The Sun is blue

The Sun has come out for the Tories. Which won’t surprise us, and it’s about time they switched. Labour and Murdoch were always strange bed-fellows. But the timing is criminal. It’s intended to distract and destroy and undermine consideration of issues. They claim it’s a response  in part to Brown’s lack-lustre speech at conference but that’s drivel. It’s long-considered, long-planned, the moment calibrated and calculated.

In short, it’s anti-democratic. We had the Telegraph hyping and spinning out expenses stories to maximise the damage to MPs credibility just before the local and Euro elections and that clearly had a big impact on the result. Now we have the Sun trying to torpedo Labour.

Why shouldn’t newspapers do this? Simply because in a mature democracy we need debate, and we need all sides (especially the major parties) to be able to advance their ideas and see them properly debated. With the press is the hands of a very few and very wealthy magnates who are in there just because they want to manipulate the process (to any of altruistic mind I apologise)  then it’s just not going to happen.

No-one raises the issue because they daren’t, they’re employed by one of the papers, they don’t want the flak because there is no-one out there who will support them.

At the moment it’s a downward spiral. As had been said this morning, news sources are now much more varied, so that is something of a balance. But the big media still set the mood.

The limits of blogging

In my last blog I argued that there’s a yawning gap between free and quality. Blogging is free. Magazines, books, print cost money. So too I argued should online, if we want quality. 

So why should anyone read what I blog? I need to add to the worldide online debate, add value to the debate. The value I get in return may be recognition and kudos and no more, and that for inveterate bloggers is great. No-one expects to make money from blogging, and no-one does.

But let’s not confuse debate with content and research, with the substance on which the online debate depends.

If that’s where I want my contribution to be I need to give it time, and time is money. Bear in mind that all the content I draw on as a blogger has a cost – news, research etc – although it may be several times removed from that original cost. If all we rely on is second hand, then we move further and further from the source and the truth. We’re in a dangerous world.

News-gathering, research, the investment of time and hard-won skills, all cost money.

If I want to take my reading as well as my writing more seriously I know where I’ll look. And I’ll pay.

Blogging is about debate, and it’s wonderful. But it’s starting-point, like a good dinner-party conversation (or maybe a monologue!), no more than that.

The price of freedom

I’ve just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece, Priced To Sell, on the proposition that the future according to silicon is free.  Gladwell’s starting-point:  the Dallas Morning News proposed licensing its content to Kindle, Amazon’s e-book reader. Amazon wanted 70% of the subscription revenue, leaving the Morning News just 30%. What’s more  ‘Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it on to anyone else they wanted’.

‘Information wants to be free,’  is the old mantra, which Chris Anderson in his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price considers to be as much a law as the law of gravity.

A few comments.

The curious thing is that out there not only the hardline bloggers and but also the panicking publishers (do books, newspapers, have a future?) seem to believe it. Yes, we all love free, and there are good experiments to prove it. But free is also a fad. We quickly grow tired of free. We learn not to trust it, and we realise as do shoppers the world over that free and quality, quality of content and quality of choice, don’t readily go together.

There’s another downside to free. It overwhelms us. We want guidance. Where can we find the good stuff? All those bloggers out there want to be heard, but we quickly find they add nothing to the debate, and if they do have something to say it’s lost, because they are operating outside those time-honoured structures which allow us to winnow out the wheat from the chaff. (OK, among the chaff has always been wheat that got missed. But that’s another issue.)

‘Free ,’ as Gladwell puts it, ‘means never having to make a judgement,’ and that would be (already is) a nightmare world. He also pours scorn on the idea that because the information can be free all the technology that delivers it will be free as well. Information is only a small part of the cost.

Put simply, quality information, information which answers your specific interest and needs, information that you know because of its source (publisher and writer) to be high quality, will cost you more. Technology may streamline delivery and make it possible to identify ever-smaller markets, but it won’t remove the need for quality or for selection.

So, let’s turn it round and re-phrase.  ‘Any old information wants to be free, quality information wants to carry a cost,’ and that cost is the payment for the quality that guarantees the information is worth reading. In this new age it’s taking time for practitioners in the publishing world to work out what that cost will be, as online competes with paper, and e-ink with the real thing.  But the hard truth is now and will be: if you want serendipity and distraction at the end of a hard day, check out free. If you want something to challenge you, to stimulate, entertain rather than titillate, to add quality, then you’ll pay, and pay willingly.

Why are we still putting up with all this talk of free? Ads on a website will generate enough revenue… Amazon is only a staging-post on the route to free…. and all that. For once I’ll support Rupert Murdoch. He’s doing the right thing charging for the Times Online. In this case it’s online and print sharing the same cost: online needs to contribute its full share.

Quality has value. Free is a parasite and no parasite has any value, any real existence, unless there’s a host..

Question Time only in name… we’re trading in certainties

Question Time on BBC 1 has become a good reason for going to bed early. We get the same issues that have been debated all week debated again, the same arguments, conveyed with that deeply unconvincing  passion that’s required of politicians and commentators these days.

Digby Jones insists there was no link between trade and Al Megrahi’s release in discussions with Libya, but he is concerned that an issue of such moment could be left to a Scottish minister to decide. It would be worse if Brown wasn’t involved.  Either way relations with the US were damaged. Digby Jones was an accidental politician, and it showed. His was a wise and common-sense approach. The exception.

Michael Heseltine sees not so much damage to the special relationship, and more a confirmation that such a thing doesn’t exist, which is mischievous. The term has as many different meanings as there are politicians and people. Given history, language, shared experiences links go deep, the special relationship is almost a default position but in terms of economic and strategic consideration we are only one of a number of partners – Germany, Japan and of course China. At least it was said with humour.

From the Lib Dens we had ‘astonishment’, and from Harriet Harman we had blather – assertions that convinced no-one. If Digby Jones was the exception these two were the rule.

What we have so much of now is taking sides, rather than a debate about issues, recognising shades of grey, sincere decisions that go wrong, misreading of indications. The Zen approach recognises that all arguments are tentative and personal, that everything changes, the view one week can be very different next week. It recognises how far the world falls short. It inculcates humility and wisdom.

My specific contribution here would be to argue that the surer and more assertive you are and want to be, the more cautious you should be. Certainty involves emotion, and emotion clouds the mind. It’s all too easy to rejoice in having answers, and the security that comes therefrom. A questioning mindset on the other hand allows us to keep an open mind, and be more aware of the others’ points of view.

Karl Popper argued against certainties, from Plato to Marx, in The Open Society, and for progress made through an ongoing and never-ending process of learning, of trial and error. In our time we find certainties underpinning the neo-con proponents of a market economy and US-style democracy. For them the only definition of a liberal democracy is an unfettered market economy, with no room for that other favoured and much more nuanced contender, social democracy.  For a few years the neo-cons in the USA and their certainties have called the tune in US policy. No more.

There will always be cycles in such matters, as we move toward certainty and the comfort of certainty (the end of history, the end of economics in the pre-2007, pre-crash days), and then back toward an open mind, toward learning and change, and humility. I was going to say toward insecurity as well, but that’s the point of this piece.  For certainty gives an impression of security, but given the impermanence of what it disguises it is fragile and liable to suddenly implode. Open minds on the other hand may appear unsure and vacillating and yet it is open minds that allow balanced debate and decision-making, and that has to be our highest goal, more than the decisions themselves.

If we get how we debate the issues right, then we will get the decisions right – or as right as we ever will.

Paranoia rules OK

Two months on, no blog, laptop crashed, new PC, new laptop, none of those saved addresses and re-assuring cookies making your computer seem like a friend, an extension of self. All an illusion: who needs a friend who hides so much away, and always wants more, and then relays it far and wide to people who want some kind of a hold of my ‘self’ –  want to know who I am so they can check on me, and sell me stuff, and catch me if I do something dastardly.

It’s all been said before. The world is intrusive, into every corner of our lives. Even on top of Snowdon last weekend I could have been picked up on Google Earth, and who knows who might have been there among the hundered or so on the summit with me.  Cameras everywhere taking pics: I’ll be on a  few, inadvertently, blocking the view. On Carnedd Llewellyn the previous day the cloud came down, and there indeed we have been unseen, unheard, unknown, but with the slight concern we might have been undone had we walked over a precipice.

Half an hour before we were watching a  mountain rescue as a yellow RAF helicopter hovered and winched up below us. That’s reassuring, they come quickly. But there’s another side to that too. We’re never out of range, even of a rescue helicopter. There were also brave souls hang-gliding.

Did they have cameras?

‘Paranoia strikes deep, into your lives it will creep,’   sang Stephen Stills forty years ago.

That’s the real worry. It’s all in the mind.

How to escape: clear the mind, unthink each thought, remove the cookies which track your memories back in such seemingly random fashion. When your mind is clear you’re no longer there,  though the cameras may think you are.