Monday, 29 September 2008

Teaching to the test - an educational dilemma

OK, I give in. After a very unnerving experience at my local FE college last week, I’m prepared to go along with the knockers and tutters, and admit that “fings ain’t wot they used to be” in the world of education.

Every summer there’s a palaver when the GCSE and A-level results are published, over whether or not standards are slipping. On the one hand there are employers and universities having to provide catch-up courses in English and Maths because they claim that the youth of today aren’t making the grade; on the other the government praises the efforts of school children who are gaining higher scores in tests than ever before. I’ve tried really hard to swallow the government’s explanation (while acknowledging that - ever fearful of slipping down the league tables - schools simply don’t enter their pupils for tests they won’t pass). But last week’s experience has called all this into question for me.

What should have been a straightforward “interview” at my local FE college turned out to be a nightmarish 2-hour session at a computer screen in a library surrounded by ‘uncouf youfs’ doing their utmost to get up the nose of the poor librarian who was trying to monitor their on-line doings, viz. “I’m sure Jade Goody isn’t part of your coursework”.

I’ve applied to take a City & Guilds course called “Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector”, as a good way to get some feedback on my teaching style before I venture forth (again) to teach copy-editing skills. I filled in the various forms, and listed my qualifications (12 O-levels including Eng Lang (A) plus three other languages, 3 A-levels, a BA, and a Post-grad Diploma). I also got a good reference from a friend who’s been a teacher for many years. Then the college called me in for an interview.

This wasn’t a surprise; it said this was standard procedure in the prospectus. They also warned that literacy and numeracy tests were compulsory. [Why does Word’s spellchecker not like ‘numeracy’?]. But the format of the ‘interview’ was certainly unexpected.

About a dozen of us were huddled in a corner of the library while the course administrator ‘explained’ the course. Then we had to sit the tests, or should I say “take the Skills Base”. (Is that really what she said?)

This took the form of two ‘interactive’ tests, where the software behind the system gauges the level of questions according to previous answers.

That was rather disconcerting! I could tell I wasn’t doing as well as I’d expected when, in the literacy test, I suddenly hit a rash of “Is the following a complete sentence?” questions.

Well, I’m pretty darned sure I know a sentence when I see one; it was the wording of the question that bothered me. I’m sure they didn’t really mean ‘complete’ which, according to my shiny new Concise OED, means : “having all the necessary or appropriate parts; entire”. The examples given were ‘complete’ under that definition, but that’s not to say they didn’t need editorial input… However, there was no tick-box for that option, only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ were offered.

The numeracy test was slightly more straightforward. There’s no other option when you’re calculating the length of the hypotenuse.

Overall I passed (though not as well as I should have done), so I avoided the Little Britain “Computer says ‘nah’” moment. But pity the other course applicants who were struggling. Instead of each of us then being interviewed in privacy, the administrator got us all back together to check through our applications and answer any questions. This meant hanging around listening to other people’s private concerns before the humiliation of being told I’m working at “Level 2, but at Level 3 in some areas” – which is enough to get me on the course, but just goes to show that in the 20 years since I graduated, the education sector has changed a lot.

Principally I’ve learnt that they don’t seem to trust anyone’s ‘previous’. Everyone had to sit these tests, regardless of how many (or few) GCSEs or Doctorates they had.

I can only draw the conclusion that the skeptics are right after all – those stunning GCSE results and all those A* grades count for nothing if “computer says ‘nah’”.

Arriving home in a froth, I wasted time searching education websites and discovered that there are plenty of practice tests out there that I could have worked on to boost my score, dammit. So if you’re ever thinking of “improving your skills base” (!), avoid the humiliation of a less than perfect score by giving these a try first: readwriteplus or TDA practice materials.

It seems a sad fact of 21st century life – you really DO have to “teach to the test”.

Thought for the day: “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control!”

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Talking to the animals is not as daft as it sounds

Libby Purves (very irritating Radio 4 presenter) has just been speaking to Miranda Carey, a woman who gets people to talk (and listen) to horses as a form of psychotherapy (Midweek, Wednesday 24 September). Sitting alongside her in the studio was actor Ted Danson (ex. Cheers), who amusingly objected to Libby’s suggestion that this was all a bit “Californian wacko”. But is she right? An article I read in New Scientist (23 August) suggests this might not be quite as barmy as it sounds.

I wasn’t convinced by all the arguments put forward by Miranda Carey. She uses horses that have been traumatised (e.g. racehorses who’ve been stabled too much when they should have been out running in a herd in the fields), and gets her patients (one example was an abused and confused former prostitute) to work with the horses in a form of mutual therapy.

I could see the point of getting ex-cons to work with horses as a way of boosting their confidence. Why should a horse (or any other animal for that matter) care about your criminal record? They take you as they find you, and if you treat them right, you’ll be a friend for life. But I’m not so sure about the work she does with people who have more serious mental health problems. Even Libby expressed some concern (albeit in her infuriatingly jokey way) over the question of whether the animal needs to have been traumatised in order to fully appreciate the human’s worries… (Thank goodness Paul O’Grady – a well-known animal fanatic who apparently takes a sheep for a walk through the woods near his home in Kent – was in the studio to lend a bit of Northern commonsense to the proceedings!)

But there is something in Carey's argument. Kate Douglas, writing in New Scientist (23 August, pp33–35) says that over the thousands of years we’ve lived alongside dogs, the human-canine relationship has had a significant impact on dogs’ mental skills. If you think your dog’s trying to tell you something, you’re not just anthropomorphising.

Dogs, it seems, have developed an acute sense of right and wrong; they also have a repertoire of barks to tell us different things; and researchers in Cambridge (UK) have found that dogs can use human-like gestures to get their message across (e.g. pointing or staring at the thing they want). Dogs even learn in the same way as children – watching others complete a task, then copying and experimenting until they achieve the same goal.

None of that is really new to me, as a dog owner. I’ve learnt as much from my dog as he’s learnt from me (that’s why he can wind me around his paw to get what he wants). And if it’s true for dogs, why not also for horses, who’ve also been close companions to Homo sapiens for millennia?

And, if Paul O’Grady is right, why not sheep too?

Yet again, I’m glad I’m a vegetarian.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Battle of the Dictionaries: Collins vs the OED

Collins is stepping up its PR in an effort to win the ‘battle of the dictionaries’. Today’s ‘stunt’ caught my attention via Radio 4’s Today programme. Meanwhile the Oxford English Dictionary is keeping a lower (but more thoughtful?) profile, by sending one of its key researchers to talk to editors at the recent SfEP Conference.

Collins have issued a list of words that they want to omit from the lexicon and have lined up the usual household names to champion a word each. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, for instance, has chosen ‘skirr’; and Steven Fry has chosen ‘fubsy’. Their challenge is to get these words mentioned in public places as many times as possible between now and January, in order to merit a place in the Collins’ corpus.

Good stunt*; but should we really take this seriously?

My recent experience of teaching newby copy-editors suggests that many people really don’t understand how dictionaries, and the English Language itself, work. Does this matter? Well, it certainly does if you’re an editor. If you never go further than GCSE, it should, in theory, be acceptable to use a dictionary to check your spelling and not to worry too much about the origin of words and where they might be going. But use of English (or more to the point, mis-use) is a ‘Class Issue’ – not just because of the all-too-familiar debate over ‘political correctness’, but because so often a person’s use and mis-use of English is seized upon by the snipers and gripers as a stick with which to beat those who persistently fail to conform to “the rules” (whatever they may be!).

[John Prescott springs to mind. His political opponents (and sometimes even his friends) ridicule his linguistic jousting, and pick over his words like vultures would a carcass – reveling in every malapropism and mispronunciation, claiming his inability to string together a coherent sentence makes him unfit to govern. Whereas anyone who’s seen him speak at a Party Conference will know that it’s the passion he puts into his speeches that pulls him through every time (and I’m sure he’ll be sorely missed this week in Manchester, if they don’t let him on the podium).]

But if you’re a professional word-smith, you will know that English is ever changing, and in fact you have more influence than most over which words actually make it into the dictionaries, because the best are evidence-based rather than rules-bound, and we editors are the ones who are tweaking the words of the great and the good, and checking their usage: “Did you mean ‘disinterested’ or ‘uninterested’?”.

Both Collins and Oxford (and other publishers too, I dare say) collect examples of usage from all sorts of media, and record that information for posterity.

As Charlotte Brewer, Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, told SfEP Conference, the Oxford English Dictionary now runs to 20 volumes. Originally it set out to provide historical evidence of usage, but that meant it was not helpful on matters of ‘correctness’. This, says Brewer, has been an on-going dilemma for the editors of the OED. For example, in the 1890s there were two different meanings for ‘disinterested’: not interested (with an example from Donne; 1612); and impartial, unbiased (dated to 1659). Despite this evidence some modern readers will feel the former is ‘wrong’.

First Murray and then Burchfield wrestled with their consciences when it came to ‘editorialising’ (ouch; I’m sure neither would like that word!). These acclaimed OED editors were particularly troubled by pronunciation and profanity:

“It is a free country and a man may call a vase a vawse, a vahse, a vaze or a vase…” said Murray, who then contradicted himself by insisting that the silent p in pneumonia should be voiced because it helped people understand the origins (etymology) of the words.

Burchfield, working on a supplement to the OED in the 1960s and 70s, faced controversy over the definition of the word Jew (including death threats!), and dilemmas over which ‘rude’ words should be included (as Brewer pointed out, the literati were still reeling from the Lady Chatterley case).

He couldn’t resist the temptation to have his say on some of the ‘new-fangled’ words that were suggested: insinuendo (“tasteless”, said B); opinionnaire (“of doubtful usefulness”… well, he was spot on with that); and prioritize (“a word that at present sits uneasily in the language” … but which we’re now quite content to use!).

So next time you’re ‘embrangled’ in a debate over usage, remember that the greatest minds in the linguistic world are similarly troubled – and they don’t have all the answers either!

As for who wins the battle, don't ask me! I bought a new Concise OED after Brewer's talk (so the PR worked on me!) but I don't care for its design which is goes for legibility over detail. So I'm still dipping into my trusty old Chambers for the meatier stuff (favourite: paragoge/paragogue ns. an addition at the end of a word, as t in against, amidst, amongst, whilst).

* Actually, not such a good stunt. Despite wasting a fair few minutes surfing and Googling, I can only find one primary link to this ‘news’ apart from the Radio 4 prog. – an article in the Times (online). What’s up with the Collins press office?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Aghaarr! Corny pirate joke ahoy

Aghaarr, Aghaarr, Aghaarr (trs: I say, I say, I say)

How much did the pirate pay for his wooden leg and hook?

… An arm and a leg!

[Don't blame me; blame it on the Beano … well, it is "International talk like a pirate day"!]

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Silly bankers - What the Dickens* is going on?

With the financial crisis worsening by the minute and HBOS the next big name bank to be facing meltdown, it's probably not the right time to tell the bankers to take an hour off and read a book.

But if they did have a few hours to spare (and let's face it, a fair few of them will in the coming months), what do we recommend they should read?

Forget the self-help manuals and the get-rich-quick tomes. Go for a bit of Dickens, I'd tell 'em:

Start with Martin Chuzzlewit; and if you've got half an ounce of empathy in that greed-addled brain of yours, you'll quickly see that the Big CD foresaw exactly the kind of crisis you've now got yourself into. Witness Martin and poor sop Mark Tapley off on a fool's errand to make their fortune in - of all things - the US real estate sector!

And witness Montague Tigg and his ne'er-do-well business partners as they fleece the populace with their Anglo-Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company.

If that all sounds like heavy going (and it honestly isn't - it's excellent, entertaining stuff) then pop down to the library (yes, they do still exist, but only just) and borrow a GCSE-level history book, flick through the index for "South Sea Bubble" and "Tulip" … And maybe you'll finally get the message!

* Any editors out there may by now have realised that I deliberately used a cap D for Dickens.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Populism at the Proms – where Barenboim meets the Cybermen?

I can’t make my mind up about the Proms: is it good for the ‘classical music scene’, or pandering to populism?

I didn’t watch Saturday’s Last Night at the Proms, but I heard snippets on the radio while I did some chores. The performances were, as you’d expect, of a high standard, but the programme (i.e. pieces chosen) was, basically, unremarkable.

I can understand why people get worked up about the Royal Albert Hall gig. If you’re on the inside, there’s a great atmosphere, and that can be catching when you’re watching at home. What I can’t fathom is the Proms in the Park element.

I went to a few of the picnic-and-performance-type events at Kenwood (Hampstead) some years back when they were the ‘in thing’, but apart from the snob value of getting your candelabra out of your Fortnum & Mason’s picnic hamper, I didn’t get ‘it’. You couldn’t hear the music over the braying of the socialites; and I’m scared of fireworks, so that element of the proceedings is a write-off anyway.

Given that PitP has to be a September event, the odds are stacked against a pleasant evening’s chillin’ with your mates; far more likely to be genuinely chilled - to the point where blankets, raincoats, wellies and thermal undies are essential.

Why stand in the cold and the dark to catch a glimpse of a distant orchestra churning out the ‘pops’, and listen to Terry Wogan doing his ‘not-the-Eurovision-Song-Contest’ compère routine?

Is this really the impression the classic music ‘industry’ ought to be conveying? And is that really what the Proms are about?

No, I don’t think so. And it’s a shame that this is most people’s only encounter with the Proms, because there were a couple of great things worth shouting about (probably several more, but these are the ones I notice):

First was the Dr Who Prom, back in July. I was annoyed they’d canceled the Blue Peter fixture this year, mainly because that cut the child-friendly gigs from two down to one, but fair play to the BBC, the Dr Who Prom was spectacular. And hopefully the children will have subliminally picked up on the crucial role that orchestral music plays in TV and films.

Those Cybermen are a joke on their own, but once their ‘theme’ starts up and they come marching down the stairs into the Royal Albert Hall, they really were pretty terrifying. The two boys I’d taken with me looked very worried: they couldn’t find a sofa to hide behind!

Some of the critics panned Murray Gold’s music, but I’m now a convert – the show would be nothing without it, and it stood up well in a concert format.

The other items were predictable (except for the Mark-Anthony Turnage premier, which was most welcome), but you have to make concessions to the likely age of the audience. Mind you, the woman sitting next to me (who’d come on her own) confessed that she’d only come because she’s a Dr Who fan – particularly enamoured of David Tennant. And I bet she wasn’t the only one!

It’s too late now to “listen again” (the BBC i-player only had the concerts posted for a week), but apparently they’re going to show it on TV, so if you’re a Dr Who fan, or interested in the music, keep your eye on the BBC website for details.

The second great concert was something I hadn’t intended to listen to, but caught my attention when I was at my desk one evening. It was so spell-binding I had to stop work to listen. What was it?

Prom 38: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

This is conductor Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra, which he formed in collaboration with the Palestinian philosopher Edward Said. Members are from both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict. They’re young and they play together with great fervour.

It wasn’t just the excellent playing that got me hooked, though; it was the atmosphere in the RAH. Of course, when the audience had the chance to show their appreciation, they certainly did, but even before that, I could tell that they were enraptured – I don’t know how I knew. Maybe having been there just a week or so beforehand it was easy for me to be back there in my mind’s eye?

But more significantly, it took me straight back to the two live performances I’ve seen of Steve Reich’s The Cave. This work views the situation in the Middle East conflict from three different angles: Arab, Israeli and American. To someone like me, who hadn’t a clue about what goes on over there (other than that it’s a seemingly endless tragedy) it was a revelation. Whether or not you like Minimalist composers (and I really think you should!), and where ever you sit in the political spectrum, I highly recommend this – live, if possible. I also recommend Anthony Holden’s review of the 2006 performance at the Barbican; he says it all so much better than I ever could.

But finally, perhaps they have converted me to populism after all – I thought Sue Perkins did a grand job as a Maestro! (The only bit of the PitP I did see.) The series was entertaining and informative; just goes to show that getting “grades” doesn’t necessarily make you musical (Goldie vs Katie Derham, anyone?).

Monday, 15 September 2008

Goodbye Grange Hill… and good riddance

So, today sees the broadcast of the last ever episode of the BBC's 'flagship' children's drama, Grange Hill. Well, now I'm 42-and-three-quarters I'm a bit out of their target demographic, I guess, but I'm really glad they're finally getting rid of GH.

The show's been running for 30 years, so back in 1978 when it started I'd just 'escaped the horrors of the English comprehensive system', that is, I'd been packed off to an all-girls boarding school to try to keep me away from the trouble-makers and get on with some proper study.

Our TV diet was very strictly controlled (Top of the Pops on Thursdays; Dallas on a Saturday; Robin of Sherwood on a Sunday) and so I only saw Grange Hill in the school holidays. And I remember that it definitely did conform to the prejudices I was being force-fed - that the comprehensive system was a disaster, that kids bunked off, cheeked their teachers, got into trouble, and teenage pregnancies were the norm.

Of course, I now know different (hey, they have bullies, drugs, and teenage pregnancies in boarding schools too, folks!), but I didn't find it entertaining then, and I don't like it now.

These days, though, I see the programme in a different light - as a parent. (Watch out: rant approaching!!)

The thing is, instead of stretching kids' imaginations and engaging them in things they'd never otherwise encounter, GH just reflected back 'real life' which, for some kids then and now can be dull, depressing, frightening and lacking in opportunity.

It's not so much the bad behaviour that bothers me. Mischief can be entertaining, and 'cute', providing it doesn't go too far (I'm still a fan of Dennis the Menace and his pals; not so sure about Horrid Henry, though). What gets to me is that the kids of GH often had little respect for the adults around them (admittedly, some of the adults certainly didn't deserve any). I can't help wondering what subliminal effect GH had on classroom behaviour then and now.

There were some great shows back then that were eclipsed by GH. And GH started a trend for grittier children's shows, so that today the BBC's offering is pretty low-grade - too many progs are just imitating adult reality TV formats.

One last thought: I'm not saying that all kids' TV should be Blyton-esque; but the schedulers ought to bear in mind that programmes for 13-year-olds are probably also watched by their 6-, 7- or 8-year-old siblings.

Can we scrap Tracy Beaker next please?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Crystal on txtng and blogs at SfEP Conference

(The post formerly known as: "A blog a day keeps the sanity inspectors at bay")

Some people have suggested that blogging is the worst form of vanity publishing - unmoderated, unedited outpourings from all and sundry - but I'm pleased to report that two 'experts' this week have confirmed my view that blogging is an activity that's, so far, been underestimated as a communications technique.

Students of journalism may already be drafting their final year dissertations on "…The symbiotic relationships between bloggers and journalists…" [insert quasi-academic phraseology of your choice] but when a highly respected and serious academic says that of all the various forms of 'electronically mediated communication' (EMC), blogging looks set to have the greatest impact on the English Language, I'm happy to bow to his greater knowledge.

David Crystal, speaking at this week's Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference, gave an entertaining insight into the impact the World Wide Web is having on the English Language.

He was on to a winner with me from the start, because he's been studying how people behave when they communicate electronically - a topic that's been getting under my skin for quite some time. Why do some people get so snippy in chatrooms and newsgroups? Why do I feel nervous when an unknown correspondent emails with a cheery "Hi, X" instead of "Dear Ms…"? And why did one client accuse me of being 'brusque' when I thought I was 'saving time by getting straight to the point'? But enough of my anxieties…

DC started out by explaining that 'conversation' is so successful because you look at the other person while they're speaking and there's an element of 'simultaneous feedback'. The listener isn't passive; they're making gestures and helping the speaker to keep on flowing by 'offering corrections', that is, clues about how the recipient is reacting to what the speaker is saying.

He rightly pointed out that although we call it 'chat', that's not really what goes on in a chatroom or a newsgroup. He compared the chatroom to being at a party and trying to chip in on all the conversations that are going on around you. In real life, it's neither possible nor sensible; but in a chatroom (i.e. on-screen) you can do this - though it's a skill that some have yet to acquire.

For example, an interesting snippet from his research is that there's a limit to how many times you can bat an email back and forth before one or other of the readers loses the plot [tell me about it!]. Email programs helpfully 'frame' the replies for you, by flagging the previous comments down the left hand side of the message with a coloured line. But DC suggested people can only handle up to about six iterations before, in my case, I throw up my hands in despair and pick up the phone instead.

He didn't say anything about how this might affect people in newsgroups such as SfEPline [I guess he wanted to make it to the conference dinner without getting his shins kicked] but it's easy to see how some people get discombobulated by the multiple threads and iterations, and tempers start to fray.

All of which was in interesting diversion on the way to his main point (fair dues, he had a book to plug) which was that, contrary to 'popular opinion', the growth of EMC does not signal the ruination of English-as-we-know-it.

DC's book, txtng, aims to allay fears that the next generation will mangle the English Language to such a degree that us oldies will be cast out to the fringes of pedantry. Sensibly he points out that "You have to know how to spell before you can txt"; and that we've been using contractions and abbreviations to communicate for donkeys' years.

If 'txtng' is harmless, what then of 'blogging'?

Well, DC reckons that blogging could have the greatest impact on the English Language, because it's grass-roots opinion, unmoderated and unedited - a communications methodology we haven't seen since the Middle Ages. He's seen some amazing examples of English usage (and abusage) on his travels in cyberspace: "It's the written language in its most naked form". Of greatest interest are the blogs that pay little heed to the usual conventions - ungrammatical, lacking punctuation - and yet are still perfectly intelligible.

What does that tell us about the endless rounds of "should it be a comma or a semi-colon" that twitter away in an editor's brain? Well, another speaker at the SfEP Conference (Charlotte Brewer, talking about the Oxford English Dictionary) had plenty to say on that subject, but I'll have to leave that for a later post.

Suffice to say that my take on DC's presentation is that blogging isn't a waste of time. For me, at least, it's a way to flex my writing muscles without being bogged down with my clients' expectations. And I'm pleased to hear that it's also good for my mental health (according to Joanna Moorhead's article in Tuesday's Guardian; though I hasten to add I'm well aware my problems are as nothing compared to those of the folks she's writing about).

Thought for the day: "Blogging: 'syrup of figs' for the 21 Century."

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The scoop that wasn't

While waiting for a train one day last week, I couldn't help hearing someone being very indiscreet about their employer, to the extent that they were discussing details of various (identifiable) contracts they were working on, including those involving litigation - and worst of all, pretty damning details about the company's pricing policy.

Given that this company is frequently involved in government-funded projects, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Not that the 'finger-in-the-air' approach to pricing surprised me, but fancy talking about it on a busy railway platform!

Now, this is why I never call myself a 'journalist': instead of phoning up the (highly influential) trade magazine which covers that industry sector and selling my 'scoop' to the diary page for a (no doubt small) fee, and causing a great deal of embarrassment and potentially a massive row in the process, I've kept quiet.

They say 'talk is cheap' don't they? It certainly wouldn't have been for the person I overheard - they'd have been disciplined, possibly even sacked.

As well as from reminding me, once again, why I know I don't have the killer instinct a journalist needs, the incident also reminded me how easy it is to accidentally spill a few too many beans - especially when a chatty client says in all innocence (well, that's what I thought), "What are you working on?".

Mental note: don't be too specific - no names; no whatsits.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

CERNtainly not a whimper

Well, we're all still here, folks. We haven't yet been sucked into a Black Hole as a result of the scientific shenanigans in Geneva this morning. But I gather the scientists did commission a study a while back, just to be certain that turning on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) wouldn't be the end of life on Earth (well, Earth itself, actually).

Twenty years ago I'd just finished my Finals (BA Joint Hons) in Physics and Music. I had never set out to be a physicist; all I wanted to do was gain an appreciation of this fundamental science. My final year dissertation was on "Potential applications for superconductors" - the technology that's today powering the beam of particles round its 27km circuit somewhere underneath Geneva. Guess what? I didn't predict this! But it was, I now realise, my first piece of 'science communication', because basically it was a literature search/summary of what was going on in physics labs around the world in what was then a pretty esoteric topic.

Fast forward 10 years, and I had just finished a Diploma in Science Communication at Birbeck. In the first year of this (then) two-year course, one of our number was from the CERN press office. I wonder whether he's still there? And I wonder whether he's one of the science communicators who, it seems, have learnt a thing or two from the 'spin doctors'.

Because this morning's coverage in the UK broadcast media is testimony to the CERN scientists' expertise as communicators. The Big Bang end-of-the-world-is-nigh-style coverage has grabbed the imaginations of small boys of my acquaintance (hopefully small girls too, but I haven't talked to any this week). I don't entirely approve of taking this tabloidese tack, but you have to admit, it's got a result.

Am I jealous of those science communicators who've finally got physics on the front pages? You bet! But I'm more niggled by the up-coming programme on Radio 4 this morning that's going to talk to 'celebrities who like science' in Physics Rocks.

Why should that get up my nose? Simple: the most enjoyable part of the Diploma for me was the Radio topic. I scripted and produced a radio programme aimed at schoolchildren on great careers in science, which included our take on the TOTP of celebrity scientists - Brian May being the best known back then. The intro theme tune for our programme "Free to choose" was Oasis's "Whatever" (You're free-ee, to be whatever you…) and we wound up with The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony. And now I can't hear either of those tracks without being transported back to the BBC World Service studio where we put our programme together under 'live' conditions.

I loved it. I loved the teamwork, I loved the live action; and it was great working in the studio with all the slidy-fader-doodahs (reminded me of recording projects for the music half of my weird degree); and for a little while I really did think that a career in radio beckoned. Science radio - what better use of a degree in Physics and Music?

But just a couple of months later I made the ultimate 'choice' and gave up my freedom for ever (OK, slight exaggeration there; call it poetic licence). What am I on about? I became pregnant.

So yes, I'm jealous - a bit. But I made my choice and I don't regret it. Who knows, one day I may get back into the studio. In the meantime, well done to all the scientists and engineers at CERN - and three cheers for the fantastic internationally collaboration which goes to show that we can all work together when there's something we really want to achieve (please solve climate change next, chaps!!). But I'd like to give an extra cheer to the CERN press officers and all the PRs who've done a grand job in getting this story into the headlines.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Clash of the deadlines

aka "Not really the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster**".

They're just like buses, aren't they, deadlines? Nothing happens for quite a while, then there's a sudden flurry and everyone wants everything done straight away. I'd bet money on the fact that this week is one of the worst of the year for that - what with everyone back off their holidays, and back into "getting things done" mode, especially with the Party Conference Season looming. The other hectic period, for me at least, tends to be around Easter time, when government-related projects (and many others too) all have to be finished and invoiced before the end of the year.

Annoying, really, as I've a great long list of juicy things to blog about, and no time to do it. Still, I need the money, so better get on with it…

**Note for film fans: just Googled "Clash of the Titans" (1981, stars Laurence Olivier et al; don't recall ever seeing it, actually!) and I see that someone's doing a remake: director Louis Leterrier. Hey, you read it here first! (Do you care?)