BREAKING: Brazen Thoughts To Sue Google?

Ah, we’re not such a litigious lot here at BT, but our good friends at Google seem to have come up with an innovation that’s, well, not really their innovation.  Or, at least, we got to it first.  And we know the good people in Mountain View read our submissions on this humble blog with great interest.  I’m talking of course about Google Plus, and their concept of “circles”.  Here on this very blog, in a comment under an article where I explained why I had deleted by Facebook page, in June 2010, I suggested:

you know what would be cool? well, gmail has a labelling system for emails – so you can label your emails. Could you label your friends and interactions? You could have a golden circle…a family circle….a school circle….a work circle…and by default, every label gets your interactions, but you can deselect “work” when discussing a night out

Now, I’m not a lawyer (actually I am, but don’t tell anyone, my reputation would be ruined) but it seems to me like this pretty much defines the Google Plus concept of “Circles”.  It even gives it the name!  That’s gotta be worth a billion or so…

Smartphones and Sex (No, Not Like That!)

The NOTW Hacking scandal seems to be settling into a kind of semi-permanent investigation now, and through all of it there was a kind of an uncomfortable prurience by the broadsheets, The Guardian included (Charlie Brooker excepted).  “Cosmic Karma” seemed to be the headline most journos wanted to print, but didn’t; they knew all of them that something lurked not far from the surface, rather like a turn of the millennium Harrison Ford monster movie.  It was of course the genuine urge that everyone has, when picking up The Times, The Telegraph, whatever, to look at the tabloids, maybe to linger for a guilty few seconds, while the spouse is looking elsewhere, and – when caught – to simply scoff saying “who buys this rubbish?”  One of the gifts that the tabloids – certainly in the UK – seemed to master over time was the incredible pre-twitter capacity for word play in a headline, and a general ability to shock or grab the attention in ten words or less.  Which brings me to the headline of this piece (a naff, cheap, poor homage to the late-(and-if-truth-be-told)-lamented NOTW) and phones, and, erm, sex.

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IBM Selectric – a fond remembrance

selectric stamp July 31st was the 50th birthday of the IBM Selectric,  which may have been the most popular typewriter ever sold [link]. The swappable typeball was revolutionary for its time, and to quote Wikipedia.

The possibility to intersperse text in Latin letters with Greek letters and mathematical symbols made the machine especially useful for scientists writing manuscripts that included mathematical formulas. Proper mathematical typesetting was very laborious before the advent of TeX and done only for much-sold textbooks and very prestigious scientific journals.

In 1997, it was time to publish my PhD. thesis (100 plus pages and well over 100 formulas), I found a typist in NYC who would charge $1.00 per page plus $1.00 per formula. Even though the symbol  typeball made formulas possible, it still took her longer to do a single equation than a whole page of text. My how technology has changed but I think having gradually absorbed new technology I still underestimate its impact.

Then yesterday, I came across this wonderful post [link] on a group of college journalist who tried to publish a newspaper using technology from just twenty years ago (but there is no 1 key !!!, use the lowercase L instead). Besides their experiences, there are a couple  of memorable quotes that I found quite profound.

While archeologists try to recreate what life was like 10,000 years ago, and historians try to recreate what life was like 1,000 years ago, journalists can’t even recreate how they published a newspaper 20 years ago. No one documented the details or saved the old equipment. (I had to buy some of it from creepy old men through Craigslist.)

We are losing touch with old technology and while we are relatively good at saving content, the processes are being lost at an alarming rate. The second quote was from one of the student journalists.

Technology hasn’t made us lazier, but it has made it possible to be lazier while still producing the same amount of quality work. Now that I’ve realized this, I know I’ll definitely be working faster to produce more quality news. And unlike the ancient civilizations of the 20th century, I’ve got the technology to do it.

that is something to think about.

What are the British Telcos’ thinking?

The U.K. phone hacking scandal has been very much in the news this week. The hacking scandal, perpetrated at the News of the World, at first involved just celebrities but has expanded to now include families of murdered children.

Phone hacking is fairly easy and is usually accomplished by misrepresentation rather than code changes. New Scientist has a very good article on how voice mail systems have been compromised and how easy it is to accomplish.  While the motives and actions of the News of the World are deplorable, they were made so much easier by the lax safeguards typically in place at most mobile phone companies (this is not just a “British” problem).

Which brings us to the Guardian, which analyzed the advertising spend at the News of the World over the first 5 months of 2011 using the IBM Many Eyes program.

NoW Advertising

On examining this data further, 3 of the top 5 advertisers are mobile Telcos and all 4 major providers are in the top 10. So my question is, why would you continue to support and advertise in a newspaper that has abused your systems. They appear oblivious to the damage to their brands. I would of thought  that they could of used that money (over 4 million GBP) to put in better safeguards!!.

Paul Revere and the Mythologising of History

Ah, Sarah.  Where would we be without our Sarah.  I say our, though I’m not an American.  I’m not even Canadian!  But she seems so universal a figure, perhaps through shared language (at least as an approximation of language) than anything else.  Her recent assault on facts, as it were, in relation to Paul Revere’s Ride, has left high school history teachers agog (well, the non-creationists at least).  As one blogger put it, the real story “is pretty much known by everyone.”  This lady clearly doesn’t know that stupider isn’t a word.  And by introducing the piece as being about “jabbering imbecile Sarah Palin and her rented tour bus…” we pretty much know where she’d headed with the article, and it is not to Objective City.  But we do know what she meant, and we like her energy.  Whether comparable trespasses on the lawn of cultural history or not, at least one liberal blogger points out that Obama’s not squeaky clean in massaging history to suit his present needs.

Assaulting national identity and culture seems to strike pretty hard.  We anchor ourselves in stories and mythology that in a way define us; we create heroes.  Paul Revere’s ride was dangerous, brave, spirited.  It was ideologically driven, from an objectively good ideology (we should be independent, we should govern ourselves, and our futures, we should be free!).  In Ireland we have our mythology about the Easter Rising, in England there are countless mythologies about monarchs, empire and the civilising influence of Great Britain in the world.  And so any assault on the accepted version of that truth is an assault on the nation corporate, an attack on shared values.

Edward Carr’s seminal work “What Is History?” defines history not as a set of facts, but as a dialogue between the present and the past, he sees history as a dynamic thing.  It helps us to better understand who we are as a relative thing, just as much as it helps us to declare who we are.  Therefore I can claim to be like Paul Revere because I’m brave and defend my people; Sarah Palin can claim to be like Paul Revere because she defends the right to bear arms.  Revere himself (or Rivoire, to give him his proper French name) would have faded long ago from the memory were it not for the eulogising and mythmaking of Longfellow, almost half a century after he had died.  Longfellow was not entirely true to his research, in order to create an appropriately dramatic scene befitting of his poem, and of the new myth.  At the end of the day, whatever happened that night when the British were apparently on their way, the story of Paul Revere’s Ride is both sacred, and quite possibly untrue.  But we create these myths, and we persist with these myths, and we change these myths, so that they can define ourselves today, in a cross-generational dialogue.  And perhaps Sarah Palin is trying to do just that – to redefine America, or define her America, uncovering a truth where perhaps it had not been seen before.

One outstanding question remains, however.  Time is an important factor in myth making.  It cannot happen within a generation.  The myth needs retelling, reinforcement, third party validation.  In the age of the Internet, things happen really really fast.  Does history itself become redefined by the internet?  Would Carr suggest a different dialogue on the nature of history?  The internet is an exceptionally efficient communications mechanism, and as such the nature of communications changes, and the impact of communications (and by extension the myth-making, eulogising, even conspiracy theorising) is more immediate.  It may also be that it is also more fleeting, and less sustainable.  The internet does not remember very well.  New technologies render obsolete the old very quickly.  Storage of old stuff is really hard.  Language changes faster (have you been pwn3d recently?!).  Meaning shifts.  In fifty, or one hundred years time, will anyone remember Sarah Palin?  More importantly – will anyone remember anything at all that’s more than fifty years old?

“It’s a fact”–what we can learn from Mona Lisa Vito

I have been a fan of “My Cousin Vinny” for yearsmycousin and I must admit to guilty pleasure watching it for the umpteenth time when it does its semi-annual rounds on late night TV. Reading a couple of blog posts recently, I was reminded of my favourite scene where the antagonistic Ms. Vito, acting as an expert in general automotive knowledge,  wins the day by looking at photograph and turns the whole case for the defense…

Vinny Gambini: How could you be so sure?
Mona Lisa Vito: Because there is no way that these tire marks were made by a 1964 Buick Skylark convertible. These marks were made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest.
D.A. Jim Trotter: Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: [to Lisa] This is your opinion, or is it a fact?
Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact!

The full scene is at the bottom of this post….

The first post was from boingboing about the use of experts in understanding the Japanese nuclear event at Fukushima. The point made by the article was that an expert in one field is not an expert in another. In particular, while an expert in risk management can provide valuable insight on a problem of this magnitude to understand what is going on, you really should ask a nuclear scientist.

It has become a pet peeve of mine that we (the media) treat people as experts without ever considering, do they have any expertise in the subject at hand. I even felt sorry for Sarah Palin, when she was thrust in the limelight by John McCain and she was supposed to have all the foreign policy answers. An expert in public speaking does not equal an expert in the constitution, foreign policy or community service.

So what are we supposed to do about all this. This is where the second blog post comes in. Ben Goldacre in the Guardian had an article titled A case of never letting the source spoil a good story where he details various examples of journalists getting it all wrong where a check of the source material would have saved a lot of erroneous ink and spreading of falsehoods. I think his conclusion is right on

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. There’s also an interesting difference between different media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, so they must build it by linking transparently and allowing you to double-check their work easily.

But more than anything, because linking to sources is such an easy thing to do and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.

So the moral of the story is, if the article or blog post that  you are reading has no links to primary sources – then it is just opinion not fact.

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