Sunday, 28 February 2010

Have the psychologists got it right?

Moral dilemmas are very fashionable in science. A number of the softer -ologies have over recent years produced some cunning thought experiments to test how we react, and why we react, to moral challenges.

One of the most famous of these is the trolley dilemma. (I believe this refers to what we'd call a tram in Europe, rather than the sort of things desserts used to be served on.) Test subjects are presented with a hypothetical choice. A runaway trolley is about to smash into five people and kill them. Would the subject press a button which switched the trolley onto another track where it would kill just one person? Pretty well unanimously they answer 'Yes,' even though they are going to be responsible for that individual's death.

Then the subjects are presented with an alternative. They are to imagine themselves on a bridge over the trolley track. A runaway trolley is about to shoot under the bridge and kill five people. The only way to stop it is to push a very heavy person, standing next to them, off the bridge. This will stop the trolley but kill the heavy person. (The subject is too light to stop the trolley.) What would they do?

How would you answer? Most say no, they couldn't take this action. This is used by the -ologists to show how emotional connection changes reasoning processes. In the first case we have a cold, dispassionate button push. In the second we are directly killing another human being with all the emotional baggage that carries.

I can see the thinking behind this, but I don't believe the experiment as stated proves the point. (It may be there are other controls that aren't mentioned in the way the experiment is usually described.) There is a not just an emotional difference between the two cases, but a cold logical difference too. In the first case I can pretty well guarantee the outcome will be as described. But in the second case there are two big flaws. First I have to be able to push an extremely heavy person off a bridge. Would I be strong enough? Okay, you can get round this by saying the big person happens to be perched on the parapet, standing on one leg for a photo pose.

More significantly, the heavy person's body has to stop the trolley. Simple physics tells me this is unlikely. Okay, there are circumstances where it might happen, but I certainly can't guarantee it. So the choice is not just between a low emotional connection and a high emotional connection, but between a certainty and a long shot. And that very much changes the decision parameters.

I have no doubt the experimenters would reassure test subjects that the heavy person would definitely stop the trolley - but such reassurance can't stop the part of the brain that weighs up the odds saying 'Nah, it's not going to work. I'm going to kill this guy, and the trolley will still plough into the others.' Test subjects would always have doubt about the second solution.

For me, that makes the whole experiment flawed.

Photo from

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Why does vanilla get such a bad press?

I've been inspired to write this by a post by the wonderful Lynn Price in Behler Blog, where she asks 'is your main character vanilla?' She says 'I'm not a fan of vanilla.' I know what she means, but I want to stand up for vanilla.

I think it is the most fantastic flavour - subtle, yet deep. The trouble is we're used to stuff called 'vanilla ice-cream' that doesn't really taste of vanilla. Eat something with real vanilla in it and it's a different taste experience.

Go vanilla!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The wonder of ALCS

I've written before about PLR, the system that provides cash to authors when their books are borrowed from UK libraries. But this isn't the only unexpected source of potential income for authors - another fairy godmother of the writing business is ALCS, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society.

The ALCS is a group that looks for ways to pick up all those little bits and pieces of earning that writers might have missed out on. They also act as a campaigning group for authors' rights - but what we're interested in here is pure cash.

Increasingly, the ALCS is acting as a conduit for other collection vehicles. This time round, for instance, it included money from the Irish PLR for UK authors who registered for that. And it is likely to be a gateway for payments from the dreaded Google Settlement when that is finally sorted out. But the thing that fascinates me most is the bread-and-butter earnings from ALCS. This is typically when a business or school photocopies part of your book.

I am amazed (and delighted) at the honesty of those organizations that go to the trouble of letting the ALCS know about the copying they have done. When I worked for a large organization I would never have thought (of course) of photocopying a copyright work, but if I had done, I have no idea how I would have registered this fact so an appropriate payment could be made. Even now, a lot of people I speak to in the corporate and education world don't know. But obviously someone out there is doing it right. Last time round, ALCS paid out around £18 million.

The statement doesn't detail how much copying done, but the cash pushed through by the Copyright Licensing Agency, which collects the photocopying side, suggests hundreds and quite possibly thousands of pages for my books alone. Don't get me wrong - it's not going to make anyone rich as I suspect it's a fraction of a penny per page - but it's still a nice addition to the income for doing nothing more than letting the ALCS know what you've written.

If you are UK-based writer who hasn't registered, pop over to the ALCS website where there is a nifty little tool that you can enter the title of your work and see if the ALCS owes you anything. It's worth a go. (It says works with a green background may have money waiting, but it looks more duckegg in colour to me.) And if you photocopy material at work, take a look at the Copyright Licensing Agency website to see how to make it legal. You know it makes sense.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The kitchen of the future? Probably not

I'm a sucker for hi-tech ideas, so was interested to see what Electrolux are predicting as the way kitchens will be in 2050. Here's what they reckon:

‘Heart of the Home’ is an intelligent, amorphous, interchangeable cooking surface that adapts to user needs. When using the Heart of the Home one simply places one’s ingredients on the surface. The appliance then analyses the ingredients and presents a list of suitable recipes. After deciding on a recipe, the user marks an area with his hand to determine how large the cooking area should be. Then the desired depth of the surface is created by simply pressing the hand against the malleable material. After achieving the required width and depth it’s just a matter of setting temperature and time with a simple touch of a finger.

Hmm. It's always useful when projecting forward 40 years (say), to look back 40 years. That takes us to 1970. Let's see. Back then I was cooking (well, my parents were) on an electric hob. Now I've got a gas hob with real, caveman-style flames coming out of it - I've actually moved backwards technological. Now, admittedly our last hob was a touch-pad controlled halogen thingy. But really it wasn't that different from the 1970s version. So it's entirely possible 40 years will result in very little change.

Equally, though, technology tends to go through sudden spurts, and it's quite possible that something will come along that will make what Electrolux is describing feasible. The two big things to be overcome are the ability to analyze the ingredients, and the malleable surface. That analysis had better be pretty specific, or it might feel the urge to cook your hand - not a good move. As for that surface, I just have no feeling for anything now that's even leading in that direction. Please tell me I'm wrong, but I haven't come across it.

It doesn't stop it being amusing though. Dreams are always worth indulging. So here's Electrolux's idea of how it might look in action:

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

How to transform the production of homeopathic remedies

McInley's Management Consultants

Efficiency Optimization Analysis for Acme Homeopathic Inc.

Management Summary

After a month's study of the manufacturing processes at Acme Homeopathic, we are delighted to be able to offer recommendations to transform cost effectiveness.

At the moment, each homeopathic remedy is produced by taking an extract of a substance, diluting it many times with complex and expensive agitation between each dilution, dripping the resultant liquid onto sugar pills which are then fed into appropriately labelled containers on a production line that has to be dedicated to a single remedy for hours at a time.

Our recommendation is to remove the entire initial part of the process. Simply put sugar pills into containers, to which a wide range of labels can then be attached. Costs will slashed at a stroke.

If we were to recommend this in a conventional pharmaceutical production environment, there would be serious consequences. Patients taking the drugs would not receive the expected benefits, and testing in the laboratory would show that the company was providing sugar pills instead of anything from aspirin to life-saving drugs. However, with the homepathic product there will be no difference in the expected benefit, and analysis would simply show what was expected - a sugar pill with no active ingredient.

In the unlikely event anyone bothered to check on the manufacturing process, Acme could claim a new, enhanced homeopathic remedy that is even more efficient than diluting to exhaustion, where the workers in the plant think of a particular substance (e.g. Arnica) while the pills are being bottled. As homeopathy teaches that the more dilute the product is, the stronger the effect, this would clearly result in the most effective possible homeopathic remedies.

If there is any problem getting staff to think of the right remedy at the right time, we suggest introducing a range of company songs, one based on each remedy, to be sung while the product is bottled.

We recommend introduction as soon as possible, as this enhancement will result in savings of millions of pounds and will not make the slightest difference to the product.

Please note, this is a fictional item for satirical purposes. I do not intend to suggest that any manufacturer of homeopathic remedies would take such actions, nor that any management consultancy would recommend them.

Monday, 22 February 2010

I saw it with my own eyes, so it must be true

Every day that the courts are in session, person after person tells lies in the witness box. Each will swear to tell 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,' and the majority will fail miserably to do so. Because the absolute truth is a tricky business to pin down.

Take the case of the eye witness. I don't know how many convictions depend on the evidence of eye witnesses, but it's all too easy to assume that because someone believes they saw something, it happened. Human beings are all too fallible. Let's leave aside optical illusions and take a look at the dangers of memory. Because a witness is not describing what they saw, but what they remember they saw - an entirely different thing. Memory isn't like a video. It is a construct from many different inputs and cannot be relied on to play back an event accurately. Let's take three examples from personal experience.

Last Friday I was watching the TV show Weakest Link, or to be more precise, I was in the room while it was on and was half-watching it. Suddenly a question caught my attention. In a knockout competition of 20 teams, how many matches will be played? The player came back instantly with 38, which was said to be correct. But why? I couldn't understand why it was right, or how she managed to answer instantly. After a heated discussion on Facebook, with friends contributing their own answers, someone bothered (there's scientific endeavour for you) to watch Weakest Link on iPlayer. In fact what Anne Robinson had said was 'In a football season, in a league of 20 teams, that all play one another, once at home and once away, each club plays how many matches?' An entirely different question to the one I remembered hearing. One with an answer of 38. Though it was still impressive that the contestant got the answer so quickly (probably because there are 20 teams in the Premier League).

Let's go back a few years. I got an email from a friend saying 'Don't be such a poser. I saw you walking the dog this afternoon, chatting on your mobile phone so it looked like you were working.' Now just imagine he then saw me kill someone. He would happily (well, perhaps not happily) tell a court that he had seen me commit murder. The only problem was, it wasn't me. I didn't take my phone on dog walks then (this was before I got my iPhone), and I had been in all afternoon, waiting for something to be delivered. The friend had seen someone else with a similar dog and thought he was watching me. As far as his memory of events was concerned, he had seen me in the street at that time. And this was someone who knew me quite well.

On a larger scale, there are the stunning experiments done by the Visual Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois. They have a video that shows a number of students playing basketball in the hallway. (You can see it here.) They show this video to an audience and ask them to count the number of times the ball is bounced on the floor. At the end, the audience is asked if anything unusual happened during the video. The majority say 'No.' Now, in fact, part way through the video, someone in a gorilla suit walks past. This isn't a fast subliminal zip. They stroll across in full view, drawing attention to themselves. But the majority of the audience - and I have seen this done - deny seeing the gorilla. The majority of the people in that room would tell an absolutely incorrect tale of what has happened.

I don't have a lot of experience of law courts. Apart from being in a magistrates' court once to apply for an alcohol licence for an event, my only 'experience' is from TV. But I have the suspicion that much more weight is put on what people say they saw than is justified. Yes, there are circumstances where you are giving something your full attention and you make notes immediately afterwards, where your account may well be good. But otherwise, our unconscious ability to edit and modify memory - yet entirely believe that we saw what we think we saw - makes the eye witness a frighteningly risky proposition for safe legal proceedings.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Instruction books are admissions of failure

In my youth I did a lot of work on user interface design for computer programs - and the essence of good design was to make the program so intuitive that you could just use it without training or a manual.

This is something the Apple iPhone does so well - and much technology fails on. You should be able to just pick something up and use it. If you can't, it's the designer's fault.

This can sometimes be demonstrated in trivial ways. Our oven hob has four rings, like most hobs arranged rectangularly. The controls, however, are arranged in a straight line. So the manufacturer has had to include a form of manual - in this case a series of little pictures showing which ring each knob controls. I have to consult these each time I use a ring. Yet had the designer put the controls in the same rectangular layout as the rings there would have been no need for the manual - it would have been obvious which control was for which ring.

So often people put themselves down when they can't use technology. 'I'm not very good at this,' they say. Setting VCR timers used to be the classic case. But it's not the people who are at fault, it's the designers.

I'm not saying it's easy. Even Apple can't always be perfect. For example, I've only recently learned (thanks RPG) that if you hold your finger on a key it will show alternatives (e.g. hold it on the .com button and it offers you etc. - the same with symbols). This wasn't obvious. There would be ways to show there was something lurking underneath if Apple had thought it through a bit more. But on the whole they do very well.

So here's a challenge, manufacturers. Don't think 'The manual will tell them how to use it.' Make sure you can put a random person in front of your technology and have them use it unaided.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Maths is so arbitrary

I like some maths, but I've always found the basic entity of mathematics a trifle scary. Not because it's difficult, but because it's arbitrary. When you do science, what you say has to be based on the world around us. You can always check things against reality. However, mathematics is an isolated world. You can make a totally arbitrary set of statements, and as long as they are self-consistent, then they're okay. Human beings make up the rules in maths, and that's the scary bit.

Take one simple example - prime numbers. Until the 1800s, the number 1 was mostly considered to be a prime number. After all it has no divisors other than itself and 1 - so it should be. But then it was decided that one was too unique (!) - its strange properties like 1x1=1 made it somehow not a real prime number. So now 1 is excluded from the list and prime numbers start at 2. That's fine, that's the rule - but it is painfully arbitrary. If they wanted to, someone could decide that 2 wasn't a prime number either, as every other prime number is odd. They haven't yet, but it could happen.

Science may be weird and wonderful. And it mostly depends on maths - so some maths I'm very happy with because it is tied into reality. But the work of some pure mathematicians gives me the willies.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The last person on earth to see Avatar

It sometimes feels like I'm the penultimate person on earth to see the movie Avatar. I've certainly left it late, so anything to be said about it has been said before. Won't stop me, though. You may not want to read this if you are the last person not to have seen Avatar.

Yes, there are *SPOILERS*.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. Storyline? Full of holes and derivative. It's not an original observation, but this was Pocohontas in Space. Boring. To be fair, the way the indigenous people defeated the hi tech invaders wasn't as preposterous as it seems at first sight. We've plenty of real life examples of temporary setbacks when a big powerful hi tech nation takes on the locals. But the chances are high their victory would be short-lived. And there were far too many opportunities for the baddies to interrupt the avatar controlling process that weren't taken. Etc, etc. Oh, and where was this Pandora? Six years away in a sub-light ship? Not many options, and none that would fill the bill.

Of course, you don't need a great storyline if you've wonderful characters to carry the audience along. But no. For a 3D movie, the characters here were predictably cardboard. Everyone did exactly what was expected of them. Everyone was a stock figure from cartoon characters 101. There was chance after chance for development, and all were missed. There were also irritatingly plot hooks that weren't picked up. Firing up the equipment at the remote station, Sigourney Weaver's character says 'this is the least glitchy of them.' Ooh, glitches. Opportunity for interesting developments. Nope. Glitches never arrived.

However. Big, however. As a visual spectacle it was stunning. I gather in 2D it's nowhere near as good, but the 3D was excellent - never tiring on the eyes, usually quite understated, yet very effective. (Admittedly I did long for a few eye-poking bits of 3D exploitation, but we never got any. The only time the 3D surprised was when ash was falling, and seemed to fall in the auditorium.) The graphics were remarkable. When you consider that about 90% of this movie is a sophisticated cartoon - no live action - it came across as startlingly real. The graphics were good enough to sustain this long film. It was interesting that the only time I dropped out of being absorbed by it (as did a fair proportion of the audience from the shuffling noises) was during one of the live action sequences.

So Mr Carpenter should have got a decent writer to give him a better plot and richer characters - but you can't fault the technology (anyone spot the irony in a film in which touchy-feely oneness with nature triumphs over technology?) Remarkable.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The mysterious element thulium

In medieval times, when maps were bedecked with strange and exotic unknowns, where the corners might be inscribed ‘Here be monsters’, the most distant place that could be conceived, lying beyond the borders of the known world, was labelled Ultima Thule. Thule, officially pronounced Thooli, and sometimes Tooli, though it looks as if it should be Thool, which frankly sounds much more suitably dark and mysterious. Originally this was the classical name for a mysterious land, six day’s sail to the north of Britain, thought by the Greek historian Polybius to be the most northerly part of the world. ‘Ultima Thule’ took things one stage further – it was the farthest part of Thule.

This is the opening of my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element. It's live and it's all about thulium, element 69.

 Take a listen, or select it in from the list of my element podcasts below: 

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Dear Bankers...

I seem to have posted a string of rants lately. Perhaps it's something to do with it being half term this week (parents will understand). So here we are, fresh and revitalized(ish) on a Monday morning, and I think it's time to take on the bankers.

No, not about the ridiculous bonuses earned by those in certain sectors of the business. Nor even about their abysmal handling of world finances leading to the recession. This is more practical everyday stuff. When will banks learn that weekends are trading days?

The high street banks make a pretence of being open on Saturdays. Some even open their branches on Sundays (though not many). But this is a zombie-like facade. Underneath everything is dead. Can anyone explain to me why it is that electronic transactions made over the weekend don't go through until Monday? Is there something special about banks' computers that mean they have to rest over the weekend? Despite all the so-called modernization and the ability to put through transfers almost instantly during the week, at the weekend everything grinds to a halt. If I make a transaction on Friday evening, it won't appear until Monday.

I think this ridiculous lapse in service is only acceptable if banks agree to stop charging interest over weekends. After all, if they aren't working for us, why should we pay? The most bizarre thing is that in computing terms it must be harder to delay things over the weekend than just to put them through. They have gone out of their way to give us bad service. And that seems inexcusable.

Photo from

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The new, young, flat hat drivers

It has often been observed that you can tell something of the owner of a car from the make. BMW drivers are flash self-centered twits, Mercedes drivers dull self-centered twits, Volvo drivers knit-your-own-yoghurt vegetarian whale huggers, and Hummer drivers people think a certain part of their anatomy is too small. (Note to self - who else can I offend?)

But there is also a more general way of detecting one form of bad driver. If you see someone driving a car (probably a beige car) wearing a flat cap, they will inevitably be a nightmare to follow. They have two driving styles. Either they drive 10 miles an hour under the speed limit, whatever it is (luckily they've never heard of 20 miles an hour zones), or they drive at 40 miles an hour, whatever the speed limit is. When they get to a complex road feature like traffic lights or a roundabout there will be a lengthy pause, probably while they consult their Highway Code to find out what this strange thing is.

Such drivers are inevitably elderly, but I have discovered the youthful equivalent. If you follow a car with an exhaust pipe which has an exit hole the size of a small bucket, the chances are you are going to witness some appalling driving. These youffs are of the opinion that by fitting one of these strange items to the rear end of their FiestaClio 107 they have made it sound like a Ferrari. No, it sounds like it has a hole in its exhaust, which is achievable much more simply with a hammer and chisel. Almost inevitably, you will be treated to an exhibition of lane weaving, frantic unnecessary acceleration and a thudding bass line from the stereo that shakes nearby buildings and renders small children incontinent.

I am beginning to suspect that only motorists who have a hand written letter from me, saying they can drive on the road, should be allowed in a car. The only worry is I seem to be turning into Jeremy Clarkson. Help!

Friday, 12 February 2010

A lamb to the slaughter

I'm sure I won't be alone in being saddened by the treatment of primary school headmistress Andrea Charman of Lydd School in Kent, who was effectively forced to resign after a hate campaign against her.

What terrible thing did Ms Charman do? Did she beat the children? No. Did she embezzle funds? No. She had a lamb that had been reared at the school slaughtered. This wasn't a sudden whim, when she fancied something to go with mint sauce. It was the whole point of having the lamb in the first place - so that pupils at this rural school could get a better understanding of just what is involved in putting meat on their dinner plates.

Hypocrisy is too mild a word for the attitude of the people who made Ms Charman's life hell after this very sensible act. Whether you are a vegetarian or a meat eater, you would surely encourage making sure that children had a clear idea of what happened to the lambs from the fields. And it's not as if they were taken to the slaughter house to watch the process. This was simply because the lamb that had been reared at the school ended up as someone's dinner.

I began by saying I was saddened, but to be honest this sort of pathetic response makes me angry. Apparently Ms Charman is an excellent head who brought a school out of special measures into good Ofsted results. She clearly is the sort of person we can't afford to push out of schools. The people who criticized her should be ashamed of themselves.

NOTE posted edited to change 'Chapman' to the correct name 'Charman' after my typo was kindly pointed out in the comments.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Faster than Light in North London

Over to the North London Collegiate School this morning to give my 'Faster than Light' talk. The trains seemed to conspire to almost but not quite cause problems. My train in the morning was 20 minutes late... but was 20 minutes earlier than the train I thought I'd catch. Coming back there was confusion on First Great Western after a fatality on the light near Burnham, but despite being announced as DELAYED the train I got on was only held up a few minutes.

As for the talk itself, getting to the school involved a brisk walk across Canons Park (beautiful, it said on the website - possibly, but certainly freezing) on the wild North of the Jubilee Line. I've been to the school once before, and bits were familiar. We suffered a bit from having an audience of around 50 in an auditorium for around 300 in the rather impressive Performing Arts Centre (pictured left), but the talk went down fairly well.

It's one I've had trouble with in the past, because it's possible to get bogged down in the technicalities of the relativity of simultaneity. I managed to avoid this by largely ignoring the script and doing it off the top of my head - the only problem with this is I forgot the best joke. But they didn't know, so that's okay.

After a buffet lunch with some sixth formers and staff it should have been a journey back where I arrived before I left, but faster than light technology escaped me.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Irrationality and the stolen pencil

I've just read for review an interesting book called Predictably Irrational (you can read my review here). It points out the flaw in the fundamental basis of economics, which assumes that human beings act rationally, and in such a way to maximize their benefit. The reality is very different. The book is full of experiments done to confirm this - showing, for instance, how we can't resist the pull of a discount even when we know it's rigged. But there is one thought experiment that I thought was a very powerful demonstration of the lack of logical consistency in our approach to honesty.

Picture this situation, says the author. Your child asks you to bring a pencil home. Would you have significant pangs of conscience about bringing one home from work? Most people say 'No.' Now imagine you don't have any pencils in the office, but there's a pencil stall selling them in the foyer of the office block. Would you have significant pangs of conscience about taking the money from petty cash and using it to buy a pencil to take home to your child? Most people say 'Yes.'

I'm with most people on this. I wouldn't take the money, but I would take the pencil. Of course, you can easily start to justify this. To buy the pencil you would steal the retail cost, but when you just take a pencil the company only loses the wholesale cost. But that's splitting hairs. The fact is that there's something very different about taking money and taking a low value item in the same circumstances, even though rationally they are the same thing.

Aren't people interesting?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The two commandments of letting children decorate

Although we probably all know the rules, I think it's time I came up with the tablets of stone on letting children decorate their rooms, and the excuses as to why we've ignored them.

#1 Thou shalt not let thy children decorate their rooms

I mean, it sounds a good idea, doesn't it, letting them express themselves, and make their environment the way they want it. Forget it. You want to be able to resell the place some time. And anyway, are you prepared to spend the next six months removing streaks of paint from walls all around the house where they've touched without washing their hands? Because their hands will be covered in paint. This is a rule, even if they only use wallpaper.

#2 Thou shalt not let them choose black paint

I mean, come on. How much of a teenage cliché is it to have black paint in the bedroom? It's so dated. And apart from that, the streaks of paint effect will be even more dramatic. What's more, when they decide to clean their hands afterwards in the same sink as the washing up, you will never, ever get the black paint off the plates.

So what did we do when they suggested painting one wall of the spare room, which they use to hang out in, black? We said 'Yes.' But we do have an excuse. Because they had a genuinely good idea. Not just to paint a wall black, but to paint it with blackboard paint. So there's a wonderful way to let loose artistic urges/aggression etc. Here's the result as it stands at the moment:

Yes, okay, Maxwell's equations in operator form was my contribution. But why not? That's the joy of it. About once a week we do have to complain about some content and have it removed (usually when there have been boys round), but on the whole it works very well.

Monday, 8 February 2010

I'm going to end it all - pass the homeopathic pills

Just over a week ago there was a mass overdose of medication sold by responsible companies like Boots. Across the world people took vastly more than the recommended dose. And nothing happened. The reason? They were overdosing on homeopathic medicine.

The campaign was known as 10:23. The rather strange numbering refers to Avogadro's number. This is a number that delights chemists - it's the number of atoms in a mole of a substance. The actual number is around 6x10^23, where 10^23 is 1 with 23 zeroes after it. The reason this is of relevence to homeopathic medicine becomes clear when you realize how these medications are made.

The idea of homeopathy, which has no scientific basis whatsoever, is that you treat an ailment with a poison that produces a similiar effect. But to avoid finishing off your patients, you dilute that poison with water. In fact you dilute it over and over again, so much so, that you have reduced it by more than Avagadro's number. The chances are there is not a single molecule of the poison left - it's all water. You then drip the water onto a sugar pill, and that's your homeopathic remedy.

When homeopathy was first devised this wasn't a problem, as no one knew about atoms or Avogadro's number, but now we do, homeopaths have had to devise a reason for the medicine to work. They say it's because during the dilution process they bash the container against a leather strap, and this, in some mysterious way, enables the water to have a memory of the poison even after it has entirely gone. (You couldn't make this stuff up.)

So homeopathic remedies are sugar pills with no active ingredient, and all the evidence is that the positive results some people ascribe to homeopathy are down to the placebo effect. I was very careful not to say 'only the placebo effect', because placebos can really deliver results, particularly on the supression of pain. A good example is the internal mammary artery ligation operation. This used to be regularly performed to reduce chest pain as a result of angina.

It was an invasive procedure involving opening the chest and tying off the artery. Pain was reduced for a number of months. But in the 1950s, a surgeon tried a series of placebo operations. As far as the patients were concerned, they were undergoing the procedure, but in fact the surgeon just made an incision and closed up again. The result was exactly the same. The pain relief was not due to the operation, but to the natural painkillers released by the body when the brain assumed there would be pain relief - it was a placebo.

This same thing can happen with homeopathic remedies, to the real benefit of patients. But there is no active ingredient causing the outcome. While it's clearly totally unacceptable for homeopathy to be used for anything life threatening in place of real medicine, there's a difficult moral decision when it comes to, for instance, pain relief. Is it acceptable to lie to someone in order to make them feel better? We certainly do this all the time, but most would argue it's unprofessional to do this for medical reasons. And hence the 10:23 protest.

You will almost certainly have heard people say 'Yes, but there is scientific validation of homeopathy. It has been tested.' I'm afraid there is some misleading information floating about. See this article on the misrepresentation of scientific evidence on homeopathy to a House of Commons committee.

The sad thing is that most homeopaths won't accept reality and continue to insist that their medications do have a non-placebo effect. I want to leave you with a quote from a homeopathist in response to the 10:23 protest. You can read the whole response here, but this is arguably the best bit. Try not to fall off your chair.

Of course homeopaths know that one dose of however many pills taken together in one go, is the equivalent of only one dose, because it is the time frame that counts.  So if they had repeatedly taken a dose every hour for the rest of the day, the skeptics would most certainly have felt the effects.  Therefore this little stunt ‘proves’ little, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sheepishly confess that they did experience some symptoms later, because after taking a homeopathic remedy, especially 30c or above, the effects can be felt for days afterwards.

'It's the time frame that counts.' Oh, that'll be okay, then. Sigh.

Friday, 5 February 2010

In which I venture into a jewellery store

As a science writer, I believe I am qualified to write about life, the universe and everything. In this case it's going to be about online jewellery shopping, as online store JewelryArtDesigns (aka LuShae Jewelry) kindly agreed to let me loose in their virtual aisles provided I wrote up the experience.

They sell rings, earrings and pendants, priced around £40 ($60-70) including worldwide shipping. Many of the pieces (note the easy use of the jargon there) feature cubic zirconium stones and a lot are gold or rhodium plated in finish.

I toyed with a suitably bling ring, wondering if I could go for the gangsta rapper science writer look (there aren't many science writers who can pull this off), but decided on the whole I'd be better settling for something for my wife. If I'm honest, a lot of the jewellery was a bit too flashy for me, but I dithered between a simple pair of stud earrings and a rather nice looking pendant, and went for the latter.

The shopping process was painless, and despite this being an Australian company shipping from the US, it was easy enough to flip the currency in the shopping cart and get a price I understood. Then the wait. It took a little longer than I expected, taking 20 days to arrive. Irritatingly, I had to go to the post office and pay tax on it - particularly galling because the tax was £3.83, but the Post Office added an £8 handling charge. I'm assured by the people at JewelryArtDesigns that this doesn't usually happen, but see comments below. It seems very likely to happen unless the Post Office only checks random samples.

The item itself was in a mid-range box - not a cheap and nasty plastic one, not something that exuded 'expensive jewellers'. The pendant seemed well-finished - not flimsy and with a good, solid chain, not the sort that snaps if you breathe on it that you often get with a cheap necklace. I assume the chain is gold plated too (it doesn't say on the website).

All in all, apart from slight issues with delivery and tax, a good experience. The pricing (provided you don't get hit with tax) seems about what you'd expect for an item of this quality, though I wouldn't say it was any cheaper than buying something in a local jewellers.

Here ends my excursion into the retail world. Normal service will be resumed in the next post.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Did they have the wheel when you were young, Daddy

WARNING - nostalgia ain't what it used to be alert

I had one of those conversations with one of the daughters yesterday. 'Did you have a car, when you were my age?' she asked. For a moment I thought this was an 'I'm 16 tomorrow, so it's time to be saving up for the following year,' type hint, but in fact she meant did we have one in the family. It must, she mused (as I drove her back home from an after-school event) be difficult to manage without a car.

As it happens, we did have car, even when I was young, but it got me thinking about what we didn't have in the first few years of my life, including:
  • A fridge or freezer (until 10)
  • Central heating (until 11)
  • Duvets (until 15)
  • A colour TV (until 15)
  • A TV remote (until 12, and that had a wire)
  • Computers (ever)
  • Internet (ever)
  • Mobile phones (ever)
  • Microwave (ever)
  • Dishwasher (ever)
  • Garden furniture (ever)
... and no doubt much more. But we wuz 'appy. It's remarkable how central to existence many of these things seem now. The daughter was particularly shocked by the lack of fridge (not that this is more important than the internet and mobile phones, but she knew we didn't have those in the stone age). What did we do with frozen food? We didn't buy it. How about milk? We kept it in a coolish pantry, and got a new bottle most days. Brought, of course, by the milkman.

The wonder of nostalgia means I can even think of aspects of not having central heating that were appealing. The excitement of waking up to find frost on the inside of the windows. Even now, when I'm ill, I pine for a fire in the bedroom, which we only used to have when someone was ill. (Of course, I conveniently forget how COLD it was anywhere except a few feet from the fire.) But realism says that even if all those things don't make me happy, I would miss them now. (Except, possibly, the garden furniture.) A blog, for instance, wouldn't be the same, hand written and stuck up in the window of the house. So, on the whole, I approve of progress.

Despite appearances in the photo, we didn't live in a field, that was taken up on t't moors. Sadly, yes, that is me with my Dad.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

WiFi woes and the wonders of woo

I was hauled over to BBC Wiltshire yesterday to speak up against rumours of the malignant influence of WiFi. Swindon is outfitting the entire town with free WiFi, and it seems there was a discussion of this on a local TV show the night before. Ranged against a single voice of sanity were apparently two people from organizations campaigning against WiFi and phone masts (who are very happy to sell you meters to detect 'electromagnetic radiation', or tinfoil hats to protect your brain), and two concerned mothers. Very measured response, BBC.

I have every sympathy for the concerned mothers because the sort of information they get if they search the web and hit these campaigning organizations is really scary. To start with the websites always refer to radiation, making sure that WiFi is tarred with the same brush as nuclear reactors. They don't bother to point out that electromagnetic radiation is just stuff like light and radio. Then they cite multiple studies showing how electrosensitive people can feel the damage being caused by WiFi or mobile phones. What they don't point out is all these studies are anecdotal and uncontrolled. Whenever a proper, controlled, double blind test is done, these 'electrosensitives' aren't influenced by the WiFi. I'm not saying they're lying, but rather it's an example of the nocebo effect, the negative version of the placebo effect, where if you think something will give you a headache etc. it probably will.

What isn't pointed out is that WiFi is just another contribution to all the radio, TV, phones, and other electromagnetic traffic zapping around us all the time. And they're relatively low power, typically thousands of times weaker, for example, than the sort of transmitter used by radio hams.

The other concern explicitly mentioned to the radio show host was whether WiFi could influence pacemakers. Someone had been warned that the Swindon WiFi might mean he couldn't leave the house. But pacemakers have been thoroughly tested with stronger WiFi than is allowed in Europe without damage. When you think about it, a computer is much more likely to be upset by WiFi than a pacemaker, and they aren't - so it's not entirely surprising. A local surgeon who fits pacemakers pointed out that they have WiFi in the operating theatre where they fit them. Not a worry, he says.

I've saved the most horrendous allegation until last. Apparently, on the TV show, one of the campaigners claimed that the rise in lung cancer in the last century was not due to smoking but to the introduction of FM radio. Leaving aside just how bizarre a claim this is, flying in the face of some of the most detailed and persuasive research ever, I can't decide if this is silly or sick. It certainly should alert anyone who is worried by the material put out by these campaigners to the fact that their concerns aren't exactly rational. Now where did I put my tinfoil hat?

Postscript - If you want to see just how bad things can get in terms of the rubbish cited on electrosensitivity, see this article in the Independent, kindly pointed out to me by Austin Elliott. I really can't believe a respectable newspaper published that.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Why a French restaurant chain makes me burst out in song

 There are certain rituals of life that seem to be unavoidable. Often these are family traditions. The family of a friend of ours, for instance, had a habit of making a silly noise every time they drove into a different county.

I find that there are certain encounters that generate a near-automatic response. Whenever I see a particular thing it make me utter a (not very funny) phrase, or burst into song.

Probably the strongest example of this is when we're on holiday in France. There's a restaurant chain there called Buffalo Grill (presumably pronounced 'boofalloh greel') with very distinctive buildings. I guess they're a kind of rib shack, though I've never been in one. But I can't see those big horns without bursting into Buffalo grill won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight? Buffalo grill won't you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon. Sad, I know, but it simply can't be avoided.

Do you have similar automatic responses? What triggers your funny bone? And for your delectation here's one version of the original of this masterpiece with non other than Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. What more could you ask?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Does physics make sense? Feel the force!

Sometimes people can be tripped up in understanding the world by a basic bit of science. Yet if we can overcome that misunderstanding, suddenly an awful lot becomes clearer. One good example of this is the basic operation of forces acting on a simple ball you throw in the air. Take a moment to get answers to these three questions before reading on (ignore air resistance, as pointed out below):
 Don't read on until you've mentally answered each question.

No cheating - get those answers straight in your mind.

When this little test was given to secondary school science teachers in the UK, the majority got it wrong (so don't worry if you did). If that sounds bad, bear in mind most UK science teachers aren't physicists.

The answers? In each case, exactly the same. Just one force, downwards. The force due to gravity. Once the ball has left the thower's hand it has nothing acting on it but gravity. The acceleration is always downwards.

Apart from being a useful little exercise in understanding of physics, I think there's a wider implication on taking a scientific viewpoint here. It's always useful, whether you are assessing the value of a homeopathic remedy, the dangers of WiFi radiation or the flight of a ball to ask 'Just what is acting? How is it having an effect? What will the result be?' There's a lot of knowledge about the world that can quite simply be gained if we take this approach more often, rather than leaping in with assumptions and 'what everybody knows.'