Friday 29 February 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Spare the Rod Edition

The tabloid press in Britain love nothing more than a good penis-severing tale--and, really, who doesn't?

Early stories this week on the Sun web site about Londoner Alan Reed said his penis had been removed by unknown assailants while Reed vacationed in the Dominican Republic. The Daily Mail on the other hand--claiming the first interview with Reed's fiancee--maintained that his penis had "only" been slashed. Facts are often hard to come by in the frenzied first hours of a major news event and no one wanted to be caught napping on this major manhood-related story.

The dust has now settled, though, and we can assess the damage. "Man's penis was 'attacked'" reads the headline in the Sun. "A British holidaymaker is recovering in hospital after strangers apparently attacked his penis, leaving him in agonising pain from two large gashes," reads the lede. Police chief Robert Contreras said: “We are investigating this as an assault but it’s a very strange one and something that’s not at all commonplace in our country.” (Good thing. That would be awful for tourism: Come to the Dominican Republic and leave your penis with us.)

Not so fast, says the Daily Mail in its story, headlined "British Bobbitt: 'I will soon be back in full working order.'" Apparently Reed may have fallen on or swum over "razor-sharp coral" and injured himself unknowingly.

What's clear is that Reed was drunk out his mind at the island resort and has no memory of what happened before waking up in his hotel room soaked in blood. "I've told the police what I can, but to be honest it's not a lot," said Reed. "The whole thing is just one big blank." Luckily, his groin isn't.

Reed may want to avoid vacationing in Italy, not because of knife-wielding assailants or razor-sharp coral but because of a ruling by that country's highest court. Men may no longer touch their genitals in public, a superstitious act that is meant to ward off bad luck. According to the Guardian: "The judges said such actions risked generating 'awkwardness, disgust and disapproval in the average man,' unexpectedly perhaps failing to mention the average woman."

Cocaine has been washing up in Cornwall. Bales of the drug may have been dumped from a boat chased by U.S. or U.K. drug enforcement agents and may have ridden the current all the way from the Caribbean. Some are marked with the word "Colombia" and have a street value of 1 million pounds. The cocaine makes an interesting change from the oil and trash that normally washes up in Cornwall.

Meet Cindy, a cavalier King Charles spaniel who, according to the BBC, can balance objects on all four paws while lying down. "Put the effort in, get your dog some intelligence, get it to understand [and] you will have yourself a better, more fun dog." said owner Ron Bucknell, 75. Having watched the video, I'm not convinced.

From stupid dog tricks to stupid police tricks: Two police officers in Wales were forced to resign after superiors learned they had been using their patrol car to drive to beach resorts. They were members of a group nicknamed the "Seaside Five" who competed to see who could drive furthest from the station. They were caught after their car broke down far from where they should have been. Their mobile phones were examined and found to contain beach photographs, including "a picture of the group riding a log flume." I just love that image. Can't you see all five of them stuffed in a log flume, their hands up in the air, their helmets on?

Wherever women's breasts may threaten public safety we will find the Daily Mail. British television hostess Susannah Constantine had a near-wardrobe malfunction while in New Zealand and the Mail was there to document it: "The 44-year-old's lacy bra appeared to be making a bid for freedom while her cleavage spilled over in all the wrong places," hissed the paper.

But wait, what's this? The Mail is fighting a two-front war. No longer content just to scrutinize women's bosoms it has identified a new threat: "Are backs the new cleavage?" asks the paper. Is no one safe? Vigilance, vigilance....

Gargoyle of the Week: When Pigs Fly

Well, boars actually. Knowing my affection for gargoyles, my daughter Gwyneth snapped this porcine example while in Barcelona with her Spanish class.

Explained Gwyneth: "It was taken in the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia where there is a courtyard where 13 white geese are kept because Eulalia was apparently 13 when she became a martyr during the Roman occupation under Diocletian. Not to be confused with the other Saint Eulalia from another part of Spain. One of them was killed by being rolled down a street stuck in a barrel with knives sticking into it, but sources vary on which one it was."

A barrel with knives sticking into it? Those Romans were nothing if not inventive.

Thanks for reading. Keep sending your cards and letters and have a great weekend.

Thursday 28 February 2008

The Madrid Building Boom

There's nothing worse than looking at other peoples' vacation pictures so I promise not to bore you with too many tales of our recent Madrid trip. Seventy-five percent of the Kelly family went to the Spanish capital last weekend. The final quarter was in Barcelona with her Spanish class. She forbid us from being in the same city with her, but couldn't stop us from going to the same country.

Spain is the perfect antidote to England, which is probably why so many English people move there. It was sunny and warm for our visit, with glorious blue skies. The streets swarmed with beautiful, smartly-dressed people. One afternoon we sat at a coffee shop near the Plaza de Canovas and just watched as dozens of handsome couples emerged from an underground car park and strolled down the street (to a wedding? to the opera?). The men were in nicely-cut suits, a few in white tie and frock coats. The women were perfectly turned out, elegant without going overboard: ensembles of rich purple, green or gold; seamed stockings and high heels; heads topped with compact hats, often a single, long feather curving down and accentuating a comely cheekbone. The couples walked with an unhurried gait that was almost a parade. We could smell their perfume and pomade. It was a lovely promenade.

We'd found a very cheap hotel--65 Euros a night!--just a few blocks from the Prado. The fact that it had room and was so inexpensive may have been because it was across from a construction site. But even that provided entertainment. I don't know how all buildings are built in Spain, but this is the one across from the Hotel Mexico on the Calle del Gobernador:

You will note that there are three construction workers. Not pictured are the guys operating two cranes off to the right, who would swing their hooks back and forth in a desultory fashion. We never saw more than a half-dozen workers there at a time. Their main task seemed to be picking up pieces of wood and rebar off the muddy ground and tossing them into piles. Sometimes they would use a torch or saw to cut a little length of rebar off a bigger piece of rebar and then toss that into a pile.

The first thing I would do upon waking was to open the curtains and watch them. I spent half an hour one morning watching as they argued over how to move that long rebar mesh thing that the middle guy is kneeling on. They appeared to be trying to affix those rectangles of sheet metal then use a crane attached to the sheet metal to lift it all up. But the metal kept popping out. They would cut bits of rebar off, then weld bits of rebar on. Then one of the men dropped his hammer into the middle of the metal birds' nest and had to lean in to retrieve it.

I kept wondering why there wasn't a big hole. Isn't that the first thing you do when you build a building? Dig a big hole? But there was no hole, just dirt and metal and timber and five guys with three hardhats among them. They would start work around 8:30 in the morning. The amazing thing was that when we'd return to the hotel around 11 p.m. they'd still be there. A few lights would illuminate the scene, the mounds of wood and metal would have been moved around, a pile driver in the corner would be hammering away. Like most of Spain they'd probably taken a two- or three-hour lunch, but even so, they wouldn't knock off till around 11:30.

That white sign indicates that construction was approved in 2006 and work began in April 2007. I expect they'll be done in 2037.

Please don't think I'm accusing Spanish construction workers of being lazy or inept. They produce some pretty fine work:

And as I said, Madrid was incredible. We only had about two-and-a-half days, so we sped through its main attractions. Racing through the Prado was like taking part in a speed-eating competition: Oh, another room full of Goyas, Picassos or Velazquezes. We never got bored with it, though. I hope we'll go back to see how that apartment building is coming along.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

That Petrol Emotion: Saying 'Bye' to Oil

And so last night to a lecture by David Sandalow, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the book "Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction." If the lecture had been in the United States I'm sure we all would have fought our way through traffic and jockeyed for a parking space. Since it was in Oxford, the bike racks were full. As it turned out, bicycles aren't among the changes Sandalow thinks we need to reduce our reliance on oil.

That greasy addiction has both environmental and national security ramifications. The oil we burn pollutes the atmosphere and the fact that it bubbles under the ground in not very nice places--Saudi Arabia, Iraq--means that our foreign policy is unhealthily obsessed with those locations.

So, what to do? Here's what Sandalow, a former advisor to President Clinton, said:
1. Broaden our vehicle fleet. The U.S. transportation infrastructure is based overwhelmingly on one thing: the internal combustion engine. Our infrastructure--refineries, gas stations--is set up to support that. But what else can we do? This:
2. Make cars that connect to the electric grid. Electric vehicles don't produce the greenhouse gases that belch from the tailpipes of gas and diesel cars. Hybrid engines are okay, but totally electric is better. (At home in Washington Sandalow drives a Prius retrofitted with lithium batteries.) But doesn't that just move pollution from the vehicle to the power plant? No, he said, because most of our pollution comes from vehicles while electric engines are so efficient that particulates would inevitably be reduced. The big benefit, he said, is plugging electric vehicles in to charge at night, when there is excess capacity in the power grid.
3. Explore biofuels. Sandalow admitted he isn't as keen on this as he once was. Creating ethanol can mean growing corn, which means using fertilizer, which means nitrate run-off, which means dead crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. But biofuel can also be made from switchgrass and other forms of cellulose that don't have as detrimental an environmental impact. At best, biofuels are a "transitional answer," he said.
4. Improve vehicle fuel-efficiency. U.S. automakers should build lighter-weight cars. They should embrace cleaner diesel engines already common in Europe. And, please, do something about 18-wheelers, which go through the air with all the aerodynamicism of a cinder block in a tub of Jell-O.
5. Invest in mass transit and reward telecommuting. Sandalow lamented that it's easier for a community in the U.S. to get government money to widen a road than to build a subway. But as anyone who's ever spent anytime in the Washington area knows, widening roads reduces congestion for about a week, after which everyone flocks to it and it's clogged again. (Widening a road to reduce congestion, Sandalow said, is like widening a belt to lose weight.) He said that working from home has benefits beyond saving oil: Telecommuting workers are happier, more productive workers.

That's a very brief synopsis of an hour-long speech based on a 272-page book. Some in the audience quibbled with some of Sandalow's points--can a U.S. president really promulgate policy that would end Americans' century-long love affair with the internal combustion engine? wouldn't the ExxonMobils of the world resist a turn away from the commodity that has made them rich?--but most seemed to buy his arguments.

China will have to play a role in the global climate change picture--600 new cars registered in Beijing every day, Sandalow said, with very few old ones being scrapped--but America is the key. After years of inaction under President Bush, Sandalow predicted the next president, whomever s/he is, will be committed to addressing global warming and, therefore, the unhealthy fixation the U.S. has on oil.

In my particularly American way I was disappointed that Sandalow didn't promise a technological, magic-bullet solution to all our problems--dialithium crystals for everyone!--but rather was saying that a lot of little things, as well as changes in behavior, would have to be combined to wean us from oil. But, hey, if I can get my hands on a Tesla Roadster, I'm all in favor of electric cars.

After the lecture the crowd was invited, as is Oxford tradition, to a reception. The lecture, sponsored by the James Martin 21st Century School at the university, was at the Museum of Natural History. As I sipped champagne and nibbled duck pancakes, I couldn't help but reflect on the aptness of the setting: On display all around us were the skeletons of dinosaurs, animals whose very skin and bones had turned to oil millennia ago. Dinosaurs, you will recall, are extinct.

Tuesday 26 February 2008

The Peter Principle: I Make the Daily Mail

Being a columnist myself I understand the job's special requirements: the ability to feign outrage at the drop of a hat and the ability to churn out copy on deadline. I'm going to assume both things explain how a Daily Mail columnist came to mention me in that paper yesterday.

His name is Peter McKay and he visited the Reuters Fellows last month. Yesterday's column isn't online, so I'll quote the pertinent item in its entirety:
"Speaking to a group of foreign journalists at the Reuters' Institute in Oxford, I told the story of covering many years ago the homecoming of a 'lost' trawler in Aberdeen. A big story because everyone thought the crew had perished but, badly damaged, the boat had taken shelter until a North Sea storm died down. Then sailed home without knowing there had been a fuss about them. I said we'd asked the skipper to take the boat out of the harbour and sail it back in so that we could get good 'Ghost ship sails in' pictures instead of boring shots of it tied up. Being an idealistic young lad, I told my audience, I wondered if this artifice was ethical and decided it was. But a Washington Post journalist on the course said his paper would never countenance such a deception. The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors."

I'll get to that last sentence in just a bit, but first let's focus on the rest of the paragraph. McKay did indeed tell that story. But, according to my notes, he left some details out. McKay said he and the more senior Daily Express reporter he was working with paid the skipper to sail back. They'd missed the actual return and wanted a photograph that could be described as the ship making landfall for the first time. Having missed reality the first time around, they decided to manufacture it.

"Most news has been devised," McKay said. He explained that the structure of a story has been decided ahead of time and the journalist then sets out to assemble the elements that make the finished product possible.

McKay seemed reluctant to entertain the notion that journalism has an obligation to be anything other than entertaining. "Newspapering is a business," he said. It's "absolutely wrong," he said, to think that newspapers have any sort of duty to society.

Well, fine. At least you know where Peter McKay stands. Somewhere in the 1950s, but there you are. Now let's deconstruct that last sentence: "The pompous idiots do, however, publish mock-up pictures every day of President George W. Bush 'in conversation' or 'sharing a joke' with distinguished visitors." Pompous idiots? I don't think I was especially pompous or idiotic that afternoon. In fact I had just complimented--well, not complimented exactly, more remarked upon--the Daily Mail's hard-hitting coverage of women's breasts. I stand in awe of it. (From yesterday's Mail: "Christina Aguilera looks bustier than ever." Something to do with lactating, apparently.)

Next, does The Post publish "mock-up pictures"? Um, I don't think so, but to be sure I asked the Post's assistant managing editor for photography, Michel DuCille, if we did. Of course not, the Pulitzer Prize-winner said in an e-mail.

And would a Post photographer do as the inventive McKay did years ago: incent an Aberdeen fisherman to putt-putt around a harbor for the benefit of a photographer looking for his money shot? "We absolutely would never do that," DuCille wrote. "If we can't capture the real thing we don't recreate it. It is simply not the truth. Photojournalism must speak the truth."

DuCille sent along the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics. One part reads: "While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events." Sounds pretty straightforward to me.

Frankly, I can't quite understand what McKay is referring to. The Post doesn't do anything "every day" except print the weather forecast. Faked or PhotoShopped pictures of George Bush? Every day? Sharing a joke with distinguished visitors? McKay has something in mind but I can't for the life of me tell what it is. I don't think he can, either. When I e-mailed asking him, basically, WTF?, he responded with: "I am researching the WP's mock-up pictures situation." Let me know what you find out, Peter.

The thing is, I agree with some of what McKay said that afternoon, comments that were only occasionally punctuated by the tiresome "I long for the good old days" nostalgia that afflicts so many journalists. For example, he said: "If the public are interested, it's in the public's interest." This was by way of defending the Mail's take-no-prisoners approach to just about everything it covers. Which makes McKay's admission that the Mail has been sitting for months on a story involving the royal family very odd. There's some scandal, apparently, involving a minor royal. But McKay said the palace requested the paper sit on it and the Mail complied.

You'd think he would be right on it, with a camera in one hand and a wad of cash in the other.

The Money Shot
Here's the point in this post where I have to get all serious for a moment. I do not agree with McKay that most newspaper stories are decided ahead of time then assembled in IdentaKit fashion. Of course, I can only speak for The Washington Post. The best stories--the best columns, even--are the result of following the reporting where it takes you.

I won't even speculate if the unease and distrust many consumers feel for the media these days stems from the feeling that all journalists subscribe to the McKay model: loose with the facts in pursuit of a "better" story. The thing is, I'm not sure even he agrees with that. I suspect that deep down in his leathery Fleet Street heart McKay thinks that I'm right, which is why as a cub reporter he questioned his actions on that quay and why, a full month after we spoke, our little exchange still rankles. Or does that sound a bit pompous?

Monday 25 February 2008

Media Monday: I Divorce Thee

Proof is what separates good journalism from crappy journalism and so let me retroactively apologize for my blog post of a few weeks ago where I criticized British newspapers for printing questionable stories based on self-serving research (last item). I didn't include any specific examples.

I knew, though, that one would come along eventually and sure enough a nice illustration appears in the Guardian today. The story, by legal editor Clare Dyer, is headlined "Mid-life crises pushing couples to divorce, survey of lawyers finds." The article begins: "Growing numbers of people are divorcing because of 'mid-life crisis,' a survey of 100 leading divorce lawyers in England and Wales reveals today."

The quote marks around "mid-life crisis" are just one clue to how wispy this story is. "Mid-life crisis"? That's not a scientific term, not even as precise as "adultery," which at least is a definable act. And in fact infidelity was the most common cause of marriage breakdown--"for the survey's fifth year running"--with "mid-life crisis" on the rise and coming in second. Family strains were third most common.

Funnily enough, there were no quote marks around "family strains." Would a mid-life crisis cause a family strain? Could a family strain lead to infidelity? The story is a mess all around, the data useless for anything more than a frosty, intraspousal breakfast table discussion. Extramarital affairs as a reason for divorce were listed in 29 percent of cases, down from 32 percent a year ago. Surely those three percentage points are within the margin of error. And is that 29 percent of all U.K. divorces or just 29 percent of those reported by "100 leading divorce lawyers in England and Wales"? Why even bother to release something so squishy?

The reason becomes apparent in the third paragraph: The "survey" comes from chartered accountants Grant Thornton and the first quote, in the fifth graph, is from the head of the firm's London matrimonial practice. To me the survey looks like an ad for Grant Thornton wrapped up in the guise of news. And the Guardian leapt on it like Michael Jackson on a Cub Scout.

They're not the only ones. I'm sure by day's end the story will be everywhere over here. That was the case with previous iterations. Last year's news was that private investigators were being hired more often in divorce cases. In 2005 the BBC headlined its story: "Affairs 'main reason for divorce.'" Browsing the coverage of this dubious survey from the last few years we can assemble an Infidelity Metric. Here are the percentages of marital breakdown caused by affairs:
2007: 29%
2006: 32%
2005: 29%
2004: 27%
2003: 29%

To me the headline isn't that there's been an increase in mid-life crises--whatever they are--but that, amazingly, every other year exactly 29 percent of divorces are due to affairs. According to 100 leading English and Welsh divorce lawyers, anyway.

I called Grant Thornton to ask if this annual survey wasn't just a big ad for its services. Of course not, said spokesperson Dee Crooks. "If we were a law firm, you could argue it was 'Come to me, come to me,'" she said. "But [clients] have got to go through a lawyer. We have relationships with lawyers, which is why we survey lawyers. We’re really down at the end of the line. We’re accountants. "

Okay, so a little story like this isn't the end of the world. God knows I've put lipstick on a pig before. But the practice is so common over here that you might think editors would simply bin these press releases when they come in, even those impressively marked "Embargoed until 00.01 hours, 25 February," as this one was. I think stories like this would fall under the "churnalism" heading Nick Davies is on about.

Why Newspapers Are Dying
British presswatcher Adrian Monck had an interesting post a few days ago about why newspapers are withering. It has nothing to do with journalism, he said: "The problems journalists are confronting are to do with the changing social habits of people who once purchased newspapers and were thus appealing to advertisers."

I can't tell whether he thinks the product needs changing--he sort of suggests it doesn't--but surely he doesn't believe we can change peoples' social habits instead?

Friday 22 February 2008

Friday Grab Bag: All Gargoyle Edition

I'm "on travel," as they say, temporarily away from the keyboard. So this is just a quickie to satisfy the gargoylish among us. All these stone figures are on Magdalen College, which must be one of the most gargoylie colleges around.

We should have a caption contest for all these gargoyles. My suggestion for the one above: "Here, let me help you floss."

He needs some moisturizer for his knees.

What is that monkey doing into that downspout?


Thanks for reading. I´ll be back next week. ¡Adios!

Thursday 21 February 2008

Freedom of the Press in Uganda

I like to think that in the United States--as in most of the West--the respect accorded the press isn't due simply to laws such as the First Amendment, but to a deeply-held belief that journalism helps a society function. We may decry the press's errors--we should decry them--but we hold the press dear, and even when it stumbles we feel uneasy at the prospect of dismantling its safeguards, of jailing its practitioners.

That's in the United States. But most of the world isn't the United States and it's sobering for a well-fed, coddled, protected journalist such as myself to hear of colleagues in other countries harassed for simply doing their jobs. It's a job that can get you killed you in some places. In others it can land you in jail.

One such place is Uganda, where Bernard Tabaire is an editor at the Daily Monitor newspaper. I haven't met Mr. Tabaire but he was a Reuters Fellow here at Oxford last year so I feel for him even more of the kinship than one journalist feels for another. It sounds like his paper was on to a good story: Faith Mwondha, a government minister in charge of ferreting out corruption, appeared to be on shaky ground herself. The Monitor received a copy of a report suggesting that there were some salary irregularities involving Ms. Mwondha (known as "God's Warrior" for her take-no-prisoners approach to her job). Her response was to encourage the police to arrest what now numbers five Monitor journalists. The five have been charged with "unlawful publication of a defamatory manner." They're out on bail awaiting trial.

"In running the story, we wanted to show that the person fighting corruption needs to explain a few things," Tabaire wrote in an e-mail to the Reuters Institute. "That is our obligation."

The Monitor admits it got one element of the story wrong: The report criticizing Mwondha was not commissioned by the Ministry of Finance, as was initially reported, but by other officials in the government. That error is the hook upon which Mwondha is basing her case, a case which Tabaire argues should be a civil matter, not a criminal one.

What can be done? English PEN is urging interested parties in the U.K. to contact the Ugandan representative here and request that the charges be dropped and that journalists in that country be allowed to do their jobs. The address is: Her Excellency Mrs Joan Kakima Nyakatuura Rwabyomere, Uganda House, 58-59 Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DX. In the U.S., the contact is His Excellency Perezi Kamunanwire, Embassy of the Republic of Uganda, 5911 16th St. NW, Washington, DC 20011.

I don't know how much good pressure from citizens in other countries will do. But it's worth a try. And it's nice to see that Tabaire and his colleagues have some support in Uganda, as evidenced by a blog item from a man named Moses Paul Sserwanga. "Democracy thrives best in an atmosphere of trust, openness and accountability," he writes.

Jailing journalists isn't the way to provide that.

Wednesday 20 February 2008

The War of Fog

And so out the door and down the street on my daily mission to empty the dog and fill the mind. After rain, sun, cold, sun, sun, cold, frost, we're back to fog here in Oxford. The impenetrable pea soups of Dickens's time are long gone but there's still the feeling of walking through a feather pillow as you amble out in the morning. Noises seem oddly present--the honk of low-flying geese, the rhythmic tick of a bicycle chain, the flatulent putt-putt of a diesel motor, the crash and tinkle of the glass-recycling men.... Headlights loom out of the clouds like monsters' eyes.

A sign outside the newsagent's (I've learned that its proper name is a "news bill") suggests good fortune has visited my colleagues:

Alas, it's a story about 14 Oxford postal workers who've been pooling a pound each a day for four years and have won more than 55,000 pounds. Good for them. The other side of the bill promotes another odd story:

"Meat fight"? It sounds oddly disturbing: sausages at 20 paces, ground beef hand grenades.... But no, the front-page headline clarifies: "Halal of a Victory." That's a pun, son, one the Oxford Mail has been using ever since this particular story broke. An Oxford elementary school switched to halal meat for its lunches, figuring it tasted no different from non-halal meat but was acceptable to its Muslim students. It would be cheaper than making two separate lunches. Unfortunately, the principal didn't tell the parents, and when they found out there was, according to the Mail, "One Halal of a Row." (That's another ill-chosen pun. If the issue had involved kosher food I wonder if the headline would have been "Jew Must Be Joking.")

The school should have leveled with the parents from the start, explaining what it was doing, but the protesting parents exhibited that particularly British strain of xenophobia that seems to relish ignorance. Halal meat was somehow "bad" for their offspring. "Parent power" won the meat fight and the school backed down. "The school has now decided to offer youngsters a choice of normal meat, a halal option or a vegetarian dish," wrote the Mail. "Normal" meat? Someone should really tell the Mail that it's wise to choose words, um, wisely.

I'm sure the fog will lift eventually.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Doubleplusgood Choco Chip Biscuits

There are some foodstuffs the English do very well. Beer, for example. And roast lamb. They have an amazing variety of potato chips, too, imbuing the humble "crisp" (as they call it) with all sorts of exotic flavors. Then there are the things the English don't do very well, or don't do at all. I'm talking about the cookie.

The English don't even have cookies. They have biscuits, which aren't really the same thing at all. There is a place for a biscuit--dipped in a mug of milky tea, for example--but it doesn't satisfy the longing, the craving, that an American feels for a cookie. I hope I will get no argument if I suggest that the king of the cookie is the mighty chocolate chip.

You never notice how ubiquitous the chocolate chip cookie is in the United States until you are denied it. It has become such a part of the landscape that you can purchase one literally almost anywhere. I guarantee you that eight out of 10 cash registers in America have a stack of chocolate chip cookies next to them, wrapped up in plastic and awaiting that impulse buyer. We Americans consider the chocolate chip cookie a birthright, like potable water and easy access to firearms.

That isn't the case in Britain. This isn't to say that chocolate chip cookies are completely unknown. There's a stand called Ben's Cookies in Oxford's historic Covered Market that sells something it calls a chocolate chip cookie. But it has a disappointingly cakey mouthfeel, not the satisfyingly granular mouthfeel of a true CCC. And you can buy factory-made chocolate chip cookies at the grocery store. The brand names they go by suggest that the Brits are trying to capture some of that American magic, even if they are a bit misguided:

Funny, I don't really think of Maryland (or "Merry-land," as an English person would say) when I think of chocolate chip cookies. Then again, nor do I think of Tennessee:

The Tennessee High Quality Chocolate Chunk Cookies are actually made in Germany, where they apparently have less of a grasp of that particular baked good than in England. (I love that little picture of the antebellum mansion.) I suppose I should be thankful I'm not shopping in Japan, where the brand name would probably be something like HomeRun Armadillo Cookie Chip.

How do Maryland and Tennessee chocolate chip cookies taste? Not that good, though you will notice that both those packages are empty, so they must be good enough. Luckily, My Lovely Wife, after much experimentation, has successfully baked real, American-style chocolate chip cookies in our idiosyncratic little cooker. Hopefully we can get through the next five months without withdrawal symptoms kicking in.

I Heart My Heart
Of course, I shouldn't be eating these things at all given that they aren't the healthiest of choices. But I strive for moderation in all things, which is sort of the point of a little piece I have in today's Washington Post Health section. It's about how my life has changed since having a heart attack in 2001. I'll be chatting live with web readers toay at noon Eastern Standard Time (5 p.m. here in Britain). If you want to join us, just go here.

I Don't Know the Muffin, Man
We Americans are no better when it comes to geographically mis-named food. "English" muffins, anyone? A British person would look at you blankly if you asked for one. Not that I recommend the English tea cake, a baked good beloved of little old ladies in tea shops. It resembles nothing so much as the bottom half of a toasted hamburger bun. That's pretty much what it tastes like, too.

For sheer breakfast grotesquery, nothing can compete with the American Cinnabon. Talk about a heart attack on a plate....

Friday 15 February 2008

Friday Grab Bag: In the Toilet Edition

I probably shouldn't go around whipping out my digital camera in public toilets, but I had to snap a photo of that sign. It's in the men's room in Oxford's Social Science Library on Manor Road. I just love that opening line: "There have been a lot of comments about the state of these toilets." You can just imagine the exasperated shrug that accompanied it. (For the record, the bathroom seemed fine while I was in there, though it is a bit small. It reminded me of a Japanese capsule hotel.)

Just Shoot Me
Then there's this display of books at the W.H. Smith's store on Cornmarket:

Tragic Life Stories! Buy One Get One Half Price! Get all your suicidal reading at a discount! And you've gotta love those titles: "Damaged," "Shame," "Alone," "Crying in the Dark"

I'm working on a book called "In-Grown Toenail" that I hope will make me a fortune.

BritNews RoundUp
What's the first rule of bigamy? I mean, after remembering to have more than one spouse. It's to keep your lives entirely separate. It just ain't gonna work otherwise. But Randolf Edge didn't quite grasp that, according to this story in the Daily Mail: "Bigamist caught out when he invited the same guest to BOTH his 'weddings.'" Whoops. By the way, I love the name of his two wives: Patience Carey and Edna Winkle.

I once stopped at the tourist office at Bradford on Avon just to ask how many visitors confused it with Stratford-Upon-Avon. About two or three a year, they said. Perhaps those are the same people who confused Newcastle-under-Lyme with Newcastle Upon Tyne. British bureaucrats accidentally gave 2.5 million pounds to the local government of the former when it was intended for the latter. Whoops.

I don't know how else to put this: Elephants in Australia are having pre-marital sex. A 9-year-old pachyderm at the Taronga Zoo is knocked up and animal activists are upset. It is, said a critic, "the equivalent of allowing your 12-year-old daughter to become pregnant." I like the comment a reader posted: "Where is the father in all this?"

I will resist the urge to comment on the elephant's name: Thong Dee.

Speaking of animals, how about this hardhitting expose from the BBC: "Secret lives of badgers revealed." The late-night boozing! The pre-marital sex! The welfare fraud!

Andrew Cooper, producer of a new BBC documentary on the critters, said: "Before we began filming I knew that there was a gap in our knowledge about badgers. When I spoke to one badger expert, I said to him: 'How much do we know about their life underground?,' and he simply held up a blank piece of paper."

But now, thanks to the nosy BBC, the badgers have no secrets.

Gargoyle(s) of the Week
Gargoyle-on-gargoyle action!

These gargoyles--the gargoyles that dare not speak their name--adorn the side of Magdalen College. Although, on second thought, maybe that one on the left is a woman.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading. Here's hoping your life story isn't too tragic.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Footnotes From a Small Planet

People talk about being a footnote as if it's a bad thing: "One day, he'll be just a footnote," they say, the implication being that you're forgotten, lost, a mere intellectual blip. But I'm here to tell you that being a footnote is the most exciting thing to happen to me all week.

I'm not technically a footnote in "Order Versus Access: News Search Engines and the Challenge to Traditional Journalistic Media," a paper in the November 2007 issue of the journal Media, Culture & Society. I'm more of an endnote. I may not even be that, since I'm embedded in the text.

Well, I'm not embedded in the text. (Right now I'm embedded in my dining room.) But a snippet of my prose is. About halfway through St. Louis University media scholar Matt Carlson's paper is this:

In the face of technological challenges, one columnist reiterated the need for presentational authority:
"There's a lot on [the front page] competing for your attention. Do not consider it a disorganized jumble. In fact, the entire newspaper is an attempt to impose order on the chaos that is our world. There is a rough rule of thumb: The higher up the story is on a page, the more important it is." (Kelly, 2005; C9)
Here, a journalist makes an explicit claim regarding the value of the interpretive actions editors carry out on the news in order to create an interdependent coherent news product. This is viewed as a valuable service that the news provides.

And then when you check the references at the back of the paper it says "Kelly, J. (2005) 'Read (but Not All!) About It,' Washington Post 11 February: C9." That's me! Future scholars will know I existed! Weedy graduate students will stumble across my name and say, "Huh?"

Carlson's paper (in Vol. 29; Page 1014, in case you're wondering) is about how Google News is different from traditional news. In the spectrum of academic papers (and, believe me, I've read a lot of them these last few months) Carlson's falls nearer the "Readable and Interesting" end than the "Impenetrable Gobbledy-Gook" end, even if he does use the words "veridical" and "normative." Of course, I may just have a soft spot for it.

His basic point is that Google News--which is a human-free aggregator of news stories from thousands of sources--upends a newspaper's "presentational authority." As he puts it: "Google is more than simply personalized news. Rather, it explicitly aims to expose users to multiple views on a given topic. This is a contrast from a traditional news product, which aims to provide a singular voice across a range of topics."

What was odd about seeing my column quoted (read the full version here) was the notion that someone was taking me seriously. "One columnist reiterated the need for presentational authority.... Here a journalist makes an explicit claim...." Well, like most columnists, I was just trying to fill a hole in the corner of the paper that day. That's the difference between journalists and academics, and why the latter have something like contempt for the former. We are like mayflies that are born, mate and die in a single day, while they are Galapagos tortoises: methodical and eternal.

Footnotes I Have Known
Actually, my column was entirely appropriate for the point Carlson was making. I love footnotes and regret that I haven't been writing down my favorites. When you see them out of context they have a certain poetry. They're like: "See Finnegan (1978). But also note that Jenkins (1987) observed some colobus monkeys involved in 'prenatal play' activity."

When I did my last fellowship I took a wonderful course on Roman gladiators from Kathleen Coleman. There were some spectacular footnotes in that class, including one in a Coleman paper about modes of execution in the amphitheater. The section was about how a female convict was put to death in ancient Rome in a grotesque recreation of Pasiphae's intercourse with a bull. The footnote was an entertaining little discursion on the bestiality shows once found in places like Tijuana. If I hadn't followed that little number to the end of the paper I would have missed it completely.

Stick It
I attended a great seminar yesterday by Dr. Tammy Boyce, a media analyst from Cardiff University. She examined the British media coverage of the MMR vaccine controversy. That's when a single doctor suggested the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine might be linked to autism. Basically, there was no proof for his supposition and yet the media gave it credence and countless parents decided not to vaccinate their children, or to get three separate inoculations rather than a single combined one.

Boyce divided the blame among all the parties: the media, for covering, then hyping, a story that didn't deserve to be covered in the first place; the government, for not providing adequate experts to knock down the rumors; and parents, for not properly educating themselves. It was a stark reminder that the media's efforts to be "balanced" can sometimes end in disaster. What if there shouldn't be balance?

Wednesday 13 February 2008

Let the Sun Shine In

It's always sunny on British TV costume dramas, which gives one a rather skewed impression of this damp, sceptered isle.

The British love a good TV costume drama. Or even a bad one. They're so adept at producing them that a half-dozen seem to be on at any one time. No sooner had "Cranford" finished than "Lark Rise to Candleford" started up. The latest incarnation of "Robin Hood" has been heating up (or "hotting up," as the Brits say) the BBC air waves for the last few years. And just as the U.S. Strategic Air Command always has one nuclear bomber in the air, so does British television always have one Jane Austen adaptation in development.

Many of these shows feature the same actors: men who know how to use a plow and women who have a high tolerance for bonnets and a rib structure that allows for constant corseting. I sometimes wonder if being stuck in the 18th or 19th century is a kind of punishment, the modern workhouse. ("Madam, I find you guilty of driving under the influence and I hereby sentence you to a 12-part mini-series based on 'Jude the Obscure.'")

Still, we watch them all. The English are so very good at them. Actors are trained from a young age to keep a straight face while saying things like "That's a fine teacake you make, Mrs. Catchpole" and "But it's so dreadful, Charles; Ruby lost the antimacassar and now Tidgy shan't be able to row on St. Swivan's Day." Producers can dial in just the right amount of authentic grime, from the squeaky clean rural charm of a show like "Lark Rise" (no one has smallpox) to what I like to call "High Bubonic," or "the Full Dickens." (You don't see much of that, actually.)

What I couldn't understand, though, is why it's always so sunny in these shows. And not just mildly sunny, but incredibly sunny: the screen suffused with a warm amber glow, fruit-heavy boughs dancing in a light breeze, heroines stripped down to their pinafores, the jerkins of working-class heroes unbuttoned to reveal chiseled, hairless chests.

I mean, it never gets that way in England. I thought that perhaps CGI was involved: the entire series shot in front of a green screen and then finished off at Industrial Light & Magic. Or perhaps all the British costume dramas are filmed in a single, frenzied two-week stretch of nice weather every May or June. But now I think I know the answer. I described my confusion this morning to a woman I sometimes encounter while walking the dog and she filled me in: "No," she said. "They just cobble together all the sunny days over a summer, shooting when the weather's perfect."

Of course. It may not be "realistic," but that's TV for you.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Water, Cool Clear Water

When I was a boy my father used to sing me cowboy songs. These songs often involved cowboys coming to bad ends: bleeding to death after a shootout or dying of thirst out in the desert. You know: cheery little ditties perfect for pondering as you drift off to sleep. I decided early on that if ever I were to become a cowboy I would carry an extra canteen and a styptic pencil.

The best song was "Cool Water." Like many good cowboy songs, it's sung to a horse. Mirages tempt a cowboy and his trusty beast, Dan, as they trudge through the range: "Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water, cool clear water." The listener can't help thinking the pair are going to give up, their bleached bones discovered years later when the interstate is put through or the Sizzler steak house thrown up.

I thought of Old Dan and the cowboy when I saw this story about how restaurants in Britain are being urged to serve tap water, rather than charge for bottled water. (Or, as I'm convinced happened to me the other day, charge for tap water they put into a bottle.)

In a country that puts the "surly" in "service," the restaurateur's disdain for free tap water is what bugs me the most. Ask for nothing and you will receive nothing. Ask for water and you will receive a bottle of water (one pound fifty at the last restaurant I ate in: $3). Ask for tap water and you will be given a withering look of disgust, as if you just wet yourself. In a country almost comically obsessed with "being green" it's strange how people would rather drink water out of little bottles with a big carbon footprint than quaff the liquid that comes out of the pipes.

Well, perhaps this campaign will make a difference. Old Dan and I will do our part and stick to tap water. Either that or cut the top off a cactus and suck the juice out.

Come Don't Fly With Me
Dueling announcements from various governments about making flying "safer" make me consider using a rowboat to next cross the Atlantic. Yesterday the Guardian had a story headlined "Bush Orders Clampdown on Flights to U.S." (Putting "Bush" in the headline is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of Guardian readers.) The European Union is upset at American demands that armed U.S. air marshalls be allowed on flights originating in Europe and that passengers provide detailed information even if they're just overflying the country.

Today's front page news in The Post that European countries may require fingerprinting for U.S. travelers almost sounds like a tit for tat but it's more tat for tit, given that the U.S. already requires fingerprinting and photographing. Treating everyone as a suspect will continue to do wonders for America's standing in the world. Why don't we just tell people we don't really want them to visit?

More Cowboys
Now I have cowboy songs on my brain. "El Paso" by Marty Robbins is a good one. The song about an ill-fated romance with lovely Mexican beauty Felina has that great lyric: "Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel a deep burning pain in my side." (Or, as Marty Robbins sang it, "my siiiiIIIIIiiiiiiiide.") Yes, unnamed protagonist, that means you've been shot.

Then there's one of the saddest songs my father used to sing, "Streets of Laredo." A cowboy--"wrapped in white linen, as cold as the clay"--lays dying in the street. It's a cautionary tale, as the dying hand admits to his misdeeds, tells the passerby to notify his next of kin and even makes his own detailed funeral arrangements.

Cowboys really knew how to live back then and they sure knew how to die.

Monday 11 February 2008

Just Another Manic Media Monday

It's odd being in England when so much is going on back in America: the presidential primaries, the new Washington Nationals' ballpark, Britney Spears's meltdowns.... Of course, what really affects me are the changes at The Washington Post: a new publisher, consolidation of our printing plants and buyouts. I don't think I'll arrive back in the newsroom this summer to find the lock on my office changed, but one never knows.

Ten years ago I was away from The Post at a time when there was churn at the paper. A new managing editor had been named and I was off on a fellowship. I felt a bit out of the loop. What if I missed my chance to toady and brown-nose? Successful sucking up, like comedy, is all in the timing. I'm glad to say that despite my absence it all worked out just fine, even if that managing editor didn't stick around.

I think I'm probably too young to qualify for a buyout, though each round does seem to get lower and lower. The Post may soon start paying recent journalism school graduates not to even apply. The main thing is, I like my job. I like The Post. I don't plan on going anywhere. That sound you hear is my fingernails sinking into the wood on my desk.

This is not to say that all is well in Newspaperland. This New York Times story succinctly lays out all the challenges facing the industry. Many of the challenges are external, things newspapers have no control over: the rise of the Web, changes in readers' lifestyle and commuting habits. But some are self-imposed: We've lost some readers' trust, we haven't reacted well to changes in technology.... Over here, the latest book to pile on is "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies. I haven't read the book yet, but Davies's main argument appears to be that time-pressed staffs are required to pump out more stories more quickly, resulting in a debilitating reliance on PR material.

It's an argument that U.K. journalism professor Adrian Monck carefully disassembles on his blog. Monck argues that, given the great advances in technology in the last 40 years, journalists should be able to work quicker and more efficiently. This review by Peter Preston in the Guardian makes the point that the Golden Age Davies harks back to was probably non-existent, or at least less shiny than he remembers it. Simon Jenkins made a similar point in a recent column.

I liked Peter Preston's closing comments: "One inescapable point about journalism is that, base or lofty, ruthless or idealistic, it is a mess, and always has been. That shouldn't stop us from trying to clean it up point by point, problem by problem. We can't afford not to be serious about our serious trade. But nor -- like rather too many tremulous tradesmen -- should we wallow in a froth of self-loathing that blots out the good and the necessary and the essential, too."

"A froth of self-loathing." Lovely. And worth keeping in mind. Of course, Peter Preston, I believe, is at the end of his career instead of in the middle of it, like I am. Journalists such as myself may need to steer clear of the froth of self-loathing but we need to plunge ourselves into the cold bath of self-criticism and self-improvement. The message of the economics seem unmistakable: Business as usual won't cut it anymore.

Friday 8 February 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Gone to the Dogs Edition

That's a photo of Charlie about to be put to sleep.

Don't worry. He was destined to wake up again. He needed some surgery--a little lump had grown on one leg; he had an odd bump on his lip--that required general anesthesia and the practiced flick of a scalpel.

Poor Charlie. And poor us. You never budget for 400 pounds' worth of dog surgery. You pay it, of course, but afterwards it's hard not to think: Who knew that I had $800 at my disposal? Maybe I could have bought that handsome suit, those nice shoes, that antique clock or original artwork. But by then the money's gone, spent on veterinarian labor and canine narcotics.

Charlie is a real trouper, so he came through just fine. He was a bit ditsy after the surgery. We don't have a car and while we'd walked the 25 minutes to the vet's we weren't going to make him walk home. That meant taking the bus, but when My Lovely Wife was walking to the bus stop, Charlie kept trying to pull away from her, jump over brick walls and, seemingly, get back to the vet's. I wondered if, Rush Limbaugh-like, he was already addicted to painkillers. But Ruth hustled him aboard the 7A toward Kidlington and got him home. He looked like he'd gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson:

That was on Wednesday and today's the first day Charlie seems like his old, frisky self. The doctor thinks the growths she excised are non-cancerous and non-malignant. The only way to tell for sure is to have them biopsied, another $200. We decided not to. It's not that we don't love Charlie--we took him all the way to England, after all--just that if he does need the big guns of animal medicine brought to bear, we'll have to think hard about what to do, especially while we're living in the land of the $2 pound. (The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley recently had to ponder similar questions involving his dachshund Reggie.)

We may change our mind. The vet's kept the growths in formalin and if Charlie gets lumpy again, she can take a look.

Sharia Don't Like It...
I didn't know what to think when I first heard yesterday that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had said the adoption of Muslim sharia law in Britain was inevitable. Was he sounding a Daily Mailesque warning, as in "Unless Britain takes the necessary steps, sharia will become the law of the land"? Or was he advocating the adoption of sharia law?

Apparently it's the latter rather than the former. There's the expected outcry this morning. One can't help thinking, "What was he thinking?" The Guardian has a succinct editorial that paws through Williams's thinking before slapping it down. Never has the separation of church and state seemed like a better idea.

On an unrelated note, this is one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's eyebrows.
They are an impressive sight, bushy thatches of hair that swoop back, giving him a permanent look of surprise. There are those in my family who wish he would prune them back. But I like them. Only a certain sort of English intellectual has eyebrows like that. In fact, I wonder if it's a genetic trait that has been "selected for," as Darwin might say. Like the mane of the African lion or the white shoulders of a silverback gorilla, the bushy English gentleman's eyebrow is the result of years of evolution.

BritNews RoundUp
It pains me to report that there wasn't much silly stuff in the papers here this week. I blame Super Tuesday. Fleet Street has been covering the presidential campaigns with an exhausting regularity and I think that all the space that this week would have been devoted to errant footballers, wacky pets or pneumatic starlets was spent on Clinton, Obama, Huckabee and McCain. (And doesn't that sound like a scary law firm?)

Still, one tries. The Guardian reported that Prince William is considering doing a brief stint as a journalist, "to prepare for public life--and ultimately the throne." (The story was immediately denied by the palace.)

I somehow missed this story from December about a 19-year-old girl who thought that the tattoo on her stomach was her boyfriend's nickname "Roo," "until she showed it off in a Chinese takeaway and found out it actually spelled 'supermarket.'" The story raised several questions in my mind: What sort of nickname is "Roo"? And under exactly what circumstances is one cajoled into lifting one's shirt in a Chinese takeaway?

The Daily Mail reports that Cornish 51-year-old Alan January was not picked up by the local bus because he was waving incorrectly. I feel sorry for the fellow. The proper British bus-wave is something we've had to learn. But I wonder if that really explains why the bus--"the last-but-two" of the night--passed him by:

Perhaps the driver didn't pick him up on that lonely Cornish road because he looks like a homicidal maniac.

This story wasn't in the British papers but it's worth reading nonetheless: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency is inspecting and confiscating travelers' laptops, cellphones and MP3 players at airports. They're writing down passwords and copying files. "The U.S. government has argued in a pending court case that its authority to protect the country's border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as laptops without any suspicion of a crime," writes The Post's Ellen Nakashima. All I can say is: Jesus Christ, what next? Vulcan mind meld?

Gargoyle of the Week
After last week's confession about grotesques I felt I should offer a bona fide gargoyle this week. So here he is:

He's on the tower of the church at St. Peter's College on New Inn Hall Street.

Have a great weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Naguib Mahfouz: A War Foretold

We Americans are an insular, stay-at-home sort of people. And, really, with so much on offer in our own manifestly destined land, why would we ever want to leave? Still, as (relatively) well traveled as I am, I always feel a little guilty when someone from the vast swath of the globe I've never visited asks if I've been to their country.

Or a country near their country. Or a country like their country. There are three Egyptian journalists visiting the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism this term and not only have I not been to Egypt, I've never been to an Arab country. But the presence of Ehab, Dina and Raina has prompted a bout of armchair travel. Which is why I just finished reading "The Journey of Ibn Fattouma" by Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning author.

This slim volume probably isn't the right entree to Mahfouz's work. He's best known for the epic Cairo Trilogy. But I started with "Ibn Fattouma" because, at 148 pages, it would fit in my pocket--an important consideration when you're on a bicycle.

Briefly, the book is about a restless man upset by the corruption in his country. He decides to travel south to visit others to see what he can learn from them. It's a Swiftian sort of book. Each land appears to have something to offer, but beneath the surface the protagonist sees the cracks in the dystopia. The land that seems the best is called Halba and I confess I felt a jolt when I read that section. Ibn Fattouma has just been freed from 20 years in jail in Haira, the previous country he visited, so he is impressed by the vast freedoms in Halba. And yet he is troubled that Halba is about to invade Haira.

"What do you think of our declaration of war, sacrificing our sons to liberate a foreign land," a sage in Halba asks Ibn Fattoum.

"This is something we have not heard of before," Ibn Fattouma answers.

"We present people with a model for an honorable and happy homeland."

"Perhaps you welcome war."

"Yes, if you promise an increase in freedom," he said clearly. "I have not the slightest doubt that victory by us over Haira and Aman would be the best guarantees for the happiness of the two peoples."

Whoa. Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006 but I wonder if he cursed his prescience. Like all great writers he was capable of looking into the future as much as plumbing the past.

The author was apparently despised by Islamic fundamentalists, who were especially enraged by his support of Salman Rushdie. The same sage who tells Ibn Fattouma that invading a country helps bring it freedom adds, "Speaking of which, I am for the principle of holy war in Islam."

Ibn Fattouma has left his Muslim homeland because he's upset at the corruption of the religion, so this isn't the endorsement a reader might think. In fact, Mahfouz makes clear his thoughts on Islam in the speech he gives to the woman Ibn Fattouma marries in Halba: "The difference between our Islam and yours is that ours has not closed the doors of independent judgment, and Islam without independent judgment means Islam without reason."

I still hope to go to Egypt some day, but I'm reminded that a library book can be almost as transporting.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Long Live Literacy: Lilley's Last Lecture

Those of us who attended all four of Anthony Lilley's lectures felt a certain camaraderie as last night's seminar drew to a close. For four weeks we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) had been together as one as Lilley explained why he shouldn't be called the News International visiting professor of broadcast media but the News International visiting professor of networked media.

Okay, he didn't say that in so many words, but if the Oxford mediaocracy takes anything from his sojourn here, it should be that broadcast is dead. (I described his earlier lectures here, here and here.)

Lilley billed this as a user-generated lecture, taking inspiration from comments on his university blog, but, frankly, visitors to his blog didn't really pick up the gauntlet he had thrown down. I include myself in that, even if Lilley did reference a quote I posted on his blog. It's from a fellow named Benedict Anderson. When reading a daily newspaper, Anderson wrote, "each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throught the calendar. ... At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in every day."

I confess I get a bittersweet and melancholy feeling when I read that, for it describes a world that's on its way out, if it isn't gone already. But there's no use crying. As Lilley said, he didn't approach his subject--the future of media--from the standpoint of "how do we preserve newspapers?"

The market still offers simultaneous experiences--witness the 107 million people who watched the Super Bowl "together"--and some media experiences will go forth and multiply, living beyond the moment of their creation: The Beatles' White Album, for example, which people can enjoy without any temporal association to the Fab Four. Sticky ideas will spread virally, borne along by communities that can coalesce with ease.

Lilley touched on the proposed takeover of Yahoo by Microsoft. It's plain to him that it shows a strong desire to capture more of the lucrative online advertising market and could presage a shift of ads from TV to the Web. He cautioned that anything that threatens to restrict choice should be weighed closely.

In a previous lecture Lilley outlined what a public service broadcaster should accomplish: inform, stimulate, etc. Wasn't that also what an educational institution should do? Should we replace schools with online interactive learning centers? Lilley wouldn't go that far, but he criticized Oxford for refusing to join the 21st century. Why not put lectures online, he asked, a low-cost way of using the power of the network to energize the university's core values?

The digital revolution brings with it an explosion of choice and an erosion of control. With that, said Lilley, comes the Moral Panic, as parents turn to government to protect their children from inappropriate content and internet predators. The answer, Lilley suggested, isn't more regulation (we already have laws to protect children) but education: Parents and children need to be more media literate.

And that was his final message: Whether we like it or not, it's a big, messy, open-source world out there. We all need to learn how to navigate it.

Cynical World
There was an interesting question from a student about whether media literacy required a certain amount of cynicism. I was wondering the same thing myself: Do we tell our children not to believe anything they see on the Web? Or would that deny them the good things they can find there? Perhaps it's good for them to learn as early as possible that the world is full of all sorts of people peddling all sorts of information--and disinformation.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Come on Get Happy....Except for Some of You

I was not happy that I missed the first three lectures in a four-part series called "Prospects of Happiness" at Green College. But it's no use beating myself up about it, so off I went to last night's final lecture. It was an unhappy climax.

Not because it was a bad lecture. It was gripping, actually. But it was gripping in the same way a train wreck or a horror movie is gripping. The speaker was Richard Wilkinson, a professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham. Wilkinson has spent 30 years studying one thing: What affect does living in an unequal society have upon its citizens? What that means is, what happens if there are vast differences in income in a society--with the top 20 percent earning eight times more than the lower 20 percent, say?

To find out, Wilkinson looked at data from about two dozen wealthy countries. The bottom axis of his graph was income inequality. The further along to the right a country was the bigger the gap between the richest and the poorest. Then he graphed various social problems along the vertical axis. The higher a country was, the worse off it was.

In slide after slide--infant mortality, teen births, poor life expectancy, high rate of violence, etc.--the United States was way up and to the right. It often looked as if it was shooting off the page, headed for the stratosphere. Down and to the left on the charts were the nordic countries and Japan. "I'm sorry they're all the same story, but that's why I'm here telling you this," said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson's thesis is that income inequality has detrimental social effects. He says he's corrected for things like poverty and access to health care. It isn't just a case that the USA has more people and thus more poor people (and more "poor people's problems"). He's eliminated everything as a factor but the distance between the richest and the poorest. And that very distance brings everyone down--not just those at the short end of the stick.

So why would this be the case? Wilkinson thinks it has something to do with social status. A grossly unequal country threatens the self-esteem of every citizen, as you worry about your place in the pecking order. It is a "less friendly" country. While friendship is based on sharing, reciprocity and notions of social obligation, social status is based on power: who has it and who doesn't. Wilkinson said that when researchers give people tasks to test their body's level of cortisol--a hormone that rises with stress--those tasks that invoke threats to self-esteem or social status, tasks which others can judge negatively without the subject having much control, raise levels the most.

It was depressing stuff. The United States did not come out well and it was a reminder that as wealthy and free as we are, we're nowhere close to the dream we ought to have for our country. Even typing that makes me feel like a goddamn communist and of course I'm not. I believe in the free market and I think people have a responsibility to themselves and their families to do the best they can to prosper. But great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few is bad for the nation as a whole, not just for those on the welfare rolls.

Wilkinson said he just studies this stuff. He doesn't offer recommendations. But he did wonder if employee ownership of companies might help address the inequality. I didn't quite understand that, actually, but I do question the massive compensation packages some CEOs receive, even when their companies are doing poorly. And, yes, why not tax the rich more? It seems to me they can afford it.

By the way, here's one of Wilkinson's papers, on inequality and child well-being. The graph is a bit different from the ones I described, and so it goes in the other direction. But it doesn't paint a very happy picture.