I love the BBC’s ‘World Without’ documentaries

TheBBC World Service Documentaries are radio shows that look at what we would be missing if everyday mundane things had never existed. For example, copper:

“Without copper there’d be no lighting, electrical power for lighting, no radio, no renewable energy systems, no working automobiles, air conditioning or refrigerators, no digital electronics, no computing, no safe drinking water distribution…

“We each have just under half a fingernail of copper in our bodies…”

A previous documentary was about Cows and included a UK farm run on Hindu principles and the cow’s crucial role in the discovery and development of vaccines, among other things.


Timewise, I’m motivated to embus (and other frowned-upon words)

Every now and then newsrooms send around edicts banning overused phrases and ungainly words.

The use of access and impact as verbs springs to mind – something we were on constant guard against on the Business pages of the Daily Telegraph when I was there a few years ago.

Apparently, this is nothing new. The NZ Herald in its 1966 Manual of Journalism exhorted its writers thus:

“In recent years, without making them pass any sort of entrance examination, we seem to have admitted dozens of words which usually have little excuse for appearing in a newspaper. Some examples:

‘Few air services operated yesterday because of fog.’ Why not: ‘Fog stopped most air services yesterday.’

‘The Royal New Zealand Air Force will airlift food toIndia.’ Why not: ‘The Royal New Zealand Air Force will fly food to India.’

‘The house is situated in Jones Street.’ Why not: ‘The house is in Jones Street.’

‘The food position in India is desperate.’ Why not: ‘India is desperate for food.’

‘The men were transported to Taihape Hospital.’ Why not: ‘The men were taken to hospital.’

Newspapers offer scores of such examples, and usually they reflect lack of thought or a limited vocabulary.

Some journalists go further. They, or the persons whom they report, invent new words without thought for the need, the look or the sound.

Examples are hospitalise, for admitted to hospital; embus or emplane, for board a bus or aircraft; a rental, for rental car; non-availability, for not available; motivation or motivated, for caused or driven or a similar word; upgrade, for improve; motorise, for by motor vehicle; weatherwise, hotelwise, publicity-wise, and goodness knows how many more wises. And goodness knows what they mean!

In 2008, meanwhile, the UK Daily Telegraph’s list of banned words included:

epitome of
fall pregnant
fighting for his life
frail grannies
green light
hit series
gunned down
hike (when we mean a rise)

The email ‘pebble pile’ effect

A nice observation about email expectations from Merlin Mann, a software usability expert quoted in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody:

Email is such a funny thing. People hand you these single little messages that are no heavier than a river pebble. But it doesn’t take long until you have acquired a pile of pebbles that’s taller than you and heavier than you could ever hope to move, even if you wanted to do it over a few dozen trips. But for the person who took the time to hand you their pebble, it seems outrageous that you can’t handle that one tiny thing. “What pile? It’s just a pebble!”

Country Calendar still hits the mark

Country Calendar must be one of the few New Zealand media institutions that truly count as ‘iconic’. The weekly programme, which casts light on NZ farming, hasn’t looked back since its launch in 1966 and the current theme tune must be one of the most readily identifiable sounds for any Kiwi.

This clip gives a glimpse of what the programme used to look, and sound, like.

It’s gone on to become one of the longest-running TV programmes anywhere in the world and still ranks in the top 10 for viewing figures each week, according to the TVNZ website, with those viewers being both urban and rural and numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

That’s no mean feat. Someone somewhere must be doing something right.

In a talk at Wintec’s Media Bites function in 2008, Frank Torley, then executive producer of Country Calendar, offered the following about the show’s success:

“I don’t know… I’d like to believe that the New Zealand public recognises quality.

“The beginning of that process is research. If anybody says ‘Why is Country Calendar successful?’ — research, research, research. Keep doing it, find the story. What is the story, what are the people like, what else can we do?

“Having diagnosed, if you like, this is a good story, then we are the spoilt brats I suppose in so far as they do give us the budget to enable us to put the time and effort into making the programme.

“From the time of ‘here’s a story idea’ to ‘let’s go and shoot it’, may take a period of two or three weeks while we really look at it and make sure it all works.

“We then don’t leave it to chance, we do have it mapped out. We write up those research notes so the producer can get a decent handle on the story and not just airy fairy ‘oh, yeah, I reckon it’ll work’. It’s got to work, and it’s got to be seen to work.

“And then comes a treatment so that you’ve got an outline. Planning, if you like. PPPPP as our production manager calls it. Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

“And then we are given the opportunity to spend the time and …we get the wonderful co-operation of getting top cameramen and sound recordists.”


When to beg the question, and when not to

Phrases and terms have a way of getting mangled over time and it can be hard finding clear examples of what is and isn’t right.

Philip Corbett, a deputy news editor at the New York Times who’s in charge of its style manual, does a fine job explaining how to use ‘beg the question’:

Not long ago, I gently noted (again) our frequent misuse of the phrase “beg the question.” I pointed out that in precise usage, it does not mean “to raise the question” or “to beg that the question be asked” or even “to evade the question.” Rather, it refers to a circular argument; it means “to use an argument that assumes as proved the very thing one is trying to prove.”

… I’ll try to clarify the meaning with a pair of made-up examples. Imagine that we’re discussing Lindsay Lohan.

YOU: I can’t understand why the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous. She’s not that important or newsworthy.

ME: What? Of course she’s important and newsworthy! Lindsay Lohan is a big deal. Why, just look at the newsstand. People magazine, The Post, you name it. She’s everywhere.

YOU: That begs the question.

ME: Huh?

Your use of the phrase is correct. In arguing that Lindsay is important enough to merit heavy news coverage, I cite as evidence the fact that she gets heavy news coverage. It’s a circular argument that begs the question.


But imagine this conversation.

ME: I can’t understand why all the news media give so much coverage to Lindsay Lohan. It’s ridiculous.

YOU: I’m sure they do it just to sell papers and magazines.

ME: Yeah — which begs the question, why do people want to read about her?

YOU: That’s not begging the question. That’s simply raising the question.

ME: Huh?

My use is incorrect, though it is becoming extremely common. There’s even a Web site dedicated to stamping out this abuse of the term (begthequestion.info). You can print out handy cards that explain the correct meaning, and pass them out to strangers if you hear them misusing the phrase. (I am not endorsing this approach.)