Saturday 31 October 2009

Handling the bad stuff when your Facebook account gets hacked into can make unsettling demands on you. At least, that's what I think has happened. It started last night when status updates I made began to disappear from my Profile page. Then I got logged out of Facebook. Then it happened again. And again.

Each time you are logged out, it may happen - as it did with me - that your password no longer works. It's hard to describe how disturbing this can be. It's sort of like when you wake up in the night in a hotel wondering where you are and it takes a few moments to remember. Having your password invalidated, and being repeatedly logged out of Facebook when under normal circumstances you use it for days or weeks without needing to log in, has a simlar, dark tone.

To check if it was really a hack, I changed my Twitter password to be the same as my Facebook password. Then I went back to Twitter and logged in. It refused to allow me through.

I telephoned the bank and got them to suspend transactions on my credit card. I had had no need, fortunately, to access my online banking interface. But I got that suspended as well.

It seemed just too perfect that these things should start to happen on a Friday night. There's no weekend-open branch near me, a fact I discovered when I drove over there this morning. I'm not happy with how things sit, but I feel a tad safer knowing that my transaction accounts are well under wraps.

Another thing that takes time is getting help from an expert. I live in a regional centre, so the usual crew of Geeks2U are out of scope. So I did a quick Internet search and discovered a couple of numbers and rang them. One guy refused to come out because I live outside his territory. The other gave me a spiel that seemed to promise a large account in case he did appear at my doorstep.

The first guy was helpful, though, and gave me details of free software that can help in situations like this. But it took a good 90 minutes to install the programs and, in the end, one of them didn't work as expected. You never know when you're a digital moron. Maybe it's OK, maybe not. Hope springs eternal.

Then I took a drastic step and called my brother in the United States to get some more of the good oil. He advised me to back up my data files and format the hard drive. If this turns out to be necessary, I'm in for a good couple of days' work right there.

I think someone is logging my keystrokes. This would account for the way the Facebook password keeps changing. What surprises me, however, is that my Facebook-registered email has not been changed. When I click to get a new login authorisation sent to my inbox, it duly arrives. Maybe the hackers are just stuffing me around, with no intention to presecute their advantage further than is required to frustrate, perplex and anger me.

Who knows. What I do know is that despite changing my password several times, my Facebook Profile page continues to lack a couple of status changes. Until this is cleared up, I won't relax.

Contacting Facebook is another thorn in the side of the unfortunate hackee. Once you arrive at the Help page and click through to the right page for reporting hacks, you must simply wait. It's not as though you can phone a customer service operative - as happens with telephone or Internet problems.

You just wait for the black box to spit out a resolution to the problem that continues to harass you as you try to go about the normal business of life online.

Friday 30 October 2009

HootSuite tells me they'll be adding the ability to add people to Twitter lists "as soon as possible". The 'Lists' feature is no secret, with many tweeps (people on Twitter) tweeting about how it has been added to their account. I got mine yesterday. Management's request not to tweet about it yet was possibly tongue-in-cheek and, in any case, an improbable ask.

Tweeps are notorious breakers-of-news so getting lists added to their accounts was always going to be something to tweet about. Immediately.

The feature stumped me, at first. I couldn't work out how to edit a list once it was made. It seemed, for a while, that editing would be impossible. Then I read a blog post which told me that you add people to a list from their profile page.

Since I use HootSuite all the time as well as the regular Twitter web page, I can now just move between them when I discover someone who I want to add to a list.

There are two of them, currently. I figured that other people would set up 'journalists' lists, so I added a twist to mine, and set up a 'journalism-academics' list. It's got eight members so far. As new j-school teachers appear in my stream, I'll add them to it.

The other list I started is 'politicians', for obvious reasons.

Maybe a summary of how a list works is in order. If a person is added to a list, all their tweets appear in the stream that belongs to the list. This is accessed at the list page. The member is logged as being 'followed' by the list. So the label on my 'journalism-academics' list says "Following: 8".

People can also follow a list that you create, and there's another label showing how many people are following your list. There's also a 'List' counter on your home page, which shows how many lists you are included in.

Lists are thus a fully-integrated element of Twitter. So where will the first 'list analytics' operation start up? Will it be inside an old-media company such as Reuters, or will there be a new type of company that searches through lists and publishes surveys and articles that examine the list phenomenon?

And are lists just like permanent hashtags?

Thursday 29 October 2009

To get a Google Wave account, all I did was ask. But it's lonely. Using Wave without others is no different to using email alone: there's no point. You're in the same situation as the software tester who hasn't got 'real' data to play with. The app simply doesn't work without collocutors on your side. Software testers will know what I'm talking about, and the rest of you can imagine it as well.

I want invites so that I can really test-run the application in a real scenario.

That doesn't mean that this post will be shorter than usual. There are some things I can say with certainty, even though some of them may be reports of bugs. Which is probably why Wave admins are holding back on issuing invites for the present.

If there's anyone else out there who wants to play, my handle is 'matthewdasilva'.

I have one interlocutor, who I found through Twitter. We have a wave going right now. The best thing that we've decided about Wave, so far, is the neatness it offers in terms of communication. I'm not even talking about collaborative authoring or document creation. I'm just talking about managing information generated as a result of an email conversation.

And Google sold Wave mainly on this benefit, during their product launch last month in Sydney. Each piece of the conversation is laid down in the right-hand window sequentially. Anyone can add an interpolative comment anywhere in the sequence just by clicking into the stream. And sub-comments can be made to sub-comments in a staggered sequence just like in the days of threaded BBs.

I haven't tried to use the 'gadgets' let alone the many 'app-bots' that third-party developers have come up with. For the moment, I'm only interested in how Wave works as a killer app. And the app they're trying to kill is email.

Each time an addition is made to a wave, your browser's tab counter increments by one. So it's not each wave that's changed that counts as an 'add', it's each instance of text added by a person involved in a wave. If five people in each of two waves adds a comment, you get an increment in the tab counter of 10.

In the left-hand window each wave that gets updated displays a counter, indicating the number of new comments it contains. This guides you from the tab to the wave, so you can find the new stuff.

So far, there's no doubt in my mind. Even though I've got only one interlocutor and we're only using a single wave, I believe that Wave will be hard to beat by conventional email. It's just neater, more scalable, less time-consuming and error-prone. In the product launch, they highlighted the fact that, with Wave, you don't forget to include people, as you often do with regular email. But it's more than that.

To see the entire conversation, you simply scroll up and down a list of utterances. Each utterance has attached to it the picture and name of the person who made it, so there's no mistaking who made a comment. In a regular email you can be doing an awful lot of scrolling to follow the conversation. Here, it's a whole lot more compact and accessible. Visual clues help to organise data, and there just seems to be less of it to deal with.

This advantage can save a lot of time, compared with regular email. I see regular email surviving the onslaught of the Wave but it will be used for other things, like first contacts and official correspondence with public utilities, government and the like.

Wave seems ideally suited to environments where a set of people who often work together on a project are found. They will prefer its ease-of-use and convenience. Getting invited to a Wave will be like being included in a Cc nowadays: a sign of acceptance and inclusion. Using Wave will be another type of communication, additional to regular email.

There are bugs, of course, but they will be ironed out. Less attractive, for me, are the search tools. I've yet to work out how they work but, again, this might just be because there's not enough 'real' data to play with.

In brief, I'm still excited. But I'm eagerly awaiting the moment when I can send out a bunch of invites to people who I regularly correspond with. The larger groups of hands-on operatives are the ones who will make or break this product, not tech enthusiasts like lil' ol' moi.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

The news that both Microsoft (whose search engine Bing currently commands just under 10 percent of the search market) and giant Google will license the twitterstream has not yet sufficiently percolated through the consciousness of the IT commentariat (or 'punditsphere').

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was talking to Gartner analysts on 22 October, the day before news of their agreement with the micro-blogging service Twitter appeared in the papers. "Watch this space," he answered in reply to a query about his company's intentions in terms of real-time web.

Once Google has a hold on the twitterstream, and has an opportunity to apply its advanced mathematical ranking formulae to it, there's little doubt that engines such as Swift will be either bypassed, made into a competitor, or acquired. Swift is a "toolset for crowdsourced situational awareness", according to the website. In other words, it is designed to respond to fast-moving events being reported on Twitter.

These events start quickly and die down just as fast. They can be very exciting for the participant or lurker. Two days ago, I suggested that newspapers still have a curatorial, or 'trustee', role to play in the new environment. This is because of the loads of unreliable information that is produced at a startling rate, when a stream really fires up in Twitter.

In fact, the Swift app URL was placed in a comment to my post. People have been thinking about this. But which people? Now, it seems, Google is ready to address the issue. It is likely that news companies, already under siege and often quick to attack Google, are about to be bypassed again.

It's a dangerous game - not acting in the face of certain instability in your major revenue stream. These large corporations still rely on print ads for most of their income, and we know that regional mastheads, which compete less with the web, are doing less badly than their metropolitan siblings.

But when Schmidt says the things he's saying at the Gartner gab-fest, newspapers should really sit up and take notice. What did he say?

From our perspective, real-time information is just as valuable as all the other information, and we want it part of Google. And real-time information is the two fine companies that you named but there are many others, as well. And our indices are able now to process real-time information and rank it. The technically hard problem is ranking the real-time information relative to its, its ... In other words ... To be precise, this person is twittering - tweeting - and this person is tweeting. How do we rank them? Who comes first in the order, what signals [do we look at]? What information [do we take into account when ranking tweets]?

That's an important and challenging technical problem. There are analogous problems in all real-time [media]. All of which are under development at Google.

But not under development at newspaper companies, who continue to focus their efforts on reporting news and (sometimes) reporting what PR operatives class as news.

It's depressing. At least it's depressing once removed, because the people who will ultimately suffer are those journalists and editors who are now finding that losing colleagues is no fun when you are asked to do more work than you can humanly handle. It's easier to rely on PR fed to your email inbox than actually go out and research original stories.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Are Google groups so, like, half-an-hour ago? I'm wondering and whistling while pondering this pressing question because of the lamentable performance by members of a journalism Google group that was set up a couple of months ago. I subscribed. I asked a couple of questions. I read a few answers. Then ... No activity for ages. Zero. Zip.

The total silence is evident in the fact that I've received no notifications of updates in my Gmail account since ... Crap knows when.

In fact, I was the most frequent interlocutor. The questions I asked got a few desultory responses; then came that deafening quiet that signals complete irrelevance.

Twitter, on the other hand, seems to feed the inquisitive beast mightily. Yesterday a tweep asked a question which set up a sustained debate among three tweeps - myself included - pondering the question of legal liability on Twitter.

How do you handle retweets? Do you verify tweets before retweeting? Are you better off distancing yourself from the fact relayed in the tweet using some sort of journalistic convention, like quotes? And where does the liability lie in case of a lawsuit?

I couldn't imagine a multi-post conversation like this occuring in a Google group. The pace is slower there. Members who don't lurk are wary of exposing themselves. It just seems so permanent to lay down your words in that space. On Twitter, obversely, you throw out ideas into the stream without caring that, instead of only 50 people watching, almost 300 can see everything you post.

Twitter is a micro-blogging service. As such, I propose - to clear up the topic under discussion - that liability rests with the publisher. That means you. You're the publisher on Twitter, just as you are on your blog.

And just as with a newspaper that operates a website that accepts reader comments, all liability for posted comments rests with you. Even though you didn't write the words, because you retweet them you're enough of a part of the publishing process that you hold liability for their veracity.

So, as another participant in yesterday's tweet-discussion stated: be careful what you tweet. The only thing standing between you and insolvency is your bank balance.

Monday 26 October 2009

In a post on his blog, Cody Brown, a New York University undergraduate, addresses in some detail the current debates raging (sometimes blisteringly) around the problem of monetisation of news. Cody has a good grasp of history, which makes him equal to many of the decent opinion writers we already trust in newspapers.

But Cody's 'About' page also says he's looking for a Ruby developer. Ruby-on-Rails is a recently-introduced software programming language that is used to make web applications. In 2010, Cody wants to launch, which is a website for user-generated news (I guess) that Jay Rosen has mentioned in a retweet. Rosen is an academic at NYU and commands a large number of Twitter followers (as does Cody, for that matter).

Cody's post asks us to put aside doomesday predications for democracy predicate on the demise of mainstream media (MSM). The predicted demise is something that seems to be more likely in the US than in Australia, although news producers here continue to lay staff off, as they do over there.

He interestingly derides the appellation 'citizen journalist', but asks what model is going to be useful when it comes to compelling, say, a politician, to answer questions if MSM disappears. 'Citizen journalism' is a term, he says, designed to deride something that is actually hurting MSM. But what can replace the trustee model pioneered by The New York Times 100 years ago?

At the moment, we are bootstrapping. Whenever big news breaks on Twitter and thousands start commenting and adding details/screed/spam to a story we get a sense of both how exciting it is to collaborate directly in news online and how challenging it is to design a platform that handles it properly.

It certainly is interesting to watch the Twitter feed when a big story breaks. But the main problem for browsers is separating the wheat from the chaff. Spam is a problem in all online activities. But in Twitter it's particularly important if we rely on the medium for accurate news. When the recent Iranian protests broke there, not only did you get the more egregious type of spam, such as tweeps advertising something in the hashtag stream merely due to the fact that it was trending (popular).

You also got tweeps who may or may not have been authentic. There are ways to verify authenticity on Twitter. How many tweets has the person made? Does the tweep seem as thought they were created merely to profit from the popularity of the trending hashtag? Do they have an ideological barrow to push?

Verification is a particular issue for news agencies using Twitter in any way. The Guardian bravely kept up its commentary during the Iranian protests, but the speed of its work in no way equalled that of the hashtag. This is because The Guardian editors were trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Just because someone stated that thousands of protesters were walking down the street doesn't mean it's true. Video footage posted in YouTube may, or may not, be reliable. News of basiji militia, who are known to accost and assault protesters, being restrained by regular army, must be verified before it can reliably be reported.

We face the same problems all the time if we're ethical Twitter users.

I get a new follower and I immediately look at their profile page to ascertain whether or not I want them following me. There are several 'types' of new follower.

The best type are those I've been trying to get to follow me for some time. When one of these follows me, I feel elated. But this is a rare occurrence. Much more common is the 'social media expert' who is trying to get you to follow them. There are porn tweeps that you immediately block. There are borderline-authentic tweeps it may take a few more seconds to gauge, before you block them.

There are professional hopefuls. These are tweeps who run a business and they want you to follow them so that you remember them when it comes time to select a service provider. Often I let these guys follow me. Sometimes - if I am interested in what sort of things they'll tweet - I'll also follow them.

There are many types of tweep, just as journalists who use Twitter know there are many types of tweet. Authentication seems to be a primary need, so why don't news companies work out a grading system for tweeps and write a simple app that readers can use to gauge the authenticity of tweeps in the twitterverse?

In this way, news providers would continue to function as a trustee. But, here, they would not be authenticating the massive volume of information a trending hashtag can generate. Rather, they would be helping to authenticate individuals. Some sort of triangulation method could be developed. There could also be an appeals board where those incorrectly (in their minds) classified, could seek redress.

Twitter already uses Lists, although these are currently available only (I'm told) to about five percent of users. A media company that developed an advanced Twitter interface (it's really a service, anyway, rather than an app) that included an authentication system, might find that people began to use their app instead of popular alternatives such as TweetDeck or HootSuite.

The newspaper could then leverage those eyeballs and that stickiness to further its monetisation effort. Users get a better app; news companies get attention and cash.

It seems like a win-win situation.

Sunday 25 October 2009

I can't understand it. Two leading online news sites - The Courier-Mail and Brisbane Times - from competing corporations run exactly the same AAP story about a Townsville brawl during which two police officers were injured. But the local paper, The Townsville Bulletin, has no coverage at all.

A female constable was "allegedly king-hit" and a male constable "suffered a cut hand".

There's no information about the racial background of the perpetrators, although it sounds to me like it was a group of Aborigines. According to the Brisbane Times:

A 23-year-old man was charged with one count each of assaulting police, obstructing police and public nuisance. He will appear in Townsville Magistrates Court on November 16.

Five other people aged between 18 and 21, were charged with public nuisance.

What astonishes me is that The Townsville Bulletin, which is also a News Ltd masthead, ran nothing about the altercation at all.

UPDATE (26 October 2009): The Townsville Bulletin ran a story today with details in addition to the AAP story of yesterday. Group of people leaving a cruise, in a carpark near Jupiters Casino, were intoxicated and pugnacious. Probably not Aborigines.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Climate scientists don't have time to talk with every person with questions about climate change and global warming. Like politicians, they rely on a dedicated service provider - the media - to convey messages that are based on their study. But it may not always be enough. The weather is a special case. Every TV news broadcast contains a daily update at the end of the main programming just for weather information. The most powerful computers in the world work 24 hours a day trying to predict what will happen in the skies.

It's easier for scientists to label those who are not yet convinced 'deniers'. The label can certainly make the scientists feel better. It casts a moral shadow over the questioner, like a voodoo curse. For some, however, it merely serves to cement their ideas and feelings more firmly in place.

But do scientists need to talk to every person in the world individually? Perhaps social media can help.

In July 2007 I posted here about my misgivings on climate change. The post includes a link to a letter that I got published in the right-wing Australian journal Quadrant. At the time, and since, my misgivings about the truth of climate change always went unanswered. If you're interested, you might like to read these items.

So here I am in October 2009 happily browsing my Twitter feed and there's a tweet with a link to an audio podcast by a Canberra scientist specialising in paleoclimate studies. I listen, then ask for contact details, then email a question (couched in my politest language), then receive a reply.

It contains a number of attachments as well as a personal email from the scientist, Dr Andrew Glickson. The papers are dense and challenging. While they contain abundant information about normative deviation, orbital forcing, glacial terminations, isotpoic values of oxygen and the albedo, it's difficult to understand. Scientists and science journalists have failed to convince a large number of people because the tenor of debate is too shrill and the information has not been assembled in the right way.

It's difficult to understand, of course, because it is complex. But this is the first time that anyone in a position to do so has taken the time to supply exactly the information I needed to make a more informed decision. Dr Glickson even pointed to precisely the right graph in the IPCC report he linked to.

A quick glance at the graph convinced me that scientists had taken my concerns into account when coming to decisions about the reality of climate change. This was all I needed to be sure that the tons of verbiage so far produced around climate change was not just another attempt to bully me into acquiescence. It happens so often.

So what's the answer? Amendments proposed by the Australian Liberal party - which holds the balance of power in the Senate - aim to weaken the already weak - by Dr Glickson's standards - climate bill of the Labor party. Clearly there's a lack of consensus in the community, particularly among the silent members of the conservative tribe. Farmers and capitalists say little, but the Liberals know what they think because they talk to them constantly.

Science journalists still have a lot of work to do before they can say their task is complete. And instead of treating each sceptic as merely stubborn or a moron, scientists must take the time to look at why that person is unconvinced. High-handed dismissal will fail in the short and long term.

Friday 23 October 2009

A story about how to make Sydney more liveable as its population approaches 10 million by 2050 seems to have been primarily sourced from a report by the Association of Consulting Engineers Australia (ACEA), which is a lobby group for over 100 different disciplines.

Paul Bibby, The Sydney Morning Herald’s urban affairs reporter who wrote the story, tacked on an interview with frequently-in-the-press president of the Local Government Association, Genia McCaffery. He also canvassed by phone the state government the ministers for planning, local government and transport.

The story is 420 words long. Of those, 350 words can be directly attributed to the ACEA.

In an interview on Vimeo, Megan Motto, the ACEA’s president, describes how engineers want to be brought into the planning process earlier than they are at the moment. Instead of simply designing a bridge when such a service is required, she says, engineers can be included earlier in the problem-solving process.

The best solution to the problem may not simply be to build a bridge. “The problem there is that the engineer hasn’t been brought in at the creative stage in terms of actually looking at multiple, possible solutions for the problem at hand. Because, in fact, the solution for that problem may not be to get the people from A to B at all. If the engineer drills down [and asks] ‘Well, why do you need to get people from A to B? Because they need to get to work, or can they telecommute? [Are] there other opportunities? Can we build a commercial complex nearby?’ So there’s actually a range of solutions for every problem.”

ACEA is thinking big. ACEA operates on behalf of its members, which are corporate entities rather than individuals.

“The issue for engineers in Australia is that they are generally – and designers in Australia – is that they are generally brought in far too far down the food chain in the projects. And governments and clients – both private and public – would do far better to engage consultants very, very early on.”

Motto says that great engineering is about communication, about looking at things ‘outside the box’ and finding creative solutions to problems.

The study that Bibby covers in the front-page story on the SMH website is part of a larger debate currently under way as a result of positive growth projections for Australia’s population.

It also seems that Bibby’s story has as an aim to attack the state Labor government, which is under siege by the media as well as an increasingly-confident Opposition.

Motto is active in the task of engaging politicians in discussions over urban planning. At this year’s Built Environment Meets Parliament (BEMP) Summit in Canberra (12 August) she said:

Ideally, we should have Urban Action Plans developed for every major city and regional area across Australia.

These plans should reflect local stakeholder input and set out clear targets and performance measures to guide and ultimately gauge the effectiveness of the plans.

An Urban Action Plan should enable people to see and understand how their local area will grow and change in coming years and how economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities will be tackled or harnessed.

While states’ responsibility for the built environment was explicitly acknowledged in the taskforce’s terms of reference at the April Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Hobart, it was also acknowledged “that the Commonwealth has an interest in the efficient operation of national infrastructure”. The taskforce established at the COAG wants “best practice” arrangements for strategic corridors and metropolitan areas to be put in place by June 2010.

Organisations such as ACEA are therefore on the front foot when it comes to lobbying for more involvement for their members. Under the taskforce’s remit, states must report by the end of this year on their “review outcomes”. It’s already October.

The ACEA plan Bibby relies on, ‘Sydney Towards Tomorrow’, “has been developed to provide thought leadership, promote community debate and prompt more integrated and thorough planning”, according to the ACEA website.

Thursday 22 October 2009

John Safran's new show, Race Relations, which aired last night, has solved a problem I've been thinking about, on and off, for some months.

It all started at the close of the Myall Creek commemorative ceremony this year. The ceremony is held to remember the dozens of Aboriginal (mainly) old men, women and children who were brutally murdered by a gang of settlers in 1838. As a result of the subsequent investigation, 7 men were hanged. Public outcry ensured that this was the last time for a long time violence against Aboriginals was punished under colonial law.

Since 2001, every year people come to this New England spot where a rock has been erected near to the place of the outrage. The owners of the property where the crime occurred refused persmission to build it there, but Crown land close by was selected instead. A ceremony is held and then people return to the nearby Country Womens Association hall to listen to music and see Aboriginal dancers perform.

It's a very equanimous way to remember something that was akin to genocide, or at least an undeclared war between heavily-armed white settlers and fleet-footed, black guerillas. Passions are subdued and only emerge in the form of tears of gratitude at a shared burden being lightened for the individual who cannot otherwise express themselves.

Walking back to the CWA hall, my companion - who I'd never met before, but who identifies as Aboriginal - asked why there is such a strong impetus to discover new things. He asked this because he regretted the coming of the white man and the subsequent war against his own tribes.

Safran has shown us that there's a genetic imperative to seek out new things.

In his segment, Safran asks why he has always been attracted to Eurasian women in preference to the Jewish girls his parents wished upon him from an early age. To find out, he asks for advice from an old flame who now works as a scientist. She tells him about tests that were conducted using the human sense of smell. Undergarments worn by people who are genetically distant from the group of people being tested carried an attractive smell. The opposite applied for people genetically close to the group.

To conduct his own test, Safran targeted Jewish women living near to him in Melbourne as well as a selection of Euriasian women from the region. His ruse to get close enough to steal a pair of panties is the interview. As a reporter, Safran has access to celebrities and so chose a few, including one who lives in Indonesia. Shortly after starting each interview, he interrupted the talker and asked to use the bathroom. While away, he rummaged through laundry bins looking for used panties.

His remit was to get undergarments - T-shirts and the like - and not panties. But Safran always delves for the deeper vein of comedy.

Finally, having collected a pair of panties from seven different women, he returned to his ex-lover. It's curious, but when he asked her for her own panties, the humour didn't flag. He simply needed an additional pair to complete the sample: four pairs from Jews and four pairs from Eurasians.

Then the sniffing started. The result was conclusive: Safran prefers women who are genetically distant from him.

Which answers the question of the man from country New South Wales: we seek out new territories because that's the way we're built. It may lead to unfortunate outcomes, but in the end it occurs because we can't help it. We're human.

Tuesday 20 October 2009

Anyone wanting to stay in Sydney for a reasonable nightly rate and within cooee of the CBD can't go past the Cambridge Hotel in Riley Street, Surry Hills. The carpark is pretty squeezy but just around the corner on Oxford Street is the best Swiss bakery-cum-cafe in the known universe. It opens around 6am and closes near 9pm, so regardless of when the munchies arrive, you're covered (pretty much).

I didn't stay there every night, but only the final four. For the first night I went to the airport and took a room in a motor inn south of the international terminal. The fish basket was OK but I didn't sleep well. Second night - after interviewing the Sunswift people at the University of New South Wales - I stayed at a hotel near the domestic terminal. The salmon was good but too pricey. So I headed into town.

Sydney is best when you don't need to drive far. Admittedly, I had to drive to see a friend a couple of times, so I was on the streets for an hour or so each day. But by staying near Oxford Street I had easy access to good restaurants, such as The Balkan, and I was able to leave the car behind some of the time.

I also found a great little Thai restaurant called Let's Eat near Marrickville train station, on Illawarra Road. The food is fresh and doesn't contain the tons of different things you normally find in (generally) too-greasy Thai fare. Well worth the time and money.

But I didn't come to Sydney to eat and drink coffee. On the first Sunday, I spent pretty close to the entire day with a bunch of enthusiastic young scientists who have built a solar car. We talked and I used my voice recorder freely. I took snaps of them doing things to the car's electrical gizmos and its shiny, black carbon-fibre body. We ate lunch and breakfast, which I bought for them (six meat pies). I lay on the cold tarmac of Centennial Park so that I could get the best-possible snap of the vehicle cruising around the track among the weekend cyclists and mothers with prams.

It was fun.

A few days later I met with an entrepreneur named Matt Jones. This was Wednesday around 3pm. We walk about East Sydney, Darlinghurst and Paddington visiting four small businesses. I took snaps and plied my voice recorder.

The problem now is the number of recordings I have to transcribe. This onerous task is a personal bane. I recently bought a new computer and I lost the driver CD that allows you to upload and play recordings, so today I called the company in Melbourne and ordered a replacement disk. It arrives tomorrow.

Anyway, for the past 12 days I've been busy so I'm taking a day off. No writing until the driver software gets here.

In addition to seeing friends in Sydney and doing interviews, I spent a couple of days with my cousin and her family in the Manning River valley, in New South Wales. Fun times, lots of good conversation. Maybe I talked about my new career a bit too much, but that's a byproduct of my innate enthusiasm for what I do. It's a privilege to get to talk to so many interesting people. I really enjoy the work, apart from transcribing, and lack for nothing except one of those foot-controlled pedal gizmos that let you type and play recordings at the same time.

Oh my, spending money again!

Thursday 8 October 2009

I've been busy today and won't have time for a 'real' post. Instead, this is my apology to regular readers.

The work is important, I assure you. It involves tedious transcribing of recorded interviews for a story I'm working on. Writing stories is what I do and until I can get around to finding a local shorthand course, I'm tied to the voice recorder, my trusty Olympus VN-960PC.

There's nothing worse than transcribing, and because I'm such an anal freak there's no option but to get the whole thing - or as much of it as makes sense - down into the WP program. I basically transcribe everything. One interview was 30 minutes long, which meant a transcription running to four pages.

It's boring but necessary work.

Once you've got the words down, it's easy to isolate the best parts to use as quotes in your story. This step is usually done very rapidly, within minutes in fact. After cutting and pasting the quote into the story it's just a matter of re-reading it to make sure it's got the qualities you look for in a quote - ease of reading, impact, colour - and then you go searching for the next one.

I've written 400 words already and there are five more interviews to do.

But I probably won't get around to transcribing them until I return from Sydney. I'm heading off tomorrow morning with my mother, who turns 80 on Saturday. We're stopping at a small town near Taree, where I'll stay the night. Then I leave my cousin's house and continue south to meet with friends in the Big Smoke. I'll be away for about a week.

Until I return, have fun. Please don't forget to check back in a week or so, as I'll resume regular blogging as soon as I return to Queensland.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

I asked Eric Beecher, owner of Australian news and opinion website Crikey, a curly question today. Eric was in Canberra at the Australian National University. There, the College of Asia and the Pacific is running a seminar on 'War 2.0: Political Violence & New Media'. I live in Queensland and I didn't leave home today.

Streamed webcasts are wonderful things.

My question went via Twitter. It asked: "#war2pt0 Q to Beecher: Why don't journalists disclose how much of the copy is from PRs, on each story? Way to reclaim credibilty?"

Imagine how surprised I was when I heard my name (my Twitter name is 'matthew_dasilva') read out over the microphones installed in that distant, crowded room! I began to sweat. Here I was, participating in a public debate, something that always makes me nervous even though I love to ask questions of people with brains and experience.

Beecher has both.

The question caused a bit of a stir in the room. Beecher thinks that the reason journalists don't declare how much of their copy is PR inspired is because it would be "incredibly embarrassing".

"I've often thought - and it would take quite a bit of work - [that] there would be an absolutely, fascinatingly instructive exercise for someone to go through the major media of a day - in Australia, for example, the daily newspapers and the main TV news and current affairs - and actually look for the PR fingerprints.

"And this includes government and politics as well as commercial [business]. And I have no doubt that if you did that you would find PR fingerprints over a substantial proportion - 50-plus percent, maybe 70 or 80 percent - in one way or another.

"And so I don't think it would enhance journalistic credibility to do it. I think it would absolutely shatter it."

This is bad enough. But it didn't stop there. A listener in the room at ANU got hold of the mic later and had another attempt to extract information from Beecher. This was Julie Posetti, a Crikey contributor and University of Canberra journalism academic. What did she think?

"The question that came from Twitter I think was an excellent one around declarations of influence of public relations operatives on journalistic content. I take a contrary view [to you; addressing Beecher]. I think journalists' credibility could be increased if that [inaudible] practice was adopted, insofar as through embarrassment it might inspire more enterprising journalism, which would bring journalists more in line with citizen journalists.

"To an extent, insofar as they're reporting on what they see and being forced to go out and cover as opposed to being trapped in their offices or tied to desks which I acknowledge has economic implications in a collapsing business [inaudible] environment."

So there!

Tuesday 6 October 2009

I love HootSuite. And it's not only to do with TweetDeck's maddening, irritating 'ping' - the sound the client generates when a new tweet arrives. It's better in several ways, and I want to talk about them.

The 'ping' in TweetDeck can be turned off, of course. I'm not a complete idiot, I assure you. But other problems with the app overrode its benefits.

The main benefit of TweetDeck as opposed to HootSuite is that the former is a client app. Client apps tend to have better response. In TweetDeck, a new tweet was signalled as soon as the app detected it. In HootSuite, you must wait for the app to turn over before tweets are delivered.

The main problem with TweetDeck is that there is no way to enlarge the user interface. This caused me neverending irritation. In vain I searched for the elusive control that would allow me to blow the whole thing up (make it bigger, not incinerate it).

I even went to the customer-service website to complain. It instead gave me a suggestion page where you can vote on enhancements that may - or may not - be delivered. My enhancement - the ability to enlarge the interface, or 'zoom in' - had a very low vote count. Little chance of getting it done, I thought.

Then I saw a tweet from a person I follow who said they had started using this app called 'HootSuite'. Intrigued, I Googled it and immediately logged in using my Twitter login details.

There it was, displayed in all its green-and-blue splendour. I was in love.

And I still am. I love the way you can assign multiple parameters to columns, such as hashtags, phrases or simple, unadorned words. This lets you include two different parameters that are associated semantically with each other.

Columns can be made up to a total of ten, in HootSuite. Another plus. You see columns at the far ends of the series by scrolling. It's easy and intuitive. You can also reposition columns by dragging them to the left or right with the cursor - just hold down the mouse and off you go.

Another winner, for me, is the ability to see more details about a person. Click on the name and a small window opens containing their profile information as well as a few additional yummy things. There's a link to click - which opens a second window - to see recent tweets.

The first pop-up window also contains buttons to let you follow or unfollow the person. This is very handy when you have finished investigating them. You might have visited their website, for example, or scrutinised their recent tweets in your search for a pattern that would convince you they are worth following.

The @ link inside the tweet can be a link as well as the tag of the person who made the tweet.

You can also click on a hashtag link to see the list of recent tweets associated with it. There's also a button right there which lets you create a column out of the hashtag. This is handy when you're in a hurry as it eliminates the need to go and configure a column manually.

The routine controls - such as the link-shrinker - are very easy to use. This is due in large part to the ability to zoom in and make everything bigger. But compared to the way, in TweetDeck, these controls are placed at the bottom of the screen, the placement in HootSuite at the top is a distinct improvement.

There's no way I'd go back, now, to TweetDeck (even if they let you zoom in). I'm hooked on HootSuite and I think links are a total toot!

Monday 5 October 2009

One thing you can say for celebrities is that they get plenty of media attention. It's not always a bad thing.

Gary Lineker and Andrew Flintoff drew the press - in this case the London Daily Mirror - into the drama of a narrow escape (I suppose you could call it that, if you were a representative of a tabloid newspaper) from a Taliban rocket (RPG?) attack while they were in Kandahar to give Pride of Britain awards (a Mirror initiative) to troops.

As the rocket(s) flew over/landed near/hit the base (we're not told), Flintoff and Lineker acquitted themselves well by "scrambling for cover under the dining room tables", the AFP wrote.

Which brings me to a tweet from @derekbarry about an hour ago at the end of the Media Watch program, which featured a long segment called 'Embedding in Afghanistan'. "Is the pursuit of a "seamless PR message" determining what we see and read about our soldiers in Afghanistan?" asks the website.

"good #mediawatch segment about the insidious australian pr state. Defence is the worst, but all depts want to "embed" journos," Derek wrote.

And I retweeted him because the amount of action provided as a result of the Flintoff/Lineker episode comes close to what embedded journalists working alongside the Australian military in Afghanistan have brought to light.

Ie not much.

The troops continue to die and get wounded, the country continues to spend money on the conflict, we continue to get footage of troops building schools and handing out lollies to ragged-looking children, but we don't see much when the bullets are flying.

The Department of Defence even asks to see segments before they go to air. On one occasion they held up a segment because the minister was still to make a related announcement in Parliament. Journalists working with the DoD are not happy.

Gary Ramadge looks unhappy as he stands outside a house where weapons had apparently been found. A sorry-looking bomb (sort of like an oversized Queensland cockroach in appearance) is then put on the screen. 'Embedded' means 'quarantined'.

"We're just waiting at the door hoping to go in and get a look at what they've found," says Ramadge plaintively, looking distinctively hot in a bullet-proof jacket and helmet.

Journalists are allowed on so few missions because the DoD fears for their safety. One wonders why it has taken so long for the case of the Balibo Five to be investigated, if the Department is so concerned about the media's wellbeing.

Footage shot by Australian journalist Stephen Dupont in 2005 shows how dangerous for the military a freelancer can be. His footage, shown tonight, shows US soldiers watching as the corpses of two dead Taliban burn in the hot sun. "Wow. Look at the blood coming out of the mouth of that one," says one of the soldiers standing near the conflagration.

But we get nothing like this now. Monash University academic Kevin Foster says that

The war is being reported in this way because the ADF want to exercise absolute control over every aspect of the news production process.

He also says that this strenuous micro-management means that the troops' sacrifices are not adequately communicated to the Australian public, on whose behalf they are fighting.

Foster says that the Australian Defence Force's Public Affairs Division "disdain the public's right to reliable, objective information".

Sunday 4 October 2009

The New York Times would probably not be the first newspaper a normal person would associate with excellence in online journalism. Nevertheless, the paper today took out two awards in the annual Online News Association (ONA) awards ceremony, held as part of the association's annual conference, in San Francisco.

The paper won the category General Excellence in Online Journalism (Large). This category is for a site with over four million monthly unique visitors. The NYT also captured the award for Outstanding Use of Digital Technologies (Large). This category is for a site with over one million monthly unique visitors.

The New York Times, represented by its website, was also a bronze sponsor of ONA09.

The ONA, which staged its first conference in 2004, awarded 30 prizes this year, each of which has a cash component. The biggest reward for a prize-winner, however, must be computed in terms of the raw kudos associated with winning in this very crowded field. The ONA has been in existence for 10 years.

You can read a full list of awards with commentary here.

The award ceremony capped off the three-day event held at the Hilton San Francisco. The hashtag on Twitter for the event was #ONA09. Twenty per cent of ONA's members represent international news organisations, or are not US residents. This year, the visitor who had to travel the furthest spent 25 hours to get from Rio de Janeiro by plane, stopping in Mexico City and Miami.

Apart from the award ceremony and possibly a few others, no sessions were streamed live on the website.

The conference had numerous sponsors including Yahoo!, Bloomberg, the Associated Press and Marketwire.

A representative sample of NYT interactive, graphics-based multimedia offerings is featured on the website Some of them are stunning. The website is the brinchild of Mark S. Luckie, a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

There's a fair amount of interesting stuff to do with ONA09 on the blog of Alfred Hermida, Alfred is professor of integrated journalism at the University of British Columbia.

Saturday 3 October 2009

New data search initiatives to cut out Google’s noise

When Google launched in 1998 it immediately caught the attention of serious Web users and has never looked back since. But there’s a lot of garbage online. Do a search and you must wade through dozens of crappy links to find the valuable nuggets you need. This means that Google’s algorithms are working too well but not well enough. Refine your search and you might get more focused results, but this all takes time.

GoogleNews helps, especially with its by-date sorter, which lets you find articles published in a certain month of a certain year. But this only shows published news items. Often the information you want is not even published online because it never made it into the final article.

Last year, two initiatives were launched that have now joined forces to help provide journalists – and anyone – with better search. The websites do not say this, but at the Online News Association conference in San Francisco, which ends today, Aron Pilhofer, editor of Interactive News Technologies at The New York Times, described the initiative as a “scalpel” compared to Google’s “blunt instrument”.

“Google is blunt tool for data searching for docs usable for journalists. DocumentCloud is scalpel,” tweeted Adam Glenn, who describes himself as a digital media consultant, journalist, and educator.

DocumentCloud is a searchable repository of journalistic “original source documents”, according to the website. You know what I mean. These are the documents that journalists use to make their news stories. The raw material. The bulk that they process. “Think of it as a card catalog for primary source documents,” the website advises.

Documents do not have to be handed over for inclusion. Those who want to have their documents included in the index can still host them on their own sites. Who will be able to contribute? According to Pilhofer:

The repository will be open for anyone to read from, but not to contribute to. It will be limited to news organizations, bloggers and watchdog groups whose mission includes publishing source documents as a means of better informing the public about issues of the day.

By restricting the number of people and organisations that can submit documents for inclusion, DocumentCloud erects a filter between the viewer and the Web. This is where the ‘scalpel’ comes in.

DocumentCloud was set up by people from ProPublica, “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest”, and The New York Times. Last month it announced a list of 24 partners who would beta-test the software. All are American entities.

"Readers will be able to search documents on DocumentCloud and then will be pointed to the documents themselves on contributing organisations' websites," says Pilhofer.

The initiative received a grant of $US719,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in June.

Last month, it was announced that DocumentCloud would partner with a Thomson-Reuters technology venture called OpenCalais, which adds meta-tags to documents. This collaboration serves to further sharpen the scalpel.

The second technology is a tagging service that adds value, it would seem, by identifying what it calls ‘entities’ in text when it is submitted for processing. An automated Web service is also available so that documents will be processed without troublesome clicks and points.

“A great tool from Reuters Calais that automatically retrieves entities and relationships from a text,” tweeted a representative of thisislike, a web-based service that creates visual associations between things.

Ari Tenhunen, a graphic designer and web solution developer who also attended the conference, called it a “semantic engine”. Tom Tegue, VP of platform strategy for OpenCalais, talks about “natural language processing”. A useful page on InformationWeek’s website contains a video run-through. Tegue says:

It’s about taking unstructured content, like news stories, and adding structure to them, [and] extracting meaning from those stories. [E]ssentially it is turning them into data so that you can start to do the things we know how to do with data, like put them in rows and columns or merge stories from multiple sources. And do that without human intervention.

So the combination of DocumentCloud and OpenCalais results in a high-powered search engine that is solely based on qualified material – not the unmediated protoplasm that currently exists on the Web and which we must contend with daily – by spending time scanning and sifting – with ‘traditional’ search engines such as Google.

OpenCalais saves time and money because it automates the process of tagging. Instead of getting knowledge workers – whose time costs a lot of money – to tag articles prior to consumption, OpenCalais runs semantic tagging over documents and spits out a set of results.

But questions remain.

“Is it possible somebody finally got semantic tagging right?” asked Christopher Groskopf, a professional archivist and tweeting interested observer who was not at the conference.

InformationWeek was also forced by curiosity to ask how the information would be exposed. How would a person ‘see’ the information generated by the tagging engine? OpenCalais has developed an interface for Wordpress blogs, for example, that allows a blogger to automatically generate a set of tags that can be included in a tag cloud.

This saves some time, but it’s not earth-shattering. “How to process mountains of blog text and convert it to data & tags,” tweeted Steve Brown, CEO of 3banana, a mobile semantic data capture startup.

Tegue says they have 15,000 “registered users”, ie entities that have asked to use the tagging service. That’s a lot of source material, and it’s not just news organisations that have signed up to tag their data. Essentially this service – if it is freely available and if a lot of organisations choose to have their documents published on it – will rival such content aggregators as GoogleNews and Factiva.

Combine the tagging engine with the massive volume of documents that will be assembled by DocumentCloud and journalists will have an incredibly useful, reliable, intelligently-tagged set of information to use when researching articles.

The reaction at ONA? “It's wickedly cool.”

Friday 2 October 2009

Getting the word out is no longer enough when it comes to government. We need to feel more connected to the places where information is processed and decisions are made. The media-massagers, the party-line-pure politicians, the evasive answers in the face of a questioning media scrum - all these things only serve to undermine the influence of those who pretend to wield it. Government cannot work without the consent of the governed.

Look at Aboriginal dysfunction for an example of negligent disenfranchisement. Millions of dollars are poured into settlements, think-tanks and pundits expend reams of verbiage, policies are cobbled together from piles of policy and larger piles of reports. But the situation does not change because the terms of engagement are distasteful to those who would benefit: the Aborigines themselves.

Aborigines still die earlier, live unhealthier, are jailed more frequently, than the average Australian. Why? Because they won't 'take on-board' responsibility for their own actions, in the stern language of managerialism that characterises interactions between those in power. Aborigines are distrustful of this type of language and don't cooperate. They wilfully don't 'get with the plan'.

They don't feel included in the national dialog and it's the often same with the citizenry at large.

Taxes are paid grudgingly. Politicians are distrusted. Tabloid newspapers are filled with floppy journalism because the people who buy them cannot stand the tenor of public 'debate' in the broadsheets. People feel excluded. They ignore policies that are expressly designed to govern their lives, improve their lot, and help them to reach their potential as active members of society. We've lost them before the talk becomes interesting. How do we address this issue?

Transparency is lacking. We feel that it's all 'spin'. We want to see the machine at work, and understand it, so that we can engage meaningfully with it. It's the same with the journalistic process, too. We don't trust journalists, either.

Social media, which helps to break down the barriers that exist between the producer and the consumer in a large, segmented society, could be the answer to this fatal disconnect. We live in tribes but we're asked to act as a nation. Tribal languages are not enough to bridge divides. We need something more compelling, more classically 'human' to guide us as we negotiate the fraught spaces that separate us.

A Nieman Journalism Lab article says that "transparency is the new objectivity" for journalism. The appeal made in the article exists in the context of moves by major newspapers to limit how their journalists use social networking like Twitter. The main culprit in this case is the Washington Post, which has so savagely gagged a senior editor that he closed his Twitter account. Mathew Ingram, who wrote the piece, says that the paper is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

But he says more than that. In a highly-connected world it doesn't matter if you have opinions, he says. It doesn't matter if a reader knows that you have a personal opinion about health care or Isreali security barriers. The times have changed and it's time to move out of the ivory tower into digs alongside readers.

It may even be a 'good thing' to have opinions that are publicly visible. This gives us all a way to 'bridge the divide' that separates tribe from tribe.

Some politicians, like federal Australian Senator Kate Lundy and New South Wales senator Penny Sharpe, are eager to relocate their operations from the ivory tower to the public square, but they are fighting a rear-guard action by their less-wired colleagues.

There are a few politicians with Twitter accounts, and some take it more to heart than others. But the real problem is that the whole system is stuck in the distant past before social networking existed. Traditional methods of communication may simply not be enough any more. They do not allow us to cross over the bridge separating one tribe from another.

They similarly do not give us the emotional context we need to make decisions in a world where information overload is the norm. To take on-board all the information produced about contemporary 'issues' we need help. Traditional media is not helping. Traditional government and its ways of interacting with the governed does not help. We need more information, not less, but information of a different kind.

Journalists who use the new methods of communication are uniquely positioned to help us communicate. But the government must do more to bring its thinking down to a level we can cope with, in a form we can handle, without 'dumbing down' debate. God knows, it's dumb enough already!

We now have experiments in online voting in Australia, notably that initiated by NSW Labor MP Paul Mcleay in his Sydney electorate of Heathcote. Sure, it's not a 'real' poll because it's only to judge the merit by popularity of suggestions for the expenditure of anti-GFC money. But it's a start.

The thing is that in order to trust politicians and journalists in a world where we're always connected to the social graph, we need to be able to 'get a feel' for what type of people they are. It's not enough to know that they act, when they appear in public, like the professionals we hope they are.

The problem came home to me yesterday when I decided to pay attention to a Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, being held in Canberra. As I sat there watching proceedings on the tiny screen, I felt like an outsider.

The experience was not satisfying because the 'system' delivers this podcast to me grudgingly. It is as if it were a favour granted to the political junkies out there who might know, for example, the difference between a senate select committee and a joint standing committee. It didn't feel like participatory democracy.

The screen is small, to start with. There are no captions, so you don't know who is speaking. The sound is not very good. Those participating do not seem to know that you are watching. It's all a bit grungy and back-room.

And while the mode of communication alienated me, I still found it fascinating. I just had to take a few minutes to try to understand what was happening. I needed to feel the love or, to be more exact, the lack of it. We are always interested when conflict occurs. Newspapers play on this fallibility all the time. But there needs to be a way to bring underlying conflicts into the debate, so that we can all participate freely and equally.

Watching the committee at work allowed me to see the underlying conflict in action, and this immediacy, this affective interaction, appealed to me straight away. It allowed me to apply my existing narratives of right and wrong, conditioned over a lifetime and over millenia, to a topical debate. The national benefit is being debated within the context of representative democracy - a system of government founded on conflict - and the adjacent narratives of good and bad are now contextualising the issues for me, helping me to decide and to separate right from wrong.

Transparency is a manifest right, ie a 'good thing'. Obfuscatory bureaucrats are 'bad'. But are they? What about the basis of democracy in conflict? By perceiving the conflict behind government, I am able to empathise with all players. Politicians are no longer just people who try to tell me what to think and do. They are individuals who must deal with difficult problems, such as access to administrative data, as they move forward their policies and ideas.

So I engage with Senator Lundy. I even engage with Liberal Senator Macdonald of Queensland. This surprises me, but my empathetic response also helps me to engage with the debate. It makes everything 'real' and so I decide to have an opinion on something that otherwise might just be a media beat-up.

The goal of the committee, which comprises both Liberal and Labor senators, is to find out whether the administration is spending wisely the large amount of money earmarked for the planned high-speed broadband network that promises to revolutionise the online experience in Australia. To find out, the senators - sitting on one side of the room - ask questions of the bureaucrats - sitting on the other.

First came the experts, giving their opinions about this, that and the other aspect of the network. Proceedings started to get really interesting, however, only when the high-powered bureaucrats entered the ring. Treasury officials, Prime Minister and Cabinet officials, Auditor's Office officials. These men and women are the real powers behind policy, and you could feel the pressure rise in the small chamber as the debate heated up.

The drama became evident and I empathised with all players. I started to think: 'what if that was me?' How would I handle being asked questions that I didn't want to answer. How would I feel if I was asking questions and being told that I would not get a reply?

Senators have no powers to coerce compliance in the chamber. In other words, a bureaucrat can choose not to answer a question if it has certain characteristics. I now know that I need to learn more about the terms of conduct in such chambers. This unwillingness of bureaucrats to talk, and the senators' attempts to ellicit information, is real drama.

We all need to be more aware of the issues and of the processes that govern such exchanges as I saw yesterday. This kind of session can be thrillingly interesting if we are engaged with it in a meaningful way. We watch senators on the Right of politics try to get information out of bureaucrats appointed by the Left of politics. We watch Senator Lundy - an avowed geek - ask questions about transparency and be told that they will have to take the question 'on notice'.

The action goes on endlessly, and it's enthralling. Given a few dollars and some technicians and designers, this kind of TV could become a staple for Joe Normal of Liverpool as well as the junkie who loves reading Hansard.

It's a matter of will. But the time is coming when we will want to see the levers of power being exercised - as they were today - rather than just waiting to be spoon-fed mouthfuls of indigestible pap by highly-paid and untrustworthy back-room spin-doctors.

If career politicians are the problem with government, as Griffith University academic Noel Preston says, because they distort the political process, then more scrutiny will bring the charlatans to light and reward the genuine men and women who really are trying to make a difference. It will separate the abusers from the worthy.

Increased scrutiny is possible with digital technologies. We just have to realise the fact and ask to have more access to the workings of government. Similarly, newspapers have to realise their enormous wealth of expertise and give us the stories that we want, not pour out scads of useless, event-driven rubbish that does not satisfy. Let's have some commentary on today's senate select committee, please!

Thursday 1 October 2009

Hungry Beast is trying "to tell all sides of a story", according to the website's feedback page. The team at the ABC is big on feedback and is disarmingly candid about its own essential humanity ("we enjoy cuddles and fanmail when we’ve done a good job"). The page goes to some lengths to address the dangers of asking for feedback, one of which is flaming - a scourge of online debate that is enabled by anonymity.

The ABC is a big target, while an individual viewer is a small one. Hence the paranoia.

Please keep in mind that it is possible to disagree civilly. There will be much rigorous debate (we hope) about our stories and what we're trying to achieve with the show -- that is, to tell all sides of a story. So you will sometimes strongly disagree with us, other times you will think we're right on the money. Either way, ad hominem attacks are never good, and will not be tolerated. You can take issue with someone's idea, just express your viewpoint thoughtfully, NO NEED TO GET SHOUTY and never attack someone personally. We want a discussion, not a shut down.

I love that. "No need to get shouty" - all in caps. This is just the way people endanger their reputations when they're not anonymous, and just the way they try to make a point when, anonymous, others disagree with them.

This is all fine, in its way, because the program is all about perception and debate in the public sphere. For this reason - and because the creatives behind Hungry Beast are all bright, well-educated and young - the first episode spent a lot of time attacking the media.

When they weren't attacking the media they visibly tried - as in the segment where they interviewed the wife and mother of an ADF soldier killed in Afghanistan - to give another side of the story. But I want to go now to their treatment of the media.

Actually, what I really want as a blogger is a page on their website detailing which of the team wrote and performed in which segment. It would make the task of writing about the program more rewarding and also easier. Maybe that's something I should suggest.

Three of the segments were 'about' deconstructing the media. The first was the fake press release and website they built for the Levitt Institute. Hungry Beast member Dan Ilic interviewed the guy who 'outed' the scam, and who reported it to MediaWatch, which covered it on Monday night. The scam was effective and well executed, but because it's the segment most people will remember and comment on, I won't go into its details here. In a nutshell, the team put together a credible media pack and sent it out to journalists. The pack described a large study in which it was found that Sydneysiders were more gullible than Melburnians. Many mainstream outlets ran the story, including radio, TV and print. The study was fake. The main 'expert' quoted was named after a bit-part character in Seinfeld, and the institute's street address was an unoccupied house in an inner-Sydney suburb. More details on the Hungry Beast website.

The second media-savvy segment took the piss out of tabloid TV programs like Today Tonight and 60 Minutes. In it, a glossy, vapid-looking reporter trails around a backyard after a black cat asking 'demanding' questions. The story is that the cat, which had arrived unbidden at the house owned by the elderly woman, has recently absconded. This, according to the fictitious story, has upset the woman. Hence the journalist.

Note to tabloid TV: it's impossible to interview cats. Not only can they not speak, but they tend to escape into shrubbery when approached by strange women dressed in dark suits.

The segment also includes a trans-species lawyer who has been brought in to recoup costs expended on the cat after its disappearance. In the story, the journo locates the cat in its new house's garden. Hilarious video of man in suit berating cat as it scampers around the yard.

Hilarious scene also of distraught woman describing how the cat, which she had come to love and on whom she had outlayed $1300, had jumped ship. Insert graphic showing cat paraphernalia. Cut to scene of cat poo on woman's pillow.

Great stuff, guys.

The 'Fuck Pandas' segment will be remembered. In this segment, which takes the form of a debate on whether it is desirable to protect pandas given that they are so difficult to breed in captivity, there are two team members and a guy dressed in a panda suit. The guy in the panda suit acts as an effective prop and also serves to look silly.

Looking silly is important because the sketch is designed to attack 'objective' reporting as currently practised in the media. Objectivity is that old chestnut that journalists trot out when they are trying to defend their profession against attack. It hardly ever works. The sketch shows why it hardly ever works.

It hardly ever works because just giving two, opposing sides to an argument the space to air their opinions cannot really be classed as objectivity. While the team member on the left says "Fuck pandas, Charles Darwin would agree", the guy on the right comes over all schmaltzy and tree-huggy. This is about the level of 'debate' we are accustomed to in the Australian media. No wonder there are flame wars.

Excellent segment, guys.

Hungry Beast goes where The Chaser went but it does it in a less acerbic, more geeky fashion. Instead of vox pops that are weighted in favour of a laugh from the outset, the Hungry Beast guys are like those sedentary types who, at school, would have surprised everyone with an earnest class project that included lots of nice drawings and accurate facts that even a science teacher would be proud to listen to.

Andrew Denton, the popular TV host and the brain behind the venture, should be proud.