Friday, 24 July 2015

Library heresy

Not your typical library
(John Rylands Library, Manchester)
Libraries are a touchy subjects amongst us authors, especially at a time when they are endangered. We love our libraries and anyone who suggests closing them risks an authorial tarring and feathering.

Yet there comes a point with any technology and distribution method where there's a danger of clinging onto the past because it's what we grew up with, even if it's not right for the future. And I'm seriously wondering if the time has come to take the same attitude to libraries. Are we like the people who tried to cling on to gas lighting when it was obvious electricity was the way forward?

Let's start with the good things about libraries, particularly for authors:

  • Those who use libraries also buy more books than the average person - or so conventional wisdom has it. I haven't been able to find any good research to this effect (please let me know if you can point me to it). The closest I have come is this which is a) 3 years old, b) US, c) is a survey, not controlled research, d) says that library users buy on average 3.2 books a month but doesn't put it in context.
  • In countries like the UK authors get a payment called PLR to compensate for library lending (other countries like the US don't).
  • Libraries make books available to those who can't afford to buy them.
  • Libraries are useful places for research/working quietly.
  • Mobile libraries are a useful lifeline for old people in remote locations.
On the downside:
  • Fewer and fewer people use libraries.
  • Libraries are not always convenient to get to.
  • Libraries have become too 'everything for everyone' - they seem to have more other things than books these days.
  • Libraries don't have the impact they used to.
  • The majority of library users who borrow books only borrow fiction. Libraries are more about entertainment than education.
I really think we ought to start from scratch. To say what we want libraries to do, and how they can best address those needs. It's highly likely that the current library structure is not the answer to addressing those needs. I am not saying we just get rid of libraries, but rather we see if a structure that was designed for a Victorian need could not be re-worked for the twenty-first century.

This would be a task that would take a working group some time, so there's no way I can reproduce the effort required in a blog post. But here's a few of the kind of things I would consider. Amongst the needs:
  • Giving people access to books and getting them used to owning and buying books.
  • Giving people access to information.
  • Giving people somewhere quiet to study and access the internet.
  • Giving old people in remote locations a focal point and access to books.
At the moment spending on public libraries in the UK is about £1 billion (see this report). The temptation is always to cut this, especially where local authorities are squeezed and able to do so. This money should be spent effectively, and where possible there should be multiple use facilities, so that there isn't a double spend on infrastructure.

A few thoughts on these. £1 billion sounds a lot, but that's only around £17 per head. So we can't issue everyone with £100 of book tokens each year, much though I would love to. But I do think some of the budget should go to giving people a way to buy books at a discounted rate, because book buying gives the books a much greater personal value than just borrowing - ownership is powerful psychologically. 

Looking beyond access to books, increasingly, the traditional library building may not the best way to provide most of the needs. Perhaps we should get rid of our general purpose library buildings, keeping only specialists like the John Rylands above, re-investing the cash in library services, and finding ways to provide books more directly, plus giving access for information/study needs via other buildings (schools and universities spring to mind, but there are many other opportunities).

The worst possibility, though, is what we have at the moment - trying to prop up the Victorian system as funds reduce and not looking at ways to genuinely transform the library concept. 

I honestly think if the right people could be persuaded to take a step back and look creatively at the problem they could come up with something much better, yet not requiring vast amounts of extra funding. Don't we owe that to the public?

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Playing the system

In my experience, people who understand numbers make better cheats than those who don't. Let me explain. I once did some creativity training for a company where certain managers had problems with the company's pay scheme. How much of a pay raise staff members got depended on a performance rating. And within each department, those ratings had to obey a particular normal distribution. However, some of the managers knew that this system would treat their staff unfairly. So they played the system.

They tweaked the ratings here and there so that they could allocate the money they wanted, rather than the amounts the system churned out from its rigid distribution.

All systems are open to a degree of honest playing (as opposed to out-and-out fraud). The most obvious example is tactical voting where individuals don't vote for their preferred candidate but for one who is more likely to keep a hated candidate out.

In their book, When to Rob a Bank, the Freakonomics people play around with the idea of being able to buy as many votes you like in an election (a bit like on X-Factor). They point out the negatives - people with lots of money could strongly influence the election, you could buy someone else's vote etc. - but also some of the positives. However, there's no doubt that the opportunity to a purchase a vote, even if it's a single one, really does open the door to playing the system.

I think that's interesting, because that's effectively what the Labour Party has done for its upcoming leadership election. By just paying £3 to become a 'registered supporter' you get a vote in the election. Usually this would be a little 'so what', but at the moment Jeremy Corbyn is looking as if he could have a chance of winning. Corbyn is an interesting candidate in that he is probably the most likeable individual with a genuine passion for his ideas. Yet if he won the leadership he would pretty much guarantee that Labour would lose the next general election, because his ideas are too radical for the country at large.

This being the case, if Conservative voters understood numbers, they would be signing up in their droves to become registered supporters so they could cast a vote for Corbyn. Just £3 for the opportunity to push the alternative party out of reach of government. Sounds attractive doesn't it? Admittedly they would have swallow their honesty and click Next on the agreement above, but they probably would be able to do that. Rather worryingly, the screen that follows says you are signing up for the chance to choose the Mayoral candidate for London, but I assume that's a technical blip (I've reported it and will let you know how Labour respond).

Of course, this could be really clever gamespersonship on the part of the Labour Party. If this happened they would swell their party funds with cash from Conservatives - if they had some way of knowing that Corbyn won't win the final vote, they too could be playing the system. But assuming that's not the case, Tories - who amongst you is a player?

P.S. I heard after I wrote this that the Daily Telegraph has apparently suggested something similar, but  I was not aware of that at the time of writing.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The plural of anecdote is not data

If scientists had mantras two would stand out:
  • The plural of anecdote is not data
  • Correlation is not causality
I'm sorry they're both negative - I'm sure it's not spiritually sound or something, but it does make them very valuable reminders of two key errors that crop up again and again in everyday life, and they are errors that even scientists can be prone to outside their field.

I point this out because I've been semi-swamped on Facebook and Twitter by people, often scientists or with a science background, sending me stories about the way a particular doctor had worked at the weekend, so the government is entirely wrong. (For non-UK readers, there is a spat between the government, who want hospitals to operate the same at weekends as on weekdays, and the medical profession who say things don't need to change.) Spot the error from above?

I'll come back to the weekends business in a moment, but let me illustrate why this is a terrible way of countering an argument. 

Let's say I was running a campaign to get rid of all out of work benefits. (Let's be clear: I don't want to do this, I'm pointing out the flaw in the doctors' campaign approach.) I could make an impassioned video saying that I have never claimed out of work benefits, so they clearly aren't needed. That's ludicrous, right? And equally it's ludicrous to use a video of someone saying 'I'm working at the weekend' to counter the suggestion that hospitals should operate the same way at weekends as they do on weekdays.

No one is suggesting that hospitals don't operate at weekend - but I don't think anyone would disagree that at the moment the weekend operation is pared down. And there are statistical implications from that.

The government has gone about this in an unnecessarily aggressive and stupid way, granted. But the medical profession don't make things better by using an argument with no scientific validity in response.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Research showed...

One of the themes I return to with regularity in Science for Life is the way that the media rarely distinguishes between quality of scientific sources. There is a huge difference between a Cochrane survey of all available research, or a large scale properly controlled trial and the type of 'study' where you choose 12 people who only ever buy Volkswagen Golfs and ask them what's the best family car. Yet the media just churn it all out with equal weight, telling us that 'a study has found...' or 'research shows...' They may give us a hint of a source, but that rarely gives enough information to be sure of the quality.

As a demonstration of this I did a bit of a butterfly on a wheel analysis of a story in today's papers. It tells us what the top ten things are that parents do to embarrass their children - things like dancing and trying to use yoof-speak. And according to my favourite newspaper, this is the result of 'research'.

So let's dig a little deeper. What's the source? According to the paper it is that highly respected research establishment Thorpe Park, the theme park in Surrey. Now in principle it is possible to obtain reasonable quality data at Thorpe Park if the the park undertook the survey properly, although immediately we have a problem because the group of people who attend Thorpe Park are self-selecting and may well not be typical of the population at large.

So how did Thorpe Park undertake the 'research'? Well, they didn't. It wasn't done at Thorpe Park at all - it was a poll taken for Thorpe Park by an online polling company. In a way this is a better situation, because online polling companies can address a wider section of the population, though of course they can only ever interact with people who have access to the internet - a much larger, but still self-selecting group. However, being professionals, pollsters can use statistics to at least try to correct for this.

That assumes, of course, that this was the right kind of poll. There are some online polling companies like YouGov that are pretty hot on getting their sample right and other good things, though even they have their limitations. But there are others who are essentially marketing organizations who are less worried about sampling and data quality and more interested in delivering useful messages for companies to use in their PR. Let's be clear - I am not saying these marketing-oriented pollsters make things up. They definitely don't. They pay out good money to people to take part in their polls. But in the end the aim of their polls is to gain publicity.

Not entirely surprisingly this poll was undertaken by a marketing-oriented pollster. According to its website "Our research enables brands to create unique data-led content – content that can be published and shared across multiple channels with a view to grabbing attention in a busy media landscape." What we don't know is what data the pollsters provided, because someone somewhere is certainly misinterpreting it. The newspaper says that the list of ways it gives for parents to embarrass their children is the 'top ten things' that parents do. This could only be discovered if respondents were given a simple text box and asked to type in the embarrassing things with no prompting. Actually what the poll did was to already decide what the top ten things were and got their respondents to mark those they considered the worst.

So was this 'research' in the scientific sense? Of course not. And I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. It was just a fun story, put together so Thorpe Park had a reason for getting a press release into the news. But I really think that newspapers should use better language. Don't call something like this 'research' or a 'study'. Call it a fun poll or a straw poll or similar language that makes it clear that this is not real in any sense scientific. Otherwise, when they carry a story about 'research' on climate change or particle physics we might be inclined to be equally dismissive.

Monday, 20 July 2015

What is a fair review?

I've recently had a very mild case of being trolled when someone moaned about a review I wrote of a book called Chilled. Before anyone thinks I got too horrible in my opinion, I ought to point out that I gave the book four stars, was very positive about it and the publisher gave every evidence of being highly pleased with the review. But someone wasn't, as I received this tweet:

If this sounds rather confusing, I had said in my review:
There are comments on both the front and back covers by Tony Hawks. Now, my first inclination was to wonder what a pro skateboarder had to do with the science of cooling. But it turns out that this is Tony Hawks the comedian and raconteur. Ah, well, it's obvious what his connection is. Well, no, it isn't. Apparently he did a TV show and/or book where he went round Ireland with a fridge, and this is the only reason for having him along to give the book a puff. It seems, to say the least, a little tenuous.
A review, recently
(Incidentally, I know the pro skateboarder is Tony Hawk, not Tony Hawks, but in my defence, I once briefly reviewed computer games for a living, and one was called Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or some such, so I've always considered it fair game to appear to get them confused. I thought it was, to quote, 'rather a good joke', and I was sorry it wasn't for my critic.)

I thought I'd explain a bit more. And we got into a 'discussion' about whether or not you have the right to say what you want on a review site.

The final riposte from my critic was that the freedom of the internet also allowed him to comment on 'unfair criticism like this.' And this is what got me thinking about what makes for a fair review. Was what I had written unfair criticism? Really?

If I had said something about the book that wasn't true, yes, it would have been unfair. But I honestly don't think the review was unfair - nor was there anything non-factual about my comment (okay, apart from the joke about Tony Hawk).

In the end it comes back to the reality that reviewing is a subjective art - it is a published opinion, not a scientific measurable fact. The review, including the (brief) moan about the puff on the jacket was my opinion. If someone doesn't like it, that's fine. Perhaps they should set up their own review site. But there really is no point arguing with a review simply because someone else doesn't like something you do.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Why do the powers that be hate the self-employed?

If I am honest, my first reaction to seeing this headline was to send it to the only actor I know, the magnificent Roger-Ashton Griffiths as a bit of a laugh. But behind it there is a serious issue. The point the judge was making was that, legally speaking, actors are not employees, but self-employed professionals, and as such are not protected by minimum wage legislation. The same argument would apply to writers, I'm sure.

Of course it's not always possible to apply a minimum wage approach to professional activities. If you look at writing a book and consider the advance as the 'wage', hardly anyone probably earns the minimum wage writing books. But then you can't really assign hours to the activity in the same way you would sitting at a desk at work. (Do I count the half hour I spent drinking my coffee before I got up this morning, thinking about how to re-arrange a chapter?) However, there are plenty of things that self-employed professionals like actors and writers do that are time-based and in those circumstances I see no reason why they shouldn't expect a minimum of the minimum wage out of it. (Please note, BBC*.)

This attitude to the self-employed seems to reflect the larger view of the government and the establishment that the self-employed don't really count. It's over 21 years since I was drawing a salary from a large company. Ever since then I've been paying my taxes and adding to the economy (including a fair amount of export revenue, as, for instance, my books with a US publisher bring money into the country). And yet whenever the government help business, they only target that assistance at businesses than employ more than one person. In fact in the recent budget there has been a significant assault on the income of many people in my position that could mean losing over £2,000 a year.

I really do think it's time they recognise the benefits that the self-employed bring to the country. As the nature of work has been changing over the last 40 years, more people than ever are now self-employed. But the government (and, it seems, judges) live in the past where the only employment was being a 'worker' in a large company. I'd have though the Conservatives more than most parties would recognise the positive contribution self-employment makes to the economy. But it seems we aren't there yet.

* This slightly snide remark is because most of the time the BBC expects me to turn up and do things for free. But I ought to qualify this that when I recently popped over to Oxford to record a short session with a professor of philosophy (the way you do), they did pay. So I forgive them for now.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Don't just renew

The chances are that everyone who reads my blog is far too clever to be taken in by insurance renewal premium hikes, but just in case, an incentivising tale from my own experience.

My building and contents insurance is coming up for renewal. Last year, my current insurer, Nationwide, had come up with quite an attractive quote of £268. (This is for fairly generous cover, business at home and no voluntary excess.) This year, the quote for renewal rolled in at a stonking £362 - pretty much £100 more.

For a while my bank (Lloyds) had been pestering me to allow them to give me a quote - and when they did I was surprised, so I rang Nationwide to see how they'd feel about matching it and got another surprise.
'I've got a better quote,' I said.
'Tough,' said Nationwide, 'we don't change our renewal quotes.'
Now, to be honest, this seemed to demonstrate that Nationwide shouldn't be in the insurance business, because they weren't prepared to move at all, which isn't how you do business.

So, not surprisingly, I have gone with my bank.

Now you might be thinking 'Well, £362 - that's only £30 a month. I spend more than that on coffees. I couldn't be bothered to spend hours and hours making comparisons and getting a better price. It wouldn't be worth the time.'

Well, let's see just how much the time was worth. Usually I would try two or three insurers and possibly a comparison site, but I'll be honest I was so shocked by the Lloyds quote I didn't bother, so I only spent around 20 minutes max. Probably a bit less. How much did I save? The Lloyds quote was £190... and there was also a £50 cashback. So the final figure was £140. I saved £220 for my 20 minutes effort. That's £11 a minute. Or, if you prefer, £660 an hour. I don't know what your hourly rate is, but that seemed a pretty good investment of time to me.

Of course, the Lloyds rate will probably shoot up next year. But then, we know what to do, don't we?

Monday, 13 July 2015

Can drinking tequila help you lose weight?

A rather delicious slimming aid?
I was amused to see (admittedly year-old) headlines on Facebook saying that drinking tequila could help you lose weight. Can it?

Short answer: No. Move on.

Long answer: On the other hand, there's some interesting science lurking behind the bad media reporting. Take a look.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

No sex please, I'm a statistician

My 'garbage statistics' detector went onto high alert when I noticed the headline 'Don’t panic, but there’s a one in 30 chance you’ve had sex with your cousin' in that usually understated publication*, the Metro.

We'll come back to that specific statistic, but it was probably prompted by a press release from a company called AncestryDNA, which apparently has done a 'demographic analysis' to produce this shock result. I can't find any link to the actual research, which is a touch suspicious, but various other publications have produced information from the press release including:

  • 'For the average Brit' there's a one in 300 chance that a complete stranger is their cousin
  • The average British person has 193,000 living cousins within Britain
  • The 'typical Brit' has five first cousins, right up to 174,000 sixth cousins
  • Researchers used birth rates and census data to estimate how many close living relatives each of us has.
Okay, so now we're getting a little closer to the facts, although there's still a lot of room for baloney in what we've been given. That last piece of information does mean that in principle such calculations are possible, though I suspect it was sampled rather than using the full census data.

We can, first of all, totally dismiss the headline, even if the numbers are right, because no one considers sixth cousins to be 'cousins' - in fact 'cousin' on its own specifically means first cousin - so this is clearly a ridiculous exaggeration. But it would also be interesting to see if those two figures - there's a 1 in 300 chance that complete stranger is a [sixth cousin or closer] and 1 in 30 chance 'you've had sex' with them.

There are about 65 million people in the UK, so select one at random and to get that 1 in 300 chance having 193,000 relatives is the right order of magnitude. However, none of us has an equal chance of coming into contact with everyone in Britain. My suspicion is that because there often clusters of relatives near where we live, there may be a better than 1 in 300 chance that a stranger you meet at random is a sixth cousin or closer.

I struggle a lot more with the 'one in 30 chance you've had sex with your cousin.' Firstly, as a headline it's too specific. They didn't say 'the average Brit', they said 'you.' Hardly any individual is 'the average Brit', so immediately this falls down as a suggestion. But even if we rework the headline to 'there's a one in 30 chance the average Brit had sex with their cousin' there are big problems.

The majority of individuals will have had significantly fewer than the mean number of sexual partners. Why? In a 2010 survey, these were apparently 9.3 for men and 4.7 for women. This average comes from a very skewed distribution. Women, for instance, can only have had 5 fewer than the average (in round figures) number of partners but could have had many more than the average. So this makes the average unrepresentative.

My guess (I could be wrong, because I don't have any information on the 'research') is that all AncestryDNA did was to take than 1 in 300 chance of a stranger being a cousin and divide it by 10 as the average number of partners. If so, that is dire in so many ways. They seemed to have applied the male figure to the population as a whole. Then there are issues with the way the population is segmented. One is that we are even less likely to have sex with someone from anywhere in the country than we are to meet them. And the other problem is that we tend to have sex with people of relatively similar age. This cuts out a vast swathe of the population, and could have a significant impact in terms of chances of being related.

You could say I'm breaking a butterfly on the wheel here. It was just a 'fun bit of research' for marketing purposes. But once you claim you have done serious research and get the media to spread it around, I think there is a responsibility to be clear how the numbers are produced, and to make that research as high quality as possible.

*Irony alert

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Is the obsession with symmetry leading physicists astray?

Not my idea of symmetry
(Image by Gregory H. Revera from Wikipedia)
Physicists love symmetry. A huge amount of the physical theory developed in the last 60 years has been derived as a result of starting from mathematical symmetry structures and using them to fit to observed aspects of the universe. The whole Higgs business is the result of a need to explain why a symmetry that was assumed isn't actually observed. (I'm not saying the Higgs field idea is wrong, by the way - it does its job well - but that's how it came about.)

However, I do wonder how much this obsession with symmetry is based on the tools that are in vogue, and an over-dependence on mathematical 'beauty', rather than on a reflection of reality.

The thing that made me ponder this was re-reading the introduction to the book Symmetry and the Beautiful Universe by Leon Lederman and Christopher Hill. It's a good book, but it is a bit worrying that the foundation laid in the introduction is a crude approximation.

Let me give a flavour of it:
Symmetry is ubiquitous... We see the graceful symmetry of a flower's petals, of a radiating seashell, of an egg... We see the ideal symmetrical disks of the Moon and Sun and their motions in apparently perfect symmetrical circles...
Yet every one of those examples is only symmetrical-ish. They are sort of symmetrical, but not really. To consider, for instance, the Moon to be symmetrical is to return to the Aristotelian universe where everything in the heavens is made of perfect spheres. But Galileo discovered with his crude telescopes that the Moon was anything but perfect and symmetrical. It's all an approximation.

Now I'm sure physicists would respond that these concepts of symmetry are only models and almost inevitably the symmetry is broken at the detailed level. Which would be fine if these were just treated as useful ad-hoc models. A bit like the traditional physicist's line of 'Let's assume the cow is a sphere.' But when the assumption of symmetry, something we never truly observe in real world macro objects, becomes so central, so driving to the theories that underly physics, I can't help but wonder whether the whole thing is an elaborate fantasy.

Perhaps in our modern version of Plato's cave we are not watching the shadows of reality, but of a fiction. When the likes of Tolkien or Martin construct a complex fantasy, we say that they are world building. Could this be happening in physics too? Only time will tell - but the good thing about science is that though it can go down wrong paths for decades or even centuries, it eventually finds enough evidence to backtrack and start again. I'm not saying our current ideas are wrong, though almost certainly some are. And I always advocate going with the theories best supported by evidence right now. But we always need to remember that the scientific endeavour isn't a matter of fact and certainty, but our best attempt given what we currently know.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Come on, George, do the right thing

He could do it
(Wikipedia/HM Treasury)
I'm a bit wary of blogging about anything vaguely political as Henry Gee tends to get upset when I do, but I hope he'll approve of this one.

Unlike some of my red flag waving friends (whose opinions I respect, but often disagree with), I do believe that it is possible to be a caring Conservative. And that's what I'm asking George Osborne to do. Specifically I think he should take the opportunity of the budget to put in place a plan to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

The accountants KPMG has announced that to do so would only add 1.3 per cent to the national wage bill, but would lift 6 million people out of poverty. Of course, being accountants they want to do it voluntarily - but it won't happen that way. I see no reason why the minimum wage shouldn't be a living wage. In fact arguably it's obscene that it's not.

To give a feel for the numbers involved at a personal level, the minimum wage for a 21-year-old is £6.50 an hour compared with a living wage of £7.85 an hour. (The living wage is £9.15 an hour in London, of which more in a moment.)

Now with my 'check the stats' hat on, there is one issue with KPMG's sweeping statement about the percentage increase, in that such a move would hit some employers a lot more than others, because some have a much higher percentage of low wage employees. So that '1.3 per cent' is a little misleading. But it still gives a picture of the overall impact.

Here's the thing. If a business genuinely can only survive by paying workers less than a subsistence amount, then it isn't a viable business. It is time to move on and do something else. But in reality, the vast majority of businesses who would cry havoc and doom at such a suggestion would be perfectly capable of absorbing the increase. And from the country's point of view, not only would we lift lots of people out of poverty, we would automatically reduce the tax credit burden, one of the government's main aims.

To make it practical, I would suggest giving companies with 100 or more staff a year to implement it, and smaller companies a staged introduction over five years, as I am well aware that even small changes in costs can take a small company time to absorb.

What do you say, George? You know it makes sense.

I do have one controversial optional extra, which would reduce the burden on employers even more, but I want to make it separate, as it isn't necessary to do the right thing to do, but I think is worth considering.

I would scrap the London differential on the living wage (and any London allowances if they still exist). At the moment we subsidise London's ridiculous prices by paying people extra to work there. Once London stops getting workers because they can't afford to work there it would focus the minds of the Mayor and others wonderfully to ensure there really is affordable housing etc. Painful in the short term, but worth it in the long term. However, I stress this is an optional extra.

Monday, 6 July 2015

How to enjoy Sens8

A number of my friends have struggled with the new Netflix series Sens8, from the Wachowskis. I have to confess the original Matrix movie was one of my ten best ever, but I was a bit worried that the siblings were one hit wonders (think M Night Shyamalan). But despite some problems with their first TV series, they have achieved something interesting with Sens8.

So here we go.
  • Lie back and go with the flow. It will take some time. Not much happens in the first two episodes, but it does slowly build after that. Just let it wash over you. It's about the experience, man.
  • Accept the fact that about 90% of the script is essentially an extended therapy session for the main characters. They won't necessarily end up happier, but they will be more self aware. Be happy for them.
  • You are going to find flipping between eight main characters' storylines irritating, particularly when there is action in one of the locations and it gets engrossing. But over the season all the characters become genuinely interesting. 
  • Don't expect deep philosophy from science fiction. Essentially the argument seems to be that our heroes a) Feel things far more than ordinary humans and b) Believe that the solution to almost all problems is hitting people. This doesn't feel entirely logically, but remember the philosophy of the Matrix and all will become familiar.
  • Unlike a lot of US series writers, the Ws know the importance of ending on a positive note, even though there's clearly a lot more strife to come. So thankfully there isn't one of those really irritating season end cliffhangers, which I truly hate. (Especially when the series gets cancelled, so the cliffhanger is never resolved.)
  • There are a surprising number of good bits. Anything worthwhile is worth working for. Consider the rest of it the necessary work. You can always speed through the gratuitous sex scenes.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Summertime blues

A field. A few years ago.
It's that time of year when a young person's fancy turns to wafting through fields of corn, wheat and other arable crops in slow motion, and the rest of us slow down a bit.

As a result I will only be blogging intermittently for the next few weeks - but I'll be back to full force in September.

Here we go. Fire up the Vangelis...

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

When precision become pedantry

But it's a TV programme! It's not made from grapes.
Being a science writer puts you at the intersection of two very different disciplines. Scientists know too well the importance of precision, but writers have to be aware of the nature of language - how it changes and evolves - and to be aware that following 'the rules' can be the enemy of good communication.

One thing scientists sometimes struggle with is that 'the rules' in English aren't some universally agreed set of standards but rather an untidy mix of what has been used for a while and what's coming into use. There is no body setting the official version, though personally I do tend to consider the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) to be pretty much the definitive arbiter on words. It doesn't help, though, with grammar. And so, for instance, some continue to insist that we shouldn't split infinitives, even though people have found it acceptable to boldly split the 'to' and the 'verb' where it works well for decades. Even the fusty old Fowler guide, which must be about 90 years old, says it's ridiculous to apply a concept from Latin (where you can't split the infinitive because there is no 'to') to English.

I recently came across this kind of thing on Facebook, where someone was blaming supermarkets for using the term 'elderflower wine'. I couldn't see anything wrong with this, but I was told you can't have elderflower wine because wine, by definition is made from grapes. To me this is out and out pedantry of the 'can't split infinitives' type. But let's be fair and examine the arguments. (I ought to say I'm playing devil's advocate here, because the person complaining couldn't come up with an actual reason not to do this other than 'only applies to grapes.') So here we go:

  1. The term 'wine' only applies to the fermented alcoholic drink made from grapes. I checked the OED and although it obviously does say that wine is a fermented alcoholic drink made from grapes, it also says that the term (usually with a qualifier, like 'elderflower' in this case) applies to all sorts of fruit, flowers etc. etc.
  2. It's an irritating trendy new usage. The OED lets too much through - they've even included twerking. Well, it's true they have included twerking, but why shouldn't they? As mentioned above, a language is not set in aspic. It changes year by year. Anyway, in the case of using 'wine' to refer to fermented alcoholic drinks made from something other than grapes, the first example in the OED dates back to the fourteenth century. It's not exactly a trendy new usage. This use of the word 'wine' is solidly established and has been for centuries.
  3. But the word 'wine' comes from the same root as 'vine' and 'viniculture'. It specifically refers to grapes. So what? A vast number of words no longer refer to their original root meaning. This is not an argument.
  4. It will confuse people. How? If there's no qualifier, it's made from grapes. If there is a qualifier, it's made from that source. Are you honestly saying that someone will hear 'elderflower wine' and think 'Hmm, because it's called wine it is clearly made from grapes'?
  5. They should use a more appropriate term. Like what? Short of using a EU style 'non-grape elderflower fermented wine-style beverage' there isn't a more appropriate term. That's because it has been called elderflower wine for centuries. But even if there were an existing term, again this is trying to apply rules that don't reflect the way that English works. We don't say 'it's confusing to use the word "sofa" because we already have the word "couch" to use.' There can be more than one word to describe the same thing. 
All in all, this is probably a storm in an elderflower wine glass. (Hang on, am I allowed to call it a glass? Someone might confuse it with a window, or the plural with spectacles.) But elderflower wine is what we call it in English, and it's not going to go away.