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.


He Blinded Me With Science

The story so far:

In January 2004, in an astonishing display of common sense the government downgraded cannabis to a class C drug. This didn’t play well in the shires and in January 2009 it was reclassified as Class B. Last week, Professor David Nutt, head of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, said what every rational person knows – that the reclassification was a political decision which completely ignored the scientific evidence. He was sacked by the Home Secretary. Over the weekend two other members of the council resigned in protest.

This has lead to a lot of discussion of the relationship between scientific evidence and government policy. Today the Daily Mail (who else?) published one of the most ill-informed articles on the subject that it would be possible to write. It’s written by that most highly respected of science writers, A N Wilson. In the future, this article will no doubt be used as the basis of introductory level courses on the philosophy of science where students will compete to find the largest number of logical fallacies in the piece.

Let’s pick off some of the easier targets.

But [Professor Nutt] was not content simply to give advice, of course. What he appeared to want to do was to dictate to the Government, and when it refused to acknowledge his infallibility, Professor Nutt started to break ranks and to denounce the country’s law on drugs.

That’s putting a more than slightly biased slant on events, of course. Professor Nutt was employed for his expertise on drugs. He can’t be expected to change his opinions to fit in with government policy. Science doesn’t work like that.

The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.

Oh no! Those troublesome scientists with their “unimaginative” empirical facts. If only they had a bit more imagination so that they could make up facts that better fitted the policies that the government want to implement.

Try saying that ecstasy is safe in the sink estates of our big cities, where police, social workers and teachers work to improve the lives of young people at the bottom of the heap.

Ah, yes. But nowhere has Professor Nutt suggested that ecstasy is safe. He is saying that it is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. That doesn’t mean it’s safe. This is a blatant misrepresentation of his views.

If you add together all the winos and self-destructive alcoholics, then throw in the smokers who’ve died of respiratory or cardiac disease, the total will far outstrip the number of young people who die after taking an ecstasy pill – and you could conclude from this that smoking and drinking are more dangerous than ecstasy.

Well, yes. No-one is likely to disagree with this. But saying this in the middle of the article strongly implies that this is how Professor Nutt and his colleagues reached their conclusions. And that, of course, won’t be the case at all. This shows, at least, a terrible lack of knowledge of the scientific method or, perhaps, a shameful attempt to misrepresent the amount of work that will have gone into Professor Nutt’s research.

Going back in time, some people think that Hitler invented the revolting experiments performed by Dr Mengele on human beings and animals.

But the Nazis did not invent these things. The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.

Ok, now we’re really on dodgy ground. This is getting dangerously close to saying that all scientists are one experiment away from becoming Dr. Mengele. It’s like Wilson has never heard of Godwin’s Law. Originally, the online version of this article had a picture of Hitler next to these paragraphs. This has been removed in the last hour or so.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Mail is sending out mixed messages here. Surely a comparison to the Nazis is showing some kind of grudging respect to the scientists.

In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.

Isn’t it astonishing that the Mail is still banging on about this? Wakefield was wrong. And his deeply flawed study would had been given no publicity at all if it wasn’t for papers like the Mail jumping on the bandwagon without doing the smallest amount of research on the story.

And to every one who thinks otherwise, I would ask them to carry out a simple experiment. Put a drug, bought casually on the street corner, and a glass of red wine on the table when your teenager comes home from school. Which of them, in all honesty, would you prefer him to try?

See? That’s Wilson’s idea of a scientific experiment. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He needs (in fact most journalists who write about science in the popular press need) a course in the scientific method and basic statistics. It should be law that you can’t write about science until you’ve read and understood Bad Science.

I’m glad to see that Wilson is getting pulled apart in the comments. But people reading the paper won’t see the comments. The Mail needs to publish a retraction. And Wilson needs to be stopped from writing about things he knows nothing about.

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.


Checking Copyright

There’s a lot of material out there on the internet. And the nature of the internet means that it’s easy to reuse that material without paying any attention to copyright. If my browser can display an image, then I can save that image to my local disk and then, perhaps, use it on my own web site or in some other publication.

But just because it’s easy from a practical perspective, that doesn’t mean that it’s legal to do it. Much of the material on the web is subject to various copyright restrictions. And if you’re going to be a responsible internet citizen then you’re going to ensure that you are careful not to use any material in ways that are contrary to the copyright.

If you are, say, a national newspaper then you’re going to want to be really sure that you’re being careful about copyright. I’m sure that someone like (to pick a paper at random) the Daily Mail would get very upset if they found someone using one of their photos without permission or without giving correct attribution. It’s therefore reasonable to expect them to offer the same courtesy to others.

Take a look at this story about Philip Schofield and Twitter. Don’t bother to read it. It’s the usual Mail nonsense. They’re complaining that Schofield shares too many details of his life on Twitter. But they do it (ironically, I’m sure) by poring over every detail of a meal in the Fat Duck. No, don’t read the words. Take a look at the pictures. Schofield has illustrated his evening by posting photos to TwitPic. TwitPic is a Twitter “add-on” that allows you to share photos as easily as Twitter allows you share text.

Notice that the Mail have put a copyright attribution on each of Schofield’s photos. They all say “© Twitpic”, implying that that TwitPic own the copyright on the photos. But if you take a few seconds to read TwitPic’s terms and conditions, you find that they say:

All images uploaded are copyright © their respective owners

TwitPic lay no claim at all to copyright on the pictures, so the Daily Mail are attributing copyright to the wrong people. It’s not at all hard to find this out (it’s a link labelled “terms” at the bottom of the page – exactly the same, in fact, as it is on the Mail site), but the lazy Daily Mail picture editor couldn’t be bothered to do that and just guessed at the copyright situation.

And whilst we’re talking about the Mail not understanding copyright, it’s worth remidning ourselves of the nonsense in their terms and conditions.

  • 3.2. You agree not to:
  • 3.2.1. use any part of the materials on this Site for commercial
    purposes without obtaining a licence to do so from us or our licensors;
  • 3.2.2. copy, reproduce, distribute, republish, download, display,
    post or transmit in any form or by any means any content of this Site,
    except as permitted above;
  • 3.2.3. provide a link to this Site from any other website without obtaining our prior written consent.

Under clause 3.2.3, I’ve broken their terms at least twice in this article. But clause 3.2.2 is the really interesting one. You’re not allowed to download or display the content of the site. Which makes it rather hard to view it in a browser. Idiots.

Update: They have now changed the copyright on the photos to “© Philip Schofield/Twitter”. So that’s one less piece of stupidity in the world. The struggle continues.


A Missing Blog

Looks like Nadine Dorries might have gone too far this time.

She’s been on extremely dodgy ground for the last week, since the Daily Telegraph’s investigation into MPs’ expenses started looking at her. Over the last week she’s been posting an increasing bizarre stream of consciousness on her blog. She tried to explain what was going on with here expenses but only succeeded in raising more questions than she answered.

Over the last couple of days, she excelled herself with three astonishing claims.

  • MPs are really worried that this investigation will lead to suicides in their ranks.
  • MPs were told to see the Additional Costs Allowance as part of their salary and were encouraged to spend as much of it as possible.
  • The Telegraph’s investigation into expenses is a plot by the Barclay brothers (who own the paper) in order to destabilise the main parties and boost UKIP’s chances at the forthcoming European Elections.

Yesterday she did a round of media appearances where she repeated all of these claims and compared the Telegraph’s investigation to a McCarthyite witch-hunt. This was too much for David Cameron, who publicly rebuked her – she denied this on her blog but it got plenty of press coverage.

You’ll notice that I haven’t backed any of this up with links to her blog. That’s because it doesn’t seem to be around at the moment. It seems that The Telegraph objected to her article and sent in the lawyers. That’s a shame, especially given that she was doing such a good job of digging her own political grave.


Mail Watch

Blimey, is it really that long since I posted anything. Sorry about that, I’ve been busy on other projects – in the last week I’ve presented two and a half days of Perl courses and that’s on top of my last few weeks at LoveFilm all being a bit manic. There have also been a few other projects going on in the background and one of those finally went public yesterday.

Many of you will already be aware of the Mail Watch web site. For the last few years, Merk has posted the front page and his vast army of readers have taken the piss. Now, that approach has moved to the next level. Tim Ireland has got involved and he’s brough in an amazing team of writers who are going to endeavour to expose as many as possible of the opinions that the Mail writers present as facts. From Tim’s introductory post:

The purpose of the site is simple; editors will be quietly documenting
outright lies peddled by the Daily Mail, and seeking to bring this
culture of fear and falsehood to the attention of those Mail readers
curious enough to use a search engine or browse the evil underground
world of weblogs.

I’ve been involved with this project in a couple of ways. I’m helping Merk out with some of the day-to-day geekery that goes on behind the scenes (and learning far too much about WordPress in the process), but I’ll also be writing about the Mail’s coverage of IT and consumer electronics – two subjects dear to my heart that the Mail loves to get completely wrong.

I think it’s going to be interesting. Please take a look.


Changing Your Story

One of the things I despise most about parts of the British press is the way they assume that their readership has the memory of a goldfish. This means that they are free to make outrageous claims on the flimsiest of evidence on one day and then take the story in a completely different direction a day later when the original story proves unfounded.

Here’s Five Chinese Crackers with an excellent example of this. Last week there were rumours that some of the terrorists involved with the Mumbai attacks were British. A lot of the British papers ran that story on Saturday’s front pages. And then when it turns out that there was no truth in this rumours the story is quietly dropped.

But people do remember those headlines. And because they never see anything to contradict what they said, those headlines become mistaken for facts. You mark my words – over the next few years it’ll become common knowledge that the Mumbai terrorists were Brits. And no-one will believe you if you point out the truth.


42 Days is Dead

It’s a strange world when you have to rely on the House of Lords to throw out ridiculous legislation from a Labour government. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday as the Lords voted against the government’s proposals for 42-day detention of suspected terrorists. Pretty much everyone in the country now agrees that the proposals were draconian and unnecessary. Well, with a couple of notable exceptions. Firstly the Home Secretary has drawn up a single clause Bill which she will present to Parliament should the opportunity ever arise.

And secondly, the Sun is pretty angry about it this morning. I picked up a discarded copy on the tube this morning (discarded by a BBC employee getting off at White City) and was able to enjoy the full force of Rebekah Wade’s ire in today’s The Sun Says. For those of you who can’t bring yourself to visit their web site, I reproduce it in full below.

A GOLDEN opportunity to make Britain safer from terrorists has been shamefully

The House of Lords has scuppered a Bill that might have saved many lives.

How al-Qaeda must be revelling in the knowledge that Britain is more concerned
about possible infringements of civil liberties than of taking the war on
terror to them.

Holding terrorism suspects for 42 days would be a vital tool for the security
services as they unravel criminal conspiracies of unprecedented complexity.

Its opponents argue that the country’s against it. Nonsense. More than 100,000
Sun readers voiced their support in 2005 — when Tony Blair wanted 90
, not just 42.

David Cameron’s Tory MPs, against their natural instincts, fought any
detention beyond 28 days simply for opposition’s sake. There were plenty in
their ranks who secretly backed 42 days.

Tory Lord Tebbit, himself a victim of terrorists, rightly asked yesterday what
his party will do if they win power and find they need 42 days. How will
they possibly argue for it?

As he also pointed out, the injustice of holding an innocent person for six
weeks can be rectified. The injustice meted out to an innocent person
murdered by terrorists cannot.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith will now have to force through emergency 42-day
legislation the next time a major suspect is held.

And the Tories will have to back her – they cannot risk sabotaging a case
for political advantage.

Anything that makes the Sun as angry as that has just got to be a good thing.


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.


Insane Terms and Conditions

Whilst waiting for my comment to be published on the Daily Mail web site, I took a quick glance at their terms and conditions – just to ensure that there wasn’t some obvious rule that I was breaking by calling attention to their hypocrisy. I didn’t find the “you can’t disagree with us” rule, but I did find this interesting clause:

You may not provide a link to this web site from any other web site without first obtaining Associated’s prior written consent.

Which basically says that you can’t blog about the Mail’s site. Well, I suppose you can, but you can’t provide links to the source material.

And just above that nonsense, is this:

You may not distribute, display or copy any of the contents of the
pages contained in this web site to third parties including, but not
limited to “caching” any material on this web site for access by third
parties and “mirroring” any material on this web site.

Which, if nothing else, shows a spectacular lack of knowledge of how the internet works. Any ISP that caches material for its customers’ use had better beware of the Mail’s lawyers.

p.s. Oops. I’ve realised that this entry contains a link to their site. Please don’t tell them.