04 August 2009

About about

Whatever you think about the new innovation investment fund that the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS), you can't admire their use of words. Take their latest announcement, Government’s Uk Innovation Investment Fund Takes Shape.

The press release does its job, but the "Notes to editors" perpetrate one of those crimes against English that can upset pedants. It says:

There are about 1,093 venture capital backed technology companies in the UK employing over 40,000 highly skilled people.
About 1,093? There really is no point in attaching 'about' to something that definitive. Either it is 1,093 or it is about 1,100.

There are several reason why 'about 1,093' doesn't make sense. The first is that the number is current for a very short period, until the next one comes along. Then there is the problem that the number was probably never really that accurate, at least not in terms of the official statistics, which are bound to miss one or two businesses.

24 April 2009

Lost in transition

That's it. I have had enough of this mangling of the language. It is time to point the finger at the guilty parties, starting with Frost & Sullivan.

This usually intelligent bunch of people cannot hide their roots in management land, where clear writing has never been the name of the game, as the ever excellent Lucy Kellaway points out every week in the Financial Times.

The latest crime against clear writing comes in the article North American Battery Manufacturing Trends. This item is one of a continuing series of excellent briefs on important subjects that Frost & Sullivan puts out regularly. Any journalist following technology would do well to sign up for access to these free reports.

The service would be a lot better if the articles were written in English. For example, why on earth do they have to write in this short report "Historically, battery manufacturing has transitioned away from the U.S. and Canada towards regions that offer lower production and capital costs, and higher governmental incentives"?

Transitioned? They mean moved. If you want to use a longer word to describe this simple process, try migrated.

Repeat after me, Frost & Sullivan, transition is not a verb. If the word transition is dear to you, and has some special meaning in the world of batteries, the phrase you are looking for is "made the transition".

The trouble with this sort of language is that it makes you look at the rest of the article. So you ask yourself, what can they mean when they say "North America has been cultivating battery innovation and advancement for years"? What sort of fertiliser do they use?

Then you start to look at how the company describes itself. Frost & Sullivan, we read, is "the Growth Partnership Company". What does that mean?

It gets worse. The next bit of the description of the business says that it "partners with clients to accelerate their growth". Partners with? Do they mean "works with"? Or is there something kinky going on here?

It would be all to easy to go on, and on and on and on, about this sort of drivel. (Frost & Sullivan's "services empower clients to create a growth-focused culture that generates, evaluates, and implements effective growth strategies".) Instead, perhaps it would be better to offer them some editorial support, paid for, of course, they are consultants, after all. It wouldn't take a decent writer very long to eliminate the most egregious crimes against the language.

24 February 2009

Forgotten travellers are a mental challenge

Ever arrived at a strange railway station or airport terminal and wondered what the heck you are supposed to do? Spare a thought, then, for people "with cognitive impairment and those with mental health problems”. The chaos and confusion can be even worse for them, as I found when working up the item Forgotten travellers for my IET transport slot.

Prompted by a report from the OECD's International Transport Forum, Cognitive Impairment, Mental Health and Transport, the story concerns the design and operation of transport systems in a way that makes them easier to navigate. Information has to be simple and easier to pick out from stuff that doesn't matter.

The real message for me is that make life easier for this segment of the population, one that is growing as there are more older folks around with declining mental powers, and travel also becomes easier for the rest of us.

09 February 2009

Useless PDF files

I was looking forward to writing about the CBI's recent survey of companies and their attitudes to R&D tax credits. In the end, the piece I wrote, Would you tax credit it?, over on Science|Business was less than it might have been.

That is because whoever produced the report over at the CBI decided that it was too sensitive to allow anyone to copy text out of the PDF file. This removed the possibility of copying quotes out of the document.
We all know about selective quotes, but this is counterproductive.

Surely the CBI would not prefer to have journalists type the quotes. That is a good way of adding mistakes to reports of your work.

This is not the first time I have come across PDF files with a "chastity belt". Indeed, I have encountered the ultimate here in the shape of press releases that you can't copy.

When you point this out to people, they are often as surprised as the recipient. They did not ask for this level of security, which should be a lesson to anyone responsibvle for culculating PDF files. Check that the audience can get at the content.

05 February 2009

EU meddles in transport research

The EU comes in for plenty of stick from the media. One area, though, that has attracted little vilification from the Daily Mail and other Europhobes is its support for R&D. This is surprising given the amount of money that Brussels hands out. For example, over at The IET I have a few details of the €1 billion that the EU has committed to the European Green Car Initiative alone.

It isn't just cars that Brussels wants improved. Trains are in there too, with some signs of significant success.

Take ERTMS, the European Railway Traffic Management System. As I wrote in an earlier piece, by creating a new standard for railway signalling, and supporting development of the technology, the EU hasn't just eased the flow of trains through Europe, it has put the indigenous signalling companies in a position to flog systems to the likes of China and India.

Business with the right chemistry

Ludwigshafen, home of BASF, the German chemical company, may not be the most bucolic location but the company's R&D facilities there are impressive. At least, they were when I last had a trip to join one of BASF's PR jollies.

Now we have some insights into the philosophy that currently underpins their R&D effort. BASF is into clusters. But as I say on Science|Business, the company's clusters are not the geographical variety that many observers of the R&D scene would recognise.

The real message is that BASF is one of a number of large technically advanced businesses that continues to spend oodles on R&D, even in these times of economic gloom. It is also interesting to see the company talking about adapting its research strategy rather than banging on about changes in its business structure.

Maybe it BASF does that too, but having seen other chemical companies go down the pan as they constantly restructure their business, while steadfastly saying nothing about research, it is encouraging to see them openly recognising the value of R&D.

31 January 2009

Can R&D save the world's economy?

Buried in all the hand wringing about the collapse of the economy as we know it, a handful of folks are pushing for an economic revival built on technology, on R&D and brain power. The notion has even made it into corporate PR, as I found in the usual scour for ideas to feed LabNotes on Science|Business.

Ray O’Connor, president and CEO of a company that "designs and manufactures precise positioning products and solutions for the global surveying, construction, agriculture, civil engineering, mapping and GIS, asset management and mobile control markets," Topcon Positioning Systems, decided to have a rant in his "State of the Industry Message" about the need to continue spending on R&D even when the economy is at death's door. He is not alone, which is why it was worth writing R&D rides the recessionary bandwagon.

26 January 2009

Mix messages in R&D Scoreboard

The UK R&D Scoreboard always provides a lead for a piece on Science|Business. This time there wasn't even any need to read the report to get the ball rolling. (That can come later.) The R&D Society raised enough questions about the numbers to spark off the piece, Scoreboard delivers mixed message.

It seems that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills concentrated on the top of the table when writing its press release. The R&D Society noticed that the "increase" in R&D spending by smaller companies was actually less than inflation.

23 January 2009

Can technology save Detroit?

Motor shows aren't my cup of tea. I went to the London show once, and even managed to write a story. It was about some fancy electronic diagnostic system that Volkswagen was pushing out into the dealers that serviced its vehicles.

That was a long time ago. But even then it was pretty obvious that Detroit, the city that gave as the mass produced motor car, was behind the curve when it came to adopting technology.

Japan threw technology at making cars. It also began the arms race of adding technologically inspired bits and pieces to make cars more attractive to buyers.

European car makers were no slouch when it came to technology. Wasn't it Audi that gave us the "vorsprung der technik" slogan?

Detroit simply didn't feature in the technology game, as you found when you went to the USA and hired one of the cars made there. But now we have the leaders of the American motor industry calling for the US government to help to fund the adoption of technology, as I found when writing my latest rant for the IET, Can technology save Detroit?

Much of the enthusiasm for technology hinges on the electric car, which both Chevrolet and Ford talked about long and loud at this years Detroit car show, inevitably labelled the "North American International Auto Show".

Americans generally have more enthusiasm for new technology than Europeans, but when it comes to cars, they don't seem to have the same love of the new, or of the environmentally responsible. So Detroit may have a hard time selling this particular package to customers even if the government buys the sales pitch.

20 January 2009

Decongestion is not for Manchester

While many people are happy to proclaim their green credentials, ask them to vote for measures that might actually achieve something and they seem less convinced. Voting for congestion charging, for example, brings out dirtier tendencies.

Working on a comment piece for the IET's "Transport sector," The wrong medicine to clear congestion, turned up evidence that even Swedes, often seen to be greener than many, will reject such proposals.

When asked for their views on congestion charging in Stockholm, there was a narrow vote for the idea in the middle of the city, but suburban Swedes were heavily against the idea.

As an aside, these commuters would not have had a chance to vote under the original plan. It was only when surrounding municipalities decided to hold polls that the rest of the region got a chance to vote on the plan.

In the event, Stockholm got its congestion charge because it was down to the parliament to make the final decision. That should be a lesson to others who want to implement green measures.

As in London, the charge brought positive benefits. But it seems unlikely that this will carry any weight with voters in other cities.

Research in magic circles

It is interesting to see how companies change their models of working with academics. One recent development, most visibly promulgated by Rolls-Royce, is the "university technology centre". UTCs, as Rolls-Royce dubs them, are big university teams with the company as the "sole proprietor". These centres work on specific issues that appeal to the company.

Originally a British phenomenon. RR now has UTCs all over the world. For example, one of the most recent, number 25, is in Darmstadt, where the Technical University in Darmstadt has a UTC that specialises in "the aerothermal interaction between the combustor and turbine".

Now we have a new variation on the theme. Well, GE Healthcare says it is new, but I gather that the late lamented chemical giant ICI did this sort of thing years ago. The new model is the "research circle," which I can across when writing about it for Science|Business, Research in magic circles.

Instead of a fragmented web of bilateral arrangements with dozens of different academic groups the company sets up a club of academics who work on different aspects of a subject. In this case the subject is a promising new way of doing magnetic resonance imaging, bringing it into the realm of "live" analysis of how drags treat cancer, for example.