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Bare-faced cheek from Sky Sports

I was watching the football this evening (and no, I haven’t done my napowrimo poem yet, and yes, that’s probably what I should be doing now instead of this post), and all the players looked rather short and squat. And changing the format setting on the TV didn’t seem to help.

I came to the conclusion that what Sky had done was take a picture which was being filmed in the traditional 4:3 ratio, cut the top and the bottom off, and stretch what was left to a widescreen ratio. So they had reduced the amount of the game you could see and distorted the picture in order to produce fake widescreen, on the assumption that as long as the punters thought they were getting a widescreen broadcast it didn’t matter if they crippled the picture. Which, frankly, I took as an insult.

Oh, and I couldn’t help noticing that these days Solskjaer still has the baby features, but now they’re combined with the premature aging effect of sport played at the top level, he looks more like a baby who has been preserved in a Swedish peat bog for a few hundred years.

I know, I know, less wittering, more poem-writing.

Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

Taboo vocabulary

Commenting on the current controversy surrounding Celebrity Big Brother and a bleeped-out word spoken by one of the contestants, the Telegraph printed this remarkable sentence:

Channel 4 was quick to clarify that Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ‘paki’.

Channel 4 being a bit too clear for the delicate sensibilities of Telegraph readers there. Note that ‘paki’, which, by implication, is the more taboo word, is left en clair. Although to be fair, ‘Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ****’ would be even more bizarre.

For more fun with taboo vocabulary, check out the Language Log, where they’ve conveniently compiled a list of posts on the subject. You might want to start with this one.

Oh, and if you were wondering: ‘cunt’.

Crappy journalism in action

I nearly posted a link to this story on the BBC website about cows having regional accents because I thought it was mildly interesting. But the internet linguistics police quickly debunked it.

The BBC story starts by saying “Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.” What actually happened was that a PR firm working for a cheese manufacturer had called a couple of linguists and asked them whether there was any possibility that cows’ moos varied geographically. The answer was something like “well, it seems very unlikely, but it’s not completely impossible, because regional ‘accents’ have been observed in birds”.

Now I don’t particularly blame the cheese people’s people. They’re a PR firm. Spinning the truth is what they do. Trading on other people’s professional authority while misrepresenting what they actually said isn’t exactly attractive behaviour, but they’re salespeople and they are open about the fact that they’re selling you something. And to be fair, the original press release clearly bases its claims only on what the farmers have said. It’s not claiming to be any more than anecdotal.

But I do blame the BBC. They are the ones who reported this as a news story on their science pages, and who failed to call the linguists in question for a bit of fact-checking. They’ve actually made it worse by cutting out all the references to the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers. That’s presumably because they aren’t supposed to be providing advertising for anyone, but the result is that they’ve cut out any indication that the story is based on a press release put out by the PR firm for a dairy company, rather than, oh I don’t know, a paper in a scientific journal.

You’re probably thinking “chill out, Harry, it’s only a silly story about cows having accents”. And that’s probably what the BBC would say in their defence. Well, fuck that. I know that the fate of nations doesn’t hang on it, but if something is reported as news, I want them to have made the basic minimum of effort to report it correctly. Otherwise, why bother?

It’s typical of the media’s approach to reporting science. Or indeed just about any subject outside politics. They get all up their own arses about the importance of their role as protectors of democracy and speakers of truth to power, and the seriousness and integrity of their political journalism. And on their better days, all that stuff is true. But the moment they report on science, there’s a feeling that well, no-one can be expected to understand the technical details, so it’s alright to provide a watered-down and simplistic version; and anyway, it’s not very important like the political stuff (as though most political journalism was any more than gossip), so as long as it’s mildly entertaining, who cares if it’s really accurate? And then because that’s their attitude, they get all surprised when people like me get annoyed by it, because it’s ‘just’ a silly season story about cows, and surely people are media-savvy enough to know that it may not be held to the same standards as their political reporting?

Well, no. I actually care about the truth of these stories. Even the cow story; if it’s true, it’s interesting. If it’s not true, it’s just a waste of my time. I really feel quite strongly that if they’re going to do science and health reporting, they should do it properly. At the most basic level: if they get a press release about a piece of scientific research, they should call the scientists involved and make sure they don’t misrepresent them. And if it appears to be making an outlandish or controversial claim, call someone who can be expected to know about the subject and check with them. Otherwise just stop it. Stop reporting about science altogether if you can’t be bothered to get it right.

And if you think they’re more reliable when the subject, instead of cow accents, is something vitally important like vaccinations causing autism: *hollow laugh*

Brilliant BBC fact-checking

BBC London, reporting on some building developments which are being held up by protests from English Nature, announced that the three key bird species were ‘Dartmouth Warbler’ (actually Dartford Warbler), Woodlark and Nightjar. But the really amusing bit was that the Nightjar was illustrated with film of some Wigeons. It’s always slightly unnerving when journalists report on a subject which you know something about; it makes you realise how much crap they must be talking the rest of the time.

noozpapers

One of the minor joys of the brave new electronic age is the ease of buying the UK papers abroad. Not because I desperately want to keep up with the British news – I mean, really, whatever the fuck David Cameron has just said about the NHS can wait a couple of weeks, by which time everyone will have forgotten about it anyway – but because it’s nice to be able to sit in a cafe somewhere with a caffe solo and read the paper. I suspect that’s the key truth for anyone wanting to run a newspaper; no one is buying it to learn what’s happening in the world. We have TV, radio and internet for that. What we want is something that will keep us occupied, entertained, and very gently stimulated for about three-quarters of an hour. In the long run, incredible ground-breaking scoops that shake governments are less important to your circulation figures than a good crossword and some mildly amusing columnists.

None of which offers much incentive for journalists to do the useful job of keeping politicians on their toes.

Duchamp vandalism and BBC fuckwittery

Someone took a hammer to Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Which is the famous sculpture made from a urinal. I just found the BBC’s phrasing annoying:

A 77-year-old Frenchman has spent a night in custody in Paris after attacking a plain porcelain urinal considered to be a major artwork.

‘considered’ to be a major artwork? It’s one of the iconic artworks of the 20th century! I can’t believe that 88 years after the event, the BBC still feels the need to prevaricate about it. Not the Daily Mail or the Sun, but the BBC, a serious news organisation and a major cultural broadcaster to boot. Fuckwits. What kind of philistinic culture do we live in?

I don’t insist people should like Fountain, and if you wanted, you could argue it’s a kind of work which has been a rather uninteresting experiment and should be relegated to a footnote in art history. Or whatever. But the idea that we have to have the same stupid, boring, pointless argument about whether it’s art, over and over again – aargh!

Bad science reporting

Ben Goldacre says (full article here):

There is one university PR department in London that I know fairly well – it’s a small middle-class world after all – and I know that until recently, they had never employed a single science graduate. This is not uncommon. Science is done by scientists, who write it up. Then a press release is written by a non-scientist, who runs it by their non-scientist boss, who then sends it to journalists without a science education who try to convey difficult new ideas to an audience of either lay people, or more likely – since they’ll be the ones interested in reading the stuff – people who know their way around a t-test a lot better than any of these intermediaries. Finally, it’s edited by a whole team of people who don’t understand it. You can be sure that at least one person in any given “science communication” chain is just juggling words about on a page, without having the first clue what they mean, pretending they’ve got a proper job, their pens all lined up neatly on the desk.

Amen, brother.

Of course, it’s not just science reporting. Any time you read an article in the paper on a subject where you have some specialist knowledge – Anglo-Saxon poetry, or birdwatching, or husky racing – it’s always riddled with inaccuracies and misleading phrasing. But inaccurate reporting on Anglo-Saxon poetry is pretty harmless, whereas inaccurate reporting of, say, research into the MMR jab can scare a lot of people, undermine confidence in medicine and potentially cost people their lives.

I vaguely assume that in the core news subjects (politics, business and sport, especially) the reporters have enough real expertise to know what the important stories are and how to present them accurately, even if they don’t choose to do so. But perhaps they’re floundering around in the same fog of ignorance that seems to afflict science journalists.

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