Archive for July, 2014

Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

Cradle of the best and the worst

July 19, 2014
One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

I am on holiday with my family in Nevada and California, and while shopping for beer and clothing in Las Vegas, I was reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and the worst

Lenny’ was speaking of Democracy,  but I feel that the phrase can be extended into environmental, technological and cultural realms. And in his blog I wanted to record a few thoughts about the ‘best’ of the things I have seen.

Amidst the hyperbolic kitch of Las Vegas, we stayed in the walls of a gigantic hollow pyramid that is a truly astounding architectural and engineering achievement. For example, the elevators obviously cannot run vertically but instead run at angle along the slanted edges of the pyramid.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel - which is pyramidal in shape.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel – which is pyramidal in shape.

Housed underneath this beautiful roof were any number of gaudy distractions. But amongst them was the Bodies exhibition. I found the exhibition dignified, tasteful and astonishingly  educational. I left with renewed wonder at my body.

We visited the Hoover Dam in which the barely mentioned reality is that the water levels are running low. But there is no denying the engineering genius and boldness of the ambition behind it’s construction.

The Ivanpah Solar Power plant may be on the wrong-side of a historic divide between solar photo-voltaic and solar thermal. But the engineering is awe-inspiring: three giant towers concentrating solar energy – one resource which is not in short supply in this part of the world.

In Los Angeles we have used the excellent public transport rail system, which is easily accessible and welcomes bicycles. Over long stretches it has been built to use the inner lanes of freeways or major roads to minimise construction costs. And nearly all the buses have bicycle carriers attached to their fenders.

An LA Metro Train. Teh station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

An LA Metro Train. The station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

Many freeways have car pool lanes – in which only cars with more than one passenger may travel. Some freeways use a road pricing system –  long-discussed in the UK – in which the price to use a ‘Fastrak’ lane changes minute by minute – reaching peaks of 10 times the minimum charge at times of peak congestion. These lanes also allow fast buses to speed public transport as advertised in this excessively positive advertising video.

Of course road traffic defines LA. But driving speeds are slower in suburban streets  than in the UK’s narrower and more congested roads. In the suburban area of LA in which we are staying (El Segundo) traffic is dramatically better than Teddington.  And contrary to myth, there is excellent provision for pedestrians. And of course, California is a world-leader in legislation to control vehicle emissions.

The Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl  is aunique cultural venue combining excellent music with the  friendly ambience of the proms and the ability to picnic as the Sun sets over the Hollywood Hills.

Culturally, the Getty Centre and Villa, the California Science Centre  (which houses the space shuttle Endeavour) and the Griffiths Observatory are among the best museums I have ever visited. And they are free.

The Disney Theatre is breathtaking and the Hollywood Bowl provides a venue for music that is unique – it felt like ‘the Proms with picnics’

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a modern day secular temple to the stars.

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a secular temple to the stars.

So forgive me if I pass on reciting the sins of this resource-gobbling satan. In this ‘cradle’along with ‘the worst’, are some things that I find inspiring and well-worthy of the epithet ‘the best’. And I hope that like many Californian innovations – such as vehicle emission limits – many of these will leave this cradle and spread around the world.

And to my friends: forgive me if I forgive myself for this carbon-heavy holiday.

My body is a machine

July 12, 2014

This song is the best song ever written about glycolosis: the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’. 

Although I never studied it at school, I have known for a long time about the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’.

But only recently I have become aware of how the ‘engine’ of my body works, and what it feels like when it doesn’t.

As a slightly overweight (86 kg, 1.75 m) 54-year-old male I am aware that I am entering my prime heart-attack decade. Exercise is apparently the key to reducing my risk, but I have not been doing much of that lately: you know how it is.

And whenever I had tried to exercise by jogging at what felt a comfortable pace, I would find that after maybe half a mile I would find my heart racing, I would be out of breath and would need to slow down dramatically – even stop. I assumed that this was a symptom of early-onset death.

However, recently I decided to try this running lark again and popped into the local ‘Sweatshop’ where a very enthusiastic young man took pressure patterns of my feet as I stood on a glass plate, and then made videos of me running on a treadmill. All very high tech. He then sold me a pair of embarrassingly expensive running shoes.

And as an afterthought I bought a £50 heart monitor. It consists of band that goes around my chest – which detects the electrical signals associated with each beat of my heart – which is wirelessly linked to a watch which displays my heart rate.

Suitably equipped, I began to investigate how the engine of my own body was behaving.

The first number I looked for was my resting heart rate. I tried the monitor out throughout one whole day and found that – perhaps surprisingly – my lowest heart rate did not occur lying in bed in the morning (67 beats per minute or bpm) but instead at a planning  meeting at work (60 bpm). This is a healthy number and I was relieved. But maybe I need to contribute more to meetings.

All the web sites frame heart rates for exercise in terms of maximum heart rate. This number varies from person to person, and declines with age. A little reading told me that the typical value for a 54 year old male is around 170 beats per minute (bpm) And based on this I should be exercising at around 140 bpm.

And so the second  number I had to find was my maximum heart rate. This turned out be closer to 195 bpm which I think is basically a good thing. And based on my maximum heart rate, the web sites say I should be exercising at a much faster heart rate.

The sites predict that I should experience a transition from aerobic to anaerobic exercise at around 165 to 170 bpm. And when I ran I could feel that change exactly where it was supposed to be.

Using the monitor I found that if I jog at 165 bpm I don’t go very fast, but I can sing to myself and feel barely out of breath. I can basically run until I am bored.

But when my heart rate reaches 175 bpm I find myself shorter of breath and can either tough it out or relax back to a more manageable 165 bpm.

So the key to understanding my experience of what my body was doing was to make a measurement not of my speed of running – but of my heart rate. I guess it is equivalent to watching the rev-meter on a car instead of the speedometer.

And as result I have been able to run local roads on a course that lasts 5 kilometers: further than I have ever run before. And at the end I still have energy for a not very impressive sprint. (It’s not the time that I care about – its just I would like to give my neighbours the impression that I have been running at that speed all the time)

And the reason I am writing this is because the experience has left me feeling mildly empowered and slightly relieved. Understanding what I was experiencing and being able to relate it to what other people experienced was comforting. It’s just another example of Kelvin’s maxim that until you can ‘put a number’ to something, you do not truly understand it.

And the good news is that the device is telling me that, rather than being close to death, I instead have the heart of younger man. So as long as he doesn’t want it back any time soon, that’s great!

Farewell to Schooledemia

July 4, 2014
The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester.

The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester., my own alma mater.

[Advice for readers for whom English is not their first language: “Schooledemia” is not a real word.]

It is now one week since my eldest son took his last public exam, and with ‘proms’ and parties concluded, his school days are now over.

He seems fairly nonchalant – off for a week’s holiday with his friends – but I am still stunned.

I am not surprised – obviously – because I have known this day was coming. But I am shocked: was that it?

Part of what has confused me is that I can recall vividly specific days in his academic life:

  • Looking in on him in the playground at infant school;
  • Seeing him off on his first day at Secondary School;

These days seem like they were yesterday.

And my youngest son has also completed his GCSE’s – another milestone.

So having been critical of these exams in the past, I just thought I would make a note about my parental experience of these exams.


My overwhelming impression of GCSE’s is that while my son has learned a lot, exam standards are much too low.

This has resulted in pervasive ‘gaming’ of the exams – with schools coaching students to answer questions in specific ways in order to match the examiner’s ritualised concept of a correct answer.

This is not to say that students don’t work hard, or that teachers don’t teach well. But in the subjects that I care about most – Maths and Physics – the knowledge of teachers in state schools is (in general) abysmal. And students know it.

This causes teachers to focus on ‘getting marks in the exam‘. And if ever an approach were design to kill inspiration or curiosity – this is it.

I can’t offer any solutions, but that is what I see.

‘A’ levels

My impression of ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics and German is that they are really quite difficult. But I think again that they are still not difficult enough.

In order to get in to prestigious universities, students need to achieve almost perfect exam scores, and – as someone who has always been very far from perfect – I distrust perfectionists.

The purpose of exams

The purpose of exams is to discriminate against pupils who demonstrate less ability to pass exams.

Their purpose is to select the academically brightest in the same way that the purpose of a high jump is to select the people who can jump the highest – its an artificial test – but so are all tests. And tests are only meaningful if people fail.

I have all kinds of suggestions for particular things that could be done to enable this process to take place while retaining fairness, but in fact my interest in the whole process is waning.

In honesty I feel only relief that my own children’s interaction with the educational system is nearing its end. And sympathy for the teachers who have to put up with the apparently endless series of ‘improvements’ that never seem to fundamentally change the reality on the ground.






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