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…

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!

The Last Days of Lehman Brothers

Here we are, very close to a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. What a week that was!! Not only did I know by Sunday night that the next day was going to be long, I was already dreading the whole week when I realised I was going to be on my own. That week, the colleague I used to supervise had booked his annual leave! On top of that the main server in the office decided that it was time to collapse together with the rest of the world.

So, there you have me battling the waves in the market plus fencing off the evasive replies from Dell regarding the server. It is indeed a week that will stay with me for a very very long time. That is why when I saw that the BBC was going to air a dramatisation of the events I felt that it was something that I had to watch.

“The government’s not going to let you go down! It would be like the American government itself going bankrupt” exclaims an incredulous Miller to a cornered Fuld in “The Last Days of Lehman Brothers”. I have to say that these are words that went through my head the days before the actual event and some that little by little became less intense but ever more annoying as the week continued its decay.

The programme started quite well, using a similar technique to that used in “House of Cards” with a seemingly cynical narrator to guide us into the intricacies of the story. However, the Tennesee banker that plays the Fuld’s gofer does not have the inside knowledge or the gravitas to portray the necessary level of urgency to the situation. I still can’t see the point of making a reference to Fight Club at an early stage of the programme. Not only that, but at some point the script completely forgets that he was around at all. There is also a sequence where the sister of this “banker” makes an Olympic effort to explain what went wrong with the banking system; all in a very poorly scripted and (even worse) acted manner.

The inside view is presented by the tense meeting in the boardroom of the New York Federal Reserve. This is a much better developed story line and one that is very well sustained by James Cromwell playing the Treasure Secretary, Henry Paulson. If anything the only criticism that I have is that it was not immediately clear who was who in that boardroom.

I believe that the script could have had a couple more reviews before production and there are so many good angles that they could have attacked, so long they had actually decided to follow them through. Either you go for the sombre maze of power and greed, or you go for the comic relief approach. In this case, the mixture turned out to be quite frankly embarrassing. I just think that they had missed a great opportunity to do some good drama based on real events.