Author Archives: seenonascreen

About seenonascreen

A fan of comedy and science - hopefully I'll be writing about those two things in a interesting and amusing fashion. Hopefully.

BBC one, BBC two, BBC red, BBC blue?

Statistics are the best. Generally speaking, they take large quantities of data and simplify them into a easily quotable and simple to explain number. This is done through the application of a range of tried and tested techniques – from the humble %, to more complex analytical techniques that can bring huge mainframe computers to their knees.

The choice of which technique to use and the prose surrounding the presentation of these results however falls much closer to an art form. While statistical analysis can often be employed to back up existing and valid conclusions, it can also be deployed as a shroud to hide off-putting details. Indeed, the prevalence of this practice is the basis of Dr Ben Goldacre’s fame, with his excellent books and blogs highlighting and exposing cherry-picked statistical conclusions in the pharmaceutical industry. And as a thinly-veiled attempt to throw my own hat into the ring, I feel obliged to have a dig at one of my favourite British institutions – the BBC.

A recent report, published and dissected widely disputed the Imagefrequently heard claim of left-leaning BBC bias (unsurprisingly, a claim more frequently emerging from right-wing politicians and press). The report states that a detailed statistical analysis shows that Conservative politicians receive more air time on BBC news and current affairs programs, even when corrected for the bias that always favours those in power. On two other big issues raised, the BBC showed a favourable appearance bias towards sources representing big business and Euroscepticism – both viewpoints correlating with traditional Conservative values. The report concludes that these three points indicate that if anything, right-wing views are prevalent in BBC current affairs output.

In my eyes, there are two major flaws to this analysis. Firstly, the report simply assessed the quantity of air-time granted to a political party. A valid statistical technique, but unfortunately, not one that differentiates politicians proclaiming policy from behind a podium, and those that are subjected to a grilling. Given the number of clips of politicians becoming flustered when subjected to a verbal battering that can be found on YouTube, I don’t know if they quite give off the positive PR implied by a straightforward count.

My other issue comes with the limit to the scope of the report. “The BBC” as it is often criticised is made up of much more than simply current affairs programming. I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to exclude the rest of the corporation’s output, particularly given that some of it comes with opinions too. Comedy in particular is well represented, and is traditionally an industry for those with left-leaning views of varying intensity. As an art form, comedy can pick a target in any direction, however satire will always punch upwards and so will always feel like it’s picking on those in privileged positions – both politically and from the upper echelons of society where the visible majority of politicians are often seen to be emanating from.

Should the BBC be hiring and airing material from right-wing comedians? I don’t think that’s really practical – right-wing comedy is a dangerous area, notoriously difficult to pitch without causing offence, and you’ll run into a very limited field of people to work with as well. I’d like to argue that we just need to accept an uneven playing field when outside the world of current affairs. That would be unpalatable to some, but maybe conservative bias in current affairs and liberal in satire might balance to an acceptable degree.

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And We’re Here Again…

I’ve written before about the inherent risks involved in leaving the production and control of a widespread product in the hands of relatively un-regulated criminal networks. Tragically, another stark warning of these dangers has come to light recently, with the deaths of, amongst others, at least 7 young Scottish people being linked to a tablet sold to them as ecstasy. It later transpired that the Green Rolexpills contained high levels of PMA – a compound that gives a similar euphoric effect at low doses, but at even slightly too high a dose, can cause severe hyperthermia, dehydration and death. Even worse, the definition of “too high a dose” varies wildly from one individual to the next.

The widespread distribution of these fake ecstasy tablets led authorities at the T in the Park festival to officially display warnings referring to the “Green Rolex” pills – a tacit acceptance that in the end, health is more important than law. Other countries have previously made this leap – the Netherlands is the most famous example, but officially sanctioned checking services are appearing in Belgium, Spain, Colombia and more. These services allow consumers to submit samples of a substance (which importantly, would usually be considered illegal) to a certified testing lab. Within two weeks, information is returned that states purity & dose, known (potentially dangerous) adulterants and the presence of any unknown compounds.NMR Machine

Unsurprisingly, statistics collected from these labs show an extremely low level of purity, with a huge variety of other substances used to cut the advertised product – some of which are actively dangerous to consume. I’m not going to go back over (or even as far as) the case for regulated legalisation of the softer end of illegal drugs again. Suffice to say that if even one more person’s life is saved as a direct result of introducing this tolerant form of testing, it would seem worthwhile to me.

However, the inflexible response to any structured argument for legalisation in this country makes me think that even this small step may be too much to stomach. Recent events prove that problems like this exist, and the reality that many young people will experiment is at least being grudgingly accepted by some in power. Clinical research into the physiological effects of widely available substance can only improve our understanding and examples set by some forward thinking countries can at least be objectively analysed as the real life experiment they are.

Some un-scientific thoughts on local elections & UKIP

The UK held local council elections this Thursday, with the major talking point to emerge being the relative success of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), who gained 139 local council seats and claimed to have achieved 25% of the popular vote. While that final claim does require a slightly loose definition of the term “popular vote”, it’s still considerably more success than the party has achieved at any point in its 20 year history.

Initial analysis seems to suggest that these gains have come mainly by taking disgruntled voters away from the ruling parties – a not uncommon theme in mid-term style elections. However the direction these disgruntled voters have chosen to go is extremely interesting. In a coalition party that is seen to be Conservative dominated (both in terms of policy and personnel), the space isn’t there for a shift in a more liberal direction as that space has been taken up by the coalition partners. While the Green party does exist as a similarly single-issue-dominated liberal option to UKIP, that may simply seem a step too far – anyone who votes Green is implicitly saying that all 3 main parties are too conservative for them. And if that’s what you think, it must be difficult to get out of bed every morning, let alone vote.

And so UKIP emerge. Already home to a number of ex-Conservative ministers, it seems that they are now the default party for disgruntled Conservative voters – as well as a surprising number of those who are unhappy with the way the Liberal Democrats have handled their first taste of shared power and Labour voters who are upset that their party hasn’t been more of an obstructive force. Based around a strong desire to leave the EU, a dislike of immigration and seemingly not much else, UKIP’s straightforward approach and “getting our country back” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22418387) message seems to have captured the imagination of those who have either disagreed with the policies of those in power, or those who have found themselves unable to engage with the polished and artificial leaders we see so much of.

A number of recent scandals involving ex-BNP members slipping through the vetting system and being allowed to stand as UKIP councillors haveI'm not racist, but.... caused problems for a party that by it’s very name and nature is easy to see as “the acceptable face of British racism” – although I should point out that the party specifically feels the need to refute this claim in the summary text that comes up when you Google them! However despite the headline issues and claims of racist behaviour that will grab people’s attention, it’s worth taking a look a the other “policies” that fill out the gaps between blanket anti-EU and anti-immigration.

As a relatively marginal party, it’s has previously been easy for UKIP to campaign on major talking points and ignore the nitty-gritty of some trickier and more intricate subjects. Indeed, Hillary Benn has been quoted as saying that their economics simply do not add up (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/may/03/ukip-gains-local-elections) and I harbour serious concerns over the way they view major scientific and social issues, with far too many unflattering comparisons being made between them and the American Republican party on these topics. In this respect, it’s hard not to hope that this turns out to be the peak of UKIP’s powers, as opposed to another step towards legitimacy.

Of course, the success of a single-issue party in local elections will only serve to give that single issue higher prominence. Expect to see significant debate regarding Britain’s place in the EU, a strong UKIP voice next time a major scandal hits the UK’s immigration controls and possibly even a referendum on EU membership. Historical opposition to joining the Euro already shows that there has long been a national hesitation when it comes to jumping in the deep end of a European agreement, and the current instability of that currency is only going to strengthen the resolve of those that resisted initially.

However I worry that this may all be misleading. Did people register a vote for UKIP because they really wanted the government to take a serious look at the issues UKIP believe are important? Or did they simply have a vote in their hands that they didn’t feel could justifiably be given to either the ruling coalition or their seemingly ineffective main opposition? Are we in danger of giving far too much air time and credibility to an issue that doesn’t actually worry that many people? UKIP would say this isn’t the case – I’m not so sure.

Thatchers Taxes

Today, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher was held in London and happily, it passed peacefully despite protests that were organised to reflect the negative opinions held by some. Despite the fact that I was barely concious of what was going on around me by the time she left office, history and subsequent events tell me that it’s hard not to sympathise with those that hold these views. It’s also hard not to feel uncomfortable at the evident glee some have expressed to reflect the death of an 87-year old woman.

A particular source of contention has been the cost of the pseudo-state funeral that was organised for her – estimates for the total cost have reached £10million of public money. Averaged out over the 29.7million working people in the UK (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/april-2013/statistical-bulletin.html), that’s 33.6 pence each.

It’s fair to say that no one likes paying taxes, but being forced to pay even the smallest portion of my earnings towards a funeral that many disagree with is distinctly off-putting. As a side note, you suspect that the private-sector centric Thatcher wouldn’t have sanctioned this publically-funded extravagance for most predecessors, making the decision even more inappropriate.

A lot has been made this week of a correlation between this £10m funeral and £11m of cuts to national arts funding, announced near-simultaneously. Given the choice, I would personally have directed my 33.6p towards a national academic research pot, but the distinction is immaterial.  As we live in a world where death and taxes are the only certainties, the fact that the only influence we have regarding where they go is a single vote every 4 years. And more often than not, even that feels absolutely irrelevant, which further increases the sense of distance between the number leaving your paycheck and the services that exist as a direct result.

I’m not sure to what degree this can be implemented, but there has to be a positive aspect to actually allowing people to vote with their money on a annual basis? Experiments have proven that overall support for a given tax change is significantly higher if the rise has been specifically earmarked for favourable causes (http://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/ecolec/v70y2011i11p2181-2190.html) and arguably, this could translate to an overall increase in tax revenue by reducing the incentive to evade taxation. Take 5% of your obligatory tax contribution and let you choose a charitable cause or marginal public sector to channel it towards and perhaps the ingrained hatred for taxation might drift away?

Or, if you particularly want to, feel free to build up a funeral fund for your favourite polarising politician?

Resurrection

In a (perhaps futile) attempt to bring this blog back to life, I plan to make a few aesthetic changes – including trying various names and themes, as well as build up a small backlog of posts.

More importantly I think, I’m going to make a concious effort to keep the blog more thematic, ideally keeping a tight focus on the way scientific work is publicly perceived in the UK and how it is used to inform – or not – British politics. To that end, I’ll probably go through and edit/trim/tidy the existing posts before I properly relaunch.

So yeah…plan!

p.s. Also, definite update of the “about” section required!

The Krypton Factor: Nobel Prizes

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The Nobel Prizes are a highly respected institution, started over 100 years ago to reward work carried out in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. Along with the later added Economics prize, these awards represent the very pinnacle of these fields, coming with an 8million Kroner prize and lifelong status in the small group of Nobel Laureates.

This year’s Nobel Prizes have been announced this week, with a number of surprise inclusions. The Peace Prize was given, unusually, to an organisation, with the committee praising the EU:

“for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.

Somewhat oddly, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been given to a piece of work that in my opinion, fits far more neatly in the Medicine category: awarded jointly to Robert J. Lefkowitz and Brian K. Kobilka “for studies of G-protein-coupled receptors”. This work has vital implications when attempting to understand the mechanism of drugs-cell interactions, specifically how a drug or hormone contacting the outside of a cell can influence the biochemical processes within the cell. Technically Biochemistry maybe, but the progress made by this discovery has had a far greater impact in the medical world.

Nobel Prizes are awarded annually, usually to recognise a significant individual piece of work. Credit can be shared by up to 3 people, but the rules prohibit prizes being awarded posthumously. Since a few early awards were given for science that was later proven incorrect, the Nobel prize committees are now traditionally extremely cautious when considering new research, preferring to wait significant lengths of time until the research has become accepted by the majority of scientists carrying out similar work.

This combination of caution and dogmatic insistence on having a live recipient to give a speech has led to a few historic embarrassments. Most significantly, Ghandi, one of the names most synonymous with peace was never given the Nobel Peace Prize as result of his assassination taking place weeks before winners could be announced.

Rosalind Franklin is another name who has been missed by the committee – In this case, her work provided the base for the discovery and understanding of the structure of DNA.  Her key lecture took place in 1951, the publication of the Crick-Watson model of DNA was in 1953, but due to the Nobel’s policy of ensuring work has become accepted, the Nobel Prize was not awarded until 1962. Her death in 1958 led to her being excluded from the Nobel Prize, despite it being widely accepted that her work and the data she produced was key to this discovery.

Particularly within the scientific awards, this seems a very strange approach to me. Nobel Prizes have always emphasised discoveries over inventions – and a key part of the scientific method is the encouragement of new hypotheses. While rewarding work that is later shown to be incorrect may be somewhat embarrassing, surely missing out on the opportunity to reward truly great achievements is worse?

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot

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3D printer technology is the stuff of Sci-Fi, allowing complicated products to be built up layer-by-layer. While research is still underway both to improve practical problems and increase the range of materials that can be printed with, the technology is already out there and being used on a daily basis.

At the very top end, machines exist and work in a way very similar to a standard 2D laserjet printer, adding very small quantities of powder to an area and fusing them in place with a laser. This version of the technology allows for metals and very strong plastic structures to be created, although currently at very limited sizes and over a number of hours or even days. At the other end of the scale, weaker plastics and plasters can be placed down in a liquid “blob” form and allowed to set. While these machines are considerably cheaper (often under £1000), the final products are often not as intricate and definitely not as strong.

This article suggests one of the most exciting possible applications for this technology, providing one more step along the road towards Mars (or even revisiting the Moon). Closer to home, 3D printers provide a much greater degree of flexibility to industrial production of a wide range of materials – while today it would take a significant amount of time to alter a production process from one component to another, with a suite of 3D printers installed, it is simply a case of loading up a different, pre-installed program and pressing “Go”.

Unfortunately, as with most things, there is a down side to this technology as well. A Texan student has recently been arrested as a result of his attempts to design and distribute via the internet a handgun that can be printed. While there are significant flaws in his stated aims – he claims people will be able to print the gun on entry-level machines, which, given the materials these printers use, would probably cause more harm to the people firing the guns than the intended victims – the possibility of doing exactly this on a small scale cannot be far away.

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Even in the USA where gun ownership is considered a fundamental right by many, restrictions and limits have long been enforced and any attempts to get around these regulations are going to be stamped down on. The limited number of 3D printers capable of producing a working pistol (let alone anything worse) makes this relatively enforceable at the moment, but if the technology takes off, this could become a more common story. Police so far have stated they will attempt to have any schematics instantly removed from the internet, but recent battles over music, video and software downloading websites have demonstrated that this simply doesn’t work in real life.

There is not necessarily an easy solution to this problem, but the benefits of 3D printer technology can’t be ignored either. It must be tempting to instantly attempt to restrict sales and monitor use of these machines, but the scope of that project would be incredibly wasteful. Anyone attempting to purchase and stockpile weapons should be found and prosecuted, regardless of where the illegal items came from or what technology produced them.