Flickr on cover of Newsweek

Niall Kennedy has noted that Flickr is on the cover of this week’s (3 April) Newsweek. The full article is available online, covering the success of startups like Flickr and MySpace. I love Niall’s favourite quote from the piece:

"The Living Web means that there may be plenty of opportunities to become the next Flickr, and hundreds of start-ups are trying to do just that. At Tim O’Reilly’s recent Emerging Technology Conference, it seemed that 1,200 people had signed on to some collectively generated business plan: starting a company in a spare bedroom, outsourcing the programming to some Indian company they found on the Web, getting content from users and then having users organize the content by tagging, pocketing money from Google ads placed on the Web site and, finally, selling the company to Yahoo. (Bad news: Yahoo’s Horowitz admits, "We can’t buy everyone.")"

Thank you, Niall.

Still waiting to download DVDs

According to an unattributed brief in the Times last Friday (24 March) , "film fans will be able to download DVDs to own from next month". Wow. This is said to result from a deal between Universal Pictures and an online DVD rental firm called Lovefilm.

No source was given for the story, but an internet search reveals a BBC online news story giving some more details. Does not sound great. King Kong and Pride and Prejudice are given as examples of the first tranche of movies that will be available on the AOL website (aol.co.uk from 10 April). According to the BBC, "Fans will pay Β£19.99 for a DVD of their chosen film plus two digital copies to keep indefinitely – one for their home computer and one for a portable device." Users won’t be able to burn their own DVD copies of the films, and they are compatible only with Windows/PCs (not Macs).

So what’s the good news? 19.99 is the price of a DVD, and one can almost always get it cheaper right away, not only via Amazon but also in the shops (12.99 is typical — Pride and Prejudice is already available for that in the shops and less on Amazon — for one copy only πŸ˜‰ — truly awful US ending in the extras).

Although there is lots of blather in the BBC article about a new revolution, start of a tranche of new services, etc, there isn’t much to get excited about for the average user like me. I am not interested in having several copies of a movie to watch in micro-form on some phone, I am interested in downloading a movie or TV programme/series (one copy) so I can watch it when I want to –I don’t particularly mind whether or not I can burn it onto my own DVD, and I sure don’t want to pay 19.99 for the privilege. I can’t be the only person who wants this.

The BBC also says: "Last month, another UK website, Wippit, started offering permanent downloads – but only independent movies are currently available. " (Sounds a bit like that Google service.) On a quick look, the Wippit site is only about music downloads, nothing about DVDs.

Fraud in science

Book of the Day: Reading Journal Entry: The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science by Horace Freeland Judson

"Book of the Day" features a thoughtful review of Horace Freeland Judson’s latest (?) book, on fraud in science. Mapletree 7 is (rightly, I hope) sceptical about Judson’s claims that there is much unidentified fraud commited by scientists. (One of those "how can he know?" questions.)

Mapletree 7 comments on Judson’s identification of peer-review of grants and of publications as the two key areas in need of reform. She is absolutely right to say that scientists are just like everyone else, and hence no more or no less likely to cheat as everyone else; the difference lies, she says, in that scientists deal with experiments and data — the interpretation of evidence. She concludes that Judson’s book would have been better had it focused more on science and less on becoming a "general polemic" about fraud in other areas of society.

The peer-review system is not designed to detect fraud; it was designed to judge results that were obtained honestly. I think it is very hard to design a workable system that is going to detect fraud in the first place. It is less hard to design a system that reacts to fraud once it is suspected — the Hwang (Korean stem-cell) affair will add impetus to current efforts, I am sure.

Journals can act promptly when informed of suspicion of fraud, and can use the power of the internet to label retrospectively the online version of suspicious papers. Abstracting and indexing services such as Medline can do the same, so that "suspicious" science is clearly identified to any future reader. Funding bodies, whether of grants or employers of the scientists concerned, can also act promptly. Plenty of minds and committees are currently focused on this question, and plenty of electronic and real ink is being expended by journalists, who have a range of opinions about what should be done.

At the end of the day, catching anyone cheating is difficult in any profession. Proving a suspicion without a witchhunt mentality is also difficult, although as Mapletree7 implies, scientists should always keep accurate records of their research and be prepared to show them if asked.

It is interesting in this context that scientific journals are often accused of failing to appreciate the importance of innovative research. Nobel prizewinners nowadays often tell of the difficulties they had in getting their groundbreaking research published. (My own journal, Nature, famously rejected the Krebs cycle, and reduced the report of the discovery of monoclonal antibodies from an Article to a Letter.) Everyone agrees that scientific research is about innovation and discovery. But there is no simple answer to the question of how the entire system of professional science can be designed to welcome unexpected new discoveries, yet be responsible about ensuring such claims are justified.

A Palazzo said…

It’s interesting that Horace Freeland Judson came out with a new book. Judson is the author of one of my favorite books, The Eighth Day of Creation. The first part is on the origins of DNA research, the second on RNA and the genetic code, and the last on X-ray crystalography and the structure of proteins.

A must read for anyone in the biomedical sciences.

I’ll have to check out this new book.

8:35 PM

Maxine said…

Hello Alex; I really liked The Eighth Day of Creation when I read that — I preferred it to The Double Helix — partly becuase Eighth Day was a third-party account, maybe? A tad more objective? πŸ˜‰ But certainly it told a lot more of the story.

7:29 PM

Feminism at work and in the newspapers

Philobiblon: Time to boycott the anti-female Observer

Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon earlier in the week drew attention to a daft article in Prospect about females in the workplace. She has summarised the article so one does not have to read it ;-), and succinctly dispatched its main arguments. I wish everyone in the world thought as clearly as Natalie on this topic.

Since that posting, the Observer has picked up on the Prospect piece and published their own daft article on the topic, again as pointed out at Philobiblion. There is a lot of incoherent comment on the Observer’s blog about the article, but Natalie has it right on the nail.

My general opinon of Sunday papers (in the UK) is that they are a waste of time: they don’t have any news to report that can’t wait until Monday (or read online if you are a news junkie), and the Saturday papers contain supplements for everything one could possibly want to read about and plenty more that one would not. There are plenty of good blogs publishing roundups and highlights of weekend papers.

I have, as noted, long since given up on the Sunday Times, so it is good to have it confirmed that not only am I not missing anything by not reading the Observer, but I am gaining something by my abstinence.

Incidentally, in the link at the top of this posting, Philobiblon also links to a (Sunday) Times piece on online shopping. This is what I mean about not having to read the Sunday papers — with people like Natalie Bennett and Sarah Weinman around, no need πŸ˜‰ . The online shopping piece is quite readable, though did not tell a veteran like me anything I didn’t know. Useful for people considering whether to dip an electronic toe into this cyberwater, though.

Randomness as book plot

I was thinking about the use of randomness as a plot device in fiction. Thornton Wilder used it to good effect in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which five people die when a bridge in Peru collapses. The protagonist decides to investigate the lives of these five people to see if there was a purpose to their deaths. (I can’t remember the answer but I remember enjoying the book.)

Another book that used this device well (or so I thought at the time) was John Buchan’s The Gap in the Curtain , in which a few (5 again?) people are "trained" to see into the future. As a result they are all able to read the newspaper for a brief time on a certain date one year ahead. The story tells of what each one read (two of them read their own obituaries, I recall, another a business opportunity, but I forget the rest), and follows what happened as a result to each one over the year to the appointed date. Pretty good stuff.

Jenny D said…

And my favorite in this vein is a movie called (I think–my brothers and I watched it on TV once a long time ago and we all just sort of fell in love with it though it was fairly awful) "Crashup on Interstate 5"–it opens with the scene of the crashup (a huge accident on the interstate), then does this hilarious freeze-frame thing on each car and goes back 24 hours to tell the story of how those people came to be in that place at that time….

Great run of posts today–I like your place one–it is so true, isn’t it? I feel like a total nutjob when I try and explain the appeal of blogging to, say, non-blogging family members, and yet I have made some really, really excellent friends this way, including lots of people I may never meet in person but some who have become real-world friends as well. Good stuff….

5:33 PM

julsitos said…

yup.. wonderful story… I’m on the part of the Perichole’s story…

very simple writing but sublime in meaning.

2:41 PM

One-book authors

Creating a list of books I’ve enjoyed reading in my life (which I’ve split into those I’ve enjoyed reading and those that have left a lasting impression), made me think about authors who have just written one book. Immediate examples are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind).

Much has been written on the topic of "one-book" authors who don’t stop writing. I thought I’d try to list authors who have written one good book but in my opinion could have stopped there. They might have written other quite reasonable books, just nowhere near the class of their "magnum opus". Or they might hvae been better advised not have bothered with further books.

  • Jay McInerny — Bright Lights, Big City
  • Zadie Smith — White Teeth
  • Irvine Welsh — Trainspotting
  • Tama Janowitz — Slaves of New York
  • Donna Tartt — A Secret History
  • John Irving — The World According to Garp
  • J D Salinger — Catcher in the Rye
  • Kurt Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse 5
  • Aldhous Huxley — Brave New World
  • Philip Roth — Portnoy’s Complaint

There may be others in this category whose "main" book I have not read: Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho) , Kasuko Ishigura (Remains of the Day), Louis de Bernieres (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin), Patrick Suskind (Perfume), Iain Banks (The Wasp Factory), Jonathan Coe (The Rotters’ Club), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections). Also others whose "main" book I haven’t liked so could not read others — for example, Flann O’Brien (the Third Policeman, currently enjoying a renewal owing to "Lost" being allegedly based on it) and Richard Ford (Sportswriter).

Other authors, whether or not they are to one’s taste (some of the below are emphatically not to mine), write plenty of books — some may be "better" than others, but one does not stand out from the rest. Examples (of living authors) include:

  • Ian McEwan
  • Julian Barnes
  • Nick Hornby
  • Nickki Gerrard
  • Anita Shreve
  • Sebastian Faulkes
  • Anita Brookner
  • Margaret Atwood
Richard Mason said…

If Kurt Vonnegut only wrote one book, I would want it to be Cat’s Cradle, not Slaughterhouse Five.

And Iain Banks has written better things than The Wasp Factory: certainly The Crow Road, possibly The Bridge, and if you like science fiction then Player of Games and Use of Weapons.

5:30 PM

Maxine said…

Thank you, Richard — I’m ashamed to say I have never read any Iain Banks but I have read a few comments in reviews of his books that WF was his best one. Now you mention The Crow Road, I think it was dramatised on TV. I will give one of those you mention a try.

I did read Cats Cradle and one other Vonnegut, but I thought Slaughterhose 5 stood out. I suppose there is an element of randomness in book appreciation as well as in which authors actually get published!

7:59 PM

Most Wanted

Yesterday I finished the highly recommended (by afficionados of the genre) Most Wanted by Michelle Martinez — it is one of those books that can be read in a few hours. It isn’t bad: the angle is "prosecutor with straying husband and six-month baby" while dealing with violent crime, paranoia about trustworthiness of investigating team, and a hard-nosed female boss playing politics while compromised by a personal involvement. So far, so good: a mixture of enough angles, even if individually cliched, can be heady if well-combined.

However, the book ain’t that great. The identity of the bad penny in the investigation is immediately obvious, removing one big chunk of dramatic tension at the outset and meaning that the heroine has to be obtuse in some situations (where she’d guess the identity of this person if she took a particular logical step) whereas able to make brilliant deductive leaps in others. The "baby/babysitter" subplot is also unrealistic in the same way — sometimes the heroine is excessively anxious about her childcare, other times she seems to have forgotten that the baby is there. The writing just isn’t good enough to sustain reader interest (John Grisham, for example, has weak plots that just don’t hang together, but his writing carries you through) .

Yet there are some good points, and the book is left with a triangular dilemma that has scope for interesting developments in future books. It just depends on whether the writer evolves (Most Wanted seems to be her first book). I might give the second in the series, The Finishing School, a try when it is available in paperback on Amazon UK, but it won’t be highest priority on my list.

On the cover of Most Wanted are enthusiastic quotes from Iris Johansen and Tess Gerritson. Given the number of times I read blurbs from these authors, I wonder if they have taken a leaf from the excellent book of David Montgomery, who is now producing a "blurb machine" (great idea!) on his blog Crime Fiction Dossier.

Place and community

Books, Inq.: Read ye, read ye …

I have just returned from an evening of mixed pleasure and pain: a concert at my daughter’s local primary school. The concert was in a good cause, for the British Heart Foundation, but there was a lot to endure for the three songs I saw and heard her sing as part of the choir.

During the gaps (i.e. other children’s solo performances of varying degrees of quality), my mind was free to wander — an enforced space where I could not read or do anything execpt sit and think. I thought about the connections I have made since beginning blogging: the very good friends I’ve made as well as the "acquaintances of ideas" I regularly meet on my trips brokered by Bloglines.

The concert was an enforced, and unusual, period of quiet after a week’s work and at the end of a Saturday spent doing the end-of-week domestic tasks and errands, admiring progress on the ongoing Colorado River project (let me tell you, this is a very, very long river indeed), and so on.

As I sat listening to the out-of tune soloists and the fumbling fingers of the pianists, adored by the parents concerned and politely tolerated by the rest of the audience, I reflected on how agonised I might have been had I been sitting in that seat six months ago. My thoughts would have been rushing round in my mind, worrying at things beyond my control. I reflected on a stress-management course I attended last summer, and what I learned there about slowing down, appreciating the small things, learning to accept and to be, in an attempt to control the restless escalation of various internal crises. How the perceptive psychologist there defined me as having "relaxation-induced anxiety", and how I’m working on that. (Honest!)

My young daughter rose with her fellow choristers for the final song. It was Lennon and McCartney’s "Let it Be":

"And when the broken-hearted people,
Living in the world agree,
there will be an answer,
Let it be."

The tears poured down my face at these simple words. Just let it be, I tell myself, let it be.

We walked home; Malcolm and the girls went upstairs to watch the latest episode of Planet Earth (featuring tonight, I am just told, the Colorado River). Downstairs alone, I switched on my computer for the first time today, and there is this wonderful, generous posting from Frank (Wilson), linking to my placeism post — not just generous but "getting it" in his usual economical, on-the-nail style; writing of the "connectiveness" and sense of community he has encountered by the unconventional means of blogging. Also, I have come home to an email from Dave (Lull), sending me some links on "slowing down", and writing in terms of the "hurry sickness". Here is someone else who really "gets it".

Yes, it is wonderful to have such friends, generous and intuitive. Thank you.

I feel Frank is completely right when he writes about the international community of bloggers: "And this connectiveness I think may turn out to have great power." For me as an individual, I feel the power. This is an extraordinary thing for me to admit: I could not have anticipated it back in December, and I am not the kind of person to "feel stuff" in this way πŸ˜‰ . I have taken refuge in science and pragmatism in part, at least, because it is (in my mind) a safe refuge. I am an eldest child, living with an eldest child, in a serious and responsible environment we have created for our children. I believe in duty and stoicism, and am usually dutiful and stoical — or at least, as much as I can be. Yet I’m feeling this power. I can’t analyse it and have no idea where it will go on the large scale (like Frank, I feel that it is so powerful at the individual and small-group level that it must evolve into something on a larger scale). Perhaps the effects will be similar to the society-changing effect of mass introduction of TV. This new power, however arises from not only being a mass media like TV but by being an open, interactive system, controlled at the individual’s level; enabled by information technology, not a passive recipient of it. I sometimes wonder what Orwell would have made of it all.

Self-publishing books and articles

Self-publishing is the in-thing, and a good thing too.

AssociatedContent is a hybrid web-publishing and content sharing platform. It has been going for a year now and has quite a collection of content. Clicking on "books", for example, brings you to a collection of book reviews ordered by date of posting. The collection is eclectic, and unless you are happy to get a list "by most recent" for its search categories, a bit haphazard. A more fine-tuned tagging system would help, such as Amazon’s ability to let customers browse broad categories and then fine-tune down within the category. Of course, the website is by no means limited to book reviews, content covers just about anything, written, video and audio.

Each (written) article has plenty of features, for example a reader scoring system, comment facility, links to related articles, links to previous articles by that author — and the inevitable ads (courtesy Google). The owners, Softbank Captial, say they have invested 5.4 million US dollars; users and conent providers are said to be professionals of various descriptions. There’s a whole range of material the site will consider publishing and, it says, pay for (hmmm). Their tagline is "Soon, everyone will be published on AssociatedContent". I’m going to add it, or rather a bit of it, to my rss reader for a while to see what the output is like — the site itself is a bit "busy" for my personal taste so it is perfect for rss.

The more conventional ("moribund" as one of my colleagues flippantly has been heard to call it) medium of paper lives on. In one of those free glossy magazines that comes through my door every month and generally goes straight into the recycling box is a feature about Grosvenor House Publishing, which is run by someone who lives locally, it turns out. GH is one of many such ventures: the trend started in the USA but has caught on, enabled by the internet, and this particular example seems not bad on the face of it. G. P. Taylor, who writes best-sellers such as "Shadowmancer", is a featured author.

This company charges 495 pounds sterling for a professionally finished book, Amazon distribution and limited UK bookshop distribution. They are cagey about the print run but I would guess it is essentially a print-on-demand operation. I’m impressed by their website, service to authors (marketing guidance provided) and testimonials by published authors. More power to Grosvenor House and to outfits like them; more power to authors.

equiano said…

The other biggie to keep an eye out for is Lightning Source, which is entirely print on demand and is a sister company to Ingram Books in the USA. Interestingly, in both the UK and USA, Lightning Source is in the same industrial park as Amazon, and books are printed by Lightning Source and often sent out same/next day by Amazon. We have seen a lot of West African titles coming out of the continent being produced in the west by Lightning Source – better quality of production and fewer delays. It is my understanding that plenty of individuals are now setting themselves up as publishers and producing their own books, or other books out of copyright, through this method.

8:42 AM

Placeism in the global network

A few weeks ago, Dave Lull introduced me to the concept of "place-ism", specifically a book by Bill Kauffman called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. Mr Kauffman’s book is about staying in one place, not going anywhere, and being the richer for it. He tells many anecdotes about his own place, Batavia in New York State, some amusing, some wry. There is a strong sense of nostalgia for the small-scale, personal way things were done in the past (similarly addressed, also with some lack of objectivity, by John Grisham in, say, The Last Juror or the Broker). There is also a deep thread of personal history. Read the book (I can’t do justice to all its aspects here): it’s funny and instructive, neatly capturing, for example, the ambiguity of personal choice versus the expectations others (our families, mainly) have of us.

I believe, if memory serves, that Dave recommended this book in light of some discussion we were having about the "small-scaleness" of blogging. I probably mentioned (or droned on about) how after I started blogging I rapidly found the Internet to be a small place, against my expectations. Blogging is a "placeist" activity, in that one can use the technology of the Web to fall into a localised yet intense sphere that is common to you and a very few other people. It is a placeism of the mind, in which one’s fellow travellers are not living in the next street and whom you never see face-to-face.

Another aspect of placeism is the strong sense of "home" infusing Mr Kauffman’s book (and indeed, John Grisham’s). As has been pointed out many times, far fewer people have this sense of "place" and inner stability today compared with pre-industrial pasts. But one can make one’s own place. In the morning on the way to work, I stop off at an Italian coffee shop for my only allowed cup of the day (in preference to using the free machines at work). I don’t go to this place every day, but I never have to specify the way I like my coffee, because the guy always remembers. At Christmas time, he gave me a large pantotte. On his counter, he has an Internet connection open showing his website: not google or a news site, but a slideshow of his own sandwiches to order, his Vespa for sale, and so on. This is a "place" for ex-nomads such as myself who do not have a Batavia or a Silloth; one goes through life collecting them up.

MySpace and place
I came across another article, this time as a result of thinking and discussions about MySpace, whose "overnight and complete" market success among the young is of intense interest in many established companies who wonder how MySpace did it. As well they might. At the recent O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference, Danah Boyd gave a talk about "glocalisation". As she says, a grotesque word, and defined by her as the "ugliness that ensues when the global and local are shoved uncomfortably into the same concept." Her perspective is that of web design of social software, but she makes some very insightful comments about customers, particularly young ones, and by extension, placeism.

"When mass media began, people assumed we would all converge upon one global culture. While the media had an effect, complete homogenisation has not occurred. And it will not. While some values spread and are adopted en-masse, cultures form within mass culture to differentiate smaller groups of people. Style-driven subcultures are the most visible form of this, but it occurs in companies and other social gatherings".

Ms Boyd is not talking about the company of bloggers/army of Davids, but she might as well be. Her article, as I say, is directed towards use of social space from the company perspective, and her comments about customer service should be required reading by any business πŸ˜‰ . Leaving that aside, and many fascinating observations which make me urge you to read her transcript, DB goes on to say:

"Just becuase people can connect globally does not mean they want to. People are more drawn to those who are like them, who share their same values and cultural norms. In this way, people don’t have to explain the foundations of their thoughts. They feel more closely aligned and more willing to share with people who are more like them." "People collide on Flickr becuase they took similar photos; they find wonderful blogs through search." I won’t go on to paraphrase DB’s developing argument about random collisions and rareness, as if you’ve read this far you’ll know if you are with her and want to read the article. I also lost touch with the piece as it ended with an analysis of language and symbols.

But my summary of her bottom line, "designing for glocalisation", is placeism through and through:

  • Empower users to personalise and culturalise their spaces online (blogs, MySpace, etc)
  • Provide the cultural environment where people can accidentally connect with strangers over meaningful things (public not private networks)
  • Empower individual users to be cultural spokespeople (modifiable systems)
  • It’s all got to work and the network builders have to really, really care about it working the way the users want (good customer service, as exemplified by MySpace, Flickr, Craigslist)

One final quote: "Organic community growth, embedded design and the ability to connect culturally local communities through global network[s] are the way to form large sustainable communities."

Lawrence, Kansas

Finally, and I am almost at the end now, a kind of postscript to this posting is The newspaper of the future, once again via a link from Dave Lull. This long article in the New York Times business section describes the Journal-World of Lawrence, Kansas. This newspaper, via profits from its broadband holding, is providing interactive, imaginative and multimedia information for the town of Lawrence "however the consumer wants it and wherever the consumer wants it, in the most complete and useful way possible." There are lots of Kauffmanian examples in the piece linked to here (not (yet?) behind subscription wall). Pace Glenn Reynolds, journalists providing the information have retrained to become multi-taskers, and investment is being made in all types of information technologies to convey and receive the information (customer feedback, note, being a significant part of the equation). At the end of the day the financial constraints may be limiting. But the Lawrence experience is definitely one for the placeists among us to watch.