Saturday 23 April 2011

Adam Rutherford at Winchester SitP 28th April

Yes, it's true.

The Hampshire Skeptics Society is proud to confirm that Dr. Adam Rutherford off of the telly and everything, is coming to Winchester Skeptics in the Pub on Thursday 28th April 2011.

You can catch Adam's recent BBC 4 series in the UK on BBC iPlayer here:

The Gene Code: 1. The Gene Code
The Gene Code: 2. The Book of Life

Listen to Adam on BBC radio 4's Start the week with Andrew Marr here.

Read Adam's Guardian article on the Human Genome project here.

Or better still, come to WInchester Skeptics in the Pub on Thursday. Here's the FB event.

We hope to see you there.

Ooh, and here's Adam Skeptic Trump Card.

Saturday 16 April 2011

The Crudity of Early Home Computing

When the frustration of 1K home computing became all too much to bear, I (now regrettably) sold my Sinclair ZX81 for the princely sum of £10 and upgraded to the all singing and dancing Commodore 64.

Most of my friends however went for the lower spec'd SInclair ZX Spectrum. Although the C64 had far superior sound and a fancy way of overlapping sprites without all that colour clashing you got on the spectrum, I never really mastered the art of programming the bloody thing. All those tedious PEEKS and POKES of memory addresses was a whole bunch of no fun, and time that could be better spent waiting for a program to actually load from cassette.

The Spectrum however, with its keyboard, seemingly made from dead flesh, was a much easier piece of kit for me to get my head around.

Perhaps it was because the Spectrum's had its BASIC syntax written out before you on the actual keyboard. Sir Clive even had the wit to add a special shift key to allow the user to apply the relevant operands to extend the usage of the key commands. This made it fairly simply to string together a few lines whose semantics could be successfully interpreted and executed.

Although Sinclair's language constructs were certainly pioneering in their day, it all looks rather crude now.

Friday 8 April 2011

Blogger Farm: A Fairytale

Mr Hockeystick of the Telegraph had proofread his article and submitted it to his editor, but he was far too conceited to check his facts or link to his sources, he was after all merely an interpreter of interpretations. He pushed his keyboard away and leaned back in his chair, ‘That’ll do’ he thought to himself.

Meanwhile at a London Pub meeting, Old Davies, the prize journalist was waiting to talk about his recent book, Flat Earth News. At one end of the pub, behind a gently glowing laptop screen, Old Davies was already ensconced in the speaker’s position. He was 55 years old and had gone rather grey of late, he was still however a majestic looking writer with a wise and benevolent appearance.

Before long the bloggers began to arrive and make themselves comfortable. First came the skeptical bloggers and then the legal bloggers who propped up the bar at the back of the pub with an air of authority. The secular and humanist bloggers perched themselves at a nearby table and the political and frontline bloggers sat down in front of the legal bloggers. The two science bloggers came in together and settled themselves at a gap in a table near the front being careful not to spill the drinks of the other bloggers as they made their way through the crowd. When Davies saw that they had all got themselves a drink and were waiting patiently, he cleared his throat and began:

‘Comrades, you have been told before not to always believe what you read in the newspapers and I am now forced to admit that I work in a corrupt profession. Please now allow me to expose the truth about our news media.’

‘Due to severe cost cutting aimed at lining the already deep pockets of the media moguls, mainstream news media is forced to fill more and more print space with less and less time and resources. This has led to journalists simply churning stories from a limited number of press agencies, often with little or no additional material, research, fact checking or even comment.’

‘Journalists resort to simply reprinting verbatim press releases from PR companies anxious to promote their celebrity or product.’

‘Science stories are frequently produced by journalists with little or no scientific credibility, clumsily wedged into a standard pro forma to present it as either Frankenstein-ien scaremongering or the next miracle cure. As comrade Goldacre often says, the Daily Mail appear to be on a relentless mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world, into to those that either cause, or cure, cancer. With coffee often cited on both sides.’

‘Studies, trials, research and surveys with a pre-destined outcome are sponsored by companies who would benefit from those predetermined results. Results which are subsequently written up by the PR agencies and tied to whatever product or service is being promoted, then simply regurgitated as news by journalists anxious to fill their required quotas.’

‘Few journalists have the resources to fully research a new news story, and local and relevant news items are often neglected, replaced instead with a never ending tide of churnalism.’

‘I will sing you a song now comrades, and when you have learnt the tune you can sing it better for yourselves. It is called “Writers of England”.’

Old Davies cleared his throat again and began to sing. His voice was hoarse, but he sang well enough, and it was a stirring tune. The words ran:

Writers of England, writers of Ireland,
Writers of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of a golden blogging time.

Soon or late the day is coming
When Fleet Streets’ lies no longer ooze,
And the fruitful blogs of merry England
Will be the source of breaking news.

Gossip shall vanish from our headlines,
No more knockers on page three,
So long to prejudiced propaganda
Good riddance journalist Bourgeoisie.

Blogs abundant with researched stories,
Fully linked back to their source
Politics, science and local stories
Covered by a blogging tour de force.

Bright will shine the blogs of England
Insightful will their postings be.
Nothing hidden behind a paywall,
All their content, completely free.

So we’ll toil at our keyboards,
Though many blogs get far few hits
Doctors, lawyers, scientists
Producing content when time permits.

Writers of England, writers of Ireland,
Writers of every land and clime,
Hearken to my joyful tidings
Of a golden blogging time.

The singing of the song threw the bloggers present into a wild excitement. Almost before Old Davies had reached the end they had begun singing it for themselves. All of the bloggers had mastered the tune and the especially musical bloggers had learnt the whole song by heart within a few minutes. And then, after a few preliminary tries, the whole pub burst into “Writers of England” in unison.

During the months that followed, there was much blogging activity. Old Davies’ talk had given the assembled bloggers much to think about. Many of the bloggers tidied up their blog templates; they added comrades to their sidebars and the more computer literate added links to enable their blogposts to be quickly shared on social networking sites such as facebook and twitter.

Now, as it turned out, the rise of the blogosphere occurred much sooner, and far easier than anyone had expected.

Numerous news items and events of interest to many people failed to be reported in depth by the main stream media. One such example was a science writer whose researched and valid criticism of a pseudoscientific medical therapy had landed him in the high courts facing a misconceived libel trial. This particular case was of great interest to many people as it threatened both free speech and the advancement of scientific inquiry.

One of the legal bloggers, was able to provide much insight into the case and he began to post the details of the story as they broke on his blog. His blog, like many others, became more popular and before too long they had become one of the primary sources for news and information for many people on matters of interest to them.

Flushed with the success of the blogosphere, one of the legal bloggers organised a panel debate at another pub where many of the top political and science bloggers debated with a mainstream media journalist on whether political blogging was managing to influence government policy, and what effect the new media and self published bloggers were having on the traditional media.

Many of the bloggers present at the discussion realised the significance and the power of the blogosphere. One blogger had even succeeded in reducing the principles of blogging to 7 commandments. The 7 commandments were then be posted on one of the most widely read blogs in 14 point bold font where it could be linked to from other blogs. The7 commandments of blogging ran thus:

  1. Whosever writes for traditional print media is an enemy.
  2. Whosever writes for blogs or twitter is a friend.
  3. No blogger shall ever write for any mainstream newspaper.
  4. No Blogger shall ever omit hyperlinks.
  5. No blogger shall ever require the approval of a copy editor.
  6. No blogger shall ever leave hateful comments on another blog.
  7. All bloggers are equal.

Links to this blogpost were tweeted to the blogging community who briskly retweeted the link in complete agreement.

How they toiled and sweated to increase the number of page views of their blogs , but Google Analytics showed that they were getting even more web traffic than they had hoped.

Sometimes the work was hard; they spent long evenings in front of their computer screens researching articles. So it was decided that awards should be bestowed on some of the more eloquent bloggers to recognise their contributions to blogging. These bloggers then proudly adorned the sidebars of their blogs with either “Blogging Hero, First Class” or “Blogging Hero, Second Class.”

The wider-read bloggers where delighted with their new awards and so they triumphantly sang “Writers of England” and reposted links to the 7 commandments of blogging.

The microbloggers who used twitter however were having trouble tweeting the 7 commandments of blogging in 140 characters or less, and so it was that the microbloggers adopted a more pithy maxim. NEW MEDIA GOOD, MAINSTREAM MEDIA BAD was tweeted from all the twitter accounts of the bloggers and their supporters.

After a while it was noticed that an article by one of the more successful bloggers appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian. Some of the bloggers who read the article seemed to recall that the third commandment of blogging said that no blogger should ever write for the mainstream media. The bloggers who had read the article used the blog archive to find the original post that stated the 7 blogging commandments to remind themselves what the third commandment of blogging was. The third commandment was stated quite plainly on the blog, it read "No blogger shall ever write for any mainstream tabloid newspaper."

Some of the bloggers had not remembered that the third commandment specified tabloid newspapers, so one of them left a comment at the bottom of the blogpost. The blog author quickly responded to the comment stating that the Guardian was clearly not a tabloid newspaper, and besides, the article had only appeared in the comment section, which was only available online and not in the print copy.

As time passed, more and more of the elite bloggers started to be published outside of their original blogs. One of the science bloggers had completely moved his privately hosted blog on to the Guardian’s website whilst other bloggers where writing full time for the New Statesman and other such traditional media outlets.

The eminent bloggers explained that they were able to reach a far wider audience by publishing their articles with the established news media. Besides, they said, they remained as committed to their writing as when they self published items to a smaller audience on their own blogs. Having reached a far wider audience via the mainstream media the bloggers tweeted their maxim: NEW MEDIA GOOD, MAINSTREAM MEDIA BETTER.

Having seen a number of bloggers now reaching wider audiences in the mainstream press the readers revisited the blogpost stating the 7 commandments of blogging once more. There was nothing on the blogpost now except a single commandment. It ran:


The readers looked from blog to newspaper, and from newspaper to blog, and from blog to newspaper again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Please do not commit the slippery slope fallacy and conclude that I am of the opinion that the fate of blogging follows a similar narrative to the tale upon which this post is based. It’s just a nice little story that superficially matches some of the events of the blogosphere. The analogy would fall down all too easily if I had attempted to pursue it further and falsely shoehorn real bloggers into Orwell’s characters. I have therefore deliberately removed many of the main characters from the post to prevent any false parallels being drawn. With the exception of a few named characters whose words are purely mine.

Monday 4 April 2011

Night and Day: The Spectator Arts Blog

I’ve had great fun this last week masquerading as a writer.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been longlisted for the Orwell Prize, Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. The shortlist will be announced on the 26th April and will no doubt weed out pretenders like myself. Still, that gives me just over 3 weeks to go on about it, and I do intend to go on about it quite a bit.

I was also terribly pleased to be asked to write a Spotify Sunday playlist for the Night and Day Blog. For those unfamiliar with Spotify Sunday, it’s a sort of Desert Island Discs affair in the Spectator where guests select a number of songs that can be listened to via Spotify and garnished with a few choice words on their blog.

So here’s my Spotify Sunday article for The Spectator.

Admittedly my music blog has being lying dormant for the last year or so whilst I’ve mercilessly pandered to the higher traffic passing through this blog. However I found writing about music again most agreeable, especially being able to select may favourite ditties.

As a self-published blogger who has never written anything for money, with the exception of technical documentation in my professional capacity, it seemed a little strange having my words pass through an editor. I have no qualms with my editor, I’m perfectly happy that some of my thoughts need a bit of tidying up, and I accept that my choice of language may need to be tempered for a wider audience.

I was therefore perfectly happy that the phrase:
… emerging from Saturday night TV “talent” shows
to replace my original:
… shat from the arsehole of Saturday night TV “talent” shows.
although given the subject matter, I think my original was perfectly apt.

Anyway, I do hope to get the opportunity to do a bit more music blogging again, especially if The Spectator are happy to have me back to write an album review. I promise not to swear too much.

Did I mention I’ve been longlisted for the Orwell Prize?