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25 January
Science facts and fictions

The BBC2 science series Horizon last night gave Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, Nobel prizewinner and one of the top names in genetics worldwide, a platform for his concerns that scientific fact is accorded too little respect by the public and by the media, and that the thought-through evidence-based opinions of scientists are given no greater weight than the half-baked emotional views of polemicists and columnists. It was a good shot, and it’s available on BBC i-Player at http://bbc.in/eIzhpP for the next few days at least.

Nurse is a good-humoured chap and a natural presenter. He made his own credentials as an eminent scientist fairly plain but was also not afraid to show a general bewilderment at the way ignorance and prejudice are allowed or even encouraged to be given the same weight as scientific fact. But I felt the programme made a couple of errors – or rather had a couple of basic weaknesses. And perhaps a missed opportunity.

One of the weaknesses was that the main body of evidence that Nurse used in support of his argument was climate change, where he’s persuaded, as is a majority of informed opinion, that the current global warming is untoward and is principally caused by mankind’s activities. Concentrating on this led him into a too-detailed analysis of problems at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, where data was not handled in a straightforward manner, and meant also that he missed other reasonable “targets”. He did talk to a man who denies the link between HIV and Aids, and to a professor whose work on GM plants shows big benefits in terms of disease eradication and crop yields. But the scandal of the scaremongering about vaccines that has left millions of children at risk of childhood diseases was barely mentioned and I caught no sign at all of the non-science such as astrology that masquerades as the real thing when it is, in fact, nonsense.

And on climate change, Nurse was unable or unwilling to shake off his “reasonable scientist” persona. So we saw evidence from Nasa, and heard him talk about scientific consensus and informed views and peer review, but always with a small, nagging “I’m 99% certain” feeling. Contrast that with the certainties advanced by the “journalist” James Delingpole, whom Nurse asked about his campaign against the climate change consensus.

This is the second area where I felt the programme could have been stronger. Nurse was far too nice. He forgot the basic rule of debate, which is never to argue with an idiot because they always beat you because of their experience. Nurse wanted to talk about “facts”; Delingpole didn’t because, despite retailing himself as a journalist, facts aren’t really what he’s about. Delingpole wanted to talk about certainties, and because Nurse has that reasonable little 1% uncertainty our hero was on shakier ground. I wasn’t at the end sure who “won” their exchanges: I suspect, though, that Nurse did not persuade Delingpole to change his views one jot, and probably, therefore, many TV viewers would also have been unconvinced.

And the missed opportunity? What bothers me – and maybe it’s a different programme – is that our education system seems to produce people who are unable to judge between factual evidence and uninformed opinion, people for whom “the facts” are no more than opinion. This isn’t ignorance as such, because it’s more wilful than that and more manipulated. So what can be done to combat that?

21 January
Poetic licence for a sunny day

It’s a cold but sunny Friday in London today and the temptation to be outside rather than in is pretty irresistable. But I’ve got a lot of work to do so it’s not an option. It is, though, for an awful lot of people. Traffic reports show the M25 around the capital is starting to clog in places, and you can bet that by late afternoon and early evening, most of the routes out of town will be packed.

Somewhere in the past 30 years or so it’s become a commonplace that, in many workplaces, Friday is a bit of an optional day. In many places, it seems to be unofficial – and “dignified” by the term “Poets’ Day”, standing for Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday. Other places, including large chunks of the UK auto industry, have turned over officially to a four- or four-and-a-half-day week. If Friday exists in the working calendar, it’s half a day or two-thirds or certainly shorter than the rest of the week.

I know this because for years past I seem to have managed to work on magazines that closed for press on Fridays. Apart from the fact that the timing meant that my colleagues and I could never indulge in a Poets’ Day, there was also the bother of trying to find people to say useful things for last-minute stories when they’d gone home or had their coats on. (On the recruitment advertising side, I suspect there was an up-side as well as a down-side: some people may well have gone home, but others were so desperate to do so that they could be cajoled into taking ads they might otherwise have shunned.) Elsewhere, the practice turned the phrase “Friday car” into a well-worn term for any vehicle that seemed to have been assembled somewhat hastily.

Anyway, never having really had the opportunity, I’m not especially resentful about this omission in my working life, and all told I’m not sure that sitting in a traffic jam on the M42 is anyone’s idea of a benefit match. But when it’s nice and sunny?

What I’m proposing to any future prospective employer is a variation on Poets’ Day. Not tied to a particular day of the week. More a general “Piss Off Early Today’s Sunny” clause. To be activated any day of the week that qualifies. No? Not available as part of my standard terms and conditions? Not even if I offer to work till seven every alternate Friday night? Oh, all right then, I’ll get back to work. Nose, meet grindstone. Grindstone, nose.

19 January
Keeping the home fires burning

When the mainstream media don’t find much reason to report much that the local business or industry or energy minister has to say – unless it’s politically embarrassing or to do with Strictly Come Dancing, of course – you wouldn’t expect there to be much coverage of speeches made by similar officials from foreign governments. So did you pick up on German minister Rainer Bruederle’s speech to an energy conference in Berlin yesterday? Perhaps not.

Anyway, the gist of Bruederle’s text was that Germany needed to invest in a big way in its electricity infrastructure because of the need to ensure supplies, integrate small-scale renewable energy sources and make progress towards low-carbon and energy efficiency targets. German industry, he said, was energy intensive and needed security of supply, and the piecemeal past development of electricity grids didn’t meet current needs and shouldn’t be perpetuated. Germany needed big spending and a new more integrated system.

There are several points to be made about this. For a start, I somewhat glossed over, above, what Bruederle’s job is. In fact, he’s minister of “economics and technology”, which is an interesting combination, and he’s a member of the smaller coalition partner, the Free Democrats, equivalent to the UK’s Liberal Democrats. Would you get our UK economics ministers, say George Osborne or Danny Alexander, talking lucidly about this kind of topic? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the kind of concern that Bruederle has about the vulnerability of German industry to inadequacies of past piecemeal infrastructure development is a worry elsewhere too. In the US, where geography as well as free-market inclinations has been a factor in making infrastructure provision a local rather than national affair, there have already been several serious “outages” that have cut off big cities and important businesses. Maybe 30 years ago it wouldn’t have mattered so much: these days, though, to be without power is to be out of business.

The problem we now have though, in the UK, Germany and elsewhere, is that we’ve deliberately “piecemeal-ised” large sections of our infrastructure. The national view, as might be expounded by ministers for example, doesn’t get much of a look-in when structures are fragmented and when profitability rather than service is the primary driver. Many of the big players in these areas are these days multinational or international firms: you can’t really expect them to take a national view. And although we’ve got regulators, their role is essentially reactive, when the issues typified by Bruederle’s concerns suggest a need for a more proactive assertion of national requirements.

I’m not sure what the answers are to this, or even if there are answers. I have a suspicion that, in time, the pendulum may swing back towards some form of more centralised control over these things with the hope that we make a better fist of it next time around. In the mean time, we’ll hope the power stays on and we’ll invest our own money, if we have any, in standby generation and local energy storage systems.

14 January
A rose-tinted view of inflation

The news that inflation is back on the UK economic menu produces rather ambivalent feelings in those of us whose personal economic memories go back to the hyper-inflation of the 1970s. For, if we’re brutally honest about it, some of us did rather well out of the ability then to go to your employer every three or four months and ask for a bit more money to cover the cost of living rises.

If I recall rightly, over a couple of years I just about doubled my salary and I managed to buy not only my first house (property prices were slower to rise) but also my blue Mini Cooper, the only car I’ve ever truly loved. Of course the salary doubling was notional rather than actual: prices of most things rose so fast that I probably wasn’t much richer at the end of it than I was at the beginning in terms of daily spending money. And there were self-evident down-sides for a lot of people, as companies went bust and Denis Healey went off to ask the International Monetary Fund for help.

But looking back down the distorting telescope of 35 years, I’m not entirely persuaded that inflation is wholly a bad thing, and I suspect that others of the baby boomer generation may feel the same – about the inflation of the past, at least. At this 2011 end of the telescope, of course, my generation may see things a bit differently, as inflation could destroy our savings and investments (minuscule though they are), and few of us probably are now in the position to take opportunistic advantage as we did in the 1970s. So we’re ambivalent. Or at least I am.

But I do still have a sneaking suspicion that a bit of inflation – not too much, not too little – gives useful “wriggle room” in the economy, stimulates companies and individuals to be competitive in what they do, and takes some of the onus off the relentless drive for growth (of any kind, sustainable or not) as the engine of the economy. No, I don’t want to have to take a wheelbarrow of worthless banknotes to the supermarket; no, I recognise that hyper-inflation is a destroyer. But a little bit of controlled inflation? Not sure.

11 January
Deceptions that no longer pay

I’ve been catching up on reading in the past 24 hours and a short blog post by the wise PR chap Richard Stone drew my attention to a survey from before Christmas that had escaped me. The survey was of industrial advertisers’ intentions in 2011 and it was done by BMON, which is the online marketing advice service run by Chris Rand, one of the most innovative people in business publishing in the past 20 years.

The gist of the survey is that the smart money for this year is on email marketing and Google AdWords, which isn’t any great surprise, and that advertising in paper-based magazines isn’t so much favoured any more, which is also not much of a surprise since many mags have gone through the hoops or down the pan – choose your own metaphor – over the past year or so. But even less favoured than straightforward advertising are advertorials, those pieces of delicately pernicious advertising copy that masquerade as editorial. Apparently no one much wants these any more. Hurrah for that.

What puzzles me, and appears to puzzle Chris Rand as well from a quote on the www.bmon.co.uk website, is how business publishers got themselves into the position where they ever thought advertorial was a way forward and an acceptable source of revenue. Greed, I suppose, and a contempt for the intelligence of the reader. I have no bother about public relations people doing their jobs and attempting to draw the attention of journalists and their readers to developments: that’s a useful facilitating service just so long as everyone understands that editors make the final decisions and that they do so on behalf of their readers. I have no bother either about advertising as such: it’s paid my wages for many years and it’s an upfront honest activity that makes no attempt to pretend it’s anything else.

By contrast, advertorials are an attempt to hoodwink the reader into believing that an editorial judgment has been applied when it hasn’t. They’re basically deception. But even more damagingly they undermine the trust between editor and reader that is at the heart of successful publications of all kinds. Advertorial taints not only that particular piece of copy, but the whole publication. Even, perhaps, the whole business of business publishing.

It’s the worst of these deceptions, but not the only one, though. Richard Stone notes in his short blog that requests from editorial departments for “colour separation charges” appear to be on the decline too, and he welcomes that. This is the practice of charging a notional sum, usually less than £100, to PR companies to pay, allegedly, for the costs of printing photos that accompany product press releases; lots and lots of publications have done this for years. Again, it’s a con, and a shabby one too. In reality, there’s no actual cost these days in the “colour separation” process and it’s just a means of getting underhand revenue from a part of the publication that the reader would assume is done entirely in good faith on the judgment of editors and journalists.

Anyway, I’m pleased to see that these practices are disappearing – less pleased, though, that they have almost certainly contributed to the overall decline of the publishing sector that I’ve worked in happily, and as far as possible honestly, for years. The decline has left many publishing companies in difficulty and it’s also removed, for readers, a whole raft of useful unbiased information collected and collated with some expertise on their behalf. Now where do you look for information you can trust among the myriad sources online and offline? Google AdWords perhaps?

10 January
The moment of triumph

The final ball of The Ashes: Tremlett bowls to BeerThe bad bit about getting back from a spectacularly good break is that those things that didn’t work very well before you went away have not miraculously righted themselves while you’ve been gone. So today, my first full day back from two weeks in Sydney, I have a dodgy internet connection, a new TV that now doesn’t work at all (it was on the blink before I went, but the blink is now permanent shut-eye) and a supermarket trawl to do. I’m back with a dull thud to the mundane irritations of daily life.

Except that today I’m not going to be irritated, mundanely or any other way. Because I’ve had, in a very small and unimportant way, an unlooked-for triumph. And, for the moment at least, I’m so inordinately pleased by this that I’m not being bothered by the other bits.

My triumph is a photographic one. Like most tourists, I take a small happy-snaps camera with me on holidays and trips, and snap with no discernible talent at almost everything in view (when I remember that I’ve got it with me, which isn’t often). The resulting pictures go into the “My Pictures” bit of my laptop and are rarely if ever looked at again. Which is about what they deserve.

Today, though, I’ve looked several times at one of my random snaps from the holiday just gone. It’s the picture I took, fortuitously, just as England took the last Australian wicket to seal the Sydney Test on Friday and with it The Ashes, by a margin of three to one. It’s the actual moment of triumph. As a photo, it’s no great shakes, but it’s kept me happy all day today and it’s kept the mundane irritations at bay. I’m attaching a low-res version of it here with the hope that it works for you too.

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