The 12-stage ‘evolution’ of a Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal

Richard Dawkins has once again been embroiled in a Twitter storm, the latest upset caused by the prominent atheist’s comments about aborting fetuses with Down syndrome.

Of course this is not the first time the esteemed Oxford academic has found himself the focus of a collective scolding from the social network – a pooled rebuke occurs roughly once every three months.

To prepare you for the inevitable repeat here are the 12 stages of any Richard Dawkins Twitter scandal:

  1. The eminent biologist will employ the rigid rationalism of his discipline to a highly emotive issue – the lack of Nobel prizes for Muslims or how some types of rape are worse than others. Dawkins will then share this insight with his one million followers on Twitter.
  2. A cluster of Dawkins’ devotees will debate the professor’s contention in a reasoned and scientific fashion.
  3. Someone negatively affected by Dawkins’ clinical assertion will spot the tweet and take issue with his post, replying “really?? #twat”.
  4. A Twitter user with Jesus/crescent moon as their profile picture will call Dawkins a “c*nt”, likening the biologist to Josef Mengele and/or Harold Shipman. Soon thereafter Herr Hitler will be invoked.
  5. A journalist will spot the reaction, read Dawkins’ original tweet and pen a quick article highlighting the “prominent atheist’s latest Twitter storm”.
  6. A member of the blue tick Twitter elite – a newsreader or “social commenter” – will pick up on the rumpus, tweeting how the professor’s original post was “indefensible” and how these comments are “the worst yet”.
  7. Twitter users with #reason, #doubt and #MissTheHitch in their profile will distance themselves from Dawkins, telling their 73 followers that The God Delusion author no longer speaks for “atheists/anti-theists”.
  8. Dawkins will continue to defend his position, while other media outlets pen similar hit-focused articles on the brouhaha, many highlighting his past Twitter indiscretions. Right-wing media in the US will pick up on the tempest, decrying Dawkins as the emblem of a world “abandoned by God”.
  9. People personally affected by the issue of Dawkins’ original post will pen angry responses to Independent Voices and the Huffington Post, many concluding with the line: “How can such a clever man can be so stupid?”
  10. Dawkins will issue an apology via his website for the “misunderstanding” and though he will concede his “phraseology” was wrong he will maintain his “logic” was sound.
  11. Attempting to squeeze a few last hits out of the now-subsiding “outrage”, a journalist will write a meta-piece attempting to explain the anatomy of a Dawkins Twitter scandal.
  12. Wait 90 days and repeat.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Cenk Uygur on Brits, Bachmann and Barak…

Cenk Uygur is an unlikely global celebrity. Born in Turkey and raised in the US, the trained lawyer started broadcasting a satellite radio talk show called The Young Turks in 2002. By 2005, the format had developed into an online broadcast distributed on YouTube, from where it has grown to become one of the best known and most viewed offerings on the web. It currently boasts around 30 million views each month, and has received more than 500 million views in total since launch.

“I knew we had a following,” Uygur tells The Huffington Post UK, “when I got off the underground in London and heard someone shout ‘Cenk – what are you doing here?’ I’d only been in the country about an hour.”

Yet notoriety is something the 41-year-old has increasingly had to deal with. Last year, the success of Uygur’s online show caught the attention of cable news channel MSNBC, who offered the LA resident a contract to host their coveted 6pm slot. He accepted, though it proved only a brief association. After six months, Uygur was offered a lower profile time, which he refused, having been told his tone was not to the liking of executives in Washington.

Uygur’s combative style, developed for the web generation, apparently didn’t sit well with the cable news audience. So, he moved back to TYT (though he never actually left) and is now looking to expand.

“The UK is our third largest territory behind the US and Canada,” he says. “It would be great to take the show there. Maybe in the future we can expand to set up Young Turks in different regions, and the UK would definitely be a prime contender to do that. Because of the show’s global popularity, we are definitely looking to give it more of an international feel.”

Using YouTube, alongside live web streaming, has given Uygur and his fellow Turks an almost global reach.

“That’s the great thing about being online,” he says. “If you look at shows like John Stewart and The Colbert Report, they’re restricted to a channel. We are not.”

Every day, more than a million people visit the TYT channel on YouTube, for their daily fix of progressive political discourse, entrenching Cenk as a fixture in the US media landscape. And, in a country where newscasters wear their political leanings like an identity badge, Uygur is unashamedly to the left of the divide.

“I started The Young Turks as there needed to be a push back against Fox News and the other news sources, which only pushed the agenda of big corporations,” he says. “We didn’t sit down and have a meeting in which we determined the editorial or political line. We just try and present the news without all the bulls*it. The show is just a reflection of the people that make it.”

For Uygur, John Stewart, The Colbert Report, Air America on the radio, plus MSNBC’s increasingly progressive stance is all part of the same push back. “It is a fight to balance out the news so Americans aren’t just told one side of the story,” he says.

I enquire if, in the interest of balance, he ever invites conservatives on the show?

“We try and get conservatives on the show all the time,” he snaps back. “It’s great when they come on. I have nothing against conservative principles, however what’s preached by people like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News has absolutely nothing to do with conservatism.”

“You only have to look at subsidies for oil companies,” he continues, now in full flow. “These subsidies are sold by the right-wing media as an issue that fits well with conservative principles. Can there be anything less conservative than subsidies for oil companies? People like Limbaugh or companies like Fox News are paid by the corporations to push their agenda. They call it conservatism, but it’s just corporate propaganda.”

It’s the kind of vitriol that has won the Uygur fan and foe alike. It is also indicative of America’s increasingly polarised media, much of which has come to resemble two armed camps rather than members of the same profession.

It’s a situation not only certain to continue through to the 2012 election, but could well have a bearing on its outcome.

“Obama is in so much trouble right now,” says Uygur. “He’s got nine per cent unemployment… and that nine per cent is not going down anytime soon. Then there’s the downgrade of the country’s credit rating, following the ridiculous situation with the debt ceiling.”

In recent months, the TYT host has become increasingly critical of Obama and the current administration.

“If he was doing the right things, it wouldn’t be so bad,” he says, “but the President simply isn’t looking at the type of policies that will get the country out of its current mess. It”s just more tax cuts for the rich. I can honestly see Obama’s popularity figures dropping into the 30s.”

So you think Obama will lose, I ask?

“No – I’m not saying he will lose. The Republican Party could do him a favour and nominate some lunatic. That would give him a chance.”

The nomination process for the Republican Party, although underway, is far from yielding a definite candidate, with a recent CNN poll putting Ricky Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann as the leading candidates in that order, with Sarah Palin yet to declare.

“People are actually talking about Michelle Bachmann as a real candidate for the Republican nomination,” he says with exasperation. “Come on… Admittedly, her figures are good right now, but she is simply not a serious candidate. Mitt Romney is more likely as is Rick Perry. I’m surprised that Mike Huckabee has ruled himself out of the race. He would mobilise the evangelical vote and could portray himself as a populist. There’s a mood in the country right now for a populist candidate. I’m amazed he hasn’t jumped back in.”

“The run up to the election is going to be vicious,” he continues, barely drawing breath. “The Republicans have already started. The leak about Michelle Bachmann taking prescription drugs was unbelievable. I’m the last person who wants to see Bachmann in the White House, but for Republicans to leak the migraine information, questioning not only her mental health but also inferring that she was addicted to prescription drugs was unforgivable. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be that kind of election.”

Whatever happens, The Young Turks will no doubt be covering it, broadcasting their daily mix of the irreverent, the serious and the funny from their poky studio in downtown LA.

“We’d like to expand as the set is looking a bit cramped,” he says. “The set has been a good home as it’s very intimate but we’re in the process of moving very soon. Actually, I can’t confirm that right now… but we are.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Jimmy Wales on ‘The Great Firewall’

Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia and perhaps the most potent symbol of an open and free Internet, has turned his sights on China.

The People’s Republic has undergone great transition over the past decade, with a loosening of the economy that has seen global companies pour in, including those at the forefront of information technology.

However, the Chinese political system still rests on orthodoxies of control, fear and a restriction of information. That’s not to say China isn’t changing, with more than 475 million of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens now online. Mandarin is currently the second most popular language on the web behind English.

Yet for some, including the Wikipedia-founder, change isn’t coming quickly enough, so much so that the he recently featured in the first episode of Amnesty TV, an online magazine show, talking about internet freedom, with particular reference the situation in China.

As a passionate advocate for the free access to information, Wales believes people should be in control of the content they view. This is not the case for a third of the global population, with regimes as disparate as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Burma, North Korea, Syria, Vietnam and China all practising some form of online censorship.

“China now has the largest number of users of the Internet of any country,” Wales tells The Huffington Post UK. “It also has the most extensive program of censorship of basic political information of any country. The web can help change that.

“The Internet has already played a role in opening up repressive political systems and it will continue to do so. All around the world, authoritarian governments are coming to the realisation that old methods of information suppression are no longer effective, and simply serve to breed resentment which will result in uprisings.”

Currently Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter remain blocked in China, while Google, who originally worked within Chinese restrictions, censoring what the regime deemed politically sensitive information, has now pulled out completely.

“I think it’s important that companies do not give in to demands of censorship from regimes,” says Wales. “It goes against the foundation of what the Internet is – free access to information.”

The counter argument runs that offering people access to some information, albeit restricted, is better than offering them no information at all.

“That’s the argument Google made and I respect that,” he responds. “I think that reasonable people can differ on tactics. I did not agree with Google’s decision to go into China, but I did respect that they were aware that it was a difficult decision, and that they went into China with a set of principles to try to be a positive influence. And I applauded when they decided that the situation there was no longer worthwhile and decided to pull out.”

I put it to Wales that not everyone sees the net as only a force for good. Recently in the UK, some politicians blamed online services (BlackBerry Messenger and Text) for facilitating the riots and disturbances in London and elsewhere.

“The web is a tool, and like all human tools they can be used for good or ill,” he says. “There’s nothing particular exciting or interesting in noticing that. But we can say without reservation that the Internet has been overwhelmingly a force for good.

“I’m not a web utopian,” he continues, “but I think we did see positive responses. While a tiny handful of people may have posted messages planning or encouraging violence, we know that literally thousands of people joined forces to help with the cleanup efforts, and thousands more have joined efforts to identify the criminals and bring them to justice.

“The idea that social networks were used by rioters to plan violence and destruction is just, quite frankly, silly nonsense. You might as well blame the telephone … or language itself.”

Despite his success, Wales remains committed to his central project, the development and evolution of the encyclopaedia that has become a one of the most frequently accessed resources on the web.

“I’m still involved in the company on a day-to-day level,” he says, “especially talking to the community about moving forward with editorial policy. The most important think to know about Wikipedia in the next five to 10 years is that we will continue our strong growth in the languages of the developing world, as we move ever closer to realising my original vision of a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet in their own language.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Refitted Chinese carrier sends shot across the bows

China has begun sea trials of its latest piece of military hardware, a refitted Soviet aircraft carrier that has the potential to drastically alter the dynamics of power in the region.

The move, part of a huge naval modernisation programme undertaken by Beijing, which already includes submarines, destroyers and an anti-ship missile system, could lead to increased tension in a locality already taut from territorial disputes.

Named by the Chinese as the Shi Lang, the ship, originally called The Varyag, was built by the Soviet Navy in the late Eighties. After the fall of the Soviet Union, China purchased the vessel for $20 million from Ukraine under the pretence of turning it into a floating theme park. Having been towed through the Bosphorus, the ship finally reaching port in Dalian where the People’s Liberation Army Navy discreetly began a refit.

Nearly a decade later and the Shi Lang has put to sea, a move signalling a dramatic expansion of China’s military projection with implications for the region that could prove as sizable as the ship’s gargantuan hull.

For Eric Grove, Professor of Naval History at the University of Salford, the deployment of the Shi Lang reinforces the belief that the seas around China represent one of the globe’s major potential flashpoints, suggesting that the carrier could well push the new superpower closer to a direct confrontation with the other navies in the region, namely Japan, India and South Korea.

There is also the potential for a fracas with the biggest naval player in Asia, the US Navy, which keeps a constant regional presence thanks to its nuclear powered super carrier, the USS George Washington, based in Japan.

Speaking to The Huffington Post, he said: “There’s an interesting multi-polar balance emerging, with China, Japan, South Korea and India all trying to exert influence in the region. India in particular is going to be looking very closely at this development as India has a carrier programme of its own.”

“This could be the beginning of a naval race between China and India as both have ambitions and both have perceived interest which overlap in the Indian Ocean, especially given China’s interest in exploiting the economic resources of Africa.”

The South Korean Navy is also currently talking about a carrier programme, while the Japanese are building huge destroyers with the potential to land fixed wing aircraft. However it is Taiwan that perhaps has most to fear, the tiny island’s sovereignty disputed by the People’s Republic, who see it as part of the mainland.

Tellingly, Beijing has named the vessel after a 17th century Chinese admiral most notable for his conquest of Taiwan, while the increasing popularity of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, which favours independence over eventual reunification with China, could provide a potential spark.

“If the DPP are elected, and take Taiwan to independence, it could push China into a major confrontation,” says Grove. “The Chinese would likely blockade Taiwan and then the Americans would come in.”

The launch of the Shi Lang also has more long-term implications with her refit just the first step in a bigger plan.

According to Grove: “They bought the ship off the Russians so they could cut their operational teeth. They are going to use this to learn how to operate carriers. From here, they’ll probably build some new ones. China is going to have a navy with a global reach.”

“They are putting a significant effort into their modernisation programme. They need a big navy to be a major regional actor and to dominate up to what they call the first and second island chains. They also have regional and extra-regional interest in safeguarding shipping moving through the Indian Ocean.”

“Whether it can be called an arms race is debatable, but there’s definitely a move between the countries of the Far East and south East Asia to expand their naval forces by moving to aircraft carrier ships. It is happening and it will happen more in the future.”

“The launch of the Shi Lang could well bring about an immediate shift in the region, while long-term it looks likely to be the beginning of a trend that could lead to a very different international balance in the region by 2030.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Twitter, trust and a silly tune…

Twitter made for interesting reading on Tuesday night. The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which lurched from grubby to sinister in one afternoon, dominated the trending with Rebekah Brooks and News International both high on the UK list.

Top spot, however, was claimed (no doubt reluctantly) by Cher Lloyd. The urchin-like former X Factor contestant’s debut single Swagger Jagger had gone live on YouTube, amassing an instant 47,963 dislikes. Sorry – having sat through it 47,964. The tune isn’t actually that bad, but in the new media landscape once a trend gets going…

Twitter also chimed to the sound of Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post, whose news aggregation site has done much to shape the modern media terrain in which we all now amble. The grande dame of online content was in town to launch the UK version of the web-based newspaper, which was recently acquired by AOL for $315million. The front page of the launch edition splashed with a piece on Brooks and her increasingly nefarious employer. A metaphor for the online attack on print? Why not… but also a cracking news day on which to launch a paper.

The first edition was accompanied by a debate at Millbank on Wednesday evening, in which La Huffington was joined by Alistair Campbell, Jon Gaunt, Celia Walden, Shami Chakrabarti and, bizarrely, Kelly Osbourne, the latter offering shots of comic genius – “why should anyone pay for the news?” with mixers of the surreal – “are you journalists frightened by Twitter?”

Trust proved the evening’s major theme. Does the public still trust the media? Is citizen journalism more reliable than traditional reporting? Dare we eat the dill and prawn canapés?

Throughout the debate, a Twitter feed ran in the background reminding us that in this not so brave new world anyone could say anything and everyone has a say. As the chat progressed, the upside to all this content was made clear. Blogs and social networks offer access to information and commentators that you may not have otherwise heard of. Agreed – I’m not sure how I would have found people like Sam Harris, Slavoj Žižek, Max Blumenthal, P Z Myers et al had it not been through Twitter or YouTube. Also, the interconnection of media enables you to access great swathes of information from a single source, while opinion either individual or grouped has never been easier to disseminate. This all works for me. However, there seems to be a downside and one that was only briefly touched upon at the gathering.

Witness the US experience in which an increasingly diverse media appears to have exacerbated the polarisation of political views, with left and right entrenched like the soldiers facing each other across the Somme. There are, of course, other factors at work beyond the Atlantic, but the fact that individuals and groups now have the ability to publish via blogs and social networks seems to confer a legitimacy to anyone with a computer, regardless of how fringe their views. Also, if every available opinion is out there, is it not instinctive for most consumers to see out information that reinforces their pre-existing opinions?

During the debate, the proprietor suggested that in the US distrust towards old media may be due to the experience of Iraq, when newspapers were used by the administration to sell a war on shoddy information. Fair enough, but there also seems to be a climate in the US whereby any media outside a persons’ core network raises suspicion.

Covering a political conference in Washington earlier this year (for a UK paper) I found myself constantly being asked by attendees which news organisation I worked for. This was nearly always followed by the question “are they left or are they right?” Even then, I was occasionally further tested with questions about my own personal stance on a range of issues, including one exchange with a woman who demanded to know my feelings on the legacy of The Gipper. All this before she’d even consider answering one of my questions. It was like having to audition for your own interview. And these weren’t extras from Deliverance splashed with mud from a tractor pull, but highly intelligent, highly articulate and very politically aware activists from every state in the union.

To quote the creator of Craig’s List, “trust is the new black”. And trust it seems is in very short supply at the moment, whether that’s potential presidential candidates mocking the “lame stream media”, or Tweeters in the UK campaigning for advertisers to pull cash from the News of the World. How this plays out in both countries is anyone’s guess. Still, the new media age is here to stay and the benefits to consumers (and journalists) seem to far out way the pitfalls. As such, the arrival of The Huffington Post in the UK should be a welcome addition to the media firmament, and one that will hopefully prove as popular here as it has stateside.

Twitter made for equally interesting reading on Wednesday night. The phone hacking story rumbled on thanks to a piece by Peter Oborne, topped only by the latest sacking on The Apprentice. As was pointed out at the debate, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. And with the exception of the unfortunate Cher Lloyd, whose dislikes had now risen to 57,456, it appears we’ll all be entertaining for a long time yet…

This first appeared in The Independent. The original article can be found here.

La dolce vita

After months of speculation, intrigue and rumour, Sony finally revealed its Next Generation Portable last week, the PSP follow-up. Only it’s no longer called the NGP, it’s the PlayStation Vita. Vita means life in Latin…and a long and healthy one is exactly what Sony execs are hoping for with regard to this hugely-impressive piece of kit.

It’s been a rough couple of months at Sony HQ thanks to the hacking which compromised the bank details of more than 75million PlayStation Network users. Honestly, it wasn’t me. Now the company is looking to bounce back with a handheld that boasts similar power to its larger and more established cousin.

First, let’s run through the good. It’s got a five-inch OLED touch screen, wi-fi , Bluetooth and 3G, Sixaxis controls and front and rear-facing cameras. The publishers are all on board making titles for the launch and beyond, while the price has been set at £229 for the wi-fi model and around £269 for wi-fi and 3G. That’s excellent value considering the specification. No launch date has been set but my mole inside Sony suggests a Christmas release.

I spent a bit of time “Vita-inhand” at E3 and can report it feels similar to the original PSP, only with a massive screen and a pair of touchpads on the back. There are also a couple of analogue sticks as well as a D-Pad. It was only a glimpse and further hands-on will be required to test out the full functionality, especially the social networking side. However, almost everyone in attendance agreed it looked a very, very strong proposition. The problem now facing Sony is this: will anyone buy it?

Smart phones and tablets have eaten away at the handheld market to such an extent that commentators are questioning whether they have a future. You need only look to Japanese rival Nintendo to see that all’s not well with the handheld market. The 3DS launched in March to great global fanfare. The technology was impressive, the games were there and the price, around £210, wasn’t too bad. Yet no one has bought it. Sales figures have not been released but there are mutterings the machine is in trouble.

Last week I had a beer with an employee of one of the third party publishers who released a launch title for the 3DS. He confirmed the handheld is simply not moving off the shelves. That doesn’t mean the Vita will similarly struggle but the novelty of owning a handheld seems to have been eroded by the phone/tablet invasion, so much so that Sony must be worried.

We wait and see. It’s not all bad news for Nintendo, though. Last week they unveiled the Wii 2, now officially known as the Wii U. I didn’t manage to get my hands on one as the queue ran to several hours and was made up of over-excited American teens, each one sporting a pair of large trousers and a lobotomised grin. I just couldn’t face it. What I can report is that the Wii U is a more powerful version of the original Wii and comes with an iPad-sized controller that includes a screen.

It’s utterly new, allowing you to play with or without a TV set, as well as using both the controller and TV in tandem. They had some very basic games on show but the possibilities for the new controller are massive thanks to its six-inch touch screen, camera, microphone, speakers, gyroscope and accelerometer.

It’ll be months before the full capacity of the Wii U is unveiled and longer still before it hits the shops – 2012 is the latest word on the console’s release. Still, it could prove as revolutionary as the original Wii, changing not only the industry but the way we all play games.

This first appeared in The Daily Star SundayThe original article can be found here.

The milking of Michael

Michael Jackson has been dead for nearly two years yet his name is still being milked like a glove-wearing cow. Who is doing the milking? Ubisoft – sitting on a stool, squeezing teat after teat to get every last drop of cash out of the great man’s legacy. Do I care? Not at all.

Yet it’s interesting Jacko had to moon-walk off this mortal coil for his name to mean anything again. I don’t remember too many publishers scrambling to make an MJ game in the years leading up to his death. Imagine Michael Jackson: The Experience then – you play an ageing, drug-addled former pop star who has to fight his way out of a courthouse using an umbrella and old dance moves. Once you’ve made it back to the hotel, there’s a baby-dangling mini game…

But because he’s now dead, so the argument goes, we can focus on the good part of his life – the music. And that’s exactly what Ubisoft has done with this well-designed, if somewhat bizarre, dance game for the 360 and PS3. It follows in the nimble-shoed footsteps of the Wii version, only using Move and Kinect as the motion controllers on their respective machines.

From here you’re offered a series of increasingly difficult choreographed dance routines, led by an animated version of the departed waif on the screen. Is it any good? Look – you either like dance games or you don’t. If you don’t, you can file this under “tat” alongside Let’s Dance, Dance Central, Just Dance and all the others.

If you are into either the genre or the late Mr Wacko, then it seems to be a decent offering with great music and authentic routines. In the interest of providing a fair review, I gave it a good hour in the front room (only after I’d bolted the curtains closed, swept the room for hidden cameras and put the cat out).

It’s fun and quite demanding. And at the end of the Beat It routine, I even had to stop for a glass of Jesus Juice just to keep me going. There’s not much difference between the PS3 and 360 versions. The Move seems a touch more sensitive, yet Kinect lets you dance away without the  controller so it’s swings and roundabouts (perhaps not the best phrase to use in relation to Mr Jackson).

The Kinect version also captures your entire body image and places it into the actual video. But overall it’s roughly the same game. Alongside the solo mode there’s a four-player multiplayer as well as duets and tracks that require backing dancers. To play this in front of other people you’d need to be on a lethal cocktail of drugs yourself but it’s there if you want it.

You’re probably getting the impression dance games are not for me…and you’d be right. Nor are they for my age. This type of offering is strictly for the kids. Somehow, I think it’s what he would have wanted…

This first appeared in The Daily Star SundayThe original article can be found here.