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My blog: More politics per click than Nick’s

Iain Dale’s Guide to Political BloggingLast year, Iain Dale produced a Guide to Political Blogging, in which he ranked this esteemed organ as the 29th best non-aligned political blog in the UK.

This year, he’s repeated the exercise, with one crucial difference: Instead of a committee of one deciding which blogs to include and the rankings, he opted to employ hoi poloi – he allowed the public to vote and decide.

This fact, in combination with the fact that there are now many more political blogs about, has meant that there are some big changes to the list this time around – not least the fact that Nick Robinson, BBC Political Editor, has fallen out of the top 30.

I, however, remain at number 29.

Thanks to everyone who voted for me, and thanks to Iain Dale for compiling the list. It’s always nice to know that people like what I do. The Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2007-8 is available to pre-order now, and would look particularly fetching on any shelf if nestled alongside Instant Opinion.

This post was filed under: Site Updates.

When is a kilogram not a kilogram?

A kilogram

A kilogram © Robert Rathe - www.robertrathe.com

The lump of metal by which we define a kilogram has lost weight: It’s now 50μg lighter than it was when it was created, 118 years ago. We know this because other cylinders created at the same time are now heavier than it – but they are not the designated ‘official’ kilograms, so I guess, in a round about way, it’s now them that’s wrong.

This is one of those delicious stories which messes with my brain. It’s scientific, philosophical, and incredibly accessible. ‘Cool!’

So, if the official measure of a kilogram is now lighter, is it lighter, or is everything else heavier? And how heavy is it? Despite having lost 50μg, its mass must surely still be 1kg, as it is by definition 1kg. Indeed, if it had lost half it’s weight, or gained ten stone, it would still weigh 1kg.

And, even more intriguingly, this is a kilogram that’s been kept in a triple-locked safe – so how can it possibly have lost weight?

Richard Davis, who’s the bloke in charge of the lump of metal, says that nothing will change: A kilogram will still be a kilogram. But what does that mean? A kilogram is the mass of this lump of metal, which has changed, so how can the kilogram philosophically stay the same? Scientifically, we can say that a kilogram is the weight of the lump of metal plus 50μg, but that’s not very satisfying, because if the lump has fluctuated already, who’s to say it won’t again?

The sensible solution is to define a kilogram using some more scientific measure – a popular option is to define it by a number of atoms of a particular type, which would never fluctuate. Except that it might, as our understanding of physics increases.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of the problem of the 2p coin from last May, but maybe that’s just because I like this kind of story.

Anyway, I hope it makes you think.

Originally posted on Gazette Live

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Writing Elsewhere.

LiveBlog: Google launches Presentations

Presentations are now available in Google Docs – finally! Hurray!

So, as something of an experiment, I’m now going to LiveBlog my first thoughts on the system… my first ever LiveBlog!

09.39 I have a lot of presentations on my computer, as I’ve done quite a few in my time as a medical student, so I’m now uploading them to Google Docs, where they can finally join the rest of my work.

09.41 I’ve uploaded six presentations so far. The size limit is generous, 10Mb, but the system only accepts PowerPoint files, which I guess will be a disappointment for those using competitor’s products. The conversion is pretty excellent – I’ve only come across one instance of some misplaced text, and there are a couple of issues with my original presentations using non-standard fonts, but other than that, they’re importing brilliantly.

09.44 My main gripe so far is that I have been unable to find a function for adding notes to slides, which is a shame, as most of my presentations have pretty extensive notes. The mini-slides on the right of the screen also don’t render properly – they’re approximations of the full-size slides, but often text is placed somewhat differently.

09.51 The print function seems quite good – in fact, it removes slide backgrounds more effectively than PowerPoint itself. However, another minor gripe is that whilst it will import AutoShapes perfectly from PowerPoint files, there’s no way to add them to files online, which is quite an annoying feature if trying to make slides look pretty. I maybe should have pointed out that most of the presentations I’m uploading are on this very website, here, so you can see the sorts of things I’m working with.

09.56 For some reason, Google won’t import my Acute Confusion presentation. Looking at it here, you’ll see it’s one of the simpler presentations I have, so I can’t understand why that one, of any of them, should fail to load. Another problem is that there’s no transitions or animations available, which sort of ruins one of my presentations. And, as with Spreadsheets, multiple spaces are displayed as single spaces, so where I’ve used them to line things up with diagrams (yes, I know that’s bad practice, but it’s common), it just hasn’t worked.

09.59 Scratch what I said about spaces – you can put them back in to line things up, but the uploading engine appears to remove them all. The logic of that decision is lost on me.

10.05 I’m now up to about 12 presentation uploaded, and I’m still noticing oddities. For example, you can upload presentations with different themes for different slides, and they import fine, but you can’t create them. In natively created slideshows, all slides have to have the same theme. It also occurs to me that, particular on slideshows I’ve uploaded, a slow connection would be useless. Perhaps it’s because my slideshows are naturally quite graphically intense, but it does take quite some time for all the pictures and backgrounds to load. Whether the native backgrounds are smaller files that would be quicker to load, I’m not sure, but I certainly hope so.

10.13 I’m still going, but just wanted to let you know that you can read more about the launch here.

10.17 The Hip Fracture presentation (view it here), which I thought would be a nightmare to upload as it’s very graphically intense and has quite complex layouts, has uploaded almost perfectly – very little tidying up needed, in fact only one correction on the title slide.

10.23 It’s actually quite fun looking again at all of these old presentations.

10.30 It occurs to me that the File menu across the three different applications is completely different – they should probably make that a bit more consistent some time. And I also note that the Presentations application does the same odd thing as the Docs application, whereby underlined text is always underlined in black, regardless of the text colour.

10.43 Well, I’ve played about with this new toy for over an hour now, uploaded a whole load of presentations, and feel that this LiveBlog has gone as far as it can go. Just for completeness, I should say that the system has now accepted my Acute Confusion presentation, but I don’t know what’s prompted the sudden change of heart.

Google Presentations is a good idea and a good system. I wish it’d been around when I was still writing large numbers of collaborative presentations. It imports PowerPoint slideshows effortlessly. However, the editor is very basic, lacks some straightforward expected functionality (shapes, transitions, etc). It’s already suitable for basic collaboration presentations, and it seems a good tool for giving presentations over the web, but much more work is needed if this is to become one of Google’s trademark ‘killer apps’.

This post was filed under: LiveBlogs, Technology.

The Hypocrisy of Guantánamo

This post was filed under: Notes, Writing Elsewhere.

Stewart’s 9/11 speech, six years on

Ground Zero

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of ‘9/11’. After 9/11, Jon Stewart gave a speech to open The Daily Show, a speech which I posted here back in June 2006.

Such is the power of the speech that yesterday tens of blogs linked to it on this site, providing over 130,000 extra hits, and propelling it comfortably to the top of the ‘most popular posts’ league. When a speech that is six years old can still generate this kind of response, it surely must be a great speech.

What a shame that politicians have moved so far from their people that it was left to a comedy newsreader to truly speak to the nation in the face of its greatest tragedy in many generations.

This post was filed under: Exams, Miscellaneous, Politics.

BBC’s Madeleine McCann coverage indefensible

Peter Horrocks has written an interesting piece on his BBC blog defending the way the organisation has told the story of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. Unfortunately, his defence makes little sense. Some selected extracts…

Often we’re not able to give viewers any new information and that’s one of the things I spend a lot of time talking to my journalists about, to focus on facts … I know that many other TV and radio networks have been absolutely extraordinary, always talking about it in terms of sympathy and their feelings

I am incomplete agreement with Mr Horrocks here: Reportage of the facts, not of feelings, is exactly where BBC News should be focussed in this instance.

Questions have been raised over why we used a helicopter to cover the McCanns’ journey home from East Midlands airport.

An understandable question: Coverage of a car driving from one place to another has apparently little news value, and adds few new ‘facts’. So why did the BBC cover it?

The McCanns’ return was an important emotional moment in this story, and something which we felt we needed to cover for continuous news.

Eh? The BBC, which Mr Horrocks says focuses entirely on facts, and indeed is better than its rivals because of its emotional detachment from the story, felt the need to give continuous coverage to a car journey because it was an “emotional moment in this story”.

I sense a gap in the logic.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment.

Financial hints and tips for freshers

Bank CardA reader has requested that I do a piece giving hints and tips for those about to go to university. It’s an interesting request, because in 2004, one of the big online portals was commissioning a set of articles around a similar theme, and I wrote an application piece giving financial hints and tips to freshers to try and get the commission. I didn’t get the job.

I came across the piece I wrote for the application a few weeks ago, though, and thought that if I was applying for the job now, I’d naturally post this kind of thing on the blog if it was rejected. So, I’ve dug it up… And with only the tiniest bit of editing, here it is.

Financial hints and tips for freshers

My first year proved to be an intensive learning experience for me in many ways not least in a financial sense. Since I never really listen to other’s advice, it seems a little hypocritical for me to be relating the lessons I’ve learned, but then if someone else can learn from my mistakes, I suppose it might be useful. So here are my tips for making your loan stretch that little bit further in the first year…

Don’t buy every book on the reading list
I didn’t go quite as far as buying every book, but I was really excited when I started my course, and so bought lots of books that I thought would be useful – some of which I’ve never looked at again. Even the books people tell you are ‘essential’ often turn out to be rubbish. Not only was this a complete waste of money, it’s a right pain having to move so many books when it comes to the end of term.

Get a savings account
When you’re a student, ‘saving’ seems something of a foreign concept. But if you’re like me, then getting a big loan payment makes you think that you’re rich, so you go out and spend… and then have no money left by the end of term for luxuries like food. So my advice is to put the loan payment into a savings account, so that when you check your balance it isn’t there. And when you do come to spend it, you have to actually think about it. It helps a bit with budgeting.

Don’t buy loads of equipment
Ask people what they think is important, and what you really don’t need. When I started, I was sent a list of all sorts of things that I really needed to buy, from special gloves to marker pens to safety goggles. All I really needed was a couple of labcoats. And remember that a lot of what you do need can be bought through the Student Union, which will save you a fair bit.

Get a refund on your TV Licence
If you buy your TV Licence when you arrive at uni (and not before), you might find that you have three complete months over the summer when you won’t need one – so you can get a refund for this part. Don’t do what I did – I completely forgot about applying for a refund, so I ended up paying to use a TV over the summer when I wasn’t even using the room.

Get internet banking
Internet banking provides an incredibly convenient way to check on your finances, and move money about – especially if you also have a savings account (see above). If nothing else, you’ll be the first to know when the student loans have been credited to your account, which is always good news.

Pay bills as soon as you get them
A couple of times in first year, I had bills and just thought that I’d pay them when I was next in town. Then I lost them. I didn’t quite manage to get myself a late-payment charge, but I was close. With things like accommodation charges, they often come just when you get your loan payment through. By paying them straight away, you have plenty of money to pay them with and absolutely no chance of losing them!

Avoid fines
This might seem an obvious point, but particularly if you’re in self-catering halls, you can get fined for all sorts, from making too much noise, to not emptying kitchen bins, to accidentally setting off the fire alarm. The individual fines don’t seem like much, but with those as well as library fines, it can all add up pretty quickly.

Get friendly with someone who drives
This may seem a little exploitative, but you can save a fortune on taxi fares.

Get a decent bank account
I opened my account with the bank with the best freebie. Unfortunately, it would only give me a tiny overdraft, and was generally unhelpful. After a few weeks, I ended up closing the account and opening another at a different bank – a lot of unnecessary fuss. Make sure, though, that your account has a big overdraft, as this can often come in handy for paying big bills just before your loan payment comes through.

Don’t be too stingy…
Most of the stories you hear about penniless students are exaggerated. It’s not too difficult to manage your money, as long as you’re careful. And everyone’s in the same boat, so it’s no excuse for being stingy…

I’m planning on posting some more on this subject later this week, more practical stuff hopefully, and maybe even a little bit of advice of being homesick and that sort of stuff. It might be shiny and new, or it might be an edited rehash of something else I think I might have lying about somewhere. I haven’t decided yet. But if this sort of stuff applies to you, stick around.

This post was filed under: University, Writing Elsewhere.

The medium is still not the message

This post was filed under: Notes, Writing Elsewhere.

What now for Madeleine Fund?

Question of the Day: Given that Kate McCann is now a suspect in the disappearance of Madeleine, and given that one of the stated aims of the fund set up to help find her is “that her abductors, as well as those who played or play any part in assisting them, are identified and brought to justice”, will the million pounds raised by Kate and Gerry now be used for prosecution lawyers?

This post was filed under: News and Comment.

Hotlinking mysteries and political tedium

As I’ve alluded to in the recent past, quite a number of websites hotlink images from this one. It’s something that I once tried to discourage using complicated scripts, but then pretty much gave up. Many images on the site are, for some reason, highly rated by Google Images, which only increases the amount of hotlinking that goes on.

I was surprised today, though, to find that The Amateur Scientist had found this image on my server. I couldn’t imagine why it was on there… what post could possibly require an illustration of a herd of goats?

Then I remembered: It was this one. A fascinating anecdote, portraying the joys of political blogging when politics is dull.

Given that this purports to be a political blog, I will actually post something about politics sometime in the not too distant future, I promise… but all that seems to be going on at the moment is traditional Conservative Party dissent accompanied by traditional Conservative Party policy rehashes, in this case the idea introducing an optional volunteering scheme spun as ‘National Service’.

And Gordon Brown seems to be just plodding on in a Brownish way, apparently considering calling a snap election – of course he’s not really considering it, unless he’s more stupid than he looks, whatever the polls might say. Polls and elections are different species. Now I’m just waffling.

It’s Conference Season coming up, though, so they’ll be plenty of stuff to write then. In the meantime, go watch some stupid videos.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Politics.

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