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28 February
Breakdown of communication

I spent a chunk of last week sending things off into the aether and getting no response. It was pretty obvious what was going on. It was half-term. And if I hadn’t known earlier in the week I would have found out on Friday, when with due trepidation I ventured on to the M25 motorway at Wisley at about eight in the morning and was able to accelerate smoothly up to 70 mph. M25. Junction 10. At 8am. Usually it’s gridlock. But not at half-term. School holidays, even for those without any real connection to schools and their inhabitants, have become, if not non-working weeks, then certainly less-working weeks.

But there may have been another phenomenon at work in the quietness of the past week too: communication fatigue. We’re fed up with being communicated at. There’s probably a serious point to be made here about the future of journalism and such like, but I’ll let others make it. Let’s explore the phenomenon instead.

This communication fatigue phenomenon has been around for a while, but in the past it’s tended to affect older technologies only. So, for example, back in your youth, if you remember, the postman’s delivery of mail was opened immediately, with anticipation and urgency. These days, we know that virtually everything that is delivered will be either a bill wanting money or a flyer of some sort; so the post mounts up on the table by the front door until it can be ignored no longer as litter.

Phone calls are perhaps more difficult to ignore, but increasingly it’s worth the effort. There’s always been a tyranny of the telephone – if you answer, you’re talking because someone else wants to talk to you, whether or not it’s convenient or what you want. Now with all the spam calls, it’s very rarely worth answering and never worth hurrying to answer: call identifier helps and an answer machine is a necessity to filter out the people you don’t want to speak to.

Spam is the problem with emails too. That’s not just the obviously doubtful stuff that mostly gets filtered out for you anyway. There are also all the sites you signed up to, people you once bought a ticket or an appliance from, round-robin all-staff memos. If you wanted, you could spend all day watching them drift in, opening them individually and then acting on them: but who’s got that amount of time? Twitter seems to be similar: probably fascinating if one had the time, but one doesn’t.

So are there communications technologies around that will have any degree of certainty that the message will get through these days? I suspect text messaging is still better than most, though recent spam messages from someone wanting to help me claim a fortune for non-existent accidents is trying my patience there too. Maybe Facebook and Youtube work as well, though they’re a pretty scattergun approach to getting yourself heard.

The thing is that all the communications paraphernalia and social media sophistication in the world won’t help if people don’t want to be communicated to. And if it’s half-term as well, then you’re on a hiding to nothing. You might as well be talking to yourself. Assuming you’re listening, of course.

17 February
Struck by indecision

I’m umming and ahhing about whether to post this chapter of the blog. If you’re reading it, it’s because I decided I would. Obviously. Anyway, the gist of this is to see what reaction there is, if any.

The reason for reticence is that I spent yesterday in hospital having tests, and the reason I did that is that, about a month ago, I had what appears to have been a mini-stroke, a transient ischaemic attack or TIA as they are termed by the medics. The operative word in this phrase is, of course, “transient” – it came and went, and yesterday confirmed that it left no lasting damage. Which I sort of knew anyway, because I’ve been operating pretty normally, burning candle at both ends, churning out the odd article, piling cliché on cliché.

I’ll not go into details either of the TIA or the tests. There’s nothing really as dull as other people’s illnesses, except, perhaps, other people’s hospital experiences. (Wrong, commuting tales are always duller.) What intrigues me now, though, is how one should play this.

I’ve always been pretty up-front about the fact that I had a fairly major heart attack 15 years ago and was fortunate to survive. This TIA thing is in the same general area of health, but much less serious. Barely worth mentioning, perhaps. Except that I’m apparently obliged to mention it on things like insurance forms, where I’m now pretty much a no-go area, and I’ll be taking a new cocktail of pills to go alongside the one I’ve been on since 1996. So it will be, on occasion, known and/or noticeable.

But do I mention it in response to everyday inquiries: in response to “How are you keeping?” or “How’s the old heart these days?”, for example? I suspect not. People don’t want to know, and don’t need to know. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t affect what I do and shouldn’t affect how I do it.

So I’ll almost certainly keep quiet about all of this… and then feel ever so slightly dishonest for doing so. In which case, this may well be the only mention ever of it. Now, shall I press the “Publish” tab?

11 February
Too busy to blog?

There’s been a conspicuous lack of activity on this blog for the past week, or at least it would be conspicuous if anyone was looking for it. Conspicuousness requires observation, as well as observability. Anyway, the reason why it’s been quiet is because I’ve been busy: putting together the next issue of Environmental Engineering magazine, as it happens, though there are a couple of other tasks that I’ve been nibbling away at too.

It occurs to me, though, that this hiatus indicates pretty accurately just where blogging stands in the grand scheme of things as far as I’m concerned. Not high, you’d have to say. Not absolutely at the bottom of the priorities, though: I haven’t tidied the room that I use for an office for some months now, and parts of it are untouched for several years.

My priorities aren’t everyone’s priorities of course. I follow a couple of people for whom blogging is apparently pretty much a continuous experience. Barely a news event goes by without them jumping in to report it, comment on it, get their name attached to it. In some cases, it’s not just news events: through Twitter as well as blogs one’s getting at times a too-close insight into other people’s lives. There are parts of the country I’ve never been to where I would now confidently be able to organise a pub crawl; I’m getting a brief synopsis of plot developments on some TV programmes that I’ve never seen. All courtesy of other people’s blogs.

I’m kind-of sorry that I’m not going to be doing that, but in the same way that I’ve never kept a diary for more than a single day I’m just not fascinated enough by the things that I do and think to want to record them more than occasionally. And if something else comes along… something that pays me, for instance, or where one can feel, however misguidedly, than one’s writing is making a difference… then I’ll probably do that first.

Probably. But not always. So this blog is episodic, occasional and haphazard, most of the time. Pretty inconspicuous, too. But if it were none of these things, then it would probably mean I wasn’t busy. And I’d rather be busy than not.

4 February
Is the dream of mobility fading?

I was going to make some cheap crack about The Wit and Wisdom of Angela Merkel being potentially one of the shortest books ever when I realised that not only was that too cheap even for me, but also that the one thing I could recall the German Chancellor had said this week was something that struck me at the time as so profoundly true and sensible that it bears repeating. Courtesy of Automotive PR and Autocar I even retweeted it. And I was reminded of it this morning.

What Merkel said was this: “The world is home to seven billion people and they all dream of mobility.” And what reminded me of this was that, today, for the first time in a couple of months, I took the car on the motorway for an eighty-mile spin down to Southampton, and then back, and remembered just how liberating it is to be able to just jump in the car and go wherever I please. (OK, the M25 was moving this morning, it was a reasonably bright day and I wasn’t hugely in a hurry. It was a nice drive.)

Driving was my generation’s big thing. In the US and maybe Australia, it probably happened earlier, but my generation of teenagers was the first in the UK to expect to drive and own a car, and I can still remember, 43 years on, the day I passed my driving test and the route I took when I was first allowed to take my parents’ car out without supervision and without L plates. That was freedom. Merkel’s about my age: I suspect she’d understand. Which is why what she said reverberated with me.

But does it really reverberate with seven billion people? One of the consequences of my generation’s obsession with personal mobility has been that my easy drive this morning has become more and more of a rarity. Roads are clogged and what used to be a pleasure is now seldom so. And not just roads. Cars aren’t the only, or even the main, cause of global warming, but they do contribute to it and to the depletion of resources. Mobility, or even immobility on snarled-up roads, has its price.

And I’m not sure it’s a price that those a lot younger than Merkel and me are keen to pay. I don’t have much evidence to go on, and central London isn’t representative of anywhere except itself, but I do have a suspicion that liberation for today’s younger folk is to do with connectedness as much as mobility. Driving’s no longer such a big deal; having a signal is. Merkel, with Europe’s biggest automotive industry in her bailiwick, has reasons other than her own views to express this kind of opinion, and she’s quite correct for me. But I wonder for how many others?

2 February
One-nil to the referee

Darren Sheldrake had a bad day at the office yesterday. Most of us do on occasion and no one much knows about it. Sheldrake’s problem was that 13,830 people were there to see it. Including me.

Sheldrake was the referee in the League One football match last night between Charlton Athletic and Colchester United. It was a poor game between what are allegedly two of the division’s better sides, though their competence seemed mostly to consist of two rather relentless offside traps, which effectively confined the match to a midfield area where misplaced passes and serial bouts of head tennis prevailed.

We’d had somewhat more than an hour of this when the Sheldrake incident occurred. Colchester surged forward en masse, Charlton’s defence, looking as ever for the offside, stayed in a line forward of the penalty area, and then a Colchester forward, Gillespie, burst through and planted the ball in the back of the net. Cue the referee.

Sheldrake appeared initially to have disallowed the goal, and certainly the Charlton defenders seemed to have stopped, as if believing they’d won another offside decision. The Colchester team, though, persuaded Sheldrake to talk to his linesman, who had conspicuously not flagged for offside and was in a good position to see: I know, I was just in the stand behind and also had a good view. It was not offside. After a minute of discussion, Sheldrake indicated that the goal would stand. Colchester celebrated, Charlton protested, all trudged back to the middle to restart the game.

Then Sheldrake was called over to the touchline where the Charlton manager and the fourth official were standing and had another long conversation with them. Then he went back to his linesman and had another chat to him. And then he blew his whistle again, indicated that he’d changed his mind and disallowed the goal. The game restarted with a dropped ball just outside the penalty area, Charlton eventually cleared the ball and it remained goal-less. At least it did for another 10 minutes or so, until Charlton finally broke Colchester’s offside trap and scored to win the match 1-0. With seven minutes of extra time because of the Sheldrake incident.

So what had gone on? What seems to have happened, and I’ve not seen this morning’s papers to confirm or deny this, is that in the build-up to the non-goal, Sheldrake had half-blown his whistle to stop play. Whether this was because he saw an offside that the linesman, better placed, didn’t see or because of another infringement only he will know. The suspicion, because of the long consultations with the linesman, has to be that he thought it was offside. Having then been persuaded that his initial decision was wrong, he changed his mind and allowed the goal. But the fourth official, and the Charlton manager, then reasonably pointed out that, if there had been a half-blow on the whistle and the Charlton players had been playing to the whistle, then the goal shouldn’t stand. So he changed his mind again. “Farce”, said the BBC’s report. Hard to disagree with that.

At the end of the match, Colchester fans were singing “One-nil to the referee”. But they were wrong. It was the referee wot lost it. Except, strangely, on the Charlton website last night. The website had a calm and measured take on the incident in its match report. But on its results page – and they’ve probably corrected it by now – it had the final score: “Charlton 1 (Wright-Phillips, 78 mins); Colchester 1 (Gillespie, 65).” And Darren Sheldrake, minus one.

1 February
Differentiation, integration, disintegration

Open, optimistic, direct – those aren’t words you’d have used about the nuclear industry a few years ago, but they applied in spades last night to Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive officer of the French-owned nuclear power station owner and operator Areva. Lauvergeon was in London last night to give the Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual international lecture. Her talk ranged far and wide across the debate about energy provision, but left you in little doubt about her central message: if you’re serious about a low carbon energy policy, then nuclear’s really the only option for base-load provision, as renewables aren’t reliable and pretty much everything else is either dirty or geographically illogical.

All of this is, of course, deeply relevant to the UK, where we’ve ummed and aahed about future energy provision to the point where it’s now a bit of race between getting new plants on stream before the lights go out. Areva and Lauvergeon are pretty central to that as the current contractor of what was built at Sizewell B and the frontrunner for new nuclear stations. Lauvergeon revealed that Areva had met around 120 UK suppliers in the Midlands recently and was now in active talks with 60 of them, including Rolls-Royce and Balfour Beatty. Partners, not suppliers, she prefers to call them.

What she was very keen to get across was that the UK nuclear supply sector wasn’t just being recruited for short-term local work. Areva sees itself as a supplier of nuclear power plants to the world: it’s building new generation plants in Finland, France and China and expects many, many more, a lot of them off the back of whatever the UK decides to buy. She’s complimentary about the way in which the UK government – the current coalition and its predecessor – is handling the purchasing process (well, I suppose she would have to be), but the warmth seems genuine when she refers to the degree to which the UK and its engineers could take leading roles in the roll-out of new generation plants worldwide. She talks about re-creating a whole sector here.

This, of course, is a matter of both political and historical interest to UK ears. The politics of nuclear in the UK are complex, sometimes savage, and rarely informed by facts. Lauvergeon says openness and honesty are the only ways to dispel doubts, though it probably helps too to spell out that there aren’t, this late in the day, many alternative options that will keep the lights on. She gets quite animated about how the public perception of nuclear waste disposal is of a festering mass of caustic chemicals, ready to consume anything in its path, where the reality is much duller and not scary at all. Give the public the facts and they can judge, she says.

The historical question, though, is interesting too. Why, one of the engineers at last night’s Royal Academy talk wanted to know, had the UK’s nuclear lead, 50 years ago, been dissipated while France was now home to a world leader in the technology? Lauvergeon is too astute a politician to pronounce on UK mistakes. But, she said, in her dozen years at the head of French nuclear power she’d found it a big advantage to have the whole process, from uranium extraction, through power station design, construction and operation, to waste disposal, integrated within one group – with other low carbon technologies in renewables inside the compound too.

There’s a difference between the UK and France here which applies in other sectors, too. Where the French have seen long-term advantage in integration and strong single corporate entities such as Areva, we in the UK have preferred to take the opportunities to raise revenues through actively dis-integrating our infrastructure industries. Which works better? Well, top UK engineers were hanging on every word Lauvergeon spoke last night, and learning a lot from it. Not much doubt who’s in charge now, is there?

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