Thursday, 30 April 2009

How do you read blogs?

Teaching grandma to suck eggs warning - if you know all about blog reader/amalgamation applications this will not be very exciting - otherwise, do read on.

If you read a fair number of blogs by ploughing through a list one after another, it can be more than a little tedious. But there is a way around it.

It's called a blog reader - I briefly mentioned these a few weeks ago, but I've been asked to expand a bit. These are free bits of web software that amalgamate all the latest from your favourite blogs in chronological order, so you see just what's new from your favourites.

I personally use Google Reader (click more from the menu at the top left of the Google home page (UK or US) and select Reader) - it's straightforward and has the bonus that if you use the iGoogle home page (click iGoogle in the top right hand corner of the Google home page), you can pop in a reader widget so every time you go into Google you see a list of any new posts from your favourite blogs.

The image at the top is the reader list in iGoogle - it looks a bit dull and texty, but if you click on any of the items, the whole post pops up including pictures, as in the example on the left.

Alternatives include Bloglines, Netvibes , Newsgator and Yahoo. To make things even easier, you can add many blogs to one of these readers with little more than a single click, once you've got a login.

If you look in the right hand column on my blog, near the top and under the link to my website, it says Subscribe To, then there's Posts and Comments - if you drop down the Posts list using the little down arrow at the end of it you'll see all these readers listed. Choose your pet reader and click to add the blog to the reader... and it's done.

You'll never miss another entry on your favourite blog.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

I say data, you say data - let's call the whole thing off

Apologies to anyone who also reads Nature Network, as I've done an almost identical post over there.

I think the time has come to abandon the concept of ‘data’ as a plural and to make it instead a singular collective term. To 99% of the population saying ‘The data in this study are conclusive’ just sounds clumsy, uncomfortable and, well, wrong. Make it ‘The data in this study is conclusive.’

It’s a bit like when I pour sugar from a spoon. I say ‘the sugar is falling into my cup’, because I’m referring to a collection of sugar crystals. Similarly, we can say ‘the data is’ rather than ‘the data are’ because we’re referring to a collection of data points.

Of course purists would argue that the word data is plural in Latin, so must be plural in English. Sorry, that’s outdated sophistry. It’s on a par with those who strangulate their sentences to carefully extract any split infinitives. (Sorry, sorry, I meant ‘carefully to extract any split infinitives.’) ‘But you can’t split an infinitive,’ they whine. ’It’s all one word in Latin.’ So what? I’m not writing Latin. Even Fowler thinks it’s a fuss over nothing.

Take a deep breath and write ‘this data is not suitable’ rather than ‘these data are not suitable’… or whatever. For the scientists among you, even if it comes hard, you will have taken one small step towards being able to interface better with human beings. For the rest of us, we can heave a sigh of relief and move on.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The new energy source: Woolworths

Almost all the globe's environmental problems come down, one way or another, to energy. Here in the UK we are faced with real challeges - how to meet our energy needs without pumping out greenhouse gasses. I think I might have found a partial solution. It's a totally new energy source: the Woolworths store.

Earlier this year the final Woolworths closed down. For months, now, the stores have been standing empty. No company, no one to pay the bills. So clearly they can't be taking power from an electricity company. Yet for all this time the hulk of our local Woolworths has had its lights on 24/7. Night and day, the Woolworths sign was proudly illuminated. The windows were aglow. And inside the store, the ghosts of shoppers could parade up and down well-lit aisles.

With whatever the opposite of serendipity is, when I went yesterday to take a picture of the glowing sign and empty window display, the outside lights had been turned off. They were still lit up inside, though, but the grills prevented me taking a picture (as did the suspicious looking woman, who clearly thought I was sizing it up for a break-in).

So here's the plan. Woolworths clearly has a self-generating power supply. Route the cables from all the dead Woolworths back into the national grid, and we'll probably need one less nuclear power station...

Monday, 27 April 2009

Am I the only human in the village?

It started out so normally. A (wet) walk down to the post office with Goldie.
But something was wrong. It was too quiet. No sounds. No movement. And then I began to see them.
Where the people had been, were now distorted, horrible monstrosities.
I could only think that aliens had landed.
Converting the villagers into these strange, scarecrow-like figures.
Not a single human being in sight.
Everyone, everyone I knew, all gone.
At first I thought they were like statues...
But as I turned my back, I'm sure one moved.
We reached the post office, saw lights... but decided to run. They were coming after us.
I didn't know if I'd make it back home. But I'm here. Things seem so normal. There's nothing on the radio, just the ordinary news. Could I have dreamed it? No - I have the photographs.

ADDED LATER IN HASTE They're coming. I can hear them. At least half a dozen, moving with a strange, shambling step. I don't think I can keep them out. They're in the house. It's no use, they

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Twittering comes of age

A couple of years ago my agent introduced me to a website with an obscure Scandanavian sounding name where you could leave little comments about how you were/what you were doing at the time - and see other people's comments. I tried it for a day and gave up. I couldn't see the point and couldn't be bothered to go to the website. [Thanks to MG Harris for reminding me it was called Jaiku.]

This concept was more successfully reincarnated in Twitter and now I'm a Twitter convert.

Two bits of technology have pushed me over the edge. One is Twitterfox, an add-in for the Firefox browser (I'm sure there are equivalents for other browsers). It just sits in the bottom right hand corner whenever I use the web (which is a lot of times during the typical working day) and I can instantly pop in and see what's up or make a comment. This 'pop in' part is important. I treat Twitter like I treat The Archers - I don't follow it all, but pop in occasionally to see what's up.

The technology clincher is my iPhone (yes, he's talking about the iPhone again, that Henry Gee has a lot to answer for). Like most internet connected phones it lets me use Twitter from anywhere, whenever I feel the urge (and even to throw in a photo if so inclined). I use Twitterfon for this.

So it was worth plunging in. Then there's the matter of who to follow. Most of the celebrity Twitterers out there I've never heard of (or it's someone like Demi Moore who I couldn't care less about), but I confess I have fallen for the spell of that most urbane of Twitterers, Stephen Fry. And enjoy following a collection of friends. Not to mention some interesting odds and sods. For instance, I follow Planck, Twitterings from the European space observatory, due to launch soon. I'm even tempted by 10 Downing Street.

For me, a piece in the news recently sums it up. A magistrate has resigned because he was Twittering about cases. I think he was right - this is a great way for the public to get an idea of what's going on, much better than newspaper court reporting, which these days is almost nonexistent for everyday cases. He was also wrong - he wasn't the right person to do the Twittering, but every court should have a Twitterer, I feel.

I've seen it suggested somewhere that Twitter is just a flash in the pan, which will be gone in a year or two once people lose interest. Maybe, but I think they're wrong. It's a viable extension of the blog into the short term, and it's coming of age.

And, yes, you can follow me at

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Fluffy bottom worries

As I may have mentioned a couple of days ago, I am now a total iPhone lover. But this has resulted in a worry.

In fact it's not just a problem for iPhones, but pretty well any other electronic equipment you slot in your pocket with a connector on the bottom.

Why do they do it? When it's just inevitable fluff, crumbs and goodness knows what from your pocket is going to get rammed up that connector slot.

It's a worry. It really is.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Loving the 24 Hour Library

Swindon Libraries have been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late as the council attempts to shut down some small branches and replace them with mobile libraries (I must admit, I think mobile libraries are quite fun, but I accept they're limiting). But I want to give them a pat on the back for something.

When I first got into writing, I made the luxury purchase of a CD-ROM based Oxford English Dictionary, which I find very useful - but I never bother to run it any more. Because Swindon Libraries have a superb little facility called 24 Hour Library, which allows you access to the OED and plenty of other handy references sources, including Who's Who, Encyclopedia Britannica, and a fascinating archive of old editions of the Times where you see the actual cuttings.

Take a look here (the access page is rubbish, but the content is wonderful). If you live in the Swindon area you can make use of it - otherwise I think you're limited in what you can do, but check with your local library service to see if they have something similar. And if they don't, get stroppy. They ought to!

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The good, the possible and the ugly

I find I have a strange relationship with the different books I've written over the years, a relationship, I'm afraid that is primarily driven by money.

When a book first comes out, and it's fresh and new, I love it and do my best to promote it how and where I can. But with the slightly older books, an invisible split opens up. Broadly there are three categories a book can end up in - 'in profit', 'on the way to profit' or 'will never make it.'

If a book's in profit, it's a no brainer. It has earned enough from royalties to pay off the publisher's advance. This means every copy sold puts some new pennies in my pocket. So I will do everything I can to keep such a book in the public eye (and to keep it in print, but that's a different story).

A book that's on the way to profit looks likely to get there in the next year or two. So it's well worth nurturing and trying to get more sales. But for some, the gap is too immense. While they go out with the usual possibility of becoming a bestseller, for some reason they don't make it, despite everyone's best efforts. After about a year it becomes clear that there's really no point flogging a dead horse. I still hope it stays out there - it might have a strange resurgance - but putting a huge effort into keeping it visible isn't worthwhile.

This may sound very mercenary, and it's certainly sad, because some of the books that don't do very well are, in my opinion, among the best - but with only a limited amount of time and effort available, it's essential to concentrate that effort where it will result in payback. It's logical and necessary - but it sometimes feels like abandoning your children.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

iPhone, you phone

I know it's only weeks since I was banging on about my 10-year-old mobile phone - but it has now been consigned to the great stock cupboard of electronic life. I've upgraded to an iPhone.

It might seem a feeble cave-in, when I was proud of keeping my old mobile for so long - but the idea was never to hang on to it forever, just longer than the mayfly existence of most personal electronics. I hope I keep my iPhone for a good few years too.

When they first came out I was disdainful of their locked-in proprietary nature and hated the way they forced you to go to a single phone company. But I have been gradually worn down by a series of blows - from falling in love with my daughters' iPod Touches to the sheer joy that the eloquent Dr Henry Gee has clearly gained from his iPhone.

It may be a honeymoon period, but right now it's just so exciting. I mean, you can... no. I won't bore you with the obsessive details. But can a phone where checking your voicemail messages is fun be anything but wonderful? I'll keep my enthusiasm for other features and apps to another day, though. It's possible to have too much even of a good thing.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Popular science book group in London

I'm rather flattered that Ecologic is to be the book of the month for April's popular science book group from the London branch of the British Science Association (the organization formerly known as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, or the BA for short).

You don't have to read the book before coming along (though it doesn't do any harm) and it should be a bit of free fun, if you're in London on Wednesday 29 April. The time's 7pm and the location is 5th View Cafe (top floor) in Waterstones, Piccadilly.

What more can I say? Hope I see you there.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Just because it's for a good cause doesn't justify discrimination

I am disgusted by sex discrimination. It seems bizarre that it still exists. I can't understand why, for example, anyone would want to be a member of a club or organization that excludes half the population. No one has ever invited me to be a freemason, but if anyone did, I would tell them where to stick their initiation rituals. I couldn't imagine joining such a male-only group (though I admit this isn't the only reason I have my doubts about the masons).

Apologists will say, yes, but look at all the money freemasonary raises for good causes. This is the hoary old 'the end justifies the means' argument - and it doesn't wash. There's no connection between fund-raising and exclusion.

Just imagine a group of friends and I decided to raise some money for the DEC's latest appeal, and a female friend comments 'Oh, I know what I can do this weekend...' only to be interrupted and told 'Sorry, you can't!' She would probably reply: 'Why not?' to be told: 'Because only men can raise money in this appeal. This is a man's thing.' She would rightly laugh them all the way to the collecting tin.

So it's with some sadness that I have to criticize the Race for Life. At the moment our local radio station is bombarded with ads telling us all to pull together and join the Race for Life to raise money for charity. As long as we're women. I'm sorry - it works both ways. This is just as ridiculous as my hypothetical 'only men can raise money in this appeal.'

I'm surprised (and, frankly, appalled) that the authorities tasked with policing sex discrimination let them get away with it. There is no justification for it, except to reinforce the old stereotypes that only women can be caring and supportive.

I'm not suggesting anyone pulls out of Race for Life, or refuses to sponsor participants. The money is going to Cancer Research UK, a charity that should get all the money it can - but I do think the organizers of Race for Life should drop their appalling sexism, and if they don't voluntarily, they should be forced to do so.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Bah, humbug - giving books away?

We are blessed to live in a village with six (count 'em) pubs, each excellent in its own way, though we personally favour the excellent Plough pictured here.

However, every time we go in, I can't help but wince. On one wall there's a small bookcase that advertises itself as part of the now defunct Book Swap programme, established by the BBC's Read and Write campaign.

The idea is simple. All the books are free to take away - but you are encouraged to bring one or more along to replace them. Books for nothing, as it almost says in the Dire Straits song, though I don't know about chicks for free.

On the face of it, this is a good thing, encouraging people to read more. But it could also be encouraging them not to buy books - forgive me if I'm less than enthusiastic about this concept. Most writers earn a pittance as it is. Anything that encourages people to share books freely somehow doesn't seem fair. I wouldn't get far encouraging people to share their cinema experience freely by videoing the movie and swapping it with friends. I know it's not quite the same, but...

In the end, intellectually, I think I'm just about in favour of the concept. Arguably if you get people in the habit of reading they will buy more books as well as swapping them. But it doesn't stop my gut reaction of horror every time I see that Book Swap sign.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Green Korea

I've just heard that a Korean publisher is to make my first translation of Ecologic. I'm really pleased, obviously, to have a translation - and I think it's fascinating that Korea should be the country that goes for this.

We tend to have a bit of knee-jerk reaction to which parts of the world are aware of green issues and which just ignore them...
perhaps this indicates that things aren't quite so cut and dried.

Whatever, I'm looking forward to seeing the Korean version in a year or two's time.

P.S. Looking at that map of South Korea, how many cities could you have named without help? Hands up those who managed more than my one (plus another one I recognized but couldn't have named without seeing it)...

Friday, 17 April 2009

Exploring tangled roots

I recently read Tangled Roots by Sue Guiney. (See at This book falls into the interesting category of lab lit - books that feature science or scientists at work, but aren't science fiction.

The novel interwines the life of a theoretical physicist and (in earlier years) his mother. I liked it very much for its sense of place. The key locations in the book - New York and Boston, and particularly London, Moscow and two country retreats are almost characters in their own right, and strongly influence characters and plot.

It's a people piece, about the relationships in a family and between friends, and how catastrophes in one life can influence another. I found it engrossing and a really worthwhile read.

Two small things niggled me a touch. One was a longish section on baseball. I've nothing against grown men playing rounders in funny clothes, but I just have zero interest in sport of any kind, so this dragged a little. The other was particularly poor proofing - although this was produced by a professional (small) press, it had really basic errors, like italics rendered as underlines and big gaps in the text where it wasn't properly laid out. This doesn't have any influence on the quality of the writing, but does affect the reading experience.

Don't expect to learn a lot about the holographic universe theory that is the science the physicist is working on - there's rarely much detail, and certainly not enough to scare off those who have the same reaction to science as I do to sport. Instead expect to get inside the heads of some interesting, three-dimensional characters.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

All you ever wanted to know about radium...

The Royal Society of Chemistry's journal Chemistry World is building up a unique collection of podcasts on the chemical elements. Each lasts three to five minutes and can be listened to direct, or downloaded either from the site or from iTunes.

I'm delighted to say that I've recently contributed the podcast on radium, which has just gone live. Of course it's not just the element itself - there's Marie Curie, American women dying from a mysterious cancer, and much more. Take a listen by clicking here (or using the player widget further down the page) or click here to subscribe (for free) in iTunes.

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Sustainable means sustainable

I saw a sad piece on the local news a few days ago. A woman's small farm was closing because they wouldn't let her live on it and it wasn't commercially viable.

She was upset because it was a local farm supplying local food - an excellent concept. 'Every village should have a sustainable farm like mine,' she said. And she was almost right.

Every village should have a sustainable farm, if possible. Local food is good. But sustainable doesn't just mean sticking your manure on the fields. It means financially sustainable too. And sadly, all too often, the economics aren't thought through. Sustainable is wonderful, but it has to mean what it says.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Please buy a Jaguar, right now

After my shock success in getting a response to my concerns about 0300 numbers, just by blogging about it, (not to mention recent news stories in the UK about the Red Rag blog and its involvement in the nasty emails scandal) I am highly impressed with the influence that blogs have over the powers that be.

That being the case, could I just take the opportunity to say how wonderful Jaguar's XK cars are. I think they are much better value for money than equivalent cars, and look absolutely beautiful. I encourage everyone who reads this blog to rush out and buy at least one Jaguar right now. (You don't have to buy an XK, but that's what I'd get, if I could afford it.)

If anyone from Jaguar feels that they want to respond to this blog in any positive way (especially if it involves an XK) they are welcome to contact me through the comments or by email (via my profile).

Go Jaguar! They're wonderful!

Have you bought one yet?

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

The stupidity of 0300

BBC radio often features a telephone number to respond to programmes or ask questions. Now, give them their due, they do have their social responsibility 'action line' 0800 044 044 which is free to call. But the main number they now use is an 0300 number. These are apparently public sector numbers which charge the same as a nationwide call - a call to an ordinary 01 or 02 number.

Now this is all very well, but increasingly people have phone packages with inclusive calls to 01 and 02 numbers. Such calls are absolutely free. Similarly, Skype users can have a package with free calls to all standard numbers. But calls to these 0300 numbers (and similarly to numbers beginning 0845, which charge a local rate) are not free on these inclusive calls. So just at the time many people are getting free calls, by using these 0300 and 0845 numbers, companies are ensuring that we still have to pay. Clever stuff, eh?

(Enthusiasts for BT ads will have noticed the telecom giant has recently made calls to 0845 numbers free - but I bet they still charge for 0300.)

Hot News - it seems from correspondence since posting this (see discussion in the comments) that 0300 numbers are free on Skype inclusive packages, and free on landline packages where calls to 01 and 02 numbers are free. On mobile phones and other packages with 'inclusive minutes', they are counted as inclusive minutes. So hurrah for 0300 numbers after all - but those using them could make this a bit clearer, as they usually say 'which are charged as a national call' or something similar.

Monday, 13 April 2009

From small red zombies to near-success

Warning - contains spoilers.

Red Dwarf was a TV phenomenon. What started as a so-so attempt at comedy in a science fiction setting became one of the funniest shows on the air. It got such a cult following that the UK satellite TV lads channel was named Dave after the human character in the programme, Dave Lister.

So it was with real anticipation that we got three new episodes of Red Dwarf after 9 years in suspended animation.

The first show was dire. The cast were like zombies, going through the motions of being alive but without anything really going on inside. The second perked up a touch, but was cringe-makingly predictable as they came through to the 'real' world and found that they were characters in a TV show. But then things got stranger with information from a character who made rubber noses, who was clearly a big reference to the movie Blade Runner (and suddenly the Cat's making little foil sculptures was an echo of Deckard's partner doing this in the movie).

With the third show, we were plunged into a surreal landscape, as the crew arrived on the set of the UK's longest running and most popular soap opera Coronation Street, where Craig Charles (who played Dave Lister) now works. This was entertaining.

Finally the Blade Runner reference was made much stronger, with a London that inexplicably had a Blade Runner style building plonked next to the Houses of Parliament, a recreation of the scene from the movie where Deckard crashes through shops hunting down a replicant, and an ending that owed more than a little to the more recent cult show Life on Mars.

Though the whole was not perfect, that last show dragged it up from disaster to surprise near-success. The whole thing was a bit of a showcase for Craig Charles - none of the other major characters really had much of the storyline. What was also very apparent was that of the two original writers, Rob Grant was the one who could do the funnies. He left two series from the end of the show, leaving Doug Naylor writing on is own, and after his departure it was never the same. This special was also written only by Naylor, and though the ideas were there, the humour was virtually non-existent.

A worthwhile exercise, then, and don't give up after the first show, but don't expect classic Red Dwarf either.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Why I hate Bejewelled Blitz

The Christmas before last a PR company sent me a Christmas card with a free game in it, called Chuzzle. (There were also a couple of little furry chuzzles to go with it, which now sit on top of my PC.) It was fun and rather addictive.

Now I discover the same company produces a little game called Bejewelled Blitz, which is driving me mad on Facebook.

The thing is, you can play Chuzzle in a mode where strategy really pays off - but Bejewelled Blitz is against time and hugely dependent on luck.

To begin with I couldn't understand why others were getting 90,000+ scores and I was just getting 10,000 - what was the secret, I wondered? Until I suddenly went through the roof with 110,000. The way to a high score is just to be really lucky and get double, triple and (ideally) quadruple score powerups very early on - but they appear to be totally random in the way they emerge.

So boo, hiss, to Bejewelled Blitz. The trouble is, this knowledge doesn't stop me going back for just another go. Groan. Pass the Easter eggs - and happy Easter.

Chuzzles in the wild

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Blog visit #1

Although I have a blog roll listing the blogs I regularly visit down the bottom of the page (way down), I thought it would be helpful to mention blogs I particularly enjoy reading - so this is the first of a sporadic series.

The End of the Pier Show is the home of Cromercrox, our most frequent commenter on this blog. It's a heady mix of the local life in Cromer, a small seaside town on the English east coast, and the philosophical musings of a scientific journal editor.

It's occasionally downright strange, and has a wild enthusiasm for Boris Johnson - all of which make it endearing and worth adding to your reader.

If you occasionally drop into blogs but don't read them regularly, it's much easier using a reader - I use Google Reader (just go to Google, click where it says 'more' at the top left and select 'reader'), but there are plenty of them out there. They aggregrate the latest blog posts from all the blogs you read in one place, making it a painless process to keep up. But I'm probably teaching my grandparents to suck eggs here...

Friday, 10 April 2009

Curse you, Ben and Jerry's!

I think it is absolutely outrageous that Ben and Jerry's can sell a smallish tub of ice cream (about the size of two angry fists) for £4 - I bet you don't pay the equivalent $5.86 for one in the US. You would have to be absolutely stupid to pay these prices.

What makes it particularly painful is that one daughter is addicted to Cookie Dough, another to Phish Food... and yes, I admit it. I love Caramel Chew Chew.

Ben and Jerry - I appeal to you. You are personally bankrupting us. Stop it immediately.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

On deadline

Deadlines are funny things in the book business. I started my professional writing for weekly magazines - there, the deadline was clear. My copy had to be in by 5pm on a particular day. There was no flexibility. Either it was in on time, or it didn't make print.

But with books, the whole thing is more handwaving. There is a set date. A specific date - not just 'April', say, but 26th April. But because of the timescales involved, there's much less pressure to be precise about this. With those weekly magazines, my copy was going in less than a week before the magazine came out. With a book there's often a year between my manuscript going to the editor and the book being published. Inevitably things are rather looser.

I've even heard it said it some quarters that publishers can be a bit suspicious of people who always deliver on time as they're clearly writing to time, rather than getting it right.

However, I do usually make it. (And then, often the manuscript seems to sit on the editor's desk for a few weeks because there are more urgent things to do.)

My next deadline is not until October. At the moment that seems a long way away, which works because I'm mostly researching and just writing bits here and bits there at the moment. There's a temptation to be complacent about it. But my magazine background keeps nagging. 'Have you done the n words per week you need to have it finished a month before due date?' it asks. So the chances of me delivering late are pretty small.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

This web thing really is worldwide!

I've been collecting stats on visitors to this blog using the excellent free Stat Counter service.

One of the more fun reports is a map showing the distribution of the most recent readers around the globe. Here you are:

Can you spot yourself?

Especially for Henry, here's Southern UK in more detail:

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Yo, ho, ho and a boxful of books!

There be pirates out there.

At least two websites, Scribd and Wattpad, are set up as 'document sharing' sites - it's Napster all over again, but this time for documents instead of music. And, despite the mind numbing tedium of it, plenty of people seem happy to sit down and scan a whole book so they can upload a pirate copy to one or both of these sites.

Recently there's been quite a furore over Scribd particularly, whipped up by literary agent Peter Cox. Discovering full texts of books from popular authors like J. K. Rowling, he has stirred up something of a media storm about this theft. We've seen newspapers like the Times jump in, and most recently Sky News.

As Jo Brand points out in the Sky piece, the problem here is that the majority of authors aren't multimillionaires, they're scraping a living from the 50p per copy or so they get from book sales. And every copy stolen this way is taking money directly from them. No piracy can be encouraged, but where most movie and music piracy does take a little from the very rich, most book piracy hits people who can't afford to be stolen from - the vast majority of illegally copied books on these sites are not by big name authors.

The sites' owners say they will take down anything illegal if they are alerted to it - but this puts the onus on thousands of authors to check. It's just not acceptable. We should see publishers and authors' organizations banding together to insist that site owners who host this type of pirate material should be held responsible. If that means manually checking each submission, so be it. If they won't, it's time they were walking the plank!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Failing to capture the English

I've just finished reading Jeremy Paxman's book The English and I don't particularly like it, but it's hard to say exactly why.

I suppose part of the problem is that our Jeremy can't help going into sneer mode occasionally (anyone who has seen him on TV knows exactly what such a Jeremy sneer looks like). Take this comment about the English and food: 'For the majority of people, eating out is to consume fat-filled fast food, and to eat in, to be the victim of something prepackaged in industrial quantities in a factory somewhere.'

The other problem is that on practically every subject, the outcome is neither one thing nor the other. So the English are as they always were, yet they're also quite changed. They are gentle, kind people, who are also aggressive hooligans, and so on. As an analysis, it lacks clear outcomes.

All that said, it's an interesting and entertaining book. What's certainly true is that there is more focus now on being English. Where once the English tended to label themselves British, we are finally coming out as something individual, with a distinct identity. And that isn't a bad thing.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

On the autistic spectrum

It's often said that many scientists and IT people are on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum.

It has been quite a release to realize that I should classify myself this way. The clues were there. Getting more than usually worked up about not breaking rules (you should see me making sure my car isn't over the white line in a car park). Very limited social skills. A high emphasis on logic and an unusual focus on task. But I hadn't really accepted it.

Part of the reason is that the social thing can be mostly hidden. When I'm doing anything that's effectively a performance, whether it's conducting a choir or giving a talk, I'm fine - because it is a performance. Conversation is a different matter.

One to one isn't too bad. I'm not great at small talk, but I can do one-to-one communication because I've learned the ways to do it right. It might be done a trifle more consciously than normal - eye contact, for instance - but it's there. And I ought to stress that it's not that I don't like socializing, I do enjoy it, but I have to think about what to do.

Where it comes unstuck is direct interaction with several people. It has been pointed out to me that if I need to speak to one individual who happens to be chatting with a group of others, I'll just speak to that person and not acknowledge the others. I find it very difficult to make eye contact with more than one individual in a conversation. And I realize this comes across as rude or anti-social, but where I have learned to do the right thing one-to-one, it seems almost impossible to learn the approach with several people. A sort of panic sets in.

Accepting that this is mild autism is very helpful in trying to make more of an effort to do it right.

I ought to stress I'm not underplaying the difficulties autism causes in many families. I'm lucky that in my case it's at the high functioning end, and I can see and understand what's happening enough to be able to (mostly) correct for it. But it's amazing how much of a relief it is to understand what's going on.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Goodbye Encarta, you'll be missed

Microsoft has announced that at the end of this year it is going to drop Encarta, its electronic encylopedia.

While I can see this is no surprise with the rise and rise of Wikipedia, with vastly more entries than any conventional encyclopedia could have, it's still sad.

I can remember reviewing Encarta when it first came out - it was a breath of fresh air. At the time encylopedias were big, unfriendly books or even shelves full of books. Encarta was an affordable, easy to use CD-ROM with a sexy user interface that from the very beginning delivered much more than a paper encylopedia could, and over just a few years went from being a novelty to an essential research tool. Before the web had significant content, those CD-ROMs were like gold.

Microsoft is often criticized for me-too developments, but Encarta was a real example of leading the pack with a superb product.

Farewell, Encarta. Already you are fading as a memory, but you'll be missed.

Friday, 3 April 2009

What about the (self employed) workers?

I get a touch fed up when we hear people on the radio woffling on about how we need to help small businesses employ more people, or how the government should rescue big businesses that are floundering.

It's not that I have anything against these measures, but there is hardly ever any mention of self employed people, or those who run family companies with no other employees.

Unfortunately, the image the term 'independent trader' conjures up is probably that of the picture shown here. But we aren't all Del Boy Trotters. Vast numbers of people work for themselves, have no intention of employing others, but are still very valuable to the economy.

It's 15 years since I worked for a big company. But in those 15 years I have not been a drain on the state. Instead I have been contributing taxes, and even collecting VAT on behalf of HM Government. Yet all we hear about is aid for the big boys and concessions for small employers.

At the moment there are very few incentives to go it alone. It's about time there was more help for individuals to become and stay self-employed, or to run a family limited company. Every individual or family working this way is one or two less on the unemployment statistics. And at a time like the present, that's not a bad thing.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Advertise on a bus!

You may have seen the furore over adverts on the side of London buses proclaiming There's probably no God. Now some enterprising person has done a little website that generates your own bus ad in the same visual format as the original.

So thanks very much to Matt Brown for pointing out the site and here's my advert for this esteemed blog:

Sir Alan? You're fired!

For several years I've been a big fan of the UK version of The Apprentice with that lovable rogue of an entrepreneur, Alan Sugar. But this time around (second episode broadcast last night), I found I was getting more than a touch jaded. I have to admit I skipped over 20 minutes to get to the denouement.

Part of the problem is that the tasks seem so artificial now. I'd like to see Mr Sugar (sorry, Sir Alan) succeed in one of these scenarios where they're dropped in to do something with insufficient knowledge, poor resources and a ridiculous timescale. The fact is, he'd fail just as much as they do. It's amazing they ever make a profit under circumstances engineered for failure.

Then there's the rather amusing way that before the boardroom scene, we always get shots of flash office blocks in Canary Wharf. I could be wrong, but somehow I imagine Sugar's boardroom is in Hackney or some such (relatively) cheap location. He'd be stupid if it wasn't.

In the end, though, the thing that has me cringing most is how often we hear people say 'Sir Alan.' It's as if the man needs constantly reminding of his own achievements. 'Send them in, please,' he says to the receptionist. 'Yes, Sir Alan,' she replies. I don't know anyone - some in much bigger businesses than Sugar's - who expects their secretary/receptionist to say 'Yes, Mr Smith,' or whatever as they reply to them. It's really quite sick making.

So, with regret, Sir Alan - you're fired. (From my TV.)

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

How the worst car crash I've been in happened while I was in bed

I have to admit to choosing this topic because it's April 1st - but it really did happen. Honestly.

A good number of years ago we were staying at a friend's house in Norfolk. Around two in the morning our hosts burst into the room yelling that my car was on fire.

When we dashed outside it turned out that, thanks to fog, a couple returning from the late shift at the chicken factory (you couldn't make this up) had driven straight into the back of my car, travelling at least 30 miles per hour. It was their car that was on fire (luckily they were unhurt) rather than mine, and the Fire Brigade were already there, hosing it down.

After a certain amount of standing around in that strange mix of jumpers and pyjamas that goes with nighttime emergencies, I had a surreal conversation with a fireman.

There were a total of three cars along the side of the road. First our friend's car. Then, about a metre behind it, my car. Then the burnt out wreck. It rammed the back of my car, concertina-ing it sufficiently that the doors wouldn't open. Yet despite being nowhere near the car in front, the headlights on my car were smashed. The fireman and I speculated on strange shock waves and the like in Mulder-and-Scully-ish fashion then headed off to bed (not the firemen - they went back to the fire station).

Next morning the mystery was solved, when we discovered our friend's car had a big dent in the back. Our chicken plucking friends had hit my car so hard that it had shot forward, smashed into our friend's car, and bounced back a metre. Hence the spooky smashed headlights.

And the moral of this story? Don't park on the road on a foggy night on the road into Harleston from the chicken factory.

Photo courtesy Photobucket