Saturday, 30 October 2010

Tech journalism, science journalism - tips & thoughts from London Girl Geek Dinner

The recent London Girl Geek Dinner on tech journalism was one of the best and most useful ever, for anyone who writes or broadcasts video or audio - whether or not as a professional journalist - eg tips on how to shoot professional looking video. Thanks as always to Judith Lewis and the team for organising this practical and interesting event, I think the first I've been to since the Regent Street shopping event.

Journalism is still very much a male dominated profession, about 60% male, and in technology and science journalism the percentage is the same if not worse.

Equally bad is the fact that, as the attendees agreed, far too many technology magazines and journals are seemingly aimed just at men (see my rant on tech magazine sexism in GirlyGeekdom - about T3 magazine, which I don't subscribe to anymore, quelle surprise. And, while I'm at it, much stuff aimed at women seems to be designed by men too, like pyjamas. Humph.)

Even Wired UK, who provided for the event free copies of their mag and some discounted subs, received some criticism for being written almost exclusively from a male perspective.

It seems that the market is nicheing or fragmenting. There is probably room for a magazine which caters for (or at least doesn't ignore) the growing female appetite for technology - indeed it's likely to be welcomed with open arms, at least by the attendees!

Now on to the individual talks.

The 3 journalists / broadcasters, who kindly gave their time to share their experiences and tips with us, were (in order of appearance) Angela Saini, Connie St Louis and Ramaa Sharma, and all of them have been or still are connected with the BBC.

Angela Saini - tips on being a journalist

Angela Saini, now a freelance journalist and author (blog), gave some practical tips on how to be a technology journalist or science journalist (her own background is engineering).

She doesn't seem to have put her slides online. I didn't make many notes as most of her points although very good and helpful seemed to be common sense to me.

Interestingly she was quite firm in her views on the distinction between bloggers and journalists. If you just sit in front of a keyboard, you're not a journalist. You have to go out there, collar and interview people, get exclusives.

See more on her blog post after the event, which also repeated her argument that the quality of media and news generally is going downhill as journalism is being devalued, both by "churnalists" who just copy and paste official or corporate press releases, and by people willing to work for free - interns as well as bloggers.

She thinks that journalists should demand to be paid, and paid fairly, for their work. (Apparently tech journalists generally get paid about 40 or 50p a word in the UK; more in the US.)

Surely editors and readers are partly to blame as well, for putting up with things like churnalism?

Connie St Louis - journalism qualification

Connie St Louis (blog), while still producing radio programmes for the BBC etc, is in charge of the Science Journalism MA at City University's highly regarded Department of Journalism. She too has a science background, in biology.

These days it's getting harder and harder to get a job in journalism, and having a formal qualification like a postgrad degree in journalism is one way to get your foot in the door.

The National Union of Journalists also offers training (it seems a bit chicken and egg to me though, if you have to have a journalism job before you can be an NUJ member, rather like trying to get an Equity card - not that I have one of those either).

Connie's Department also does research on journalism and media. One fascinating current project of hers is looking at the prevalence of churnalism by running plagiarism detection software on "news articles", as the source news releases are usually published online. The results will be published probably next year.

I'm looking forward to seeing them. I must say I had noticed the phenomenon myself, as I now subscribe to science / tech related news releases where I can, and had spotted the striking resemblances between many so-called news articles and the official news releases.

I don't read press releases so that I can copy them into blog posts - I don't hold with that, and never have. Too many people do it, bloggers as well as some professional journalists. In my view, either be the first to break the news, or else produce thoughtful reasoned analysis about it (which takes time and research). Don't just play "follow the leader" and repeat the press release or the first person who wrote about it.

I subscribe to news releases because I believe in getting the info straight from the horse's mouth as it's more likely to be accurate and reliable (assuming the body issuing the release isn't lying of course!), and more importantly it's less likely to be garbled or taken out of context - unlike in many secondhand reports, I have to say.

When blog posts or news stories don't provide links to the full original source, I really don't like it - there's no excuse for it, especially on the web (so what if "a government paper said…" - what's the full title of the paper, what department issued it, where can I get a copy?).

I often try to track the sources down for myself. In my own blog posts I certainly always try to link to the source where possible, so people can check the original if they wish, and hopefully see that they can trust my rendition.

Of course, it now seems obvious why many media articles don't link to the original - maybe they're worried readers will spot that they've just been copying press releases wholesale!

Ramaa Sharma - gadgets for multi-media journalism

Ramaa Sharma, who now teaches journalism internally at the BBC, is living proof that you don't always need a science background to get into tech journalism.

These days journalists have to be able to do stories for the web as well as TV, radio and print; and they not only are expected to write the stories but also to shoot the videos, record the audio and do the editing and uploading.

Ramaa gave us some very useful tips on multimedia journalism, including tools which don't cost the earth and won't break your back lugging them around.

In my view the latter is a big factor, not just for people who've done their back in like me, but also because making the gear that you need for the job too huge or heavy can be a deterrent to women, as we're simply not built like men.

Her recommended equipment included:
  1. Benk tripod - brolly sized and lightweight, yet opens out (to oohs and aahs, virtually) to quite a decent length. She said she got it from Maplins but I can't tell if it was this or this or indeed neither, as neither says "Benk" in the photo or description and they both cost the same, just £19.99).
  2. Gorillapod - a range of tripods for cameras as well as video cameras; basically a small tripod whose legs can be wrapped round almost anything. (If I were T3 I'd probably be making a "joke" about that.)
  3. Kodak Zi8 HD Pocket Video Camera - relatively cheap at under £100, very portable, now used by the BBC following her comparative review of this camcorder, the Flip and the iPhone. It even has a socket for a separate mic which the others don't. BBC WorldWide's poignant video about the Afghanistan dancing boys was shot using one. The only con with this kit is, you can't monitor the volume or quality of the audio live as you're recording it, for audio limiting; but she wouldn't be surprised if the next model had this feature too.
  4. Mic - most microphones will work with the Kodak, the one she had with her was a BeyerDynamic MCE 58. And from my own experience, don't forget that all important microphone shield or cover to minimise wind noise etc.

Her tips on shooting video that looks professional include:

  1. Keep the camera steady - don't be tempted to follow the subject around if they move, frame it carefully and then hold still. And shaky video is a no no! Hence it's important to use tripods, as to which see below.
  2. Take a mix of shots - at least one long distance shot, a medium distance shot and a close up shot, each one for about 10 seconds minimum; they can be used in your edits.
  3. Should be an obvious one, this - but don't have the light behind the subject (eg shooting in front of a window), have the light behind you.
  4. Video editing tools - when people asked for recommendations she suggested Final Cut for Mac, Adobe Premiere Pro (eek at the price, I say!) or Adobe Premiere Elements for Windows. (And here's me wiv Windows Movie Maker…)

You can hear these tips and more on Ramaa Sharma's video on pocket-sized video journalism.

Future Girl Geek events

The best way to find out about future LGGD events, which are generally free thanks to the generous sponsors, is to sign up for the London Girl Geek Dinners mailing list.

If you're male you can still go, as long as you're accompanied by a responsible female ;D (who signed you up for the event). I'm open to suitable bribes…

There are Girl Geek Dinners all over the world, just search to see if you have one locally.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Phone, mobile, internet, pay TV provider - get your refund, never mind ways to leave 'em!

It's bad but sadly not surprising to hear that when UK consumers change their mobile phone, fixed line telephone or broadband or even pay TV (eg cable TV and presumably satellite TV) service, the comms service provider doesn't always repay the customer for any credit amount due - eg advance line rental payments, or promotional credits.

In fact the total unclaimed money owed to UK consumers was at least £10 million over the last 2 years, according to UK comms regulator Ofcom.

All this is because you can get stung for two lots of fees (from old and new provider) at once, during the "overlap" period when your contract with your new provider has started but the one with the old provider is still within its termination period, usually 1 month.

An example may help. Say you pay BadProvider £30 in advance monthly on the 1st of the month for use of their service during that month. If you terminate with BadProvider on the 2nd of the month and start using ShinyNewProvider's service, you're obviously not using BadProvider's service after the 1st, but you've already paid BadProvider for it in advance.

So from the 2nd to the end of the first month you move to ShinyNewProvider, you're paying BadProvider for rental for the 2nd to the end of the month (even though you've stopped using it), and you're paying ShinyNewProvider rental for their service for the same period too.

You're paying twice over, unless BadProvider refunds you for the advance payment you made on the 1st, for the period from the 2nd to the end of the month ie 29/30 (assuming 30 day month) of the amount you paid on the 1st of that last month, or £29 in this case - which can be a lot when you add up the customers who don't get a refund!

Obviously the amount of credit due will be less if you terminated later in the month, etc, and some people may actually owe money to BadProvider at the end of the contract, depending on their usage, but this is just to illustrate with a concrete example.

(I'm ignoring any possible twists from the monthly payment date being on a different date from the "contract month" that the payment is for!)

After Ofcom's intervention, the good news is that they've produced a guide to help you claim your outstanding credit when you move to another communications service provider.

The guide has a handy table showing some big providers and what you need to do. Just to summarise (please check the guide for full details), the current position on outstanding credits is:

BT Automatic refund of any credit, whatever the amount.
O2 Automatically credits amounts over £20; you have to ask for it if less.

Post Office
Automatic refund of credit, whatever the amount.


TalkTalk (including AOL and Tiscali)


You have to contact them directly to arrange a refund, but they should now be giving you "improved information" about your outstanding credits.

T-Mobile Will now automatically refund all outstanding credit. This suggests they didn't use to!
Vodafone Automatic refund of any credits "for all customers who pay by direct debit" only. If you paid Voda by another method, you won't get a refund unless you specifically request it from them.
Virgin Media

Virgin Mobile
The press release contradicts the guide so I'm going by the guide. I wish Ofcom were clearer about this, it's not going to help consumer confusion.

Virgin Media - automatic refund for amounts over £1. It doesn't seem to matter when you terminate the contract.

Virgin Mobile - for amounts over £1:
- if you terminate before 28 days, automatic refund
- if you terminate after 28 days, you have to request a refund (but from December 2010 the refund will be automatic).
I guess you need to contact Virgin Mobile to get a refund of any credit under £1 - the paper doesn't say.

The bad news? There isn't mention of lots of other providers include broadband internet providers.

"Ofcom thinks that industry best practice should mean that all providers refund customers the outstanding credit they are owed automatically, and without any further action needed by the consumer."

Well frankly that should be legally compulsory for all providers, not just "best practice".

More help on termination process?

To help customers with switching providers another area, Ofcom should look at and maybe provide a guide on the termination / cancellation process.

Asking for your MAC or PAC number does NOT always automatically terminate your contract (broadband internet and mobile, respectively).

If they are given a MAC or PAC number by your new provider some providers seem to take that as notice of termination, but others don't, and may keep on charging or debiting you unless you actually contact them as well to say you're ending the contract.

I repeat, asking for a MAC or PAC isn't enough. You need to check with your provider as to their termination or cancellation procedure and at the right time tell them officially that you're cancelling their service, and (if they're not listed in the table above) also find out what is their procedure for reimbursing any credits to you and follow it.

And you might also try (if possible) to time when you give them formal notice of termination such that you minimise the period of "advance rental" anyway.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Firefox / Thunderbird: forced to enter master password multiple times?

If "Please enter the master password for the Software Security Device" is driving you mad because you have to enter your master password several times whenever you launch Mozilla's free Firefox browser or Thunderbird email software, the easiest solution to the "too many master password boxes" problem (or annoyance!) is the following tip.

Simply install the StartupMaster add-on / extension for Firefox and, separately (if you use Thunderbird) also the StartupMaster extension for Thunderbird (if necessary see how to install a Thunderbird extension - you don't just click on the link unlike in Firefox).

Restart Firefox or Thunderbird (whichever you need to sort out), and thereafter you shouldn't have to enter your master password more than once for Firefox and once for Thunderbird.

Background - you may have to type the master password several times in Firefox or Thunderbird if you've set a master password (which is a good idea for security reasons) and you've also set Firefox's home page to open in tabs more than one web page with login for which you've stored passwords - or if you've set up Thunderbird for more than one email account.

You'll get one password box, which you have to fill in and OK, for each Firefox tab with saved password or each email account you've set up in Thunderbird.

You may also have to keep clicking Retry (after entering the password in every single popup box) if you didn't enter the master password very shortly after Thunderbird opened, eg you left the computer for a few minutes then came back to it.

In some earlier versions of Firefox you didn't have to tediously enter the same master password many times in this situation, but sadly you do now. Unless you get the add-on I suggested.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Google Reader: how to de-duplicate feed entries / items

Duplicate posts or stories in Google Reader feeds are a pain to have to skim through - they take up space and time unnecessarily. Many people have been frustrated about this problem for a while - it's not just me.

Until Google fix Google Reader to get rid of duplicate feed items, here's how to deduplicate feeds in Google Reader - this method greys out duplicate articles. It's just what I'm doing myself - if anyone knows of a better way please let me know (I find it easier than fiddling with Yahoo Pipes and the like, personally):

  1. Use Google's free Chrome browser (download Chrome).
  2. In Chrome, install the Reader Plus extension.
    How to install a Chrome extension?
    1. In Chrome, visit the extension page eg for Reader Plus, and click the Install button.
    2. If you get more popups with "Install", click 'em.
    3. If you get a warning at the bottom of the screen about Extensions, apps and themes, click Continue.
    4. That's it, no need to restart Chrome or the computer.
  3. In the Chrome toolbar, click the spanner icon, choose the Tools menu, then select Extensions:

  4. In the Extensions tab that opens up, find Reader Plus and click Options under it:

  5. In the Reader Plus options, click on Layout to expand it, and make sure "Filter entries" is ticked. (I'm not sure if you then need to click Save at the top right (not shown in the screenshot), but best to just in case.)

  6. Now login to Google Reader in Chrome, and you'll see a new "Filter settings" button, top right (illustrated towards the bottom of this post). Click that button and make sure "Hide Duplicates" is ticked, then click the Update button below it.

  7. Reload Google Reader for luck (it may work without refreshing it, but y'know...), and duplicate feed items should now be greyed out (see below) - however, note that sometimes I've found that UNticking "Hide Duplicates" and updating and refreshing the Google Reader page is necessary, especially if I've tried to change any of the the other Filter settings. Go figure. Kept alternating one or other till it worked.
  8. "Excludes" also works as far as I can see, though I don't use it myself. Type a word you want to exclude in the Exclude box, tick Hide Excludes and click Update, and feed items which contain that word will be greyed out. And so on. Just play with it, but bear in mind point 7 above, that this feature can be erratic and sometimes it doesn't work, but refreshing Google Reader usually fixes that for me.

What about Google Reader in Firefox?

The Google Reader Filter add-on for Firefox is a Greasemonkey userscript (direct link to Google Reader Filter) which is supposed to be able to remove duplicates from Google Reader, but sadly it doesn't (on my system anyway).

Compare the following.

The first screenshot is of Chrome with Reader Plus - see how the duplicate item is greyed out? - and the second, of Firefox with Google Reader Filter (the same duplicate entry is unfortunately not greyed out).(Ignore the blocked out woody bits, that's just me hiding my Google Alert search from the world!)

Chrome with Reader Plus

Firefox with Google Reader Filter

Both the extension and the userscript add a "Filter settings" button to the top right of Google Reader, outlined in red in the two pics above, but I just couldn't get Google Reader Filter to hide or grey out duplicate items no matter what filter settings I tried.

I still prefer to view actual webpages in Firefox with TabMixPlus, due to Google's (to me) inexplicable and frustrating refusal to allow navigation of tabs in "most recently used" within Chrome. But that's another blog post…