Saturday, 28 February 2009

Goodbye sweet life

I don't give things up for Lent. It's not something that's ever really appealed to me. But somehow, this time round, I've been arm twisted into doing something - so I've given up sweets and chocolate.

I really thought I didn't eat sweets. Until just two days into it I found myself about to buy a pack of walnut whips at the M&S checkout. Well, they were a bargain. And then I realized just how easy it is to slip these things under our mental radar... so maybe it was a good idea after all.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Social networking isn't private

Social networking sites like Facebook let people keep in touch where and when they don't have immediate contact. And that's great. Despite bizarre comments from people who should know better that using such sites can damage brains or cause cancer (see Ben Goldacre's comments on the subject), I'd suggest the bolstering of people's personal networks is a good thing. Once upon a time we'd all meet in the village shop or pub and have a natter. That's not practical for many these days - Facebook et al offer a useful alternative.

However, there does seem to be one danger here. Because of the immediacy and the apparent security of having a password, it's easy to equate such meet ups as being like a private conversation in a locked room. It's not. They are at best semi-public - remember, you will see the comments of friends of friends. It's very easy to write something intended to be private and to be embarrassed to find it has become public.

There have been well publicized cases of employees making comments that their employers found unsuitable - for example the Virgin staff, sacked for calling their customers chavs. Another darker example has recently surfaced. An IT adminstrator has been sacked for breaking into students' Facebook accounts and copying the nude photographs the students had posted of themselves there.

Of course the administrator's actions are reprehensible. But you do have to ask what the students thought they were doing. Unless, of course they would also be in the habit of popping into the local shop or bar naked.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

On becoming Victor Meldrew

At the weekend some friends kindly invited me to join their team in the pub quiz at the Plough, our favourite among the excellent pubs in the village. One of the questions was 'which situation comedy drew the largest audience of 2000 when its final episode was shown?' Friends was considered - but surely 2000 was too long ago. Cheers too - but that finished well before. I muttered something about 'couldn't it be a British sitcom?' but this was generally ignored. It turned out to be One Foot in the Grave.

For those not familiar with the show, it featured Victor Meldrew, an everyman character for whom everything goes wrong, and the whole world is constantly presenting reasons to be a grumpy old man and moan.

All of this is just introduction to why I believe I took a step into Victor Meldrew country yesterday.

The field in question (neither house shown is ours).

Alongside our garden is a large field, which for many years has been a hay meadow. Lots of local people walk their dogs around it (you can see the tracks made by their walks in the picture above); the children played in it when they were little. Most recently we sledged down it. I was coming home around the field when I noticed something odd. There was a signpost in front of our neighbour's entrance into the field. But you couldn't read the sign. It was right up against the gate, facing the gate. 'Strange,' I thought. Until I got to our own entrance. There was a sign there too.

It turned out to be from a firm of solicitors, informing us that the field was to be used soon for livestock, and we had to stop using our entrance. This was sad - but not the end of the world. It is, after all, not a public field. However, what kicked the Victor Meldrew gene into action was the phrasing of part of the notice. It informed me that fencing would be erected shortly 'across the entrance you have made onto the land.'

This might seem totally innocuous. But that entrance was already there (and already old) when we moved into this house nearly 13 years ago. I did not make the entrance, and for some reason, the solicitor's snotty wording really got up my nose. Victor would probably have phoned to complain, but I thought solicitors would prefer something in writing, so I dashed off a fax, telling them off for their presumption. I haven't heard back yet. I don't know if I will.

On reflection, I'm glad I was restrained enough not to accuse them of libel - after all, they are solicitors. I don't know if it is libel to accuse someone of something they didn't do on a public notice. But I am glad I indulged that Meldrew moment. It might not have achieved anything, but it felt good.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Hello New Zealand!

I've just received through the post a copy of the New Zealand Listener for 14-20 February, which I'm delighted to say carries an extract from Ecologic. (It's not on the website version of the magazine, presumably because of copyright issues.)

I have to confess to not being familiar with the magazine, though I did occasionally read the now sadly defunct UK magazine of the same name, but it's New Zealand's only national weekly current affairs and entertainment mag, with a readership of over a quarter of a million people.

It's really exciting to know that people in another country will be reading a bit of my book - and inevitably I'm kind of hoping that some will be interested enough to take a look at the full thing.

Meanwhile, I've got an excellent magazine to read this lunchtime...

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The ups and downs of reviews

I'm pleased to say that my latest, Ecologic, is picking up a number of reviews, and the first three were really positive. So when the fourth arrived and it was so-so at best, it proved more than a little disappointing (especially when one of the positives was in the Sunday version of the same paper).

Mind you, I've seen elsewhere an author who received a stinking review of her novel as a hardback, then the same paper published a great review of it as a paperback. I suppose all this illustrates is the independence of the reviewers, and that's a good thing. We hardly want reviews to have to follow a set pattern. Yet it doesn't stop me wanting to make a small but effective Voodoo doll of my recent reviewer.

Is it better a bad review than no review at all? I'm not sure. But what I do know is there's a big 'rain on my parade' effect. I was feeling all rosy and happy after the good reviews, but just one bad one (quite possibly due to the writer having indigestion) seems to have washed out all the good.

Remind me again why I'm a writer?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Clegg Hall revisited

A while ago I blogged about Clegg Hall near Littleborough, where I grew up. All my lifetime it has been a ruin, a sad remnant of what it once was. When I was young I fantasized about making my fortune and one day coming back to restore it. The 'before' photo to the right here is what it looked like in 1999.

Thanks to Nick Pickvance for sending me photos including the one below of the hall in its shiny new 2009 state - remarkably, someone really has restored a building that has been abandoned for decades. It does look rather splendid, though it has lost a couple of its best architectural features - and there still seems to be a row of weavers' cottages right next to it - though given the history of the area, this isn't inappropriate.

So I raise a virtual glass in honour of whoever undertook this remarkable effort.

You can find more about Clegg Hall, its history and its boggart in this article.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Fox for a day

I'm delighted to be making a guest appearance on the excellent Vulpes Libris with an article on the ability of the new Kindle to read books aloud. Even if you've no interest in the Kindle, it's worth taking a look at VL if books are your thing.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Shape sorters are wonderful

Small children often have those clever little toys where they have to push different shapes through holes in the side of a container. Each hole is cunningly crafted so only the right shape can be passed through. If a toy designer can manage this trick, why can't car manufacturers?

The reason I ask is because I did something very stupid yesterday. I was on the way to give a seminar in Manchester. Quite near my destination, with plenty of time, I thought I'd fill up the car with fuel, so I could head off straight for home after the lunchtime event. Thinking through my presentation, I went through those habitual motions of pumping 40 litres of petrol into the tank. As I put the nozzle back in its holster, my stomach seemed to drop out of my body. The car I'd just filled up with 40 litres of lead-free petrol was a diesel car.

The strangest moment of that day was going to pay for the petrol that I neither wanted nor could use. It just seemed really weird.

As it happened, for a disaster, it all worked out quite well. The seminar was for a police force, who were able to get me off the motorway service station to the location and back using the service entrance, cutting a great chunk off the time it would have taken otherwise. The AA were brilliant, turning up on time and taking me to a garage that pumped out the tank. Okay, I lost about 3 hours and a bit of cash for the pump-out, but it could have been a lot worse. And everyone was really nice about it, not laughing at me at all, really.

I was stupid. I was distracted. But I'm still inclined to blame the car makers. If the manufacturer of a child's toy can design something with five different shapes that won't go in the other holes, why couldn't they have set a standard for filling tanks with nozzles that similarly won't go in the wrong type of tank? It would have been trivial. But bad design has let stupidity like mine flourish. Both the AA man and the garage said they deal with at least three cases a week. Good design should make the default action the right action. That's certainly not the case here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Beware assumptions

Assumptions pave the road to hell. It's often assumptions that stop us doing things. We assume things have to be a certain way, so we don't break out and do something creative. But I have been driven to this post by a silly little assumption I'm always encountering in software.

These days, many websites that need your address will let you put in your postcode. You then simply select which is your house from a list and it fills in the details for you. Brilliant stuff. HOWEVER. The designers of this software make a fatal assumption. When it fills in my address, it almost always does it in such a way that the website rejects it.

The problem is, we don't have a street name. Just the name of the house, followed by the name of the village. Almost all web forms insist on a street name - so we put the village in as the street name. But the automatic software dumbly slots the village name into the following field, leaving street name empty - and the website rejects the input.

Grrr. Get your act together, geek persons.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


I must apologize in advance that the blogging could be a little sparse this week. It's half term, with altogether too many 'can you give me a lift here?' type requests.

Still, an opportunity for an update on the cover of Before the Big Bang (now due out in August). A while ago I gave a sneak preview of this cover:

... well, now it has all changed. The powers that be at St Martin's Press preferred an alternative, which you see below in all its glory.

If I'm honest, I'm pleased. I think the new one is really attention grabbing. Although the other was very pretty, there are too many astronomy/cosmology books with pictures of nebulae on black backgrounds. But hey, what do I know? I'm just a writer.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Was Dirac the Stig?

I've just finished reading Graham Farmelo's massive biography of the physicist Paul A. M. Dirac The Strangest Man which seems to be doing very well in the shops.

My full review is available on the Popular Science website, but if you want the capsule version it provides interesting insights into the least publicized of the great quantum physicists. Well written, but the author suffers from I've-got-access-to-the-archive-itis - he tells us much too much unnecessary detail, which is why it's such a doorstop.

However, the point of interest here isn't the book, but a quote in it. Viewers of the BBC's Top Gear show will be aware that they have a 'tame racing driver' called the Stig, who always appears in a mirror-vizored helmet (though his identity has recently been revealed). He is always introduced with a little assertion that he isn't exactly human, that will go something like: 'Some say he has six fingers on his left hand and he bleeds brake fluid... but we only know he's called the Stig.'

Farmelo's book suggests to me that the Stig's earliest incarnation was, in fact, Dirac. Just listen to this quote from Russian scientist Igor Tamm: he had heard that 'it costs a tremendous effort to get a word from [Dirac], and that he talks only to children under ten.'

I rest my case.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Anyone in South Ken?

If anyone's in the South Kensington area of London at 3pm tomorrow (14 February), do pop into the Waterstone's bookshop inside the Science Museum, where I'll be signing copies of Ecologic. No need to buy a book - it would be great to see a friendly face!

In a BBC cellar

I spent quite a lot of yesterday glancing at the pictured clock and the white light underneath it.

This is on the wall of the NCA Studio at BBC Swindon/Wiltshire (the two 'separate' radio stations are really just two studios in the same building). The white light means the link is live.

If I'm honest, I'm being a little over-dramatic when I say 'in a BBC cellar', because the studio is on the first floor, but it has a splendid feeling of isolation, that wouldn't go amiss as a cellar. The NCA Studio is the network studio - thanks to the wonders of ISDN, it can connect up with any other BBC studio in the country and the occupant can (in sound quality terms) appear to be in the same room as the interviewer. Yesterday I had six interviews on Ecologic through the day with various local radio stations from BBC York to BBC Devon, all conducted from this small (and a touch chilly) room.

It's not the first time I've done this, and as always the BBC staff made me feel very welcome. You'd expect them to think 'who is this upstart author, no one's heard of?' but, no, they're very friendly and helpful.

Once they'd settled me in the blue chair and plied me with drink (water and coffee, I mean, it isn't that kind of green room), they pretty much left me to it. Every now and then the magic box clicks into life and another local radio station appears on the headphones. As you can see, it's no palace, but it still feels rather special.

Having said that, having an interview down the line is always second best to the real thing. I had mentioned I was a touch disappointed that I'd got interviews with six other regional stations, but not my local one. In a gap in the chats, one of the Swindon/Wiltshire presenters, Mark O'Donnell kindly fitted in an unscheduled interview. Though recorded rather than live, this was in a real studio with the sort of setup you usually see when a radio station appears on TV. Although the remote interviews were great, speaking face-t0-face with Mark was better, because it was a real conversation - it just works so much better when you can see the other person.

My first job after leaving university was at British Airways, and I always find two other organizations - the BBC and the Met Office - remind me hugely of my early BA days. It's like coming home. I had a great day, so thanks to all at Radio Swindon/Wiltshire and the other stations we linked up to.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Climate change or global warming?

I had an interesting email from New Zealand reader Jackie Walker:

Hello Brian--
In the interests of convincing climate change deniers (though perhaps it's a lost cause), would it not be better to drop the term Global Warming completely, and use instead only Climate Change? If not Climate Change, then Weather Extremes or Extreme Weather ? (As in today's snow in Britain, 47 degree heat and fires in Australia, floods in Marshall Islands...)
The term Global Warming plays into the hands of nay-sayers who have only to point to the icy blizzards assailing them.
It's a point that's always bothered me.

I think Jackie has a point. Global warming used as a generic term is a little misleading, and can lead to the sort of easy dismissal 'Look at all the snow out there. What global warming?' However, I think it's fair to say that most people use 'climate change' and 'global warming' reasonably interchangeably without too much worry. If I'm honest, I called my book The Global Warming Survival Kit rather than The Climate Change Survival Kit because for some reason 'global warming' seems to have a more powerful feel to it.

Certainly, I'd suggest our default label ought to be climate change. The trouble with 'extreme weather' is that it doesn't, of itself, suggest any change in the overall state of the world, just weather that is extreme for wherever it's happening. If I catch myself using the term 'global warming' in the future I'll make sure it's always qualified soon after.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

It's PLR time (fa, la, la)

This is the time when authors in the UK have a little spring in their step, even if spring hasn't managed to shift the snow. It's PLR time. PLR stands for Public Lending Right - it's a nifty little idea to reward authors for books they don't get much income from otherwise: borrowings from libraries.

The idea is simple - the PLR people take a sample from a range of libraries and scale this up for the country. Then on this level of borrowings, they award the author 5.98p per borrowing, up to a maximum of £6,600.

The PLR process provides some interesting statistics. Payments were made to 23,773 authors, while another 12,158 were registered but didn't earn enough to get paid. Of those who did get the dosh the majority - 17,819 were in the bottom £1-100 band. A lonely 232 had so many sales that they hit the maximum limit.

I'm always fascinated that the books that did best in the shops aren't always the ones that have the most borrowings. My best-selling book so far, A Brief History of Infinity does do reasonably well with 585 loans last year, and though I would expect it to be beaten by The Global Warming Survival Kit (966 loans), which hasn't had a chance to catch up on sales yet, it is also hammered by Instant Stress Management (808) and even Instant Interviewing (589), which frankly didn't sell well at all.

If you're an author with books published in the UK and aren't registered for PLR, do it now at their website! It doesn't cost anything, it has the potential to be a little bit of unexpected income (even if it's just at a 'buy an ice-cream' level) - and there's something of a rosy glow to be gained at the thought of those real (if statistical) people taking your book off the shelves in the library.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Blog ads

I currently host Google ads on this blog, and I've really mixed feelings about it. I have Google ads deployed across most of my websites without any particular issue. On my Popular Science book review site, for example, when I just took a look, the home page ads were for things like BBC Focus magazine and New Scientist. Which seems entirely reasonable and not in any way a problem.

But the trouble is, Google's magic algorithm for determining what to display insists on displaying self-publishing adverts here. Now some of these are, without doubt, respectable - but there is a certain type of "we'll publish your book" advertiser that is, how can I put it, lacking in morals. On the other hand, I certainly can't say the specific ads that come up on a particular day are bad. And sometimes they can be quite amusing. A few days ago, one ad was for a literary agent, the second said "you don't need a literary agent."

For the moment I'll leave them there... but they're under consideration.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Adventures in Plymouth

I spent last Friday in Plymouth, giving a series of talks around Ecologic. It all seemed rather surreal, as I'd battled through piles of snow to get to the station at my end (the trains were excellent - all on time) yet there wasn't a spot of snow in Plymouth.

A fairly strenuous day, beginning with a meeting with Plymouth Council's sustainability and climate change supremo, then three talks. The first was to Shipping students at Plymouth University -a good response from a positive audience. Second up, after lunch, were students from years 7 to 9 of St Boniface College. The prospect of around 150 11- to 13-year-olds was a little daunting, but in fact they were a great audience, who were very lively in the question time.

The piece de resistance was an evening event at the remarkable looking Roland Levinsky building. I gave a shortish talk, then we had a Q&A panel session, with three MPs (one of each major party) - Colin Breed, Linda Gilroy and Gary Streeter - plus me. It was rather like being on the BBC's Question Time programme, only the MPs were extremely good in refraining from attacking each other's policies, and instead giving straight answers to the audiences' questions.

A great (if long) day. I was very grateful to local organizer Alan Ramage (and his wife) who set it all up, ferried me around and provided refreshments.

So, as the snow melts away, back to sort of normality.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Sold a lot of greenwash?

Just back from two nights in sunny Plymouth (it really was - no snow at all) giving talks on Ecologic. More on this on Monday, but came back to this fun, if sensationalist sounding headine in the Swindon Advertiser:

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Snow joke

I'm panicking slightly at the moment as I'm due to head down to Plymouth this afternoon for a full day of events around Ecologic there on Friday - but last night we had around 10cm of snow and the roads are borderline passable. Fingers crossed...

That's Goldie, out in the snow this morning. At least she's having a good time! In fact it's lovely - and would be great, if I didn't have to get somewhere.

Here she is in action:

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Shock - snow delays blog

Trains, you might understand, but snow delaying a blog? It's like this. Ever since Monday my daughters' school has been disrupting my working life. Monday they came home at lunchtime. Tuesday and today, they were home all day.

So most of today I've been ferrying them around here, there and everywhere. Of course, you might say I shouldn't take them. But it's their birthday today. Could you really say no? But if they're still off tomorrow, they walk...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Lit Bits at Bookarazzi

The hot site with info about authors with a name I can never spell, Bookarazzi (be patient, it's a touch slow to load), has a monthly update of new books and opportunities to see authors in action, on the home page under the heading Lit Bits.

This month you'll find children's author Sue Mongredien's new titles, the mistress of historical fiction Emma Darwin giving a reading, the paperback version of Sally Hinchcliffe's thriller out and at a signing, the exotic sounding Sadomasochism for Accountants out from Rosy Barnes, more new books, a virtual book tour and more. What are you waiting for?

The self-publishing debate

I don't think I've made much of a comment on self-publishing here, so thought it worth a mention. If you want to discover some of the pitfalls, I can't do better than refer you to the hyper-knowledgeable Lynn Price's blog. Lynn is the editorial director of a US publisher, and has, shall we say, very clear ideas on self-publishing.

I'll consider four broad scenarios why someone might be interested in self-publishing, and what I'd suggest. The first is someone has written something they'd like to see in print, but is well aware it's never going to be a commercial book. The history of your family, for instance. Here I'd recommend a service like Lulu. You upload your book (this is a bit fiddly, but not too hard) and they will produce one or more copies as and when you like at quite a reasonable price. The end result looks like a real book, though the covers are slightly flimsy compared to a typical commercial press.

The second possibility is that you have written, say, a novel that you have shopped around the publishers and agents, and you know it isn't going anywhere, but you are very fond of it and want friends and relations to be able to read it comfortably, rather than as a pile of paper. Again, Lulu offers a good solution. I'd give as a great example of this Henry Gee's book By the Sea, which he has accepted is unlikely ever to be published, but I and quite a few others have bought in the Lulu form and enjoyed reading.

The third possibility is that you have written what you believe is a great novel and you have heard about all these people who get their self-published novel given huge advances by publishers when they see how well it's doing. So you go to one of the many publishers advertising online who say that they will take your book, turn it into something wonderful and use their marketing expertise to get it into all the bookshops.

What these websites won't say is that they will charge you a fee - usually thousands of pounds - to do this. Nor will they mention that they won't properly edit the book, will do practically no marketing, and their books rarely get into shops at all. Sure, they'll be listed on Amazon - but anyone can get a book listed on Amazon. These companies are known as vanity publishers. That makes it sound like the author's vain, but what such 'publishers' do is take innocent people's money, pretend they are fulfilling their dreams - and then leave them with a hole in their bank balance and nothing to show for it.

The answer for these people is, don't do it. If you want your book properly published, get taken on by an agent who will submit you to real publishers. If you just want to get into print, try Lulu.

Finally there are people who need lots of copies of a book for their work. Perhaps they are trainers, and have written a book that they want to use in training. I would encourage such people to try to get in published first. With a book like this you can submit direct to publishers. If you do get it taken on, you won't have to pay for publication, and your book will have more kudos. Alternatively there are plenty of respectable publishers who don't claim to turn your work into a 'real book' but will produce copies for you to order. If you are ordering in bulk, you will probably be able to beat Lulu for pricing, and get a better quality of product. I can't recommend specific publishers - look for recommendations from good sources like the Society of Authors.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Great broadcasting lies #251

If there's one phrase that really grates on my ears, it's the one inevitably voiced by the host of talent shows and celebrity show-off venues like Dancing on Ice. Yes, the person in charge will plonkingly tell us that the participants being saved to suffer again next week are being announced in no particular order. I'm sorry, this is a blatant lie.

What they mean is that the order doesn't reflect the number of votes the person got. But that's not what they are saying. The successful names are announced in a very particular order - the one that the producers decide is the best to build audience tension. There is no way it's random, as suggested by 'no particular order'.

What does it matter? Not a lot. Serves me right for watching these things. But it still irritates. Grr.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Evnin Stannit!

Still riding high on the publication of Ecologic. Many thanks to the multi-talented Amanda Lees for spotting this in Friday's Evening Standard:

... there's something rather pleasing about having your work called THE BOOK - even if they presumably have a different THE BOOK every day...