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28 March 2013

Like many a tech-savvy parent I am trying to divert my kid’s gaming attention towards Minecraft – and with some success. There’s a ‘legacy’ iBook G4 he can use but getting the program to run at all was difficult and now that it is running, I have found it runs unusably slowly, even with all the graphical options I could find turned down (and with non-working sound). This to run a game that is deliberately designed to look ‘retro’ and which I imagine could have worked on a Mac LC c. 1990 if suitably coded! Since it’s a very popular game with a hyperactive development community I thought there was bound to be a way to make things work better. Alas, nothing I tried (Magic Launcher launching Optifine Light mainly) seemed to work and it took me several hours of forum reading, installation and tweaking to get this far.

It’s not a new observation but what makes older machines like my nine-year-old macbook obsolete does not actually seem to be the speed or capability of the underlying hardware but the steady ratcheting up of the assumptions that software makes. Somewhere (presumably in Java, which is Minecraft’s ‘environment’) I’m guessing there’s a whole load of un-necessary code that has been added in the last nine years which has dragged what should be a perfectly usable game down to a useless speed.

Just to drag this back to academic relevance for a moment, this is to my mind a good example of how the structure of the computer industry aggravates digital divides by gradually demanding users ‘upgrade’ their software to the point that their machines stop working, well before the end of their ‘natural’ lives.

PS If anyone has managed to get Minecraft working adequately on a Mac of similar vintage please share any tips…

6 March 2013
Filed under:Call for help,journalism,Online media at11:35 am

Much of the discussion about which way the journalism industry is doing suggests that freelancing will increase while staff jobs decline (see for example here and Paulussen 2012) but Felix Salmon at Reuters has just written an interesting piece suggesting most online content will be written by staff writers not freelances because online journalist is just too fast and frequent to make sense as a freelance business. His piece was inspired by Nate Thayer who complained recently about being asked to write for a major US magazine for free (for the exposure). The key paragraphs are here:

The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast — to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.
But there’s something bigger going on at the Atlantic, too. Cohn told me the Atlantic now employs some 50 journalists, just on the digital side of things: that’s more than the Atlantic magazine ever employed, and it’s emblematic of a deep difference between print journalism and digital journalism. In print magazines, the process of reporting and editing and drafting and rewriting and art directing and so on takes months: it’s a major operation. The journalist — the person doing most of the writing — often never even sees the magazine’s offices, where a large amount of work goes into putting the actual product together.
The job putting a website together, by contrast, is much faster and more integrated. Distinctions blur: if you work for theatlantic.com, you’re not going to find yourself in a narrow job like photo editor, or assignment editor, or stylist. Everybody does everything — including writing, and once you start working there, you realize pretty quickly that things go much more easily and much more quickly when pieces are entirely produced in-house than when you outsource the writing part to a freelancer. At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down — as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like.
This is an interesting take on the issue but I am afraid it paints an overoptimistic picture of the future of “digital journalism”. It should be remembered that The Atlantic is one of the most successful and most digitally focused of American publications. Felix suggests that, ” it’s much, much easier to get a job paying $60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together $60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites.” I am very sceptical that any but a few of those who work full-time at the profusion of new digital content enterprises or offshoots of existing products will be earning anything like that sum–there’s just too much competition. I would expect many or most “jack of all trades” full-time or near-full-time digital producers will end up being on some form of precarious contract working from home.
Update: Alexis Madrigal, who oversees the Atlantic’s technology channel, has responded to the Thayer affair with a rather gonzo post about their business model and why it leads to ill-paying or unpaid invitations to blog.
I would be most interested in any more solid evidence in this area whether about the incomes and backgrounds of these new digital journalists or about the casualisation of journalism more generally.

Paulussen, S. (2012). Technology and the Transformation of News Work: Are Labor Conditions in (Online) Journalism Changing? In E. Siapera & A. Veglis (Eds.), The handbook of global online journalism. Chichester: John Wiley

20 December 2012

Given the huge amount of data now available online, I am having great difficulty persuading my journalism students of the value of looking elsewhere (for example a library). One way to do so I thought might be to show them how little of what has been written in the pre and early web era is currently available online. I don’t have a good source of data to hand about this so I just put together this graph pulling figures out of my head– can anyone volunteer a better source of data for this? Someone from Google Books perhaps? [Update – Jerome McDonough came up with a great response which I have pasted below this graph]

If the question is restated as what percentage of standard, published books, newspapers and journals are not available via open-access on the web, the answer is pretty straightforward: an extremely small percentage.  Some points you can provide your students:

* The Google Books Project has digitized about 20 million volumes (as of last March); they estimate the total number of books ever published at about 130 million, so obviously the largest comprehensive scanning operation for print has only handled about 15% of the world’s books by their own admission.

* The large majority of what Google has scanned is still in copyright, since the vast majority of books are still in copyright — the 20th century produced a huge amount of new published material.  An analysis of library holdings in WorldCat in 2008 showed that about 18% of library holdings were pre-1923 (and hence in the public domain).  Assuming similar proportions hold for Google, they can only make full view of texts available for around 3.6 million books.  That’s a healthy number of books, but obviously a small fraction of 130 million, and more importantly, you can’t look at most of the 20th century material, which is going to be the stuff of greatest interest to journalists.  You might look at the analysis of Google Books as a research collection by Ed Jones (http://www.academia.edu/196028/Google_Books_as_a_General_Research_Collection) for more discussion of this.  There’s also an interesting discussion of rights issues around the HathiTrust collection that John Price Wilkin did you might be interested in : http://www.clir.org/pubs/ruminations/01wilkin [I wonder what the situation is like for Amazon’s quite extensive “Look inside the book” programme?]

As for newspapers, I think if you look at the Library of Congress’s information on the National Digital Newspaper Program at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/about/ you’ll see a somewhat different problem. LC is very averse to anything that might smack of copyright violation, so the vast majority of its efforts are focused on digitization of older, out-of-copyright material.  A journalist trying to do an article on news-worthy events of 1905 in the United States is going to find a lot more online than someone trying to find information about 1993.

Now, the above having been said, a lot of material is available *commercially* that you can’t get through Google Books or library digitization programs trying to stay on the right side of fair use law in the U.S.  If you want to pay for access, you can get at more.  But even making that allowance, I suspect there is more that has never been put into digital format than there is available either for free or for pay on the web at this point.  But I have to admit, trying to get solid numbers on that is a pain.

[Thanks again to Jerome, and thanks to Lois Scheidt for passing my query on around her Library Science friends…]

20 April 2011
Filed under:Call for help,Science & Technology at9:55 am

A recent episode of the almost always excellent Radiolab documentary series ended with a brief explanation by Marcelo Gleiser of how puzzling it is that there is any matter at all in the universe.  As I understood this explanation, energy can become matter as we know, but any created matter also has to create the corresponding antimatter at the same time. Thus, while after the big bang plenty of matter was created, one would expect it all to have been fairly quickly “cancelled out” as it ran into corresponding antimatter and annihilated itself. Except, as it turns out, there is a tiny imbalance in favour of matter when energy becomes matter. Roughly, for every billion particles of antimatter, 1,000,000,001 particles of matter are created, and the entire universe of matter we have today would appear to be as a result of this tiny “leftover” matter.

It seems to me bizarre that a rule of physics which I normally think of as being mathematical and therefore perfectly balanced should have a tiny “flaw”. And, alarmingly, it appears that science does not yet have an explanation for this! Have I misunderstood the explanation given? What is the name of the law or phenomenon that is being referred to? Is there a layman’s guide to it in more detail out there on the web? Or is the phenomenon itself a scientifically disputed one?

26 February 2011
Filed under:Call for help,Personal at3:29 pm

Having lived quite successfully without a car for more than 40 years in a variety of cities well supplied with public transport, a short but particularly transport–unfriendly commute is starting to make us think of getting one. But there are so many decisions to consider. Can someone point us to some resources which can help? Better still– if a friend reads this who can advise us could you get in touch?

The rough parameters are these:


  • should be unglamorous but practical and seat four (5 door)
  • would be used for a daily commute of 7.6mi (12.2km) each way in city traffic plus a limited amount of weekend use (long-distance highway use is unlikely)
  • should be as green as possible, though of course that gets us into a thicket of considerations– electric versus hybrid versus economical diesel and then a life-cycle analysis for the components etc
  • Purchase method:
    Ideally, we would like a method that did not commit us too much as we are not sure we will actually want to keep a car and/or might not like the one we get. Hence we might consider leasing instead of buying or getting a cheapo used car we can dispose of easily (though choosing a used car is such a minefield again we aren’t sure where to begin).

    Any suggestions? Now I know how technophobes feel when purchasing their first computer…

    13 July 2010

    I am working on a presentation for IAMCR 2010 about the need to adjust media literacy education to encompass new forms of online practice and I would value your help, fellow netizens and academics. I am looking for references to the potential benefits that can be derived by individuals from their social media use. So far I have come up with the following categories and key texts:

    • Building and maintaining social capital (Steinfield, C., Ellison, N., & Lampe, C. (2008). Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites:A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6), 434-445.)
    • Finding one’s voice politically (Rodríguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape: an international study of citizens’ media. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.) (maybe also Couldry’s new “Why Voice Matters”? though I have not had the chance to read it yet)
    • Finding one’s voice culturally/creatively
    • Having a space to reflect on one’s self-identity (Stern, S. (2008). Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (Vol. -, pp. 95-117). Chicago.
    • Having the opportunity to reflect critically on media products through increased familiarity with media forms Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.
    • Learning employment-related content creation skills

    Are there any important categories I have missed? And what are the best empirical and theoretical references you would suggest that could relate to each of these themes?

    I’ll add a link to my presentation here as soon as I upload it after the conference.

    15 February 2010
    Filed under:Call for help,Software reviews at10:05 am

    I would like to give my students a web-based way to book appointments to see me which would then sync with my calendar. Features needed:

    • They should be able to request a booking without registering and see my calendar with busy parts greyed out.
    • I should be able to approve, modify or deny appointment requests and have the approval or denial notification sent to them.

    I have been struggling with Timebridge for a while now which does much of this but it doesn’t let me modify students’ appointment requests – it only lets me approve them (if I want to suggest another time I have to do so by hand). It also doesn’t seem to check to see whether I am actually available when people try to book times.

    With Google Calendar I can display my availability but as far as I can tell I would need to have students all register with GCal to add appointments and I would have to make each of them my ‘friend’. Same with Yahoo (which seems to have invented a new category called “special friends” who can edit calendar entries!). Calgoo seems not to be working and Doodle seems to require users to register and to require me to suggest times instead of the student.

    Any ideas? Surely this is not too unusual a requirement?

    5 February 2010
    Filed under:Call for help,Software reviews at10:49 am

    I have been using tweetdeck for a while but have a few issues with it:

    • I can’t do a keyword search across my twitter feeds so if I want to find a tweet from several days ago I am out of luck.
    • If I clear the tweets I have read I can’t then see how to get them back (but conversely they seem to re-appear when I restart)
    • There are several people who I follow but who also show up in a twitter list I follow (@nancybaym/internetresearchers). I would like their posts to be set to “read” when I read them in another column.
    • I would like to be able to say “mark this and all previous tweets as read” so I don’t have to read all the way to the “top” of my tweets before I mark them all read.

    Surely these are not un-feasable features? Does anyone know a decent twitter client which can deliver on some or all of these?

    17 December 2009

    Due to recent breakages and having an income after years of studenthood I find myself looking for a bunch of consumer electronics goods at once and I’m coming to realise that:

    1) Even in this most-covered commercial area, there are annoying information gaps (products that are UK/European models are much less often-reviewed than US ones).
    2) Being able to find reviews of any individual product is no substitute for buyer’s guides that would help you sift through dozens of similar products by your own criteria.

    So can you help me find the following?

    • A cheap (sub-£150) digital camera that is good in low-light conditions (ie shoots well indoors without a flash)
    • An inexpensive 22″ TV with reasonable speakers and (if possible) support for high resolution connection to a PC for use as a monitor (am currently considering the John Lewis 22″ or the LG22H2000)
    • A cheap mobile phone with decent calendar/organizer function (ie an up-to-date version of what Palm used to sell as an organizer alone) – preferably with keyboard – am currently considering the INQ Chat or the LG GW520 – should be on three because of their Skype support and cheap internet.

    Other suggestions?

    23 November 2009

    Since I go 2-3 times weekly London to Leicester these days I have to book lots of tickets in advance but all registering with the East Midlands trains site lets me do is auto-fill “london” and “leicester” in the search box and fills in address and credit card details at the end. It doesn’t remember favourite train times or seat locations. Nor does it send booked train time information back in email in a form that can be easily imported into Outlook or iCal. It takes 13 clicks to add each single journey to my basket! Alas Trainline and Raileasy both cost £1 more per ticket and £1 per transaction to book (more if using credit cards). Megatrain‘s tickets are cheaper but trains arriving at 11:00 and leaving at 15:00 wouldn’t give me much time to work.

    Any other ideas?

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