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.