From the archives: Journalism

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First one to play MATTEL is a gullible ouroboros

Tuesday, 6 April 2010 — 6:53pm | Journalism, Scrabble

In a stunning reminder of why news media should refrain from acting as aggregators for corporate press releases, Mattel scored a marketing coup today when it announced that an upcoming edition of Scrabble will permit the use of proper nouns. You would think this presents itself as yet another opportunity for me to be indignant about dictionary politics, but I honestly don’t care—not about the Scrabble, anyway. This is only confirmation of what we already knew: that Mattel is every bit as capable of executive insanity as its sworn enemy Hasbro, Scrabble’s corporate steward in North America.

[Edit: While I was composing this post, Stefan Fatsis wrote a piece for Slate explaining what’s going on, and CNET had the sense to talk to John D. Williams. Mattel is promoting a spinoff product called Scrabble Trickster, with cards that allow players to bend the traditional rules—kind of like the “Cheat” card in Munchkin, but less funny and presumably without cartoons. I’ll leave my original post up anyhow.]

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On the origin of specious journalism

Sunday, 14 March 2010 — 1:45pm | Canadiana, Journalism, Science

I read something dumbfounding today. You could say it was founded on dumb.

On first inspection, John Ibbitson’s article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail (“Core support keeps the PM in thrall”) is an ordinary, forgettable opinion piece that uses the recent silliness over the lyrics to the national anthem as a springboard for restating the obvious: the Conservatives can’t win a majority because every time they’re close, the mythical Republican-style rabble-rousers lying in ambush in the tall grass of the Alberta prairie celebrate with a premature volley from their unregistered firearms, and the rest of the country begins to have second thoughts about whether letting them win is a good idea.

Never mind the questionable statistical basis for linking one issue to the other. This isn’t news to anyone who follows Canadian politics in a sound state of mind, nor is Ibbitson’s sensible identification of the Tory core as moderate centrists (however incongruent that may be with partisan caricatures from both the left and right). There’s nothing here to see.

But the way he puts it is bizarre:

The great political irony for the Conservative Party is that, while it must avoid estranging core conservatives at all costs, extreme core conservatives keep the party from winning a majority. They are the social Darwins.


Most of the time, these right-wing nuts are ignored. But whenever Mr. Harper appears to have enough support to form a majority government, the base starts to get excited and aggressive, and social Darwins “bare their teeth and embrace things that the majority of Canadians don’t want to see,” says Mr. Turcotte. This frightens enough centrists to keep the Liberals in the game and the Conservatives confined to minority governments.

For those of you who are unaware, I am presently writing from what must surely be the Darwin capital of the world. It’s wall-to-wall Darwin here. All year long I have bathed in the most glorious talk of the literary Darwin, the proto-feminist Darwin, the abolitionist Darwin, the invalid Darwin, the patriarchal Darwin, the imperialist Darwin, the epistemological Darwin, the analogical Darwin, the cultural Darwin, the impressionist Darwin, and Quentin Blake’s cartoon Darwin. I am a stone’s throw away from Darwin’s letters, Darwin’s Plots and the Darwin College bar. I’ve seen the poor fellow’s name used and abused in every imaginable way.

I don’t have the foggiest idea what John Ibbitson means by “social Darwins.”

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An old sweet serif

Friday, 22 January 2010 — 8:16am | Computing, Journalism

This just in: I can’t believe I crapped out a thousand words on a niche issue that might have mattered to half a dozen of my acquaintances three or four years ago, when I have academic work to do and a deadline coming up fast. It bothers me. It is costing me sleep.

But I know why I did it. It was Georgia.

You won’t have noticed it if you only read my site on Facebook or your RSS reader, but this week I made some minor tweaks to my layout, and it got me thinking about web design again for the first time in many moons. It began innocently enough. I’d fallen in love with Georgia again, thanks to the online edition of the The New York Times. This is what happens when you read the Times as much as I do: the typesetting becomes inseparable from the text, the text indivisible from the Web; and so daintily, transitively, your memories of other faces slip away like dingbats in the cold, long night.

I’m usually cautious around these upstart fonts for the screen—Georgia is practically an infant, designed in 1993—and ever since I brought my site into its present incarnation I’d stuck with old, reliable Garamond the whole way through. Garamond the Wise, Garamond of Many Colours! How soon had I forgotten that in my former locale, Georgia was once my face of choice. Maybe this is why typographic fashion has borrowed the language of haute couture: one look at the Times and you tell yourself, I want to look like that. Those curves, those stately majuscules.

So I opened up my stylesheet and changed the type. Before I knew it I was fiddling with a margin here, a colour there—minor cosmetic obsessions, nothing big. Then the title image; then a plank for recent comments along the starboard side. It’s not perfect, but it’s tidier now and I felt an overpowering urge to write some copy just to give myself an excuse to look at it.

Don’t worry, though—I’ve not cast away my classical tastes. Jenson remains the champion of the page.

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Twitterpated in Persia

Thursday, 18 June 2009 — 12:04pm | Computing, Journalism

I’m as glued to the fallout from the Iranian “election” as anybody else, and if there was one opinion I wanted to hear, it was Marjane Satrapi’s. More than one outlet has sold the present events in Iran as the 1979 revolution reborn, often with a suggestion that it is the long-concealed expression of the way the revolution ought to have turned out had the fundamentalists not steered it off course and filled the power vacuum themselves.

When I read Satrapi’s superb graphic novel Persepolis, I described it as “an act of remembrance for the promise of an Iran that could have been, had the theocratic powers that govern Iran not shoved that promise in a closet, and had the rest of the world not believed them.” Well, the citizenry sure hasn’t forgotten, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see it. It is as if the silenced middle class of educated moderates decided to speak up all at once and say, enough is enough.

For those of you just catching up: Juan Cole summarizes the top pieces of evidence the election was stolen. Christopher Hitchens highlights the blatancy of the fraud when set against the trends in the rest of the Islamic world. Poll analysis superstar Nate Silver and his colleagues at FiveThirtyEight crunch the data and offer their findings in a comprehensive and, thank goodness, levelheaded series of posts, reminding us of the alternative scenarios and the fact that statistics don’t prove a whole lot to the outside observer who fails to account for the reality of the political climate.

Andrew Sullivan has been on top of things from the beginning, as I knew he would be, and if you like your aggregated updates five to ten minutes apart you’ve already been reading him all along.

And now, for a bucket of cold water.

I am deeply unimpressed at the media, by which I mean both the frumious bandersnatch of the “MSM” and independent bloggers, and their coverage of Twitter.

I only signed up for Twitter two weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to find it useful all of a sudden. Yes, it is newsworthy that it’s our best source of information on the ground when the Iranian government has taken the usual precautionary measures to shut down cell phones, block social networks, restrict bandwidth, arrest and expel journalists, and jam BBC satellites. Yes, it is newsworthy that Twitter shifted its maintenance schedule to accommodate its Iranian users, presumably at the behest of the Obama administration. It is being used to publish eyewitness reports and organize impromptu rallies. And probably the most encouraging thing I’ve seen it do is facilitate the emergence of a mutual understanding between the western and Iranian citizenry: more people know, and the Iranians know they know, that the Iranian people aren’t a rabble of fundie terrorists. (Their state is a different matter entirely.)

But Twitter has taken over the Iranian story to an unconscionable degree. A good proportion of the Twitter traffic about Iran involves people far away from the action feeling important about themselves for using the service, bashing the mainstream media while linking to their stories about Twitter. The peak of involvement among its users was, narcissistically, when Twitter announced its maintenance delay. Sullivan goes so far as to retract his previous mockery of Ashton Kutcher’s pronouncement in that most happily credulous of early-adopter rags, TIME, that “the creation of Twitter […] is as significant and paradigm-shifting as the invention of Morse code, the telephone, radio, television or the personal computer.”

I don’t buy it, and neither should you.

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Sacre bleu!

Friday, 4 November 2005 — 12:19pm | Journalism

It’s probably a measure of how out of touch I’ve been lately that I didn’t know about the new biweekly two-page supplement in The Gateway until this morning. Let it be known that Le Miroir is neither as backwards as its name implies nor miserable and inadequate as its host language suggests. There’s no online version, but as happenchance would have it, one of the contributors to its debut spread lives within striking distance of my Linksys router and has kindly (or narcissistically) provided a sample hither.

I welcome the campus broadsheet’s latest appendage with open appendages of my own. Part of it is that it will assist me in slowing the atrophy of my aptitude for comprehending the loverly language of diminuitive Alp-crossing conquerors. French is fun to read even when it’s not relegated to demanding hefty Austro-German reparations, and I find it encouraging for the paper to declare itself “tout simplement francophile” in its mission statement. And beyond that, Thursday’s Miroir, tucked into pages 10 and 11, looks terrific – it’s typeset in the standard Gateway style, fitting right into the same InDesign templates, but the absence of intrusive advertising materials makes a huge difference.

Disregarding content for now, the only really visible copyediting problem is in an opinion piece by some bloke who calls himself Carl “Le Cat” Charest. No, not the unordered-list formatting problem – that’s a lesser concern. Let me put it this way: I don’t know if using italics AND all caps for emphasis (particularly the latter) is as frowned upon in the other langue officielle as it is in mine, but I always figured it was the case. It hurts us, preciousss.

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