Tag Archives: Oxford

Witch-Hunts, The Media and Bloggers

I don’t read much in the blogosphere on China, although I’m starting to. But the mere act of exploring what is available in the blogging world on a topic I haven’t looked at closely for a while brings home to me how extraordinarily comprehensive the blogging revolution is. There are blogs for everything, and the discussion is often erudite, well-thought through and well-informed. But could it take us further?

One particular little side-alley (an occupation hazard of blog-reading, especially on a Sunday morning when I should be out hiking) made me wonder about the short-comings of journalism, and whether blogging might really fill the gap. I ended up (I can’t quite recall how) on the website of one Richard Webster, a writer based in Oxford. His latest book is an expose of a major police investigation into alleged paedophilia in North Wales, ‘The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The making of a modern witch hunt’ From the blurb:  

A large responsibility for creating the witch-hunt described in the book lies with journalists – and in particular with journalists on broadsheet newspapers. The narrative demonstrates what one editor, Peter Wilby, has himself noted: investigative journalists can be the most credulous of people. The Secret of Bryn Estyn relates how a broadsheet exclusive went tragically wrong, and encouraged the making of false allegations against a large number of innocent people. It sheds a revealing light on the current state of British journalism. Gary Horne, a former Panorama producer who is now a lecturer in journalism, says the book will be compulsory reading for all his students.

While he’s referring to the British media, one can’t help but draw similar conclusions elsewhere in the world. The U.S. media did a lousy job, on the whole, of delivering a skeptical and robust coverage of the lead-up to war in Iraq. Having just watched Hunting Of The President, and allowing for a certain degree of bias, one could draw the same conclusion about the Starr Investigation, and in particular its chief victim, the hapless Susan McDougal.

Why is it books, and occasionally documentaries, which are the ones to really shed light on these subjects? Of course, there’s the issue of time, both in terms of giving the researcher enough room to dig stuff up, and in how documents, sources and perspectives offer a better view of what happened months or years after the event. But even then, are blogs beginning to illustrate the weaknesses — bias, sensationalism, budgetary pressures, competitiveness — of traditional media? Or could they?

Publishers Upset By Google Initiative

Did Google check first with publishers before announcing its digital library initiative. Nature reports that publishers are irritated  because they weren’t:

Late last year, Google, based in Mountain View, California, announced a decade-long project to scan millions of volumes at the universities of Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Oxford, as well as the New York Public Library. The resulting archive would allow computer users worldwide to search the texts online. But some publishers complain that they weren’t consulted by Google, and that scanning library collections could be illegal.

Not everyone agrees: The story quotes Peter Kosewski, director of publications and communications at Harvard University Library, as saying the library believes that the way Google intends to handle copyright works is consistent with the law. Harvard is carrying out a pilot with Google on 40,000 titles before making a decision on digitizing its entire 15-million-volume collection. “We have a number of questions that will be answered by the pilot project, and that includes copyright issues,” he says. “We think it is a great programme Google has put together.”

Column: WordPerfect Office

Loose Wire — Office Challenge: Corel Software’s latest version of WordPerfect Office has some great features, including a dictionary to die for and fumble-free format switching; Is it time to ditch Microsoft?
By Jeremy Wagstaff, from the 8 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
It requires a brave soul to take on Microsoft on its home turf. Even more so when one of the main selling points is a blue screen that nostalgically reminds users of their youth.

Enter WordPerfect Office 11, the latest version of Corel Software’s suite of applications that is supposed to be an alternative to Microsoft Office, the lumbering behemoth that accounts for more than 90% of the “desktop office-productivity applications” market (in other words: word processing, spreadsheeting, making slide shows to impress the boss). At $300, it’s quite a bit a cheaper than Microsoft’s offering, and with its flexible upgrade policy, it means you can more or less trade in any competing Microsoft program for about $150. Not to be sniffed at if you’re tired of shelling out for a whole department’s worth of word processing. Oh, and for legal eagles and apparatchiks who love the old DOS, blue-screen look of WordPerfect, there’s that too, along with most of the original keystrokes.

But does it really make sense to ditch Microsoft Office? There are plenty of reasons you might not want to: While the main elements of WordPerfect Office are similar to those of Microsoft’s, don’t expect to find all the commands and keystrokes in the same place. That means you and your cohorts will have to unlearn quite a lot. And there are bits missing: There’s no e-mail program in this version, for example. While I found some elements of the word-processing part of the suite useful, I encountered what can only be called weird formatting issues, which nearly cost me this column.

But there are some positives. It will run on operating systems from as far back (gasp) as Windows 98, whereas Microsoft Office 2003 will only run on Windows 2000 and XP (go figure: it takes a non-Microsoft product to run on a Microsoft platform). There’s a great thesaurus and dictionary, courtesy of Oxford, which together give you extended meanings, choices of usage, related words, antonyms and what-have-you. Quattro Pro is a sturdy Excel spreadsheet replacement, while Presentations is half graphics package, half PowerPoint presentation creator.

And Corel goes the extra mile in ensuring that you can switch between formats easily: Say you composed a document in Microsoft Word; you can easily open it in WordPerfect, edit it, and then save it in either format — or countless others. You can even save a file in the Adobe Acrobat format, a great way to ensure your documents look as good on other people’s computers as they do on yours.

This commitment to easy jockeying between formats is a major strength. But it’s only part of what may be the future of software, and, perhaps, the salvation of Corel: easy switching of data between computers, between programs and between platforms, using something called Extensible Markup Language. XML — an open-source language developed by a consortium of manufacturers and developers — is an improved version of HTML, the programming language used to make Web pages. Simply put, HTML uses hidden tags so that different browsers know how to present information in similar ways: The tag <Title>, for example, tells the browser to use whatever font and layout it is programmed to use for that style to display the title of the Web page you’re viewing. HTML tags, however, are preset — Title, Bold, whatever — whereas XML tags can be modified by the user. Under XML a tag can be very specific, classifying the data it refers to: <Explanation of technical term>, for example, or <Inventory of pigs’ trotters from the Russian Steppes>, or <Information given by tech columnist that is needlessly confusing reader>. Any document that uses those tags can, in theory, hook up with another document that’s agreed on the same tags, meaning data can be shared, compared and combined easily, without a lot of converting and other jiggery-pokery.

What’s this got to do with Office suites? WordPerfect seamlessly weaves XML into its component programs, so users can, with relative ease, save documents in XML format. And, while Microsoft in theory offers the same thing, there are signs that it’s not quite playing ball: Only the whizzbang top-level version of the upcoming Microsoft Office will support full XML capability, according to press reports — a step back from its present version.

The reason? No one’s saying, but it’s quite possible that the Redmond giant sees a threat to its de facto dominance of the Office market. Not because folk like Corel may be stealing a few customers, but because XML may end up replacing the formats that you save your document in. Right now, most documents are saved as Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets as Excel files, etc. This makes sense because most people use those programs. But what happens if people start using XML — open, flexible, free — as a format instead? Microsoft may be left out in the cold.

This may never happen. For all their faults — and there are many — Microsoft Office’s programs rule the roost, and part of the reason for this is that they are good. Well, quite good, anyway. And while folk may grumble, no one’s really challenging them. Corel is to be congratulated for pushing the envelope with version 11 of WordPerfect Office, but as of this month it’s struggling to find a buyer.

My advice? Unless you’re mightily sick of Microsoft Office, or desperate to save cash, don’t ditch it quite yet. If you are, you might want to try another option first: OpenOffice, a free suite of applications which, given that most folk use only a fraction of their Office suite’s features, may well be enough.