Friday, 30 April 2010

Organic Food - the CAM of agriculture - part 2 of 2

In my previous post I looked at why I don't like the way organic food makes dubious claims for its products. In this I want to uncover the way its rules are based more on magic than sense.

There is no doubt that organics had a flaky origin, based more on mysticism than any real understanding of agriculture. In itself this isn't disastrous. Medicine's history is also flaky, based more on mysticism than any real understanding of how the body works, and we've shaken that off (mostly). But organics has kept too much of its mystical past, buried in the rules and regulations that organic farmers have to follow.

Here are four examples.

The EU tried to ban the fungicide copper sulphate, which is known to be more environmentally damaging than many alternatives. The ban was postponed because of lobbying by organic groups – they like copper sulphate because it’s traditional. All too often organic standards are not about what's best, but about what we've always done, so it must be good. It's farming by nostalgia.

Secondly, I’ve spoken to organic farmers who were really upset because they have lost livestock because organic regulations insist they use alternative and complimentary medicines before getting special permission to treat with something that works. This is putting ideology above the welfare of animals. As we get increasing evidence of the lack of value of CAM, this can't be justified.

A third example of total lack of logic in organic standards is the approach taken to the addition of potassium in the form of potassium chloride. This is the harmless chemical used in ‘low salt’ preparations to reduce the amount of sodium for those in danger of high blood pressure. It seems that it the early days of setting organic standards, someone didn’t know their chemistry and because chlorine is a dangerous, poisonous gas, also thought that a chloride was dangerous – so organic farmers are not allowed to use potassium chloride on their land. But they are allowed used to sylvinite, which is a mix of potassium chloride and sodium chloride (salt).

Potassium chloride is a natural mineral, dug up out of the ground like salt, and it often forms layers with salt – sylvinite is just the pair of layers dug up together. Now the really bizarre thing is that in this attempt to avoid the chloride in potassium chloride, the organic specifications require the farmer to put on twice as much chloride. To get the right amount of potassium, you need twice as much sylvinite as pure potassium chloride.

Finally, there's the little matter of nanoparticles. In January 2008, the Soil Association, the biggest organic certification body in the UK, banned nanoparticles – ultra small particles just a few nanometres (billionths of a metre) across from organic products. But it specifically only banned man-made nanoparticles, claiming that natural ones (like soot) are fine because ‘life has evolved with these.’

This is just not an acceptable argument. Where nanoparticles are dangerous it is because of their scale – because the physics (rather than chemistry) of particles of this size is quite different from the objects we are familiar with – changing their ability to interact with the body. This danger is just as present whether the particles are natural or not. (Viruses, by the way, are natural nanoparticles, and like soot, aren’t ideal for the health.)

In summing up, the Soil Association lets slip the reason it takes this strange attitude. ‘[T]he organic movement nearly always takes a principles-based regulatory approach, rather than a case-by-case approach based on scientific information.’ In other words, theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to concepts, rather than one based on genuine concerns about the dangers of various products. Forget the science, we've got principles. Magical principles.

As long as the organic movement relies on such ridiculous rules and regulations I will go out of my way not to buy organic produce.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Organic Food - the CAM of agriculture - part 1 of 2

CAM - complementary and alternative medicine - is taking quite a battering at the moment. The forces of rationality have seen a UK parliament committee recommend that we don't waste NHS money on homeopathy, while the chiropracters have seen their attempt to use libel law to suppress criticism by Simon Singh collapse. At the same time, Prince Charles' foundation to try to impose alternative medicine on the health service is in trouble.

So perhaps this isn't the best time to liken organic food to complementary and alternative medicine. But I think it's something we ought to do.

This isn't a direct comparison. Organic food is usually good food, where CAM is not good medicine. But the organic movement uses many of the approaches of the alternative bunch, to its detriment. In this post and the next I want to look at two ways organics parallels CAM - in the second I will be looking at the way it depends on magic rather than science. In this first post, I want to look at the way it uses misinformation to try to sell a product.

Two of the mainstays of the organic marketing programme - and in the end, the term 'organic' is largely used as a marketing tool - are claims that the food tastes better, and that it's better for you.

The 'tastes better' claim we can pretty easily dismiss, as the organic movement has been banned from claiming this by the ASA for lack of proof (though you will still hear it over and over again). I don't deny that fresh, local produce tastes better than something that has been chilled, flown half way around the world and stored for weeks. But the same is true of fresh, local non-organic produce. Being organic has no influence on taste.

'Better for you' broadly divides into two. Partly this refers to nutrition. Given the above proviso, there is a little evidence for nutrional benefits for organics. A couple of products, for instance, do have increased anti-oxidant levels, but this is a red herring. We very much need the anti-oxidants our bodies produce to fight damage - but there is no evidence that consuming anti-oxidants has a positive health benefit. It's a bit like consuming brains in the hope it will improve your brain.

But the part of 'better for you' where I get positively angry is the scaremongering about pesticide residues used to sell organic food. Scaremongering is evil. Here's the Soil Association's Joanna Blythman: 'You can switch to organic... Or you could just accept that every third mouthful of food you eat contains poison. Are you up for that?'

This isn't just faintly dubious it is totally and absolutely wrong. Every mouthful of food you eat contains poison, both natural and artificial. And the natural poisons outweigh the artificial by about 99 to 1.

Practically everything is poisonous if you consume enough, water included. The fact is that pesticide residue levels are so low that they are overwhelmed by the risk from natural poisons. If you look at the total cancer risk, for instance, to the typical person from all foods that might have pesticide residues (I'm excluding meats here to compare like for like) by far the biggest danger is from alcohol. We're talking about 93% of the risk. Then coffee - about 2.6%. After that, the rest is pretty tiny. You have to get through things like orange juice and celery before getting to the first artificial residue at around 0.05%. If you add up all the chemical contaminents and pesticide residue, the risk is about the same as celery (around 0.1%). And bear in mind all these risks are low - this is just showing how insignificant the subject of this scaremongering is.

I'll come back on the magic behind the organic rules tomorrow - if you want to read more about why I have issues with organics, see my book Ecologic.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

That'll teach me to say town-wide wireless networking is a good thing

Way back in November I pointed out that my home town of Swindon was rolling out free public WiFi across the borough, which I thought was rather neat. It meant I had to speak up against those who were convinced they would not be able to go out of the house without it frying their brains - but it seemed really handy.

Not only would it be a benefit when you're out and about in Swindon, it should also help areas that don't have cable and have very poor internet connections through the telephone network.

Since then I hadn't heard anything more - but revelations were to start rolling when I attended a Swindon version of Question Time for candidates for the two parliamentary seats. It seems there have been big delays in rolling out the access. And worse, the Conservative-led council seems to have got itself in a real mess. Going against any common sense, they apparently awarded the contract for what was a major undertaking to a small, new company - and even loaned the company a very large sum of money to make it happen. Now I'm all in favour of supporting small/new companies, but I'm not sure this is the sort of project, dealing with taxpayers money, where such a company is the best way forward. And all this isn't helped by rumours that a council member didn't bother to declare being a director of the company.

I don't go back on my original position. It is a great idea, and if it works it's a great benefit for Swindon. It's just a pity that Swindon Council clearly called in the pointy-haired boss to consult on choice of company:



Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Why you won't find me in any of the world's 50 best restaurants

Why won't you find me in any of the world's 50 best restaurants? Because I'm too tight.

But that apart, when I heard on the radio this morning that the 2010 'World's 50 best restaurants' award winner had been announced, I couldn't help think 'SO WHAT?' Yes, I thought it in capitals. (The awards' website is here, but seems a bit flaky - there's a little bit about it from the BBC here.)

Part of the problem I have with this award is that the chances are high I will never experience anything in the list. I certainly won't find myself at the #1 restaurant, Noma in Copenhagen, and I'm highly unlikely ever to cross the threshold of Britain's top spot, which is Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck at Bray coming in at a respectable #3.

Compare this with an awards ceremony that's faintly interesting like the Oscars or one of the book prizes. It's highly likely that I will experience at least some of the contenders there. That's what makes it interesting. But why should I care about restaurants I will never visit? (I can't help but feel the media go on about this kind of thing, because media people are kind of people who end up in these restaurants.)

It's not that I'm anti-food, quite the contrary. I'm happy to enjoy anything from a basic family restaurant up to a local quite-expensive eatery. But I can't get so excited about a meal that I'm prepared to travel any great distance to experience it - and I'm certainly not about to contemplate our Heston's £150 per person menu (without wine or tip). That's just obscene. (On the subject of tips, I love the way Heston's menu says 'An optional 12.5% service charge will be added to your bill. Someone should point out it's not optional if it's added.)

My biggest problem with the sort of restaurants that are likely to get on the list is that they are overwhelmed with a sense of their own importance. If I want to eat somewhere, I want booking a table to be a painless experience, not something I have to contemplate fearfully a year in advance. And I want the restaurant to treat me as if I am customer who deserves good service, not something the waiter has scraped off his shoe.

So, frankly, you can stuff your award with a nice chicken liver parfait, oak moss and shaved fennel. Enjoy.

Monday, 26 April 2010

50 ways to make Google love your website

I apologise if you've come to this post expecting to see those 50 ways listed out - you won't, but read on, you will still find it worthwhile.

I've been sent for review a copy of the book, 50 Ways to Make Google love your Website (see at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com). It's an intriguing prospect. Google remains the dominant force for driving business to a website. I've just taken a quick look on the stats of where visitors to this blog came from and out of the top 20 sources, sixteen are Google searches. (The others were one Bing search (go Microsoft!), my website, my Twitter feed and someone else's site - thanks for the link!)

Most of us know that Google uses a complex algorithm for deciding how to rank pages in its search results, and we all want to get higher in that listing, because we know that if you aren't in the top few, chances are you won't get clicked on. (I'm pleased to say I'm winning the "brian clegg" search at the moment, though Brian Clegg arts and crafts is always nibbling at my heels.) But how to make sure our site is as 'loved' (as the book puts it) as possible by Google? That's why there are so many SEO (search engine optimization) companies trying to take your money. You really have to understand what's going on in Google's vast computerized brain - which involves some impressive matrix mathematics.

There's good news and bad news about this book. The good news first. Assuming it is right, it really understands the Google page rank mechanism, and goes through every detail of how it works, and how you can give your site the best chance of doing well. It really does provide those 50 ways, if not to make Google love your site, at least to make it think your site is pretty good. This is search engine optimization for the masses.

The bad news? Well, the title sounds like a blog post - and to be honest, the '50 ways' themselves just aren't enough to fill a book. If all you want is practical advice, there's an awful lot of stuff here you don't care about. Much of the book is quite an academic dissection of Google's mechanisms, with each chapter having a small coda that's a few of those 50 ways as little snippets. Now we'd all love that blog post... but would you pay the price of a book for a blog post, unless you want that academic analysis too?

Secondly, the recommendations are so hard! Unless your website is your life, or the lifeblood of your business, no one sane could be bothered to do everything suggested. We are probably talking person years to get it done. Yes, there are little hints and tips that everyone can fairly quickly employ, but some of this stuff is endlessly time consuming. If you are one of the Amazons of the e-world it's essential, but you will be doing it anyway. If you are Joe's Fish Shop,trying to drum up a little extra trade, it's just too much. Of course there are plenty of businesses in between who could benefit - but be aware, it's not a minor commitment.

All in all, I would recommend this book, but don't expect the sort of quick fixes implied by the title. (Check it out at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com)

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Feng shui in a rational world

It's not long since I last mentioned feng shui, but it's pure coincidence that it has come up twice in my general attempt to stress the rational over the irrational - consider it a cluster.

As before, it has become a topic because it has intruded into my life without me asking, in this case in the form of the advert from Facebook pictured on the right. I have to confess, the advertising on Facebook can be particularly pathetic. It tries hard to make use of information gleaned from your profile, but does so in such a hamfisted way that it make you chuckle, rather than rush to click through. So you (or rather I, because you aren't so ancient) will get an advert saying, SPECIAL OFFER FOR 54-YEAR-OLD PEOPLE! Yeah, right. And there isn't a bit of code that reads something like 'Print SPECIAL OFFER FOR {Field: age}-YEAR-OLD PEOPLE!'

Any road up, this morning up popped the offending ad you see here and it set off a small burst off fireworks in my brain (not a good idea before 10am on Sunday - do not try this at home).

First there was that title. 'Natural therapy.' Hmm. Two problems there. First, the use of natural as a magic word, or as I sometimes refer to it, a bogeyman. A loaded word that comes with all sorts of baggage attached. 'Natural' is one of the most powerful. It triggers all sorts of implications of nice and fluffy and harmless and good for you - which is why advertisers use it so much, even in a hugely artificial concoction like a shampoo. Our response to the word is so strong, we totally forget that nature is often anything but nice and fluffy, but is cold, hard and uncaring. The reason many things are artificial is because nature is so nasty. Try living a year in a forest with no artificial aids (i.e. nothing made by hand, so this includes any form of shelter, even one made out of natural products).

The second issue with 'natural' therapy is the suggestion that feng shui is in some sense 'natural'. (Sorry guys, but I can't help but pronounce it fehng shoe-ee in my head, not fung shway.) According to Wikipedia (perhaps I should have used Wiccapedia), feng shui is an ancient Chinese system of aesthetics believed to use the laws of both Heaven (astronomy) and Earth (geography) to help improve life by receiving positive qi. That sounds rather more supernatural than natural. The only sense it's natural is that it was natural to blame events on supernatural influences before we understood things better. So when the cow stopped giving milk, for instance, it was either the influence of the stars or the witch down the road. But we do understand things better now.

Frankly I find it offensive to suggest that astronomy and geography, both harmless disciplines that really do help us understand the universe, should in some sense gang up to have a magic influence on our lives. And that by doing silly things we can somehow manipulate these influences to increase 'qi', a magic form of energy that is somehow totally impossible to register on any instrument and that seems to have nothing to do with any of the fundemental forces of the universe. Hmm. Oh, and even more offensive that people are prepared to take gullible punters' money for doing feng shui readings, or whatever they call them.

So, I am afraid my only answer to 'I love feng shui because...' is 'because it gives me something to rant about on Sunday morning.' I titled this post Feng shui in a rational world. I know, really it isn't a very rational world, thoughI like to think that science is doing its bit to make it a little more so. But there are always forces ranked against rationality. And this is one of them.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Time travel into the future - the energy gap

There are times I love my job - never more so than yesterday, when I was doing some work for my next book but one, on the subject of time machines.

I was thinking specifically about travelling into the future. (One thing all fictional time machines get wrong is that the mechanism for going forwards and backwards is identical. In a real time machine you need to use totally different approaches to go forwards and backwards.) In principle travelling forwards in time is a piece of cake. Everyone can do it. I've managed to travel over 50 years into the future. A day at a time.

Unfortunately, unless you also discover a means to totally stop ageing, this isn't a helpful way to return to the future if you've zipped back a couple of hundred years into the past, let alone get to the year 800,000 as the movie poster promises. The rate of a second per second is just too slow. It may be possible to use biological means - effectively to sleep through the time - but this has lots of problems and isn't very elegant. Luckily, physics seems to have an answer in special relativity - certainly it's the means of travelling into the future you generally see described. But when I started playing around with the idea I discovered that it's not as easy as it seems - and I think I've identified what the power source of a future travelling time machine would have to be.

The way you use relativity to travel into the future is often called the twins paradox. Take 25-year-old twins Karl and Karla. Karl stays on the Earth while Karla travels off at high speed in a spaceship. Because of relativistic effects, the time on the ship runs slower than the time on Earth. When Karla returns home, perhaps ten years has elapsed for Karla – but Karl is now 75. The twins are very different ages. Say Karla left in 2050. By her clock it is 2060 when she gets back to Earth. But on the Earth it is the year 3000. Karla has travelled 40 years into her future.

Easy peasy. Except getting up to relativistic speeds is a big challenge. It takes a lot of energy. I plugged in some figures. To get these I made some sweeping assumptions, but it's order of magnitude right. To calculate the energy needed, I just calculated the kinetic energy of the spaceship. If this was all that were needed, the engines would have to be 100% efficient, there would be no resistance to flight from obstacles, and I've assumed there is some way of getting the energy back when you turn around and stop at the end (which there isn't), so my figures should probably all be multiplied by 4. (There are more assumptions, but they are a bit boring.)

First, though, I need to know how fast Karla has to go. How about half the speed of light? Pretty fast. But it would take Karla over 17 years of her time to just travel 2.7 years into the future. We need a bit more. At 90% of the speed of light Karla has to experience a flight of over 8 years to get 11 years into the future. And at 99% of light speed she needs 2.82 years to get 17.18 years forward. That's more like it. But we don't want to be greedy. Let's go for 90% of the speed of light. How much energy would that involve?

Assuming we're dealing with something of similar weight to the space shuttle, 100 tonnes, it's pretty phenomenal. Around 12,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules. That's about the same amount as the energy produced by all the power stations in the USA running for 830 years.

So how much fuel would you need to produce this much energy? It depends what you're using. In Back to the Future they use a car, so let's try petrol. You'd need about 60 billion tonnes of that. Quite difficult to carry along with you. Luckily, nuclear fuel packs in much more energy. You'd only need 31,000 tonnes of that. But it's still too much to carry. There's only one hope. If it's good enough for the USS Enterprise, it's good enough for us. The most compact source of energy is antimatter. You would only need 31 tonnes of that. (Of course, there is the teeny problem that we only produce about a millionth of a gram a year of antimatter at the moment, but hey...)

We know using special relativity to get into the future is possible. It has been done with atomic clocks, which measured a tiny shift on the travelling clock. But to make the shift worthwhile there's a huge problem of having enough fuel to make it happen. Even with antimatter, if you take away my assumptions you would need more mass of fuel than the mass I'd assumed we were moving - which implies that we're never going to get as fast as 90% of the speed of light. It seems that travel into the future is always going to be a slow process.

Friday, 23 April 2010

There is no such thing as a water shortage

Well, it has been sunny here for several days in a row now, so any time soon we can expect a hosepipe ban.

The idea of a water shortage is crazy when you think about it. Looked at from space, the defining feature of the Earth, when compared with the other planets in our solar system, is water. Our world is blue with the stuff. In round figures there are 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water on the Earth. This is such a huge amount, it’s difficult to get your head around. A single cubic kilometre (think of it, a cube of water, each side a kilometre long) is 1,000,000,000,000 litres of water.

Divide the amount of water in the world by the number of people and we end up with 0.2 cubic kilometres of water each. More precisely, 212,100,000,000 litres for everyone. If you stack that up in litre containers, the pile would be around 10 million kilometres high. With a reasonable consumption of 5 litres per person per day, the water in the world there shouldn't be a shortage for 116,219,178 years. And that assumes that we totally use up the water. In practice, the water we ‘consume’ soon becomes available again for future use. (If it didn't we'd all blow up like balloons and pop.) So where’s the water shortage?

Things are, of course more complicated than this simplified picture suggests. In practice, we don’t just get through our five litres a day. The typical Western consumer uses between 5,000 and 10,000 litres. In part this happens directly. Some is used in taking a bath, watering the lawn, flushing the toilet – but by far the biggest part of our consumption, vastly outweighing personal use, is the water taken up by manufacturing the goods and food that we consume. Just producing the meat for one hamburger can use 3,000 litres, while amazingly a 1kg jar of coffee will eat up 20,000 litres in its production.

However, even at 10,000 litres a day, we still should have enough to last us over 57,000 years without even reusing any water. So where is the crisis coming from? Although there is plenty of water, most of it is not so easy to access. Some is locked up in ice or underground, but by far the greatest majority – around 97% of the water on the planet – is in the oceans. It’s not particularly difficult to get to, certainly for any country with a coastline, but it is costly to make use of. The fact that an island nation like Britain is prepared to spend huge amounts of money on reservoirs to collect a relatively tiny proportion of fresh water, rather than use the vast quantities of sea that surrounds it, emphasizes just how expensive is the desalination required to turn seawater into drinkable fresh water.

Water shortages, then, come down to a lack of cheap power. There isn't a water shortage, there's a power shortage. Getting more, cheaper, cleaner energy should be a much bigger priority than it seems to be - as so many of the problems the worlds faces are really energy problems in disguise.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Brain training improves your ability...

Brain training improves your ability... to do brain training.

There has been a huge market for software that aims to claims to improve our cognitive ability by 'training' the brain to be more effective. Apparently Dr Something-or-other's Brain Trainy Thing (I may not have got the title quite right) is the most popular game on the Nintendo DS in the UK.

I have always found something slightly sinister about this kind of software. First there's the pseudo-medical/scientific implication of it being Dr Something-or-other's. The only products I'm used to being labelled Doctor Something's are quack medicine, sandals and bovver boots. Then there's the idea that by doing some basic maths and a few puzzles you can somehow train your brain. To be fair, going on the research recently carried out, it does train your brain - but only to do this particular application. It makes you better at playing this game. The 'training' isn't transferable to other cognitive activities.

This is one of the things that has always worried me about Susan Greenfield over and above the mess of the Royal Institution - she endorses quite an expensive computer brain training product called MindFit, but I have not seen any good evidence for it working, only unconvincing reports that weren't published in reputable journals.

I'm not saying you can't improve the effectiveness of your brain. Practising most things will get you better at that particular thing - this is totally proven. Being in good physical condition, with enough sleep, will help brain function (as anyone who has tried to work with a hangover can testify.) Also, you can use techniques, for instance, to help you generate new ideas more effectively - these don't boost cognitive ability, they just give you new starting points and routes to ideas. But I am always highly dubious of any claims that using some computer program will enhance your general ability to think. It's the brain equivalent of a crash diet - a supposed short cut to something that really needs a much broader, longhaul approach.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

On the road to Nottingham Science City

Yesterday I visited the future, sort of. I gave a talk at Nottingham Science City. When I first heard about this it brought to mind something out of a futuristic movie of the 20's or 30's - perhaps Metropolis or Things to Come (as in the picture). But the reality is rather different.

Apparently there are six cities in the UK that were designated 'science cities' in 2005 - Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and York. It's a little difficult to pin down just what having the status of a science city implies. I assume it involves giving them some funding to perform the kind of roles the group engages in - nuturing the city's role in science, stimulating interest in science and converting scientific innovation into business.

They have been having a series of talks on the science of mitigating climate change, and I was there with my Ecologic hat on to impart some words of wisdom on greenwash and other potential problems in the way of dealing with climate change. Because there isn't actually a science city (shame), the location was the new and shiny No 1 Nottingham Science Park (pictured left). It was rather a surreal venue - a huge room that was clearly not-yet-used office or business space, partly carpeted in the section I gave the talk in, and then the carpet fading out to a shiny tiled or stone surface as the room receded into the distance, rather like a matte painting in one of those old movies.

We had an audience of about 70, who listened patiently through my talk (without slides, despite being advertised as 'illustrated'), then responded with one of the most enthusiastic Q&A sessions I can remember - getting on for an hour, with no sign of flagging when the organizer cut things short. The event finished up with a buffet and a chance to chat and for attendees to (groan) network. I know it's a painful term, but it seemed to be working well. All in all, an encouraging evening. It was videoed and is now up on YouTube - the first part is below, the rest you can find with a search of Brian Clegg on YouTube. In the meanwhile, here's a picture of me with a member of the audience, someone I knew electronically but had never met for real, the organist of Nottingham University and Nottingham Parish Church, John Keys. I don't think I was quite as red faced as that. The receding part of the room is just visible in the right hand background.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Never underestimate a Wolfe

I love fantasy books - but I'm not very fond of those tomes set in strange worlds inhabited by elves, dwarves and orcs. (Depite my wording, I make an exception for The Lord of the Rings, which is unique.) What I really love is fantasy set in the real world - where something isn't quite right. It can develop into wholesale mayhem, including many of those elements of swords and sorcery, but it's strongly anchored in the world as we know it. For me, this makes the story much more exciting.

You might think the master of this kind of writing is Neil Gaiman - and he is my second favourite writer in the genre. But there's one man who is Obi Wan to Gaiman's Skywalker. That's Gene Wolfe.

If I'm honest, I'm not a fan of all his books. He writes books set on other worlds, like the hugely popular Book of the New Sun series, which really don't interest me. But his short stories are great - and when he does a real world fantasy, it is absolutely stunning. Although Wolfe is almost 80, he's still producing his best work, as I've discovered in his newly released The Sorcerer's House. This book is brilliant, there's no other word for it.

Wolfe does himself no favour by framing the book as a series of letters. It's difficult to get real involvement this way. (Having said that, one of the most famous fantasy books ever, Dracula, is a series of letters.) But it works so well here, admittedly by having the vast bulk of the letters from the main protagonist, and so acting as a first person narrative.

What Wolfe does best is to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a situation where you think 'What the hell is going on?' Sometimes, as in his masterpiece There are Doors, he can sustain this uncertainty through most of the book. In The Sorcerer's House things become a little more obvious earlier on - but even so, Wolfe keeps throwing in new characters, new situations that continue to combine mystery and delight. If you don't know this kind of writing but are familiar with cult TV, he does in stories what Buffy creator Joss Whedon does on the screen - but ten times better.

There are some flaws. Although a reasonable sized book, it's just too short. It could be twice the length to really allow some of the characters who only currently get a bit part to develop. And then there's the ending. Wolfe fans will know that endings are his weakness. Here he does manage to end the book satisfactorily, but it still is a slight let-down compared with the brilliance of the rest.

Run, don't walk, to your nearest book store and get The Sorcerer's House. It's here at Amazon.co.uk and here at Amazon.com.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Well, I'm fascinated

We had a little expedition last night to Windsor to see Fascinating Aïda, and as ever they were brilliant. It must be getting on for 20 years since we first saw this unique singing group, and the experience gets funnier every time. It's rather hard to describe their style, but if you imagine a cross between Tom Lehrer and Victoria Wood, but more musically adept and ruder, you'd be getting fairly close.

Rather than go on and on about what was in it, I've a couple of clips from YouTube of songs they did last night - the only problem is that this is with an earlier soprano (the other two are the same), and the new one is significantly better. That makes little difference in this first number, however, as the soprano is definitely not the star.


I can't show you my favourite part of last night's show, which was a supposed middle European (Romanian?) song cycle, rendered with all the seriousness of such arty music, but on topics like Heather Mills and Polish plumbers and their gherkins, but instead, I'll give you this one that follows. It probably should have at least a 15 certificate.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

No tactical voting this time round, please!

Apologies to non-UK readers - this is a bit of a domestic topic. We've had a couple of days to ponder the leaders' debate, which by general acclaim was 'won' by Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats. He certainly came across better than either of the others, especially in his acceptance that we need to do more than fiddle around with imaginary efficiency savings to get out of the financial mess we're in. He also, I think, came across as more genuine - which shouldn't matter, but does in this media-driven world.

As a result of this, a number of people may be thinking of voting Liberal Democrat - and if you are, please do. I think it's an excellent idea. But if you mention this, you will immediately get supporters of other parties muttering about a wasted vote, and how you should vote tactically to keep the worse of the other two parties out, rather than support the Lib Dems who can't possibly win.

This is rubbish. Not that they can't possibly win - I accept that - but that tactical voting is a good idea. If enough people vote Lib Dem a) we are likely to get a balanced parliament (sounds nicer than hung), and so the Lib Dem voice will be heard. And b) if the percentage of the vote for the Lib Dems reaches the high 20s then there's a stronger mandate for electoral reform, so that a sizeable proportion of the vote doesn't result in pitiful representation. If you feel the urge to vote Liberal Democrat, please do. Don't let those miseryguts tell you otherwise.


Affiliation Note: Some of you may have noticed a certain similarity between my surname and Nick Clegg's. As it's quite an unusual surname, we may well be distantly related, but I'm not aware of any connection. What's more, I was born within 3 miles of the spiritual home of the Clegg name, just east of Rochdale, where Mr Clegg is a bit of a softy southerner. However, I still feel he is an all round good egg, whether or not he is my fifth cousin, six times removed.

Friday, 16 April 2010

In praise of Frank Crumit

In my youth we used to dig out the old 78 records that were once my grandparents and play them with fascination. A particular favourite was Frank Crumit, whose humorous songs seemed hilarious to a five-year-old. I think he sang My Grandfather's Clock and one about a fish that swam (and it swam) right over the dam. But one song became embedded in family sayings. (Will this happen with Coldplay? I can't see it, somehow.)

The song in question is the Pig Song. The main character is drunk, and slips into a gutter, where he is soon joined by a pig. (Funnily, I remember a line about 'not a mutter did he utter, as he slipped into the gutter' which doesn't seem to exist.) The classic lines from this, much repeated through my growing up, said by a passing lady of our man in the gutter with the pig are:

"You can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses,"
 Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.


They are words that became a sort of mantra, whenever someone did something wrong. So here for your delectation is Mr Crumit in his glory:

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Why don't publishers tell us what we want to know?

Just occasionally I do a post that is moaning about publishers. Now don't get me wrong, I love 'em. They're great people, and they pay the bills. But as a business, publishing is positively stone age. I've mentioned before how incredibly slow their accounting systems are. But there's another problem. The reports you receive from a publisher on your books are absolutely rubbish. They don't tell you what you want to know.

Take the absolute core piece of information. How many copies of your book have sold. Guess what? They don't tell you this. All they tell you is the net outgoing of books in the last six months. First it's not the number of books that have gone out in that period, it's the number minus any returns. Second there's no running total. The only way to figure out how many you have sold is to add up the numbers off all the separate royalty statements. If you have had a book out several years, this is a real chore.

The first thing a new publisher tends to ask is 'how many copies did your last book sell?' Honest answer: I haven't a clue, because publishers don't tell you. Now if you speak to your editor (s)he can push a couple of buttons and tell you how many have sold in total, or in the last week instantly. They just don't bother to pass this on to the author, which I think once more reflects the rather Victorian attitude they have to records and book-keeping from the author-facing viewpoint.

Those total numbers will probably come to a shock to many people. According to Bubblecow, seven of the 20 titles on the long list for the Orange prize for Fiction sold less than 1,000 copies in the year (and most fiction sales plummet after the first year). We're talking literally a few hundred copies of many books. It's painful, but still something authors should have a clearer picture of.

There's the upside too. If you have a book that's sold tens of thousands, it's worth celebrating. More than that, quite a lot of contracts have escalator clauses. This says that when you sell more than a certain number of copies, your percentage royalty goes up. But without a total, the author can't check this. And it's necessary because I know from experience, with the best will in the world, publishers can get this wrong.

So how about it, publishers? Why not provide your authors with some decent sales information (or even better, access to your sales system for their titles)?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

What are you doing for National Wind-up-a-scientist Day?

Whether you love scientists or loathe them (as a science writer, I admit to a certain fondness) - or even if you are a scientist - you have to admit that they have a tendency to take themselves too seriously.

On this first National Wind-up-a-scientist Day, I think we all have a duty to find some little way to tease a boffin. This isn't cruelty. No scientists will be hurt in the making of this day. The idea, rather, as we were always told at school, is that if someone takes themselves too seriously, the best thing to do is apply a little humour. It does the trick every time - and they'll thank you for it when they realize that this makes them seem more human to the rest of us.

So what can you do? The opportunities are vast. Consider for instance:
  • Telling a scientist their biggest rival has had a break through
  • Moan about what a waste of money the Large Hadron Collider is
  • Ask them if they've heard that the government is now requiring all biology courses at university to include intelligent design
  • Ask if they really think that geeks are more attractive to the opposite sex
  • If dealing with a biologist, tell them you had some time to spare and washed up all those little dishes and tubes in their lab. No need to thank you
  • Ask them how the world will be made a better place by their work
  • Do some sums on how many starving children could be fed using their departmental budget
  • Ask why Brian Cox is always on TV, but they aren't
  • Say 'Science is very useful, but it hasn't the same inherent interest as the arts, has it?'
And so on. I'm sure you can think of much better ideas. And remember, if you are a scientist, you clearly don't take yourself too seriously, but think of all those colleagues who do. Get to work!

I have been asked why today - why is 14 April National Wind-up-a-scientist Day? Well it is the birth date of Christian Huygens, he of the early wave theory of light, who was pretty good at winding up Isaac Newton. But, to be honest, it primarily commemorates the day on which I thought 'this should be National Wind-up-a-scientist Day.'

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

What science isn't

We quite often get certain newspapers slagging off scientists for changing their minds, or for daring to get things wrong. At the same time, those who dislike the theory of evolution criticize it because it's 'only a theory.' After all, surely science is about discovering absolute truths?

I'm not sure how we do it, but we really need to redress the balance on just what science is. I think part of the problem is our tendency to use terms like 'natural laws' or to make statements about scientific ideas like the Big Bang as if they were proven fact.

Although he is disliked by many modern philosophers of science, there is a lot to be said for the views of Karl Popper. He typified the scientific method as being one of falsification. He argued we can never prove a scientific theory right, but we can prove one wrong - so a lot of science should be about chipping away at theories, looking for flaws.

If we are honest and grown up about it, science is a best guess based on our current information. Over time information will change and better guesses will emerge, overthrowing the current best. Some of those best guesses hold up incredibly well against what we observe. Others are, frankly, a bit shaky. But science is not 'the truth', some sort of absolute description of the universe and how it works.

Some would hold this as vindication for giving equal weight to every other theory, from creationism to alternative medicines. But this misses the point. Our current scientific picture is not just a random guess at what's going on, it's the best guess based on our current information. Unless you can come up with a better guess - one that better matches observation, or you can come up with new, reproducible information that supercedes what we're basing things on at the moment, then we'll stick with the current best guess.

If only people had this picture of science more clearly, maybe we wouldn't have the Daily Mail rolling out new 'causes' and 'preventions' of cancer every week, nor would there be attacks on evolution for being 'just a theory'. That's how science is - it's flawed, it isn't perfect. But it's damned good.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Philip Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'

In response to a tweet from the inestimable Marcus Chown (the power of Twitter!), I've recently read Philip Pullman's new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

It's rather a fancy little hardback with gold lettering and one of those dinky little ribbons to keep your place as you read, though in practice it's short enough to get through in one go.

The premise is simple - it's a retelling of the story of Jesus. The central conceit is that Jesus was in fact twins, the saintly Jesus and the more worrying and pragmatic Christ. It's Jesus we read about in the Bible - Christ was there in the background, changing the story where necessary to ensure it turns out the way he wants, which is to fulfil his vision of a church that will carry the message of Jesus into the future. To make this happen, Christ is prepared to make things up and manipulate events to reinforce the message.

So far, so good. That central concept of Jesus being a twin isn't quite as original as it seems. For example, the mad-as-a-ferret humorous fantasy writer Robert Rankin has a number of books that feature Christeen, who is Jesus' kick-ass female twin (the same books also feature Elvis and Barry the talking time sprout).

I'm rather fond of Christeen, but I'm not totally sure how well the twin idea works in Pullman's book. The way it's used, Jesus says/does all the bits that Pullman likes and Christ says/does the things he doesn't like. Unfortunately this isn't totally convincing or consistent from a character viewpoint. For example, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has a long internal monologue denying the existence of God, which is totally out of character with everything else he does.

Another slight problem is the approach taken. According to the bumf in the back, this is part of series retelling myths. Now I have no problem with the idea that the bible contains myths. Genesis, for example, has two separate (and inconsistent) creation myths in the first few pages. A myth is a story that's more than a story - it is an illustration of a concept about the universe, or the nature of humanity. But the trouble with calling the Jesus story a myth is that it's pretty universally accepted that Jesus was a historical character. And you wouldn't call a story about (say) Julius Caesar a myth, even if it's as unlikely as (say) Shakespeare's version.

In a way, what Pullman does is entirely consistent with the bible itself. There are four versions of the Jesus story in the bible - the four gospels. Each tells the story differently, and those differences are sometimes inconsistent. Theologians will tell you this is because the different people writing the gospels had different motives and viewpoints. These books aren't history as we now understand it - they are getting a message across involving historical events, but are quite happy to mess around a bit with history to make their point. (This was the norm until really quite recently - try reading Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histories of the Kings of Britain.)

The differences are that Pullman has less access to original sources, and has a rather more contrived central device. But if his point is to emphasize the way the gospels were written, something that's widely written about already, it's dubious whether the best way to do this was to adopt the same approach.

Unusually in a review, I want to comment on the back cover. In big letters it tells us 'this is a story.' My first thought was this might be an ironic take on Magritte's famous picture 'This is not a pipe.' But I don't think there was any irony. Instead, to be honest, I feel patronised.

The suggestion is that I, the reader, don't realize this is a story. Well I do. And for that matter it's not just a story. According to the bumf it's a myth, which is much more than a story. And it has historical content, even if we don't know which bits are truly historical. Sorry, but this statement really winds me up.

Overall, then, a mixed feel. Pullman tells the story in a simple approachable fashion, and has some excellent ideas, but I felt it didn't quite work the way it was intended.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

I don't want to be scared anymore

There are some things about life that definitely change as we get older - and I've just discovered one that's really rather taken me by surprise.

One of my daughters had watched the movie Paranormal Activity. We had the DVD for an extra day, and she said 'Oh, you must watch it! It's really scary.'

Now there was a time when this would have been just up my street. I've never liked gory films, but horror films like this, that scare but don't involve people being ripped to pieces, I've always loved. So I was all set for a pleasureably scary evening.

But then I thought, 'Hang on, do I really want this?' And when it comes down to it, if it is genuinely scary, what would I be getting out of it? The thought of being left a terrified wreck by this movie, or wanting to keep the lights on all night (as I admit I did after the Exorcist many years ago) wasn't appealing.

So there we have it. I don't want to be scared any more. Dr Who seems to be about my limit. That's plenty, thank you. Second childhood, here we come.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Feng Shui Wooi on Heart

Every now and then I like to take a mild pop at what is sometimes described in blogging circles as 'woo'. Not everyone likes this term, but it quite appeals to me. It refers to something based on superstition or bad science that is sort of all... well, 'Woooo!' (To be pronounced in ghost-like manner.)

I was saddened, if not totally surprised to hear our local commercial radio station Heart FM talking the other day about Feng Shui as if it were fact, rather than woo. Some local 'expert' had volunteered to sort out one of the presenters' love life by rearranging his bedroom (no, really). There was no real attempt to suggest that this was not a likely method to make anything happen. So I went into Mr Angry mode and sent an email of to Heart.

To his credit I got a swift reply from Mark Franklin, the programme controller for Heart Wiltshire. He said:

The whole purpose of the piece was not to give [Feng Shui] any validity. The team spoke of Feng Shui a few weeks ago as 2 of the on air team thought it was a load of rubbish and the third was open minded. As a result, a Feng Shui expert called up and offered to enlighten the team to its merits and to try an experiment – which they did.

Ultimately, they were having a bit of fun.


Okay, fine, but there was no reference back to thinking it was 'a load of rubbish.' More to the point, though, it was disappointing that the ‘expert’ wasn't pressed to justify that ‘expertise’ rather than just have it taken as such. How does it work? How has it been verified?

Something like Feng Shui may well be just fun as Mr Franklin suggests if it's done at no cost, but when someone pays good money for an 'expert' to do a Feng Shui reading (or whatever it's called), it's disappointing that there is no intervention by Trading Standards, given that this appears to be a payment for something where there is no evidence it works. Of course there may be lots of good evidence I don't know of - but in the absence of evidence, which way should the benefit of the doubt go?

Heart logo from Heart FM website
Feng Shui compass image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

I love my Bite card

I don't want to be accused of being tight or anything (I'm from Lancashire, not Yorkshire) - but I do like to save money. I've recently acquired something called a Bite card, which if you regularly travel by rail is wonderful. It's free to get, and gives you 20% off at food/drink outlets on UK stations. Okay, you have to buy food and drink - but I nearly always do when I travel by train, and 20% is pretty good, when compared with the kind of interest that's around at the moment.

You can sign up for a Bite card here. I ought to say I get no benefit out of mentioning this - I just think they're genuinely handy and wanted to spread the word.

It's not perfect - you can't use it, for instance, in the Krispy Kreme shop at Paddington (shame!), but it does cover all the major outlets that you find at most stations.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

New Scientist falls for a bogeyman

In my book Ecologic I describe the concept of an ecological bogeyman. This is either something that sounds scary but isn't, or that sounds good but doesn't deliver. It's something where words fool us into thinking something is better or worse than it really is. A classic example is the way advertisers use the word 'natural', which instantly generates warm, cuddly feelings, even though in practice nature is rarely warm or cuddly.

A bogeyman that regularly looms up is the word 'biodegradable.' It sounds good and green, so it must be good for the planet, right? And the parent company of New Scientist magazine have fallen right into its trap. The Feedback section of the latest issue explains that New Scientist is wrapped in a biodegradable form of plastic. This will apparently 'degrade when subject to environmental conditions to produce water, carbon dioxide and biomass.' The biomass will probably then degrade further giving off methane.

So now, please remind me, why we want this wrapper to turn into greenhouse gasses, rather than lock them away for hundreds of years? Biodegradable plastics belong to an older generation of ecology when we were more worried about having enough holes in the ground than about climate change. Get your act together, New Scientist.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Sorry, Jonathan Creek, but you got this one wrong

I very much enjoy Jonathan Creek, David Renwick's comedy drama in which designer of magical illusions Jonathan comes up with solutions to seemingly impossible crimes. I mean, it's Alan Davies, how can you not like it? Just occasionally, though, it's irritating because the writer gets it horribly wrong - and that was the case in last night's special, The Judas Tree.

One of the mysteries Creek solves is a Victorian puzzle where a man is seemingly murdered without a means. He is told he will die at a certain time. At the appointed hour he is sitting on a deserted lawn in plain sight. He checks his pocket watch - it's the time. And he dies. From the bushes far away, the Egyptian 'witch' who has cursed him screams - she says she saw death arrive. Nothing has touched him, nor has anything he consumed been poisoned.

So far, so good. The solution that Creek comes up with is that the man's pocket watch had been pumped full of hydrogen cyanide and sealed. The woman's scream was carefully tuned to shatter the glass, releasing the gas and killing him. Unfortunately there are two big problems with this.

The first is the cyanide gas. This was experimented with for gas warfare in the First World War and abandoned for the much less poisonous chlorine. The reason - it's lighter than air and disperses too quickly, before it can be breathed. The chances of a wisp of it escaping from the watch and killing the victim are negligable. Yes it is a deadly killer - it was the gas the Nazis used in the gas chambers - but is unlikely to work in the open air.

Much worse, though, was the breaking of the glass. It is incredibly difficult to do this, and the singer has to produce the exact note the glass produces when it vibrates. A random scream would not do it. More to the point, the singer has to be very close to the glass - no one could do it from distant bushes. And worst of all, the glass has to be able to vibrate with the resonant frequency. Tap a wine glass and you hear it 'sing.' Tap a watch glass and you get a dull clunk. The fact that it is fixed in place means it can't resonate. It couldn't work.

Now you may say 'So what?' It's just a story. But the whole point is that there is a real, physically acceptable solution to the seemingly impossible problem. If we don't have to worry about real world science applying we might as well say someone waved a magic wand and cursed him, or invisible fairies flew in and smothered him. I'm sorry Mr Renwick, but here the science simply doesn't hold up. Better luck next time.


Picture from Jonathan Creek website

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps.

Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think).

That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope? It sounds like it should be straight up vertically, but I assume it's really 1 in 1 or 45 degrees.

It's widely reported that the general public is very bad at understanding percentages. That is sad, and ought to be rectified - but it's true. So why, in heavens name, make a street sign, something that a driver is supposed to pick up and react to in seconds, in a format that most people struggle with, and a format that is never conventionally used to measure an amount of slope? It's madness. Madness, I say!

{Retires gibbering.}

Photo from Freefoto.com

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Ancient is not the same as sensible

There are times when I despair at the ability of human beings to assume that just because we've done things a certain way for a long time it must be correct. Thanks to Michael Brooks (right) for pointing out a very sad case of an MP who has demonstrated all too well that he shouldn't have anything to do with running the country.

The man's name is David Tredinnick (left), who is the Conservative MP for Bosworth in Leicestershire. This was a man whose parliamentary expenses included the purchase of some astrology software. Hmm. According to the Leicester Mercury, Mr Tredinnick had this to say in response to David Brooks (who is standing against Tredinnick as an independent candidate):

There is a danger that so-called scientists are so set in their ways that they are unable to consider alternative viewpoints. Systems of healthcare in India and China have linked medicine and astronomy for centuries. Are we really just dismissing their views?

It's difficult to know where to start with what's wrong with this statement. Part of the difficulty is hauling yourself off the floor after collapsing there in laughter. But really the response should be horror rather than humour that an elected representative of the people could say this.

First of all, why 'so-called scientists'? Is Mr Tredinnick suggesting that scientists who disagree with him (i.e. pretty well all scientists) are scientists in name only because of this? Is Mr Tredinnick a 'so-called member of parliament'? This is just silly.

Next comes the 'scientists are unable to consider alternatives' defence. This just doesn't hold water (not even homeopathic water). Scientists spend all their time coming up with alternatives. They are much more open to alternatives than (say) MPs, who consider changing your mind to be always wrong. ('You turn if you want to, the lady is not for turning!')

Then the killer. 'Systems of healthcare in India and China have linked medicine and astronomy for centuries. Are we really just dismissing their views?' The simple answer is 'We certainly are.' For hundreds of years, systems of healthcare in this country managed to do more harm than good. Now we know better. All ancient medicine is based on incorrect models of how the body works. Any good it does is accidental. But most of it doesn't do any good.

Let's be very clear. Just because something has been considered true for centuries does not make it correct. In fact, it makes it less likely to be correct, because it has to be based on an incorrect understanding of how the world works. Almost all the scientific ideas of the ancient Greeks were wrong, but they were typically held for over 1500 years before being dismissed. This is no sense anti-Chinese or anti-Indian. Traditional Western medicine was also considered true for centuries, and was also wrong, based as it was on humours, miasmas and 'cures' like bleeding.

Crowning it all is the implication that 'linking medicine and astronomy' can benefit anything. Again, the whole of astrology and astrologically related medicine is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the solar system. There is no basis, there is no evidence. Please, Mr Tredinnick, think again.

Photo of Michael Brooks from www.popularscience.co.uk
Photo of David Tredinnick from www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk

P.S. I ought to say, given the date that this is not an April fool's joke. I wish it were.