Thursday, April 29, 2010

Watch out, it's a Wednesday

We had a visit last week at Chronicle Towers from some jolly friendly people from the BBC.

They've set up a website under the umbrella of the BBC College of Journalism which brings together a lot of very sensible advice to those of us who make our living from news gathering and publishing.

Much of it is geared towards TV and radio, but plenty of it is applicable to any form of journalism – or indeed to anyone who writes as part of their job.

The guidance ranges from the practical – how to spot fake pictures, how the courts operate – to the inspirational.

If you watch one internet video this week, then visit the site and track down Alan Little's passionate and humbling 15-minute guide to clear and authoritative writing.

But tucked away in the depths of the site is a section on how to use statistics, averages and percentages – and how easy it is for journalists to misuse them. It's the sort of thing that makes your everyday newshound go all glassy-eyed and start to wonder where the next pint's coming from, but persevere with it and you'll realise how dangerous numbers can be when they get into the wrong hands.

To illustrate, here's a raw and apparently chilling statistic: There are at least twice as many dangerous nutcases on the roads on a Wednesday morning as at any other time of the week.

On the face of things it sounds shocking. But does it stand up to numerical scrutiny?

Well, here's a brief analysis, based on one columnist's experience.

It's Wednesday, school-run time. You and family hop in motor, fire up CD player and hit the road. Two minutes into journey, you reach the narrow bit where they haven't got round to marking double yellow lines and are still using parked cars as ad-hoc traffic calming measure.

Calming? In a pig's eye. Everyone is rushing for the same gaps and no one's giving way or waving to say "thank you".

Drop off Mrs D for a day at one side of the pupil/teacher interface, continue with young Miss D on way to opposite side of interface. Pull into supermarket car park to top up with essentials. Open boot to load said essentials.

Car behind drives into leg.

Fury at other driver tempered by relief at non-breakage of tibia and/or fibula. Onwards and upwards, and drop off youngster.

Last leg (ho ho) of journey. Turning right at T-junction. Bike pulls up on left side. Road in front clear, start forward. Bike shoots ahead, turns right in front of bonnet. Slam on brakes, avoid bike by inches.

Only memorable feature of cyclist: in-ear headphones.

Moment of decision: descend into road rage or take deep breath and reflect that statistically, it's just another Wednesday morning? QED.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hey, you, get offa my ash cloud

A long, long time ago, when your columnist was a mere stripling, the Dixon family lived in a country cottage in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire.

Half a mile to the south stretched a leafy belt of beech woodland. To the north rolled the fertile plains of the Vale of Aylesbury.

It was a beautiful place to grow up, although the country lanes did tend to get a bit muddy in the winter. And having your friends around involved a logistic exercise almost as complex as bringing back stranded holidaymakers from Spain by boat, taxi, Eurostar and rickshaw.

The only problem with this otherwise idyllic setting was the fact that the house was under the flight path out of Luton Airport,
which in the early 1970s was establishing itself as the departure point of choice for package tourists.

And in those days, jets were noisy.

The worst offenders were the BAC One-Elevens and Lockheed TriStars operated by Court Line.

On the inside they were cramped and uncomfortable. On the outside, like everything in the 1970s that wasn't made of brown vinyl, they were painted in queasy pastel shades of butterscotch, lilac or pink.

And they screamed. Right over the roof of our house.

In those days of fuel crises, economy weighed more heavily on the airlines' minds than the comfort of those left behind on the ground. Planes took off on a much longer, shallower slope than they do today, and their engines were much louder.

So even 12 miles from Luton, the noise on a summer's day was enough to drive you out of the garden and into your headphones. Which were indeed made of brown vinyl. And through which you could do just as much damage to your hearing by listening to Pink Floyd at full volume. (Told you: even the bands were pink.)

Then, on August 15, 1974, Court Line went bust. Its nauseatingly-coloured planes were grounded, and for a few weeks we could sit outside in relative peace.

It seems a long time ago now. All right, it was a long time ago. Don't go there.

But what goes around comes around, and thanks to a cloud of ash from an Icelandic volcano, we've just enjoyed an even quieter period than that gentle summer of 1974.

With easyJet, Ryanair and the rest no longer cranking up their reverse thrusters just as they reach Bath airspace en route to Bristol airport, the only blots on the horizon have been hot-air balloons delivering their cargoes of exotic vegetables to the posher supermarkets.

But presumably not to Iceland.

On Wednesday it miraculously became safe to fly. Contrails hatched the clear blue skies, and the moans of the avocado-deprived middle classes gradually died away.

Now of course we should feel sorry for those whose lives have been disrupted by the flight ban, and we should be glad that things are getting back to normal.

But wouldn't it have been nice if it had gone on just a little bit longer?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The end of their world is nigh

"The insides of the yellow bird were marvellous to behold. Here were small spools, a line of knobs, a glimpse of amplifying circuits. The two humans let their fingers enjoy the delight of toggle switches.

"With scarcely a murmur, it rose from the ground. Superb in powered flight, it wheeled above them, glowing richly in the sun.

"'Make the world safe for democracy!' it cried."

A bit of context may be needed here. The yellow bird-like machine is the heckler, the two humans are Gren and his mate Yattmur, and the scene takes place in the dim and distant future, in Hothouse , a novel by Brian Aldiss, the "godfather of British science-fiction".

Gren and Yattmur are on an epic journey across an earth inhabited by predatory plantlife, a very nasty telepathic fungus and the tummy-belly men, who live in strange symbiosis with trees.

This unfamiliar earth has stopped spinning on its axis and is tethered to the moon by strands spun by the traversers, mile-wide arachnid vegetables that commute between the planets, feeding off the sun's hard radiation.

The human race has devolved back to the trees, shrunken in size and lifespan, sometimes hitching rides on the Traversers and mutating into even stranger life-forms on the way.

You couldn't make it up.

But Brian Aldiss did, nearly 50 years ago, and even today Hothouse reads with a modernity that belies its age. Humans have lost control of the world and their own destinies, and function at pretty much the same level as the semi-sentient plants that they eat. When they're not being eaten themselves.

Hothouse isn't really a warning about a man-made environmental crisis – it's a fantasy about what might happen in the far future as the sun gets closer to turning nova.

But like all good science fiction, it speaks to our own time. And what strikes closest to home, finishing the book three weeks before a General Election, is the heckler machine.

The heckler is the only high-tech artefact in a world where even the wheel has ceased to exist.

To Gren and Yattmur it's an incomprehensible relic of a distant past, as it flutters above their heads, exhorting them to "Vote for SRH – vote for freedom!" and telling them that "Statistics prove you are better off than your bosses."

All the heckler's political slogans and posturings – support the two-day working week, boycott chimp goods – are made meaningless by the passing of time.

In the present day, of course, we can't ignore the party-political slogans. And even the most apolitical cynic would think twice about swapping today's politicised media mayhem for the opportunity to live in a continent-sized banyan tree under constant threat from wiltmilts, vandalberries and deadly nettlemoss.

But won't it be nice when it stops?

Hothouse is published by Penguin Classics, and is worth every penny of £8.99.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Charmin mess with the bottom line

One of the great things about the human race, we're always being told, is its adaptability.

Wasn't it humans who developed tools, conquered fire, broke the hold of gravity and walked on the moon?

Wasn't it humans who learned to read and write, to count and to calculate, and wasn't it all that and more that makes us human?

Well, yes, it was and it is.

So why is it, when we're supposedly such models of flexibility and innovation, that we're also so resistant to change?

Why, when we supposedly find it so easy to rise to technological challenges like recording off Sky+, editing movies on our iPods, or fixing the door back on the icebox when it falls off for the 15th time this week, do we get all worked up when someone changes the name of a perfectly memorable toilet tissue from Charmin to Cushelle?

You could almost hear the huffing and puffing of indignation from sofas across the land as the first TV adverts went out. (Not a small amount of it emanating from the elegant chaise longue in the front parlour at Dixon Towers.)

"What?" spluttered viewer upon viewer, their voices merging in chorus above the rooftops of Great Britain. "What was wrong with Charmin? Why have they retired the cheery bear and replaced it with some new-fangled marsupial?"

Yes, sadly (if it's possible to get sentimental about bog paper), Charmin has gone the same way as Marathon, Opal Fruits and the artist formerly known as Prince, then known as a squiggle, then known as Prince again because the squiggle was too hard to say properly.

Charmin has been re-branded, and even if you've never used the stuff in your life – if Izal was good enough for our grandparents, it's good enough for us – you could be forgiven for feeling that in some way the fabric has been altered without your permission.

But why pamper life's complexity? After all, ridicule is nothing to be scared of. (Spot the references, pop-pickers.)

The makers of the erstwhile Marathon bar changed its name to Snickers to fit in with a US-inspired global marketing plan. But as far as can be determined by a quick trawl of the internet (which is never wrong), Charmin is still Charmin on the other side of the pond.

So perhaps the re-branding is down to the animals. Golden labrador puppies take a lot of beating when it comes to – well, you know – and maybe the Charmin bear with his cheeky grin didn't quite cut the mustard in some European marketing focus group. Koalas look cuddly. Cushelle sounds cuddly. So let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it.

And that's the bottom line.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Boson buddies

It is only by a stroke of very good fortune that this week's column has appeared on these august pages.

And anyone who had their ear to the ground last Tuesday will understand why.

Because it was on Tuesday that the Large Hadron Collider eventually got down to business and started its life's work: creating God particles.

What, you may well ask, is a God particle? What, you may equally well ask, is the Large Hadron Collider?

The best answer to both of those questions is probably "Don't ask." But for those with more curiosity than sense, here is a layperson's guide.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC to its chums, of which there are few) is a giant doughnut-shaped tunnel under the Swiss-French border that pings sub-atomic particles round and round in ever-decreasing circles in an attempt to create conditions similar to those that existed at the time of the Big Bang.

It has already broken down twice: first when it overheated and second when a bird flew over and dropped a baguette into it, bunging up its inner workings with crumbs.

And it cost 10 billion pounds, give or take a euro. Crumbs indeed.

The God particle (or Higgs boson to its chums, of which there are even fewer) is... Well, just don't go there, is all. Look it up on Wikipedia, or eBay, or something, but you'll only get confused.

Suffice it to say that it's a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model in particle physics.

It's called the God particle because if there is a god, then she made it first. Or something.

With us so far? Thought not.

There are mysteries which are too subtle for the mind of man, and the Higgs boson is most definitely one of them. Let's just note that it started working properly this week, and that the world hasn't vanished into a black hole of hubris. Yet.

Anyway, it is but a short hop (for a bunny) from God to chocolate eggs.

Mrs D forswore all forms of chocolate for Lent. Except for one Malteser, which didn't count. And for Dixon Junior's birthday cake, which was special.

The sighs of despair around Dixon Towers have had to be heard to be believed. Chocolate deprivation is no laughing matter, and we can only be grateful that her self-denial didn't extend to the occasional snifter.

Perhaps we should have modelled our Lenten preparations to the archdiocese of Milan, where apparently they start Lent six weeks before Easter and have a mini-Easter every Sunday.

Luckily it's nearly over, but we need to remember: shops traditionally run out of chocolate eggs, hens, bunnies and other symbols of regeneration early on Easter Saturday, and don't bother re-stocking. And to avoid more pain for wife, kids and columnist, it's best to buy them well in advance.

Or suffer the consequences.