Friday, 22 May 2009

A brief hiatus

As an experiment I am going for a week without any internet access. This mean that Now Appearing will not have any new posts for a little while. Please be patient - normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Kindling for a blog

I'm sure we can all think of a few blogs that could do with a bit kindling. They lack that vital spark. But that's not what I have in mind. Amazon has now started to offer blogs on its Kindle ebook reader - and the frightening thing is that the user has to pay.

Not a lot, I'll admit. To enjoy Now Appearing on your Kindle you would have to fork out the princely sum of $1.99 (you can see the Now Appearing page on Amazon here) for a month's subscription. In practice, the majority of this is for delivery by Whispernet, Amazon's mobile phone network delivery service that allows things to ping to the Kindle wherever you are (at least, in the US - the rest of us are still waiting to get our hands on Kindle).

But will punters really pay to read blogs? I have to admit, when I added Now Appearing to the program I assumed I would be given the choice of setting the amount, and could make it free - but no, Amazon decides the subscription rate.

It's an interesting venture by the books-and-more giant. I can't see a huge demand, but I think some will pay a little to read their favourite blogs with the ease that the Kindle provides. However, the change in mindset required to go from 'blogs are free comment' to 'I don't mind paying to read a blog' is more than trivial. Many have tried to make the web pay by charging for content. Few have succeeded.

It should be fun to see what happens.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Zinc or swim

Just when you thought it was safe to venture into podcast waters, here comes another chemical element in the Royal Society of Chemistry's series Chemistry in its Element.

Zinc's a real hero in wimp's clothing. It sounds dull (if clearly metallic - this must be one of the few onomatopoeic element names)... but you wouldn't want to be without it. But you can find out for yourself by listening to my podcast either by clicking this link or by selecting Zinc from the widget below.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The gulf between writing and exposing yourself

Even in non-fiction, beginning authors are often given the advice 'put more of yourself in it.' The idea is to move from a vanilla, pure listing of facts, to something that benefits from the writer's experience. This doesn't mean objectivity goes out of the window, just that the person's enthusiasm and interest comes through in the writing.

When we get to blogs, Twitter and Facebook, we're talking a very different kind of non-fiction. It's easy to think that it's all about opening up and letting rip. But I'd suggest good bloggers and even good Twitterers/Facebookisti, have more in common with a non-fiction writer than with someone writing in a diary.

There are two reasons for this. One is the interest factor. If your blotwfac (blog/twitter/facebook - I can't be bothered to write it all out) is only about popping down the shops, the dream you had last night and your holiday, then your readers will soon only be friends and relations. Make that close friends and relations. Just like an author, the writer of a blotwfac has an obligation to his or her audience.

I don't mean by this that every bleat (blog post/tweet) has to be a literary work of art, or that it shouldn't be about you and your life. Just that the majority of them should contain something that perks the interest. Take a Facebook comment from a friend recently. why am i hollding wine i think am drunk - on the face of it just a social comment, but done in such a way that it catches the interest and raises a smile.

The other reason for thinking more about the writing in blotwfac is that I do believe we need to remember that we are broadcasting (well, narrowcasting) to the world. And maybe there are some personal things that shouldn't be echoing around the interweb. Another friend recently had to dismantle a fair amount of her blog because of the job she's applying for. It was a good blog, but she feels rightly or wrongly that her prospective employers wouldn't like it. It gave too much of the personal away. (And with web facilities like the Way Back machine and Google cache, which keep copies of websites at different stages in time, it can be quite difficult to cover your traces electronically.)

So, yes, do put yourself into your blotwfac (that's sounds worryingly Welsh)... but do it with a little thought for what the neighbours might say.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Is Apple's vision coming true in Alpha?

Many years ago when I was running the Emerging Technologies unit at British Airways, I was fascinated by an Apple video featuring a computer of the future. It was called Knowledge Navigator. The screen opened up like a book. It was all touchy-feely. You used it for video calls. It acted as a PA, reminding you of appointments (and putting off your mother's phone calls). It was just wonderful.

In one segment it demonstrated how data might be accessed in the future. The user, an academic, talked to the Navigator, saying he wanted to see data on the shrinking of the Amazon rain forest, then wanted to get data on the growth of desertification in North Africa. Then put the two together to produce an interesting (if scientifically doubtful) presentation show visual correlation between the two as they visibly changed over time.

I SO WANTED ONE. I hadn't thought about the Knowledge Navigator for years until I came across Wolfram Alpha. This is a new style search engine, just launched, that seems to promise the sort of flexible data presentation that the Navigator offered. You ask for some information in free text and it goes away, pulls it together and presents it for you.

I had three attempts with Alpha. The first, trying to recreate the Knowledge Navigator demonstration was a failure. The data requirements were just too complex. I couldn't get it to understand what I wanted.

Then I tried something I desperately wanted to know when writing a book a few years ago. What was the weather like in San Francisco on a particular date in history? So I entered weather in San Francisco 17 October 1874. The first time I pressed the 'go' button was not promising. I got this:

Then I tried again and got this:
it had managed to parse my request okay, but then spent too long scratching its head as to what to do with it.

Finally I tried a third piece of information I wanted more recently. A plot of the FTSE 100 share index between March 2008 and February 2009. This had been quite tricky to get hold of - but this time Alpha shone and whipped it up for me in no time.

So Alpha may not be the ultimate data-based search engine yet - and certainly isn't Knowledge Navigator - but it has promise.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Wowed by Wao?

A few weeks ago, that consummate YA author M G Harris enthused about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. That was recommendation enough for me, and I ran, rather than walked, to the bookstore to pick up a copy.

Having finished the book, I am finding it hard to say how I feel about it.

There were a couple of things I didn't like. The text is sprinkled with more Spanish than is helpful if you don't speak any. Sometimes you can guess what it means by context, sometimes you can't. If you're a Spanish speaker, imagine that it was Russian - would you still feel it was acceptable? And it had the sort of downer of an ending that I would have loved aged 20, but these days I tend to avoid, as I prefer to go out with a smile.

But with that aside, it was a wonderful reading experience. The footnotes, filling in factual background (I assume it's factual) on the Dominican Republic and its revolution in a chatty fashion, the use of many geeky references, the humour and the pathos - yes it's all brilliant.

So I might not love it - but I'm glad I read it.

Taking writing risks is good - but you will sometimes fail

I have stopped watching the TV show Pushing Daisies because of a fundamental flaw in the concept.

The way the show is made, it's pretty well impossible to get any real identification with the central characters. The combination of the constant narration and the knowingly artificial behaviour and storylines provide a barrier that I just can't get through. I don't care about what happens to the Pie Man and friends.

In that sense, Pushing Daisies is a failure. But it's a magnificent failure, and I think it should be celebrated. The premise is clever, if frustrating. The approach taken is truly original and one of the best things to come out of the US networks in years.

As an ideas exercise, it's terrific. It's a fundamental tenet in creativity - if you take a creative step, you are taking a risk. You will sometimes fail. But if you don't take that step, if you play it safe, you will never produce anything great. So many congratulations to the series' creators - and to the network for giving it a second season. For me, it ultimately didn't work. But it was a magnificent try.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Five barred gait

Here's a true story. A few years ago, I was in London at a tube station. It was one of those with an office in the middle of the platform - I was probably 20 to 30 metres from the office.

With nothing much else to do, I was watching a lively discussion going on through the office window. I was much too far away to see faces, but lively was certainly the word.

Now here's the thing. I recognized one of the people in there, simply from the way he was moving. There were no contextual clues - this was someone I hadn't met for about 5 years, who had nothing to do with London Underground, or even central London in my mind. But I knew it was him. And when he came out, it was. He had been having an argument with the staff over something.

So, why could I recognize this one person? A (as I shall call him) has a stunningly distinctive pattern of movement. It couldn't have been anyone else. Now, I'm not very good at recognizing people, in part due to short-sightedness and in part due to a tendency not to look at the faces of people I don't know well. But this was clear recognition.

It made me wonder why so few people have distinctive movements - but a few do. I suspect a good bit of pattern recognition software would say we were all distinctive. Fascinating.

(Why five barred gait? I couldn't think of a better pun. And we used to stop at a pub called The Five Barred Gate on the coach when my grandma used to take me to Blackpool Illuminations as a child - but that's a different story for a different day.)

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Why do 'public understanding of science' profs get it so wrong?

First there was Richard Dawkins, who as Professor of Public Understanding of Science managed to put more people off science than practically anyone else with his hardline 'anyone who supports religion is an idiot' approach.

Now there's Susan Greenfield, charged with a similar task as the head of the Royal Institution. And guess what? According to Ben Goldacre, she's spreading scare stories (when she's not selling dubious brain training software).

I increasingly believe that scientists are the last people to have the job of improving public understanding of science. Let's give the jobs to popular science authors instead.

I'm available...

Friday, 15 May 2009

Stick up for Simon Singh

You may well have come across science writer Simon Singh, probably best known for writing Fermat's Last Theorem.

His most recent book, Trick or Treatment, was a superb analysis of alternative medical practices, showing just what rubbish many of them are. Singh wrote an article (as you do) along the theme of his book and made some negative comments about chiropractors. This wasn't attacking them for what they can do for backs, but rather their claims to be able to help with a whole host of conditions that having nothing to do with the spine - such as colic and asthma in children.

In response, the BCA, their UK national organization, has sued Singh. The first hearing, to determine just what he is alleged to have done, went badly for Singh. The judge decided that Singh's comments were 'statement of fact' rather than fair comment, and that his use of the word 'bogus' meant that he was accusing the BCA of deliberate dishonesty, despite Singh specifically defining what he meant by 'bogus' in the article, and it was clearly something different. Apparently this judgement, which is almost impossible to appeal, means that the actual case will be much harder for Singh to win.

Whether or not you agree with Singh on alternate medicine, it's hard not to see this as a terrible attack on free speech. If you want to follow what's going on, the best way is to keep an eye on Jack of Kent's blog, which is detailing the legal proceedings. There's also a Facebook support group - and if you're in London on Monday (18 May), there's a public support meeting (which Simon and arch-supporter Dave Gorman will be at) at the Penderel's Oak pub at 6.30pm.

I'm appalled, both by the lawsuit (anyone who uses chiropractors should really be thinking 'is it time to switch to an osteopath?' as a result of this action), and by the initial judgement. Spread the word - support this excellent author.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Permit me a little jubilation

Just occasionally you get a book review that you want to shout to the world about. I've just had one that's got me all excited - the only slight oddity being it's for a book that doesn't come out until August.

The book in question is Before the Big Bang, of which you will no doubt hear more as August comes upon us. And the review is in Kirkus Reviews. (You'll see it in the 'Non-fiction' section.)

As I understand it, the reason these reviews are published so early is so that bookshops, libraries and the like can get a heads-up. I can only hope someone notices this one. Also, apparently, Kirkus are known for being quite fierce in their reviewing, so getting a starred review like this one is something of a coup.

Kirkus is a pay site, so you can't read the review there. Just to give a taste, here's some highlights:

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... 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...

Forgive me if I now go and do a small but meaningful dance in the garden.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Who's there? Answer friend or foe!

Whenever someone uses a 'rights' defence I get a little uneasy. I have always preferred the concept of responsibilities to rights. Here's one example that drives me crazy.

The phone rings. Who can be disturbing me at this time/at the key point of this really important TV programme/in the middle of a meal? It's okay, I've got caller ID. So I take a look and it says 'Withheld Number' or whatever the message is.

That gets me really mad. It's argued that people should be able to withhold their number because it's their 'right' to remain anonymous. What about my right to know who is ringing me? The only reason I don't have our phone reject all Withheld Number calls is that the telephone company makes it harder to do than to implement any other feature.

Some people will tell you they use Withheld Number because they don't want people making sales calls. What's that all about? How do they think letting me know what their phone number is will result in sales calls? I'm sorry. There's no excuse. It's anti-social, irritating and should be banned forthwith.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

It's singing, but not as we know it

I was fascinated and a little baffled by the male contestant on Britain's Got Talent on Saturday with the striking, high pitched voice.

He said he was technically a counter tenor, but sang male soprano, as was popular in baroque music and earlier.

Now, I've had a bit of experience of counter tenor and alto singing. I sung alto for several years at school, and later sang in several choirs that featured male altos/counter tenors. The tone when singing like this is totally different from that of a woman in the same register. It works well on its own, but usually doesn't mix well with contraltos. Yet when you listen to Greg Pritchard sing without watching him, although there is a touch of falsetto strain, you could still suspect it was a woman singing.

What he didn't point out was that those male sopranos in early music days were not counter tenors (or even bargain-counter tenors, as featured in the works of PDQ Bach), they were castrati. (Anyone who has not come across Kingsley Amis's cracking alternate world book The Alteration should read this fascinating piece which envisages a modern world where the church still produces castrati.) Now our performer on Britain's Got Talent clearly wasn't a castrato - his speaking voice was quite normal - making his singing all the more remarkable.

I find myself in exactly the same position as Simon Cowell. I really don't know what to make of it. If you haven't heard him, decide for yourself.

Monday, 11 May 2009

More than knoweing

Not long ago I suggested we need a new word - knowe - for people we have met electronically, but never face-to-face. What surprises me when I think about it, is how big a chunk of my life involves electronically supported relationships. Let's take a few examples:
  • My editor at St Martin's Press in New York, Michael Homler. We've never met. I think we've spoken on the phone once. That apart, all our contact has been by email (if you don't count proofs coming by snail mail) - but I'd say we have a great working relationship.
  • I follow Stephen Fry on Twitter. Yes, I'm one of the half million or so sad people. Yet I feel a strange closeness from those bon mots he flings out into the e-sphere.
  • I've just helped someone with a proposal for a major training contract. We've met twice - one of the times to work together successfully, but almost our entire working interaction has been electronic.
  • I'm going to Swindon Festival of Literature tonight to see Emma Darwin in action. I've never been in the same room as her before, but because we're on the same writers' forum (and, yes, friends on Facebook), I feel I know her.
  • As I've mentioned elsewhere, one of my websites sells CDs of organ accompaniments for church music. The organist and his producer live in Nottingham, 140 miles away. We've never met and only spoken on the phone a few times. Our whole working relationship has been built electronically.
  • I do, I admit, meet my agent two or three times a year in the real world, but our working relationship is mostly driven by email and Skype.
... and I could go on at even greater length.

There are those who would moan and groan and gnash their teeth at this. The breakdown of society, with relationships replaced by pale electronic equivalents, they would say. Rubbish. This is an enhancement, building on the real world stuff. And as someone whose working life inevitably involves being shut away in a room on my own quite a lot, I can only say I'm very grateful for it.

To finish with a bit of culture, although I've never met the organist I work with, I've seen him at work, and you can too:

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Thoughts on the Star Trek movie

I was pleasantly surprised by the new Star Trek movie last night. [Some spoilers to come.]

As a prequel to the original series, it could have been dire. Instead, all the familiar characters were beautifully played without ever being a caricature or impersonation of the original. Chekov, for instance, had all his youthful enthusiasm - but had lost the dire hairstyle, introduced to try to win over fans of the Monkees. I particularly warmed to McCoy - it was no surprise there was a small cheer in the cinema when we got 'I'm a doctor, not a physicist' - but they were all excellent, Simon Pegg proving a much better comedy Scotsman than the original.

Some aspects were a bit iffy - the whole red matter/black hole business, for instance. (Including the way the crew happily sat by as a black hole formed, then were surprised it was difficult to get away. Duh.) But not too many.

Perhaps most controversial was setting it in an alternate reality to the original series. This meant a slight feeling of detachment - these weren't 'our' characters, really. But it was an essential for the writers. Otherwise we would know, for instance, that Spock's mother couldn't stay killed, because we saw her in Season 2 of the original series.

All in all, it should delight any Star Trek fan, or even those with faint fond memories, and works well as a new version of the franchise in its own right. There's bound to be another, and that's not a bad thing.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Travels with my iPhone

I was on a visit to London yesterday to give a talk at St Margaret's School in Hampstead.

The much maligned railway performed magnificently - the trains were on time, I got a seat both ways, and there was some constructive fiddling at Didcot station to save me money. I was coming back in the peak, so the natural thing was to get an any time return. But the cunning person at Didcot issued me an off peak return/travel card for the tube, plus a single to return in the peak - saving a magnificent £4. Okay, it wasn't a fortune, but I would have been none the wiser if I hadn't been offered it.

The iPhone's rail information app did its job on timetable details, underground trains appeared as if by magic as I arrived on the platform, and I was soon disgorged in Hampstead, often described as 'leafy' Hampstead. There were a lot of trees in the street, but from my viewpoint it was more 'maze-like' Hampstead. The route from the tube station to the school was a real tangle, with no obvious straight line route in sight. Plus, the station itself is on the corner of a conjunction of roads, and I hadn't a clue which way I had to go.

I was a bit dubious about using the maps function on the iPhone, because I thought I would look something of a plank, navigating around the place with a phone - but it worked beautifully. I asked for a route from where I was to the school's address (lifted effortlessly from my address book) and off it went, guiding me on a wiggly route including a pedestrian only section that seemed to minimize the distance. The only thing it got wrong was the naming of one road, but it was obvious from the locator on the map where I was.

I found it surprisingly easy just to glance at the screen to confirm my heading without even breaking stride - it worked much better than expected. The only problem I encountered was that I had not powered down my iPhone for many days, and this seems over time to make it harder to pick up a 3G signal, needed to display new maps. Once I'd switched it off and on again it was fine, but for a while I was cursing Hampstead as being 3G-proof (though I did manage to snaffle a WiFi connection from someone's house as I passed).

I had intended to listen to a podcast of last Friday's News Quiz on the way back on the train, but I ended up in the quiet carriage, so instead used recently installed Stanza to read part of The Time Machine on the iPhone, which worked better than I expected. Entertainment was also provided by a very chunky chap opposite, who was juggling an iPhone and a Blackberry, frantically interacting with both. It was almost street theatre.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Publishers' accountants revisited

A while ago I moaned about the way publishers' accounting systems seem stuck in the Victorian era with their incredibly slow responses. I'm afraid I am back on the moan again.

If proof were required that publishers' systems need an overhaul, a week or so ago my agent yet again received an electronic payment from a publisher with no accompanying remittance advice. Many publishers have now got the idea of electronic payments (though a few still insist on cheques, usually made out to the wrong entity), but they're the only type of company I know that seems unable to grasp that you can't just bung money through the ether without explaining it. More than one publisher does this as a matter of course - it's bizarre.

And just in case you were feeling sorry for their accounting personnel, I received an interesting email from the accounts department of a large publisher the other day, when I complained that they always paid much later than everyone else. ' It has long been our policy to send on or the day before the 30th which is in accordance with our contract... I’m afraid that I am not aware of other publishers procedures,' it read.

What this was saying is 'We send out the money on the very last day before we go into breach of contract. So clearly we aren't doing this because it takes that long to process things - it's because we want to hang onto the interest from your money as long as we can.' Charming.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

It's my birthday, and I'll be ironic if I want to

A while ago our children had a fancy dress birthday party. One of their friends turned up dressed as a stuffed olive. I was rather sorry for her. It's a classic fancy dress party mistake - don't wear an encumbering costume. It might have looked good in your mind, but you'll have a miserable evening.

But, no. I was wrong, apparently. It was ironic. She knew it was the wrong thing to do, but did it in homage to the movie Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging:

New Clip: Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging Olive - Click here for more free videos
While I was impressed with the thinking that could produce an ironic fancy dress costume, I couldn't help feeling that being ironic might have looked good in her mind... but she still ended up in a large olive costume. Hmm.

Incidentally, only part of the title of this post isn't true. I'm not being ironic.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Still in love after all these days

So, nearly two weeks on from going iPhone, it still has a central place in my affection. It just does so much so well. I was watching an old Star Trek yesterday, and noticed their communicators (if you ignore the flippy bit) were similar in size to an iPhone - but you never see Spock taking a photograph or Chekov on Twitter. They just weren't in the same league.

A lot of the joy comes from the apps. I just want to briefly get excited about one - Shazam. I know that there are similar apps on other phones, but Shazam works so neatly. Play a recording into the phone and (with any luck) it will recognize it. This even works if you haven't got a signal - it will store it away until you do.

But it's more than a matter of recognizing it - you get links to iTunes to download it, a link to YouTube, a discography... it provides what you might need, the way you might need it. The links to iTunes are particularly appealing - this means that the application can be free, because its makers are going to make some money out of it - but the user doesn't lose out either.

If you want a song you've heard, you can get it, easily and cheaply. Magnificent.

I ought to say that the tracks featured in the screen shots were just random ones picked off the radio - they don't reflect my musical tastes, with the exception of one that was from my PC. It will be left as an exercise for the reader to guess which.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Creativity in the small things

Before I got into science writing I was mostly working in business creativity, something I still get involved in, though not quite as often now. This involves solving problems and coming up with ideas for business. It's not all about the big 'how do we make millions more profit' type ideas - and I think the concept of creativity in the small things is one that's just as applicable to writing as it is to business.

Let me give you a 'creativity in the small things' example from my BA days. Like many creativity ideas, it was never implemented - the opportunity is still there, but chances are it won't ever be used, because those involved don't have the imagination to implement it.

Like many organizations, BA had a whole manual giving details of allowances in different countries. For each country, reflecting exchange rates and goodness knows what, you were allowed so much for breakfast, so much for lunch and so much for dinner. I suspect someone was employed full time just updating the allowances.

A more creative solution? Have an allowance system based on the price of a Big Mac meal. You could allow, say, two Big Mac meals for breakfast, three for lunch and four for dinner. Before anyone worries about impending heart attacks, could I emphasize that I didn't mean you should have four Big Mac meals for dinner. Just that the amount of money allowed for each meal would be based on the cost of a Big Mac meal in that country.

You can throw away the manual and its hundreds of pages needing updating. McDonalds will do the sums for you. It's so simple, you might think at first sight that it's silly. But I really don't think it is. Creativity, as I said, in the small things.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

A dubious shade of green

One of the main themes of my book Ecologic is the way that companies use green credentials as a sort of 'aren't we good' badge, even when what they're boasting about isn't exactly what it seems.

I think a good example of this is the pizza boxes from Sainsbury's alongside.

100% recyclable packaging, it says. Good stuff. However, that's very much in principle. Of the three bits of packaging I can only recycle the outside cardboard boxes. Our local recycling doesn't take plastic wrappers, and although in principle the cardboard that is under the pizza could be recycled, in practice it can't because it's highly contaminated with tomato, grease and general food materials.

Paper recyclers wouldn't touch it with the traditional barge pole.

I like packaging that's minimal and recyclable - but we shouldn't pretend it's something it's not.

Friday, 1 May 2009

If you liked radium, you'll love germanium

Yes, after spending some time a few weeks ago squirrelled away in BBC Swindon's dungeon (sorry, their NCA Studio, pictured here during Ecologic interviews), I've got another podcast out in the series Chemistry in its Element for the Royal Society of Chemistry.

This time it's germanium. Apart from the tendency to be confused with a flower, it was essential for early transistors and still gets used in communications technology today... but why not take a listen - or you can pick it out of my growing little collection in the widget well below (sorry about the gap, this only seems to happen with Blogger and I can't work out how to get rid of it):