All entries for April 2005

April 30, 2005

Blogs and Trackbacks

In a recent post, Tom Coates of questioned the utility of blog trackbacks, saying:

I think it's time we faced the fact that Trackback is dead. We should state up front – the aspirations behind Trackback were admirable. We should reassert that we understand that there is a very real need to find mechanisms to knit together the world of webloggers and to allow conversations across multiple weblogs to operate effectively. We must recognise that Trackback was one of the first and most important attempts to work in that area. But Nevertheless, we have to face the fact – Trackback is dead.

Bryan of Smart Mobs on the other hand says,

Personally, I've seen living and dead trackback. My research blog gets very useful, clean trackbacks. But a couple of others I've posted on have suffered from pornspambacks.

I don’t know the mechanisms surrounding trackback spam (e.g. how specific blogs are targeted, the effectiveness of preventative measures, etc.) but they still remain a useful tool for tracking the spread of conversations. Following trackbacks allows one to sample a greater range of responses as well as highlighting blogs on similar issues which may otherwise escape notice. The only real alternative at the current time is to search for URLs manually via the likes of Blogpulse, Pubsub and Technorati. It's tedious and not a surefire way of ensuring everyone who references a link (and wants others to know) is highlighted.

Many of the blogs I read don’t seem to have a problem. Perhaps it’s limited to those which see particularly heavy traffic. Or maybe the blogs which appear ‘clean’ are so because the authors are religiously deleting spam. In any case, time is sure to provide an innovative solution to the problem, or we’ll simply learn to live with it; just like email.

April 29, 2005

Television and games consoles are the way forward

The New York Times recently published a substantial excerpt from the soon to be released book 'Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,' from Steven Johnson. The book argues that many media traditionally thought to be harmful in fact have beneficial effects often overlooked. Using the TV show 24 as an example, he states:

For decades, we've worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ''masses'' want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ''24'' episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ''24,'' you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ''24,'' you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

Steven Johnson’s blog contains another sample which playfully mocks those who consider reading to be inevitably more benficial than computer games.

But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion—you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today’s generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to 'follow the plot' instead of learning to lead."

Of course, balance is essential when consuming information from any medium. A rejection of ‘traditional’ attitudes towards learning is as naďve as assuming a console holds the key to genius. The book promises to be pretty interesting.

Steven Johnson’s New York Times Article
Steven Johnson’s Weblog
BBC News: Self improvement, the couch potato way

(Via BoingBoing)

April 28, 2005

Bloglines Tutorial

Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned Bloglines, the online RSS (Blog) reader, several times here. For anyone still unsure about:

a) What it is, precisely,
b) How to use it, or
c) Whether it’s worth investigating at all,

Preetam Rai has produced a cool tutorial for beginners.

Well recommended to anyone who fancies making the blog-reading process much easier.

You can find the tutorial here.

April 25, 2005

Local Parliamentary Candidate Debate

With little else to do, I popped down to the parliamentary candidate debate held on campus earlier today. Present were the local constituency’s Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green Party representatives. After a short introduction, the candidates answered questions from the audience on issues such as pensions, crime, terrorism and ID cards. In all, nobody said anything particularly exciting. The Conservative candidate in particular appeared aloof. When asked whether a conservative government could have prevented the downfall of MG Rover, he was unnecessarily defensive and began pointing the finger at the Labour representative, claiming the fiasco ‘occurred under their watch’. The Green representative was most sensible in saying it wasn’t really an issue for government anyway. Surprisingly for a Tory, he also declared that

a) Market oriented solutions to pollution & emissions would be ineffective
b) Further education is a right (in criticising Labour suggestions that students should make some contribution towards their tuition)

It must be said that of the four candidates, the Labour representative was most self assured and put forward his case most convincingly.

April 24, 2005

Peter Mandelson & the EU

This BBC article on EU trade with China came to my attention via Shards, who asks whether it’s ethical to engage in trade with a country which doesn’t adhere to our human rights standards. That’s a valid question, but not one I’ll address yet.

Some points from the article –

According to figures from the World Trade Organisation (WTO), China made 17% of the world's textiles in 2003, but this is expected to rise above 50% within three years.

And data from the European Commission itself shows that imports of Chinese T-shirts into EU member states rose by 164% in the first three months of this year, while imports of pullovers leapt by 534%.

Mr Mandelson said that while the EU probe would continue, he urged China to unilaterally take the necessary action to reduce its exports.

"I urge China to take a fresh look at the measures they have put in place already and explore whether they cannot do more," he said.

Mr Mandelson's comments came after the French industry minister Patrick Devedjian said some 7,000 French textile jobs could be at risk unless China limited its exports.

"The situation is very serious … for our businesses which make these products, which have already been suffering for a number of years," said Mr Devedjian.

Full article here.

I may be misunderstanding things, but it appears the EU wants China to actively prevent the sale of goods which of which it is the most competitive producer, to firms who are voluntarily choosing to buy them. Their reason? Domestic textile producers are unable to compete effectively. While they're at it, why not ask the United States, Canada, Japan and Mexico to kindly cease sending over goods which could possibly reduce the job security of a minority of workers.

It’s worrying that our EU trade commissioner is displaying such juvenile, backward thinking. Once again, the desire to protect firms with political clout supersedes considerations of the consumer and the welfare of countries other than our own.

April 22, 2005

Single? – There’s a good reason why

Harvard’s Philip Greenspun puts forward an argument here stating there’s a good reason why any given person is single/unmarried. The comments in the post highlight obvious problems with the view, but it’s humorous nonetheless. No field is safe from the economist!

A friend trained in economics, let's call her "Polly", was over to the house for dinner last night. She asked if we knew anyone for a twentysomething friend of hers, let's call him "Bunbury", who worked a demanding software management job at a big software company. He was a "really nice guy" and she was perplexed that he couldn't find someone. If someone at the table had said "there is a company traded on the NYSE that is really undervalued" she would have immediately hammered him with an explanation of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

Why then was Polly convinced that her friend was such a catch? Applied to romance, the Efficient Market Hypothesis says that if the guy were actually worth dating one of the millions of women who live within a 30-mile radius of his house would have figured it out.

Harsh words, but is there some element of truth? Read the full post here

Via How Not To Blog?

April 21, 2005

Paying attention to what's important

The Creating Passionate Users blog had a post a while ago called ‘Dealing with a legacy brain’ which talked about how it’s neigh impossible to pay full attention to whatever is important at a given point in time.

For learning, one of the best things you can do is whatever it takes to convince your brain that what you're learning is life-threatening or life-saving. What does your brain think is important? Novelty. Surprise. Sex. Danger. Shocking things. Stories. Human faces. Pleasure. Things that make you emotional. Things that move you, and things that cause you to move. Things that cause you to think deeply. Solving puzzles. Stories.

See the problem there?

Your stats textbook probably doesn't warrant a checkmark next to any of those. So, you'll have to retrofit it yourself. To trick your brain into thinking that what you're learning is important, find ways to add some of those things into what you're studying. But you can't do it by passively reading.

Towards the end of the post are a few suggestions on getting round the problem. As exam time looms, it may be worthwhile looking at a few of them.

A couple of examples:

  • Make pictures! Draw mind-maps. You can't possibly buy too many of those flip-chart-sized post-it notes, with some colorful Sharpie markers. If an illustration that the author creates is worth a thousand words, the picture that you draw is worth 10,000.

  • Use chunking and patterns — (more on that in another post) to group the content into meaningful arrangements, so that you don't have to learn as many individual arbitrary bits, and can focus on bigger chunks.

  • If you can find a way to link what you're studying to sex, go for it. Your brain won't forget, and your study partner may thank you. (Or, alternatively, slap you. Your brain won't forget that either.)

The latter suggestion may prove tricky when studying maths/stats/whatever, but there you go. The full post is here.

April 20, 2005

Government opportunism – MG Rover & Index

In an earlier post entitled MG Rover's downfall, I asked why there was no government agency to bail out all firms with a marginal change of survival. In such cases, government assistance could ‘obviously’ save jobs and increase everyone’s well being according to some.

Dr Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute makes a similar point when talking about the recently announced closure of several Index stores nationwide.

Government, which leapt in with £150m of taxpayer money to help those who lost MG Rover jobs has not yet come forward with any cash for the Index employees. On a pro-rata basis the sum might be about £85.7m.

View his post here.

It’s opportunism on the part of politicians, pure and simple.

April 19, 2005

Reading Festival Lineup – More updates

More news for this year’s Reading Festival attendees:


As previously announced Kasabian will headline the stage on Friday (August 26) in Reading and Saturday in Leeds (27) and will now be joined by The Cooper Temple Clause, My Chemical Romance, Fightstar and The Subways.

The following day will see Hot Hot Heat, The Kills and The Others play our stage.

On the final day in Reading (28) and Friday in Leeds (26), British Sea Power, Willy Mason, The Duke Spirit and Maximo Park will play on the stage, which is headlined by Bloc Party.

On the same day, Alkaline Trio, Turbonegro and Bullet For My Valentine have been added to the Main Stage line-up.

The Carling Weekend: Reading and Leeds Festivals will take place between August 26 and 28 at Richfield Avenue in Reading and Bramham Park in Leeds and will see Pixies, Foo Fighters and Iron Maiden headline over the three days.

Courtesty of

Good to see The Kills & British Sea Power included as both have released great albums this year. I’ve seen The Cooper Temple Clause play in Wolverhampton (not great), but missed their appearances at Warwick Uni. Overall, the NME/Radio 1 stage is clearly the place to be.

April 18, 2005

The Guardian's Election blog

Anyone looking to keep up with the electioneering activities of this year’s candidates may want to keep an eye on the Guardian’s Election blog. It’s updated fairly regularly with reports various press conferences and links to opinion pieces in various UK newspapers.

Posts so far today are about Labour’s new NHS targets, Conservative pension reform and Lib Dem crime policies.

Link: Guardian Election 2005 blog

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