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The day I met a Giant Panda called Bai Yun

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of visiting Bai Yun, a 26-year-old Giant Panda, at San Diego Zoo. I’ve never seen a panda in the flesh before, though didn’t need to come as far as San Diego to do so: Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo are a good 5,200 miles closer to home.

The visit was a relatively hurried one: even on a Wednesday afternoon, there was quite the queue to see the panda enclosure and the zoo staff members were keen to keep people moving. (As an aside: I suspect the employees would also object to me describing them here as “zoo staff members”, as they kept correcting visitors with a note of mild irritation that this wasn’t “part of the zoo” but rather a “dedicated panda research facility”.) Nevertheless, it was certainly a memorable experience. I was particularly struck by how cute the pandas were in real life: just as cute as in the cutest pictures.

As a general rule, I’m not much of an “animal person”. However, I make an exception for panda bears. Wendy asked me this afternoon what it was about pandas that overcame my general disinterest in animals, and I think it comes down to three things.

Firstly, pandas are ridiculous creatures. They have the gastrointestinal tract of a carnivore, yet insist on a diet of pure bamboo, which they can’t properly digest. This means that they need to eat some 20kgs per day to survive, taking up around 14 of their 20 waking hours per day, and resulting in a need to defaecate about every half hour. If ever there were a creature that should be extinct, the panda is it.

Secondly, panda diplomacy is fascinating. For thousands of years, China has been using gifts (and latterly loans) of pandas to further its political aims. No other country has managed to replicate this with such success with any other animal—and it’s not that easy to think of many diplomatic practices with quite such a long and lustrous history. The zoo staff members regularly reminded vistors that the bears and any offspring were owned by China and that the results of their panda research were regularly reported back to the Chinese. Panda diplomacy even turns up as a C-plot in The West Wing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pandas are really really cute. I mean, just look at that picture. There’s a lot written in the scientific literature about why pandas are so cute: most sources seem to suggest that it is because their faces appear proportionally similar to those of babies. I don’t know whether that’s accurate or not, but I certainly like them!


The picture at the top was, fairly obviously, taken by me earlier today.

This 2,445th post was filed under: Posts delayed by 12 months, Travel, , , , , , , , .

Political polls are getting more accurate

An interesting article by Will Jennings and Christopher Wlezien in today’s Times Red Box pointed me in the direction of their recently published paper in Nature Human Behaviour on the accuracy of pre-election polling. Their conclusion, in a nutshell, is that polls are becoming better at accurately predicting the outcome of elections.

This gave me pause for thought: are polls designed and intended to reflect the outcome of an election? Or are polls about reflecting the views of the population at a point in time?

My hunch is that they are more often designed for the latter purpose. Most polls ask how people would vote if there were an election today. I’m not aware of any polls that attempt to correct for the typical post-election “honeymoon” nor the typical midterm “slump” in their efforts to better predict the next election result.

If my hunch is right, then it’s probably unfair to talk about poll “error” when the results of polls conducted well before elections do not match the election results. More importantly, it puts a different spin on their findings.

Assuming all other things are equal (which they are most emphatically not), then late polls better reflecting the outcome of an election suggests that they are better reflecting the views of voters. Assuming that this increased “representativeness” carries across the election cycle and that polls are measurements rather than predictions, then mid-cycle polls more accurately reflecting the final outcome suggests that the population’s views are becoming more intransigent. (In truth, I’ve no idea whether or not this fits their data, it just seems like it might.)

I don’t know whether that is true or not, but it certainly feels like it might be. I feel like things are reaching a point where people are no longer willing to engage with alternative political views, let alone change their own view. On social media, in particular, I see people who didn’t have had a clearly defined political view five years ago now suggesting that those with differing political views necessarily have malintent. This goes for both sides of the political debate. This never seems a particularly good strategy to me – I don’t think many people have their views changed through the hurling of insults!


The picture at the top is by RachelH_ on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,410th post was filed under: Politics, Posts delayed by 12 months, , , , , .

Thomas Docherty MP on Big Ben collapsing

The House of Commons authorities would be surprised if the clock tower fell into the Thames any time soon. It may well be raised with the Speaker on Monday. Given that Big Ben is situated over the Speaker’s apartments, he may have a view on it.

Thomas Docherty, a Labour MP on the Commons administration committee, according to this Sunday Times article.

This 1,491st post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, Politics, Quotes, , , , , , .

The BBC’s future is under threat from social media

I predict that the BBC is about to enter one of the most turbulent periods in its history – and I’m not certain whether it will come out the other side in a recognisable form. The next decade may well be the one in which the licence fee becomes unsustainable.

I desperately hope this doesn’t happen. I think the Beeb is the world’s greatest broadcaster, and one of Britain’s most awesome institutions. Yet the signs are there, and I think the Beeb needs to sit up ad notice them.

The BBC’s raison d’être has always been to “inform, educate, and entertain” – and, as successive Directors General have been keen to point out – that order of priorities is crucial. In recent years, the BBC has faced real challenges with the latter two of these, but it’s about to be shaken by an impossible threat to the first.

It’s mission to “entertain” has been threatened in recent years by the approximately decennial shifts between ITV and the BBC in dominance of Saturday night TV: the last decade of Pop Idol, X Factor, I’m a Celebrity and the Talent franchise has been ITV’s. The BBC has also had real difficulty catching up with commercial operators in its engagement of young adults. And the Brand-Ross affair caused stifling restriction to creativity at the hands of “compliance”. But by and large, it seems to be finding its feet, and learning to walk through he entertainment genre again.

The aim to “educate” has been challenged by the ludicrous QueenGate scandal, where non-broadcast footage of the Queen was edited out of sequence. The BBC’s massive over-reaction probably harmed its trustworthy reputation. And the exile of almost all high-brow factual programming to the digital diaspora of BBC Four made for an excellent channel, but also for frequent accusations of dumbing-down elsewhere. And getting Jeremy flipping Vine to “host” Panorama was unforgivable – though I suspect that’s more a personal bugbear than a threat to the corporation’s future existence.

The most significant threat to the BBC has always been any threat to its news output. If it can’t reliably “inform”, then it has no core purpose. And, I think, it’s this aspect of the BBC’s purpose that is about to be shaken to its core.

The Times has declared itself many times (even, laughably, recently) to be “the newspaper of record”, and – to borrow the expression – the BBC’s news bulletins have always been the broadcast bulletins of record. The lead story on the Nine or Ten O’Clock News has always been, by definition, the “big story”. Alistair Campbell obsessed over the Labour Party’s position in the running order because he knew that closeness to the top guaranteed closeness to the top of everyone else’s running order. The BBC’s bulletins have, for many years, been the arbiter of importance in this country’s news cycle. And it is this that is under threat.

I think it was Tim Cook, though it could easily have been someone else, who described the notifications centre in. iOS 5 as compiling “your life’s breaking news”. And that is the crux of the problem. The democratisation of the media, brought about by social media as much as anything else, means we all have a “top story” now.

The BBC is forever being criticised on Twitter for not covering some story or other in huge detail – be it famines (East Africa), protests (block the bridge), or reforms (NHS). People are passionate about their pet topics, and want to see the BBC leading on them. The positive reinforcement from similarly interested people on social media reinforces individuals’ perceptions of the popularity and importance of the cause: “Everyone in my Twitter feed supports x, yet it hasn’t been on BBC News”. Folk also tend to read websites and subscribe to RSS feeds that share their own views and agenda, further reinforcing their own belief of the importance of the story. But, of course, the range of stories believed to be important across all individuals is huge.

The BBC’s traditional hierarchy of the importance of stories no longer applies to the majority of viewers. People begin to believe that the BBC is ignoring their interests, perhaps because it is biased. In fact, the interest is a small minority one, thought to be a larger one only because the individuals is surrounded by factors which positively reinforce that view.

The problem is exacerbated by BBC funding cuts, which mean that the number of stories which get any coverage at all is reduced.

Yet the BBC’s news starts to seem irrelevant, or even biased against every individual’s views. “Why cover Liam Fox / Steve Jobs / Nick Clegg, when he’s just one man? The BBC should be leading on NHS Reform / Block the Bridge / Famine / General Strike / Pensions / Finance because that affects us all, everyone’s interested in it, and it’s a really important story.”

Recently, I’ve been following NHS reform with particular interest, and felt this effect myself. There was little coverage of the Lord’s vote on the NHS reform bill, but my Twitter feed and selected websites had been covering events minute-by-minute. To me, the story seemed earth-shatteringly huge, and I had difficulty understanding why the BBC was effectively ignoring this massively important story. Except, in the grand scheme of things, it was essentially a procedural Lords discussion about a Bill progressing through Parliament. There was a popular campaign to block it which never had the scent of success, and by the end of the day, we knew little that we didn’t know at the start. Yet to me, this story remained huge, and the BBC’s lack of coverage felt disenfranchising.

As more people embrace social media, and as news sources fragment into finer and finer grain communities, the gap between the stories the BBC’s website and flagship bulletins see as important and the stories we as individuals see as important will turn from a crack into a gulf. People will question the purpose of the BBC, and struggle to see its importance. “If the BBC can’t even cover x properly, then what’s the point?”

If trust in the BBC’s news is eroded like this, then it’s unique funding stream becomes increasingly difficult to defend – especially in recessionary times. And in a decade which looks certain to be dominated by the Tories, who is going to stick up for it politically?

For the BBC to survive, it needs to change its news output. A homepage which “learns” about your interests and prioritises its news hierarchy appropriately might be the beginnings of a start.  But how the BBC can possibly reflect the conflicting priorities of millions of people in a meaningful way against a shrinking budget is beyond me – and that’s why I fear for its future.

This 1,449th post was filed under: Media, , , , , , .

The GPs

Five reasons why this video (whilst it makes an important and valid wider point) irritates me:
1. It doesn’t acknowledge that both A (on the left) and B (on the right) are both, ultimately, working for profit rather than purely for the benefit of patients.
2. It doesn’t acknowledge that A likely employs salaried doctors like B, with similar issues.
3. It doesn’t acknowledge that since A opted out of providing out-of-hours care, B has stepped in to provide it. In fact, it’s B who’s illustrated at walking out at the end, just when B’s colleagues are kicking into action.
4. It suggests that non-partner doctors hold less professionalism, and are less concerned with patient welfare. Such doctors include many GPs, as well as virtually all secondary and tertiary care physicians and surgeons.
5. It doesn’t acknowledge a single advantage of the corporate model. A’s approach may well be preferable as a whole, but B’s approach is not without merit, and it’s idiotic to suggest that it is.

This 1,445th post was filed under: Health, Video, , , , .

Norwegian prisons

[audio:http://sjhoward.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/0041-Norwegian-Prisons.mp3]

A Pod Delusion report about Norwegian Prisons from a little over a year ago. Not quite sure what made me think of this today specifically, but thought I’d share it nonetheless.

This 1,443rd post was filed under: Audio, , , .

Department of Health “mythbuster”

This #nhsreform mythbuster from DH is overtly party political (“we will never, ever privatise the NHS”).

I’m not comfortable with statements which are so clearly partisan being ascribed to DH, and I’m surprised the Civil Service didn’t prevent it. Such bodies shouldn’t be political puppets.

Also, some of the “myths” are blatantly not “myths” – e.g. “You are introducing competition in the NHS”

This has really got me riled – and I’m not the only one.

This 1,441st post was filed under: Health, , , , .

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