Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies

I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.

If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.

I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies”

Why I wrote my WordPress plugin

Strike one item off the bucket list: I’ve written a WordPress plugin.

Paragraph Level IDs is available now from the WordPress plugin directory, and I’ve created a static page on this site to explain the detail. But in essence, the plugin adds lots of little anchors into the HTML of your blog posts, before each paragraph.

This means that the author and users can link to specific paragraphs in a piece of online text.

This functionality is extremely useful when dealing with long screeds of text. Someone may quote a bon mot, but if you follow the link to where the writer says the quote came from, you often have to trawl through many paragraphs to find the quote and check the context. If a site has anchors, or id attributes embedded in the HTML, the person creating the link can send the reader to the exact paragraph in the text.

This is a very old technique, one that has been present in HTML since its earliest incarnations. But few people use it routinely on their webpages. This plugin offers an easy way to alleviate that inefficiency! Continue reading “Why I wrote my WordPress plugin”

I was using WordPress before it was cool

I have used every version of the software since the antiquated version 1.5.

Yesterday was the 10th birthday of WordPress, the blogging platform from which these words that you are reading are delivered to your glowing rectangle.1 Here is an interesting infographic, showing how dominant the software has become.

WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg has typed a love letter to his anthropomorphised project.

I’ve been using WordPress since September 2005, or eighty percent of the platform’s lifetime.  I have used every version of the software since the antiquated version 1.5.  When I began blogging, WordPress had been downloaded 538,514 times.  According to the infographic, that number has risen to more than 66 million.  This puts me comfortably into the earliest 1% of users.  I was using WordPress before it was cool.

When I began, the default Kubrick design had only just been introduced, and there was even an option to activate an older ‘classic’ template.  There were no options for uploading images (you had to do that via FTP or ‘hotlink’ from an existing image online) or integration with social media, and there was no way to change the look and feel of the site unless you knew some CSS and PHP.

However, the two core pieces of functionality that make WordPress so useful were already in place back in 2005 – themes and plugins.  By uploading small pieces of stand-alone code, you could change the look (themes) or functionality (plugins) of the site without messing with the core code.  That was not a unique feature of WordPress, but I am sure that the simplicity of the way it was implemented contributed to its success.

That, and the fact that WordPress is OpenSource, meaning anyone can edit the code and create themes and plug-ins.  I was very impressed when, in 2010, Mullenweg transferred ownership of the WordPress trademark to a non-for-profit company, meaning the platform cannot be sold to an Internet giant, as Tumblr was last week.

Other sites in which I have a hand that use the WordPress platform include The LIP Magazine archive, The Word of an Insignificant Woman, Liberal Conspiracy, and English PEN.



1.  Unless, of course, you’re reading this at some point in the near or far future when I have, in an ironic twist, abandoned WordPress for some other software and imported all my old posts.

The Tale of Two September 11s

The Free Word Centre has a couple of big bookcases at one end of its central space.  Last week, I was surprised to discover on the shelves a copy of the The Blog Digest 2007, which was edited by Justin Mckeating and features a couple of contributions by me.  It naturally drags to the surface those old thoughts about the nature of blogging and why someone does it.  Back in 2006, when we put together that book, ‘meta-blogging’ (i.e. philosophising about the nature of this new activity) was all the rage.  Nowadays? Not-so-much.   Back then, it felt as of blogging was its own thing, a distinct community with its own round-up.  Now, it is simply another way to take part in a global conversation.  Long-form Twitter.  Before, bloggers and journalists were considered different creatures.  Now, blogging is how journalists do their thing, and it’s never clear whether any given piece you might read online has also made its way into the printed edition of the paper or magazine.

I know why I started blogging: catharsis.  I was spending far too much of 2005 writing angry letters to newspapers, and submitting contributions to the BBC Have Your Say website.  The comments I made were on pretty much the same topics as the things I discuss on this blog even now: free expression, human rights, belief, foreign policy, the nature of democracy, gay rights, and the evolving internet technology.  It was a natural wish to be able publish without waiting for some editorial intern to deem my contribution as relevant!

I think my motivation for maintaining the blog has subtly changed since I began, seven years ago this month.  There is much less anger and frustration, less need to blurt out a rebuttal of some hideous, shoddy political argument. There are two reasons for this change.  The first is that politics has moved on: the insidious, divisive ideology pushed by President George W. Bush (and shockingly enabled by Tony Blair) has thankfully waned.  The second is that now I actually work in human rights campaigning, well within the London political ‘mix’ and with a tangible route to make a difference on the issues I care about.  The personal blog is no longer the only way I participate in the political process.  As a result, it becomes less urgent.

I am grateful that anyone stops by to read these pages, as I know many of my friends and a few strangers sometimes do.  But I know I have no right to expect anyone to continue reading.  With that in mind, I perceive a tendency to write as if I am taking notes, diarising (weblogging in other words) as a personal project.  I write as much for the future me as for the present you, the present them.  I often see the writing as a sort of insurance for the future, a partial brain-backup or a resource that an aged, dementia-addled version of myself can use to pass the time when I no longer go outside.

That, and a record for the progeny.  For the past few years, as I’ve mellowed, I have often thought of myself as writing for hypothetical children!  I am grateful to those among my own ancestors who wrote something for me, and it is not unreasonable to expect my descendants to read through the blog!  I hope they get a feel for this point in human history, and a sense of my ideals.   And if I seek to persuade anyone with my writing, it is them.

In a certain sense, therefore, this blog can be seen as shaped by two events, which took place exactly a decade apart.  The first is the infamous terror attack of September 11th 2001, which was the spark that ignited two wars and provoked the policies that so angered me.

The second event was the birth of my daughter on 11th September 2011 – one year ago today.  She cannot read yet, but now, at last, I know who I am writing for.

How Effective Are Free Speech Campaigns?

How can a campaign be effective in a country like Syria, which has recently become impervious to international pressure?

First posted over at the English PEN site.

In her monthly column for MediaShift, Jillian York (Director of International Free Expression at the EFF, and a Global Voices board member) turned her attention to online campaigns for imprisoned bloggers. In particular, how can a campaign be effective in a country like Syria, which has recently become impervious to international pressure?

As part of the piece, Jillian asked several free speech campaigners for their views on the question, and I responded on behalf of English PEN:

When a blogger is imprisoned, it is not just his voice that is silenced. Those who share his point of view are discouraged by his example, and choose to keep quiet. A public solidarity campaign on social media can have the opposite effect, emboldening others to speak out and fill the void left by their imprisoned comrade … so while the text of a message may be “Free Hussein Ghrer,” the subtext is “We Have Not Forgotten Hussein Ghrer,” which is a powerful message to send to the authorities. Sending letters or (as English PEN does) books to these prisoners carries a similar message.

You can read more of my comments, alongside those of several bloggers who are on the frontline of activism, at the MediaShift website. You can leave comments there too.

Lost Souls and Crossroads

And who should be one of the authors they publish? None other than… yrstrly.

Back in 2006 or so, when blogging was The Next Big Thing That Everyone Was Doing, there was much discussion over whether a blog could kickstart a literary or journalistic career. Writers News even commissioned me to write an article about it, in which I quoted the economist and blogger Tim Worstall:

Tim Worstall, editor of the anthology 2005: Blogged, agrees. “I’m not sure that it is possible to make a living from blogging,” wrote Worstall, in his Second Anniversary blog post. “But”, he continued, “it is entirely possible to make a living out of having blogged.” Worstall sees blogging as an alternative to apprenticeships and unpaid internships, a route to paid writing.

I think we can cite many examples of writerswho gained exposure through blogging and then found paid writing gigs: David Allen Green and Laurie Penny at the New Statesman; book deals for PC David Copperfield and The Girl With A One Track Mind.

Another route is that taken by the creators of the Pornokitsch Blog, which takes the transatlantic Science Fiction & Fantasy culture as its beat.  They have used their blog as a springboard into the publishing world, leveraging using the contacts and credibility developed over four years of blogging, to produce a series of short story collections. The blog as route not into journalism, but publishing.

And who should be one of the authors they publish?  None other than… yrstrly.  My story (0,0) is in the Crossroads anthology, released on the Kindle in August 2012.  Its a companion book to Lost Souls, “tales of woe and angst, loneliness, redemption and humour” including stories by Arthur Conan-Doyle, Benjamin Disraeli and Mary Coleridge.  If you order the limited edition copy of Lost Souls, you get Crossroads on the Kindle for free. You cannot say fairer than that.

Crossroads cover
Crossroads (cover) by Vincent Sammy

Can Publishing Be a Form of Fact-Checking?

For citizen bloggers, publishing a claim online carries the implicit (and often explicit) request – “please help me verify”.

And now for some Inside Baseball.

Last week, I managed to irritate legal blogger Jack of Kent (a.k.a. David Allen Green) by suggesting he was being stingy with his links, and then not telling him about it.  This was not entirely true on either count – He was not being as unlinky as I had thought; and I had tried to let him know.

Since David and I have worked together on the Libel Reform Campaign, I assume that he is not going to sue me for trashing his reputation in the Guardian.  However, elements of our exchange got me thinking about issues of ‘responsibility’ in blogging.

Here’s the thing:  When David asked me “why didn’t you check?” I felt strangely short-changed, despitre the fact that I certainly had not checked with him beforehand.  This is because when I typed the original post, I fully expected David to become aware of it. Incoming links and twitter recommendations usually alert people to the fact they are being discussed.  Moreover, I think some part of my subconsicious decided that to cite him was, in effect, an invitation to respond.  The invitation was not explicit, but to me it feels like an integral part of the blogging conversation.

I write this not to try and get myself off the hook for the pint I know I must pay to David, but instead to ask how responsible blogging might be different from responsible journalism. A key pillar of the existing Reynolds Defence (a public interest defence for libellous statements) is the idea of verification before publishing.  But should this hold for bloggers?  What of the idea (which I had internalised until David complained) that the early publishing of comment or allegations on a blog or twitter, is in itself part of the verification and fact-checking process?  For citizen bloggers, publishing a claim online carries the implicit (and often explicit) request – “please help me verify”.

Mainstream media critics of blogging, and the politicians, certainly disagree, and see the publication of anything unchecked as being irresponsible.  I would appreciate thoughts on this from The Man Himself – Could this form of early publication online be considered ‘responsible’, due to the very nature of the medium?

On Linking To Your Enemies

A a failure to link properly looks a bit sly and scheming. Let’s leave the obfuscation and misdirection to the newspapers.

In my morning trawl through the Internet, I noticed two examples of a practice that has become mainstream: denying the object of your opprobrium a link.

First, the fascinating Brian Kellet writes this, in a fisk of a Liz Jones column about the NHS says:

I’m not going to link to the original story because I don’t want to send visitors to the rag that is the Daily Mail.

Then, in a battle of the pseudonyms, highly respected legal blogger Jack of Kent decides that he is going to have an argument with Gudio Fawkes, but without actually namechecking Guido or linking to the ridiculous Death Pentalty campaign he just launched. I’m particularly disappointed in Jack of K, as he writes, in his very next post, that one should “use links and sources wherever possible.”

Linking out, regardless of whether you agree with the person you”re linking to, should be the standard for blogging, just as it is for academia. It is the link to sources which gives the work credibility. In contrast, anonymous gossip disguised as lobby reporting is one of the reasons why there is so little trust in journalists at the moment (a topic discussed at the recent POLIS journalism conference, where I asked a panel of spin doctors and hacks whether the press should abolish anonymous sources)… and the fact that a tabloid does not have to cite its sources is one of the reasons why #Hackgate could happen.

Moreover, we know that our online bubbles are not as diverse as we like to think. Safe silos like Facebook actually filter content to prioritise those people that you already agree with, and our failure to link out just strengthens the confirmation bias. I disagree with Paul Staine’s worldview and his approach to blogging, but I do actually want to know what he is saying about the death penalty, the better to campaign against him.

So, just as we’ve stopped using the Blame The Daily Mail cliche as a substitute for actual political analysis, can we have a moratorium on the whole “I’m not linking to those people” schtick, please? I know we can Google pretty much anything we want to these days, but not everything appears on page one of the results. Worse, a failure to link looks a bit sly and scheming. Let’s leave the obfuscation and misdirection to those outlets with lower standards: The Newspapers.

Blog Burning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post – ‘Write A Blog, Kill Your Career‘, about the possibility of bloggers going into politics and the trouble that their archives might cause them.  I linked to a marvellous cartoon by XKCD, Fuck That Shit, which summed up my attitude to the worry of self-censorship.

This week, that piece is looking prescient.  On Monday, Ellie Gellard, the activist/tweeter/blogger who launched Labour’s Election Manifesto, was ‘exposed‘ as having called for Gordon Brown’s resignation… two years ago.  Then on Wednesday, Chris Mounsey a.k.a. Devil’s Kitchen came a cropper on The Politics Show, flummoxed when some of his more colourful language was thrown back at him by Andrew Neil.  Mark Thompson has a good analysis:

I had hoped for a spirited and libertarian defence of his right to have an on-line persona that is close to the knuckle and still be involved in active politics.

Indeed.  It is actually quite disconcerting to see Mounsey, who has built a following out of his frustration with the way politicians obfuscate and blather, having to take a similar tone to many of his hate-figures.  Had he told Andrew Neil to “fuck off” the YouTube hits would have doubled by a couple of orders of magnitude, and it probably wouldn’t have done the membership figures for the fledgeling Libertarian Party any damage either.

Instead, he has done this:

It is very difficult to delete anything on the internet and I am not going to pretend that I can do so. However, gradually the caches will fade away, and those parts of The Devil’s Kitchen that are most damaging—the incredibly violent (though fantastical) demises of various politicos and their grubby little hangers-on—will fade away eventually. … And so, here we are—with The Devil starting with a clean slate.

Now, I disagree with most of Mounsey’s output.  I think his libertarian philosophy is based on some false conceptions at its very heart, and I find his climate-change skepticism very odd.  On the other hand, I feel an unlikely kinship – as part of the Edinburgh blogging ‘scene’ back in the ‘6 we had plenty of banter, and I once had a beer with him during the festival.  Crucially, his blog contatined denunciations of me and my ridiculous views, driving traffic to my site.  For all these reasons, his decision to remove his blog archive from the internet makes me uncomfortable.  As I said before, deleting a blog feels like a book-burning.  Its an unlikely form of self-censorship, and feels very wrong.

Photo by pcorreia on Flickr
Photo by pcorreia on Flickr

Recharge

If a blogger goes on holiday, and no-one reads his posts, does anyone notice? I was away, now I’m back.

Greek Balcony

If a blogger goes on holiday, and no-one reads his posts, does anyone notice?

Straight after the Oslo conference, a week in the sun.  There was no temptation to blog any thoughts while I was away, and only one or two brief tweets.  Its funny that, because blogging is an asynchronous medium, I’m only announcing I was away, now I’m back.

I really only mention this to contextualise further photo-blogs, with a Greek flavour, arriving later in the week.