MonthMay 2008

Flat Earth News, and the evidence from the people who generate it

Andrew Brown (whose blog feed is now full-text – marvellous!) notes, in the you’ll-have-to-look-it-up entitled post Don’t have sex with Roman Catholics notes how the process Nick Davies has been on about – “churnalism” (which gets its own, much-deserved excoriation at the Churner Prize blog) – whereby the accountants decide how much should be spent on researching stories, rather than the journalists or news executives, progressed on our last mutual paper:

On the Independent we were privileged to watch this process, which took about twenty years in the rest of the press, compressed into the five years from 1991 to 1996. By the end of that time the joke, or slogan, was that one phone call was a news story, two made a feature, and three an in-depth investigation. Technology has slightly altered this equation, so that it is now possible to write one of the paper’s full-length “profiles” without talking to anyone even on the phone; just grabbing what’s on Google and maybe, for depth, wikipedia.

This is ever so, ever so true.

And of course there’s the question of where does it all come from? What nice timing that Scott McLellan, the former press secretary to the White House, who has written a book wherein he shakes his head about it. Tut-tut. That George W Bush. He really should have told the truth.

Or, as Matthew Baldwin sums it up in a tweet:

Scott McClellan’s new book, summarized: “I totally didn’t know I was lying those 630,000 times.”

Why can’t people figure out when Mad Men is set?

William Leith – argh! flashback! – wrote a TV review in the Guardian the other day, talking about Mad Men (as in, the men who ruled Madison Avenue), and said

it’s a drama set in the early 1960s, when the world was simpler and less screwed up… It’s 1963, and the mad men are the ad men of Madison Avenue, in New York.

Lots of others are doing it. The Times:

a new US drama set in the world of advertising on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s

. (Not the Daily Mail, because it doesn’t do TV reviews.) The Telegraph:

Mad Men – set in the ruthless, febrile etc world of 1960s New York admen – is intended to fill this spring’s must-watch slot.

But unless a great deal of time has passed between the episode I’ve been watching and the one Leith’s reviewing (which is vaguely possible; I’m a couple of weeks behind), then that’s not possible.

Instead, it’s set fair and square in 1960. Not 1960s; 1960, the year. It’s easy to know why: because it’s got Nixon vs Kennedy. They talk about buying up ad space on TV in some states for haemorrhoid cream because that will mean Kennedy can’t buy those ad spots. That makes it summer-autumn of 1960, since the election is in November.

And when did Nixon battle Kennedy for the presidency? 1960. Kennedy was elected November 1960, gave his commencement speech January 1961, was shot in Dallas in November 1963.

Calling it “1960s” and suggesting that the behaviour being shown is “1960s” doesn’t ring quite right (assume for a moment that it *is* how guys and gals acted). After all, the beginning of every decade is always a hangover of the previous one. We didn’t discover the identity of this decade until after September 2001; in 2000 we were still reeling in the mad behaviour of the 1990s. Similarly, 1990 was the tail-end of the 1980s, not the opening up of what the 1990s became. 1980, believe me, was much more like 1979 than it was 1981.

Possibly those far-off dates are more resonant for me because of reading On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks’s terrific novel about love that’s set all around that period; one of the principal characters is a newspaperman who listens to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on the radio, and thinks Nixon took it (and writes to that effect in the paper); whereupon he’s ribbed by his colleagues, who watched it on TV. Faulks adds detail – which has the resonance of truth – that Nixon was suffering from the reoccurence of an old back problem, which made standing for the debates painful.

(Though personally it feels like it was a much, much better thing that Kennedy won.)

Bonus link for those who’ve got this far and indulged my vague knowledge of US presidential stuff: Things Younger Than John McCain. The list includes nylon, the Golden Gate Bridge, duct tape, the AA 12 steps programme (Yo Bush!), TV commercials… the list is growing very, very quickly.

So who’s the Apple user?

I’m sitting on the train, using my Apple laptop.

Just opposite is a guy using a Dell. Who also has an iPhone.

Question: which of us puts more money in Apple’s pocket? My MacBook is a one-off purchase – there’s no ongoing payment to Apple through it.

By contrast, the iPhone involves a (rolling?) contract that lasts – correct me, I’m offline when I write this – 18 months, during which one puts a lot of money into Apple’s coffers. (And O2’s, of course.)

And it’s definitely an iPhone, not an iPod Touch: he’s typing away, which you’re not really going to do on a Touch, are you?

So which of us is the “Apple user”? Which is the one who’s enriching Apple more? The one whose computer broadcasts its identity through the glowing logo on the lid, or the one who has a phone discreetly tucked away, except when he changes tracks on its music player?

Quote of the day re golf, courtesy John McEnroe. But what is sport?

John McEnroe, with masterly disdain, proclaims what he thinks of golf: “If you don’t run, it ain’t a sport.”

What does that make golf, then? A pastime? A recreation? For professionals, it’s an occupation. I do like McEnroe’s dichotomy – applying it would chop lots of stuff out of the sports sections. (Sadly not the football. But “if you kick a ball, it’s not sport” would seem rather obtuse.)

The thing the unites all the “sports” that you read in the papers? Two things – they have a schedule: they’re regular, so newspapers can plan themselves around them; and they have spectators.

Consider: what’s the most common way people spend their time? Fishing. You’ll see no fishing coverage in the papers. (Well, apart maybe from time to time.)

If a “sport” doesn’t have a diary, then it can’t be in the papers, because the papers need to know that they’ll have something regular to fill the blank pages the next day. So fishing’s out. Where’s the organisation? You don’t get enough people together in the same place, and more importantly you don’t get people watching them.

Same with climbing. Completely spontaneous, no organisation, no schedule for when someone will do something amazing. (Yes, there are organised competitions, which do get spectators; but they’re infrequent.)

Pity though that it’s not done by popularity. OK, so there’d still be football. But all those pages of fishing. Now that would challenge the photographers.

Yes, Carl Icahn *should* bid for McDonalds, just for that headline

Greatly indebted to Seamus McCauley for his observation that, with Carl Icahn mucking about in the Microsoft-Yahoo thing

I am reminded of my long-standing hope that next on his list of takeover targets will be the McDonalds corporation. Because then, you see, every newspaper will do a headline saying “Icahn has cheezburger?”

Add him to your feedlist right now. kthxbye

So howcome we don’t hear about citizen doctors, citizen lawyers, citizen architects…

So today I’ve been a good citizen. That is, a really disruptive internet break-the-mould stick-it-to-the-man citizen.

Started off being a citizen chauffeur. (OK, driving the family about. But you know, that’s doing a specialist job. Though why is it that if you stick “celebrity” in front of something, people don’t assume you’re the celebrity? If you called yourself a “celebrity chauffeur” people would assume you drove celebs about, not that you were famous and liked ferrying.)

Then moved on to being a citizen childminder. Well, actually, they were just my kids, so “childminder” might have been sort of overstating it a bit, since I didn’t get paid, and didn’t take any exams – but hey, not taking exams is the whole idea about being a “citizen something”. It’s about how you don’t do it.

Then I did a bit of work as a citizen electrician. Yeahhhh, really sticking it to The Man there. Rather than getting an electrician to come in and fix our light switch, I bought one, replaced the old one – having, yeah, switched off the electricity in that part of the house – and put it in. Lights work! Yeah! Come on! Citizen electricianery.. er, electriciany.. electricianing.. anyway, doing it yourself is the wave of the future! Come on, who wants their home wired? Well, I can do the light switches.

Then I did some citizen interior decorating. Yeah, we had a curtain pole that had to be put up. You know, there are people who would charge you good money for that sort of thing. They call themselves “decorators”. Come on – you know that the internet has empowered us to go to exactly the same stores that they do to buy our supplies and Change The World. So – me, a curtain pole, a couple of rawlplugs, a cross-head screwdriver. Oh, damn, a pencil. Down tools. Got the pencil! Oh, damn, a hammer. Down tools. Right! Set. Oh, damn, the rawlplug’s pulled out. Drill drill. It feels so good to be changing the world. If only the flipping holes in the poles would line themselves up. Trust me though – it’s the wave of the future. Soon we’ll all do our interior decoration. It’s going to change completely, baby. Skills in our hands.

So, with that done, and the curtain pole mostly level, it was time to do some citizen gardening. Well, mowing. But you know, that was damn good mowing. If hot.

And that’s not mentioning the citizen paddlingpoolcleaning, citizen chef-ery and citizen just plain reading that I’ve done today. I tell you, being a revolutionary is pretty hard.

Though I think I’ll leave it to others to do the citizen medicine, or citizen architecture, or even citizen policing. Some things, I guess, you need a little training for. I mean, I wouldn’t want to hear that the person trying to reset my broken leg learnt all her expertise from watching ER and House. Hell, I’d do it myself if I thought that approach would ever work.

And so then we come to the topic of nuclear power again

I’ve just read a piece that has been sitting in my browser for weeks: John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books, with a piece about why we keep not doing anything about climate change. Because we don’t. We do nothing. Real nothing. Total nothing. Nothing that’s going to make any change.

As Lanchester writes,

I don’t think I can be the only person who finds in myself a strong degree of psychological resistance to the whole subject of climate change. I just don’t want to think about it. This isn’t an entirely unfamiliar sensation: someone my age is likely to have spent a couple of formative decades trying not to think too much about nuclear war, a subject which offered the same combination of individual impotence and prospective planetary catastrophe. Global warming is even harder to ignore, not so much because it is increasingly omnipresent in the media but because the evidence for it is starting to be manifest in daily life.

Through the piece (which checks in at 6,960 well-chosen words), he runs through the false dichotomy about whether climate change is “proven” (of course all science has uncertainty, but around the edges; it suits the oil companies, which like their profits today, to pretend the small uncertainty about detail is really Big Uncertainty about cause and effect); how George W Bush knows that the US is in a mess, and is pretty careful himself not to be caught out (his ranch in Texas uses geothermal heat pumps, and has a 25,000 gallon underground cistern to collect rainwater); how we just can’t look at climate change and its potential effects square in the face, because it’s simply too frightening:

ncreased melting in the Greenland and Antarctic is not included in these figures because there is not enough of a consensus to include its effects in the modelling. That isn’t reassuring. The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres – which would mean the end of, for instance, London, Miami, the Netherlands and Bangladesh…

What would happen if the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic’s ‘meridional overturning circulation’, as it is scientifically known) were to shut down suddenly – the Day after Tomorrow disaster scenario? The prediction is that Western Europe would become 8ºC cooler, about the temperature of Canada. But Canada produces enough food to feed 30 million people and enough grain to feed 60 million. Western Europe has a population of about 450 million. So what would they eat? Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of how quickly a meteorological event can destroy a city in the richest country in the world. We may be moving towards a future in which events like that come to seem commonplace. Anything in the paper today, darling? Not much – oh, all the Dutch drowned.

And then finally he comes to the question: how do you sort it out? I was surprised to find that he, like me, thinks that an accelerated (or at least urgent) programme of nuclear power stations is the right way forward. We’re both channeling James Lovelock, who points out that nuclear (fission) power

is a mature technology whose risks are understood, which would produce all the energy we need, and which is considered in the round the least worst solution to our urgent need for a carbon-free fuel source. It is not a prospect that brings much joy, and it is going to be of more than academic interest to see how the government gets round or forces its way past the inevitable local objections. We can all expect to hear a very great deal about how France gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power.

Which makes it all the more depressing to read rubbish at – of all places! – The Register, where some clown (Steven Goddard? Who he?) who’d like to believe that climate change is all a fix has written an article about Nasa’s readjustment of various temperature settings.

So what is the probability of this effort consistently increasing recent temperatures and decreasing older temperatures? From a statistical viewpoint, data recalculation should cause each year to have a 50/50 probability of going either up or down – thus the odds of all 70 adjusted years working in concert to increase the slope of the graph (as seen in the combined version) are an astronomical 2 raised to the power of 70. That is one-thousand-billion-billion to one. This isn’t an exact representation of the odds because for some of the years (less than 15) the revisions went against the trend – but even a 55/15 split is about as likely as a room full of chimpanzees eventually typing Hamlet. That would be equivalent to flipping a penny 70 times and having it come up heads 55 times. It will never happen – one trillion to one odds (2 raised to the power 40.)

Wow, a whole set of wrong suppositions. Who put him in charge of a web page?

  1. who says it’s a 50-50 probability that the temperatures will be revised down or up? Perhaps they found the thermometers all had the wrong readings. Similar has happened – the ozone hole wasn’t detected because its detectors were set to ignore low levels. (Look, a Nasa page admitting mistakes.)
  2. yes, the odds are (if we allow the previous flawed assumption) 2^70. That’s not the same as chimps writing Hamlet, which will be many, many orders of magnitude larger – it’s 2160 lines at performance length; assume 6 words per line (underestimate); that’s 12,960 words, or (average) 77,760 letters; chances of that being typed randomly, 1/26 * 1/26 * 1/26… = 26^(-77,760) or 1 in .. my calculator can’t do it. Astronomically larger than 2^70.
  3. Flipping a coin 70 times and have it come up heads 55 times *will* happen. Not often – but you’ll get it before the monkeys finish. It’s absolutely *certain* to happen, some time.

And this is all before we ask why the joker writing this piece didn’t simply contact Nasa and *ask* them why the temperature readings changed. But no, that wouldn’t let him play up the conflict. He might have to find something out, rather than just questioning something that’s presented to him emptily. Kind of shocking for El Reg to let such rubbish through, to be honest.

Anyhow, that’s the second piece by John Lanchester I’ve read which has been fantastically informative and absorbing. (The other was about finance.) Must get subscription to LRB, I think.

The one rule to remember for writing the very best blog posts

Kevin’s gone off on a bit of a rant-ette about the fact that Andrew Keen still gets airtime (which is definitely strange, but fits the pattern where people who say contrary things are repeatedly quoted; perhaps it’s the pig’s bladder effect).

Sure, it’s stupid that people ask questions like “Is new media killing press freedom?”, which makes as much sense as “Are biscuits the new washing-up liquid?” People are consuming media – that is, created output, including journalism of all flavours – more than they ever have before. It’s pervasive, inevitable, inescapable.

Keen’s not happy about it, though. It all boils down to something I don’t think Keen has quite grasped, but which I always try to bear in mind when writing a blog post, or a news story that people will get the chance to respond to.

It’s like this. Perfectly simply:

The rule is this: when I write the post, I know more about that particular topic than the average person who’s going to read it. But I don’t know more about the particular topic than some of the people reading it – so if I can get them to contribute then everyone (me and the other readers) will have benefited. (And of course if I don’t know more, or suspect I don’t know more, than the average reader, I should go away and find out some more until I do.)

The trick is in writing it in a way that will get those people who do know more to contribute it. That’s tricky. Takes practise. Maybe that’s what the new journalism is about: writing in a way that raises the amount of knowledge in the average reader’s head, while encouraging the reader further up the bell curve of knowledge to pitch in too.

Oh, the blog post title? Yeah, people like it if they think they’re getting self-help. Learnt that too.