Your correspondent, in his closet

I climbed into our closet yesterday, with a laptop and a Flashmic. This was much less kinky than it might appear. In fact, I did so in the line of duty.

At The Economist, as at most other media organizations, we correspondents are being encouraged to produce occasional videos alongside our reporting pieces. So I did that this week: I wrote a piece about California’s “petition industry” for ballot initiatives, and produced an accompanying video.

Allow me to regale you with the rather comical process involved, and with some observations about technology.

First, I should point out that print journalism is as distant from video journalism as a Bach concerto from a a Salsa bar. You can excel at one and suck at the other. I stipulate that The Economist has been quite good at print for 167 years, but that we have not transferred that success to other media (for instance, when we tried to do television in the 1990s).

That said, multimedia seems to be the future, so it makes sense for us to buy a call option (ie, to risk a small amount for the potential of a big upside).

So a cameraman, Eric Salat, and I joined John Grubb, Tyler Vanderbilt and the team of Repair California as they collected signatures to put two measures on California’s ballot later this year. Eric then sent the footage back to London, where Marguerite Howell edited it. The first thing she did is to take me out. (You still see me briefly in a few frames.) That’s because, for the time being, we must stay on brand, you see. Meaning: anonymous. Apparently, you are allowed to hear my voice in the “voice-over”, as long as you don’t know my name.

Now, about that voice-over:

Marguerite wrote a “script” that would fit with the footage she selected. The first thing we had to do was to edit that script together. In the old days, we would have emailed a Word document back and forth. This time, I just clicked on “Open as a Google Doc” in my Gmail, then “shared” the doc with Marguerite.

This meant that we were now able to edit the script together — she in London, I in California — as though we were typing at the same computer. We weren’t even pressing “save” or “refresh” in the browser. Whatever change one of us made, the other saw in almost-real time.

“Please tell the others in London how easy life could be,” I begged Marguerite, aware that some of our colleagues are not yet ready to abandon their … typewriters.

Then it was time for me to read the script out loud. Skype is not good enough for this sort of thing, so I used the Flashmic, with Marguerite on speaker phone.

“You sound hollow, echo-ey,” she said. “Can you go somewhere with fewer bare surfaces?”

I took the laptop and mike and sat on our bed, amid the pillows and blankets. Still not good enough.

“There’s always the nuclear option,” said Marguerite. “Would you consider climbing into your closet?”

I did. Miraculously, that took care of the echo.

On cue, some of my wife’s items, stacked in a female way, descended on me from above — the sound effects of which Marguerite on speaker phone seemed to enjoy. It occurred to me that I was lucky my wife’s high heels were on the other side of the closet — I was in the hiking-boot section.

Once you actually voice-over, you have to keep fiddling with the script to fit the timing of the video footage, and I kept thinking how cool it was that I could simply look at my laptop screen, without even touching it, to see Marguerite in London change my words in the Google Doc.

I have been on American radio a few times, where producers always pester you to exaggerate and over-enunciate your syllables, CNN style, and to say words with shock and concern, especially when those words are banal. I’ve never mastered that tone. Now, however, to my pleasant surprise, Marguerite said: “Don’t worry about that. Just speak however you feel.” Great place, The Economist.

And so it was done.

Now, a few closing remarks:

1) Don’t despair (yet)

You will be tempted to point out all the obvious ways in which our website is bad at displaying multimedia content. For instance, I was not able to embed the video in this blog (even though there is a deceptive “embed” button?!). I was barely able to get the permalink — in fact, I’m not sure the link works even now. The print story does not obviously refer you to the video, nor the video to the story. Et cetera.

Rest assured, that those and other shortcomings are just as apparent to us as to you. And we are fixing them.

The problem, I am told, is our existing content-management system, which we are phasing out, with difficulty. The new system is called Drupal, and it rocks. Soon, very soon, the website will be great, in all the obvious ways.

2) Technology conclusions

Based on this little experience, I am able to endorse two technologies.

  1. Google Docs, and cloud computing in general.
  2. Closets.

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How crisis leads to progress (aka the Cloud)

[picapp src=”a/0/e/0/d5.jpg?adImageId=7132613&imageId=2039813″ width=”500″ height=”351″ /]

Here is an admittedly tiny and prosaic example of a big and poetic idea–the idea in Kipling’s If and in my book that disaster can be an impostor (as can triumph). The disaster in this case is more of a nuisance, but you will get the point.

1) The nuisance

My (youngish) Mac Book Pro has had a boo-boo. The screen started going black (why do “screens of death” have to be blue anyway?).

I happen to be in the Apple elite, equipped with all sorts of plastic cards (Apple Care, Pro Care….) that allegedly bestow privilege upon me. So I went to the Apple Store, itself famous for allegedly being at the cutting edge of retail savoir-faire, to get the laptop fixed. I brandished my cards and, after a stressful wait, succeeded in persuading a helpful staff member to …. schedule an appointment, two days hence, for me to come back and get my laptop fixed.

Two days later, I dutifully returned (traffic, parking garages….) to the famous store. Another stressful wait. Somebody took my laptop. The next day, they called to say that they needed another part (the RAM). They called again two days later to say that they needed yet another part (the logic board). Then they left a voice mail (Apple’s iPhone, which I also own, had not rung as it ought to when a call comes in) to say that it would be faster (sic) to send the laptop to a distant part of the country where logic boards are more plentiful, but that they needed my approval. I called back, but they had left for the day.

I called again the next day–at 10AM, when they start work–and gave my approval. The laptop, I was told, would now be en route “from 5 to 7 days”. This was 5 days after my original visit to the famous store with my fancy cards. My lap has been, and remains, untopped.

2) Why I expected this to be a big deal

I am a nomadic worker, and my laptop in effect is my yurt, or office, and thus one of the two West Coast Bureaus of The Economist (the other bureau being the laptop of Martin Giles in San Francisco, who replaced me in my previous beat). So I assumed that no laptop meant no bureau, no articles, no work. I assumed this because this was my experience in 2005, when another laptop of mine died.


3) Why it’s not

But things have changed since 2005. Something called “cloud computing” has come along, diagrammed above. It’s an old idea newly implemented: that information and intelligence reside in the network, to be accessed by “appliances” or “terminals” which we nowadays call web browsers. If you use web mail, Facebook, WordPress, Flickr, YouTube etc etc then you are computing in the cloud. You are not longer storing and crunching data in the machine on your lap. Instead, you are doing it on the internet.

After my previous laptop disaster in 2005, I began to train myself (I am a technophobe by nature) to start using the internet instead of perishable machines. Gmail, Google Calendar (which I share with my wife and a few other people), Google Reader, Facebook, and so forth.

Slowly, I started migrating more and more activities into the cloud. This was slow because of inertia. But I kept at it. My phones (Skype and Google Voice) are now online, as are many of my photos.

So it occurred to me, before going back to the Apple Store, to complete this process. I put all of my current or important documents on Google Docs. This was surprisingly quick and easy. I had never understood why I was using Microsoft Office in the first place, since it was bursting with features that I never use and that confuse me.

Now, instead of emailing my editor a Word doc, I “share” a Google Doc with him.

So now my digital life is entirely in the cloud. As some of you have noticed, even though I have not had my laptop, I have been “on”. Nothing has changed. I use my wife’s laptop, or somebody else’s, or my iPhone, which is almost as good. I no longer really care about my laptop.

4) Progress = Bye bye, Steve, bye bye Bill

At some point, I may yet get my snazzy Mac Book Pro back from this famous Apple Store. Will I care? Enough to go to the store one more time to pick it up. Barely.

The truth is that this slight nuisance, this mini-crisis, nudged me to do what I should have done long ago. It forced me to liberate myself from Microsoft’s software and Apple’s hardware, neither of which I need any longer. Yes, there are some new vulnerabilities (there always are). But I am, if not free, a lot freer.

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My first email (from 1994)

Carolyn Koo, a dear friend from college, just brightened my morning with a blast from the past. It’s one of my very first emails, which I sent to her on 18 April 1994 (!). I would have been in graduate school at the LSE at that time, and my email address was (Don’t you love it? One step away from Morse Code.)

Here is an excerpt from my email:

how uplifting to know that this works. I find it absolutely mindboggling to
think that we’re conversing around the world via binary light impulses
(or is it still analogue copper waves?) Would you be so kind as to smoke-
(or is it still analogue copper waves?) Would you be so kind as to smoke-
signal me some other addresses…?
Why that line just reproduced itself above I don’t know. I had pressed the
up cursor thing and this happened. It seems it will be a while before I can
work this thing.

As Carolyn said in today’s email, “as we become comfortable with a specific technology/application, it’s often hard to remember when we first started using it and how unwieldy it was at the beginning…. I thought it intriguing to come across this “record” of when it happened for you — especially since you’re such the iPhone-using, blogging technology maven now!”

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