Posts from criticism

Too much information?

Here’s a summary of Dr. No:

The Western world falls under the shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of the threat is traced to a monstrous figure, the mad and deformed scientist Dr. No, who lives half across the world in an underground cavern on a remote island. The hero James Bond goes to the armourer who equips him with special weapons. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Dr. No’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such near-supernatural powers, it seems Bond cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowy threat has been lifted. The Western world has been saved. Bond can return home triumphant.

I’ve chosen that version from The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, which uses this particular form to illustrate that Dr No shares the same core story as Gilgamesh, written four or five thousand years earlier. Cute.

My point is slightly different, in that you’ve just read a 135-word summary of a 110-minute film. You can comfortably read 135 words, aloud, in under a minute. I just tried, and not just reading but performing that paragraph I clocked myself at 42 seconds. Whatever, the implication is that the running time of Dr No comprises roughly 1% information. What’s the other 99%?

Aesthetics. Emotion. Character.

My hunch is that most fiction fits the same sort of pattern. Where it doesn’t — Game of Thrones, anyone? — we get easily confused, baffled by the number of ideas and suffocating under the proliferation of cast. So, by way of comparison, how do we go about planning science media?

We pack as much information in as possible. In a demonstration lecture we rely on the ‘demonstration’ to drive attention, and shy away from the ‘lecture.’ We run away from aesthetics, emotion and character, which leaves only exposition — and we’re at least dimly aware exposition is the dull bit. Best throw in another explosion.

So we flit from one set-piece to another, relentlessly seeking pace!, excitement!, fun!, inspiration!

Dr. No contains its share of fun, excitement and pace. They’re not without purpose, and we’re not wrong to include them in our work. But our choice to shy away from aesthetics and emotion and character does not always serve us well. We should be good at those things too, and deploy them when they can be effective.

There’s a terrific example to be had in Brian Cox’s recent series Wonders of Life, which took Brian’s trademark emotion and returned an aesthetic sense we’ve not seen in science documentary for some time (if ever, frankly). I’ll have more to say about Wonders of Life in subsequent posts, it’s a fascinating case study. I wasn’t a complete fan.

Graduates in STEM ‘need to rise by half’

The majority of future STEM jobs will be in engineering, requiring almost one in five 21-year-olds to enter the profession between now and 2020
(— via Times Higher Education )

This is reported from a Social Market Foundation report, *In the Balance: The STEM human capital crunch”. The SMF’s own press release leads with the, to my mind, even more explosive:

The Government’s aim to rebalance the economy away from financial services is inconceivable due to a 40,000 per year shortage of home-grown graduates in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors

Their argument appears to be based on last year’s RAEng report Jobs and Growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy (link currently goes to a PDF). I haven’t seen much discussion of that report, despite how crucial its conclusions appear to be.

If this is even vaguely correct, those of us working in STEM engagement and education are tackling not a minor, trivial, spare-time sort of problem, but a major national crisis. Surely.


The timescale being discussed is ‘by 2020’: people who’d graduate from straight-in 4-year degrees in 2020 have already started their GCSEs. Heck, they’re the generation who might still remember my CITV science shows from when they were 9. You know, before science was removed from children’s TV altogether. And they’re the last year group to fall within this study — everybody for the years before 2020 is already in the pipeline. We can fret about conversion rates, but the ball is already in the roulette wheel and where you place your bet is somewhat irrelevant at this point.

I’ve been meaning to write about this — shout about it — since I first heard of the RAEng report last November. I’m still stunned that nobody seems to be running around screaming that the house is on fire.

I’m particularly baffled that the engineering sector doesn’t appear to see this as a crisis. As their crisis. Why aren’t they frantically looking around the sector, wild-eyed with terror, desperate for anything that might make a difference?

Have they given up? Do they not want to invest? Do they think the Big Bang Fair and Queen Elizabeth Prize have them covered? Perhaps they don’t think this is a tractable problem?

I’m genuinely confused.

Relationships and audience scale

This is interesting:

It’s not about content: Part I:
I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.
— (Via Jeff Jarvis/BuzzMachine)

This tallies with my current thinking, that the revolution we’re living through (and shaping) revolves around audience scale. I see lots of projects which are rooted in managers trying to come to terms with mass audiences. ‘Mass’ in the television or newspaper sense: writhing mobs of millions of people.

From my experience, it takes several years of working with these audience scales before you even begin to get comfortable thinking about them, let alone understand them, and I’m not sure anybody truly does understand them. Without that background, too many web media campaigns are ill-conceived and badly-run, as people chase some weird chimera of what they imagine mass media should be like. But they’re chasing the wrong goal anyway, as are the people who relentlessly clutch at the glory days of broadcast and yearn for their return. It’s not about millions of people any more.

In the blunderbuss days of broadcast ‘millions’ was about as precise as targeting got, but maybe only 10% of that audience really engaged with the content. The rest were collateral damage, and with the aid of precision web munitions media we can try to zero-in on the ‘real’ audience and avoid wasting everyone else’s time. That ‘real’ audience, the people you can engage and connect with, may be a thousand people or a hundred thousand. Unless you’re Coca-Cola it’s probably not ‘millions.’

But that core audience is tremendously precious, because they’re your customers, your collaborators, your partners. They’re the people who receive your message and act upon it.

Jarvis is right: it’s about the relationships, and the content you produce as a way to establish those relationships.

The trouble with notes

This is why film-makers always cringe when anyone with the word ‘executive’ in their title gets to see a rough-cut:

I once worked on a series which had more BBC executives attached than we had production team making the show. We also had a four-day turn-around from shoot to delivery of edit (and another three days to transmission), every week for six weeks. That was fun.

(RGB) Parade’s End

Tom Stoppard’s adaptation for the BBC of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is gathering rave reviews left, right, and centre. Between Cumberbatch’s mumbling, the intercut timelines, and not quite understanding who everyone was in the breakfast scene I’ll confess I found myself somewhat adrift.

However, this cheered me up:

Parade's End framegrab RGB Parade's End

If the BBC can get away with blowing their highlights that badly, I feel a damned sight better about some of my own wayward exposures. The yellowish roll-off makes this looks like it came from a badly-setup AF100, too, which is either an odd production choice or a really odd grading choice.

Cheltenham, what’s next, and all that

Andrea exhaling

I should probably bang on about the Cheltenham Science Festival, since I’ve finally been. However, in a scant few hours I’m on a train to London, so I’ll have to be brief.

It was fun. It was more fun than I’d expected, which is all the more amazing given that it’s about as over-hyped as I’d expected. There’s lots for a curmudgeon like me to scowl at, but it’s still fun. Well, apart from a certain contretemps between one of my peers and a peer of the realm. More on that another time, perhaps.

I learned stuff, I met some great new people, I caught up with friends old and new. Perhaps best of all, it’s put me in the right frame of mind to tackle StoryCog’s next adventure.

We still have some stuff to sort out and it’s premature to offer any details, but it’s an open secret that it involves the Royal Institution. And you can guess that video is involved. And the web. And, you know, trying to change the world for the better.

That’s what we do.

Meanwhile: there are more of my photos from Andrea Sella’s insane Over-Ambitious Demo Challenge on Flickr. Enjoy.

Excellence in what?

At the Beacons’ Engage2010 conference back in November, one of the more lively sessions involved the stalwart Jim Al-Khalili. He reported on the then-current trains of thought regarding public engagement’s place in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, and I think it’s fair to say it was a prickly session. My perception was that many practitioners in the room felt the policy-makers were lagging somewhat.

One specific concern I raised was more strategic: it sounded to me like the sort of system the research councils were considering would tend to reward tried-and-tested, low-risk approaches to engagement. Which is rather in contrast to their approach to research projects, but — if I’m taking a cheap shot here — would put them in step with other funders of public engagement. Ahem.

I haven’t managed to keep up with discussions about the REF, so I don’t know how it’s developing. However, idle chat this morning with Paul McCrory of Think Differently did bring us to another realisation: shifting research councils’ STEM engagement funding into research grants, and assessing that research against public impact metrics, will tend to skew the public engagement audience older.

Suppose you’re a cub researcher, and you’ve been lumbered with delivering your lab’s engagement quota. Or maybe you volunteered, either out of exuberant idealism or because your department head is an inspirational leader (somebody like the aforementioned Al-Khalili, say, or everyone’s favourite chemist Andrea Sella). Whatever, your challenge is to convey your work to a wider audience. More specifically, it’s to increase the public impact of your lab’s research, since that’s what’s being measured by the REF.

The upshot, most likely, is that you do a CafĂ© Scientifique slot and a few talks in schools. Great. Both worthy things to do, and unless you’re a really hopeless speaker perhaps even quite effective. For the moment we’ll gloss over whether such approaches are a bit ‘empty-vessel’, because what I’m really trying to get at here is:

When an academic works with a school audience, in most cases they’ll be in a secondary school. Their audience will be 13-18 years old, likely even skewed towards the upper end of that range. Talking about current research with this age bracket is absolutely something we should be doing, and trying our darndest to do really well.

But contrast this with current education research, like the longitudinal ASPIRES project being run by King’s College London. Their starting point goes like this:

There is now considerable evidence that children’s interest in school science declines from the age of ten onwards. The continued under-representation of girls and women in science is also well documented.

Yet research suggests that there is little or no gender distinction in attitudes towards science at age 10, suggesting that there is a critical period between the ages of 10 and 14 in which to engage students.

My question, then, isn’t so much about how the REF is going to promote and develop excellence in engagement work. It’d love to get a solid answer to that sometime, but rather more pressing is:

How is the REF going to increase STEM engagement provision for under-12s?

The research councils would likely say that, frankly, this isn’t their problem. They’re quite likely right.

So whose problem is it?


There’s a bunch of stuff I want to write about O2Learn and Jamie’s Dream Teachers, but since we’ve entered the latter I should probably be careful. At least for now.

One thing I did just tweet, however, is this:

Crowd-sourced rubbish is still rubbish. Don’t waste people’s time with it unless you’re offering quality as well.

In this context: don’t waste teachers’ time with crap resources, even if they’ve made them themselves. It’s a waste of a precious resource (ie. teacher time), and you’ll build neither audience nor participation that way.

There are, I think, three alternatives:

  1. Quality, then scale.
    Set a standard, establish a form, then invite contributions. I guess this is what we’re trying with the Physics Demonstration Films.
  2. Nurture, guide, shape.
    Your project isn’t about ‘user-generated content’, it’s about investing editorial effort with a wide network of collaborators. Example: compare YouTube, which is full of cats falling in swimming pools and ripped-off TV shows, and Vimeo, which is full of exquisitely-crafted films made by talented directors. I caricature both sites, but you get the point.
  3. Don’t take it too seriously.
    Be playful; reward attention by entertaining; keep your utilitarian goal at arm’s length, let people have fun, and trust that where there’s joy there’s value.

I reckon I took all three approaches with SciCast, to varying extents. It’s deliberately silly and playful, and I spent much of the first year of the project on the road running workshops in schools, partly to kick the project off with the ‘right’ sorts of films but also to help judge what kind of support our contributors would need. We’ve done less of the latter than I’d like, but then, we’ve only ever run on a skeleton staff.

All this boils down to one thing: if you’re looking to run a resource site based on contributed content, it’s not about participation and the stuff people give you, it’s about the editorial approach and support you offer to them.


StoryCog is a communication consultancy and film production company; see more about us here, or explore the links above left. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, though they're quite likely to represent the company's position too.


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