Saturday, November 03, 2012

Australian journalists could learn from India

Oh, it’s probably too late anyhow. As Mark Colvin has pointed out, we’re all on the road to hell anyway.

A while back, I was at an event in Sydney addressed by the boss of Tata.

He impressed me as being kind of cynically democratic: the very best way to make a shed-load of money is to make something everyone wants, and do it cheap so they can afford it. Which doesn’t make him an angel, but it’s at least more in line with how I see the world than “how can we rip people off with nothing more than a meaningless brand and a shoe just like every other shoe?”

Anyhow. Tata fielded some fairly strong questions from the local press after his speech. For some reason, one of the more revoltingly obsequious local journalists, whose name can remain anonymous because I don’t remember names, saw fit to apologise.

Amid cringes from other journalists present, Tata was amused. What he said was, approximately, “Impolite? Ha! You should come to Bangalore. I’ve had journalists lay hands on me to stop me leaving a press conference. Your people are the picture of propriety.”

That’s about right, really. Australian journalists can’t bear to be impolite to a CEO, unless he’s already a bleeding corpse. We don’t want to get blood on our own “At Lowes!” pinstripes.

In Vietnam, America honed the skills of media control: that access could be granted or withheld to reward or punish journalists who did or did not depart from the official line. Corporate America, quick up the uptake, systemised and perfected the technique.

“If you’re good, we’ll give you access to the CEO” – which, by the way, created a deeply unhealthy symbiosis. CEO-flattery inflated CEO income; journalists inflate the CEO’s importance to protect their access; the CEO’s profile puffs his income. The brain donors that infest the “business pages” play along with this, even if the CEO is in charge of outfits like FirePower. It’s almost always left to someone else to point out the Emperor’s nakedness (there’s a parallel here with the way sports journalists defended Lance what-me-worry Armstrong).

Australia imitated the American “journalists are nice to CEOs” so well that it took an Indian chairman to tell us that questions some of the lapdogs considered rude were nothing, compared to physical assault.

You see: journalists are easily flattered. The notion of being important still matters, even in a world where the media is happy to outsource its own leg-work to freebie amateurs under the sacred “Internet-savvy” banner of “crowdsourcing”.

But someone apologized.

This is Australia, people. Home to egalatarianism, the Eureka Stockade, and “G’day ya old bastard!” Since when were some cheap tricks of media relations sufficient to turn journalists into forelock-tugging, supine, boot-licking cheerleaders?

I should remark that I have been criticised for being rude to someone’s “honoured guest.” A minor politician giving a speech, and lacking the intellectual capacity to bridge the gap between ideology and fact, copped a roasting from me and one or two others.

The boot-licking brown-tongues, I can personally attest, are so devoted to their hostage status and servility that they consider “you can’t be serious!” to be not only a deadly insult, but a disgrace to journalism.

Whereas I merely consider them to be spineless shills whose only concern is how they can corner their next overseas junket.

If life ever gives me the chance to ply my trade in another country, I might try India. And since we’ve got the Asian Century coming, how about Australia learn from India, in this, instead of trying to teach India’s journalists to become supine shills?

CEOs should not invite journalists. They should fear them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What’s the scientific method got to do with it?

Here’s a myth that needs busting: a lack of understanding of the “scientific method” is what gives rise to journalists doing a bad job of reporting on science.

What tosh.

There are many things that lead to bad science journalism, but journalists having the presumption to write about science they don’t understand is not one of them. If you insisted that only a physicist could write a story about physics, to pick a discipline, then the physics wouldn’t get reported.

“Physics”, you see, isn’t a thing. It’s lots of things. Thinking of physics as if it were a uniform monolith is what someone says if they don't understand science. It's about as smart as thinking "Asia" describes everywhere from Afghanistan to Java, India to North Korea. 

So which part of physics would I need to study to earn the right to write about it? Should I follow Brian May into astrophysics, only to exclude myself from the really cool stuff that happens in high-energy particle physics? Should I abandon the quantum zoo entirely but read up on atomic fusion?

I think you get the picture. A great many scientific endeavours need nearly-mutant intelligence just to get in the lift and decide which button to press.

Yes, you have to report facts – and woe betide the journalist who doesn’t try to find out whether they’re being offered facts or moonshine.

But: it’s actually not that hard. Here are a few random thoughts.

  1. Accord the journals the one thing they’ve got going for them: scientific review. Be VERY wary of someone offering to “let you in” on something “even before it’s gone to the journals”.

  1. Most “maverick scientists” are kooks. Journalists love the “successful maverick” narrative, so much that they overlook fifty cranks for one scientist, something I’ll discuss in more detail later.

  1. You can’t “balance” facts. I’ve heard people ask “so why aren’t there any ‘Relativity sceptics’ or ‘quantum physics’ sceptics?” There are, but they’re ignored. With no well-heeled lobbyists to back them, they get no airtime, that’s all (look up "iron sun theory" for an example).

  1. Talk to scientists. Not just the ones on the press release, and not just about the current story. Find scientists who like talking about their field, buy them coffee, and listen. You’ll get so much more than any university media office has to offer.

About mavericks

The reason someone like Barry Chapman – Google helicobacter pilori - is “news” is because he’s the exception, not the rule. Yes, he was a maverick who tested an unconventional theory and won, more power to him. 

For every Barry Chapman, there are dozens of unpublished, unrecorded, anonymous kooks with a pet theory that will Change the World of Science As We Know it. And they are, and remain, kooks.

What made Barry Chapman a headline-grabber was novelty. Most of the time, the maverick is a kook with a barrow to push (“cold fusion” anyone?). And, by the way: Chapman’s experiment demonstrating helicobacter pilori­ may have been unconventional (he self-infected), but once demonstrated, his work was accepted.

Journalists like the maverick because it fits a narrative and a mindset. The narrative is the great story, the scoop, “I was the one who told the world about magic water and saved thousands of lives”. But it’s also a mindset: the individualist set against a monolithic culture – which is how a great many journalists (I don’t exclude myself) like to imagine themselves. Regardless of our political opinions, at a personal level journalists tend to be individualistic. The maverick-is-always-right is appealing.

(Oh, and by the way: Galileo is a dumb example. He wasn’t fighting against a scientific consensus. His opponents were political power and superstition. A climate scientist looks a lot more like Galileo than a coal industry sock-puppet, from that angle.)

The awful truth

The main reason there’s so much bad science writing is because, sorry to say, there’s so much bad science on offer. The reason I stick to the hard sciences – apart from their appeal to my inner geek – is that I feel comfortable on my feet, and able to trust the consensus. So I favour physics, astronomy, climate science, biology, as being demonstrable and trustworthy.

Also, there are far fewer financial interests trying to piss in the pool. I rarely write a medical breakthrough story, because I know I’m inadequate to untangle whether or not there are interests behind it that I can’t see. The same goes for pharmaceuticals. I do trust myself to play “spot the backer” in genetic research, partly because I know some geneticists.

Pharmaceutical science is probably the most polluted: every study has a drug to sell. It’s probably responsible, on a purely numerical basis, for more bad science journalism than any other single discipline, climate change included.

However, this wouldn’t be improved by a journalist having first-year science and an understanding of the scientific method – because a new drug for a freshly-minted psychological disorder is going to be backed by papers that already got past the peer-review committees. If they – presumably real scientists – didn’t ditch the publication, merely giving someone a BA Comms with a sub-major in Science Communication won’t help. Really.

I’ve probably tried your concentration enough this evening. There are other things to be said about “good science writing”, but they’re about “journalistic method” rather than scientific method. Perhaps another day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chemotherapy: shit happens. Often

I blog this with my wife’s permission.

She doesn’t suffer from cancer. In at least one way, it’s worse: because the least a cancer diagnosis will give you is a timeline. “If you last five years…”

An aside: someone I liked very well nearly made it to the five years. Not quite. He was a large, fair red-head who worked as a roadie for Jands Concert Productions in the 1980s. He was so strong that when Bruce Springsteen toured here for “Born in the USA” – I am not making this up – the tame Teamsters on the tour complained. This kid, “Young Shane” as I normally called him, would blithely man-handle hundred-kilogram loudspeakers past their strictly-maintained hand-off cordons. (One man in the truck; one man on the ramp; one man to collect; one man to take the speaker to the stage area. He didn’t care. He could, as he demonstrated to me on a $50 bet, dead-lift the speaker). Shane had his last skin cancer examination three months short of the magic mark, and died within six. Shit happens.

Ms T doesn’t have cancer – except as a side-effect of her treatments. However, because her disease is one of the immune system, there’s a creepy commonality of treatment.

Her immune system wants to destroy her large arteries. Since some bits of the vascular system are very important – you can make do sans an arm or leg, but the carotid, aorta, celiac or renal aren’t negotiable – she cops seriously heavy drugs to kill the immune system and keep the arteries open.

Some of the drugs are exactly the same as some cancer patients. Cyclphosphamide, for example, is “gold standard” for vasculitis – and is also used for various lymphatic cancers.

That’s the current chemo Ms T is getting. It’s working just fine in some ways, but – may I emphasise this is with her permission and blessing – the pink-ribboners, the popularisers of cancer, the story-tellers, the fundraisers – neglect to break the big taboo.

You. Might. Shit. Yourself.

This, in her opinion, far outweighs the weight loss, hair loss, or breakfast loss. It’s the loss of the emblem of maturity, of self-control, of humanity. The sudden change of clothes, the endless washing-machine rinses, the utter humiliation – and it’s on the public taboo-list.

Lost your hair? Someone has a groovy fund-raising bandana (as long as you have a fund-raiser-friendly disease that has a bandana to sell). Lost weight? There are even people to advocate pot to revive your appetite (I approve, by the way, but that’s not in this discussion). When the treatment stops, your lost muscle-mass will return, especially if you sign on with the right shouty boot-camp group led by a sloping-forehead paid more per hour than you can hope to earn if you’re among the chronically-ill.

Lost continence? Go buy a pack of Depend, and for pity’s sake, don’t talk about it.

If you talk about shitting yourself as a side-effect of medication, even if it only ever happens in the privacy of your own home (or, about four days out from an infusion, the privacy of your bed), you’ll spoil the narrative. The “plucky” narrative. The “you can win this” narrative. The narrative that glorifies dignity over actually surviving.

The narrative says: If you’re clean, we can glorify your dead body with eulogies, we can re-invent your wonderful struggle against impossible odds, we can elevate your loves to Olympus. But nobody every made a god or goddess out of shit.

And for us, the mortals who, for love and nothing else, live with the real side-effects of chemotherapy – from the highs of temporary remission through the frights of incidental cancers, down to the lows of incontinence – there are no laurels. There’s only the business of dropping clothing into the washer for a pre-wash rinse.

I would do it ten times over, my love. Because it’s you. Love will survive.

That, at least, I promise.

A recipe, as a change of pace

I’ve been a bit serious lately, so here I offer a recipe that Ms T and I concocted last night.

First, I should mention that there’s almost always home-made flatbread dough in the freezer. It’s dead easy to make – yeast, water, salt, a little olive oil, and enough flour to make it into a dough – and it’s a great standby if there’s leftovers on a leg of lamb to deal with.

So, there was some dough in the freezer, and there were a few garlic-and-rosemary sausages in the fridge. Three aren’t enough sausages for a family that includes two teenage boys.

We squeezed out the mince from the sausages. That got browned off very lightly in a saucepan with a little oil, some capsicum, onion, garlic and diced tomato. Then the sausage was mixed in with the dough, and rolled out into rounds about a handspan across, and about 5mm thick.

These get cooked in the electric frypan – a light spray with olive oil and a fairly high heat.

While I was doing that, Ms T prepped some accompaniments – home-made hummus (easy, really), fried haloumi, baba ganoush and a green salad.

The boys went nuts for it. Which is always a nice endorsement.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Me and Cory Doctrow

Lesson: don’t argue with the famous on Twitter.

Honestly, I didn’t think there was that much of an argument. I made one remark, just one, and for my apparently poor judgement, got a minor torrent of rebuttal.

Well, Cory: fuck you sideways. It’s like this: publicly, you champion free speech, but only if the speech that’s free is that which is endless echo-chamber we-love-you-famous-person fandom?

Fuck you with a Tabasco dildo.

Dude, I am a nobody. A five-star, number-twenty-seven champion nobody. There is absolutely nothing I can gain, monetary-wise, fame-wise, anything­-wise that I can get out a public spat with you. You win, instantly and before we get to a starting line that’s as rigged as is I were hopping on my K-Mart pushbike with Lance no-doping Armstrong next to me.

(Actually, I would lose in a cycling race with anybody. I can’t turn right without falling over, due to a dodgy ear. I walk the bike around sharp right-hand corners. But anyhow…)

You put a stupid idea up on Twitter: that drones would be a worthwhile instrument for a break-and-enter house burglar. And I said:

“Umm, no break-in technology will compete until it's cheaper than a brick applied to a window. #SpecialSubjectTheBleedingObvious”

@doctorow: “You get more time to search and harvest if the front window isn't smashed. Risk minimization is worth something to crims”

Me: “You're thinking like a hacker. A burglar only needs "undetectable" for enough time to find sellable stuff and get out.”

@doctorow: “Huge difference between a break-in that can be detected externally and a "silent" one”

Me: “So smash the back window. You're talking organised and intelligent. When did that last fit the profile of a burglar?”

After that, a bit of a storm arrived in my in-box, and I just can’t be arsed to relate the whole thing, except that apparently it offends the Sainted Cory to be accused of being a “futurist”.

But what gets me is two things.

One: You, dude, are rich and famous. I am not: I’m a working journalist with no particular claims, who thought one thing you said was a bit silly. I’m not going to damp the enthusiasm your fans obviously pour on your head. Why so serious? Why take one dissenting voice so personally that you have to back the shit-truck up to my doorstep?

Two: One of the few things I know about you – apart from Boing Boing – is that you believe in freedom of speech. So – again – why send the shit-truck over to a piss-poor nobody who spoke?

I yielded in the Twitter debate, because I like to sleep. But honestly, I would like to know: what’s the psychology behind someone of success and fame, drilling guns onto a nobody, merely for the crime of dissent?

PS, Cory. I’ve been burgled eight times. Every instance was fast, opportunistic, and based on a brick. If I found one person among the losers and junkies who stole CDs, cash, cigarettes, a hammer,  household electronics and, once, a two-year-outdated jar of caviar that probably landed them in hospital, who had either the capacity or contacts to use advanced technology in a break-in, I’d eat Clive Palmer’s used underwear. As a sci-fi story premise, “drones for burglars” sucks hairy donkey’s balls. And it’s derivative of Philip K Dick’s “The Unreconstructed M”. Now you know, and I know, and they know.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Stories about my father

I hope the Internet never forgets, because I’ve decided to set down some second-hand World War II tales before they’re lost. My father’s dead, and my memory won’t last forever.

In WW II he served in the navy – an Australian who, because we had more volunteers than ships, was seconded to the Brits. Specifically, he served on a British destroyer called the Quiberon.

Look, if you want accurate history, there are plenty. If I ever get an engagement or date wrong, I apologise. I’m recording stories: there is no warranty that my father told the truth or remembered things accurately. Some things, I would imagine, he would embellish to make them funnier or more dramatic.

But his dreams didn’t lie. I don’t know his dreams from the inside (who could?), but I can tell you this: some of the things he dreamed were the sounds of sonar.

On the Quiberon, one of my father’s postings was as an ASDIC operator – early sonar: in his memory, the acronym stood for Anti-Submarine Detection, Interdiction and Combat. Wikipedia disagrees; it doesn’t matter.

Even as late as the 1970s, my father’s Sunday afternoon doze on a particular chair would invariably be accompanied by a sound uncannily similar to what movie producers presented to the world as “sonar sounds” in war movies. Except he made the sounds, in his sleep, in his mouth.

I’m genuinely, seriously, one-hundred-percent not kidding. Dreaming on a soft chair on a Sunday afternoon, his mouth would make sonar sounds.

How do I know that it counted as “nightmare” instead of dream?

Well, one hint is that war isn’t a dream.

Another hint was that my father was extremely reluctant to discuss himself, ASDIC, and combat. I suppose, from a long perspective, that his instinct must have been protective. I had no shortage or “war movies” in my childhood – but I seem to have been shielded from “war reality”. Battle of Britain, Tora Tora Tora, Saving Private Ryan – yes, I saw those, and plenty of others.

But this: I was twenty-nine when my father died. There was, at that age, only one tale he would tell of life of a sonar operator: that the Quiberon, on his signals in the ear-phones, spent three days racing around the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of what turned out to be a whale. He was mortified: what if the depth-charge that killed the whale had turned out to be the one the ship needed to save itself?

And he felt bad about the whale. As a story, it was hilarious: “We picked up the echo and followed it for three days. When it finally stood still for a while, we fired the depth charges, and what floated to the surface was whale meat.”

The sonar nightmares lasted as long as his brain did.

And the point of this story?

Only to tell the story. Dad knew his objective: find enemy submarines, locate them, and help the gunners in charge of depth-charges to kill them. Did he feel it?

Certainly: I remember his recounting of meeting Japanese tourists in Katoomba in the 1980s:

“They asked me how to find Echo Point, and I told them. And they said ‘thank you’ and bowed. Don’t they know I might have killed their grandfather?”

That is one of the few times I can remember him crying.