Friday 30 November 2007

Friday Grab Bag: Itchy Head Edition

I never thought I'd say this but I wish I had lice.

Or ringworm. Or hemorrhagic fever. Some nasty contagion. Lice would probably be best since that would be the ideal way to pay back the thieving ne'er-do-well against whom I want revenge. You see, a couple of weeks ago we visited Oxford's Museum of Natural History. We rode our bicycles in a pouring rain and rather than lock my helmet to the bike, as I normally do, I left it sitting on a bench in the museum's entry way. The room was encrusted with the cast-off accouterments of wet visitors: dozens of umbrellas and coats, strollers dripping and steaming in the radiator heat. My Lovely Wife and I cleared a space and put our helmets down.

When we emerged 90 minutes later hers was there and mine wasn't. It had been stolen, nicked, pinched. As I rode home I entertained dark fantasies of retribution....

Let Us Give Thanks
A reader asked how our Thanksgiving was. Lovely. We held it last Sunday, rather than on the 22nd itself, the British rather sniffily refusing to celebrate Thanksgiving. We invited some Actual English People over and told them all about the history of the holiday (Jamestown vs. Plymouth, Pilgrims vs. Indians, Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers, real cranberry jelly versus the stuff in cans that has those little ridges in it). My Lovely Wife made a wonderful feast, the centerpiece of which was a free-range, organic turkey. Guess how much it cost. Go on, guess. No, higher. Higher. Yup, 45 pounds Sterling for a 13-pound turkey. That's $90. We sucked the meat off every bone.

BritNews Roundup
Another week, another Daily Mail story about women's breasts. I've written in this space before about that paper's fascination with female chestal regions (any my fascination with their fascination). Sometimes I think they write about bosoms just so I'll have something to include in my BritNews Roundup every Friday. This week's story involves an Oxford writer (!) named Clover Stroud who had a special effects artists craft her a set of lifelike silicon boobs that she could parade around town in. The ostensible purpose was to take an incisive sociological look at the commodification of big-breasted women. But regular readers of the BritNews Roundup know it was just an excuse to run saucy photos of a woman's cups runnething over.

The result of her experiment? The postman seems "much cheerier" than normal. (I can just imagine him thinking to himself: "I 'ardly earn any money, I 'ave to deliver the post in the rain, my missus is a fishwife, but that big-bosomed lady's made my day, she 'as.") Drivers do a double-take, one swerving violently to avoid a collision. (If someone had been killed, would the Daily Mail have been responsible?) Ms. Stroud concludes "large breasts really do work as a man magnet at at least a hundred yards."

But there's a dark side to the decollotage: Men ogle, some make saucy remarks. "I realised that a whole lifetime of being checked out, and commented on, like some prize heifer, would drive me quite mad." Or maybe she could just dress a little less trashily.

Emma Clarke, the voice-over artist who provided the recordings for the London Underground, has been fired for being quoted as saying she never rode the Tube any more because the service was dreadful. It probably didn't help that she also recorded gag announcements for her Web site, including one that went: "We would like to remind our American tourist friends that you are almost certainly talking too loud."

Hey, at least our breasts are real. Unless we're from California.

File under "yuck": An auction house in Yorkshire is selling an "anthropodermic" bound book. That's one covered in human skin. It just might be bound in the skin of the person the book is about, a Jesuit priest executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The Daily Mail (of course) has a story about how the priest's face is visible on the front of the book, like some ghostly Shroud of Turin image.

Here is where I would normally have a story about some British person attempting to have sex with an inanimate object (a bicycle, a fence, a backyard compost bin....) but that doesn't make news anymore. No, what's truly newsworthy is when someone has sex with a woman, especially if that someone is a "top England" soccer star. "Another Blow for England" is the suitably cheeky headline on the story in the News of the World about a birthday party at which a senior player, um, scored in public. "It's incredible that this should be going on so close to England becoming the laughing stock of Europe by not qualifying" for the European cup, said an onlooker. "If the players put as much effort into playing as this one did into boozing and shagging they might have got somewhere."

My favorite part of the story is one of the subheds, just a single evocative word: "Groin."

Stone Carving of the Week

This is the Fettiplace Monument, a wall tomb snapped by My Lovely Wife on a tour of St. Mary's Church in Swinbrook. Not dead, it seems to say. Just resting. They look like three guys on the sleeper train to Vienna.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday 29 November 2007

The Goings-On at Number 28

You never really know your neighbors, do you? When I saw a young woman with a latte in hand going into a house around the corner from ours a few weeks ago, I assumed she was a student. "Ah," I said to myself. "She must be going to a tutorial in the home of a kindly old Oxford don. Or perhaps she is an exchange student working on her English."

"Working on her English." Yeah, I suppose you could say that. The lack of books should have been a tip off. For the woman was apparently engaged in the world's oldest profession, and no, I don't mean Amway.

The tipoff came courtesy of an anonymous flier that blanketed the neighborhood last week: tucked under windshield wipers, scattered on the sidewalk. There is a brothel at No. 28 Middle Way, it announced. Perverts are coming into our neighborhood. Something must be done.

And something was done. Yesterday around 2 p.m. the police burst into No. 28. According to the Oxford Mail: "Inside they found three prostitutes and a middle-aged man who were all quizzed by officers. [An aside: 'Quizzed'? As in, 'Who won the 1977 EuroVision Song Contest?'] A woman was arrested on suspicion of assisting in running a brothel and was last night in custody."

"Sex for Sale in 'Much Loved' Suburb" read one of the headlines in the Mail, which, incidentally, carried an advertisement for the brothel. Sasha & Friends it was called. There was even a web address which I, die-hard investigative journalist that I am, checked out.
"The offers on this and following pages are for time and companionship only," the site says. "If anything else happens it is a matter of coincidence and choice between consenting adults."

What a coincidence! I gave you 70 pounds and now you're having sex with me!

My Lovely Wife was walking the dog when the raid occurred yesterday. We'd been surprised by the flier (this place is literally halfway down the block and around the corner from us) and so were extremely curious. We'd look at the recycling No. 28 put out as we walked past, trying to decide what it meant. Hmmmm, prostitutes drink a lot of bottled water. And they don't care to separate glass from plastic.

Yesterday Ruth called me from her walk and I rushed over there to rubberneck. I stood on the sidewalk across the street. There wasn't much to see. The employees had already been removed and a half-dozen cops milled about near three police vehicles. I watched as two elderly women walked down the pavement towards me. As they drew near one said to me, "Should we ask what's going on?"

A brothel's just been raided, I answered.

"Ohhhhh," she said, in that Monty Python-in-drag voice that all English old ladies possess. And then the pair toddled on.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Col. Mustard, in the Conservatory, With an RSS Feed

So why did I go to Cambridge last week anyway? To attend a lecture in honor of the Wolfson Press Fellowship's 25th anniversary, delivered by Financial Times columnist and Reuters Institute brain John Lloyd. It was a sobering catalogue of the challenges facing the media.
Lloyd said journalists are right to reflect with "some foreboding" on the woes we face, "but we must have some faith that serious journalism is worth doing." (An excerpt from his remarks ran in Cambridge's Varsity student newspaper.)

The evening reminded me of one of those Agatha Christie mysteries where it turns out more than one killer offed the victim. Who does Lloyd think has stabbed serious journalism, leaving it hovering near death in the intensive-care unit, a respirator in its mouth, a catheter bag hanging by the bedside? Among the suspects:

Pack journalism that's intent on tearing down politicians and other public figures by accentuating the negative. (Especially in Britain, which suffers, Lloyd said, from "endemic incivility.")
The concomitant rise in spin, as politicians try to shape the news.
The hungry maw of the 24-hour news cycle, which requires a constant supply of fresh meat on which to chew.
Dwindling news staffs, which means fewer journalists doing more work of lower quality.
The growth of the public relations industry and the embrace journalism has given it, resulting in journalists who do little more than "launder" press releases.
Free sheets such as Metro, which threaten established evening papers such as the Evening Standard.
The ability of consumers to put together their own news from myriad sources, commodifying journalism.

Most of these, Lloyd suggested, are the result of market forces, prompting him to wonder if perhaps the market has failed when it comes to providing serious journalism. If that is the case, then other methods of support should be contemplated, including funding from the state (as with the BBC) or from not-for-profit institutions (such as Pew or Carnegie).

I would hate to see it come to that, desirous as I am that journalism--serious and otherwise--be able to pay its own way. And I was trying to see the appeal that would be made to the public on journalism's behalf. Would the argument by that this is like trying to save, say, a homegrown steel industry (vital national security issues are at stake) or like seeking funding for an experimental ballet company (sure, it only appeals to a few people but culture is important for our society)?

Sean Taylor, R.I.P.
Sean Taylor, the Washington Redskins player, was shot and killed near Miami earlier this week. A tragedy to be sure. It's interesting watching the media pick through the 24-year-old's life and death and create narratives or explanations. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson makes an impassioned plea that we resist thinking in these terms. Writes Robinson: "Do me a favor: If you have to impose an off-the-shelf narrative on Sean Taylor's death, pick something other than the Young Black Men story."

The Post's Len Shapiro performs the sort of linguistic gymnastics columnists all over America are doing today, writing in one paragraph "At the moment, it is far too soon to draw any conclusions as to how or why this tragedy occurred..." before a few lines later concluding: "Still, could anyone honestly say they never saw this coming?"

Taylor had several well-publicized brushes with the law, with the NFL and with his own team. He once spit in an opposing player's face. He allegedly threatened a group of men he thought had stolen his all-terrain vehicle (not his car, as a British paper reported yesterday). (And what is it about ATVs anyway? They're always in the news for the wrong reasons: breaking the necks of 6-year-olds or inspiring feats of misguided loyalty.)

Every story about Taylor mentions that his father is a police chief. I guess the two didn't talk much about the best way to behave in tense situations. We can be sure of one thing: Writer's strike or no, the folks at "CSI: Miami" are sharpening their pencils as we speak.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Cambridge By Bus, or: "Why Does Spock Have a Beard?"

Last week I went from Oxford to Cambridge, where I was a guest of John Naughton, who runs the Wolfson Press Fellowship at Wolfson College. You would think that these two important centers of learning would be connected by turbocharged airship service or a subterranean mag-lev train hewn from the living rock, but in fact transportation planners in England discourage traversing the 80-odd miles that separate the two university towns.

My choices were a rather expensive trip by train south into London and then north to Cambridge or a 3 1/2-hour cross-country bus journey. Being a cheapskate I opted for the bus. I'm sure the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder will lift soon.

How bad can a bus journey be? First of all, banish from your mind the picture of a modern motor coach of the sort that ferries package holidaygoers around Britain--hell, that ferries eighth-grade band students to Hershey Park. No plush reclining seats or in-flight movie for the brave Oxbridge pilgrims. No, we were on a double-decker bus outfitted with seats designed to be comfortable for no longer than 10 minutes, not that we could stay in one place for that long. The bus would enter roundabouts like a great jibing sailboat. The driver would whip the steering wheel to the left as he merged, then to the right as we moved counterclockwise through the roundabout. Then he'd saw to the left again to exit. Between roundabouts he'd floor the accelerator like a man convinced he'd left the iron on at home.

It starts getting dark around 4:30 p.m. in England these days so I didn't see much of Cambridge but what I did see left me disturbed. Cambridge was like Planet X, that Earthlike planet eternally on the far side of the sun, invisible to us here. It was so like Oxford, and yet so different.

Both of course take their names from their roles in getting over pesky rivers. Both owe their international fame to the ancient (Cambridge's slightly less ancient) universities that are there. Both have Wolfson Colleges, as a matter of fact. But there are slight, vertigo-inducing differences. The Latin grace before dinner in Cambridge was very short (just two words, "Benedictae, benedictum" if I'm not mistaken [and I may be]) while the last formal meal I had at an Oxford college was preceded by a long, sung blessing. The Cambridge press fellowship, similar to the Reuters program at Oxford, brings journalists from around the world. But while they have a journalist from Brazil, we have one from Argentina. They have a journalist from Pakistan. We have one from India. (We both have one from the BBC, not surprising given that you can't take out the trash in England without tripping over a BBC producer.) It was like that episode of "Seinfeld" where Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine encounter their TV doppelgangers. I kept looking for an American in a shiny suit, their me.

Wolfson College Cambridge, like Green College Oxford, has a bar for students. Green's bar is like a tatty basement rec room. Wolfson's is like something from a cruise ship: bright and flashy. To get the key for the room I was staying in for the night I had to check in with the porter. I've only ever seen male porters at Oxford. The Wolfson porter was a woman. Maybe all the porters in Cambridge are women.

I think I know why it's so hard to travel between the two cities. You're not just heading from Oxfordshire to Cambridgesire. You're traveling through a rip in the time-space continuum.

Freedom From Speech
Oxford has been abuzz with fallout from the Oxford Union's decision to invite a Holocaust-denier and the leader of a quasi-fascist political party to speak at an event addressing the issue of freedom of speech. Some members of the Oxford Union complained that the president of the famed debating group was just looking for publicity. But the membership voted to allow David Irving and Nick Griffin to speak last night.

It didn't go off as planned. Demonstrators stormed the gates and occupied the stage, forcing the two men to deliver their remarks in separate rooms. Repugnant the mens' views are but stifling those views just gives them a perverse appeal.

Monday 26 November 2007

The Oxford Bike Cull

I think my favorite abandoned bicycle in Oxford is the one I saw locked to a fence in the shadow of St. Mary the Virgin church, not far from the Radcliffe Camera. It's a mountain bike whose best days are far behind it. The paint is chipped, the frame is rusty, the chain hangs limply and the front wheel is bent into a shape that resembles a Mobius strip. Some ill-intentioned passerby had to exert a lot of force with a boot-shod foot to deform the rim in such a creative fashion.

You can still make out the brand name of the bike, though. It reads "Optimist."

There are bikes like that one all over Oxford: forlorn, derelict, transformed through neglect or violence from efficient modes of eco-friendly transportation into rusting hulks.

Rusting hulks that take up perfectly good space, for almost as hard as finding a parking space for your car in Oxford is finding a place to lock up your bike. Local transportation researchers estimate that 20,000 cycle trips are made into Oxford's central area every day. In the wild a diverse assortment of organisms--from mammals to beetles to microbes--make corpses disappear. When it comes to old bicycles in Oxford, however, the great circle of life seems not to work.

Then I read in the Oxford Mail that the city had promised to remove derelict bikes. Obsessed as I am with these bikes--whose are they? how do they fall on such hard times? what becomes of them?--I knew I had to tag along.

And so on a recent morning I met Paul Coles at the Covered Market, the 18th-century shopping district he manages for the city. Paul's job takes him between the Covered Market and a weekly outdoor market a few blocks away at Gloucester Green. He knows these streets, and while it would be an exaggeration to say that he remembers each and every bike he passes, his bosses decided he should walk the streets of downtown, choosing which bicycles would be cut from the herd.

“People say pigeons are pests but the abandoned bikes are a real problem," said Paul, 42, as we headed out onto Market Street. In his hand he clutched a quiver of yellow zip-ties. We were joined by another city worker, Mark Massingham, 43. “Tag that," Paul said, handing Mark a zip-tie and pointing to a green Royale that was locked to a lamp post. "That bike’s not been touched for a while.”

Mark cinched the plastic around a brake cable, up near the handlebars. Later in the week a crew would retrace the route and use an angle grinder to cut the lock of any tagged bicycle before taking the bike away. Serial numbers would be checked against registered bikes and the bikes either scrapped or sold.

Paul had several theories about where Oxford's abandoned bikes came from. He said most of the owners are students who paid so little for the bikes that when they graduate and move away they can't be bothered to bring the bikes with them. Others lose the keys to the locks or return to find that the bike's been vandalized and just consign it to its fate. (Click below for video of our escapade.)

We turned on Turl Street and then left at Broad Street, the wide thoroughfare fronted by Trinity College. Long metal racks bristled with bicycles and Paul and Mark moved through them like gardeners dead-heading flowers, palpating tires to judge how long it had been since a bike had been ridden. Some bikes had been relieved of their wheels and saddles and resembled carcasses picked clean in the desert.

A decrepit bike doesn't necessarily mean an abandoned bike, however, not if it's functional. “A lot of people keep old bikes," said Paul. "No one wants to nick an old bike.”

I asked about something I had heard: that gangs of thieves steal bikes in Oxford to sell in Cambridge and bikes in Cambridge to sell in Oxford, creating a neverending pipeline of purloined bikes that are shuttled between the two college towns.

"No," Paul said, "I never heard that."

The iron fence around the church at Magdalen Street was covered in bikes, so many that some cyclists had taken to lifting their bikes three or four feet off the ground and chaining them in place. “That bike ain’t got a lot going for it,” said Mark as he zipped a tie to a shattered mountain bike.

"I’m just amazed at where people put cycles," said Paul. "There across the road, there’s one to the bollard and one to a lamppost." His gaze shifted. "Look at that: That is a traffic light.”

That's one of the things that bothers Paul. Abandoned bikes take up good spaces, forcing cyclists to lock their bikes to street furniture or to lean them against walls in the city's narrow lanes, forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets.

Another city worker, Mick Bennett, had mentioned that he'd seen a ton of abandoned bikes at Carfax, the busy intersection at the far end of Cornmarket Street. Paul was amazed at what we found there: broken bikes everywhere, including a trio of bikes piled on the pavement at the fire door of a bank. Paul was about to zip a yellow tie on one when he recoiled. “These have got blue tags on them,” he exclaimed. It could mean only one thing: The bikes were tagged in last year's cull and were never removed. Paul pulled out his mobile phone and arranged for a truck and two workmen to meet him there after lunch.

A little after 1:30 Malcolm Elliott, 62, and Steve Mazey, 52, arrived. With a pull of a cord, Steve coaxed his angle grinder to life and pressed its spinning blade into the U-shaped lock that tethered a bike to a rack. A shower of sparks danced around his feet. That looks dangerous, I offered.

"I've had me trousers on fire, don't you worry about that," Steve said.

By the time they were finished, Paul and Mark had tagged upwards of 40 bicycles to be removed in the coming week. And by the time the smoke cleared around Carfax, 16 doleful bikes had been liberated from their locks and tossed into the back of the lorry.

Almost immediately cyclists started filling up the newly-empty spaces. It was hard not to think that in a year, some of those bikes would still be there.

Friday 23 November 2007

Friday Grab Bag: In the Crowd Edition

And so last night to the Carling Academy, a nightclub on the Cowley Road, to see From the Jam, which I would describe as a Jam tribute band except for the fact that it actually contains two-thirds of that mod-revival band. Songwriter/singer/guitarist Paul Weller gave the reunion tour a miss.

Even so, it was a great night. The Jam's "All Mod Cons" was one of the
first albums I bought in my "new wave" phase in high school. Back in those pre-Internet days you often had to purchase a record based on how it looked. Did it look like the sort of band that would do hard-edged, '60s-influenced rock? Skinny ties were usually a good indicator, but you could be fooled. I remember being disappointed by a band called the Yachts, whose LP I bought at the Peaches in Rockville, Md.

"All Mod Cons" delivered, though. As I listened to it (and read the lyric sheet, one side decorated with an exploded view of a Vespa scooter) I wondered which person pictured on the album cover played which instrument. The drummer, Rick Buckler, was easy to pick out. I decided on him right away. (We drummers know these things.) But which one was Weller, the genius behind the music? I remember wanting it to be the nattily dressed fellow on the left, and not the sallow, sneering, spotty-faced fellow in the middle. Of course, the one in the middle was Weller and one look at the picture and you could predict who would be least likely to join a reunion tour 30 years after the photo was snapped.

But, still, a great show. Bassist Bruce Foxton may look uncomfortably like Barry Manilow these days, but he has more energy than anyone his age should have. They did a 90-minute set and never flagged. I was reminded what an English band the Jam were, in a tradition of English bands that has no equivalent in the United States. Not that I would expect an American band to sing about uniquely English things, just that I don't think many U.S. bands would have hits with songs created from the small domestic details of daily life. The Jam often did that, as the Kinks did before them and Squeeze did along with them. (The Beatles did it eventually, but only after they'd become global superstars.) Jam lyrics include nods to things like "cans of baked beans on toast" and "pots of Wall's ice cream." Lonely housewives hold "empty milk bottles" to their hearts. There are takeaway curries, Eton Rifles, Smithers-Jones.... Your typical American listener must have gone, "Huh?"

Then there's "Down in a Tube Station at Midnight," one of the most chilling songs I've ever heard and a perfect snapshot of a certain sort of Britain at a certain point in time. It was interesting hearing it live, standing towards the front of the crowd, not far from where some relatively mild slam dancing was going on (we're all in our 40s, after all). You're meant to sympathize with the protagonist in that song, the young husband set upon by right-wing thugs. But live, the heaving, sweating crowd seemed to thrill to the ultraviolence, taking special delight in shouting "He smelled of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs...." Whose side were they on, I wondered.

BritNews Roundup
Are there still thugs on British trains? Why yes, according to this Daily Mail article on the dumbest muggers in Britain, teens who posed for the CCTV cameras after relieving their victim of his mobile phone and iPod. If you recognize them, please contact authorities.

Cor, blimey: A 102-year-old woman has stripped off her clothes to pose for a nude calendar that raises money for the village football club. If you've seen "The Full Monty" or "Calendar Girls" you know that the British love taking their clothes off.

Jellyfish have attacked a salmon farm off the coast of Northern Ireland, killing more than 100,000 fish. Of course, "attack" may be too strong a word. It sounds more like a crime of opportunity. Don't jellyfish just go where the current takes them, rather than say, "Okay, lads, let's go over there!"

I thought last week's story on a Scottish man convicted of having sex with his bicycle would close the door on intercourse with inanimate objects, but I had underestimated the kinkiness of the British populace. A London court heard evidence this week that a 24-year-old man broke into a park and attempted to have sex with a fence.

I may have been in England too long. The ironing board is starting to look pretty good to me.

Gargoyle of the Week

Not a gargoyle, but a stone carving nonetheless. It's Hercules, taken by My Lovely Wife while touring Burford Priory.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday 22 November 2007

Media Moguls and Media Molehills

Happy Thanksgiving. Now, where were we? Ah yes: I spent Monday at the Said Business School, where various high-tech honchos were summoned as part of “Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford.” In the evening I had the choice of attending one of the three panels: "Young Entrepreneurs," “The Next Big Thing” or “Innovation & Media.” While I have the greatest respect for young entrepreneurs, and it would have been nice to know what the next big thing will be (sandpaper trousers? Do-it-yourself laser eye surgery? Splunge?), I felt compelled, in my role as newspaper savant, to attend the “Innovation & Media” session.

These are depressing times for newspapers. Circulations are down. Revenue is down. Classified advertising is being siphoned away by the likes of Craigslist and Readership of papers like The Washington Post may be up, thanks to the global reach and access provided by the Web, but no one has figured out how to make money from all these eyeballs, or, rather, enough money. Thinks aren't much better for the networks.

Mike Malone
(history’s first daily technology columnist, doncha know) is convinced the printed paper is terminally ill, with no chance of recovery. Papers that economized by laying off senior staff did the wrong thing, he argued, since they hacked off their knowledge base and continued to pump money into expensive newsprint production. Better, Malone said, to have jumped to the Web immediately.

Some in the audience didn’t agree. They pointed out that newspapers possess an easy readability that computers will never match and that circulation is skyrocketing in places like India and China, where rising literacy rates are driving the boom.

Perhaps, said Malone, but that isn’t the case in the U.S. There’s still hope for newspaper Web sites, he said, since alternative media—blogs and the like—dropped the ball early on. Selling ads, the life blood of most media, depends on having detailed knowledge about readers. Blogs haven’t been providing that. Newspapers have. Malone predicted that whoever cracks the challenge first—newspapers that offer the sort of creative coverage that blogs do or blogs that deliver the detailed metrics that advertisers crave—will prevail.

Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the Huffington Post, predicted we would see the once-sacred wall between advertising and editorial breached, not in the form of advertorials or payola, but by each side of the divide borrowing tactics and practices from the other.

“If you look at advertising, it’s highly optimized,” he said. The obsession of marketers is in how to maximize clicks. “Whereas in editorial, you just cover the important story and give readers, not what they want, but what’s important for society. That only drives traffic so much."

Said Peretti: “I think we’re going to see some of the tools from advertising get transferred to media." Headlines will be written with search engines in mind. Stories will be commissioned on the basis of what people are already searching for, since this sort of bandwagon-jumping increases links. Linkbait in the form of shorter , more polemical pieces will become more common. Peretti saw methods migrating in the other direction, too, such as Web advertisers linking to other content, the way newspapers link outside their own sites.

I got the feeling that Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, felt a twinge of sadness at the prospect of the mainstream media crumbling, possibly taking with it the objectivity and care with which it does its job. It pisses him off that sites like ValleyWag print any bit of scurrilous gossip that comes along. Even so, he said that, as an investor, "I try to look for businesses where I’m not holding up the dam." The water's rising on the traditional media.

Stanford's David Nordfors, the leading proponent of something called "innovation journalism," said the media is stuck in old ways of doing things. I was unable to grasp exactly what innovation journalism is meant to me (innovatively-produced journalism? journalism about innovation?), but Nordfors has a snappy abbreviation for it: "injo." Isn't that the name of Jonny Quest's sidekick. Or is it an Ethiopian flat bread?

Whatever it is, Nordfors thinks there should be more of it. The traditional media, he said, are "not only losing their business model, they're also drifting toward telling less relevant stories."

After the panel ended, I drifted outside, where a cold rain was soaking Oxford. I unlocked my bicycle, climbed aboard and pedaled home in the dark, thoughts of innovation journalism competing with fantasies about stripping off my sodden clothes and changing into something warm and dry.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Be Back Soon...

Where was I today? Away from the computer, I'm afraid. I went to "the other place" (Cambridge) yesterday, had dinner and spent the night. I didn't get back till this morning. And now I'm out to another dinner in Oxford. I'll be back in blog form tomorrow.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Web 2.Whoa!

I spent yesterday in Silicon Valley, or, actually "Silicon Valley," as in "Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford: The Oxford Forum on Entrepreneurship and Innovation," a day-long seminar at the university's Said Business School. About two dozen high-tech people--Web company founders, venture capitalists, assorted innovators--traded the California sunshine for a steady English drizzle to impart their wisdom to MBAs-in-training and other assorted attendees.

The speakers were all lined up on stage, shooting gallery style, for the opening session, giving me a chance to ponder important things, such as their choice of clothing. Represented on the dais, fashionwise, were:
Internet Millionaire Schlub (LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman)
Metallica Roadie ( co-founder and recent Oxford grad Kirill Makharinsky, wearing a goatee and a black T-shirt that read "Creative Juggernaut")
Neck-tied Mike Brady Lookalike (venture capitalist Allen Morgan, who said, "The Web in 2007 is finally the platform we thought it was in 1997.")
Steve Jobs Clone (Jerry Saunders, in black mock turtle neck; he had several of the day's great lines, including: "I was asked to leave every single I job I had. That's when I realized I was an entrepreneur.")
Creative Genius "Regular Guy" (Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and developer of Xanga, Blogger and Odeo)

I don't spend much time around entrepreneurs so it was all heady stuff. I really got the feeling that if you had a good idea (and the right contacts and the right funding, two things you could have picked up if only you'd been there) you could be a success.

I also detected the low-grade hum of money. Of riches. Though speaker after speaker insisted that budding entrepreneurs should not be thinking about their "exit amount"--that magical number you get when you sell your successful start-up to Google or Microsoft--surely such thoughts were dancing in everyones' heads. I know they were in mine, especially when some of the speakers, like Hoffman and Google's Chris Sacca, talked about investing in friends' companies as if they were buying beers. Wouldn't it be great to be able to give a struggling entrepreneur $50,000 or $100,000 to help get a great idea off the ground, not least of all because it would mean you were wealthy enough to give someone $100,000?

So, What Did I Learn?

That I probably don't have the balls to be an Internet entrepreneur. But I learned other stuff too. Paul Graham of early-phase funding group Y Combinator said entrepreneurs should "Look for things that are evil or broken or stupid." That's where you can make a splash.

The buzz word of the day was "API." APIs are really, really important. Everybody should have one. Sadly, I don't know what APIs are. (I think they're like little bundles of programming that allow cool things to work across platforms. Can someone enlighten me in the comments, please?)

Are we approaching Bubble 2.0? Maybe, but it shouldn't matter, or certainly won't be as bad as when the tech bubble burst in 2000. Costs are down for things like data storage and programming and a better economic infrastructure is in place. Besides, good ideas prosper, even in bad markets.

Biz Stone, of flavor-of-the-moment Twitter, spoke in a masterclass about his background, from book designer to Web entrepreneur. Isn't he worried, I asked, that fickle techheads will leave Twitter behind, the way they abandoned Xanga for MySpace then MySpace for Facebook? No, he said. Besides, Twitter is something that exists on multiple platforms, that moves with you. "If you do a good enough job of sending them away, they will come back," he said.

I thought it would be rude to ask how he makes money off of Twitter. Luckily someone else did. As far as I can tell, he doesn't. They want to build up as many users as possible before they "monetize" the operation, a process that could include ads, though Stone agreed that was kind of gross.

If the attendees at a session with four recent Oxford grads heed what they heard, Oxford might empty out. To paraphrase the Beverly Hillbillies: "Californy is the place you oughta be, so they loaded up the truck, and they moved to the Vall-ee...."

"Go to America, you make things easier on yourself," said Kulveer Taggar, who with Harjeet Taggar founded eBay tool The Oxford grads had been part of start-up incubator in Silicon Valley, bouncing ideas around all day before they hit on their product.

A session on the future of media made more grim listening for anyone interested in newspapers. A dying breed, the speakers said. I'll have more on that panel discussion tomorrow.

The Guardian's Jemima Kiss has a much more coherent overview of the conference (scroll down if it's not at the top of the page). And click here for a photo that includes my polka-dotted shirt cuffs, proof--should I ever need an alibi--that I was in attendance.

The 'Space' Space
It's not a proper Silicon Valley gathering if the speakers and attendees aren't fighting the urge to say "area" or "sector" and are instead employing the S-word. Here are a few usages I jotted down:
"the consumer internet space"
"the dating space"
"the Yellow Pages space"
"the soft innovation space"
"that space" (the U.S. market)
"time space"
"lucky space"

I think the lucky space is the best place, er, space to be in.

Snagsta Rap
I was in a couple sessions with a nice chap from a Web start-up called Snagsta. According to its pre-alpha, place-holding Web site, Snagsta promises to "help you find the things Google can't." That's a simple concept, the sort of pitch a Hollywood producer would love ("It's 'Star Wars' on a dairy farm"; "I love it!").

The Snagstas hope their product becomes viral, although as one speaker pointed out, almost no one has ever made something viral on the Web in less than a year. Snagsta has funding through the middle of 2008. We have to be talking a virus of bird flu proportions for it to sweep the planet by then.

But I wish them the best of luck. If Snagsta becomes the Next Big Thing, please let it be remembered that I wrote about it first.

Monday 19 November 2007

I Reject You First: Fame, Fame, Fame...

Who's the most famous person you've ever met? I was having this conversation the other day with some of the other Reuters Fellows. It quickly became apparent--as they reeled off the names of movie stars, professional athletes and respected statesmen they had dined and vacationed with--that I don't get out enough.

Of course, it doesn't help that I live in Washington. "Hollywood for ugly people" is only one of the nicer epithets attached to the U.S. capital. Seeing Newt Gingrich at a Redskins game or watching Robert Reich cross the street just isn't the same as snorting cocaine off the back of a dolphin with Bono and the Dalai Lama at an Oscars after-party.

But who cares about famous people, besides, I mean, everybody? I'm more interested in people before they become famous. You know, stories that go: "And that ugly girl with braces who helped light my Bunsen burner in 10th grade chemistry? That's right, she became Scarlett Johansson."

Sadly, I don't have any of those stories, either. But I do have a story about how I know the editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, who, I guess, passes for famous in the world of geek-publishing.

When I was in college my room mate, Pat, and I wanted to form a new wave band. He played guitar; I played the drums. All that was standing between us and musical world domination was the lack of a bass player. Anyone who's ever been in a rock band knows how hard it is to find a bass player. No one in his right mind starts out wanting to play bass and thus they are as rare as jockstraps at a nudist colony. We tried all the usual methods: ads in the paper, flyers up in music stores, word of mouth. Nothing seemed to work. (I remember carrying all my drums up to a loft in some group house to audition a midget hippie bass player. Seriously, he was like a perfectly-scaled down human, all beard and bellbottoms and flannel shirt. Needless to say, it didn't work out. [That man? That's right, he became Scarlett Johansson.])

Our leads exhausted, Pat and I thought it might be easier to grow a grow a bass player ourselves in a hydroponic garden. Then, a lead: Pat and I had started going to a new nightclub downtown, an atmospheric dump on F Street NW called the 930 club. We'd primp in front of the mirror in our Langley Park apartment, making sure our skinny ties were on right, our Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello buttons arranged just so on our lapels. We'd drive downtown in his Plymouth Duster or my Mercury Comet, then smoke Camels, drink beer or gin ad tonics, and dance, occasionally with girls.

One night Pat went by himself and when he returned early in the morning he announced that he'd found a bass player. It was like hearing Arthur describe how he'd pulled Excalibur from out of a rock. There'd been a skinny guy leaning against one of the pillars at the 930 club. For some reason, he caught Pat's eye. He had the right look. Pat struck up a conversation, eventually asking if he'd like to play bass in a new wave band called the Item. Yes, he said. He didn't actually play the bass, but he had one and sort of wanted to learn. He even had a place to practice. He lived at home in Glen Echo, a funky but affluent Maryland suburb of Washington, and he was sure his parents wouldn't mind us playing there. His name was Greg Anderson. (Why does the world know him as "Chris"? I'll get to that.)

The Beatles created the rock and roll band myth and they also destroyed it. Every band wants their life to be "A Hard Day's Night" and it is impossible to achieve. There's a sadness when you realize that. Still, we persevered, after a fashion, carting our instruments to Greg's living room. Greg wasn't what you'd call a natural musician but Pat taught him where to put his fingers to pluck out what was needed for our somewhat uncomplicated songs. We'd go see bands together. Greg spent a night on the floor of our apartment.

We played a ramshackle gig in the basement of a dorm at the University of Maryland (where an attractive, if shrill, co-ed complained that we were too loud [that woman? That's right; she became My Lovely Wife {really!}]). Our proper debut was in December 1980, at a tiny downtown club called d.c. space. It was part of something called the Unheard Music Festival.

One of the great rock divides separates bands into those who like to wear matching outfits and those who don't. Pat and I were in the former (see "Hard Day's Night, above). I'm not saying Greg was adamantly on the other side of the schism, but I think he grumbled a bit when we asked if he would wear a striped shirt. None of us had the exact same striped shirt--Pat's was orange and white and collared; mine was an old soccer shirt, green and white; Greg's was blue and white and striped horizontally--but we were going for a look and I think that smacked of artifice, offending Greg's sensibilities.

You see, the outfit thing is just an indicator of where you fall on the pop-punk continuum. I like the Clash. I like the Sex Pistols. But I make no apologies for wanting to be the Beatles or, in a pinch, the Partridge Family. Greg showed up at the gig with his hair newly-bleached and spiked and an "X" emblazoned across the front of his Rickenbacker 4003 bass in white athletic tape. Greg didn't want to be in the Beatles.

There exists a black and white videotape of the Item's performance at the Unheard Music Festival. I have a copy back home, in Washington. We aren't bad, actually. We were certainly the only mildly poppy band on the bill, one of only a few not to do a 1-minute, 15-second version of the Monkees' "Stepping Stone." (One of the bands that did, a little combo called Minor Threat, wouldn't be unheard for much longer.)

But the night belonged to punk. Greg broke a string on the last song (a bass string; that doesn't happen often). A few days later he told us he didn't think he was a good fit for the Item.

Bands are funny things, roiling balls of ego and creativity, madness and humor. Good ones are more than just units that can play notes or keep beats. They're organisms that open up to one another and live and breathe as one. When one person wants to leave, it hurts. Because music is so elemental, rejecting it is like saying you don't like someone's soul. That's why band splits are so fractious, like the bitterest divorce. Civilians might be amazed by the rancor and vitriol that attends something like the Eddie Van Halen/David Lee Roth battles. Anyone who's spent any time in a band just gives a sad and knowing nod.

Pat and I cursed Greg to each other, but he'd been right. We weren't a good fit. Greg want on to join a band called Egoslavia that was kind of Talking Heads lite. They released an album locally and even opened for the Psychedelic Furs at the University of Maryland's student union. There must not have been any hard feelings, since Greg put Pat and me on the guest list. Or, rather, Chris did. He'd had to change his name because the leader of Egoslavia was named Greg.

The Item found a replacement bass player, a 15-year-old wunderkind named Eric who was sensational, much better than we deserved. Then we played a lot of Thursday-night gigs not opening for the Psychedelic Furs.

I touched base with Chris Anderson when he was working for the Economist and was back in town to visit his family. Next I heard he'd become editor of Wired (a magazine so cool that in its early days it had a design that rendered it practically unreadable, as if to actually read the articles would in some way sully them).

Not that Item veterans are slackers. Eric had to leave the band when he graduated from high school. He want on to earn his PhD from MIT in the history of science and works in academia in Cambridge, Mass. His replacement, Tim, teaches economics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Pat does something I don't quite understand for Freddie Mac, the home loan outfit. After 10 years he picked up his guitar again and now plays all around Washington with an acclaimed rockabilly band he put together called Western Bop. I'm a journalist, though not as famous a one as Chris Anderson. And I still play the drums.

If you poke around online you will find Chris Anderson talking about his musical experience. He focuses on the art-punk of Egoslavia, not the power pop of the Item. But trust me: I once made him wear a matching outfit.

Friday 16 November 2007

Renault-ver and Out

Renault has decided to pull the "N-word" advertisement I wrote about in Tuesday's blog posting. This is the statement the company's U.K. office sent me today:

"The latest press and radio ad campaign from Renault UK has been created with a simple game of Yes/No as its theme. The aim of the campaign is to promote Renault UK's unbelievable offers over the next 10 days, which are so good it will be very difficult for customers to get a dealer to say 'No'. The 'N' word headline is one of three print advertisements that are complemented by three radio commercials explaining the game and Renault's offers. Any misunderstanding of the 'N' word is totally unintentional. However, this specific print advertisement will be removed with immediate effect, so as not to cause any offence. The other advertisements in the series do not include an 'N' word reference."

So, the ad in question was pulled. Two other print ads will continue, headlined: "We Don't Have a Swear Box, We Have a 'No' Box" and "For 10 Days, the Word 'No' Does Not Exist."

When I asked Renault UK press officer Mike Gale what exactly the N-word in question was in the ad that caught my eye--"For 10 Days, We Can't Use the 'N' Word"--he said it was "no....That's obviously what it means." When I asked whether most people in Britain would think that "the 'N'-word" means "no," he said, "I wouldn't know, to be perfectly honest."

There is a great deal of debate about the N-word (and by that I mean the six-letter one, not the two-letter one). Originally a racist epithet, it's now often bandied about by hip-hop artists and others who see it almost as a term of endearment or fraternity. Activist Dick Gregory used it as the title of his autobiography. Its usage has become a subject of serious scholarly attention (as in this book by my former Washington Post colleague Jabari Asim, and this one by Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy). There's also a movement to abolish the N-word.

That gets too close for censorship for me. "Huckleberry Finn" wouldn't be as moving or illuminating without it. My objection to the Renault ad is that the advertising copywriters were playing with something too charged and dangerous for a flip newspaper ad. I hope I'm not sounding overly politically-correct, starting us on a slippery slope where soon not only shouldn't we say the real N-word but we shouldn't even say "the N-word."

Do I believe they really had no idea that using the expression "the N-word" might cause some readers to think they were referring to what Kennedy calls the "paradigmatic" racial slur in the English language? What do you think? But even giving them the benefit of the doubt, they should have known. They have led sheltered lives indeed if the thought never occurred to them.

I mean, give me an F-wording break. And by that I mean...well, you know what I mean, don't you?

Friday Grab Bag

Reason No. 472 It's Nice Not to Have a Car

You don't have to scrape frost off a windshield on a cold morning. You do, however have to scrape it off your bicycle seat:

BritNews Roundup
Call it pedalphilia: A 51-year-old Scottish man was convicted of a "sexually aggravated breach of the peace" for trying to have sex with his bicycle. Robert Stewart was sentenced to three years of probation for the offense. Stewart conducted his cycle seduction in a locked room in a hostel. But he probably should have put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign. Cleaners knocked several times then used a master key to gain entry, where they discovered Stewart wearing only a white T-shirt and, ahem, trying to ride his bike. Both cleaners, the BBC reported, were "extremely shocked." They informed the hostel manager, who called police.

Like me, you may have thought that in Scotland pretty much anything is fair game--those cold, dark nights, all those sheep. Bikes, however, appear to be off-limits. Ah well, different spokes for different folks.

Oh that naughty BBC, Part XVI: The news outlet apparently added the sound of crying babies to footage of newborn quintuplets it showed on its 24-hour news channel and Web site. Video of the quints was released by Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital. It lacked audio. However when the video showed up on TV and online, there was the sound of crying, despite the fact the newborns, born 14 weeks prematurely, had respirators in their mouths. A BBC spokesperson told the Guardian: "[We] should not have added sound to the pictures."

Well, no duh. Reality should be good enough for anyone. The news needn't be tweaked to make it more real.

The Daily Mail's infatuation with women's breasts (and John Kelly's Voxford's infatuation with the Daily Mail's infatuation with women's breasts) continues with a story on why women's breasts are getting bigger with each succeeding generation.

A Real Renault-No

Still waiting for a call back from Publicis, the London agency responsible for Renault's "n-word" newspaper ad. A spokesperson at the Advertising Standards Authority informed me that his group had received two complaints about the ad from members of the public. "The general crux of the complaints is that the ad is offensive, inappropriate and in bad taste because of the connotations of the 'n' word," he said in an e-mail message.

The ASA issues wonderfully detailed reports of its findings. I'll be waiting to see what it does with this ad.

Gargoyle of the Week
My Lovely Wife snapped this happy fellow, who looks out from a corner of Brasenose College (which is universally recognized as the most oddly-named college in Oxford).

Keep your nose clean and have a great weekend.

Thursday 15 November 2007

You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay! You Ess Ay!

Yesterday was an interesting day around Oxford. It was Dump on America Day. I know what you're thinking: Everyday is Dump on America Day. But yesterday seemed different somehow.

It started with a seminar by James Curran, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College. Curran presented results from an interesting study comparing television and newspaper news stories in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Finland, slicing up coverage into hard versus soft news, domestic news versus foreign news. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me but basically while the four U.S. newspapers that Curran studied (which didn't include The Washington Post, sniff) had more international news coverage than their European counterparts, American television was way behind. The divide wasn't as great in the hard news/soft news sweepstakes but there, too, U.S. TV was more likely to be soft than hard--flaccid rather than rigid, if you will.

Curran and Co. also gave citizens in the four countries a test to see how well they could identify various issues and newsmakers. My countrymen, I fear, performed rather poorly. Again, I don't have the exact numbers, but something like only a fifth of the Americans knew what the Kyoto Protocols were, or that they had something to do with climate change. Kofi Annan? Who's he? Sarkozy? Is that a skin disease?

You get the picture. The only place the Americans did well was in identifying U.S. celebrities. We know our Britney Spearses from our Paris Hiltons.

This is all well and good, but what was Curran's larger point? That differences in the television structure is what causes the differences in civic awareness. Europe has a strong public broadcasting tradition, exemplified most visibly by the peerless BBC. Governments in the U.K., Finland and Denmark directly or indirectly help fund TV channels among whose purposes is informing the citizenry. In America, on the other hand, the market rules. That means news is pushed out of primetime and entertainment of the basest kind rules the airwaves. Curran argues that Britain and Europe need to resist Americanization since it will lead to an inevitable dumbing down of the populace.

Well what could I say? The digits don't lie. I'm sure the data are good. But it was like someone calling your dog ugly. Yes, he may be ugly, but he's your dog.

Ahem, I said. Could it be that Americans are just dumber than Europeans? I was joking, of course, and Curran agreed that many factors were at work. There is a greater divide between rich and poor in the U.S. than in Europe and that translates into education levels. It might be correct to say that our poor people are dumber than their poor people, and we have more of them.

I look forward to Curran's future findings.

Later in the day some of my fellow Reuters Fellows and I gathered to talk about recent news stories from our respective countries. I had selected one from yesterday's Post about how Federal and state agencies are launching programs to educate kids about how to prepare for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. (Great headline: "Boys and Girls, Can You Say Anthrax?") I find these programs--cartoon characters extolling "readiness," rap songs about tornadoes and earthquakes--kind of creepy. When does "preparedness" turn into paranoia?

The foreign fellows agreed wholeheartedly, so wholeheartedly that now I felt I had to defend the impulse behind these silly campaigns. But it was like a great cork had been removed and the slights they'd suffered at the hands of the United States came tumbling out. They'd all been stopped--especially the browner among them--and searched at U.S. airports. U.S. visa regulations are so onerous now that you need one even if you're only changing planes in America. Americans only seem to care about Americans. People in America think there's crime everywhere in their cities and are afraid to walk down the street. Then again, there is crime everywhere in America because of all the guns.

Even though I agreed with everything they said--because of its misguided post-9/11 policies, America has squandered much of its global goodwill--I felt my hackles rise. It was fascinating, this autonomic reflex. Yeah, I wanted to say, but in China you can't criticize the government! And in India widows get thrown on funeral pyres! And in England you eat...mutton! And who invented the airplane anyway?

Calm down, John. If you can't have these sorts of conversations at Oxford University, where can you? And the fact that my friends wanted to talk about these things at all showed that they cared about the United States, saw in its recent history a diminution of what it stood for. I can't see anyone getting that exercised about Belgium.

There are some in America (mostly from Texas, I've noticed) who don't really seem to care what the rest of the world thinks of us. Certainly some of James Curran's results can be attributed to the fact that the United States is a vast, self-contained, self-assured country that stretches from sea to shining sea, and not a puny place with a lot of neighbors just a train ride away. But the world neighborhood gets smaller every day and we would do well to be a part of it. Besides, we might even learn something.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Doug Wilder World Tour '07

Guess who I met last night? I guess it's not much of a challenge, given that his name's in the headline and there's a photo of him right here. That's right, L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia and current mayor of Richmond. He's on some sort of European tour with folks from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he teaches a class. Wilder spoke at Oxford's Harris Manchester College on the issue of race in America.

It's a subject that fascinates the British, who marvel that some of the same men who could pen the gloriously self-evident phrase "all men are created equal" could also own men, women and children they considered a little less equal. Wilder talked about fighting to keep Koreans free during the Korean War then returning home to a country where he wasn't totally free. He became a lawyer not expecting to be a politician. But a politician is what he became, the first African American state senator since Reconstruction and the country's first elected black governor.

His speech was not a detailed lecture, but an informal survey of 200 years of race relations in the U.S., delivered with a seasoned politician's smooth deployment of the telling anecdote. At the end he answered questions, including:

On gerrymandered political districts: Wilder made no apologies for his role in redrawing Virginia congressional districts so African American candidates would have a better chance of winning office. "Let me plead guilty," he said.

On the presidential race: Wilder thinks America might be ready for its first black president or its first female president. "When the thing is right, the time is right. People are always ahead of their leaders."

On the Democrats' chances for retaking the White House: Not a sure thing by any means, especially if they can't differentiate themselves enough from the Republicans. If a Giuliani or a Romney is elected, it will be "because the Democrats lost, not because the Republicans won."

On the war in Iraq: "It's very simple. You end it. Out. Fini. Over." Each service member's death, Wilder said, "diminishes us all.... I think you know where I stand on that issue."

On campaigning in the wilds of Southwest Virginia: Wilder said that his campaign to be Virginia's lieutenant governor took him to parts of the state he'd never visited before, rural mountain hamlets where, it was thought, a black man had no sense being. He would stop and shake every hand at every country store ("You can't go to one country store and not go to all of them," he said). Sitting on the barrel near the door of one, eyeing Wilder with a wary skepticism, was a white man in bib overalls, a bandanna tied around his neck, tobacco juice leaking from the corner of his mouth: the last unshaken hand in the room.

"I'd like to shake your hand," said Wilder. "I thought you might," said the man, who then added, "I got a question for you. What do you think about abortion?"

Wilder thought to himself, "I almost made it out of here," then launched into his "Jeffersonian" explanation for supporting Roe vs. Wade: The government has no right to interfere in personal decisions. The fellow piped up: "It's not a man's business anyway."

Wilder's point: "You can't judge a person by what they look like."

Renault Ad Update
Still no word from ad agency Publicis about Renault's clumsily insensitive "N-word" newspaper ad. As commenters on the post have pointed out, there was an N-word flap in Britain this year, when a white contestant on the reality show "Big Brother" was tossed after using the epithet.

I did speak to a person in the Guardian's ad department who said the advertiser was "mortified" and didn't think the ad would be taken that way.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Renault & Racism: Just Say 'No'

Here's the headline on an ad for French automaker Renault on Page 10 of today's Guardian: "FOR TEN DAYS, WE CAN'T USE THE 'N' WORD."

There are plenty of words that begin with the letter "n" but there's only one "n-word." I don't have to spell it out, right? It's an ugly racial epithet the utterance of which will not endear you to anyone with an ounce of sensitivity. Of course, Renault would never use that word. So what n-word do they mean? Here's the complete text of the ad:
No. There, we said it
But that's the last time you'll hear it for a few days.
Between the 9th and the 18th of November,
we've instructed all our dealers not to use the 'n' word.
With unprecedented deals across the range, we're just going
to keep saying yes.
Visit for details of your local Renault showroom
and for a precious few days, see if you can get us to utter
that naughty little word.
Ha ha! Renault and its advertising agency, Publicis, are just having a little fun. They want you to think they're referring to that n-word. They want you to experience a wicked (a naughty) little frisson. We were thinking they meant the n-word that white-sheeted Klansmen used to shout before stringing someone up from a tree in the Deep South, the n-word that skinheads scream before kicking some poor guy's teeth in (or worse). But the joke's on us. They actually meant the word "no."

I had several questions:
Is it wise to suggest that except for 10 days in November Renault dealers have a hard time not saying that word?
Will they go back to saying it on Nov. 19th?
And what is this ad doing in the Guardian, the most self-consciously liberal and annoyingly PC newspaper in the land?

I have been told by some English friends that Britain is not as racist as the United States, not as segregated or race-obsessed. It's true that racism is America's great shame, the issue that has split the country since it was founded. Even today we don't necessarily deal with race and discrimination in the healthiest of ways. But I don't think a U.S. ad agency would bandy about race-related expressions in an effort to shift a few hatchbacks.

And the U.K. isn't exactly a color-blind society. Recently a Conservative candidate named Nigel Hastilow resigned after suggesting that Enoch Powell, Britain's great race-baiting rhetoritician, was correct on the subject of immigration.

I suppose racism is something we each confront in our own ways, but this ad just strikes me as the b-word: bad.

I have calls in to both Publicis, Renault's agency, and the Guardian. If they call back, I'll update with their points of view.

Left Holding the Bag
According to the Guardian, London may tax or ban plastic shopping bags, concerned about their environmental impact. It's already hard to get the bags in Oxford: If you ask for one at the shops, instead of using a reusable, carbon-neutral, handmade-by-Bangladeshi-lesbians burlap sack, people look at you as if you've just poured crude oil on a baby seal.

The unintended consequence of these noble efforts is the hardship a bag ban would put on dog owners such as myself. Our dog has a two-bag-a-day habit, if you know what I mean. Plastic shopping bags are the perfect poop-disposal mechanism. Please don't tell me I'm going to have start using reusable burlap bags for that.

Jesus Is Just All Right With Me...
The Oxford Mail today reports that local veterans were upset that more than half of the city's 48 councillors didn't show up for Sunday's Remembrance Day ceremonies--the British equivalent of Memorial Day. Bad form, surely, but one detail in the article clanged with me. In the story, a Col. Chris Keeble is referred to as a "devout Christian." The same language is used in an editorial elsewhere in the paper: "We could not agree more with the thoughts of Col. Chris Keeble--a devout Christian--who negotiated the surrender of Argentinian troops at the Battle of Goose Green in the Falklands War in 1982."

I'm not sure what that fact signifies or why it's worthy of mention. What makes a person cross the line from "a Christian" to "a devout Christian"? And how far do you have to go before you arrive at "a fanatical Christian"?

And while I'm piling on the Oxford Mail, I was disappointed by a detail missing from a story about a pair of local musicians auditioning for a TV talent show. Wende Blowfield said she and Brian Staton auditioned for "Britain's Got Talent" as a way of showing "her three disabled children...that anything can be achieved if you put your mind to it."

A worthy sentiment, but what did Anton Chekhov say? A loaded gun seen in Act One has to go off in Act Three? Nowhere do we learn what the Blowfield children's disabilities are. I don't want to be morbid but if you're gonna mention it, explain it.

Monday 12 November 2007

Are Reporters Doomed?

"Are reporters doomed?" That's the attention-grabbing headline of an essay by David Leigh in this morning's Guardian. Attention-grabbing if you're a reporter, anyway, or if you're married to one, parenting one, being parented by one, sleeping with one or blackmailing one.

Leigh, an investigative editor at the Guardian, argues that in the rush to adopt blogs, explore citizen journalism, embrace new technologies and cut costs, media companies are jettisoning their responsibility to do creditable long-term investigative work. He advocates "Slow Journalism," a practice which "would show greater respect for the reporter as a patient assembler of facts."

I think Leigh makes several good points and, to his credit, he recognizes that the future is coming, no matter what. (That's what the future does, after all. It comes. [And comes.] {And keeps on coming.}]) But I was struck by one sentence: "Too much competition leads to a race to the bottom." This comment crystallized for me something that's nagged at the back of my mind for a while: There exists a certain lack of faith in the market when it comes to some journalists.

To simplify an argument I detect in Leigh's essay: The public prefers crap journalism. Now that it can easily get crap journalism--cheaply produced and pushed at them 24/7 via myriad formats--it won't care to sample "the good stuff." If this is the case--if, when people are offered a choice, they choose wrongly--then what's the point of anything we do? The only possible response is to eliminate choice.

Journalists would never make this argument about any other industry or profession: "What really ruined the motor car was when more manufacturers started making them." "You know what I really hate? The fact that I have to decide between a PC and a Mac." "And have you seen how many types of baked beans are available?! It's not fair."

Saying that the only (or a major) reason that journalism has been heretofore successful is because it didn't have to compete, is like saying that the only reason most men shave their faces is because razor blades are available. (Actually, it's nothing like that, or maybe it is, but this being a blog I don't have time to properly develop that analogy.)

When it comes to the so-called "mainstream media," I'm not one of these Let's-kill-them-all-and-let-god-sort-them-out people. I like newspapers and the people who produce them. Sometimes I'm just as irritated as Leigh at the belief some hold that journalism is "easy." I may be naive in my hopes that Slow Journalism will succeed in the market--that readers/customers will value it the same way they value a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo Razor (no, still not working, is it?)--but I won't impose different standards on my profession than I would on any other. Yes, I think what we do is different--more important? more sacred?--than what General Motors or Toyota do, but the way we survive and thrive in the future (it's coming; see above) is by rising to the challenge: think of ways to make our product better, more relevant, more transcendent. We take the best of the old and the best of the new, trusting that if we do that correctly we can't help but succeed.

In other words, we compete.

Happy, Shiny People
Elsewhere in Media Guardian, Peter Wilby writes about efforts to put happier stories on front pages in the belief that readers are more likely to buy them. It reminds me of a statistic I once heard about The Washington Post. It used to be we sold something like 20,000 more papers on the Monday after the Redskins won. Just one more reason to dislike current owner Dan Snyder, who can't seem to field a winning team.

Saturday 10 November 2007

Deep Fry-d

Stephen Fry is a certified British national treasure. The Cambridge University-educated actor/writer/TV presenter is so wonderful that it's a pleasure to see him make a mistake, as he did today in his weekly Guardian technology column, Dork Talk. When speaking of the lashings of press Apple receives whenever it releases a new product, Fry wrote: "Whoopy-doo, as Americans like to say."

Cor-flimey, I've never met an American who liked to say that, or disliked it for that matter, that is, who ever said it. "Whoop-di-doo," perhaps, or, current favorite, "Big whup." But never "whoopy-doo." (We do "make whoopy"--or did in the 1920s--although actually I think that's spelled "whoopie.")

We don't really have people like Fry in America: someone who can be intellectual AND funny. American audiences probably know him best through "Jeeves & Wooster," the TV adaptation of the P.G. Wodehouse stories. But he's a fixture on television here and currently hosts an amazing program called "Q.I." The British have a lot of comedy quiz shows that require the celebrity contestants to actually have two brain cells and a synapse between them. "Q.I."--it means "quite interesting" and has evolved into a mini-empire-- is the cream of the crop. Fry is master of ceremonies as two two-person celebrity teams compete to answer questions about....About what? Oh, the physics of invisible ink, the architecture of whale penises, the German national anthem, faux European Union directives--that sort of thing. It really doesn't make much difference what the topics are since they're just excuses to spout witty in the discursive way that seemingly only the British can do.

"Q.I." is our current favorite program[me], despite the fact that it is so funny it can be physically painful to watch. (The closest we come to it in America is probably NPR's "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me." And it's not that close.)

I can imagine BBC television producers kicking around ideas and one saying, "Let's get Stephen Fry to do it!" It doesn't really matter much what "it" is: a documentary on Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a tour of West Country cheddar farms, a quiz show on the Law of the Sea Treaty. Whatever it is would get that trademark Fry touch: witty and erudite, cerebral without being off-puttingly intellectual, clever but not too-clever-by-half, twinkly-eyed and chuckley, if that's a word (and if it isn't, it should be), with at least one Oscar Wilde quote per episode.

Fry's current project appears to involve traveling to all 50 states in the U.S. in a black London taxicab. (The Brits love unleashing their comics on the world, Baedeker in hand.) I can't wait to see it. Or, as Stephen Fry might say, "Whoopy-doo!"

Friday 9 November 2007

Friday Grab Bag

Oh let's begin with the Brit News Roundup, shall we? Prince Harry and a friend may or may not have shot a pair of endangered birds at the royal estate in Sandringham. The prince and family friend William van Cutsem were the only ones shooting on the day that a pair of hen harriers, a protected species, plummeted from the sky, in view of a nature reserve's warden and two visitors. Harry and van Cutsem were questioned and said they had no knowledge of the incident. Because the birds' bodies were not found, no forensic analysis could be performed and no one has been charged.

Kinda suspicious, no?

According to the Guardian, Britain's "blogging army" is 4 million strong.

Paul McCartney wants sole custody of his daughter Bea, according to the News of the World. Heather Mills, the former Beatle's estranged wife, is the tabloid media's favorite bete noire these days. She gave a disastrous interview on morning television recently, an act that just threw more chum in the water for a ravenous Fleet Street to gnaw upon.

McCartney is known as "Macca" in the tabloids. Because of the pornographic pictures Mills posed for early in her career the Sun, top of the red-tops, refers to her as "Mucca." I don't quite get it either. I guess it's from "muck"--rich irony indeed, given that the Sun regularly prints photos of zeppelin-chested "Page 3 beauties."

Then again, I don't get the British tabloids' penchant for nicknames at all. Or, rather, I get the penchant--who doesn't like a nickname? (mine is DJ GrandMaster T-Bone)--I just don't get the exact mechanism. McCartney is "Macca"--so far so good. Michael Jackson is "Jacko"--okay. Former British football great Paul Gascoigne is "Gazza." Using that logic, I expected Jeremy Paxman, host of the BBC's respected "Newsnight" program, to be "Paxxa," or maybe "Paxmo." But no, he's "Jezza." (Here's a great video of Jezza trying to winkle answers out of stonewalling British politicians.)

Shouldn't Heather Mills be "Mizza"? Or maybe "Hezza"? No, wait, that's the nickname of Tory politician Michael "Hezza" Heseltine. I can't decide whether my British tabloid nickname should be "Jozza" or "Kezza."

Gargoyle of the Week
Egads, I completely neglected to photograph one of Oxford's hundreds of gargoyles this week. Allow me instead to offer...

Amusing British Packaging of the Week

This is a plastic package of pork cutlets. I like the line that reads: "Packaged in a Protective Atmosphere." That must mean an atmosphere that is warm, supportive, nurturing, caring--right up until the time the pig was transformed into my dinner. Quite tasty it was, too.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Hug a Journalist

You can be excused for not knowing that today, Nov. 8, is Journalist Day. Until yesterday I didn't know it either. True, it's Journalist Day in China, but as there are 1.3 billion people over there I think it would be churlish to ignore it.

In announcing Journalist Day last year (the seventh annual), Chinese Politburo member Liu Yunshan called on journalists to "give top priority to studying the essence of the recent Sixth Plenary Session of the 16th Communist Party of China Central Committee." I get a bit queasy whenever I see the word "plenary" (it sounds too much like a urinary tract infection) so I think I'll mark the day in a different fashion, by thinking about journalism. (I can't really take the day off, since I'm taking the year off.)

We live in interesting times, journalistically speaking. There are more and more ways for the public to get news, from words printed in the newspaper to text zapped to a mobile phone. Golly, I hear there's even a way to get instant news on your computer screen! You don't have to be a media magnate with his own printing press or TV transmitter to join this conversation. Bloggers and citizen journalists can make their own contributions. Are they proper journalists? That's almost beside the point, since they're out there beavering away in all their unstifled glory.

The challenges for companies such as The Washington Post are many: to appeal to readers (or users or viewers) with new and interesting formats that cut through the clutter of modern life and inform even more deeply than newspapers are able to do. It's also to figure out a way to financially support the great news-gathering structures that have taken decades to build: the foreign bureaus, the investigative reporters, the photographers, the editors, the designers, the agate clerks typing in late-night sports scores, the, um, columnists. (On his blog Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts has a very succinct look at the economic complications of this particular puzzle.) These issues are being played out at a time when well-publicized journalistic sins have shaken confidence in the media.

And yet I don't think we should pine for some Golden Age of Journalism. This is a myth perpetrated by old men in comfortable chairs who can't resist talking about how great things were when they were young and vital. (If you ever see me doing this, you have my permission to glass me.) There were plenty of hacks in the old days too, incurious reporters content to go through the motions. If anything, the profession has become more professional and the tools journalists have to tell compelling stories are greater than they've ever been.

So are the risks. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 56 journalists have been killed this year because of their jobs. People like Zakia Zaki, who ran an Afghan radio station and was gunned down in front of her children. And Muhammad Arif, a Pakistan TV cameraman, among the 130 people killed last month by the bomb intended for Benazir Bhutto. And The Washington Post's Salih Saif Aldin, one of 30 journalists killed in Iraq this year. Just yesterday one of my fellow Reuters Fellows, a journalist from Georgia, learned that masked special forces units had entered his TV station on orders of Georgia's president. Elsewhere in Tbilisi news photographers' cameras were smashed, equipment confiscated.

Journalists are risking their lives so that you (and I; I've never even had to work weekends) can know what's going on in the world beyond the end of our street. If we know what's going on--in our council member's office, in our local court, in our congress, in our military, on a barren African plain or in a guerilla camp deep in the jungle--just maybe we'll make informed choices and wise decisions.

So, say a silent prayer today for journalists in harm's way. Think about journalists striving to create a free press in unfree countries. Read a paper. Watch the news. Oh, and bite a dog, too. That always makes us happy.