MonthSeptember 2004

Gillian McKeith, white courtesy phone please

I have to say I always enjoy Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science columns in The Graun. Presently he’s pursuing a marvellous vendetta against Gillian McKeith, who appeared on Channel 4’s .. um,. some reality program.. got it! “You Are What You Eat”.

Over the weeks, he’s been gradually unpeeling the layers of her ‘qualifications’, which tend not to be as authoritative as they initially sound once you get closer.

This week’s episode, in which his long-deceased cat acquires the same qualification from the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, is as good as any.

One wonders whether this public flaying will garner any response from Channel 4 or Ms.. sorry, PhD McKeith. Or maybe one should prompt them…

(I’m very tempted to put this post under “Scams” but feel some might interpret that as libellous. Of course it would be completely and utterly and eternally wrong to suggest that PhD McKeith is in any way trying to deceive people with the qualifications she publicises.)

Now will you believe I don’t write the headlines?

Near-miss asteroid could have wiped out Greater London area says the headline over the story I wrote about Toutatis missing the Earth, as expected.

What I actually wrote, and what appears, is: Had Toutatis hit the Earth, it would have had the explosive impact of a one million megaton bomb, many times the total nuclear arsenal of the superpowers, and destroyed all life on the planet.

Two paragraphs above, it says: But astronomers warned that there are potentially thousands of much smaller objects that could devastate an area as large as the M25 region..

Many people think journalists write the headlines on their stories. I hope this puts a stake through that idea, once and for all.

The internet? Just a fad, don’t worry. Your job doesn’t depend on it

Some rather blunt lessons for the staff at travel agents Thomsons with 800 jobs going, the day after P&O said it would cut 1200 jobs on cross channel ferries.

The reason in both cases: competition from internet-based rivals – travel sites that let you make your own holiday for Thomson,budget airlines for P&O.

I’m sure the staff feel really good at both companies that it’s not the executives losing their jobs, and that those non-job-losing execs also prepared so well for the internet’s effects, say by instituting (at P&O) a system like EasyJet’s for booking, or (at Thomson) self-service areas in the high street travel agencies. Bonuses all round.

Blackberry’s big mistake, the revolution in phones, and how the sun lost its heat

This week’s Independent features on Science and Technology are up: I’m not impressed by RIM’s new 7100v (it’s a keyboard design disaster); but things are improving for those challenging BT’s grip on the local loop.

In Science, Kate Ravilious explains how experts think fossil data explains a 3,000-year-old migration, and perhaps today’s global warming.

Read more science and tech stories athere.

A life in numbers; a move to freelancing (end of year)

Golly, scooped on the details of my own career. But I’m a top story! I feel I should quote Peter Kirwan’s Fullrun site – “Tools for tech marcoms pros” (marcoms == marketing communications) at length, since it’s objective:

Charles Arthur plans to leave the Independent to go freelance at the end of the year. Arthur says that as a freelance, he’ll continue to write for the paper. In particular, he will carry on filing copy for his column.

The impending birth of a third sprog chez Arthur seems to have spurred the move. Says Arthur: “It makes more sense for me to be near home helping with children than trogging up and down motorway each day in order to pay
nanny.” It’s unknown how the Indy will use the slack in its headcount. According to Arthur, there are three possibilities: “replace me . . . get someone science-y, or [hire] another news reporter”.

We’d put money on a straight replacement, not least because tech display advertising has been a real success for the Independent in recent years. In the four-title “white” broadsheet market consisting of the Times, Daily Telegraph, Guardian and Independent, Arthur’s paper cornered 27% of ROP (run-of-paper) advertising volume in 2003. In 1H04, the Independent’s market share rose to 31%. This comes against the backdrop of an overall decline in ad revenues at the newspaper following its conversion to tabloid format.

Wow, nobody ever told me we were doing so amazingly well in the tech ad stakes. (Or that the overall tab had fallen, but it has.) However, as to replacement, I’d also ask: how many news technology writers – as in, people who are just tech writers, rather than science or environment writers – can you name in Fleet Street? Excluding the FT, I can’t think of any; Jack Schofield and Neil McIntosh are/were attached to Guardian Online, nobody seems to do it at The Times, The Telegraph’s Robert Uhlig concentrates far more on farming stuff and going around the world on motorbike with Ewan McGregor (true).. so who?

Heel thyself

This is something I spotted on the Tube earlier today; I found it so hard to believe I had to take a photo. swatting up It’s an advert for a company called Hotcourses, which says it will help you pick the right school for your child – “the hardest decision you’ll ever make” and claims it’s full of top info that’s totally free, you can swat up on all aspects of schools at every level.

I looked, and that really is an ‘a’ not an ‘o’ in “swat”. (That’s quite apart from the fact that the sentence has no verb for the first clause. Unless it’s suggesting that you and I are full of info that’s totally free, which I suppose is true in a sense.) Somehow, my confidence in a school-picking company is not heightened by its not being able to spell – or catch the flaws in its ad agency’s spelling. If nobody’s ever told them the difference between swat and swot then maybe it’s back-to-school time.

The reason I point this out is that I also think that, other things being equal, being able to spell indicates an ability to learn – it’s a form of pattern-matching with strong context. AI researchers might like to tell me how grammar-parsing systems cope with misspellings – do they make them choke, or what?

Ooh, a navigation bar

To save the fascinated the hassle of having to hack the URL, there’s now a navigation bar – there! look! – which I might in future even get to highlight the page it’s on in subdirectories. Me and PHP’s explode function clearly aren’t good enough friends.

Update Tues 28th 14:50: OK, why on earth isn’t this working?? Anyone better-versed than me in CSS (which means pretty much everyone) is welcome to examine the source of this page and explain just why it is that the links at the top to the rest of this site don’t appear in a row like they should (if you use WordPress, it’s just code taken from the admin page; the CSS from that page grafted into the CSS file for this page). I’m just perplexed.

If your comments redirect you..

I’ve just activated a WordPress plugin called “Three Strikes” which should kill attempts at comment spam. If you’re posting something and find yourself mystically redirected to another website, drop me an email (anything at this domain will do) and I’ll tweak it better. But based on what people (as opposed to robots) are posting, it shouldn’t be a problem.

If your credit card imposes a penalty payment, don’t pay it: it’s not legally enforceable

That’s correct, you read it right. I felt a sort of roaring in my ears, no doubt from all the blood rushing around calculating how much I’ve paid in credit card penalties, as I read Don’t be afraid of throwing down the gauntlet to banks in the Guardian’s Saturday Jobs & Money supplement.

Here’s what Richard Colbey, a barrister (tr. for US readers: top-flight lawyer) wrote: Last month I wrote in Jobs & Money about the late payment charges made by most credit card companies. These typically involve the levying of around 25 on the account of someone who pays a day late, even if this is caused by the company’s late dispatch of the bill.

Such charges are unlikely to be enforced by the courts: penalty clauses are legally void unless they reflect the loss the party enforcing them has suffered.

Did you get that? All those penalty payments they put on you for late payment are bogus. Unenforceable.

But you’re thinking, come on, it must be in the contract. Colbey responds: This is hardly cutting edge law. None of the dozens of banks who issue UK cards, and who will lose out if people follow my advice not to pay them, has contacted Jobs & Money, or me, to take issue with what I wrote.

Over the years I have had a few of these penalties levied, and invariably when I have refused to pay I have been told that the charge would be “refunded” usually as “a good will gesture”. If banks thought this argument wrong, they would have taken a test case through the courts to establish their entitlement to the money.

Are you starting to follow? And then he makes the point that this applies too to those “unauthorised overdraft” charges your bank makes.

So why haven’t you heard about this? Simple – because when individuals act against the banks, they keep it quiet. Most people are cowed into paying the penalty because they think it’s enforceable. It just needs us all to refuse, and suddenly they’ll either have to take us all to court (great for customer relations) or do something else.

OK, so this is a rallying cry. Tell your friends. I’m starting today. No more penalty charge payments by me.

The best all-in-one Apple IM client?

So I’m having a play with the three contenders here – Proteus, Adium and Fire. Because despite being a latecomer to IM, I’m already trying to keep in touch with folk on two different networks, and – well, take two bottles into the shower? I just IM and go!

Anyway it seems to me that despite being not-free (or perhaps because of that), the winner is Proteus. It just seems to do a stack more stuff. I like Adium’s lower-tabbed windows, so you don’t have windows spawning all over the place for different conversations (lost marks, Fire), but Proteus hits back by using the OSX drawer to stack the different conversations.

Is there anything similar for Windows? Only Gaim that I could find. And as it happens, that code (written for Linux) underpins all the apps here – they all use libgaim.

Any more I’ve missed and should try?