December 2006 Archives

Knee-jerk of the week

19 December 2006

Dan Gillmor is either a stranger to the art of the magazine cover-line or didn't think too hard when providing his commentary on Time magazine's cover about the sudden realisation that a lot of people can now put their stuff online and that, apparently, gangs of machine-gun touting record company executives no longer force consumers to buy Michael Jackson CDs.

Amid the congratulations for writing about blogging - something that Gillmor likes a lot - he comes out with a sentence that makes you wonder whether he has ever considered what is in the mind of someone who reads a magazine or, indeed, anything:

But there’s a tiny bit of reality in the fact that the cover didn’t say “Us” instead of “You” — in part because it was a vestige of the magazine’s traditional, royal thinking wherein they told us everything they thought we needed to know (and what to think about it). Our role: We bought it or didn’t.

It didn't say "Us", I have no doubt, because it would have been the most confusing cover-line ever committed to print. Anyone scanning the magazine racks would have wondered why Time staff in a fit of hubris voted themselves their people of the year. And we'd have Gillmor bitching about the "them and us" philosophy of that. Luckily for them, the editors at Time do at least consider what is in the mind of someone who is working out what they'd like to read at the airport. "You" was the obvious choice for that cover - which, in itself, was a bit obvious. But, ignoring that makes it easier to bang on about the ideology of what Gillmor now calls "citizen media".

So, it still seems strange, as Venture Voice points out, that the citizen media ideologues still need daddy's approval:

However, what does it say that a silly magazine award (published by the "M.S.M." no less) can still set the blogosphere a flutter?

Robots? Windows? Help!

13 December 2006

I'm sure not whether to be very scared about Microsoft's plan to dominate the world of robotics software, or feel relieved. The press release that breathlessly introduces us to the glorious new world of robots - with control presumably wrestled from the grip of Far Eastern technocrats who want everybody to feel the cold metal embrace of in-home automatons - tells us about "surveillance robots that can defuse roadside bombs" and "robotic arms that perform surgeries" as well as "automatons that seek out and smash all forms of Macintosh computer". Sorry, I made that last bit up.

But it's hard to get over the fact that this is Microsoft we're talking about. The company that wrote the operating system that now powers many cash registers in shops - something I have recently become aware of after watching several crash in quick succession. Well, the crashes were quick. The reboots were the painful bits as the queues behind doubled in size.

You can imagine that bomb defusing robot getting to the blue wire, red wire decision suddenly discovering that two security updates and a new version of AntiBomb are now available - "You must restart now for these updates to take effect", as the LED counts down to the last five seconds.

The good news is that we need no longer fear an army of unstoppable Terminators bent on the destruction of the human race. Only bot-net armies reprogrammed by spammers to sell V!@gra door to door.

The airport WiFi sweepstake

7 December 2006

It was perhaps the look of resignation in the eyes of the check-in clerk for British Airways that settled the choice of how long I should order for the WiFi connection. Turning up two hours before the flight was due to take off from Lyon Saint-Exupéry, the signs were already showing a delay of one hour. Not a good sign.

Then she said, pointing to the boarding time on the ticket. "At 6:10, if you want to come back here to the check-in desk, we can update you with more information on the flight."

"Is it worth going through through security?" I asked.

She shook her head. No, that was a bad idea. "Aah, right. I see what you mean," I said, adding a quick thank you as I wandered in search of a cafe where I could hold up for a few hours.

Logging on to the airport Wifi, it asked if I wanted 30 minutes - too optimistic by far - an hour for €10, two hours for 50 per cent more or a whole day for double. I thought about it for a minute, did a quick calculation and plumped for the 24-hour pass. I'm not expecting to get out of this airport fast.

Once through the paywall, I saw the story about the North London tornado. Nice weather we're having. It's just tipping it down in southern France.

For years, the semiconductor industry has been under threat of consolidation as companies try to build enough scale to let them fund successive generations of high-integration devices. But the consolidation has failed to happen, much to the bemusement of analysts and other observers. It remains a process that is about to happen.
Wolfgang Ziebart, president of German chipmaker Infineon Technologies, pointed out at the recent Electronica trade show that the process is not likely to be a repeat of what happened in industries such as aluminium and steel. Instead specialists will form that dominate niches but are barely heard of outside their chosen markets. Weaker players will retreat from niches that they cannot control or influence rather than face price wars at the bottom of the market.

Polonium's smoky history

3 December 2006

It was going to happen eventually - that the latest polonium scare would end up being tied to a different kind of radiation scare 40 years in the past.

Like a lot of people after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, I did a bit of a Google to get more familiar with a poison that is "a trillion times more toxic than cyanide". I vaguely recalled how the Curies gave the element its name but little else. References to smoking and polonium kept popping up - but with very little evidence of what researchers had actually said.

Polonium in cigarette smoke is something that has popped up about every ten years since the publication of a paper in the journal Science in early 1964. It's strange because very little in the way of new work actually seems to drive the stories about polonium in smoke.

The problem with the story of polonium and smoke is similar to the problem people have today with assessing the risk of polonium on planes and in hotels and sushi bars. That word "significant" keeps coming up and in relation to tiny numbers. The trouble is, the inability to visualise what tiny numbers mean lead people to the wrong conclusions. You can see the logic that Proctor is applying. Litvinenko was poisoned by a tiny amount of polonium. There is a tiny amount of polonium in cigarette smoke. There is, in fact, a tiny amount of polonium in the food we eat. Oh crap. We're in trouble.

Only kidding: there is a yawning gap between the numbers involved.

It's Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, who we can thank for raising the issue of polonium in tobacco once again. He wrote an opinion column, "Puffing on polonium", for the New York Times about a much larger source of polonium-210 than what is apparently available to shady hitmen. "The [tobacco] industry has been aware at least since the 1960s that cigarettes contain significant levels of polonium...about a quarter of a curie of one of the world’s most radioactive poisons is inhaled along with the tar, nicotine and cyanide of all the world’s cigarettes smoked each year. Pack-and-a-half smokers are dosed to the tune of about 300 chest X-rays," he wrote. It's that word "significant" again.

For a moment I thought it was next stop schadenfreude as I happened across a post at Sally Flood's Getting Ink blog about Strumpette's idea of having a "copy journalist sub the copy posted by a 'communications' expert".

However, the guilty pleasure was shortlived as I noticed a comment from Rob Buckley about the sub-editor's stone-casting credentials:

"(WHY THE PASSIVE VOICE?)" in reference to "a serious newspaper is grappling", when that's actively voiced present continuous tense..."

Strumpette aka Amanda Chapel, but is really someone else entirely, claims she/he engaged the services of "a newspaperman to proofread" the copy of Text 100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes. It's strange how Chapel refers to the process as proofreading when he/she was after a copy-edit. I don't know many proofreaders on newspapers. OK, I don't know any. They're generally called sub- or copy-editors because that's what they do. Want a proofreader? Try book publishing.

Apparently, Chapel's 'newspaperman' is not up for any freelance work. That's a relief, because he seems to share Chapel's wayward approach to English.

Take the preceding post on Britney Spears' need for a more discrete form of PR where, apparently the flack "must be facile with blogging and podcasting" and would be advised to have "Turrets Syndrome". OK, I can guess the name that was meant to go with "syndrome" there, but I'm having some difficulty working out which word Chapel was reaching for when she/he alighted on "facile".

Back to our anonymous sub:

"(WRONG WORD. “LITANY” IS NOT A MERE PLURAL ADJECTIVE LIKE “HOST.” THE WORD MEANS “A LIST OF COMPLAINTS OR PROBLEMS.” NOT QUITE RIGHT IN THIS CONTEXT.)

Err...right. May I recommend a dictionary for Christmas for the Chapel household? There should be a word that means "a list of complaints or problems" but litany is not it. Maybe a "tedious recital" or a "series of prayers", but not what Chapel, er, Chapel's sub thinks it is.

The piece goes on in the same vein, and makes you wonder whether Hynes is all that bad as a writer. That illusion does soon go away when you look at the original but I feel I might need a dictionary from a parallel universe should I ever come across work from the pen of Strumpette in real life.