Tuesday 30 March 2010

At last received word from a major source for the gambling story that they would approve a set of questions I will be able to ask one of their employees.

All in good time and not a moment too soon.

The story has been brewing for about two years. I originally gave a shout out to bring onboard a native Chinese-speaker - to facilitate negotiations with interview prospects - in December 2007. We began to talk to people in early 2008 and found two reformed gamblers who were willing to go on the record - under assumed names - about their experiences.

We went to a casino and talked to employees there. We talked with staff at gambling counselling units. We talked to the police.

I was still working at the time and my collaborator was still studying, so finding time to work on the story was problematic. We stalled in mid 2008. In early 2009, I stopped working and took up writing full time, which freed up a lot of time to do research. But other stories took precedence. It was important to build a portfolio and the gambling story was not yet mature enough to run in a newspaper.

More recently, I visited a gambling service run by the NSW government and talked with a senior counsellor. She asked me to submit questions for vetting and approval, which I did. Today, they told me that most of the questions would probably be approved, pending one last hurdle.

So I wrote out the pitch and sent it to the journalist who started this whole endeavour. She works at The Sydney Morning Herald and is well known for the social issues she covers in her stories. Hopefully, she will respond positively next week.

Until then, I'm flying down to Sydney for a week for some rest and recreation.

Monday 29 March 2010

The iPad's impact on our media consumption can't yet be truly understood, writes Julian Lee in The Sydney Morning Herald. Only two, US-based, newspaper companies have begun to publicly tout applications for the new Apple device. In Australia, newspaper companies seem unable to comment at all.

But one thing is certain, in my mind: the iPad will herald in a new season of demand for video makers. The image at the top of this post is from a simulation of what iPad magazine covers will look like that was posted on the TUAW weblog.

If this is anything to go by, we will see more and more demand for video production skills, including editing and scripting. This is especially true if the iPad app being sold, is designed to produce sound as well as images. Voice-overs, still shots, video, and text can combine to provide a powerful and rich experience. Those short, newsy videos on newspaper websites will start to look very stale very quickly.

People are going to demand more rich content. And they will pay for it.

Not only will the iPad allow interactivity with HTML5, but the larger screen size will mean a lot more space for complex, detailed content such as text and captions. The magazine's traditional focus on meaningful combinations of text and images will simply be upgraded with the new medium as video enters the mix, too.

So I was disappointed with Lee's story on the grounds that it lacked any foresight, as though the journalist had no idea of what an iPad app might look like. This signals a poor imagination.

The upshot of the story is that nobody in the Australian media is saying anything with the exception of a spokesperson from iPone app developer Mogeneration. And all he says is that large media companies are unlikely to be pioneers in iPad app development.

No surprises there.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer (1997)

When you're struggling down a cliff of ice with the wind blowing at 40 knots and with a wind-chill factor sitting at tens of degrees below zero, life can seem confusing. Your oxygen-starved brain makes you see things that are not really there. The rules are different.

Unfortunately for Krakauer, a journalist familiar with the virtue of brevity and speed, there are simply too many people in this book for the reader to confidently keep track of. The rules are different for us, too, but Krakauser simply forges ahead with no regard for our level of understanding.

At one moment, the person's family name is used, and the next moment the author uses the same person's given name. A person he is intimately familiar with - say, the leader of another climbing party - is suddenly present in the narrative with no reminder for the reader as to who he is, or how he came to be there.

The book's editors provide a list of people at the beginning, but it's just not enough to provide the depth we need to stay on top of the myriad actors in this compelling drama. In the thick of the story we need more support, and Krakauer does not give it. By the end, when he's back home in Seattle, and trying to make sense of the mountaineering disaster that was the 1996 Everest climbing season, we kinda throw up our hands and exclaim wearily, 'Uncle'.

We're just not as well-informed as the author, but this is not a fatal weakness.

In other respects the book is fascinating. The process of getting a group of paying customers to the summit of the earth is explained in detail. Often enough, we're there with the team as they negotiate an ice cliff or cope with a persistent physical ailment.

Despite the hardships, the team members forge on, and this single-minded striving turns out to be the death of a dozen of them. Having settled in to wait for the final push, at Camp Four, the climbers are ignorant of the storm that is building, and that will unleash itself just as the majority of them reach the top.

Friday 26 March 2010

Baiada chickens are "Made with cruelty," according to Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV) volunteer Patty Mark. Mark was one of an ALV crew who, ALV says, completed a 2am visit to Peakhurst Farms, a Baiada supplier owned by contractor Con Kyriazis. This image of a live chicken sitting on top of the dead carcass of a barn occupant comes from video shot during the night, says ALV.

Lateline's expose on the treatment of food animals last night was pretty shocking, to be sure. Most shocking of all, however, is the fact that this situation is conducted under the noses of Baiada management.

The chickens are owned by the largest provider of chicken meat to Australian consumers - the Baiada group.

Baiada inspects Parkhurst Farm every two weeks and it says everything has always been in order.

The birds are sent to a slaughterhouse, which supplies supermarkets and fast food outlets including KFC.

KFC's website describes the barn where the video footage was shot as "large, clean, air-conditioned barns with continuous access to fresh food and clean water".

When contacted by Lateline, the company pulled on its blandest, most corporatised face, saying:

We confirm that we source chicken from the Baiada Group, being an industry leader.

Baiada have confirmed that this matter has been thoroughly investigated and their contracted farmer strongly denies these allegations.

So Con Kyriazis denies that there were 55 dead, rotting chickens in the part of the barn that ALV inspected and then filmed using a video camera? Presumably, this means that KFC says the ALV is lying when it says the footage was shot where and when they say it was.

As for labelling, it appears that the only form of label that is independently certified is 'organic'. Simply buying 'free range' means not much, the Lateline segment (which ran for an astonishing 10 minutes) says.

Broiler farm operations featured on Baiada's website look quite different from the messy, unclean barn shown in the ALV video.

Which is true?

Pic credit: Lateline.

Thursday 25 March 2010

I got news of the drought in China a couple of days ago, but it seems like it has been going on for a lot longer. Strange how details rarely emerge from that insular country.

I came across a story on The Guardian's website to do - not unexpectedly - with censorship, which spurred me into a bit of research. The story combined my interest in the drought with my interest in fruit trees (I wrote a feature story on peaches, which was published two months ago).

It seems that the drought had caused the local authorities in Ningbao county, Henan province, to take drastic action. According to Oiwan Lam, writing on the Global Voices Advocacy blog in April 2009, authorities incarcerated a man living in Shanghai because he put up a post about land requisitions in the locality, where his parents lived.

The reason for the jail time was defamation against the Ningbao government, which objected to Wang Shuai's vocal objection to their rapacity.

Authorities, it seems, had tried to reduce the amount of compensation due in cases of requisitioning land by cutting down fruit trees - in this case apples - on the land. They claimed that a reduced drought compensation payment owing to farmers was due to the fruit trees having been cut down. In fact, they were simply trying to get the land cheaply so it could be rented out to developers.

According to land requisition law, the compensation for land with crops and trees is much higher than abandoned land.

The post implies that the local government has not been fighting drought, instead, they tried to ruin the land in order to pay less compensation to the peasant in land requisition.

Wang went further, however, accusing the local government of defrauding residents out of money.

But Wang disclosed that back in May 2008, the local government [...] illegally “rent[ed] out” the 2.8 hectare[s of] land for an industrial zone, affecting more than 30 thousand peasants. According to the [government], the peasants would be paid RMB 1000 (equivalent to USD 130) annually per mu (660 square meter[s]) for renting their land[,] for [a period of] 30 years. In order to speed up the process, the government would give [a] 3 [percent] bonus to th[os]e peasants who clear[ed] the[ir] land for the development. However, some peasants found out that the “long term renting” arrangement [was] illegal and they started to [...] petition [a] higher level [of] government. [The] Ningbao government then raised the annual rent to RMB 1200 per mu.

Ningbao famers were not only being cheated in the rental agreement, but they would also lose income otherwise earned from growing produce. For apples, Lam writes, a farmer could expect to earn 7000 to 8000 RMB per mu annually. For vegetables, the income per mu could be up to 15,000 or 20,000 RMB annually.

Wang was arrested in Shanghai on 6 March and detained in Shanghai police station for three days, then he was transferred with handcuffs to Ningbao on 10 March and detained for 5 more days. In order bail out Wang, his family was forced to cut all their fruit trees [on] their land.

It seems that drought was an excuse being used by local authorities to expropriate land that could then be rented out in a cosy deal to an industrial enterprise. Wang's case is rare, but due to official news organ Xinhua's tight control of information, the likelihood of such stories escaping China is low. This one got out because one brave individual decided to use the internet to publish his grievances.

Pic credit: Global Voices Advocacy blog.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Scam the planet? It's possible, I learned today, to do this via an eco-scheme. It's called 'Win the Planet' and it's operated by a pair of young Rumanians and, at first, it looks legit. Save the environment by playing the lotteries? Sure! Uh, then again ...

They followed me on Twitter and they buttress their scheme by providing a website that appears to promote a legitimate enterprise. They even have a fairly slick video that gives a history of lotteries and asks you to imagine the enormous sums of money that could accrue with a global lottery.

Interesting idea? Well, there are also short bios on the two founders, Alexandru Ragalie - a "Financial Analyst for one of the largest food companies in the world" - and Anca Morariu - who "got involved in an accelerated development programme with focus on finance area within a multinational company".

Seems legit. Then I got to the 'Get involved' page which asks for 50-Euro donations. In exchange for the money - which can be transferred by electronic bank transfer or by Western Union (alarm bells!!!) - you get 300 Euros credit toward the lottery. In other words, you're buying tickets to the largest lottery in the world.

Amount collected so far: just over 500 Euros. They even list the names of the people who have donated, most of whom live in Austria, which just happens to be where Alexandru currently lives.

I thought it was an interesting idea at first. In fact, I had images of writing a story about it. Until, that is, I saw the 'Get involved' page with its request for money. Bank transfer? Western Union?

Funny how the whole image of the website changed as soon as I made the connection between scams and these two types of money transfer. I blocked wintheplanet on Twitter immediately.

So should you.

UPDATE: Site owner contacted me - see comments for full expose - to protest about my labelling them "a scam". As a result of the conversation, they have changed the information on the 'Get involved' page.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

A ban on actor Tang Wei by Chinese authorities has been lifted, a friend tells me. Chinese censors, uncomfortable with the fact that Tang's character in the Ang Lee blockbuster movie Lust, Caution fell in love with a collaborator with the Japanese, stopped her from being chosen for new roles.

They also stopped her from being interviewed by the media in China. They stopped her from receiving commercial sponsorships.

China's relationship with Japan continues to be plagued by bitter memories of WWII atrocities carried out by Japan's troops, most notably in Nanjing, the ancient Chinese capital. Chinese authorites can count on popular resentment against the Japanese to support its policies, even to the point of whipping it up at will in order to make a point when the relationship happens to become strained.

The effect of the ban on Tang was that her life was completely "sealed" - sealed off from any exposure at all. Now, it seems, the seal has been officially broken.

"Everybody knows" about Tang being "sealed", my friend says. "It's very common in China."

News reports in Western media have mostly been less explicit. Writing for the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune, journalist Min Lee says Lust, Caution was

a politically sensitive production that reportedly prompted officials to ban her in her home country.

The Entertainment Daily blog echoes this line:

But even though the edited version of the movie [Lust, Caution] was cleared for release, Chinese officials still wanted to punish Tang, ordering TV stations to pull ads featuring the actress and to stop covering her, according to news reports.

In March 2008, The Times was predictably less indirect:

China’s newest film star, who shot to fame in the director Ang Lee’s sexually explicit spy thriller Lust, Caution, has been blacklisted by Beijing authorities.

Television stations in Beijing and Shanghai were told to stop reporting on the actress Tang Wei, 28, and to pull any advertisements featuring her. The move followed an internal purge of officials associated with the film.

Presumably, the Times report was the one the others were referring to when they qualified their statements with words like "reportedly". The Times article is featured on Tang's Wikipedia page.

The article does not name its sources, who remain "Chinese sources" and notes that the "sealing" (ban) of Tang "has not been announced officially".

And while the ban on Tang has now been lifted, it is possible that she remains something of a liability in China. At the premier of the new film, Crossing Hennessy, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, a Wall Street Journal blog reports, co-star Jacky Cheung was "a no-show".

Pic credit: Associated Press.

Monday 22 March 2010

Review: Crabwalk, Gunther Grass (2003)

Coming to terms with who you are often means explaining how you got there. For the characters in this novel, living in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, explanations will always hit upon things that cannot easily be revealed.

It's no surprise, then, that the book deals with a single family. The mother was an enthusiastic supporter of the Third Reich until the Russians overran her east German town. She would end up working in a furniture factory, becoming an enthusiastic barracker for the Soviet Union.

She's an interesting character, full of whimsy and mischief. She seems to revel in her lack of education and her low-brow interests, chief among which are men. And she doesn't like her son, the protagonist, very much.

He's a west German and a journalist. By this stage he's worked for many years and comes across as tired and world-weary. He's possibly Grass's least-interesting character. To underscore the banality of the 'middle age' trope, he's divorced from his wife, who lives even further west, with their son.

The boy emerges slowly in the narrative, which begins as a rumination on the fate of a ship that was built and employed by the Nazis as a pleasure vessel for the Romanticised and virtuous workers of the ascendant state.

The journalist-father has a special stake in the vessel because he was born on the same day it was sunk, by a Russian U-boat, in the closing days of WWII. His mother escaped from the boat at the last moment, giving birth at sea.

So the boat - which is depicted on the book's cover - has a special claim on our attention. This element of the narrative becomes supremely dominant as we learn about the way it was named. It was named after a functionary of the state who was assassinated, in Switzerland prior to the outbreak of hostilities, by an impoverished, Jewish medical student.

The Romantic possibilities of the vessel appeal to a young man who operates an internet site dedicated to chronicling and discussing the boat and the attendant narratives of pride and identity. The logic of the book demands, however, that the young man in question be the journalist's son. And he's being encouraged in his pursuit by the mother, lurking like a ravening, sportsfield-sideline parent in a crumblig factory in the downtrodden east.

Ineffectual, alienated dad has no way to influence the way the son's activities escalate from chatroom linguistics to something far less innocent.

The logic behind the drama is rooted in the country's shame. Concerns are not aired in public but are debated in a lively fashion behind closed doors, or are masqued by apparent indifference.

This sideways view is amplified by the way the narrator is forced, in retelling the tale, to backtrack constantly to fill in gaps in the historical narrative. The history is both his own and the country's.

Hence the title: 'Crabwalk'.

Sunday 21 March 2010

In the realm of newspapers, innovation is still in short supply. Australia has seen less disruption than they've had in the US, but there's plenty of pain Down Under. No big changes, tho. We've seen The Australian buff up their print edition with a sleek new redesign. And there have been some minor adjustments at Fairfax in their web masthead configurations.

But nothing to really rock your boat. As usual, we've had to wait for the pain in America to reach levels of crisis so bad that editors actually listen to what the experts say.

This now seems to be happening.

Leading up to the SXSW Tech conference in Austin, Texas, Jay Rosen of New York University, posted on his blog about what he planned to discuss in front of delegates. The narrative, he says, is important. "Why are we serving people the news without the background narrative necessary to make sense of the news?" he asked.

Suppose your laptop continually received updates to software that was never installed on your laptop. If you can imagine a situation that absurd, then you are ready to partake in the Future of Context panel that I’ll be part of at the South by Southwest festival in Austin next week.

It seems some people have been listening to Rosen. But trust a geek to be the first to respond with the type of enthusiasm entrepreneurs - not the mainstream media - are known for.

John Temple is the editor of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s new Peer News site, based in Hawaii. Temple has just hired three "hosts" who will do reporting for Peer News.

The site won't have comments, which editors don't like. But it will have something better and more revolutionary.

Peer won’t have “reporters” in the classical sense, it will have “hosts” who help facilitate this civic square answering questions for the community.

Sarah Lacey at Tech Crunch talks about Temple's plans for the structure of content.

On content, the most interesting thing Temple talked about was doing away with “articles” as we know them. He criticized the static, episodic nature by which journalists have traditional [sic] covered news, challenging readers to hunt through archives for the information they want. Instead, Peer’s “building block” will be a page that’s always updated almost like Wikipedia, or as he put it, “something closer to a living history on a topic that changes as it develops.”

This echoes Rosen's 7 March blog post:

Another way of putting the problem, though I admit this is kind of abstract: why are Wikipedia (which specializes in background knowledge) and nytimes.com (which specializes in newsy updates) separate services? Why aren’t they the same service, so that the movie still makes sense, even if you come in during the middle of it, as most of us do?

The guys with the big money are the tech entrepreneurs. But they're also the guys with big dreams. That's how they got where they are. Another eBay founder, Jeffrey Skoll, has set up an organisation to help nurture the next generation of social entrepreneurs - people who want to do business and make the world a better place simultaneously.

It strikes me that Pierre Omidyar wants something similar.

Pic credit (volcanic activity on Mauna Loa): Hawai'i Magazine.com

Saturday 20 March 2010

It seems that nobody bothers - not even journalists bother - to read the NT News website which, I reported yesterday, told us that 22 asylum seekers had been transferred to the mainland.

Today, The Age reports that another boat, with "more than 90 passengers", was intercapted north-west of Christmas Island on Friday.

The opposition immigration spokesperson, the doughty Scott Morrison, complained:

"If we have another boat arrive in the next 24 hours, which is quite possible, then it's full," he told AAP on Saturday.

"We'll very, very soon be at the stage where they'll be transferring people to the mainland."

Too late, Scott! But at least the story tells us that the Darwin facility is a "550-bed facility" so we know now that the 22 new residents there will be feeling a bit like the last slice of crust in the breadbag until - as seems increasingly likely - the next bunch of asylum seekers are shipped over to Darwin to await their fate.

Pic credit: Vegan Community blog.

Friday 19 March 2010

Interesting story on seaborne asylum seekers in today's NT News, which informs us that 22 men were transferred from Christmas Island to Darwin because of two boats approaching Australian territorial waters.

The 22 men were shifted to make room for the expected arrivals.

None of this appeared in newspapers in the south-east of Australia. Residents of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other capitals heard no news of these developments.

There are currently 239 asylum seekers living on Christmas Island. With the numerous occupants of the "two large refugee boats heading for Australian waters" to hit land soon, the island's available 140 places will be quickly filled.

It's an interesting scenario, and one that must fill the Rudd government with dread. They must be relieved that news of these developments has not filtered through the blogosphere into the living rooms of the majority of Australian houses. But why didn't News Ltd, which operates the website, bring this information into other websites it owns?

About 300 asylum seekers in the latter stages of the approval process will be shifted to Darwin when the larger boats arrive.

That will make a total of over 320 people who will be on mainland Australia - within its legal jurisdication - in the near future. As the article informs us,

[Christmas Island] was excised from Australian territorial law by the [previous, conservative] Howard Government.

But of course Rudd has done nothing about reincorporating the island into the legal framweork by which everyone else is judged. Not being in control of the Senate might be one reason this has not been attempted.

Being beseiged by new boats, that are arriving like clockwork from regions riven by civil strife, might be another reason the Rudd government does not want to make asylum seekers an issue. The federal election will be held this year, probably in November.

Thursday 18 March 2010

So it's finally happening after weeks of effort and worry. My chilli story is being published in the April issue of Good Fruit & Vegetables.

There were many questions to answer before sending it off. Will the story work? Did I do enough interviews? Am I going too far in my summation?

The answer to the first question is not up to me, it's up to my readers. The second question can probably be answered with a brief 'yes'. It's about 1700 words long and there are seven interviews. That's not bad.

The third question has to do with intent but more with the interview subjects themselves. In terms of what I wanted to achieve - the intent - the story took shape fairly quickly at least in its first section, which is mainly concerned with how chillies were quickly adopted in Asia when they had been ignored in Europe after being brought back from the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus.

I quickly adopted the Asian angle as the primary force that would determine what questions I asked interviewees. Once I had this anchoring the article's trajectory, it was easy to move into the second, more problematic phase.

After discussing why chillies were so quickly adopted in Asia, I talk to two chilli growers to get their side of the story. Then I transition to ethnic cuisine in Australia.

The main anchor in the final section of the story is Tammi Jonas, a PhD student at Melbourne University who was very helpful in making me understand about ethnic food and the ways people use it in their lives.

Tammi's discussion of her specialty - ethnic 'foodways' - enabled me to talk about chillies in a specific way. I could take a position vis a vis chillies by saying that the way they are used in ethnic food has helped Australia become a better country. The word Tammi gave me in this context is 'cosmopolitan'.

I'd like to thank all of the people I talked to for this story, for enabling me to create something interesting and factual that my readers can - hopefully - enjoy.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Anyone ever tell you your emails suck? I felt like this today and so here's a brief rant on companies that 'capture' your email address (opt-in) and spam you with tripe for the next few years. Or as long as they can get away with it.

Until, of course, you get sick of your 'refresh' yielding up simply another collection of self-interested rubbish promoting seaside vacation rentals or home PC help. Once too many times and you eventually take the step of unsubscribing.

To you, it's only a click. I wonder how those companies feel when someone - YOU! - drops their mindlessly dull and venal feed into the trashcan of their existence.

On Twitter, an unfollow can seem like a kick in the guts, as Dee at tremendousnews.com tells us in delicious detail. But we rarely spare a thought for the guys and gals behind corporate email spam.

But we shouldn't, anyway, because if it weren't so bloody irrelevant we might still be receiving their boring and misplacedly-earnest emails. I hate to see any animal suffer, and so I'm taking pity on myself. I unsubscribed to four email feeds today and will feel no remorse if more of the lamentable stuff falls into my inbox tomorrow.

Corporates: you've been warned.

Postscript - The moment I published this post an email arrived from LinkedIn advertising a dinner with an eminent person at my alma mater. This is a sign of the times. Seeing how email spam is shunned, the corporates are infiltrating other spaces. It's happening in Facebook but this is the first time LinkedIn has been used this way to contact me.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Iconoclastic magazine Crikey says over half your news is spin.

As usual, there's more in the story but they don't spell it out. Now that the survey of news stories conducted by students at the University of Technology, Sydney, is out there, it's probably time to go into more detail.

The study "found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations". This resembles a story a couple of months ago about how broadcast journalism takes content from print, and repurposes it. But it's in the repurposing that the devil detail lies.

What does "driven by" mean? Does it mean that a PR person contacts a journo and tells them about a story that the journo subsequently goes out and investigates? Does it mean the journo copies whole slabs of text from the press release? Or does it mean that the journo picks up names of people the PR provides (in the original email or on the phone) who are willing to talk, and talks to them?

I think there is a bit of difference between these scenarios.

This is what we need to know. If, for example, the journo simply copies whole slabs of text from a press release, and then talks to people lined up conveniently by the PR, then there's a problem.

If, on the other hand, a journo picks up the story and then goes and does a bunch of original research using his/her own contacts, or even searching out people to interview, then that's a slightly different proposition.

The UTS study does not make such a distinction, and it's a shame.

What's interesting in the Crikey story, tho, is the difficulties faced by the journalism students when trying to discover more information by talking to journalists.

Many journalists and editors were defensive when the phone call came. Who’d blame them? They’re busier than ever, under resourced, on deadline and under pressure. Most refused to respond, others who initially granted an interview then asked for their comments to be withdrawn out of fear they’d be reprimanded, or worse, fired.

Asking "hard questions of the media" is sort of the point, however. It's like for a journalist working on a contentious story where there are many important entities - government departments, large corporations - who are contacted repeatedly but refuse to answer questions.

Sometimes they refuse by simply not replying to emails. Follow up emails can also be totally ignored. Phone calls get routed through a media office where professional communicators are stationed whose sole purpose is to protect the corporate brand.

These things are frustrating, and probably have a lot to do with why journalists rely on PRs to summon up reliable, approachable contacts who will talk - today, now, immediately - about the subject at hand. Many won't.

So it's hard to feel sorry for the students, because the kind of obfuscation they faced while doing the survey is the kind of problem journalists can face in an average day at work.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Review: Mediated, Thomas de Zengotita (2005)

Ever wonder why there are so many fashion/ideological/attitudinal options? Have you even been surprised by one of your own statements, so that you said to yourself, 'Where did that come from?' Thomas de Zengotita, a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and a teacher at New York University may just have the answer.

I've certainly wondered about these things. In fact, back in February 2009, I made a post here about what I called 'The Age of Reinforcement'. Irony, I said, was dead because these was no core belief against which to rank any judgement/opinion/viewpoint.

Every option is indeed available, says de Zengotita.

Best of all, tho, is the author's amazing reach. He possesses a protoplasmic credibility - in other words, he can reach into any area of human endeavour and find signs of the Blob.

Maybe an explanation is required. The Blob is de Zengotita's word for the plastic modality that subsumes everything we do, and makes these things resemble itself. You may be completely sincere when you strive for originality and exceptionalism, but as soon as the Blob comes along, you're likely to find that what you've done is merely another element within the commonwealth of ideas.

You're likely to be Blobbed when you least expect it.

"Whatever," is the catch-word of the Blobby generation. We perform our lives, says de Zengotita. We are enacting one role among many in the snowstorm of available roles. I just happened - today - to choose this one.

But don't believe me, read the book. You won't regret it.

Saturday 13 March 2010

We respond in a positive manner to attention. I know because I had an old school friend on my website looking for information on old buddies he wants to invite to a reunion in July. He told me he'd found one guy's phone number on my website.

Today I revisited the website, adding links to profiles of friends and then, inspired by the attention I'd gleaned, worked for a couple of hours on the forbears pages.

I added an 1892 wedding photo of my great-grandfather and -mother. They're formally arranged, as befits a young, up-and-coming couple. His dad was a Victorian gold miner. Her mother, as far as I know, worked on a South Australian farm. But John Henry was a school teacher and his starched shirt and her lacy dress befit their status as members of the gentry.

He ended up as the principal of a Melbourne primary school but died in 1922, before my mother was born. Alice outlived him by 28 years and both are buried in Brighton cemetary under a single headstone. That was the way then, and probably still is.

His father emigrated from Lancashire in 1852, a couple of years after gold was discovered and after penal transportation ended. William Warren and Henrietta were married in the Church of St Peter (C of E) at Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire.

In 1852 Elizabeth MacGugan made the voyage out to Portland, in the colony of Victoria, alone with five children. Her husband Archibald had died in 1850. I don't know anything else about this branch of the family.

John Henry and Alice, mum's grandparents, were married not in the Anglican Church, but by a Presbyterian minister at Archdale, Branxholme, Victoria. I don't know what caused the switch in religion, but it may have been due to Alice, whose family name was Scottish.

Her first child became a supreme court judge. His brother, Harry, my grandfather, became a socialist, although he was married within the Presbyterian Church. The two brothers apparently fell out over the politics. Arthur had fought in WWI and was very 'establishment'. Harry was a bit of a rebel, an invented a dispensing device - which was patented - for birth control pills.

An interesting bunch, anyway.

Friday 12 March 2010

If it's true or movie actors, why not for journalists? We watch what the actor takes on, assess their character and ethics, judge them. But not only us. The directors and casting agents are watching too. Each new film registered on the board helps add up to something bigger, more meaningful, than itself. It's cumulative persona crafting.

As a journalist, I am judged in the same way. Each story I write adds up to a bigger whole in the eyes of editors, who seek out writers they think are suitable for their publications. So every time I choose a story to write, I'm choosing my future career path.

Beyond the headline, too, there's a trend. A headline indicates something about your preferences. But the story itself tells more, for those who take the time to read them.

In my case, I put a link to each story I write on my website. Maybe this is not such a good idea. I notice other writers simply list the publications they've been associated with. I go a step further, but maybe I shouldn't.

Then again, it may be paying off. For example, I pitched a story about sustainable tuna to a magazine that focuses on ethical investing. They weren't interested. But the editor took the time to visit my website and read some of the stories linked there. I may be in line to receive a new commission.

For me, it's early days. Commissions are hard to come by. At this point, it seems judicious to help myself develop a following by broadcasting my portfolio as far as possible.

Commissions are dreadfully hard to come by. But the other thing is that I want to be writing stories I'm personally interested in. Specialisation, we're told again and again, is the way to go. It may be too early for me to be known as an expert in environmental issues, for example, but you've got to start somewhere.

It may be too early for my Oscar - my Walkley or whatnot. But the only way to get there is by writing. And the only way to be published is to keep editors interested.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Finally, I get the energy and time - having tripped down to Brisbane and back and worked slavishly on a quote for editing and journalism services - to do a post. "Post every day" is a great mantra but sometimes you need to concentrate on other things. Like, things that pay the bills.

Brisbane was fine but the food at The Rendezvous Hotel on Ann Street is over-rich and the servings on the small side. Which means you end up eating an entree and dessert as well as a main.

I mention the food because yesterday I felt awful, starting with a sick headache in the morning which lasted until early evening. I took a couple of naps to try and shake it off, and I can only assume it had something to do with the rich fare at the hotel restaurant.

Getting paid work is a priority right now, although I'm still writing for some vehicles for free in order to benefit from their editorial input and to build my portfolio.

I found a nice surprise on my return home, in the shape of bottles of chilli paste. They were sent by a grower I interviewed for a story which had me worried for a while as the editor who had commmissioned it left to do other work in the company. Finally I got an email from the new editor saying he'd be glad to have a story on chillies. It also looks like it'll be the cover story, just like for the peach story last time.

So I did one last interview for the chilli story yesterday and I'm gearing up my resources to finish it by Monday. Not sure about the ethics of naming the chilli paste in the story, tho.

Then there's the tuna story. This one's more problematic because I just got a bunch of new stuff from a valuable source which could change the storyline significantly. Which means a major rewrite. In fact, I'm even thinking of altering the story's structure a lot.

The tuna story has been challenging because of the world limit. They only want 600 to 700 words, so I'm constantly reassessing the value of every paragraph hoping that I'll be able to combine economy with comprehensiveness. The new material could wipe out half of what I've written, so I'm preparing for a brief struggle. Luckily it's not due for almost two weeks.

Overall I'm feeling good about things. The weather has helped by turning to rain again. More of those broad sheets of drenching rain this morning, which always cool down the air. The crows can be heard, their cries echoing across the football field with its bright green grass.

Sunday 7 March 2010

"Burn the boats," says Net maven - and now much-sought-after tech co board member - Marc Andreessen, advising old media ('MSM' - mainstream media) companies facing continued disruption due to falling revenues as advertisers switch to vehicles other than the traditional newspaper.

In Tech Crunch, Erick Schonfeld writes up an interview he did with Andreesen last Friday in New York. The gist is simple. By way of an analogy, the Mosaic developer and Netscape founder advises media companies to ditch their print editions.

The analogy would resonate for North American readers. In the 1500s, writes Schonfeld, Hernando Cortes landed on the shores of the New World. He "ordered his men to burn the ships that had brought them there to remove the possibility of doing anything other than going forward into the unknown", says the legend.

Fairfax CEO Jack Matthews said a similar thing during his opening remarks while launching the (now annual) Media 2010 conference in Sydney on 19 February.

The previous year, said Matthews, while "deep in the throes of the GFC"

I think we were wondering how, or even if, many of us were going to make it out of that environment. Those of you who were here will recall, at the time, I used the analogy of Joe Simpson's [1998] book, 'Touching the Void' when, you recall, Simpson, while descending from a very difficult climb in South America fell deep into a crevasse and shattered his leg.

He realised, as he was in that crevasse, that he simply couldn't climb back out the way he came. And, counterintuitively, he climbed deeper and deeper into the crevasse and found, ultimately, a way out of the situation. And obviously he made it because he wrote the book. Made a little bit out of the [2003] movie, as well.

And at that time I argued that, we too, as media companies, needed to find a new way out of the circumstances that we found ourselves in, that simply going back the way we came wasn't going to get us there. And as I see it today, we all feel better today, I think. We all feel like we're kind of - not to mangle my analogies too much - but we all feel like we see light at the end of the tunnel.

Bu I would argue today that the risk we now face is the view that everything is back to normal. Because I don't think everything is back to normal and, in fact, I think it's fair to say that the is a new 'normal'.

The thing is that Andreessen's remarks touch on the same chords Matthews is striking here. The "singularity", that Matthews goes on to mention, is now upon the news. Not only is there no turning back, there is no way to know how to go forward.

So then why did Fairfax announce, after doing a minor tweak to its masthead websites recently, announce a "new website"? Why should a few new boxes on the already-overcrowded Fairfax masthead websites constitute a major change?

Matthews may be aware of the situation facing the mainstream media today, but the steps his company are actually taking do not match that conviction. If there's a new 'normal', the website tweak does not demonstrate much commitment to that new model of proceeding.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Translation is a specialised practice that requires a high degree of human intervention. Like making a bed or pouring a cup of coffee, there are some things that machines just cannot do effectively. Maybe Google will find an answer, but going by the results on the Koto Ward page on balance you'd have to say that automated translation sucks.

Big time. Here's a sample news story from the Tokyo City ward's home page:

This year, a horsetail, one after another♪.

A horsetail has also begun to call on an alameda in a Yokojyukengawa water park (Toyo 6-Chome frontage) this year.
The horsetail checked on this day is about 30. The thickness of the part of height about 2-15cm and a head is about 3-7mm. The size and the shape are various something NYOKKIRI overhangs from the small one which has just taken out a head from earth.
location is the spot which is about 100 m to the east from a plain dwelling bridge in the promenade in about 400 m of east and west between four TSU eye street (from city government office, about 150 m north side)-plain dwelling bridge (HIRAZUMI, when, with the selling point of). I grow around the shrubbery, and when I often strain my eyes, it's possible to find it.
A horsetail has also come out this year for the female of the residence in city who came along by a walk, has not it? I'm looking forward to it every year,", and, it was the state which speaks and appreciates a visit in spring.

Thank log they included a picture, which shows some sort of spring vegetable emerging from the earth - presumably in Koto Ward.

Admittedly, the Koto Ward administrators were aware of the shortcomings of their site. Before being able to see any "English-language" content on the site, they show you a disclaimer. But in the light of the above, it's fairly humorous to read what they advise:

Please keep in mind that the translation system doesn't guarantee 100% accuracy. It's possible that some words, including proper nouns, might be translated inaccurately. Thank you.

Well, that's a relief! But "doesn't permit comprehension" might be slightly more accurate that "doesn't guarantee 100% accuracy", I think!

Thursday 4 March 2010

Last night, the ABC's Hungry Beast scored a coup because my 80-year-old mum watched it for the first time after having been informed by me, on my way out the door after I'd eaten the dinner she'd cooked, that it was on later.

The program also scored points for showing, on national TV at 9pm on a weekday, female genitalia in its uncensored, unadorned form. Lips and all. Pendulous labia. Protruberant clitoral hood.

The works, in short. But it was all revealed in a good cause because what Kirsten Drysdale - the reporter leading the story - and the Hungry Beast crew had in their sights was the unnecessary and shameful practice of labiaplasty.

It's not a new topic from my perspective. Back in April 2007, I blogged about labiaplasty on this blog. To give the post impact, I included a discrete photo showing a young woman shaving her pudenda.

Needless to say, the post is consistently among the top-scorers for this blog, in terms of hits. Plenty from the Middle East as well as those created by the routinely deviant boys in the West.

You know who you are, fellers.

Labiaplasty is a medical procedure inolving the removal of flesh that constitutes part of the labia minora, or inner lips of the vulva. It may be painless and it may be covered by medical benefits - I'm not sure on this part, actually - but it sure as hell seems like a step down the wrong path.

The right path, it seems to me, is to allow soft porn magazines to show the labia even of women who do not conform to an unnatural stereotype. There's nothing 'wrong' with big lips, and there are plenty of 'specialty' porn sites that celebrate this characteristic of the pudenda.

Drysdale took the fight up to the Australian Classification Board, which is based in inner Sydney, by offering to show them photos of vulvas and asking them to inform Drysdale if any of them would be banned under current guidelines.

The Classification Board member interviewed looked distinctly uncomfortable at times.

Hungry Beast also interviewed a graphic artist employed by a magazine, who described the process of "cleaning up" photos.

Women, it seems, are starting to express their shame about the deviant - in their minds - appearance of their private parts in concrete ways. In addition to labioplasty, we've got the recent practice of vajazzling.

Far less severe, because entirely cosmetic, vajazzling involves removing all the pubic hair and applying rhinestones in a pattern on the mons pubis. A specialist beauty consultant is responsible for performing the procedure, which is entirely painless and does not cause a permanent change in the woman's physical appearance.

It's purely X-rated bling, in fact.

Nevertheless, it's a sign that we've airbrushed this part of the human anatomy out of the public square so efficiently that entirely artificial means are now sought to offset insecurities that are completely undeserved. It's not fair that women have to feel like this.

I can cope with vajazzling. I can't tolerate the conditions that contribute to the reality of labiaplasty.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Is the news that Spider-Man is to lose his job really news? His alter-ego, Peter Parker will undergo a trial nowadays common to many journalists, says Marvel.

Peter Parker, official photographer of the mayor by day and New York City crime fighter by night, is going to face new challenges, including unemployment.

"He's going to struggle with unemployment and trying to save the city while he can barely afford to keep a roof over his head," said Steve Wacker, Marvel Comics senior editor.

But is this really something altogether new? Back in late January, the ABC's Hungry Beast TV program alerted us to the dangers faced by those fabled, overachieving citizens who protect us from giant, flesh-eating spiders, as the video reveals.

Monday 1 March 2010

Reading a feature article by Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. The topic is how Rupert Murdoch has captured The Wall Street Journal and turned it rightwards in a febrile attempt to bring down The New York Times. Large, flat TV screens in the Journal's newsroom ahowing Fox News feed are not the only way this is happening.

Not surprisingly, warnings about the legacy of a respected newspaper once it had fallen into the hands of a right-wing capitalist with a long history of remaking newspapers in his own image, have come true. The problem with the Journal is that, because it sits behind a paywall, few people comment on it. For bloggers, The New York Times remains the paper of record.

We know all too well that the business of news is undergoing a historic transformation as both content and vehicles online proliferate. The bulk of revenues still come from printed ads, and falls here are not being offset by online ad sales.

Is it possible that a newspaper such as The Sydney Morning Herald could collapse? What would that mean for the media? What would that mean for us?

Would people in the community step in using blogs to write and research complex, in-depth stories that would "keep the bastards honest"? I'm not sure they wouldn't. The problem is, I'm not sure they would.

Which brings us to the low esteem in which journalists are currently held.

If newspapers died and there was no longer a living to be easily made from making news, would journalists gain in reputation what they lost in comfort? Is a purge required to kill off bad feeling in the community about reporters and their products?

And what about stories that are easy to write, and that people read, but that do not contribute anything to the public interest? Is the newspaper to blame for the story, or the consumer who pays to read it?

They may not pay, nowadays, but they do click. Attention, we're told, is the new scarce resource. What you click on today determines, to some extent, what you'll be given tomorrow.

And then, there's the idea that there are too many newspapers. Maybe Murdoch is right, and competition is the way to go. I spoke with Fairfax Digital CEO a little while ago and he told me that by setting up The Brisbane Times, his company had actually increased the total number of clicks commanded by the newspaper and its print rival, The Courier-Mail.

When we launched that site, a little over two years ago, the Courier Mail had about 300,000 unique browsers per month and they were basically the only game in town. Today between the two of us, we have two million. So the expansion of that market has been one of the great benefits of competition going in there. It’s helped the Courier-Mail too, frankly. They’ve lifted their game.

Of course, this doesn't take into account the fact that the number of clicks available has escalated arithmetically in two years, as well.

Nevertheless, it may be that conventional ways of understanding the media market no longer apply. The notion of committed citizen journalism is beginning to enter the minds of columnists. It may be that, as the news process migrates from the bureau to the suburbs, a lot of other things will enter the minds of individuals with nothing more than a blog account and an internet connection.