Monday, 31 May 2010

Probability that mangles the mind

Generally speaking I'm a bit so-so about recreational mathematics. I can't get very excited about polyominoes or tiling, for instance. But when the field strays into probability I get fascinated - and the mind gets boggled. Take the little probability problem mentioned in the New Scientist article I've linked to there. It gets rather lost in the article, and they don't describe it particularly well. Let's take a look.

The problem statement is simple. I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys? But to get a grip on this problem we need first to take a step back and look at a more basic problem. I have two children. One is a boy. What is the probability I have two boys?

A knee-jerk reaction to this is to think 'One's a boy - the other can either be a boy or a girl. So there's a 50:50 chance that the other is a boy. The probability that there are two boys is 50%.' Unfortunately that's wrong.

You can see why with this handy diagram. The first blobs are the older child. It's a boy or a girl, 50:50. Then in each case we've a 50:50 chance of a boy or girl for the second child. So each of the combinations has a 1 in 4 (or 25%) chance of occuring.

All the combinations except Girl-Girl fit our statement 'I have two children. One is a boy.' So we've got three equally like possibilities, of which only one has two boys. So there's a 1 in 3 chance that there are two boys.

If this sounds surprising, it's because the statement 'One is a boy' doesn't tell us which of the two children it's referring to. If we say 'The eldest one is a boy', then our 'common sense' assessment of probability applies. If the eldest is a boy, there are only two options with equal probability - second child is a boy or second child is a girl. So it's 50:50.

Now we're equipped to move on to the full version of the problem. I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys?

Again, gut feel says 'The extra information provided can't make any difference. It must still be 1 in 3.' But startlingly, the probability is now 13 in 27 - pretty close to 50:50.

To explain this I should draw another diagram, but I can't be bothered, you'll have to imagine it. In this diagram there are 14 children in the first column. First boy born on a Sunday, First boy born on a Monday, First boy born on Tuesday... First girl born on a Sunday... through to First girl born on a Saturday.

Each of these fourteen first children has fourteen second children options. Second boy born on a Sunday... etc.

That's 196 combinations, but luckily we can eliminate most of them. Either the first or second boy must be born on a Tuesday. So the combinations were interested in are the fourteen that spread out from 'First boy born on a Tuesday' plus the thirteen that start from one of the other first children and are linked to 'Second boy born on a Tuesday.' So there are 27 combinations in all. How many of these involve two boys? Half of the first fourteen do - one for a second boy born on each day of the week. And for those thirteen with links on the right to 'second boy born on a Tuesday' six of them will have a boy as the first child (because we don't include 'First boy born on a Tuesday.') So thats 7+6 i.e. 13 combinations that provide us with two boys. So the chances of having two boys is 13 in 27.

Common sense really revolts at this. By simply saying what day of the week a boy was born on, we increase the probability of the other child being a boy. But we could have said any day of the week, so how can this possibly work? The only way I can think to describe what's happening is to say that by limiting the boy we know about to a certain birth day, we cut out a lot of the options. We are, in effect, bringing it closer to the sort of effect we get by saying 'the oldest child is a boy'. We are adding information to the picture.

The probabilites work. You can model this in a computer if you like and it's correct. But what's going on mangles the mind. Don't you just love probability?

(I ought to say, by the way, that this isn't quite a match to reality. It assumes there is an equal chance that either child is a boy or a girl, and that there is an equal chances of being born on each day of the week. In reality neither of these is quite true, but that doesn't matter for the purposes of the exercise.)

Friday, 28 May 2010

What's the highest interest rate you can imagine? Not close.

I was expressing some surprise at an APR (annual interest rate) advertised on the TV for a monthly payments store the other day. It was getting on for 30%, which seemed a lot, given the current bank interest rates. It is, after all, more than credit cards charge.

But then another advert came on for a company called QuickQuid. I was so gobsmacked by the interest rate offered that I had to go to their website and check.

To be fair to them, it has come down since the TV ad. When I looked the typical APR was 2278%. That's not 22.78% but 2278. Yes, two thousand, two hundred and seventy eight percent. What can I say? The mind truly boggles. I hate to think what the rate would be if bank interest rates were high...

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Pass the buck sustainability

'Sustainable' is a word you hear banded about a lot these days. As I describe in Ecologic, it's a term that is often used because it sounds good, without thinking through what it really means.

There are broadly two possible meanings, sustainable lite and full-fat sustainable. Sustainable lite means something that's viable to continue operating. It makes economic sense and there's a continued demand for it. Full-fat sustainable is what's often implied in the green usage of the word. Here it means something that can operate without external inputs. So, for instance, a sustainable farm should be able to operate without bringing in fertiliser and other inputs. A sustainable house should be 'zero energy' requiring no energy input from the grid.

Unfortunately, all too often, people try to give the impression of having full fat sustainability by sleight of hand. They try to make it look as if they are truly sustainable, while passing on the problems to someone else. There was a great example of this in the news recently. The Register reported on a 'zero energy' house that was anything but. This California building had won awards for its sustainability. Yet this was no hut in the woods, existing on burning willow twigs - it was a big modern construction ablaze with power.

So how did they acheive this? Vast solar panels, wind turbines and banks of energy stores? Nope. By not including the use of natural gas in their zero energy calculations. When the gas usage was taken into account, the house used more fossil fuel energy than an average house in the area. Hmm.

Organic farms play similar tricks to claim to be sustainable, though they do it more subtly. The fact is, an organic farm can't do what it claims, because it has matter going out (the food produced) so needs something coming in to replace that matter. Some of it, admittedly, can come from the air. Carbon, for instance, from carbon dioxide and a certain amount of nitrogen from the air too using plants like clover that 'fix' nitrogen. There's water from rain as well. But that doesn't provide everything that's needed.

Nitrogen, for example, comes in part from manure. But that just shifts the nitrogen input to the animals' feedstuff where not enough can be got from nitrogen fixers. (Incidentally it also means that organic farms pretty well have to be mixed farms to produce that manure, so they can't take the true green route and do away with greenhouse gas belching meat animals.)  So organic farms buy in nitrogen-rich feed from other organic farms. But of course that means those farms become depleted of nitrogen. And at some point the buck has to stop.

One of the tricks used at this point is to buy straw from a conventional farm. This is allowed, because it's bedding, not food, so it's okay that the nitrogen has come from a nitrogen fertiliser. But, of course, the animals don't know it's bedding. They eat it, gain the nitrogen, and the 'sustainable' organic system can pretend it never got nitrogen from artificial fertilisers.

There's even worse fiddling of the books to get in important trace elements like potassium. Such is the organic movement's aversion to 'chemicals' they will go wildly out of their way to use something that sounds natural, even though it's a much less effective source than many alternatives. All trace elements are chemicals, guys. Get over it. More to the point here, they all have to be brought in. They can't be produced from the air. A farm can't be sustainable in minerals.

There's nothing wrong with calling an organic farm sustainable lite - but it can never be full fat sustainable. Sustainability is an excellent goal, but playing a game of 'find the lady' to conceal your inputs (especially as ineptly as was the case with the zero energy house) discredits the term.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Swindon's rough ride in the Rough Guide

For my birthday I received a copy of the Rough Guide to Britain, and jolly good fun it is too. Rather like my nostalgic copy of England on $10 a Day, one of the best bits is the attempt to explain to foreigners how to enjoy Britain, and what's good and bad about the food, beer and so on. (I found the food part rather patronising, as it half wanted to sneer at the way some places still served old fashioned pub food of the nasty variety, yet at the same time rather bemoaned the way a lot of pubs have gone up-market. Get your act together, Rough Guide.)

Now there is a tradition the world over, just as we all have a tendency to Google ourselves, to look up places that are special to us when presented with a gazetteer. My birthplace, Rochdale, doesn't get a mention - fair enough. It's not exactly a tourist destination, unless you are into Co-operative movements. But my current place of residence, Swindon is a bit different. It is, after all, site of the impressive railway museum, Steam, not to mention the National Monuments Records Centre and (nearby) the remarkable Science Museum library.

I couldn't find Swindon in the index, but I know a bit about indexes and they are fallible at best. So I thought I'd check the text. The Guide helpfully has maps that show which section of the book a place falls in. The obvious one was Wiltshire - but Swindon was just off the top of this. It's not entirely surprising, as Swindon is right at the tip of Wiltshire. So I looked at the map above... and Swindon was just below the bottom of it. Yes, they have actually left a gap between the maps to exclude Swindon.

I'm sorry, but that's not very nice. Not very nice at all.

You can see more on the Rough Guide to Britain at and at

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

We are a Muse (d)

I've been members of several forums for writers and would-be writers. Some provide superb opportunities to discuss the trials and tribulations of the writing life with fellow authors. Others are more like an X-Factor holding pen of hopefuls. But something they've all had in common is not really producing anything of value for the outside world... until now.

The Litopia forum has produced an ezine by the name of Muse.

When this was first proposed, to be honest, I envisaged one of those rather tatty self-produced 'magazines' that clubs knock out. A bit like the Bulletin of the British Conker Enthusiasts (apologies if BBCE exists - I was making it up). The sort of thing that tends to appear as a 'guest publication' at the end of Have I Got News For You, so everyone can sneer at it. How wrong could I be.

In practice, Muse has superb production values - much better than some professional ezines I've seen - and lots of great content from author interviews to articles, fiction and reviews. And, yes, there's an interview with me - but this hasn't biassed me in any way. Really.

So run, don't walk, over to Litopia and take a look. Or just download your copy by right clicking here and selecting 'Save link as...' or 'Save file as...' I recommend downloading rather than reading in your viewer as some viewers (certainly the Firefox PDF plugin) slightly mangle it.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Is this book a pointless rant or a brilliant analysis of our world?

I don't know who Melanie Phillips is. Don't get me wrong, I've heard her on the radio and seen her on the TV often enough. Whenever they need an opinion, forcefully (nay, spikily) put, she's one of those they wheel out. But I don't really know why. If I'm honest, I read this book with the intention of slagging it off. I had heard that Melanie Phillips pushes global warming scepticism to the limit, and I wanted to hit back at this. I am still of the opinion that she's wrong about global warming, but there was actually much about the book I liked.

It starts with a description of how, perhaps as a response to the decline in organized religion, we've seen a growth in the assorted areas often referred to online as 'woo' - anything from crystal healing to alternative medicine.  Philips uses two compelling examples in Diana, Princess of Wales and Barrack Obama where arguably a whole sentimental/emotional wash of feeling was able to totally overcome rationality. (I'm not saying I'm anti-Democrat or anti-Obama, by the way, just that a lot of tosh was talked as if he was about to transform the world. Dave and Nick, please note.)

A wonderful surprise. What I thought was going to be an anti-rational book is actually pro-rational and logic. Excellent. And as we'll see in some later chapters this is quite effective. But we need to get climate change out of the way first.

Phillips makes some reasonable points on the unreliability of climate models, but a lot of her climate change chapter is just digging up the old, long dismissed arguments like 'historically, carbon dioxide levels went up after temperature rises, rather than before.' The Royal Society has a nice document listing all these repeated arguments and what's wrong with them. The problem with Philips' anti-climate change argument is neatly summed up by someone else:

Some of the claims… turned out to be flaky or untrue… But to say, as so many have done, that therefore all such claims were false, and even amounted to a deliberate and collective lie is not sustainable. Obviously, calibrating a risk involves assessing all the evidence in the round.

This is Phillips herself, talking about the Iraq War - but her argument could be exactly applied to climate change. There have been a few errors, as there always are in science, but to use them to suggest the whole vast weight of evidence and support of so many scientists is untrue is just wrong.

The book next covers the Iraq War, and (assuming the statements are more accurate than those in the climate change section), makes a telling point about the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument being much sounder than it has since been re-written to be - she's quite convincing here, as she is on the validity of Israel and its right to self-defence. This doesn't justify Israeli all of Israel's actions, but makes it clearer why things aren't as cut and dried as some would present it, which is useful.

From here the book's main themes develop, which I'll come to in a moment. However, it's worth saying the way they are developed is tedious in the extreme. She is so repetitive - you could cut the book to one third its length and not lose a single argument. She will also never use two examples when she can give 20, so you get list after list of examples of a particular thing. This isn't a good way to bring people along, it's a turn-off.

I suppose the big themes are Islam, antisemitism, the decline of Christianity (particularly in Britain) and the treatment of Israel. Again, there's a lot here to agree with, if you can cope with the repetition. I think she is rather selective in her support for Israel - it's absolutely true it's a country established by the UN that has the right to defend itself, but not to do so by retaliatory attacks. It's as if we'd bombed Dublin for what the IRA did. This is a shame, because much of what she says is sensible. Similarly, her attack on the Church of England is weakened by using small examples of silliness to attack the whole. So she claims, for instance, that the CofE largely abandoned any interest in Jesus, and that 'churches up and down Britain' replaced their Christmas manger scene with a tableau of the Israeli defence barrier. I'd be surprised if it was more than a handful - I've never heard of this.

However, she does a valuable service in bringing out the way Jews have been unfairly demonized, the totally inconsistent approach of our intelligentsia to different religions (basically Christianity/Judaism bad, anything else good), the unthinking support for the idea that multiculturalism has to be good (as long as it's not our native culture) without any logic behind it, and, yes, despite all the problems, the unthinking hatred of the country of Israel that stops rational assessment of what's happening and how we respond to it. It's knee-jerk stuff, and when that comes in, rationality goes out of the window.

So it's a shame she drags in climate change, utterly irrelevant to the main thread of the book and misleading because she's so wrong. It's also a shame she's so repetitive (have I repeated that enough yet?) and tends to draw wide conclusions from small amounts of data when it suits her. But there's a lot here that needs to be said.

See the book at and at

P.S. Love the image on the front - it always amazes me how totally unrecognizable the Earth is upside down.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The prototype Andrew Lloyd Webber

With Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV show looking for a newcomer to play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Over the Rainbow, now finished it's time to reflect on the great man himself. (Congratulations to Danielle, by the way - the best Dorothy won.)

Lloyd Webber tends to be attacked by critics a lot, and I think unfairly. While I do tend to agree that his best work was his early stuff - there were just so many more great tunes in something like Joseph or Cats - he can write excellent stuff, and certainly knows how to put on a spectacle. Frankly, it's hard not to see sour grapes in the criticism.

I certainly think he is hard done by when compared with his eighteenth century counterpart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Now at this point I can hear some sharp intakes of breath, but I genuinely believe the comparison holds. Both could write a good tune. Both wrote some musicals (I really don't see the point distinguishing between a Mozart opera and a musical) with ridiculous plots. Both wrote some okay but rather overrated church music.

If the musical mafia weren't so hung up on Mozart's genius, I think they might accept that he was a similar crowd pleaser whose music rarely challenges, but often delivers. Of course I'm biassed. I don't like much Mozart myself. With the exception of the A major piano sonata, which is one of my favourite piano pieces, I don't think I'd give any of it room on my iPod (and I don't). But then I don't have any Lloyd Webber either.

So hail Andrew Lloyd Webber, our present day Mozart. He may not be treated as such... but then Mozart wasn't in his day either.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 21 May 2010

Is economics a science?

We're used to science types and sceptics taking on a certain kind of idea as 'woo'. Anything from astrology to crystal healing comes under this banner. Broadly there are two kinds of things that get categorized as woo. Some claim to be magic, pure and simple. But others pretend to be science. They hide behind lots of scientific terms (often the language of quantum theory, as the proponents of woo delight in the apparent fuzziness of quantum mechanics). But underneath it's still made up. They might use the terms of science. Sometimes they even use the tools of science from impressive graphs to impenetrable formulae. But they don't use the method of science. It's all a made up fantasy, dressed up as the real thing.

I've just read the stunning Economyths by David Orrell which points out something startling. Classical/neo-classical economics presents itself as a science - but actually it's woo. (Orrell doesn't say this literally, it's my interpretation.) Economics is a pretend science. Just like those who grab hold of the terms of quantum physics without understanding them, the founders of economics took the tools of science, but ignored scientific method. They wanted their ideology to be scientific, and assumed that by taking on the look of classical physics - laws, equilibria and such - that it was enough to make them scientific. But it wasn't.

It's worried me a long time that you can have such totally opposing views as Friedman and Keynes type approaches in what is supposedly a science. But now, thanks to Orrell's book, I can see this is simply because woo doesn't have to have a logical structure.

In the end, the scientific method is quite clear. Having formulated your hypothesis, you test it against experiment and/or observation. If the data contradicts the hypothesis, you have to either modify the hypothesis or discard it. Yet time after time, economics has failed to match reality. Still today economics students are taught about supply and demand curves. About a market that is stable, rational and efficient. It bears no relation to the real world.

I'm not saying you can't simplify. Most models are simplified compared to reality. But they still have to match observation. Instead, traditional economics has buried its head in the sand and pretended bubbles and spikes don't exist. They've pretended (sob) that traders always act rationally, rather than as an emotional herd of sheep. Most economic models don't even accept the existence of banks. It's pathetic.

Of course there are plenty of economists that go against the grain, who argue for taking a dynamic systems approach and for including an understanding of human behaviour in economics. But the fact remains that economics students are still taught the same baloney. It's as if we taught first year physics students the elemental theory of earth, air, fire and water. And that traditional economics approach is still very strong in banks and politics. Even after all that has happened. It's time for a change, and I really would recommend that every banker and politician be forced to read David Orrell's book.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Now that's what I call a festival

Before long, the festival season will be upon us. Yes, you too can stand up to your knees in mud, or queue for hours to get to a disgusting, smelly toilet. All to hear poor performances by so-so bands. Alternatively you can head off to a science festival and really have a good time.

I don't know where science festivals came from, but they've crept up on us in a big way as a celebration of all that's science. I suspect they may have started as spin-offs of literary festivals, but now they're fun events in their own right. (More fun, dare I say, than a lot of rather pompous litfests.) There was a time when it was Cheltenham or, er, Cheltenham - but now you can hardly turn a corner without a science festival popping up.

I'm going to be speaking at one I've not come across before - the Wrexham Science Festival. Taking place from 1 July to 10 July in this town up in the top right hand corner of Wales, the festival mostly takes place on the Glyndwr University Wrexham Campus and features four themes, Earth and the Universe, Animal World, Human Mind & Body, and Bright Sparks.

You'll find the likes of Johnny Ball and me with a load of local academics, giving science some welly. I'm doing a talk on Who Invented Science, exploring the nature of science through some key figures in history (7.30pm on Friday 2 July, Glyndwr University, Plas Coch Site), and like very many of the events here (and unlike most science festivals) it's free.

You can find out more about the festival at the website. To be honest it's not the greatest of websites - it might be best to head straight to the PDF version of the programme. And you can book online too.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Cooking the ebooks

For obvious reasons I'm interested in books, and the future of books. As I mentioned recently I've reviewed ebook readers for Good Housekeeping, which involved a considerable amount of trying out different readers. So I am, I think, able to make a sensible comparison between the experience of reading in the traditional and new formats.

For what it's worth, I currently far prefer the traditional version. It's not the 'smell and touch' argument. I really don't care what a book smells like. Actually, that's not true. I'd rather my books didn't smell at all. But the heft of a book in the hand is much more practical than an ebook reader, I prefer having two pages available at a time. I like being able to be careless with it. Turning pages is frankly a bit of a faff on the electronic version. And the page is rarely as well laid out, or as readable as the printed version.

However, I do use an ebook reader, specifically Stanza on the iPhone. If I'm stuck somewhere with nothing to do, I'll read something on my phone, and very much enjoy doing so. In most circumstances, the real book triumphs, but when there isn't access to a book, the convenience of being able to call down a book across the air waves is supreme. It's horses for courses.

That's my position, but what does Britain in general think? Well, the Telegraph recently told us, and though it's a subject I'm interested in, and their survey supports my personal view, I'm highly suspicious of the results. We are told a survey was taken of 'over 1,000 consumers aged between 16 and 60.' (Phew, I'm still young enough that my opinion counts.) And of those consumers 'a whopping ninety-five per cent of respondents still prefer physical books over e-books.'

Can we take that statistic at face value? Not without considerably more context, information that wasn't given in the article. Specifically, how many of these consumers have ever used an ebook? I don't mean pressed a few buttons on one in Waterstones, how many have tried to read a book on one? To say that 95% 'prefer' physical books implies that they have the ability to make the comparison - but I suspect a fair percentage didn't. Imagine this had been a survey about food and turned out that most people who said they prefered tofu to meat had never tasted tofu. It would be considered very silly.

I'm not saying the result was wrong (though the numbers probably were). The chances are, even if they were all given the chance to try ebooks, the majority would prefer physical books as I do. But, as so often happens, this is a case of the media using statistics in a way that doesn't reflect what the numbers actually say.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Chinese whispers on the web

I've never really seen the point of the 'game' Chinese whispers. The one where you pass a whispered message down a chain of people and supposedly at the other end it comes out garbled. But there's one way that the World Wide Web (doesn't it look old fashioned to say 'World Wide Web' now?) can perform an interesting variant on this.

When a few years ago I wrote my book Light Years, I incorporated a little quote from Max Planck. Planck was responsible for the fundamental concept that started off quantum theory - that light comes in little packets or 'quanta' rather than as a continuous wave - but he was not happy with it as a real concept. It was only a fudge to make the maths work.

The quote I used is this:

 The whole procedure was an act of despair because a theoretical interpretation had to be found at any price, no matter how high that may be.

According to lots of  websites (and a fair number of books), Planck wrote this in a letter in 1901. But none of those quoting it ever say who it was a letter to. After some digging around I discovered that almost everything is wrong here. It's not an exact quote, but rather a conflation of two parts of what he wrote with a spurious link. It should read:

In short, I can characterize the whole procedure as an act of despair, since, by nature I am peaceable and opposed to doubtful adventures… a theoretical interpretation had to be found at any price, however high it might be.

This was written by Planck in 1931, 30 years after its usual attribution, in a letter to the American physicist Robert Williams Wood.

Of itself this isn't earth-shattering. The sentiment is right and the date is a nice-to-know rather than anything of great significance. But it illustrates well what happens all too easily online. Someone (it could well be the usually excellent St Andrew's biographies of mathematicians) put the original quote in (perhaps from memory, given the lack of a reference). Other sites copied this. It gradually took on the nature of semi-fact, because quite a few respectable sources had it in this form.

I'm not saying because of this that the web is universally a dubious source of information. There's lots of good stuff out there. But it does show how easy it is for an error to take on a false sense of correctness through repetition. (Climate sceptics take note.)

Monday, 17 May 2010

What it is to be popular

We're all used to having our email inboxes filled with adverts for dubious medicines, requests to log in from banks we don't have accounts with, and scams that claim we've won/been left a large amount of money. (Does anyone still fall for these? Why?) But there seems to be an increase in a slightly different kind of spam, which I felt merited a reply.

Dear Pamela Hill,
It was very kind of you to email me, though I was deeply disappointed to see that your email was addressed to 'undisclosed recipients'. Am I not the only one?

If you are going to use exclamation marks, please be judicious. One I can cope with occasionally. But putting eight of them after 'Hello' just makes you look flaky.

Apparently you saw my profile at 'wed Search Results'. I'm not sure what this is, but I am certain I don't have a profile there. Perhaps you were looking at Nick rather than Brian.

You rather helpfully list some of the properties one should look out for in a person you are going to have a long term relationship with. I particularly liked 'Do they speak very slowly compared to you?' I can see how one-sided a conversation would be with someone who speaks very slowly, so that's a very considerate point. You also suggest 'Can you really talk to them about absolutely anything?' I'm not one to take offense, but are you suggesting I drivel on about random subjects? This is no way to win me over.

You say 'I here by [sic] paste one of my pix.' Sadly, no pictures were attached, though I have to say given the quality of the content so far, I would be mildly suspicious that it wasn't really your photo. Unless, of course, you had intended to include one of your artworks, though crayons never scan very well.

Finally, I learn 'Am 28 years old and also from the States (USA).' Unfortunately I am not from the States (USA) or the States (anywhere else). It's nice that you are 28 years old. That's a good age to be. But try not to stay that age for too long.

Fascinating though your email was, I feel that I will not be entering into conversation with you. I probably type very slowly compared to you.

Yours in some pain,

Brian Clegg

P.S. Please tell your friend, Loveth Yak, who has also emailed, that there's something about her name that makes me giggle, which isn't a good start, and while I wish her well on her search for a 'nice and lovely friend', I'm really not the one.

Illustration produced at

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Hurrah for the demise of ID cards

In all the moaning and groaning about the new coalition government in the UK, most people seemed to have missed the fact that the ID card programme is to be scrapped.

Personally, I think the moaning is misplaced. It's rubbish to complain about Liberal Democrats betraying people because they've had to compromise to form the coalition. All coalitions involve compromise - and usually it's a good thing. It tempers both parties more loony ideas.

I also can't understand the whingeing about the 55% majority required to be able to dissolve parliament. This kind of arrangement is a standard feature of fixed term parliaments - and is already in place in Scotland. It's pathetic that people are moaning about it. I can only think they don't understand what's going on.

But surely we can all agree that getting rid of the ridiculous ID card scheme is a good idea. Leaving aside the civil liberty issues, and the fact that it would not have done anything to prevent terrorism, it's a great opportunity to make a spending cut - absolutely essential right now - without any negative impact on the country. Nice one, Dave'n'Nick.

Image from Daily Mail website

Friday, 14 May 2010

Do you like Dyson? I don't know, I've never Dysed.

In a bit of a bumper week, yesterday saw another outing with Mark O'Donnell of BBC Radio Wiltshire to a landmark of science and technology in the county. This time it was off to sunny Malmsbury to visit Dyson's R&D centre. Yep, the vacuum cleaner home of the world. (And, yes, I did get my knuckles wrapped for referring to one during the recording as a 'hoover'.)

I expected this to be the low point of our tour. What were we going to see except corporate PR and a load of engineers at CAD terminals, sending instructions off to the Far East to build Dyson's products? In practice it was very different - and much more enjoyable than I expected.

Ok, the corporate PR part was true. We had at least two Dyson employees with us at all times, using their fingerprints to get us through the extravagent security. One was a PR person (who by appearances was about 14). So the expectation was we were going to get the sales tour. However, in practice all the talking was done by two engineers. Admittedly engineers who were perhaps carefully selected - they looked like Hollywood stars playing engineers, and spoke without a single 'erm' or hesitation. But they were real engineers who knew their stuff and talked with real conviction about the science that goes into Dyson R&D. And that was quite extraordinary.

You might expect the vast echoing hall with robots repeatedly using or dropping hoovers vacuums to see how they survived wear and tear. But from there we moved to 3D printers and worked on up. The 3D printers produce prototype plastic components overnight, straight from the CAD. I'd heard about such things, but never seen them in action, or the results, which were remarkably good. Then there was the microbiology lab, where we peered through a microscope at dust mites (urgh - I'd never make a biologist). With more than a hint of Porton Down, this is the place they study the enemy to see just what they need to separate. Because in the end, something I hadn't really thought about before, most of Dyson's business is about moving air and separating particles and fibres from it.

In a sequence of chambers we visited a vast Faraday cage forming an electromagnetic test facility to check for interference (and protection of the electronics from outside zapping), a semi-anechoic chamber with weird non-parallel walls of foam wedges, where the sound of the machines is worked on (apparently you can't make them too quiet, or people think they aren't powerful enough) and a sealed controlled environment where products are repeatedly tested under identical conditions to see if a new version does better than a previous one. I was bowled away by the amount of science as well as engineering that goes into these designs.

Is Dyson the best vacuum cleaner in the world? I don't know. I was talking to someone that evening who reckoned their build quality was iffy, and much prefered an over-engineered American cleaner. But I think it's hard to argue that Dyson is not the most advanced manufacturer when it comes to down to the ingenuity and science that goes into their designs.

When we went to Porton Down they kindly sent us away with digital thermometers, in good Health Protection fashion. We were kind of hoping that Dyson would send us out with a mini-vacuum each - or at least one of their dinky bladeless fans. But nothing. Hey ho. Who wants another hoover anyway?

Image from Dyson website

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Alladin regained: new books for old

In the old story of Alladin, the evil uncle offers new lamps for old in order to get hold of the genie's lamp. Now (the I'm sure anything-but-evil) Sony is offering new books for old, sort of.

We're used to trade-ins on cars, and sometimes on electronic goods or white goods. But for the first time I can recall, Sony is offering a trade in for an old book. Bring in any old tome before 11 July (as they put it 'even a dusty old paperback') and they'll give you a £20 discount at their Sony Centres (and other participating stores) on the Pocket Edition of their ebook reader.

I heard this briefly mentioned in a radio ad, and just had to follow it up. I don't know why, but there's something much more emotive about trading a book in than a car. It's almost as if they had asked you to trade in a family pet. Many of my 'dusty old paperbacks' are old friends I wouldn't want to part with. I've never been one for the 'ebook readers are rubbish, they don't smell like a real book' line. (Perhaps because my sense of smell is terrible.) But there are certainly some books I would be reluctant to part with. Just imagine if this had been a 'get rid of your whole library in exchange for ebook content' deal. That would feel uncomfortable.

Realistically, though, we've all got a few books that we would be happy to part with. That L. Ron Hubbard book Auntie Vi bought you for Christmas ('You do like science, don't you dear?') Or the 23rd cookbook you've added to your shelves but never opened. And as such it's not a bad deal. And to make it more attractive, if you register your reader by 11th July they're throwing in a voucher for up to five ebook titles in 'Love Football' or 'Hate Football' packages. (Is there some football thing happening this summer?)

When I tested ebook readers for Good Housekeeping, I liked the Pocket Edition (though personally I'm sticking to paper and occasional ebooks on my iPhone), so if you are in the market for a reader, you could do worse than turning up at a Sony Centre clutching a Mills and Boon.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Porton Down visit

Yesterday, in the latest of my series of visits to science and technology sites in Wiltshire with BBC Wiltshire's Mark O'Donnell, we headed off to Porton Down.

Located in pleasant countryside between Boscombe and Salisbury, Porton Down has a scary history. Set up during the First World War to produce the likes of phosgene and mustard gas, it moved on in the 1940s to work on biological warfare, including making weapons from anthrax. After the Second World War, the nerve agent VX was developed at Porton Down, and they contributed to the developed of CS gas, plus becoming notorious as a site where army guinea pigs were subjected to various chemicals to see how they reacted.

But things have changed in a big way. The UK hasn't made chemical or biological weapons for 50 years, and though part of the site still belongs to the MOD, working on ways to protect the military from these kinds of weapons, the main part of the site is now all about saving lifes. Here they look at ways to stop exotic pathogens from plague to swine flu, and develop vaccines, perhaps most successfully in a vaccine for T-cell leukemia.

Things still felt a little tense when we went in. At the gatehouse we were relieved of cameras and mobile phones - but the reception from the acting director and communications manager was very friendly, and the story of their work (bearing in mind I didn't even realize until hours before that we were visting the Health Protection Agency, rather than the MOD) fascinating and surprising.

In a quick tour we came across people giving advice to GPs, dealing with strange symptoms of individuals who have returned from abroad, and peered into a lab (through thick glass) where one of the really nasty bugs (I think it was Dengue Fever) was being handled. This was a bit like the photo (from the HPA Annual Report), but the lab workers didn't have protective clothing, as the nasties never leave a linked series of cabinets.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was that you didn't feel worried... that and the presence of the children's creche/playgroup by the entrance to the site, a juxtaposition that emphasizes the changed role of Porton Down, once a feared name and now doing real good for the health of the nation. Makes you feel quite patriotic.

BBC Wiltshire has now started broadcasting our visits in snippets spread across the week on Mark's show between 9am and 12 noon weekdays.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

I take it all back - Feng Shui works (but it's still rubbish)

I really thought I'd seen the back of Feng Shui with my posts decrying Heart FM's support for this nonsense and getting advertising on it from Facebook. But no, I really can't leave it alone after the latest coverage on Heart.

The scenario is this. A single presenter from the Heart breakfast show wants to get some love life. So as a test, a Feng Shui 'expert' has been brought in. She is working the magic on his room and they will see if things get better. Obviously not scientific, but it won't stop them saying how wonderful Feng Shui is if the presenter gets a girlfriend.

Okay, so what's the first thing the Feng Shui expert says? Tidy up (the place was a total tip), clean and declutter. Then they add in all the magic woo like crystals, statues and orientation. But hold hard there. Of course it's going to work if you tidy up, clean and declutter. This isn't Feng Shui, it's a Kim & Aggie Shoe-in. It's hardly a surprise someone will have more chance with the opposite sex if they take them back to a flat that isn't littered with dirty underwear and old takeaways.

The only realistic test if the Feng Shui worked would be to do it hundreds of times, and to do the magic stuff without tidying, cleaning and decluttering. (But of course they will say the magic will only work in a neat, tidy environment. Nice one, guys.)

So here's the bombshell. In these circumstances, Feng Shui does work. But it would work equally well without all the woo - and without the fee. Tidy up, clean and declutter. No consultation needed. Job done.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 10 May 2010

This is how scientists get a bad name

I'm currently reading the interestingly titled Bats Sing, Mice Giggle by Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal for review on (see the review here). In it, I came across a phrase that stopped me in my tracks. It seemed to typify why people are often a little worried by scientists.

The context was a sensible one. It was explaining how scientists study the salamander because it has considerable regenerative properties, and we want to learn about this to see if there's anything we can make use of in helping human body regeneration. Fair enough. But then I came across this:

...neuroscientists have taken out the brain of a salamander, ground it up, and put it back in its cavity, and soon the salamander is able to function quite well again.

Leaving aside that worryingly vague 'quite well', I couldn't help but wonder what would make any scientist decide this would be an interesting thing to try. And whether they could resist going 'Mwah-hah-hah!' and rubbing their hands together as they did so.

I'm sure the research was valuable - and the outcome was certainly remarkable - but it's understandable why people might be a little concerned about the thought processes of some scientists. It's certainly the sort of experiment that needs to be very carefully communicated, a lesson both scientists and science writers should learn.

Image from Wikipedia

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Proof positive

I'm indulging in one of my favourite parts of being an author at the moment - proof reading. It sounds rather dull, but this is the first time you see the inside of your book in anything like its final form. That in itself a little thrill. But also, by the time we get to proofs it has been several months since I read the text. And I find myself thinking, 'Hmm, that's not bad.' I actually enjoy reading it - which is rather encouraging.

The only danger here is that enjoying it doesn't make me a good proof reader. To really do the job well you have to read the individual words, but I find myself slipping into the flow of it and shooting through. I'm always having to slow myself down.

So Armageddon Science is one step closer to reality. No rush - it won't be out until November - but here's a sneak peak of the title page.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Dawkins backlash

Ever since Richard Dawkins came out with The God Delusion there have been a string of books, most of them not very good, doing the reverse - trying to demonstrate that in a rational, scientific world, God is not such a stupid idea. I've read two recently.

The first was, Who Made God by Edgar Andrews (see at and, which while surprisingly good in some ways, suffers from the typical flaws of such books, whether of theist or atheist persuasion.

Andrews is a scientist (to be precise, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London), and the book contains a fair amount of science, particularly physics, well presented in a light, if occasionally irratingly breezy way. The science content would merit this book a reasonable write-up on the website were it not for the rest.

There's even quite a lot that makes sense outside the science part, as long as you suspend the knee-jerk reaction many involved in science have to even considering religious matters. Andrews points out that science can never really answer 'Why?' at a fundemental level. So, for example, it can describe how gravity works, but not why gravity exists. (If you think it can, just ask 'Why?' to your next level of explanation. At some point you will hit a problem.)

What he then does is quite clever. Rather than use science to try to defend or attack the existence of God, he uses the scientific method on the hypothesis of God. So, just as we would approach a pretty wacky scientific hypothesis, like the existence of a multiverse, we start with the hypothesis, then test it against observation.

As far as it goes, the approach works pretty well. I particularly like his look at the nature of life itself, and how that could have emerged, genuinely pointing out some problems with an 'Emerged from nothing, all of a sudden,' approach. He's on more shaky ground when talking about evolution - some of his basic statements about evolution seemed patently wrong, so the rest of the process was seriously flawed. He asks questions along the lines of 'Why should evolution do this?' as if evolution had a purpose - but that misses the whole point, that evolution isn't directed.

He also avoids many of the difficult questions. For example, if man is directly designed by God, as he implies, why are there are all those flaws in the design, like the back-to-front sensors in the eye?

Things get worse, because Andrews isn't doing what he claims. He's not testing the hypothesis 'Does God exist?' but rather 'Assuming the bible is true, does God exist?' A lot of his arguments are based on the assumption that you can use the bible as much more than a fallible commentary written by human beings. And that opens a whole other can of worms that he doesn't acknowledge.

He refers, for instance, to both of the creation myths in Genesis - the one about God creating the universe in six days, and the one about Adam and Eve, but doesn't point out that the two are incompatible, something that doesn't matter as many Christians interpret them, simply as two myths each with a different message, but which presents a real problem if you take the stance that the bible is inerrant revelation and this is, in effect, history, which seems close to Andrews' view. The video at the end of this post is a good illustration of why there are problems with approaching the bible this way.

So a nice try, and probably a better shot from the pro-God camp than The God Delusion was for the other side. But no cigar.

The second book, despite having more theology and less science, is much, much better. In fact it's by far the best book of this kind I've ever seen. Called The Language of God (see at and it is by Francis Collins, a biologist and the one-time director of the Human Genome Project.

Although there's a bit about the Big Bang, most of the science in this book involves genetics and evolution, and unlike Andrews, it's obvious that Collins knows what he is talking about here (not surprising, really).

Collins was an atheist and describes why he came to a Christian belief, and how he thinks that it is not incompatible with science, and has no problem at all with evolution. This requires him to take some aspects of the bible, like Genesis, as illustrative story rather than history - he accepts that a surprisingly high percentage of Americans consider the bible to be absolute truth, but shows, without ever being aggressive a la Dawkins, why this really doesn't hold water, and certainly isn't a necessary view for a Christian.

Although this book isn't built around science in the same way that Andrews' is, it makes telling use of science, and altogether I think provides by far the best counter written to The God Delusion. You don't have to agree with Collins' religious beliefs to find this a very readable, well-argued and useful contribution to the field. Recommended. (see at and

And finally... that cartoon. If you do believe that the bible is absolutely true and perfectly consistent, I recommend that you don't watch this, as it will make you really irritated.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

It's my birthday (not today) and I'll cry if I want to

It's my birthday this week, and I'm not happy about it.

In the first place, I don't particularly want to celebrate it (which is one reason I'm posting this today, which isn't my birthday). I really don't. People assume this means 'I'm being modest, and I want you to make a fuss, but I think it's a bit common to ask for celebrations.' No. Really. I can see the point of celebrating your 18th, but after that, forget it.

But there's something worse about this birthday. I'm going to be 55. (Pauses to give readers a chance to say 'But you don't look that old!') And for anyone who fills in forms online, this is a horrible moment.

Many forms where you select your age from a drop-down box have a range that's 45-54 (broadly middle aged), which isn't too bad. But next you either get 55-64, or even worse 55 and over. The first of these says you've moved into the category of' on the slippery slope to retirement. The second says Forget it, you're past it. On the scrap heap. Might as well give up now. I'm sorry, but neither of these applies.

So you can stuff being 55. I'm going back to 25 and starting again.

Before I leave this subject I ought to respond to a comment from Sara about an earlier post: 'Brian. I feel an urge to challenge you to write a blog entry expressing unbridled enthusiasm for something of your choice :)' I suspect the suggestion here is that I moan about things a lot. And here I am, doing it again.

I'd like to say two things in my defence. First, I do quite frequently write positive things (yesterday's post, for example). I think it's just that the moans often reverberate more. Despite the attempts of that newsreader in the 90s (who was it? Oh yes, Martin Lewis) to get more positive news on the TV, it's often easier to get people's attention with a negative. And secondly, why not? I love the Grumpy Old Women/Grumpy Old Men shows on TV, with quite a few stars who appear younger than me. What's wrong with a good grump? As they prove, it can be highly entertaining.

So I will be positive, I will show enthusiasm (have you forgotten my chocolate buttons post, my delight in Gene Wolfe or my enjoyment of Fascinating Aida?), but I reserve the right to moan and rant as much as I want. So there.

Cake picture from

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

There is such a thing as a free lunch (sort of)

Chris Anderson's previous book, The Long Tail was arguably a book about sociology and technology and as such (it's got an ology!) made it onto the Popular Science website. I really couldn't justify reviewing his new title Free (see at or there, because although at first glance it's a similar sort of title, this is much more a straightforward business book.

That's not a bad thing. Though I found The Long Tail fascinating and gave it 5 stars, it wasn't a book of practical advice for business - it concentrated a lot of its message the way you could make pin money out of selling 5 copies of your ebook on lesser spotted titwarblers to other lesser spotted titwarbler fanciers, rather than giving something a real business could use (unless it was a megabusiness like Amazon that could collect in all the tiny long tail contributions).

Free, on the other hand, is much more practical and although its primary driver is the impact of the internet, it extends beyond this to the whole business interaction with the concept of 'free'. So we see the literal origins of the free lunch (and whether or not there is such a thing), the free giveaways and the first large scale free in free radio, sponsored by advertising (or governments).

Broadly Anderson suggests there are three ways to do business incorporating free. A direct cross-subsidy, such as a free gift, or buy one, get one free. A three way process, like advertising, where a consumer gets the product free because the advertiser pays the broadcaster (or equivalent) for access to the audience. And freemium, where the products and services are available as free versions, plus pay versions with more value - and the pay versions subsidize the free versions.

As he points out, what has changed hugely is that the internet makes it much easier to offer things for free, because the marginal cost of doing so is so low. And this means that many information-only products will tend to drift towards free, using one of the three techniques mentioned above to (hopefully) keep revenue flowing. It's not just a nice to have, with information products it's almost an essential.

Most of what's here is sensible, well thought out and convincing. There are always those who will throw up their hands and moan about the free model (e.g. music producers) - but Anderson cleverly lists all the main objections to free and shows why they are flawed.

The only argument I feel he doesn't really answer properly is the 'we can't all do gigs' one. This basically says, if you're a band, for instance, you should give your downloads away free, and make money on premium CDs, but mostly on live gigs, appearances and the like. The argument says 'But we can't all do this,' if you try to apply this argument wider than pop groups to, say, writers. Anderson's counter to this is really just 'It'll work if you get the right model,' but I'm not sure he is right here.

Even so, this is a book every business that's using the web - and that should be every business - needs to have on the shelf and to study. Interestingly he makes the point that most of us still prefer real books to the electronic version, and Free just wouldn't work for me the same if it weren't on paper. So, despite the enthusiasm I now feel for 'free' - I encourage you to virtually nip over to Amazon and buy a copy. This is free advice. Cherish it. (see at or

Monday, 3 May 2010

I'm not one of the grammar police, but...

I'm in danger of really irritating myself here. The thing is, I do get irritated by people who moan about the way the usage of words change. I want to tell them to get a life. To understand that it's the nature of language to evolve. But I've just discovered there's one way that such a shift in meaning does matter to me.

The sort of thing I'm all in favour of is the way 'gay' has changed meaning. The new meaning of gay is a useful one, that didn't really have an appropriate equivalent. The old meaning of gay was a weak one - not a usage I would ever have made - and there are plenty of other ways to say it.

However, I have discovered I really don't like it when a word changes usage and there is no sensible substitute for its old meaning, while there are plenty of alternatives to the new meaning.

I came across this recently listening to someone struggling to make a speech. He talked about blind people, and deaf people. And then he talked about 'people who, er, aren't able to speak.' At one time, without negative connotations, he would have been able to talk about dumb people. But not any more. Dumb has been pushed down the 'stupid' route - for which there are so many alternatives - and so we just don't have a word meaning the inability to speak. And that's sad.

I ought to say, by the way, that this isn't a particularly modern usage - it's a misuse that has been around since the 1820s or thereabouts - but that doesn't make it any better.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Are modern gadgets denying us the geeks of the future?

According to the assistant director of research at Cambridge University's computing lab, modern gadgets are endangering the survival of computing geekdom.

When I was lad, my first computing experience was punching cards by hand, which we sent off by post to a computer in London, and then about 10 days later you got back a piece of paper saying you had made a mistake. Like many of my generation that were quite heavily into computing I started off with the Basic programming language, which came built-in with any self-respecting home computer. This was certainly true of my first home computer, the Commodore 64 (illustrated). Although I did professional work in NELIAC (don't ask), APL and C, my DIY computing moved on to Visual Basic - again something usable without a lot of expertise, but producing real Windows programs. (In my opinion this peaked with VB 3, in terms of having enough usability without getting too technical for an amateur.)

But now, the argument from Cambridge goes, equipped with their iPhones and inpenetrable Windows or Mac OS computers, the ordinary teenager hasn't a hope. To make matters worse, this 'sealed' technology makes it hard to understand what's going on inside, so we've got technically illiterate people using the technology.

I can see Dr Harle's point, and it would be good if people had a better understanding of technology, but I'm not sure his argument provides the whole picture. Even back when I was programming professionally I didn't really have much of a grasp of hardware, and didn't much care how it worked as long as I could get it to do what I wanted. And those modern environments make the computers (and in the end that's what an iPhone is) much more usable for the actual customers. So I'm not sure I can argue against them.

What's more, the non-techie person who wants to produce something of their own has a whole new development world in blogs and websites, a world that to me is more wonderful than the ability to program something to play Space Invaders or print "Hello World" repeatedly on the screen.

I don't think things are so bad after all.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Whatever happened to free speech?

I've just re-read Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World ( or - it's mosty about science as a 'candle in the dark' of illogical beliefs. At the end he speaks out powerfully on the subject of free speech. It strikes me both with the Simon Singh libel case (now, thankfully, decided in Simon's favour) and all the things we're not allowed to say, in case it causes offense or incites people to riot, that we're heading very much in the wrong direction.

Sagan points out that 'within certain narrowly circumscribed limits - Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous example was causing panic by falsely crying "Fire!" in a crowded theatre - great liberties are permitted in America.' He cites examples like burning effigies of the President, devil worship, a purported scientific article or popular book asserting the 'superiority' of one race, praising people like Hitler and arguing that religious groups (or masons) are plotting to take over the world.

He refers to John Stuart Mill from On Liberty, saying that silencing an opinion is a particular evil. If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth, and if it's wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth 'in its collision with error.' If we know only our side of the argument, we hardly know even that; it becomes stale, soon learned only by rote, untested, a pale and lifeless truth.

Perhaps the strongest argument was from that greatest of American founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. He's quoted as writing 'A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.'

Wise words.