My ex-colleague Oliver Morton recently invited me to join the question-and-answer service Aardvark. It seems like a good idea – Oliver told Aardvark that he trusted my knowledge of detective fiction and science (thanks, Oliver!) and I've signed up via Facebook, but Aardvark seems to be an independent application. I have also invited a few friends to join. (I think you can join my network directly by going here.) I can now ask people questions using keywords, and if anyone asks Aardvark a question using whatever keywords I told it I knew about, people can ask me questions – all via Aardvark-mediated DM (integrated with whatever DM system you currently use, or via email if you don't use DM, or via Twitter). You can limit your Q/A interactions to people in your Aardvark network or widen them to all Aardvark users.
So, I've asked the two questions most pressing on my mind just now, but it occurs to me that I could also ask the same questions here, on my blog, and I might also get some answers! So, here goes:
(1) Does anyone know of a London-based digital photography course for teens over the summer holidays, specifically during the last two weeks of August?
(2) Does anyone know of a nice tutor of Italian, who would teach a teenage beginner interested in studying for a GCSE – say for the next couple of years?
I like this comment by Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired magazine and author of books The Long Tail and the two-day-old, controversial Free, in response to some of the recent attacks on him and his latest project:
"I may have a somewhat rosy-tinted view of journalists as being largely drawn by intellectual curiosity, but they are also people, and they are people in the midst of a once- in-a-lifetime industry collapse. How the media industry has to reform is not yet clear. I don’t have answers for them."
Chris was interviewed by PW for an article about the stormy reception the book has received – mainly by people who haven't read it or who can't be bothered to work out his argument before reacting against it. (The unfortunate accidental lack of attribution of some Wikipedia passages didn't exactly add to the book's popularity.) Me, I'm well-disposed towards anything Chris writes anyway as he's always intelligent and original (he's an ex-colleague of mine from long ago when he was a News reporter at Nature, and has also done a distinguished stint at The Economist), but the fact that Malcolm Gladwell slated the book in a prominent review makes me think it probably is rather good.
PW interview with Chris Anderson on the meaning of Free.
The Long Tail blog, which has lots of posts about the book and how it is "free" (and why).
@chr1sa on Twitter.
So, a genuine question about Twitter and why I fundamentally don't get it. When something like the below (actually, the below) pops up in your RSS reader, what do you click on? I am "following" @CrimeFiction. I see the below, I click on #FF Pt. 2 and get a load of rubbish – i.e. nothing except a picture of a smiling woman. No message, on any topic. Is this TwitterSpam? If so, what's in it for the spammer? I click on @CrimeFiction in this chain and just see the last thing he/she did (31 May). What has happened that is new or interesting about crime fiction? What has even happened at all? I just don't get it. Unless the answer is that Twitter is just on some kind of global autopilot and therefore irrelevant and/or annoying. I would appreciate anyone's expertise on this question – what's the point, if what I "follow" results in this?
Today there was one of those articles in The Times 2 (the features bit of the paper) by James Harkin about how Google used to be supreme but might not be any more due to Twitter, Bing and Ask. (How many of these have I read in the past few years?) As well as the usual failure of these articles to make the point that there are right ways and not so good ways to perform searches, it is curiously out of date because it fails to mention Google Wave, the company's next big evolutionary shift, if all the buzz is to be believed. Google Wave will allow you to aggregate all your online activity in real time, which sounds boring but isn't. As David Brown puts it, it is like "a conglomeration of all your favourite web applications, but on steroids". David's post provides Google's demonstration video and a few ways in which the Wave will help authors, editors and publishers. An even better article, I'm told, also including the demonstration video and some screen shots, is the one by Andy Ihnatko at the Chicago Sun-Times. It's well worth reading, as it is by someone who has, apparently, had a play with it and is a longstanding writer and observer of this scene. And, as the author writes: "Sophistication isn’t about a million beeping lights and the audible grinding of thick gears. It’s a system that Simply Works, and which makes you wonder just how the Humanity managed to get along for so many years without it." If Google Wave fulfils a fraction of its promise, it puts the The Times piece somewhat in the shade. Nevertheless, the article does have a funny sidebar by Hugo Rifkind, so that's something.
Google have been busy making announcements in the past week or two. You can't play with Google Wave yet but you can try out Google Squared, which collects facts from the web for you and organises them for you, a bit like a spreadsheet. There is admiration from an independent, expert source, O'Reilly Radar, where you can read how James Turner got on looking at science-fiction conventions and other parameters. He calls it "an exponential improvement in search". When I've got some time, I might try it out on crime fiction.
Finally for this Google round-up, the company (perhaps recognising the many hilarities of its automatic translator) has launched a translator tool-kit, which it calls "a powerful but easy-to-use editor that enables translators to bring that human touch to machine translation." If you want to know more, there's a demonstration video at the link provided. Just don't think of using it for a novel.
Will there be any end to the number of articles on blogs and in the regular media about the wonders of Twitter? Just how many angles are there? Twitter is a microblogging platform: you can "tweet" 140-word (max) posts and the world can follow you while you do it (and you can follow the world). An example of Twitter promotion: Barry Graubart on Content Matters blog points out that Blockbuster's Chapter 11 filing was first reported on Twitter. But actually, no it wasn't. In a later clarification he explains that it was first reported on Bloomberg, but in the half-hour before Google, Yahoo news et al picked it up, various people Twittered about it. Could anyone have made or saved a fortune in that half-hour window (if it was a window, and wasn't being filled somewhere else as well as via Twitter posts)? You tell me, I'll stay poor and read about it in the newspaper (ink on paper edition) tonight.
Another Twitter fan, Ian Hocking of This Writing Life blog, analyses an article about the psychology of Twitter – and Ian is well-qualified to do so, being a psychologist himself. His take on the appeal of Twitter: "It seems to me that an important factor in the attractiveness of Twitter lies in the pseudo-random occurrence of things that we consider important. For us, this is something just plain interesting, like Stephen Fry sharing his views on a new gadget, or the fact that Roger N. Morris has shaved off his beard. Such things are not earth-quiveringly important (except to Roger’s dinner companions) but they do serve as reinforcers in the parlance of the behavioural psychologist."
Other perspectives on Twitter recently include:
Why is the media so obsessed with Twitter? Jon Stewart investigates (video).
'Stage of Fools' by Maureen Dowd at the New York Times. "If only Shakespeare had known how to Twitter". The piece actually consists of a Twittered list of "offensive bipartisan pork". I wouldn't disagree with the adjectives, but what is Twitter's unique contribution here?
John Battelle, "king of search", on why Google's chief calls Twitter a "poor man's email".
From The Guardian: If Maya Angelou isn't Maya Angelou, who is it? Or, my suggested title: just who was stuck in that lift? How do we know that "celebrity Twitterers" are who they say they are, or are they impostors, or (worse) people's publicists? Do we care? A spoof blog (Richard Madeley, Lady Bracknell et al.) can be amusing if the writer really knows the subject, but a spoof or "outsourced to personal assistant" Twitter? If you want to check them out regardless, celebrity Twitterers, including scientific ones, can be accessed here. My favourite comment in that thread: “Facebook is about people you used to know; Twitter is about people you’d like to know better”. The New York Times's take on media celebrity Twitterdom is here (link via Dave Lull).
For some balance, here are two nice posts by a colleague, Noah Gray: How I learned to stop ignoring the Web 2.0 and love the Twitter; and Tales from a recent Twitter convert. (To which another colleague, Henry Gee, replies: "towards absurdam, reductio.)
Blog-hosting platforms such as Blogger (Google), Typepad, WordPress etc are constantly upgrading and offering their bloggers new features, I presume in an attempt to keep them interested in regular posting as much as to keep them with the service – because nobody moves blog platforms lightly, as it means a change of URL. I did it once, in 2006, in order to be able to categorise and tag posts. Having gone through the agony of moving from Blogger to Typepad, exporting the blog, telling everyone I'd moved and would they mind updating their blogrolls etc, Blogger introduced tags and categories about a month later. I now realise that when one blog platform "rolls out" a feature, the others will probably do the same fairly soon afterwards.
Blogger blogs, however, have started featuring a "following" widget, by which the visitor can receive RSS updates of the blog and have their icon appear as one of a little array of postage stamps on the blog's main page. I don't use this feature to follow other people's blogs (apart from the first I tried as an experiment, Euro Crime) because I already subscribe to and read these blogs in RSS. If I use the "follow" widget, I get the same blog twice. I don't want to delete my existing subscription because I have everything arranged by subject.
So, if I do not appear to be "following" your blog, it doesn't mean that I am not following it – just that I'm doing so in a reader that tracks all RSS feeds, not just Blogger's. I am a bit surprised that Google hasn't got its act together in that if someone elects to "follow" a blog but already subscribes to it in Google Reader, GR can sense this and not add it as a duplicate subscription. Maybe it'll work out how to do that in a few weeks.
Another widget that Blogger provides is a mini-RSS feed of all your blog subscriptions, so the visitor can see all the latest posts and conversations at the blogs to which the blogger has linked. This beats a static blogroll any day – a blogroll is a pain as blogs are always going defunct, or getting boring, so I take them out of my RSS reader, but then have to go into the Typepad dashboard to update the blogroll (or, actually, not, as I can't be bothered - so the Petrona blogroll isn't very current the further down it you go, and probably has some serious omissions, sadly). I have asked Ginerva at TypePad if she'll consider introducing the same "mini RSS feed" feature as Blogger has, in order to save the work of hosting a static blogroll. She says she will consider it.
I am currently attending an excellent (and free) conference at the British Library on "Digital Lives". Lots of excellent things about it, but I did enjoy a talk today by Orlando Figes. From Wikipedia:
"Figes has made a significant contribution to the development of oral history in Russia. With the Memorial Society, he gathered several hundred private family archives from homes across Russia and interviewed thousands of survivors as well as perpetrators of the Stalinist repressions for his book The Whisperers. This represents one of the biggest collections of documents about private life in the Stalin era. Housed in the Memorial Society in Moscow, St Petersburg and Perm, many of these valuable research materials are available on line."
The website The Whisperers: private lives in Stalin's Russia, is an example of why archiving, and oral history, is so important to us all. Orlando Figes told us how, on 4 December 2008, the police raided the St Petersburg offices of the Memorial Society and not only removed the hard disc drives of the Stalin oral history project (also on the Figes website, so in actuality not lost) but all the other archives of this section of the Memorial society. One of these projects is the virtual Gulag. As things stand, the only way your average Russian can find out about the Gulags is the one museum on the topic, which is in the Urals, 150 miles from the nearest large town. The Memorial society was some way along a project to create a virtual Gulag museum, so that all Russians and those in former Soviet Union countries could know about this awful history. No longer, since the December police raid. Orlando Figes told us about the Putin regime's programme to rehabilitate Stalin as a national hero. Chilling. The oral history project in which he interviewed many families about their experiences in that era, however, was the opposite - one is just grateful that there are people around us who are doing this kind of thing.
The Whisperers at Google Books.
Guardian review of The Whisperers.
New York Times review of The Whisperers.
The Times review of The Whisperers.
Typepad, the blogging platform of Petrona, has just updated its commenting forms, hooray. The comment form is now on the post page itself, so you don't have to click through interstitial pages to comment. The comment field itself is now at the top of the form, so you can make your comment first before inputting your name and address, and the anti-spam CAPTCHA window is immediately below the comment field, all on same page. I hope this will make commenting a more pleasant experience. There are also one or two other tweaks, eg a preview feature and a more intelligent message, so that you know your comment has been received – this should be helpful to people who end up making multiple comments because the system isn't very clear about whether the comment has "worked" or not.
I guess I will now receive no comments to this post, having written all that. It was nice while it lasted, though.