Friday, July 30, 2010

Take him, Jonny

This is my first post in a couple of weeks, which is disgracefully slack (many apologies to anyone who visits daily - and I see there are a couple - and leaves disappointed), but it has been a busy summer.

So back to blogging with a bang, then, or maybe just a quiet pfft depending on whether you are using a silencer. I've been mildly intrigued by all these confidential American military reports that have appeared on WikiLeaks. It seems to have created a bit of an outrage, with the top brass saying that Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks owner with the Warhole hair, has the blood of Afghans on his hands for revealing the names of informers and conspirators.

Not as much Afghan blood on his hands as the misfiring US troops, Assange's defenders may reply, but the White House has a point that there is a certain lack of morality and concern for consequences behind the publication of the leaked documents.

Robert Gibbs, President Obama's press secretary, pleaded with Assange today to stop, but that is hardly likely given that Gibbs, an owlish bumbling fellow, is as much of a threat as a goldfish. So why doesn't the White House just, you know, have Assange whacked?

These leaked documents reveal that there is a special ops assassination squad going round bumping off the Taleban rather than arresting them for trial, which is cool (sorry, I mean disgraceful). Why not put a couple of them on Assange detail?

Surely they know how: pull up in a car alongside him, invite him to go for a ride out to New Jersey or some godforsaken place and then take care of him. Make it look like an accident, of course. Astounding how many people accidentally garotte themselves with cheesewire when buying shoes.

Honestly, if you can't bump off people that are being irritating, what is the point of having a CIA? What is the point, indeed, of being President?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A suitable name

Mark Reckless, MP for Rochester and Strood, missed a vote on the Budget last week because he was completely blotto and incapable of stumbling through the correct lobby, it has emerged. Well what did we expect given his name?

Meanwhile, Bob Sensible and Kate Dull, MPs for somewhere else, just stayed in their offices watching Yes Minister DVDs and drinking Vimto until they were summoned for the vote.

Buzzed off

This story explains why it is bad to watch porn on your computer and have a crafty wank.

Not because it is evil or against the word of God or a bit dirty, but because you might die while doing it and coroners do not respect your privacy.

Which of us really wants the fact that we died while pleasuring ourselves to be announced to the press - and reported in the Daily Mail?

Split personality

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has not had a good week. First, he got slammed when a list of schools that were to be saved from the axing of the rebuilding programme included 25 that were actually due to be scrapped, as if that were a) actually his fault rather than an incompetent quango or b) going to make any difference to the quality of children's education.

Then, he got called "a miserable pipqueak" by a red-faced Labour backbencher (although personally I'd take that as an immense badge of pride). And now, he has had his English "corrected" by Hansard.

According to Paul Waugh's Evening Standard blog, Gove in his apology to the Commons ended by saying that he would like "to unreservedly apologise". But Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debate, changed it to "to apologise unreservedly".

Frankly, the sort of people who get het up about split infinitives really need to get out more (or should that be to more get out?) And I'm speaking as someone who believes that good grammar really does matter and should always be corrected. Unlike most pedants, I do not shudder when Captain Kirk promises to boldly go where no man has gone before, nor do I view it as a way in which we English are intellectually superior. There are plenty more solecisms in American English that prove that (such as "winningest").

The argument that it is wrong to an infinitive split is just silly, one of those inventions of the Victorians that pays no attention to how language works. They claimed it was because you don't get a split infinitive in Latin, but Latin does not use a "to" particle as part of the infinitive as, say, German does with "zu".

A split infinitive is common in ancient Greek, old French and other languages and was used in Middle English but died out for a spell until the 18th century. Shakespeare only splits an infinitive once (but we should never use him for grammatical perfection). Wodehouse often splits them and that is good enough for me.

It became so popular in the 18th and 19th century that grammarians clamped down on it quite hard. Perhaps that is why there is such a strong anti-splitting camp, because generations of pupils had it whacked into them not to separate "to" from the rest of the verb.

Either way, I'm not sure that Gove should take any mocking from Paul Waugh, who in his piece uses the phrase "bat and eyelid".

Saturday, July 10, 2010

How I learnt to love the bomb

Now here is a book I am keen to read. Was there anything as cool yet shit-scary as the Cold War, with its perpetual threat of mutually assured destruction and spies defecting and counter-defecting all over the place?

I say that with the casualness of youth, of course, having not lived with the fear of the bomb. I was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down, but my mother alarmed me last Christmas by describing how scared they all felt in the late 1970s and that if Armageddon had come, her plan was to walk slowly towards the mushroom cloud with me under one arm and my brother under the other. She can be a little Hollywood sometimes.

The Secret State, by Peter Hennessy, originally published in 2002 but now with lots of new declassified information, has the subtitle "Preparing for the Worst", a very British way of describing half a million tons of TNT being dumped on Trafalgar Square

Studying British implacability is something that Hennesy, who once taught my wife for a masters in politics, does very well. He is well connected with the Civil Service, basing much of his research on anonymous private briefings, and is also superb at weeding out fascinating titbits from previously archives.

Such as this one, which I read in Sam Leith's review of the book in this week's Spectator: "In the Macmillan era, senior civil servants fretted about whether to join the AA so that if the PM was in his care when the four-minute warning was sounded, he could use one of their phone boxes to authorise nuclear retaliation."

And then there is the "Spot the Bomb" competition that the Home Office included in an in-house journal showing fallout plumes from two bombs and you had to guess where they landed.

Or the conversation between Khruschev and the British Ambassador to Moscow in the early 1960s, when the Soviet president asked Her Majesty's diplomat how many H-bombs it would take to wipe out the UK. The diplomat estimated six, to which Khruschev told him not to be pessimistic and that it would take many more, before reassuring him that more than enough had been put aside for the job.

Or the revelation of who had a place in the nuclear bunker in the event of Britain being attacked. Apparently, a surprising number of typists had been marked to survive the apocalypse, there only being so much that a wartime PM could be expected to do himself when sheltering underground.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Reverting to typo

The Times has been going through one of those staff-culling periods that newspapers conduct every once in a while. It's never nice when friends leave, especially if it is not voluntary, and there has been a slew of leaving parties in the past fortnight.

The latest emailed announcement of a departure was given the subject line "The end of an error", which made me chuckle and suggests that either the departee is leaving of his own volition or that the Times news subs department remains the best repository of black humour.

It doesn't quite match the email from a senior sub after he had recovered from surgery to treat intestinal cancer, in which he announced that his colon had been amended to a semi-colon. However, it did bring to mind a CV that the Times property section, a former employer of mine, received a few years ago during the last big cull.

It was from a freelance sub who had been let go by the news department and was looking for new work. His cover letter said that he had worked for the department in "a particularly exiting period for the paper".

The property chief sub assumed that the error was not a grim joke and turned down the application.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Bang and blame

An unfortunate juxtaposition of news and sports headlines on the Express website, as noted by Fleet Street Blues.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Out of time

My sister-in-law, who probably has too much time on her hands, has just sent me this picture, which observes that today is the day to which Marty McFly travels forwards in time in Back to the Future 2, released in 1989.

Which is fine, except that Marty actually travels to 2015 in the film. Someone seems to have manipulated the image and then sent it around the world today. Strange.

Anyway, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. 2015 is only five years away: how close is modern society to the world that Marty McFly finds? Here are five things the film got right:
  1. Watching multiple TV channels on the same screen
  2. CCTV everywhere
  3. Video billboards (although not yet in 3D or see-through)
  4. Everyone having plastic surgery
  5. A baseball team in Miami (this happened in 1997)
And here are five things that have not yet happened - but they've got five years to get there...
  1. "Queen Diana", as mentioned on a news headline. (Guess they thought that this was a safe prediction - although QE2 may still be reigning over us in 2015).
  2. Flying cars
  3. Self-drying clothes that shrink to fit us perfectly and self-tie shoes
  4. No obese Americans all over the place (or is that just Hollywood?)
  5. Hoverboards. This is my biggest disappointment with the film's predictions.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

To pay or not?

This is my 100th post on the Questing Vole, so thank you if you have read some of the preceding 99, especially if you left a comment. They are all appreciated.

This blog is, of course, free and will remain so, unlike my cricket blog on the Times website, which yesterday slipped behind the Great Murdoch Paywall.

The issue of whether The Times should charge its online readers has attracted a lot of comment, generally unfavourable ones from those who think that all content on the internet should be free to read.

Most of these pooh-poohers seem to accept paying for newspapers in hard form. The Times put up a paywall around its printed newspaper back in 1785 and it still seems to be a working model at £1 a day (those who point at falling sales over the past decade ignore that circulation is double what it was 30 years ago). They also accept paying to watch movies or sport on TV through satellite subscriptions at up to £50 a month.

Why, then, is the idea of paying £2 a week for an enormous amount of online content anathema? Well, the main reasons are that it was always free before and you will be able to continue reading news elsewhere without paying.

Except I don't buy this. For a start, free does not mean good. Look at Metro or the Evening Standard: free newspapers but also unreadable tosh, fine to flick through for five minutes on the Tube but not something I would think worth spending money on.

Yes, there are lots of really good free websites out there - many not run by corporations but by individual bloggers - but they are only good because people spend a lot of time working on them. Those people should be paid. The reason I don't blog as often as I should here is because often I am too busy writing for money, but the Vole is a one-man operation. If you have a large team of people producing a hundred stories a day, you need to pay them and they would deserve paying by what they produce.

Also, I also don't think people buy newspapers for news any more. They already know what the stories are from TV, radio and the web, but they read The Times for the context and illumination that my colleagues place on the news. People may still not think it worth paying to read these people online, but they need to acknowledge that they are not coming to find news.

The thing that opponents of online charging do not understand is that, unlike private bloggers who crave readers for their personal satisfaction (I certainly do), big media organisations do not care if a large proportion of the online audience stay away. They just want enough people to read - and to pay - to cover the cost of producing a first-rate service.

In very broad terms (ignoring reductions for subscriptions and giveaways), The Times only needs to attract about a million paying readers to its website each week to double its income. It gets about 20 million unique readers a month, so it can afford to let an awful lot of them go.

And while the advertising revenue may drop at first because of the 95% reduction in potential readers, the paper's management can offer in return a better analysis of who the readers that remain are. They can monitor what stories they read and advertising can be targeted accordingly. In the long term, advertisers will see the benefit of knowing more about their audience.

That is not to say that I agree fully with The Times's online charging model. It seems strange that there is not an option to pay monthly or quarterly or annually. The constant pay-and-sign-in model will irritate many and irritation, more than cost, is a good reason to avoid things on the internet.

I would also like people to be charged by their time on the site rather than a flat fee for access. I'm not sure that our web strategists understand that people often only read small sections of a big website. Many of my cricket blog readers will only read the cricket section of our site - not even branching out into the general sport site. Some people will just visit to read a particular columnist or to get news from one sector where we have good analysts.

These people may not think that £2 a week is good value. But they might be happy to be charged 10p (or even less) a click and by retaining more readers that way, the paper would make more money. Technologically it should be very simple (look at how iTunes works). I'm sure our wonks must have looked at it, but clearly they feel that they "whole product" approach is the way they want to go.

Good luck to them, but farewell to those who used to read The Times online and won't any longer. We appreciate your support over the years. If you want some free reading matter, can I suggest the Questing Vole...?