Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On blogs and blogging

On a recent radio programme, the very lovely John Waters, of the Irish Times and Eurovision fame, waxed lyrical on the subject of bloggers. “I have never actually met one,” he opined, “but they are all stupid. If I meet somebody for the first time, I ask them if they are a blogger and if they reply in the affirmative, I ask them to leave my presence immediately.”
For those of you who are not fully computer literate, a blog is simply a “web blog” or an online diary set up generally by individuals. And a blogger is naturally someone who hosts a blog. (Again, “hosts” might imply finger food and cheap chardonnay, but, despite the great advances in technology, scientists have yet to come up with a way to serve food online)
Of course I have never actually met John Waters but he is stupid. If I meet anyone for the first time, I ask them if they are John Waters and if they reply in the affirmative, I ask them to leave my presence immediately.
That statement is not strictly true. I put it in to be facetious, much as I hope Mr. Waters was doing with his original pontification. In fact, I met him briefly last year at the Strokestown Poetry Festival just before he flew out to Finland to represent Ireland and we had a brief, but perfectly polite conversation on Dervish’s chances of taking the musical world by storm.
I find I am somewhat perplexed by Mr. Waters' assertion and not merely because he chooses to offend so many people who have discovered a new and harmless pastime. As a columnist in the Irish Times, he writes a log, which over a period, builds up as his own personal record of the times we live in. Which to my admittedly stupid eye, doesn’t seem a million miles from what bloggers do, without of course the web connection. But of course, he gets paid for it and bloggers do it for free.
I must confess that I am a recent convert to blogging, thanks to the very worldly Tony Devlin of the Phoenix Writers Group who, รก la John the Baptist, showed me the true path to literary fulfilment. Until that seismic day last August, I had always believed that setting up a website was for highly qualified computer geniuses who speak in terms of gigs and megabytes and it would cost an awful lot more money than I was prepared to spend.
Tony – he actually does bear a resemblance to JTB in his pre-decapitation days – pointed out that all you need to do is to set up a free account in Google (not more than two minutes) and then set up your own blog from a series of templates given to you (again, not more than two minutes) I couldn’t believe I had my first one up and running for absolutely no cost in less time than it takes to do the Daily Star crossword.
It is possible to blog on any subject that you desire. Some use it simply as an online diary: “Met John Waters today. When I told him I was a blogger, he asked me to leave his presence immediately. God, I feel so stupid.” Others use it to lambaste traffic wardens, or raise awareness of shingles or to praise Brian McFadden’s musical output.
I have a number of them set up now. I have a blog on Shelbourne 2008, blogs for my light verse, a blog for my “seriouser” verse, a blog on the various Irish lighthouses I have visited (don’t ask!) and a blog on the Irish football team. Even this column goes onto my “Musings” blog. On the John Waters scale of intelligence, I must be pretty close to the height of stupidity.
Of course, as you get more and more used to the set-up and play around with it, you can blog more and more things. You can add pictures. You can add links to other sites. You can host cheese and wine parties (only joking) Some people have podcasts, which I am still highly suspicious of as they sound quite contagious.
I have open access to my blogs which means anyone with the internet can come in and have a look. Naturally I don’t put in personal details, address or phone numbers but people are welcome to leave comments if they want, provided they are fulsome in their praise of my blogs. Actually, not many people leave comments, which is probably a good thing, as a host of negative comments might cause me to close the site down.
One little device I have found fascinating is the Stat counter. You may have already seen them on websites – “You are the 24,709th visitor to the site” Again, free and easy to install, you can actually go into the counter and find out where all your “hits” are coming from and how they found your site (in my case, normally by accident!)
Of course, most of my sites don’t attract too much interest. Can’t think why! Some have barely crawled into double figures since I installed the Stat counter in January. Others are getting up to thirty hits a day from around the world. It fascinates me that I can see that someone in Surinam spent two minutes on my site reading a poem about a frog. More worrying is that a lot of Americans seem to google “Poem about goldfish.” Whether this is a commentary on the forthcoming elections, or if there is a lucrative goldfish poetry competition happening over there, I don’t know, but I have caught myself more than once darkly brooding over this phenomenon.
If you get a successful blog, with loads of hits, companies will pay you to put ads on your site. I have decided against this route for two reasons. Firstly, I consider myself an artist and I feel that any commercialism of my work would compromise my integrity. Secondly, and far more truthfully, I don’t get near enough hits to entice any self-respecting advertising executive to part with even the tinniest portion of his budget.
One suggestion I gleaned in order to increase my Stat count was to simply include the words “Christine Aguilera Naked” on the site. This will ensure a great deal more hits from all around the world. In fact, as this column goes onto a blog, I expect the stat count to soar immediately. Or you could include “Britney Spears Naked” or “Brian Lenihan Naked” or “Joan Burton Naked” or “Lionel Ritchie Naked,” whoever you feel is the most popular object of desire.
Apparently, every year at this time, the Irish Blog Awards are held. They have lots of different categories – humorous, political, arts and crafts – and they publish a very long shortlist before whittling it down again. And then they have a ceremony like the Oscars in a city centre hotel and everyone goes along to meet other bloggers and make acceptance speeches, break down and cry and dedicate the trophy to their mum.
In sheer hard neck brazenness, I nominated a few of my blogs for an award and was dumbstruck to find some of them making that long shortlist and was even more amazed to find this Musings blog making it onto the “Best blog from a journalist” shortlist. However, after a quick phone call to a dress hire shop enquiring about the cost of renting out a tux, I decided that my artistic integrity would again be compromised if I were to go for the populist approach.
So when I read that it didn’t win, I concluded that John Waters was nearly right after all.
It’s the blog judges who are stupid.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Painting the Town Yellow

It has never happened in the past and it will probably never happen again but I am going to use this column to formally congratulate Dublin Bus. Now, please excuse me while I go and sit in a darkened room with a wet towel pressed against my head.
That’s better. You may be wondering which of Dublin Bus’s many marvellous attributes has earned this eulogy. Is it the far-sightedness of the route planners giving commuters on the 39 route a complete and inclusive tour of every housing estate in Dublin 15 before arriving at Ongar? Or maybe it is the legendary punctuality of the buses which always come when they say they will and never leave passengers stranded? Or perhaps it is the professionalism of the drivers who take roundabouts and sharp bends at such a gentle speed to avoid discommoding the many standing passengers that delight in using the service?
The answer is – and here I’m paraphrasing the great Lionel Ritchie - none of the above, though all are worthy of mention in helping to keep Dublin Bus at the cutting edge of suburban transportation. No, I have been enraptured by the poles.
Not, I hasten to add, those East European bus drivers whose quick, witty banter help dispel the traveller’s winter blues – I mean the poles at the bus stops.
You must be severely snow blind not to have spotted them. Where once they were navy blue, in keeping with the circular DB logo on top, they have now been painted a glorious yellow that brightens up even the dullest thoroughfare. Even Picasso, during his little known and ultimately ill-fated yellow period, never had the temerity to produce a yellow so vivid. Canary yellow is probably the nearest I can come to describing it, though any small songbird coloured so vividly would undoubtedly attract the attentions of every sparrow hawk in a twenty mile radius. It is like radioactive custard, a bold sweeping corporate statement of intent from one of the biggest movers and shakers in Ireland today.
Frankly, this country is now light years ahead of our European neighbours in terms of bus stop colouring. The Germans are still experimenting with a rather mundane emerald green, while the Belgians are firmly rooted in the past with their robust but sombre black poles. Even the Spanish, normally renowned for their love of all things florid, have not progressed much past the terracotta so favoured by Franco.
Purcan Daul, probably Ireland’s most earnest poet of the last thirty years, has been quick to put pen to paper in praise of the new poles. “So come, yellow crane legs / And shine your bounteous gait / ‘Pon those who patiently wait,” he wrote in his epic poem “Bus,” which was premiered at the Coolmine Poetry Slam recently to rapturous applause.
The question of course is – what is the reason for this sudden eruption of colour from Dublin Bus?
Busologists are naturally split on this and the forum message boards on the internet have been hopping with theories. “The Travelling Wilbury” from Hartstown maintains that this is Dublin Bus’s response to the advent of spring, echoing the annual explosion of daffodils on the centre lane of the N3. “Regina the 39er” suggests that at last the company have got a female marketing manager whose keen eye has insisted that the bus stops blend in with the new buses in an attractive and easygoing way, rather like the way that women seem to think that curtains and cushions should match, (although that is somewhat of a sexist viewpoint not at all shared by this observer.)
A certain cynical section of the bus-hopping public have now been wondering if the luminous bus stops might be an ingenious device to even more fully attract the driver’s attention and thus prevent him or her from sailing past crowds of frozen commuters when the bus is only half full. As if that ever happens!
Others have caustically remarked that it is a Government ploy to divert the public’s attention from the recent revelations at the tribunals and the parlous state of the health service, though as everybody knows this Government has much to be proud of and does not deserve such scandalous vilification.
Whatever the reason, Dublin 15, like the rest of the city, has now exploded into a riot of colour that makes the Dutch tulip fields look positively drab by comparison. Distributor roads shine when you turn onto them and passengers have taken to wearing dark glasses for fear of too much exposure to the brightness. Approaching pilots have been warned not to confuse the rows of brightly painted bus stops with the landing lights at Dublin airport after a Ryanair flight from Carcassonne recently discharged a plane load of puzzled tourists onto the tarmac at Diswellstown.
Critics have pointed out that the vividness of the new colouring will attract the black marker in much the same way that a Wet Paint sign attracts a curious finger. “Macker loves Natalie” will now stand out much more against a yellow background than it ever did on the navy, when people had to squint fiercely to decipher the enigmatic messages contained thereon.
I’m not sure this is true. In fact, I have every confidence that our much maligned disaffected youth will view the aesthetic values of the new posts with pleasure and reverence and will not seek to adorn or indeed deface them in any way.
Sadly the name of the man or woman who came up with the idea to paint all the bus stops a lurid shade of yellow will probably never be known. It is possible he or she is merely a disgruntled employee who utilised the company’s suggestion box in a moment of merriment, little realising that his or her facetious suggestion would be pounced upon by the company’s marketing department with such rapturous enthusiasm.
Maybe they’re sitting in the Clonsilla Inn or the Bell now telling a doubtful audience that it was their idea to paint all the bus stops and how much money they have made out of it. It is a tale they can tell their grandchildren when they grow up happy and content in the wonderfully colourful new neighbourhoods of Dublin 15.
Whoever you are, sir or madam, I salute you.