Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Why prime numbers matter

The website has been sent for review a book called Shapes by Philip Ball. It's an interesting book about shapes in nature - everything from why shells have a particular form to why a zebra's pattern looks like it does. Something the reviewer drew to my attention, was a fascinating observation about a creature for whom the idea of prime numbers isn't just a bit of abstract maths, but a matter of life and death.

Apparently there are some cicacada species whose life cycle tends to operate on prime numbers - say a 13 year or 17 year period. Most of their life they are tucked away safe underground, but once every 13 or 17 years they pop up to breed and are vulnerable. It has been suggested this is a self preservation thing. Typically the number of predators around go through regular peaks. Imagine your life cycle was 12 years rather than 13. Then you'd be particularly susceptible to predators with a 2, 3, 4 or 6 year peak, if that peak synchronized with your cycle. But with a prime number life cycle, a predator is much less likely to be able to synchronize.

As it happens, these cicacadas don't have any predators with appropriate cycles. But it has been suggested this is because said predators have died off/given up and moved to the South of France/etc. due to limited prey.

The only problem I have with this theory is that I'd expect it be more common than it seems to be... but I still love the idea that a species' existence could depend on prime numbers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Is there anybody out there?

A little while ago I mentioned how impressed I was with the Mail Chimp service handling email newsletters. Those nice people at Mail Chimp were kind enough to send me a T-shirt for the mention - I had intended to include a picture of me modelling it, but #2 daughter snaffled it from desk and I don't know what she's done with it, so I've had to make do with a generic picture of it.

What I've been particularly fascinated with is the reporting that goes along with a mailing. Rather stupidly, given the number of newsletter type emails I don't bother to read, I had assumed that most would be opened - but no. As it stands, nearly a week after sending out a newsletter to the recipients from the Hymn CDs site, I find that just 34.7% have been opened.

In case you think this makes my newsletter unpopular, I ought to point out that, according to Mail Chimp, the industry average is 19.2% opens, so I'm doing pretty well. What isn't clear is just what 'opened' means. I look at most of these kind of emails in the preview window in Outlook without bothering to download any graphics. My suspicion is that this doesn't count as opening it.

My other impressive statistic is click rate - they industry average is 3.1%. Yep, after all that hard work, just 3.1% bother to click one of your links, but I'm up at 14.9%. What I particularly love in the Mail Chimp reporting is something called a click map. This shows you the percentage of clicks going to each link on the page - it's beautiful.

Just in case you're interested, this is the the newsletter I sent out... but I don't expect that link will get many clicks.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Danger! Man with cold

I've got a cold, okay? By now, just nine words in, half the female readers of this blog will be sniggering behind their virtual hands, muttering 'man flu.' (I know who you are. Thanks to Google Snickertrak™ technology, I have your IP addresses. This won't be forgotten.)

Well, those of you thus sniggering are wrong. I don't think I've got flu. I've had that, and I know it's much more debilitating. With nothing more than a couple of paracetamols I've been able to do the school run - if it had been flu, I would still be in bed, groaning. (Be careful. Snickertrak™ is still operating.)

However, I think this idea that men can't cope with the most trivial of illnesses overlooks the fact that a cold is not very nice. My head feels like it's stuffed with cotton wool, I've a sore throat and my nose is dripping so much that had I been give a hose attachment during the night, I could have substituted for a fire engine.

So, yes, it's not flu. It's not fatal. It's not even more than mildly irritating. But it's not pleasant, so a bit of sympathy is not too much to ask.


Saturday, 26 September 2009

IVCA Clarion Awards

Yesterday was the IVCA Clarion Awards at the BFI in London. It spans a wide range of communication media - film, video, TV, radio, posters and... yes, books, all covering areas of social responsibility/ethics/environment.

I went along because my book Ecologic had been shortlisted in the book category. It was an interesting experience. Not too different from your standard awards ceremony as you see on TV, but winners were strongly discouraged from making a speech - they mostly just took the award, posed for a photo and got off, which meant it all went very briskly.

Books were towards the end of the list - while waiting with increasing tension, some of the clips shown of the visual entries were fascinating, particularly a series of short films in the style of The Sims for Holocaust Awareness - brilliantly done - and a viral campaign about child pregnancy.

When it came to the books there were three other strong contenders, so I was genuinely shocked when Ecologic won and I had to go up and collect the award.

Sorry this is such a 'here is what I did' post, but I think I'm still slightly in shock.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Proving I'm safe

In the UK, there is an increasing culture that implies that all adults are dangerous to children, unless proved otherwise. We are terrified of a strange adult coming near a school (despite the fact that by far the majority of really nasty crimes against children are committed by family and friends, rather than strangers).

One result of this climate of fear is that we routinely expect people who go into schools on a professional basis to have a Criminal Records Bureau check - and there is going to be an even wider reaching scheme in place from next year, which has caused many protests from high profile authors, which seems to incorporate CRB checks, though I'm not quite sure how.

I've relied in the past on a CRB check done by a charity, but now I've joined an organization called National Association of Writers in Education, which will do the CRB check for me - because one of the ludicrous things about the way CRB checks are run is you can't apply for certification yourself, it has to be done by an 'umbrella organization.'

However, what really irritates me is that this is entirely unnecessary. As a visitor to a school, going in to give a talk to students, I expect to be accompanied by staff at all times. What do they think I am going to do? Knock out the staff member and have my evil way with the pupils? Admittedly, some schools I have visited in the past have been naughty about this and the staff members tend to try to disappear off to do a bit of marking, but it's usually not a problem to get someone to stay.

I'm sorry, it just makes me really angry.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

ET don't phone

I've just finished reading Marcus Chown's new book We Need to Talk about Kelvin (in the shops in a couple of weeks time), which starts from everyday observations to probe different aspects of basic physics and cosmology.

The final chapter is a little different, in that the concept being probed doesn't have a good scientific theory to cover it - it's 'why aren't the aliens here?'

The point is that it's a huge universe that should contain many planets capable of supporting life. So you'd expect there to be lots of intelligent life out there. And dismissing most UFO sightings etc. as the errors and wishful thinking that they indubitably are, we are shockingly short of alien observations. Why aren't they on the street corners? Why don't we see their probes and receive their messages?

In practice, the 'street corners' question is easy to answer. Aliens are just as limited by the speed of light as we are - and it is a very big universe. So the only sensible way to explore is using self-replicating probes - but they should be here by now.

There seem to be three serious possibilities for this situation. One is that aliens just don't want to come here. Maybe we smell (in the cosmic sense). Or we're just too insignificant. The second is that they are here, but they're too clever to let us know. And the third as that we are the only intelligent life - at least in the Milky Way galaxy.

On the whole, scientists don't like special cases like 'there's only us' - but the circumstances to produce a 'Goldilocks planet' - one that's just right for intelligent life as we know it to form on - are quite specific, and it's possible to envisage a number of scenarios where we are the only ones.

Whichever possibility is right, it's worth remembering that the concept of alien life isn't just something for the science fiction shows. It can tell us quite a lot about our place in the universe.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

This blog post is not a banana

At risk of sounding a grumpy old man (okay, okay, I am) - small print sometimes really gets up my nose. I hate those adverts that say 'We guarantee to beat your insurance quote'... and then in the verbal small print at the end they say 'minimum premium applies, terms and conditions apply' - i.e. they are lying when they say they guarantee to beat your quote, they will only beat your quote if it's more than a certain amount, and if you meet their terms and conditions.

But the specific thing that got me going was the bottom of my receipt from the Post Office. An innocent enough slip of paper, but it announces firmly 'This is not a VAT receipt.'

The first response is that there are billions of things it's not - why did they bother to tell me about this one? It's not a fire engine. It's not a supernova. But they didn't tell me that, did they?

But being more reasonable, why isn't a VAT receipt? Why can't all receipts be VAT receipts? After all, VAT (sales tax) doesn't have to apply to a sale to have a VAT receipt. It's no doubt because there's some silly regulation from HM Customs & Excise (may they live for ever) that says a VAT receipt must include the name and address of the customer, or some such frippery. If that is the case, it's time they changed the rules. This is just silly.

But at least the Post Office is polite in the way they end their receipt, so I will be too.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Don't preorder this in Currys

The white goods company Electrolux has been running a lab design competition to come up with designs for domestic appliances for 2099 (as, apparently, Electrolux is 90 years old). There are eight finalists who have come up with various unlikely possibilities, of which the most fruit-cakey are the two I have included here.

I'm all in favour of designers being given a bit of free rein with creativity, but there seems to be a problem with the criteria used to select these designs. Two essentials are missing. Scientific practicality - will this be feasible in 90 years time? - and practical relevance. Who would want a domestic appliance that does this? Each of these 'novel' ideas falls down at one of these hurdles.

The first is a teleporting fridge. According to designer Dulyawat Wongnawa: Technologies seem to be progressing at an increasingly faster rate nowadays. In the next 90 years, we will see a lot of technologies that today we think are completely impossible. Even though my teleportation concept might sound far-fetched, scientists have already succeeded in teleporting small particles such as photons. So over the next 90 years, this technology will have time to develop and become part of our everyday lives.

Unfortunately there's a disconnect of logic here. The same people who are teleporting photons are very clear that there is no prospect for teleporting an object like the apple portrayed in the picture. I love the whole business of quantum teleportation - it's one of the stars of my book The God Effect - but I'm really not convinced that it is going to be used to move food around 90 years from now. Note, by the way, that moving is all it does - so that ham that your fridge teleports would have had to be sitting in a warehouse somewhere. Sounds complicated to me.

But at least this is based on real science, and there's a point. It would be kind of handy for your fridge to be able to summon up produce through the airwaves (though, to be honest, if I were designing it, I would have the items delivered into the fridge, rather than an open box). By comparison, the other design I want to highlight does something of magnificent pointlessness. It's a greenhouse designed to roam around Mars, scouting for material to keep alive a single plant in the top of it.

Why? In what possible way would anyone want one of these for the kitchen? Designer Martin Miklica struggles to answer the question 'What are the main consumer benefits of your product?' with this magnificent piece of woffle: One thing you notice on Mars is the silence and serenity. That’s quite good for one week’s vacation in the countryside, but for modern people it’s very depressing to live in such a place for several months or years. Therefore, the main benefit of Le Petit Prince is that it’s not just a machine, but more like a pet or silent friend that you can speak to when you aren’t in the mood to talk to people. On top of that, it is a good gardener that grows any plant you want or need to bare [sic] life or just for its beauty.


If you'd like to see more of the eight finalists, take a look at the Design Lab page.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Is psychology the answer to global warming?

In my book Ecologic, I look at the way that what's apparently good for the planet isn't always the best thing to do, while the ideal solutions are sometimes anything but obvious.

When we try to sort out our priorities for tackling global warming, the natural inclination is to either invest in ways of reducing emissions - better household insulation or making it easier to avoid flying, for instance - or look for opportunities to actively oppose climate change - for example with big sunshades or seeding the ocean with iron.

But there is something else we ought to be investing in, as is brought out in this interesting article in New Scientist. It argues, successfully to my mind, that we ought to give more consideration to the psychology of climate change. Almost all the lack of action is down to psychology and its interplay with politics. If we can change the way individuals and governments see the risk involved and what it means for us all, there's a hope that climate change will be taken seriously. Which, in the long term, will benefit us all.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Bad sign language

I often tweet about a new blog entry, but this is a rare example of a blog entry from something I've already put on Twitter.

I rather enjoy bad signs. But there's a certain hierarchy. It's not good enough that a bad sign should be in chalk, or run off on a laser printer. It should be expensively set or painted... like a sign on the side of van.

And then it has to be more than just a casual apostrophe. While I'm irritated by the greengrocer's apostrophe (the one used unnecessarily in plurals, such as carrot's or CD's), that's not enough to make a truly bad sign.

But this one, I feel, is a cracker. I was driving past and had to stop the car and jump out to take a photo, it was just so wonderful.

I'll purvey yours, if you purvey mine!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A kick up the classics

When Radio 4 gets boring (which sadly is quite often), I tend to flit over to that airwaves resort of the middle-aged, Classic FM. They even occasionally play a piece I haven't heard and like, which is nice. And worryingly, I quite often find myself agreeing with David Mellor's taste. But I have to agree wholeheartedly with a whingeing person on the Now Show a few weeks ago (probably Marcus Brigstocke), in saying that I get really depressed with Classic FM's obsession with classical music being relaxing.

Yes, of course it sometimes is relaxing - but equally it can be exciting, thrilling, energizing, heart-pumping, inspiring and more. Though my terminology has mellowed with age, I still agree with the sentiment in the way I considered my favourite classical music as a student to be 'orgasmic.'

By all means, Classic FM, have your relaxing moments - but give us some fire, some passion too. Listen to something like Barber's Agnus Dei, and hear pure angst for the condition of humanity. Listen to the finale of Stravinsky's Firebird and hear sheer energy. Listen to a tudorbethan church music composer and hear spiritual fire. Relaxation is definitely not what it's all about.

Friday, 18 September 2009

From a secret underground race to the swimming baths

This is a strange tale of the a secret underground civilization with an incredible power source... and how they are linked to a primary school trip to the swimming baths.

When I attended Littleborough County Junior School we didn't have a local swimming pool, and had to be bussed over to the big baths in Rochdale. I remember well those elegant Ellen Smiths coaches, emblazoned with a ferocious big cat on the side, that used to take us, but of the baths themselves I can only remember two things. One was the awesome high diving board. None of us ever went anywhere near it, yet it hung over the baths with a sense of real menace at the thought of plunging from the top of it. The other memory was afterwards, waiting for the coach to pick us up in the entrance hall on cold but sunny winter days (it always seemed to be winter), getting a hot Bovril drink from the vending machine.

It's the only place I ever had anything to do with Bovril. We didn't have this rather strange beef extract at home - but I only have to go in a swimming pool for the heady meaty smell of a Bovril drink to come back to my nostrils. I'm not sure I ever drank much of it, but it was comforting, warming, something special.

So where do the underground race come into this? The Victorian author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote a book called The Coming Race about an underground civilization with a remarkable power source that could be used for everything from driving vehicles to terrible destructive weapons. The name of this source of power was vril. Bulwer-Lytton and his books are largely forgotten, but while this story was current, the man behind Bovril lifted the concept, added a bovine prefix and the rest, as they say, was history.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Admit it, lanthanum is a bit of a mystery

I was over at the BBC earlier this week, recording a couple more elements for the the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element - but it was an earlier recording that has just been added to the oeuvre - and it's an element that I have to confess to knowing little about before making a start on this podcast - lanthanum.

This is a successful bit part player of an element with fingers in a lot of chemical pies... and it gives its name to one of the floating rows of the periodic table. But its best claim to fame is probably dating things so old that nothing else would consider even a blind date. Take a listen, and find out more.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

On returning to the UK three years after it was evacuated

I came back today. It's hard to imagine that three years ago this was a busy little road, thronging with cars in the rush hour.

Of course, it was inevitable that when the UK had to be evacuated things would gradually fall apart. In some ways it's surprising that there hasn't been more deterioration. I keep expecting to come around a corner and find houses occupied, children playing.

On the whole, the tarmac has survived well. There was just the tiniest sign that nature was beginning the gradual process of destruction. A small clump of grass that had broken through (just above the leaf at the bottom). But it is the way things will go from now on.

I don't know why, but I found the Give Way sign, soon to be hidden by the plants, particularly poignant. Give way to what? Emptiness.

I don't think I will come back to these islands again. It's too sad. Too sad.

If (like me with Derren Brown) you aren't happy with the explanation of these photos, here's an alternative one. One of my dog walks takes me up a road called Lady Lane. For reasons best known to itself, the local council has stopped traffic using this road by sticking barriers at each end - but everything else has been left to gradually decay as nature takes over. It's fascinating, and a little spooky when it's quiet.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Delphi coracle

I was determined not to jump into the explosion of blog comments on Derren Brown's lottery prediction trick - but something I heard yesterday has persuaded me to make the leap.

For non-UK readers, Derren Brown is an illusionist, who last week 'predicted' the lottery results on national TV - then a couple of days later, explained that he had got these results by having a group of people guess them, averaging the results, and reiterating the process. Allegedly, as the group got to know each other, the results got better.

I'm not bothered about the trick itself. Let's be clear - he didn't predict the lottery results, he showed them after they had already been broadcast, using a totally spurious legal argument as to why he couldn't show them before. So all the trick came down to was 'how did he transfer a set of numbers onto some balls quite quickly without us seeing?' - basic stage magic, nothing to do with seeing into the future.

What really irritated me was his 'explanation' show. He pointed out that if you get a group of people, ask them each what a cow weighs, then get them together and do the exercise again with interaction between the group, they come up with a more accurate figure for the weight of the cow. So far so good. This is the Delphi technique, devised by RAND for the US government. It works - it's a good way of getting to an answer with limited data. But, and here's the point, it's totally useless with no data at all.

If you asked the same group as did the cow's weight what a ptlang weighs, they will come up with a totally random set of numbers, and no amount of working together will get them nearer the right answer. Because they have no idea what a ptlang is, or what it might weigh. They do know what a cow is and, order of magnitude, that it's going to weigh more than a person and less than a car.

Just like the ptlang, they have no idea what numbers are going to be on the lottery balls that week, and no amount of working together will bring them closer. The 'explanation' was totally spurious - and, worse, could easily fool people into thinking this a realistic mechanism for predicting the future of random events, giving them a system for beating the odds in gambling. It's not. Delphi works better than guessing when you have some, but incomplete data - but it's no oracle.

To be fair to Derren Brown, I think he actually said it was just a trick - he was, after all, trained as a lawyer - but a lot of people seem to have missed this.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Doing and listening are different things

I'm sure it's one of those management guru words of wisdom, doing and listening are different things, but I'm thinking more of music.

Every now and then, someone asks me to buy a ticket to a concert. 'You're a singer,' they'll say. 'Wouldn't you like to come and hear the Tregrundy Male Voice Choir in concert?' Well, no, I wouldn't.

I do like listening to some music, notably Tudorbethan church music (there was an excellent programme on Tallis and Byrd on over the weekend - you can still catch it as I write on iPlayer). But my general attitude is typified by the way I feel about barbershop singing.

I first sang barbershop while at university, from the excellent Songs of Yale book (accept no substitutes). Singing barbershop is great fun - about half way between performing and getting drunk, really, which I guess I why it appeals to students. I've done it on and off with ad hoc groups ever since. But I can think of nothing worse than having to listen to barbershop. (Okay, I can think of a lot of things that are worse, starting with waterboarding and getting significantly nastier, but you know what I mean).

Lots of people do enjoy listening to barbershop, and I'm not criticizing them. It's wonderful they do like it. But it's not for me.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Tom Tom go red

I don't care what all the jokes say, or those Daily Mail stories about lorries going 300 miles out of their way through tiny villages, I find my sat nav intensely useful. Particularly when navigating in unknown territory on my own, it's fantastic.

There's not a lot of point, though, if the maps are out of date, so I subscribe to an update service and the other day, I received an email from Tom Tom, informing me that a new set of maps were ready for download. Well and good. But there was something about the email that stopped me in my electronic tracks. It began as follows:

Dear English Bas

Now, bearing in mind that Tom Tom is a European company, it was hard not to fill in the implied '...' and complete the third word in that greeting with 'tard'. Oh, ho, I thought (as no doubt did many others), here's a Tom Tom employee with a grudge, sending out a naughty (if truncated) email.

A few hours later I received another email from Tom Tom, which I have copied below. My only observation: could this be the first time a company employee has had to change his name in order to get the company out of a scrape? Do you really believe he was always called that? Here's the excuse:

Dear Brian,
You have just received an email which was not up to the standards of TomTom.

The greeting (Dear English Bas) was in fact specifying the language of the mail followed by my first name, this should have been personalised with your name.
We apologize for this error and for any inconvenience this might have caused. Underneath you will find the correct email...

All the best,

Bas Komen

TomTom team

Friday, 11 September 2009

Getting close to my inner chimp

Occasionally you use something online that's so good you want to spread the word. I run three newsletters, one for the Popular Science website, one for my creativity website and one for the hymn CDs website.

These have, frankly, been a pain to maintain because I've done it manually, compiling a list and sending out emails to multiple blind copies. I always knew that there were services for doing this, but I was too tight to contemplate the expense, and when I've investigated mailing services, they have seemed byzantine in complexity, clearly aimed at professional email marketers, rather than humble list managers like me.

The service that has transformed by view is Mail Chimp. It really is straightforward. You can cut and paste an existing list in (or import a file), it does all the list management, and it's easy to produce newsletters with all the gloss of a good professional mailing. The only slightly scary bit is that you have to set up a list and a first mailing before you get approved, so they can check you aren't an evil spammer.

And here's the best bit. For lists under 500 in size, it's free. As it happens, my lists are over this, and I'm paying - but I don't begrudge it for the weight that's been taken off me in managing those lists. Well worth a look if you have a mailing list, particularly if it's a small one and you can squeeze in under that 500 barrier.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Feeling a right Charlie

It's not often I find myself strongly aligned with the Prince of Wales. In fact, it's such a rare occurence that I found it decidely difficult to type that previous sentence. Yet there are some aspects of his views on architecture that I can't help but applaud.

I'm not saying 'down with all modern stuff' - I like much modern architecture. Nor do I share his enthusiasm for neo-classical - I've always found classical architecture sterile and cold. But I do agree that those who are responsible for designing our domestic architecture should make more reference to architectural tradition.

We now live on a modern development that is anything but a collection of oversized shoeboxes. With reckless abandon, whoever designed it has plundered architectural styles to produce something that works wonderfully well. Whether it's the rather French-looking house we now live in, or something that would fit well in a London street, they have used scale and style to make it a pleasure to look at and live in. Take, for instance, this pastiche London crescent near to us. I think it's delightful (it's a lot more distinguished live than it is in the photo).

However, a little further away on one of my dog walk routes is another development, somewhat older, where I really can't imagine what was going through the head of the architect. Because he or she decided to copy one of the worst period domestic styles I can think of. The 1930s villa. (That's one in the picture - despite appearances, it is a modern house.) Why? I've nothing against these houses per se. I've lived in the real thing, and it was fine. But they're ugly, undistinguished and unnecessary when there's such a palette of styles to choose from.

Architects, by all means plunder the past. It's a great way to start a design for the future. But have some taste in the process, please.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The mists of memory

I can't claim to have a great memory, so it always amazes me when I witness a feat of memory from someone else. Not those trick abilities to memorize phone books or trivia, but rather when someone dredges up a clear memory from a time when everything is a hazy blur for me.

A few weeks ago I had a great example of this in an email I received out of the blue. It was from someone a similar age to me, whose family bought our old house when I was 11. We're talking 1966 here. I really don't need to say that was a long time ago. Here's part of the email:

I seem to remember you had a real shock of red hair!! Your dad had a train set in the front little bedroom. Didnt he run the model trains in Springfield Park?

... and, of course, he remembered my name.

By contrast, I can remember nothing of him and his family. Or the people we bought our new house off at the time. It's not just hazy - there is no memory at all. Nothing. (For that matter, I don't even recall my father having a train set in the front little bedroom, though I can verify the rest of his information.)

We know the brain is perfectly capable of retaining a lot more than it often does - but why can't I remember? It's not as if there was anything traumatic associated with the move to burn away my recall. I can only think it was lack of reinforcement. It was a time of new starts, moving to secondary school as well as moving house. I didn't live close enough after the move to go back. I wasn't revisiting what happened in my mind. Like the baker in Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark, the memories 'softly and suddenly vanished away.' Never, sadly to return.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Before the Big Bang

In all the excitement of moving house I haven't mentioned my new book, Before the Big Bang, which is now available.

It explores the latest theories on the origins of the universe and what came before it, including:
  • Why there is more doubt about the Big Bang theory than is often stated
  • How our current best ideas on the origins of the universe came into being
  • How the universe could have been started by a collision of membranes in multidimensional space
  • Why the Matrix isn’t necessarily all fantasy
  • How the universe could be in a black hole or a hologram
  • How ‘before’ is meaningless in the standard Big Bang theory
  • … and much more.
Here's an extract of a review on Kirkus Reviews:

Excellent popular history of how humans understand the universe... British science writer Clegg (Upgrade Me: Our Amazing Journey to Human 2.0, 2008, etc.) excels in recounting the struggle over our universe’s origin, which most—but not all—agree lies in a vast primeval expansion known as the Big Bang. Readers may roll their eyes as brilliant scientists propose explanations of how the Bang led to the universe we see today, only to confront new, unsettling astronomical phenomena—dark energy, dark matter—that create questions faster than they can be answered. The author emphasizes that, unlike relativity or evolution, Big Bang cosmology is not a coherent system backed by overwhelming evidence but a clumsy, ad hoc premise whose gaps are plugged with theoretical band-aids or simply left open to frustrate scientists. Clegg follows the footsteps of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way. He shares his predecessors’ enthusiasm, eloquence and ability to explain complex ideas but provides a bonus by covering startling developments of the past decade...

See more at my website. The book is available at this page, and this page.

If you'd like to see the latest hot story in this area, take a look at Marcus Chown's excellent piece in New Scientist on the evidence that missing mini-galaxies gives for and against dark matter or modified gravity.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The seductive touch of paper

As a writer, I've been fascinated by the idea of ebook readers for some time - I've had a sneaky go with the Sony Reader sample in Waterstones, but I couldn't imagine what it was like to use a lump of metal and plastic instead of the real thing. This made it doubly interesting to be asked to review ebook readers for a magazine.

I can't comment on the results - you'll have to wait until the magazine is out in November - but I can consider on the overall experience. As it happens I was re-reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, which made it easy to flip my bedtime reading between paper and the various electronic offerings.

The good news is that they were easy to read, and no problem to substitute for the paper. But I confess, I prefered a conventional book in every case. I'm not one of these 'it's the smell of a book, the tactile experience, etc., etc.' people. It was simply a more pleasant experience (and you don't have to turn the page so often).

Page turning is an important factor. Many ebooks turn the page using a button press - and this feels clumsy. This was one of the two huge advantages of using an ebook reader like Stanza on the iPhone. There, turning a page is a matter of a very natural flick of the finger. The other big advantage the iPhone has (shared by the Kindle in the US, but not by any UK ebook readers yet) is being able to summon up a book over the ether. When I was waiting in Bath the other day I was able to get myself something to read despite the shops being closed, and sat happily for around 45 minutes reading on the phone.

So, for me, ebook readers are great when they have the ability to produce a book over the airwaves to fill in some dead time, but as a simple (and still quite expensive) substitute for paper, they remain very much second best.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The dangerous bookshelf

I've always been one of those fussy people who keeps their books in neat alphabetical order by author. It just seems right somehow. But I've made the accidental discovery that a disordered bookshelf can be a fun bookshelf.

When we moved into the new house, the priority was to get rid of boxes, rather than be too careful about what went where, and though I'd got rid of about 1/3 of my books before moving, there were still many more boxes of books than anything else. So to get things moving, I just threw things on the shelf any old how. And somehow, I rather like the sense of danger from never quite knowing which book you are going to lay your hand on next. I've already rediscovered the Sherlock Holmes short stories, something I probably wouldn't have dug out of the alphabetized shelves, but that leapt out at me from the random collection.

I don't know if it will last, but for the moment I'm going to keep it this way. I'm embracing the dangerous bookshelf.

Friday, 4 September 2009

And the winner of the phone menu award is...

One of the joys of moving house is becoming a connoisseur of telephone systems. With a whole host of organizations to contact, particularly while we were without a usable internet connection, the phone became a vehicle for an exploration of the darkest corners of wild and wonderful voice menus, encountering recorded messages from the seductive to the terrifying.

Thankfully, the days are long gone when you were likely to be subjected to a tinny electronic rendering of Fur Elise, or some such masterpiece, but the masters of phone automation have come up with many alternative tortures in its stead. I particularly like the artistry of those voice systems where the hold music is interrupted every five seconds by a voice telling you to hold on, because your call is important to them. Every time the music stops you think 'this is it, I'm through' only to get that tedious message once more. Even more evil are the systems that occasionally throw in a ringing tone. That, you think, really does mean you are going to speak to a person. And then a new recorded message starts.

However my accolade for worst system I encountered goes to... (opens envelope slowly)...

Royal Mail. They win for two reasons. One is that every single time I called them (and it has been a few), I was told that they were 'busier than usual' or 'experiencing unusual call volumes' so I'd have to wait longer. Sorry, if it happens every time, it is usual. But the clincher is the sheer number of voice menu selections required to ask a question about an existing mail redirection. It's seven. Seven separate menus, at least three of which basically ask the same questions. Such byzantine complexity has to be designed with evil intent. No one could be quite so bad by accident.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Sign of the times

Last Thursday I was wandering the streets of Bath with a couple of hours to waste. Foiled in my intention to pop into the abbey and hear evensong (Thursday was the only day it wasn't on, for some reason), I enjoyed some people watching around the Pump Rooms and Roman Baths area - but had then to resort to that inevitable time waster of the modern era, the coffee shop.

In the toilet of this establishment I was inspired to snap a photo of a notice on the wall. It had two outstanding qualities.

One was the magnificent way it trampled over English grammar. What can we make of the sentence By pulling this cord to activate the disabled alarm? We are left dangling. The anticipation is electric.

Then comes that second statement. Staff will immediately enter the toilet. A terrifying image springs to mind. A black-clad task force of armed barristas, smashing down the door and crashing in... and quite possibly taking a dive into the toilet bowl.

All in all, a notice to treasure.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

A very American element

In fact, two very American elements.

I've been busy again contributing to the Royal Chemistry Society's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element.

Celebrating US science, I've covered two elements - Americium (the only element whose discovery was announced on a children's radio quiz) and Californium, an element that failed the naming conventions.


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Escaping from Broadband Hell

I'm back - many apologies for the enforced absence.

I blithely assumed that modern technology would keep me connected and working through my house move. Ah, sweet innocence.

Between houses we spent a week in a holiday cottage, but I wasn't worried, as it was advertised as having WiFi. Despite sterling efforts from the cottage's owner, I could only get a signal while sitting in the car park... and never managed to get past login security. No matter, I also had a Mobile Broadband dongle giving internet access over the mobile phone network. But there wasn't a signal at the cottage. I could get one by driving a few miles, and could (painfully slowly) pick up my email, but replying was a nightmare because the mobile folk didn't provide an outgoing mail server and my ISP wouldn't allow me into their server from the mobile link.

Still, it was only for a week. Hah.

Once established in the new chateau Clegg, I was still having trouble with the mobile dongle. It didn't get a strong enough signal in my ground floor office, so couldn't plug it into my main PC and had to run upstairs to use it on a laptop. But at least, a week later, I had a landline. So it was straight onto the ISP to get broadband back.

'Ah,' they said. 'It can take up to 10 days to set up. Oh, and by the way, we've done a line test and we can only offer you a 200K service - around 10 times slower than typical broadband.'

I felt sick. Literally sick. Rapid call to BT. 'Oh we were only asked for a phone line. If we'd been asked for broadband too, we could have made some checks.' After all, not many people want broadband, do they?

So I agree to have a BT business line with broadband put in. They can't promise anything, but will make every effort to get a better connection. It'll take a week to get the line and they'll put in the broadband at the same time. Two hours later I get a call. 'Sorry, this has never happened to me before, but I've had an amber warning. We can't put the broadband in at the same time, we'll need to do a survey after the line is installed. It could take up to 10 more days.'

So the stomach drops again. It's going to be just as bad as the other line.

I won't bore you with the little trials and tribulations along the way (like the way they somehow sent the broadband information to the wrong address, luckily picked up by a savvy postman) - it was installed and, despite the fears, is working at a good speed. Normal life is being resumed. But it really brings home just how dependent on this technology I now am.