Railway to Somewhere Thursday, Feb 14 2013
Is £32bn enough to build a good railway?
We will have to hope so as that is the proposed budget for HS2, a new railway due to open in about 2033. The long-awaited route was announced at the end of January 2013, raising a rather inevitable raft of concerns, including some about historical events and some that are more business-based.
There have been a variety of views expressed – generally either in favour of or against HS2. Those in favour talk about increasing capacity and that trains will be faster, and presumably safer. Opponents say it is not cost effective, that the evidence does not really support the reasoning proposed and that there are bigger priorities elsewhere, particularly regional railways in the north of England. There is little doubt that such regional railways would undoubtedly join up that region better than the current system by increasing capacity and lowering journey times.
Increasing capacity on railways means, of course, improving infrastructure such that more people can travel between stations in a day. I say stations, rather than cities or places, because that is what they seem to be called, inexplicably—either that or “station stops”. It sounds like the rhetoric of an ignoramus or the result of a botched re-branding, but perhaps there is another possibility. Perhaps they are just trying to be honest.
In the 19th century, it was often quite difficult for railway companies to cite stations and lines where they wanted them. Just look at maps of places like Cambridge or Loughborough: the railway stations are barely in the place of the name they bear. This sounds preposterous enough on its own, but the worst thing is that despite the century-and-a-half there has been to improve the situation, the railway station in Cambridge is still not near big roads, the airport, the centre of town or where most people live. The same is true of a relatively new station ambitiously named “East Midlands Airport Parkway”. Easily the nearest thing to that is a power station. The station is five miles from the East Midlands airport. No buses are scheduled to stop at the station, and you have to ring for a cab from the one firm advertised at the station; the hardware of a taxi rank is barely evident. None of this poor planning and execution is helpful for passenger capacity, and thus usefulness of railway infrastructure, on anyone’s terms. The transport minister in the Lords under the last Labour government summed this up from a different perspective when he said about the HS2 public consultation that “everyone wants the stations but nobody wants the line”. We start to see why building new railways is difficult.
These points imply a history of a problem that would surely be put at the top of the list of building new railways: how to avoid compromising on the quality of the railway so the thing is useful once it is finished. Usefulness is clearly the clear over-riding concern: no one embarks on major railway-building projects because they are bored. Further, there is no doubt that a good railway will pay for itself on that basis alone, as Brunel’s railways have done, if the effort can be made in the first place.
It was therefore with bated breath that I awaited the proposed route of HS2. They might finally be about to do something really good with this big project, I supposed that they might be about to join up some big places and allow branch lines and other building projects to develop after that. I wondered if they might avoid the need for the closures of railways in the 1960s and 70s under Beeching, by ensuring that what was being proposed was useful in the long term. The route published for HS2 was therefore rather disappointing. Birmingham, and important hub in the West Midlands, appears to be a spur from the main line, rather than any kind of interchange. It is therefore awkward to connect the northern stations with those in either the East or West Midlands by train. A station is being built at a place called Toton, with the rather weak suggestion that this will serve “Both Nottingham and Derby”. It is a good trick if you can do it, currently 20 minutes is a quick journey time by train between those two cities.
The truth is that this sort of thing represents a nasty compromise. Making transport plans seem big and shiny will only become disappointingly empty if they are not backed up by joining up the planned infrastructure with other transport means and destinations in a coherent manner. Put another way, there is no point in cutting journey times for distances of 150 miles by 45 minutes, if the 10 miles from the station to the final destination is not only required but then takes an hour because that station is in the arse end of nowhere on a line that is in the wrong place.
So, there is at least one thing that is wrong with HS2 (Birmingham spur) and another (Toton interchange) that is, at best, complicated. On this basis, it seems likely that HS2 needs a re-think. Despite these and other prescient concerns, it is quite difficult to be actively against HS2. Are we are in a position to complain about funding of railway projects, especially when we need to invest in hardware to improve the economy? The sad truth is that we will probably never be in a position to complain, even though much of the planning is dubious and does not fit with the priorities of what will be useful or workable. This is why mainline stations get refurbished at a cost of millions, doubtless making their use marginally easier for a tiny number of passengers, but while several other places remain without a station at all. That said, a refurbishment or a line that nearly goes somewhere useful is something, and something is more than nothing.
Equal Marriage and Really Rubbish Debating Tuesday, Feb 5 2013
Reform of the law about marriage is being debated and voted upon in the House of Commons today. The debate has been going for a while, so a vote about now seems timely. It will be between the ‘pro’ side, whose principle argument seems to be that same-sex couples should be allowed to get married if they want to, in the way that opposite-sex couple are, and the ‘anti’ side, whose principle argument seems to be that relationships and sex between two men (and by implication between two women) are forbade in religious texts and so should not be allowed to marry as this would lend credence to a sinful act.
In a democracy, this seems like a fairly ordinary debate in many ways—two groups of people debate/argue over a certain thing and whichever is the biggest group by the end, at least in parliament, wins. It is how virtually every other decision is made in a western democracy. But I do find myself wanting more. What the arguments in the debate boil down to is that one side wants it because they think they should have it, and the other side thinks they should not. Based on that you might say there is not much difference, one might easily think that any kind of objective decision was basically impossible. It could be met with the attitude ‘Let it go to the majority, there’s no shame in that.’ I am not so sure, and for two reasons.
First is the obvious unfairness of one group of people (e.g. devout Christians) telling another group of people (gayers) how they should build their relationships. This notion that it is not allowed according to the bible becomes preposterous with even the most superficial analysis: if the law were changed to allow pairs of men and pairs of women to get married, it would not change what Christians or other religionists do or have to do with respect to marriage. So why should the religious argument about what is written in religious texts be relevant? It almost makes basing marriage laws on the bible look tantamount to religious persecution.
The second argument is a bigger one. It also goes right to the heart of our legal system. It is an argument about equitability.
Historians tell us that the signing of Magna carta in 1215 was the first step towards an equitable legal system in England. It was the initial move towards all people being treated equally in the eyes of the law. Obviously we continue to make exception for those who are too young to make the decisions knowingly, or too ill or infirm to do so, but in general being 18 or 80, male or female, rich or poor, justice is the priority in decision making. This, I think, is universally agreed as a good plan. So, if we aspire to an equitable legal system, in which all consenting adults have equal legal value, why would we not let any two of them get married? Despite the length of the debate, that argument does not seem to have surfaced.
I suspect marriage reform will take place, and in case my inflammatory tone has hidden it too well, I strongly support the move. I think there are too many people who do support the move for it to be voted down and it is too much of a vote-winner not to go through. It just seems a shame that we will probably get the right thing but for the wrong reasons.
What Authors Want Saturday, Jan 19 2013
There is a lot of advice out there for authors. For creative writing, there are a plethora of courses, groups and on-line forums available. There is even a degree you can do: English literature.
In science, there are fewer such opportunities. Although this is starting to change, resources are not overwhelming. It should get better soon as ‘science communication’ is the current whoring-out that scientists will do to get funded, but there is nothing tangible for those who work in science, yet, particularly at a junior level. This does seem a bit of a shame as plenty of authors, especially those who do not have the advantage of being a native of the language in which they wish to publish, struggle.
I am starting to reach what I think must be the stage in my career where I review or edit a good deal more written work of others in paper form than I produce. It should therefore be heartening to see that authors of scientific manuscripts can get some help, and I can point them in the direction of something if they fail to put in the title. A perfect example of this rocked up in my twitter feed not long ago – ‘five things that authors should do to avoid annoying reviewers‘ was the gist.
Although I thought all five were right, they also appear in the submission guidelines of every journal worth publishing in, and many that are not. So this advice is out there, and not hard to find when submitting manuscripts to scientific journals. But what about when the boot is on the other foot and authors become reviewers?
Seldom does anyone decline the opportunity to read someone else’s work anonymously: after being bashed about by a whole queue of senior management, timewasters and aggressive simpletons just to stay in science, the power trip of reviewing someone else’s paper is all too tempting. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but the curiosity that drives scientists is probably enough to make just about any of us do reviews if they are offered. And we are constantly told that peer-review is central to good standing as a professional scientist.
The trouble is a lot of reviewing is shy-makingly bad. I am not about to say this is typically down to the inexperience of early-stage researchers, as I suspect is probably is not. However, when you see the comments some reviewers write, it is hard to believe that the cloak of anonymity they wear is not interpreted by them as a barrier to social graces, politeness or even their own scientific accuracy. But I am rushing ahead. Would it not be a good idea to give tips to would-be and experienced reviewers alike? As someone who has written and reviewed, I am going to suggest the following for debate. So, if you have not reviewed a paper before and even if you have, see what you think:
1. You do not have to take any paper offered
Would it really sit well in your conscience if you review a paper on bioinformatics if you were a geneticist? I thought not. So why do it?
If you are ever lucky enough to have the opportunity to review a paper written by someone you know or has wronged you, or both, it is worth remembering that it is much better ethically just to walk away. Shafting them just because you can do so anonymously is not going to get you anywhere in the long term and is not good peer review.
2. Be precise and objective but do not forget that you can also be helpful
You will be aware or be able to imagine easily that the job of a reviewer is generally to assess scientific content, presentation etc. of a manuscript. This is an important job and is at the heart of peer review. What is not so much at the heart is comments or ‘feedback’ are a force ten gale of worthless nit-picking or axe-grinding. It is not the place for either, however well justified they may feel. Assess the scientific content and get on with your day.
3. It is a person on the other end
Think about how you phrase the comments you submit. The chances are they will be taken very seriously and focused upon intently. There are plenty of ways of phrasing things that get the point across in a gentle way and avoid making a difficult, slow and tense process even worse than it already is. Examples include replacing “Wtf did the authors thing they were doing when they wrote…” with “I was surprised to see…” and replacing “If these authors cannot use spell-check, how can you expect me to trust them to use a Scanning Electron Microscope?” with “There appear to be a number of spelling errors that should be clarified before this manuscript can be accepted”, and so on. You should not dampen the scope or depth of your analysis, but you do not have to be an arse, either.
4. Follow the journal rules, but also, use common sense
The chances are, if a journal has sent you a manuscript to review, it is probably the sort of thing they are prepared to publish. More often than not, what is required of you as an expert in that field is a reasonably quick assessment of whether the manuscript should be published or not, on grounds of quality. So, unless a journal explicitly states that they want you assess a given aspect of the manuscript, like the style of references, use of the semi-colon, etc., do not do so. Not only does a clearer focus shorten the time it will take you to do the review, but it will stop you looking a pillock, albeit an anonymous one. That said, you can ask questions, to both the author(s) and to the journal. “Have the authors considered the X limitation of Y technique, and how this affects Z result?” and “Does this manuscript match the general audience to which your journal is distributed?” are examples, respectively.
5. Check your facts
No, actually, do not bother. As an author, it is immensely satisfying to pick up reviewers on their mistakes, especially if they are glaring enough for the poor sod at the journal to notice them too. Choice examples from my own experience include:
“Have the authors considered the legal implications of the commercial use of X?” for a paper about isolating material from waste plant debris and thus one in which we felt a legal analysis of the industrial use of this stuff was outside the scope of a simple analysis paper;
“The results section is incredibly short and explains only the beginning of that mentioned in the Abstract” about a manuscript in which the results section was half the length of its seven pages. We suspect the reviewer had read only the first paragraph and fallen over at the first section heading of the results section;
“This paper would be better suited to a toxicology journal” about a manuscript detailing the molecular analysis we had done using chemical techniques, of the components of healthy plant tissue that is not remotely toxic.
Like you, no one expects to publish in any journal they happen to submit to but equally nasty reviews in the name of scientific rigour are unnecessary and damaging.
The Patriarchy Wednesday, Nov 14 2012
I find it hard not to be disappointed when I hear a feminist talk about “The Patriarchy”. I should say straight away that have no wish to attack anyone purely because they hold a given point of view; feminism is no more or less than any other political position one can adopt and thus has as much right to an airing as any other. But I will try to understand the point of view intellectually, and I will question it if I find it wanting.
At the heart of this thought is that I have never heard a clear definition of “the Patriarchy”. In a literal sense, those words and their usage suggest a ruling, if slightly mystical group of fathers who are implacably powerful. I think this notion has a number of flaws. For example, it is not clear how that can be calculated to be the case in a democracy. What is clear that there are more men in the House of Commons, for example, than women. Acquiring ruling power democratically is clearly a competitive business and so perhaps it is not surprising that more of its successful subjects will be of the gender that is more ambitious and willingly competitive (male), than one that is typically less so (female). The gender demographic of this group is therefore just a sort of measure of the difference between men and women in this way and so the use of the term “the patriarchy” to refer to them seems weak.
Another obvious observation to make about the underlying meaning of “the patriarchy” is that it refers to men in general. This is evident from a combination of the use of the words “the patriarchy” to refer to any behaviour or decision by men—from ones who happen to have any kind of authority, as well as those who do not know how to behave in wine bars. At the very least, the term itself cannot avoid referring to maleness in some form and so a meaning referring to masculine people is an easy shorthand to use. The trouble is, that conclusion would mean that feminists are indulging their dislike of those who are different from them with a somewhat archaic term to criticise any man simply for being so. This would be small-minded and is certainly not what I want to think of a group of people that includes a number of intellects that are demonstrably better than my own. Perhaps it therefore refers to a certain proportion of male species? Perhaps it is those who are powerful. That group is not constant and does not refer to all men, so at first sight it seems possible. Let us explore that possibility for a moment.
It is clear from even the lightest analysis that the men who have risen to the top of large organisations, either democratically or by appointment, are not the weedy stupid ones with a weak sense of self and no vision of what they want to achieve. This is probably why those powerful men are regarded as egotistical. Perhaps they are, though it is probably a pejorative and alienating way of putting it. Either way, I am not sure I see how this reconciles with any kind of “patriarchy”; are we really to believe that the most powerful, egotistical, men are somehow working together in an unseen co-ordinated effort to subjugate all others, especially women, and in a way that none of us have noticed nor can do anything about? Although it would explain the fashion for teambuilding training days, I hope that is not the intended conclusion, because a belief in anything like that without some pretty firm evidence is surely where madness lies.
So, it seems unlikely that the term “the Patriarchy” refers to all men, or the most powerful/competitive/ambitious ones. So, presumably it refers to the less powerful, weaker ones. Is that credible though? Obviously some men are pricks. It is a given. Just like there are clearly some women who are moody and others who have intimacy issues. However, amazingly, that goes for some men, too. So, singlinig out men for censure on that seems rather unnecessary, less still the reason for a ruling belief. So what benefit in holding such a view to be self-evident?