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Today's quote: blogging as a means to take control of your destiny

"...starting my own blog has meant I am more in control of my destiny. It's not a replacement for freelance work, yet, but it's an excellent insurance policy to keep you fed, watered and sane."

The quote is taken from this interview with "This New Zeland Life"-founder William Knight, found as I was catching up with RSS-fees I've neglected due to all my computer trouble this month (but I now have two laptops, and though my brand new Lenovo Thinkpad is still in PC-hospital, I am loving my new Asus Eee - pictured below. Only yesterday I found myself wondering why I ever thought I needed a bigger laptop, but then I started working on a PowerPoint presentation and realised do miss having a laptop I can run a full-fledged photo editing programme like Photoshop on...)

MatOgBenk 012

Court of appeal overturns Coveritlive-ban

Judge was out of his bounds when he banned a local reporter from covering a trial with Coveritlive, a Norwegian court of appeal has ruled.

In May a local court banned a reporter from Mecom-owned Drammens Tidende from using Coveritlive (CIL) to cover a court case, arguing that it may lead witnesses to adjust their explanations after following the live coverage and reader comments on CIL. The newspaper took the decision to an appeal court together with Norway's public broadcaster (NRK), whose local branch would also be affected by the ban.

About two hours ago, as I was first to report here (in Norwegian), news broke the appeal court had held in favour of the claimants - ruling that according to Norwegian law you either decide to open the trial for reporters fully or partially, but the law does not give a judge authority to issue additional regulations for how a reporter may cover a trial. I spoke to NRK's inhouse lawyer Jon Wessel-Aas who was very happy with the outcome and said principally it was an important case as it would set precendece.

Update 24.06.2009 10:30 CET: See also Laura Oliver's interview with Drammens Tidende's editor-in-chief about the case over at

The Tyranny of International Index Rankings

International Index rankings are random and open to manipulation, an academic study suggest.

I'ts an illusion that Norway is the world's best country to live in, a headline informed me this week, citing an academic paper by professor Karl Moene et al - but the article didn't link either to its award-winning source or the actual paper, which is here, and makes for very interesting reading.

I always thought there was something not quite right about those top ten lists of the best countries and cities to live in, especially since Norway and Oslo often bagged the top spot - and, frankly, I have lived in many better places. If I were to compare Oslo with Amsterdam, Brighton, London, Palo Alto, they would have very different pros and cons, and Oslo wouldn't be an obvious winner.

In fact, I'm inclined to think I had a better quality of life living in England than I have in Norway - especially if we disregard plumbing, housing and public transport;-) However, if I was still living in England, perhaps my conclusion would have been the opposite, and if I'd stayed in Palo Alto longer, perhaps that would have been my all-time favourite place to live. My inklings seem to be supported by the aforementioned study:

"International index rankings emphasize country differences where similarity is the dominant feature. The rankings of the Human Development Index, Freedom House, and Doing Business can be misleading, not because of wrong indicators, but because the estimation of the scores ignores inherent uncertainty. Re-estimated with a method that captures this uncertainty, it becomes clear that the practice of comparing adjacent countries is a rather courageous activity," the abstract reads.

It asserts that such rankings are close to useless when it comes to differentiating between Norway and other rich democracies, and are only useful for telling us who scores really high and low.

"One can hardly open a newspaper without finding a reference to an international index. International country rankings provide an instant idea of the relative success of a country vis-`a-vis other countries in the world.

"Their appeal lies in their simplicity. Their users need no more statistical knowledge than readers of the sports pages in the newspapers. Just as boxers and football teams are ranked according to their performance, countries are ranked according to their ability to provide a high standard of living, democratic rights, and an appealing business environment.

"Just as pundits use sport rankings to place their bets for the weekend, journalists use country rankings in their search for an easy way to finish their Saturday commentary and policy makers use the country indexes to guide their decisions over own policy and evaluate other countries. It seems like we are blessed with a tool that everybody can understand and that is appropriate for a wide range of purposes," reads the introduction.

I'm reminded of Jeremy Clarkson's less scientfic, but spot-on and immensly amusing take on international index rankings in "Let's be happy like the Danes"(2007), worth reading in full:

"Apparently the main reason why Danes claim to be so happy is that they always expect life to be worse than it really is. They expect to be cold. They expect to pay 95% tax. They expect to be decapitated by a gang of youths who’ve found the little mermaid has already had its head kicked off and are now looking for another target. They are therefore delighted when they get home to find their family still have all their limbs, that the heating is working and that their tax bill’s been reduced to 94%."

And as if to prove that human beings, especially a nation's guardians and those who are supposed to guard them, are vain creatures who sometimes find it easier to stir up a storm in a teacup than grapple with structural, long-term challenges that are not so easily or quickly resolved, professor Moene et al's study also warns:

"Media, policy makers and researchers often end up discussing the deep causes of a slight alteration in the internal [index] rankings. What is even more problematic, especially for the Doing Business Index, is that policy makers may design policies more to improve their rankings than to improve their real performance. Governments may be tempted to engage in what we denote “rank-seeking” behavior to improve the relative standing on the indexes more than the situation on the underlying phenomena." In other words, plenty of food for thought here, well worth a read.

Iran: A Nation of Bloggers

I was reminded that Iran has had a substantial and active blogosphere for years by a 2005 article Bente Kalsnes posted the other day. It's in Norwegian, but she also linked up this video which neatly visualizes part of what it highlighting. 

The video also reminded me of a seminar I attended on how free the internet really is last year, featuring, to name a few, Jimmy Wales, Jonathan Zittrain and a speech from Parvin Ardalan, who unfortunately couldn't attend in person as her passport had been confiscated by the Iranian government. Luckily, Espen Andersen liveblogged the event, and his thorough notes in English can be found here.

Among other things, Zittrain was asked: "Why do they have Internet in Iran at all?"

"Very few states explicitly rejects modernity - Cuba and North Korea are some of the very few. Most states want the economic effects of the Internet. It is rather haphazardly enforced, though. Iran filters more stuff than China, but China tries harder to filter the relatively few things they filter. The US government has actually contracted with Anonymizer, to provide circumvention software for Iranians, and for Iranians only," he answered.

The highlights from Ardalan's speech also make for interesting reading in view of what's happening in Iran now. For a contrarian view, some would say a healthy dose of realisme, on the role social media is playing in the Iran uprising see this Business Week-article.

Update 19.06.2009, 10:47 CET: also check out this blog post by Rory Cellan-Jones on the what seems to have been the Iranian regime's internet strategy since last week's presidential election


Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran. Journalistic balance + Social Media = Toast?

What's happening in Iran now tells us something important about Twitter as a news source and as a tool to help people self-organise, but why are mainstream commentators still struggling to get their heads around it?

My Twitter-feed is abuzz with people tweeting about and linking to stories on what's happening in Iran and what impact Twitter's key role in the uprising is having on mainstream media short-term, and will have for the long-term.

Many are those who are now predicting this will be the big shift in how we view the potential of social media. But just as I had pulled together a few of my favourite links on what was happening for a post at The Norwegian Online News Association's blog Monday morning, some of those less informed arguments against Twitter surfaced in an Op-ed in Norway's newspaper of record -leading to some interesting events and thoughts.

Twitter revolution?
Let me just recap and expand on some of those links I started with Monday morning for my international readers: First, I was taken by Antoine Clarke's thoughts on Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran, an argument repeated often in the last few days - with Clay Shirky in his evangelic way even saying "This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media".

However, Richard Sambrook, whom I said on Monday has provided some of the most useful links from and about the upheavel in Iran on Twitter, urges us to call it an uprising, not a revolution, as what's happening is led by part of the political establishment in the country. He also provides an extremely useful analysis of using Twitter as a news source from Iran, concluding that it would probably serve only to mislead the average news consumer but would be more useful than mainstream media if you had a reasonable understanding of social media, the political situation in Iran etc.

Journalistic "balance" + Social Media = Toast?
Then, also via Twitter, I was alterted to an Op-Ed that repeated some of the usual logical fallacies about Twitter (in Norwegian). It wasn't a bad Op-Ed, in fact it was in part both fun and interesting, except it brought to court how journalists and politicians only used it to share trivia, and VIPs like the prime minister for oneway-communication, for the billionth time - not as arguments for how the VIPs don't get Twitter but as arguments against signing up to the microblogging service in the first place.

Three things occurred to me, and I'll start with the least scientific:

1) I wondered if the fact that these arguments are brought to court again and again is just a side-effect of (false) journalistic balance - as in: "Hey, we need some counterarguments, what should we say? Oh, yes: lots of people use it to share trivia and the prime minister never talks back." I'm reminded of the second rule journalism:

Be balanced. No matter what anybody says, find somebody to say the opposite. If a scientist claims to have a cure for cancer, find somebody who says cancer does not exist. If a man says "My name is Fred," make sure you find somebody who says "No, your name is Diane." Etc.

2) The Godfather of the Norwegian blogosphere, Hjorthen, put together a parody of the Aftenposten Op-Ed where he just exchanged 'Twitter' for 'Aftenposten' (also in Norwegian)- which threw up some brilliant formulations like how reading Aftenposten can easily become a continuation of garden parties in the posher parts of Oslo.

Demographically, Aftenposten is the Norwegian equivalent of The Times, and if you try exchanging Twitter for The Times next time you read one of those anti-Twitter articles it may lead to surprising insights. For one, Twitter is often accused of being elitist, attracting certain types of users, and for narrowing the users' horizon because they only follow people with similar values to their own - but all of those arguments could just as easily be used against The Times. For my part, I get a much broader pool of sources with much more diverse political agendas on Twitter than I'd ever get from reading newspapers, which leads me to the third argument:

3) I came to really appreciate the second part of this post by my friend Brian: "I’ve said it many times before, but it will bear constant repetition. When some new technique of communication is invented or stumbled upon, you should not judge its impact by picking ten uses of it at random, averaging them all out, and saying: Well that’s a load of trivial crap, isn’t it?!? How will “I am just about to make another slice of toast” change the world? The question to ask is: Of all the thousands of uses already being made of this thing, which one is the most significant? And then: Well, is that very significant? If yes, at all, then forget about the toast nonsense.

Jackie Danicki chips in with a telling anecdote in the comment section of that post:

I witnessed a discussion today in New York between a reporter for CNN, a reporter for Fox News, a reporter/anchor for NBC, and a producer for NBC - moderated by a veteran blogger whose wife happens to be Iranian. The blogger, Robert Scoble, had been taking CNN to task all weekend over their lack of coverage of the Iranian situation, and he and his wife were getting accurate reports (later confirmed by her family) via Twitter.

At the end of the panel - in which the mainstream media people all held their hands up and said that informed Twitter users were beating them at their own game - the CNN guy said, “Well, but if we weren’t doing our jobs, you guys would have nothing to link to. If we disappeared, so would a lot of Twitter content.” The moderator, not missing a beat, replied: “But you DID disappear last weekend, and Twitter filled the gap.” The CNN guy had to concede, and the comment was met with much applause.

Never underestimate the value of any tool which can help people to find solace in one another - like the samizdat during communist rule - let alone pass information which is important. I’m not sure why anyone would object to interest being taken in such a matter, apart from perhaps a general fatigue with all that is good in life. Too bad, so sad for them. :)

Update 19.06.2009, 14:30 CET: Just discovered this post on why journalists write so much rubbish about Twitter via Strange Corante, which explores a different line of reasoning.

The depressing reality of reporting on drugs policy: when years, even decades go by, with little or no change

This week Norwegian parliamentarians voted in favour of making a trial scheme of drug-injection facilities permanent. I find it deeply troubling that I could easily have published an article I wrote about the matter in 2005 without any alternations - save perhaps a new intro and omitting a line or two.

As a testament to how little has changed over the years, I will publish it here. Of course, in the scheme of things, three-four years is nothing, especially not compared to the heroin trials the Norwegian government has recently been considering – more than a decade after they were introduced on the continent.

In fact, the last time I talked to contacts working with drug treatment in the UK (2007), they said the debate had all moved on from heroin to subutex in drug replacement treatment, but what do I know... I’ve covered drugs policy on and off since 1995, and wrote my MA project on heroin prescriptions (2001), but this feeling that the story keeps repeating itself is part of why I couldn’t bear to report on it day to day. Not that there ever was a career to be made in being a drugs reporter, as Phillip Knightley pointed out when I spoke to him for my thesis, but, oh well, here’s that 2005 story:

The UN's narcotics control board scolds Norway for setting up a trial drug-injection facility in the country's capital, Oslo, claiming it will boost the use of illicit drugs.

In its annual report for 2005, The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial control organ monitoring the implementation of the United Nations drug control conventions, reiterates is position that drug injection rooms "violate the provisions of the international drug control treaties" and urges the Norwegian Government "to take immediate and necessary action to ensure full compliance" with these.

So far, Norway has chosen to ignore the INCB, and in that decision the country joins ranks with Canada, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Germany and Switzerland. The three latter countries have run drug injection centres as part of larger policy schemes, aimed at reducing harm to society and individuals, since the late eighties.

In 1995 I attended a conference where the then head of the Drugs Authority in Frankfurt, Germany, Werner Schneider, described the city's drug scene before it adopted harm reduction measures such as injection rooms thus: "The misery was beyond words. In Tanuslage [the city's needle park] people literally died before our eyes and infections spread like fire in dry grass. In 1985 more than 60 per cent of the drug addicts that died in Frankfurt had HIV."

"In 1986 – 87 a very tiny methadone project was started in Frankfurt in response to the explosion of HIV and Aids. Frankfurt is a city of commuters. One million people work here every day, but only 650,000 live here. A lot of commuters would go to prostitutes before they went home, thereby introducing HIV into their families. The methadone project was started to protect normal family life, " said Jürgen Weimer, who was in charge of the low threshold services with the Frankfurt Drugs Authority, when I visited in 2001.

The 'success' of the drug injection rooms that have popped up all over Europe during the last few decades, lies in the fact that they've managed to bring down the number of HIV infections and reduce the number of deaths from overdoses. The 'victory' of these facilities is that they help keep the addicts alive and relatively healthy.

Only in 2002 Oslo was described as the drug deaths capital of Europe, after the Council of Europe's Pompidou centre found that the country topped the continent's statistics of number of drug deaths relative to population. Despite some reduction from the 'record' year 2001, a strong injection culture, prevalence of dangerous drugs cocktails, mixing heroin with rohypnol and amphetamine, and relative affordability of heroin has kept the number of drug overdoses and infections relative to population in Oslo high.

This explains why, 20 years after the Liverpool project first championed harm reduction measures such as injection rooms, needle exchange and drug prescriptions, Oslo, in a sharp departure from Norway's strong prohibitionist line, finally opened its first injection room in 2005, despite massive national opposition. And has decided to stick with it, even in the face of UN condemnation – at least for the time being.

It's too early yet to say if Oslo's injection room will contribute to reduce drug overdoses and infections in the same way as in the other countries that have set up such facilities. The drug addicts I talk to in Oslo say it restores some sense of dignity to an undignified life. But herein lies some of the danger of injection rooms as well: addicts I have talked to in such facilities on the continent say that while the injection rooms take away the stress and enables people to inject in a safe, clean environment, they are also a bit counter-productive in that they tie the drug users closer together and make it more difficult to get away from the drug scene.

In some injection rooms on the continent, services include not only free needles and supervision, but also free condoms and free, constantly updated, leaflets for prostitutes with vivid descriptions of violent and abusive customers to stay away from – everything to help the individual to stay alive.

It's a harsh and grim reality you would not wish on your worst enemy. I would like to be able to say here that all my research has showed me that injection rooms and other harm reduction measures have eradicated all the harm caused by drug abuse both to the individual and to society. I cannot. To paraphrase one of my sources these measures "do not eradicate any evils, but they do substantially reduce them, that's why we call it harm reduction, not harm eradication." END.

In its latest annual report from 2008, INCB is still criticising Norway for running drug-injection facilities. Interestingly, it notes that “in the evaluation of a project to establish a drug-injection room in Norway there is no evidence the scheme has resulted in a reduction in drug overdose rates or fatalities”. I wonder, why is that? And if there are no positive results to refer to in Norway, why was the trial act made permanent law? I seem to recall that results from injection rooms in Germany, Switzerland, Liverpool were unequivocally positive (though I am aware there are some doubts surrounding the methodology used to measure results in the Liverpool project).

In either case, to paraphrase the title of my old MA dissertation: it’s not a neat picture, neither is it black and white, and I when looking at media's drugs coverage I'm far too often reminded of ex-BBC director John Birt’s phrase about media’s bias against understanding....

Six quick social media lessons from the Obama campaign

Jodi Williams from the Obama Campaign Team was in Oslo last week to talk about lessons learnt from the 2008 presidential campaign. Here's a few quick highlights I took away from her talk (I'd have posted this sooner if it wasn't for ongoing computer trouble):

Picture of Williams by Tord Nedrelid published under a CC-license
  • Social media turns out to be very crucial these days for reaching out, not only to younger demographics, but quite widely - especially for reaching the demographic that’s really busy and not home to sit down and watch ABC News at six
  • The Twitter effect will play a much bigger part in future elections along with texting. We could have used texting and twitter much more effectively
  • Really excited by how mobile networks will change campaigning and reporting
  • No longer one way comunication but a two way coversation that can turn into a movement
  • It’s about giving people the opportunity to organise themselves. Social media offers good tools to organise people and to help them find each other
  • The Clinton-campaign was stuck in the past. We had younger people who were not stuck in ideas on how to do and organise things and were free to look ahead
These notes are taken from a talk Williams gave at a seminar on politics and social media organised by The Institute of Journalism 05.06.2009. My write-up of key headlines from the Norwegian talks are here (in Norwegian)

The year the media died

I can't resist sharing this intriguing version of Miss American Pie (The year the media died) here.

I found it via Peter Kirwan and Adam Tinworth, so have a suspicion it's been making the rounds online recently - but I've been rather handicapped this week due to my Toshiba crashing Friday last week, my mobile phone going to the dogs and the new laptop I bought this Friday flashing those blue screens of death at me, so I really don't know for sure. Still, lots of bits to think about in this video, whether you agree with the refrain or not: