Now Reading: Attention All Shipping

Well, it is not quite correct to say that now I am reading “Attention All Shipping” by Charlie Connelly, in fact I am finishing reading this book. It has taken a while and this is perhaps one of the few actual physical books I’ve read in recent times. It took a while as I was reading it slowly and spontaneously as my encounters with the wonderful Shipping Forecast at the BBC have been. 

I find the forecast to be of a soothing quality and a mysterious air, with the mentions of hypnotic combinations of names and numbers together with calm as well as furious adjectives. Take a look at some examples from today:

  • Viking Cyclonic 4 or 5, becoming northeasterly 5 to 6.
  • Forth West or northwest 4 or 5, increasing 6 or 7, perhaps gale 8 later. Slight or moderate, occasionally rough later.
  • Rockall In south, westerly 5 or 6, backing southwesterly 4 or 5 later. In north, variable 4 in west, otherwise northwesterly 5. In south, moderate, occasionally rough at first. in north, moderate. In south, rain at times. In north, showers.
    In south, good, occasionally poor. In north, good.


The Shipping Forecast Areas

The book covers the travels of the author across the different areas covered by the Shipping Forecast. It is an interesting read and I enjoyed the descriptions of the very different places that make up this wonderful broadcast, first started by Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy  in February 1861 as a warning service for shipping, using telegraph communications. 

Listen to the Shipping Forecast, and join Charlie in his adventure!

The Way of All Flesh

The Way of All Flesh by Adam Curtis: a one-hour BBC documentary on Henrietta Lacks and HeLa directed by Adam Curtis. It won the Best Science and Nature Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Immediately following the film’s airing in 1997, an article on HeLa cells, Lacks, and her family was published by reporter Jacques Kelly in The Baltimore Sun.



Hawthorne Effect

School meals
School meals (Photo credit: Coventry City Council)

I was listening last week to the “More or Less” podcast with Tim Harford, which by the way is one of my favourite Radio 4 programmes and I highly recommend it. In the programme they were discussing the proposal of Mr Nick Clegg, the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, to offer free school lunches to all pupils at infant schools. The proposal follows from a pilot study  that seemed to suggest that giving free meals to school children was good for their academic performance.

As usual, not all is what it seems and the programme goes on to discuss this. I’m afraid is the old adage of correlation and causation… In any case, the commentators in the programme made a reference to the Hawthorne effect, and although Tim Harford mentioned something about this I ended up with the curiosity to find out more about it. It turns out that the Hawthorne effect is at work when subjects modify and change their behaviour in response to the fact that they know they are being studied. You might think that this is similar to the quantum mechanical observer affecting the system they observe, except that in this case the system is patently aware of the influence of the observation. I would leave it at that…

The effect is named after Western Electric’s  Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Il somewhere close to Chicago. Between 1924 and 1932 Elton Mayo carried out some productivity trials that have become some of the most well-know in social science, as the study is often held as a demonstration that people respond to change when they know you they are being observed or studied. So, who knows, perhaps the pupils, parents and teachers did indeed change their behaviour while the study was taking place… Oh well…

Desert Island Discs with Lawrence Dallaglio

Lawrence Dallaglio
Image by fat dad via Flickr

Desert Island Discs is indeed a very interesting programme, even more so when they are ready to outcast interesting people, or rather people that I find interesting. In more occasions than none I end up learning something new about the guest. If you don’t know what Desert Island Discs is, I explained it briefly in a previous post.

This was certainly the case with Lawrence Dallaglio in the latest episode of the BBC Radio4 programme. I indeed was aware of Lawrence being a very successful rugby player (flanker or number 8) for London Wasps, the only club he played for, and a former captain for England. Dallaglio was one of the key players of the England team that won the Rugby Worldcup in 2003. What I didn’t know for example was the fact that he once sang backing vocals for Tina Turner for the song “We don’t need another hero”; and by the way this was NOT one of his chosen pieces of music. So how did this happen? Well, apparently while being a student in the King’s House School, he sang in the choir and his music teacher was quite involved in the music industry. Also, as part of the same choir, Dallaglio sand a the wedding of Andrew Lloyd Weber.

England Rugby Union Player Lawrence Dallaglio
Image via Wikipedia

Lawrence has a very interesting background, his father (Vincenzo) is Italian and his mother (Eileen) is half Irish. He remarked that this makes a dangerous combination for an English man, as it makes him not be afraid of showing what he thinks. His parents made efforts to get both Lawrence and his sister Francesca into public school and so he was admitted to Ampleforth College, one of the leading Roman Catholic boarding schools in England.

One of the turning points in Dallaglio’s life was the tragic death of his sister Francesca in 1989. She died in the Marchioness disaster at the age of 19. It was quite clear how much he was (and is) affected by this, re recounted how he was supposed to be with her at the time, but he ended up not going. It can be said that these events changed his life. He ended up joining Wasps as a manner of concentrating on something else and indeed he succeeded. Nonetheless, he admits that rugby took over other important aspects of his life as he became to driven by it.

His choices of music were quite good:

  1. Eddy Grant – Walking on sunshine
  2. Michael Jackson – Don’t stop ’til you get enough
  3. The Beatles – A hard day’s night
  4. The Police – Walking on the Moon
  5. Bob Marley – One love
  6. Dexys Midgnight Runners – Come on Eileen
  7. Oasis – Champagne supernova
  8. Peter Sarstedt – Where do you go my lovely? (his final choice to take to the island)

His book of choice was Ripley’s World by the former England rugby player Andy Ripley and he quoted from him the following phrase: “You can earn a living from what you get but you only get a life from what you give. Take it from me baby, giving is always best.” Finally, I really liked the luxury he decided to take with him to the desert island: Marmite (yoohoo!!)

More or less – Nigel’s free fall

BBC Radio 4

As some of you might already know, I am a BBC Radio 4 listener. I do enjoy the programmes broadcasted and I have even made the odd entry in this blog about Dessert Islands Discs and what not. I even download some podcasts when I am not able to catch some interesting things, including at some point even The Archers. To the point that even one time a friend of mine asked me to keep some of the episodes of the Archers while he and his family were on holiday… but that is a different story.

Last weekend, while looking for new podcasts to download I came across a true jewel: the More or Less with Tim Harford. The idea of the programme is top explain – and sometimes debunk – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life. Hurray!

I really enjoyed it and I wish I had listened to it before. In the lastest episode they talked about bank takes, street grooming and the Archers… Yes, you read correctly, they talked about the fateful fall of Nigel Pargetter from Lower Loxley Hall. For those of you that are not familiar with the events Nigel was trying to take down a New Year’s banner when he fell off the roof. As a good radio programme, there are of course plenty of sound effects and Nigel’s scream while falling lasted some 3.5 seconds.

Armed with this information, More or Less calculated the hight of the building. The answer: 60 meters! Quite a tall building for a rural area. You can see their calculations here. Of course people were quick at responding to this revelation, should you have a view, please feel free to contact them about this and if you are looking for something interesting to listen to, download the More or Less podcast!


200 countries, 200 years, less than 5 minutes

Visualising data is  definitely a very powerful tool. If I were to give you a table full of numbers, and I told you that the data “clearly” shows something, you might take a look at the tabulated data and quite possibly ignore it. However, if is presented the data in a format that is appealing to the eye, you will probably take a look and start your own interpretation.

Hans Rosling makes this point in a very interesting and quite frankly enthusing way. He plots the income per person versus life expectancy for several countries and takes us in a 200-year tour. The income per person (GDP per capita) is adjusted for inflation and for differences in costs of living (purchasing power) across countries. Catch what happens at the time of the First World War and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. Also note the behaviour of African and Asian countries. You can play with the data yourself in Gapminder World.

This is a short clip from the longer film The Joy of Stats, recently shown in BBC4. Enjoy!

Desert Island Discs with Torquil Norman

Earlier on this evening I went to the gym, nothing unusual there except for the fact that instead of listening to some power-gym music, I just wanted to finish listening to the podcast of Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young. I know exactly what you are thinking, I thought that myself, “what sort of person exercises while listening to BBC Radio 4?” Well, I guess the answer is: people like me.

BBC Radio 4But, why was I listening to this programme? Well, I started listening to it as I was heading to the gym and it was so enthralling that I could not wait listening to it. For those of you who don’t know the programme, Desert Island Discs is a long-running radio programme, first broadcasted in 1942, where guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island. They can chose eight pieces of music to take with them. This allows them to discuss their lives, achievements and experiences. They are also asked to choose a book to take with them (they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work – I would personally change the latter for Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species“, but there you go…). Finally they are allowed to take one luxury, which must be inanimate and of no use in escaping the island or allowing communication from/to the outside.

This particular episode had Sir Torquil Norman (listen to it via the iPlayer), who is described as a “philanthropist, businessman and aviator”. What an interesting man! During the broadcast you learn that he was born in 1933 and  that he stands at 6′ 7″. Torquil gained his pilot’s licence at eighteen, and flew for the RAF. He comes across as a person that very much enjoys what he does and his interests range from toy making to chairing the Roundhouse Trust. In 1980 he found Bluebird Toys, makers of the Big Yellow Teapot House, the Big Red Fun Bus, and the very successful Polly Pocket dolls.

The Roundhouse is one of my favourite venues in London and it is a building with which Torquil has a very long term relationship. He bought the derelict Roundhouse arts venue in Chalk Farm with the idea of restoring it to its former glory as an arts venue in the 1960s and ’70s. The restored venue reopened in June 2006.

His choices of music were fantastic! They were as follows:

  1. Salade de Fruits – Bourvil
  2. Mr Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
  3. Nobody knows you when you are down – Bessie Smith (his final choice to take to the Island)
  4. Your feet’s too big – Fats Waller
  5. Shenandoah – Paul Robeson
  6. Mon Légionnaire – Edith Piaf
  7. Black velvet band – The Clancy Brothers (listen to alternative here)
  8. Stormy Weather – Billy Holiday

His book of choice was a book of verses that his father wrote throughout his life and my favourite of all was his choice of luxury: a small still with an ice-making unit attached to it… The logic? Well, he is convinced that on this Desert Island there will be all kinds of fruits and vegetables and his plan is to develop all sorts of kinds of gin, so that “I could then sit in my homemade deckchair, looking out over the sea with a dry martini in my hand, and when I was eventually rescued I could be the most famous barman in the world”.