Farewell to Rory Cellan-Jones

Las Vegas, where else, in 2017

Rory Cellan-Jones leaves the BBC this week, and he will be sorely missed.

Not just by our viewers — for whom “That Rory” is one of the most trusted voices on the air — but also his colleagues who will be lining up to offer a heartfelt farewell to one of the kindest, most decent people in British journalism.

I was lucky enough to work closely with Rory over several years. You learn a lot about a person after 12+ hours traipsing through endless grotesquely-carpeted corridors in the convention centres of Las Vegas, or after a long day of broadcasting that begins with a 5am wake-up call from 5Live, and ends with the stresses of the News at Ten.

It will surely come as no surprise that throughout those kinds of experiences, Rory was the ultimate colleague, mentor and friend. From the airing of my first TV package, when he took time out to point out many rookie errors to this rookie, to the kind words offered over a leaving toast on my final day at the BBC, Rory offered nothing but generosity and support.

That’s not a given in the news business. In an ego-driven industry, where correspondents can be protective of airtime at the expense of newer reporters, Rory went out of his way to elevate the careers of those around him. I was lucky enough to be one of many to benefit, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

Sadly, his departure signals the end of an era of technology coverage at the BBC, not just as it relates to him, but the structure of technology reporting in the BBC’s newsroom in general.

The unfathomable decision to move the technology news team to Glasgow has seen several people with decades of combined experience walk out the door. Expertise a private company — or maybe just a smarter public broadcaster — would have done a lot more to keep. The geographical upheaval has no basis in logic, and will serve to diminish the BBC’s access and influence on key stories and with important sources. It makes no more sense to move BBC Tech to Glasgow than it would to relocate BBC Shropshire there too.

In short — the licence fee payer, and anyone who cares about the health of the British technology industry, should be disappointed that the BBC no longer considers technology news a priority*.

But, for the moment, let’s put that worry on ice. Since I can’t do it myself in person on Thursday night, I’m instead raising a virtual glass to Rory as he heads on to new things, projects I’m sure will continue his record of accessible, meaningful tech journalism. I also hope, above all else, it’s a chance to put his feet up.

Rory, it was an absolute blast. Thank you.

______________

(* I should stress that this is not a commentary on the calibre of the team that will be working in Glasgow. In particular, having worked with Zoe Kleinman for even longer than I have known Rory, I can say there’s no-one better to take the reins. If there’s anyone who knows how to navigate this new era, it’s Zoe.)

“These days, it sure seems like to be a reporter, you have to be independently wealthy or famous. But journalism used to be a solid career for people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

— Peter Jakubowicz writes in Newsweek: “I Was a Reporter. Now I Drive for Lyft”. He writes of today’s reporting on the working class: “I rarely see even a hint that anyone involved has any idea what it’s like to be a worker in 2021, or has taken the trouble to hear what workers have to say.”

Its deep-learning voice-transcription service can now scan your Google or Outlook calendar for Zoom sessions, automatically sign in at the appropriate time, and produce a live transcription that you and other participants can correct, annotate, and highlight in real time.

— The feature set of Otter.ai, the breakthrough voice transcription app, continues to get more and more impressive. My question: when I send along Otter-Me, what do the others on the call see? And do they consent to being recorded? This would be very useful for court hearings that I can’t monitor all day. . . but a judge might not be so pleased with my little timesaver.

“Tabs, it turns out, aren’t the best tool for assisting with complex work and life tasks that people perform on the internet. Their simple list structure makes it difficult for users to jump between sets of tasks throughout the day. And despite people using tabs as an external form of memory, they do not capture the rich structure of their thoughts.”

— A team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon examine the effect of tab overload on our brains. As you might expect, it’s not good. Not good at all. They propose reframing how we think of tabs, breaking them down into tasks, and have launched a Chrome plug-in to help.

I’ve been carrying the secret for 25 years. Today, I’m coming clean. This is the untold true story of a corporate April Fools’ prank gone wrong.

— an (unnamed, probably ex-) Microsoft employee shares funny details of “Microsoft Coffee”, an April Fools prank that went well, perhaps too well, 25 years ago. After VW’s “Voltswagen” mess this week, many are calling for an end to April Fools gags. I’m minded to agree — but let’s be narrower: let’s bring an end to April Fools gags backed by the company’s dull PR teams. Maverick employees working in secret? I’m all for it. Discussion about Microsoft Coffee on Hacker News has people wondering whether this is in itself an April Fools gag, given there’s no other mentions of Microsoft Coffee anywhere. I dunno. Seems real to me, this line in particular: “The PR flacks, on their own, tried to clean up and bury the whole thing, out of fear that BillG might get really angry about it. (He never did. Nor did Legal. In the end, it was all a huge overreaction by PR.)” …. emphasis mine.

[M]ost of us share the opinion that it’s disagreeable, logistically, for the boat to be stuck. The boat being stuck is inconvenient. It’s a big disruption! Nobody can say it isn’t a big disruption. None of my distant relatives will get into arguments on The Face Website about whether or not the stuck boat is making a nuisance for lots of people. I like that.

— Stone Soup, a newsletter, with my favourite take so far on why the Big Stuck Boat is the feel-good story of 2021.

Contact lenses for the colour blind

From Phys.Org:

Gold nanocomposites are nontoxic and have been used for centuries to produce “cranberry glass” because of the way they scatter light. So, Ahmed Salih, Haider Butt and colleagues wanted to see whether incorporating gold nanoparticles into contact lens material instead of dye could improve red-green contrast safely and effectively.

I’m not sure my own colour blindess (red/green, green/brown, blue/purple) is sufficiently debilitating to warrant the discomfort of contact lenses, but this sounds remarkable. Hopefully an improvement on colour blind corrective glasses, star of many a viral video, that simply turn the world into a bad photoshop.

“It was found on a broken millstone by experts along the route of the A14 in Cambridgeshire between 2017 and 2018. However, it has only just been put back together, revealing the penis.”

— A rare carved Roman phallus is discovered just outside my hometown, reports BBC News.

“For many years, we were accused of tilting at tech windmills, but what was a solitary campaign, a quixotic quest, has become a movement, and both journalism and society will be enhanced.”

— Robert Thomson, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., on a historic deal between the publisher and Google. The money the company will now get from Google to feature its journalism will have a “material impact” on News Corp.’s finances. (One might wonder what the impact will be, then, if Google decides to pull the plug at the end of the three year deal.)

It was always, “A guy called me up, a friend of mine from blah, blah, blah.” That’s when my anxiety started to escalate.

— Dr Anthony Fauci, speaking to the New York Times, in an interview both revealing and unsurprising. The Capitol Riots provided the spark for Trump’s second impeachment, but the handling — mishandling — of Covid-19 should surely make up the substance.

The result over the last four months has been $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable.

— Mackenzie Scott, ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, on her philanthropic efforts.

Steve Allen speaks to Jack Kerouac

One of the more bizarre interview formats. Did Kerouac enjoy this? I doubt it — he looks extremely uncomfortable. But great to watch.

Update: Oh, looks like he wrote about this experience in Big Sur.

“(remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce’s stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, “I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God’s sake Steve! ” — “But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I’ll let you off the dress rehearsal” and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, “No I cant do it, ” and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)”

Coronavirus in the Bay Area is on the up (among white people)

Black and brown people were worst hit during the first coronavirus waves in the Bay Area. But, the Chronicle reports, things seem to be balancing out:

“The trend is emerging weeks after counties began easing restrictions in many places, including reopening indoor dining and increasing capacity at gyms and places of worship. That prompted many residents to let their guard down and expand their social bubbles, county health officials said.”

That’s one theory. Here’s another:

“The participation in testing sites is declining,” [Omar Carrera, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Canal Alliance] said. “People don’t want to get tested for multiple reasons — misinformation, lack of trust. The economic burden is so big that people feel, ‘Because I have no symptoms, I don’t have the need to go get tested. Because if I get tested and I’m positive, I’m not going to be able to work for two weeks. I might even lose my job.’