Sometimes it’s better just to laugh

pants.jpgToday, no clever postings about the finer points of grammar or etymology. No long ramblings about RSS feeds. Today, just two vaguely copywritery, bloggy-related items that made me laugh:

  • From my copywriting feed, the dictionary.com word of the day is chortle: to utter, or express with, a snorting, exultant laugh or chuckle. What a fantastic, forgotten word. I must use it sometime. Do people still chortle in this age of satire and scepticism? Perhaps chance favours the prepared mind. I’m going to try and catch someone chortling. Didn’t Jasper Carrott introduce the word ‘zit’ to the English language? I’m going to create my own word. Something to express the sound you make when you sigh so loudly it creates a moaning noise of resignation. How about ‘to mognate’?
  • From my PR feed comes, bizarrely, this posting: Everybody’s wearing my pants. I can’t explain it, you’ll have to take a look for yourselves readers (all three of you). Some people have far too much time on their hands. And yet, I find this ingeniously viral. Pants: everybody has a vested interest in them. Pants around the world.

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Why does everyone hate PR? Even PR people?

Today my twitching, flinching eye lands on no fewer than three items in my PR feed which slate PR people:

  • Public Relations Rogue laments that ‘far too many PR professionals are woefully ignorant of emerging techonology and trends that impact communication’
  • His posting is based on another one in the feed, by Dave McLure, in which he gives six reasons why PR doesn’t work if you’re a geek. Don’t worry though because FG put him right on each of those points, especially the one about ewespoons. ;)
  • Scatterbox by Steven Silvers talks about PR and the business of enthusiastic incompetence, boiling all PR’s woes down to one simple truth: ‘the client hires PR people who don’t know what they’re doing.’

And, in turn, his posting is based on Guy Kawasaki’s blog listing the top ten reasons PR doesn’t work. Of all these posts, Guy’s seems the most well-balanced. He’s a nice Guy.

What is going on here? Actually, I think I have a hunch. I think it’s a backhanded self-compliment. A lot of these people are saying “I’m totally on the ball and these other people aren’t. Look at them, aren’t they stupid. One of these days I’m going to be director. I’ve got a blog, you know.” The difficulty comes in assessing what they’re actually doing about it in their own companies. I really do hope they’re spearheading Web 2.0 initiatives or even training people off their own bat. I’m not saying they’re not: I just hope they are. I just hope that for every negative they’re pointing out, they’re endeavouring to introduce a positive.

In fact I’d say that’s true of a lot of blogging. It does generally tend to be a bit of a whinge, doesn’t it?

EDIT: And immediately after posting this I notice another one: Brian Solis, who seems to have picked up on the same wave of anti-PR, and offers brilliant advice for everyone. Bless you, Brian.

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I think… I think my blog has a USP

I’ve just been surfing some of the links to the right of my blog, and it occurs to me that I haven’t yet come across another blog that does what I do – namely, that carries its own syndicated feeds and becomes a kind of ‘news centre’ for four specific areas – PR, journalism, copywriting and tech.

That’s just great FG. But how do you do it? Tell us.

Well, readers (all three of you), I do this through Google Reader. I create a tag, and then bundle as many feeds as I can into that tag. So, for example, the PR feed to the right is in fact a tag in my Google Reader, which I have made public, so that it has a public feed that you can subscribe to. In fact, in a way you could say that this blog is subscribed to each of the feeds. And you can too. Just click the title for each feed and Feedburner will tell you exactly what to do.

So where does the magic happen, FG?

When I say ‘bundled feeds’, well the simplest of these is through subscriptions to specific blogs, but there are other techniques you can use. These are:

  • Set up a search in Google News or Yahoo news, then subscribe to that search. If you click here you’ll see that I’ve set up a Google News search for you – for ‘blogging’, as it happens – and all you have to do is then subscribe to the RSS or Atom links you can see to the left of the page. Oh, alright then, I’ve done the same for Yahoo News for you, but on Yahoo the subscriptions are on the right. Go on, take a look, and remember: if you subscribe to them on your reader then effectively what you’ve done is set Google and Yahoo out to search for news for you and send it back to you. This is seriously powerful.
  • You can do the same for Google Blog Search, but this is much more contained within the blogosphere, so it updates when there’s a posting that Google Blog Search picks up rather than a news item. Again, I’ve set up a search for you, so click here and you’ll see the results of a blog search for the term ‘blogging’. As above, all you now need to do is subscribe to that search.
  • WordPress tag searches are also effective. Let’s continue with the blogging theme: click here and you’ll be taken to a WordPress tag search for ‘blogging’. This is a feed generated from all the WordPress posts with that tag. This time, take a look to the right of the page and you’ll see that familiar, welcome, orange RSS icon.  Subscribe to it, and you now have WordPress doing some searching for you too.
  • Digg does the same thing, but here you have the beauty of a set of articles that other people like too. I know there’s an argument that this just magnifies group stupidity but heck, at least you’ll be as stupid as everyone else. Again, click here to find a Digg feed for the ‘blogging’ term, and find the orange RSS icon to the left of the page. Unfortunately the Digg searches don’t seem truly boolean, so for example you can’t search for ‘PR’ because apparently it’s too short, but then you also seem unable to search for +public +relations or “public relations”. Bummer.
  • You can also build some nice feeds through Technorati. I did once try this but I found it to contain quite a lot of spam. This cool article takes you through what you can do, and I might just give it another go – looks like the Favourites feature could be interesting.
  • Finally, MSN newsgroups. I’ve never quite figured what’s going on here. If you click here you’ll find a search for blogging, as with the other resources I’ve mentioned above, but nowhere on the results page can I see something that will allow me to subscribe to any feeds. However, if I click my incredibly useful ‘Subscribe as you surf’ button, Google Reader finds the feed. I’m not convinced this will work properly so I haven’t pursued it. The other techniques work fine for me.

Techniques schmechniques. Tell us everrrrythinnnng. 

I’ve just given you the techniques for bringing together lots of powerful features and if you followed the links above you’ll have seen how easy it is to subscribe to them. If you did subscribe, then on your feed reader they’re probably all separate feeds now, right? Well, if you have Google Reader then I suggest without further ado you create a tag called, for argument’s sake, ‘Blogging’, and place them all in that. I’m sure other readers have a similar feature.

And here comes the really clever bit. In Google Reader, click Settings, then click Tags. Set your new ‘Blogging’ tag to be public. Now click the link to go to the public page. First of all it’s cool enough that you’ve created a public page through these feeds, because that’s great for people who don’t ‘get’ readers. But wait – can you see what I see to the right of that page? Yes, that’s correct: it’s another feed icon. In other words, you’ve gathered together all these feeds under one tag, and now that tag itself is generating a feed. You’ve built your own feed.

Perhaps other online aggregators will let you do that. If so, I suggest you find out because it’s very, very useful.

Wow.

This is great because you can build feeds for people, effectively becoming a news syndication service. I do this regularly at work now: if people want to get updates on stuff and they can’t be bothered to figure it out for themselves, I’ll build it all into one feed, so all they have to do is subscribe that feed. I use all these techniques, bringing together news, blog and tag searches and subscribing to them, then bringing them under one tag, making that tag public, and giving them the feed URL.

Another cool aspect to this is that I can remove, add or change feeds around within that tag, and the feed is unaffected. So long as I don’t delete or rename the tag, everything continues as before. You can be even cooler and use Feedburner so that you can change everything around and the feed will remain intact.

Wow.

That’s exactly what I’ve done on this blog. To the right you’ll see the results of this, with the four feeds using these aggregation techniques, together with quite a lot of sifting to find the right search terms. Feel free to subscribe to them:

Friendly Ghost, you are a god.  

Thank you, nice of you to say readers. All three of you. Just don’t call me a maven or a guru.

As I say, I haven’t come across a blog that does the same thing. Which makes me unique. Although now I’ve told you how to do this, perhaps I won’t be unique anymore…

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Affect vs effect

I’m often asked about the difference between these two words. When I go into a great speech about their real difference – ‘effect’ is a noun, ‘affect’ is a verb – I tend to get blank looks back. So I explain that something affects something else to produce an effect. Still nothing.

Even I if go back to primary school definitions, that one is a ‘doing’ word while the other is a ‘thing’, there is still incomprehension. It’s generally difficult to explain the finer points of language to people who don’t know what verbs, adjectives and nouns are.

When someone I was explaining this to the other day finally got the idea, they said “Ah, I’ll just remember ‘special effects’ in future.” And that seemed to do the trick.

So, if you’re stuck, remember that special effects are things, so if what you’re talking about is a thing, use ‘effect’. Any other case, use ‘affect’.

And just forget about effecting something. I know, I know, it’s also a verb but you’ll hardly ever need to use it. And as for affect as a noun, well you’re in copywriting, not psychiatry…

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The Doc Martens fiasco: crisis mismanagement

Over at PR Disasters Gerry McCusker gives an account of Saatchi and Saatchi’s sacking over a tasteless ad campaign featuring famous dead people wearing Doc Martens boots, the idea of the campaign being that, unlike their wearers, they’re ‘made to last’. The agency’s reaction is none too clever either: Creative Director Kate Stanners says the ads are ‘edgy, but not offensive’. Gerry’s insight is that this is a prime example of when the ad agencies should bring in PR for crisis management. I’d add that this is also a case of damage to a brand that really should know better. We’re all in communications, so how could S&S make such a cock-up of it?

If you handle a crisis badly it can be severely damaging. The Cadburys salmonella episode is a case in point: while the financial effects have been classed as ‘minimal’ there is severe damage to the Cadburys brand which is associated with wholesome family values. This will affect the brand well into the future and I predict that S&S will be counting the cost of this disaster for some time to come, over and above the immediate lack of revenue from losing the account.

I’d also add that it smacks of internal communications gone bad. While Dr Martens CEO David Suddens is trying to do the right thing, now saying “We do think that it is offensive. We made a mistake,” it turns out that he didn’t even know Cobain had been featured in the ad. This not something the CEO should have been told: it is something the checks and balances of effective internal communications should have stopped before it even became public.

This one looks set to run. It’s all over the place. Watch and learn.

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I’m 23.3 minutes ahead of you

A few weeks ago I decided to try out Google Web Accelerator on my 4MB broadband connection and it seems I have saved 23.3 minutes of time so far by using it. Does this mean I am now 23.3 minutes into the future? Or does this mean I have 23.3 minutes to spend on something more profitable. What does it take 23.3 minutes to do?

When I was young I remember having difficulty quite getting the point of summer and winter time, ie ‘spring forward, fall back’. Which one meant I got an hour more in bed? I used to get quite anxious about having ‘lost’ an hour. What if I never got it back? What if I died with that hour less in my life? Would that mean I’d have died an hour early?

Google Web Accelerator does essentially the same thing as the Onspeed service I used for a year in the old days of dial-up. Instead of receiving content directly from a website, it is first routed to the provider’s servers, compressed, then forwarded to you where software decompresses it, the idea being that the difference in transmission time is negligible while the difference in processing time isn’t. Google Web Accelerator seems to use several techniques to speed up your connection such as (it says here):

  • Sending your page requests through Google machines dedicated to handling Google Web Accelerator traffic.
  • Storing copies of frequently looked at pages to make them quickly accessible.
  • Downloading only the updates if a web page has changed slightly since you last viewed it.
  • Prefetching certain pages onto your computer in advance.
  • Managing your Internet connection to reduce delays.
  • Compressing data before sending it to your computer.

Clever. And, the best thing about it, free, unlike Onspeed.

The only problem so far has been with Windows Update, which didn’t like it. But, in a similar way to pop-up blockers, you can simply tell the accelerator software not to accelerate specific web addresses. Sorted.

I have to say I haven’t really noticed that I’ve saved 23.3 minutes but I suppose I’ve been busy doing something else while saving that time. I just have to trust that the Google Web Accelerator isn’t lying.

I just realised, it took me about 23.3 minutes to write this blog post. So I saved enough time for one blog post, Google got a free plug, and you found out something new (I hope). Everyone wins. Except I am now living in the present. Or am I? It now says 23.4 minutes.

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Are you a bot?

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googlebot1.jpg

Google seems to have finally decided that people are also bots: check out this post, in which it’s claimed that searching for a description of a Spam Assassin rule yielded the above response. It’s doing the rounds at digg right now.

I just posted about this on Seamus McCauley’s Virtual Economics blog, and, on submitting my comment, was told an error had occurred that involved me typing a challenge/response code to prove I wasn’t a bot either! So be careful if you comment on this one: if, like me, you find these bot-proofing systems difficult to read then I wonder what happens. Does Google/Wordpress/Blogger ‘ban’ you?

The idea of intelligent search engines – more intuitive than keywords – is a fascinating one. Check out my post on the subject.

How influential is your blog?

The topic of blog influence has been occupying my mind recently.

This is possibly the longest post in blog history. If you’re feeling fit and aggressive then do a few star jumps and shadow boxing, and dive into it. If, like me, you’re pale and wan and prone to fainting, then just have a look at it from time to time and if you start to panic, run away like a tiny white rabbit.

Influence vs popularity

So, to influence. I’ve travelled a fair distance down this road but I don’t think I’m at the end yet. At the very first step I discovered that influence is not necessarily the same as popularity.

Imagine I’m interested in financial matters. In this case – to take a UK-centric paper-media analogy – I would subscribe to the Financial Times because it’s highly influential. Heat or GQ, or even Viz, might have bigger circulations and subscription rates, but they’re not as influential. Strange how something so obvious in ‘real life’ needs pointing out for ‘virtual life’ (or R vs VR).

A bit more research shows that generally however, the two do tally. Now given that my analysis isn’t going to be totally scientific, and granted that none ever really could be, I’m prepared to run with this assumption. I’m prepared to believe that a popular blog, such as scobleizer, is also influential.

What am I trying to achieve?

So now that I’ve made my first, possibly erroneous assumption, what exactly is my objective here? Well, ideally I’d like to say ‘given the popularity (and by assumption influence) of this blog, I can give a ballpark figure and say that X number of people read it on a daily basis.’

You can spot another assumption coming along can’t you? Yes, it’s actually impossible to say with any conviction how many people read a blog.  My good friend Seamus McCauley over at Virtual Economics points out that page views is a bad figure. You could have a blog that many people impulsively subscribe to, but then hardly ever read. Or you might have one that people tend to link to and even read a lot, but not subscribe to. There are also complications with ‘unusual’ uses of feeds in which people resyndicate a feed out – several examples of which you can see to the right of this very blog, as my copywriting/ PR/ journalism/ tech feeds which I syndicate out from Google Reader.

target1.jpgBut I remain convinced that I should be able to say ‘if this blog has this many page views and this popularity rating, then by reverse calculation, this blog with this popularity rating must have X page views and is therefore Y times as influential.’

So now it’s two assumptions. But I think it’s a fair one to equate popularity with influence, and to say that, as a general rule, if I get, say, 100 views a day (I don’t – post-edit: but I do now), then it must be possible by using my popularity score to figure out, roughly, what for example engadget or gizmodo get a day. Even if we’re talking within certain percentage points of error here, at least I could give a range.

But you try looking for page views online. No one seems to want to give them out.

Oooh, it’s getting complicated

Let’s forget absolute page views for now. Let’s concentrate on a ‘popularity’ score. Here, we still have problems. It seems that no one wants to give absolute figures for this either. There are several online resources we can use to conjure up some arbitrary score, and my spreadsheet currently contains the following (with links to FG figures where possible so you can laugh at my pitiful ratings):

  • Technorati- lists an ‘authority’ figure, a rank, and a links figure. The Technorati Authority is the number of blogs linking to a website in the last six months. The higher the number, the more Technorati Authority the blog has. The rank is how high (or low) you are in the Technorati order of things. The number of links shows, well, actually I’m not sure, but generally it’s higher than the authority number, so perhaps it’s the total number of links in. The problem with these figures, in particular the rank, is that there’s no way to make them ‘absolute’. I cannot walk up to someone and with any credibility say “well, I’ve done a lot of work on this and you should opt for blog X because it has a Technorati authority of Y.” I’m convinced that something more is needed. I know that people need to visualise what the authority really is.
  • Blogpulse – seems to me to be a similar offering. It’s essentially a blog search engine, so you type in the blog address and you get a number of links to that address. This is handy I guess, because it’s essentially a citation. Isn’t it?
  • Bloglines- is an all-in-one online blogging and aggregating solution, but also seems to offer some useful metrics, such as number of posts, feeds and citations. Remember, I’m doing a popularity search, on the basis that influence is roughly equatable to popularity, so these could be useful too.
  • Alexa – is where things start to get interesting. It shows traffic figures for a website, including reach, page views and rank. Reach measures the number of users, page views is the number of pages read by Alexa toolbar users (you can see what’s coming up can’t you?), and the rank is derived from the other two. Alexa is tantalisingly close to what I need, but there are two problems. Firstly, it just expresses reach as a percentage of the total Alexa population. So it’s nice to know that Yahoo accounts for 25% of the Alexa population, but what is the total population? Just give me that number and I have the figure I so desperately yearn. But it’s nowhere to be found, presumably for good reason. And the reason is probably the second problem with these figures: it only measures a subset of the population, that is, people with Alexa toolbars. OK, so any set of figures is necessarily going to be a subset, but straight away one has to question the skew in these figures. Namely, that while my computer-consultant cousin might have it installed, my technophobic aunt almost definitely does not. Which is also probably why this blog doesn’t appear in Alexa’s ratings, and why I had to link to it using Yahoo’s URL instead.
  • What else is there? Oh yes – Google and Google Blog search. Curiously no one seems to cite these as valuable research tools and yet I can see that both could be useful simply as a measure of mentions ‘out there’, especially when combined with the link: and related: parameters. One problem this throws up however is that of links from blogrolls, internal links (ie links to one’s own blog), and feed links, particularly WordPress feeds in the case of this blog. The waters are muddied further.

Really complicated

Imagine a spreadsheet with these figures on them for the blogs I want to analyse (with the exception of the Technorati rank and Alexa rank because, unlike the other figures, they get smaller as a blog is more popular and I don’t know how to ‘reverse’ them). That’s what I’ve got. It’s very pretty but, as you’re about to see, largely useless.

Surely it’s a simple case of adding these figures up and finding out which is the most popular, right? Well, sort of. Kind of. Maybe. First I’d like to know more about these figures and see whether they tally. Let’s find relationships between them, shall we? And this is where things become very frustrating indeed.

As far as I can tell, there is very little relationship between any of these figures. Try comparing, say, the Technorati authority with the Blogpulse messages across blogs. Their ratios will vary, widely and wildly. Same with all the others. I cannot find even two sets of figures that agree. Even the Technorati authority and links figures don’t work consistently.

This implies that there are different kinds of blogs. And certainly I set out thinking this could be the case, as I explained with the difficulty of page views. Perhaps ‘small’ blogs behave differently from ‘big’ ones. Perhaps the relationships aren’t linear.

But this still doesn’t help me much. If it’s not as simple as addition then perhaps it’s as less simple as multiplication and division. I’m after a formula here, I think.

The Holy Grail

Enter bloginfluence.net. Holy cow, it seems to be what I’m after. It is almost as if someone like me has looked around what’s available online but, unlike me, has a brain and knows what to do with it. And there’s the calculation:

(blogs+posts+pages+2*subscribers)*(1+PageRank/10).

Type in your blog address and out it pops. Beautiful. Other people seem to think it works too, it’s not just numbnuts like me. This could be what I’m after.

It’s only grail-shaped

But wait. There’s just one problem: it seems to have an error in the bloglines element, consistently and for any address. I’ve emailed the author about this so let’s see what happens. Meanwhile I could pop my own figures into my own spreadsheet, but I’m not absolutely sure which figures are used here from Bloglines. I imagine citations, but I could be wrong…?

Getting someone else in

If you’ve managed to read this far down this HUGE posting, you’ll have realised that this isn’t as simple and easy as I thought it might be. I mean, I knew I was making assumptions and quite possibly trying to do something impossible, but I’m nothing if not bone-headed. At least I’ve kind of proven to myself that it’s a hard thing to do. Which is why I might get someone else to do it for me.

Onalytica – which I came across via Shel Holtz’s fabulous podcast – do it all. They take the very valid position that, in order to measure influence, you need to figure out who your readers are. This is precisely the definition I mentioned right at the very beginning. But these guys really do analyse it, for you, for a price.

My question, Spinal Tap-style, would be where do you stop with this? To measure the influence of your readers then surely you have to measure the influence of their readers, and their readers’ readers, and so on? I guess one degree of readership is sufficient.

What happens now?

So perhaps Onalytica is the way forward. But hang on. Wait a minute. If they simply analyse these figures for readers, then surely I could use Technorati to analyse linked blogs too? And if I could get the bloginfluence figures to work properly, then that would give a good indication of popularity, wouldn’t it? Then I would have my popularity ratings. And, by implication, influence.

Time to get the spreadsheet out again…

Epilogue

I’m perfectly prepared to believe that this is something that either cannot be discovered, or that needs a much more ‘human’ oriented approach, that is by actually reading the blog(s) involved (which I have already), by monitoring linked blogs, and by getting my hands dirty.

The analogy here is with share prices perhaps, in that a successful trader doesn’t just sit by a screen, he talks to people and keeps his ear to the ground. But I do know that the reverse can be true: that the share price effectively arbitrates for all these variables and comes out at a single value reflecting a company’s current and – ideally – future performance. I also know I’m not dealing with a market here. So many assumptions…

On violence (random)

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So, I posted about being assaulted the other night. Here are the details. I’m posting this for no other reason than it makes me feel better, and I’m hoping it will help other people feel better if they read this and something similar has happened to them. Normal service – copywriting and PR with a smattering of tech and web – will be resumed shortly.

Basically I was punched three times in the face, totally randomly, on Friday night. It was so quick it was over almost before I realised what was happening. Now I have a black eye – actually it’s a fine shade of vermillion with an encroaching area of puce developing around the periphery – and a swollen lip that has largely gone down. But my nose is still broken, and that’s getting fixed tomorrow.

The finer details are the interesting ones. I’d been out with friends and was having a relaxing cigarette before setting off to look for an overpriced taxi. I remember sitting there, just watching London go by, and feeling quite fine about it all. Sometimes London can be beautiful with all its bright colours and bustle.

Then I remember hearing someone say “He looks rich to me” (believe me, I don’t), and then a blow to the head. Thing is, it didn’t hurt. At all. In fact I thought I’d just sneezed violently or something. Then this really really nasty face appeared right in front of mine, and the next thing I knew there was another blow to the eye, then another one to the nose. That’s the point at which I heard something in my head go ‘crunch’, and I knew I needed to get out of there.

So, I flailed my arms around – bear in mind I was sitting down through all of this, the guy was such a coward he didn’t even pick on someone standing up – while I could feel some rifling around going on inside my pocketses. But fortunately I had deep enough pockets for them not to get the mobile or the wallet, just the cigs.

I was up and off. I wasn’t about to try and get redress because he and his mates would have finished what they’d started. Within about a minute some bloke said “Taxi mate?” and I immediately said “Yes, and take me directly to A&E.” He was actually a nice bloke, told me it had happened to him and stuff. He showed me my face in the mirror, all fine apart from a really weird nose. Even weirder than usual. By the next morning it had actually relocated to a small degree but when you have a nose like mine it needs several degrees before it starts to look right. Think the Latchford Locks swingbridge if you know it, and you get the idea.

I can’t pretend it didn’t shake me up. I was exhausted until about midway through yesterday. I think my body just said “Right, I’m just going to shut down and do some maintenance now.” And there was probably more than an element of shock and adrenaline involved. Since then I have to admit it’s been going round and round in my head but I know that’s the little lizardy part of my brain telling me not to let it happen again.

And I won’t, insofar as one can avoid utterly random violence.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I hate seeing violence on TV now. I had the same reaction after 9/11. Suddenly you realise that violence, real violence, is ugly, ugly, ugly. When you see Bruce Willis, covered in cuts and bruises, kissing the girl after shooting several dozen Eastern Europeans, you realise that it’s total and utter nonsense. In fact, it’s disgusting. Still, I’m sure I’ll eventually become as inured to it as every other TV-consuming zombie.

There is some good news though. Apparently I can claim under the criminal injuries compensation authority. I just need to report it – which I tried to do at the local police station today but after waiting for two hours with no one appearing at the counter, I gave up. Still, it seems my nose may be worth a grand or two, which I think makes it worth more than its weight in gold (note to self: must weigh nose tonight – perhaps using liquid displacement technique in bath). I’m not one to endorse the compensation culture but if the money’s there, well, why not?