Thursday, 30 October 2008

Brand or bland? The editor’s decision is final

Thanks to Messrs Brand and Ross for knocking the Credit Crunch out of the headlines for a day or two (though I’m already bored of their story too). I don’t want to comment on the detail of the incident, but I do want to talk about the editor’s role in the palaver.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Kelvin McKenzie actually said something sensible (on Today, R4) this morning: it’s the decision of the editor – or more specifically, the editor’s line managers – that should be called to question.

I'm not saying they should be sacked, suspended or anything else, but I do think that they are the ones who need to be out there justifying their decision, not B&R (although they’ve had the sense and/or PR advice to apologise).

This wasn’t a live show; it was recorded. The editor apparently took the tape to line management for approval and someone somewhere in the chain of command decided to approve it. Now they need to stand up (or 'fess up) for their decision.

Being an editor is a tough job; they don’t tell you that in the careers guidance. But I do try to tell would-be editors that, when I get the chance. You need to be thick-skinned, and you need to be able to stick to your guns if necessary, but you also need to be quick to hold up your hands if you’re wrong. And that’s as true for editors of books and journals as it is for those in charge of national newspapers and radio shows.

On my first outing as a trainer of editors I likened the role to that of Graham Poll, the international footy ref whose error during a World Cup game led to his resignation. This certainly wasn’t the first time GP had made very public errors, but he wasn’t afraid, when necessary, to stand up to international football superstars.

Editors need to do the same. Even if it’s just a simple matter of defending your stance on a grammatical construction, or choice of illustration, or whether or not to publish the damned book at all…

You don’t often hear young people saying “I want to be an editor”, do you? But we’re actually an awful lot more powerful than people realise. Not just the big names in the national press or TV, but right down to the humble freelance book ‘editor’ who wonders whether she should strike out the author’s phrase ‘cradle-land’ and use ‘place of origin’ instead. (Go on – live a little. Let that new word fly!)

Meanwhile, I’m currently being edited myself. It’s a dull technical book I’ve been working on for 9 months; and now that the gestation period is nearly over, the editing process feels nearly as uncomfortable as Braxton Hicks contractions. Having spent 2 hours late last night responding rather tetchily to the editor’s queries, I now realise I need to rein myself in a bit and let the beleaguered editor get on with her job.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Biscuits: the driving force behind the nation’s freelance writers/editors

Freelance writers and editors, working at home, need to demonstrate a significant level of willpower; so I’m pleased to learn that scientists have published evidence to suggest that sneaking a daily dip into the biscuit barrel could, contrary to expectations, give your willpower a much needed boost.

Although I criticised the concept of Psychologies magazine last week, I am still drawn to psychology-related articles in the more serious press. Last week, while belated flicking through back issues of New Scientist, I came across a piece that pretty neatly sums up the chemistry/biology behind that eternal freelances’ problem: procrastination. And, in a twist of logic that Psychologies would surely be proud of, here I go reinterpreting the hard science for my own journalistic purposes…

Resist! by Helen Phillips (New Scientist, 13 September 2008, pp40–43) reports on several studies into self-control and willpower. Few readers will be surprised to learn that some people are better at self-control than others, that female impulse control is linked to the menstrual cycle, and that there are links between IQ and the ability to avoid temptation.

More interesting, though, is the news that resisting temptation appears to be controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain (especially the right frontal lobe), and that the effort of self-control also taxes the areas of the brain responsible for ‘working memory’. (One conclusion the researchers draw from these results is that teenagers find it hard to control their impulses because their frontal lobes are still developing.)

On top of that, there’s evidence that exercising willpower is also a physiological process – i.e. it’s a process that needs energy.

Helen Phillips cites studies published in the journals Psychological Science, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggest that self-control requires effort (energy) and, just as you can run out of energy when you’re pounding the treadmill at the gym, you can run of out self-control.

Part of the evidence for this comes from studying people’s heart rates while they’re being asked to resist temptation, which shows that there are peaks in energy use during temptation experiments. Another study (by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University) found that giving participants a sugary drink before their self-control was challenged improved their ability to resist temptation.

Ok, so here’s my spin on this news: eating a bicky or two before I set to work in the morning is actually good for me, because keeping up my blood sugar level boosts my self-control ‘muscle’.

A bit far fetched, perhaps? Not necessarily. One thing I’ve noticed since I turned freelance is that prioritisation (inextricably linked to resistance and self-control) is getting harder and harder. On the evidence of Phillips’ article, I now suspect my problem is caused by long-term depletion of willpower.

Ponder this for a moment:

Ten years ago the biggest drain on my self-control was the effort of getting out of bed, performing my daily ablutions and setting off for the office.

Fast forward a few years and my self-control was sorely tested by the arrival of a baby who needed me to think on his behalf (and I still do, 9 years on!), then later, along came the dog who had to be walked, fed and pampered, with rarely a day off from my responsibilities. (Not to mention all the other domestic chores, of which the most brain-taxing is invariably answering the question "What's for dinner?" )

These days I reckon I spend 90% of my time resisting doing the things I want to do, because I have so many other things that MUST BE DONE.

Having a deadline, therefore, is crucial. If, as now, I have work on the books, but nothing urgent, I can’t resist the temptation to blog instead of getting on with the paid-for stuff. And every day I’m also using up currency from my bank of self-control by “resisting” the temptation to tidy the house, put the rubbish out, stuff/unstuff the washing machine, prune my email inbox, write letters to friends I should’ve replied to in January…

It’s only biscuit power that’s helping me to resist all these exciting opportunities!!

One last thought before I really MUST get on with real work: one of Phillips’ interviewees strongly recommends writing detailed ‘to do’ lists as a way of giving yourself a leg-up to get over the procrastination fence:

“… Even something as simple as saying you will go to the gym at 5pm on a specific day is a more successful strategy than intending to exercise once a week. Planning can turn a difficult conscious decision into an unconscious habit, which makes the whole process faster and more efficient without depleting energy levels.”

So if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’m knee-deep in ‘to do’ spreadsheets.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Don’t mention the R—; it’s just a BAGEL

Clearly there’s no escaping the economic downturn. Most people are now convinced we’re facing a slowdown, and first the Today programme (Radio4), then the mighty GB himself, used the R-word yesterday. These people ought to be more careful with their terminology.

Today, in fact, specifically said “… the R-word …”, which caught my ear over the cornflakes (well, porridge, actually). There must be a West Wing fan in the Today editorial team; for all WW fans know that it’s not an *R—, it’s just a ‘bagel’.

Shame on me for not knowing off the top of my head which particular episode this is from (I DO have all of them on DVD), but through the wonder of t’internet I can tell you that it’s from Season 5, Episode 1, first screened in 2003.

The context is that Pres. Bartlett (Democrat) has had to hand over the presidency to the Speaker of the House, Walken (Republican), because Bartlett’s daughter Zoey has been kidnapped. Meanwhile there’re various other crises rumbling along, not least the impending Bagel.

Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford) can’t bear the idea of mentioning the R-word, and quite right too! I’m sure there’s a saying (but can’t bring it to mind) about naming a thing bringing it into existence. If there isn’t, there should be – especially in the field of economics.

I do accept that current circumstances are, to say the least, exceptional. Nevertheless, the more the media harp on about the Bagel, the worse it is likely to get.

Funny thing is, I barely remember the Bagel last time around, even though it landed me and Mr Ms_well in negative equity territory. Back then, I’d just finished a stint writing for an electronics magazine (that industry was going great guns); and I'd moved to work for one of the UK’s largest trade unions.

The economy was certainly high on our list of priority issues, but the focus was much more on the loss of manufacturing jobs in the midlands and the north. So despite the (moderate) fall in house prices in the South East, the City carried on regardless and as I recall there was less hype about the Bagel, and more concern about the ‘balance of trade’ deficit. On top of that, with high inflation, those of us who didn’t lose our jobs were getting decent pay rises – my salary increased by £15k in the five years after I graduated in 1988 (though, admittedly part of that was linked to rising up the career ladder).

Things certainly don’t seem the same this time around. For one thing, I now listen to Today – guaranteed hype-on-toast Monday to Friday – and for another, as a freelance, I’m potentially more likely to feel the effects of organisational purse-string-tightening.

No sign of that yet, so far, for me (but I’m keeping everything crossed), but just this morning I bumped into a neighbour who’s a freelance PR, off on her way to an interview for a secretarial job at our local school. She says she’s sick of working at home, but I can’t help wondering whether the downturn is making her (and others) worry unduly about their employment prospects.

C’mon folks, I agree that we’re living in uncertain times (no change there then?), but life WILL go on. The only thing that IS certain, is that panic and media hype won’t help anyone. Sorry to quote Michael Winner, but “Calm down, dears” is the only advice I’m currently willing to take.


* R—, of course, stands for recession. Nice to be able to use an em-rule once in a while!

Friday, 17 October 2008

Do I need 'Psychologies' magazine?

I'm vaguely worried about the appearance of Psychologies on the newsstands of the nation. I say 'vaguely' because I admit that I haven't succumbed to buying a copy, so it's perhaps not fair of me to pass judgement … But here I go anyway!

It came to my attention via ads in the Guardian's G2 section, and I've surfed around the mag's website to try to get a handle on what it's about. Skimming over the contents of the latest issue, it looks like the usual mix of celebrity interviews, problem pages, and {skincare/healthfood/holiday}-vendor-driven items masquerading as helpful health-related info. What worries me is the mag's title/raison d'ĂȘtre. What could be interpreted as research-driven reportage is more likely the same old women's mag guff dressed up in a pseudoscientific overcoat*.

The main reason why I'm concerned about the emergence of this publication is that I don't like the way that the popularisation of knowledge about human psychology is taking hold in society. [Originally I'd posted a second reason, but I've just deleted it for fear of a lawsuit from the mag's contributor I was moaning about.]

It's so easy for people to read a few articles about, say, posture or gestures, then sit in a meeting (or worse, a job interview) and analyse every move you make. This has become engrained in our society to such a degree that I find myself consciously wondering whether I'm making eye contact often enough when talking to friends (never mind interviewers), and uncrossing my arms when waiting at the school gate for fear of looking unapproachable, when really I'm just feeling chilly!

All in all, I'll stick to New Scientist for my weekly insight into theories of human behaviour, thanks very much.

* Talking of overcoats, I see this month's issue has an article on "What Your Clothes Say About You: How our life journeys are woven into our wardrobe". They'd better not come round here to analyse me. I'm still wearing yesterday's clothes (saggy old trackies) pulled on in haste at 7:00 so that I could get straight to the computer to meet a 9:00 deadline…

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Autumn Days – a hymn that gets the bloggers' keyboards clattering

I never intended to blog about religion – it’s not something that I think about often – but here’s my second post this month pertaining to the Church of England.

On Monday I went along to my son’s junior school [‘voluntary aided’ C of E; aka the closest school to our home] for Harvest Festival. The format worked well. Each class performed a ‘sketch’ on the harvest theme, interspersed with prayers and hymns. Unfortunately, it was hard to pay attention after the first five minutes because the first hymn raised my hackles to such a degree I could hardly sit still.

The hymn in question – Autumn Days, written by former nun, Estelle White, about 30 years ago – turns out to be quite a favourite among bloggers.

It was the lyric of the first verse that incensed me (no pun in tended; this is C of E we’re dealing with!):
Autumn days when the grass is jewelled
And the silk inside a chestnut shell
Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled
All these things I love so well
To which I can only respond using a new acronym (pinched from Kathryn Flett* in Sunday’s Observer): WTF?

Why on earth would anyone want to praise “Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled”? Having Googled the hymn title, and nosied around a few of the very many blogs that seem to adore this bizarre hymn [see for instance this, and caseyleaver], I turned up a snippet from the Independent in 1996, which reports on a Norfolk-based church choir’s mutiny when the incumbent asked them to sing this ‘modern’ ditty instead of a good old-fashioned harvest hymn. White’s justification for mentioning the jet planes was, the Independent reported: “Mid-air refuelling was a wonder in the Sixties”.

I suppose it was the juxtaposition of this hymn among some very good items about Fair Trade (and a great word game that extracted the words ‘Eat’ and ‘Starve’ from the letters of ‘Harvest’) that really annoyed me about the school’s choice of hymn. They’d done so well, why ruin it with this nonsense?

As far as I can tell, the only planes that refuel in mid air are fighter jets. Not really appropriate for a junior school Harvest Festival… never mind the issue of pollution and ‘food miles’.

So I picked up my grumpy-old-woman pen and dashed of a letter to the head teacher, extolling the virtues of good old-fashioned “We Plough the Fields and Scatter” – the tune of which is attributed (‘doubtful attribution’, says Hyperion Records) to a German, J.A.P. Schulz, but is actually more correctly linked to an English folksong John Barleycorn.

Today’s lesson: If you want to get your blog noticed, add some hymn lyrics! (Though I suppose it all depends what kind of traffic you want to attract…)

* Kathryn's column this week is well worth reading if you're an enthusiastic participant in newgroups, blogs, social networking and virtual worlds.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Very useful list of confusing words

I didn't mean to be blogging today (urgent deadline to meet), but I've just found this via another blog, and if I don't post it up here right now, I'll lose it.

Difficult words

Some of these don't bother me in the slightest; others I often type in haste and repent at leisure.

OK; back to my deadline…

Monday, 6 October 2008

What feminists did for a physicist

Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, interviewed on Woman’s Hour this morning, praised the feminist movement for its on-going efforts to raise awareness of her ground-breaking non-Nobel-laureate-winning work.

Bell Burnell has recently been appointed as the first female President of the Institute of Physics; and from what I heard on WH this morning, it sounds like she’ll do a fantastic job.

I already know several women who’ve studied physics because of her influence; now she’s in a position to encourage many, many more. The great thing about her comments today was that, instead of going down the “physics is exciting, it’s all about the stars and outer-space” hackneyed route, she pointed out that the great thing about physics is “there’s less to learn” – less, that is, than learning all the names of the bones in the body, or parts of a plant. There are a number of fundamental concepts and equations to grasp; the rest is about applying them.

I hadn’t ever thought of it like that; very clever way to turn children on to the subject, I reckon. After all, people so often get put off school science because it is, fundamentally, boring. The trick is to find a way to help them through the dull but necessary senior-school stuff so that they stick with it to a higher level where they really will get to learn about the fundamental principles of the universe.

It sounds like JBB has some ideas for doing just that; and it was great to hear a cheer for the feminists too. JBB might have been overlooked for the Nobel, which was given to her (male) supervisor, but the outrage of the feminist movement has probably done more to raise JBB's profile, to the extent that she reckons she’s probably better off without it!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Is DECC good news for us greenies?

Aha! Today I have a new acronym to add to my editor's checklist: DECC, the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Announced yesterday as part of the cabinet reshuffle, this new department will be led by Ed Miliband and has been welcomed by Greenpeace. Indeed, they’re so pleased about it that they’ve sent me a letter* (well, they issued a round robin to all their members, but I flatter myself they wanted to let me know personally!)

What a shame, though, that Gordon Brown didn’t bother to mention it in his round robin to Labour Party members – he was too busy justifying the resurrection of Peter Mandelson. What does that say about his underlying concerns? Is DECC a token effort? Oh boy, I hope not.

I am a tad suspicious of the motives behind this new department, though. The person who told me about the announcement mentioned the n-word (nuclear) in the very same breath…

I’m a definite fence-sitter when it comes to nuclear power.

It’s not a ‘sustainable’ option in any sense of the word, and in any case leaves us with the same problem as on-going oil usage – namely that we can easily be held to ransom by hostile countries who are sitting on the fuel sources. Wind, wave and solar we have aplenty, so let’s hunker down and develop these cleaner, safer and home-grown technologies.

On the other hand, from the politicians’ viewpoint, telling people to cut energy usage is not a vote-winner (as we’ve already begun to see with the low-cost insulation announcement); the prospect of power cuts, or worse, rationing, is even less enticing. But if people don’t get a grip on their energy usage the politicians have to come up with something, and nuclear is a low-carbon-emissions alternative.

So I’ll give two cheers to Ed Miliband and his new department; and with my editor’s hat on, let’s hope to goodness that Mr M lets his civil servants give it a proper logo and sensible acronym – unlike the powers that be who insisted on dropping the ‘department’ from Communities and Local Government.

Talking of which, I’d like to add three cheers for the appointment of Margaret Beckett as minister for Housing. Only yesterday I was reading of the woeful lack of heavyweights in government [Tribal gatherings by Decca Aitkenhead], and Mrs Beckett (I am told that’s her moniker of preference!) brings a wealth of experience to this portfolio, which is set to be one of the highest profile issues for many months to come. If the house builders cause her any trouble, she can always call in the caravan manufacturers!

* Send Mr M a letter via Greenpeace’s campaign to encourage ‘green collar’ jobs and stop the development of the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. See also an informative take on the news on the Greenpeace blog.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Gaining ‘respect’ through consumerism has landed us in a Moral Maze

I try really hard NOT to listen to The Moral Maze (Radio 4, 8pm Wednesdays) – some of the panelists drive me nuts (esp. Melanie Philips) – but I caught a few moments of it last night that were worth listening to. (Catch the repeat on Saturday at 22.15-23.00)

The questions posed by chair, Michael Buerk include: “What’s wrong with self-interest? … What’s wrong with being rich? … How can we reconcile our loftier ideals with the realities of human nature?”

Prof John Milbank put his finger on the issue, though we didn’t hear nearly enough of his thoughts, which included: “Capitalism has an inherent tendency to monopoly… towards huge divisions in society … [we are currently seeing] systemic immoral behaviour …”

Most significantly, he wondered why people are behaving in this way (purchasing goods they can’t really afford); then answered his own question:

“… People are motivated by respect and the avoidance of shame, so they go by whatever is regarded as 'excellent' in the society in which they live. It’s only since the 18th century that we’ve seen it as ‘excellent’ and ‘acceptable’ to earn as much money as possible in any way you like. … [as a society] we are telling people how to get ‘respect’ [i.e. by being good consumers].”

RESPECT; a little word that comes with a cart-load of baggage. (Isn’t that what the knife-wielding teenage gang-leaders are after too?)

A powerful analysis, I think, especially for the UK/USA, where “keeping up with the Joneses” is deeply ingrained in our society, and where only the very strong (and eccentric?) manage to buck consumerist trends. (Even being a vegetarian is regarded as ‘cranky’ in a society where meat-eating is synonymous with wealth and status.)

As you might expect, evolutionary psychologist, Michael Price, stated that humans are capable of both competing AND cooperating; and we’re now seeing a situation where long-term cooperative initiatives are being undermined by a few uber-competitive individuals. But he failed to volunteer a ‘solution’ (fair enough; he’s a scientist – he tells us what the situation is, not what to do about it).

Meanwhile, the guy from the Adam Smith Institute twisted and turned and got up everyone’s noses.

Thoughts for the day:

Will Self: “Economics is the pseudo-science that describes a set of magical relations.”

Michael Buerk’s final point summed up: “I’m self-interested; you’re greedy.”

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Wedding bells in a church of your choice

The Church of England moves in mysterious ways, that’s for certain. Apparently, they’ve finally come round to the idea (19 years too late, in my case) that they should allow people to get married in the church of their choice, not just the one that’s nearest to their current abode. This will be good news for some; and it means my very own Archbishop’s Special Licence will be a bit of national history, not just something for the family ‘archive’.

Church weddings have been going out of fashion for decades, but once the government ‘deregulated’ the marriage business in 1994 – leaving people free to celebrate their nuptials in, of all places, motorway service stations, hot-air balloons, and even the bottom of the sea – the C of E option looked even more dated.

Today, amid much rejoicing – i.e. the Bishop of Reading holding a special wedding breakfast accompanied by a gospel choir singing wedding favourites (deep joy!) – the C of E finally launched the Church of England Marriage Measure which means that you can get married outside your ‘home’ parish, providing the church of your choice has some sort of family connection.

And blow me, they’ve also launched a website dedicated to helping people get the church wedding of their dreams! There, you can read the “Seven steps to a heavenly wedding” (I kid you not); and meet a happy smiling and female vicar (via the magic of the interweb).

My, how things have changed since I walked down the aisle…

Neither of us were (are) church-goers; in fact Mr Ms_well.words is about as anti organised religion as it’s possible to get. But despite my atheism, I’m a former C of E head chorister, and I really wanted to have a wedding filled with good old-fashioned English psalmody. It didn’t turn out quite as I’d envisaged.

In 1989, we were living in London; my family in Yorkshire, his in Herts; and my aging granny too ill to travel but determined to get to the wedding one way or another.

The picturesque (and extremely popular) church near to my former home was fully booked, and in any case, wouldn’t marry us because we were not parishioners – in fact neither was my mother, it turned out. Once we investigated, we found out that her home was just over the parish boundary, and actually her local church was at the far end of her road; an old soot-blackened Victorian pile like so many others littering the City.

I’d read in a wedding magazine that it was possible to obtain an Archbishop's Special Licence to marry outside your own parish, so we contacted this local church to asked whether they would do the deed. I never did get to meet the vicar (a Curate dealt with our ‘case’), which is a shame because he later became rather famous in the national press for various misdemeanors! Plans went ahead over the phone, without us stepping foot in the actual building.

When I finally did go there, it was a bit of a shock. The grim and gritty (but authentic and definitely Northern) church outside had been stripped of its charm on the inside and ‘renovated’ to suit the Evangelicals who had moved in (complete with Sunday night ‘Rock’ events).

So, no angelic choir singing psalms; no vast organ pumping out Mendelssohn’s finest; no WEDDING BELLS…

By that time, we’d already gone to the trouble of getting the licence, signed and sealed by Archbishop R Runcie, so it was too late to change our minds. (Mr Ms_well.words had to go to Westminster Abbey in person to obtain it!)

Small wonder there was thunder and lightning during the Service…

Ever since, I’ve been meaning to get the Special Licence properly framed (instead of it being folded up in the bottom of a box of wedding snaps). Now it’s a piece of history, I’d better fish it out and put it somewhere safe.