Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Two stories from the New York Times that are not related in any way

Climate Expert Muzzled by Nasa
The top climate scientist James E. Hansen at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Dr. Hansen said it would be irresponsible not to speak out, particularly because NASA's mission statement includes the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet." He said he was particularly incensed that the directives had come through telephone conversations and not through formal channels, leaving no significant trails of documents.

Exxon Mobil, disclosed record profits
It was announced last week that profits at Exxon rose to $36 billion in annual income. It now has the largest revenues of any company in the US. But Exxon did everything it could to play down the news. The company's wealth of $371 billion surpasses the $245 billion gross domestic product of Indonesia, an OPEC member and the world's fourth most populous country, with 242 million people. Republican lawmakers were on the defensive on Monday. Not only are they under heavy pressure from party leaders and from the White House to kill the proposed tax on oil companies, but they also inserted more than $2 billion in additional tax breaks for oil and gas companies in the energy bill that Congress passed last November.

This sublime image graces my desktop. Nam June Paik 1932 - 2006

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

[[ZEITGEIST]] Of Contemporary Interest…

Path to true happiness 'revealed'
Experts believe they have found the essential ingredients to make a person's life happier.

President Bush calls for Congress to renew the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act

Mike Evangelist tells the insider secrets of his gruelling preparation for the Apple Keynote speeches with Steve Jobs. This is interesting because it shows how much effort goes into an effortless presentation.

BBC opens its archives to public
The fall of the Berlin Wall and footage of the 1966 England World Cup team are among items released from the BBC News archives for the first time.

Google's $200 computer. Speculation is mounting that Google will this week unveil a no-frills personal computer.

Friday, January 06, 2006

[[ZEITGEIST]] Kennedy Assasination
With all this talk about on of the great conspiracies of our time solved regarding the assassination of JFK (see here and here for details) I thought it would be fun, in an extremely black comic way, to look at another Kennedy assassination. One that is closer to home this time. I'm talking of course of the media assassination of the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy. I am not going to concentrate of the many stories about Kennedy's drink problems, instead I want to examine the photographs that accompany the stories and show how these photographs provide their own mythical commentary (in the Bartesian sense). In order to do this I will be utilising another of Barthes' theories, that of anchorage. Anchorage, as someone in Stanford University put this, is text (such as a caption) that provides the link between the image and its context; the text that provides relevance to the reader.

In order to cut down on the possible variables I will constrain my focus to the BBC Online News site. Let's start with the story on 5 January 2006 when news of Kennedy's confession of his drink problem broke...

Accompanying the headline "Kennedy admits battling alcohol" there is an image of a very contrite Chares snapped at a lib dem conference. Conferences are excellent locations for the candid political snap for two reasons. Firstly because the leaders of the various parties are decked out in their leadership uniform of smart suit, and usually situated just in from of an emblematic banner which helpfully established the link between party and leader. Secondly because conferences go on for such an long time that you are inevitably going to catch a moment where the partly leader is caught off guards, or in this context, off message. Especially subversive is the snap with the leader is caught looking slack in front of some kind of righteous slogan. See the picture at the top of this post for an example of this.

Next we have the image chosen to accompany a transcript of Kennedy's statement to parliament on the 6th January where he admitted his drink problem.

Here we have a steely and yet vulnerable Charles: more an an image of a little boy who is facing up to a neighbour after smashing his window than a political statesman. In terms of eliciting our denying our sympathy, there is some ambiguity in the image. While this man does not look entirely trustworthy or heroic he still seems somewhat lovable.

Now we come to today's preferred image with the headling "MPs increase pressure on Kennedy"

Do you think that the BBC already made up its mind which way this story is going to go? Here we have an image of a spectacularly tipsy and unhinged Kennedy. I particularly like the sinsiter trick of lighting him from the side in harsh light (representing the sting of sobriety perhaps?) Gone is the lovable boy of yesterday, to be replaced with the sinister drunk.

I suggest that the mythical template for choosing this image was a combination of this

(A drunk)

and this

(Charles Laughton as the Hunchback of Notre Dame)

The image in today's Times Online is even more spot on in respect of the latter...

Link: an excerpt of Rhetoric of the Image by Roland Barthes

Monday, January 02, 2006

There has been a lot in the news about Wikipedia recently. As the BBC reported, "Wikipedia has tightened its submission rules following a complaint from journalist John Seigenthaler described as 'false and malicious'," when an entry implicated him in the Kennedy assassinations. Seigenthaler phoned to complain to Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales (pictured), but he was informed that there was no way of finding out who wrote the entry. Wikipedia has since removed the entry and now requires users to register before they can create articles.

This seems like a good opportunity to discuss the trustworthiness and or tardiness of this online resources especially for scholars seeking short-cuts in their research. Of course being my ideal reader, your are already aware that Wikipedia works on an open source model. this means that anyone can edit its content. This alone can give conservative minded scholars the willies. As Bill Thompson writes, "Andrew Orlowski, writing in The Register, a UK-based technology website, is scathing in his dismissal of the site as a cult-like organisation where faith triumphs rationality" On the other hand as the Guardian in its leader on the subject remarked

In theory it was a recipe for disaster, but for most of the time it worked remarkably well, reflecting the essential goodness of human nature in a supposedly cynical world and fulfilling a latent desire for people all over the world to cooperate with each other without payment.

But the debate is not just a choice between academic condescension and utopian gloss. The guardian also published a useful article because it actually tried to address the issue by asking experts in the field to comment on the encyclopedia's accuracy. However this only underscored the fact in some cases that if one is going to be prejudiced against something no end of evidence is going to overturn that opinion. For example the "Encyclopedia" entry reviewed by the former editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Robert McHenry:

A cynic might conclude that the whole article exists chiefly as a context for this paragraph: "Traditional encyclopedias are written by a number of employed text writers, usually people with an academic degree. This is not the case with Wikipedia, a project started in 2001 with the goal to create a free encyclopedia. Anyone can add or improve text, images, and sounds ... By 2004 the project has managed to produce over a million articles in over 80 languages."

And the BBC Online's technology correspondent Bill Thompson reported on a study by Nature:

In the midst of all this controversy, Nature published the results of an analysis of a broad range of entries from the websites of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica which shows a different picture… After looking at 42 articles, according to Nature, "only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia…. "But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in Wikipedia and Britannica, respectively."

I broadly concur with Thompson's conclusion:

that we should not place complete faith in something which can so easily be undermined through malice or ignorance thanks to its open architecture… That does not devalue the project entirely, it just means that we should be sceptical about Wikipedia entries as a primary source of information, and not accept the claims that it marks some form of emergent collective intelligence, a new era in human consciousness or the rebuilding of the Library of Alexandria.

But I would add that the same 'cautiousness' should be extended to all sources, be they internet based or book based. What is really useful about internet-based research however is that you can cover a huge amount of ground and bounce from one idea to another very quickly, almost as if google or Wikipedia are an extension of the thinking process itself (I know that this statement is in need of some unpacking for its techno-determinist assumptions alone, but just go with it OK). What this means is that online research becomes something like brainstorming. It is true that whole pathways and areas are opened up. This is a different approach to research than the "looking for authoratative justification model" that is critiqued in the reports cited in this post. And in this context one consideration should always been at the front of the reasearcher's mind, namely that the opening up of knowledge is never a justification nor an end in itself, it is only the beginning of the sometimes wearisome but necessarily fastidious exploration of the territory that academic research demands. This is an endeavour of not just shoring up but actually substantiating or indeed refuting claims that are generated in the brainstorming phase. The fact that wikipedia is a free and widely available resources opens up access to knowledge for everyone. This is I think the reason that it is disparaged in some quarters.



Good article on why the media can't or just doesn't get Wikipedia