Thursday, 28 April 2016

Bone by Bone review

It's great when you get a chance to meet an author, in part because it makes you more likely to buy a book you wouldn't otherwise. After a talk by Sanjida Kay (aka Sanjida O'Connell when writing non-fiction and historical fiction), I picked up a copy of her psychological thriller Bone by Bone - and I'm glad I did.

I think there's two reasons I wouldn't normally have bought this - partly because I prefer traditional crime fiction to thrillers, and partly because the publisher has come up with a cover that seemed to hint as it being women's fiction, a category that there is absolutely no reason to straight-jacket this book with.

The difficulty with this kind of story is that it's difficult to say too much without engaging in spoilers, but it features a single mother and her nine-year-old daughter. They have recently moved from London to Bristol, and the daughter begins to be bullied at school. As Laura, the mother, attempts to sort out the bullying she first makes things worse and then plunges herself and her daughter into a spiral of increasingly out-of-control situations.

It's very well written - an excellent balance of good description and taut writing, which pulls the reader on relentlessly. By doing away with numbered chapters and using relatively short sections, Kay strongly pushes the 'I'll just read a bit more' button, and I found that I got through it extremely quickly, particularly as the tension builds towards the end. The sections are either from the point of view of mother Laura or daughter Autumn. I'm usually find child POV writing a touch excruciating, but Kay does not overdo the childlike thinking, giving an inner narration that could be an adult's, but from a child's viewpoint, which mostly works well.

The only slight complaint I'd have is about the topping and tailing prologue and epilogue. I absolutely see the point of the flash forward in the prologue as a way to ratchet up the tension straight away, but the specific occurrence left me feeling a little cheated when we got to it in the 'real time' part of the book. And the epilogue feels a tad over-neat in the way it wraps things. But neither of these spoiled the book for me.

If you fancy a book that combines a page-turner of a story with a situation that anyone with children could identify with (even though reality would thankfully be unlikely to be so extreme), it's one to go for. The Bristol setting makes a pleasant change from other city locations and there's enough depth here to absorb more than caricature sketches of characters, without ever getting the feeling the author has forgotten the importance of plot.

See more about the book at Amazon.co.uk an Amazon.com.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Trade deals and misdirection

As I may have said already (bear with me - only two more months to go) I am fed up with the misdirection that is being used by both sides in the EU exit debate. A couple of days ago, Teresa May made an odd speech, supposedly about staying in the EU, but in practice almost entirely about the European Court of Human Rights. (Guess what. She doesn't like it.) Say after me, Teresa: 'The European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU.' And she knows that perfectly well.

However, the specific topic that has aroused my ire is the response to President Obama's comment at the weekend that it could take 10 years to negotiate a trade deal with the US if we leave the EU, a response that suggests that this means that transatlantic trade will collapse. This echoes similar dire warnings that leaving the EU will mean we can no longer trade with EU countries. Let's be clear here. This is balderdash.

We don't have a proper trade deal with the US at the moment. But guess what? We buy US goods and services - and they buy ours - all the time. We aren't talking about things getting worse with the US, simply sticking with the status quo for longer than if we stayed in the EU. If we do stay in the European Union we are likely to became part of the EU/US trade deal. And what is that trade deal? The horrendous and secretively negotiated TTIP, which threatens to open our markets to a flood of US products and services that don't meet our standards on, for instance, use of hormones in raising cattle, and makes it pretty well impossible to prevent US companies taking over some aspects of the NHS.

I don't doubt there will be some bumps in the road if we leave the EU - and it might not be the best idea. But the way the trade situation has been portrayed as going from wondrous perfection to vastly reduced trade really doesn't provide any reflection on the nature of reality.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Clever clickbait or disappointingly dumb?

Every now and then something turns up on Facebook that has been shared by 100 bazillion people, with a heading like '99% of people will get this wrong.' Some of these posts are just tedious (like the ones that depend on the order in which you apply mathematical operations), but the one illustrated here apparently has some merit - it looks like a straightforward reverse logic problem. But in reality it seems specifically designed to cause confusion. 
The problem here is that the sequence does not have a single solution. At the very least you can make an argument for 40 or 96, and stretching things a little, 32 gets a look in.

For me, 96 was the most obvious solution - the process to get the right hand value is multiply the two items on the left and add the first of the original numbers. As for 32, it comes from totally ignoring the items on the left and making the sequence of solutions progress regularly - in this case, the first two are separated by 7, the second two by 9, so it seems reasonable to separate the third pair by 11. And, yes, 40 also makes sense, by adding the solution of the previous line to the left hand side of the next line. (I don't know how someone made it 35.)

But why is it designed to cause confusion? Because the people who put it together know we will disagree, and that increases the number of comments. The problem is, as I've mentioned previously, when thinking about logic problems, we are conditioned to expect one correct answer. But like most real world problems, this is a problem that does not have a single correct answer. Each of 32, 40 and 96 is a perfectly respectable value. And no doubt there are others as well. Which is to be welcomed - it's a shame we feel the urge to put forward one particular answer as 'correct', for which we can probably blame the limitations of our education. The designers of this post know that we have been programmed to search for THE right answer, and so exploit us accordingly.

Monday, 25 April 2016

The downside of adultised superheroes

I know there's no such word as 'adultised' - but it matches what I have in mind. When I was a kid, I read DC comics (for some reason, Marvel didn't seem to arrive in Rochdale til after I grew out of them). I enjoyed Superman, but Batman was far better. This was because an important part of reading these comics was role play. It was hard to emulate Superman without, for instance, being able to fly. But, trained though he was, Batman was just human, and so far easier to feature in pretend play. And most important of all, he had his utility belt.

Oh, that utility belt. (I was spurred into writing this, by the way, after passing a police officer as I came out of Temple Meads station, thinking that her gadget-bedecked high vis jacket looked like a utility belt.) How I wanted a utility belt. And, inevitably I made one of sorts, though it didn't carry quite as impressive a collection of items as did Batman's own.

I know the move of comic books to shades of grey in the spread of 'graphic novels' (they really aren't novels, guys, I'm sorry) has made superheroes more attractive to an adult audience. And though I share Stephen Fry's doubts about the genre having such a hold on the box office, I do enjoy some of the modern reboots. But what a loss. There is no way that the modern Batman is a sensible role play option for children. The utility belt now seems far too tame for Batman writers. So while I have nothing against 'graphic novels' per se (apart from the name), I am very sad at the way they have deprived today's young people of an exciting part of their innocence.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Information is power when crossing the road

It's green now, but I as I cross I have no idea what it
is showing...
We are all aware how important information is, and anyone who has designed a system or computer program also knows that feedback is an essential type of information in making things go well. Our entire physical interaction with the world is dependent on feedback to show whether or not we need to change a course of action, or how something is progressing.

This is why a mechanism that tells you how far you are through a process (a progress bar or a percentage complete value) is much more effective that simply indicating that a process is underway, even if the percentage isn't particularly accurate. A Windows-style 'floaty dots to show you something is happening' only indicates that a process has started. It's a touch of feedback, but it gives no indication that things are continuing to happen - and that's bad. Feedback should continue to be updated until the process is complete. That way, we feel in control, even if we can't actually do anything. It's a major weight off the mind.

Which leads us on to crossing the road. Traditionally in the UK, crossings linked to traffic lights have had a red/green person on the opposite side of the road. When it's green you can go, when it's red you shouldn't. It's a crude form of feedback, but it's a start. And crucially, because the sign is on the opposite side of the road, the feedback continues throughout the crossing process. If the lights start changing when you are half way across, you know about it. More recently, though we've seen a divergence, replacing the old indicators with two alternatives. One is a huge step forward, but the other (which is far more common) is disastrous in terms of feedback.

The step forward I've only ever seen in London, and it's brilliant. A fair number of London crossings have a countdown to the lights changing. So not only do you have the red/green person, you know how many seconds you have left to cross safely. This is superb. As you cross, you have constantly updated feedback, always accessible. This is how it should be done.

Unfortunately for those oiks amongst us who choose not to live in the metropolis, there's a problem. Our crossing indicators are being increasingly replaced by ones like the image above. Here we still have the red/green person - but the information is provided on the side of the road you start from. This is fine in terms of getting started. But if you begin to cross when the green person was already showing, you have no idea how long the indicator has been green. If the lights start changing when you are part way across, you can't see the green man change to red. There is no way to see the status when you are at your most vulnerable, in the middle of the road. You can't even see the indicator for people from the other side, as they are angled away from the street. So you have to cross entirely without feedback. And that is stupid indeed.

Please talk to some decent interface design people, town planners.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Road grins

We're all familiar with the awful concept of road rage. Most motorists feel it occasionally, and you've never met an urban cyclist or parent of a double buggy trying to pass a car parked on the pavement if you haven't also experienced it from non-car drivers. However, this is a post in praise of the antithesis of road rage, the road grin.

This morning, I was negotiating a zebra crossing across a dual carriageway (if you know Bristol, the one by St Mary, Redcliffe). As usual in Bristol, most drivers stopped immediately to let me cross. But a van driver continued as far as the traffic would allow, stopping right across the crossing. As I walked around the front of the van, I gave the driver a classic Paddington hard stare. But rather than the usual avoiding of eye contact, he looked straight at me with a sheepish grin that clearly said 'Whoops! Sorry!' I couldn't help but smile back (though to maintain Britishness, I only did this after I had looked away).

It is my contention that if we had rather more road grins we might have significantly less road rage.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Multiple choice moons

A couple of newspaper websites have recently published quizzes based on How Many Moons does the Earth Have.

The first was the Mail Online, which used a rather manual approach of a list of possible answers for each question, then the answers further down the page. I wasn't overwhelmed by this version, which you can see here, in part because they didn't have any useful link to the book. Newspapers tend not to pay for these kinds of extract, but this is on the basis that they make it easy to buy the book.

Perhaps most entertaining here is the collection of almost uniformly negative comments, often complaining that the questions were 'general knowledge, not science.' I simply don't understand this moan: science often is general knowledge, and all the questions were science/tech based.

The second version appeared on the website of the now internet-only Independent (although you can still get the excellent i newspaper in paper form), and I much preferred it. As you can see, they took a much more visual approach and gave multiple choice 'click to answer' questions that took advantage of the format.

What both miss is what is, to me, the most important feature of the book - that it doesn't just give answers, but spends a page expanding on them. So, for instance, my answer about how much salt in the sea was denounced as a trick question on the Mail website - but if you follow through the page in the book, my answer is a perfectly logical one.

Whether or not these online quizzes generate any interest in the book, it's still an interesting experience.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The writer who doesn't understand authors

I've mostly been enjoying the BBC series Undercover (Sunday at 9pm). However, there did seem to be a bit of a gaping plot hole. In it, the character Nicholas Johnson, played by the brilliant Adrian Lester, has a secret life that is gradually getting out of control. 'Nicholas Johnson' is a made up person (within the drama), adopted by Lester's character 20 years ago when he was an undercover cop. He falls in love in character and ends up living the lie. Only now his old life is intruding on him.

So far, so good (if a little unlikely). When Lester's character originally devised the Nicholas Johnson cover, which we see happening in the second episode, he had to think of an occupation that didn't involve regular hours so he could turn up anywhere any time. So he plumped for 'writer'. We learn that he writes crime novels. And that it's just as well that he came up with a detailed cover story, as the people he is infiltrating run a background check on him.

I have two problems with this. There's the minor one that he would probably call himself an author, not a writer. But the big one is the matter of the background check. We are shown that Nicholas Johnson really existed with that birthdate, but died. But here's the thing. Lester's character is clearly relatively affluent. So he must be a success writer. But where are his books? Surely the background check would turn up the reality that there were no books by Nicholas Johnson? Even with a good undercover backstory, you can't suddenly produce existing books that have been in print for several years. Anyone would think that the writer of the drama didn't understand, erm, being a writer.

Monday, 11 April 2016

The one right answer fallacy

I managed to irritate someone the other day. (You don't get any points for saying 'I'm not surprised,' at this point.)

I received one of those emails you get occasionally from mailing lists you signed up to years ago, when life was very different. Back then, I was still involved in giving creativity training, and this was a creativity kind of newsletter. In it, the author had included a logic problem, which I shall reveal in a moment.

Now, I've always been a little suspicious about logic problems when it comes to creativity. A great example is the old chestnut about the person who gets the lift down to the ground from his 20th floor apartment every workday. On the way home, he gets the lift up to the 14th floor and walks the rest of the way. The question is 'Why?' And the answer you were supposed to give was 'Because he's very short and can't reach above the 14th floor button.' When doing creativity training, I've always subverted this and given away that solution, instead asking for ask many other solutions as we can come up with. We usually manage at least a dozen, equally good alternatives.

I would suggest the traditional way of using the problem, where there is a single right answer is about as anti-creativity as it's possible to get. So whenever I'm presented with a logic problem, I try to come up with an answer that the person who devised the problem did not expect. You may, or may not agree, but I see this as the only way to be creative with this kind of thing.

So, the problem in the email was called the 'Three Person Problem' and went like this:
There are three adult people. Andy is looking at Betty.  Betty is looking at Chris.  Andy is married. Chris is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
a) Yes
b) No
c) Impossible to say.
Most people get this wrong.  Please email me for the answer.
Now, I confess that 'Most people get this wrong,' was a red rag to a bull, as it implied immediately that there was only one possible answer. So I emailed back:
I suspect it may not be the answer you want, but one correct answer is definitely c) Impossible to say

This is because you make two separate statements. ‘There are three adult people.’ and then a series of comments on Andy, Betty and Chris. However, you don’t say that Andy, Betty and Chris are the three adult people mentioned in the previous sentence. If Betty were a child, she is arguably neither married nor unmarried.
The reply that I got was the somewhat grumpy:
Don’t be obtuse.

The answer is a) Yes.

Betty is either married or unmarried.  In either case a married person is looking at an unmarried person.
There's certainly nothing wrong with this answer, but it is the boring expected one - it's certainly not creative.

I tried to explain:
Not being obtuse at all. The trouble with these kind of logic problems is that they are almost always phrased badly, so that they are susceptible to outside the box thinking. In this case a) is the obvious desired answer, c) is the much more creative answer, given the phrasing of the question.
But that didn't go own well either:
The phrasing of the question is perfectly clear – for any English speaker.
I had to have the last word and finished with a below the belt jibe about not being able to dispute my grasp of English, before emphasising that 'to be honest this entirely misses the point. You weren't giving us a use of English problem, but a logic problem in the frame of creativity. Logic requires precise wording. Good creativity, rather than ploddingly following the "right answer" looks for all possible ways around a problem. By using strong logic it was possible to provide a much more creative solution than the one you were hoping for.'

Whether or not you agree with me about the specific problem, I hope you will agree that solving logic problems is not of itself creative - it's only when you avoid the obvious that you can do something interesting.

Friday, 8 April 2016

What is good quality evidence?

I've recently had an interesting email discussion about UFOs, which has some lessons to learn for UFO fans (and for politicians, amongst others) on what constitutes good evidence. I had reviewed a book called The Compelling Scientific Evidence for UFOs and this resulted in some discussion with its author, Erol Faruk.

I'm what I'd call a hopeful sceptic when it comes to UFOs. I'd really like UFOs to exist, but I expect the evidence supporting a UFO sighting to be strong - let's fact it, this is a pretty remarkable claim, so we need strong evidence if we are to support it.

A big problem I have with many UFO sightings is that they are based on either pure witness testimony or very bad photographs that just show lights in the sky or fuzzy blobs. In other cases, UFO investigators make a huge leap from 'there's something strange' to 'because it's strange, it must be caused by an extraterrestrial ship.' I'd like to give two examples that cover these three issues.

Let's start with the fuzzy photos. There are all sorts of problems with these. One is the ease with which they can be faked. Like many before me, I've been tempted to have a go at this myself when I was at university, though just for fun.

Here's one of mine, showing a flying saucer over Aviemore, Scotland. It's actually a metal camping plate, thrown frisbee-like, and could have been better, but you get the idea. (These days it would be trivial to do with Photoshop, but back then it was not an option.)

I don't doubt that many of these fuzzy images we see aren't intentionally fake. But so many of them are pretty much fuzzy lights in the sky (try living near Heathrow as I once did), or could be ducks, reflections, all kinds of confusing things. Nowadays most people carry a good camera and routinely take clear, quick snaps, so we should be getting lots of good, clear photos. We aren't.

In my email discussion I brought up the particular issue of a sighting of a craft over Phoenix, Arizona in 1997, detailed in Faruk's book. According to this, ‘hundreds, possibly thousands of witnesses’ saw the Phoenix craft in 1997, but without producing any clear photos. By then many people had video cameras and many of the witnesses were out to see the comet Hale Bopp and would have had cameras on tripods etc. Where are the good, clear, unequivocal photos and videos? In the 1980s, I saw my own equivalent of a UFO (except it was identified). I looked out of a window at home and my jaw dropped to see a space shuttle on the back of a 747 flying past. I was not expecting it and had no camera prepared - but I still managed to get several clear enough photographs of it. What photos I’ve seen from Phoenix are just lights in the sky.
Unlikely to be a bird or Venus

The response I got to my doubt was 'For many UFO sightings there is "shock" element which usually leaves witnesses rooted to the spot as they're fixated on watching the unknown object with the result that they don't think of rushing indoors to locate a camera to get evidence of what they're seeing. Take a look at the first part of this video [linked] showing several witness testimonies of the Phoenix boomerang object from different vantage points.' But I don't want testimonies, I want good evidence. And I really
don’t accept the shock argument - I was shocked to see a space shuttle outside my window, but it was all the more reason to get a camera. And lots of these people out to see the comet would already have had cameras: they wouldn’t have needed to go and get them, so it should have been even easier for them than it was for me.

To finish off on photos I'd also mention the infamous 'saucers over the Capitol building' photo from Washington in 1952. This looks really impressive as often shown as a cropped shot of the Capitol building with an array of lights in the sky over it - far too regular to be anything other than a UFO formation. Only when you look at the full, uncropped photo, there is exactly the same pattern of lights on the steps in front of the building. The 'UFOs' are lens reflections from the street lights.

With the Phoenix example I was constantly referred to the witness statements. Erol commented 'No, witness testimony is rightfully not considered "good" scientific evidence, but if it comes from entirely credible witnesses - and multiple ones at that - they also cannot be summarily dismissed in my opinion. Once you have some spare time do take a look at that video and judge the credibility of the witnesses yourself. As far as I know none of them were - unfortunately - in a position to snatch a camera to take photos. Does that mean that their testimony is worthless?' Well, yes, pretty much if it is unsubstantiated by evidence. Human beings are terrible observers. And it's very easy to see something in the sky at night and misinterpret it. We need stronger evidence than testimony.

Which brings us onto the topic of Erol's book. This was another sighting in Delphos, Kansas. Three members of a family allegedly saw a craft which had landed on their farm take off and fly away. They  describe finding a glowing ring where the craft had landed, which they took a photo of. In following days there was a white ring on the ground and the soil where the craft had apparently been in contact seemed strange. Erol later analysed the soil and found it contained some interesting chemical constituents that made it water resistant and fluorescent. That is, indeed, interesting. The problem is that in and of itself, a strange material in the soil does not in any way indicate extraterrestrial involvement - that suggestion is solely based on the witness testimony. There was, of course, the photo of the 'glowing ring' - but this is indistinguishable from a photo of the white ring in the daytime. It has also been suggested elsewhere that there was a circular chicken feeder on the farm previously at this spot, which could have caused the markings.

And here we get the problem of separating good evidence from bad. Erol's response to my points was 'My analysis showed the presence in the ring soil of a highly water-soluble organic compound which I characterised in terms of its light absorption and fluorescence properties. I then used this information - and only this information - to propose a hypothesis for the sighting report. This hypothesis perfectly explains the vivid colours of the UFO [reported by the witnesses] and of the glow observed between the object and the ground during Ronald's observation. It also explains the glowing ring left behind after the UFO departed of which a photo was then taken . It perfectly explains the ring elongation of the ring towards the wind direction on the night of the event. It also explains the pitted craters on the ring felt when the witnesses touched its surface, as well as the moistness of the ring and the noted anaesthetic effects consistent with the dual hydrophobic/hydrophilic nature of the soil compound.'

Unfortunately, the only evidence that the ring was produced by a UFO was witness testimony from a small group of people (who allegedly were paid for providing their story, though I don’t know if this true). There was no strong evidence for either the presence of the UFO or the glowing ring - again, the only evidence this wasn't a flash photograph, or that it was taken at night, was from the witness statement. The only strong evidence was the chemical analysis - which showed there was something unusual in the soil, but did not provide anything suggestive of extraterrestrial origin. The weakness was the dependence on the family’s testimony to make the connection from ‘unusual chemical deposit’ to ‘UFO’.

I am not in any sense saying that this shows there aren’t UFOs. It doesn't. No evidence can prove this. But we always need to be aware of the quality of evidence at each stage of making a connection. And in this case, while one bit of evidence is good, it is nowhere near enough to make the leap to evidence that an extraterrestrial craft landed.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

An admission of tax avoidance

I was somewhat unnerved to hear the shadow chancellor saying we should crack down on those involved in tax evasion and avoidance. Lumping the two together both dilutes the fight against the criminals and threatens to stigmatise a fair percentage of the population.

As there's often confusion between the two (I certainly have to check every time I use the terms), evasion is illegal. It is engaging in deception to reduce your tax bill. Avoidance is choosing an approach within the law to reduce the amount of tax you pay.

The reality is that I - and plenty of you - have indulged in avoidance. A simple example is choosing to put your savings into an ISA rather than an account where you pay tax on the interest.

Of course some avoidance - such as the complex structures used by the likes of Google and Amazon - should be prevented from happening. But in the end that's a matter of sorting out the tax regime. If HMRC simplified our incredibly complex tax structure, it could slash heavy duty unnecessary avoidance at a stroke. Unfortunately the bureaucratic mind seems inclined to make things more complex instead, leaving more potential loopholes, but we shall see.

When politicians lump avoidance and evasion together, they smooth over the reality that evasion is the fault of the criminals perpetrating it. But avoidance is the fault of badly written, overly complex tax codes - and the fault for that lies squarely with the government and the civil service. Don't let them get away with blaming this on everyone else.


Monday, 4 April 2016

Murder escapes the virtual world

Some while ago I started selling Organizing a Murder as an ebook. Now it's out as a physical version too.

Organizing A Murder contains twelve different mysteries to solve with friends, family or colleagues. There's huge variety. Not all the mysteries are murders, and the events are graded on three different levels, from those suitable for children from around 9, up to complex mysteries that need all the cunning of an adult player. Settings vary too, from a traditional country house to a starship in deep space.

Unlike the boxed party kits you can buy, there's a lot more variation in the way the each mystery is played out, from a simple treasure hunt, to a complex mystery with witness statements, clues and evidence to sift through. And because the players are all detectives, as individuals or teams, it's much simpler to organize as there's no need for costumes and embarrassing role-play. This approach means that any number of players can take part in one of these events.

The new, large format paperback includes practically everything you need to run the events - copies of answer sheets for up to six teams and all the clues and evidence ready to cut out and distribute at your location. All you need to add is a pair of scissors to cut out the clues. It costs just £14.99 from Amazon for 12 mysteries (or $19.99 from Amazon.com) - not bad when you consider a murder mystery boxed set can cost more than this for a single mystery.

Alternatively, it's still just £9.99 as an ebook - buy it and download it - ideal for those last minute parties - and if you have a printer it makes a great resource because you can print off elements like answer sheets and clues straight from the 118 page ebook to set the scene for your crime.

Whether you want to spice up a dinner party, keep the kids busy over the summer, or set a challenge for your team at work, Organizing a Murder can provide the answer.