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Anecdata on media, science and society

Anecdata!

Data Point: On Newsnight recently Cambridge’s Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, David Spiegelhalter, stunned Jeremy Paxman by informing him that unemployment figures are an estimate, not a count, and they’re only accurate to ±100,000.

Do you remember ever seeing an error bar when unemployment figures are announced? Or hearing any journalist correct a politician crowing that unemployment has dropped by a number like 27,000, well within the margin of error?

Data Point: Barely any mainstream publications or news shows have covered the Edward Snowden/NSA/GCHQ revelations properly. Even “GCHQ is watching you and your children on webcams and storing images, including sexual content” didn’t make the TV news that day. I asked the Channel 4 News editor why not: he didn’t reply. One of the presenters did, though:

That edition did find room, however, for an interview about the Daily Mail’s attempt to smear various Labour politicians for events of almost 40 years ago. And they also ran a report on the decline of the barn owl population.

As far as I’m aware only the Guardian covered that story on the front page the next day. Not even a single “Big Brother is watching you” headline.

Data Point: Channel 4 News ignored the Guardian’s report that PA Consulting uploaded 27 DVDs of NHS England hospital data to Google. That’s the entire NHS hospital database for England, tens of millions of patient records, uploaded to servers outside the UK, by management consultants, without patient consent.

While I wouldn’t expect it to have led the news during the Ukraine/Russia standoff the same day, I certainly expected a report before a story about an athlete on trial for murder, or about the previous night’s Oscars. Instead, Channel 4 News made no mention of it at all. Again, I tweeted the editor. Again, no response.

Data Point: Broadcasters including the BBC often insist on a false balance when covering climate change. Nigel Lawson is not a climate scientist, and can only bluster and assert when debating an actual climate scientist presenting actual evidence, but still their positions are presented as equally valid by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, as if climate change is a matter of political opinion rather than scientific observation and method. At least the BBC isn’t as bad as some other media organisations, which have an editorial policy of man-made climate change denial.

Nigel Says Relax

Data Point: By my countQuestion Time has included only three scientist panellists for the entirety of the parliament so far — Colin Blakemore once and Robert Winston twice (I’m not counting tech-related entrepreneurs like Jimmy Wales). That’s three scientists from 147 editions at time of writing, or 0.004% of all 743 panellists.

(In the same period, Question Time has featured two singers, four poets, seventeen comedians, twenty actors, thirty-five businesspeople and over 120 journalists. Yes, I’ve counted. Nigel Farage has appeared ten times — the same number as Kenneth Clarke. Farage does well belonging to a party with no MPs, doesn’t he?)

End of anecdata!

What to make from all that? Gell-Mann Amnesia applies, as it always does. Journalists misrepresent everything, yet we only seem to think they misrepresent subjects we’re familiar with. The chances are the reporters overlooking the City of London and outside the Old Bailey are bluffing their way through to hit a deadline just as much as the Technology Correspondent is.

But I have to say: I think mainstream media’s lack of understanding of science and technology is actively harming society.

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Avaragado’s 2014 predictions

Here they are: the 2014 predictions literally everyone hasn’t been waiting for. Please return regularly to check my progress and coincidentally bump the readership stats on my blog to make me feel better.

News

  1. In the referendum on independence, Scotland votes No.
  2. Brazil grants asylum to Edward Snowden.
  3. The Lib Dems replace Nick Clegg as leader.
  4. UKIP wins more MEPs in the European Parliamentary Elections than the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.
  5. An iconic building or monument is damaged in a freak/climate change weather event.
  6. Paul Dacre leaves his position as chief bigot/editor at the Daily Mail.
  7. More than 50% of Daily Express front page main headlines are about the weather.

Sport

  1. Brazil win the World Cup. England don’t qualify from the group stage.
  2. Liverpool win the FA Premier League.
  3. Team GB win exactly one medal at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
  4. Andy Murray loses in the semi-final of the men’s singles at Wimbledon.
  5. Wales win the rugby union Six Nations tournament.
  6. Johnny Brownlee wins the ITU World Triathlon Series.

Science and technology

  1. Steve Ballmer is replaced as CEO of Microsoft by Satya Nadella.
  2. The crew of the International Space Station is evacuated because of orbital debris.
  3. Apple announces a “revolutionary” (in their words) new TV device.
  4. The Nobel prize for physics is won by someone in the field of quantum computing/communication.
  5. Google buys Oculus VR.
  6. Webcam video of a celebrity, obtained covertly by an intelligence agency, leaks on the internet.

Entertainment

  1. Best picture at the Oscars: 12 Years a Slave.
  2. Best actor at the Oscars: Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave.
  3. Best actress at the Oscars: Emma Thompson for Saving Mr Banks.
  4. Bruce Forsyth stops presenting Strictly Come Dancing.
  5. The BBC reboots a classic 1970s sitcom (eg Dad’s Army).
  6. In one of those “celebrities doing stuff” shows (Splash, Strictly, Dancing on Wolves, etc) a celebrity does stuff that results in a nasty injury on live TV.

Celebrity deathwatch

  1. His Racist Highness Prince Philip, 92
  2. Nobel Peace Prize winner and war criminal Henry Kissinger, 90
  3. Thatcher defenestrator Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, 87
  4. Swivel-eyed Ulster firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, 87
  5. Oh no, it’s Yoko Ono, 80
  6. Fifties teen idol and Half a Sixpence crooner Tommy Steele, 77
  7. Much better than the last one Pope Francis, 77
  8. Founder of CNN and all-round not-Murdoch Ted Turner, 75
  9. Nobody did it better than Carly Simon, 68
  10. Free software evangelist and beardy gnu-lover Richard Stallman, 60
  11. Wayward ex-gurner and Gazza Paul Gascoigne, 46
  12. Apprentice self-firing rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins, 38

Based on the pattern of previous years I’m expecting to get about 40% right. Join me this time next year to find out whether I’ve got that prediction wrong too.

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The one after next

The detention of David Miranda at Heathrow airport under the Terrorism Act is beyond disturbing. As David Allen Green writes, he was detained under schedule 7 of the act, which allows for such detention only to determine whether someone “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.

Officials are not allowed to detain anyone for a fishing expedition. But they are allowed to detain someone even if they have no reasonable suspicion. And since the people they detain usually don’t have an intimate knowledge of the law — and the law doesn’t give those detained the right to legal representation — the net effect is surely that officials detain whoever they want to detain, for whichever reasons.

The Home Office says schedule 7 “forms an essential part of the UK’s security arrangements”. Of course it does: an empire doesn’t give up hard-won powers without a pitched battle and the stink of revolution.

Whitehall also says, almost apologetically, “the powers should not be used arbitrarily”. In 2012-13, schedule 7 was used on 61,145 people, 12% down on 2011-12. Good news! But of those 70,000-odd detentions in 2011-12, there were just 24 terrorism-related arrests: 0.03% of people stopped (source).

That is overreach. That is arbitrary use of powers.

And of course, officials can steal the computers, phones, etc, of these detainees whether they go on to arrest them or not.

The reality of life at the UK Border: you have no rights to person or property.

If David Miranda had posed a terrorist threat you can be sure the details would have been leaked gleefully to the papers by now, probably to the spook-friendly Daily Mail, and ministers would be queuing up to appear on TV condemning him before trial and pronouncing Glenn Greenwald guilty by association. Since there has been no leak and our servants in government are apparently unavailable for comment, I therefore conclude from my self-elected position as armchair judge, jury and executioner, that Miranda did not pose such a threat.

His detention wasn’t arbitrary: it was capricious and most likely unlawful. He wasn’t detained in case he was a terrorist, but for “travelling while in the process of committing journalism that might embarrass the state”, or perhaps “travelling while being the partner of an irritating journalist”.

Naturally Scotland Yard says Miranda’s detention was “legally sound”. This is the Scotland Yard with such a strong record in matters of law: the one that claimed the unarmed, entirely innocent bystander Jean-Charles De Menezes was a terrorist; the one that took four years to admit one of its officers used “excessive and unlawful force” and killed Ian Tomlinson; the one deeply enmired in the phone hacking scandal. We’re close to being able to state confidently that whatever Scotland Yard says, the opposite is the truth.

I’ve said this many times, and it’s truer than ever. The test of any proposed new law should not be how it is intended to be used today, nor how the next government or the next set of police commissioners might decide to interpret it. It’s about the government and the police that come after them. The ones we cannot know, living in a world we cannot know, with pressures and technologies and enemies and realities we cannot know.

Arbitrary and capricious detention at the border. Spooks tapping internet traffic without proper oversight. A push to impose censorship on internet connections on spurious grounds. Destruction of hard drives by security services at newspaper offices.

Who will be prime minister on August 20, 2023? Cameron? Miliband? The other Miliband? Johnson? Farage? Griffin?

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Pale, blue plot

If our solar system were to hide or magically spawn a second Earth, identical to ours down to the crinkle of the fjords (© D Adams) and the pluck of the eyebrows of its population, then I hope Other Dave doesn’t bother to see Another Earth.

I exaggerate slightly. I’ve sat through films more tedious and less engaging than this one, I’m sure, their names now blissfully blanked. (Oh, yeah, 2012. Damn it.) I didn’t flounce out, or tweet stroppily half-way through, or sigh and tut like a Daily Mail reader at an anti-BBC drivelganza. It’s just a little dull.

The main storyline concerns an intelligent young lady who drink-drives — it’s the American Way — and causes an accident, and must deal with the aftermath. This coincides with the first appearance of Earth’s photocopy, dubbed Earth 2. It’s initially spotted on the night of the accident as a pale, blue dot, and then later dominates the skies with its own sidekick, Moon 2 (Moon Classic is not shown). These doppelspheroids aren’t merely similar, they’re identical down to the names, ranks and serial numbers of the inhabitants. Potentially an interesting scenario in science fiction: how? Why? Is it anti-matter? Is there a crack in the multiverse? etc. But this isn’t science fiction. The other Earth is merely a pale, blue plot device attempting to inject some originality into a not-too-interesting movie.

This is rather sad. Such a bonkers premise brings to mind fifties/sixties classics like The Day The Earth Caught Fire, The Day The Earth Stood Still and, of course, When Worlds Collide. I want to see streets full of hats, a Strand drooping from every lip. No such luck. We get an earnest, slow-moving movie that’s not as touching as it thinks it is. And like Earth 2, most of the plot is visible from a very great distance indeed.

What irritates me about the film, what sticks in the craw, is the other Earth/Moon system. I know it’s a film, I know I should suspend disbelief, and I know I should have given up all hope that films obey the laws of physics at the opening titles of Armageddon. But every time Earth 2 appears large in the sky of the ‘real’ Earth, almost invariably behind the misery guts main character, a shattering klaxon goes off in my head and I want to launch into a lecture about gravity.

How exactly does Earth 2 mosey on down to park itself beside Earth 1? How does it stop? What happened to Moon 1? Why is nobody running up and down the street worrying about tidal waves? And many other interesting questions.

Is it odd that I find the fundamental concept of an Earth copy far more acceptable than said duplicate pulling up alongside Earth 1 like the Space 1999 Moon ricocheting itself around the rubber-faced galaxy? I don’t know. If I can accept that, I should, I suppose, also be able to accept that Earth 2 is (as far as I can recall) tide-locked — always showing the same face towards Earth 1 — and that it’s pretty much geostationary — always handily plonked directly above lady misery’s home town. And I should pay no attention to poor Sir Isaac thumping and weeping in his dark corner.

I suspect one factor in my fist-shaking is that I’ve recently been deeply wrapped up in the world of the Apollo programme, having just read The Last Man on the Moon by Gene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17. Thirty-nine years ago yesterday he became the last person (so far) to leave bootprints on the lunar surface. One of the three Apollo 17 astronauts, most likely Jack Schmitt, took the famous Blue Marble photo of Earth. And it’s this photo, on many if not all occasions, which is used in Another Earth for Earth 2. It’s so recognisable to a certain class of spacenerd that every time the image appears in the film it’s all I can think of. Oh look, there’s the Arabian peninsula, the comma of cloud near the southern tip of Africa, and the huge cloudmass over Antarctica. WARNING: DISBELIEF SUSPENSION EJECTED. KLAXON!

I know. Superheroes, fine. Time travelling police box, fine. Wizard school, I suppose.  But this, hmm.

Avaragado’s rating: space noodles

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Weekend

I’ve written before how I dislike it when stage plays, TV shows and films still manage to be all about the gay even in the twenty-first century. Well, Weekend is one of those, about every aspect of teh gay — except, thankfully, the overblown HIV trope — and yet does not feel like it. From ten thousand feet it’s full of the usual stereotypes that replaced the old campy, mincing Graysons and Humphrieses: the meat market, drug-taking, one-night stands, casual homophobia, checked shirts and beards. Yet these are window dressing. Strip them away and you’re left with a raw core of universal truths. A desire for relevance, for belonging. A fear of commitment, of loneliness. What could be, what might have been.

Russell is semi-closeted, nominally happy but groping for meaning and not truly comfortable in his skin. Glen is out, brash, confident and charismatic with a heavy sprinkling of militant. One you’d be happy to show off to your parents; the other would undoubtedly upset the teacups with a well-meaning but entirely mistimed rant about heteronormativity. It is fair to say you find both types in the real world in abundance.

The film follows Russell over the course of a weekend, from just before his first meeting with Glen until — well, no spoilers. It’s an eventful few days, for both of them, and an inflection point in both their lives. Decisions, revelations, uncomfortable truths. Fundamental changes in their relationships with their closest friends. Universal themes, here seen from an authentic and unashamedly gay perspective.

One problem is that, as a rainbow warrior myself, it is all familiar stuff. It might be a sparkling revelation to the hetties that gays aren’t all of one mind, programmed by Cyber Controller Russell T. Davies with the same set of beliefs and the same agenda. The truth is, and please find a comfortable armchair for this dramatic announcement, we have different opinions. Most of us have at some stage been on one, other or both sides of the arguments portrayed in the film. You should hear what’s said about John Barrowman.

Weekend is shot in a naturalistic style, almost entirely with a handheld camera. The dialogue feels real, and indeed was partially ad libbed. You rarely feel a sense of staging; more than once it appears as though the actors were simply miked up and told to get on with it in a real crowd.

The film’s focus on just Russell and Glen, and primarily Russell, is relentless and almost total. In some scenes the camera stays close on Russell even as he interacts with other characters, who barely enter the frame. Many scenes are shot as long, single takes, often with a long lens, between the jackets of strangers on a tram or through drinkers in a bar. These techniques draw you in from dispassionate third-party, to voyeur, to intimate participant.

Both leads deliver excellent performances. Chris New (Glen) is an actualgay whereas Tom Cullen (Russell) is just gay-for-play, but it doesn’t particularly show.

The film is very definitely an 18: there is drug-taking, there is nudity, there is sex. None of it is gratuitous. Apparently the Daily Mail didn’t like it, which you can interpret as you see fit.

Some films you walk out of and instantly forget. Some you rant about, or laugh about, or immediately look up on IMDb to discover the goofs you missed. Some you shake your head at and say, “I wish George Lucas had stopped making films in 1990.”

Weekend made me want to write something like Weekend.

Avaragado’s rating: assorted munchies

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