Reading the News

I’ve always considered myself to be a Guardian reader. For probably twenty years I bought a Guardian most days and read it on the tube on my way to college and, later, my job. The routine was always the same, I’d read the Guardian in the morning and a book on my way home in the evening.

Ironically, it was working at the Guardian that broke me of the habit. There are plenty of copies of the Guardian hanging around their offices so it seemed a little wasteful to buy one from a newsagent when there would be free copies waiting for me at the end of my journey. So my routine reversed itself. I was reading a book on the way in and the paper on the way home.

Then when I stopped working at the Guardian I just never got back into the habit of buying the paper. I started reading books in both directions on the tube. Of course, something else had changed. At about this time I had started using Bloglines (and later Google Reader) to read news feeds from web sites. And, probably more importantly, newspaper web sites started to publish news as it happened to their web sites (and, hence, web feeds) rather than saving it up and putting it all in the print edition first.

So I didn’t really miss my daily paper. I was getting more news that I had been by just reading the Guardian. I was getting a wider view of the news as I was subscribed to feeds from all of the UK newspapers. And I was getting my news sooner. Against all that paying 50p a day for old news seemed a pretty bad deal.

I kept on reading books on both of my commutes and keeping up with news through web feeds during the day. About a year ago I switched to reading my books on a Kindle.

And then a couple of weeks ago I saw the Guardian had released a Kindle edition. For a tenner a month you get each day’s edition of the paper sent automatically to Kindle early in the morning. There was a two week free trial subscription, so I signed up.

After ten days I cancelled the subscription. It seems that reading a daily newspaper no longer fits into my routine. I found myself more interested in reading the next chapter of my book than the Guardian. And on the couple of occasions I forced myself to read it, I kept thinking to myself “But I’ve already read this. This is yesterday’s news.”

And I think that’s the key point here. I’m now so used to reading news within an hour or so of it happening, that I’m not interested in reading news from twelve or twenty-four hours ago. I’m spoilt by having near instant access to all of the world’s news agencies.

I’m no longer interested in reading a daily newspaper.

There are, however, a couple of things that I’m missing out on. Firstly, a good newspaper (and I consider the Guardian to be a good newspaper) won’t just report the news. It will explain the news and give it context. Look beyond the first dozen or so pages of the Guardian and you’ll find interesting in-depth analysis of the news. I’d like to read that. But, to be honest, I often didn’t have time to read that when I was a regular reader. So often I’d see a couple of interesting articles, mentally mark them as “to read later” and then completely forget about them. What I want is access to those articles in the evening or over the weekend when I have time to read them.

The second thing I’m missing is those serendipitous articles that catch your eye when flicking through the Guardian to get to something that you’re looking for on page thirty-two. That strange headline that draws you in and ends up with you buying some interesting-sounding musicians entire back catalogue. I discovered some of my favourite bands that way.

So maybe what I want is a newspaper with the news taken out. Perhaps a weekly magazine that contains the Guardian’s in-depth news articles along with its non-news content. That I’d be willing to pay a tenner a month for.

But I don’t want a newspaper any more, thank you. That’s so last millennium.

social media

The Power of Social Media

In the future, we may well look back on the past week and describe it as the week that the power of social media became apparent to pretty much everyone in the UK. This week social networks have allowed the powers of light to win three victories over the powers of darkness.

It started on Monday with this tweet from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?

The story that he linked to explained that the Guardian had been prevented from reporting on a written question that had been published in the list of the upcoming week’s business in House of Commons. The paper was prevented from publishing the question or any information that might identify the question. They couldn’t even tell us why this draconian measure had been put in place. As the article put it:

Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

All they could tell us was that the legal firm Carter-Ruck were involved in the case.

By Tuesday morning both Twitter and the blogosphere were awash with discussion of this issue. People soon identified a likely candidate for the question that was causing the problems and by lunchtime it was common knowledge that the question was about the company Trafigura and their part in the 2006 dumping of toxic waste off the coast of the Ivory Coast. The court hearing about the injunction was set for 2pm but before the parties got into court, Trafigura and Carter-Ruck evidently saw the futility of the situation and Rusbridger tweeted:

Victory! #CarterRuck caves-in. No #Guardian court hearing. Media can now report Paul Farrelly’s PQ about #Trafigura. More soon on Guardian..

Fifteen minutes later,  the full story was on the Guardian web site. It seems likely to me that Carter-Ruck would not have seen their position as so completely untenable had it not been for the way that the information they were trying to censor had spread around social networks.

On Friday, the Daily Mail published an article by Jan Moir entitled “Why There Was Nothing ‘Natural’ About Stephen Gately’s Death”. Moir used the article to spout all sorts of homophobic bile and to somehow reach the conclusion that Gately’s death proved that same-sex civil unions should be banned. It was gratifying to see how quickly the comments on the article turned against Moir and once again one topic dominated Twitter all day. A Facebook group appeared containing the eminently sensible advice to contact the companies whose adverts had appeared beside the article and ask them to complain to the Mail.

During the afternoon, the online article was renamed to “A Strange, Lonely and Troubling Death” (although the original, more strident, title remained in teasers elsewhere on the site). At about the same time all of the adverts disappeared from the page containing the article. Moir issued a statement trying to defuse the situation, but she was so far from understanding what was going on that she only made matters worse. She accused her tormentors of being an “orchestrated internet campaign”. The Facebook group was the closest that anyone came to orchestration. Everything else was just the genuine anger of people who couldn’t believe what they were reading and passed the link on to their friends.

The article is still on the Mail site and there’s no sign of an apology from Moir or a statement from the Mail. But the Mail took the unusual step of removing the adverts from the article, so the amount of discussion on Twitter and other social networks certainly had an effect. And the article currently has over a thousand comments from readers – the vast majority of which are uncomplimentary. It will be interesting to see if this effects the Mail’s attitude to Twitter in the future. To date their articles on Twitter have been largely disparaging – and they often show total confusion over how Twitter actually works. Perhaps now they’ll have to get to grips with it a little more.

The third story I wanted to share also broke on Friday, which means that it rather suffered from being eclipsed by the Moir story. On Thursday blogger Jonathan Macdonald filmed a London Underground guard being incredibly rude to a passenger. The link to his blog entry on this incident followed Moir’s story around Twitter. It reached Boris Johnson who tweeted:

Appalled by the video. Have asked TfL to investigate urgently. Abuse by passengers or staff is never acceptable.

This story made many of mainstream media outlets that evening – running the story that the guard in question had been suspended pending an investigation. I was going to write something about how social media helped to spread this story, but I see that Jonathan Macdonald has beaten me to it.

So there you have it. Three stories in the same week all of which were taken in unexpected directions by the power of Twitter and other social networks. Hopefully Carter-Ruck, the Daily Mail and the tube guard will all think twice before they’re next tempted by such anti-social behaviour (although, there’s already evidence that Carter-Ruck haven’t learned their lesson).

Where does it go from here?

p.s. If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m davorg.


Misunderstanding Time Travel

I promise I’ll get round to a longer blog entry over the weekend, but I couldn’t resist commenting briefly on this paragraph from Peter Bradshaw’s review of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

It is very silly and of course cannot submit to close inspection. Making brief visits to an unalterable past is one thing, but how about that pesky butterfly effect? Why doesn’t he recognise Clare on their first meeting in the “present” – and why can’t he “remember” his future
journeys into the past?

Now I know that I’ve spent longer than most people either reading or watching stories about time travel. But I can’t believe that anyone seriously doesn’t know the answers to those questions. Why doesn’t Henry recognise Clare when they first meet in the present? Because those meetings haven’t yet taken place for him. Why can’t he remember his future journeys into the past? The big clue is in the word “future”.

Without understanding that, you’re missing the fundamental paradox in the plot of the Time Traveler’s Wife. If you really find it that confusing, I can understand why you would only give it two stars.

Do many people find basic time travel concepts like this hard to follow?


Defending Homeopathy (Or Not)

Neal’s Yard Remedies are purveyors of the finest magic water. Water that remembers magic ingredients that have been dissolved into it and diluted until no memory of the ingredients can possibly remain. Yes, they sell homeopathic treatments.

Someone in their PR department decided it was a good idea to get involved in the Guardian’s “You Ask, They Answer” feature. In this feature, readers post questions and the organisation under the spotlight posts the answers.

Except this week it didn’t quite work our that way.

The article was published on the Guardian web site at about noon yesterday. And the questions soon came flooding in. Questions like:

Do you see no problem with trying to be ‘ethical’ while at the same time selling snake oil for a living?


Please could you explain what level of evidence of efficacy you require before stocking any product?


Does your part in the MMR scare make you feel guilty?

You know, the obvious kinds of questions that reasonable people who like to ask woo-mongers. For almost twenty-four hours the questions kept coming in. Ben Goldacre would have been proud of the Guardian’s readership.

After a while people started wondering when the answers would be forthcoming and the web site editor popped up occasionally to assure them that they would be arriving very shortly.

Then about an hour ago, this comment was posted:

have just had a chat with NYR.

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.

So yes, as several people have pointed out, this has become something of ‘You Ask’, rather than a ‘You Ask, They Answer’. I’m still hoping NYR will reconsider.

When faced with the opportunity to answer some of their sternest critics and to produce evidence of the efficacy of their products, Neal’s Yard Remedies bottled it. They decided that it was better to just run away and hide.

I hope that the Guardian will run with this story. I’d love it if as many people as possible knew that Neal’s Yard Remedies were unable to produce answers to the questions that any sane person would need answers to before buying stuff from them.

And yes, I know already the kind of comments I’ll get if the friends of homeopathy get wind of this article. “But it cured my mother’s cancer”, “science doesn’t know everything”, “you can’t be sure until you try it”. All nonsense of course. Homeopathy does not and cannot work.

The plural of anecdote is not data.

Update: A nice follow-up about why this is a PR disaster for the company.


Michael Reiss: Creationist

Following last weeks entry about the media and MMR I have another post brewing which goes into more detail about the central message of Ben Goldacre’s excellent book. That central message is that you usually can’t trust science and health stories in the press because they are usually written by people who don’t understand the story that they are writing. Most journalists seem to have only the shakiest of understanding of anything other than the most basic of scientific principles.

Another good example is the case of Michael Reiss. He gave a largely sensible speech saying that science teachers should be more willing and better prepared to discuss (and counter) creationism in the classroom. In journalists’ heads this became “Royal Society Bigwig Supports Teaching Creationism” and before you know it, he’s been hounded out of his job.

I thought that the Reiss story had run its course, but journalists were determined to have one last attempt to prove exactly how little they understood. And I’m embarassed to admit that it comes from the Observer – a paper I’d like to credit with higher than average intelligence.

The picture about comes from the web site version of this article by Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel prizewinner. The article itself is eminently sensible. It talks about how there really is a huge philosophical difference between religion and science and how people of a religious nature must, by definition, believe things on faith alone which would, on the surface, seem to make it difficult for them to flourish in a scientifc career.

But the most brilliant piece of journalism is in the standfirst – that little piece of text underneath the title which is intended to draw the reader into the article. As you’ll see from the image above (which I’ve taken because I fully expect it to change when someone realises how stupid they look), it says:

Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don’t have the intellectual integrity to teach science

“Creationists such as the Rev Reiss”! Michael Reiss may have many faults. He may not have been the best choice as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. He may believe a few crazy things (he’s an ordained minister – that’s part of the job). But he is not a creationist.

He was campaigning for science teachers to be given better training in order to counter creationist claims in the classroom. And now, three weeks later, a national newspaper is calling him a creationist.

I hope the person who wrote that standfirst is suitably embarrassed.

Update: In the discussion on this article, the nonsensical standfirst has been mentioned. Some people have tried to defend it by pointing out that, as a theist, Reiss must believe that god created the universe even if he followed scientific processes rather than the fairy stories in Genesis. And that therefore, at some level, it’s reasonable to describe him as a creationist.

I say that if you’re allowed to redefine common words like that, then there’s no point at all in holding a conversation.


What I Did At Mashed 08

I was at Mashed 08 at Alexandra Palace yesterday. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to go back today, but I’ve made some progress on my project from home.

It was a successful day all in all though. Here’s what I did.

  • Watched Jonathan Tweed talk about the BBC /programmes api. If I hadn’t already had an idea of what I was going to do I would have been very tempted to play with this. A year ago, I was working for the BBC on one of the projects that underlies /programmes, so it’s great to see it being given a public airing.
  • Watched the Guardian’s Damian Carrington talk about what the Guardian’s enviroment web team are hoping to inspire people into doing. Well, to be honest, I sat in his talk whilst getting my wireless connection working. Sorry Damian.
  • Met up with a fellow Perl hacker. Last year the venue was full of Perl hackers. Shame there were so few there this year. I suspect many of the cooler kids were at Interesting instead – note to organisers: having two events like this on the same day is all a bit silly.
  • Had an interesting conversation with someone from the BBC who is working on the next version of the Radio iPlayer. It sounds as though following the release of this new version, my BBC streams page will be redundant. Alternatively, it might be easy to make it far more useful. And I’ll be able to retire all the grungy old HTML scraping code.
  • Had an interesting conversation with the O’Reilly UK people. Might be some announcements coming out of that in a couple of months. Oh, and I might have opened myself up to lots of hassle about writing another book.
  • Watched Doctor Who on a huge screen. In the wrong aspect ratio. Honestly, you’d thing that if there was one organisation who understood aspect ratios then it would be the BBC.

And despite socking up most of the day doing all of those things, I also managed to get stuff done on my own project and the first draft of Political Web is now online. It doesn’t do most of the things that I want it to do yet, but it’s a good start. Have a play and let me know how it goes.

Update: I should, of course, reiterate that what I’ve done so far on Political Web is largely just to repackage stuff that’s available from from They Work For You. I have plans to add other stuff soon(ish).

Update: Having just got to a Windows PC for the first time for days and tried using Political Web in IE6, I see that it doesn’t work for some reason. Probably some Javascript glitch. I’ll try to look at it in more detail later on. But in the meantime, use Firefox – you know it makes sense.


Human Dinosaurs

Having just been saying how much I like the new Guardian URL scheme, it was interesting to see the URL for this article from today’s paper. The article is about some early hominan[1] remains that have been found in northern Spain. The URL is

I can obviously see why it’s in the science section. And of course it’s about archaeology. But “dinosaurs”? What connection do hominina have with dinosaurs? They are separated in time by about sixty million years. URLs like these only work if the person assigning them has an understanding of the subject area.

And, of course, it’s too late to correct it now as URLs are permanent :-)

[1] I originally put “hominid” there believing it to be the correct word. But according the Wikipedia, the definition of hominid has gradually changed to encompass all the great apes. Humans and their closely related species are now apparently described as hominina. That’s something new I’ve learned today.


Guardian URLs

I’m a great believer in the idea that URLs should be permanent. When I publish something on the web then (hopefully) people link to it, and it would be nice to think that those links still work in five, ten or fifty years time. A few months ago I changed the URL scheme for davblog, but I ensured that the old-style URLs would redirect to the new ones.

Of course, this is a relatively small site. It has a couple of thousand entries. My fix to ensure that the old URLs still worked simply consisted of a few pages of Apache RedirectPermanent directives. If you’re dealing with a site that is larger and more important than this one, then the problems become far harder.

So it was nice to see Simon’s post pointing out that the Guardian had taken this problem seriously and had put some work into making sure that their old URLs still work correctly now they are in the process of switching to a new URL scheme. As an example, he links to an old blog entry which contains a link to,2763,1382899,00.html

No prizes for guessing which CMS generated that nasty URL. Clicking on that URL now redirects you to the (far saner)

And all is well with the world.

Well, almost. Digging around on some old (and rather embarrassing) web sites that I haven’t got round to taking down yet (because URLs are permanent!) I find this page (love that 1997 web design) which contains a number of links to Guardian web pages. Here’s an example:

Clicking on that page leads to a shiny new “URL not found” page.

Which, I think, demonstrates a couple of interesting things. Firstly, at some point when the Guardian were moving from one CMS to another the permanence of the URLs wasn’t considered a high priority. There is no chain of redirection in place which converts this old URL to a newer style one. It looks like when the Guardian moved from this URL scheme, they broke all incoming links to their site. I wonder if that problem was even considered ten years ago.

Secondly, look at that really old URL. It’s not perfect by a long way but, to me, it looks a lot easier to understand than the first URL example above (the one generated by the CMS they are currently moving away from). There’s one “magic number” in it – 29440 is probably the article ID in some database – but you can work out the date that the article was published (24th July 1997) and the section it was in (Politics News). The other URL tells you that it points to a religious story, but those four numbers at the end make most of the URL completely meaningless.

Working out a good URL scheme isn’t a trivial task. That’s particularly true for a complex site like the Guardian. I’m really glad to see that they are making great progress in this area. But it’s interesting to see that at some point in the history of their site their URL scheme took what seems to be a big step backwards. Presumably, switching to the CMS which produced those nasty URLs was seen a giving them many other advantages that outweighed the URL damage.

I wonder if there’s anyone around who remembers this change.

Update: Searching the Guardian site finds only one article that was published on July 24th 1997. And that doesn’t look at all like the one that I was trying to link to, which was apparently about student fees. So it appears that not only are the links broken, but that some of the content from that era is no longer available on the site.

Oh, and thanks to Robin for adding his comments. I was hoping that someone like him might drop by and chip in.


New Look Guardian Web Site

The Guardian has released a new version of the front page of its web site. Apparently it’s the first indication of things to come. My initial impression is that I like it, but I’ll almost certainly have more to say once I’ve lived with it for a few days.

Emily Bell goes into more detail about the reasons for the change, Mark Porter writes about design decisions and Nik Silver has more technical information.


And Finally…

Kudos to the Guardian‘s Rosie Swash for pointing out that sexism is alive and well in the music industry.

And finally, good news for Kate Thornton during this most difficult of weeks. She may have been axed from prime-time TV, but she can be comforted by the knowledge that Louis Walsh thinks her breasts are “firm” and has confirmed they are definitely “her own.” Gentleman that he is, Walsh shared this info with Chris Moyles on his BBC One radio show. So while Thornton’s professional woes are running high right about now, at least she has two fat men discussing the merits of her chest on live radio to lift her spirits.