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2D: Social media

Social media websites pervade a good slice of society these days, yet their novelty means that effect on society is relatively poorly understood. Today, I’ve chosen two articles that use to very different cases to explore two different social media websites in two different ways.

My first chosen article is “Why do we hate Facebook?”, written by Luke Allnutt for RFE/RL’s Tangled Web. With a headline like that, you’ll be relieved to hear that Allnutt does explore the premise of the questions as well as the question itself.

The hook Allnutt uses to discuss our relationship with Facebook is the story that circulated a few years ago about Facebook making private messages public. It was demonstrably untrue, and yet still spread quickly and widely. Many reasons are explored in Allnutt’s detailed yet readable article, but the following passage about the complexity of our relationship with Facebook stood out for resonating with so many discussions I’ve had with others about Facebook over the last few years:

Characters revert to type on social media, but their attributes are turbo-charged. The annual family update (“Chloe has had an impressive first term at Brown and seems to enjoy the social life as much as the academic!”) has become the hourly update. The whiny friend we once met now and again outside the grocery store is now a daily occurrence. Of course, we can hide these people on our feeds, but this is information we love to hate. That is the dichotomy of Facebook.

My second chosen article is rather shorter. “The fate of Sally Bercow suggests it’s all too easy to side with the baying mob” (the argument really is in the headline here) was written by Graeme Archer, and published in The Telegraph. He says

I think that the case exemplifies a problem for humans that is ancient and universal, but which, thanks to technology, is more dangerous than ever. The tendency to rush to judgment, and the desire to be part of the crowd.

After all, Mrs Bercow was hardly alone in casting aspersions on Lord McAlpine: the Twittersphere had decided it knew who was the subject of the BBC’s sensational report. Why not join in? The temptation is hard to resist (it’s one reason I gave up on Twitter for a while; I’m not immune to the phenomenon).

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that, actually, I am pretty resistant to the phenomenon, and often finding “Twitterstorms” like the one in the Sally Bercow case more than a little tiresome: If anything makes me stop reading Twitter, it’s a Twitterstorm. But, regardless, I think Archer has a point, and I think he makes it pretty well in this article.

So, taking those two articles together: we distrust Facebook, and Twitter makes it easy for us to do bad things. Yet, by bringing these two articles together, my intention wasn’t really to criticise social media, but rather to point out that our relationship with these sites is complex and multilayered. That’s perhaps brought out more by the Allnutt article than the Archer one, but I hope you find the cominbation of the two as interesting as I did.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

This post was filed under: 2D, , , , .

Just putting the finishing touches on this week’s newsletter

I’m just putting the finishing touches on this week’s sjhoward.co.uk news; I’ll be sending it out in the next half hour or so. If you haven’t yet signed up and don’t want to miss this week’s edition, you’d better get your skates on!

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Weekend read: The other mile-high club


My relatively short recommended read this weekend is from The Economist a few weeks ago: it’s a great article about the slightly esoteric subject of carbon fibre lift cables. Until I read this article, it never occurred to me that the weight of steel ropes was an important limiting factor on the operating height of a lift, and the effect that had on the height of modern buildings. It’s an eye-opening piece.

The picture of a lift above is one of my own, taken during my trip to the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels in May last year. Of course, it’s an underground lift, and so of questionable relevance to this post…!

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, .

Reviewing my own book reviews

Yesterday, I published a review of A Series of Unrelated Events by Richard Bacon. A year ago today, I published a review of The Truth about Cruise Ships by Jay Herring. And in between the two, I’ve published some 39 other book reviews. Writing the book review section has become one of the real pleasures of maintaining this blog – I think it’s my favourite regular column.

Yet, I struggle each week to summarise my review in a star-rating out of five. I often write about struggling to do this, and if you are wondering why on earth I bother, it’s because I republish versions of my book reviews in various other places, for some of which a star rating is mandatory.

So, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the last year of reviews and look at the distribution of ratings. I’d expect the distribution to be skewed – I generally choose to read books that appeal to me, rather than ones I hate. Yet, I also try not to give out too many five-star reviews. Taking these factors into account, I’d expect the mean to come out at about 3.5.

Bar Chart

If you look very closely, you’ll notice that this doesn’t add up to the promised 41 – that’s because there were two reviews where I declined to give a star-rating, despite my self-imposed rules.

It isn’t surprising to me that four-stars is the modal figure, but I am a little surprised – despite what I said earlier – that I’ve only given two one-star reviews in a whole year. I’m also surprised to have given eight five-star reviews.

The mean figure is 3.4 stars, which is pretty much where I thought it would be.

So what do I take away from this exercise? I’m pretty much coming up with the balance of star-ratings that I thought I would be, despite struggling every week. I am perhaps a touch too generous with five-star reviews, but, then again, the mean is where I thought it would be. I’ll repeat this in July 2014, and see if things have changed.

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Review: A Series of Unrelated Events by Richard Bacon

Richard Bacon is perhaps best known as the only Blue Peter presenter to be sacked. He’s also the presenter of the afternoon show on BBC Radio 5 Live, to which I occasionally listen.

A Series of Unrelated Events is his first book. It’s an autobiography of various surreal moments in his life, presented out of sequence and with no connecting narrative. I’m a little unnerved by the use of the word “series” in the title, given that the events described are not chronological. Clearly, “series” does not necessarily imply chronology, but it unsettles me nonetheless. And, as you might imagine, a series of out-of-sequence anecdotes doesn’t add up to a particularly coherent whole.

From listening on 5 Live, I’ve often thought that there are two sides to Richard Bacon. One side is serious, intelligent and insightful. This side is shown most commonly when he’s handling breaking news, or following a long-running news story, or interviewing someone particularly newsworthy and interesting. The other side is faux-blokey, flippant, and a little arrogant. This side is shown most commonly on slow news days, or when he’s presenting one of his many predictable and relatively dull “features”.

Unfortunately, this book is written almost exclusively by the latter side of Richard Bacon. There are some chapters where the former gets a look in: particularly the first, about his sacking from Blue Peter, and one near the end of the book, in which he talks about internet trolls. But most of the rest is written in the faux-blokey style, with “hilarious” anecdotes about subjects like hiding the fact he’d drunk a bottle of wine by replacing the contents with water, people having sex at his wedding, and outsourcing his film review column to a friend.

I suspect that this is a book that could be improved dramatically through the employment of a very good editor. As a first draft, this book is fine: it just needs somebody to point out which of the anecdotes don’t work and should be dropped, explain which bits Bacon should expand with richer detail and wider discussion, and a judicious use of coloured pen to tidy up his often infuriatingly affected writing style.

This perception is reinforced by a number of asides which surely should have been edited. For example, when re-introducing a character from a previous anecdote, Bacon says:

Let’s call him Jack (I can’t remember if I identify him in that earlier chapter and can’t be bothered to check).

Perhaps this is supposed to be humorous. Perhaps I am supposed to laugh. If I read this on someone’s blog, perhaps I would chuckle and roll my eyes. But when I’ve paid for a book, I expect this sort of thing to be edited out. I don’t want to see the process of writing, I want to be immersed in the content. But, as I say, perhaps I’m over-reacting to a joke I didn’t find funny.

Yet here’s another exhibit: there is a chapter which Bacon opens in the voice of Charles Dickens. That is precisely as painful as it sounds, and he gets bored with his terrible impression part way though:

Now read on, as Richard Bacon takes up the story.

That you, Charles. And sorry readers, that didn’t really work out as I’d hoped. He doesn’t half go on a bit.

Again, this is a passage that is more cringe-worthy than funny – perhaps passable on an amateurish blog (like mine). But, as if to reinforce that the editing on this volume has been sloppy, the following appears at the end of the chapter:


Eagle-eyed readers might have noticed that the first half of the chapter was written in the style of Charles Dickens and the second not. This is because the Charles Dickens bit was taking too long and I got bored.

Why repeat what he’s already pointed out earlier in the text? Pass the red pen, please.

I guess what frustrates me most about this book is that Bacon has an interesting career story to tell, and the intelligence and wit to tell it well. Instead, it feels like he’s been left largely to his own devices, and so gone somewhat off piste. As a collection of anecdotes written by a minor celebrity, it isn’t bad… but I’m ultimately left disappointed, because I know it could have been so much better.

I very much hope that Bacon one day has the opportunity to write a decent, considered memoir. Perhaps that’s something one can’t do part-way through one’s career. Perhaps the distance isn’t great enough to allow for proper reflection. But, if he does go on to write one, I suspect I’d wholeheartedly recommend it. And I think there’s just enough promise in the better chapters of Unrelated Events to grudgingly recommend this first draft of history until that day.

A Series of Unrelated Events is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle. Many thanks to Cornerstone Publishing for supplying a free copy for the purpose of this review.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Re-inventing the email newsletter

Until June 2007, this website offered an email subscription service whereby subscribers would receive copies of all posts by email, along with a few added extras now and again. By 2007, RSS feeds and the like made this seemed horribly old-fashioned, and I closed the service.

These days, however, I find myself more and more reliant on curated email newsletters from a lot of my favourite sites. I don’t have the time to trawl RSS feeds which have a low signal:noise ratio – I want somebody to pick out the best bits for me.

And so, today, I’m re-introducing this site’s email service. It is a little different to the one I closed five years ago. This time round, it will consist of a single weekly email with the best posts from this site, and other links and bits and bobs I’ve come across elsewhere but not deemed worthy of posting on here. It will come out on a Sunday, but (unlike the posts on here) it will always be sent in “real time” – so it might be late some weeks, or early others. It will always be freshly baked.

So sign up today – either by following this link, or (if you’re reading this on sjhoward.co.uk) using any of the dark grey boxes. I’ll be sending the first edition a little before midnight tonight – so if you want to collect a complete set, get signed up quickly!

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, Site Updates, .

Weekend read: What’s it like to be crucified?

Each Easter, devout Catholic men in the Philippines recreate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. After parading through a gruelling re-enactment of the stations of the cross, they have nails driven through their hands and feet, and are hoisted onto a cross for as long as they are able to remain conscious.

One man, Ruben Enaje, has done this twenty-five times. In this remarkable article by Kit Gillet for The Global Mail, he explains his motivation and describes – in graphic terms – exactly what is is like to be crucified. And yet, for me at least, the article raises deeper and more disturbing questions than it can even hope to answer.

The picture at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by bigbirdz, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

2D: The economics of science & healthcare

The link between the two articles in this 2D is health and economics. It’s a reasonably weak link, granted… but it’s a link nonetheless!

The first article I’d like to recommend is this long and thoughtful interview with Bill Gates by Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, which carries the arresting title “death is something we really understand extremely well”. He talks through some of the financial decisions his Foundation makes, and the economics of disease eradication. I found it quite fascinating.

The second article is really rather different. For Priceonomics, Alex Mayyasi gives a history and economics lesson to explain why articles in scientific journals are, more often than not, behind a paywall. He argues, too, that the system needs to move on and develop in the 21st century. As someone who spends a disproportionate amount of time whining about medical journals and their paywalls, I found this detailed blog post very interesting and informative.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them! The picture at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by Howard Lake, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: 2D, Health, , , , , , .

Weekend read: The countryside is threatened by sheep

I’m not a particular fan of George Monbiot, though I know that his writing is enjoyed by many people. Yet, I did enjoy one of his columns in The Spectator last month, in which he argued that fluffy white sheep do a huge amount of damage to the environment. Indeed, he claims they’ve done more damage than “all the building that has ever taken place”. Enjoy!

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Review: Guardian Angel by Melanie Phillips

Guardian Angel is an autobiography penned by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips. In an interesting conceptual move away from the traditional autobiography, it is focussed on only two aspects of her life: her changing relationship with her parents, and her political shift from writing for the left-wing Guardian to the right-wing Daily Mail. As it happens, I think that’s a pretty good concept. The way in which relationships with parents change over the course of a lifetime is a deeply personal yet universal topic, while the political shift is perhaps the most interesting public aspect of Phillips’s life.

If this book was fiction, it would quickly become a literary classic. It would be a tragicomic character study worthy of Ricky Gervais, but with a subtlety in the detail revealing the flawed perspective of the narrator worthy of any classic author. It would represent a fusion of the tools and techniques of some of literature’s greatest works with a modern storyline and sensibility. I, for one, would be raving about it. And so, perhaps I should review it in those terms.

The narrator has a virtually messianic opinion of herself, which lends itself readily to the tragicomic form. The book opens with the narrator grandly describing herself in the third person:

The child lay tensely in the darkness, in a bed that was not her own. A crisis had placed her there, and impending and unimaginable horror which only one person could prevent.

The “unimaginable horror” turns out to be the death of the child’s aunt: no doubt a tragic event, but hardly “unimaginable”. This third person drama continues for some time, before the predictable, but no less comically dramatic, dénouement of the opening passage:

I was that child.

This is a very effective opening to a character study. In a few hundred words, it gives the measure of the narrator, especially her propensity for hyperbole and drama, and the third person narrative structure strikes a strong note of ego. The tendency towards dramatic hyperbole is reinforced early on. The narrator describes her childhood dislike for her paternal grandmother’s “grim slum” – which she also, somewhat inconsistently, describes as a “fine Georgian terrace”. The narrator describes the house’s oval windows, and – such was her dislike for the property –

to this day I cannot look at upright oval shapes … without my heart lurching, absurdly, into my mouth.

The monstrous ego of the character is infused throughout the text, though is perhaps most obviously reinforced by two passages: one, which is far too long to quote, in which she lists a number of perceived personal insults from other journalists (as distinct from multiple passages in which she lists criticisms of her work); and another, in which she describes the magnitude of her level of understanding of “Middle Britain”.

There are issues on which the Mail and I do not agree. I myself seemed to have an umbilical cord to Middle Britain.

Another exemplary passage is this:

Without wishing to sound boastful, I believe that on issue after issues where the evidence is now finally in, I have been proved right.

This latter passage is made more amusing by her citation of global warming as an issue “where the evidence is now finally in”; evidence which, apparently, confirms her view that man-made global warming is a oil-company perpetuated “scam which has hoodwinked millions and cost billions”. Hence, the narrator is comprehensively established as unreliable, egotistical and deeply flawed.

This characterisation groundwork is quite crucial, as the opinions described by the narrator as her own offer a crescendo of offence. Had the character not already been established as a tragicomic creation, the humour in the illogic of the offerings would be overshadowed by the level of offence they contain.

Given the concentration of the book on her own relationship with her parents, it is unsurprising that the narrator proselytises extensively about family structures. There is considerable depth about her own difficult relationship with her father, which she claims inflicted “lifelong harm”. Her father was present, but disengaged. From this, the narrator draws the illogical conclusion that divorce is harmful to children. I hardly need point out that divorce and remarriage in her case may well have equipped the narrator with the strong father-figure she claims to have lacked, where a refusal to divorce removes this possibility. In common with the opinions expressed in the rest of the book, an initial expression of dissatisfaction with the state of “modern Britain” builds to a climax of breathtaking offensiveness.

In this case, the narrator is both “perplexed” and “appalled” by the simple statement of fact that there are circumstances in which it is acceptable for a mother to leave her husband, and thus become a single parent,

and more, that it is her ‘right’ to choose such a lifestyle.

Indeed, the narrator goes on to later describe divorcees and children born out of wedlock as “deviants”, despite undermining even the technical definition of the word by quoting statistics showing that almost half of British marriages end in divorce. Yet, simultaneously, the narrator claims not to be “judging individuals”.

With similar illogic, the narrator accuses the BBC of racism for considering the needs of “Asian and African-Carribbean audiences”, and – with particular poignancy given the publisher of this book – that mainstream publishers will not publish her work because it is too factually correct.

Hopefully, I have now given you a flavour of the structure of the book, and perhaps some sense of the way in which the layers of tragedy, comedy and farce interplay in a cohesive and rather engaging way. Yet there are two other layers to this work which raise it above the level of its peers.

The first of these two additions is the peppering of one-liners which encapsulate all three elements of the main narrative. Most of these are difficult to quote in a review, as they are heavily dependent on some length of preceding material, yet I shall try to give a flavour. There is a long section in which the narrator describes the negative reaction to one of her earlier books, in which she proposed sweeping changes to the British system of education. She then extensively quotes criticism of this work. In response to other writers’ accusations that her proposals went against research evidence, she writes:

So all the teachers, educational psychologists, government inspectors … parents and pupils to whom I had spoken were not evidence, merely ‘anecdote’

To end a defensive rant against her critics with a statement of such profound bathos is, surely, comic genius.

The second exalting addition is the rich vein of unjust persecution running through the book. This juxtaposes the narrators abhorrent opinions with her own sense of persecution at the hands of others. There is one profoundly brilliant passage in which, in the context of her views on Israel, she claims

I could never relax when turning on the radio or TV, opening a newspaper or going to a dinner party, for fear of hearing some libellous accusation or other casual prejudice

The remarkable device of having this narrator complain about casual prejudice demonstrates the lack of insight possessed by the character in an exceptionally clever and highly amusing manner. This point is further emphasised by the inconsistency of opinion presented. Towards the end of her book, she claims

In my view, polarised thinking represents precisely the problem that no so bedevils politics in the UK and America. The left/right argument, which forecloses any balanced approach, simply wipes out any political space on which people can meet and discuss issues on the basis of reasoned debate rather than ideological name-calling.

It is hard to suppress a smile as the character is revealed as a brazen hypocrite, as she herself engages in something close to ideological name-calling:

The left is not on the side of truth, reason, and justice, but instead promotes ideology, malice, and oppression. Rather than fighting the abuse of power, it embodies it.

Of course, the problem with this interpretation of the book is that it is not fiction. This is a book written by one of Britain’s best-paid newspaper columnist, who credibly claims to have the ear of government. Her Gordian knot of inconsistent opinion, pseudo-mortality, and prejudice is what passes for sociopolitical commentary in one of the country’s best-selling and most influential newspapers.

There is some undeniable literary quality to this book, but only when judged beyond its own terms. Within its own terms – that is, as a non-fiction piece – it contains such odious opinions, repulsive arguments and factual distortions that I struggle to believe that it can represent the views of its well-educated author. It feels like it might be pandering of the worst kind, content written purely to falsely reinforce inaccurate prejudices.

As it seems only fair for my “star rating” to judge the book on its own terms, I’ve given it the minimum rating – one star – but hope that doesn’t detract from the qualities that this book does, albeit unintentionally, offer.

Guardian Angel is available now from amazon.co.uk in Kindle format only. Many thanks to emBooks for supplying a free copy for the purpose of this review.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

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