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Vote now for the oddest book title of the year

12 February 2010

Voting is open now for The Bookseller's annual Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year. Thanks to Twitter, this year saw the number of suggested titles triple, although self-published works were excluded.

Prize coordinator Horace Bent told The Bookseller: "The adage that everyone has a book in them may well be true, but that doesn't mean every Tom, Dick and Harry out there can bash a few words out on a keyboard and then upload it to Scribd with a humorous title like: The Historic Adventures of the Purple Waffle Iron on His Horse Made of Asparagus, and then think they have a chance at winning my prestigious award. I refuse to ackowledge such submissions."

This year's longlist ranged from the intentionally funny (such as children's book "Father Christmas Needs a Wee", of which my nephew is a fan, and bestseller "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"), through the highly specialist ("Baptist Autographs in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 1741-1845", "Dental Management of Sleep Disorders"), to the totally perplexing ("I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears", "The Great Dog Bottom Swap", "Venus Does Adonis While Apollo Shags a Tree").

You can help Horace to whittle the longlist down to a shortlist by casting your vote now. Even after that survey closes, you should be able to read the full longlist for the awards here.

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Does Google help avert dementia? Or did the papers make that up?

24 October 2009

I was interested to see a story in The Telegraph (and other newspapers) last week claiming that using Google can help to delay dementia. It's based on research from UCLA, presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and announced in a press release. I thought this might be a nice piece of trivia to include in my next book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser.

When I studied the press release, though, I was surprised to see that there was no mention of dementia. I asked UCLA whether the dementia angle is something that has come through UCLA interviews, is in the full research report, or is something that the media have added to spin the story. UCLA kindly replied with a copy of the poster (which is what was presented at the event), the abstract and press release. The researchers confirmed that the information presented at the meeting followed the content of those, which make no mention of dementia.

The research is fascinating, and did find first-time internet users experienced more brain activity in the areas associated with working memory and decision making. "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA. But there's no speculation regarding dementia in the released materials.

There's a gap here between what the study appeared to discover, and what the headlines screamed (at about 20 publications, including the Daily Mail). I'm no scientist, but if the dementia angle were true, I would have expected to see it in the press release. Apart from how much easier it would make it to promote the research, tapping into a major health concern helps research bodies to attract funding.

If the source isn't UCLA, how did so many outlets get the same angle? It's possible they pulled it from the same syndicated content which is how several newspapers came to quote a fake David Milliband Twitter feed when Michael Jackson died. It's also possible that they're watching each others' websites all day, and one over-eager sub bigged up the story, and all the others followed suit. Maybe they have an alternative source (including other scientific publications), although it's odd they haven't mentioned it. I can't trace a credible source using the dementia angle.

What bothers me most, though, is this: I consume hundreds of news stories a week. When I take the time to actually dig into one of them (I've probably spent about an hour on this), it proves extremely difficult to back it up. None of us has time to check a tiny fraction of the stories out there.

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Finished drafting Social Networking for the Older and Wiser

16 October 2009

Phew! I've finished drafting 'Social Networking for the Older and Wiser' now. It's been a great few months, digging deep into social networks. Some of them are networks that I wouldn't naturally have come across before (such as Saga Zone), and others are networks that I'm a big fan of (including Facebook, Twitter and 43Things).

At times it was confusing dealing with multiple logins, having multiple versions of myself out there in cyberspace, making friends with each other (myself?) and chatting away. But apart from that, it was great fun and wonderful to take on another book-length project and to complete it in a few months. (My previous book was a novel that took two years).

The shape of the book changed during drafting. The original plan was to dedicate a chapter each to 13 social networks, but it became clear during drafting that it would be a more useful book if it focused its attention on leading networks. The book covers 9 different social networking sites in detail now, with an appendix dedicated to introducing the other networks out there.

From now, the book goes through a technical editor, comes back to me to make any final edits, and then goes off for design. I should see the page proofs in December, it should be printed early 2010, and in the shops in February.

I've set up a dedicated page for the book now and will add to this over time, building up a minisite with more information on the book. The plan is to include the table of contents, excerpts, all the links on one page (so you don't have to type them in), reviews, and other goodies. If there's anything you find particularly useful or interesting on book websites, let me know and I'll see if I can add it for you.

The book can be preordered from Amazon now. Amazon guarantees that you will pay the lowest price between when you order and when the book is published.

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Great Dilbert cartoon about Twitter

04 October 2009



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Twitter: the next generation of spam

07 August 2009

The moment anybody invents a communications technology, somebody else invents a way to hijack it for advertising. Then people find a way to block those ads, and the spammers make their spam harder to detect. And the battle rages on.

On Twitter, until recently spam has consisted of people setting up a profile, putting an advert in their profile and then following people. That results in an ad view firstly when the you visit to check out who your new follower is. And secondly, when anybody viewing your followers list clicks on them. You can often detect this spam fairly easily - it tends to have few tweets and meaningless usernames (the second of those being much harder to detect automatically).

You can save time validating followers by just leaving it a week before clicking on your new follower notices - Twitter is getting good at banning suspicious accounts based on how many people block them, although if everybody sat back and did nothing, I guess it would fail.

In the last week or so, I've noticed a new type of spam, though, which is harder to detect. It appears to be harvesting random snippets of content from the web or from other tweets, based on a particular search keyword or group of keywords. It seems to be an adaptation of the software that creates spam blogs by lifting content from other blogs.

These new spam Twits can appear to be reasonably valid accounts - it's often difficult to tell the difference between someone with poor language/tweeting skills and a random phrase lifted from a webpage if you're only looking at 140 characters. The thing that first tipped me off to this spam was the bizarre nature of one of the accounts (all about dentistry), rather than the quality of any individual tweet.

It will be interesting to see how Twitter combats this. The strength of Twitter is partly that it enables you to post from any device or program. That makes it particularly vulnerable to spam programs, and it might prove difficult to detect when they're being used. And should they be banned anyway? I can see a valuable role for a program that would, for example, automatically seek out news about Pink Floyd and tweet it. The whole premise of Twitter is that people are allowed to think up new ways of tweeting, and we might find some potentially useful software emerges from spammers' innovation.

(See also Inside the mind of a spammer)


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Social Networking for the Older and Wiser: Available for pre-order

20 July 2009

As you might have heard, I'm burrowing deep into social networks at the moment to write about them for a new book, which will be published by Wiley early next year. The book is entitled "Social Networking for the Older and Wiser" and will provide friendly guidance on using the internet to find old friends, make new friends, and socialise online.

I'll be updating this site with more information over time, including a breakdown of the websites and tools that will be covered, a free sample and helpful resources.

The blog might go a bit quiet while I'm focusing on the book. I don't tend to write much about writing while I'm doing it (firstly, it's a distraction, and secondly I don't flatter myself that people are sufficiently interested in how I work).

If you're ultra-keen, Social Networks for the Older and Wiser is available now for pre-order on Amazon. (Yes, they're using a slightly different title to me, but I'll have to clarify that later). Amazon's pre-order guarantee means that if the price drops at any time between your order and the publication date (even for a day), you'll only be charged the lower price. I've used it before (for the Prince O2 book/CD set) and am happy to recommend it.

If you're connected to me on any social networking sites, please excuse any weirdness that might happen to my profile as a result of testing out different features. You might occasionally see two of me. And if you think that's odd, I'll actually be both of them, having a conversation between myselves.

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Michael Jackson, David Miliband and me

27 June 2009

Most people who are into pop music have a Michael Jackson memory. Michael Jackson's "Bad" was one of the first tapes I had, and one of the albums I came back to when writing UoD. Back in 1987, I remember listening to the singles from it on the Radio 1 roadshow, while I was writing Amstrad games in the school holidays. I also remember myself and my brother being allowed to watch the then-new video for "Thriller" when a friend of my parents brought it around on a VHS.

I didn't expect Jackson to do his 50 gigs at the O2, but I didn't expect him to die either, so it's a bit of a shock to hear he's gone. In the same way that my parents' generation remember where they were when Kennedy and Lennon died, many in my generation will remember where they were when they heard that Jackson had died.

For the music industry, the passing of Michael Jackson must have been a day of mixed emotions. As a performer, he was electric. His dancing was so distinctive that many videos showed him in silhouette. Who else can get away with that? "Thriller" is the best selling album of all time (and probably always will be), and Jackson is one of a handful of performers who are cultural icons.

On the other hand, I'm willing to bet the Jackson records are on display prominently in every record shop this weekend. For a music business that's struggling to adapt to the new online economy, the sales boost that comes with a major star's death will be seen as welcome by some. Yesterday, Jackson had the top seven bestselling albums on iTunes, and held about 10-20% of the top 100 song downloads.

It's always struck me as odd the way record sales peak after a star's death. The fans already have the records, so these sales are driven by people who just never got around to buying the albums for the last twenty years or so, and then suddenly decide they quite liked some of them when the star dies.

Social networks played a big part in spreading the news of Jackson's death, and people's reactions to it. When Princess Diana died, online social networks weren't around as we know them today. Because most of my friends shared their views on Jackson's death, through status updates in Facebook and tweets on Twitter, it felt like a shared experience. As Jackson sang, "You are not alone".

Both The Times and The Telegraph leaped upon the Twitter feed of UK foreign secretary David Miliband, in which he said: "Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael." Only, it wasn't the real foreign secretary. It can be difficult to validate celebrity Twitter feeds (Valebrity attempts to fill that gap, and Twitter has started to validate some accounts itself). But a little common sense goes a long way. Some of the tweets from the fake Miliband include:
Another idea from Eyebrows, sack all the drivers and use McDonalds staff instead. He reckons Reagan would have done it. No Al!
Many of the other tweets are gently satirical, but there are enough clues there for a journalist to work out they're looking at a fake. Even with the complexity of identity today, and the way that many people will have a professional and informal persona in different places, journalists are supposed to be skilled at fact checking. It's one of the ways they can add value in a world where information is increasingly free. If they can't filter the fakers from our own government ministers, how can we trust anything else they write?

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