Sunday, 30 September 2007

Notes to newbie cyclists

Cycle on the pavement until you've got your confidence up, being courteous to other pavement users.

Cycle assertively in the road, not causing bother, but acknowledging you have as much right to be there as any other form of transport.

Do not be a wuss and cycle close to the kerb such that when the road bends slightly and you fail to notice, you find your wheels grinding on the kerbside, panic, slam on the brakes, and promptly come off the bike sideways.

Just a purely hypothetical scenario, you understand.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Nothing new under The Son

I've been thinking a lot about free and fair trade, social justice and commercial manipulation lately. So one of today's readings seemed timely:

Listen to this, you who trample on the needy
and try to suppress the poor people of the country,
you who say, 'When will the new moon be over
so that we can sell our corn,
and sabbath, so that we can market our wheat?
Then by lowering the bushel, raising the shekel,
by swindling and tampering with the scales,
we can buy up the poor for money,
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and get a price even for the sweepings of the wheat.'
The Lord swears it by the pride of Jacob,
'Never will I forget a single thing you have done.'
-Amos 8:4-7
So, some things haven't changed much then. When will we learn?

Thursday, 20 September 2007

UK standards fall to a new low

As if everything else the BBC has got up to lately wasn't bad enough, it now seems that they've sunk to to new depths. Not content with depriving various competition entrants of their chance of winning a prize, the latest installment of Blue Petergate reveals that the editorial team fixed a vote for the name of the new cat.

A cat. Who the hell really cares if it's called 'Socks' or Cookie', apart from the young viewers? Why interfere? I can't see how either name could be deemed inappropriate. Unless there's something afoot along the lines of the Papal Hovis contract. Anyone checked the price of shares in Sockshop lately?

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Too much information

I'm really not convinced by the notion that in a free society, everything that can be reported should be reported. I'm not suggesting press censorship. More like a little media responsibility. Three recent stories have made me come to this conclusion:

1. MMR

In the UK, the rate of uptake of the immunisation for measles, mumps and rubella has suffered a serious knock in the wake of media hysteria surrounding a small, highly contested study that suggested that the vaccine could trigger autism. Ignoring the fact that the study was questionable for so many reasons, the media managed to instill a sense of paranoia in the majority of parents whose children were approaching immunisation age. If I had been in the parent position at that time, I'd have been pretty worried on the basis of what was being said in the mainstream media.

Fortunately the scaremongering seems largely to have died down, but unfortunately the damage is still tangible. Uptake rates are still lower than they were prior to the scare, with a consequent rise in the number of cases of measles. Just a few days after reporting that, however, the BBC decided it was a good idea to run a story headed "MMR overdose given to 93 pupils". Oh heck, think I, imagining misplaced decimal points resulting in a bunch of 2-year-olds being given 10 times the recommended dose. But then I actually read the story. Turns out that the pupils in question were a pretty robust 14-15 years of age. And the 'overdose' they referred to is not too high a dose, but a third dose when the pupils had already had the requisite two, due to a mix up where parents signed their kids up for another dose by mistake. No harm done. I doubt the kids in question even experienced any side-effects. So why put a story like that under an alarmist headline and stick a link to it on the front page of BBC News? What were they trying to achieve?

2. Northern Rock

So, a UK bank borrows some money from the Bank of England, and all of a sudden there's mayhem with customers clearing out their accounts, making the bank far more likely to go bust than it ever was in the first place. I can't help but wonder whether the initial reporting could have done more to prevent the chaos, or whether the media secretly love a bit of panic from the general public. Admittedly, the message from early on was 'nothing to worry about', but when the story is simultaneously front page news, then it's hard to expect people not to react adversely.

3. Too much information in general

There was a case recently where a British actor was found guilty of downloading and viewing inappropriate material of children on his computer. His sentencing took place last week.

It is fine that this was reported. It was fine that they described the nature of the material as being 'class 5' i.e. the worst type of material in the classification system. What I consider to be of highly dubious merit was for the reporter to then describe the nature of material that falls into all the five classes. I cannot tell you how bad the material in this case was, because I had switched off the TV by the time they were halfway through class 3. Who gains from that kind of reporting?

Who gains from any of the above, in fact?

Sunday, 16 September 2007


I dunno, you wait ages for a record breakingly large meal, and then two come along at once.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Blood on our labcoats

It always sucks when you discover an organisation you're associated with is not quite what it seems. Particularly if the hidden side isn't one of which you approve.

I strongly feel that universities should be apolitical institutions with respect to their governance. Not that students and academics within them shouldn't argue for or against various political concepts and ideals - rather that the institutions themselves are free from the sway and trends of politics, as might be imposed on their operation.

Working from within that framework, I find it both disappointing and disturbing to discover just how many UK universities have shares in arms companies. What place does arms dealing have in what is supposed to be a climate of academic thought, learning and research? It's somewhat disconcerting to realise that the tuition I sought to try to make a positive contribution to society was indirectly supported by an industry whose products maim and kill. 'Disconcerting' is probably not the word to describe the sensation experienced by those on the receiving end of such 'products'.

It gets worse (and more bizarre). Reed Elsevier, a major force in scientific journal publishing, also run arms fairs such as DSEI, which attracted protest today. I cannot begin to fathom what kind of board meeting resulted in that decision:

"Right, ladies and gentlemen, we need to do something to increase our revenue. Any ideas?"
"How about we become pioneers in Open Access publishing, thus benefiting the academic community and perhaps society as a whole?"
"No, not profitable enough. Any other thoughts?
"Well, we could run arms fairs and invite military from around the world to come shopping?"
"Excellent idea!"
As it happens, Reed Elsevier have decided to sell off this enterprise at the end of the year due to criticism from a number of sources. I'm glad of this, as boycotting KitKats because Nestle are evil bastards is one thing, but trying to avoid Reed Elsevier's publications whilst simultaneously trying to make a reasonable stab at this 'cancer research thing' is rather more problematic. It's a strange old world where civilian war casualties are somehow linked to cancer patients in peaceful nation states, but such is the complex web that underpins commercial enterprise. Whatever my purist ideals about working in academia and not industry, I'm becoming increasingly aware of my need to get to grips with commerce and economics if I want to try to live an ethical life.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Ginger's Guide to London Streets #6: Silk Street (EC2)

London is so steeped in history from such a range of periods, that there are some wonderful street names out there. So when I recently found myself in the vicinity of Farringdon, in the City, I was looking forward to exploring Ropemaker Street, Silk Street, and other such delightfully named places that my map had to offer. I hoped to see traces of previous commercial enterprise, and maybe some of it persisting into the present.

The reality was a bit of a disappointment. The area, assuming it was once a hive of rope- and silk-trading activity, is now largely office based. It is consequently depressingly quiet and closed on a Saturday. So much so that during the ten minutes I was there, I only saw a handful of cars and was quite able to stand in the road to take some of my photos.

Anyway, in terms of what actually was there: well, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I was slightly surprised to see it there as it seems a fairly uninspiring area, and I tend to
envisage arty types as better suited to more boho areas (such as RADA in Bloomsbury). But each to their own I guess. I'm sure its students don't complain about being offered places.

Besides, I guess it makes sense to have a music and drama school situated so close to an arts centre. The Barbican Centre is located somewhere above this road, although there is an entrance on Silk Street. Which is nice given that it looks about as easy to navigate as the Hayward Gallery. Oh the joys of
Brutalist architecture. Ahem. At least the bollards are pretty.

Monday, 3 September 2007

(Not Quite) Any Question Answered

One of the things I love about the internet is the wealth of information so readily available. In fact, it's so easy to find answers to basic factual questions I find myself quite amazed by the questions I still get asked, presumably by those old fashioned types who fancy a conversation with a real person. Tuh!* Under such circumstances it can be very tempting to direct the enquirer to this site (don't click if you're easily offended by rude URLs). What, however, do you do when your answer isn't on Wiki or easily Googleable? Or when net access isn't close to hand? Fortunately there is still a chance for the information-hungry to sate their appetites.

AQA (Any Question Answered) claims to be able to supply an answer to any question you text them (within reasonable boundaries), for a fee of £1 per text. It's pricey enough to deter them from being plagued with stupid questions, but affordable enough if you have a burning desire to find something out that otherwise eludes you.

The first time I used the service was two and a half years ago when I was going into dissertation meltdown and wanted somebody, anybody to help me figure out what to do with my data (I had been abandoned by my supervisor and books didn't seem to be helping.) The reply I got was probably sensible, but I was too brain-addled to really apply it. I haven't been in a situation where I've so desperately needed otherwise unobtainable information since then. But I thought of them today for some reason and decided to give them another try.

What to ask, though? Had to be something worth asking. And then I remembered a question that occurred to me a few months ago, to which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. Having read 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'Mrs Dalloway' in quite close succession, I was left pondering, why do some books have the phrase 'The End' at the end of them?** Surely it's obvious that it's 'The End', and the intelligent reader doesn't need to be told? Some theories Mrs Mc and I have come up with include:

  • It's a leftover from when novels were serialised in periodicals, before being published as books. Many of Dickens's works appeared in this way. Thus 'The End' would denote that this was the final installment of the story.
  • Something to do with the way books were produced on a printing press, to signal where the last page occurred.
  • A way of signifying the end of a lengthy text split over several scrolls.
  • A reflection of some custom that may exist in oral traditions of story-telling.
All plausible, but no easy way to find out if any of them are correct. So I sent the following message to AQA in the hope my query would be resolved:

When/where/why did the practice of writing 'The End' at the finish of a book commence?
About half an hour later a reply came through. Wahey! Now more wondering. Oh, but:
Sorry, AQA can't find why and when writing "The End" in books became standard. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436

Gagh! Might be asking for a refund.

*I am, of course, joking. I can be sociable sometimes. And I do rather like playing information-detective for other people. I just don't like to be beaten by elusive facts!
**Spare me the smart alec remarks about putting 'The End' at the beginning being a stupid idea. ;-)

Sunday, 2 September 2007

It's not just cars that backfire...

...sometimes their advertising campaigns do too.

Last year, Chevrolet decided to engage its customer base by encouraging them to come up with TV advert for its Tahoe SUV. Video clips of the cars in action were available, along with assorted soundtracks, and the chance to add text. The winning ad would appear on TV.

But those pesky environmentalists managed to thwart their plans. Lots of adverts started appearing that highlighted the less-than positive aspects of SUVs. Needless to say, the results don't feature on the Chevy site anymore, but good ol' You Tube still has some available. My personal favourites are the one above, 'SUV God' and this one. It's quite hard to believe that Chevy didn't see this kind of response coming, although it is reminiscent of the corporate naivety I described here with respect to the rise and fall of the electric car.

I'm glad that there's a backlash against SUVs and their ilk. Don't get me wrong - I'm not anti-car. And I'm not anti-SUV if there actually is a good reason for using one. This is where I think the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s have got their campaign emphasis spot on. There really is no need for these vehicles in an urban environment - the parents of the kids at the primary school at the other end of my road are clearly confusing road humps for sand dunes, and zebra crossings for actual wildlife. It's not like the vehicles are even any safer for their users. But there seems to be something about these shiny beasts that makes some people lose all sense of reason. I'm glad that there have been opportunities for a wake-up call.

Media Misunderstandings

I don't think my brain is wired in quite the right way to deal with the printed media. When I saw this the other week:

my immediate thought was, "With who?"

Saturday, 1 September 2007

UK Students: In your interests to read this.

Just a heads up to UK graduates that the interest rate on student loans has increased today from 2.4% to 4.8%. This will remain the case until 31st August 2008.

I don't think there's really much of a case for complaint given that the terms and conditions have stated all along that the 'interest' on the loan is tied in to the Retail Price Index. But the point that the information is poorly communicated is a valid one.

The only reason I'm aware of the change is that I earn less than the threshold for repayment, but I've been wondering for a while whether I should start making voluntary repayments to get shot of some of my debt. For the last year the interest rate has been 2.4% so it made more sense to put an spare money into savings instead. I figured that there would be a bit of a hike this year, because of general increases in interest rates/inflation, so I've been keeping an eye out for news of a change. Finding out the information isn't very easy though. It takes quite a bit of digging around on the Student Finance Direct site to find the right page and even then the information isn't very well highlighted. But then I don't think they're very interested in helping you keep track of your debt. For example, here's one of the FAQ answers:

Finding out your balance
You can estimate your balance in between statements by looking at your most recent statement and taking off any deductions noted on your wage slips and P60.
Thanks for that. Couldn't have figured that out for myself, oh no. Why can't they enable online accounts that can be checked without too much hassle? It's not like the Student Loans Company have exactly inspired confidence over the years, with delays in loan payments, mislaid repayments, concerns (albeit mistaken) that students are being overcharged, and instances of people still being charged after their debts are cleared.

I guess the assumption is that students are too lazy/ignorant to check up on these things. I hope that's not actually true.

Leaving Footprints in Cyberspace

Our forefathers would probably be rather unsettled by the idea of leaving a record of their presence on every book they picked up in a public library. Even more so if the time, location and duration of their perusal was recorded. Yet in a country with in excess of 4 million CCTV cameras, their ancestors would probably consider this a fairly benign form of monitoring. Probably just as well, given that this is pretty much what happens when you browse the internet. The sites you visit can be detected, leaving a trail of footprints as you go on a cyber-spacewalk. Scary and impressive.

I have a 'Site Meter' tracker on this blog that not only acts as a hit counter, but also tells me when it is visited, for how long, and from what other sites people are referred in order to get here. Don't worry - I don't use it for nefarious means. I'm just a nosey soul. From looking at it I can tell you that I have a few 'regular' readers who I don't think I actually know in any way. This surprises me - I rather assumed that anyone who came here more than once would be someone I actually knew 'in real life' or at the very least had 'encountered' somewhere on the web. Let's face it - this is hardly the most cutting edge of blogs. But there are regulars from areas where I'm pretty sure I don't know anyone at all, which is a pleasant surprise. I hope you enjoy reading, whoever you are.

I can also tell you that my London street guide attracts a number of hits from people who have done searches looking for specific information about London and had the misfortune to come across my ramblings instead. Ah well. I accept no responsibility for any time wasted! I can additionally report that the single most frequent reason for referral to my blog is following a Google search like this, which sends you to this blog entry. Nice to know my carefully chosen words are what pulls the readers in then.

People may feel that this kind of monitoring is a form of spying, and no doubt there are certain organisations who take a very keen interest in the internet usage of some individuals. But sometimes the tables can be turned. This story was an interesting example of that: turns out the CIA have been fiddling around with Wikipedia entries, and it hasn't gone unnoticed. Nor has the Vatican's contributions. You would have thought that the former would know better than to think that their modifications wouldn't be detected. Are these people really key-players in global security?

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