a fun challenge and the app will let you cheat (for example showing you the letters the correct way around). Graphic blocks are limited so you can only really produce text prints but it is a cool way to make cards and posters.

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State of Play

State of PlayThis is actually one from last month. In fact State of Play was the best thing I watched on TV last year — not bad for a series made in 2003.

It is a six-part conspiracy thriller written by Paul Abbott and staring David Morrissey, John Simm, Bill Nighy, Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy. Starting with a young man being shot by a hit-man, and then quickly introducing the death of an aide to a high-profile MP, it shows a world where the press, government and the police interact.

It was particularly interesting to watch in light of the phone-hacking revelations of 2011. The story is driven by a bunch of broadsheet journalists who use all sorts of nefarious methods to get information. Their relationship with the police is particularly interesting – they don’t pay but they trade information and withhold facts to protect their story.

It feels strange to say this but if one of your TV highlights of last year was The Killing with its mix of investigation, politics and human consequences then this early 2000s series is for you. And you can get it second hand on for a few quid.

Tallinn: Wifi’d city, KGB Museum, Occupation art and design

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Tallinn – Wifi’d city

TallinnI spent a lovely Christmas in the Estonian city of Tallinn. Digitally it is most famous for being the birthplace of the Skype software. Possibly coincidently it was first city I’ve been to where free wifi is prevalent. All hotels, most bars and restaurants, and some public spaces had fast connections without any need to register/login.

With 3G in the UK, checking things on the move has become second nature. It has also made life easier and more enjoyable now that days out don’t have be researched and planned before setting off. In Tallinn at Christmas this was particularly useful to find out where was open.

A day trip to Helsinki took us back to the normal world where the few places with wifi wanted money. I appreciate it costs money to install and run a wifi network but in the ‘connected world’ easy access to wifi is going to be a big win for tourism. I thought Skype Wifi was going to be the answer but in Estonia it would have cost me €1.20 for 10min.

Like hotel internet, everyone is after the business dollar at the expense of the tourist pound. Wouldn’t it be nice if city tourist boards (which spend millions advertising cities) did something to give cheap and easy wifi to their valuable visitors?

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KGB Museum, Tallinn

Abdandoned radio equipementEstonia has had a painful history. Its location has made it a popular country to be invaded and ruled by others. Most recently it was the Russians who, until 1991, ruled it with its iron fist, sending 20,000 to the Gulag. Tallinn was flooded with Russians to diffuse its culture and people. The KGB watched over everything.

In the 1960s the Soviets needed more foreign currency so set about opening a hotel in Tallinn to attract the tourist pound. Naturally the tourists were spied on as they stayed in the specially constructed Hotel Viru. Several rooms were fitted with listening devices and guests in the bar could be targeted with microphones that were routed up to a secret room on the top floor.

That room has now been opened as part of a KGB Museum on the 22nd floor. There we learnt of a hotel with more staff than guests, but where staff were not allowed talk to guests. Stories of people commenting in their room they had run out of toilet paper, then hearing a knock at the door where a porter awaited with fresh supplies.

The most surprising thing was this was a modern concrete multi-storey hotel and these practices went on into the 90s. I had expected to be visiting an old brick hotel and hearing stories from the 60s.

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Occupation art and design

Radio standThe trip to KGB Museum left me thinking life in Estonia under the Soviets must have been horribly oppressive. And yes, horrible things did happen. Yet visits to both the Museum of Applied Art and Design, and the 1945-1991 floor of Kumu (Estonia’s national art gallery) showed that creativity continued.

Estonian product designers fitted in well with the industrial values of the Soviets and worked to create furniture and household items that could be factory produced. Much of what was displayed at the Art and Design museum would fit in any design museum.

At Kumu the art was split into those who followed the state-sanctioned style of socialist realism and those who produced work in secret. Again both stood out.

Estonia is compared to Iceland for its high concentration of artists and, having seen their work, it was no surprise Tallinn was European City of Culture in 2011.

Guardian iPad, Street Food and Cloud storage with


Guardian on the iPad

If asked I’d say my newspaper of choice is the Guardian but I don’t actually read the paper. I don’t read newspapers during the week and my Saturday paper of choice is The Independent.  I find I quickly flick through the Saturday Guardian.  The Guide is nice, there’s usually something to read in Travel and the Weekend magazine but I always feel like I’ve read the news and cannot fathom the Review.  Yet I’ve just spent almost an hour reading the iPad version of this Saturday’s issue.

I’ve been deeply unimpressed with magazines on the iPad.  Most seem to have recreated CD-Roms with pointless whizzes and bangs like intro animations.  A behind-the-scenes video of the photo-shoots is often a selling point but who cares about seeing how the magazine is produced?  The simple problem is magazines (without the adverts) don’t actually have much content in them and are much nice to flick through in paper.

The Guardian newspaper does have lots of (text) content and that’s all they’ve put in the app.  No videos, no visuals to ‘explore’.  Yes, it does have a nice design but I didn’t need it to find content.  What was more engaging was swiping through individual stories and engaging with them rather than just glancing and moving on like I would with the paper.   I still skipped most of the 48 pages of the Review.

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Street Food

One of the articles I read in The Guardian was about the “explosion” of street food in Vancouver. Being Canada they had to do things formally so a panel of “two of the city’s leading chefs, a nutritionist, a bloke who runs farmers’ markets, a woman who understands fairtrade and sustainability, two local food bloggers and two members of the public, together with a couple of council faces” worked together to bring street food to the city.  They now have licensed stalls serving a vast array of goodness to Vancouverites.

I dream of the same for London.  A few stalls are popping up.  The Southbank has some including the PittCue Co and Engine. But there’s no concerted effort to get great stalls everywhere.

I’m lucky enough to work next to Big Apple Hot Dogs on Old Street.  Friendly and exuberant proprietor Abiya Cole cooks up tasty free range handmade pork dogs for £4 and under most days during the week.  But he had to find his own spot away from the road.  There’s a growing number of food stalls that do festivals and corporate events around London.  It would be great if they had a regular home on the street.

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Cloud storage with

I have four external hard drives with back-ups of my music/photos/videos/docs in the corner of my flat.  There’s no structure to them and they aren’t updated.  They also will not help me in case of fire or theft.  To the cloud then.

My photos are with Flickr which should feel safe but I’m starting to worry about Yahoo – they really need to show Flickr some love and I’m questioning the $25 a year fee. Generally my paperwork is somewhere in Gmail (although there are horror stories about people loosing that). I don’t have that much video I value but I do have a 29 days worth of digital music. iTunes Match will save that if it comes to the UK but that needs a change in the law first.

I thought about putting everything in Dropbox which has revolutionised the way I share and move files around but it is $99 a year to take my account from 2.8GB to 50Gb.  Then I read that are offering 50Gb for free if you download their iOS app and sign-up before 2 December.  Bargain. is an enterprise version of Dropbox.  It is much more about sharing documents with lots of people and integrates with other apps.  It is also squarely aimed at business with the majority of features requiring subscriptions – including its software for integrating with your PC filing system like Dropbox.  This means you have to upload via the browser.

So isn’t replacing Dropbox for me but it is going to be my deep backup for everything I don’t want to lose.  And it isn’t going to cost me a cent.

Visualisations, iCrossing’s Connect blog, Completely London

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There is a growing trend for producing beautiful visualisations of information and data over the last few years.  They’ve mainly been confined to the web and magazines like Wired but now they are going mainstream.  Thistle Hotels has just produced one about its breakfasts.  They’ve even made it embeddable (like all the cool websites did in 2006).

It will be interesting to see how this cross into mainstream marketing works.  My old boss at BBC Worldwide is leaving to set up his own company producing visualisations.  I don’t know if he’s planning to go down the Thistle route but I can see a business riding the wave of making them for all those promotional surveys that marketeers trot out.  He might need to move fast though.  I sense a backlash on the horizon.

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iCrossing’s Connect Blog

I did some SEO consultancy and training for a small business over the summer.  They wanted someone to teach them the principles of organic SEO so they could improve their site without paying an expensive agency on a retainer.  They asked me if there was a good site they could follow to keep up to date with developments.  I initially struggled to think of one.  There are plenty of SEO blogs but they go into minute detail and are far too complex for their needs.

Then I remembered iCrossing’s Connect blog.  iCrossing is a search marketing agency based in Brighton who I’ve had a few dealings with over the past few years.  What’s great about its blog is it is perfectly pitched at companies that need to know what the most relevant happenings are but don’t need in-depth analysis and coverage of all the latest start-ups.  In particular iCrossing does quick guides that tell you everything you actually need to know about new developments.

Why is iCrossing particularly good at this (you probably aren’t asking)? Well, I think it is because it has a strong Content Strategy team of ex-journalists who have a history of writing content for mainstream audiences.  Like all good content people they spotted an audience need and have met it.

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Completely London

Speaking of corporate publishing, estate agent Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward have been producing an award winning customer magazine for a few years now.  Each issue is steeped in London with local people, events, restaurants and houses. I can agree with its food tastes as the current issue has Pit Cue Co and Big Apple Hot Dogs featured inside.

Among its awards is ‘Best use of Photography’ which, along with its design, make it a beautiful thing to flick through. It does feature houses for sale and rent but they are interesting in themselves and it doesn’t feel like a sales magazine.   It cannot be cheap to produce, print and distribute but it makes me think highly of KF&H which is not normal for an estate agent.

Marketing and design, Doodle, Robert Elms

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Marketing and design

In so many ways we live in a better designed world then we did ten years ago.  Almost everything has specialist design thought put into it and a lot of that has to do with marketing and communications.  This week my bin collection day changed.  To communicate the change my council pushed a leaflet through my door, did a feature in their newspaper (which is also pushed through my door) and put a sticker on my bin.

Bin collections are the number one source of enquires (and complaints) to councils so I imagine this was a big campaign for them.  And it was nicely designed with a friendly typeface and a green land/blue sunny sky background.  Thought and money went into that design.  My bin (pictured) still has the sticker from the last change 10 years ago – there was less design then.

The world is a better place with good design.  It’s more enjoyable and I hope such efforts as that bin campaign continue.  (Sadly the bin message failed to get through as most people on my street put their recycling out this morning which was the old day.)

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As I’ve said before I’m a big fan of things that do one thing really well.  And if that one thing solves a real-life problem then I’m a very big fan.  Doodle is the latest recipient of my fandom.

Trying to get a disparate group of people together (say old friends who are scattered around the country and have complicated commitments like kids) for important business (a drink) can be painful.  Lots of emails, texts and phone calls to find the best time which often results in failure and upset.  Doodle helps make this easier.

Say what you want to do, give a list of times and then invite people to say when they can do.  They tick the best times.  You find one that works.  Job done.  Simple.  And you don’t even need to register with the site.

There’s a nice freemium model behind it.  Friends arranging drinks can use it for free.  Businesses arranging business can go pro and brand it.  Great.

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Robert Elms

As part of my degree I did a five-month placement at the BBC local radio station for London then known as GLR.  It was my first time living in the city which has since become my home and I got to work with the broadcaster who knows the city best, Robert Elms.

Robert, or Bob to his friends (which I wasn’t), is still doing pretty much the same show 15 years later and I’ve rediscovered it through its podcast.  The stature of the show means it still gets big guests – Gary Oldman and John Hurt came into the studio to talk about film making and not just plug Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But it is Robert’s passion and knowledge about London that makes it a great listen.

Every week a noted Londoner is made a Listed Londoner by talking about their favourite place, view, shop etc, which despite running for 15+ years still introduces me to new places.  Anyone who writes a book about London is invited in and regular contributors delve into the city’s history through buildings and trades.

If you like listening to podcasts and like London add Robert Elms’ to your subscription list.

(Update 7/10/11: Sounds like Robert’s show is under threat of the BBC cuts in local radio.)