Moaning about science politics, especially with regard to funding, is one of the recurring themes on this blog. The UK government administers science policy through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (better known as BIS). Unfortunately I can’t think of that name without harking back to the good old days of the Innovations Catalogue (shown left). I was shocked to discover that this met its demise as long ago as 2003 but in its time it was comedy gold. Packed full of palpably useless gadgets – who could possibly forget the vibrating fur-lined golf club cover? – it was all the more hysterical for  that fact that it was clearly deadly serious. When I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue tried to lampoon the Innovations Catalogue,  the results struggled to be as funny as the real thing, although I do remember Willie Rushton’s combined cigarette lighter and nasal hair remover…

It seems that the Innovations people made one big mistake that cost them their business: the stuff they sold was dirt cheap. Subsequent experience has taught us that if you want to persuade people to buy useless gadgets, you have to make them expensive. No tat sells like expensive tat…

Anyway, having thus established the theme of Innovation, let me now explore a variation. Websites.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a number of changes to websites I use. Last week I noticed that Twitter had been revamped. The first impression I got was that all my tweets were on the right hand side of the screen instead of the left. Not a drastic alteration, though as a man who is fully in touch with his inner Luddite I find even that level of change hard to cope with. More perturbingly I later saw that the button for searching for mentions of your username (for those of you who aren’t twits twats twerps tweeters, this was marked “@” because all twitter names begin with that character) is no longer labelled “mentions” but “connect”. Huh? Connect with what or whom? Likewise the “activity” tag is now called “discover”. Why it was decided to change the names from something descriptive to something non-descriptive is beyond me, but it’s probably what passes as “innovative” in the world of web designers.

I’ve got nothing against web designers in general, and I think some websites are absolutely wonderful in both content and style. This one, for example. However, there are some who seem to have been put together by people on a mission to the make the design so impenetrable that it’s impossible for anyone to find any content at all.

A major leap in this direction has recently been made by the BBC. A while ago they introduced a new home page, which has virtually no information on it, but lots of graphics. After vociferously negative responses from users of the BBC Website, i.e. the public, the person in charge responded by saying that the changes were needed in order to make the site more distinctive. I freely admit that it is distinctive, but its main distinction is that it is poor.

Now I’ll grant that page layout and style is a matter for personal taste so there will be others out there who like the new BBC Webshite. That’s fine. What’s less forgivable is that the quality of service has also deteriorated and that is an objective fact. Here’s an example.

On the old BBC website you could set your location, with the result that the homepage would give access to local news, local TV and radio listings, and so on. You also automatically got weather information for your chosen location. Now you can still set your location on the homepage, but if you click on the new “weather” page your location is automatically set to London. Every time you log on, and want to check the weather, you have to type in your location by hand. Unless you live in London, of course, which is presumably why the web hacks didn’t worry about this.

I’m no expert, but it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of even the most lowly web designer to pass information about location from one page to another within the same site. But who cares about whether the service is better for the user, as long as it’s distinctive….

I suppose the point of this post – if there is one – is that we shouldn’t be too respectful towards innovation for innovation’s sake. Not all innovation is good.

You might think that adage applies also to what goes on in BIS, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

14 Responses to “Innovations”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “if you want to persuade people to buy useless gadgets, you have to make them expensive. No tat sells like expensive tat”

    Yep. But don’t then admit it publicly by calling it “total crap” as Gerald Ratner famousy did did about the jewellery his chain of stores sold, wrecking the business. What is little known is that it was said to a hall of businessmen as a joke, and they loved it, but it leaked out and made the headlines with the predictable result that nobody wanted to buy his wife or girlfriend something that was known to be crap.

    The new BBC website is also total crap. One contributor spoke with exquisite controlled fury of the BBC listening wtih great courtesy to its license fee payers and then totally ignoring them.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    It’s not just the BBC website. My blood pressure is only barely coping with the “text us your favourite colour” populist crap that has invaded Radio 3. Anything that does an excellent job is under threat in the BBC, it seems, perhaps for fear of being branded elitist. I just can’t understand it, as these “reforms” are being driven by otherwise intelligent people. Just as with all the complaints about the dumbed-down infantilised “functionality” of what was once a great web site, all rational arguments about the Radio 3 changes being for the worse are listened to politely, and then ignored without even an attempt at rebuttal.

    I’m not a Tory voter, but as I get older and see the Nth attempt at change that yields only disaster, I can almost start to see the attraction of the Conservative worldview: “if it works, don’t bugger around with it” isn’t a bad maxim.

    • Based on the present format for Breakfast on 3, I’d say that a decision had been made to make it into a feeble copy of Classic FM. They’ve stopped playing full works, and now you’re lucky if you get a full movement of a symphony or concerto.

      Earlier this week they played the worst version of Casta Diva (from Bellini’s Norma, my favourite bel canto Opera) that I have ever heard. It put me in a foul mood all day, and I didn’t even have a hangover.

      I used to like Breakfast on 3, but now I wish they’d scrap it and extend “Through the Night” (which I sometimes catch a bit of when I have to get up early).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Radio 3 – postwar classical music, unlistenable pieces played through from start to finish.

      Classic FM – decent classical music, but only fragments.

      John: I agree that most change is for the worse, but I don’t beileve t’was ever thus. I think there were eras when most change was for the better. It must have been great to live in such an era. And it is worth asking what makes the difference.

      • telescoper Says:

        Well I don’t agree with this. Radio 3 broadcasts a wide variety of music, most of it pre=war; but I like a lot modern music and don’t find it unlistenable. But in the mornings their output is all standard very conservative stuff. They resisted “bleeding chunks” for a while but now only do bits and pieces. This morning we had the first movement (only) of Beethoven’s 5th. Sigh.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Great, you can listen to it for me.

      • It’s the period instruments I don’t like.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      You are starting to sound like a grumpy old man…

  3. American readers are able to enjoy the wonderful in-flight magazine Sky Mall (, which does the job of the Innovations Catalogue and more. It includes such gems as a pet staircase to allow your dog to walk into bed, and.. I could go on.

    If, rather, you’re a die-hard Innovations fan then you might want to invest in the elusive Very Best of –

    • Oh fantastic. That will give me the edge over other men:

      Product Description
      In April 2003, after twenty years of servicing a nation’s requirements for battery rechargers and motorised tie holders, time was called on the original “Innovations Catalogue”. With its sad demise, a host of products designed solely to ease our troubled lives ceased to be so readily available. The Chin-Gym for instance, a metal facial contraption for getting rid of excess jowl flab, or the pocket chain-saw ‘cuts higher, lower, and faster’, or ‘the bin that’s almost too good for rubbish’. Here, we have scoured the “Innovations Catalogue” library to pay tribute to the best and most exciting products from its illustrious history.

    • Of course you realise that this kind of innovation is precisely what we are supposed to be training physics students to do…

  4. telescoper Says:


  5. I’ve always thought of as the web era successor to the Innovations catalogue.

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