Thursday, 20 December 2007

The factionalised nature of the student movement

Student unions have been around for a long time and provide students with a number of different services. The University of St. Andrews Student Association, started in 1864, is the oldest in Britain. Since that time the student movement has seen a number of changes, one of the most notable being in 1994, when the Education Act was implemented. This defined the basic purposes of a union, the composition of membership and what it required to have in place.

According to the Act, this is the meaning of a student union:
"(a) an association of the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies whose principal purposes include promoting the general interests of its members as students; or

(b) a representative body (whether an association or not) whose principal purposes include representing the generality of students at an establishment to which this Part applies in academic, disciplinary or other matters relating to the government of the establishment."
So, student unions must represent their members in the areas of (at least) academic issues and welfare. This isn't just on campus - they also represent their members at conferences such as the NUS Annual Conference (which will become the Annual Congress because of the recent governance review). Therefore part of or all of the executive of a union must not represent the agenda of anyone else, such as a national political faction.

Why then, do I see things such as the presence of factions like Student RESPECT, Labour Students and Education Not for Sale at e.g. conferences? It's an interesting question.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having socities at student unions that relate to political parties and discuss e.g. national and regional issues from their perspective. However, if a student union executive is dominated by members of a faction and attempt to implement policies which always echo the views of said faction, it's possible that they are no longer representing the views of that university's student populus. This means they are contradicting the definition stated in the Education Act.

How can you stop factions from having this sort of influence though? It is certainly difficult. If it's obvious that the manifesto of a potential union president is faction-centric and not student-focused, it's up to the voter to decided whether that candidate is unsuitable. Due to the nature of student apathy though, it is more likely that factions get a foothold as their members will be the active few who are certainties to vote.

The only way is to get the apathetic majority interested in student politics, but without being biased. That balanced viewpoint will then lead to all unions being run by people who comply with the Education Act definition. It will also lead to a National Union of Students who is always student-focused.

Don't assume that I think the whole student movement is factionalised though. From my time in the student movement I have known many examples of executives and individual executive members who are active, but present balanced viewpoints. These are the 'independents'.

These people must not be confused with the 'Organised Independents (more commonly known as the OIs)' who ironically have the word independent in their name, but act as a group. Stephen Brown, the current National Secretary of the National Union of Students once made this comment about OIs on an entry in my now-discontinued education blog (it was difficult to generate enough education content worthy of a separate blog):
"We work together on common issues but do not take a line from an outside organiser."
Hmmm. They may not be influenced by a third-party, but they do come together on various issue and agree a way to approach them. That means they are a faction. Mr. Brown has managed to contradict himself.

I applaud any union who actively tries to eradicate student apathy. It might be a long and difficult task, but if nothing if done it's certain that the apathetic masses will grow.

The 'Vote 2008' campaign that Hull University Union is currently implementing is a great idea. Having something there from the beginning to the end of the academic year means that minor elections get more prominence and there will potentially be interest growing throughout the year which results in an increased voter turnout for the major union executive elections.

Maybe I seem old-fashioned, but I believe that student union executives should comply with legislation and represent the views of it's members and work on issues that are relevant to them, instead of executives being proxies for national political factions.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Students, Politics, Student Unions

Friday, 14 December 2007

The Men's Officer Referendum

First of all I think I need to explain why a referendum is happening. In the recently revised Constitution for Hull University Union, it states that Referenda decide union policy and the Open Policy Forums (that any student can attend) decide what goes to a referendum. A number of these happen throughout the academic year. Any policy decided by referenda lapses after three years (this means that it stops being a piece of union policy).

Now for the subject of one of the votes - the abolition of the Men's Officer. The minutes of the Open Policy Forum where this was originally proposed can be found here(November 19th) and the relevant section is below:
"For:
  1. There is no need for a Men’s Officer as this diminished the effectiveness of all the other liberation campaigns.
  2. Men are unfairly over-represented in both society and the structure of the Student’s Union.
  3. Issues in the Men’s Officer remit can be easily dealt with by the Health Officer and HUSAC.
Against:
  1. Men are discriminated against in society, for example, job quota filling and higher unemployment rates.
  2. If there is no Men’s Officer position then there is no support for men who are victims."
It's also important to note that the National Union of Students doesn't have a Men's Officer and a lot of people within the NUS don't believe one should ever exist (I know this from my time as a sabbatical officer at HUU and the fact that the NUS Women's Officer - Kat Stark - is signed up to the Facebook group approving the abolition of the position).

Now I'll address the points raised in the Open Policy Forum.

"...diminished the effectiveness of all the other liberation campaigns."

I'm not entirely sure how this could happen. The other liberation groups are Women, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender), Disabled Students and Black Students (those four are the NUS Liberation campaigns too). All committees/officers have clearly defined job descriptions in the student union standing orders. The Men's Offer does not represent women. That person does not represent men on issues covered by other campaigns either.

"Men are unfairly over-represented in both society and the structure of the Student’s Union."

Was the second part of that point made because the current Union Executive Committee has eight men and two women? That didn't happen because women were oppressed. In some of the previous executive committees there have been equal numbers or more women than men. For instance, in 2004/2005, there were four men and four women. In 2005/2006 there were five women and three men. The executive teams were elected because the voters felt that they had the necessary skills and experience to do the job well.

The student union also has a long-standing equal opportunities policy which states everyone can join any clubs and societies. This means that there are no instances of women being prevented from joining. Both men and women can go for executive positions in clubs and societies too . For example, the current President of the Drama Society is a Woman. The current President of the Labour club is a woman.

So, what about society? Well, first of all, the positions that are being talked about in this post do not have a responsibility for the whole of society in England (or any other country). Those positions have a responsibility to represent the relevant group(s) of students at the University of Hull. Secondly, there are plenty of examples of women in high ranking positions all over the world. For example, there is a female member of the University's Senior Management Team and there are several university departments that have senior members of staff who are female.

Outside the university, there are even more examples. Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany, the Queen is our sovereign, Hillary Clinton is a potential future President of the United States. Condoleezza Rice is the US Secretary of State and Nancy Pelosi is the current speaker in the United States Congress. You might also remember Margaret Thatcher - one of our former Prime Ministers.

Remember the 'Blair Babes' from 1997 when Tony Blair was elected as the Prime Minister? There were celebrations about how many women were in positions of power. That doesn't seem like an example of women being oppressed to me.

"Issues in the Men’s Officer remit can be easily dealt with by the Health Officer and HUSAC."

Interesting point. I agree that it's logical for men's health issues to be managed by the Health Officer. However, they've defeated themselves by mentioning the Student Advice Centre (HUSAC). This is because they could also deal with some women's issues and some matters that are covered by other liberation groups. Surely this means that there is no need for a Women's Officer too!

"Men are discriminated against in society, for example, job quota filling and higher unemployment rates."

This is definitely true. In a Guardian article from 2005, it was reported that the Hansard Society felt that all-women shortlists are the only way to increase the number of women in the House of Commons. However, using all-women shortlists means that men are prevented from going for a particular position, which is a form of positive discrimination.

There are plenty of examples of women being strategically positioned around the PM during Prime Minister's Question Time to highlight the fact that Labour includes a number of women. However, preventing some men from sitting where they want because they are a man is a form of positive discrimination.

A Men's Officer is required within Hull University Union to ensure that there are no examples of positive discrimination.

"If there is no Men’s Officer position then there is no support for men who are victims."

True. What about men who are abused by women? The Women's Officer doesn't deal with that. There needs to be representation for men.

As you can tell, I believe that there should be a Men's Officer. You couldn't have one officer represented both genders so it's sensible to have one for each and then both genders feel that they have representation.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Equality, Liberation, Representation, Democracy

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Union debates about free speech

The Oxford Union is a very old and highly respected debating society. Despite the name, it has nothing to do with Oxford University Student Union - people often get confused about this. In the past, they have had names such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Ian Paisley, William Hague and Stephen Fry. The Union covers a range of subjects and there can be input from students and academics.

Recently, there has been a huge amount of controversy about a debate on free speech which featured Nick Griffin and David Irving. The former is the chairman of the British National Party - widely regarded as racist and the latter is famous for denying the existence of the holocaust - one of the most horrifying aspects of World War II. Apart from the controversy, there has also been protests against the debate and an MP has quit the Oxford Union because the debate was going to take place.

Despite all these protests and negative media coverage, the Oxford Union insisted that the debate should still happen:
"I find the views of the BNP and David Irving awful and abhorrent but my members agreed that the best way to beat extremism is through debate."
A collection of quotes from people against the debate are on the United Against Fascism. One of the quotes is from the President of the National Union of students - Gemma Tumelty:
"The Holocaust denier, David Irving and leader of the fascist BNP, Nick Griffin have no place in our multicultural society let alone on our diverse university campuses. NUS utterly opposes racism and fascism wherever it arises and will certainly oppose any attempt by Oxford University's Debating Society to invite Irving and Griffin to speak.

The pair's racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, Islamophobic views threaten the safety of our diverse university communities. For example, wherever the BNP is active, racist attacks and other hate crimes increase."
Yes - Griffin and Irving express views that are racist and anti-semitic. However, the best way of destroying the credibility of those views is to have a group of highly intelligent people debate with them. Preventing the debate from happening makes them martyrs. Apart from that, they are not advertising political parties - that's not the subject of the debate. The subject was free speech - it would be ironic to prevent them from debating this.

"Kill Tryl" was one of the slogans in the protests outside the union building, according to this news article(the slogan is directed towards Luke Tryl - the President of the Oxford Union). This means he is getting persecuted for providing an opportunity for people to humiliate and discredit two racist and anti-semitic people. Does that make sense to you?

However, if this wasn't a debate, it would be a different matter altogether. If the British National Party were advertising their policies without any opportunity for someone to respond - for instance, an on-campus campaign - that would deserve a 'no platform'.

To conclude, I will say that I am strongly against racism. A debate featuring intelligent people discrediting and humiliating racists seems like a great way to comabat it. The Oxford Union was not organising a biased campaign platform for one political party. The death threats directed towards Luke Tryl are totally stupid.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Oxford Union, Free Speech, Nick Griffin, David Irving

Sunday, 25 November 2007

An unbelievable loss

Prior to the event happening, many people would have assumed this sort of thing could never happen. Maybe you thought that there would be enough safeguards in place. Obviously, we now know that this is not true. What am I talking about? This blog entry is about the 25 million Inland Revenue records that were lost in the post recently.

This article contains a timeline of the events leading to the current situation:
  1. 18 October - Junior official from HMRC in Washington, Tyne and Wear, sends two CDs containing password-protected records to audit office in London through courier TNT, neither recorded nor registered
  2. 24 October - When package fails to arrive, second one is sent by registered post and arrives safely
  3. 3 November - Senior managers are told first package has been lost
  4. 10 November - Prime minister and other ministers are informed
  5. 12 November - HMRC tell ministers CDs will probably be found
  6. 14 November - When HMRC searches fail, Metropolitan Police are called in
  7. 15 November - Richard Thomas, Information Commissioner, says remedial action must be taken before public is informed
  8. 20 November - HMRC Chairman Paul Gray resigns; Chancellor Alistair Darling makes announcement to House of Commons
In addition to this, HMRC gave the National Audit Office a full copy of child benefit data in March, which is a "breach of protocol". Also, 15000 records went missing in September after HMRC sent them to Standard Life and a laptop containing 400 ISA details was stolen.

A few interesting questions arise from the timeline above. Firstly, why was the original package not sent using recorded delivery and why wasn't it registered? Secondly, was there anything done between the 18th and the 24th to ensure this mistake wouldn't happen with the second package? Thirdly, why were senior managers told of the loss of the first package several days after the successful delivery of the second? Surely they should have been told straight away. Lastly, were ministers told of the specifics of the HMRC search? 'Probably' is a very vague term to use and inappropriate for the situation.

I also wonder about the password protection on the discs. There are multiple ways to implement password protection. Also, was anything encrypted? If it was, what was the strength of the encryption. If a mistake of this magnitude was made, can we automatically assume that there was appropriate security measures on the discs? I have not heard answers for any of these questions yet.

In this article, the following was mentioned:
"Darling stressed that there was no evidence that the data had fallen into criminal hands, but urged Britons to keep a close eye on their bank accounts."
This is definitely true - we don't have any evidence which implies that crimes have been committed using the information. However, we don't know that crimes haven't been committed either.

I the House of Commons, Conservative leader David Cameron said this:
"Millions of people today will be worrying about the safety of their bank accounts and the security of their family details, but they will not just be worried, they will be angry that the government has failed in its first duty to protect the public."
Well, it's not just the government that's to blame - however, they are at fault because they oversee HM Revenue and Customs and are supposed to be making sure that they always do their job properly. It's also the fault of HMRC themselves though - they should have ensured that existing security procedures are correctly implemented - especially after the earlier mistake in March.

The civil servant working for HMRC who originally made the mistake, remains unnamed according to this Telegraph article. For that person, it is probably a good thing - if he was named then a large portion of the country would be tracking him down. However, he needs to be punished and I hope that he has lost his job because of this fiasco.

Paul Gray, the Chairman of HMRC has left - which is the right thing to do. What about Alistair Darling though? He is at the top of the Treasury and in generally in charge of financial matters. What will happen to him? This article highlighted a poor performance in the Commons following the data loss. He hasn't resigned though - which is interesting. I think he should resign, but how would that affect Gordon Brown, who chose him to be the Chancellor?

Banks are preparing for panicking masses who will be enquiring about their personal details. The current levels of identity theft in this country definitely doesn't help. CIFAS, the fraud prevention service in the UK, has the following statistics:
YearCases recorded
200680000
200566000
200456000
200346000
200234000
200124000
200016000
19999000
Those figures show that although it's not yet a massive crime, it is on the increase - it could increase even more now that this problem has happened. Even if it doesn't, the worry will still exist amongst the general public.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Inland Revenue, Finance, Government

Friday, 19 October 2007

BBC job cuts - oh dear

On Wednesday, October 17th, the BBC Trust approved plans to make job cuts which supposedly help the corporation become more financially efficient. The follow points are from this article:
  • Closing 2,500 job posts over the next six years.
  • Creating about 1,000 new jobs, many of which will be filled internally.
  • Making 10% fewer original TV programmes by 2012/13, focusing on fewer, high quality shows.
  • Establishing an integrated newsroom - merging TV, radio, and online.
  • Reducing the size of the BBC's property portfolio by selling BBC Television Centre by 2012/13.
  • Scrapping proposals for new activities, including plans for four new local radio stations.
The second point is cleverly written because it mentions the creation of jobs, but it's only internal reorganisation - there's no net gain there. The point about focusing on fewer high quality shows is worrying. High quality programming is what the BBC is all about. That will mean more repeats. The same article also provides net redundancy stats for each department:
DepartmentResponsible forRedundancies
VisionFactual, childrens, entertainment640-660
Nations and RegionsRegional programmes510-550
NewsTV, radio & new media news355-370
Future Media & Tech Online, mobile, interactive, archives120-130
Audio and MusicAudio on all platforms65-75
Professional ServicesMarketing, legal, financeUp to 75
SportSport on all platformsUp to 20
BBC Northern Ireland will be losing 100 jobs across a range of departments. They only employ 675 people at the moment, so that's a considerable loss. BBC Scotland will have 210 jobs cut, but because of some jobs being created there will be a net loss of 80.
"Among the ideas approved by the trust were an undertaking to commission 10% fewer programmes as part of Mr Thompson's 'fewer, bigger, better' strategy. The move will mean budget cuts, more repeats on BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4 and also more 'repurposing' of content for the web."
The above quote is interesting because it highlights a flaw in Mark Thompson's thinking. In my blog post about the TV licence fee, I highlighted the fact that a number of digital channels have low ratings. If they were cut then there would be a huge finiancial saving and any original content could be moved on the other channels to reduce the number of repeats. Using Mark Thompson's strategy, those uncsuccessful channels will still exist, but they'll have more repeats and therefore fewer quality. There will also be fewer people to maintain what is already there.

The following is reported by Kate Holton (Reuters):
"News and factual departments will be hardest hit in the move, which follows almost 4,000 job cuts announced in 2005. The public service division employs about 18,000 people and most job cuts are likely to happen sooner than the plan's 2012-13 deadline."
It's worrying that news will be one of the biggest casualties. The BBC News is widely regarded as one of the best news services in the world and having fewer people maintaining that standard could potentially meant that there will be an impact on quality and the reputation of the service will be reduced. Fewer journalists means fewer original stories. If you watch the 24hr news service, this will mean that you could see even more of the same.

These job losses will mean a saving of £155m per year for five years according to this Telegraph article. The big figure will have made the BBC Trust members happy.

However, there is another point. Trustees are meant to be separated from the day-to-day management of the BBC. As this is the case, they are more likely to approve decisions of the management as it has already been through their processes once. This does not mean they automatically approve everything though. Major job cuts may be good financially, but as I said it could affect the general quality of programming and could cause viewing figures to go down. Strategically, this is very bad and is a reason for the trustees to reject anything on this scale.

The following quote is from the online version of The Scotsman:
"The BBC has come under fire for paying Jonathan Ross £6 million a year, comic Graham Norton £2.5 million and Jeremy Paxman a reported £1 million."
If those 'stars' were paid much less, surely that would make a significant finiancial saving and/or sustain the jobs of some journalists in the news department. I would have thought that that my suggestion of cutting the digital channels alongside this would be hugely beneficial.

The National Union of Journalists has said there may be a strike. The problem is that because there is so much choice on TV, people will just choose another channel if it affects any of the broadcasts. I can understand why people would want to protest though.

In conclusion, I would say that although financial savings may be needed, Mark Thompson's strategy is the wrong approach. I think the BBC Trust should have rejected the proposals.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: BBC, Employment, Finance

Thursday, 27 September 2007

'No pimps allowed'

Wikipedia has been a valuable reference tool for many people since it's creation in 2001. Below is a list of the number of articles submitted in each of Wikipedia's 10 most popular languages:
  1. English: 2,025,577
  2. German: 644, 514
  3. French: 562, 648
  4. Polish: 427, 910
  5. Japanese: 417, 000+
  6. Dutch: 361, 237
  7. Italian: 353, 135
  8. Portuguese: 287, 645
  9. Spanish: 282, 076
  10. Swedish: 252, 261
There's also several other languages including Danish, different types of Norweigian, Welsh and Scottish.

There might be the occasional question over the accuracy of some of the articles, but that is because it allows anonymous posting - so there is no way of ensuring that only trustworthy people make the edits. However, you can create a user account (as I did) if you don't mind being identified. It will also allow you to carry the list of contributions you have made from computer to computer (for anonymous posting, Wikipedia takes the IP address of the computer).

Under the name 'Pimp Daddy', I have made 36 contributions to Wikipedia. They have ranged from spelling corrections to the creation of pages (e.g. I created an article about the World Darts Federation).

My username might not be the most serious looking choice, but it contains no swearing, no racism, no anti-semitism, etc. It's just a bit of fun. However, Wikipedia have decided to block me from editing because they felt it was inappropriate. This has happened despite my numerous contributions to the site using that name already. There are many people who include things such as bias in their contributions, cause controversy and don't even bother to create a user account - but most of them do not get blocked.

This was the message that I get when I try to edit an article:
"You have been blocked from editing, or tried to edit a page to which you do not have editing access.

Pimp Daddy (your account, your IP address or a range of addresses) was blocked by DragonflySixtyseven for the following reason (see our blocking policy):

no pimps allowed

Your IP address is 150.237.47.14, and your block has been set to expire: indefinite."
Obviously, I was annoyed by this. I sent an email to one of the Wikipedia administrators (DragonflySixtyseven) expressing my opinions (without swearing) and I received this response via Wikipedia's 'My talk' feature (part of the email I sent is shown at the top):
""I have been blocked from editing pages and the reason given was 'No pimps allowed'. I think this is a totally unjustified reason - it is only a username."

No.

You have three choices:

1. you can start over with a fresh username. This is easiest, but you will lose all your previous edits.
2. you can post a request on WP:CHANGE to have your username changed. If you opt for this, you will have to post on your talkpage first to ask to be unblocked so that you can post your request.
3. you can walk away from the project in disgust.

I suggest option 1 or 2, but some people do opt for 3.

DS 22:04, 24 September 2007 (UTC)"
I still believe that this is not a valid reason given my good conduct and accurate contributions on the site. As a result of this I won't be using Wikipedia again.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Wikipedia, Wiki

Monday, 24 September 2007

The cost of blogging

There has been plenty of news and opinion recently about whether bloggers can be considered journalists and whether they can expect certain rights and privileges. Recently, another story in a similar vein was reported by a number of people across the internet. The following is a quote from an article on the Bit-tech website:
"...Jessica Zenner, a 23 year old contractor for Nintendo who has been formally fired for posting inappropriate comments on her personal blog. Jessica, who posted under the pseudonym of Jessica Carr, was unaware of Nintendo’s scrutiny and thought she was protected by her right to freedom of speech."
Yes - Jessica Zenner has been fired for using her right of free speech.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
You could argue that the release of important company information in her blog would harm the company in some way, but after reading the blog there is nothing like that posted there - it's mostly personal stuff. There is one section where she insults a fellow employee, but there is no name mentioned.

The way she was fired wasn't exactly appropriate either. According to The Stranger, she was told by the Human Resources Director via her BlackBerry. The proper way of doing it would be to arrange an appointment with Ms Zenner so they could talk to each other in person.

Ms Zenner could go for wrongful dismissal, but if she did I think she'd only want compensation. Why would you want to be reinstated to a business where there is so much ill-feeling?

Providing people follow things like Non-Disclosure Agreements, you should not be fired for blogging - especially if it's a blog not hosted on the servers of the company. Jessica Zenner used Live Spaces, the Microsoft blogging platform.

So what do you think?

Technorati tags: Jessica Zenner, Nintendo, Blogging

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Gone to SEED

Taken from The Free Dictionary:
"Idiom:
go/run to seed
1. To pass into the seed-bearing stage.
2. To become weak or devitalized; deteriorate: The old neighborhood has gone to seed."
One of those two definitions is probably what you were thinking after you read that title. Well, both are wrong. I've actually joined a software development place called SEED Software, which is in the University of Hull's Computer Science department.

This doesn't mean that I've finally joined the ranks of the tax-payers again though. SEED provides training and much-needed experience of working on software projects for real clients while you look for a job. So many computer jobs ask for prior experience, but how can you possibly get that without a job? Well this is an answer to that classic Catch-22 situation.

I don't really know how long I'll be here, but it's already proved to be useful and this is only my second day. I've learned a bit more about how C#/.NET handles TCP and I've found out more information about the inner-workings of an instant messenger program. This is because my first task was to create something that has the basic functionality of Windows Messenger. It's a throw-away project though. I chose that instead of going onto a real-life project straight away because my programming skills are a little rusty and that could mean I end up missing deadlines. I'll be moving onto one of those 'real-life projects' once the IM program is completed though.

Iain Kelwick, the SEED Manager was very helpful - he took me through the initial stages of this messenger project and that lead up to my lunchbreak nicely. This is the point where things became interesting though. I was going to go into Staff House for some food - but it was too late (my lunchbreak started a little later than expected), so I went into the union (the first time since I left my sabb job). I ended up talking to loads of people and catching up on things (which was good), fixing two computer issues (which seems to be my role in life), working on another problem and getting no food at all. The union shop was closed at that point and the vending machines were almost empty - grr. At that point I went back to the Computer Science department and got something from the vending machines (how nutritious!).

Anyway, I went home at a reasonable time and now I'm back again today to carry on working on the messenger program.

Has anyone else been in a situation where they need experience to get a job, but need a job to get experience?

Technorati tags: SEED, Software Development, University

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Journalistic standards

Following on from my post about the licence fee etc. in a previous post, I have found another reason to criticise the BBC - this article.

Here's an example of why that piece was badly put together:
"A 2005 study showed that an increase of 10 mobile phones per 100 people could increase GDP growth by 0.6%."
This was a study from two years ago. The information might be accurate, but wouldn't it be better if the journalist used a more recent reference? If there's no study covering this from 2006 or this year, go and look for another type of source. Also, what is this study called and who did it? It's common (and required) practice in universities and many other places to cite your references properly. You would think that someone from an organisation such as the BBC would know that you do that to prove the reliability of the information.

Ok, next point:
"Nearly half a million people, described by the UN as "the poorest of the poor", will soon be able to make mobile calls."
"It is hoped that the connections will help improve healthcare and education, as well as boosting the local economy."
The UN thinks that mobile in Africa would help solve problems such as healthcare and education? I can see that it would help if you need to contact the emergency services and you're in the middle of nowhere, but surely the most important things would be to improve training, build more hospitals, provide medical instruments and increase the provision of effective drugs. Mobile/Cellphones cannot improve those three things. As for education, the important things must be books and other reference resources, plus training for teachers.

Another interesting thing is that I can find no other coverage of this story on any other the other major news websites (e.g. CNN, Reuters) or after looking through the results on several search engines (e.g. Google, Live Search, Yahoo, Mahalo). I found nothing on Technorati or del.icio.us either. That might just mean that the BBC is way ahead of the competition on this story, but it's also likely that nobody else finds this newsworthy.

There is little or no balance to this article either. You can read plenty of positives and other assorted information about the project, but their is no criticism anywhere. There are no quotes from anybody saying things like 'this aspect of the Millennium Villages project is a waste of time and money'.

Anyway, there are some positives to the project. It is another way of improving the resources for the poorest people and mobile/cellphones can be useful when there is no-one else nearby who can help - but that is all.

This is just one article by one of their journalists too. It is not representative of the entire corporation. However, there should be efforts to prevent low quality articles such as this from being submitted to the website.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: BBC, Journalism, Mobile Phones, Cellphones,

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

OOXML fun and games

If you're an average home user, then I know what you're thinking:

"I can't wait to hear the latest news about the emotional rollercoaster that is Office Open XML."

I hope you all noticed the slight hint of sarcasm there. The fact is, no average home user (at least no-one who fits within the currently accepted definition) will care about whether the new default file format for Microsoft Office complies with international standards. They will just want to start the program, create the document, save the file and open it again later.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't important for some people. In fact, it's causing uproar in the tech community. It has a bias towards English and uses a non-standard dates system. Another major point is that there is already a standard open file format that's used by products such as OpenOffice (it has that format set as default). With all that in mind, how can the computer companies and geeks create fully working programs that are suited for the average user which uses that format?

For those who understand XML (eXtensible Markup Language), this is an excellent article and exposes the major flaws - including my personal favourite which is that the files described in this ECMA standard for Office Open XML don't actually exist due to programs wrapping it in proprietary technologies.

ECMA (European Computer Manufacturers Association) has a process that allows you to 'fast-track' something towards becoming an international standard, something which is ultimately decided by the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation). If the only place where OOXML is used (Office 2007) changes it in such a way which means it no longer complies with the ECMA document, how can the ISO possibly make into an international standard?

If it is, then one of three things could happen:
  1. To enable other programs to interop with the files, companies would have to buy a licence to use the proprietary parts or attempt to reverse engineer everything (the latter has been done with the .doc format in OpenOffice, but it won't necessarily be 100% perfect)
  2. No custom program manufacturers will use the format. This would mean communication problems between software and they will end up using another format (probably the old-style MS Office formats or OpenDocument(used in OpenOffice))
  3. Everyone would have to adopt Microsoft products
I would prefer the second option.

Other criticisms of OOXML include the use of VML (Vector Markup Language). This is something which (apparently) has little documentation and no library to use in programming. The proposed standards document for this was rejected by the W3C (World Wide Web C) due to their being a competing format at the time. Instead, the two were combined to form SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics). VML is also used in Internet Explorer 5+. The documentation states that VML is only included for legacy purposes, but constantly building on top of things leads to a cumbersome and unmanageable nature. It would be better to just scrap the use of VML which would then make it more stanrdards compliant. Microsoft could even make use of the already-accepted SVG.

According to this article on Ars Technica, the Linux Foundation are pleading to countries to say no to the OOXML format. There is also a petition that you can sign (I've done that).

ISO have recently rejected an initial fast-track submission, but it could still be accepted if Microsoft address the technical queries. If it's accepted after that though, a patch would have to be issued so that the original version of the format (already in use on a number of machines) can be changed.

The O'Reilly Radar - a major tech news source - has widespread coverage of this story and it's journalists also criticise the format. You can find further articles about this on Opportunity Knocks and CNET. Bit-Tech has an article about this too.

I consider this to be a PR disaster for Microsoft.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: OOXML, Microsoft, ISO, ECMA

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Is the BBC and the licence fee value for money?

I was watching the TV one night and started to watch a program that I liked, but found out that it was an episode I'd already seen. This annoyed me and while I'm not the licence payer in my house, that person has experienced the same problem too. That got me thinking - exactly how many repeats are there at the moment and that ended up progressing to me thinking about the licence's value for money.

Lets start with the repeat problem. As the licence fee covers BBC channels (a point I'll mention later), I decided to look at the two most watched BBC channels - 1 and 2. One of the reasons they are the most watched is because they are the two terrestrial BBC channels and everyone has that, whereas not everyone has satellite/cable. I also took the figures from two days of scheduling and not one (if all the repeats are on one day and I just happen to pick that one, I'll get an unfair result).

Here are my findings:
DateChannelProgrammesRepeats% repeats
August 13thBBC 130723.3
August 13thBBC 2332060.6
August 14thBBC 1291241.4
August 14thBBC 2312271

The percentages for each day were:
Date% repeats on both channels
August 13th42.9
August 14th56.7

It seems there are many more repeats on BBC 2 compared to BBC 1, but the figures for both channels are awful. It's even worse when you look at the second table. The BBC get plenty of money from the licence fee - you would think they could stop showing repeats and only show original programming. However, their funds aren't just going into developing and broadcasting on the two terrestrial channels - they have a set of additional digital channels too. Those are BBC 3, BBC 4, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament, CBBC and CBeebies. That's quite a lot, but lets see if they are worth the cost by looking at the viewing figures (the following are the average weekly figures - if you click on the link you can also find out average monthly data):
ChannelWeekly reach - 000sWeekly reach - %
BBC 135,94777.5
BBC 226,75057.7
BBC 311,90525.7
BBC 45,54211.9
BBC News 246,58914.2
BBC Parliament2780.6
CBBC3,8758.4
CBeebies4,4289.5

It seems the only BBC network channels to go past 10m are BBC 1, BBC 2 and BBC 3. I'm sure the corporation could save a lot of money if the removed the other five channels and placed their original content on the three that are more successful. Having BBC 3 would still mean they have a digital presence pre-switchover aswell. For instance, in the morning on BBC2 they show repeats of childrens programmes. If they were to remove CBBC and CBeebies, they could put their original content onto BBC 2 in the mornings and solve that part of the repeat problem.

The worst digital channel in that table has to be BBC Parliament. It doesn't even break into the millions for average weekly reach and the first two BBC channels already have current affairs and political content (although they could have a bit more). The one problem is that there would be very little room in the schedule for things like select committee coverage. However, that could always be streamed on the BBC website and is therefore accessible for those who want it.

It is important to remember that people occasionally miss programmes that they want to see though - that one of the reasons why repeats are broadcast. Instead of putting the repeats on the BBC channels, why not offer them to the likes of UKTV who already show a lot of old BBC programming. Another possibility would be to make them available on the BBC website.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier I was think about if the TV licence is value for money. It shouldn't really be called a TV licence because it only funds BBC channels. What if you don't watch any BBC content? You still have to pay the licence fee but you aren't getting much value for money.

My next point is about students. I used to be one and I know several other students who had money issues. According to this page on the TV Licence authority's website, they provide several ways for students to pay, but they still have to pay the full amount. I think it would be better if students had a discounted rate to pay - other groups of people such as those in residential care who might not have a huge amount of money are charged a reduced fee. The one good thing if you're a student is that you can apply for a refund if you're not in student accommodation for 12 months (licences are renewed annually).

Then there is an issue for the blind people. According to the TV licence website, they are charged 50% of the full fee. Which fee is that though? Is it the full colour licence (£135.50) or the full black and white licence (£45.50)? It would be unfair if it was 50% of the colour licence because they would still get charged more than the full cost of the black and white version and they don't benefit from having the colour (especially if they're totally blind - which is obvious). It would be better if the charges were made a bit clearer.

According to this article, TV licences cover TVs, VCR, set-top boxes and PC-tuner cards that receive broadcasts. Notice how that list doesn't include radio. I'm sure you could understand that as it's called a TV licence. So why, when I like at the most recent edition of the BBC's Annual Report, do I find that a portion of the licence fee money goes towards radio stations (page 4)? According to this article, just over 22% of the licence fee income goes towards radio. You definitely have to pay less every year if that portion of the fee was removed.

Finally, I'd like to mention the pay of executives. On page 86 of the Annual report, I notice a table which states that no executive director who is still at the BBC got paid less than £100,000. They also get a healthy pension and other remuneration. The total basic pay for the Executive Directors in 2006/2007 was £3,422,000 and the total of the executive board was £3,477,000. Trustees are only supposed to be paid expenses, but the total figure that they got is suspiciously large (I suppose it depends how many trustees there are though). If the rates of pay for people like the directors were more sensible, costs would be cut dramatically and the BBC could put more into things like developing television and radio, as well as discovering new talent.

Overall, I would say that the BBC doesn't always use the money from the the licence fee well (or properly e.g. my point about the radio) and the directors get paid way too much. I also think that there are significant problems with the licence fee charging structure.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: BBC, Licence, TV

Friday, 10 August 2007

Is the mobile phone extinct?

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of a mobile/cellphone is:
"noun:
a hand-held mobile radiotelephone for use in an area divided into small sections, each with its own short-range transmitter/receiver [syn: cellular telephone]"
and the definition of a telephone is:
"–noun
1. an apparatus, system, or process for transmission of sound or speech to a distant point, esp. by an electric device."
So, put simply, a phone is used for calling people. In 1985 the GSM standards included some called the Short Message Service, or SMS and the first commercial text message was sent over the Vodafone network in 1992. As text messaging was part of the GSM standards, you could still call the device a phone.

Things seem to have moved on a bit since those days. Lets have a look at an example of a recent mobile/cellphone - the iPhone:
Modern mobile phone
The spec of the iPhone is:
  • 4GB or 8GB flash drive
  • 3.5-inch (diagonal) widescreen multi-touch display
  • 480-by-320-pixel resolution at 160 dpi
  • Uses Mac OSX as it's operating system
  • 2 megapixel digital camera
  • Can play music formats such as WAV, AAC and MP3
  • Can play multiple video formats
  • WiFi and Bluetooth enabled
  • You can browse the internet
It's quite different from the standard concept. A fairly large touchscreen is a great idea for a phone - if you have a massive contact list then it's easier to navigate and with something like the iPhone you can store more details about each contact. A big memory is useful too if you're one of those people who downloads a load of e.g. ringtones.

Remember the definition of a phone and the GSM standards though. If you go by those phone are for calling and texting people. It states nothing about video playback, cameras, playing music or browsing the internet.

I think that there is no such thing as a mobile phone in production anymore. As there is so much added functionality (like what has been mentioned above), you can't really call them phones, or have any name with the word 'phone' in it. Calling people and sending text messages is a subset, and not a superset like it was previously.

So, what can we call them? It's better to use a generic term like 'mobile device' - something which is also used to describe PDAs. It would be difficult to come up with something more specific as it would end up being too long. Can you imagine an advertising department trying to create something for the 'Mobile-SMS-video-mp3-web phone'? Their brains would explode! It needs to be something much shorter and 'mobile device' is definitely shorter than that.

I'm not saying that they should all go back to a state where you can just call and text people because the big positive to having a lot of functionality on one device is that there's less to carry around. I just think that people who want to produce anything called a mobile phone should stick to the definition and GSM standards.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Mobile Phones, Cellphones, Smartphones, iPhone, Communications

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

How do you get your news?

Originally people got news via the radio, broadsheet newspapers and occasionally via the cinema screen. This was perfectly fine for many years. However, with the increased use of technology people seek (or should seek) other sources to get a high standard of news.

If you stick with one source, such as the newspaper, it might give you plenty of information, but your views could become biased as you're only getting one angle on events. Also, newspapers have to cater for the majority because if they do that then they are more likely to get a high number of sales. What if the majority like to read about something that you're not interested in - or vice-versa?

Sometimes, the audience is not the only factor in deciding what news is released. It is an unfortunate fact of life the some media sources are heavily influenced by big businesses. For instance, a big business who owns a news network might not want a crisis relating to them broadcast 24/7. There could also be the threat of sponsorship withdrawal. Some news sources could be heavily dependent on sponsors to keep them running. What would happen if a news item put a sponsor in a bad light? The deal could be cancelled and then that news source could cease to exist.

I am a big advocate of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and RSS aggregators. It allows me to get news from several online sources without having to go through each individual website. I can get text-based news, download podcasts and video news and also go straight to the webpage of a particular news item if needed. I can also choose which type of news I receive. If e.g. I don't want to read about Big Brother, then I don't subscribe to any news feeds which would give me that information.

In the morning, I listen to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I also occasionally watch both local and national news on TV. Yes, most of the TV and radio is BBC, but I still have the variety of RSS-based news sources to keep things more balanced.

Earlier I briefly mentioned podcasts. I think these can be hugely important. Like RSS, it allows you to get news whenever you want and pick the types of news you get. I get a large amount of tech news via this method, but you could get stuff about sport or politics.

Online media means a huge growth in 'user-generated content'. You can get news, commentary and opinions from blogs, wikis and videos. By 'users', I meant the people who would normally receive the content, for instance me. There has been some criticism of this as these people don't necessarily have professional journalism experience. However, just because people don't have that experience doesn't mean they can't do research and backup their content with facts. When I comment on current affairs in this blog I always make sure I use multiple references and use quotations relevant to what I'm talking about. The theory is that this will give my opinions more of a weighting.

I can see a day where there are no newspapers. I could quite easily stop using the likes of TV and radio now and just use the internet for my news. I could go to websites and watched news over a webstream, continue to use RSS and continue to get podcasts and download videos. I'd save money because I wouldn't be subscribing to a newspaper. I wouldn't have to waste time waiting for an item to be discussed on the TV news - I could get information about that item immediately by going online.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: News, Online Media, Newspapers, TV, Radio, Information

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The life of an unemployed man

I had been the Vice-President (Academic Representation) at Hull University Union for a year, had got settled and really enjoyed it. The job was one of the best experiences of my life. However, at midday on June 29th 2007, I became an unemployed man.

It was strange because for a while, the feeling of being unemployed didn't really hit me. However, it's now Thursday and I haven't been to work for a few days. I've been able to do a few things that I wouldn't normally have the time for because of the hours dedicated to my job. I don't feel as physically drained at the end of the day now and believe me, that's a good feeling. When I was working, I frequently fell asleep on the bus going home at the end of the day because I felt so tired.

The thing is, despite all the stress and tiredness, I would happily do the job for another year. Being a sabbatical officer at a student union has given me so many opportunities and experiences and I've met many great people. Many people who I know feel that I've done a great job as well (always great to hear that), which would've been something I'd have liked to build upon.

Oh well, another year is something that will not happen - so what's next for me?

People have asked if I'm going for a postgraduate degree. Well, I'm not. If I was more certain about which sector I'm going into, I might have considered postgraduate study because my education would then be more tailored to a particular role. However, I'm thinking about careers in computing or admin/management roles in higher of further education. Those two areas are both big and different. Something as specific as postgraduate study wouldn't suit that in my opinion.

I know a guy called John Franks who has had many years of experience in careers advice. He suggested looking for a job where I am able to figure out why computing graduates are not going into computing jobs and then figuring out a solution for this. It's an interesting idea and something that will allow me to be in both the computing and education sectors at the same time.

Another suggestion was to work for the University of Hull's Computer Services. Again, this may be something that allows me to be in both sectors. It's definitely something I won't be ruling out, but there are many different aspects to Computer Services, so I would be looking at job descriptions carefully.

I'm not just looking at jobs in the University of Hull though. Doing that will give me a smaller range of options and that will ultimately reduce my chances of getting a job. I have looked at other universities and places that aren't universities. The one major limitation is that that I can't drive - so if it is a job outside Hull it will have to be somewhere easily commutable by train. Either that or I get a great starting wage at some place which allows me to relocate (unlikely at this stage in my career though). Once I am able to drive, this will greatly increase my chances of getting jobs in the future.

So, how am I looking for jobs? In the past, people used to look in places like the Job Centre and the newspaper. The newspaper is something that I will be using, but I will also be looking towards recruitment agencies like Hays and using job websites like Monster, Jobs.ac.uk and the pages on DirectGov.

I have applied for some jobs already. Two were in administration, one was in quality and standards and one in international student recruitment. All four were university jobs and all four were unsuccessful. The money was good and my CV was a good fit in most cases. I think the big thing that lets me down is experience. Now I'm unemployed I think I'll do more frequent job applications for different levels of pay. The only thing about pay is that I want something more than what I got in my last job (it was unsurprisingly low as it was an honorarium).

One of the things that I became interested in when I was a sabbatical officer is governance. One day I would like to become a governor in a college or school and/or a charity trustee. However, I want to secure a full-time job first so I know how many hours I could give to something like that.

If any readers of this blog have been unemployed at any point, I'd be interested in knowing your experiences and how you went looking for jobs.

Technorati tags: Employment

Sunday, 1 July 2007

The Blair Effect

The year was 1997 - Tony Blair had just won a historic general election and become Prime Minister. There were crowds of people cheering as he went down Downing Street. The following are extracts from his victory speech on May 2nd of that year:
"And this new Labour government will govern in the interests of all our people — the whole of this nation. That I can promise you. When I became leader of the Labour party some three years ago I set a series of objectives. By and large I believe we have achieved them. Today we have set objectives for new Labour Government - a world class education system. Education is not the privilege of the few but the right of the many.

A new Labour Government that remembers that it was a previous Labour Government that formed and fashioned the welfare state and the National Health Service. It was our proudest creation. It shall be our job and our duty now to modernize it for a modern world, and that we will also do."
and...
"And it will be a government that seeks to restore trust in politics in this country. That cleans it up, that decentralizes it, that gives people hope once again that politics is and always should be about the service of the public. And it shall be a government, too, that gives this country strength and confidence in leadership both at home and abroad, particularly in respect of Europe."
There were plenty of promises and 10 years of leadership should be time for those promises to be delivered. The list of achievements below is taken from the Keeping the Faith website, which is dedicated to supporting Tony Blair (or was):
  • Britain now has the lowest inflation for thirty years and the lowest mortgage rates for forty years - saving homeowners an average of £3,700 a year compared to the Tory years. We have the longest period of sustained growth for 200 years.
  • The number of people in work is at a record level, up by over 2 million since 1997.
  • Over 1.5 million working people are better off thanks to the National Minimum Wage.
  • Hospital waiting lists in England are at their lowest since 1987.
  • In the NHS there are 19,300 more doctors and over 77,500 more nurses working with modern equipment, giving faster access to more people, all free at the point of need.
  • Standards are up across the board including the best ever primary school results. More teachers are in our schools than at any point in last 20 years - 28,500 more than in 1997.
  • Police numbers are at record levels - up over 12,500 since 1997, and are assisted by over 4,000 new Community Support Officers.
Seven achievments in 10 years. Wow - that's impressive (you might note a tiny bit of sarcasm there).

Let's think about the point about employment 2 million more people in work is absolutely brilliant. Well, it is brilliant until you find out that Britain is capable of increasing it's population by 1,420,306 in four years. That 'achievement' assumes that the population is static for 10 years.

Another interesting thing is that 'full employment' is frequently mentioned in New Labour propaganda (for instance, Gordon Brown mentioned it in this speech back in 2005). Full employment is - and always has been - impossible. There's always going to be a certain amount of people who spend a few days or week 'between jobs'. This could be due to resignations, redundancies and all sorts of other things.

The point about the NHS is interesting. It mentions how many doctors and nurses that have been recruited since 1997 (a combined total of 96,800), but it doesn't mention how many doctors and nurses have left since '97. According to this article, 20000 nurses have left the NHS (not sure whether this is since '97 or later than that), in 2006 3000 nurses went to work in Australia and there'll be a nursing shortfall of 14000 by 2010. That makes the recruitment figures less than impressive as it means there could either be a smaller overall gain or even a loss.

After Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Patricia Hewitt lost her job as Health Secretary:
"She was widely expected to lose her post after increasing pressure over NHS deficits and doctor training schemes."
That doesn't sound particularly good, does it? This article states that a study reveals that only 34% of the country believe that the Labour government had made the NHS better (this study was done by the British Medical Association, so it's a reputable source). Is that good? I don't think so. It's also interesting to note that the 2005 general election exit poll showed 37% of the vote was Labour (although this is made slightly less relevant by the fact that the turnout was 61.3%). That might account for some of the percentage at least.

Now for education. This was one of the things Blair and the New Labour regime focused on the most (at least initially). As well as the point in that achievements list, they often mention the City Academies, the 50% target for Higher Education and lifelong learning.

On the subject of Academies, this is how they're defined:
"Academies are all ability schools established by sponsors from business, faith or voluntary groups working in highly innovative partnerships with central Government and local education partners. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) meet the capital and running cost for the Academy in full."
Tony Blair has said that parents back the scheme and Gordon Brown intends to continue with the plans under his regime, but people such as Estelle Morris (former Education Secretary and now a university Pro-Vice Chancellor) has her reservations. The academies scheme has also been criticised by the Education and Skills Select Committee and the Liberal Democrats.

The 50% target for universities is ridiculous. What about people who don't want to go down the academic route and want a more vocational style of education? What about the people who don't need that level of education for the job that they want to do? If the cap is to be taken off fees, then less people will be able to afford that level of education - which means the target will never be reached. For those who get to uni, it will mean that they'll have to take on even more part-time work, which will increase their stress levels and affect their academic performance. Sure, I think unis needed more money to improve resources for the increasing numbers, but I don't think the cap should be removed.

Lifelong learning has been a success. More and more mature students are coming to universities now to seek a higher level of education for a variety of reasons. However, if the cap were to be lifted - what would happen to them? A lot of mature students have extra responsibilities such as children and a lot of their money goes towards caring for them. How could lifting the cap make it easier for them to get into HE?

I won't cover this much more though, as I have an educational blog to go into more detail about this. I won't go into detail about the 'war on terror' either - as I have made it clear in a previous post on this blog that I strongly oppose it.

Lets not forget that Blair and Labour have done some good things during the past 10 years. They helped to secure the 2012 Olympic Games and....erm...help me out here!

Now we hear that Blair has become a Middle East Peace Envoy. I'm not quite sure why anyone could see him being effective in that role. Alongside George Bush, he went to war in Iraq and has stood alongside Bush in his opposition to any nuclear weapons programme in Iran (as I stated in a previous blog post, they have no proof of that programme yet).

There are plenty of other things I could comment on, such as the failing immigration system, the failed ASBO system, The New Deal or the fact the for years we have had a Deputy Prime Minister (John Prescott) who has done very little apart from go on junkets, have scandalous affairs and speak completely incoherently, but I won't as I'd be here forever.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Government, War, Healthcare, Education, Democracy, Tony Blair

Saturday, 12 May 2007

The Eurovision Song Contest

Serbia won this year's Eurovision Song Contest and their entrant was called Maria Serifovic. The choreography in the performance of her song was strange, but the song wasn't the worst I've heard in this competition.

Unfortunately, the usual (and obvious) voting strategy of the eastern bloc countries was present. This meant anything resembling a decent song was completely overshadowed and you can never determine whether the victory was on merit. That sort of thing absolutely sickens me. It's a song contest, not something that should involve political maneuvering.

You could tell that even ever-present Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan was getting tired of it. The thing is, many people in this country still like it, so it will still get put on our TV screens an mean better quality programmed is shifted somewhere else.

It's not just the eastern bloc voting that I don't like though. The entries that some countries have are so incredibly formulaic in terms of the tune. Also the lyrics of some of the songs are so simplistic and there can be too much of a focus on the performance. Yes, there is a huge audience so there should be a performance element, but let's remember that this is a song contest - so the quality of the song should be the thing that has more of a focus.

This is a classic example of what I'm talking about:

This - the Ukrainian entry - has repetitive lyrics, a formulaic dance tune and way too much emphasis on performance. It came second though! If this came second, it clearly means that many of the Eurovision fans don't care about serious music - they prefer it to be funny and/or silly. That sort of entry is why many people think the contest is a joke. As people think it's a joke, more recognised artists don't enter because if they lost, it would ruin their career.

I didn't see the whole of the programme because I was watching something that was recorded earlier in the week which was better quality. Of the entries that I did see, I thought Moldova was the best. It had a unique (for Eurovision) mix of classical and rock, there was an edge to the tune, the costumes weren't as silly as Ukraine and the lyrics weren't as repetitive. Here's the video that went with the song when it was originally released:

I also liked the Bulgarian entry (mostly for the impressive use of drums) and the German entry (because it was a big band style that no-one else did and I haven't seen when watching bits of the contest in previous years).

The UK has some good artists, could we submit something of a high standard? The answer to that would be a 'no'. Instead of something edgy, anthemic or original, we submit this:

If you liked clich├ęs, needless sexual innuendo, a tune which makes you think you've heard the song a million times before and a group where none of the artists have a particularly strong voice, then this is for you. However, I don't like it at all. I wonder how many of the people who voted for Scooch to be the UK entry were under the age of 13. Scooch finished second-bottom with 19 points (the same total as France). We only got points from Ireland (who came bottom with five points - Albania giving them those) and Malta (who, for some reason, gave us 12). If anyone is interested in the points totals and who gave points to who, you can look at the table here.

Having just looked at the other UK entrants on Youtube, I can safely say that my preference would have been Big Brovaz. The music wasn't trashy, formulaic pop and the lyrics had more than three words to them. If I had my way the order of the UK candidates would have been:
  1. Big Brovaz
  2. Cyndi
  3. Brian Harvey
  4. Hawkins & Brown
  5. Liz Mclarnon
  6. Scooch
The lyrics of Liz Mclarnon's song were incredibly simplistic (I lost count of the amount of times she said "yeah" and "happy"), but the tune was fairly catchy and she had a better voice than any of the Scooch singers, which is why she finished above them. Justin Hawkins has the most unique voice out of any of the singers and he was the only one to use an instrument, but the song was unoriginal and the lyrics were poor, which is why that entry isn't my favourite. Cyndi had a powerful voice and the tune was good, but I didn't think her song was quite as good as Big Brovaz. If she had been the UK entry, she would have got many more points than Scooch.

Last year's winner was Lordi. Their song was so different from the other entries, the music had a definite edge to it and it's something that people remembered for a long time after the contest. You'd think that people would learn cheesy music wasn't the way to go after they won - but obviously not.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Eurovision, Voting, Entertainment

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Shock in Virginia

The mobile phone footage of what happened at Virginia Tech. contained in this video has been broadcast all over the world:



Obviously everyone's thoughts go out to the grieving parents and students.

There is a major problem with responsiveness though. Cho Seung-Hui, the student who killed all those people and, after that, himself, killed two students and didn't continue until two hours later. Surely that period would have been enough time to make sure everyone is notified and enough time to make sure the university is 'locked down'.

Four emails were sent to the students about the initial shootings just as Cho Seung-Hui started again. Those emails could have been sent quicker, but the uni could also have used other methods to communicate the dangers to the students. Not everyone reads their emails frequently and they won't all necessarily check them at the same time, which would always leave some at risk. What about PA systems? alarms? mass text messaging?

I'm not the only person to think two hours for any notification is slow. The following quote is from this article:
"As America struggles to come to terms with the tragedy, questions are now being asked about why the killer was not detained between the two shootings, and whether the university authorities could have done more to warn students.

Email alerts were only sent out two hours after the first incident, as the second rampage was well under way.

"I think the university has blood on their hands because of their lack of action after the first incident," said Billy Bason, an 18-year-old student."
It's important to note that it wasn't just the university admin who were slow. What about the police? Where were they after the initial shootings? They are on-campus police, so they should have been quick to respond. They may have had to bring other people in to help, but they could have done something while they waited for the others to arrive.

Now lets address a wider problem - use of guns in the USA. It's written into their Constitution (well, it's an amendment to the Constitution in the Bill Of Rights):
"Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Naturally, if it's in there, it's very hard to remove. The amendment has been in there for so long, the right to bear arms just seems normal to a lot of US citizens.

There are some people who suggested that some people should have been allowed to have guns at the university so that Cho Seung-Hui could have been stopped much earlier. This is a weak argument though. That just means that there are more people who could shoot others. Not only that - if those guns were owned by responsible people, they could still be stolen by the irresponsible ones. In Britain, we don't have a citizen's right to bear arms and there are far less instances of shootings in educational institutions. Examples of shootings at US educational institutions in recent years are:
  • Sept. 24, 2003 - Cold Spring, Minn. - Two students are killed at Rocori High School by John Jason McLaughlin, 15.
  • March 21, 2005 - Red Lake, Minn. - Jeff Weise, 16, killed grandfather and companion, then arrived at school where he killed a teacher, a security guard, 5 students, and finally himself, leaving a total of 10 dead.
  • Nov. 8, 2005 - Jacksboro, Tenn. - One 15-year-old shot and killed an assistant principal at Campbell County High School and seriously wounded two other administrators.
  • Aug. 24, 2006 - Essex, Vt. - Christopher Williams, 27, looking for his ex-girlfriend at Essex Elementary School, shot two teachers, killing one and wounding another. Before going to the school, he had killed the ex-girlfriend's mother.
  • Sept. 26, 2006 - Bailey, Colo. - Adult male held six students hostage at Platte Canyon High School and then shot and killed Emily Keyes, 16, and himself.
  • Sept. 29, 2006 - Cazenovia, Wis. - A 15-year-old student shot and killed Weston School principal John Klang.
  • Oct. 3, 2006 - Nickel Mines, Pa. - 32-year-old Carl Charles Roberts IV entered the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School and shot 10 schoolgirls, ranging in age from 6 to 13 years old, and then himself. Five of the girls and Roberts died.
  • Jan. 3, 2007 - Tacoma, Wash. - Douglas Chanthabouly, 18, shot fellow student Samnang Kok, 17, in the hallway of Henry Foss High School.
Is this enough evidence to show that allowing guns in schools, colleges and universities would be bad?

What have we learned from this? Having a right to bear arms can cause all sorts of problems and the police should have been trained to respond to this sort of thing. Virginia Tech might have been a gun-free zone, but some people actually break the law! Also, the Virginia Tech admin should have been much quicker in alerting the students about the dangers of the situation.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Virginia, University, Firearms, Murder

Monday, 9 April 2007

Blogging Code of Conduct

Recently, Tim O'Reilly called for a blogging Code of Conduct. The rules in it were:
  • We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
  • We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person.
  • We connect privately before we respond publicly.
  • When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
  • We do not allow anonymous comments.
  • We ignore the trolls.
He also believes that there should be a symbol on blogs that don't comply with the guidelines, which therefore warns any readers that there may be uncensored arguments, etc.

Point 1 makes perfect sense. You type the words on the blog - you should be responsible for what happens as a result of them being published. You could say that something was a throw-away statement, but the millions of potential readers might not necessarily see it in the context that you meant.

Being criticised because of the comments that were left on a post is an interesting one. If they end up offending a group of people and they were on your blog - I can see why people should think the owner of the blog should be ultimately responsible. As a lot of blogs have comment moderation, that's another reason for the owner of the blog to be responsible.

However, there's an argument for you not being responsible for the comments. The comments were made by other people - therefore the opinions expressed in those comments are not necessarily the ones you share.

The second point is more complex. If you are in a position that means e.g. your job could be at risk by expressing your views on something, then you couldn't possibly comply with it. I can see situations such as politicians having a view that might not necessarily follow the party line. If they were to reveal that on the internet - in front of millions of people. It could cause many problems.

Some could call that cowardly though. I think that it depends on the situation. If it's in a work context and you need your wages because you are e.g. the sole earner in your family - you may want to think about it carefully (of course you might also want to look for another job - because that sort of environment doesn't sound perfect). If you are posting e.g. racist views that you know will offend a lot of people and you aren't willing to defend yourself - then that's something very different.

However, I would comply with that point because they are my views and not necessarily the views of the people who I work for (and with). If I have to put a disclaimer at the top of my blogs to clarify that - I will do.

The third point is interesting. I can see the logic behind it - you wouldn't want to post something and then find it's all wrong - you'd want some clarification first. What if it's difficult or impossible to get a response though? Also, the internet contains a vast array of information and opinions to help you clarify something. Maybe the third point isn't necessary.

Point 4 is common sense. If you feel strongly about something (or someone), you wouldn't want to see unfair accusations aimed at it (or them). You would want to defend your view. I would totally agree with that point.

My views about anonymous comments are the same as my views for point 2.

As for ignoring trolls, I think it depends on the situation. You might be faced with something that is like point 4 - which means you would respond to the trolls. However, simple and fact-free comments that are repeated again and again (even after you responded the first time) should be ignored. Perhaps you shouldn't approve them either. When I say 'simple and fact-free', I mean things like "Linux sucks!!!". There is no factual basis and nothing particularly complex. You might only want to respond to that sort of thing once.

I'm not the only one who has these views about the proposed code of conduct. Robert Scoble - 42nd in the Technorati 'Top 100 blogs' list, posted this as a response in his blog:
"I’m not able to currently sign this, either. First I allow anonymous comments. I do watch for hate speech, though, and delete that when it’s found (pretty rare, actually).

Second, I engage with my trolls. Why? Cause if they show up here I think they deserve an answer and I find they often get me to think deeper about the topic that I’m writing about than if we didn’t engage in a little gutter wrestling."
and:
"I do find disquieting the social pressure to get on board with this program. Tim O’Reilly is a guy who really can affect one’s career online (and off, too). I do have to admit that I feel some pressure just to get on board here and that makes me feel very uneasy."
Robert makes an interesting point about the pressure on bloggers to comply with this. I can see the logic, but not everyone reads Tim O'Reilly's blog - some might not read any blogs apart from their own. This means that the message won't get out to everybody and that makes getting the message across more difficult. Of course, not everyone who regularly reads the blog will agree with the code anyway (like Robert).

This was Alfred Thompson's response, which was also a response to Robert Scoble's comments (Alfred is a Microsoft employee involved with education sector. He has several highly popular blogs):
"Without a timely and public reply and correction things can be hard to get corrected. Sometimes it is a great idea to try and get things corrected privately and I have done that myself. Other times it is clear that trying to get a correction in private communication is not going to be sufficient."
and:
"If someone unfairly blocks anonymous comments that word will get out and people may choose not to read, link to or otherwise support that blog. Let the market decide but let bloggers have some principled control over their comment sections."
This is an interesting article on the BBC website which goes into a bit of detail about the reasons why the Code of Conduct was thought up in the first place and a valid point is made about the difficulties of enforcing it. As there are so many blogs out there, it is impossible to make sure everyone complies.

Although the code of conduct is well-intentioned, I don't think you could ever get everyone to agree with it and it could never be enforced.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Blogging, Code of Conduct, Tim O'Reilly

Friday, 6 April 2007

Demand and the loss of human sanity

One of the problems with high demand was highlighted in this Guardian article:
"By 10am, the doors had been knocked off their hinges by the eager shoppers, desperate to get hold of a pair of £8 jeans. By 11am, a floor manager had been knocked to the ground by the hordes, trampling all that was in their path in search of a £2 bikini. And by noon the queue to get in snaked all the way down Oxford Street to Marble Arch with a waiting time estimated at a couple of hours."
One thing that seems to go out of the window when something is popular is patience. There was an opening time for the shop - but people seemed to ignore that. It is a big shop too, so it's not as if only a few people could fit in the place at any one time. Also, Primark tends to have plenty of everything - so it's unlikely that you'll be out of luck if you were to wait. There's also the concept of restocking - people forget that. If something sells out, the business notices that it is popular and therefore thinks it's worthy of ordering more. That means anybody who can't get what they want can always come back later.

There was something else related to this story that I found both amazing and utterly stupid:
"Sheila Drouin, 61, had come up from Bath with a friend for the opening. "When I heard they were opening a flagship store my friend and I decided to make a day of it," she said, clutching a £20 duvet set."
There are other Primark stores across the country - why not go to one that nearer? That would be the sensible option. Oh wait, I forgot - when something's popular sense goes out of the window! Just to prove that the sensible option that I just mentioned is possible, I had a look on Google Maps and found that a store in Bristol(journey takes 31 minutes) is closer to Bath than the store in Oxford Street(journey takes 2hrs and 15 minutes).

One other strange thing about this story was highlighted in this Telegraph article:
"A group of schoolgirls from Westminster said they were there to shop for cheap clothes to lounge around in. "We wouldn't come here for going-out clothes.""
Primark sells cheap clothes - that's why there's always so much of everything. There were queues for cheap clothes that some people only want to "lounger around in". Unbelievable.

In the Independent, there was a quote from a student which mentioned it was bigger than other Primark stores. Ok, if the store is bigger then you have more of a chance to get the stuff you want. That still doesn't excuse the mad rush and the panic that was caused as a result.

This picture was shown in the Daily Mail and it gives a good example of the madness outside the store:



Looking at some reviews of Primark, you can see that the problem with queues is a recurring theme. However, they don't seem to be doing much about it and they are still getting plenty of revenue. It seems that the people who go to Primark don't mind queues and huge crowds.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Queues, Crowds, Demand, Madness