Being in Sydney for next week’s cricket means that I’m going to get to 2011 rather sooner than most of the world, and that’s fine by me, because 2010 has been an unpleasant year for me and it can’t end soon enough. It’s going out on a high, though, because this is a terrific city and I’m much enjoying myself.
Rather than share the trite banalities of first impressions of no significant insight into a country that’s new to me but not necessarily to anyone else, I thought I’d talk a little about what we did yesterday, and why it made me think.
Yesterday, we took a train journey to the Blue Mountains, about 50 to 60 miles west of Sydney. The Blue Mountains are a national park and an area of outstanding beauty with sheer cliffs, impenetrable rainforest and stunning views. The “Blue” bit comes from the refraction of sunlight though eucalyptus spores, which creates a blue haze over long vistas of overlapping hills. It’s all huge and impressive, and as you’ve travelled less than 2 per cent of the way across this vast country, you get some impression of the scale of it all.
But that wasn’t the only thing that impressed me. The journey there, by train, took two hours on a pretty rural line that goes mostly uphill and is a scenic delight in itself. Two hours there, two hours back; total cost per person 10.80 Australian dollars, or about £7.20. Stations, and there were lots of them and we stopped at most, were neat and clean and virtually all of them were old buildings, with old cast iron signs and running-in boards, waiting rooms and lavatories that worked. (Sorry about that last observation, but when was the last time you tried finding a loo in a railway station? Apart from the 50p ones at London terminus stations, I mean?) There’s one train an hour in each direction (pretty packed, ours were) plus about three freight trains a day bringing coal down from the mines beyond the Blue Mountains to Sydney and Newcastle. Despite this light traffic, the line is electrified.
Now I’m not going in for any of the “everything-they-do-is-wonderful and let’s-contrast-it-with our poor-miserable-failings” stuff. I’m conscious that, in a land where a beer costs around £6 a pint, there are downsides as well as upsides.
But at the end of a difficult year, yesterday left me with a nicely positive thought. If I’ve felt, at times, something akin to distaste for some of the people I’ve had dealings with this year, it’s as nothing to the contempt I have for the man who, in my lifetime, did the most to bugger up Britain and whose small-minded accountancy-driven thought processes still hold sway in far too many places.
There you are. I’m here for the cricket and the sunshine and I end up thinking about Dr Beeching. It must be time for another £6 beer. I hope you have a Happy New Year: I certainly intend to.
22 December The crimes of Vince Cable
Today’s papers, and yesterday’s too, have been full of righteous stuff about Vince Cable, the UK business secretary. Cable, already something of a maverick within government, stepped “badly out of line” by, er, um, saying what he thought. Asked by a couple of undercover reporters masquerading as constituents, he spoke unguardedly about differences among the coalition government partners and candidly about his views of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
All right, it was pretty unwise of him: there’s a difference between what you can say as an irresponsible backbench Liberal MP and what you as a minister have signed up for in the way of collective governmental responsibility. Cable got disowned pretty quickly by the Prime Minister and the Liberal Democrat leader too and was perhaps lucky to keep his job, though he’s lost responsibility for deciding on Murdoch’s bid to buy all of British Sky Broadcasting. Several people thought he should have resigned anyway.
I find aspects of this a bit dispiriting. My views are, of course, not necessarily very realistic in these areas: maybe, like Cable, I’m a bit of an innocent abroad. But it seems odd that there’s been no real criticism that I’ve seen of the journalistic methods used to produce this “scoop”. Is it common practice now for reporters to dissemble and to pretend to be what they’re not? I rather hope not, or we’ll never get honest people to go into politics.
And then there are Cable’s views. It may well be inappropriate for a minister, and certainly one in charge of competition policy, to inveigh against a specific company or individual. But too much of the UK media does seem to me, and I suspect to a lot of other people, to be concentrated in too few hands. Whether anything can be done about it is another matter, since it’s the way of the world for the big to get bigger. But it’s not an unreasonable opinion to hold, and I rather like the idea that a minister feels like this too.
Ditto the alleged Cable views on City bonuses, where he’s reported as having said that “ways and means would be found” to ensure that bonus payments to already-fat cats this year should attract some form of retribution. In the atmosphere of recrimination and retraction that’s followed Cable’s remarks, one Conservative MP who called for Cable to be punished had the temerity to say bonuses should not be on the political agenda and were necessary. Er, no. Does he have no idea of the distaste which this kind of behaviour has engendered? As with Murdoch, Cable is saying no more nor less than what many others feel.
I don’t hold any brief for Cable as a politician or as a minister, and it may well be that he’s temperamentally unsuited for government – I was disappointed a month or so back when he allowed his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing to leak out in an important speech on skills, with the TV show then completely obliterating the serious topic in the coverage. But I had also hoped that the first coalition government in my lifetime might lead to a different politics in which honesty and internal debate could come to the fore. That now looks a forlorn hope.
17 December Microsoft and me
If you used to work with typewriters, carbon paper, scissors, and Pritt sticks, as I did, then you’re probably less prone to grumbling about Microsoft than those from generations for whom a working computer and constant connectedness are a basic and inalienable human right. The simplicity and logic of Windows and the various Office products still strike me as enormous benefits to set against trifling annoyances about crashes and the nannying tendencies of systems that claim to know better.
Yes, I know there are other systems, and yes, I’m know that many of them are much liked by other people. But Microsoft is OK by me. Or mostly so. Or at least it was until this week.
What’s irritated me this week is Microsoft Internet Explorer, the web browser, usually one of the more innocuous of the family of products. It’s packed up. Without warning, halfway through Wednesday, it decided it wanted no more to do with me, and pulled the plug. Instead of connecting me through to the web, it put up an irritating message saying that it had encountered a problem and was being forced to close. Did I want to send a message to Microsoft about it? Well no, not much I didn’t, particularly as there was no indication that they’d come back with any help. What I’d prefer is a message telling me what’s gone wrong. That way I might be able to repair it.
But no. Like a rail company whose passengers are stranded in the snow, the policy is one of no information. I uninstalled and then reinstalled Internet Explorer. Still the same uninformative message. Until, that is, I stopped being me and logged on as a different user: then, suddenly, we roared back into life. So it’s not a problem… except that, of course, in this different persona I find that other MS products have hidden my files away deep in their deeper depths. There will be a weekend of delving work to retrieve them into places that I can now reach.
This will keep me off the streets, at least, but it’s annoying. I’m not intending to give up Microsoft or take my affections or my custom elsewhere: we’ve knocked around together, MS and I, for too long. But I feel slightly jilted. And after 20-odd years of a cordially productive relationship, I’d like to think I’m entitled to know why. Though I suspect I never will.
14 December EVs: Too little and too much
Well, a second post today. Not a precedent. But news about electric vehicles got me intrigued.
The UK government has announced that it will subsidise purchases of nine types of electric vehicle, to the tune of £5,000 per purchase. That seems fairly generous and if it does something to smooth the transition away from gas guzzlers to something less environmentally damaging, then it’s going to be popular. But how much will they spend? And on whom?
The question is prompted by the fact that the Mitsubishi iMiEV, the electric version of the i car, the minuscule vehicle that is pretty much the ultimate diddycar, will now be ”an affordable” £24,000 (or just under, in fact).
Now I think the i car looks and is fantastic. A year or so ago, on one of those early evening drives up the M4 to London in late spring when you’ve got the sun behind you and all’s right with the world, I jousted with one of these small Mitsubishis at speeds somewhere around the national speed limit and was amazed not just by how it matched my (too big) car but also by what fun it looked. Robert Llewellyn of Kryton and BBC science programmes fame has been driving one around, and has been singing its praises on Twitter (in what sounded like a vain attempt to be allowed to keep it). It looks terrific, and I also would like one.
But for £24,000? This is somewhere around the national average annual wage, and it’s way too much to pay for a fun car shaped like a microdot, unless you’re so rich that you could probably afford the full price. And I’d rather the government was putting its money into the car and battery companies to strive to reduce that cost, rather than subsidising what seems to me like extravagance.
14 December A note of urgency
While I’ve been busy and quiet over the past week or so, doing a magazine at breakneck speed in time to hit the emerging mistletoe engineering market, there’s been a flurry of government activity in the area of manufacturing. And most of it looks to be pretty good news, and slightly urgent news.
Note, of course, that this is in most cases “activity” rather than “action”. But even so. The only action is probably the commitment of £50 million over the next three years to fund the Manufacturing Advisory Service. That is very welcome indeed, and gives a bit of hope that someone somewhere has taken on board that this is a good scheme and also that it’s particularly unhelpful when new governments tinker with things that work simply because they can and because they want to distance themselves from their predecessors. It hasn’t happened this time, and MAS is free to go on doing its valuable work for small and middling companies.
If that was probably the only real substantive “action” of the recent announcements, there was a lot of activity too. Chief among that is a discussion paper about what the government (and others) might do to actually deliver on the potential for manufacturing to “lead” the UK economy. Under the snappy title Growth Review Framework for Advanced Manufacturing there’s a new publication from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills: you can find it on the BIS website, but if you, like me, find that site almost impenetrable (and insufferably self-reverential), then I clipped it out into a short link here: http://bit.ly/f3Q5lP
I’m not quite sure what the status of this discussion paper is, and its apparent links into the recent growth review are a bit worrying, since that was among the most vacuous documents I’ve ever tried to read (“We want growth, but a different kind of growth” – flabby, meaningless stuff, really.)
But try to read this new one if you are at all interested in the economy and manufacturing’s part in it: not only does it make sensible points, it also asks a whole shed-full of pertinent questions (and it’s not just for people who keep their pertinent questions in the shed, as I do). It gives the impression that someone’s really been thinking about this and – more impressively – has realised that they don’t have all the answers.
In fact, the document leads on to a consultation and what is being trailed as an Advanced Manufacturing Summit in January, with Vince Cable, star of Strictly Come Dancing’s Christmas special, and Nick Clegg, star of virtually every political disaster movie that been made in the past seven months. And this is where the urgency comes in. Whenever you see the words “manufacturing” and “summit” next to each other in a government document, you know that, on past form, no good is going to come from it. There have been over the years lots of manufacturing summits, and mostly what they’ve produced is hot air and vapid conclusions.
This time, could it be different? The new discussion paper asks sensible and realistic questions; there is a call for companies and individuals with views to get their thinking in before the summit; and whatever you think of Cable and Clegg, you have to admit that they’re at the heart of government. But time is short. The summit is on an as-yet unscheduled date in January and by the end of this week, things will be starting to shut down for the winter break. If you’ve got views and want input, the time to do it is now.
4 December A clear Saturday
On a clear day, says the song, you can see for ever. Wrong. On a clear day, you can see the cobwebs.
There is no football this afternoon, at least not within a sensible radius of home, and although Northampton, Oxford and Swindon have been within the range of past travels and probably will be again, I arranged when the snow was deep and crisp and even for the man who services the central heating to come around to investigate why some radiators are untouchably hot while others are unremittingly cold. So it’s a clear day and a domestic day. To add to the other domestic days one has when one works from home.
What to do with it? Well, there are, of course, work tasks to be done: a couple of features to be written, a couple more to be subbed, some news pages to assemble. The gist of the freelance homeworking life is that work never really starts and never really stops either, so where in full-time employment I’d always try to ensure Saturday was the clear day, I now have no such qualms.
Then there are the domestic tasks that I’ve half-heartedly started but not finished. A bit of decorating, or preparation for it. Draughtproofing the front door. Doing the filing of domestic bills. The fact that all of these are “in progress” gives a clue as to my enthusiasm for doing them: small, it is. Though I really ought.
Of course, a couple of things really need to be done today, and that would be the case even if I was heading out for a football match at lunchtime. Papers, bread and milk to buy, the washing to sort out, and, today, the thawing snow to be shovelled off the pavement and into the road before the next frost turns it back into ice. And I’ve done one-and-a-half of those things already. But for the rest of the day…?
In one of the short stories by Saki (Cousin Teresa, if you want to look it up), a distinction is made between a “man of action” and a “man of activities”. Most of us, I suspect, would like to think we’re the former, and that we positively do things and get things done. But that’s not always the reality. Much of one’s life is spent in “activities”, often displacement activities that give the impression of busy-ness but actually achieve little. We occupy ourselves by being occupied. Probably I kid only myself to think that regularly going to football on a Saturday is a positive action, but it suits me and is the centrepiece of my day.
And when it’s not there? Maybe writing a blog is one displacement activity, but I have at least made progress getting rid of one of my others: I’ve consigned the iPhone version of Boggle, the ultimate time-waster and battery-emptier, to the recycle bin. Now what? Um. Er.
Ah, it looks like the late afternoon football match at Millwall might be on after all. So if the central heating chap’s come and gone or not coming, and if I’ve done maybe one or two of the other things… Then it might start looking like a normal Saturday again.
2 December Engineering on TV: A different matter?
Professor Brian Cox’s Royal Television Society lecture last night made serious and cogent points about the portrayal of science on TV. The gist of much of his argument was that science deals in facts, but television coverage – in fact, most media coverage – treats it as belief rather than actuality. So, because the broadcasters are much concerned to be seen to be “impartial”, you end up with pseudo-science such as astrology being given undeserved weight in “factual” programmes. Or you get disinformation, such as the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, achieving a credible mass unsupported by evidence. Journalistic “balance” in these instances, Cox argued, actually introduces an imbalance and is to no one’s benefit.
I’ll not go into the full lecture, which you can catch, in the UK at least, on BBC i-Player at http://bbc.in/ghpxOx. (Actually, that’s pretty much the only place to catch it because the BBC, in its “committed to public service” way, put the broadcast out well past many people’s bedtimes yesterday evening.)
Anyway, without disagreeing one jot or tittle with what the good Professor had to say about science on TV, I did wonder whether his view applied beyond science to the bit that usually comes after the ampersand – “& engineering”, or “& technology” as it is sometimes known. It seems to me that it does, but only up to a point.
That’s because there is a fundamental difference between science and the post-ampersand stuff. Science is to do with discovery, fact and knowledge: you can prove by observation and by repetition, and there are well-marked routes such as peer review that enable claims to be substantiated. Engineering and technology are, by definition, about applying knowledge and about balancing risks and making judgments. There are choices in here, and then it gets more difficult to say, categorically, that one particular course is correct, or “the truth”.
Nuclear power always struck me as pretty much the epitome of what engineering and technology is about. The science is all fairly clear: we know that it works and how it works, so a Cox-style factual programme is possible. What is much less certain in nuclear power is the balance of risk and desirability – you’re looking here not at a clearcut “is it true/is it not true” dilemma, but at a complex choice. Is nuclear power more or less risky (or desirable) in terms of safety or resource utilisation or cost or environmental impact than other options such as coal or gas burning? Even more fundamentally, is the constant requirement for new and bigger power stations sustainable or is there a limit to the extent we should indulge our appetite for an energy-intensive lifestyle?
Television coverage of these issues and similar engineering and technology areas would be welcome, but I’d want there to be balance and impartiality in the exploration of the different options here. It’s not clearcut and factual: not like most of science. In most respects, it’s a rather more difficult area, because these are these complex issues, and because there are elements of “belief” involved, such as where you think the greater benefit will result.
That’s no reason not to seek more coverage of these topics: far from it. Only by airing the choices do we stand a chance of making better ones. But it is a different matter.