On making a book

2013-05-28 09.15.23

I’ve been boasting all over the intarwebs about this, but I have (had) six copies of an actual printed bound book, with my name on it and all! It’s both an amazing thing, and something of a let down. The whole process has taken so long, and is so incremental, that having it finally done doesn’t feel like the massive accomplishment it should.

Just to give a sense of the time frame for this: in March 2010, Clare and I met with Mila Steele from Sage and discussed the possibility of doing a book. We wrote the first draft of the proposal in April,got some feedback after a few months, rewrote, and resubmitted. More feedback, back and forth, and in November we submitted a “final” draft proposal. We heard nothing and assumed that they weren’t interested. In June 2011, we were told the proposal was accepted, and that they wanted the book in twelve months. We wrote all that summer, and during the following year, submitted the first seven chapters in December (nothing), and the final manuscript in July 2012. Twenty-eight months after the initial proposal. On deadline, might I add, which was apparently completely unexpected, since everyone at Sage was on leave, and we didn’t even get an acknowledgement for a few weeks. In August we got feedback on the manuscript, rewrote, resubmitted, more feedback, rewrote, resubmitted. This went on for months, until March, when we finally signed off and got page proofs in April. The book arrived on Clare’s desk May 25th.

From the initial meeting to final book: three years and three months. Clare’s daughter, with whom she was pregnant when we first met with Mila, starts preschool in September. An entire cohort of students who were preparing for A levels when we started, have completed their degrees (and congratulations to all of them!) and are planning the  next phase of their lives.

This is not a critique of anyone, this is apparently how long it takes. We spend a solid twelve months writing the book, but that is less than one third of its gestation period – most of the time elapsed in reading and resubmitting proposals, peer review, and copy editing.
Anyway, it is done, and so help me, I’m actually considering doing another one. I’d say that it’s like childbirth – you forget the pain when considering having one more (not that I know, of course, but this is what people say).

Not that this process was painful. On the contrary, it wasn’t. Clare and I are still friends, and aside from two fights (actually one, spread out over two weeks), at a point when we were both unbelievably stressed, we worked very well together. Working with Clare was an excellent experience: I know she pushed me to meet deadlines and to focus on getting things done. We planned a lot, and used a lot of tools such as Zotero and Comapping, and that really helped with the process, and with knowing what we needed to do when. When I look at the book, it doesn’t feel like it was that much work, although it really was. It’s120 000 words, of which I wrote 55 000, and 10 000 we wrote together. But those 55 000 words are six chapters, each chapter planned into sections, case studies, examples, theory explanations, glossary elements and tips and tools. We planned all of this in advance, and we planned the content of each chapter carefully, so that when I sat down to write, it seemed as though I already knew what I was doing. Still, it ate up a whole year of my life, and a year before and after, in planning, preparing, and then finalising and now, lastly, the boasting.

See, I wrote half a book!

Data Journalism research

So, I’ve finished the data journalism project, first tranche. As expected, there’s not a lot of data journalism really evident in two weeks’ of national daily newspapers, but there are some interesting things.

Scarily, the only large “investigative” pieces came from the tabloids, and only one of those was not an insult to the intelligence. The Mirror did a piece based on an FOI request looking at STD infection rates in young people. Interesting idea, but the data was not really discussed properly, and the graphics were appalling. Using a condom as a graphic element is fine; trying to show changes over three years in a pie chart because you are wedded to the condom idea is not.

Sti graphic-1777871

The other two were a horrifically dishonest Mail on Sunday story called “The Great Green Con”, which had been thoroughly discredited by the end of the day, and contains one graph without proper sourcing or readily identifiable figures:

and an “investigation” by the Sun into psychic phenomena, which turned out to be a reader poll on whether they believe in ghosts or have ever consulted a psychic, accompanied by the UGLIEST infographic ever.

So, data journalism, only practiced by charlatans and liars for the edification of fools.

Read the full paper here, if you like.

How big is your network

So, I’m doing another Coursera course, this one on Social Network Analysis. So far, so good, we’ve learnt a bit of the terminology (nodes and edges), and of the software, Gephi. The first assignment was to analyse our own social networks, based on Facebook, which was fun, but also frustrating.
This is my network of Facebook friends, based on my personal account. I have a lot of random people, it seems, or barely connected groups of two or three. The big glob (technically known as the “giant component”) in the middle is my online friends, then the arc consists of clumps (strongly connected components) of Rhodes University on the bottom left, moving into South African journalists and friends generally, then my UCLan friends, the next cluster are Canadian friends, high school, then university, Dubai is next, and the last clump is, oddly, people from Tshwane University in Pretoria, none of whom seem to have any connection with Rhodes University and my Joburg network. It’s most odd.

Sprinkled throughout are individuals I have picked up along the way.

It’s an interesting exercise, looking at your network this way, and seeing how you connect to people. In the software, you can move things around, and change sizes and colours, as well as seeing the names of the people each circle (node) represents.

Social Network Analysis on Coursera

The course is free, online, and lasts nine weeks. You can get a certificate if you do all the work, or you could just watch the videos and play with the software.

The art of the interview

Now that I have permanent residence in the UK, and am slightly harder to get rid of, I am going to say something that will alienate me from everyone in the country.

I really don’t like John Humphrys. Jeremy Paxman neither. I don’t know them personally, of course, but it’s a rare morning that I don’t end up snapping “shut up and let the poor man/woman answer the question” and the doyen of British radio journalism. I can’t watch Newsnight much any more because gets me so riled up I can’t sleep.

I don’t know why it is that belligerent questioning is rated so highly here, but it seems to be. When Paxman bullied Michael Howard for eight minutes on national television in 2003, asking the same question over and over and over, people seem to have hailed him as some kind of saviour of journalism. I just find it unwatchable.

Aside from being tedious, the questioning does nothing to inform us as to what happened, and Paxman never gets an (our) answer. It’s pure theatre, designed to show the viewer how much more powerful and important Paxman is than Howard, not to find out what really happened, or what it means for the public.

John Humphrys is not much better, but he is less visible on YouTube. I can’t find a recording, but this interview with David Miliband is typical – aggressive, opinionated, and doing nothing so much as cementing our pre-existing prejudices about whatever is being discussed. He can be respectful, but all too often he isn’t, especially when the interviewee is nobody famous or powerful.

When Paxman and Humphrys get together, the results are as you would expect, and as tedious as watching your grown siblings squabble over a holiday meal for the umpteenth time in as many years. It’s old, it’s tired, and there is nothing new you’re going to learn. Pass the mashed potatoes, please.

It doesn’t have to be like this. The best interviews are the ones the viewer –  and the interviewee – are barely aware of. Louis Theroux is a master of the subtle interview: at first, you think he’s just some bumbling fool, loping along and asking benign questions, but then you realise the other person is confessing to appalling things, while Theroux just blinks and encourages them in his mild manner. He picks some of the most unpleasant subjects, and manages to make them both repellant, and somehow understandable. That he, representing the BBC, of all organisations, can get the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church to speak to him, is remarkable, that they agreed to do it a second time is even more so, and that we came away from  those encounters both knowing more about the church and what makes them tick and feeling no more sympathetic to their ideas than we ever were is testament to his invisible skill. That mix of empathy and clarity is remarkable, and I have never come away from the Today show or Newsnight with anything approaching it.

Theroux spends a lot of time with some fairly repellant people, and an observer might wonder what his own beliefs are. This doesn’t seem to matter to him, or at least, he has enough faith in his own film-making and his own ideas that it seems to not be a concern. He trusts himself, and us, to see past the interviewer to the subject, and the answer, and the result is both compelling, and informative.

Part of this is Theroux’s manner – he is so quiet, so myopic looking, and so hesitant in speech that people seem to want to help him out, tell him all the details. He is so unthreatening that people forget he represents one of the most powerful media organisations in the world, one that is massively influential of public opinion. But what it really is is lack of visible ego. When Humphrys interviews Taji Mustafa, he is at great pains to ensure that we understand his position, that we never forget that Humphrys is the liberal voice of reason in this debate.

Theroux, on the other hand, appears more concerned with listening to his subject than what his audience would think of him.

Of course, Theroux doesn’t work live, and he doesn’t work with people who have been trained to hog the limelight while avoiding the questions. It’s a completely different kind of journalism, but one that I think more traditional news could spend some time studying. If the job of journalism is to explain the world to us, then I personally think that Theroux is doing a much better job than any one of the famous faces and voices that clog the airwaves.


One hundred and seven: wordle

One hundred and six: wordle, originally uploaded by meganknight.

This is kind of cheating, I know, since it’s not a photograph, and really only a picture in that it is a graphic rendition of words, but it’s what I’ve been doing.

This is based on about 15000 words of my research, the most recent 2000 of which were created today or yesterday. It’s pretty slow going – at one point I had realised I had spent 35 minutes tweaking data in order to get enough information to write ONE sentence. One whole sentence, and not even a very long one, at that.

Oh well, at least the ‘puter’s co-operating.

Academics hate Wikipedia, apparently. We tell our students not to touch it, to ignore its siren calls of easy, organised information. She’ll do you wrong, we claim. She’ll lead you astray and leave you floundering for verifiable facts and data, swimming in a sea of information, desperate for a peer-reviewed book or journal article to cling to.
This is about as effective as Just Say No and Abstinence-Only, as you can imagine. Our students continue to rely on it, and all that happens is that they don’t bother to cite the source, knowing they’ll be dinged for using Wikipedia. Not quite the desired or intended effect of a total ban on using the site.

And the thing is, we’re hypocrites.  Especially those of us who have worn the journalist’s hat. Wikipedia is great, I use it all the time, even/especially when writing lectures. Can’t remember the exact date the Guardian was founded? Look it up. Need to remind yourself what the title of that essay by Althusser is? Wikipedia knows.