Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'm all over a lady's face

A bizarre little Twitvid from @belle_lulu and @scruffypanther. Nice to hear my name in their list of people worth following on Twitter.

Oddly flattering. Thanks ladies!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bang goes my IQ

From today's Media Guardian:

'BBC1's new science series 'Bang Goes The Theory' began with just over 3 million viewers but was no match for ITV1's Coronation Street last night, Monday 27 July. The new show, billed as a 21st-century successor to Tomorrow's World, had 3.2 million viewers, a 17% share of the audience between 7.30pm and 8pm, according to unofficial overnight figures. Last night's opening episode featured presenter Jem Stansfield trying to knock down a brick hut using a "supersonically generated vortex ring". ITV1's Coronation Street predictably had the better of it, with 7.8 million viewers, 41% of the audience.'

I might be completely off beam with public opinion here but I watched Bang goes the theory feeling like I was watching a mis-scheduled episode of Blue Peter. Is it just me? The presenters' general attitude and tone seemed aimed at a CBBC audience demographic. It was all very dumbed down and borderline patronising and at one point I found myself reaching for the squeezy liquid bottle and sticky backed plastic to make my very own vortex gun. I particularly shrivelled during the interview with genetics maverick Craig Venter in which presenter Liz Bonnin seemed fixated on the idea that he was out to create 'monsters'. Still, any programme that teaches science has got to be better than none. And the vortex cannon was a laugh. I can't help feeling that I'm watching a slightly less bloke-ish version of Sky's Brainiac though.

It's Blue Peter and Magpie all over again.

If only it could drag some of those Corrie viewers over, eh?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ireland - Nul Point. America - Nul Point.

Shame on you Ireland. Well, certain factions within the Irish government anyway.

Hot on the coat tails of my blog yesterday comes the announcement that blasphemy may still be made a criminal offence in Ireland. This subject raised its ugly head a month or so ago when it was proposed by Jutice Minister Dermot Ahern. As reported in The Guardian by Padraig Reidy:

'Nobody wanted this law: no one can think of a single thundering priest, austere vicar, irate rabbi or miffed mullah ever calling for tougher penalties for blasphemy. Certainly there were the frequent, and frequently ignored missives from Armagh, warning the Irish not to abandon God for 4x4s and Nintendo Wiis. [...] But never did anyone suggest we needed tough blasphemy laws. Until the justice minister, Dermot Ahern, decided we needed to fill the "void" left by our lack of one.'

Just as I think we're moving towards a state of affairs where everyone's right to believe what they want is enshrined in our human rights legislation, along comes some political nob waving a White Paper and insisting that the views of the few outweigh the views of the many.

Shame on you Ireland.

And shame on you America for the quality of your audiobooks!

I love audiobooks. Always have done. But just recently I've become irritated with American narrators. Not because of their accent or the timbre of their voice. It's because they haven't had the common decency to learn the correct pronunciation of British place names. I realise that this is probably the fault of the audiobook company itself rather than the reader. And I also concede that British spelling of proper names follows no logical pattern and things are not always said as they are written. Nevertheless, I believe that if Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie or Dawn French or Alan Rickman or whoever was reading a book about America, they would learn the correct pronunciations of places' and people's names.

Meanwhile, I'm listening to Alan Sklar's otherwise pleasing baritone reading the audiobook of Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map and gritting my teeth every time I hear about places like 'Burr-wick Street', 'Hurt-ford-shire', 'Ber-MOND-see' and (sob!) 'Willis-den'. Of course, Berwick, Hertfordshire, Bermondsey and Willesden should be pronounced 'Berrick', 'Hart-ford-shur', 'BER-mond- zee' and 'Wills-dun'.

4/10. Must try harder.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Faith in Justice

Here's a story you may have missed in the week ...

'Pagan police officers in some areas are being allowed to take as many as eight days leave a year for events such as the summer solstice and Halloween. It comes after the Pagan Police Association was set up following discussions with Home Office officials. Policy on police leave varies between forces in England and Wales. Hertfordshire Police lets Pagan staff re-allocate the traditional bank holidays to meet their beliefs - it has also appointed two Pagan chaplains. Pc Andy Pardy, a Pagan neighbourhood beat officer in Hemel Hempstead, Herts, was one of the officers involved in setting up the association. He told Police Review magazine: 'Paganism is not the new age, tree-hugging fad that some people think it is. It is not the clandestine, horrible, evil thing that people think it is. A lot of people think it is about dancing naked around a fire. But the rituals involve chanting, music and meditation. For Pagans, the practices are seen to have the same power as prayer does for Christians.' Pc Pardy is allowed to take eight days per year for Pagan events - which form part of his annual leave.

Pagans worship nature and believe in many gods and their practices include witchcraft and druidism. According to the Office of National Statistics there were 31,000 people practising Paganism in England and Wales in 2001. Another officer, Pc Andy Hill, of Staffordshire Police, is a practising Wiccan - a kind of Pagan witch. He has offered to use spells to give fellow officers a helping hand with promotion exams or to heal ill colleagues and is the founder of the Pagan Police Group UK, a website for Pagan police officers and their families. He told Police Review: 'Wiccan has always been a bit of a taboo religion, there are lots of misconceptions about it. This is nothing to do with black magic or devil worshipping. Witchcraft is not the hocus pocus, puff of smoke, turning people into frogs stuff you see on television. It is working with nature for good.'

Superintendent Simon Hawkins, of Hertfordshire Police, said: 'While balancing operational needs, the force's religion and beliefs policy gives all staff the choice of re-allocating the traditional Christian bank holiday festivals to suit their personal faith beliefs and this has been very well-received from a number of faith groups including Muslim and Jewish. The force strives to provide a receptive environment for all its staff and our faith work stream is a positive example of our commitment to meet the diverse needs of all who work for us and the public we serve.'

A Home Office spokesman said the Pagan Police Association did not receive any funding from the Home Office. He added: 'The government wants a police service that reflects the diverse communities it serves. It is down to individual forces to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the religion or beliefs of individual officers, as far as operational requirements permit.'

This story fascinated and delighted me. Sadly, it was mostly relegated to the 'funny' or 'quirky' columns in many newspapers (would they have done that if the story had been about Islam or Judaism I wonder?) but there is a very important point underlying the headlines.

You all know my views on religion. I wrote an essay expressing them that you can read here and I recently deconstructed Creationism (or, at least, one Creationist) here. I am an atheist myself but I firmly believe that everyone has the right to believe what they want to believe and that no one has the right to oppose or attack that right. The one exception I make to my own rule is that I reserve the right to attack any form of faith that tries to drag us back into the Dark Ages by belittling science and evidence. I won't have that. Oh no. I also take umbrage with people who don't respect my right to not believe. Or people who do not accept that I have a right to disagree with them.

I reserve a particularly deep and turbulent tank of vitriol for the kind of self-serving git who uses faith as a tool to forward their careers. I'm not talking here about some sinister, behind-closed-doors Masonic-type secret nepotistic siblinghood of people who 'look after' each other. I'm talking about those who jump on the political correctness bandwagon not from any sense of equality or fairness but for personal gain.

I can point to at least ten examples of where someone has inconvenienced an awful lot of people for the sake of making themselves look shiny. For example, a few years ago, I watched in horror as a group of people were shifted from a suite of offices into one small office so that the building could have a dedicated Prayer Room. No one had asked for it and there were plenty of rooms (including a multi-denominational chapel) available nearby for someone to pray in if they wanted it. But no, it had to be a loudly-trumpeted, specially converted (at public expense) prayer room. The argument put forward was that people with faith need a place of peace and quiet for their devotions. At the time, I did ruffle some feathers by asking if I could have a quiet room in which I could read and study away from telephones, email and the incessant water-cooler chatter about the previous night's Big Brother (or should I say 'Generously proportioned sibling'?). When this was refused, I rather petulantly asked if I could have a room in which I could talk to my imaginary friend too. Yes, I know. I know. Not so much ruffling feathers as plucking the entie ostrich. And I was slapped for my comment, believe me. But the sentiment was honest and heartfelt. It seemed to me that people who choose to believe in a god were deemed to be more important than those who didn't and every effort was made by promotion-seekers to accommodate the worshippers, at the expense of everyone 'less important'. The room, of course, was never used. As I say, no one had asked for it; it simply allowed someone to tick the Diversity box on their application. Gradually, over the months that followed, it became a storeroom for junk.

I mention all this as I applaud the move to recognise paganism as a genuine belief. There is no doubt in my mind that the police officers involved (I know one personally) have the same conviction about their faith as do Christians, Muslims, Jews or any other formalised religion. My personal view is that everyone has the right to believe what they want ... but not at the expense of others. It's this intolerance - not religion itself - that leads to conflict, war and even genocide. Treat everyone as you would like to be treated yourself. It's not rocket science is it?

Live and let live I say. And all hail the Horned One!

What do you mean I can't have human sacrifice at work?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Plinths, Problems and Pleut

Hello everyone. I'm sorry that my blog has been ignored for so long; these past few weeks have seen the longest break I've ever had. There are excellent reasons for this, none of which I'll bore you with, but they mostly revolve around balancing work, home life and writing the new book.

On the subject of the new book, I'm getting rather excited about it. As regular readers know, I've spent a number of years working in a pioneering wing of the Met Police in London called the Problem Solving Unit. The name isn't strictly accurate as it's a very rare instance indeed when you can completely eliminate a problem. Our job mostly consists of reducing the impact of a problem on people's lives, and the problems we get called in to look at don't respond to normal policing methods. Over the years, we've come up with some pretty creative ideas (some of which have made the national press) and I'd like to think that we've made a difference. Along the way, I've met some extraordinary thinkers - both inside and outside the police - who have taught me some amazing skilsl and techniques. My new book is an attempt to capture all of that in a readable, easy to follow form that teaches the reader how to apply what I do to their own lives. As I say, it's all quite exciting. Now all I have to do is sell the bugger ... Meanwhile, my editor at Pan Macmillan is hard at work on getting Joined Up Thinking ready for its paperback release on September 18th.

So what else has been happening? Well, I applied to get an hour slot on Anthony Gormley's installation, One and Other. If you've not heard about this, Gormley is a British sculptor, most famous for his 'Angel of the North' and he was asked to create a piece for Trafalgar Square's empty fourth plinth. Over the past few years all kinds of sculpture have been featured there including Marc Quinn's wonderful sculpture of a pregnant Alison Lapper. Gormley, however, decided on a different tack. What's he's done is offer up his 100 days on the plinth to the British public. Which means that 2400 people, selected by a draw and representing a cross-section of the UK population will all get one hour on a very public platform. It's been wonderful to watch the eccentricity, passion and plain silliness going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The One and Other website has a live video stream and I find myself popping back time and time again for a quick voyeuristic peek. There's nowt so queer as folk and the plinth has been much more interesting than any reality TV show. We've had people dressed as cows, turds, Britannia, Elvis ... we've had dancers and painters and paper plane makers. And when I walked past during the week, we had a posh girl who seemed to spending her hour chatting to her mates on her mobile. As I say, it is representative of the population and she was obviously representative of the chattering classes. As I type this, there's a lady in a white safari suit and sporting a pair of home-made angel wings, chatting to her friends on her phone over the tintinnabulation of nearby St Martin in the Fields.

The weather has been extraordinary too. We've had glorious sunshine of a kind we've not seen in many years and we've had huge, fantastic thunderstorms and, on a couple of occasions, torrential rain. One day in particular, the rain fell so hard that they had to close part of the London Underground network, Paddington Station was shut and the roof of Marylebone Station cracked. I was passing through Marylebone when it happened and managed to snap this shot of the indoor waterfall. Amazingly, despite the volume of water falling and the tremendous noise it generated hitting the hard stone floor, some people still managed to walk straight into it. Seconds after I took this, the chap in blue was soaked to the skin. If ever there was a reason to turn your i-pod volume down ...

Talking of the Tube, I took this photo (below) a couple of weeks ago at Lambeth North. It's so unusual to ever be the only person on a London Underground platform that I had to capture the moment. It felt a bit creepy if I'm honest and I had flashbacks to that scene in An American Werewolf in London. The commitments that have kept me away from my blog include a large number of public speaking engagements and many of them were in 'the dungeon'; an airless, lightless lecture room at the Met Police Forensic Labs in Lambeth.

Yep, that's me doing my stuff. and apparently describing the optimum size for a butternut squash. The next photo is also an unusual sight. I wonder how many people have ever seen this view of the London Eye? It's all held up by cables and here's the tether point on the South Bank. It was such an unusual and geometrically pleasing view that I took this shot.

I promise that I'll be doing a lot more blogging now that I've broken the back of the book. Thanks for popping by and bearing with me. x

And not a mention of Michael Jackson either.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Ready Shreddy Go

As my regular (and indeed constipated) readers will know, I am something of a champion for plain English. This doesn't mean that I hate big words or flowery prose or acronyms. It means that I firmly believe that the ultimate courtesy is to write in a style that suits your readers. When you think about it, the main purpose of writing is to communicate the thoughts of one person to the brain of another when face-to-face contact is not possible. If that communication is written in a style or form that the predicted reader won't understand, then the communication has failed.
So when I see sentences like 'A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit' (Luton Council), or 'Aligning the drivers, values and principles with the objectives is the key to unlocking the strategy. When they are fully aligned, they will illuminate the actions that need to be taken in the region' (South West of England Regional Development Agency), I get quite annoyed. There are many people who would not understand these terms. And there are people with reading difficulties, or for whom English is a second or even third language, who wouldn't have a clue what they mean. The rule of thumb is that if an average person won't understand what you've written after one reading, it's not plain English.
I guess the best way to look at it is that if you're a microbiologist writing for other microbiologists, it's perfect acceptable to use complex language and scientific terms. There's a shared lexicon. But if you don't know who you're writing for, or you're writing for a large cross-section of the public, keep it plain. The main advantages of plain English are:
  • it is faster to read; and
  • you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way.
Plain English isn’t Janet and John writing; you don’t have to over-simplify words. It doesn't change the meaning of your message - It just makes it easy to understand. Banks, insurance companies and solicitors now produce plain English documents without losing meaning. Even the South African constitution was written in plain English. It promotes good grammar, but doesn’t insist on perfect grammar. In fact, some of the older supposed ‘rules of grammar’ are complete nonsense. It doesn’t ban new words or long words. And it is not an amateur version of English. In many ways, it is harder to write in plain English than in Gobbledegook. It’s not quite as easy as it looks.
So there you go. Anyway, the reason I mention this is because Plain English Campaign - the bane of those who would write in gobbledegook - is 30 years old this year and, to mark the occasion, it is launching a global shredding campaign to rid the world of officious forms, ridiculous business jargon and idiotic acronyms. I've done my small part by designing the mascot for the campaign, Ted the Shred. The drawing you see here was the finished design (I've also included an earlier version in red). He's now been simplified for animation purposes and you can see him in action at the brand new Global Shred website. There are wallpapers to download and, as the year goes on, the website will expand.

Want to more about plain English? Email me or Plain English Campaign. Glad to help.