Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

Gary elsewhere

At Soccerlens. Cambridge United’s difficult summer. It’s a bit out of date, actually, given that inbetween me posting the article last night and now the U’s have got a new manager.

C’est la vie. The perils of writing pieces around ever-changing news. I’m sure Heraclitus would have something to on this, more so if rivers were involved.

Blogging about a blogger blogging about blogging

Nosemonkey, who runs the excellent Eutopia, has a fascinating post on citizen journalism/blogging, inspired by an emailed question on the subject [1].

[A quick bit of background here, if you haven’t just gone through and read his long piece. On the day of the July 7 bombings, Nosemonkey ended up liveblogging the event due to conflicting reports on news channels, plus the general sense of confusion that abound. It was, and still is, a great example of how blgging and/or citizen journalism can work and is possibly one of the best posts to emerge from the blogosphere].

What’s refreshing is his mixture of cynicism and enthusiasm for blogging. Much as I’m a proponent for all that is Web 2.0, it’s always useful to step back and ask: “So, we can do this. What is it actually achieiving?” In the case of social bookmarking especially it’s a great way to share stories (an update on cutting a story out of the newspaper and passing it onto a friend), find great content, and, for journalists, track what users believe to be important. Slow burning stories can also be picked up this way.

The best blogs too aren’t the ones that claim to be breaking the news or searching for bias, but the ones that have a genuine knowledge and passion for their subject (which is why I think niche sites will be the next big thing, internet wise this year).

And yes, in these cases they often surpass coverage in the traditional media because the blogger is more au fait with the subject than the journalist (assuming the blog isn’t already hosted on a major site). Other citizen journalism is more a case of being in the right place at the right time and happening to have a blog.

The concept of citizen journalism from a few years ago is probably near to vanishing. Those blogs that do, on occasions, break news stories, are largely well-known and well-staffed (and often pick up their sources from other blogs or websites, they just don’t bother running them through the laywers first). More often well-known bloggers use their site as a shop window and earn their corn thanks to their blog but not because of it.

But blogging is still a great medium, whether you’re running a personal blog for three or four friends, covering a niche topic, or attracting a large readership as an expert on the topic. It’s a great way of carrying on the conversation beyond the news article (which I still think should be kept as separate from comment as possible), can provide a great lead for a story, or a change to gauge the depth of feeling if you’re a journo or PR. It also makes it easier to pick up on errors of poor writing.

I’m still positive about the bloggersphere and Web 2.0 as both a journalism and a publicity medium, and it’s great to see the media embracing new trends and experimenting with them, a la Birmingham Post and delicious.

But it still doesn’t hurt to be cynical about the Web. For every trend that works, there’s half a dozen that the media will jump aboard only for it to be a less than stellar success. In some respects you could say the philosophy of scientific testing and paradigm shifts applies just as much to internet trends as it does to biochemistry and physics. Eventually the problems with citizen journalism or a Web 2.0 trend will collapse under the weight of all the problematic rocks that have been thrown at it.

I’m not quite sure what point or conclusion I’m trying to come to here, other than embrace Web 2.0 but also question why, how, and what you want to achieve at every step of the way.

[1] I emailed Nosemonkey with a similar request several years ago when I was doing a similar piece for my postgrad course. If I kept the post from the now defunct Coffee and PC, I’ll post it up here. It’d be interesting to see if his views have changed since then.

Media Studies: Not completely useless

Wat Tyler has a list of subjects that won’t get A level students into Cambridge, along with a bit more about dumbing down. Given that nearly all the A levels I took were on the list [1], I doubt Oxbridge would come calling to me nowadays.

(Although, unless the standard of physics GCSEs has risen significantly over the summer, the sciences hardly inspire confidence for our great young minds.)

As somebody who spent the majority of his A level and university life studying soft subjects, I always feel slightly compelled to defend them. Or rather, the ones I studied, or near-as studied, in this case communication studies and media studies.

The latter may be perceived as soft. In some cases the syllabus and teaching methods probably are softer than they should be. But it doesn’t mean that media studies isn’t important. On the contrary, taught well media studies could be an important and useful subject for those who chose to take it.

The media is a wonderful and vague area, compassing everything from television to radio to newspapers, magazines, mobile technology, iPods, the music industry, blogs, podcasts, downloads and the internet in general to name but a few. The media is all pervasive in today’s society: our lives are surrounding by media of all sorts and, like it or not, the media will continue to play a key role in shaping the world around us, be it traditional mainstream media, online technologies, or a mixture of new and traditional [2].

So, if something is as all-consuming as the media, doesn’t it deserve to be studied? And if there are certain phenomenons occurring within this field, don’t these also deserve to be studied? And if the media is going to play an even more key role in the future of today’s teenagers lives, doesn’t that also deserve to be studied? [3]

Take Facebook, and social networking sites in general, which were the buzzword online of 2007, and have become an essential part of everyday life for some people. At university level, social networks, blogs, and other such internet phenomenons deserve to be studied: if something becomes successful or has a major impact on our lives, it’s worth asking why. And depending on what these studies produces, and what’s taught in modules on blogging and Facebooking, it’s not inconceivable such topics could filter into A level syllabuses sooner rather than later. If this enhances student’s understanding of the world they inhabit, and inspires them further, this can only be a good thing.

Of course, there are two things needed to pull up a soft subject such as media studies: a good syllabus and a good teacher. A quick look at a basic syllabus for media studies shows things haven’t moved on too much since I was at college nearly ten years ago. Certainly, more recognition of the impact media has on our lives would be a good thing. And I’m still to be persuaded on how shooting a quick short will enhance understanding of the media. But even so, there’s still much in there that can be used, applied and turn the teenagers into better informed citizens and consumers.

Media studies shouldn’t be seen as a better or worse option than more traditional subjects; all have their merits. It also shouldn’t be pushed as a soft option, or used by schools to massage figures. But if you’ve got a teenagers genuinely interested in the media then there’s no reason to discourage them from taking it. Similarly, if you’ve got a teen who has no clue what they’re interested in, it’s a case of directing them towards the course they’d get most stimulus out of.

This isn’t to say I’m a great fan of the plethora of media studies available at degree level – if anything there’s a few too many of them around, and they do their bit to keep wages in the sector reasonably low. But that’s another discussion for another blog post.

One final thought: Ten years ago, Film Studies was by far the hardest A level I took – I found it much more difficult than Philosophy. But it was also probably the most interesting. This was down in no small part to the inspirational teacher I had, who cut no slack to those who saw it as a way to coast through college and pushed us all hard, but if you were interested and keen to learn, she’d go out of her way to help you go that bit further. An the syllabus included elements of business, economics, and history among other aspects. It didn’t just view film in its own bubble, it took into account the wider effects of cinema. Result: not only did it increase my appreciation of film, it also taught me stuff I didn’t know about the world beyond that, and has proved useful from time to time on a practical level, which is what any good GCSE or A Level should be doing.

[1] Philosophy being the one that doesn’t appear. I’m not entirely sure whether that makes me more or less of a soft-subject man. I did, however, get a lot better in arguing and could throw out references to Aristotle, Descartes et al in an effort to make me look intelligent.

[2] Although it really is time to stop referring to line and mobile media as new media. It’s been around for long enough and is, by and large, nearly fully integrated into the MSM.

[3] This is an argument you could justifiably apply to other subjects such as ooh, I dunno, economics and physics, two subjects I’d love to see have a broader appeal, as they, like media, both explain how things work. I’d argue economics should really be pushed as an option at GCSE level, as the basics could easily be explained to a 15-year-old. And it ties up nicely with media studies as well.

McClaren does metaphysics

Regardless of whether Safe-Choice Steve McClaren actually uttered the (possibly) immortal lines of ‘We must fear the unthinkable’, the Guardian headline raises the amusing and interesting possibility that the England coach has decided a quick course is epistemology, deontology and existentialism are just what’s required to beat Croatia. Admirable though this may be, it’s enough of a job to convey to Joe Cole there are 22 men, himself included, on the pitch at any given time, a further ten of which (not including himself) are on the same team.

Still, should the experiment be successful I’m fully looking forward to Rio’s World Cup Wind-Ups being replaced by Rio’s Euro Existentialism where the Manchester United centre-half is joined by Alain de Botton, Merlyn Bragg and Richard Dawkins to discuss the place of Satre, Kirkegaard, and Heidegger in relation to the 4-2-3-1 formation.

Meanwhile, David Beckham would be a prime candidate for bringing Wittgenstein and Russell’s Principia Mathematica to a whole new audience, while Steve Gerrard’s response of: “Advanced striking role just behind Peter Crouch? I think not,” sees him disappear in a puff of logic.

The only explanation I can think of is McClaren is softening the England boys up ahead of the appointment of The World’s Most Intelligent Footballer The Guardian Reading Graeme Le Saux to the coaching stuff. Imagine the potential for a spin-off politics theory as Guardian Reading Graeme debates Marxism and Thatcherism with self-confessed True Blue, Frank Lampard. Granted, he’s incapable of worrying the Austrian midfield, but Frank could certainly cause problems for around the ballot box.

Coming soon to MTV – Pimp My Library: The Footballers’ Edition.

Mental, innit: the bleeding heart liberal’s obvious response

If you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear. Unless you’re mental unwell, in which case you’ll be locked up.

The government’s mental health bill, currently being debated in Parliament, makes me nervous. Very nervous indeed. In it you’re suddenly dispensing with the idea that someone is innocent until proved guilty, not to mention several basic human rights. Is this even compatible with human rights law?

I can see, and appreciate, what the government are trying to do here. It’s a tricky area: if someone appears to have a genuine and very real capacity to inflict harm or death on others then there’s also an argument for keeping them locked away, safe from hurting us or themselves. It’s a very utilitarian argument.

But two objections immediately spring out. The first is the thin end of the wedge argument. Who decides when somebody is a risk, and at what stage they can be locked up? Once you lock a few up, what’s the prevent some bright spark from deciding the policy is working well, so the remit can be extended. No, too dangerous for my liking.

Secondly, the individual may pose a serious threat. But, supposing they were allowed to remain free and never carried that threat of violence through? You’re depriving that person of their liberty.

A quick tangent. There are social factors which would suggest certain families or individuals are more likely to turn to crime or drugs than others. What, at a basic level, is the difference between locking up these people, or people with mental illnesses? After all, these families or individuals more disposed to crime could easily be removed, and a generation of career criminals, who would cause society endless problems, could be avoided. Should we lock these up as well? Or how about the wreckless driver who r is known to use their mobile phone while driving, or is simply a bad driver. These, it could be argued, are more likely to cause death by dangerous driving? Should they be locked up or have their licence revoked to avoid the risk of this happening? Again, what’s the difference between the two?

These are unusual, uncommon crimes. It’s not every day a psychopath attacks a family with a hammer, say. There is the argument that one is too much but unless you’ve got an authority who are prepared to take control and risk manage to such a high degree, people will slip through the system [1]. And even if the controls are tight, if one again slips through, there will be further calls, fresh legislation in response, the system tightens up and more liberty is deprived.

I live with somebody who happens to be working on issues surrounding preventative measures for mental health at the moment. I also know somebody who works in this area. I’ve spoken to both of them today – they’re both against it.

Ok, so they aren’t representative of the whole medical body but at least they’re able to speak with some amount of authority on the topic. They’ve both emphasised early treatments or better systems in place to spot those whose mental health is likely to reach this stage [2]. But, as one of them said, the problem with this is it’s difficult to quantify if its been successfully or not. Those who are successfully spotted and treated early on generally don’t go on to kill somebody, so there’s no bar by which you can judge a success rate or not. And with a government that places emphasis on targets and figures, it’s very difficult to see how this fits in with their vision.

[1] And this isn’t wishing to belittle, or be insensitive to those who’ve lost loved ones in cases that government’s trying to avoid.

[2] And yes, I’m well aware this is a massive generalisation, but I really haven’t got time to write further. I’m due somewhere in about 20 minutes.

What have the Swiss ever done for us?

Curious Hamster asks an interesting question: can there ever be objectivity in political debate?

My brief answer would be possibly yes, but currently no. But that’s probably not very helpful so I’ll try and expand.

At the last general election Channel 4 had this wonderful little fact checker tool on their website where they’d evaluate the truth behind any claims made by a political party. What came out of that was fact and probably as objective as you’re going to get.

But fact isn’t the same as truth, I’d say [1]. Take a story I covered recently. At a recent set of school league tables, School X was at the very bottom of the pile. But School X had also shown the biggest improvement of any school in its area. Thus from 2 different tables it could be categorised as both failing and improving, which is one for the linguists to argue over [2].

The next part is purely fictional. Supposing the two main political parties in the area wanted to make capital out of this statistics. The school, I believe, had been lingering around the bottom of league tables for some time and I think part of its catchment area was a particularly bad area of the city.

Political Party Y, the opposition, used the figures to argue that Political Party Z’s policies on education weren’t working. Z counters by saying that, on the contrary, the figures show that the education policy IS working.

At this point, just to complicate matter,s the third party, N, pops up to say the figures aren’t reflective of Z’s education policies but show their general policies towards deprived members of society aren’t working.

They can’t all be right, can they? Yet each argument could probably be reasonably built up using the same or similar data. It’s almost like a more detailed argument around the tree falling in the woods, which the Hamster mentions. We can prove a tree has fallen in the woods, but the data surrounding the fall could be interpreted as the tree making a noise, the tree not making a noise, or the tree exhibiting Schrodinger’s Cat-like tendencies [3].

All this makes life very hard for a journalist when they come to write their stories. If we take the starting point that each journalist considers it their duty to, and at all times attempts to be, objective [4] then, given the facts can be massaged to suit most political viewpoints, political reportage is very difficult.

Because there comes this thing called balance. Balance IS important in journalism, there’s no doubt about it. Without it, broadcasting especially would probably turn into a myriad of Independents and Daily Expresses. But is it objective?

Take this situation: you get a story in which you’ve got a claim from Side A against Side B. You’ve held it up to scrutiny, gone through their claim with a fine tooth comb and are as sure as you can be that what they’re saying is correct. You contact Side B for their response. It is, without doubt, utter bobbins. But, importantly, they don’t lie and their response is so simple and well crafted that it would be easily for a large number of people to accept.

You could write that Side B are talking rubbish in an opinion or editorial piece, but you know the story will be read by more people than the opinion article. You could run the story without any quote or response from Side B, but that would hardly make your news operation look fair and accurate, may lose you respect from your audience and leave you open to accusations of bias. So you could run the story, complete with response from Side B. It would be a fair and balanced report and, in terms of ‘he said, she said’ entirely accurate. But would it be objective?

In more practical terms, if I can avoid political squabbling, I do. My general rule of thumb is to ask how any such story will impact on my audience, the listeners. If my conclusion is the most likely impact it will have on Joanne Listener is to create a burning desire to grab these two diametrically-opposed politicians and bang their two heads together then I won’t cover it, or give it as much coverage as I could.

Of course, it is only a rule of thumb and can be changed, if I feel its important enough for the listener to know about.  So we’re pretty much back where we started.

See also: Brooker, Charlie, today’s column.

[1] And I’m not even going to attempt to answer the question what is truth. At least not yet, at any rate. 

[2] For the record, I reported first that the school had the most improved results, but league tables placed it at the bottom. I think that’s about as objective as I could have got, and hopefully the audience drew their own conclusions from that, whatever they might be. 

[3] Which, for me, is a good an argument as any for classifying politics as a science. Through enough rocks at most political theories and you’ll get some form of paradigm shift. 

[4] Which is a daft idea in itself. Every journalist is a person and they’ll bring their own idiosyncrasies, beliefs, prejudices, all manner of whatever hodge-podge is inside their head at that given time to the table, no matter how hard they strive to leave it behind. 

Death penalty, Musings on the

A hypothetical I’m sure no-one will thank me for posing….

So, let us suppose there’s a man in jail. He is a singularly wicked and evil man. He is perfectly lucid and in fine mental and physical health. Among his lesser crimes are murder, rape and paedophilia. He is, quite clearly, a danger to the public and will no doubt be locked up indefinitely, such is the risk he poses.

Using Glover‘s [1] definition of side-effects, in this case, again using Glover’s example, the man has no family, no relatives and no loved ones; not one person would feel loss at his death. He has repeated his desire to re-offend if he were to be let out. Such would be the terror installed in the hearts of the public if he were to be released there is no question of him ever becoming a beneficial or reformed member of society. Due to the danger he poses to others he must be kept in solitary confinement, at great cost to the taxpayer. Faced with no prospect of ever being released, his entire life is now a miserable, solitary and non-worthwhile existence.

In short, here is a man nobody would miss and whose net presence dead would be considerably better than alive.

But this individual has consistently repeated his desire to die by a method other than his own hand. Not only does his wretched state of current existence contribute to this state of mind but he has, in his own head, created some bizarre form of religion which sees his final ecstasy, and indeed martyrdom, created by being killed for past misdemeanours. In his mind, to waste away and die of natural causes would be the ultimate failure of his life’s purpose. He repeatedly pleads with his guards to kill him, and frequently goads others into trying to harm him. Death holds no fear for him, and the more gruesome the method the better.

Now imagine you are part of the jury that decides his punishment. You are not there to decide his guilt; that much has been established and confessed to. You can chose to give him the death penalty or life incarceration in his current conditions.. The power is yours and yours alone. What would be your choice?

[1] Causing deaths and saving lives, 1977


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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com