Friday 30 May 2008

Friday Grab Bag: Monkey Brains Mashup

Do we really want monkeys able to control robotic arms with their brains? I mean, do scientists even think these things through? To them, it's all "Wouldn't it be great if monkeys could control robotic arms," giving little thought to how it might all end: bionic monkeys rampaging, Terminator-like, through our streets, smashing our doors down with one swing of their mighty robotic arms.

Much better, I think, for researchers to figure out a way for Sharon Stone to control her brain. So far that's eluded science, which is how she ends up saying things like "bad karma" caused the Chinese earthquake. Of course, first they'll have to find her brain. It won't be easy, but once they locate the small, vestigial organ (last seen, briefly, in "Basic Instinct") they can wire it up so it can control a robotic arm, plucking marshmallows from the end of a skewer and popping them into her, um, mouth.

BritNews RoundUp
From Sharon Stone to Kirsty Wark. Who's she? A presenter on "Newsnight," the BBC's bestest current affairs program. Like Stone, Wark got into a spot of trouble with her legs, at least according to the Daily Mail: "Viewers watching the Newsnight Review show from the French Riviera last Friday were treated to the 53-year-old mother-of-two flashing her legs in a black dress with a hem several inches above the knee." This unleashed a "flood" of complaints to the program's Internet message board, said the paper.

How would you like to be the Daily Mail person in charge of scouring the BBC's message boards. Don't think there isn't such a person. How else to explain the story headlined "BBC viewers attack Bill Oddie's 'smutty' and 'almost perverse' Springwatch innuendoes." Springwatch is a nature show. Oddie is a birdwatcher and former comedian. The show in question featured footage of birds and insects mating, with commentary from Oddie that included him saying "Oh be gentle with me" as two stag beetles copulated. Wrote one viewer: "I am sick to death of the constant innuendo being offered by Bill every time a scene of mating appears."

One shudders to think what Bill Oddie would say when describing the mating habits of the great tit. Great tits are in the news after a nest was found inside an ashtray on a Scottish nature reserve. And let's hope Oddie never gets his hands on an Australian trouser snake of the sort that bit a tourist on the wild and rugged Cape York Peninsula of Queensland. Actually it bit the tourist on his, well, let's just say it bit him "down under." The tourist had stopped for a toilet break when the deadly brown snake lunged at him, sinking its fangs into his, um, didgeridoo. According to the Telegraph: "The man, whose nationality was not released, was extremely fortunate to be alive but also 'shocked and embarrassed' about where he had been bitten, an ambulance spokesman said."

Moving to New Zealand, where 27-year-old William Singalargh was found guilty of assault and offensive behavior after asking a 15-year-old if he wanted to "wear a hedgehog helmet" and then throwing a hedgehog at him. The Telegraph story is a marvel of understatement, allowing the facts to speak for themselves: "Singalargh was holding a hedgehog and asked the boy: 'Do you want to wear a hedgehog helmet?' When the boy indicated that he would rather not, Singalargh threw the animal, leaving a large red welt and four quills lodged in the teenager’s hip."

"Wearing a hedgehog helmet." Why does that sound dirty, like something Bill Oddie might say?

At times like these it's nice to return to good old human sex, or at least what passes for it in England. The Sun reports that a Watford dentist shares office space with his girlfriend, "Tiny," who offers sex shows upstairs while he fills cavities downstairs. Actually, it sounds like she fills cavities, too. (Rimshot, please.)

Gargoyle of the Week

Now that's a proper gargoyle. I snapped him at Keble College, where My Lovely Wife and I lunched as guests of Malte and Jette. You'll notice the sky was blue, something that happens occasionally around Oxford, though not today. I suppose if it was always sunny they wouldn't need gargoyles and then what would I do every Friday? Sundial of the week?

Thanks for reading during this spotty week. My paper still isn't completely finished but it's almost done. And that means I'm almost done, too. In preparation for my return to Washington and the unpacking of my mothballed column I invite the Washingtonians among you to submit questions to Answer Man. That's the weekly feature in which I answer questions about the D.C. area. E-mail them to me at john[at] Thanks and have a great weekend.

Monday 26 May 2008

Waste Not, Want Definitely Not

No entry today--it's May Blog Holiday here in the UK--but I offer a commentary I have in the Guardian today on, well, dog crap.

Friday 23 May 2008

Friday Grab Bag: BritNews RoundUp

Is Bella the mongrel the world's oldest living dog? The Daily Mail says she may be 169 years old "in doggie years." But what's this: The Daily Telegraph says Bella is "more than 200 years in canine years." 169? 200? Which one is correct? British owner David Richardson said he's had the Labrador mix for 26 years and she was about three when he got her, making her 29. And anyway, shouldn't that be in human years, not dog years? This Purina dog year calculator only goes up to 19. And poo-poos the very idea that an easy conversion from dog to human is possible.

According to the Mail Richardson thought he was going to lose Bella recently, and "with a heavy heart" he made an appointment with the vet to put her down and dug a grave in her favourite spot in the garden of his home in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. "However, after a sleepless and tearful night Mr Richardson decided he couldn't go through with it. He cancelled the vet's appointment and as if by magic Bella appeared as good as new as he filled in the grave."

Yeah, nothing inspires a dog's miraculous recover than watching its master dig its grave. As David Richardson has no documentation on Bella, she will not be officially recognized as the world's oldest dog.

While we're on the subject of dogs, police in Buckinghamshire had to rescue two women who went into a river to rescue a dog. One of the women was visually impaired. The dog was her guide dog. Perhaps it should consider a change of career.

"For reasons that remain somewhat unclear" the Jackson 5 appears to be moving to Devon. They've rented a house there anyway, apparently for a reality TV show. Jackie and Tito are already there. The rest of the clan, including the King of Pop himself, are said to be on the way. Perhaps Michael can teach the local Morris dancers some new moves.

It's been a while since we've had a story of a man having intercourse with an inanimate object. The drought is over. Edward Smith is the subject of a Channel Five documentary on "mechaphilia": people who love, and I mean really love, cars. According to the Telegraph, Smith "who lives with his current 'girlfriend' – a white Volkswagen Beetle named Vanilla, insisted that he was not 'sick' and had no desire to change his ways. 'I appreciate beauty and I go a little bit beyond appreciating the beauty of a car only to the point of what I feel is an expression of love,' he said."

It does make you think twice about Herbie the Love Bug.

Oh, in case you wondered: According to the Sun, Christina Aguilera has big breasts. I love how the Sun calls her "Xtina"--just like "Xmas"--but shouldn't that really be "Xina"?

Gargoyle of the Week

What's that you say? That's not a gargoyle, it's a planter or a birdbath or something? Well, sure, it is now, but the person who e-mailed me this picture said it has lead piping through it, suggesting it once performed a gargoylish function: sluicing rainwater away from a building. For reasons that will soon be clear, my source will remain anonymous. Let's just call him T.B. Player of Wolvercote. He explains how he came to possess it: "In '60s I worked for a uni science department out of an old converted house in South Parks Road (next to Rhodes House). This thing just lay in the garden with weeds over it. I asked various important people if I could have it but they were too busy. So one night I went down in my trusty Morris Minor and stole it. She's been with me ever since and now resides in the back garden of my current abode."

I wouldn't mind taking a gargoyle home with me when we return to the United States--which isexactly a month from today, as it happens. But we're already over our baggage allowance.

Blogging will probably be a little light next week. I really must finish my research paper. Have a great (holiday) weekend and thanks for reading.

Thursday 22 May 2008

Get Your Motor Running

I like old cars, interesting cars...any cars, I suppose. In Europe, and in England especially, you have a better of chance of seeing something cool than you do in the United States. Here are a few that have captivated me over the last eight months.

An old Skoda in Prague:

A Fiat 500 in Rome:

A Smart car parked outside the Ferrari dealership in Berlin:

A Citroen that parks around the corner from my house:

A Skoda, in a Prague shopping mall:

A Trabant, Prague:

A Bentley decorated for a wedding, Wenceslas Square, Prague:

An Armstrong Siddeley parked on my street last week:

And here's how I get around:

Wednesday 21 May 2008

The 71 Roundabouts

You'd think I would have learned my lesson. After traveling from Oxford to Cambridge by bus last year I did it again this week. It's a punishing trip, not dissimilar to the Middle Passage that ferried kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic. Three-and-a-half hours and only about 20 minutes of that are on roads of anything wider than two lanes. I wrote before about the nausea-inducing whipsaw motion the bus takes every time it goes around a roundabout. And there are lots of roundabouts.

How many? Seventy-one. I counted them:

There are big roundabouts of the sort that funnel vehicles onto and off of a motorway. There are tiny roundabouts, just card table-sized raised white circles on the tarmac. There are about 10 roundabouts in Milton Keynes alone. Or, rather, the bus goes around roundabouts 10 times. Some of them are multiple passes at the same roundabout, like a bull repeatedly circling back on a toreador or a pinball pinging between posts.

I don't begrudge the English their roundabouts. It's part of what makes this country great. I had an epiphany, though. Many well-traveled English people I've met talk about how they crossed the United States "on a Greyhound bus." They have fond memories of this life-changing journey, describing it as if it was something out of Bob Dylan or a Creedence song: This is the real America. I realize now that, though they may not know it (these things operate on a subconscious level), what they are reacting to is a bus ride without roundabouts. It isn't the sharecroppers' shacks sliding by in the Deep South or the Rocky Mountains marching majestically to the horizon or even the anomie of American ex-urbia that makes such an impression, it's the fact that the Greyhound isn't continuously lurching back and forth like a drunkard looking for a dropped coin.

Seventy-one roundabouts. Between them the bus would pick up speed and the rapeseed fields would flash by, their yellow blossoms making it look as if extra sunlight was pouring down from the sky. I listened to the people around me. A group of teenage apprentices behind me unwound after a day at technical college in Bedford. They were joking about their ineptitude--the roofs they'd fallen off of, the carpet they'd cut wrong--but under that self-deprecating veneer was a new pride. One boy told his friends about the tools he used, his own tools, not rented ones, tools he'd bought with his own money. "If they got nicked I'd be out of pocket well back," he said. There was a girl on the bus sporting a wristful of polished wooden bracelets. "I could make them," he told her. "I'm a carpenter. It's my job."

The boys traded drinking tales--the bartender who knew they were underage but served them anyway, the friend who bizarrely only drank top-shelf liquor, the vomiting, the hangovers.... When they talked about booze they were loud and boisterous, but when they talked about sex--about a girl they knew or wished they knew, about whether "she did or she didn't"--their voices dropped to a whisper. They talked softly for a while, comparing notes, filling in gaps in their knowledge, then the talk turned to football and they were shouting again. "I was playing this kid one-on-one," said a boy. "He says, 'I had a trial with Man United.' Man United must be hard up 'cause I won 5-1 and I'm useless at football."

The bus stopped at one village and a laughing woman with an arm in a cast got on. She nodded to a man weed-whacking his front garden. "He said you'd gone," the woman said to the driver. "I asked if the bus had come and he said it had. If I'd been talking to him you would have gone right by. It wouldn't have been your fault."

She sat down behind me and told the story to everyone around her, how she'd almost missed the bus and how it was her good fortune that she hadn't.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Nick Davies: All the PR That's Fit to Print?

Last night in Cambridge someone asked Nick Davies what he would do if he was given 50 million pounds to fix journalism in the United Kingdom. Davies said he’d set up a "shadow newsroom" to sample all the output of the country's various newspapers to see what proportion of stories proved false or distorted. He’d make it a legal requirement that media products be labeled like food products, with stories rated as to the sources of information: how much original reporting had gone into them and which ones were just re-written press releases. “I think then consumers would start to abandon [the media] if they saw how bad their products were,” said Davies.

I don’t know if Nick Davies deserves 50 million pounds but certainly he deserves more than 6,000 pounds. That's what he said he netted after two years’ hard work on “Flat Earth News,” his delightfully detailed diatribe against journalism as it’s currently practiced. The book has struck a chord--nay, a very orchestra--in British media circles and there was a large crowd last night at the Wolfson College Press Fellowship event to hear him talk about it.

“New owners of the mass media have shifted their priority from propaganda to commerce,” Davies writes in "Flat Earth News." He argues that press barons no longer want to influence agendas but, instead, fatten their wallets. This obsession with the bottom line at a time of increased competition and falling profits has made owners ruthlessly cut costs. Reporters have to squeeze out more stories every day. Forced to increase their output they desperately turn to churnalism: recycling press releases. Writes Davies: “Almost all journalists work within a kind of professional cage which distorts their work and crushes their spirit.”

I was there to provide an American perspective though I don’t know how useful I was. I’ve only ever worked for The Washington Post and I’m unfamiliar with the assembly-line approach Davies described. We don’t have reporters writing nine stories a day, as Davies’s book claims is common in England. (Things may be different when I return to a post-buyout newsroom.) Nor does The Post resort to the dubious survey story, that is, a story based on "research" that's done by a business solely to get its name in the paper. Of course, the U.S. media makes its own mis-steps. For example, a medical show recently broadcast on NPR has been criticized for not informing listeners that the experts quoted all received money from drugmaker Eli Lilly.

Davies didn’t address some of the contradictions I found in his book. In one chapter he criticizes the lazy or overworked hacks who are content to do all their reporting (such as it is) via telephone and Google. But in another, he lambastes Fleet Street for employing private detectives to unearth private information—police records, phone records, health records—about story subjects. The latter activities imply a scoop-at-any-cost mindset lacking in the former. Davies returned to the economic rationale: Papers slashed their investigative staffs and now are forced to rely on crooked dicks going through trashcans and bribing police sources.

His attempts to wrap everything under the anti-commercial rubric weakens the book, I think. It would be just as strong as a catalogue of the media's shortcomings. His chapter on the failure of the press in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq--the issue that got him started on the project in the first place--is sobering. And his opening chapter on coverage of the Millennium Bug (remember that?) should be read by every journalist ready to pile on a hot story.

Davies doesn't offer any solutions. I think some of Britain's problems are easily fixed. Ban cheesy survey stories for a start. Don't be so concerned with matching dubious non-news events, just because your competitors have them. (That this might prove difficult was underscored by a former Fleet Street editor who pointed out that people need those sorts of trivial stories so they won’t feel left out down at the pub.)

There was definitely a fatalism in the air. Newspapers stink. The publishing business stinks (small, worthy books have to pay for themselves these days, said Davies, rather than be subsidized by blockbusters). One woman in the audience said she sees the same decay in academia—at Cambridge, presumably. “Things are going right downhill," she said. "I don’t understand how I’ve allowed this to happen. How have intelligent people lost control of their institutions?”

I’m not sure we’ve lost control. I'm not sure we ever had control. Things change. Davies writes in his book that there never was a golden age of journalism, but he certainly implies there is an ideal we are failing to achieve. Is there an audience for that ideal? That's hard to say. Going downmarket--flat Earth news, in Davies's parlance--seems to sell. Still, I'm hopeful that the sort of journalism I like to read--and I like to do--will always have an audience. If it doesn't, I don't want to be cramming it down peoples' throats just because it's good for them.

That’s a market solution Davies the socialist wouldn’t like. But it’s all I’ve got.

Monday 19 May 2008

He Shoots, He Scores: The Brave New Web

I am happy to report that after nine months at Oxford studying citizen journalism I have decided absolutely nothing.

No, that's not entirely true. I've learned a lot and arguably even formed a few opinions. (I sketched some of them out recently in a guest post at Kyle MacRae's Frontline Club blog.) But the main impression I have is of an industry--journalism--in a state of flux that is, depending on your particular outlook and constitution, either nauseating or exhilarating. Or a bit of both.

We're making the rules up as we go along. And how else would we do it? I'm reminded of James Naismith and the game he refined over years: basketball. Here's a great video re-creation of what that process may have been like. Naismith started out with peach baskets nailed to the wall rather than string nets around stiff metal hoops. The baskets still had the bottoms on them, until someone had the idea to cut them off. (Thus depriving some poor unskilled worker of a job: the ladder-climbing basketball basket-emptier.)

I know I'm stretching the analogy past the breaking point--traveling, you might say--but journalism today
probably hasn't cut the bottoms off its digital peach baskets. ("Digital Peach Basket": the new album by Moby.) That we're still finding our way is evident in two stories in today's Guardian. Reader' editor Siobhain Butterworth writes about altering, updating and correcting the paper's stories on the web. I don't completely understand the genesis of the column--something about a freelancer wanting to add material to an already-published piece--but I buy her central argument: You can't go around "invisibly" correcting/changing web stories, even if technology allows you to do just that.

Another issue is raised in a story about newspaper-sponsored blog sites. The Daily Telegraph allows anyone to start blogging under its umbrella (even me; I did it to test the process). Some 20,000 people have signed up and the Guardian points out that a few Telegraph readers have used the forum to promote the racist British National Party. What responsibility does the newspaper have? The Telegraph's Shane Richmond stirs up plenty of debate in his blog posting on that issue.

The irony is that the Guardian's Comment Is Free section is chockablock with vituperative backbiting of a most disagreeable nature. The Guardian points out that those sorts of comments are posted by readers in reaction to sanctioned bloggers and that the remarks are moderated (as are MyTelegraph's; and both sites allow readers to report posts they find beyond the pale). I suspect the Telegraph thinks this is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

But, see, this is us experimenting to see what works. Years from now we may look back and think it was crazy to host reader blogs, or we may wonder what all the fuss was about.

Video Killed the Internet Star
I was curious what sort of video quality my Canon compact digital camera was capable of, so I shot a couple of events this weekend. And, being the compleat digital journalist, I stuck them on YouTube. Here's some of the Summertown Street Festival (the fast-mo, slow-mo is an "arty" effect I added in iMovie):

And here's a bit of the Oxford Town & Gown 10K:

While I wouldn't want to use the camera to shoot an Indiana Jones movie, the quality's not too bad. And note that as of 9:30 this morning about a dozen people had watched each. True, that's not very many, but it's amazing that anyone watched them at all, given that I just slipped them into the great vat of YouTube content. There's probably a Long Tail point to be made here.

Stop Your Sobbing
Don't forget: "Flat Earth News's" Nick Davies, speaking in Cambridge tonight. I'll be there too.

Friday 16 May 2008

BritNews RoundUp: It's the Pits

Let's jump straight to the news that's been sweeping the United Kingdom this week:

You will recall that "The Weakest Link's" Anne Robinson was lampooned in the Daily Mail not long ago for having a "trout pout," the unfortunate byproduct of poor cosmetic surgery. The good news is that Robinson's trout pout is gone. The bad news is the Mail's long camera lenses have been trained on her armpits. The pit-arazzi snapped the gameshow hostess arriving last week at a party and the Mail announced she "had apparently overlooked a step in her preening routine, giving onlookers more than they bargained for with her unsightly hairy armpits."

I know what you're thinking: Well it's all well and good to zoom in on Anne Robinson's underarmular regions, but what about Sarah Jessica Parker's pits? Does she do the Gillette tango? Wisely, Parker decided not to expose her underarms to Fleet Street's ravenous photogs on a recent trip to England. But she forgot to wear oven mitts, prompting this headline in the Mail: "Veins and the City: Sarah Jessica Parker reveals her old woman's hands on a night out in London."

I'm sure it's just a matter of time before someone invents a hand-held CAT scan so we can be treated to: "Pirates of the Duodenum: Keira Knightley Can't Hide Her Polyp Heartbreak."

Sorry about that. Cleanse your mental palate with this sweet story about a golden retriever in Cheshire who is nursing her six puppies and six kittens. All together now: awwwwwwww. Don't like puppies and kittens? How about cygnets?

Okay, that's enough sugar. Who can explain the English affection for corporal punishment? Perhaps it has something to do with the boarding school culture. It's all a harmless bit of fun (well, not harmless) until it shades over into sexual predation. Which takes us to the trial of an Oxford man charged with asking teenage girls to kick him in the groin. "They each kicked him a number of times," said the prosecutor in the case against David Aston. "Eventually he asked them to stop because it was hurting." I'll bet.

Among the many great lines from Monty Python is the one that goes: "I fart in your general direction." I'm not an expert in gas dynamics, but "general direction" seems about as specific as you can get with a fart. Unless you're David Nye, a Kent office manager who regularly "lifted his right cheek" and broke wind at his employee Theresa Bailey, 43. Mother-of-three Bailey was awarded 5,000 pounds by an employment tribunal for the abuse she had to suffer at the firm. Nye is being scouted by Britain's Precision Farting Team.

I don't think I can really add anything to this headline from the Telegraph: "Lost cat spotted on webcam by woman in US," unless it's "Lost cat spotted on webcam by lonely, obsessive woman in US."

Finally, the expression "fat cat" isn't just a metaphor. Nor is "fat guinea pig" or "fat squirrel." Meet the world's most obese animals.

Gargoyle of the Week
According to its web site, Oxford's Merton College has "been on the cutting edge of teaching & research for over 700 years." Wow. I wonder what sort of research they were doing back then. "Advances in witch detection" "Cupping or leeches: Which is best for curing excesses of yellow bile?" "Lead into gold: We're nearly there."

Or maybe "Gargoyle Engineering 101." Writer and blogger Sarah Laurence toured Merton last week and sent me this example:

Is he giving the international symbol for the Heimlich maneuver?

Chew your food carefully, shave your underarms (or not; really, it's up to you) and have a good weekend.

Thursday 15 May 2008

Roger That: Observing Roger Alton

I think one of the reasons I like the British newspaper biz is because I'm not too close to it. The figures I read about--the venal owners, the embattled editors, the disgraced reporters--aren't like real people to me. They're like characters from a comic book: flawed superheroes whose exploits I can enjoy at a remove.

In contrast, I find it harder to enjoy what's happening to the news biz in the United States: the grim circulation and advertising statistics, the layoffs, the lashings of gallows humor (and, believe me, no one does gallows humor like a journalist). It's all very close. Today is being called "D-Day" at The Washington Post, the deadline by which eligible newsroom employees must decide whether to take the company's buyout offer. (Hey, let's not forget that on the real D-Day the allies started turning things around in Europe!)

With his imposing stature and large, bald cranium, Roger Alton resembles a comic book character: the braniac mastermind who remains in the futuristic HQ while his ragtag band of superheroes do battle with the forces of evil. And that, essentially, is what a newspaper editor is. Alton ran the Observer, the Guardian's Sunday sister, for nearly 10 years, before leaving at the end of 2007. He'll become editor of the Independent in July. He spoke yesterday to the Reuters Fellows, delivering a lecture entitled "Not Dead Yet."

The title echoed one given by the New York Times's Bill Keller last fall in London. An "homage," said Alton. Alton's remarks were, if anything, even more upbeat than Keller's. (My write-up for the Reuters Institute should be up on its web page soon. Click here to check. ) Yes, times are tough, said Alton, but plenty of people still buy papers and there are plenty of ways to make sure they keep buying them.

I noticed that while Alton spoke, and especially when he answered questions, he would sketch on the papers in front of him: boxes, flowcharts, sets of concentric circles. He didn't show these jottings, they were just the graphical manifestation of what was going on in his mind. Many of the best editors I've worked with have shared that illustrative trait.

But is a nimble, doodling mind and a surfeit of energy enough to turn around the anemic Independent--or any newspaper these days? Alton touched on the changes new media have wrought--bloggers! vodcasting! social networks!--but it didn't sound like his heart was in any of it. He said his changes at the Indy wouldn't be revolutionary. "I'm not cut out for that," he admitted. He said the paper too often looked like a second section and that the campaigning tone it takes on so many front-page stories can induce a sort of campaign fatigue.

Independent columnist and former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson was the seminar's discussant (isn't that those little sachets of chemicals packed with electronics equipment?). Like Alton (and me, I suppose) he's a bit of a newsosaur. Both decried the way Fleet Street peddles its wares these days with things like free DVDs and Prince CDs. It makes news a commodity, said Lawson--which, of course, is what it's become for many people. That old holy grail--the scoop--isn't respected anymore. It can't exist in an Internet world and it never did sell papers anyway, said Lawson. (England winning at soccer is much more likely to shift copies, but those days are over, right?) The tabloids are a bit adrift since their stock and trade--puncturing taboos over sex and celebrating topless trollops--now spills for free from our PCs.

And yet, and yet.... Alton said he can't help but believe that if you went down to the corner shop in the morning and there were no newspapers, you'd want to invent something like them. What else can you crumple in anger than a newspaper, said Lawson. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, these two old Sunday editors. Running a paper is like getting the coolest toy in the world to play with, a board game that entertains with every roll of the dice. Bring down a world leader: Move ahead three spaces! Defend an expensive libel suit: Lose your turn!

Or maybe it's like chess. What I wonder is if it's now like three-dimensional chess, that game they played on "Star Trek." Can any one person keep it all in his head?

In the Time of Nick
Alton is a main character in "Flat Earth News," the Nick Davies screed about the sorry state of journalism. ("Roger Alton has never claimed to be a political animal. His style is too intense, bordering on manic, at best full of charm, at worse eye-wateringly clumsy.") Davies says that Alton and the Observer basically carried water for Tony Blair in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, parroting the government's line and getting extra chummy with Blair and his PR Rasputin, Alastair Campbell.

Alton said he hasn't read the book but he bristled at one reference he had heard about, in which he allegedly returned from lunch with the Prime Minister "full of determined support for the campaign against Saddam." "It makes me sound like a fucking infant," said Alton, who said he never had lunch with Blair.

I think it's safe to say Alton and Davies won't be having lunch together anytime soon. Said Alton: "Journalists spend a lot of time shitbagging people so it's expected that they'll get shitbagged." At least, I think that's what he said. I hadn't heard the expression "shitbagging" before and perhaps I got it wrong.

Nick Davies will be talking about "Flat Earth News" at 8 p.m. on May 19 at Wolfson College in Cambridge. Click here for details.

Wednesday 14 May 2008

The Oxford Lecture: It's All Greek to Me

Oxford University has no classes. Note that I didn't say that Oxford has no class. It has class out the ying-yang. (Is it declasse to say "ying-yang"?) But for the most part students don't do as I did many years ago at the University of Maryland: Follow a set curriculum that forces their butts into desks at certain times on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Instead, Oxford undergrads have tutorials. Every week they're given a list of books to read and lectures they might want to attend. And every week they meet their tutor (solo, or with another student) to go over the paper they were required to write. The lecture, or seminar, is the lifeblood of Oxford and I've been to plenty over the last few months. What I find interesting is how confrontational they're supposed to be. Not confrontational in the sense of shouted threats, flying fists and the sweaty grapplings of post-doctoral fellows, but intellectually confrontational. Every lecture, it seems, is a thesis defense.

I went to one yesterday afternoon at the European Studies Center. The Reuters Institute's Antonis Ellinas (PhD from Princeton; Fulbright scholar; expert on European nationalist politics) was giving a lecture on Greek politics and the media, specifically on an emergent far right party there. I now know 3,000 percent more about Greek politics than I did before, including about the anti-semitic, anti-immigrant LAOS party. After Antonis delivered his 30-minute lecture--sketching the Greek political system, outlining the rise and fall of earlier nationalist groups, taking us through exit-polling data--it was time for questions.

It's traditional for the chair of the lecture--the person from the department who sort of commissioned it--to ask the first question, and that's what Othon Anastasakis did. He had four or five questions, in fact, but he saved the killer one for last: Given the strong conservative sentiment in Greece was it correct to characterize LAOS as a far-right party at all?

Anastasakis had basically just introduced the possibility that the central tenet of Antonis's argument--the very foundation upon which it stood--was flawed, was non-existent, in fact. I imagined what I would do if my life's work was questioned. I saw myself leaping from my chair, running into the street, flagging down a taxi, heading to Southampton and signing on as a crewman on a cargo ship.

Antonis acquitted himself just fine, and I'm not really interested in that question or that answer. What fascinated me was how mannered the debate that followed was. And how illuminating. At these Oxford seminars the lecturer delivers something that is picked at, pulled apart, poked and prodded. The idea isn't (usually) to score points or to refute. It's to explore. By communally navigating the distance between the lecture and the questions, the lecturer and the audience reveal hidden features of the landscape.

Party Hearty
I was also struck by how easy students of American political science have it. They only have to master the machinations of two major parties: Democratic and Republican. Antonis and others who study European politics have to keep tabs on dozens of political parties, groups that rise, prosper and die like so many mayflies. It's like following professional baseball, plus all the farm teams.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Big Brother Is Watching You

It saves time when life imitates art. If you've read the book or seen the movie you don't find reality quite so surprising. Thus I find it helpful that England in 2008 is just like the England depicted in George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

"Dear Mr. Pritchard-Kelly" [sic] began the letter from Britain's TV Licensing authority. "We have been advised that you bought television receiving equipment in February 2008 from Dixons Stores Group. However, we have no record of a TV Licence in your name for the above address. Using TV equipment to watch or record television programme services without a valid licence is against the law."

"We have been advised." I love that. What you mean is you have your paws in all sorts of records that help to confirm whether or not residents own a TV and thus whether or not they have paid up so they can watch television legally. (Briefly, for those not living in the UK: Residents here pay a 140 pound annual licence fee that supports the commercial-free BBC.) For Valentine's Day My Lovely Wife bought me a Freeview box, a $40 device which allows us to pull in more than the five terrestrial broadcast channels.

You may be wondering whether this is an appropriate Valentine's Day present. I suspect it was designed to mollify our kids, who were starting to go into serious TV withdrawal. What's interesting is that the TV Licensing folks work every angle. They issued a special press release on Feb. 13, warning licence scofflaws that they faced capture on Valentine's Day. TV Licensing spokesperson Joanna Pearce said: "Getting a knock at the door from TV Licensing while you're trying to impress the object of your affection is likely to leave any would-be lover red-faced. At TV Licensing, we'd rather spare you your blushes, and are taking this opportunity to remind you that we'll be visiting unlicensed homes on Valentine's night like every other night."

TV Licensing catches about 400,000 people a year. Would I be one of them? No, because I'd paid our fee. I'd even considered framing the certificate that came in the mail. But it was lost among the piles of papers in our house. The second threatening letter came about 10 days later: "We still have no record of a TV Licence in your name." I dug out the proof of my law abidingness, called the Licence Confirmation Line and punched in my reference number, clearing my good name.

The Fixed Penalty Support Unit of the Thames Valley Police was the next government office to drop me a line: "In accordance with Section 1 of Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988, I hereby give notice that it is intended to take proceedings against the driver of motor vehicle AJ08GOU for the alleged offence of EXCEED 30 MPH .... This allegation WILL be supported by photographic evidence at any subsequent court hearing."

I had (allegedly) been photographed traveling 37 mph in a 30 mph zone in a rental car and the good people at Alamo had ratted me out. I don't doubt that I was speeding. The Vauxhall Vectra longs to run wild and free. But nowhere in the three pages (!) of material did it say how much my ticket would be. All the Fixed Penalty Support Unit cared about was getting my signature on a statement admitting that I was driving the car--mailed back, I should point out, in my envelope and at my expense.

I'm hoping I can avoid a fine by taking a safe-driving class. After all, you can study just about anything at Oxford.

Britain loves its CCTV cameras. I read somewhere that there's one camera for every 14 citizens. You'd think that with that sort of saturation coverage people wouldn't bother committing crimes and when crimes did occur they'd be solved quickly. But that isn't the case. A report last week revealed that only 3 percent of street robberies in London are solved by CCTV. One of the problems is that officers don't like the drudgery of flipping back through hours of video to see what they've caught there.

Maybe they should put the TV Licensing people in charge of that.

Monday 12 May 2008

Oh, Mother: Monumental Characters

I haven't seen a hard copy of The Post Magazine, but I know they ran photos of the main characters involved in the mothers' memorial saga that I wrote about. Here are a few more from my personal collection. This is Daisy Breaux as a debutante:

You can see why she was so popular. She was a stunner, and quite the little firecracker.

Here is her third husband, Capt. Clarence Crittenden Calhoun:

They had courtroom sketch artists even back then. Here's sculptor Clark Noble on the stand, as depicted by the Evening Star's artist:

And here are some of the defendants and their lawyers outside the courthouse after the judge declared them not guilty:

From left it's attorney Richard Merrick, defendant Mrs. W. Clark Noble, attorney L.R. Maddux, defendant Mrs. Anna Hillenbrand, attorney Mrs. L.R. Maddux, and defendant James F. Bird. What I find interesting about the photo is that their was a husband-and-wife defense team. And also that Clark Noble himself wasn't there. But remember that he suffered a heart attack as the verdict was read. Another weird detail: When they were declared not guilty the youngest juror got up and asked for all the defendants' autographs.

If anyone knows more about the case, or anyone involved in it, I'd love to hear. Drop me an e-mail at john[at] Thanks. And if you'd like to take part in a web chat Monday at noon Washington time, just go here.

German Engineering

One of the benefits of travel is that it makes you appreciate the place you came from. But another byproduct of travel is that it makes you question the place you came from. While it may be true that there's no place like home, it's also true that home can sometimes use a little improvement.

That's what I decided after spending the weekend in Berlin. Clean, efficient, cosmopolitan--the antique intermixed with the modern. A subway, trams and bicycle lanes. I think Washington could benefit from a bit of Berlin style.

It probably helped that the weather was great. All of Europe seems to be gripped in the throes of beautiful climes. Parachute anywhere from London to Gdansk and you'll find blue skies and warm temperatures. But it was more than that. I find Berlin incredibly art-directed, with an attention to style that stretches from the way its people dress to the typefaces of its street signs and posters. I suppose it might grate after a while--perfection can extract a painful price--but thinking of the room Washington has for improvement, Berlin definitely had some appeal.

I compared the shopworn and crowded Smithsonian museums to the tidy German History Museum. It was wonderfully empty, leading me to wonder if that's because the Germans already know their history, don't want to know their history, or just would rather spend a gorgeous spring day outside rather than in.

It was probably the latter. That impulse is the same wherever you come from. And after we'd returned to England and were on the coach back to Oxford, I was reminded how achingly green and beautiful this country can be. The verdant landscape rolled by outside the window looking like a ripe fruit begging to be bitten. That's what nine months of rain does. What am I doing sitting here?

Mother of an Invention
In honor of Mother's Day, The Washington Post Magazine yesterday published my story about Daisy Breaux and W. Clark Noble, a pair of wacky characters from the 1920s who attempted to build a memorial to America's mothers. The final design looked like something from Batman's fevered imagination and the whole thing ended just the way we journalists like it: in recriminations and lawsuits. I'll be answering questions about the story online today at noon Washington time; that's 5 p.m. England time. Click here to join the conversation at

Citizen Bane
Kyle MacRae founded Scoopt, the service that pioneered putting citizen photographers together with newspapers and magazines. Now he blogs about citizen journalism for the Frontline Club. I provided a guest post last week outlining some of my thoughts on the issue. Honestly, I'm beginning to think that the whole thing is becoming less consequential to the mainstream media, not because it isn't important but because so many things are battering newspapers, for example, that they barely have the time or energy to think about it.

Sunday 11 May 2008

Happy Mother's Day

Happy Mother's Day and welcome to all of those who have washed up here after reading my story in The Post Magazine about Daisy Breaux, W. Clark Noble and their crazy plans to build a memorial to America's mothers. It didn't go quite according to plan.

I've been spending the last year in Oxford and today actually finds me in Berlin, typing on a friend's computer. That's how I'm able to type things like this: ü. And this: ß. Not to mention this: Ö.

I'll be chatting about the Mother's Memorial online tomorrow, when I should be back in my tiny Oxford house. I'll hope you'll join me. Until then, please feel free to poke around my blog, where I recount some of the experiences of living in England.

Ohh, and let's not forget mother. Give her a ring, won't you?

Wednesday 7 May 2008

The Royal Maul, or: Please Mr. Postman

When I lived in England 30 years ago (cue newsreel footage and jaunty soundtrack) the mail came twice a day. The postman always smiled and he often took the time to prepare a five-course meal and give you a footrub. Today you're lucky if he even makes you a cup of tea. And what does the postman bring? Bills. Junk mail. A daily exhortation to switch electricity suppliers. (Electricity suppliers are like hairdressers over here. There's one on every corner.)

Yes, the Royal Mail, that once-proud institution, stinks. Or does it? The mail only comes once a day, around 10 a.m. in my neighbo(u)rhood. But come it does. And as I've switched much of my "correspondence" from paper to bits and bytes that seems entirely reasonable. Where the now-privatized postal service does seem to fall down is on the sending of mail, not the delivering of it. And the problem is that there simply aren't enough post offices.

The trim little Oxford suburb of Summertown used to have a post office but it closed a few years ago. We have to go to Wolvercote or down into Oxford proper. And now the Wolvercote post office is going to be closed, one of 22 in Oxfordshire getting axed.

It might be hard for an American to grasp the notion of these post offices. They are typically just a window or a counter in some other business: a pharmacy, a convenience store. But the workers are knowledgeable and they'll weigh your packages and sell you stamps. There have been rumblings about closures for the last few months. The Oxford Mail launched a campaign: Save our post offices! Make your voice heard! They had a petition drive, gathering the signatures and sending a reporter (and photographer) to Parliament to deliver them. (In a Primark shopping bag, it looked like.)

It was totally ineffectual. Every post office on the original list will close this summer. I get the feeling there was never a chance to affect the outcome. I blame the Oxford Mail for doing what it often does: taking the easy route of mounting a splashy campaign without taking the time to delve into the root causes of the problem. Why are the post offices being closed? How were they selected? How does Oxford's distribution of post offices compare to other cities'? And if there was no possibility of the decision being altered, why did the paper string readers along with a silly, self-aggrandizing campaign?

The subhed on today's story is "Campaigners fail in battle to get reprieve." Campaigners? How about "The Oxford Mail fails in battle to get reprieve"? There isn't even a leader on the subject, as if the paper's editors have just dropped the subject and will now move on to the next outrage, scratching the surface of the next issue.

I'm halfway through Nick Davies's "Flat Earth News" and he would say that the Mail's reporters are overworked, having to churn out six to 10 stories a day. That may be the case and I empathize. But surely the newspaper in a town like this could provide coverage that shines a little more light and produces a little less heat.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Who'll Stop the Rain? Not the Bloody English

Last week it rained so much I thought I would sob. I thought I would literally break down weeping as I mounted my sodden bicycle seat and prepared to ride to yet another seminar in yet another ceaseless drizzle. That I decided not to cry is due less to some reservoir of inner strength and more to the fact that I didn't want to be any wetter than I already was.

When my little moody had passed, and as I felt my trousers dampening and the rain seeping down the back of my neck as I cycled down the Woodstock Road, I got mad. How long have the British lived in the British Isles? Centuries. Millennia. People have lived in Britain for thousands of years and in all that time they've done nothing about the rain. They haven't constructed a huge transparent umbrella stretching from the White Cliffs of Dover to Hadrian's Wall. They haven't paved over the rivers, lakes and streams that inconsiderately evaporate into the atmosphere--only to fall to earth and ruin my shoes. They haven't installed complex machines to break up rain-bearing clouds or force them over to Holland and France. You mean to tell me that the people who invented the steam engine and radar can't stop the bloody rain?

What did they do instead? Invented waterproof clothing and a boot for walking in the mud, as if anything in this country could be truly waterproof, as if the mud ever goes away. Not only does the rain not seem to bother them, they revel in the stuff. They celebrate it in all its horrible diversity--the drizzle, the mizzle, the downpour--the way Eskimos embrace snow. After about day five or six of constant rain I sit on the floor of the lounge, my hands around my knees, my body rocking back and forth, a loaded revolver a few feet away. I...just...can't...

And then, with no warning, for no apparent reason, the rain stops. The sun comes out--a warm and bright sun, almost Mediterranean. You notice a hundred different greens, a kaleidoscopic spectrum in leaf and hedge and grass that didn't seem to be there when everything was a palette of grays and browns. Then there are the flowers--so shockingly vibrant--and the blossoms, their scent a thick, perfumey odor.

I'm left uncertain which is the real England but suspicious that you can't have one without the other.

A Blog Too Far
Henrik Ornebring, a colleague at the Reuters Institute, perfectly encapsulates the difficulties of blogging in a hilariously confessional posting on his site, Doctor of Journalism. It takes a brave man to admit that the promises he made for his blog at its inception managed to sound "both naive and pretentious at the same time." I don't think it's so bad, Henrik, but I'm already liking what you're doing with DoJ 2.0.

Monday 5 May 2008

New Media Killing Journalism: Yes or No?

Up early and down to the Frontline Club in London Friday for a World Press Freedom Day event sponsored by UNESCO. It took the form of an “Oxford Union-style” debate. OU-style means a gimmicky sort of thing where participants must argue for or against the motion, in this case “New media is killing journalism.” Wow, killing journalism. That’s pretty severe. Whoever could they get to speak in favor of that?

How about the self-described "antichrist of Silicon Valley”? That’s what it says on Andrew Keen’s business card. I’d been wanting to meet the author of “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture." His book is an entertaining polemic, though in the margins of my copy I kept scribbling "So what?" Also arguing for the motion was Kim Fletcher, a former editor of the Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday. Against the motion were the BBC’s Robin Lustig, host of “The World Tonight” (with a blog of his own) and Nazenin Ansari, diplomatic editor of Kayhan (London), a weekly Persian language newspaper.

Keen spoke first. A bit of a slow starter, one of the points he wanted to make was that journalism is a collection of facts “for which one is paid.” Web 2.0 threatens that. People no longer put a premium on content from brand-name providers. They’d rather rely on the recommendations of their friends, as information is passed around endlessly online.
The future, he said, belongs to things like the Huffington Post, the unpaid blogorama which he says gets as many page views as the New York Times. (Can that be true?)

Lustig celebrated the ubiquity of journalism thanks to new media. Not only can you find him everywhere (courtesy of the web), you can find little snippets of information that would have taken days to unearth before. Fletcher admitted that it seemed crazy to think anyone could be against new media, and yet it was undermining the economics of journalism. He hates the term "user-generated content," since it calls to mind a "bucket of stuff" that can be slapped online. Ansari said that online newspapers such as hers, and the work of courageous bloggers living under repressive governments, show the power and necessity of new media.

I was among the “named speakers.” These were people salted in the audience who prepared remarks in advance to deliver when called upon by the moderator, in this case William Horsley, former BBC broadcaster and chair of the Association of European Journalists. I'd been instructed to start my comments in Oxford Union style, thus: "Mr. Chairman, I oppose this motion... because I hate to see my fellow journalists fall prey to the same sort of victim mentality that we quite rightly criticize when it's adopted by other industries that have failed to keep pace with changing times." Then I blathered for a couple more minutes.

LES's Charlie Beckett (below right) got to take a few swings at the motion too, noting that it isn't journalists that need to be saved, but journalism. And that means sharing the power to create something more valuable. Ashley Norris (below left), a former Guardian writer who founded a stable of blogs, said it's no wonder new media rose up to threaten journalism: People became fed up with a journalism that acted superior and non-responsive. Magazines are especially bad, he said. Before long it looked like the motion might have been "New media should kill journalism."

One audience member said journalism could be saved if corporate directors weren't so intent on lining their pockets and those of their shareholders, rather than reinvesting in the product. Someone else noted that new media helps facilitate a race to the bottom, as mainstream news organizations ape the tabloid styles of blogs and celebrity-obsessed web sites.

Keen tried to turn the discussion away from notions of free speech and the exploits of brave bloggers. He is essentially focused on the West and, like Fletcher, sees the issue as an economic one. There are also questions of authority. New media means that the "expert" is no longer valued and Keen urged journalists to "liberate yourselves from humility." He added: "I guarantee we will lose this debate. You will see new media as a good thing."

He was right. When the votes were counted, 13 people had voted for the motion, 43 against it and five had abstained. The motion was a bit of artifice--baby, meet bathwater--and I don't know if anyone there had his or her mind changed.
Changed, probably not. Broadened, perhaps. I have some sympathy for Keen's position (he warmed up eventually). And when he talked about how everyone is an expert these days, picking and choosing their "news" and their "facts" from their Facebook widgets and their world wide avalanche, I had a thought: Will that put even more of a premium on knowledge and "the truth," creating an ever-more Darwinian process by which those who can access, process and understand the news will prosper, while those who can't don't. I can sort of see it going either way: The web democratizes and educates so much that you needn't subscribe to the New York Review of Books or sip cherry coke with Warren Buffet to prosper. Or the web throws so much garbage into the atmosphere that only those inclined to hunt and peck--by dint of their education or elite status--are rewarded.

There's a much better write-up of the debate at Nico Macdonald's blog and the video will eventually be up on the Frontline Club's website.

Saturday 3 May 2008

Tesco A-Go-Go

There is an interesting series of articles in the Guardian today about the Tesco supermarket chain and its legal battles with that newspaper. The Guardian simultaneously apologizes for mistakes it made in a February story about Tesco and criticizes the company for being sneaky.

Here's what happened: In February the Guardian's Ian Griffiths wrote that Tesco had avoided paying close to 1 billion pounds of corporation tax. Five weeks later Tesco sued for libel, arguing that the Guardian had shown "an utter disregard for the truth or falsity" of the claims. Griffiths and the Guardian then worked to figure out if they'd gotten anything wrong and decided they had: Tesco had really avoided paying 100 million pounds in something called Stamp Duty Land Tax. So, the paper was wrong about the specific tax and off by a factor of 10. It clarifies and apologizes in the paper today.

The Guardian also explains what went wrong. And, though bloodied, the paper remains unbowed. It offers what might be called the "It's so complicated no one could understand it" defense. This is not necessarily a good defense. If the accounting machinations involved are truly so complex should the Guardian be trying to untangle them? Should it be going to press without a firm grasp of the pesky details?

The paper would probably argue it did think it knew the truth. In any case, Tesco wasn't much help, a story explaining the reporting methodology reports. The company only answered a few of the reporter's questions while he was working on the article. Tesco's position seemed to be: "Nothing to see here, move along." That's the sort of attitude that enrages journalists. And makes them suspicious. Today's Guardian stories claim that Tesco was doing all it could to reduce paying tax that Parliament wanted such companies to pay, tax due to Her Majesty's government. The paper was wrong on some of the details but correct in its bigger point.

The best overview of the issues involved is a well-argued editorial in the Guardian. It admits that what Tesco did was legal but proposes that it probably violates the spirit of the law. In any event, what matters, the leader writer says, is that such issues be transparent.

The Guardian made a mistake. It offers a kind of whingeing explanation/apology. And yet I applaud its refusal to back down. A newspaper's reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, but that shouldn't stop it from stretching.

Friday 2 May 2008

May Day in Oxford: Beat It

Yesterday was the first of May in Oxford. It was probably the first of May where you live, too, unless you live in North Korea or Turkmenistan, where it's probably called something like Glorious Premiere Spring Dawning of Our Great Infallible Leader.

May Day starts here with pre-pubescent choristers singing from atop the Magdalen College tower. Most Oxford students have partied the previous night and the streets are full of plastered boys in tuxes and swerving barefoot girls in cocktail dresses. The Kelly family cycled to the city center at 6 a.m. to witness the festivities. Magdalen Bridge was closed to stop the morning's other tradition: jumping off it into the river below. In past years there have been icky, Joe Theismanesque injuries caused by the unholy intersection of drunk undergrads, pitiless gravity and shallow water. No one jumped while the bridge was closed and guarded, but soon after it opened and the crowds dispersed, we saw four guys go in. Here's one:

I know that merely by posting this I am encouraging unsafe behavior. But it did look like fun, and the first guy who jumped looked incredibly suave in his soaked dinner jacket:

But then again, anything looks better when done in a tuxedo, even bicycling down the street at 7 a.m. while drinking a pint of beer:

There are much better May Day photos at Sarah Laurence's Blog.

After watching the Morris dancers and the street drummers and the hungover Oxonians, My Lovely Wife and I went to the Beating of the Bounds at St. Michael at the North Gate church. What is the Beating of the Bounds? It's one of those ancient traditions that reminds you of "The Wicker Man" or Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," except with fewer fatalities. My instant video documentary explains everything:

Gargoyle Balinese Fountain of the Week

This fierce, water-spouting fellow was captured by my friend Joyce while on holiday in Bali. A peaceful, contemplative Buddha he ain't.

No time for a BritNews RoundUp this week. That Beating of the Bounds video took me forever to edit and I'm off this morning to a World Press Freedom Day event at the Frontline Club. There's a debate on the motion: "New media is killing journalism." Killing journalism? That's harsh. And will have to say so.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday 1 May 2008

Blue Sky Thinking

If I've embedded this properly, here I am on SkyNews: