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Newspapers - Who's At Fault?

This morning has seen some rambling debates (some might say 'arguments') on Twitter, regarding the current phone-hacking maelstrom. After filling up my poor friends' timelines, it seemed right to move here, to where I can try and explain my views in a few more than 140 characters.

My basic contention is that ultimately, "The Public" must bear some responsibility for the dubious practices of certain news organisations. I've been robsustly taken to task on this, on the basis that papers "should" act ethically and it's unreasonable to expect the public to hold them to account(1).

The facts are fairly simple.

Newpaper organisations exist to sell papers. People choose which paper to buy largely on the stories they can read, and the political slanting of those stories. Almost nobody chooses to buy the Daily Telegraph purely for the Matt cartoon (although, on occasion, I have). Therefore, to sell papers, news organisations have to produce stories that lots of people want to read.

Newspapers won't waste money on stories that don't sell. This is the logical corollary to the previous point. If the public woke up one morning and suddenly nobody cared who was sleeping with Katie Price, newspapers would pretty quickly stop paying for such information. Either that, or they'd go bankrupt. This is basic free market economics.

People don't care how those stories are obtained. This is clearly evident despite the current maelstrom. Nobody complained about politicians secrets were exposed, so it appears that the act of invading privacy for the purposes of entertainment is acceptable. Very few people, other than those impacted, really cared when it emerged that those secrets were exposed unlawfully, so it appears that committing unlawful acts for the purposes of entertainment is equally acceptable.

If people genuinely felt that getting stories through unlawful means was unacceptable, then where was the howling outrage, blood-baying and general lynchmobbery when it first transpired that newspapers were breaking the law? Nowhere to be found, because those who bought the papers just wanted the juicy stories, and the rest of us either didn't care because the victims probably deserved it or were just utterly unsurprised by it all(2). And while, if asked outright, the public would generally say they didn't want papers breaking the law on their account, there's a wilful determination to avoid thinking too deeply about it. It's the worst kind of "don't ask, don't tell".

Phew. So, the public - the market for newspapers - have tacitly accepted that it's ok to break the law if it's an interesting story. And the newspapers have responded to the market. Were they wrong to break the law? Of course they were. Are they responsible for their own actions? Certainly. But, and this is the critical part, the market - the public - is partially responsible too.

This in no way takes away from the original crime. The fact that someone gets arrested for handling stolen goods doesn't reduce the sentence for the original burglar. Stealing remains a crime. But the reason that handling stolen goods is also a crime is the same - because by doing so, you create a market that drives the original crime. Cut off the market - by refusing to buy that (potentially) stolen phone or that (potentially) illegally obtained story - and you remove the impetus to commit the crime.

That the papers have done wrong is not in doubt, and the public isn't in any sense legally culpable for the actions of those papers. But they did ultimately create the conditions that led to it and to seek to shirk that responsibility is, at best, naive about how the real world works.

The opposing idea - that newspapers should always do the right thing, is seductively utopian. Yes, it would be great if they held themselves to a high standard and resisted chasing readers, and ultimately money, with more questionable methods. It would also, however, be nice if we didn't need traffic wardens because everyone just parked legally.

And I would also like a pony.

(1) apologies if this misrepresents your position; it's how I read it. Feel free to correct me :)

(2) you'll never guess which camp my cynical arse happens to sit.


Revisiting Old Friends

Ok, so I haven't touched this blog for close on a year now - blame Twitter; I can mini-vent there and never have anything longer to say any more...

Anyway, on something of a whim I reinstalled Everquest a couple of days ago, just to have a poke around and see how the old place looks. It's an odd experience; EQ might have seemed leading edge in 1999, but today it's embarassingly ugly with a level of graphics that would make a Wii look embarassed, and a UI that's slightly more braindead than Windows 2.

I wanted to go back to the beginning; poor old Ahnlak might be level 65 but he was badly kitted out 5 years ago and besides, part of the draw is getting back to the bits of the game I know. At the same time, I don't have the heart to delete any of my toons, so I've had to jump servers - rerolling Ahnlak and the others over on AB. Maybe once I've got the old world itch out of my system I can go back to Prexus and dust the old guys off!

The controls are clunky and, after five years, forgotten. The quest system is as primitive as ever. The tutorial is actively unhelpful. And yet, and yet...

I'm back in love again. I ran through Ak'Anon (a city I always struggled with even when I was playing) and knew exactly where I was and how to get there. I headed straight out to my skeleton hunting grounds, and got jumped by the same high level skeleton that killed my first gnome almost a decade ago.

I walked out of Qeynos (again, not getting lost once...) to hear Fippy Darkpaw moaning about us ruining his lands. I'm already planning on where I'll go after Blackburrow and how soon I can go and visit Grimfeather. I'm digging through eqtraders trying to remember how this whole 'making stuff' thing works. And I'm looking at all these new layers of complexity that have grown up since I've been gone, and I can't wait to figure out what it all means.

I've drifted through other MMOs since I heartlessly abandoned EQ and they've always lacked that certain special quality. I'd always put it down to the old problem that EQ was my first and it was a feeling I'd never recapture. Turns out that feeling is still there waiting for me; I just had to bite the bullet and log back in...


New Year, New Rant

I'm very aware that this blog gets virtually nothing posted to it these days. It's not because I'm less ranty, but more because a lot of my rants are (a) fleeting, and (b) fit in about 140 characters. Twitter killed the LJ star, and all that.

Still, my beloved local council is being sufficiently crap that even I can't reduce it to the size of a text message, so...

First off, their website (for, tis the only way to do things like buy visitor parking permits). It's relatively easy to guess, because it's Barnet - so, barnet.gov.uk, right? Wrong. Unlike every other website in the world(1) Barnet demands the www prefix. Come on, it's not still the 1990s - it's actively hard to avoid that working by default.

Secondly, when I press the "sell me some parking permits" button I'm asked for my "permit reference number" and "applicant id". Now, I've never heard of these. I figured I could probably work out my permit reference number by, you know, looking at my permit. But I don't have an applicant id, and entering '1' didn't fool it. So, I had to phone them.

The good part is that I got through, fairly quickly, to a surprisingly helpful lady who quickly told me that not only was my applicant id not '1', but that the required 'permit reference number' isn't the reference number on my permit - oh no, it's a different reference number that's only used for ordering visitor permits. But, she can give me those details if I just tell her my name and address.

Hang on. Why can't the website do this? Why can't I just tell you where I live and give you some money, and you send out some permits? Why fanny around with all this applicant id nonsense? The absolute worst I could do would be to maliciously send (and pay for) some visitor parking permits to someone else living in the borough.

Still, success. Pointless hassle, but success. Visitors will no longer be threatened with parking tickets, or fighting with the ticket machine across the road (sorry Dave).

On an unrelated note: Barnet, just because it's conventionally called "grit" doesn't mean that you can fool us by spreading actual grit on the snow because, unlike rock salt, grit actually does fuck all, except making it look like our road has silted up.

(1) yes, yes, I know it's not actually every other website in the world, but you get the idea.


Missing the Point

I am aware that these days all I seem to do is poke fun at bad spam, but this amused me greatly this morning...

One of our websites has a 'contact us' form, which (as all contact forms do) asks you for your name, email address and message and then emails me whatever message they send. Pretty basic stuff.

The most common message we get is from SEO companies "guaranteeing" us the first page of Google (although not for any specific search term); I particularly like the fact that they always demand a response including the website address (but, err, YOU contacted US, surely you know who we are?!), phone numbers and physical addresses, despite usually being from somemadeupshit@gmail.com

Today, however, the "internet genius" who is offering us this fabulous service has put, as their email address, "224 Lawrence Road". Now, Gmail can be quite clever at times but I don't think even the mighty Google can deliver email to an address like that yet...

British Gas - Get A Clue!!

To be fair, this is an issue with all energy companies (although to be honest, I haven't really noticed those nice people at Good Energy doing it...) but British Gas were the ones foolish enough to send me my new bill today, so...

Why do they seem utterly unaware that energy usage changes seasonally?!

I pay by direct debit (because it's cheaper, and easier, and I'm lazy); however, because I don't always use exactly the same amount of gas my account drifts in and out of credit.

Over the summer, I've been paying an absurdly high monthly amount, with the result that my account is quite heavily in credit. So, at the end of October, with temperatures falling and the central heating starting to get turned on more and more what have British Gas done? Halved my monthly bill.

This is all very nice, but it means that in six months time, as I'm turning off the central heating, they will notice that I am, by then, heavily in debt to them, and they will double my monthly bill for the summer.


It seems pretty obvious to me, that people will use more in the winter than in the summer? Why not just look at my billing history, and work out that they only need to slightly reduce my monthly charge, and things will even themselves out over the course of a year?


Why Can't We Have REAL Coders?

I have the dubious pleasure of acting as more and more of the "Consultant" it says on my job description these days. Due to policies at a certain client, actual software development is all supposed to take place elsewhere, with the cheapest developers money can buy, rather than getting people who know what they're doing to do the job in a fifth of the time.

Now, wearing my contractor hat, this actually works out nicely for me. If there's a chunk of development that would take me 10 days, I now spend 5 days writing the spec for these drones and roughly 20 days "consulting" to explain how to do the damn thing, telling them how to do basic tasks like testing and debugging, and then working out what they've done wrong once it makes it into a real test environment. Makes the entire process more profitable to me (although it does suggest that this approach may be a false economy to my client... ho hum)

However, there is an emotional downside. I'm a coder by choice. If I wasn't being paid to do it, I'd be coding stuff anyway. I've also been doing it for ... eek, over two decades. So, I am both experienced, and a grumpy old man. I can, and routinely do, find fault with just about any other coder because nobody ever does things precisely the way I would. I know this, and accept it's a personal flaw, and usually will let things slide as long as they work.

My current "consulting", however, is reaching new depths. We have a system which reads in a (potentially binary) file, performs a few byte translations, and ftps the result to another machine. Pretty basic stuff, that should be bread and butter stuff to any half-decent coder.

The work, however, is done in C#, by someone who has clearly only ever been trained in C# and has no real grasp of how things actually run underneath all the frippery of DotNet. Consider, then, this email conversation which has taken place over the course of some 3 weeks:

Drone: We have some data corruption; also with very large files the process is very slow.
Me: Oh dear. are you by any chance reading the file in as text, rather than binary?
Drone: Yes. we will fix this.
Drone (some time later): The processing is still very slow - it seems to be when we're converting the string back to binary data to ftp
Me: Err... why the hell are you having to convert anything? Didn't I tell you to read it in as binary data?
Drone: Yes, we do. Then we convert it to string, do the translation, and convert it back.
Me: Well stop it. Not only is that horribly inefficient, but you're probably getting all sorts of stupid implicit conversions from DotNet. Keep binary data as binary, FFS.
Drone: Yes. we will do this.
Drone (some time later): We are still having data corruption.
Me: Fine. Send me the code for a change, or I'll refuse to help any more.
Me (after reading something which, charitably, we shall call "code"): So, still converting to string then? How else can I say this - it's binary data, keep it as binary data. Stop making things more complicated than they are.
Drone: But in DotNet there's no easy way to find and replace in a byte array. If I convert it to a string I can just use the replace() function.
Me: (bangs my head against the desk)

Now I have to find a polite way of saying "well what the f$*k do you think is happening when you call that replace function? You don't think that maybe, just maybe, DotNet has to loop through the damn string anyway? How the hell can you think that just because there's a function call, data processing a string will be any faster than data processing a byte array?

This just confirms to me that all programmers should, at a bare minimum, be forced to use nothing but C for the first 5 years of their career - preferably with a smattering of assembler. Bringing people up in high level "frameworks" apparently creates programmers with cotton wool for brains.


I Love Spotify, But...

But sometimes it does some Strange Things.

Wasn't sure what I was in the mood to listen to today, so I glanced down at the "Artists you may like" box that popped up. It offers up a half-dozen artists I've never heard of (no bad thing) along with their genre tags. This is where it gets odd.

Why does spotify think that I might like Common, described as "midwest, hardcore rap"? Or Jurassic 5, who apparently are leading lights in "Turntablism"? Is this what I get for queuing up Lady Gaga a few times? Has it completely ignored the time I've spent listening to their "Prog Rock" channels?!

(ok, I clicked on one and actually Jurassic 5 is quite listenable-to....)

Oh Joy

Loudtwitter is back. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted...

For a change... a rave!

Well, you've had to put up with various rants and I'm aware that a lot of them have been directed at Demon. So, by way of penance, I give you a first for this blog - an anti-rant!

Having finally been driven to distraction by Demon (blogs passim), I bit the bullet and drastically improved our internet connections. For the same price as I was paying Demon, we now have two ADSL lines, each one with a different provider - AAISP, and Plusnet. The reasoning behind this is simple - unless a plane lands on our local exchange, this should give enough redundancy that we're never offline.

I'll save the uninterested a long, rambling, 'these guys are so cool' raveCollapse )


Bad Spam

Just received some spam offering me design services, to mamtaskitchen. I'm choosing to ignore the clear implication that they don't think any design went into the website, but I was amused by the line:

If you already work with a designer, why request a quote to see how much you could save through one of our agencies.

Why indeed?