Monday, 30 November 2009

Swine flu fever

Had a preventative jab today, and armed with copious literature I have (so far) not succumbed to any of the reported side effects of the swine flu vaccine: red markings, muscle ache, fever or fatigue. As always, whenever needles are involved there are loads of stories in the press about the downsides.

My view is that the vaccine might help stop variants that we know about so far, but viruses are difficult entities to slow down as life cycles can be rapid and mutations therefore inevitable over time.

The current vaccine deals with the 'known knowns', rather than the 'unknown knowns' and, even less, the 'unknown unknowns', as Donald Rumsfeld once said in another context. We may all soon be back in our doctors' surgeries, being innoculated against the next strain of 'known knowns'.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bordering on the edge

Borders (UK) Ltd has just gone into administration, appointing MCR to manage the job with the likelihood of 45 shops in the UK turning to dust, or maybe a few more of those Everything-for-a-Pound establishments that grace our high streets. In the US, Oprah Winfrey has sobbed goodbye to her iconic show, Richard and Judy's UKTV show was not much Watched, and Amazon -- currently with about 15 per cent of market share for book sales in the UK -- has launched the Kindle ebook device with a fanfare matching increasing demand from readers for the electronic format: yet oodles of new books are still published every year, 120,947 in 2008 according to Nielsen BookData.

So what might be the medium-term trends? It seems a no-brainer for Apple to launch some kind of iProduct to hoover up loads of technophiles not geeky enough to adopt a Kindle (maybe by launch a smaller, portable version of the iBook laptop computer as a bespoke reading device with nifty applications for downloading content that don't get publishers into a copyright lather). Current demographic studies of reading behaviour show that young people are increasingly used to getting their content on-screen, and although they read books they are tending not to purchase paper-based products as much as before. So, publishers may come to see hardbacks and paperbacks as record labels see vinyl and CDs: as heritage formats for niche markets. All well and good if you have access to the latest computer technology.

But what about the billions of potential readers in the world without internet and/or computer access. Such people often have mobile phones, and internet access is growing, but electronic readers are expensive and may be difficult to replace if they break down. And will currently available ebook readers work in tropical climates and desert heat (i.e are they waterproof and does sand clog up the works)? If publishers produce fewer paper-based titles in the future, how will charities like Book Aid -- committed to getting books into the hands of nascent readers in sub-Saharan Africa -- have enough of the right titles to send? Or will the likes of Amazon and Apple agree preferential contracts to get their electronic readers in African hands in sufficient numbers? Future global literacy projects face new threats and opportunities.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Homoeo apathy

There's been a bit of a bust up in the media over the last few days about homoeopathy and whether or not it works. This old conundrum never gets resolved, with people who swear blind on both sides of the debate.

Essentially, the active ingredient -- usually a toxin -- is actively diluted by a factor of 100 many times until there is no molecule left of the original ingredient, The solution that is left is said to have a 'water memory' and has potency for treating ailments. Whether or not this alternative medicine works is beyond my knowledge: there's been an argument for over 200 years. But think about other scenarios where the technique could be tried out.
  • Politics: diluting policy through committee after committee until the remaining bill only has a 'water memory' of the original idea.
  • Sport: Chinese whispers communication of tactics from coaches and manager to a squad only for the players to dilute the message when they get out on to the pitch.
  • Media: a minion has an idea that gets stolen progressively up the food-chain hierarchy until the commissioner decides to act on the original, unrecognisable idea convinced it was his or her own Eureka moment.
  • Relationships: repeated requests from wives and girlfriends directed towards their men get progressively diluted so that by the time he's slumped in front of the telly watching Match of the Day, the memory of what was said seems in the distant past.
This is human nature, I suppose, but in politics this can have positive outcomes occasionally, say when filibustering an unpopular bill, and at least the media projects get made, albeit with workers at the plankton level of the scale perhaps feeling used.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Historical holes

Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain is a triumph of telling history through a journalistic lens: anecdotes, events, gossip, and rear-view mirror vision. Entertaining and educational, but also troubling with the instant realisation that this general viewer (i.e. me) actually knows little about the recent past, let alone much else.

It seems Britain was on the brink of revolution several times before the Great War; there were various politicians I'd never come across; the real reason for Gallipolli, etc.

These may be my particular lacunae, but everyone will have their own. The past is a movable entity as ever more secrets get declassified, changing our prejudices and assumptions. And general amnesia makes it inevitable that archetypes re-emerge and history repeats itself ...

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Ghosts writing

Hmm. Seems Hodder & Stoughton have just bought an unfinished children's fantasy novel by erstwhile Boyzone star Stephen Gately, called The Tree of Seasons: a case of a ghost writing a book rather it being produced by a ghost writer. But why stop there? How about:
The scope is limitless: all it needs are a few ambulance-chasing agents and grave-robbing publishers to get the party started. Michael Jackson's This Was It, anyone? Oh, I see the book trade has already scoffed all the canapes and drunk the bar dry ...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Obama in Wonderland

So Barack's off to see the weather wizards in Copenhagen, I hear: the land of Hans Christian Andersen.

Me and Mrs Janes

Jacqui Janes, I feel your pain. Or at least a tiny sliver of it.

The media world has moved on since Gordon Brown penned his heartfelt, misspelt letter of condolence, with The Sun getting the larger portion of egg on its face for neglecting to remind readers of the PM's partial blindness and for its own website blunder expressing dearest sympathy for "Mrs Jones".

But today I'm encouraged by my Alma Mater to tithe my modest income to help fund budding academic boy geniuses, which might be understandable if they'd sent the begging letter to the right person. The sheen of alumni status pales somewhat if the school can't get your name right. I clearly made so great an impression on the esteemed establishment that, when some years back I pointed out out their mistake, they insisted there were two of us by the same name in the same year and told me my middle name was Andrew.

So I'll leave the philanthropy to the Phils and Annes until someone cleanses their database, or probably later on the parallel logic that charity begins at home (at least, it does on my meagre annual crust).

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Children of an alternative universe

In a parallel universe all possibilities are up for grabs.
Be afraid.

Virtual games people play

Any coolhunter out there who predicted the rise of virtual gaming is pretty hot right now. Farmville is harvesting fans, Sorority Life is perpetual freshers' week, Pet Society has housetrained thousands and Cafe World ate all the pies. But what's next?

How about MetroMegalomaniac, the game where budding autocratics outvie each other in a race to build architectural kitsch to their own glory, trading points for prime locations, avant garde urban sculptures and demolition gangs to smash rival edifices?

Or Autotopsy, where gamers learn the noble art of forensic pathology on their friends by trial and error, trading points for manuals and apprenticeship sessions with surgeon avatars?

Or Darwin Awards-backed Don't Try This at Home, where points are awarded for ingenious avatar deaths, and trading points buys brainstorming ideas from B-movie clips in a random-generator database.

Social breakdown networking in a neighbourhood near you.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Flipping politicians

Expenses scandal, huh? MPs greed? You ain't seen nothin' yet!

Just wait for the revelations that the Rt Hon. John Bull-McJones has claimed for sponsoring his favourite Premiership soccer team for the last five years, that Tarquin St Jean Stately-Hume has flipped his mortgage on the ancestral pile with the Olympic stadium, and that Rosie Arran-Sweater has booked a family outing on a flight into space, all at the taxpayers' expense.

Just you wait, you heard it here first ...

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Britain is submerged by the deluge yet again. I don't remember storms like this in the old days. Rivers might have burst their banks, but I don't recall the mayhem and relocation of people that seems to have been epidemic over the last few years, ever since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, and Cockermouth is the latest example.

Still, despite the havoc, just think how lucky East Anglia has been so far with its flat plains and boggy heritage. How many inches would it take to revert Norfolk to swamp and Ely to an island? And how much money will it take to make sea defences high enough to keep the North Sea, er, in the sea?

What the betting that climate change predictions won't turn the land into the alternative England of His Dark Materials rather than keeping the traditional fens of Waterland?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Fighting for the remote

It's official. Sports fans are lost on entertainment shows. Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor have been heinously scheduled against highlights of England losing without trace versus the Kiwis at rugby union.

It would be a brave man to hog the remote on the sofa with their significant other in tow. The demographic of the audience would be singletons, blokes in the club bar, and families and friends of the players on the pitch.

No one on A Question of Sport would get a "What happened next?" question from the game unless (a) the referee exploded, (b) the players ate the ball, or (c) Twickenham was hit by a tidal wave.
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