Cold metal

There is a new Google enterprise to get searchable digitised newspaper archives online. A great idea. (I’ve already had loads of educational fun with the Times archive and the Victorian British press archive that went subscriber only, just when it had completely engrossed me.)

The Google blog page has a link to Google’s press archive search but there’s a warning that you won’t find everything indexed. They suggest some searches.

Not every search will trigger this new content, but you can start by trying queries like [Nixon space shuttle] or [Titanic located]. Stories we’ve scanned under this initiative will appear alongside already-digitized material from publications like the New York Times as well as from archive aggregators, and are marked “Google News Archive.”

This instantly arouses my vapourware bullshit detector. Hmm. Space shuttle. The Titanic. First man on the moon… Maybe they’ve just stuck together a few very standard searches and plan to add lots more information as it becomes popular….. I feel impelled to test it a bit more rigorously.

I try a few off-the-wall searches. I pick the topics solely on the randomish basis that somebody’s mentioned the words to me in conversation today :

  • “Dolph Lundgren” – 4,370 articles
  • “Japanese swearword” – 279 articles
  • “linear algebra” – 3,520 articles
  • “Large Hadron Collider” – 3,370 articles.
  • “Frozen vegetables” – 236,000 articles

Blimey. This actually works really well. I can’t claim to have clicked on more than a handful of links but the ones I did click on were legit.. It’s definitely not vapourware. It’s already damn good.

So, the big test, then. I’m going for my favourite indicator that a human twat-a-tron is at work. “Political correctness gone mad” gets 3,420 print archive hits.
Wait. I run it again, to see if the British press is represented. Just because I suspect that it must appear several times a day, so 3,240 seems a relatively small total. (It’s outnumbered by all the phrases above except “Japanese swearwords” and the consensus of press opinion seems to be that these don’t really exist.)

This time I get a mere 1,550 hits. Bloody inconsistent Google. Plus, the timeline is bizarre to say the least. It claims the first mention was between 1880 and 1559. The next was in 1782, then there’s one from 1805. … I think not. They are making these up. The 1958 ones looks like a mistake as well.

Closer inspection reveals that the “dates” have leaked in from elsewhere in an article. Most examples are huddled around the last 8 years. In fact there’s barely an instance of political correctness gone mad until 1998. It’s only in the past couple of years that the full flowering of the phrase has taken off.

“The PC brigade” (h/t Alun) got 467. Ignoring the dating oddities, these are also clustered around the turn of the century, with a linguistic take-off from 2000.

These numbers are tiny. Ah ha. Google hasn’t archived the Daily Mail. 🙂 (No hits for “the Daily Mail is shit”, h/t Tom Donald)

Look, if they are only going to index serious newspapers, there is going to be no fun in this.

However, they must have archived a fair bit of newsprint crap, because “the Rapture” brings back a stunning 18,300 reports.

First mention is 0 AD 😀

Nothing new

“Binge drinking” is the fashionable moral panic topic for the UK media. The drunken excesses of youth in UK city centres are presented as evidence of social decline, the evils of youth culture, the dark side of feminism, even.

Agreed, drinking alcohol has some repellent effects. If legality really bore any relationship to social harm and if banning recreational substances didn’t lead to much worse problems than the substance ever caused, there would be a fair case for banning it completely.

As a predictable result of the current coverage of the evils of strong drink, Alistair Darling, the ironically-surnamed UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly increased the taxes on alcohol today.

But experts said it was still not enough to make a “real difference”..(snipped)…
It comes at a time when more and more pressure is being placed on the government to use the lever of price to tackle binge-drinking Britain. (from the BBC)

Well, the media pressure might be recent but the increase in consumption and increase in collateral damage seem a mite illusory. The raising-price-to-deter issue remains unproven (and anyone can travel to mainland Europe and provision their neighbourhood with cheap booze.)

How new is this “issue” anyway? Think of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Now that was an era with an alcohol problem.

A fantastic (and temporarily free) resource has lots of 19th century newspapers from the British Library, in a fully searchable online version. (The fact that some pages look as if they’ve been eaten by rats just adds to their charm.)

And, wow. Their news was much more action-packed and interesting than the stuff we get to read now. The political news tells you about things like the House of Commons reaction to Bradlaugh’s atheism. You can see the details of major historical events in a sort of reading-based real time. For instance, you can identify the start of the Irish Potato Famine. Even the shipping listings have whole columns devoted to casual lists of pirate attacks.

I mean, that’s what you call serious news. Which I will promptly ignore, of course, and go for the sensationalist stuff, being a true 21st century media consumer.

The biggest shock – for anyone seduced by a vision of the past as some sort of public order Utopia – is the nature and viciousness of the crimes reported in the local papers. Not to mention the often merciful nature of sentences, at a time when we assume that all “justice” was more than harsh.

Almost randomly mixed in with records of innocent Rose Grower’s Association fetes, you find some really bloodthirsty reports. I won’t retell a selection of 200-year-old crime stories, on the grounds that they would be as interesting as other people’s holiday snaps. Find your own stories by searching the database, if you’re interested.

Scores of knifings, battering, poisonings, drowning babies, muggings and gang robberies – one of which included an 86-year old woman, on the gang side. In one story, a remanded prisoner – whose imprisonment involved living as a guest in a detective’s house, ffs – managed to get a gun and shoot the two accomplices in the murder he was being charged with. (The detective’s wife gave evidence that he was very well behaved in their house and that the shooting was out of character…..)

The theme of alcoholic excess runs through many of these stories. 19th century binge-drinkers could drink today’s urban revellers under the table. For example, the London Examiner (July 7, 1817) reported the story of a soldier who was too drunk to remember having murdered his drinking companion.

The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Saturday, March 22, 1800 described the loss of a 64-gun royal navy ship, the Repulse, which had just recaptured a boat that had been taken by French privateers. Among the crew who died in the course of the shipwreck, there were two sailors who drowned “due to drunkenness” and four sailors who were so drunk that they couldn’t even leave the sinking ship.

Drinking to the point at which you become a serious danger to yourself and others is no new invention. It seems to be a centuries-old British tradition. I hope we don’t have to swear allegiance to that.