Darwin and the Tree of Life

Possibly the best “educational” program I have seen on television in as long as I can remember. Better than Michio Kaku, better than all the discovery channel shows, better than all the rest.

I am talking about a wonderful BBC1 program – Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life – which has just finished. If you missed it, I cant stress how much you really should watch this on iPlayer. It is a part-Open University funded education program, supported by an interesting BBC Darwin website, where you can catch a glimpse of the program if it isnt on the iPlayer yet.

In a nutshell, David Attenborough shows his fantastic qualities as a presenter and takes the viewer on a tour through the history of the theory of evolution. He is genuinely enthusiastic about the science and has a presentational style that is unmatched. I was actually saddened at one point in the program, when I realised that 30 years ago people were more accepting of evolution and our place in the world than they are today. Thanks to the idiocy of fundamentalist religion we really are going back in time.

Attenborough calmly and politely mocks the ideas that all species were created as they are with no change and gives a wonderful (if brief) example of how the eye is a good example of evolution at work. It is all well done and while the hardened scientist may object at some simplification, this is a program which explains evolution in an hour for the general public. To that end some abbreviation of the tree of life is understandable.

Sadly, the BBC website sort of undermines Attenborough’s fantastic work with this line:

David shares his personal view on Darwin’s controversial idea.

Now, while it was indeed controversial in the 1860′s it is now valid science with solid evidential backing. The controversy is not real. Implying it is still there plays into the hands of the idiots and anti-educationalists. Shame really.

This program shows that, despite its faults, the BBC really can pull it out of the bag when it comes to “important” programs.

Live by the sword…

For years now, politicians of all flavours have been busy manipulating public opinion and cherry picking how they present information – all with the aim of convincing the largely apathetic voting public to agree with their crackpot ideas. As you can imagine, however, this has its own share of problems.

As an example, today on the BBC Radio 1 news show (*), there was a terrible indictment of just how mixed up people are. Basically, the Prime Minster Gordon Brown is trying to gain some media-credits with his claims that he is “tackling knife crime.” Obviously the PM and current government are unpopular at the moment so here we see yet another example of how politicians no longer have a political view, but will do what ever they think they can to get support from the barely coherent, rabid, tabloid media.

The knife crime panic is a great example of this. All year, we have been subjected to scare stories in the media about how knife crime is on the increase; if you believe papers such as the Daily Mail there are more stabbings than there are people. I am not for one second trying to imply that knife crime isn’t devastating for the victims and their families – but we need some form of perspective. While there were pockets of increased incidents, the chances of Joe Blogs UK becoming a victim was pretty much the same as it always has been.

However, our media-hungry politicians (on all sides) read the building tabloid-frenzy and jumped in early. For months we had debates about how bad knife crime was, and what were the government going to do about it. This was stoked with the public being drip fed “news” each time a cute, innocent kid got stabbed. Each one was delivered in that wonderful way the tabloids have of making their readers think that the one incident they report is just the tip of the iceberg – in reality, when things are so commonplace, the media loses interest in them… Seeing a great chance, the government (and opposition) built upon the general irrationality of people – isolated incidents were blown out of proportion, personal anecdote was given much greater emphasis etc. So far, so typical. This is all politicians have done for over a decade.

Today, the PM tried to deliver his latest great accomplishment.

The PM announced that the new “crackdowns” implemented by Police in high-risk areas had managed to bring down knife crime. Wonderful. I am sure he expected nothing but fanfare… Sadly, the general public are too depressed and gloom-laden to take good news like this. Also, for years we have been indoctrinated into the idea that out microcosm of life is more representative of society than anything else – which means no matter what the PM claims, people think things are getting worse. From the BBC Pages:

The Prime Minister has spoken to Newsbeat after the government said the latest police crackdown was working.

The government says stabbings are down and fewer teenagers are carrying blades in the 10 parts of England and Wales where there’s been a big effort to tackle the problem.

The figures also show under-18s going to hospital for stabs and cuts are down by a quarter and more serious attacks have dropped by a fifth.

Great news. It doesn’t really say much about the government policies though. Nothing like enough time has passed to know if this is a long term change or a simple “blip”  in the numbers. Equally, there is no way of knowing if the “massive” (**) increase was a statistical blip. The information provided doesn’t tell us if the crime has simply moved elsewhere, or if this is part of a national downturn in knife crime. It really is a non-news item. There isn’t enough information for the viewer to do anything but rely on how the sparse numbers are spun to the public.

Shocking, but this is how the government have wanted us to interact with news for many a year now. If the public were given all the information that drove national policy, half the crazy things we suffer now would never have survived.

Equally comical, is how Gordon Brown reacted to the predictable nonsense questions. According to the BBC, the text messages from their listeners saying things like “I was stabbed 2 years ago, how has knife crime gone down” were a valid counterpoint to the governments figures. A normal, sane, educated person would have laughed and said “shut up crazy fool.” But this is gold to politicians – they want people to think like this so that future crazy laws can be passed. This lead to a very bizarre exchange:

Newsbeat: The statistics on knife crime say one thing. We’re hearing other things from our listeners.
Gordon Brown: That’s why we want to get knives off the street. I’m not complacent at all. A lot of young people are stopping carrying knives but we’ve got a long way to go. And that’s why today you’ve got all these people from all different walks of life; sports people, from the world of entertainment, from radio, from television, all saying, working with the community groups, no to knives. (blah… blah… blah…)

A touch strange. The PM is saying nothing as an actual response. It is certified 100% content free. Isn’t that nice. That was just mildly odd but it was followed by this:

Newsbeat: The stats that you’ve published today seem to show that knife crime is down. A nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary says stab wound admissions are going up.
Gordon Brown: What I want to know is how we can actually get knife crime down and how we can make sure it stays down. Making sure it stays down is more policing that’s visible on the streets, a presumption to prosecute if you’re seen to be carrying a knife, tougher police and prison sentences when that happens, shops banned from selling knives to young people and schools and community groups doing an educational process whereby young people are discouraged from carrying knives.

What? Listen to it on the radio. Newsbeat phrase their statement as a question. You can hear the question in the reporters voice. She is expecting an answer. Granted she seems unable to actually ask questions, and just makes statements with a rising emphasis at the end to imply a question, but if you speak English you can hear the questioning tone.  However, our glorious PM ignores it. It is really like he has been asked a different question and Newsbeat dubbed their own over the top of it. Nothing he says bares any relation to the question.

Bizarre.

Are we really in such a disconnected world that any of this makes sense? Do politicians think this is acceptable? Do reporters? (He wasn’t challenged on it).

Equally sad, but much more common, is the idea that the experiences of a nurse at the Bristol Royal has such an insight into national trends that their comments outweigh national reports. Even if they are the person who records every admission (and the cause) they have no idea what is going on in Liverpool, Barnsley, Truro, Southampton (etc.). The national statistics are based on reporting from various sources and show the national trend. Knife crime can go down 90% nationally but still show an increase in a region. That an otherwise well educated nurse doesn’t understand this element of statistics gives me concern over how disease surveillance is carried out.

The BBC mentions the “crime hotspots” that were targeted, and show a reduction:

The 10 knife crime hotspots are London, Essex, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, South Wales and Thames Valley.

Unless the Bristol Royal has moved across the River Severn  into Wales, it is not in that list. It could show a trillion percent increase and the governments figures for the crime hotspots would still be down. This nurse’s experiences may be 100%, but they are irrelevant. The only way this person could have had real impact was if the debate was about knife-crime admissions to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. But it wasn’t.

Still, in this day and age of citizen journalism, no one was going to say this. The nurse’s (and others) comments were treated as valid counterpoints to the report and dutifully skipped around by the PM. Are the BBC’s news reporters really so empty that this seemed reasonable?

Sadly the answer seems to be “yes.” Well done Great Britain, I am so proud.

(*) Please note, this is a link to the current newsbeat page – the actual content I am talking about here may have gone by the time you read this. If you can, though, this is worth listening to. Its almost like they re-recorded the PM and asked him different questions…

(**) For an arbitrary value of massive.

In praise of the BBC

This blog does its fair share of whining about daft things on the BBC, especially its website (“constructive criticism.”) There are disturbing current plans to cut back on everything good about the BBC, with a loss of 2,500 jobs. According to last week’s Guardian, the BBC’s high-profile serious journalists, such as Paxman, have been told not to express their criticisms of this sort of stuff on air.

The director-general has been quoted voicing the sort of Dilbert-speak that bodes ill for any organisation, from the perspective of both staff and customers. For example:

….his plan would deliver “a smaller, but fitter, BBC” in the digital age.
The six-year scheme, called Delivering Creative Future…..

Over the past few years, the BBC has expanded from being a public-service broadcaster – worthy enough in itself, to providing an almost unequalled Internet news resource. In the face of a general dumbing-down of television to a level that the average pet tortoise would find intelligible, the BBC still provides some tv and radio of amazing quality .

Well, it seems this all has to stop. The new plan is for more repeats, cuts to the television news, fewer current affairs programmes, fewer non-commercial kids’ programmes, ads on international stuff..

The editors’ blogs sound like it’s all an exciting new opportunity. Well, wouldn’t you, if you might be facing redundancy and criticism wouldn’t keep you out of that media dole queue?

…standing still is not an option because our audiences are changing and we must change with them….

Changing? More than normal changes then? In what ways? Granted most people have cable or satellite. I admit to watching minimal terrestrial tv, but that’s not because it’s over my head. It’s because most of it is hopelessly poor:

  • Soaps that should be poured down the plughole.
  • Reality shows that would make you want to Columbine the whole human race, if they actually bore any relationship to “reality”
  • Home / clothes / lifestyle makeovers, all aimed at a general transformation of the UK into a giant open-plan Stepford.
  • Programmes about raising children that make B.F. Skinner look laissez-faire
  • Plastic surgery programmes that actually promote it
  • Programmes about celebs and their weight problems
  • 100 greatest/worst adverts for car wax, or similar. With slightly recognisable talking heads discussing the choices
  • “Programmes” with a chirpy talking head and a screen puzzle designed to keep the drunk or mentally ill phoning in to “answer” trick questions at £300 a nanosecond

Basically, tv that would make the choice between watching it and gnawing off your own arm quite a difficult decision.

Is it the changing audience that’s driving this? If the audience is changing to be made up of the bedbound with broken remote controls, then maybe.

The BBC, although not blameless, is the least offender in this crap. It still represents so much of what is worthwhile in British culture. Cuts in its budget, cuts in its real staff….

Argh. That was the crunch of tooth on right arm flesh.

Great Dr Who & Shakespeare episode

Granted it was still set in London, and granted the no-longer-new Dr Who still has an annoying face, this episode was a blinder.

THe plotline was a bit Shakespeare in love meets Charmed. There are witches, who turn out to be evil aliens, using their witch skills to turn the the Globe Theatre into a conduit for more evil aliens. To do this, they remote control Shakespeare (who falls for the Dr’s new assistant) and hypnotise him into inserting a spell with planetary co-ordinates into the end of his new play “Love’s labours won”.

It was obviously made with at least one eye on global sales. So it was streets ahead of most British tv in looks. Beautiful lighting, beautiful sets, more beautiful people than you would ever expect to see on home-grown British tv and some quite fearsomely effective – if simple -special effects. Shakspeare, the Globe, medieval London, Elizabeth I – you can hear the English Tourist Board’s tills ringing in joyful anticipation.

In case the adults got bored, it threw in lots of Shakespeare quotations. and in-jokes. All the obvious ones but still satisfyingly erudite for mass tv. (Maybe it will make some schoolkid get interested in Shakespeare, it’s always possible.)

It even tied together the flirtation between Shakespeare and the new Dr Who assistant at the end, with Shakespeare planning to write a sonnet to his Dark Lady.