Saturday, October 13, 2012

What if it's the citizens that are right?

Wake up, Australia! You don’t understand the real story about that Julia Gillard speech in parliament this week.

First the turn of events: Julia Gillard spiflicates Tony Abbott in parliament; public applauds; international journalists applaud; local commentators complain that we’re both mistaken; bloggers respond; local commentators repeat their complaint.

For example, there’s this, from Fairfax’s Lenore Taylor, in which ordinary punters cheering for Gillard are accused of neglecting the context (that context, we’re reliably informed by everybody, is that Gillard made the speech in the context of defending the indefensible Peter Slipper).

It’s a patronising attitude, because it oversimplifies the audience, pretending that I (for example) cannot cheer the speech while being uncomfortable with its context – or that I should not.

How can I hold this apparent contradiction without bursting?

Easy: because the other piece of context that matters is Tony Abbott’s use of the phrase “died of shame”. It was tasteless, provocative, deliberate and inexcusable. Ms Gillard may have had her material prepared – but Tony Abbott provided the moment.

I can’t be the only person who’s sick to death of the double-standard under which journalists make excuses for Tony Abbott’s behavior – which incidentally creates the double-bind that Ms Gillard finally broke out of this week.

Abbott says whatever enters his brain, regardless of context; why, then, is it either fair or reasonable to criticize Ms Gillard’s response to him on the basis of the context? Mr Abbott has debased both the political and factual debate in this country; but his critics are apparently bound by courtesy and propriety, the rules of which are known only to the commentariat. 

The "it's just Tony" thing - "Boys will be boys, but the PM must hold herself to a higher standard" - is part of the problem - part of the misogyny.

The people are right. The commentators are wrong.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Misrepresenting Antarctic ice and climate change

Tim Lambert over at the Deltoid blog would probably be better at this, but he’s been quiet lately and I have a few minutes to spare, while I wait for a university to answer my call.

The Australian, courtesy of Graham Lloyd, is running with the old “what about Antarctic sea ice? Huh? Huh?” line, here. As is noted all over the world, at a time when Arctic sea ice has shrunk dramatically, there has been an increase in the sea ice down around the Antarctic.

And because there are still people in the world who want to muddy the climate change waters, the Antarctic is now becoming the poster-child for the denialist mentality.

So I guess I may as well spend a few minutes on the issue. I’m not going to refute The Australian point-by-point, but here are details to keep in mind when skeptics roll out the “Antarctic sea ice growing” argument.

      1. Most of the Antarctic’s ice is on land, not sea – and the land ice extent is shrinking, because the southern land ice loss is greater than the sea ice gain (source:
2    2. Sea ice formation in the Antarctic is being influenced by factors like the ozone hole (which reduces atmospheric temperatures), water freshness (rising, which makes it easier to freeze), winds and so on.
3    3. While the extent (ie, the area in square kilometers) of Antarctic sea ice is growing, some research suggests it might be getting thinner ( - so the change in the overall volume of sea ice is much less well understood.
4    4. The Southern Ocean is still warming (

That should do for now, I suppose …

Monday, October 08, 2012

Why don’t journalists tell “important” stories?

Because – as if you didn’t already know this – people don’t read them.

I mean this.

People. Don’t. Read. Important. Stories.

The entire Internet knows damn well the meaning of the expression “linkbait”: it means posting a story solely for attracting readers so your ads will do well. “Nude Paris Hilton in iPhone Phishing Scandal” will do nicely or, to be more contemporary headline-wise, you could try Patentology’s “Smartphone Wars, Gangam Style”.

Why do people do this? Because it works. It makes money.

Bluntly, even more than television – which may from time to time be ruled by a proprietor who cares about quality – the Internet’s perverse reward is this: write about high-rating trivia, make money. Write about something that actually matters, lose money.

I can’t reveal the Web server statistics from over at The Register, where I generate some of my income. But relativities will do nicely if you remember that the numbers I’m going to give you have to be multiplied by some number of thousands to approach reality – and no, I’m not going to tell you.

Here are three stories I filed today, not in any particular order:

(Synopsis: the US Supreme Court may give copyright holders control over people who sell stuff second-hand)

(Synopsis: Amateurs build a UAV that wins a prize by locating a dummy, representing a missing bushwalker, without human help)

(Synopsis: an interesting Acorn Worm at the bottom of the Atlantic bears a superficial resemblance to Yoda, if you have imagination and the right angle on the photograph)

Now: I have my own opinions, as you will have yours, on the relative “importance” of these stories. For my money, the right to sell things you own – not just books, it could be a designer dishwasher or a computer – is pretty fundamental to the notion of privat property, and should trump the list.

So what’s the relative ranking of the three stories?

Yoda worm – 6 hits per unit
Resale rights – 1.8 hits per unit
UAVs saving lives – 1.5 hits per unit

That’s right, folks. The “linkbait” Yoda-worm story out-rated two “important” stories by three-to-four times as many readers. Multiply it by the right number of thousands – no, I’m still not revealing that – and you have serious money involved.

(Yoda was so popular it was Number One during Monday in Australia time – but I can see any number of stories rising with a bullet as England wakes.)

The painful fact is, people, that the Internet offers a perverse reward: the right linkbait will beat the important story nine rolls out of ten.

One of the reasons I write for El Reg is that I still have license to write stories that I think may be important, even when those stories don’t set the wallets jangling. I strongly suspect that few journalists get to make those decisions for themselves, especially when there’s an Apple launch in the offing.

I’m lucky.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

PS: neither is 2GB a victim

Oh, for pity’s sake.

The Macquarie Radio Network has taken a commercial decision to suspend advertising on Alan Jones’ program – and this is a freedom-of-speech issue? Mumbrella, the cheerleader of advertising, thinks so (

Spare me.

Here’s the cluestick: I have an absolute right to spend my money as I wish. I do not have to decide that I need to tailor my spending somehow to avoid “censoring” any radio shock-jock at all.

Moreover: I have an absolute right to say “If Mercedes gives money to Alan Jones, then I won’t give my money to Mercedes” – I choose the least likely scenario, because the only Mercedes I’ll ever afford would have a 1960s compliance date, and Mercedes wouldn’t get any money from me anyhow.

Further: I have an absolute right to say that I’d like other people to express a similar opinion.

But no: in a lame Twitter defence of its position, Mumbrella directed me to the petition to have Jones pulled from the air. This, Mumbrella claims, is censorship.


That’s not censorship: that’s a citizen expressing an opinion, and inviting others to endorse that opinion. In other words, since Mumbrella’s intellect seems to lie on the left-hand side of the Bell curve: it’s an expression of freedom of speech.

And Macquarie Radio is still free to ignore that expression, should it so desire.

You see: the only decisions in this example are, on the one side, personal; and on the other side, commercial. The personal decisions are “Do I seek signatures to the petition?”,  “Do I sign the petition?”, and “Do we publish the results?”

The commercial decision is “Are there enough angry people to damage our brand? Do we continue lending our commercial endorsement to this program?”

Neither rank as censorship, because neither rob Alan Jones of his right to express his opinions. He can take them to the Domain, should he choose; write them in letters to editors, post them on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. He could buy his own radio license and – within the bounds of regulations that MRN is subject to – broadcast them unfettered. He can accept speakers’ fees, publish his opinions in books, whatever.

Then, as now, I have a perfect right to ignore him – and a perfect right to ignore those who want his audience and don’t care what he says. My right to choose where I spend my money cannot be fettered by the commercial interests of Jones’ advertisers.

Without sponsors, all he lacks is privilege. And privilege is not a question of free speech.