Archive for David Mitchell

Anonymity Revisited

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on February 19, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve a lot to do today – a backlog of crosswords to clear, for one thing – so I’m going to indulge in a bit of recycling. I posted some years ago about internet anonymity in the wake of a spate of abusive comments on this blog. I’m not sure whether a spate can have a wake, actually , but I’ll press on regardless.

Today there’s a typically insightful piece by David Mitchell in the Observer on a similar topic, cleverly juxtaposing St Valentine’s Day (where anonymous messages are welcomed) with the rise of the internet troll whose messages are of a distinctly unwelcome character. I think he gets it just right (as usual):

Like love, hate is something that makes us go red in the face. It’s safer expressed covertly lest it be rejected.

I’ve encountered more recent – and much more serious – examples of what people are prepared to get up to under the cover of anonymity. I’ve refrained, and shall continue to refrain, from describing them in detail here. Some of my friends – and some of my students – know what I’m talking about. All that has now stopped, but if it starts again the gloves will definitely come off.

These experiences have confirmed my distaste for anonymity. I will therefore persist with my policy of requiring a proper email address for commenters on this blog. The address will not be revealed to the public, of course, and commenters are free to use pseudonyms if they wish. I can understand that people might want not to be identified if they say something controversial, especially if it amounts to whistle-blowing. However, if you wish to express opinions on my blog I think it’s not unreasonable for me to know who you are.

Anyway, the following is taken from an old post (from 2009) which arose from a story in the press at the time.


It’s not often that I blog about celebrity tittle-tattle – I have no idea who most “celebrities” are these days anyway – but a little story in last week’s Guardian online caught my eye. I thought I’d mention it here because it raises some interesting issues.

The story is of a fashion model, Liskula Cohen (whom I’d obviously never heard of). It appears that an anonymous blogger (with the charming pseudonym “Skanks”) wrote some derogatory remarks about said Ms Cohen on a website. The latter decided to sue for defamation, but that was difficult because the identity of the blogger wasn’t known. Cohen therefore went to court in an attempt to compel Google to identify the person responsible. She won that case, and duly found out that the blogger was a person called Rosemary Port (who I’d never heard of either). Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ms Cohen dropped her original lawsuit but Ms Port is now suing Google for handing over her real identity…

Of course the story is all a bit childish, but there is a serious question behind it, namely to what extent one has a right to anonymity. I’m not at all sure what the law says on this or what it should say, in fact, especially when it comes to the internet.

In Britain we don’t have identity cards (not yet anyway), so there’s a sort of de facto right to anonymity there. However, with the increasing levels of surveillance and state intrusion into people’s lives, that is changing. The  issue generated by the story above, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in real life.

Some blogs I know are anonymous but I happen also to know who writes them. I presume the authors have reasons for wishing to conceal their identities so I wouldn’t dream of revealing them myself. However, these are all sites run by reasonably civilised people and it’s very unlikely that any of them would use their anonymity to engage in abusive or defamatory activities. If one of them did, I wouldn’t have any qualms at all about exposing their identity, but I’m not sure whether that would be a legally acceptable course of action.

But anonymity still makes me a  bit uncomfortable. In academic life we come across it in the context of refereeing grant applications and papers submitted to journals for consideration. Usually the default is for referees to remain anonymous is such situations. Most referees are conscientious and if they have criticisms they are usually presented politely and constructively. There are, however, some exceptions. Fortunately these are few and far between, but there are some individuals who take the opportunity provided by anonymity to be downright abusive. Us old hands have sufficiently thick skins to brush such attacks off, but vitriolic comments made on papers written by inexperienced scientists (perhaps even research students) are completely out of order. This probably wouldn’t happen if referees didn’t have the right to remain anonymous. On the other hand, having your identity known might make it difficult for some  to write critically of, say, the work of more senior scientists. Perhaps the answer is to retain anonymity but for the journal editor, for instance, to monitor the reports produced by referees and reprimand any who transgress.

Going back to the original subject of blogs, provides me with an opportunity to describe some of the behind-the-scenes issues with running this blog. In the beginning I decided to have an open comment policy so that anyone and everyone could comment without any form of intervention. That turned out to be a disaster because of the numbers of automatically generated  SPAM comments that clogged up the boxes. I therefore switched on a SPAM filter so it could veto obvious garbage, but otherwise kept an open policy. The alternatives offered by WordPress include one that requires all comments to be from people registered at the site (which I thought would probably be a deterrent to people only wanting to comment on the odd post). Another option is to maintain a blacklist which treats all messages from persons on the list as SPAM. It’s also possible to block all comments entirely, of course, but I enjoy reading most of them so I think it would be a shame to do that just because of a few breaches of netiquette.

All went fairly well and I only had to ban a couple of individuals for abuse. However, over the course of the year I have received a steadily increasing number of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These are mostly depressingly puerile and they don’t affect me much but I find it very disconcerting to think that there are people sitting out there with nothing better to do.

Since WordPress notifies me every time a  comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.

There are still comments on here which appear anonymous (or with a pseudonym), but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.

If you’re interested, as of today this blog has received 4105 comments in total, but only 1747 have been published. The rest were either SPAM or abuse. UPDATE: as of today, 19th February 2012, 11880 comments have been published and 86703 rejected

Am I denying freedom of speech by rejecting anonymous comments? I don’t think so. If you want freedom of speech that much, you can write your own blog (anonymous or otherwise). And if every sight of this blog makes you want to write abusive comments, perhaps you should exercise your freedom not to read it.

I’d be interested to know from any fellow bloggers if they have the same problems with abusive comments. If not, perhaps I should start taking it personally!

More generally, I will not accept anonymous comments on the subject of the anonymity of comments, but any other contributions are welcome via the box.

Unless you’re banned.

Stephen Fry was right…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on February 2, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve recently been reminded of a comment made by Britain’s only remaining National Treasure, Stephen Fry, in the Guardian a while ago.

“I don’t know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining,”

There’s also a similar piece by David Mitchell that expresses the same sort of view.

Let me say straight away that I’m not referring to the comments posted on this blog recently. I always enjoy reading the threads on here, even if – or perhaps actually because – they fly off at unpredictable tangents from the main point of the original item. I would never have imagined that Bob Kirshner’s guest post would have led to an in-depth discussion of lavatory seats, for example. I disagree with quite a lot of the opinions expressed, but it’s actually quite nice to give people the opportunity to get something off their chest, as long as they remain civilised – which they usually do.

So please keep commenting on here, and please don’t be scared to look at the comments either. Some of them may indeed be weird, but they’re not going to disturb your piece of mind. Stephen Fry and David Mitchell were referring   to the sort of stuff you often see on higher-profile sites, especially newspapers, where the online comments are filled with  drivel so moronic that it’s actually depressing to think that there are people lurking out there capable of writing it. These guys (Mitchell and Fry) are in the public eye and so they attract a great deal of comment themselves, much of it staggering in its inanity and abusiveness.

One might have expected a bit better from the readership of the Times Higher, an organ which I thought was read by academics and university-based professionals who presumably must have received some sort of education themselves before gaining employment that involves attempting to educate others. However, the comments following the piece I blogged about recently contains, as well as  some sensible reactions (both for and against my actions),  a few that are just puerile and others that barely conceal the writer’s bigotry. Clearly not everyone who works in a university is either articulate or rational. But then I knew that already.

One particular commenter, the presumably pseudonymous John Fitzpatrick, states

As for Coles, what an effete and bitchy little man he has exposed himself as. How he can face his students and colleagues after that is simply amazing.

Amazing it may be, but I certainly can and do face my students and colleagues, although I usually refrain from exposing myself. I’m sure they don’t all agree with what I did, but my conscience is clear. I don’t have the luxury of anonymity anyway.

The Times Higher asked me to contact them if I felt any of the comments were defamatory or abusive so they could remove them, but I replied to say I thought it was better to leave them all there whatever they said. In their own way, they speak  eloquently  for the very point of view they are trying to oppose…

The Very Big Stupid

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on October 5, 2009 by telescoper

Sitting on the train yesterday coming back from a night at the Opera, I was reading The Observer. Last week’s edition had featured a superb piece by comedian David Mitchell on the topic of research funding. His argument, essentially, was that the government shouldn’t be directing its research funding at areas which will yield immediate economic benefit, but should instead be doing precisely the opposite. It is, he argues, the job of industry to invest in R&D that’s “relevant” to its immediate needs. It is the job of academia to do things driven by pure curiosity. If these happen to pay off it’s of course a good thing, but it’s a bonus and can only be expected to deliver a financial return in the long term.

Funding only that bit of science that can deliver immediate profits is a bit like diverting all the Arts Council grants into pop music or pantomimes when instead it should be funding things that are too experimental to  rely on revenue generated by paid customers, such as the Opera. I couldn’t agree more, but I am a bit biased in respect of that particular example. Although his piece was intended to be humorous, like a great deal of great comedy there is a great deal of truth in it.

This week’s edition of the Observer contained a number of letters about Mitchell’s piece. One called for him to be given a position in the government. Of course that would be inappropriate. He’s an intelligent and forward-thinking person, and would therefore be completely out of place in such a job. Another letter produced the following memorable quote from Frank Zappa which is exactly to the point.

The Very Big Stupid is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department.

Meanwhile I attended a meeting this morning at which we were informed that all universities in England have been told to plan for cuts in their recurrent grants of about 15% next year. It is likely that Wales will follow suit. Since most of a University’s expenditure is on staff salaries, corresponding reductions will have to be made, either by cutting salaries or (more likely) by making redundancies.

Research Councils are also likely to feel the squeeze which will hit responsive mode grants too. For astronomy and particle physics, who rely on the Science & Technology Facilities Council for their funding, the situation is especially dire because even without the anticipated cuts, that particular organization has an enormous black hole in its  budget anyway.There is a strong likelihood that existing grant funding will be clawed back to plug the gap, with immediate consequences for postdoctoral researchers and a catastrophic long-term effect on morale.

Pure science in the UK faces a very grim period. All three main political parties have promised savage spending cuts after the next election. The Tories have promised a budget within a month of coming to power if they win; they certainly won’t increase  taxes to cover the budget deficit, especially not at the top end of the scale. A Conservative budget is very unlikely to contain any good news for science or higher education generally.

It’s time for us all to get lobbying about the importance of pure research, but the difficulty is that the Research Councils that are supposed to be distributing funds for this purpose are largely populated by politically appointed individuals who can’t or won’t fight the corner. The Chief Executive of STFC, for example, seems to be content to turn his organization into a channel through which government subsidy flows into technology and engineering companies with only a cursory nod in the direction of basic research. I suspect there are many within the higher levels of management of  other research council  who also see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to cut back “useless science” still further.

I’m sure  that in the long run people will look back on all this as a Very Big Example of The Very Big Stupid, but I’m also worried that for many research projects and for many scientific careers there may not actually be a long run.