Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company Wonga.com sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind Wonga.com was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.

 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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The art of the YouTube Poop

What are YouTube Poops and why do we need them now, more than ever?

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”

So, allegedly, said Pablo Picasso in a shrewd attempt to justify his love of putting noses where noses don’t actually go. It is imperative that you now hold this profound quotation firmly in your mind whilst you watch this four minutes and 57 second long clip of Arthur – the cartoon aardvark – being tormented by squirrels.

What you have just seen is an example of the art form primarily known as “YouTube Poop” (YTP). Beginning in the early Noughties, this cultural movement is characterised by confusing and shocking edits of Saturday-morning cartoons, video games, and viral videos. Though the Tens have seen the genre decline in popularity, the YTP is, nonetheless, one of the defining innovations of our era.

Those in the Poop community don’t actually like being labelled as artists, as one Yale student found out when he attempted to define them as such on the University’s technology blog. Though they have been compared to Dadaism, YTPs are more vile, violent, and most importantly, nonsensical than most artworks, but this is precisely why they are an asset to our age. In a world where – sorry Pablo, you got nothing on us – absolutely zero things makes sense, it is time for the YTP to have a comeback.

Despite its seeming randomness, the world of YTP is not without its rules. “Poopisms” are the common techniques and tricks used in videos to ensure they qualify as a true Poop. They include “stutter loops” (the repetition of clips over and over), “staredowns” (freezing the frame on a particular facial expression), and the questionably-named “ear rape” (suddenly increasing the volume to shock the viewer). One of the most humorous techniques is “sentence mixing”: forcing characters to say new sentences by cutting and splicing things they have said.

There are also firm rules about what not to do. Panning across a clip without adding another Poopism at the same time is considered boring, whilst using your own voice to dub clips is seen as amateur. By far the biggest barrier that Poopers* face in creating their videos, however, is the law.

Despite what many eight-year-olds on YouTube think, declaring that something is a “parody” in the description of a video does not make it exempt from copyright laws. The video below – regarded by at least two commenters as “the best YouTube Poop” ever – is missing audio 20 minutes in, as the creator was hit by a copyright claim.

Yet even the iron fist of the law cannot truly stop Poopers, who are still going (relatively) strong after the first YTP was created in 2004. YouTube Poops now even have their own Wikipedia page, as well as a page on TV Tropes and a WikiHow guide on how to create them, and for good measure, avoid them.

YouTube Poops have therefore undoubtedly secured their place in history, and whilst you might wander into a comment section to declare “What have I just watched?”, remember that Pablo Picasso once said: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” He almost definitely wasn’t talking about “You are a Sad Strange Little Man” by cartoonlover98, but still.

* The term “Poopists” was rejected by the community for being “too arty”.

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.