January 2006 Archives

The former chairman of Highbury House has emerged from hiding to explain why he invested so much of his own money in the company before it went bust. Dear old Kelvin has a go at the banks, among other things. I don't think he's going to be the last person to wonder exactly what was going through the minds of the bankers, Ernst & Young and everyone else involved before this whole affair is over.

Well, gosh. Apparently, someone in the US has published a memoir that wasn't entirely true. Astounding. Who'd have thought it? Even Oprah was taken in by it. Now there's a lot of soul-searching going on in the book publishing industry. But apparently, in the US, publishers' margins are so small, they can't afford fact checkers, unlike on the magazines.

It's a different world, isn't it? 'Fact checkers' on magazines? It's an entertaining concept to most British journalists. In the UK, we rely on the sub-editors to check facts. But it's a rare sub indeed who actually does this (and an even rarer sub who's given the time to do it). Certainly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who have checked the facts in my articles over the years. I actually need far more fingers to count the number of incorrect facts that various subs have added.

But fact-checking in the book world? Whoever heard of that? Surely that takes the fun out of half of them? Would Piers Morgan's 'memoirs' have been half as entertaining if they'd been true or if you hadn't known before reading them they'd they be a bunch of porkies? Sure, you don't want a maths textbook to be making stuff up, but most books - even the non-fiction ones - are supposed to be partial and subjective. I, for one, doubt there's ever been an autobiography that's been entirely truthful. Doesn't everyone know this already? So why the mock shock?

Still, some guy is suing the publishers of this particular book for $50 million, he's so appalled that the book wasn't non-fiction as claimed. You can see why US publishers might get alarmed about this kind of thing.

I don't know what will happen if this particularly litigious naif ever sees Fargo, but it won't be pretty. And if he ever gets started on 'Dr' Gillian McKeith's output...

Just when you thought January couldn't get any worse, now we have a government report saying the planet's even more completely screwed thanks to global warming than we'd previously thought. Worst fears realised include:

  • Decreasing crop yields in the developing and developed world
  • Tripling of poor harvests in Europe and Russia
  • Large-scale displacement of people in north Africa from desertification
  • Up to 2.8bn people at risk of water shortage
  • 97% loss of coral reefs
  • Total loss of summer Arctic sea ice causing extinction of the polar bear and the walrus
  • Spread of malaria in Africa and north America

I've put up week six of my set of Spanish flashcards, designed to accompany Instant Spanish, over on my iFlash page. I've also added combined versions of both the Greek decks and the Spanish decks, so you can revise all the words in one go once you've completed a book. Enjoy!

PS Learn rudimentary Spanish in six weeks? More like six months in my case. You know why? Journalist with something to do but no deadline: that's why.

Ringfenced guarantees

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Just spoken with one of the receivers at Ernst & Young and here's the Highbury payments situation from their point of view

  1. There's a single ring-fenced fund that covers all work commissioned from mid-December onwards. If you completed work for Highbury from then onwards and you have purchase order numbers to confirm the commission, you can still submit invoices to Jordan House, 47 Brunswick Place, London N1 6EB, marked for the attention of the receivers, and they should be paid.
  2. Any invoices from before mid-December are unlikely ever to be paid by E&Y, but they're looking through them to decide which are eligible for payment from the fund

I've got two contact points at Ernst & Young for you if you're a former Highbury freelancer chasing money:

0207 608 6300 (ask for the receivers when calling)

and

Maggie Mills
Ernst & Young
1 More London Place
London
SE1 2AF

Tel: 020 7951 9802

Hope they prove useful.

Subscribers to Model Boats and eight other former Highbury titles now owned by Encanta Media received a flyer yesterday saying the editors, management and staff have all joined Encanta Media and that they have plans to develop all the titles.

So that's good news for one group of former Highbury staff members, anyway.

Press Gazette has a little bit more on the Highbury saga today. A few notable quotes from Imagine MD Damian Butt that corroborate some previous entries here:

Growing tech publisher Imagine has swooped in on 24 computing titles at Highbury Entertainment — most of which were originally set up by the Imagine management team — but said this week that many had been “severely damaged”, possibly beyond recovery, in Highbury's final days.

and

Imagine MD Damian Butt said this week that liability for the debts had not been passed on to Imagine with the sale, adding: “Imagine already works with a large bank of freelances, many of whom are owed money by Highbury.

”All we can do is continue to ensure they are dealt with in a professional and punctual manner, and are paid on time to help restore their confidence.“

So, basically: expect a number of titles to close; expect no money if you're a Highbury freelance looking for payment from Imagine instead.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Tom Ferrick Jr levels the blame for the latest US journalism row on freelances in his latest column. Notable quotes:

Freelancers are the coolies of modern journalism. Many work for low fees, often juggling four or five assignments to make one meager paycheck. Temptation can be high - especially among those think-tank wonks, who consult with private companies, get grants for research from corporations, and write op-ed pieces, all at once.

In the old days, when reporters got paid a pittance, they often supplemented their salaries with similar jobs. They also were open to accepting free booze, meals, tickets and other emoluments from their sources.

Any of that sound familiar? Ah, British journalism: beyond the American pale.

If indeed that is the problem, there is an easy solution to this: pay freelances more money. I, for one, will get behind that, no trouble.

While the antics at Encanta and SMD/Remnant have been filling this blog of late, the situation with Imagine is still developing. Many are curious as to what's going to happen to the former Highbury Entertainment staff (and, erm, freelancers). This is the latest from someone on the ground who wishes to remain anonymous.

According to a meeting with the HR consultancy firm that Imagine have employed and reps from the NUJ and our accounts and HR departments, they are looking to make approximately 70 redundancies, which is obviously a large proportion of staff. Even more concerning for freelancers is the fact that they are planning to axe all but 13 of the titles that they have acquired.

What's shocking me is that the majority of staff haven't been given this information, and it seems to be down to the NUJ to keep us informed. Their plan now is for everyone to participate in one-on-one interviews with these consultants to justify our own jobs so that they can decide which positions to make available, and we will then have to reapply for our jobs.

I haven't verified any of this with Imagine or the NUJ (this is a non-paying blog and with taxes just around the corner and a big Highbury-shaped dent in my bank account, I have a lot of money-earning to do), so don't take it as gospel. Nevertheless, the re-interviewing procedure has been confirmed by other sources, so that part's almost certainly true.

Having been through a couple of redundancies myself, my heart goes out to you ex-Highbury guys. I really hope it all works out well for you.

SMD Publshing is still trying to keep a low profile, but has now revealed its true identity. It's registered a domain name, smdpublishing.co.uk, and here are the interesting registration details.

Domain name:
smdpublishing.co.uk

Registrant:
Remnant Media

Registrant type:
UK Individual

Registrant's address:
The registrant is a non-trading individual who has opted to have their address omitted from the WHOIS service.

So although they've been rather naughty by claiming they're an individual and refusing to provide an address, Remnant Media has finally given us proof that they're behind the purchase of Front, Hotdog and DVD World. Assuming, of course, that someone hasn't just filed a claim for the domain name as a bit of shrewd cybersquatting and put Remnant down as the owners for the Hell of it (Nominet doesn't do much by way of checking domain name applications).

Owen Davies is MD of Encanta

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Potential visitors to The International Woodworking Exhibition 2006 will be delighted to hear that it's to go ahead on the 17-19th February 2006 as planned. How do we know? Because Encanta Media is sending out emails to let everyone know. Apart from text at the bottom (written in black on a black background) about various matters to do with administration, we get confirmation that Owen Davies is the managing director of Encanta Media:

Owen Davies reveals his secret identity

The Joint Administrative Receviers contract only as agents of the Company without personal liability.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales authorises M.E Mills to act as Insolvency Practitioner under section 390(2)(a) of the Insolvency Act 1986 and The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants authorises R Bailey to act as an Insolvency Practitioner under section 390(2)(a) of the Insolvency Act 1986.

More background on Encanta deal

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The Yorkshire Post has managed to piece together the details of the Encanta/Brush Colour deal. Note the fact that a former Ernst & Young practitioner is behind Endless, the buy-out firm involved.

PS If you have problems with the link, go to the home page of the Yorkshire Post's site, then look through the business section.

The people of America answer the burning question “Why is President Bush so awesome?” (QuickTime required). There's a variety of answers, as you might imagine.

We're getting some potential names for the backers of SMD and Encanta now. It looks like SMD is a company set up by Remnant Media so that it can keep the likes of Front and Hotdog separate from its other titles. Meanwhile, Owen Davies, former financial director of Highbury, is being fingered as one of the names behind Encanta. All of this is just rumour at the moment, but I hope to firm things up.

SMD tactics look familiar

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This situation with SMD is looking mighty familiar. Yesterday, they didn't show up at all in a Companies House search, except as a dissolved company. Today, the paperwork has made its way through the Companies House bureaucracy and we have some new info.

It's all beginning to look very familiar:

Date of incorporation
Brush Colour:
8th December 2005
SMD Publishing: 6th December 2005

Name changes
Brush Colour:
Changed name to Encanta Media Ltd on 20th January 2006 (the same day it made its Highbury acquisition)
SMD Publishing: Changed name from Astroplan Ltd on 23rd January 2006 (the same day it made its Highbury acquisition)

Appointments
Brush Colour:
Registered through companies (“YORK PLACE COMPANY SECRETARIES LIMITED”, “YORK PLACE COMPANY NOMINEES LIMITED”)
SMD Publishing: Registered through companies (“ACI SECRETARIES LIMITED”, “ACI DIRECTORS LIMITED”)

Looks like someone's been passing around the company acquisition cheat notes.

Who are SMD Publishing?

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Can't find any reference to SMD Publishing down at Companies House. Well, that's not true actually: there's an S.M.D. Publishing listed as having been dissolved in October 1999. No companies of similar current or proposed names are listed.

Assuming that's the right name, for SMD not to be listed, it would have to be a sole trader or something similar (hence the lack of the Ltd monicker at the end of its name). But no one would buy Hotdog or Front without some kind of safety net, would they, unless the plan is to sell them on to a Ltd company at a later date?

It's all very mysterious.

UPDATE: One of the names behind SMD may be Simon Robinson, co-founder of Remnant, although that's just a rumour at this stage.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: The Media Guardian reports that DVD World went to SMD as well.

Press Gazette has the news first, this time: Hotdog and Front have been sold off to new company SMD Publishing. Notable nugget of information:

It was confirmed today, the company's remaining craft titles have been sold to another new company, Brush Colour.
Accountancy firm Ernst & Young, which has been overseeing the company's breakup since it went into receivership, said it could reveal no further details about SMD and Brush Colour, although it is believed they could consist of staff or previous management from the titles.

All the deals put together very quickly, huh? The fact that the confirmation is for Brush Colour, rather than Encanta Media, speaks volumes about the new owners not wanting to be named. And I wonder what happened to Remnant, last heard of doing their due diligence over the weekend.

UPDATE: The Media Guardian reports that DVD World went to SMD as well.

Who are Brush Colour?

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As discussed on Friday, the mysterious Brush Colour has bought Highbury's specialist titles. Now Companies House is open again, we can get a few more details on the company. They were only incorporated on the 8th December last year, just a fortnight before Highbury's difficulties became public knowledge. Equally strangely, they changed their name on Friday to Encanta Media Ltd.

Now I'm not saying there's anything fishy going on, but the two company appointments listed on their appointments report are “YORK PLACE COMPANY SECRETARIES LIMITED” and “YORK PLACE COMPANY NOMINEES LIMITED”. Looks like the new owners wants to stay anonymous for the moment, at the very least.

Press Gazette has picked up on Damian Butt's letter to me. Which is nice.

Incidentally, it's been intimated to me by various sources that since Imagine has only acquired the brands, rather than the limited company, that means there probably won't be any provision for paying creditors.

For both selfish and altruistic reasons, I'm hoping freelances like me may be the exception rather than the rule. Anyone from Imagine want to clear up whether the titles' freelances will get paid for their work? The last article in Press Gazette on the subject didn't fill me with confidence, since it suggested we'd get as little as 10% of our outstanding invoices, but I always live in hope.

If you thought greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions are where our worries end, think again. Nitrogen is a secret killer that we're ignoring at our peril, according to the New Scientist.

Turn off your gadgets at night

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We're a bit OCD about this at our house, but it's advice worth repeating: turn off your gadgets at night – don't leave them in standby mode since it wastes huge amounts of electricity. As this BBC article points out, if we all did this, we could do away with two entire power stations per year.

Just got this email from Damian Butt, MD of Imagine

Hi Rob

Just saw your blog (great name by the way).

To clear up the latest news on Imagine Publishing, we have acquired 24 titles in Bournemouth, which is the entire Highbury Entertainment portfolio. We haven't bought the company, that's gone into receivership, but we have bought the titles and the right to publish them. The titles include all the computing titles you mentioned, and also the videogames ones, but of course not Hotdog or Front, which are based in London.

We are now trying to create as many new jobs for the existing employees as we can

Thanks


Damian Butt
Managing Director

So that's that mystery solved. Without Hotdog and Front in the mix, that'll leave Imagine far more money to invest in the titles it's just bought, which clears up that worry.

It's good to know that Imagine are doing their best to save as many jobs as possible: if you recall, Highbury employees in Bournemouth voted almost unanimously for NUJ recognition recently, they were treated so badly. My hopes are that Imagine proves a better employer for them than Highbury. Since many are being re-interviewed for their jobs, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for them.

More Highbury details

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Two more mags have picked up the Imagine-Highbury story since my coverage yesterday: Next Generation and Gamasutra. It looks like Imagine have only bought five computing titles, including iCreate, Play Magazine, GamesTM, Advanced Photoshop and Digital Photographer. These are all pretty good complements to Imagine's existing portfolio, but there is considerable overlap on some titles: iCreate doesn't really compete with Imagine's Mac Creative, for example, but Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative are very much going for the same readers. It remains to be seen how many of the new titles will be dropped in favour of Imagine's exisiting titles (or vice versa).

As for the remaining part of Highbury's portfolio, that remains a mystery. Although the PA reported that the special interest titles had gone to Brush Colour, I can't find even the slightest reference to Brush Colour anywhere on the Net and my copy of the Writer's Handbook doesn't list them. So the possibilities are: they're very new (maybe even set up specifically for the deal); they're very low profile - which doesn't bode well for this group of mags which could do with a boost; PA got the name wrong, which isn't like them; or Highbury's been telling porkies - which is very like them. We'll have to see what further details emerge on Monday.

But of course, five computing titles plus Highbury's special interest magazines don't add up to the full Highbury portfolio. Just on the computing side, there's PDA Essentials, Website Maker, Practical Web Projects and Web Designer, to name but a few: you can get the full list at the Highbury Entertainment site. However, various news stories, including a piece in the Irish Independent, say that Imagine has bought the entire Highbury Entertainment division outright. Since that includes Hotdog, I think there's been some confusion as to how big the division is.

Kleinwort Capital's just invested £7 million in Imagine. That might be enough to launch the company into new markets, if they also bought Hotdog et al, but it would leave them stretched. But Imagine are really the old Paragon, the original owners of iCreate et al who were doing really well until they were acquired by Highbury. Their focus has been gaming and computing titles. Equally, analysts were arguing that all of Highbury's titles would go for £5-8 million. So, to have acquired the entire Highbury Entertainment division would have taken the bulk of Kleinwort's investment, leaving Imagine with little for consolidation. That makes me think the acquisition is limited to just the titles mentioned.

So that leaves the rest of the Highbury Entertainment titles, Front and a variety of other mags. I suspect quite a few of the mags aren't going to find a new home, simply because they're too close to existing titles. But that still leaves a few rich pickings for wily buyers: expect to hear a few more deals next week, with Remnant in the mix.

Thanks (as always) to Charlie Brooker for another of his weekly columns in The Guardian. This time he singles out Liz Jones of the Standard for her tossy, pretentious column and this particular piece of stupidity that should give Ben Goldacre on Bad Science an absolute field-day if he ever touches it with a ten-foot bargepole.

She's fine now. The same column goes on to describe how her depression was cured by a “psychic healer” based in Harley Street, who uses “sonar energy and quasar light (you don't actually hear sound or see light) to draw out negative energy from your body, realign your chakras and straighten out the kinks in your polarised magnetic grid ... it could be the best £125 I've ever spent”.

Can you see the blood coming out of my ears from where you are?

The Standard, incidentally, is the sister paper of the Daily Mail - the newpaper science forgot (or at least was refused entry to).

Imagine that

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As expected, Imagine has leapt in and bought iCreate and various other computing titles from Highbury. The special interest titles have gone to Brush Colour. No info on whether Front and Hotdog have stayed with Highbury or whether they're making their way over to Imagine as we speak, but if they haven't, I suspect they could be pounced upon by Remnant Media any moment now, if they haven't been already.

Phew. Close escape for the Highbury crowd there! Good luck to you all, guys. Hope you like your new homes.

Most UK journalists wonder what the fuss is about, but the US media industry is rife with people being fired for 'plagiarising' other reporters' work - ie quoting it without attribution. Plagiarism is obviously a Bad Thing, but David Simon, a former reporter now best known as creator of Homicide: Life On the Street and The Wire, argues that publishers are going too far.

The Hitch has joined a group of people who are arguing that the NSA's wiretapping has infringed their first amendment rights. I don't think they have a huge chance of success, but it's not totally pointless. It probably has a better chance of success than anything Congress will do.

This is what we want: more stuff attacking the algae-queen herself, 'Dr' Gillian McKeith.

I've already ranted about her, so I won't bother doing it again.

Scary Rubik's cube people

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Want to see people doing the Rubik's cube in 11 seconds or blindfolded? CNet has the video you're clamouring for then.

Embarrassingly, my mother-in-law gave me a Rubik's cube for Christmas and I can still do it. It may be 23 years or so since my halycon cubing days, but the moves are still there. Oh yes. Five minutes start to finish when I'm on form.

Sometimes, I hate myself with every fibre of my being.

Handy Menzies pronunciation guide

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Thanks to Hoses of the Holy in the Hallmark Universe for pointing me in the direction of this highly useful guide to pronouncing Sir Menzies Campbell's name correctly.

I remember the good old “thorn” from my days proofreading CD-ROM transcripts of the Tyndale Bible. That was a joyous experience, let me tell you.

Hitchens sees hope for Iraq

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Christopher Hitchens offers a hopeful piece on Iraq in today's Slate. I hope he's right.

Accountancy Age reckons Ernst and Young have whittled the list of potential buyers for Highbury's assets down to two: Imagine (as I'd hinted at some time ago) and Remnant Media (which I suggested on Friday). I'm surprised that EMAP and Dennis aren't on the list, if the article is true, but not totally staggered: Highbury, as it stands, isn't a natural fit for any publishing company except Future so many of the likely bidders might simply have decided there's not enough that does gel to be worth the acquisition costs.

Imagine's MD Damian Butt denied any interest in Highbury not so long ago, but he certainly doesn't rule it out. Remnant haven't said anything, but if they are after Highbury, Front is clearly their real target. I doubt they think Front by itself is worth over £5 million, but they might well be looking to acquire some adult titles that don't come in opaque cellophane covers.

If my spy is right, we should know by tomorrow who's the lucky winner.

Journalism morally indefensible?

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From Janet Malcolm's Journalist and the Murderer

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

What do you think?

From today's Romensko:

High school journalists in Stillwater, MN investigated a man pretending to be teenage member of British royalty who wanted to enroll at their school. They discovered that “Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland” was actually Joshua Gardner, a 22-year-old convicted sex offender from Austin, MN. “Why would a member of the royal family come to Minnesota to go to school?” asks a school newspaper staffer. When quizzed last month by student journalists, “his accent started to falter, and he became agitated,” says a student editor.

Wow. Just like Scooby Doo.

Still, all it would have taken was just one English person to have heard his name and that would have been “case solved”. For Americans reading this, claiming to be called “Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland” is to being English as claiming to be called “Brittany Mary-Lou Faffermeir-Kerry from Springfield, Hawaii” is to being American.

By the way, if he'd actually described himself as a “British duke” or having a “British accent” that would have given the game away even quicker: we only talk about English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh accents here and only ever Scottish or English dukes. Only Americans talk about British accents or dukes. Just some advice if you're ever planning on passing yourself off as someone British...

PS Did you see what I did there?

Lads mag 'Front'

So I decided not to pitch to that lifestyle mag with the porn bound in that approached me. Ethical problem solved by erring on the side of the angels, I reckon. But it seems that's not enough for those ethics testers in the sky. Because today I hear a rumour that Remnant Media, publisher of Asian Babes and other “gentlemen's magazines”, might be cruising after Highbury because of its ownership of FrontLoaded for those who can't reach that “illustrious” mag because they've stunted their growth.

I refused to pitch articles to Evil.

Then Evil came after me and begged me to pitch.

Now, Evil is going to buy someone I already work for and dare me to stop working for them out of principle.

Can I pass this challenge? I hope so. I'm hoping even more that Dennis or EMAP buy Highbury's magazines, though. I can't really be all that ethical if I already work for Front's publisher, now can I?

PS Apologies for the illo, but that was the cleanest one I could find...

I hear a tale that at the Daily Mail, two reporters are always sent to cover each story: they interview the same people (or maybe different people), they do the same research and then they write their articles. The editors compare them the better article is used, maybe with parts lifted from the lesser piece.

Spiked now appears to be following the same philosophy by having two people review The Root of All Evil, that eye-poppingly silly programme Richard Dawkins presented on Channel 4 on Monday that tried to claim religion was the cause of all the world's problems.

Now being an atheist myself but having gone to Christian schools since the age of four, I'm aware of the arguments on both sides and know it's not as clear cut an issue as Dawkins would have us belief. Jesus or Mohammed may well turn up tomorrow and say, “Yes, I know the evidence in my favour was very flimsy and mostly contradictory. But guess what? I am the son of God, so there.” Can you prove they won't? No, you can't. You can't prove a negative: it's just a matter of faith, based on probabilities and past experience that they won't. Personally, my money's on Buddha though, but I'm just a contrarian.

Indeed, Dawkins' frothings have gone past the point of usefulness. Where once he used to spell out the case for evolution so that even those with no biology education could see how it was all really, really obvious and well supported, now he just struts about sneering at people and tarnishing the relatively good name of atheism. All that does is convince believers and abstainers alike that atheists are a bunch of arrogant nobs who think we know it all and have nothing but contempt for others who “can't think as clearly as we do”. Honestly, true believers, we're not all like that.

Demolishing a programme in which the host just sits there, driven so angry with rage at the 'stupidity' of everyone he meets that his face starts to glow and he's incapable of speech, shouldn't be hard. Yet while the science correspondent at Spiked delivers a well reasoned and well written critique of the programme, the TV reviewer has chosen to launch his inaugural column with a stream of pretentious piffle that's impossible to wade through. Amazing. I'd suggest they swap jobs but the fewer arts graduates writing about science the better, I reckon. Maybe the science guy could do the TV reviewing as well.

For once, the former Living Marxism should take a leaf out of the Daily Mail's book and remember to drop the rubbish version of the article, not publish it and give it greater prominence. Fat chance though.

One of the frequent complaints made by people about Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column in The Guardian is his tendency to disparage arts graduates, particularly those that write about science for mainstream publications. Goldacre argues that they really don't know what they're talking about, give incorrect explanations for things and generally give science a bad image, with their constant fixation on “formulae for x” where x is the perfect Christmas pudding, relationship, film, CMOS substrate, etc.

Not wishing to generalise, however, I've tended to side with the complainants. But today has been an eye-opening day.

I took my wife's car in to be MOTed this morning. She's off for a weekend with her girlfriends and since she'll be working non-stop for the next week or so, she won't have any time to take it in herself. I got to the garage at 8am, dead on. Normally (I did this the previous two years as well), it takes a couple of hours for them to run all the checks, and since the garage is in the middle of nowhere, I wait there while they do them. This time, however, it took until 11.30.

I hadn't planned for this. My laptop gave out before I'd watched even one DVD of Peter Brook's five-hour The Mahabharata. I messed up the Sudoku on my Palm Pilot. Tetris got boring after a while. So I started reading the papers. I started with The Times, which turns out to be duller and stupider than I remember.

First off, the telecoms correspondent said that WiMax was faster than WiFi because it had a speed of 8Mbps. Last time I looked, eight was less than eleven which is the rated speed of WiFi. Sigh.

But then the health correspondent claimed that electroshock therapy was being used more often than before because the stigma it had gained from One Flew of the Cuckoo's Nest had nearly worn off – not because they'd improved its application, started using anaesthetic and muscle relaxant, etc, although a handy box-out did at least mention those vital sub-points.

So I started to think maybe Mr Goldacre had a point. Then I picked up the Daily Mail.

Hatred of the Daily Mail is compulsory for many liberal and left-leaning people, myself included. Many people hate it because of the things they think are in it, without even having read it. I remember a former colleague's look of amazement after she'd read a copy. “It's even worse than I ever thought possible,” she explained. Those of us who had read it nodded sagely. My hatred for the evil rag stems from my actual familiarity with its contents.

So it really was my own fault. I knew the veins were going to start throbbing in my head before I'd even started; I just didn't know at what point.

It was Melanie Phillips' column. Phillips had already been the target of one of Goldacre's columns, in which he'd pointed out the absurd levels of ignorance she had exposed in a piece on MMR. But today she surpassed herself.

Apparently, the discovery that plants produce methane even when not decomposing shows that “scientists” aren't to be trusted. If they can't get this right, over “the second most important” greenhouse gas, then how can they be trusted to get climate change analysis right, Phillips wonders? She then explains how climatology uses computer models that can't be trusted, and that those who believe in climate change are really just anti-American and anti-business.

Having been an Americo-phile (is that even a word?) from an early age, I took exception to this anyway. But the sheer levels of jaw-dropping, vacant idiocy involved in this took me aback. Philliips, who I suspect lacks scientific qualifications of any kind (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) and who knows the subject so well that she doesn't appreciate that methane is a greater greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, feels equipped to judge the vast amounts of evidence and work that's gone into climatology and climate change research in general.

Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that one group of scientists does all the research in all fields (“Hi, my name's Dr Steve PhD, and when I'm not trying to invent cold fusion techniques in this lab, I create polymers next door, investigate plant species and cellular mytosis over there and model climate change in the computer lab up there”).

In Phillips' world, because biologists have discovered something unknown about plants, that means climatologists can't be trusted. Wow. That makes sense. Using the same argument, I immediately deduced that because the features editor of Daily Mail has run an article on why the Bible code is all true, none of the paper's movie reviews can be trusted.

In a sane world or on a sane newspaper, the Daily Mail's editor would have killed the column as soon as he saw it and told her to write about what she knows, not what she clearly doesn't. But he didn't. And I just know that there's at least two Mail readers who have come away from that article thinking they're now better informed than 'the common herd' as a result of it. Bastards.

If I become Prime Minister, my first job will be to pass a law that only science graduates can write about science in magazines and newspapers. Or elect Ben Goldacre PM: he's right about them, you know.

'Subs' again

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Ah, I know I've ranted a bit about 'subs' before, but a couple of things to complain about this month.

First off, apologies to Ryan Style, whose perfectly reasonable question about Safari for iCreate's helpdesk this month got replaced by an answer about iChat AV that got written by my predecessor over a year ago for some other question. Can't imagine how that happened. Ryan, if you want the actual answer, click on the “continue reading” link at the bottom of this entry.

Now the second complaint. Don't mess around with jokes (or 'jokes' in my case) unless you know what you're doing. Two 'sub' amendments occurred in a couple of articles of mine this month (no names mentioned).

The first changed “Macs” to “Mac computers”: gosh, that sounds naturalistic, doesn't it?

The second changed “the most powerful Mac in the universe” to “the most powerful Mac in the known universe” (my emphasis). So we've gone from a slightly geeky reference to He-Man (“the most powerful man in the universe!”) - although take a look at this Slate article to understand the rationale behind my joke choice – to a Dune reference (“the emperor of the known universe”) that isn't even a joke. Why, why and thrice why?

Possible reasons

  1. To be pedantic? After all, there may be planets out there we haven't discovered that have life forms using even more powerful Macintosh computers
  2. To be philosophically pedantic? There may actually be more than one universe and it may contain parallel versions of ourselves using Power Mac Octos
  3. To piss me off? It's always possible
  4. To stop it being funny or even a joke? It's a serious business, this Macintosh journalism
  5. Some other reason? Fill in the blanks yourself on that one

Bloody 'subs'. Leave my stuff alone unless you know what you're doing. Or just let me know what you've done so I can help you if you have any questions. Blimey, I always used to let authors see what I'd done to their work before it went on the page, just to make sure I hadn't misunderstood anything. So how's about it 'subs'? Or are you worried you'll be told off for doing things wrong?

It's very easy to have theoretical morals. You can say to yourself “I'll never write anything for Associated Newspapers for as long as I live”, knowing full well that the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday et al aren't going to beat down your doors with thousands in cash to make you.

But what happens if someone dubious does come to your door, offering you money? Is it easy to make the same commitment?

I have an ad in Press Gazette. It runs weekly and is mostly useless; I'll get round to changing the wording some time, I'm sure, but I doubt they'll ever get round to so much as hypertexting my URL and email address on their web site. Lazy buggers.

24-K

Anyway, I've just had my first editorial enquiry as the result of it. A Spanish company is launching a new mag, 24-K, and they're looking for freelances to fill its pages. The money isn't brilliant but it's not awful and they're looking for gadget and film reviews, which I'm more than up to.

The problem is this: bound into every edition of the magazine will be 12 pages of hardcore porn. And this is a Spanish magazine we're talking about here, so I'm guessing 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner' it ain't.

Now I'm not especially against porn in principle. My concerns are for the models who are often drug addicted, psychologically damaged after sexual abuse and so on: these are well-worn arguments and I don't have to repeat them here. If the models were all happy, well-adjusted, well paid and so on, I'd have no issues.

Anyway, essentially, this company has made its money from the exploitation of the vulnerable and anything I write will not only be paid for in part with that money but will be accompanied by yet more exploitation.

On the other hand, it'll be cash, a new client and more articles to add to my portfolio that could eventually get me more clients, more cash, etc. Maybe this company's models really are happy, well-adjusted, etc and I'm just making assumptions. And there are plenty of companies out there who have made their money dubiously without any of us realising it: how many Daily Express readers know how its proprietor made his millions? How many Daily Mail readers know that the Rothmeres supported Oswald Mosley and Hitler? Then there's GAP, Nike, McDonald's, WalMart, et al. Do I stop working for or buying from any company that may have compromised ethics? I'll starve if I do.

Suddenly, the ethics of the situation don't look clear cut. What do you think I should do? I'm siding with the “don't do it” argument at the moment, but I'm still feeling the temptation...

Norwegian Bloggers are mental

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From Romensko:

Three out of 10 bloggers in Norway blog about their mental problems. According to an analysis of 100 Norwegian blogs, conducted by Univero Fishnet, the blog has come to substitute for the old diary, not only in the sense of a serving as a journal, but also as a place to express one's deepest feelings.
Says analyst Ole Petter Nyhaug to VG Nett (Norwegian language), “It's frightening what serious problems young people give away in their blogs. For eight out of 10, blogging is a sort of self therapy.”

Not a huge sample size, but interesting nevertheless.

I'm already on record as having more than a marginal dislike of Generation Y. Now I see there's a book, Generation Debt cover Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to be Young, designed purely to inflame my visceral hatred of these Nathan Barleys. It seems that while they've been taking these three month jobs to pay for walking trips in the Andes, they haven't actually been paying for them at all. Instead, they've been mounting up debt on their Virgin credit cards. Gits. Anyone can do that: you're just lucky enough to be the first generation that credit card companies have been willing to give stupid credit limits to. Now you're complaining you have to pay it back and you can't fit your canoeing lessons in any more? Bah!

My reason is too clouded to give a full critique of the book, but Slate has a nice counter to it, written by someone equally as embittered as myself.

Ignoring its slight pretension, can you imagine, even for one second, a UK editor writing this column?

Not very well written, but an interesting critique of video game journalism nevertheless. Not a genre I've ever really written for, but I can understand why it would suffer from the alleged problems if it's anything like film journalism.

So now we know. The FT quotes Peter Bolton King of the National Association of Estate Agents as revealing that

  • “Aspirational pricing” by estate agents had contributed to the stalling of the market last year
  • Some estate agents persistently overpriced over the past year.
  • They did this solely to get instructions from homeowners

Bloody estate agents. No wonder no one can afford to buy houses any more. That and the buy-to-let and mouseholing crowd.

Charles Kennedy
So what's up with with Lib Dems? Charles Kennedy has been rubbish as a leader for years now, but it's only now they have some competition in the form of David Cameron they decide it's time to do something about it.

Charlie fights back by declaring he's an alcoholic, hoping the ever-so-nice Lib Dems will give him a sympathy vote come leadership election time. Now, my initial reaction is that you don't fire a guy simply for having a disease: I thought we'd moved on as a society from that point. However, he claims not to have had a drink in two months now, yet he's continued to be a rubbish leader the whole time, so I think we can conclude he's a rubbish leader and an alcoholic, not a rubbish leader because he's an alcoholic. So he should be fired, rather than using his disease as an excuse.

The problem is that the Lib Dems don't have any obvious replacements. They're all so nice. There's no Paddy Ashdown or David Owen equivalent, who not only really wanted to be leader but who had experience of leadership. Even that guy who has nine black belts (I dare you to name that Lib Dem politician!) is too nice and lacking in charisma. So before giving Charlie the push, I think a bit of searching needs to be done to find a decent replacement. Otherwise, the Lib Dems are going to be back in the also-ran position, without any to give their economic policies a much-needed modernisation or the British public the idea that they should be elected for any other reason than not being the Tories or Labour.

Highbury up for sale

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Highbury House is selling all its magazines, now the banks have stepped in. Can't say I'm too surprised. Here's hoping they and their staff all find good homes. And that I get paid.

UPDATE: Looks like Highbury is only going to be able to raise £8 million at most from the sale of its magazines.

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that a leaflet claiming Chinese medicine is safer that conventional medicine and can cure 66 conditions, including lung cancer and depression, was both dangerous and misleading.

QFS.

While not up there with Mr Yous(o/a)ff in turns of silliness, that's a pretty dumb series of statements to make in a leaflet. Even China's clamping down on unsubstantiated claims from practitioners, although it only started to draw the line when people started to make claims for immortality.

I hope the Authority next turns its attention to Dr Gillian and others who make similar, albeit lesser unsubstantiated claims for their products. I doubt it, given Channel 4's and mainstream resellers' endorsements of the modern-day snake-oil saleswoman. But I can hope...

Interesting legal note on Salon today, stemming from the coldly frothing pen of Sidney Blumenthal. In it, he points out that President Bush has pioneered a new tactic in deciding which laws to follow. By including in the presidential signing statement a clause on how the president believes it applies to the executive branch, he can more or less ignore it, it seems – think of it as a “I will/will not follow this law” checkbox. Very wily.

A system of checks and balances? Of laws, not of men? I don't think so. But if that's not what the American people want, who's to argue with them?

If you think British taxi drivers are rude, how about this Parisian driver? I can't personally attest to the rudest of Paris' hire car industry, since the last time we tried to hire one, it didn't turn up.

We try to be green in our house. We recycle. We try to reduce electricity consumption whenever we can. We walk, cycle or use public transport where possible. We try to buy products that use little packaging.

We've also tried using products from Ecover. For the most part, these are well worth using, assuming you can believe all thei company's statements about environmental friendliness.

But we've come a cropper with Ecover's washing powder. Despite the company's warm words about the powder not being irritating to the skin, we spent three of four sleepless nights scratching ourselves silly after using the powder on our bed linen. After re-washing the bedding in Pesil non-bio capsules, an uninterrupted night's sleep all round. Hooray. Not so environmentally friendly, but at least we won't go postal from sleep deprivation.

What gets me is that my otherwise sterling immune system, previously only allergic to penicillin and cat and dog hairs, should have a problem with the plant extracts used to make the Ecover washing powder. What plants are they using? Nettles?

To prove that bloggers and Google News robots can't do the work of trained reporters, Chicago Reader executive editor Michael Lenehan proposes a year-long journalism strike.

“I am urging reporters and editors around the world to put down their notebooks, close their laptops, hang up their phones. Lie down and be counted! Let’s have no reporting, no editing, no application of any human intelligence whatsoever to events public or private till January 1, 2007. I’m calling it the Year Without Journalism. Let’s all relax, let go, and float blissfully in the information-free state (excuse me, I mean free-information state) that our public awaits so eagerly. ... Let’s see if Wonkette can deal with the devious bastards in the executive branch any better than Judith Miller did.”

No salary for a year. I can manage that...

The effects of binge-drinking

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What better way to investigate the effects of binge-drinking than to binge-drink for a month?

The BBC is running a story containing 100 facts we didn't know last year. Aside from the 101st fact that we did know quite a few of those things if we'd ever read a book before 2005, there were quite a few interesting nuggets in there, notably:

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered.

50. Only 36% of the world's newspapers are tabloid.

53. It takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone.

65. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, had a hand in creating the Klingon language that was used in the movies, and which Shakespeare plays were subsequently translated into.

99. The Japanese word “chokuegambo” describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.

Just as the UK government starts to become convinced that nuclear is the only option for future power needs, renewable energy has started to become more affordable. This slightly US-centric article looks at some of the trends in renewable energy in 2005 that will lead to even more green energy sources in 2006.

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