Comment and opinion from the Times and The Sunday Times – Times Online

The invited opinion in the Times has a go at Arianna Huffington (who I still mentally call Stassinopolous as I first heard of her when I was working as a student in Blackwell’s bookshop and helped to sell her debut book), and blogs in general.

Thunderer is one of those "printed blogs": like many articles in the Spectator, Thunderer pieces are opinionated, and the opinions expressed excite responses in the reader.

Oliver Kamm, today’s author, disagrees with Ms Huffington’s view that blogging is the new black: "Mrs Huffington has traced a long political journey from obscurantist Right to populist Left, but at no time has she deviated from enthusing for the fad du jour. Her latest is the notion that the internet — and specifically the type of online diary known as a weblog, or blog — has changed the way that news is gathered and reported. Whereas newspapers address readers impersonally, the blog “draws people in and includes them in the dialogue”. "

This is nonsense, says Kamm. I’ll extract the thrust of his argument here, as the link will be behind a subscription wall ere long:

"What blogs do effectively is provide a vehicle for instant comment and opinion. Some newspapers have established blogs for their journalists or other commentators. But the overwhelming majority of blogs — no one knows how many there are — are set up by amateurs using software that is easily available and almost free.
These are not a new form of journalism, but new packaging for a venerable part of a newspaper. Even the best blogs are parasitic on what their practitioners contemptuously call the “mainstream media”. Without a story to comment on or an editorial to rubbish, they would have nothing to say.
Most blogs have nothing to say even then. Without editorial control, they are unconstrained by sense, proportion or grammar. Almost by definition, they are the preserve of those with time on their hands. Blogs have a few successes in harrying miscreant politicians or newspapers, but they are a vehicle for perpetuating myths as much as correcting them. In Mrs Huffington the preposterous term “blogosphere” has a worthy champion. "

One can’t disagree with much of this. (Well, I can’t anyway.)But blogging has many more dimensions to that described by Kamm. I would not see blogs as a primary news-gathering function, I’m with him on that. They are great at fast, unfettered analysis. The trouble is, filtering out the rubbish. RSS helps immeasurably there, it would be impossible to manage without it. And as mentioned previously, blogs are not great for joined-up thinking, of presenting a reasoned argument having weighed up all the factors properly. That will probably come with Web 3.0 😉

Of course Kamm is right to say that blogs lack the resources of newspaper and other media publishers, and to a large extent are parasitic — they couldn’t exist without the media and essentially form a reactive medium. But bloggers can keep "conventional" (Kamm dislikes the term "mainstream") media journalists on their toes, they can unearth connections and perspectives that did not get picked up by the regular lot, and they can keep up the pressure on smug politicians and the like. I think they are a great force to the good — I personally find the political blogs a bit tedious and predictable, but I am glad they are there, the Robin Hoods of cyberspace. (Do I mean Robin Hood? Probably not, but I don’t mean Cassandras either, and it’s too late to think straight.)

Blogs aren’t all about news and politics. There are blogs for everything: self-expression for egoists and others, sure, but also they are a great way to educate and connect people with similar interests, as I have found. I’ve enjoyed, developed and learned so much since I started blogging 4 months ago compared with any phase of my life since my last "wide education", which was at school. (University was narrower, my first few weeks of enforced general cutting-edge science education at Nature came close.) Blogging can allow you to follow your own interests at your own pace, the potential for learning about anything is infinite, and you can add in your voice too! This last aspect is a rush to the head for a longstanding disciple of M. Scott Peck’s concept of "delayed gratification".

Even Oliver Kamm has a blog, so he’s probably not being entirely serious in his rant. I have not kept in touch with Ms Huffington’s doings (other than inadvertently reading a few extreme gossip items) since my student days and her Bernard Levin phase, but I suspect, based on that, that Mr Kamm may be on the button about her. Mind you, it is no mean feat to have a blog as successful as hers, and I suppose I should check it out. (Although I am already suffering a bit from blog burnout — ‘blog cornucopia’ is a more descriptive term than ‘blogosphere’.)

I have just received an email from Amazon to say that "An Army of Davids" has been dispatched, so no doubt I’ll soon be properly clued-up.

Which book to read

Can you believe a website that automatically generates recommendations of books for you to read? Well, that’s what purports to do — you can define four categories from a menu of paired opposites, and it chooses you some books.

So I’ve had a go. "Sad, disturbing, beautiful, unusual" returns "Swimmer" by Bill Broday. Never heard of it, but "Death in Venice" (Thomas Mann) is in the close matches. "Serious, larger-than-life, violent, bleak" returns "Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction author. "Safe, beautiful, gentle and optimistic" returns something called "Signals of Distress" by Jim Crace, with "The Shipping News" (Annie Proulx) in the close matches.

I am in no need of book recommendations, just of time to do the reading, but one could get quite distracted by mixing mad combinations and seeing how the whichbooks search engine copes. I think I’ll pass. Fun, though.

Jenny D said…

Warning: don’t read The Shipping News! I see a lot of people really love it, but when I read it I thought it was one of the most pretentious and overrated novels I had ever inflicted on myself….

4:33 PM

Maxine said…

Thanks for the tip! Probably was not clear from my post now I re-read it, I could not imagine reading a book recommendation generated by computer in any case.
On thinking about it some more, I suppose that’s what Amazon does but I don’t usually look at their paired matches or "recommended for yous" anyway given how many assuredly human suggestions I accumulate!

6:31 PM

Drug testing

Comment is free: The same difference

There are some fantastic responses to Peter Tatchell’s ill-informed arguments in his posting about drug testing on the Guardian’s new metablog "Comment is free".

Well done to the scientists and others who responded so clearly and factually to these fallacious arguments, made by someone who has not bothered to do any research before putting finger to keyboard. (I hate to be rude about anyone, but really!)

Slightly earlier on the same day, on the same blog, Tim Radford posts a very different article on exactly the same topic. (Tim was science correspondent of the Guardian before blogs were a twinkle in the eye.)

The comments to Tim’s post are absolutely fantastic — both in terms of general debate/opinion, and of scientific argument. The debate between Gareth58 and others is an excellent example of a scientific to-and-fro — courteous yet robust.

Taken together, these postings and comments are a good example of the power of blogs — a piece of sensational news, some commissioned articles, and lots of targeted, informed comments — all in a matter of hours. And their weakness — where is the connectivity, or "joined-up thinking"? Nowhere. But that’s Web 2.0 for you, information is free, instant and accessible; we just (;-) ) have to work out what it means, irrespective of our personal expertise.

Best parts of scientific life

The Daily Transcript: The Best Parts of the Scientific Life

Having written about the worst things about scientific life, Alex Palazzo now shoots for the best.
For Alex, there are three best things: discovery, discussion and creativity. Fewer items than his worst list, but he’s written more about each. If he’s like me, that figures — I know instinctively why I don’t like something (and if you can’t change it, move on) but if I like something, it is worth spending a bit of time thinking or writing about, to pin down why. (Useful to apply in other walks of life, maybe .)

There are some nice comments. I’ll copy a couple here — but go and look, there will probably be more by now. (Acme’s point 4 is a subset of Alex’s point 1, I’d say.)


Oh, my! Your extensive arguments AGAINST the scientific life seem so overwhelming compared to those FOR.
Do "discovery" and "creativity" trigger some sort of neural pleasure centers that override the overwhelmingly negative features you outlined?
All I will say is that the number one, two and three reasons I love science vastly overwhelm all the things I hate.
It would be hard for anything to top the feeling of discovery.
Yes discovery. It’s great, that is until you’ve discovered that you’ve been scooped!
Perhaps there are fewer items on the bright side of science, but they’re worth it IMHO. Again if the thrill of discovery isn’t good enough then you know that basic science ain’t for you.
Speaking of basic research, how about for #4 – cure diseases. Okay it doesn’t happen often, but …
Acme Scientist

Templeton prize

I was alerted first by Dave Lull (who always seems to get news before the rest of the world, or blogoshpere, anyway, and is very generous about sharing it) to the fact that John Barrow has just won the 2006 Templeton prize (said to be worth 1.4 million US dollars) for "progress towards research or discoveries about spiritual realities".

This award was controversial from the start. Scientists don’t like it, being naturally suspicious of anything smacking of supernatural phenomena and not being too happy about such a huge amount of money going for something that they rather feel they could make more use of in their own studies, if offered the chance.

So how useful is the award from the scientists’ perspective? What do they think of the work of the people who win it?

P. Z. Myers, on his active scientists’ blog Pharyngula, is in no doubt in his posting "I’m in the wrong business", subtitle "the God racket". Myers says: "it’s all for peddling a garbage interpretation of the anthropic principle. I’ve gotta wonder: would it be worth 1.6 million to get a lobotomy?"

There is a great set of comments to go with Myers’ posting: the usual full and frank exchange of a range of views on the topic you might expect on an active blog, but as they are by scientists, the perspectives (not all negative about the award in general or Barrow in particular, though many of them are) are particularly pertinent.

News of the prize is also posted on Books, Inq. , with a comment (so far) that Barrow writes well. This is true, he has written many books over the years, which people actually walk into bookshops to buy — and there are not a great many scientists who can say that. (Let’s not have a list — or on second thoughts, maybe let’s — if time permits).

While I’m on lists, here is a (fascinating) list of the previous winners. The first winner, in 1973, was Mother Teresa. Subsequent (annual) winners were firmly in the religious, ethical, philanthropical or social-work sphere until 1985, when the famous marine biologist Professer Sir Alistair Hardy was awarded the honour. Since then, the award has been divided pretty much equally between professional scientists and "other good people" for want of a brief characterisation. The current count (including Barrow) is "good people" 23, scientists 11, of whom 8 are physical scientists (theoretical physicists and cosmologists in the main) and 3 are biologists. Of the biologists, there is Hardy (1985); Professor L. Charles Burch, a "biologist-geneticist" (1999); and the Rev. Canon Arthur Peacocke (2001), a "biophysical chemist". I am afraid I have not heard of these last two or of their contribution to biological knowledge.

Advice to bloggers

Blogger Help : How Not to Get Fired Because of Your Blog

This article (from the Google Blogger help pages) is useful but an odd mix. The title is self-explanatory, but is it a way to guide people to avoid inadvertenly breeching company and legal issues (for example posting pictures of colleagues or articles giving confidential details of company projects); or is it a way to advise people of how to blog at work without an employer noticing; or is it advice as to how bloggers can persuade a company to encourage blogging/and or have a blogging policy?

As it is part of a help service, I think this article is presenting a confusing message, and that Google Blogger needs to get its ethical act together. I was directed to the article on the assumption that it was going to be policy and legal advice, and largely it is. But if that’s the intention of the article, Google blogger should not also within the same text provide explicit cheats, such as how to switch screens if you see your boss approaching. Fair enough to do that, but in a separate piece, please.