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Total waste of time

June 17, 2009 Leave a comment

There’s revolution formenting in Iran and outrage among the people of Britain, so what does our beleaguered and spineless Government go and do? It releases Lord Carter’s report on Digital Britain, yes, all 245 pages of it.

The introduction started thus:

On 26 August 1768, when Captain James Cook set sail for Australia, it took 2 years and 320 days before he returned to describe what he found there.

and that’s where I gave up, because that told me everything I needed to know about Lord Carter’s report.

First of all, Captain James Cook did not set sail for Australia (which at that time was almost unknown, and the bits that were known of had been named New Holland by the Dutch), the Admiralty (at the behest of the Royal Society) ordered him to travel to the Pacific so that astronomer Charles Green could observe and record the transit of Venus across the sun.

It was only when this part of the voyage was complete that Cook opened sealed orders instructing him to search for the southern continent of Terra Australis, which the Royal Society were convinced was somewhere in the southern Pacific, and that the voyage to Tahiti would be an inconspicuous cover for a voyage of colonial expansion.

So off he went, eventually visiting and mapping New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia, and claiming them for the British Empire.

He got back to England in 1771 but it was months before accounts of his voyage were published, and the Royal Society weren’t happy because the land mass Cook found (known today as Australia) didn’t meet their expectations, so they sent Cook off again in 1772 to search for Terra Australis, which Cook found – we know it today as Antarctica.

So here we have a modern day report on the state of Digital Britain which contains, in the very first sentence, a dumbed down statement of remarkable inaccuracy, and which was confirmed as such in seconds with a Google search.

In the time is has taken for this report to be drawn up, the world has already changed, politicians have been discredited, the credibility of government is in tatters and anyone who’s ever used the interwebs knows that any government attempt to stop downloading simply won’t stop people getting hold of free content.

It’s also interesting about the “basic level” of broadband being described at 2mbps, on which even YouTube struggles, and this also conveniently ignores another ignaminious bit of British history.

The newly formed British Telecom had a plan to run optical fibre to every home in Britain in the early 1980s; the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided instead to privatise BT to raise money for tax cuts and to pay-off government debt, so the whole project was cancelled, and 20 years on we’re still paying for the lack of investment.

Lord Carter has wasted a massive opportunity to announce some real changes, instead what we have is the same tired old debate about top slicing the licence fee to shore up failing businesses and a stealth tax on landline telephones – which guarantees to penalise the poor and the elderly and force them to pay for services they don’t use.

How ironic then that Lord Carter evokes the name of the great Captain Cook to launch such a pitiful report – in the 18th Century Cook risked life and limb several times for the glory of his country, advancing science and understanding and making history.

Meanwhile here in the 21st Century Lord Carter spinelessly fleeces the poor, ignores the country, dithers and disappoints and all of this while trying to re-write history.

It’s all just too pathetic for words.

Categories: Internet, Politics Tags: , ,

Out-foxing the news fixers

June 14, 2009 Leave a comment

There’s been an interesting couple of articles over on The New York Times recently which look at the growing extremism in the US Republican Party, something I commented on last month.

Columnist Frank Rich provides a detailed takedown of what he describes as the “Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers” and the corrosive effect that they and their message are having on what passes for political discourse in the US.

Another writer, Paul Krugman takes a wider ranging view of reaction to the murder of Dr George Tiller by an anti-abortion fanatic, followed in short-order by the incident at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in which a security guard was shot dead by a white supremacist and Holocaust denier.

Both point to what seems to be an increasingly worrying trend that incidents like this are on the increase following Barack Obama’s election as President, and that the right-wing media, including the Faux News Channel, bear some responsibility for this.

What’s worrying in the middle of all this is that having been trounced at the elections in November the Republican Party is currently leaderless, rudderless and clueless, as exemplified by the recent fiasco over whether Gingrich or Palin should speak at a fund-raising dinner – if they can’t get their guest lists sorted out you have to wonder whether they ever will re-discover the plot ahead of 2012, or whether they have already written that off and are concentrating in 2016.

Unfortunately nature abhors a vacuum, and so into that breech have stepped a whole swathe of unelected, possibly even unelectable, voices like so-called comedian Rush Limbaugh and actor Jon Voight, who told Faux News Channel and others that his devout wish was to “bring an end to this false prophet Obama“.  

This is exactly the kind of swing to extremism that the British Labour Party suffered after its humiliation at the hands of the Conservatives in 1979 – and by the time the next election came round in 1983, the Party was riven with divisions as it lurched to the left under Michael Foot.

Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 elections included abolition of the House of Lords, leaving the EEC (the fore-runner of the EU) and abandoning the UK’s nuclear deterrent, prompting one senior Labour MP to describe it as “the longest suicide note in history“.

It took the reality check of the Conservatives Party’s 1983 landslide to set Labour back on the road to electoral respectability, although it took them another 14 years to actually achieve their goal of regaining Number 10.

There’s no doubt the electoral roller coaster that is American politics plays out much quicker than the UK one, but one wonders whether the Republicans are already paying the price for allowing the extremism of the election campaign to get so out of hand, as evidenced in the Al Jazeera video I posted a few days ago

Frank Rich is already alarmed that no-one is reining in the “hard-core haters”:

The only voices that might penetrate their alternative reality — I emphasize might — belong to conservative leaders with the guts and clout to step up as McCain did last fall. Where are they? The genteel public debate in right-leaning intellectual circles about the conservative movement’s future will be buried by history if these insistent alarms are met with silence.

Hang on a minute, did he say McCain had guts – in classic sports broadcasting terms, let’s see that again…

So that’s having “the guts and clout to step up” eh Frank? We can clearly see McCain is embarrassed because he knows his campaign has been based entirely around Obama’s race and background, and now one of his base supporters has come out and said it and he’s got to agree with her without agreeing with her, knowing that if he gets the next few statements wrong, his whole campaign is doomed to be filed in a garbage bin marked “flip-flopper”.

So he fumbles, he humms, he errrs, and he comes out with something so remarkably anodyne that it can be read any which way you like; the only decisive thing he does is to get his microphone well away from the loony old trout.

McCain didn’t “step up”, he fell over, tried to stand up, managed to get his foot out of his mouth and then ran like hell, and in doing so he showed all the leadership qualities of a concussed bee.

What was needed was for McCain to walk slowly and silently back to the centre of the stage and then to deliver a quiet but stinging rebuke to anyone in his party who dared to make the rest of the campaign about race, to make it clear that the election should be about policy, and not about fearmongering – then he should have gone away and slapped down anyone on his campaign team who disagreed.

That would have been leadership, that would have been “stepping up” but he blew it, and so set in motion the course of events that lead us to where we are today, with right-wing extremism on the rise in the US effectively being encouraged by a leaderless and ineffective Republican party and egged on by loud-mouth shock jocks like Limbaugh, Beck and O’Reilly who really are the perfect examples of the inverse ratio between the size of the brain and the size of the mouth.

Someone needs to step up and provide the same kind of reality check as the Labour Party got in 1983; the problem is that if the American Right waits until after the 2012 election, how many people are going to die in the meantime?

Sects, lies and videotape

June 10, 2009 4 comments

Normally I keep my political comments restricted to UK and US, but one of my e-mail alerts this morning drew my attention to a shocking video that’s starting to do the rounds about the views of young people in Israel about the recent speech given by President Obama on the Middle East.

I watch what is happening in the Middle East with utter dispair sometimes, it’s almost as if neither side wants to a budge an inch and that all the leaderships involved are quite happy for the fighting to continue because it’s become the only thing that defines their power.

In contrast then was Obama’s eagerly-anticipated speech in Cairo which basically said “the status quo is not acceptable, there must be change, but the only people that can make that change are the people of the Middle East themselves”.

Although the speech appeared to hit the mark with all concerned, especially both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, guaging the reaction of people on the ground was slower in coming, although when it did, the considered response was also welcoming.

One wonders though how much of the story we’re actually hearing, and when you hear the one of the vanguards of 21st Century news, The Huffington Post, is censoring content that runs counter to the preceived wisdom, one has to start questioning how the narrative is being constructed.

The piece that was removed from the HuffPo is a short video vox-pop of young people in Israel giving their views on the Obama speech – the views expressed, especially those from the young American Jews, and the language used are utterly shocking – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED:

Even the people who produced it, Max Blumenthal and Joseph Dana were shocked at the views expressed, and the forcefulness with which they were made, but were further shocked when an administrator at the HuffPo removed the video from the site, claiming, according to Blumenthal that: “I don’t see that it has any real news value”.

So I suppose there was “no real news value” last year, when Al Jazeera English broadcast a vox-pop of people attanding a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio, and shocking the world with a similar level of ignorance:

Now I can see many reasons why an old media organisation might remove such a video from their site, or indeed, choose not to publish it at all – some of these, such as the question of taste and decency, are arguably legitimate, and indeed I myself thought long and hard about whether to embed the video or just link to it because of the foul language used.

For a premier blog to remove it because they consider is has no “real news value” is extremely dangerous; it’s exactly the kind of nebulous reason that would be used to justify censorship by an old media outlet like Fox News.

There’s no doubt The Huffington Post has made a massive contribution to the development of the interwebs as a space for news/information that engages with its audience rather than just preaching to them, but the kind of editorial arrogance they’ve displayed over the Blumenthal video will only serve to raise so much unnecessary speculation about their editorial credibility.

The problem is that its co-founder and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington seems to spend more time getting her face on the old media with guest spots on MSNBC and guest hosting Squawk Box on CNBC, which only serves to make her look more and more old corporate and old media; a perception I would be running a mile from if I was running the best politics site on the planet.

The financial downturn, the difficulties faced by old media companies and the collapse of the newspaper industry is the time for organisations like the Huffington Post to be rising above the frey, consolidating and leading the way, not pracing around on TV while quietly adopting the same tired old editorial dogmas they claim to have moved on from.

As for the morons on the video their disgusting comments seem to show where the real oppositon to change in the Middle East lie, and that there is a bedrock of racism and bigotry both in Israel and among American Jews that is going to be Obama’s biggest and toughest obstacle.

These people, the same people who supported the killing of over 1,000 Palestinians in January in the most one-sided war in the history of mankind, all hide their hate behind the shield of victimhood, claiming that the world is against them.

Well here’s newsflash – it is, and on the basis of this kind of disgusting bigotry – is there any wonder why?

Bloggers vs Journalists – the gloves come off

June 8, 2009 1 comment

If I had a penny for every article I had read about the pros and cons of blogging and its effect on mainstream journalism, I would be a very rich man – I would probably have enough to be a full-time blogger, rather than writing my posts in my own time.

With so many blogs, some of which are becoming professional concerns, it was inevitable that the war of words between bloggers and journalists was never going to end, especially now that so many lazy mainstream journalists have learnt to feed off the blogs.

So it was with some interest that I read an article on TechCrunch this morning entitled “The Morality and Effectiveness of Process Journalism“, which came about as a result of this piece of angst-riddled insecurity from The New York Times.

I’m not going to go into the details of this particular example of “handbags at dawn”, although from the exhibits presented by both the plaintiff and the defence I can say that Mr Darlin of the NYT probably wouldn’t last five minutes in any newsroom run by me.

From where I’m sitting, TechCrunch reported a rumour as exactly that and published it with more caveats than a dossier on WMD:

Today, though, rumors popped up that Apple may be looking to buy Twitter. “Apple is in late stage negotiations to buy Twitter and is hoping to announce it at WWDC in June,” said a normally reliable source this evening, adding that the purchase price would be $700 million in cash. The trouble is we’ve checked with other sources who claim to know nothing about any Apple negotiations. If these discussions are happening, Twitter is keeping them very quiet indeed. We would have passed on reporting this rumor at all, but other press is now picking it up.

If only many mainstream journalists were as assiduous about highlighting so-called facts which are, in reality, rumours.

Eniment journalist and blogger Jeff Jarvis has also written about this, which he describes as Product vs Process journalism: The myth of perfection vs beta culture; I totally agree with his sentiments – the idea that a story is, once written, an entity which cannot be changed is a product of the old way of producing news, where you had a single product, be it a TV programme or a newspaper edition, into which the “finished” story was placed.

OK, stories might move over a period of time, and one only has to watch All the Presidents’ Men to see how that worked, but even then, the story presented in each edition is a complete, rounded item, drafted, edited, honed until it is as good as it could be.

Only with the advent of 24-hour news and, later, new media have we been able to see news as a constantly evolving activity, from ‘Breaking News’ to the retrospective documentary, a story moves, grows, evolves like a living being, often with just as much complexity, and to characterise a story only in terms of locked off “editions” makes about as much sense in the interweb age as carbon paper.

It’s also interesting to note that this was written for the NYT‘s Business section, and we all know how much esteem they’re held in after the recent meltdown in the world’s economy.

So what is the moral of this incompetant piece of naval gazing by the NYT? As Jeff Jarvis so eloquently puts it:

The problem with this tiresome, never-ending alleged war of blogs vs. MSM … is that it blinds each tribe from learning from the other. Yes, there are standards worth saluting from classical journalism. But there are also new methods and opportunities to be learned online. No one owns journalists or its methods or standards.

The upshot of this is that these days it doesn’t really matter what hacks like Damon Darlin churn out, if they get it wrong, they can be called out within minutes and the facts of what was really said and what was missed can be blogged and published for all to see faster than you can say “libel writ”.

And you know what? Mainstream journalists could do the same, if only they’d get their heads of the sand and their mindsets out of the past.

 (PS: As an aside I was also pleased to see Jeff agreeing with my thoughts about Google Wave.)

Out to Lunch

June 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Sometimes the bare-faced bias of some so-called journalists takes some beating, but this headline in particular took the biscuit for me:

White House declines to say what NY trip cost

WASHINGTON (AP) — White House spokesman Robert Gibbs is declining to say what it cost for President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to eat dinner and take in a play in New York over the weekend.

Asked if he would outline the costs, Gibbs said Monday the Obamas would have preferred using a commercial airline shuttle to New York and back but that the Secret Service would not allow such unprotected travel.

Well, derrrrrrrrrrrr!!!

Just which idiot decided this was a story, or even a question worth asking at a White House press conference?

Didn’t somebody, somewhere stop and ask themselves some very simple questions before wasting everyone’s bandwidth with such obvious partisan reporting?

Such as:

  • How much more expensive would it have been for the US to have their President and his wife hop on a Ted flight and be DOA at La Guardia?
  • Why can’t a President, who has a wife and family, have a night out and get out of the house occasionally?
  • If you’re the leader of the free world, just how easy should it be to slip down to Moe’s Tavern for a couple of pints with your mates?
  • It’s a four hour drive from Washington to NY, how much more expensive would it be to have to search the length of the New Jersey Turnpike when the President’s Smart Car went missing?

Sadly this half-baked bull excretia is what passes for serious journalism in America these days, and is being driven by the dinosaurs of the Republican party who time and again show that they have completely lost their grip on reality.

Seriously, if these are the questions currently coming out of the brightest and best of the US’s newsrooms, there’s no wonder nobody was asking some serious and searching questions about the economy this time last year.

Obama’s now in the Middle East, I wonder if he remembered to turn out the lights before he left?

Time for a real climate change

June 3, 2009 2 comments

There’s nothing that annoys me more than lazy, cut-and-paste, hype-ridden journalism, and no subject has generated more of this than Climate Change (or so-called “Global Warming”).

Some wonk somewhere produces a report saying so many thousands of people have died, or lost land, or been internally displaced because of global warming and the hype-mongers of the press are all over it like a rash with doom-laden white-on-black prophecies of impending catastrophe.

This happened the other day when the Global Humanitarian Forum put out a report claiming that global warming is killing 300,000 people a year; former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it was a “silent crisis”:

Climate change is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time, causing suffering to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

If leading world statesmen like Kofi Annan are saying this, it must be true, and of course the press jumped on the bandwagon.

But even in Kofi Annan’s comments on the report are the seeds of doubt. Here’s how it appeared in The Times:

Mr Annan said the report could never be as rigorous as a scientific study, but said: “We feel it is the most plausible account of the current impact of climate change today.”

In other words: “We haven’t a clue”.

What makes this worse is that this is not actually the Forum’s own report, but one that they farmed out to some “thinktank”, a consultancy group called Dalberg Global Advisers who themselves admitted their estmates had:

a significant margin of error

In other words: “We haven’t a clue either”.

The problem is that Climate Change is like the Cold War – our political leaders have jumped on it as a way to scare the bejeezus out of their electorate, and so the only way for scientists to get decent funding for new research is to claim it has relevance to Climate Change – just like in the 1960s and 1970s when the best way to get research funding was to claim some Cold War defense implications.

Of course the outcome of this research is often so spurious and theoretical that no-one really knows what it means and can put any kind of spin on it that they like; this is especially true of any Climate Change work done with atmospheric modelling, a branch of science which sometimes seem to owe more to Harry Potter than it does to any real world physics.

For example – we’re told that the Arctic ice cap is disappearing at an increasing rate. Now watch this video and ask yourself a simple question: “If the ice appears and disappears so quickly every year, how can they be so certain?”

So Kofi Annan’s comment about about rigorous scientific study is telling, because that is actually happening, although because the results don’t have BIG numbers or lots of dead, injured and displaced that fit neatly into a headline, the lazy hacks in our newsrooms don’t give a damn.

I saw this example over on another blog today: Lindzen’s Climate Sensitivty Talk: ICCC June 2, 2009 – not the world’s most inspiring headline, and it has a link to a powerpoint which is full of graphs and equations which would make the average person’s head spin.

To sum it up: Dr Richard Lindzen compared the main Climate Change predictive models to the real data, the observations of what has really happened, and he found the real world did not behave like the models said it would. 

What we see, then, is that the very foundation of the issue of global warming is wrong. There is little to be concerned about (due to our emissions).  Of course, climate change will always occur and we should be prepared.

Dr Lindzen knows which way the winds of political opinion are blowing on climate change, so he has a little afterthought for those who spend their lives neatly coccooned on Planet Politics:

In a normal field, these results would pretty much wrap things up, but global warming/climate change has developed so much momentum that it has a life of its own – quite removed from science.  One can reasonably expect that opportunism of the weak will lead to efforts to alter the data (though the results presented here have survived several alterations of the data already).  Perhaps most important, these results will of necessity ‘offend the sensibilities of the of the educated classes and the entire East and West Coasts,’ and who would want to do that.

Ouch!

OK, so this is just one report, and no doubt the ardent Climate Change supporters will pooh-pooh it, but that’s the way science has always worked, just remember some of the crap that Galileo and Copernicus had to put up with.

What’s more worrying is that underlying all of this is knowledge that this report will not get the same coverage as the UN’s spurious “finger-in-the-air” fearmongering did, because the majority of mainstream media journalists are too lazy, too stupid or just too ignorant to dig out the truth.

Just look at sites like this infotainment site from ABC News and ask yourself: “Apart from a few question marks in some of the headlines, where is the rigorous journalistic examination of the facts?”*

If our scientists can’t agree among themselves, shouldn’t THAT be the story the public are told?

*[EDIT/Update: Viewing the ABC News site further I found myself asking another question: “If ABC News had existed back then – what would they have foreseen for a fictional child born on June 2, 1909?” – if you think about this for more than just a second, and look at where we are at now, you’ll start to grasp just how ridiculous a once-great journalistic organisation has become.]

If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about

June 2, 2009 Leave a comment

I was going to entitle this post “When Social Media goes bad”, but decided against it because in this case, Social Media was very much the winner.

A few day’s ago The Guardian invited a London herbal remedy company, Neal’s Yard Remedies, to answer questions from readers, having already had successful discussions about other subjects, such as Fairtrade and food in a series of articles called “You ask, they answer”.

Only in this case, someone didn’t read the script – I urge you to go and read the ensuing comments thread, it’s funny, intelligent and challenging, and unfortunately for the company concerned, fairly unforgiving.

NYR ended up declining the invitation to answer any of the questions raised, much to the disgust of many of the contributors, some of whom are now demanding a follow up, but the best we’ve had so far is a lame article about the PR implications including an interview with Max Clifford.

More interesting is what this says about the power of Social Media, as well as not responding to the questions, many posters noted the company were removing comments from their own website and Facebook pages.

Not only that, but bloggers and tweeters have jumped on the story and it’s already going viral, making the PR situation for the company ever more difficult.

One also wonders whether business and political leaders would act in such a stupid and arrogant way if they had been forced to face this kind of fact-checking by their workers or their customers – would GM be going to the wall today if they had faced closer corporate and public scrutiny in the last decade? 

It’s going to be interesting to see where this one goes…