EDITORIAL: Ars Notoria is a stone in the water …

… and we are going to make a splash!


It is fun to throw a stone into a pond and watch the ripples; to post an article on the Internet and then to see echoes of it later on – usually without any attribution. People find out about the subjects that interest them through the prosthetic omniscience that the web offers and they reconstitute what they find into something else, adding something of their own – let’s call the result knowledge.

Occasionally, someone might lift your whole article and republish it under another name. This happened to me once after I wrote a speculative article on Dyson Spheres and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – without knowing much about either subject.

SETI had carried out a search for Dyson Spheres in the 80s. They only found 14 candidates and SETI thought they could rule out all of them but two. That amazed me. Really? Did that mean they had actually discovered two Dyson Spheres?

The academics I worked with were angry about the Internet. They thought it was a disreputable mess.

If you typed ‘Dyson Sphere’ into Google two weeks later, you would have found my article right at the top of all searches, but published by The Daily Galaxy and without my byline.  My own post appeared three links below. The article was republished on many sites. Here’s an extract:

Dyson’s thought experiment suggested that in our search for advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that Instead of radio signals we should look for spheres, which are artificial mega structures that enclose the orbit of a star, fabricated from the material of that solar system. The Dyson sphere is the marker of what Kardashev calls a Type 2 civilization, which is capable of using up all the energy produced by a star. A Type three civilization uses up all the energy produced by a galaxy.

I was blogging for the Guardian and punching above my weight. This was my party trick: I would go to my friends and colleagues, Tony, Paul and Mark, and tell them that I had just written an article. Within a few minutes we would check. Almost invariably a link to the article appeared on the first page of Google, even when using a broad search term.

This spooked me. It made me feel uncertain about the value of what I was doing. I did not like it. Why?

Useful stuff and the popular guff rose to the top. The well referenced, quality entries stayed in the background.

Well, I had worked as a consultant to different universities in Mexico in the second half of the 90s helping them with setting up their computer language labs so that they could save money on teachers. The academics I worked with were angry about the new born Internet. They thought it was a disreputable mess.

The rector of one university told me that his organisation was part of a project to link up into the World Wide Web mark 2.0.

Version 2.0 of the Web would be carefully controlled by governments, local town councils, companies, NGOs, technical institutes, universities, libraries and schools. It would retrieve reliable, quality information on Dyson Spheres, not a short article written by a lover of science fiction novels.

The philistines had usurped the librarians. In 1989 my wife was studying hard for an Msc in Information and Library science at UCL. One of the courses included exercises on how to use Boolean logic when carrying out searches on online library databases.

The Internet sure put the kibosh on that. They closed down the library school at UCL a long time ago.

AskSam in 1987

A friend gave me a copy of a textbase called AskSam – few remember it now. With AskSam, you didn’t need to organise information for retrieval, you just had to add tags and the searches themselves organised the information.

When Google appeared it seemed to me that it worked like AskSam. The information wasn’t structured for retrieval with the help of experts in information science. Useful stuff and the popular guff rose to the top. The well referenced, quality entries stayed in the background.

So, I packed away my blogs and went off to Facebook and I am not all that happy with Facebook

Librarians were online from the beginning, living in the interstices, and ignored.

Google Scholar and other academic search engines came along and the situation improved – a little. Then people started using the Digital Object Identifier (DOI) number and our librarians were back in business.

I had the chutzpah to give one of my last talks at my previous employer on the subject of DOI. It was broadcast system wide and I called it DOI: The Librarians’ Revenge.

After the experience of having my (plagiarised) article go viral in 2008 and after seeing my posts shoot straight up to the top of Google between 2008 and 2009, I decided to stop.

Imagine some poor soul wanting to find out about Dyson Spheres and getting my article instead. What I was doing was a betrayal of the idea of knowledge as illumination, a betrayal of the librarians I support and, in one case, love.

I blogged for the Guardian until I got up their nose.

That was the same time I had a very unpleasant experience with The Guardian.

I wrote an article in defense of Jacob Zuma (who actually did deserve more respect than he got) and the editors dropped me. Yes, my political line didn’t fit theirs, yes my writing was awful and yes, unfortunately, I was a rather hectoring presence. All the same, the snub hurt.

So, I packed away my blogs and went off to Facebook and I am not all that happy with Facebook either. At Facebook they outsource the moderation. At Facebook they employ moderators from all over the world and pay them as little as possible.

Try and share an article you have written more than eight times in different Facebook groups and these tired moderators sitting in a room somewhere far away will put you on the naughty step. But you can’t avoid Facebook. It’s like the telephone; we use it to stay in touch, don’t we?

The old Ars Notoria, packed away in 2009

Ars Notoria was one of the blogs I packed away in 2010, together with my own blog, Xuitlacoche, and while I was in the Middle East it was too dangerous to think of starting it again.

But if I did start it again then it would be different. We would be more of a collective. I had learned from my mistakes. The quality would be better. More people would be involved. We would be political, but also cultural and artistic. After all, my father, Tony Hall was an editor of many magazines, I picked up a lot from him. I had the experience of starting and running a magazine for a cultural institute in Mexico in the 80s. We had a reasonable print run of 7,000.

If the quality isn’t good enough, it is better to stay invisible.

So six months before I was due to leave the Middle East I set up the Ars Notoria magazine. It was at the start of the Covid pandemic and five excellent people came on board right away: Yogesh Patel, Paul Halas, James Tweedie and Emil Blake. Generously, Dan Pearce agreed that we could serialise his graphic novel, Depression in Ars Notoria. Together we got the magazine going.

My idea is that the magazine would be invisible at first, but gradually build up a presence; so that by the time I came back to the UK we would have quite a body of work behind us and, as a result, we would start to turn up in web searches.

The top articles on Ars Notoria are getting up to 3,000 shares

If the quality isn’t good enough, it is better to stay invisible, I thought. This time the articles, poems, art, photography and stories would have to have more quality and substance. This time we would not publish anything speculative on Dyson Spheres.

Here are some of our more recent published articles on Ars Notoria. The top articles on Ars Notoria are getting up to 3,000 shares:

In any case, the name of the magazine will certainly help forestall any embarrassment. In response to the accusation:

You really are a notorious arse!

We can always reply:

You were warned, weren’t you? 

It is one year and one month since we started Ars Notoria, though the original Ars Notoria was started in 2008. A year ago I estimated we would be ready to put the magazine onto a more professional footing by the end of July 2021. Thanks to all our work, it looks like we are on course to do just that.

Just to whinge a little: it would be nice to have someone back us so that we can promote Ars Notoria properly and pay writers, poets and artists the minimum wage. It would be nice if we were more gender and age balanced, it would be nice if someone could define what exactly ‘Humane Socialism’ is. It would be good to get a professional magazine layout designer on board. All of that would be very welcome.