JohnPullin's Blog

Journalism, engineering, business, and sometimes other things

All passed for press

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Last Saturday morning, on the kitchen table round at my house, my mate Andy and I signed off the 13 front news-style pages of the October issue of Environmental Engineering magazine. I’d produced the copy for those pages; he’d done the layouts and some judicious cutting and shaping; together we then made the pages fit, scrawled some headlines into the spaces allotted to them, wrote picture captions, nodded a few times, grumbled a bit and laughed a lot. And then Andy put the pages into the format from which a printer 200 miles west will be able to produce the printed magazine.

And that was that. My last press day. Probably. Someone else – a different old friend – is taking on responsibility for the back half of the October issue and will take on Environmental Engineering in its entirety from the next issue with Andy. Including the press days.

I’ve had the title “editor” on various magazines for just short of 30 years: about a dozen of those years on weeklies, a dozen or so on fortnightlies and the rest on something more infrequent. I reckon as an editor I’ve done around 900 press days – the days when you and your journalists have to stop faffing around and finally sit down to produce a magazine and sign it off. If you add in a dozen years before that, all of them spent on weeklies in varying positions of responsibility (or irresponsibility), I’ve done somewhere towards 1,500 press days. Signing off maybe the equivalent of 60,000 A4 pages or 36 million words.

I may do odd jobs as an editor over the next 40-odd years, but I’m now, finally, more of a jobbing freelance writer than an editor, happy to contribute wherever and whenever. And I’m not now, after last Saturday, in charge of getting the thing out of the door and, via the printer, on to the doormat of the reader. No more press days.

I’ll miss press day for the adrenaline rush that it still produces, the thought that your eyes are the last to see things and to be able to change things before they are committed to type and unalterable. My editing has spanned the technology changes from hot metal, galley proofs and the “magic” (which I never understood) of “subbing on the stone” with a compositor at your elbow – right through to today’s kitchen table publishing and web-ready copy. I’ll miss the constant technical challenge.

And I’ll miss the challenge of trying to make it as good and as right as you can inside the time constraints and, of course, the cost constraints. Journalism would be an easy job if you had no press deadlines and no budgetary restrictions: easy but shallow, and a big part of the press day smoke and mirrors is to make the published magazine appear effortless and unhurried – up-to-date but also somehow timeless. The best you can do, whatever the panic-strewn reality.

Most of all I’ll miss good people I’ve shared press days with – from Andy, with whom I’ve worked and had a few beers for 20+ years, and John Moore, the best sub I’ve ever known, right the way back to the 3.00am press nights at Eden Fisher in Southend with Hodge of The Engineer: George Hodgkinson, the white ash worms of his constant cigarettes withering in the ashtray, his RAF slang and wartime stories, and his ability to “fanooker” copy and pictures and flatplans into the required shape and format.

It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a privilege to work with such people and learn from them.  But now it’s someone else’s turn. I’ll go on writing but I’m also going to do and learn something else. All my pages are passed: let the presses roll.

Written by johnpullin

October 9, 2014 at 8:44 am

The source of my stress

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I’m pretty stressed out currently, and it’s not because we found my father, who would have been 95 today, dead in his shed in Devon three weeks ago. It’s because of some little shit of a solicitor in an office in the East Midlands who is steadfastly failing to do his job. So at the point where I should be worrying about my father’s funeral (in a couple of days’ time) and the duties of being an executor and how to fit long and frequent visits to Devon (via Stonehenge, see earlier blogs) into my work schedule, my angst has an altogether different focus.

To explain requires some background. A few months ago, I signed up for an MA course at Leicester University, starting at the end of this month. I’m not giving up the journalism that’s kept me in employment for 40-plus years, but I am consciously going to do less of it; by taking the MA over two years instead of the usual one year, I can wind down some commitments and continue to do others. It seemed a nice way forward: a taster of a potential new direction without leaving the safety of what I know and what I do. Everyone I’ve spoken to – family, friends, colleagues – thinks it’s a good plan.

(Actually, there was one exception to the universal approval for the scheme. My father, never knowingly reticent in his opinions, pronounced that it would be a total waste of time “just like it was last time when you were at university”. He had never forgiven me for doing history for my first degree when other family members had done “a proper subject”: maths.)

Anyway, the logistical difficulty of the Leicester plan is that the MA is a taught course, which means I need to be in Leicester for maybe up to half the week during term times. So we’re trying to buy a flat where I can stay and also work. And therein lies the problem. A flat was found, an offer made and accepted, and a target exchange and completion date for the end of August was set.

It’s now halfway through September, 11 days from my first Leicester assignation, and I’m still waiting. My own blameless solicitor is fine to go, the estate agent has been helpful, the vendor has responded fast to each and every request for information or a signature. But the vendor’s solicitor can’t be asked. It took four weeks for initial paperwork to reach my solicitor; it’s now three weeks since the last set of queries went back, and there’s been no movement. The vendor wants my money and I’m happy to give it to him; I want his flat and he’s happy to hand it over. But the process is stalled. This week, I’m told, the person dealing with the “case” (which is scarcely complex: I’m a cash buyer) has gone on holiday.

It’s long been known that the English process for buying property is daftly complex, and I’m sure my experience is commonplace. But what should have been an orderly process of setting myself up for a new student lifestyle, gently getting broadband sorted and transporting some of our spare furniture in, has become a source of immense stress: far more than anything that’s coincidentally happening in Devon. And for that, one apparently indolent and carefree solicitor is to blame.

Written by johnpullin

September 16, 2014 at 10:24 am

Posted in About me, Journalism

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The Stonehenge muddle

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If I believed in reincarnation, what I’d most like to come back as is a traffic planner, because I think they have the most fun of all. With one sweep of my irresponsible pen, I could bugger up a whole city or a vast tract of landscape without leaving my desk. Oh, the enjoyment I could have just by “playing” with traffic light phasings. And roadsigns.

I wrote earlier this week about the daft roadsigns that you now find on the A303, the main direct route between London and the south west. The joy of the A303, usually, is that it isn’t a motorway and is therefore relatively interesting to drive. Also it doesn’t pass through any towns and only a few villages, so there are no massive hold-ups. And some of the scenery is terrific. Some sections aren’t very fast, it’s true, but speed in these things is relative and overrated: I’m happy to arrive 15 minutes later if it means I don’t feel like I’ve been through some form of racetrack competition.

But the A303 now has “Queues likely” signs near Stonehenge and has lost some of its relaxed charm. That is because of the traffic planners. They have, indeed, created queues: pretty much an hour in each direction when I took the road to Devon and back last week. What fun they must have had. And what little knowledge of human nature they have displayed in so doing.

The difficulty is, of course, that the A303 road passes very close to the ancient monument of Stonehenge, a World Heritage Site. You get quite a decent view from the road and you used, before the planners got their way, to be able to turn off on to a dozier road called the A344 where you could dawdle along to get an even closer view or go into the official car park to pay a proper visit.

That easy turn-off has now been blocked. To get a better, or more lingering, view of the stones of Stonehenge, you continue on the A303 (if you’re coming from London) to a distant roundabout, turn right and then right again and then you’re in the official car park. In other words, you now have to decide to visit properly. The easy dawdle option on the A344 has been removed.

So instead people are dawdling on the A303. Or turning off into a track next to the pig farm on the other side of the road. Or wandering among the cars and along the roadside, where there is no pavement, to get a better view. Or reversing out of the track into the traffic. All of this I saw last week. I had plenty of time to watch it, stuck in the queue for up to an hour each way. Though mostly, of course, I was watching the rear of the car in front.

Of course, the gawpers shouldn’t be doing any of this, and in the idealised world populated by traffic planners they wouldn’t be. But the reality is that people don’t and won’t do as they’re told, and traffic planning should take account of that. I can recognise that Stonehenge’s proximity to the A303 is a difficult problem, but the new “solution” creates a new problem that dramatically affects the road’s value as a through-route.

Anyway, if I’m reincarnated at any point soon, I promise to come back as a traffic planner to see if I can do any worse than the current road scheme at Stonehenge. I suspect I won’t be able to. But it’ll be fun trying. Though not for those wanting to use the roads to get around.

PS, a week or so later, I came through without any hold-up… but it was mid-evening on a Tuesday, cold and blustery.

Written by johnpullin

August 20, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Posted in Transport

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Traffic signs: a roadside broadside

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There’s a generalised government promise out there that no one has any intention of acting upon to reduce street clutter, and specifically the number of roadside signs. I’ve written about this before in relation to urban signage – the apparent requirement that every Elim Pentecostal Church in south London should be signposted from every direction, for example.

The smiling English countryside has, however, what I contend is the most useless sign of them all. There are examples on the A303, the main road to the south west, about a mile either side of Stonehenge. The sign says “Queues Likely”, with a graphic of queuing cars in a red triangle.

I can’t see what use this sign is to anybody. If you’re in a queue when you trudge past it, you’re probably not unaware of the fact. If you’re not, then you don’t need it. If there was a sign five miles back saying “Queue Ahead: Turn off to Avoid it” it might be helpful. But on this road at least there isn’t. If it indicated how far the queue ahead was likely to extend, that might be useful information; but it doesn’t. The sign just sits there, passively, with a slightly smug tone of “I told you so”. Even though it didn’t.

But of course it does convey some information, though not necessarily the sort the sign owners intended. It tells you, for instance, that the road planners know they have a bottleneck that they’re incapable or unwilling to sort out. It advertises clearly their inadequacies.

It shows, too, that while they can’t or won’t sort out the road, they’ve got time to commission and erect a sign or two. There’s presumably been measurement and analysis to determine that queues are indeed likely at these spots: pencils sucked, heads nodded in sage agreement, judgements made. Instead of holding meetings to sort out the road, they probably held meetings to sort out a sign that tells you they didn’t sort out the road.

All pretty useless, really. And in these days of the internet of things and intelligent transport systems, a reminder that there’s still a lot of unconnected unintelligence about.

Written by johnpullin

August 18, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Transport

Three’s company, two’s a crowd

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It’s culture week in the Pullin household. On consecutive evenings, starting last night, we’re going to see the two halves of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s dramatisation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Then it’s cinema Wednesday, the Proms on Thursday, after which it peters out a bit. It resumes next week with Test match on Sunday and Southend United v AFC Wimbledon on Tuesday. Well, OK, those are maybe less cultural, but one can hope.

Anyway, last night’s theatre was a bit odd, not through the play, the acting or the staging, all of which were dramatically good, but through the seating arrangements. The two of us had to sit one in front of the other, because we couldn’t sit next to each other. And we couldn’t do that because the Ticketmaster computer that controls seat bookings at the Aldwych Theatre wouldn’t let us.

When we booked, there were several clumps of three consecutive seats in several different rows across the auditorium. No twos, or fours or fives or larger numbers. Just a lot of threes and a few ones on their own. Maybe we should have realised at that point, but, we thought, it’s no problem, there are plenty to choose from.

Except the computer at Ticketmaster wouldn’t let us have two seats, because that would leave a single seat in a threesome unoccupied. It wouldn’t allow us to buy them as two singles next to each other either. Same problem. You could buy one, leaving two vacant, but not the second, because that would leave a singleton. I phoned Ticketmaster. A charming Lancastrian voice told me that those were the rules and, though they were patently daft, she couldn’t change them.

So we bought two singles at the one place in the auditorium where a threesome from one row intersected with a threesome in the row in front and we sat indian file, one behind the other – and thereby freed up two sets of two seats for a couple of other couples to sit beside us. And it was fine: the play was brilliant and the view was good.

But how very silly.

Written by johnpullin

August 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Posted in About me

Come on you Dons, Season Four

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The day before the start of the football season (proper stuff, none of that Premiership malarkey) is the day for unrealistic optimism. That day is today. All things are possible. Your team, whoever it is, is currently unbeaten, unbloodied, unbowed. That may not be the case in 24 hours’ time.

Actually, from my last three seasons of watching AFC Wimbledon pretty regularly (I think I’ve missed half a dozen home games) I can report that, more often than not, the first day of the season is a pretty poor guide to how it will all turn out.

In Wimbledon’s first game back in the Football League in 2011, we were 2-0 down to Bristol Rovers in about half an hour, and though we rallied we still lost 3-2 and wondered whether promotion to the League only nine years after formation might not have been a step too far. It wasn’t. We were fine almost immediately, third in the table in September, and safe for most of the rest of the season despite a long sequence without a win.

The following year, our opening game was on the hottest day of the year against one of the promotion favourites, Chesterfield. It was too warm to run around, and Chesterfield did so even less than we did, so we won 1-0. But then we conceded 11 goals in the next two (away) games, the manager was on the way out and most of the season was spent in the relegation places. We escaped on the last day of the season.

So no great predictions for this season, and none tomorrow either after our first game against Shrewsbury Town. But I do have one small request.

Last season, in all matches, we scored 49 goals: not a big tally. But of those 49, only seven or eight came in the first half of a match. In fact, aside from the 14th minute goal in the away match at Northampton which I didn’t see, the earliest we scored in any game was the 28th minute. Our opponents seemed to have no such qualms about scoring early in the game, with the result that we were often, even usually, chasing the game after half-time – sometimes exhilaratingly: we came from two goals down to win against both Scunthorpe and Cheltenham, and there were several other victories coming from behind.

And it’s not entirely true to say that we failed consistently to score early on in matches. There was hero Jack Midson’s goal in the home game against Exeter; unfortunately, it was an own goal. We won that one coming from behind as well.

This season, please, I’d like it to be different. Some of us arrive at the ground quite early so we can get our places on the terrace unobstructed by the giant spectators who can arrive just before kick-off and still get a decent view. We’d like the players to turn up early this season as well: or at least before half-time. We’d like the manager to give his half-time talks, which are patently extremely motivating judged by the second half performances, before kick-off this season, and to make his telling substitutions before the match starts.

In short, we’re happy with 41 or 42 second-half goals, but if we had the same number in the first half too, then we’d be in with a shout of promotion. And at this stage of the season, that kind of optimism is what it’s all about.

Postscript: Well, it finished 2-2 and, wonder of wonders, AFC Wimbledon scored after 26 minutes, a full two minutes earlier than anything we’d managed last season at home. The manager was very pleased to point that out to the crowd behind the dugout, where I stand. And it was good and entertaining stuff throughout. I think I’m hooked back in again for the new season.

Written by johnpullin

August 8, 2014 at 11:49 am

The Swiss at the Commonwealth Games

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I’ll happily watch most sports on television, with the possible exceptions of darts and the circus tomfoolery that is wrestling. I’m a bit more discerning about what I’d pay good money for to go and see live, away from the comfort of my armchair, but I’m a pretty active watcher all told, with around 50 soccer matches a season and maybe half a dozen days at the cricket. Even the odd rugby match. And I got quite excited when the Olympics were in London a couple of years back.

The wall-to-wall blanket coverage on the main BBC channel of the current Commonwealth Games, however, is proving slightly too much of a good thing. I know it’s quite important, and if it was in London rather than Glasgow I might go along. But the Olympics it ain’t. And I wonder whether the BBC’s saturation coverage isn’t more to do with the fact that it’s lost most major sporting events to satellite channels than with the Games’ intrinsic merits. Also that it’s in Scotland, and the BBC doesn’t want to be blamed for losing England’s oldest colony in the September independence referendum.

Anyway, I’m not watching much of this coverage, but I do want to catch up on the highlights in the TV news. And therein lies a problem.

TV news coverage of sports events – soccer excepted – seems to me these days to be less and less about the sport and its news and more and more about the sports news presenters. Instead of showing us 60 seconds of cricket highlights, wickets falling, catches being held, exquisite cover drives and so forth, you get 30 seconds of that and then 30 seconds watching someone called Joe outside the ground give his opinion. Does Joe have devastating insight that justifies this? Or a commanding screen presence? No he does not.

Worse still is something I’m inclined to call “the Andy Swiss phenomenon”. Swiss is a sports presenter whose role seems to be, while great sporting events are happening in the background, to “pop up”, in the manner of a meerkat, to offer some anodyne fact-free guff about the event that he can’t see because he’s looking into the camera and you can’t see because the camera is focused on him.

It’s maybe unfair to blame it all on Andy Swiss: other presenters are now doing very similar. It looked, yesterday, in the background of the report on the Commonwealth Games marathon, that runners were falling over in the wet, but you couldn’t really tell because some presenter was standing in front of the action telling you it was raining and that she was getting wet.

This is rubbish: rubbish coverage of interesting sports events, and rubbish reporting in general. It’s the televisual equivalent of a selfie. It offers no information or insight, except to tell me that some TV news reporters have big ears and big egos, and some TV news editors have no clue about news values nor any regard for the intelligence of their viewers.

The job of a reporter, any reporter, is to hold a mirror up to the world; TV reporters can go one step further, and hold up a window for us to look through. This lot are too fond of holding up mirrors and showing us their own reflections in them.

Written by johnpullin

July 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm

To speak or to remain silent

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We moved house back in the early part of the year, and along with the downsizing comes a smaller garden and rather shorter distances to other houses. It’s fine and it’s what we wanted, and we were looking forward to having fewer rooms to heat and clean and spread our (my) tide of paperwork over. Mostly that’s working.

But there’s a “but”, and it’s only become apparent in the evenings and nights of a rather-better-than-usual summer. It’s been warm and sticky in London for a week or so now, and at night the stuffiness means you want to sleep with the windows wide open to catch any fleeting breezes. But in our new house, the breezes come accompanied… by voices.

Neighbours tangentially to the back corner of our end-of-terrace house have been sitting, chatting, in their own back garden for four of the past five evenings. They have loud voices and they don’t moderate them for fear of being overheard; they have loud laughs, too, and likewise they’re not shy about them. One chap in particular is a fund of relentless anecdote, often, it seems, about rugby, most of which he then finds very funny, so the voice is followed by guffaws, mostly his. But there are other voices too, some of them quite penetrating.

None of this ought to be a problem and it is part and parcel of living in a city. The difficulty is that it goes on. And on. And on. Eight o’clock in the evening sees them in place in their garden, nine o’clock, ten, eleven. They don’t pause at midnight, though the lights are out in virtually all the other local houses. One o’clock, two o’clock… that seems to be about the norm at the moment, though one night there was still jollity and anecdote at a quarter to three. It’s not very noisy: close the windows, and you barely hear it, though in the current heat you may well then struggle to sleep for a different reason.

The thing is: what does one do about it? If anything? We don’t know the neighbours – the chattering ones or any of the others who may also be being disturbed. It seems churlish to complain when it’s probably only a temporary difficulty: there aren’t that many warm nights a year in London. We can get earplugs. But maybe they just don’t know how intrusive they are being and would be mortified if they realised that they were causing a disturbance. There’s a danger, I suspect, that the longer this goes on, night after night (except Sunday), the more tired we will get through sleeplessness and we’ll then make an inappropriate approach to them, and put their backs up. But currently our backs are up: well, up to two in the morning, at least.

So should we say something or stay silent ourselves? Advice, please.

UPDATE, 25 July: Well, the gist of advice seems to be that a problem unconfronted is a problem that won’t go away, and that we should tackle the talkative folk. If only to let them know that their intimate conversations are not exactly private. But actually last night it was quiet, so we slept. And today the UK weather is forecast to resume its usual summer pattern of unreliability, so maybe there will be less cause to sit out into the early hours. We’ll see…

Written by johnpullin

July 24, 2014 at 10:03 am

Posted in About me

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More than a museum piece

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I am temporarily in Boston courtesy of friends at PTC, and took myself off on Sunday to the other side of the Charles River, where in Cambridge, Massachusetts stand the twin peaks of US intellectual prowess, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bostonians apparently debate long and earnestly which of the two has contributed most to the sum of human knowledge, but will agree that, no matter what the order, these are the No 1 and No 2 academic institutions worldwide. They may have a point.

But that wasn’t the point I was going to make, or argue. What I got myself diverted into, seeking shelter from the hot sun, was an institution that I think has no parallel in the UK: or if it has, it’s well hidden.

The MIT Museum is in a slightly shabby 60s building, but turns out to be a treasure trove of current research projects, including this summer’s graduate students’ work, and really interesting special exhibitions.

Downstairs you catch up on well-described snippets from current research programmes, in areas such as air traffic control and driverless vehicles. Upstairs, alongside current students’ projects – these are bright bunnies – there were special exhibits on holograms and daguerreotypes and a couple of rooms with kinetic sculptures, mechanical and gravity-actuated moving devices, many of them created by Arthur Ganson. One small girl, a potential MIT student in maybe seven or eight years, was much enjoying turning the Ganson artefacts on and off, so I did the same. Fun.

All of it was done with a splendidly light touch and with wit and style. I’d happened across it by chance; but it was, for a sunny June day, pretty busy, so it’s by no means unknown. And there were nice incidents too: in the middle of the neutrino exhibit, I overheard one mother with a bespectacled late-teens son say to another with a similar youngster in tow: “Are you an MIT mom?” She was, and they briefly embraced, like clandestine sisters sharing a rare and proud family secret. Their sons meanwhile were questioning the neutrino presenter about some aspect of particle physics.

“Proud” is in fact the overriding impression. This is about MIT being proud of its work, and also about local people and others being proud of MIT. I’m not suggesting you go: Boston has so many museums and sights that to pick one out is invidious – though it is well worth an hour.

But it does strike me that our UK universities, which have a record that can often compare with these two “incomparables” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are missing a trick or two in terms of their current students and their future ones by being shy about how proud they are of their people and their work.   

Written by johnpullin

June 17, 2014 at 2:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bemused of London SW

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Occasionally – no, actually more often than I would like – I receive an email that I can make neither head nor tail of. Today’s is from one of those “unsolicited” PR feeds that has, ostensibly, polled me about my interests and filtered out the irrelevant. This one was filtered in. Someone thinks I should be interested in it.

The first sentence reads: “The TDWI BI Symposium, presented in association with IRM UK, offers 5 tracks of full-day interactive courses, run over three days and taught by the most knowledgeable and experienced practitioners in the industry.”

Ah yes, I hear you say, that does indeed look interesting. TDWI? Of course. BI? Well, who wouldn’t? Except that it makes no sense at all to me. A sentence further on and I can glean, though it’s never stated as such, that the “DW” in the middle of TDWI might be “data warehousing”, and as that sentence also includes the words “business intelligence” I might think that that is what BI is. Exactly what “business intelligence” means is naturally thought to require no explanation. If this is all about working smarter, then I’m patently not smart enough to work at all. And “data warehousing”? Presumably it’s the opposite of “data whorehousing” where all of your information is open for anybody to peruse.

Oh, look! Here’s another one. I’ll give you the headline this time: “Dimago, inks deal to distribute Orchestra Networks’ MDM solution, EBX5, in Southern Africa”. The comma after “Dimago”, I assure you, is theirs, not mine. Maybe it’s part of the company’s name and is a nod to the tendency to transcribe some of the languages of southern Africa, such as Xhosa, with integral punctuation marks such as ! to indicate glottal stops and clicks. Or maybe not. MDM turns out to be “master data management”, by the way, not a kind of chewed up fibreboard that low-cost bedroom furniture is made from.

I’m probably being unfair with these examples, of course, and it may well be that there are journalists out there who have seized on these gems with cries of glee and sighs of relief that the hole on their front page or their first screen or whatever has now been filled. But for me there’s a kind of double jeopardy going on here, in that I don’t understand the shorthand and then, when it’s spelled out, I don’t understand it again.

And at that point, the first rule of journalism comes into play. If in doubt, leave it out. If you as a journalist don’t understand something, then your readers won’t understand it either. And if something comes in that you don’t understand, bin it. BIN: that’s Business Intelligence Negativisation. I think.


Written by johnpullin

June 9, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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