Friday, April 27, 2012

Petrona is now at Wordpress, please go here for new posts about intelligent crime fiction from around the world, and a few other topics.

The new Petrona is at

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Goodbye, but a new hello.

Petrona has moved. I will no longer be posting on this site, but over at a different web host, Typepad. Petrona's new url is , so please do bookmark the new site and come to visit. I very much welcome you there and hope you will continue to read and comment. My first post at the new site is about the move. I will keep this Blogger site live in case of any links "out there" to the postings contained in it. The whole archive has been copied over onto the new site. I will notbe making new postings to this Blogger site, though, so I suggest that you over-write its url in your favourites/bookmarks lists. I do apologise for asking you to change to a new url, as I know it is a pain to do things like this. But I hope you will have enough motivation to do so, and that you'll continue to visit me at the new site. Thank you very much for visiting Petrona. With best wishes Maxine.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Spreading the word

Successful Blog - Helping Clients Get Past Blogaphobia In response to my precis of the recent Economist new media survey, Frank Wilson made a typically succinct and pertinent comment about the future of these media: "no one in fact knows how this is going to develop. But those who are participating have an advantage, because one can understand this phenomenon only to the extent that one participates in it." Frank has articulated very well a particular aspect of blogging: the ability to understand it by those who don't do it. It seems to me rather like trying to explain to someone who does not have children what it is like to have them. Liz (M. E.) Strauss, on her excellent site Successful and Outstanding Blogging, posted on this topic a week or so ago (link at start of this posting). In her article "Helping Clients get past Blogophobia", Liz discusses her huge enthusiasm for blogging and the effect this has on clients. "We who blog, learn blogging like folks who move to a foreign country learn a new language and culture — by immersion. The people that we talk to regularly are having the same experience as we are. They know the sense of community. They know the personal and professional growth that comes from putting things on the Internet rather than always taking things off. They know, as we do, that not every blog is a whiny diary or some sort of political flame war." But: "the people we meet who aren’t blogging have heard the stories without benefit our experiences. Pick the wrong example and we can scare the pants off the exact people we’re trying to invite." To advise the bloggophile on tempering her enthusiasm so as not to scare away the uninitiated, Liz links to a posting by Anil Dash on Moveable Type news. Anil says: "All of us who work with blogs, especially those of us who’ve done it for years, are excited about their potential. We can come up with lots of useful examples of how businesses can benefit from blogs, but sometimes our own enthusiasm gets the best of us. To put it more succinctly: A lot of folks who are blogging “experts” talk about blogs in a way that scares the hell out of normal business people." Anil lists some key points that can be used to help make the case to a client or employer, with the goal of showing that blogs are safe. In the comments to Anil's post, Celeste W of Studio 501C draws attention to her own post, A blog can be like a business lunch. She's talking about nonprofit organisations, but Celeste recommends that such organisations have a blog that acts like a business lunch -- a simple, general blog that chronicles life in the organisation. Such a blog can even (!) be that of PR or marketing people -- the Air Conditioning Contractors of America being given as an example. Celeste provides lots of good examples of the kind of item that could be included in such a blog. The bottom line is, those who blog know it is great. We know about the wonderful mix of self-expression and communication that blogging brings. We are aware of the power of the blogging movement (as articulated, for example, in An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds). But lots of other people don't know or understand about this power, and are suspicious. (Remember that "blogs are cannibals" article in the online part of the Wall St Journal.) These articles I've linked too here are useful examples of how bloggers' enthusiasm can be tempered and channelled so that more people and organisations can be persuaded of the power and usefulness of blogging. The prediction by the Economist -- one day soon, everyone will have their own blog -- is one with which I concur. I also think every organisation will have at least one, as more and more of us join the conversation.

Writing websites

A website called was mentioned in the Times the other day, so I went over to have a look, despite the offputting title (what self-respecting writer would call a site that?). The promise of the site is to help "new writers develop and talented writers get noticed and published". It is "sponsored" by the Arts Council, so I presume it is kosher, but it seems to be a sort of Connotea/Delicious for writers, rather than the writer's X-factor (as the site claims) or anything else. The homepage says that you review and rate other members' opening chapters, and then (upon completion of your task, preumably) your opening chapters are sent randomly to another new member to review and rate. The highest-rated chapters receive a "free critique from our literary professionals, who include established authors and a literary agent". The site says it will publish the highest rated book of the year -- however, this book will be "available to order from Amazon, WHS, Waterstones" et al., which makes it sound to me like a print on demand operation rather than a conventionally published book. Seems like a lot of effort to go through for something you could do yourself anyway. You can't seem to do much without actually becoming a member, but there is plenty of information on the site, so it should be fairly easy to find out if it is really offering nascently publishable writers anything useful, or not. In looking for YouWriteOn (ugh), I mistyped the url I had jotted down from the Times and arrived instead at, a completely different site. YouWrite is not yet operational, but will be an exercise in global writing: "Welcome to, an exciting new concept for people interested in reading books and in writing them. With you will soon be able to join people from all around the world to write a book together. We will start the story and then you take over. Alternatively, if you have a great idea then submit it to us and we may choose your contribution as a starting point." At this stage, you can't find out much, but you can register and they will email you when they get to the next phase. This activity (group writing) is as old as the hills; my children do it at school sometimes, though via pen and paper, not on the web. There must be other websites around that are doing this kind of thing, but somehow I can't imagine putting the proposed output very high on my reading list.

What is it with these websites and running together words with captial letters in them?

(Spell-check suggestion of the day: "worried" for "YouWrite".)

Book review: a pair of pairs

Preferring to believe in serendipity than a kind of internal morphic resonance, I have by chance read in direct succession two books by pairs of authors. One is a series, the other not. First up, Guilt, by G. H. Ephron -- actually Hallie Ephron (sister of Nora, Delia and Amy) and forensic neuropsychologist Donald Davidoff -- this pair has written their fifth Dr Peter Zak crime-fiction novel. I suppose I read the first, Amnesia, as a result of one of those Amazon recommendations leading on from Jonathan Kellerman, whose early books are just so, so good. I followed up immediately on Amnesia by reading Addiction and Delusion. All are excellent, featuring the aforementioned Dr Peter Zak of the Pearce Psychiatric Unit, and combine his working life at the unit with (you guessed it) a related crime to solve. Obsessed, the next book, left me with the slight feeling that the series may have peaked, but nevertheless I was very keen to read Guilt. I've been waiting for ages for it to come out in paperback, but thanks to an Amazon seller and the Palm Beach County Library system, who seem to have finished with their copy, I was able to get a jump on cheap publication. Unfortunately, Guilt confirms to me my impression that the series has become a tad mechanical. The authors have shifted the emphasis away from the Pearce (so we barely get any of Gloria or the rivalry between Zak and his colleague Dr Kim, and only a couple of patients feature; Peter's mother is reduced to a convenient plot device instead of a character in her own right), and away from Zak himself onto Annie, a character introduced relatively recently. Annie is a recognisable genre cliche: "perfect girlfriend/investigator/feminist" who can do it all without a man, but who would quite like to get married really. By focusing on her, Guilt becomes too much like all the other crime-fiction novels out there, and loses its distinctive neuropsychology "voice". Added to this, Guilt attempts to address post-9/11 paranoia via a plot about a Harvard bomber, which I don't feel is entirely successful. I don't mean to say the book isn't good -- it certainly is. But the authors have to fall back on the usual "girl in peril" angle to keep up the tension, and the tracking down and identity of the bomber is nothing like as nail-biting as some of the patient-related plots of the earlier books. I would recommend Guilt if you liked the earlier books in the series, but don't read this one first. I hope that if the authors write another one, they return to a Zak/Pearce-centered plot and cut down the Annie quotient (Sara Paretsky does the woman investigator thing so much better). The second paired novel is Catch Me When I Fall by Nicci French. NF is the husband and wife team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. They have written several excellent crime-fiction books together, each being a stand-alone, so each focuses on a different issue, usually of contemporary urban life. A woman is almost always the central character, but presented as a real, fallible person, not a superheroine, a good start. Catch me when I fall (another book obtained pre-paperback release but actually in paperback by some Amazonimagic -- I have my theories) almost blows it for me. It is written from the point of view of a character who is so unsympathetic that I fairly often lost interest and almost put the book down for good. Not that it isn't well written, but I just could not understand why anyone would put up with this stupid woman. Having to view the world through her perception was just so annoying! However, just as I got to the point of no return, we hit part 2, in which another character takes over the narration. This has the dual positive effect of allowing one to see the main character more at a distance, with the result that she is immediately more bearable; and increases the tension, because now we don't know if she is going to die at the end (as advertised in the prologue) or not. The plot outcome is pretty obvious (though I do read a lot of these books!), but that doesn't matter. As usual with Nicci French, the writing is so good, and the context of the book far richer than just the "crime" aspect, that one feels pleased to have read the book, and to have gained some insight in the process. It is not the best book of this collaboration, but definitely recommended. Incidentally, as I've mentioned previously, Nicci Gerrard has written two novels under her own name, Solace and Things we Knew Were True, which I highly recommend. They are not genre fiction. Both are excellent, extremely readable and perceptive portraits of women and the effects of their families on their lives. I suppose they are like Joanna Trollope but edgier and more intimate.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Web technology news

Meredith Farkas is a switched-on librarian who is very keen on wikis. She has a blog called Information wants to be Free, which I read regularly and admire from afar, not fully understanding it. Later this month she is giving a talk in Vermont about using social software in academic libraries. It will be a great talk to attend, as she's aiming it at people who aren't previous users of blogs, wikis, podcasts, social bookmarking, instant messaging and something called screencasting. She's asking readers of her blog to comment on which items are most likely to be helpful -- and there are loads of comments. Kind of makes English libraries look very behind the times. Most of them run to Internet access but that's about it. I hope Meredith will, as seems to be her usual practice, summarise her talk on her blog after she gives it, for those of us unable to travel to Vermont to hear it in person. Over at O'Reilly Radar there is a posting about the Google News alphabet. Brady, the poster, says: "When Google Suggest first came out one of my favorite pieces of commentary I saw was Erik Benson's Google Suggests alphabet in 2004. Now that News Suggest has come out it seemed like a fun exercise to compare the two alphabets. The first term is from News, the second is from Web." Go over to the O'Reilly site to see the paired comparisions such as H - heather locklear, hotmail; W - white house correspondents dinner, weather-- although they are interesting from a social trends point of view, they definitely lack the kind of dimension provided by Minx's lists --- naturally! Darren over at Problogger (the guy who helps bloggers to make money, or failing that, helps them make their blogs better) is doing a blogathon to make some money for charity. He's asked all his readers to ask him some questions, and then he's going to blog non-stop for 24 hours to answer them all. I think I am about no. 79. Will let you know if I get an answer. (Unsurprisingly, my question is about indexing.) On the important topic of net neutrality, Liz (M.E.) Strauss over at Successful and Outstanding Blogging has a net neutrality resource which she is regularly updating with new links. Everyone is campaigning to keep the legislators off the net, not least the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, so Liz's site is a useful resource both to find out why and to keep up with the latest on the topic. (A little-known fact about Tim Berners Lee is that his mother and mine were colleagues working on the Mark 1 computer in Manchester, UK, in the 1950s.) My erstwhile colleague Chris Anderson has a very interesting post about the long tail (what else?) and Google. Chris discusses how Google searches are time-agnostic -- "what matters to modern search engines is relevance." A little-noticed feature of this, Chris says, is that older content scores higher because it has had time to accumulate more incoming links. "Older is better" (right on!) As usual, Chris carries some interesting stats and insights into this long tailyness, the bottom line for him being that without search, only 12 per cent of his traffic is to his older posts, whereas with it, the amount goes up to 40 per cent. Old stuff really does rule! If you haven't seen Chris's blog before, take a look-- his book is out very soon, and his blog is the diary he kept while writing it. The Long Tail will be as influential as John Battelle's book on search, I predict.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

London Underground fashion victims

Annie Mole of the extremely delightful London Underground Blog has posted a 109-picture set of "London underground fashion victims" on Flickr. Or, as she puts it: "People seen on the Tube wearing dodgy clothes. Faces have been blurred to protect embarrassment or not shown at all." For some time now, Annie has been surreptitiously photographing fellow-commuters who have a strange dress sense, and posting the results on her blog. If you can face them in toto, take a look. If a less concentrated dose is more to your taste, subscribe to Annie's blog. I recommend it. And don't risk go ing on London Underground if you are wearing Ugg boots, especially if they are fakes (I don't know how she can tell but she can, and she will comment accordingly).

Small publishers

Two links on publishing matters which offer a consistent message from different perspectives: Mediabistro links to a Businessweek article on the power of the small presses in publishing. Apparently there are nearly 63,ooo of them and they accounted for more than half of book sales (in the US, presumably) in 2005......"by trying out different economic models, small presses such as Archepilago, Toby Press and Akashic can publish a comparatively much smaller run of copies, a practice deemed too costly for the large houses, who must sell large volumes of copies to earn back their advances and stay in the black. And they have deployed innovative marketing strategies in order to penetrate a fickle market." Grumpy Old Bookman has a long posting containing his usual readable, informed and unique perspective on various publishing-related issues. In this context, I quote: "Yes, once upon a time there were lots of small publishing firms whose editors were interested only in finding good books -- a term which was defined as being the kind of book which they themselves enjoyed. Forty years ago, in the UK, it was possible to break even on a novel by selling about 2,000 copies; and you could usually shift that number to the library market. So the average book would more or less pay its way, and the occasional surprise hit would keep the firm in business. Nobody got rich, but writers could be kept going for half a dozen books or so while their promise was converted into achievement.That business has been dead -- totally and completely six feet under -- for at least twenty years. The library market has virtually vanished, and all the small firms have been bought up and incorporated into half a dozen big (by publishing standards) firms which are themselves tiny subsidiaries of much bigger (and often foreign-owned) companies -- companies which expect their small publishing sections to make substantial profits. Not publish literature, but make profits." ........ "If you want to please yourself, follow your own instincts, and write whatever inspires you, feel free. And when you've finished the book, there are lots of small presses and thousands of other ways to seek readers for it." Useful links provided on the original post.

(Spellcheck suggestion of the day: "modification" for Mediabistro.)

Economist new media survey

Somewhat, but not very, belatedly, here is my summary of the Economist's new media survey: the survey itself is available to subscribers only. Introduction
  • Moveable type was introduced in 1448 and spread across Europe to allow people to produce texts that anyone could read (ie not in Latin). Radio and television contributed to the age of mass media, at its zenith in around 1960.
  • In 2001 “moveable type” was invented again as a better blogging tool, marking the gradual transition to a new era, that of participatory (or personal) media. The corporate media giants have yet to realise that this new media is not about what they distribute to users, but about users putting as much into the network as they take out.
  • A blog is a personal, online diary, social by nature but the unedited voice of a single (usually) person, linking to other blogs that the author recommends via a blogroll. Blogging is a means of self-expression and a revolutionary way to communicate. Livejournal/MySpace blogs have an average of seven readers, personal blogs more typically a few hundred.
  • Blogs began in 1997. Everyone will have a blog within five years, and journalism will be a conversation, not a sermon. People will participate, connect and converse.
  • Yahoo news is a mixture of professional and amateur content: during events like Katrina or the London bomb attacks, citizens uploaded and tagged photos on Flickr; some were posted on Yahoo news by the editors. This is an overwhelmingly positive movement.
  • Recent scandals have shown the fallibility of trusted mainstream media sources (eg Jayson Blair of the New York Times). Newspapers are downsizing. Classified advertisements are losing out to online services such as Craigslist and Googlebase.
  • The “old” media must evolve, remove subscription walls which bloggers will not link to, and join the conversation (encourage reader participation).
  • The English-language Wikipedia has more than 1 million articles and is almost 12 times larger than the print version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; it is only five years old. Its information is freely shared and is editable.
  • Wikis allow groups of people to share a page, for example team members in a company.
  • Podcasting began in 2004 and is when an audio file (recorded from anywhere) is posted on the Internet. People can listen to it, download it, and subscribe to feeds from a podcaster. Podcasting is therefore about “time shifting”—listening offline to something at a time of the user’s choosing.
  • Podcasting is a less social (and less revolutionary) medium than blogs or wikis, but it has immense power: listeners become their own programmers; they are freed from advertising; and they can listen when they want. The costs of producing content are dramatically lowered. Podcasting does not mean the end of radio.
  • Second life (SL) began in 2003; it is not a video game but a “metaverse” in which about 100,000 people live, make things and parcticipate in society as avatars (online extensions of themselves). Larry Lessig, an author, gave a talk in SL, and lots of avatars actually showed up.
  • Things created in SL are exported into real life – eg games, fashion, songs, films (of events in SL). SL reduces the costs of making a movie to zero.
What is a media company?
  • The Internet is a much larger change than the coming of television. The user is the programmer; and small audiences are good for advertisers. (The long tail.) Although there is professional media content on the web, the general trend is towards more user-generated content, such that the Internet will become more and more like a “stock exchange” in which users create (offer) and search, share, navigate and enjoy (bid for) content. Advertisers will also bid to have sponsored links placed in front of these users.
  • Google is a media company run by technology people ( a search engine with lots of free internet services). Yet it does not produce what media companies traditionally manufacture: content. People need help navigating round content (Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia). Yahoo, on the other hand, is a media company now doing research into the sociological aspects of the internet.
  • Network effects (eg telephone services) and exchanges (eg EBay) increase in value as the number of users increases. They also become barriers to entry by rivals. Hence YouTube (1 year old), which lets people share and upload videos, and Amazon are rushing to exploit network effects.
  • What will happen to the “old media” is unknown. Some will find niches (eg family content for Disney). Some will try to combine old empires with new marketplaces (MySpace/News Corp. and AOL/TimeWarner).
  • Society is in the early phases of a media revolution on the scale of that started by Gutenberg in 1448. Benefits include the democratising effects and global reach; threats include pornography, religious fanaticism and terrorism.
  • Linda Stone argues that we are victims of “continuous partial attention” and long for protection, meaningful connections and focus. New media companies understand this – the era of participatory media could be more serene than the era of mass media. Nobody really knows, though. “Every society gets the media it deserves”.
The Economist survey ends with a list of sources and further reading.


Hard to Find Books from The Booksets website (link above) sells more than just second-hand books (though it sells a lot of those). From the homepage: we have a "huge stock of specialist extracts, articles, and offprints from hundreds of journals dated between 1650 and 1950. We have a terrific selection of Victorian material from the Edinburgh Review, the Dublin Review, and Blackwood's Magazine. " If you want an act of parliament, a pamphlet or antiquarian book, this seems to be the place to go. The company is UK based, but its international postage rates are extremely reasonable -- including discounts for multi-orders. One of my bugbears with Amazon is that if you order more than one item from a third-party seller, you have to pay the same postage (plus the Amazon cut) for each item. The Booksets site has a good search engine (search by author, title, description or ISBN), as well as browsing by category. There is a sister site called BooksetsExtra which sells discounted new books, cds, dvds "not featured on our traditional Booksets site".