Archive | June, 2012

A welcome return visitor

11 Jun

I live in the country and work mostly from home. From the window of my office I look over fields and orchards. Various bird feeders hang from the patio, with mixed seed, peanuts and fat balls. We get a variety of garden birds and some rather rarer visitors. One bird which likes the peanuts and fat is a woodpecker, a male great spotted woodpecker to be exact – I’ve looked it up in the RSPB encyclopaedia of birds. This handsome fellow is male because he has a red cap on his head. On Saturday I managed to get away from the computer and watch a little of the Women’s final at the French Open tennis. There was a loud bang on the glass patio doors and I went to investigate. The woodpecker had unwisely attempted to head-butt the toughed safety glass doors.

He lay stunned on the patio paving looking as though he had just received a left uppercut delivered by Mike Tyson in his pomp. I could tell that he had not broken his neck or wings, but it took a few minutes for him to come round, with lots of blinking of beady black eyes and gasping through sharp beak. If I thought it useful I would have gone to the bird’s aid, but it would probably have found that more distressing than helpful, so I watched and waited and observed him getting his senses back. The cat-flap was locked to stop the cat from getting at the birds, but she slept though the event without troubling to wake.

With a shake of the head and some nervous wing flutter he came round and flew a short distance to one of our apple trees. He hung on the branch for a few minutes, until he was joined by a magpie. Alarmed by the close presence of a larger predatory bird the woodpecker flew off.

Great spotted woodpecker

Not on a tree, he’s found an easier supply of food

He has come to visit and feed for the last two days and seems no worse for his experience.

A matter of judgement

7 Jun

Last year I read a book by Ben Goldacre called ‘Bad Science’. Ben is the medical correspondent of the Guardian newspaper here in the UK and a fierce critic of reporting standards. A case he describes in detail concerns some research on the MMR vaccine given to young children. This vaccine is used against measles, mumps and rubella and is considered completely safe. One doctor published a preliminary report linking the MMR vaccine with the increasing incidence of autism. The story was plastered all over the papers and led to a good deal of panic. Parents refused to get their children immunised. This resulted in outbreaks of these diseases in some areas. They are not diseases to be taken lightly. Measles can kill, mumps lead to infertility and rubella in pregnant women can seriously damage the unborn child. The link made by the doctor was entirely rejected by all the main agencies which judge and rate research and the doctor has since been struck off.  The research in this case was badly flawed and used a methodology which was inappropriate. There was no link between MMR and autism. The problem was that the story was out there and most people cannot judge what weight to give such a story as against the official position. The tabloids spotted a good story and splashed it all over the front pages. They had given equal weight to the struck-off doctor’s work and the huge weight of evidence on the other side. Children died and others were blinded because they did not receive the inoculation.

Now for the moral of the story. You cannot say there are two points of view here and give equal weight to both arguments. To do that is to be guilty of ‘relativism’. It is the writer’s responsibility to make judgement on the weight of evidence. Otherwise you risk being lumped in with holocaust deniers and conspiracy nuts.

Getting it right

7 Jun

I was at a social event organised by some people at my wife’s work a fortnight back.  The questions had been set by the organisers, and they really would have been better to look up questions for quizzes on the internet. This wasn’t entirely because I don’t read celebrity gossip magazines or watch the same soap operas as they do. Some of the questions were frankly misleading. One round concerned the identification of various COUNTRIES by their drawn outlines. One answer turned out to be Tasmania. Now, Tasmania is an Australian state, and in no way can it be described accurately as a country. Another question referred to ‘Public schools’. Over here in the UK for reasons lost in the mists of time, Public Schools are the most expensive and poshest of all the schools, and are in no way ‘Public’. If the term used had been ‘State schools’ it would have been accurate. John Cleese used to have a parrot called Holy Roman Empire, on the grounds that it wasn’t holy, roman or an empire, and neither was the Holy Roman Empire. And why do Americans insist that ‘Football’ refers to a game which only peripherally involves kicking a ball, while calling a game that is almost entirely about kicking a ball, ‘Soccer’?
You really have to choose the right words and to express your meanings, ones that are geared to your audience. Otherwise you risk giving out the wrong information. When you are writing you need to understand the

Incidentally, I enjoyed the quiz evening, on a social level.