Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Confessions of a coffee yob

It'll do me
A fair number of my friends are what you might call coffee snobs. But although I like drinking coffee, I must be the coffee equivalent of a lager drinker - hence I offer the term 'coffee yob'.

 It starts when people tell me I shouldn't drink coffee from Starbucks*, or Costa, because the coffee is so much better at Café Extreme (or whatever) where the beans hand ground with a pencil sharpener in darkened cellars in winter (or something). First confession. It all pretty much tastes the same to me. I can tell the difference between a McDonalds style automated machine and a proper coffee made on a bar device, but that's about it. No point offering me your premium special roast single bean coffee as an optional extra - I can't tell the difference.

But it gets worse. I can only cope with one cup of 'real' coffee a day. (I should say, one American style mug. I much prefer real coffee in French café crème size cups, of which I can manage several a day.) Anything more than that and it upsets my stomach. So mostly I drink instant and, actually I quite like it. Of course it's effectively not the same drink, but I can live with the watered down taste, it doesn't upset my stomach and it's not horribly bitter like some 'real' coffee. And, as a bonus, I'm less likely to have a caffeine overload.

So there we have it. There are some people who aren't worth saving, and when it comes to coffee, I'm one of them.

* I'm ignoring tax issues here, though perhaps Starbucks will follow Amazon and come over all British in the face of higher taxes

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Land Across (Gene Wolfe) review

Fans of Gene Wolfe's fantasy writing will recognise distinct echoes of what I'd regard as his masterpiece, There Are Doors, in this recent novel, The Land Across.

In There Are Doors, the protagonist travels to an alternative universe, a place where his interactions with women dominate what happens to him, where something he carries in his pocket is both very strange and essential to the plot. In The Land Across, the protagonist, a travel writer, takes the train to an ex-Soviet bloc country which no one really knows about, existing separate from our world like an alternative universe, a place where his interactions with women dominate what happens to him, where something he carries in his pocket is both very strange and essential to the plot. That doesn't make it in any way a copy of the earlier work, but the similarities are striking.

I don't think this is as good a novel as There Are Doors, but it certainly has plenty of interesting features. If you don't know Wolfe, you could read it and think it's atmospheric in a rather clunky way, but not much happens. It doesn't at all surprise me that a bad Amazon review thinks it is a badly written book about Slovakia, totally missing that this is a fantasy. If you were to describe the plot (which I won't), it wouldn't sound all that exciting. But with Wolfe, you have to absorb the way he tells the story, to inhabit the quirkiness and the tiny details where things aren't quite normal - and that way you can find plenty in its subtle depths.

For most of the book, we could be occupying a fantasy-free, simple, isolated, former Soviet dictatorship (Belarus is probably the closest real world parallel, though Wolfe's country is a lot more low tech), with a degree of Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and a not very secret secret police playing a major role in everyday life. As part of Wolfe's exploration of the nature of dictatorship, it's quite easy for the reader to feel sympathetic with the secret police when they are effectively on the side of good, but always with the uncomfortable frisson that this shouldn't be right. However there are also supernatural elements that simply fit in as part of the way life is. Although surprised, no one really changes the way they behave because of them - the supernatural is part of everyday life.

Another Wolfe characteristic you'll find represented strongly here is getting three quarters of the way through the book without being sure what's going on (though the setting is less ambiguous than in There Are Doors) and reaching the end to realise there are plenty of threads that were never tied up and left hanging to jangle your nerve endings. If you like a nice, neat, tied up plot this isn't the book for you.

Without doubt one of Wolfe's more significant novels of the last decade, though not as good as The Sorcerer's House, and a clear indication that he's still got the touch. Arguably it is not the best book with which to start reading Wolfe's fantasy novels (I'd recommend Castleview or Pandora by Holly Hollander) but a strong addition to the canon that is essential reading for any fan.

You can find The Land Across at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Avoiding procrastination

Like every other writer I've ever spoken to, I suffer from the urge to procrastinate. I will do almost anything in the morning (like writing this blog post) to avoid getting down to working on one of my books.

And, let's face it, we've never had more ways to put off writing and to distract ourselves. (Facebook, anyone?) So I was genuinely interested to see the results of a survey (the website it's published on calls it a study, but that's a bit strong) of 2,000 writers, listing the top tips for getting around procrastination.

There are quite a lot of references in the article to 'writer's block'. I'm not sure this really exists - if you need to write, you will write; if you don't need to write, don't bother. But you can ignore that, because most of the tips apply just as well to everyday (and, boy, do I mean every day) procrastination.

You may find a lot of the suggestions are fairly familiar or obvious - break it into chunks, force yourself to write whatever comes out, take a break etc, but it doesn't do any harm to revisit them and to deploy this wide range of suggestions next time you simply can't bring yourself to do the writing thing. Everything won't work for everyone. For instance it's very common (and 47% of respondents came up with this) to suggest cutting your internet connection to avoid online distractions. This is fine when you are writing fiction, but when I'm writing science stuff I'm always flitting between different online resources, emails and more - it's an essential part of the job. So you can't apply every suggestion to every case.

You can find the survey results here at Stop Procrastinating.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Trigger Warning review

I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan, so I bit the bullet and went for the hardback of his latest collection of short stories. The general opinion of the publishing industry is that short story collections don't sell, so they're hard to come by, which is weird, as so many people profess to like them - but presumably most don't buy them. Even so, big namers like Gaiman and Gene Wolfe can break through the accountants' iron grip and get them to print. And that's a good thing as such collections can be remarkable.

As usual with Gaiman it is a positive smorgasbord of different styles, featuring a few poems (my least favourite of the content) jostling with a host of short to medium length stories that encompass science fiction, fantasy and horror. There's even a Doctor Who story, featuring the Matt Baker incarnation. My favourite was a longish story featuring the character Shadow from American Gods, but the range is excellent,  both because it means that even if you don't like something, something completely different will be along soon, and it forces you to read in genres and styles you wouldn't normally bother with, often with considerable pleasure.

This is without doubt an excellent collection, and though it didn't quite work as well as his earlier Fragile Things for me, which is one of the best short story collections I know, it is certainly one that I will re-read with pleasure.

You can find Trigger Warning at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Monday, 18 May 2015

Young People's Science Writing

When I relaunched www.popularscience.co.uk a while ago because I was having so much trouble with WordPress, I made the difficult decision of dropping children's science books from the site. Although we'd tried to cover them in the past, they always took second place, and I felt we couldn't do them justice.

One side effect of this is that, while the site continues to cover the adult Royal Society Prize for Science Books, the prize for books aimed at young people is now ignored - so I thought I'd give it a mention here.

The shortlist has just been announced with suitably impressive sounding contenders:

365 Science Activities, Various Authors (Usborne)

The judges said: “Children are hard-wired to do experiments, to handle things with their own hands, to get a feel for how things work and why they work. This book is a wonderful resource for children who want to create their own experiments and find out more about how everything around them works.”

Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Brian Biggs (Amulet)

The judges said: “It’s a great balance of English and Science and if you are interested in either of those things, this is really the book to read this year.”

Jake’s Bones, by Jake McGowan-Lowe (Octopus Books)

The judges said: “This book has a wonderful personal feel. It’s the story of one boy’s collection and his own fascination with bones. It will push children not just to learn from a book but also to go out and explore the countryside.”

Night Sky Watcher, by Raman Prinja (QED Publishing Inc.)

The judges said: “Night Sky Watcher is a great introduction to stars and will definitely get you out looking for them. It introduces you to well-known stars and constellations like The Plough and Leo and then encourages you to star hop to planets and  galaxies you may not have come across before, all the while explaining our amazing universe.” 

Tiny: The Invisible World of Microbes, by Nicola Davies (Walker Books)

The judges said: “You might not have even heard of microbes before reading this book however it brings to life beautifully what they are and why they are so important. It’s also an absolutely gorgeous picture book.” 

Utterly Amazing Science, by Professor Robert Winston (DK)

The judges said: “It’s a lovely book. The pop-ups beautifully illustrate a whole wide range of science from atomic science to volcanic eruptions. We also think the hand-on experiments it suggests will be very popular with a young audience.”

The winner will be announced in November.

As it's always interesting to know who is involved, the judges this year are:
  • Professor John Burland FRS – Emeritus Professor of Soil Mechanics, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Imperial College London
  • Dr Stephanie Schorge – Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Institute of Neurology, University College London
  • Katie Thistleton – Television presenter and host of the CBBC Book Club
  • Dr Shaun Long – English teacher at Royal Society Associate School, Bodmin College, Cornwall
  • Julia Eccleshare – Writer, broadcaster and lecturer, and the Guardian's children's books editor

Friday, 15 May 2015

Beeb terror

It looks like I'm not alone in this (admittedly
unlikely to be unbiassed) poll from Metro
One of the first front page stories about the new government was one that suggested that the BBC licence fee was under threat, as John Whittingdale, the new secretary of state for culture, is known to have concerns about it. Some of the headlines were along the lines of 'War on the BBC!'

This is arguably overblown, but there is no doubt that in the decennial (there's a word you don't get a chance to wheel out too often) review of the BBC's charter, starting soon, there will be various aspects of its work and funding that are challenged. Whether or not this is because the Conservatives and the right-wing media traditionally consider the BBC to have a left-wing bias, it is going to happen.

I ought to spend a moment on that bias claim. It's a classic example of something that is both true and isn't, as things can be in the real world. As this Guardian piece points out, there are individuals in the BBC who, if anything. have a right wing bias, but I think the feeling comes across to anyone who has had exposure to large numbers of BBC programme makers - there is certainly a general atmosphere suggestive of the same kind of mild liberal leftism that dominates academia. In fact, it's probably almost a fact of life in this kind of organization.

What we should avoid is falling into the same trap that NHS supporters often fall into, of assuming that there is no room for improvement and that any change is bad. The fact is, the BBC could be a lot better than it is, and it is important in a multi-channel, multi-platform world that we examine what it does and make sure that it is doing what is appropriate for a public service broadcaster. To get one bugbear out of the way straight away, I am not suggesting advertising. We don't need it - Netflix demonstrates that very clearly.

The BBC has plenty of channels now - remember there's BBC News and BBC Parliament as well CBeebies and the four main channels. It would be perfectly practical to consolidate news and clearly identified public service non-fiction broadcasting on, say 2 channels which remained free to air, funded from taxation and ring-fenced against political interference, and to move the other channels to being subscription-based, doing away with the licence fee entirely. Apart from anything else, this would save a significant amount of money in the whole licence fee collecting and enforcing scheme, as well as avoiding the pain that those poor souls who decide not to have a TV go through when the enforcers don't believe them. (A similar approach could be taken for radio, though the cost there is so relatively small, and there are so few radio channels with direct competitors, that the whole thing could arguably remain public service.)

I have no problem at all with the BBC's excellent facilities and staff being used to produce entertainment, provided it is on a subscription basis - and as long as that subscription is comparable with, say, the price of Netflix at around £6 to £9 a month, I see no reason why it wouldn't be paid by most of the viewing public, as the BBC still has a huge range of very popular shows.

It also would be a good point to explore just what the value is of the BBC's various extended arms and how they should operate. For instance, BBC America makes the excellent series Orphan Black in Canada. The third season of this started showing in the US in April - yet there isn't even a date for it to be shown in the UK. This is ridiculous. Just because it's made by BBC America shouldn't put the BBC's core audience at a disadvantage. Priorities need to be be clear, and they should be the UK.

I honestly don't think future of the BBC is gloomy, as long as you can accept that change isn't always bad.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Montar Car Phone Mount review

A couple of times recently, for boring technical reasons, I haven't been able to use my Sat Nav and instead used my phone for GPS navigation. The software was fine, but the problem I faced was keeping the thing somewhere it could pick up GPS satellites and I could see it if necessary.

Luckily, one of my daughters had left an old car phone mount lying around the house. The theory was good - a sprung clamp held the phone in place and the thing attached to the windscreen with a suction cup. But the practice wasn't so good. Because the arm was long, the phone wobbled up and down with every little bump we came across, and though all seemed well for about an hour, the mount would then, at random (and usually during a difficult manoeuvre like going around a roundabout) fall off the windscreen, sending my precious iPhone plunging towards the floor and my leaving me navigationally challenged.

Dismissing the old device, I've now got hold of something significantly better. Apart from anything, the Montar mount looks stylish and is well finished. But most importantly, it has so far stayed in place despite everything I've thrown at it. I don't usually leave a mount in place all the time, but as an experiment I left this on all day, then came back to it in the evening, inserting the phone for a two hour drive - and it stayed suitably stuck. In fact, so stuck that I couldn't get it off initially and had to wait until the sun warmed the car up before I could move it.

This was doubly impressive because, unlike the old kit, this one was fixed to the dashboard rather than the window. Like many modern dashboards, mine, on a Hyundai i30, presents serious challenges for any would-be attachment. The dashboard surface is curved, not flat, and textured too. I had assumed that getting a suction cup to fix would be impossible. But the Montar mount has a sticky gel bottom surface on the sucker than gave it a surprising grip on that unlikely surface. (If all else fails, it comes with a stick-on smooth disc to leave on your dash, but I don't like sticking things to my car, and I didn't need it for my dashboard.) I ought to say that looking at the Amazon reviews one or two people haven't had the same success, so there may be some car designs which are beyond it.

That apart, it's a 'no news is good news' report. It did its job. The phone stayed where it should, didn't wobble about, didn't fall off and was easily accessible. Because the mount was so solid I could insert the phone or remove it with one hand, without risking dislodging the whole thing.

It's not the cheapest car mount for a phone, but certainly the most impressive I've seen. Apparently I may need to 'wipe the gel suction bottom [sic] gently with wet cloth and dry completely until the stickiness comes back,' which I hope I don't have to do too often, as my idea of a car accessory is something you shove in the glove compartment and come back to three months later and it just works. But hopefully that maintenance will only be required now and again. Otherwise, it's a real success.

See the mount at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Fairness and the election

I am getting the teensiest bit irritated with people moaning that the general election last Thursday wasn't fair. Actually I am furious. We have everything from people whingeing on Facebook to violent protests all with the same message - that the outcome of the election wasn't fair. But what do they mean by 'wasn't fair'?

All too often what they mean is 'Whoever I voted for should have won the election.' This clearly isn't democracy, it's dictatorship. Like it or not, the election was fair given the election system we have - it reflected the public's opinion, given that system.

'So the system's wrong!' said moaners and protestors shout from the rooftops. 'Give us proportional representation, so we can oust those hated Tories.' But here's the thing. I voted for PR in the referendum. (OK, technically AV is only semi-PR, but probably the best compromise.) Did all the people who are complaining? If everyone who wanted the Tories out had voted for PR, we would have got it. Yet 67% voted no. To be fair, Ed Miliband supported it, but I didn't see all the people who are now crying 'Unfair!' being equally fervent about encouraging us to vote 'Yes' in the referendum.

However, if all I did was go on about the people who only want PR when they don't get the election result they want, this would be a whinge too. So to end on a positive note, if you aren't happy with First Past the Post, please do pop over and sign the Electoral Reform Society's petition for a fairer voting system. Will this do anything? Not directly. I see no reason why the current government would go for another referendum during this term. But it will help demonstrate the undercurrent of interest that could lead to this being a significant issue in the next election.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed review

I have to admit straight away that I am a big fan of Jon Ronson's books. Combining the wide-eyed innocence of Louis Theroux with what seems significantly more of a conscience, Ronson wanders through a topic like America's psy-wars, terrorists or psychopaths in a way that manages to get some serious points across in a humorous and immensely readable way. Not to mention persuading a surprising range of people to be interviewed.

This meant that I rushed out and bought his latest as soon as I could... and I 'm just a touch disappointed. Arguably this is simply due to the huge expectations from previous books. I think the problem is that the topic here - public shaming, primarily via social media - is less dramatic and more appealing to a relatively small audience. Because, like it or not, the Twittersphere may think it is the world, but in reality it's only a tiny part of it.

So, for instance, I had only vaguely heard of what's probably the biggest topic in the book, the shaming of writer Jonah Lehrer, and I had never heard of two of the other main subjects, Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone, each of whom was pilloried online for make a tasteless joke.

The good news is that, as usual with Ronson, the topics really made you think as well being entertaining. After all, Lehrer lost his career essentially for a slight embroidery of the truth. (I found it amusing that he and Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell were set up as if they typified popular science writers, where I would consider them essentially New York journalists who write self-help books with a marginal overlap with scientific subjects - and who are paid in a different universe to popular science authors.) The Lehrer story did me wonder why, for instance, his slight misquotes of Bob Dylan were considered such an earth shattering thing when, for instance, Bill Bryson quite happily admits to making his travel non-fiction a little more interesting than reality, and films like The Imitation Game, 'based on true events' play fast and loose with historical facts, and don't get this kind of destructive attack. (Incidentally, I reviewed Lehrer's book, entirely unaware of the apparent media storm, and was a bit dismissive of it, in part because I find anything about Bob Dylan as boring as I find Dylan himself.)

Similarly, it's hard to understand why such a fuss was made about the two women making the bad jokes online when jokes in worse taste are seen by a far bigger audience daily on TV. What's more, the pile-on and slag off reaction seemed entirely in opposition to the free speech ethos that most social media enthusiasts espouse. And it one case, the opprobrium was entirely due to Twitter followers not spotting the existence of irony (nothing new, I admit). I enjoy using Twitter, but I've never come across the kind of Troll-like reaction. I'd heard of it, but assumed it was reserved for celebrities who should know better, but these were ordinary people, mangled by ridiculous over-reaction from those with too much time on their hands.

So Ronson does definitely bring out something very interesting - and also covers a range of other aspects from the common misunderstanding of the nature and behaviour of crowds to the semi-official existence of shaming in the justice system. However, it still felt a lightweight subject for a book - almost like a good feature article instead. Even so, any Ronson fans like me will still find it well worthwhile, and it should be enforced reading for anyone inclined to pile in and abuse others on social media.

You can find SYBPS at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Monday, 11 May 2015

Why less can be more in a bookshop

I have a confession that will make most authors' lib people - you know, the ones who unfriend you on Facebook if you confess to buying anything from Amazon - quake in their sandals: I find independent bookshops intimidating.

I don't like their often dark, claustrophobia inducing interiors, and I don't like being talked to by staff. (Please note, Mary Portas, who regularly advises that good customer services involves welcoming customers and trying to help them. I don't want to be chatted to by a stranger. I'd rather help myself. If I want assistance I will ask for it. If your staff approach me, I will leave without making a purchase.)

So it was with some nervousness that I entered the Mad Hatter Bookshop in the pretty (or to put it another way, Cotswold tourist trappy) location of Burford, surprisingly close to my no-one-could-call-it-tourist-trappy home of Swindon. But I'm glad I did. I was even glad to be welcomed as I came in, though I admit if other shop owners said 'You're Brian Clegg, aren't you?' I would be happier with the concept, Ms Portas please note.

The reason I was particularly glad was that I discovered the real advantage a shop like this can have over Waterstones. (And, no, I don't mean the advantage of selling hats.) A largish Waterstones falls uncomfortably between two stools. It can't complete with an online store on stock. So if I want a specific book, half the time it's not there and I'm much better off going online. But, on the other hand, the Waterstones is too big to browse eclectically, so the customer tends to limit herself to the categories she always visits. And that's a real pity.

I think most of us have experienced the fun of browsing through the bookshelves of a friend with interesting tastes, discovering all sorts of unexpected pleasures. Looking through the shelves at Mad Hatter was very much like that.  It was small enough that I could sensibly look through the entire stock, including subjects I'd never normally think of sampling. Even the fiction section wasn't big enough to be overwhelming. It had exactly that same feel of looking through the large collection belonging to a friend who has a very wide range of tastes. And that meant far more opportunity to discover something new and interesting.

I'm not saying that I have totally got over my nervousness of indie shops, particularly the ones that feature crystals or alternative therapies in the windows. But I will certainly be inclined to take the plunge more often.

You can find Mad Hatter on Burford's steeply sloping High Street, on the right as you look up the hill.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Innovative science blogging

The first association many of us may have with marine biologists (stereotype alert) is that they only do it to get paid beach holidays in exotic locations, but at April's Guardian Science Communication Masterclass* I met Tom Evans, who is using his blog in an innovative way to get across what's new and interesting in his field. He is hosting a regular hot marine biology news award.

The traditional approach, used by both science bloggers and the likes of Physics World is to do a regular roundup of interesting science stories. This is fine, but hardly original. Tom is essentially doing the same in his Beneath the Waves offering, but as well as giving edited highlights of what's interesting from the past fortnight, he gives readers the opportunity to vote for the (entirely nominal) Beneath the Waves Award. It's not a big change, but somehow it makes the whole thing significantly more engaging.

Of course all the research is valuable, and there is the argument that such an approach could trivialise the work, but I think if it's taken as a bit of fun that, apart from anything else, gives the reader an incentive to look at all the topics not just the ones of immediate interest, it gives the blog an interesting edge.

There are many ways to communicate science, and blogging is already a relatively innovative and flexible one. But this additional detail, for me, makes Tom Evans' approach a winner.

* The Science Communication Masterclass proved so popular it is being run again in July. Details here

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Does architecture explain our problem with coalitions?

A more representative House?
In yesterday's paper there was a report of a poll saying that in the face of another no-overall-majority election, over 60% of respondents would prefer a proportional representation system. (Where were they when we voted on it?)

Yet many European countries manage quite happily with coalition after coalition. Why do we find them so difficult to deal with? My suspicion is it's a matter of architecture. Specifically, the psychological impact of the layout of the House of Commons.

Most parliaments are laid out in a curve, but by putting the two biggest parties directly facing each other, there is a requirement that we don't consider what would arguably be the only coalition that could genuinely argue that it had popular support - a Conservative/Labour coalition.

I know at this point supporters of both parties are probably falling to the floor and frothing at the mouth, but in many respects the parties aren't hugely distant, and a compromise between the two would ensure that we got through the maximum number of policies that had public support. Of course the negotiations would be painful - but politicians have to do something for their wages.

Whether or not it makes sense, I suspect we don't consider such a coalition - I haven't even heard it mentioned as a possibility - because of the seating plan of the House. And that isn't really a good enough reason.