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2D: Chernobyl

In this new series of 2D posts, I’ll be picking two interesting articles which look at an issues from two different perspectives. Sometimes, they will be “for” and “against” a particular issue or concept, but more often they will just look at something in two totally different ways. I enjoy reading things in this way as I think it gives a more rounded perspective: I hope you will agree.

My first selection in this series is a pair of articles about Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear reactor disaster to date. The first article I’ve chosen is by Andrew Hankinson, who wrote in Wired about efforts to contain the nuclear reactor. The old sarcophagus around the reactor is falling to bits, and this article talks about the challenges of building the New Safe Confinement around the old sarcophagus.

For a second perspective on Chernobyl, I’ve picked a rather older article from the Guardian, by Imogen Wall. This truly fascinating story documents the “disaster tourism” that has built up around Chernobyl, and follows the writing on a day trip to see the reactor and the ghost town.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them!

This post was filed under: 2D, .

Weekend read: This is how you healthcare

Sarah Bee published this moving story earlier this week over at NSFWCORP. Just occasionally, I come across a story that stops me in my tracks, moves me, and makes me think a little bit differently about life and medicine. This powerfully personal article about Sarah Bee’s experience as she watched her own father die in an intensive care unit in London is one of those stories.

This post was filed under: Health, Weekend Reads, .

Review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

I’ve been putting off writing this review for a little while now. It’s a difficult one for me. I only read Flat Earth News because so many people had recommended it, and most of them are people whose views I tend to agree with. But I’m afraid I didn’t really like it.

Flat Earth News is Nick Davies’s “exposé” of the practices of the media. Nick is, of course, a brilliant Guardian journalist, and is perhaps the journalist most responsible for the eventual uncovering of the widespread use of phone hacking by members of the press. Unfortunately, he approaches the task of “exposing journalism” with two central premises which I find bizarre.

Firstly, he appears to labour under the wrongful impression that members of the public imagine journalists to be crack investigators who stalk the streets with notebooks and pens, looking for exclusive stories to serve up to expectant readers. Clearly, as an adult who lives in the real world, I know that’s not what a journalist’s job is like. I know that journalists are expected to churn out multiple stories per day, and I know that most of what they write starts out as wire copy or press releases. It’s true to say that I didn’t fully realise the extent of the number of stories they’re expected to file, nor the extent of the reliance on agency copy, but I didn’t think the world of modern journalism was made up of Lois Lanes. This makes the tone he uses for much of the book seem enormously patronising. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as patronised by any factual book I’ve ever voluntarily subjected myself to as I did by the first third of this book. It’s horrendous.

Secondly, he claims – and repeats ad nauseam – that the central job of any journalist is to tell the truth. Again, I’m afraid I cannot agree with this. There are many parts of any journalist’s job which are equally as important as telling the truth – engaging readers and selling papers being two of the more important ones. He seems to suggest that an ideal newspaper would simply be a list of facts of things that occurred during the day, with few adjectives and no opinions. That is clearly not sensible, as nobody in their right mind would part with good money for something so utterly dull.

Those are the two big, central problems with the book. They are the two which each and every time they crop up made me want to scream. There were times when I actually had to put this enormously repetitive book down and walk away. But, in a way, this is only the start of the list of problems.

When I read books with the intention of reviewing them, I often make notes along the way. I select key quotes, I list the bits I really like and the bits that made me angry. This book caused me to write more notes than any other I’ve ever reviewed for this site, and almost all were in the “bits that made me angry” category. I don’t intend to make all of those points here, but I will share a select few which raised questions in my mind that Davies failed to answer.

Davies has bizarre ideas on what is and isn’t news. He cites a story in which there was a rumour of Terry Leahy stepping down from his role at Tesco. In the face of these rumours, Tesco issued a denial. Davies then criticises news bulletins for continuing to run the story that a rumour was circulating but that it had been denied by Tesco. Does he honestly believe that this story is not newsworthy? Should flat denials always be taken at face value?

There’s a section of this book where Davies criticises the Daily Mail for not having a coherent economic policy. Seriously, I’m not making this up. He talks about the unexpressed and hence unexamined “moral values” which underpin reportage in newspapers, citing the Daily Mail’s treatment of asylum seekers as an example. I’m afraid it’s a little beyond this reviewer to understand how Davies can argue that the Daily Mail’s attitude towards asylum seekers has not been widely acknowledged, criticised and challenged. But, beyond this, he then goes on to suggest that the Daily Mail’s opposition to immigration coupled with its support of free trade adds up to a deeply flawed economic policy. Does Davies honestly believe that a newspaper like the Daily Mail should put forward coherent economic policies? Really? Of course the Daily Mail picks and chooses causes, and of course they do not add up to anything sensible. I struggle to believe that people – including its readers and editor – would argue that the Daily Mail offers a cohesive policy for government, however it presents itself. This feels a bit like criticising Bram Stoker for opening Dracula with the suggestion that all events within the novel are accurate reporting of a true event.

There’s an odd passage in which Davies criticises a newspaper – I forget which one – for reversing its stance on the Iraq war in the face of plummeting readership. Yet I wonder what he believes to be the alternative? If readers are deserting a paper due its opinions, does Davies suggest that it should continue to parrot the same line until it is forced, by lack of readership, to close?

Davies argues that the BBC’s aim to break news within five minutes of it reaching the newsroom is flawed because it doesn’t allow for checking. Does he honestly think that the BBC should only ever report confirmed stories? Does he believe that repeating clearly identified “unconfirmed reports”, as they so frequently do, harms the practice of journalism? Is it his honest belief that if they returned to the old days of checking every detail before publishing that their readers, viewers and listeners wouldn’t desert them in favour of faster rivals? Or does he believe that it doesn’t matter than nobody watches, provided that there is a news outlet of record?

And how does Davies suggest that journalism should be funded? He suggests several times in the book that the funding sources of some campaign groups mean that their view of the world is, by definition, skewed by the funders and should be ignored. So who does he suggest should fund the media? Who has he thought of as a potential provider of revenue to fund totally impartial journalism? He has no answer to this question, but suggests in his epilogue that money saved from moving to digital publication rather than dead tree publication should be reinvested in journalism. The suggestion, of course, completely misses the point that nobody has yet worked out how to make anywhere like the revenue from digital journalism as from print journalism, so there is no money to be reinvested.

Yet, for all of its many faults, I think this is an important book. Strip away the odd proselytising tone, and within this book there is an interesting, informative and detailed “state of the profession” report. There are still those who believe that the Daily Mail prints literal truth, those that don’t understand how news stories are gathered, and those that think that quotes in newspapers are verbatim transcripts of something that someone actually said. For those people, this book would doubtless be an eye-opener.

All of this leaves me with something of a dilemma. I hated this book. I found it patronising, and a real struggle to get through. It’s irritating tone made me frequently set it aside to read something that made me less angry. And yet, I recognise that it is important, and that many people like it. Indeed, many people like it very much. So how many stars should I give? Since there’s no easy answer, I’m going to plump for an arbitrary three.

Flat Earth News is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback and on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Changing the schedule

As regular readers will be aware, I currently publish book reviews on Wednesdays. However, I’m currently struggling to keep up with that publishing schedule, yet I’m way ahead of schedule for the Weekend Reads series.

As a result, I’m making a change. Book reviews will now appear every other Wednesday. For the alternate Wednesdays, I’ll be starting a new series of posts which I’m calling “2D”. In this series, I’ll recommend a pair of articles which look at an issue from two different (though not necessarily opposing) perspectives. I think it will make for a very interesting series of posts.

So, tomorrow I’ll be publishing a review of Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News. But the following Wednesday – 27th February – there will be no book review. In it’s stead will be the first in the 2D series, which will feature Chernobyl. And the features will continue on alternate weeks thereafter.

I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the posts!

This post was filed under: Site Updates.

Acronyms and etymology

A little over five years ago, I wrote a ranty post about those ludicrous backronyms that some people seem to enjoy spreading, and often seem to genuinely believe. Today, the OxfordWords blog has done the opposite, posting “5 words you didn’t know were acronyms”. I suspect you probably did know that at least some of them were acronyms, but “pog” and “care package” were new to me, and the whole post is definitely worth a read!

This post was filed under: Diary Style Notes.

Weekend read: The magic formula of Weight Watchers

An article looking at the change at Weight Watchers from the Points programme to the ProPoints programme might seem a strange choice of weekend read. I’m not a Weight Watchers member, and I’ve always been slightly sceptical of the dependence and complex mystification around healthy eating that such schemes generate. But there is good evidence that Weight Watchers helps people lose weight (though I’m not sure what their longterm maintenance rates are like). So I found this peek behind the curtain, written by Jeffrey M O’Brien for Wired, fascinating.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads.

Review: Airframe by Michael Crichton

Before I read this, I’d never read a book by Michael Crichton. As he’s one of the bestselling authors of recent decades, that might come as a surprise. I thought it was time to correct that omission. As someone with an interest in aviation (I’m a fan of trashy TV programmes like Air Crash Investigation, and also the excellent Flaps podcast), I thought Airframe was the perfect option to fill the gap.

Airframe is advertised as “a fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled thriller from the master of high-concept storytelling”. I have some objections to this description: I don’t think it’s fast-paced, adrenaline fuelled, a thriller, or high-concept storytelling. I found it interminably dull.

This may be advertised as a thriller, but there were only about three short chase passages during which I could – at even the most generous push of my imaginations – be described as even vaguely interested, let alone thrilled; and those passages played only the most minor of roles in the plot as a whole.

The story, such as it was, really described nothing more than a particularly stressful week in the life of a dull woman who works for an aircraft company, combining well-rehearsed plot devices about a woman in a male-dominated work environment with well-rehearsed plot devices describing the conflicted life of a journalist. And it is most certainly not worth sticking with 400 pages of this to reach the damp squib of an ending.

Many have criticised Airframe for containing far too much technical detail about the mechanistic of flight; actually, my pre-existing interest in the topic made those sections some of the more interesting bits. But it’s certainly true that pages of technical description does little to heighten the jeopardy of the plot, considering that this is marketed as a thriller.

All of which is not to say that the book is bad, per sé: It’s just exceptionally bland. Much like magnolia paint, it’s dull but inoffensive, nobody’s favourite, but disliked very few.

I am afraid I am one of the few. I like books which have some sort of impact. This has none. If you like your books bland, you’ll probably get on very well with Airframe, but probably not with me. I struggled to finish it, and cannot recommend it.

Airframe is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback, but not on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: Confessions of a car salesman

This is one of the longer articles I’ve featured in this series so far. Chandler Phillips went undercover, taking up jobs at a couple of car dealerships in the US. I found his findings completely fascinating – though it’s difficult to know how well they translate to the UK market.

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads.

Review: Never Push When it Says Pull by Guy Browning

Never Push When it Says Pull is something of an odd-man in my series of book reviews: it was published eight years ago, and is a collection of inconsequential but amusing newspaper columns. Yet I recently re-read it, and enjoyed it so much that I couldn’t resist including it some time.

Guy Browning’s series of five hundred How to… columns in the Saturday edition of the Guardian, which finished in 2009, remains one of my favourite columns of all time thanks its absurdist satirical view of everyday life. This book is the second collection of these columns – a follow-up of sorts to the previously released Never Hit a Jellyfish with a Spade.

The fact that I find each individual column laugh-out-loud funny means that the book is like a little bundle of hilarity. I read this pretty much in one sitting, but it’s also the perfect book for reading at random, in odd moments – after all, each column is only about 500 words, and each is an individual nugget of joy. Read it when you’re stressed at work and need some light relief, read it while relaxing on the beach, or read it on the toilet. All are decent options, although reading it at work might be inadvisable if this book makes you as prone to outbursts of laughter as it does me.

If you want a taster of what you’ll get in this book, all Browning’s columns are available on the Guardian website. You can read up on how to use a library (aka brothels of the mind), how to wiggle (after all, pleasure is wiggle shaped), or – if this review isn’t doing it for you – read up on how to sulk. I should confess that I’m writing this review in a coffee shop, and have attracted some strange looks thanks to the outbursts of laughter that re-reading those columns has produced.

I cannot give this book anything other than five stars. It might be the case that the slightly strange humour of this book passes you by, but for me, this is pure comedy gold, and I can only highly recommend it.

Never Push When it Says Pull is available now from amazon.co.uk in paperback, but unfortunately not on Kindle.

This post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: Wonga, drones and fracking

This is a fascinating Nesta blog by Stian Westlake describing the lack of inherent moral good or evil in innovative ideas. It’s quite short – if you’re looking for something related but longer, this discussion of Wonga’s business model by William Shaw in Wired is also very interesting (and, indeed, Westlake links to it in his article). So, two for the price of one this week!

This post was filed under: Weekend Reads.

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