No prizes for noticing the slowly growing buz on the web about Twitter. Along with all the hype however, there is a perhaps greater than usual (usual for an emerging web tool) volume of noise from those expressing dislike or just down right puzzlement. twitter_logo_s

‘So, what, you just post short messages about what you’re doing (“i’m brushing my teeth”) and anyone who wants to follow your life can? I don’t get it. Isn’t that just a lot of distracting noise?’

Say some people.Then:

‘Doesn’t it just feed the celebrity culture, where people are more interested in the banal events of others lives than the significant ones of their own?’

Say other people.

Like these people, I am predisposed to skepticism with this one. ‘Sounds dumb’ was my first thought. However, when I first heard of blogs a decade ago, I thought that sounded pretty dumb too, so what do I know?

In that spirit, I propose an experiment. I’ll try twitter, but better than that, I’ll share the experience with anyone who chances upon this blog. So join me on this journey to a deeper understanding of all that Tweets.

A few disclaimers before I start. I don’t text very much, and my mobile is a bit crap; I don’t have an iPhone; I’m on Facebook but I can count the times I’ve updated my status on one hand. Perhaps that means I’m not the ideal candidate for this experiment. But perhaps not.

If you Twitter, is it any good? Should I follow you? Is it a load of crap?

Next up: getting an account.

It’s been quite here, very quiet. I’ve been taking a break, and I’ve been processing the world and my life a little – input but no output, if you like. At least, no output on this blog – as I begin the final year of my PhD I’ve been gearing up to make it happen. In other words, I’ve actually started writing it, like for real.debategraph

But enough of my personal life, what has awoken me from blogging hibernation? A new web tool called Debategraph.

In true just-out-of-hibernation fashion, I’m a little late with this one, but I still think it deserves some lovin’. It’s a ‘wiki debate visualization tool’, which aims to allow the organisation and presentation of different positions and issues within an argument. Since I spend my day-to-day reading, processing and writing arguments I’m all ears when it comes to new ways to present subtle and complex issues.

I like it because it seems to be a  way of avoiding sound bite simplifications and could prove to be a very useful tool to help students, and anyone else interested in learning and forming opinions, get their their heads round just how difficult some problem or other is.

Of course, to really get anything out of it (or put anything into it) it requires a decent amount of your attention. You can’t just read a headline to decide what’s right, nor can you slap up your first thoughts and opinions with complete disregard for what else is being said (well, I guess you can, but it’s not so easy or tempting). But in that sense it reflects more accurately the difficulties of real debates, something often hidden by internet rants.

It’s not perfect, by a long shot, but the idea gets my thumbs up. It’d be great to see philosophy students using it for a bit of collaborative learning.

Right now the votes are being counted for the Manchester congestion charge. The charge is hefty and radical. Drivers who travel at all the wrong times will pay up to £1200 a year extra if it is voted in. £3 Billion will be spent on public transport if it is voted in.

I cycle into Manchester and so will get all the benefits (quieter, safer, cleaner roads) at very little extra cost. At the most I will have to  re-think those few peak time trips that I do make.  I guess that means I’m bound to vote yes.  But it would be nice if I had some less selfish reasons for my decision.

A friend of mine,Matt Wilson,  recently blogged a dilemma he was in: on the one hand he dislikes traffic jams, on the other he think the congestion charge is unjust:

I consider the T.I.F. proposals to be fundamentally unjust at the core. No investment in roads, but all the cash drivers pay goes to subsidise other people’s travel (I generalise), that’s just wrong.

That’s a strong charge, and should make anyone looking for ‘objective’ reasons to vote sit up and take notice. (By objective reasons, I just mean reasons that aren’t based on purely personal impact.) I wouldn’t want to have voted for an unjust act just because it benefits me.

Is it a fair charge against the charge? On the face of it it seems persuasive (especially if you are a driver, I guess). But we might notice that taxing one group of people for the benefit of another group is common practice in a society like ours. Redistributive tax (income/ inheritance etc) does just that. We take money from those who have a lot to support those who have very little.

Now there are clear differences,  I’m not suggesting it is like for like, but it is sometimes claimed that in cases of redistributive tax, those charged a lot do benefit by being part of a more stable and equal society etc. Here there is a parallel: it is reasonable to think that everyone will benefit from having better public transport and quieter roads.

Still, I don’t think that is enough to mitigate Matt’s charge of injustice. If we all benefit, why don’t we all pay?

Here is a better response: justice takes a wider scope than any one transaction. Justice must be more than about who pays for what and who gets what. Charging drivers isn’t just about paying for better transport for other people, it is about changing the status quo. It is about looking at Manchester and the world and thinking that something has to change.

We put in place clean air acts and carbon charges because we think it is no longer ok for things to carry on as they are. So if we think it is no longer OK to carry on with such a high dependence on petrol and personalised motorised transport, perhaps we should be willing to put some serious measures in place to try and achieve change.

This is still a long way short of conclusive, but it perhaps takes some of the punch of Matt’s argument from injustice.

Normblog recently had a link to the GenderAnalyzer – a briefly curious bit of fun for anyone who writes on the web.

Said website is 87% sure that this blog is written by a man, only 13% short of the writers own estimation. Not bad, considering.

However, it is 70% sure that my previous blog was written by a woman.

That’s quite a swing from one blog to the next, and I’ve been male my life. Interestingly, however, I was very deliberate with the style shift from the old to the new. Where before I wrote more creatively, poetically and descriptively, I now include a lot more comment, opinion and factual content.

Perhaps I have lost touch with my feminine side.

Are you one of those people who finds it a great deal easier to be angry with strangers than with people you know? I am. The person in the street who looks like they are about to cause trouble, or the driver shielded by glass and steel who didn’t indicate a left turn and nearly knocked me from my bike. Nameless and distant, there is minimal sense of shared humanity. I cannot see their perspective, they are ‘other’.

The philosopher Richard Rorty didn’t believe that we could reason our way to universal human rights. No rational argument could do the work required because the idea of an objective (non-relative) set of principles was a myth (he thought). I’m not sure I agree with his relativism, but I do like his solution. We should tell stories.

We need a route to empathy to remove the strangeness of strangers; to make them no longer the others but one of us. Rorty believed that stories offered this route and hence offered a hope of bridging global chasms between cultures.

If I knew the story of the boy setting fire to the bin, or of the man in the silver BMW who didn’t indicate, I might think of them differently.

Stories are powerful tools for breaking down barriers, and that’s why I think Manchester based Asylum Stories is a great project. They are us.

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is just writing – getting the words down.

Because of that I’m going to give this a try out tomorrow. A clever idea with some fun and useful features. It could be a PhD essential, or it could just mean that I write great quantities of what is largely un-thought through nonsense.

As I’ve said before, though, sometimes it is better to write than to be right.

We’ll see how it goes.

The web opens up whole new opportunities for expressions of community, but how much of it, if any, is real community?

Recently, Online Journalism Blog put out a series of posts about online communities entitled ‘Lessons in community from community editors.’

The lessons were for the most part about running online communities, rather than about building communities in general, and there was often (unsurprisingly) a financial/market-place tilt to the advice offered.

However, a few things jumped out at me as more broadly insightful and relevant. In particular, Andrew Rogers’ first of his three top tips was:

A community is only really a community if it builds (or builds on) genuine relationships between the members. Otherwise it is merely interactivity…

And I thought, how many of the ‘communities’ that we suppose ourselves to be a part of are actually only just places of interactivity? This goes especially for the web, where it seems easier to avoid genuine relationships, but also for more fleshy activities. What about the book club, church, synagogue, gym, office or football match (or mosque or parents association or halls of residence or…whatever)?
Now, there’s a danger of getting preachy, which is not what I intend. But rather I wanted to just flag up that thought. I think real community is something that we (nearly) all want and need. Better then not to be deceiving ourselves into thinking it’s there when it’s not.

Last night I was at the Manchester Blog Awards at Matt and Phred’s. It was an excellent event that has come a long way in two years.

I sat back with a beer and a tasty pizza and very much enjoyed the high quality of the readings. I think I was a little surprised by this. I think I expected to go ‘mmm..that’s nice’ or ‘mmm..that’s some good writing’ but not actually enjoy the readings.

But the offered set of witty, playful and amusing narratives had me wanting more. There’s nothing like a good bit of story telling. Fortunately, some of those reading were reading from books due to be published soon, so I shall make a note to buy them.

The full shortlist can be seen here. And the winners:

Best New Blog – Follow The Yellow Brick Road

Best Writing on a Blog – Every day I lie a little

Best Arts and Culture Blog – Northernights

Best Personal Blog- Travels with my baby

Best Neighbourhood Blog – Manchester Bus

And Citylife Manchester Blog of the Year: Travels with my Baby

And so I was well and truly beaten, which is a good way to lose, because justice is done. Nice also to see that buses and blogs still make good bed fellows.

Thanks go to Kate from Manchizzle for making the event happen, and to the Manchester Literature Festival for getting involved. And it’s also good to see the MEN taking such an active interest in Manchester Blogging.

On another note, does the MLF involvement have anything  to do with the literary focus of the Manchester Blog Awards? Is Manchester unusual in this respect, or does every major city have such writing talent in their blogsphere? Certainly it makes for an excellent Blog Awards event.

I have often heard people comment on the surprising evangelistic enthusiasm of certain Richard-Dawkins-like atheists. But now they are even asking for donations to fund a new atheist advertising campaign.

Professor Richard Dawkins has, apparently, generously agreed to match all contributions up to a maximum of £5,500. The bus slogan is set to read

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

I’m a Christian, and I don’t think this is a particularly bad thing. I do think it’s a little peculiar, but not ‘bad’ in any way. Peculiar, because one of the claims made by evangelistic atheists is that Religion hinders rational thought, but persuasion-by-bus-advert isn’t exactly the pinnacle of such thought.

However, the supporters of the campaign do hope that it might make people think, and if this is the case then I might be in favour of the slogan. Anything to get the question out there is a good thing.

I particularly like what Simon Barrow has said about the campaign:

For what it’s worth, as a Christian, I agree wholeheartedly with the slogan. The first part, anyway. It is indeed most probable that the kind of vindictive sky-god caricatured by the “new atheists”, perpetuated by fundamentalists, and subtly compared to flying space teapots by over-eager Cif readers, does not exist.

Barrow is not so sure about the second part:

The “stop worrying and enjoy your life” bit I find more problematic. Not because I want people to worry and not enjoy life, but because for so many people it is really difficult to do this right now. Which is why the real message that needs to get out there is about encouraging one another in active compassion.

Exactly. Furthermore, it hardly seems that being an atheist (or an agnostic) has anything to do whatsoever with worrying and/or enjoying life. If the aim is to encourage people to stop worrying then it seems like a severe mis-diagnosis of the problem. If the aim rather is just to persuade people to believe in atheism then the motivation that is offerd just seems way off the mark.

So, yay to the campaign if it encourages people to think about what they believe and why, and what they value in life, but an odd thing for Dawkins to fund. The biggest challenge to people beginning on an honest and sincere journey of faith is not athism but indifferance, or so it seems to me. Perhaps this slogan can help to challenge some of that indifference.

I’d like you to know

This morning I was stung by

A Wasp! In my neck.


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