Sunday, 31 August 2008

News round up

Nowt major, just a couple of things that caught my eye in today's news:
1. The grammar pedants have won, but still might not be happy. Tesco has caved in to pressure from the Lynne Truss brigade to change their express checkout signs from '10 items or less'. But rather than the more grammatically correct, '10 items or fewer' they're going for 'Up to 10 items'.

A spokesman for the Plain English Campaign said:

"Saying up to 10 items is easy to understand and avoids any debate."
Unfortunately, I would beg to differ. '10 items or less', though jarring, is totally comprehensible and unambiguous in everyday speech . 'Up to 10 items' makes me think that perhaps it could mean 9 items or fewer. Did they never learn the difference between the '<' and the '≤' signs in maths? Surely for totally clarity it would have to be 'Up to and including 10 items'. That would make for a very large sign. I think they were better off before.

2. "Farm Pregnancy 'cuts asthma risk.'" I wish that science news editors would be a little more discerning regarding what is 'good, interesting science' and what is 'good, interesting science that is of relevance to the general public'. The discovery that pre-natal exposure to a farm environment may reduce risk of developing asthma in later life is scientifically interesting. It might give clues to immunologists who are trying to develop a better understanding of the basic biology of asthma. I don't, however, think that it is information of great use to anyone else - it's the kind of story that makes you go, 'So what?' What are we supposed to do with that information? Tell pregnant friends to get themselves along to the nearest pigsty? Congratulate rural friends on the likelihood that their future children will have good respiratory health? What exactly?

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Ginger's Olympic Round-up

Well. What a fortnight. I've watched more sport in the last couple of weeks than I usually notch up in a year. And how much fun it was. So much to say that I've forgotten most of it already. But here are a few of my thoughts on various highlights/newsworthy elements:

No idea I'd find this so gripping. Something rather enthralling about all the action in the velodrome. They're just so fast and sleek. And good. And the British squad seems to comprise a number of genuinely likeable and admirable people. Will definitely try to pay more attention to this sport in the future.

I've even been persuaded to take my own bike out a couple of times since the start of the Olympics, which has been rather underused since I bought it. I've had my reasons - neither my mudguards nor my left elbow were quite the same after that incident. But perhaps it's time to get over my phobia. I think I'll start by aiming for London Freewheel - at least there won't be any scary cars involved.

Finally, Shanaze Reade finally give justification to the journalistic over-use of the phrase 'crashing out'. Ouch. I was really disappointed - she seems a great character, a very ballsy young woman, and I was hoping that she'd add to her World Championship titles. But alas. I hope her bones knit well, and that she has more luck in London.

One of the few sports that I used to watch on a regular basis, I did lose interest in athletics a while back. Although there have been a few magic moments in the last few years, disappointment and underachievement seems to be key to our appearances. Christine Ohuruogu's gold was a rare spectacle. There are too many excuses and caveats made for many of our performances. And am I the only person who really doesn't give a monkey's about Paula Radcliffe? Even if she'd won the marathon in world record time, I don't think I'd get as excited as by some other performances. As it was, she came 23rd, and all the media hoo-ha focused on that, rather than the creditable sixth place of fellow competitor, Mara Yamauchi (highest place ever by a Brit woman). Perhaps we need to get over our favouritism of certain athletes and cast the net wider.

Oh and please can we get rid of Brendan Foster and his down-in-the-dumps commentary style? Most other sports commentary seems to be done by a combination of trained presenters and ex sportspeople. But whilst many of the latter were Olympic champions in my lifetime (Gary Herbert, Jonathan Edwards, Adrian Morehouse), Foster's greatest achievement was a bronze medal in 1976. Perhaps time to step aside for someone a little younger?

Modern Pentathlon
One of those odd events that kind of appeals to me, despite the fact I hate running, have never fenced or shot, and on the one occasion I found myself on horseback, I demonstrated all the grace and style of a sack of potatoes. That said, perhaps I wouldn't have been much worse off than the men, who rather suffered from a combination of terrible weather and peculiar horses. At any rate, the women deserve a mention - we've managed to get at least one medal in this in the last three Olympics.

But is is really a sport?
A debate that always turns up with regard to something or other, usually in relation to events in which the outcome is decided by judging. I don't mind judging as such, so long as it is fair and accurate. But some events do seem divisive in this respect. I don't know why it is, for example, that I should feel totally at ease with synchronised diving being a sport, but not synchronised swimming. Having watched the winning Russian performance in the latter, I was very impressed, and have no doubt of the physical skill and effort that goes into it. Perhaps the problem is the word 'performance'. I do think that a sport shouldn't have make up and glitter as an integral part of its presentation. There is also the functional element - a lot of sports do have a sense of real life purpose to them. It is easy to come up with practical applications for a lot of the skills - being able to run faster, jump higher, lift greater weight etc all could be useful under certain circumstances. Synchro swimming falls foul of both those ideas. I am willing, however, to see it continue if they ditch the make up, and get the men to do it as well. And I promise I'm not just picking on it cos it helped the Russians overtake us in the medals table. How could I possibly be disappointed with our 4th place?

Compare and contrast:
(i) Blake Aldridge, who vented his frustrations at coming last in the synchro diving on his 14 year old teammate. Aldridge certainly wasn't blameless, and his comments were highly ungracious and unsporting. (And I'm rather with Daley on the inappropriateness of ringing your Mum in the middle of a final).
(ii) Bradley Wiggins, double gold medal winner, who explained that he didn't push for a world record in his Individual Pursuit victory, because he wanted to make sure he was still fit to perform the Team Pursuit, especially as members of that team had given up their chances of competing in other events in order to give their all to the team event.

Olympic Greatness
Much debate over who is the greatest - Bolt or Phelps. Not really comparable - very different, totally great achievements. In terms of British achievement, I caught a brief glimpse of a table of 'British Olympic greats' that slotted Chris Hoy (four golds, one silver) above Sir Matthew Pinsent (a measly four golds) and below the king of the table, Sir Steve Redgrave (five golds). But there is a serious omission, who I'm ashamed to say I, too, failed to think of until I read this. Where, in our list of great Olympians, is Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson? Eleven gold medals over twelve years in four events. Wow. Sure, the paralympians perform in separate events for obvious reasons (although Natalie du Toit came a highly creditable 16th out of 24 in the women's 10K open water swimming) but being an Olympic champion means putting in the best performance of all your peers at a point in time. Dame Tanni surely deserves to top that table? I'm looking forward to seeing if the GB paralympic team can take up the baton and keep the medals coming in. Let's face it, if they at least pick up the baton in the allotted time frame, and keep hold of it, they'll be doing better than our sprint relay squads.

"Yes, I've had offers while I've been here. But with the London Games in 2012, it would be crazy to go. This is the greatest job in the world."
- Dave Brailsford, British Cycling Performance Director, on why he won't be bought by other countries.

"If I'd even missed one session, I would have lined up with doubt and fear in my mind. What would happen if I lost the gold by one thousandth of a second, because there was a training session I skipped or didn't give my all to?" - Chris Hoy, showing an attitude that some of our other sportspeople could learn from.

"Can I just say one thing: Mum, if you're watching at home, I'm fine and safe." - Shanaze Reade, after her first-round crash.

"I was disappointed with the time" - Rebecca Adlington, on her winning 400m freestyle performance.

The Handover
How cool was that bus?!? Gold medal for the engineers, surely.

I think we acquitted ourselves quite well - it's always tough to work out how to fill that kind of thing. I did have a quiet chuckle when they said that the little girl had been chosen by Blue Peter viewers - hard not to think "Oh, really?" As for the other representative choices? Dancers/singers, fine. Jimmy Page - rock legend. Leona Lewis - internationally-known pop princess. David Beckham - sportsman who has never competed in an Olympics, or won a championship for his country, who now practices his sport away from his homeland. Hmmm. Wouldn't have featured in my top 50 list.

Oh and ah... Boris. Well, he didn't fall over, or poke anyone's eye out with the flag. But he might have looked a tad more professional if he'd done up his jacket and stopped trying shove his hands in his pockets at every opportunity. I wish him no personal ill, but I do hope that he doesn't sit out the whole of his four year term of office.

London 2012
I may well be in a minority in my home city, but I was actually delighted when we won the Olympic bid. None of the typical London cynicism for me. I really think it'd be great to have such a huge event here, and I look forward to my wonderful city having some major positive attention. And now we've had so much sporting success at this Olympics, it gives us a great platform from which to enter into the games.

Bring it on.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Not something you see every day

Now there's a sight to behold.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

A sporting chance

I love the Olympics. I freely admit that I don’t watch sport a lot of the time, but there’s something about the Olympics that gets me hooked, especially on some of the sports that don’t get as much coverage as some of those that I do pick up on from time to time. I do find that watching all that physical endeavour usually does tempt me to try something for myself. If there were no limitations on me at all, such as age, ability or physique (all mere trivialities, eh?) then there are quite a range that I can imagine would be fun to do. I have to be honest, though, and say that I just cannot understand the appeal of being a professional swimmer. I don’t like running, but at least you can do it in different locations, on a variety of terrains, with company, with music to listen to. Swimming? Well, a pool is a pool is a pool. I don’t know how they don’t go mad with the repetition.

It’s been said in plenty of places, but it’s sufficiently amusing to repeat – Britain does best when it’s sitting down. All the sports in which we seem to consistently get Olympic medals these days – cycling, rowing, sailing, equestrian – don’t exactly require the participants to be totally vertical. So perhaps my sense of inspiration doesn’t even require me to get off my backside.

I’ve got totally hooked on the track cycling. It’s been really exciting to watch (well, maybe not the Points race, which was a trifle unfathomable). I now understand the pursuit and the Keirin, and they are really quite gripping. Plus an event is always more interesting if your team is doing well.

So, today I’ve watched us get three medals in the rowing, four in the cycling, seen footage of a British women’s world record in the swimming and Michael Phelps getting his seventh gold, and then witnessed a man so bloody fast that he won the 100m sprint with 30m to go.

All of the above makes the football Premiership (resuming action today) look rather bloated and self-absorbed. Here are some things to ponder. The GB Baseball team qualified for the Olympics but had to withdraw as they couldn’t afford to participate. Rebecca Adlington, achiever of so many great things (first British woman to win swimming gold for 48 years, one of only four British competitors to win two golds at a single Olympics, 800m freestyle world record holder) was paid the grand sum of £8-10,000 a year by UK Sport prior to her trip to Bejing. British Cycling received a fillip in the form of Lottery funding about 10 years ago which helped develop the infrastructure in which to develop the talent that sees us guaranteed 6 track medals and likely to get several more; UK Sport earmarked nearly £8 million to fund up to 44 cyclists from 2005-09, which is impressive. But back in London, Frank Lampard has signed a new deal with Chelsea that will see him earn an average of £6.8million per year for five years. Meanwhile, Premiership cleaning staff can’t even hope for a London Living wage.

Yes, I do realise that the mega football salaries derive from very commercially marketable clubs, rather than national sources, but still… you’ve got to ask whether they’re worth it. And I don’t have to think too hard to come up with an answer. It’s 42 years since England won the football World Cup, and we’ve never even made it to the European Championship finals. Feel free to polish any club trophies and medals, Mr Lampard, but it'll take something pretty special before I'm as proud of you and the rest of the England squad as I am of those who achieve so much more for so much less. And that includes the cleaners.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Funny Science (part one)

The stereotype of a scientist doesn't usually include a lot of laughter, unless directed at the poor unfortunate nerd. But that's not necessarily an accurate representation of the truth. A lot of us can be quite funny if we put our geeky minds to it. Have you ever seen what happens if you fill a latex glove with dry ice, and then let it expand till it's as big as a medium-sized pig? No? You haven't lived.

Anyway, given that science and comedy are two major interests of mine, I've decided to present for your viewing pleasure snippets from three fairly contemporary scientific TV comedy efforts. First up we have Lab Rats, a new offering from BBC2. Set in a British university lab that seems to change its research focus week by week, according to whatever odd requests are made of the staff, it's got quite a cartoony, surreal feel to it. It's certainly not going to feature in my 'Top 10 list of most funny sitcoms ever' but I do feel like championing it a bit, if only cos it's the only programme I've ever watched being recorded in a studio. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can testify that the laughter isn't canned, although now I do understand why it can sound like it. The series does seem to have improved as it's gone on, but here's a clip from the first episode (the one I saw being filmed), showing Cara at her most deliciously daft:

Second, across the pond to The Big Bang Theory, which is kind of like Friends or Will and Grace but with physics geeks. The Women in Science blog didn't seem desperately impressed by it, and I can understand why. There are only really two female characters, one of whom is a gorgeous fashionable blonde, the other a speccy, curly haired deadpan type. Guess which one is a physicist, and which one is the love interest from across the hall? Having said that, the guys don't exactly come out of it looking like fine specimens of social aptitude in action, so I feel more inclined to be affronted on behalf of sciencekind, rather than womankind specifically. Here are Sheldon and Leonard engaging in a very geeky kind of macho posturing:

My last offering (for now) is Look Around You which beats the other two hands down in its commitment to pure scientific endeavour whilst simultaneously presenting a big old heap of nonsense. It ran to two series, the first of which parodied Open University-style schools programmes, whilst the second targeted Tomorrow's World and the like. I gave a DVD of the latter series to a friend of mine who's just qualified as a science teacher - I hope he shows it to his pupils someday. But not the first series - to the untrained brain there is just too much potential for confusing fact with fiction. Here's what the Look Around You team have to say about MATHS:

So there we have it. I have to admit, although I can quite happily watch all three, I do wonder to what extent they might appeal to the general, less nerdy, public? Do the 'science bits' seem off-putting, regardless of how (in)accurate they are? Can science and comedy mix? I'll come back to this another time and explore a few more examples.

Finally, I do realise that it is totally necessary to suspend a certain amount of reality when it comes to TV shows of any kind. But there is one inaccuracy I really can't tolerate in all of the above. How on earth did Cara, Lab Rats' tiny technician, manage to get a lab coat that fitted her perfectly? When I was an undergrad, the smallest lab coat the uni shop sold still required me to roll up the sleeves. Maybe we'd get more women into science if the safety equipment actually fitted them. ;-)

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Credit where it's due

Recently I blogged about Fairtrade T Shirts for sale at low prices and pondered whether they could possibly be the product of Fairtrade cotton being used to make garments in sweatshops. Well I did a little delving and this is what I found...

Firstly, from Sainbury's:

Dear [Ginger],

Thank you for your email. I understand you are interested to know our policy on how our Fairtrade t-shirts
are made. I appreciate the chance to outline our position in this area.

All our Fairtrade t-shirts are made in an accredited factory in Bangladesh. The factory has to be approved by the Fairtrade foundation to ensure it trades to the highest standards.

The yarn is from India from accredited Fairtrade farms, which means the farmers are paid a better wage for the cotton grown. The funds raised from the Fairtrade foundation are used to subsidise and improve the farmer’s lives and villages through supporting schools. This implements clean water and generally enforces a better standard of living for the community.

Then M&S:

Dear [Ginger],

Thank you for your email.

You may be interested to know that all of our suppliers are expected to meet our Global Sourcing Principles, and to encourage their own suppliers to implement them. This requires our suppliers to comply with national laws and to work towards the international labour laws contained in the Ethical Trading Initiative Base Code.

Our Global Sourcing Principles promote the right to freedom of association, requiring that workers are free to join lawful trade unions or workers' associations, and the payment of national minimum wage. Any new suppliers who we conduct business with have to pass our audits on key issues such as underage labour, pay, working hours and health and safety.

So yay! Nice to know.

On a related matter, I notice that Sainsbury's now print their receipts double-sided which strikes me as a neat and simple way of saving paper. So change can happen.

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