The wonders of science

LAST week, I was over in Brussels on your behalf, working with the EU. Before anyone asks, the trip was not paid for out of your Council Tax but by the EU (albeit out of money that probably came from you in the first place). I had been invited to a st

LAST week, I was over in Brussels on your behalf, working with the EU. Before anyone asks, the trip was not paid for out of your Council Tax but by the EU (albeit out of money that probably came from you in the first place).

I had been invited to a "stakeholders meeting" to discuss how the EU could improve its performance in the fields of high-tech innovation; how could it make itself competitive with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Could it, for instance, set up a European Institute of Technology to rival MIT?

The consultation meeting was scheduled to start at 10am in a suitably pretentious venue in Brussels. It was to be chaired jointly by three separate director generals of the European Union. I had better not say what their appointments or names were for legal reasons.

At 10.20am, about 40 of us were milling around (and whingeing) in "the amphitheatre" of the venue. None of the three joint chairs had arrived and no announcements had been made. A certain amount of muttering was evident amongst the peasants (of which I was one). It had got pretty close to the point at which one could genuinely say "the peasants are revolting".


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At 10.27am, the first DG arrives, apologises, and goes straight into a PowerPoint presentation. However, not a word can be heard due to excessive feedback from the microphone and speakers (the ear-piercing bleep).

The amplifier volume is turned down accordingly. The other two DGs are still missing. Rumour hath it that they are stuck in a meeting with the EU president.

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At 10.32am, the second DG appears. The first DG is still delivering a soundtrack in English that few can hear. Even if this were not the case, it is arguable whether anyone would have understood, for DG1 speaks the sort of English made famous by the gendarme in 'Allo 'Allo. At any minute I expect to hear "Hee Haw, Hee Haw" and observe a beret and a string of onions round the neck. The third DG is still missing.

At 10.38am, a pneumatic drill starts up just outside the door. The new combination of this and low amplification to avoid feedback makes DG1's soundtrack totally inaudible. However, as it is being read verbatim from the slides (with all the fire and passion of the speaking clock) I seem not to have missed much (I had already been given copies of the slides.)

At 10.42am, the first DG stumbles to the end of the script. DG2 starts the second presentation. So does a man with a hammer just outside the door.

Possibly, he is attempting to complete manually what he has just been stopped from doing pneumatically.

Eventually, man with hammer is (presumably) threatened with physical violence and desists. As he does so, the amplifier volume (which has been increased to counter the noise from outside) threatens all of us with permanent high-tone deafness.

At 10.55am, the third DG appears and proceeds to brief (sotto voce) DG1 on what the president had said at the end of the last meeting. As the latter's microphone is still on, and selected to pain threshold volume, that merely adds to the discomfiture of the peasants.

The session is now thrown open to the floor to allow discussion and questions. Some of us suggest areas in which innovation might be useful; most noticeably in the areas of microphones and feedback.

In the middle of such exchanges, the fire alarm goes off due to an electrical fault. However, most people think it is just more of the feedback, so nobody moves.

As the meeting draws to a close, I bet MIT is quaking in its boots at the thought of the fierce competition that is about to emerge.

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