Monday, March 12, 2007

Fame!... Lab

I think my weekend activities require a more positive response than I accorded them ion the previous blog, but I was trying to make a point to a bunch of 'scientists' who really did seem to be playing shuffleboard to the death, with the winner getting the last deckchair to rearrange on the Titanic.

The Nesta FameLab I had known about for a wee while, but then forgot about until Friday. Coming hot on the heels of another event, courtesy of the University of Warwick's nb2bc initiative (of which more later, in another blog, with suitable temporal confusion), I was all at sixes and sevens.

Basically I lobbed up at the 9am registry in Cardiff (after major fight with the Uni parking system - coupons. You have to buy them and then stick them on your car. Fair enough. Thing is, you can't buy them until 10am when public buildings who sell them may open. But you can get a ticket for not displaying beforehand. Stupid... or what?) and got my number.

Then it was off to rehearse for and hour and a half until showtime. As described before, I totally blew it. Bad preparation, a total inability to remember what i had to say and stick to it according to script I (lifelong curse), plus an arc lamp blinding me all conspired to ensure that while my stalk was good, it got cut off mid flow at the designated 3-minute limit.

However, the judges were very nice, and my fallow contestants nicer still, so I decided to hang about to watch the final in the afternoon. Plus there was a course on public speaking beforehand, which was well worth attending, so I did. To kill time I scooted off into the City, and had a very fruitful time buying a countdown and count up timer to help me in future.

Because I decided to give it another go. They won't allow the same day, but they will allow another place, so I got on the phone and asked the family to get ready as we were going to Plymouth that night. Nothing quiet like spontaneity.

For me it was a long day and a lot of travel (hey, i know, but don't blame me. And it does get worse... sorry), but we ended up in the fair city of Plymouth in time for a slap up seafood dinner and a very nice night on a last minute deal at the China Fleet Club.

Next morning we popped back across Tamar Bridge and arrived in good order at the venue, which was the Aquarium. Wow, what a place. Worth it just for that.

Surprisingly, not many people had signed up, so I was soon schedule din later that morning as the judges had all swanned off in boredom. So we really scoped the place out with the kids. And then I went off to rehearse my revised talk, complete with timers.

I really thought it was quite good, (see previous blog) but again blew out. That will teach me not to read the brief. They want people who want to be science reporters. Now I'm up for that, but I was, am more interested in people who are trying to make a difference by understanding the science and not letting buggers who would try to blind us with it use science to pull the wool over our eyes. So I am bigger on digging out answers to questions than having pat replies served up. As I say, a journey to be embarked upon together than a review served up from a limited, and agenda strewn viewpiont. But to win against the system you have to play it, and I did not do that. More fool me.

I am encouraged. For the judges comments there is no doubting my ability to conjure a story... but I just need to have one that has a neat beginning, middle and end. Mine was to open to satisfy.

But I appreciate the process and the opportunity. You can always improve and learn, and improve some more. And try again. So I am going to keep plugging away, like Robert the Bruce's spider. There are a couple more to go, and I think I will tackle them.

It will be hard, but next time I think I will not bang on on the environment. And just spin a story about a lobster, which I read on a panel at the aquarium. It was very interesting, and I have a lovely lady called Amanda who worked there to thank for fleshing the facts out into what I think could be a winner on the basis the programme is seeking to fulfil.

And once I win, then I set about changing the system. From within.

Weekend (of planet) report

I wrote this for here: Insert “swindle” joke here.

Shame to waste, as it will pretty much serve to explain what I was up to all weekend.

I usually figure it's not worth posting by the time blog replies hit a hundred, because if I cannot be bothered to read past the first few score (I just did, before hitting 'submit', and realise that about half a dozen folk are just lobbing entrenched viewpoints to and fro, backed by ever more unscientific 'support' for arguments) why would anyone do the same to get as far as mine?

But as I have been away, it is topical to what I was doing and, goshdarnit, it's good practice for my blog, so it's not really a total waste after all. At least for me.

This weekend I was in both Cardiff and Plymouth, pitching in a NESTA competition called FameLab, which is all about bringing science, and an appreciation of same, to the viewing public. So, inspired in no small measure by the IPCC report, the Channel 4 doco and the discussion on this very blog a few days ago, as I had nothing else prepared I decided to spout forth on 'Sick Planet Syndrome; Myths and Facts. Causes and Cures'.

The first day was an unmitigated disaster, as I hadn't prepared very well and also had an arc lamp in my eyes for the precise 3 minutes one got to hold forth, and hence failed to see the 20' countdown signal, thus missing my conclusion.

This was that, at present, either camp could be right. Or wrong... evidently, at least as far as the masses might be concerned. (I have a personal view, of course).

Sadly, getting this in when I did manage to say it the next day didn't help much. I even wore a black cowboy hat for 'big oil climate denying science' and a jaunty white eco-hat for 'we're toast, green taxes all round' science, to make my point that not all science (especially green) was, could be or should be black or white, pro or con, with nothing allowed in between. On reflection, it may also have not helped that for the former viewpoint I also said a big 'Yee-haa!" to camera and big-upped the doco, as Ch4 is one of the sponsors.

And speaking of not helping, I also opined it certainly wasn't doing much of value knocking spots off each other by such methods - used by opposing groups, and played up by a compliant if not complicit media - as attacking the person, or who is backing them or whatever, and not the facts.

My jury (or rather judging panel) of eminent scientists and TV producers were still not impressed. For this show they wanted... needed a conclusion. A solution as I had promised. That was my whole point. I had offered one, at least as I saw it, which was accepting there WAS NOT always a definitive conclusion, and you can often need to act before you have one, on the best you've got. I guess that's the Civil Engineer in me kicking in. We prefer things not to fall over and will move to shore things up before they topple, Tower of Pisa notwithstanding.

So much in science is a journey rather than a destination, and it can be fun to share the ride rather than dispense a unidirectional commentary.

But if the train is rattling around a bit maybe I believe it would be best to stop the rocking (I would say of the boat, but that would be a mixed metaphor too far) and simply work together on stabilising it now, rather than keeping thrashing about trying to prove who is right or wrong on whether it will fall off the rails before getting to the end-point.

No, it seems quick fixes, soundbites and being seen to be 'righter and brighter' rather than just doing better is the order of the day. Questions being posed and left open are not favoured when answers abound, even if they are poorly founded ones. Or, possibly, just plain wrong. Delivery, with a neat opening, middle and ending that leaves nothing for the imagination, or the individual to ponder or discover for themselves, is to be ruthlessly enforced. It seems that the last thing anyone from the [insert (profession)-elite here] wants is the masses actually having an opinion or trying to influence how their lives are directed rather than those who know better.

I think I understand now why I get so agitated by science reporting these days. These guys are not required by a huge 'system' to allow anything trouble the viewer by way of loose ends. Hence with climate change: 'the planet is doomed... for this reason'. Period. Or, 'the planet is fine... for this reason'. Period. Nice soundbite. Nice headline. Nice ratings.

Not awfully helpful, though, when we're not too sure.

I'd like to wish all well and scoot off to another place where I can work with those from science and media (and government and commerce, and...) who are more concerned with moving on whilst trying to locate a tangible negotiated result, rather than staying still to bully through unconditional, theoretical Pyrrhic victories. But sadly the venue options on this planet are looking limited. And just getting there may open up a whole new can of worms.

Seems I might owe Richard Branson an apology. Maybe Virgin Galactic is the best chance we've got. But bumping some billionaire from his Kodak moment atop a cloud of greenhouse gasses seems such a compromised way of doing it, and there is the small matter of effecting the swap.

Bad Science. Naughty Science. No wonder the majority of the public switches off. And of those who do try to stay with it, like my mate Nick (a computer science grad), when both sides get in the gutter the more optimistic option being espoused often gets a more willing ear. So now I have to work a bit harder to keep him of the view that waiting until the Durkin's of this world are proved 100% wrong may not be the best plan for now. Or, indeed, the future. What are my chances?

STOP PRESS: Here's the promo in my in-box from the nation's broadcaster for tonight:


As Gordon Brown and David Cameron compete on being greener-than-thou, we examine the science once again. Despite the fact that most reputable scientists agree that human activity in raising carbon emissions is leading to global warming, could they - in fact - be wrong?


I remain impressed with the principle of Bad Science, and for sure a lot of the intellectual firepower, but sadly not so much the practice. There is too much a sense of being 'in with the in crowd', which to me weakens the objectivity of the comments, and I think reflects poorly on the moderator which, in this case, is the principal.

I'm intrigued.

Firstly that anyone still checks back this far, and secondly would post at 5:52pm to ask someone who last posted at 12.47pm to give up, when there have been several posts subsequently. Unless that tricky in/out missing post thing has cropped up again to catch the likes of me out too.

But mainly I'm interested in why EssTee may be deemed to be embarrassing themselves and, hence, why they should be required to give up.

I may not agree with some or indeed all of what they are saying, but there are some interesting points being made that I will take the time to assess, along with others.

And having been witness to, and indeed too often (for my blood pressure) a participant in escalating flame wars, I can't see some of the accusations that have managed to gang up on poor old EssTee to be entirely warranted.

To this infrequent, though interested visitor, it's coming across as rather too cosy a club, and a rather one-sided one at that.

Which does not seem very healthy for debate.

EssTee, for what's it's worth, as far as I am concerned you can keep on banging away. I'd avoid addressing anything other than the facts, and rising to the bait of those who would tempt you in venturing into unproductive areas.

But when you are on the facts, please try and ensure that they are as good as you can make them, with appropriate attribution, and let them speak for themselves.

With luck, and reasoned arguments put forward by those with differing opinions, I may come to a reasonable opinion of my own.

I may even decide such a forum is worth adding it to. I admire your courage, if not your standpoint and aspects of style, because this is not a playing field that seems very level, and the ball is too easily threatened with retraction should one look like playing for any but the home team.


A pleasant enough reply overnight. Actually, the point made got me to thinking about the function of and difference between a Blog with comments and a Forum. has both. I must confess to being woeful at dipping in to our own Forum and due to time constraints rather shamefully leave it to others. I am trying to solicit a team of moderators.

Because, with the obvious concern on accusations of agenda-driven 'censorship', I appreciate the role of the originator in keeping things on track. I, for one, would not allow attacking the person rather than the message without comment and even censure.

Thanks Deano,

I didn't know about the Forum. I just get the odd email from Ben with a link, and this one was a major flag to click on for me. What comments are meant for posting here then?

And while I came to it only late in the day I couldn't resist pitching in to this one (it is quite topical in the news as most will gather, and my major concern is the consuming public's take on it all). And again later as I did feel that very good rebuttals of poor, over-edited or agenda-driven mantras were being eroded by sharing a sea of poor, over-edited or agenda-driven mantras.

So actually, I now have a lot to worry about. I already spend waaaaay too much time on major media blogs and forums sifting away in the hope (frequently satisfied, more often than not frustrated) of sensible debate and worthwhile information and directions to tangible areas of worthwhile activity.

I rather suspect, and the evidence here presents a concern, that anything that does not toe a majority line may need to stand ready for a 'robust' challenge - which may well be warranted and even demanded - and one can only hope that this will be the facts and not the person or pejorative groupings.

Sadly, despite this it looks like a rich seam, so there goes the social life even more!

Indy, Indy, on the floor, what green nonsenseee is being talked today... and not just by Gore

That latter.... may.... not be quite fair.

However, as a read around a few other bits 'n bobs would indicate that you cannot be considered a true e-martyr unless you have questions the gods of e-dom and had their minions shout at you to repent. So I guess it's worth it.

Being a man, and hence incapable of multitasking, I'll have to get on today's Indy right away or I'll forget.

Politicians step up the battle to secure the green vote

Mr Cameron... stole a march on ministers yesterday by announcing plans for a set of "environmental taxes" intended to curb air travel.

What I heard made quite a lot of sense, which is more than I can say for the BBC blonde's attempt to spin it otherwise. Shame about the green laces nonsense, though.

The Chancellor will call today for a "new world order" ....

No, really, that's how it's being pitched? Who writes their stuff? Because if that's what comes first then what comes next, no matter how rational, is not getting read. By me at least (ok, I will. I have too).

The rest was so much hogwash. If they are still banging on about Dave's turbine, the Indy needs to wake up in this decade and smell the Fairtrade herbal tea from the back allotment.

Which political party is the greenest?

Er... the Green party?

No, seriously. Last time I looked, they were a political party and do seem pretty, well' green.

As to whether that's enough to be in power, or indeed to be trusted with running a country and balance the enviro-stuff is another matter. But still.

Tony Juniper: This new political battleground is welcome

FoE he's a Jolly good fellow!

Guardian - Labour to set legal limit on UK carbon emissions
Guardian - Brown and Cameron battle over green air travel and phasing out old-style light bulbs
Guardian - Scientists give cautious welcome to environmental initiatives - In light of a lot else recently, what, exactly, are 'scientists' ? I'm betting a few chaps whose numbers they know and are good for a quick quote.

The best answers come from better questions

Where to start, where to start?

The last several days have been a blur, in every way possible. Time. Location. Thoughts.

The last time I felt remotely rational was Thursday, and since then... wow.

There is a temptation to go back and try and pick up from that point. And though I do intend to blog on what has transpired, I think I'll start on something from today that in many ways sums up the highs and lows I have experienced of late.

Today I actually bought a paper as I walked back from dropping the boys at school. It was the Indy. One look at the cover should tell you why I felt so moved.

As I turned from the newsagents a lady called me back to tell me I'd dropped something. I thought it was ironic what. The dog poo was not it. Though that was ironic, too. And I have to say in the Indy's defence it did not slide from its pages. The other two bits did. The ads for the airline destinations and 4x4s stayed inside, by the way. I find them ironic as well..

Anyway I am, here, going to make no detailed comment on the content (though I will later), as it is just the headline and that alone which I have read so far. And that, and that alone, has already given me pause for thought and reason to comment here.


What. The. Heck. Does. That. Mean?

As will be explained in subsequent blogs, I have been in front of and at the receiving end of a large number of folk of late, from cynical business persons to grazing academics, to hard-nosed media producers... and it has not been pretty.

But one thing I do know is what I should have remembered from my ad days: GIGO. Garbage In = Garbage Out. And does that ever have an extra twist in matters enviROI.

Also, as will be explained, there are more gulfs out there than a pro golf tournament's (or Al Gore's) private airstrip.

Science and Media. Pols and Science. Media and Pols. Business and Everyone. Oh, and lets not forget the poor sods just trying to get on with their day in average Joeville.

No wonder this place is in a mess. And I don't just mean the poo.