Tuesday 26 June 2007

Significant new media ... or pointless bloggery? (repost from other blog)

Andrew Keen has published (using 'old media') a book about the evils of new media: The Cult of the Amateur. Naturally he wants to promote it on the Today Programme:

Click here for streaming audio
(the relevant piece is at 21'09" into this 26'22" clip)*

Download RealPlayer here

Sorry, Mr Keen, the new media is here to stay. It has its faults, just like old media, but your bleating about 'authority' and 'editors' won't make it go away. It's the lack of the old kind of regulation that makes the new media so attractive to its users.

(More later, when I've had time to collate my thoughts on this important subject.)

Now that I've listened to the clip again, and had time to consider, here's my take (note that I've not read Mr Keen's book):

Historically, people have been less likely to question the authority of the old media than they are to question the authority of the new media. Now, they are savvy enough to know that just because something is on a web page doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

When people read stuff on blogs, or MySpace, or wherever, they know it has no built-in authority and will interpret what they read accordingly. Youngsters growing up with the new media are fully aware that they are free to create stuff themselves, and they are also aware of how much authority they themselves have in doing so (that is, none at all) so they are naturally inclined to question what they read.

As a result of this default mode of questioning, they're likely to apply the same critical thinking to all media, new and old -- which can only be a good thing.

If you ask people whether they believe everything they read in a traditionally printed newspaper, they'll likely say, "No, of course not." But until recently if you questioned what someone was telling you about a reported event, they're likely to have told you, "It's true, I read it in the Daily Such-&-Such."

Wikipedia is often brought up as an example of how the internet shouldn't be trusted, but Wikipedia's self-correcting mechanism ensures that its information is mostly reliable. Not completely, but mostly reliable. Just like Britannica, as a December 2005 report has shown.

One of Andrew Keen's objections to the new media is that it has 'zero value'. By which I suspect he means it's free, and therefore worthless. Aside from any frustrations he might have with being unable to monetize his own internet-based efforts, this is a particularly blinkered view. Something is only worth what you pay for it? Hard cash or you're not interested? Tell that to Google. Tell that to Scott Sigler.

Web 2.0 is not, as Brian Appleyard incorrectly states in this clip, to do with interactivity -- we had that to some degree in Web 1.0 -- it's mainly to do with the separation of form from content, which is what makes the creation of web-content so easy for the non-technical user. Web 2.0 is facilitating a medium that allows people to make themselves heard -- to communicate, to create, to think. Long may it continue.

*UPDATE: If the streaming audio is unavailable, download the mp3 of the clip from RapidShare here:


Monday 25 June 2007

One justice away...

This is really scary.


Edward Tabash gave this speech to members of the Center For Inquiry during a recent cruise in the Galapagos.

(via RichardDawkins.net)

Here's the Q&A session:

I hadn't realised that the separation of church and state in America was so precarious. If the US becomes a theocracy in just a matter of months, what hope do we have of avoiding global holy war?

Sunday 24 June 2007

Only two episodes in and we're already way over the top (repost from other blog)

James Nesbitt is having great fun on BBC 1 at 9 pm Saturdays, in a completely over-the-top performance as Dr. Jackman -- a modern day Dr. Jekyll. It's a case of split personality, with extra features. For instance, when the good doctor changes into Mr. Hyde (yes, the villain chooses that name) he has enormous, not to say superhuman strength and incredible agility. And being set in modern times, the story incorporates a good deal of modern technology. But just when you think something is about to be explained, something else occurs to let you know that nothing is even remotely simple. Secrets abound, concerning almost every character in the story, so you really don't know where you are.

This series has the advantage of being written by Steven Moffat, who wrote the recent, very spooky Doctor Who episode Blink, as well as previous Who episodes, notably last year's wonderful The Girl in the Fireplace.

We've seen two episodes of Jekyll out of six, and so far it's been a roller-coaster of manic, gory fun. I hope it doesn't just fizzle out.

(As a companion piece to Jekyll, BBC Four has shown a one-off documentary, Ian Rankin Investigates: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which relates how Robert Louis Stevenson came to write the original.)

The four ages of sand and the alpha male monkey

Jason Rennie of The Sci Phi Show podcast recently posted a recording of an off-the-cuff talk given by Douglas Adams at the Digital Biota 2 conference in 1998. The talk was called "Is there an Artificial God?" and you can find it, along with Jason's introduction, here. The audio is a little hard to hear, but Jason also linked to Biota's transcription of Adams' talk.

Using his "four ages of sand" structure Adams explored how the first notions of a supreme being might have arisen as part of human evolution, and how an artificial god might not be such a bad idea. Well worth a listen/read for his typically skewed but insightful take on such things.

Not content with alerting us to this gem, however, Jason went on to devote two subsequent episodes of The Sci Phi Show to a discussion of Adams' talk with Matt Arnold (who recently co-hosted Jason's podcast) and linked to Matt's explanation of the Alpha Male Monkey concept, which they discussed in the show.

Engaging stuff -- I recommend it.

Friday 15 June 2007

Repost: Patrick McLean's The Seanachai: "Blame Abraham"

Here's another repost from my other blog, this one from August 2006.

Reposted from: http://witteringon.blogspot.com/2006/08/patrick-mcleans-seanachai-blame.html

I've been a fan of The Seanachai for quite some time. Patrick McLean's short podcasts are little gems of mastery -- beautifully written, expertly delivered and flawlessly produced. Mostly he does serialized fiction; I particularly enjoyed his story about the man who shot his guitar.

But occasionally Patrick does a one-off commentary, and his latest, "Blame Abraham" cuts right through all the nonsense, spin and partisan hype surrounding the current Middle-Eastern crisis.

Listen to it. And then share it.

I feel cheated (repost from other blog)

This may or may not be fair, but nevertheless I feel cheated.

I have subscribed to "Locus: the magazine of the science fiction & fantasy field" for several years. The magazine is sent to me from beyond the pond, by sea mail. Consequently I get each issue weeks after its publication date, but at a reasonable rate -- a rate further reduced by subscribing for two years at a time.

And then this turns up in my inbox:
Dear International Subscriber,

We value you as a subscriber and hope you are enjoying your magazine subscription. Earlier this year, the US Postal Service announced they would be raising their rates. With this rate increase came major unannounced changes to their entire International rate structure. International surface mail (sea mail) and international periodicals mail were discontinued. Without those two mailing services, we can only fulfill subscriptions by airmail.

These changes affect your subscription and all of our other international surface mail subscribers. We will be converting all our surface mail subscriptions to airmail. Current Canadian and Mexican subscribers will lose one issue from their periodical rate subscriptions. Our current International surface mail subscribers will receive two airmail issues for every three remaining surface mail issues. If you have any questions, or would prefer to receive a refund of the remaining balance on your subscription, please let us know. Our rates will be going up for first class Canadian subscribers on July 1, 2007. If you renew before then, you will get the old rates.

We are sorry to have to make these changes, we hope you understand why the conversion is necessary, and we thank you for your continued support.

I don't know. I agreed to pay for two years in advance on the understanding that I was securing 24 issues at the then current rate. I appreciate that Locus could not have foreseen the end of sea mail. But suppose there's a hike in the cost of paper, or printing, or another increase in airmail postage -- will they feel able to charge me for those as well, on my current subscription? If so, what's the point of paying two years (or more) in advance?

I haven't done the sums, but I hope the offer of cancellation doesn't mean I'll have paid more for the issues I've already received than I originally agreed to.

Not that I will necessarily opt for cancellation. As I say, I haven't done the sums.

Monday 11 June 2007

Let them down gently

James Randi's latest Swift commentary has this piece about Street Light Interference:


It reminded me of something I read recently while browsing the JREF forums, concerning an applicant for the million dollar challenge:


Marcus Tisdale, a 19-year-old student, applied for the challenge in January 2006, claiming that he could control street lights "by paranormal or otherwise unknown circumstances."

What struck me about the email exchange was not the claim itself, or the conviction of the applicant that he was able to do this thing, but the sensitivity with which Kramer dealt with the application: "Perhaps the answer you seek is simpler than the one you have imagined."

Occam's Razor, yet again.

Saturday 9 June 2007

Potter's witchcraft - a threat after all?

I used to think that the Christian outcry against Harry Potter was just plain silly. I've said as much online. More recently though, I've come to the conclusion that Christians are right to be concerned. J K Rowling's blockbuster series could indeed be a serious threat to religious belief. Children who read about Harry's exploits may eventually come to realise that the events depicted have about as much basis in fact as those in certain other books they are being asked to take seriously.

So perhaps the religious uprising against Harry Potter should be welcomed. At least it should prompt people to think about what they are being told to believe.

My own prompting for this post was this article at Guardian Unlimited:

"Teaching assistant quit in protest at Harry Potter"

(via RichardDawkins.net)

Friday 8 June 2007

Who are the lucky ones? (repost from other blog)

We are. That is, those of us lucky enough to be within broadcast reception range of BBC1 television at 7:10 on Saturday evening.

I've waxed ecstatic previously on this blog about the spin-off series Torchwood, and now I can do the same about its 'parent', Doctor Who.

Doctor Who? Kid's programme, innit? Maybe so, but it has all the ingredients of ideal family viewing -- something for the kids, something for the grown-ups. The latest series (number three of the 'reincarnated' version), with David Tennant really getting into his stride as the Doctor, and Freema Agyeman in her first series as his not-so-ditsy companion, has shown us some impressive spectacles, including the strangely art deco Daleks in a decidedly art deco New York, as well as the Bard of Avon in mischievous mode.

But the zenith of series three so far for me has been the two-parter that concluded last week: "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood". Scripted by novelist Paul Cornell (who adapted his Doctor Who book Human Nature), these two episodes reveal characterization to a much greater depth than previously seen, and reinforce the notion that I've always felt about great science fiction -- that it tells us more about how we live our lives in the present, than how we might live in the future. Not that this particular story was about the future, despite the tantalizing glimpses of times that might have come to pass for some of the characters.

The Doctor is being pursued by the Family of Blood -- a group in search of a Time Lord for its own nefarious purposes -- and the only way he can evade detection is to become completely human. And he does so in a pre-First-World-War English public school, leaving Martha to look after not only herself, but his own Time-Lordly essence. When, at the beginning, he asks her if she trusts him, he's really asking himself if he trusts her.

Despite its historical setting, this story exhibits well-known SF tropes, such as an invisible space-ship, time travel (of course) and (hooray!) ray guns. (Or should that be hooray guns...?)

I'll not risk spoilers here, as I know that there are people not as lucky as those of us in the British Isles; impoverished souls who have yet to relish these episodes, condemned to wait until their local TV networks deign to show the latest series, and therefore reduced to squinting disjointedly at blocky YouTube fragments, or ploughing through online directories purporting not actually to host anything at all (apart from dubious thumbnail images that predominate in an excess of exposed skin).

For those less fortunate, but willing to search, may I suggest that entering such terms as "Doctor Who Human Nature Family of Blood" will harvest a veritable torrent of results.

Oh my, you have a treat in store.

Tuesday 5 June 2007

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot


Carl Sagan reads from his book Pale Blue Dot

Church to impose 'rule book' of beliefs

This from the Sunday Telegraph (2007JUN03):


The bishops' paper warns that in order to preserve the unity of the Church, those who do not conform to a more prescriptive statement of faith will be "forced out".

I appreciate that this is probably the Telegraph's journalistic interpretation, but it still left me wondering about the logic of trying to counter disunity by ... enforcing disunity.

And anyway, doesn't the Church of England already have a 'rule book'? (I think King James had something to do with it....)

Saturday 2 June 2007

Apple TV: useful at last? (repost from other blog)

Steve Jobs gave tantalizing glimpses of some Apple related things, and remained tight-lipped about others, in this interview with Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal's D Conference (via Podcasting News).

The stuff about Apple TV is what interests me. To date I've remained unconvinced that Apple TV would be useful to me (see my previous rant here). But now that Apple TV is offering YouTube browsing, I hope that this signals further developments that might make it more useful to me. Apple have announced a fatter version of Apple TV with a 160 GB hard disk, so this does seem likely.

But what I need to know, before even considering buying one of these, either fat or thin, is this: will the Apple TV work with a monitor rather than a widescreen TV? I can't justify the purchase of a widescreen TV, but I do have a 19" widescreen computer monitor with a DVI input. This works with my Panasonic DVR using an adapter cable (HDMI to DVI) and it works with my MacBook using the same cable plus Apple's adapter. It seems reasonable to suppose that this set-up would work with Apple TV, but I don't know.


The Bill O'Reilly Delusion

A few seconds into this clip I couldn't believe my ears. The interview with Richard Dawkins that O'Reilly refers to is the one I linked to here.

Direct link to YouTube video:

No, Bill, you didn't 'beat' Dawkins, and if you honestly think you did then you weren't listening to what he said.

Scotland on the way to theocracy?

BBC Radio 4 Today (Thursday, May 31):

"The head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Patrick O'Brien, will today warn Catholic politicians they can't remain full members of the church if they support abortion. We speak to the Bishop of Paisley."


Piece starts 18'18" into the clip (duration approx 4'10")

Download RealPlayer here

We don't have separation of Church and State here in Britain, so I suppose this kind of thing is to be expected.

Creation Museum

BBC Radio 4 Today (Thursday, May 31):

"If you want to see a reconstruction of Noah's Ark - complete with boarding dinosaurs - then head to the American state of Kentucky to a newly-opened museum devoted to creationism, the belief in the literal truth of the biblical account of how life came to exist."

Piece starts 18'52" into the clip (duration approx 4'32")

Download RealPlayer here

It couldn't happen here in Britain . . . could it?

Redefining meaning?

There's an argument that says that without God, life has no meaning. Some of us actually embrace this as a great liberation. If life has no meaning we are free to imbue it with any meaning we wish. This, however, doesn't satisfy those whose faith demands meaning imposed from above. If you deny that life has intrinsic meaning, they say, and maintain that meaning imposed by God is a myth, inventing meaning in its place is surely equally mythical.

For me, this misunderstands the kind of thing that 'meaning' -- in this context -- is. Meaning in life is not, as some would have it, a kind of goal, or purpose, or ideal end target. To say that life has meaning does not necessarily imbue it with externally imposed direction or intention, and neither does inventing your own meaning. Life just is. What you do with it is your affair.

Meaning in life is not so much a property that it possesses, more a declaration of those who live it.

In a hypothetical conversation between three umpires about strikes in baseball, Umpire 1 says, "I call 'em as they are." Umpire 2 says, "I call 'em as I see 'em." Umpire 3 says "They ain't nothin' till I call 'em." This illustrates the difference between attempting to perceive something that's already there, and acknowledging that some properties don't actually exist at all. Umpire 3 is not claiming flawless perception of objective reality as Umpire 1 is, nor is he admitting imperfect perception of reality, as Umpire 2 is. Umpire 3 is saying that this particular reality doesn't exist until he says it does. That, after all, is his job.

(Incidentally I put some of this worldview speculation into my very first published short story, "The Journey of Jonathan Cave" -- initially published on line at Alien Q, subsequently read on my podcast The Rev Up Review, then re-recorded for publication in Mur Lafferty's audio anthology Voices: New Media Fiction, available for free at Podiobooks.com.)

The concept of 'meaning' in life is a bit like the concept of evolution. Saying 'survival of the fittest' is not to say that the overall grand purpose of evolution is to weed out those less fit. Evolution doesn't have a grand purpose. It just is. If it does tend to weed out those less fit to survive and reproduce in prevailing environmental conditions, this says nothing about whether it's a good or bad thing. Morality doesn't come into it. It's simply the way the mechanism of evolution works.

Your life has no meaning until you say it does. That's your job.