Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

Archive forSeptember, 2005 | back to home

25 September 2005
Filed under:Weblogs at7:15 pm

The gifted people behind the most powerful commercial blogging tool, Moveable Type, have recently announced their next generation platform, Comet. It promises much more flexible privacy features and better multimedia and tagging support when it launches in early 2006. Sounds like the answer to a blogger’s prayer if they get it right. All that I would ask is that they get around to offering a free (if limited) version.

20 September 2005

Policy has an article in this month’s issue by Johan Norberg (who has a blog). I have posted earlier about Layard’s theories and other theories about how to maximise happiness in society. Layard (baldly summarised) believes money over a certain level doesn’t make you happy so progressive taxation is useful as are social policies like pushing for full employment – even if that is economically inefficient – because employment stability is very important in determining happiness (and since highly stratified incomes produce envy and the perceived need to match your neighbors which produces unhappiness).

Norberg correctly identifies that in societies where individuals have little hope of bettering themselves they tend to be unhappy and uses the example of communist states, and of states where there is low or no growth (Ireland in the 70s and 80s). It is true that low growth and high unemployment lead to unhappiness, but this is not inconsistent with Layard’s thesis – welfare states can have growth and low unemployment as well (though granted it seems to be more difficult).

He does have his finger on something when he says that, “the fact that growth has continued that makes it possible for us to continue to believe in the future”. But this I believe is something we need to work on educating people out of, both in schools and through the media. Unless we can find a way to ‘grow smart’ we will end up running into natural limits sooner or later – especially if developing countries take the same course. It may be true as Norberg says that the increase in wealth in developing countries continues to raise our overall levels of happiness, but it is also true that the rate of increase in happiness is slowing almost to a halt while the cost to our environment of the rise in wealth is increasing.

He also suggests, provocatively, that the welfare state reduces happiness because it takes away the challenges that we need to be happy. But the psychological research he cites refers to the benefits of challenges that are hard but within our power to tackle. The danger of states with inadequate safety nets are that many people living there are faced with challenges that are simply insurmountable – the challenge of getting your kids into university when the fees are not subsidised and the only jobs you can get don’t pay a living wage for example. And those challenges are not, I would suggest, conducive to happiness.

In the footnotes to his article I found the World Database of Happiness which has various interesting indices and lots of links to related papers.

An aside: I have become so used to being able to comment on blog postings or messageboards/comment boxes on media websites that it was irritating to find neither Johan’s blog nor Policy magazine (subheads ironically “ideas, debate, opinion”) have a means of instant
feedback (though at least they offer email addresses for private comment).

12 September 2005

I am beginning to realise there is no reason for me to be bored ever again…

My biggest problem remains books – I occaisionally run out of books I am interested in reading (I tend to rely on book reviews from The Guardian, Time Out, or more occaisional outlets). I do really wish that as much work was dedicated to making book reviews and recommendations available and searchable online as has been devoted to movies and music. But now that I am an academic I have plenty of interesting books and papers I can and should read alongside my recreational reading.

I am not a great TV watcher anyway but now that I have a DVD recorder I have recorded more documentaries and movies than I will ever have time to watch – around 70 hours unwatched on DVD, another ten hours or so of unwatched – and unlikely to be watched – videotape and perhaps 500 hours or so of stuff I have already watched but am keeping for a rainly… er… month. In fact the size of my collection is starting to alarm me a little.

I spend most of my time in front of this lovely little iBook and as you can see from my link list on the R there is plenty there to both interest and entertain me online…

Which used to just leave the time I can’t spend in front of a book or screeen – when I am in the shower, cycling around or doing the dishes or ironing etc – which I tend to spend listening to an MP3 player. I selectively recorded the many speech radio programs listed at R from the Internet into MP3 format and listened to them, normally in preference to music (though I now have nearly 15Gb of MP3s now that I have almost completely digitised my CD collection). There too as with books I sometimes found that I would sometimes ‘consume’ faster than I could ‘collect’ good listening material. Now with the arrival of podcasting (see new collection of links on R) I am finding at last that there is more interesting stuff coming in than I can listen to in a week and my last ‘content gap’ has been filled.

Like I said – there is no reason I need ever be un-stimulated. But I fear this may be a bit of a problem. I am getting used to having every waking moment filled with some kind of stimulus, and I can’t help thinking this isn’t particularly healthy. It also means there is an abundance of distractions available for my all-too-distractable mind…

10 September 2005

I suppose this is something I am bound to have to weather in years to come once I am published academically and people have the chance to interpret (and misinterpret) my work, but this morning’s surprise came as an unwelcome little shock. I discovered that I have been held up as a figure for abuse in a newsletter distributed in my neighborhood by Islington International Working Class Action.

When the latest edition of the “Mildmay and Highbury Independent” landed on my doorstep (not yet available online) I thought I would give it a read. I wouldn’t say I am completely ideologically aligned with them but I have some sympathy with their regular diet of stories of poorly maintained public housing and council property sell-offs that don’t result in significant benefits for the borough’s substantial population of working class people. I turned the page and found an article entitled “Gentrification: is it good for you?” following on from a recent Guardian article which pointed out the benefits of the restoration of a local park (that I had some part in) but also quoted some residents who felt they had not benefited from the changes. And there, to my distress, I read the following:

“Mr Brake has made it very clear which kind of ‘regeneration’ he wants to see. His website announces triumphantly that the: ‘Gentrification of Newington Green proceeds apace’… For Mr Brake the arrival of ‘a genuine French patisserie, several restaurants and a vegetarian deli’ is proof that ‘the benefits will be felt by all who live here for generations to come.”

Well I was a little baffled. None of this sounded like anything I had written on the official NGAG website (which is rather out of date now that I am no longer press officer). And indeed I hadn’t written anything like that in my official capacity. Then I went back through the archives of this blog and discovered that the quotes had been pulled from here – from this post and this one. Of course the quotes were selective and the author of this particular hatchet job hadn’t bothered to call me up and try to find out my actual views.

I don’t know whether having read my words through their own ideological lenses they felt they knew what I would say or whether they simply wanted to use me as a sort of punching bag and were deliberately misquoting me but whichever the reason the result was quite irritating. All the more so because actually I do agree with the author to some extent about the issues s/he was trying to raise.

So to be clear about what I think I have observed that Newington Green is gentrifying but with decidedly mixed emotions. I personally enjoy the arrival of the local patisserie and deli, which (it must be said) have not come at the expense of any authentically working class amenities that I am aware of. What I campaigned for and helped to achieve, however was the cleaning up of the Green itself, which has been turned into a proper park at last and my intention was that that green space used by everyone (not the restaurants) would provide the “benefits for all who live here” alluded to earlier.

I am uncomfortably aware that improvements to an area like this one can lead to gentrification which may alienate working class people but I would regret it if this did happen and indeed as long as the numerous council estates in this area remain it seems unlikely that working class people would be “driven out” as the author warns may happen. It is difficult, however, to see what the alternative is. Should we have left the green as an overgrown traffic roundabout to protect the neighborhood from gentrification? Shades of “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”!

At any rate had I been approached I would have had some sympathy with the author and could have helped them with their piece – as it is (like all too many groups on the left) their rigid ideological stance has lost them a potential supporter.

9 September 2005

Dogs and Blogs New Yorker cartoon
Thank you Alex Gregory of the New Yorker this week for bringing us this cartoon – a lineal descendant of the justly famed (if somewhat inaccurate) 1993 “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog“.

8 September 2005
Filed under:Gadgets,Mobile phone and PDA at1:22 pm

Ipod Nano
I was all ready to buy myself an iPod nano when I got up this morning. It seemed like events were conspiring to force me to upgrade (gadget freaks you know what I’m talking about here). For a while now I had been getting a little frustrated with my two year old Ondio audio player, mainly because the batteries are prone to shake loose, its controls are a little fiddly and it can’t remember where the ‘last listened’ point is when I stop it. But also more recently because it can’t sync with iTunes so it’s hard to keep track of what tracks I listen to and the other meta-data iTunes tracks which I pass on to last.fm via Audioscrobbler. Anal retentive, I know.

So I told myself I would treat myself to a new iPod once the latest models arrived – either a lower-priced model (once the new models drove the existing prices down) or a new model (if the new ones offered capabilities I wanted) as long as they cost less than £100 ($US183/$cdn218). And what should happen last night? The batteries stopped connecting again and I went to fiddle with the metal battery connector again to make it fit when “bink!” – the connector snapped off.

One part of me felt “if I can’t fix this it would be such a waste – a perfectly good music player ruined because of a simple bit of metal” and the other part thought “now I definitely can get that new player – hope it comes soon!” (at that point I didn’t know that the nano had launched). Then when I got home I found out about the nano but I also discovered that by using the foil from a chocolate bar I can make the ondio work again. Yay me!

Alas, when I rang up Apple UK, credit card in hand, I found out to my horror that I couldn’t get an academic discount at all! I thought “I’ll be damned if I am going to shell out full price (£139) especially when the US$ price is 199 (£108) – and since I am going to be going to the Association of Internet Researchers Conference in the US anyway in less than a month.

So I’m going to hang on a little longer. Is anyone interested in a second-hand, really quite handy Ondio when I trade it in? Read my blog entry about it and let me know what you’d offer for it. I really quite like it notwithstanding its peccadilloes. In fact it has aged very well and it still has features (FM radio, audio recording through built-in mic) that the new device won’t.

P.S. I don’t suppose there would be any kind of compatibility issue around a US nano? Like dates or currencies being hardwired wrongly into the calendar etc?

Update: Turns out the average MP3 player owner only has 375 songs on their device – the average iPod owner has around 500. It’s for that reason I will just be buying a 2Gb nano – even that will be 16 times larger than my current player and to be honest I didn’t find that storage capacity very constraining…

5 September 2005

Playlist magazine has a handy roundup of places to get free or cheap audiobooks, including an interesting organization called Tell Tale Weekly which sells the audiobooks it produces but for very small sums and gives the money to the people who read out the books, which has helped to produce a reasonably large list of available works. Then after five years (or 100,000 downloads) it releases the audiobooks that have been digitised under a Creative Commons license. Librivox is a similar effort but relies on volunteers to read the books and charges nothing for the result. There are a couple of books read by people available through Project Gutenberg as well – lots more if you are happy to listen to computer-generated dictation.

If you want to hear free contemporary SF instead, check out Escape Pod (which broadcasts short stories) and Podiobooks which hasn’t quite launched yet but you can subscribe to it through iTunes or whatever and wait…

Benjamen Walker’s Theory Of Everything is quite like one of my favourite radio programmes, This American Life, but… well… stranger (which is sometimes no bad thing). Ben is a professional radio producer and it shows.

If you are more interested in technology (and I am guessing most of you have some interest in it) the top-ranked podcast at the moment – This Week In Tech – is head and shoulders above much of the podcasting rabble. It features a large round table of tech luminaries and is a very convincing and enjoyable reproduction of the kind of tech-related banter, gossip and bluster that I used to enjoy myself when I was a tech journalist (though at over an hour each week it may be a little self-indulgent). For daily more ‘straight’ tech snippets, you could try Future Tense, and for recordings from the many technology-related conferences that seem to happen every other day across the US you should check out IT Conversations. And if you are a hardcore Macintosh user you should try listening to the MacCast (though frankly it could do with a little pruning as there is a lot of discussion of minutiae on it).

Update: If you want more audiobooks for no payment there are a number of streamed options. They are less easily downloadable (you need to use Total Recorder – PC – or WireTap Pro – Mac – to turn them into MP3s) but OneWord radio offers free audiobooks and book commentary 24 hours a day (streamed only) and the BBC – Radio 4 and BBC7 broadcast less but includes some originally commissioned work too and unlike OneWord the streams are archived (if only for a week) which makes capturing easier. A few BBC radio programmes are even being podcast (though not drama yet).

1 September 2005
Filed under:Arts Reviews,Personal,Travel at9:04 pm
A show we didn't see

A show we didn’t see
originally uploaded by David.

We had a great time – we managed to cram 12 shows into three days plus a day of sight-seeing and only one of the shows was a write off. I thought about blogging to recommend some but realised 1) we wouldn’t have time to and 2) since we were there the last few days of the fringe festival it would be too late for anyone to book anything anyway.
For what it’s worth my wife liked Omid Djalili and I think Tim Minchin would be worth seeking out if you get the chance – as much for his musical talent as for his comedic gifts. Turns out he won an award so my judgement was vindicated!
We stayed at an absolutely delightful B & B we found through Festival Beds but since our hosts only let during the festival and may not be doing it in future years I can’t really recommend them either.
We both agreed that we will try to get to the festival more often in future – I always enjoy my visits.
P.S. There are several more Edinburgh (and other) pictures up on Flickr.