Tag Archives: science


How we lost The Great Egg Race

So my wife and I were talking about old TV programmes this evening (to be honest, this was more me fulminating about how no-one seems to remember the TV programmes I used to watch as a kid on account of my great age and policeman getting younger every day, you get the idea), and our conversation settled on The Great Egg Race. I decided to show her a video of it to demonstrate how it had The Best TV Theme Tune Ever, but we ended up watching the entire episode. It was oddly compelling:

What’s interesting about this programme is that it marks an era when people could be intelligent on television without having to apologise for it. The basic format is essentially the same as any other modern “reality” show such as Masterchef or the Apprentice in which a group of people are set a challenge with limited resources and a limited amount of time and then get to square off against each other in a final contest. But beside that basic format, all other resemblances end.

Much of the programme consists of boffins muttering to each other under their breaths about how they plan to build their contraption, followed by Professor Heinz Wolff and his expert guest having discussing the week’s challenge without worrying especially about whether the audience was keeping up or not. The presenters do a rudimentary job at explaining things, but the viewer is pretty much left to it. There’s no Sean Pertwee sexily explaining what’s going on every thirty seconds. Neither is there much in the way of conflict; it is possible that they had their own equivalent of the Baked Alaska scandal, but I’m not aware of it.

The most striking contrast is with The Apprentice, and I think it says a lot about how our society’s values have changed over the past 30 years. While widely mocked as a piece of car crash TV, I can’t help but think that one of the reasons The Apprentice continues to be popular is that the corporate executive is now what we are meant to believe is what the ideal job to aspire to looks like. We might not all buy The Apprentice’s portrayal of corporate suits behaving like idiots and stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, but we at least buy into it as being a caricature of something real.

The Great Egg Race on the other hand is about engineers being set a similarly impossible and ridiculous challenge, who go about it by working together collaboratively and just getting on with it. They aren’t steered by the nose by producers who desperately want to drag a narrative into it all, and in the final challenge even the losers have a certain amount of dignity; they might have failed – they might even have failed badly – but even the biggest loser emerges from The Great Egg Race with a degree of dignity.

And they were engineers! A profession which our modern culture appears to simply ignore. Scientists are of course lauded, especially if they’re pretty ones like Brian Cox (sorry Heinz Wolff), but engineers seem to be pretty much invisible. Yet somehow our transportation systems, computers and widgets continue to get built.

There is, to be fair, a continuation of programmes which emulated the Great Egg Race. In the 90s we had Robot Wars, in which amateur engineers to pitch their robot creations against each other in a Thunderdome style arena. It was never really about the engineering however as much as it was about the occasional metallic carnage. It was an interesting programme to follow as both the robots and their builders evolved. You got to see the robots get slowly better over successive series and the builders become more and more up their own arses as their minor celebrity statuses (which appeared to involve opening the odd village fete and visiting children’s parties) reached their peaks. You would see them slowly coming out of their shells, wearing increasingly extroverted clothing. Some of them even (gag!) started to flirt with presenter Philippa Forrester (believe me when I say that this lead to some of the most excruciating television ever broadcast).

Scrapheap Challenge was perhaps more of a true spiritual successor to The Great Egg Race, just on a somewhat bigger scale. In so many ways, where The Great Egg Race was tweed and elastic, Scrapheap Challenge was METAL. With the number of bikers who took part in the latter, despite the years separating the two series, the amount of hair on both was about the same – they just wore t-shirts rather than suits.

But Scrapheap Challenge was ultimately a lot more like a modern reality TV show as well. Aside from the narration, there was a much greater focus on controversy and conflict, both inside the teams and between them. It did indeed have it’s own share of Baked Alaska Incidents. It was, to be fair, better at explaining concepts than its predecessor, but it was ultimately much more self-conscious about the fact that what it was ultimately about was a “boring” topic like engineering; it was certainly dressed up more. You can sort of see this in the team names; while the teams on The Great Egg Race were simply named after their place of work (Kontron Electrolab Ltd), the teams on Scrapheap tended to have jokey, ironic names like The Anoraks. I enjoyed it as a series, but it ultimately came across as a much less simple pleasure.

What am I saying here? Nothing more than that I feel that in the 20 years between The Great Egg Race and Scrapheap Challenge we somehow lost the ability to celebrate cleverness for its own sake and to simply take delight in people working together to do a good job under trying circumstances. Whether “we” have lost it or TV producers merely perceive we have is of course a moot point, but watching that episode did leave me feeling oddly nostalgic.

UPDATE: What the Liberal Democrat position on homeopathy IS

Since I previously wrote about what it was, and then wasn’t, I feel it is encumbant on me to include here what the official line on homeopathy now is:

A recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee examined the provision of homeopathy through the NHS and called for funding by the NHS to be stopped. The Committee did recognise that many users derive benefit from its use and did not argue that such treatments should be banned.

The Liberal Democrats believe that, as a basic principle, individuals should have maximum freedom about how they choose to get treated, so long as the therapy is safe. When it comes to NHS provision, we support a review by NICE into the cost effectiveness of Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies, including homeopathy; as well as expanding the work of NICE to look at the cost-effectiveness of existing conventional treatments.

We know that many complementary therapies are popular with the public. The NHS budget is limited and we want to make sure that NHS funding is focused on treatments which are efficacious and cost-effective. NICE reviews of all existing treatments would give us the best possible basis for future decisions over funding.

That sounds much more sensible and measured. On top of that, I am now getting (unconfirmed) reports that the Scinos will not be at Lib Dem conference after all. Looks like the party may have had an outbreak of common sense.

Or maybe not.

What the Lib Dem policy on homeopathy is not

I got two rather bemusing emails today. The first was the party’s official line on what our reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy is. The second one was to inform me that, five hours later, it has been rescinded. I can see why.

The line (and this is not a secret – PPCs were expected to parrot this word for word to the public) was as follows:

As you may be aware, a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the NHS stops paying for the provision of homeopathy. This is a decision which I fundamentally disagree with.

The NHS in England currently spends around £10 million every year on homeopathy, we believe that this should continue.

The Liberal Democrats support a review by NICE into the clinical effectiveness of all Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies. It is important to note that there is extensive evidence on the value to patients of CAMs and extensive support amongst patients for their continued use on the NHS.

While the Science and Technology Committee were right to recognise there are some conditions for which CAMs are wholly inappropriate, the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions. The value of CAMs treatments as secondary treatments also needs to be recognised.

The use of CAMs on the NHS must be subject to the same checks and balances as other NHS services, which is why we support the statutory regulation of CAMs practitioners by the Health Professionals Council. This is a vital step to ensure that standards are maintained and patients are protected from misleading claims by practitioners.

What I find really odd about this response is that the select committee were calling for “CAMs” to be subject to the same checks and balances as established medicine, and did support NICE investigating this – thus far NICE themselves have resisted this. The report notes “we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it”.

Norman Lamb needs to make his mind up. He can’t call for established medicine and its alternative to be treated in the same way, and then protest when it is. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” (and note how this muddies the water by not talking about homeopathy in isolation – presumably he feels the point becomes stronger the more you dilute the argument) is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?

It all seems a bit rum. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend. But what I really don’t understand is why it was, if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case? He’d certainly have got a lot of media attention.

UPDATE: Norman Lamb has finally reissued his position on homeopathy, which can be read here.

Performance -> Feedback -> Response

Just got back from Robin Ince’s Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People which you, dear reader, may recall I attended last year as well and I am delighted to be able to report that all three of my suggestions were taken on board and as an overall package it was a massive improvement on an evening which I enjoyed immensely. Now I know what it feels like to use Windows 7!

What did I learn this evening? Well, apparently things really can only get better after D:Ream – Brian Cox’s science bit was easily the most mind-blowing of the evening. I got to experience another aspect of Alan Moore’s genius – in this case as an incredibly funny, thought proviking and self-effacing stand up comic. I learned that Ben Goldacre can speak incredibly fast and still make perfect sense. And I learned that rap is the best medium for explaining how evolution works (although Monty Python managed to make it even simpler).

And then there was Johnny Ball. After the previous evening, where Ball was reportedly booed off stage, there was a bit of a squeaky bum moment in anticipation of his act. I would guess that like around 50% of the audience, Johnny Ball was one of the main reasons why I was there that evening, a childhood hero whose absence on childrens’ television has been sorely missed. And it is a real problem when it emerges that your heroes have feet of clay.

From what I’ve read, Balls’ arguments belittling anthropocentric climate change don’t really add up. Wisely he decided to drop this material this evening. Instead his piece focused on how Newton’s theory of gravity largely built on the work of Gallileo and Kepler and that a genius was only really someone who read more than one book and managed to join the dots. His message for the evening was that in the 21st century we have thousands of people out there doing what was regarded was genius-level work a couple of centuries out there and that we shouldn’t give into despair but instead be inspired by human ingenuity.

This resonated with me, mainly because of the way it so strongly contrasts with the basic message of George Monbiot’s Guardian column earlier this week. Monbiot’s argument could not be more different; as the subeditor writes “survival depends on accepting we live within limits”. Monbiot has a point; we can’t assume we can simply keep digging up more and more oil other natural resources and that somehow something will just come along and make it all right. But in dividing the world up between “expanders and restrainers” (which, ironically, does explain the great True Blood / Twilight controversy; something which I’m sure Monbiot will be delighted to discover), he asserts that for humanity to survive it must essentially give up that which makes us most human; the need to strive. In place of that, we should be content with mere survival.

“The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over” he asserts. What? Really? It seems to me that the one thing Copenhagen needs more than anything else is a bit of sentimental, schmaltzy, Hollywood-style heroism. If the world assembled world leaders were prepared to be a bit heroic, they could set in train a process which would avert possible catastrophe. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ruling out any meaningful progress before the talks even began, Obama came back from Copenhagen with a wildly ambitious plan that the rest of the world agreed with and made it his mission to get the US to accept it? He might not succeed, but he’d almost certainly carry the debate far further than it has gone in the US thus far.

The problem is not that world leaders are obsessed with being heroic; anything but. Are we really about to cede heroism to the denialist right? Is the anonymous bureaucrat really going to be our future role model?

Monbiot has set himself an impossible task: he wants to remould humanity in a way that is not only uninspiring but would be both incapable and undeserving of surivival. As misanthropic narratives are concerned, that’s quite an achievement. It is manna from heaven for the denialists who seek to present climate change activists in precisely the light that Monbiot is now basking in.

One way or another, humanity is going to survive the 21st century; of that I’m quite certain. We might do it by having a collective change in consciousness over the next five years and changing our current path of destruction. Alternatively, we might do it in an extremely painful way by witnessing catastrophic climate change, social unrest, entire populations literally walking into less climate ravaged parts of the world (i.e. Europe) and the destruction of 90% of life on earth. To avoid that, we will require ingenuity (Performance -> Feedback -> Response) on a heroic scale. By contrast, the Malthusianism that Monbiot seems dangerously close to here diminishes human endeavour. And once you start down that path, you start valuing human life as extremely cheap.

Johnny Ball is almost certainly wrong about the science behind climate change and George Monbiot is almost certainly right. But when it comes to inspiration and basic humanism, I’d rather have the former batting for my team any day of the week. Let’s not make him our enemy.

James Delingpole – a caricature of a rightist flat-Earther?

James Delingpole is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it any more! He is outraged that the Times has accused the 59% of the population who don’t believe in anthropocentric global warming of being idiots. There is the small matter that the Times doesn’t actually argue this, but rather quotes from a speech by Martyn Rees, but mere facts have never stopped a swivel-eyed rightwing polemicist in the past and by jingo! it isn’t going to stop Delingpole now.

What follows is a virtual caricature of the rightwing flat-Earther argument about, well, pretty much everything. In a few short paragraphs, he manages to conflate people who agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change with “liberals” with “fascists” with “Marxists” – frankly I’m amazed he didn’t shoehorn the Freemasons, Elder Protocols and Common Purpose in for good measure. And all because a newspaper quoted a scientist making a somewhat uncharitable remark – something that a fruitbat who seems to think we can pin everything on a couple of sunspots would never do of course.

The Telegraph does seem to specialise in these swivel-eyed loons. Damian Thompson is a particularly vicious favourite of mine (if “favourite” is the right word). I was delighted to see him shortlisted for the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards but disappointed that he was up against Ratzinger himself. It’s no contest!

Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

I’ve signally failed to blog about what has become known as Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack. The appalling way in which this government is sliding into irrelevance – and how Her Majesty’s Opposition is always only too ready to act as an echo chamber on matters when this government is truly, spectacularly wrong, is both profoundly depressing and barely qualifies as news.

I was interested to read Andrew Hickey’s take on the affair over the weekend. On one level he is certainly right: the degree by which drugs should be prescribed or not should not be lead by science but by the harm principle. It should be up to the individual concerned to decide for themselves if they want to take a narcotic and possible harm themselves in the process – that isn’t any of the state’s business to get involved.

…at least up to a point. Where I perhaps part company with Andrew (I haven’t read all his comments I must confess) is that I think science plays a very crucial role in deciding where you draw the line between an individual making a personal choice and an addict blindly reaching out for the next fix. Just as Mill conceded that an individual should not have the “freedom” to sell themselves into slavery so we must accept that someone physically dependent on a drug is not exerting self-control. To what degree an addict is capable of making rational decisions is very much a matter for scientists to resolve.

The bottom line is, science can’t give you value-free policy and ideology-led, evidence-free policy is equally pernicious. What you need are values and principles underpinning the science. Thus a liberal drugs policy would indeed start from the harm principle but it would rely on scientists to flesh out a lot of the practicalities. Yes, a truly liberal policy would probably result in most drugs being legalised but that in itself would lead to all sorts of questions. What should the legal limit for driving under the influence of cocaine be for instance? Would you go so far as to legalise crack? Do you impose a tax to pay for the externalities and if so, how do you calculate it? What should government policy be on advertising and public health information campaigns. There are plenty of things for scientists to investigate.

In his slightly sarcastic defence of Alan Johnson, Andrew is very wrong in this respect: Nutt was offering scientific advice within the confines of the government’s own legal framework. Within those restrictions he was offering perfectly sound advice and pointing out its inherent contradictions. Johnson hasn’t been simply applying his own principles but besmirching the very principles which the government has for years claimed underpins the existing classification system.

Ultimately, modern science poses a lot of uncomfortable questions about to what extent we can be said to exert free will. We need to engage with that debate not merely wrap ourselves in Victorian philosophy and hope it will go away.

Why don’t I know more women in technology? [Ada Lovelace Day]

A few months ago I signed the Ada Lovelace pledge. Then, I realised I couldn’t think of anyone to write about.

10 weeks later, and with an hour before the end of the day, and I’m still struggling. As a Lib Dem of course, I might observe that many of the party’s e-innovators – Mary Reid, Lynne Featherstone, Jo Swinson (who despite an antipathy towards blogging has been an early adopter of everything from podcasts through to twitter – not to mention www.scraptuitionfees.com Back In The Day), have been women. But I’m not really interested in writing a piece of party propaganda.

To be fair on myself, I struggle to think of anyone “in technology” – male or female. I could name you lots of people “in social media” but I’m not entirely sure that’s quite the same thing.

Interestingly though, when I was a child I DID know lots of women in technology. My dad ran an apprentice school for the Ministry of Defence and much of my early years were spent in the Aquila Civil Service Sports and Social Club, where my parents helped run the bar and film society. I was surrounded by women in technology – both staff and apprentices. My dad would always say that one of the best feeder schools for him was the nearby girls school, Bullers Wood (years later I would go onto make friends with and have my heart broken by lots of Bullers girls – so much more interesting than the sappy Newstead girls).

When Thatcher decided to shut these apprentice schools down and make polytechnics into “universities” I can’t help but wonder if we lost something in the process. By making engineering an academic subject, have the less academic girls had their options limited to hairdressing and shop work? And can science and engineering compete with languages and English literature for the academically-minded girls? Apprenticeships used to exist as a means of escape for a lot of young people (male and female) who couldn’t bear the idea of spending another day in school. Now everything seems either school- or college-like. As such we are now talking about bringing back proper apprenticeships (as opposed to “new” apprenticeships). But unless we are prepared to pay for actual, proper apprentice schools (as opposed to schemes running out of FE colleges), will it actually cater for the evident gap in the market?

I’m totally rambling on a subject I am distinctly inexpert on. But I do wonder if, at a time when we are likely to see massive unemployment rear its ugly head once more, the time for such schools may have come again.

Finally, a brief word to the WISE – that’s Women In Science, Engineering (and Construction). WISE is a campaign aimed at promoting science and engineering to girls of school age. I am particularly endebted to them because I often use a freebie canvass bag from one of their conferences for hauling my boardgames across town. Check them out!

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

Bad Faith Awards: it’s like being asked to choose between my children!

How on Earth is anyone supposed to be able to pick a winner amongst this set on bozos shortlisted in the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards?

It makes you realise quite what a year it has been on the culture wars front. Personally, on reflection, I’ve gone for the governors of St Monica’s School, Prestwich for the simple reason that their decision to deny their pupils access to the cervical cancer vaccination is so transparently mysogynist and so physically harmful that it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

But New Humanist really ought to consider using a different voting system. As it stands, the high profile nominees are leading by miles while the others simply aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Do we really need Sarah Palin to win? The good people of the USA have already found her wanting. What does it achieve letting her win, or for that matter someone like Ann Coulter who is just begging for the publicity? And wouldn’t it be better using a system which would better establish the consensus candidate?

Frankly, they should be doing a death match (or, to be more pretentious, the Condorcet method). Fundamentally, it is a shame humanists aren’t using a system which encourages deliberation rather than simple knee-jerk reaction. That’s for the other lot.

Prof Dawkins vs Prof Dumbledore – AND ONE MUST DIE!

Apparently Richard Dawkins thinks that Harry Potter damages children. Except he doesn’t.

Dawkins’ views on Harry Potter remain to be seen. Personally, I think the politics of Potter are slightly iffy (being a paean to meritocracy in which the bad old elitists get their comeuppances while the good new elitists get to inherit the earth and lord it over the “undeserving” muggles), but fail to see how anyone could describe it as damaging (that’s the role of religious nutjobs anyway). However, it does take me back to my undergrad dissertation in which I commented on Dawkins’ 1997 Reith Lecture (which, annoyingly, doesn’t appear on the BBC’s website and is misdated on RichardDawkins.net) where he said:

How do we account for the current paranormal vogue in the popular media? Perhaps it has something to do with the millennium — in which case it’s depressing to realise that the millennium is still three years away [it was four years away! Sheesh!]. Less portentously, it may be an attempt to cash in on the success of The X-Files. This is fiction and therefore defensible as pure entertainment.

A fair defence, you might think. But soap operas, cop series and the like are justly criticised if, week after week, they ram home the same prejudice or bias. Each week The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two rival kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses. But it is only fiction, a bit of fun, why get so hot under the collar?

Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it by saying: “But it’s only fiction, only entertainment”.

This of course is utter bilge. Generally speaking, the formula of the X-Files was that a rational theory and a paranormal theory was presented, both of which turned out to be cobblers, and a third, semi-scientific explanation was found. The monster wasn’t a figment of people’s imagination or a wolf, but it wasn’t a spawn of hell either. Generally speaking, these things were explained as freaks of nature.

In other words, while rarely ascending beyond its pulpy origins, the X-Files formula was the very epitome of scientific method. But Dawkins couldn’t see beyond the fact that it explored the supernatural and space aliens. He should have been celebrating a series which was, at its best, profoundly scientific and prised out these underlying themse. Instead he denounced anyone who enjoyed the show as lunatic irrationalists. Thanks a bunch.

So if Dawkins is to turn his attention to Harry Potter et al, I hope he will be paying a little more attention than he was back then.