Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Where there's muck, there's brass

There's a certain brand of journalism that consists of taking a press release from a company, jazzing it up a bit and using it as an article. It happens a lot, because it's very easy to do. I like to think I'm not susceptible to it, but one company that seems uniquely capable of pushing my 'Ooh, that looks interesting' button is Electrolux. It's bizarre when you think about it, because it's not a brand I would associate with innovation - yet they keep coming up with these press campaigns on innovative subjects. We've already had the (totally unfeasible, but joyful) kitchen appliances of 2099 and the 2050 hi-tech cooking surface. Now there's something very much of today - vacuum cleaners made from sea debris.

The idea is simple. According to QI (ahem), the biggest rubbish dump in the world is in the ocean - there is currently a vast amount of plastic debris sloshing about in our seas. Electrolux is planning to harvest plastic from six ocean locations (including the North Sea and the Med) and then to make from this debris 'a limited number of vacuum cleaners.' (Design sketch of how one might look below.)

Now in one sense this is purely a publicity stunt. It will be a fairly small scale activity, and certainly not commercially viable. The harvesting of the plastic will use different techniques dependent on location, from 'diving after it to scooping it from the waves.' The chances are such vacuum cleaners will cost a lot more to make than they could be sold for. But the idea isn't to start a new model range, it's to put them 'on display to decision makers and consumers as part of spreading the word.' So it might be a publicity stunt, but it's a potentially valuable one, and one that Electrolux deserves a pat on the back for.

The message is to get more plastic from manufactured goods recycled, and less of it ending up in the oceans. As Celia Nord, Electrolux's extravagently titled Vice President, Floor Care Environmental and Sustainability Affairs puts it 'This issue is much too important to leave to politicians.' Quite right. Clean up, Electrolux.

If you have the strong stomach required to watch corporate videos, here's the Electrolux take on their effort in shiny moving pictures:

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

That Jack Johnson gets everywhere

Last week I was watching an old QI. (Yes, again. I do other things as well, honestly.) One of the topics covered was Jack Johnson an American boxer from the olden days who was famous for hitting someone, or whatever it is that boxers get famous for. My main interest at the time was 'That name rings a bell,' but I put it to one side. About 20 minutes later I had to drive off to ferry someone around in standard parental fashion. Radio 4 came on. And they were talking about... Jack Johnson.

Spooky! Well, that's the conclusion that fake mystics would like us to draw. In fact this is a lovely example of what's clumsily referred to as 'confirmation bias.' The point is that every day there are thousands of things you register mentally that don't have a match for something else. We don't notice these. It's just the very occasional one where there's a coincidental second event that stands out and gets us excited.

Those who want to deceive us about their mental powers use this kind of thing all the time. Here's an example. A great mystic goes on the TV. 'I'm going to stop clocks with my mind,' he says. 'I'm starting to concentrate. I'm sending out waves of power. These waves will intefere with delicated clock mechanisms. Clocks are beginning to stop.' Amazingly people ring or email in. Their clock stopped when the 'experiment' was underway. But clocks have to stop some time. Millions of clocks didn't stop when the mystic did his thing. A few will have done over the period of time he claimed to be sending out his waves (whether or not the mystic was there). And suddenly we've got an amazing demonstration of mystical powers.

A couple of days later (and nothing to do with confirmation bias), I remembered why that name Jack Johnson sounded familiar. I used to sing barbershop, from the magnificent Songs of Yale (generally known as the Yale Song Book). In it there is a song called George Jones in which the eponymous George has a party to name his firstborn child. He comes up with a string of boys' names that are clearly references to famous characters of the period, many of which mean nothing to a modern listener. One was Jack Johnson. (George's wife then does the same with a string of girls' names.)

In case you are interested, this is the putative son's name:
George Washington, Christopher Columbus, Madison and Douglas Lee, Jim Jeffries, Joe Ganz, Jack Johnson, Booker T, Admiral Dewey, Thomas Jefferson, McKinley and Sherlock Holmes, Obadiah, Hezekiah, Abraham Lincoln Jones.

And this the daughter's:
Martha Washington, Amy Semple McPherson, Shirley Temple, Gypsie Rose Lee, Cleopatra, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Lydia P, Aunt Jemima, Texas Guinan, Victoria and Kate Malone, Adeline, Gertrude Stein, Lindy Lou Eliza Jones.

Suggestions welcome for who the other non-obvious characters are!

Picture from Wikipedia

Monday, 28 June 2010

Simon Jenkins collects his tithe

This post is part of a response to an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian on Thursday. This follows a string of comment columns from Jenkins attacking science. Technically speaking, this should be a spoof article attacking science in the style of Jenkins, but while it parallels some aspects of Jenkins' column, it didn't turn out that way. You can see more details of the response here.

All over London there are "mammoths of tripe." Costing hundreds of millions of pounds, these are "newspaper offices" whose editors pay large sums of money to "interesting" and "cutting edge" columnists. Ask not the value of the tripe these individuals pour out. The columnists jeers at the idea of value. These are outpourings of bile that are justified by the writer's faith rather than any appeal to reason.

No one does it better than self-professed mathematics expert ("I studied advanced maths to 16") Simon Jenkins. Week after week he turns to the fundamentalist columnist's lastest craze of attacking science. Newspapers are crammed with columnists like him - newspapers seem obliged to have commentators who totally lack expertise in the subjects they trumpet with such sound and fury. Only irrational scepticism is admitted in this new orthodoxy, arguably the latest attempt to rebut C. P. Snow's 1950s description of the "two cultures" by denying the significance of science.

Jenkins is shameless. After a brief canter through his distaste for everything scientific we are subjected yet again to ad hominem attacks, total ignorance of the significance of science to society and business, and an agenda that is purely driven by a blinkered, classically "educated" view.

In the end, when we look at these overpaid columnists we have to ask, given what we are shaping up for under the Osborne cuts, do newspapers really need to spend hard-earned money on expensive columnists like Jenkins? There are so many better informed bloggers and other commentators whose opinion is available without charge. I am sure they would be prepared to do a deal to be republished for a fraction of a Jenkins. (Now the official unit of over-payment for a column. There are ten Jenkins to a Clarkson.)

Unfortunately, subject to threat, columnists try to turn themselves into a religion. They believe that somehow they have become supreme beings essential in their own right, not just worth spending money on, but deserving of our adoration - and they believe that they are entitled to take a tithe of the price of our newspapers.

I share Jenkins' glory in the wonder of human opinion, beautifully expressed in words. But it's time we realized that paying extortionately for comment columns, many of them (though I'm sure not Jenkins') run off in half an hour when there is nothing better to do, is a thing of the past. It's time for literary dinosaurs to take their exit with due grace.

Brian Clegg is an author and blogger and definitely not Simon Jenkins.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

QI just doesn't get probability

I'm a great fan of QI, but there are some subjects their question writers (and Stephen Fry) just don't get - one of which is probability.

I was watching an old edition on Dave last night (as you do when there's nothing else on) and this question came up (approximately: I'm relating it from memory):

If you toss a coin what is the chance of getting heads?

Someone answered 50:50 and off went that irritating klaxon. No, said Stephen Fry. When a human being tosses a coin, the face that is up when you toss it has a slightly better chance of winning. If the head's up, it's 51:49.

Yes, but it their aim to be clever, they have totally missed the point. They didn't ask If you toss a coin in the heads up position what is the chance of getting heads? Because of the way they asked the question there's a 50% chance you started heads up and a 50% chance you started tails up. So there's a 50% chance of it being 51:49 and a 50% chance of it being 49:51. End result? 50:50, just like the penalized person said.*

I know this sounds petty, but the whole game relies on the petty application of frequently misunderstood knowledge, which means they really ought to do better on such a basic point.

* Technically it's not quite 50:50 because of the different aerodynamic properties of the two faces, but it's close enough for these purposes.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Can a fact be a stereotype?

It's easy to come up with a knee-jerk reaction that labels information you don't like as a 'stereotype' hence dismissable. But can something that is factually accurate be a stereotype? According to my trusty dictionary, a stereotype is 'A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.'. Although it is not explicit, I would suggest 'preconceived and oversimplified' implies being factually inaccurate.

As soon as we accuse someone of assuming a stereotype to be true, the suggestion is that they aren't reporting facts but rather some biassed idea that doesn't reflect reality.

I was fascinated, therefore to see this assertion on the Geek Feminism blog:

It looks like a visit to Fermilab has no impact on boys’ gender stereotypes about scientists, but it has a strong impact on challenging girls’ gender stereotypes about scientists. For girls, there was a 58% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings; for boys, there was a 0% increase in female scientist representation in their drawings.

(Emphasis from original.)

Now let me be very clear. I am 100 percent in favour of there being no gender differentiation in the selection of people to be scientists, and I believe that everyone, female and male, should be encouraged in an interest in science. I would be delighted if we had equal representation of both sexes in the sciences. And I am very disappointed if the lab visit had no impact on boys' portrayal of a scientist.

But the repeated use of the word 'stereotype' seems to be misleading. There are many more male scientists than female (particularly in the physical sciences.) The picture above (apologies for fuzziness, it is sealed in a glass-fronted frame) is my final year physics group. Despite some difficulties identifying who is what due to a lot of long hair, there are many, many more men than women.

My problems are twofold. One is the misuse of the term 'stereotype', the other the odd nature of the experiment described. The author is looking for students to switch from representing scientists as male to female after a lab visit. But even in ideal conditions of a 50:50 gender distribution, there would be something wrong if all the scientists pictured were female. That too would be a misrepresentation. But not a stereotype.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Does a company's ethos change customer service?

Ever since my time at British Airways I have been very interested in customer service. I even wrote a rather nice book about it. A lot of customer service can be trained, but I've always wondered how much a company's nature comes through in the way its employees treat the public.

Sometimes this seems to be true. If you take supermarkets, I've always found Tesco customer service rather cold and couldn't-care. This is typified by an experience when I once found a bank note on the floor in a Tesco store. I took it to the customer service desk, and the attitude was basically 'Why didn't you keep it? You are wasting my time because I now have to deal with this.'

Sainsbury's, by comparison, while brisk, tends to be rather better. I once went to the customer service desk there because I had left a washing powder box on the rack under a trolley and forgot to pay for it. When I voluntarily took it back, they were effusive about how good it was of me.

However, the picture is not straight-forward. You might expect ASDA, the UK arm of the mighty, but not exactly caring sharing WAL*MART, to be similar to Tesco. But it's not - the employees are usually very friendly and give genuinely helpful customer service. I can't help but wonder if this reflects ASDA's roots as a North of England store. Similarly, despite the wonderful corporate ethos of John Lewis, its Waitrose tends to be a little cool in attitude - perhaps contrasting the less friendly attitude of the South East.

Unfortunately I have one example of customer service that totally smashes the ethos concept. Of course it could just be a data blip - this is all based on a ludicrously small sample. But what it suggests to me is that the individual is just as important as the company spirit. Customer service is given by an individual person, and that person's attitude can make all the difference, whatever the company policy.

The example I have in mind is from Sky - an organization that is normally seen as ruthlessly businesslike and uncaring. This was back in the early days, when you could only obtain a Sky remote from Sky themselves. At the time our dog was obsessed with remote controls. Unless you left them well out of reach she would chew them to pieces. And she particularly liked the slightly rubbery feel of the Sky remote. We went through about a dozen of them.

I had written off to get a new one, and imagine my surprise (as they say) when two arrived in the post. But what made this a customer service triumph was the hand-written note that accompanied them. 'I have put two remotes in,' said the Sky representative. 'One for you, and one for the dog.' Now that's what I call capturing customers' hearts.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Douglas Adams lives on at CERN

I'm a big fan of Douglas Adams' work, though I don't believe he ever quite achieved the same manic wonder with his books that he did with the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio scripts. I am less certain, though, about his obsession with Apple computers as it gave his ideas on technology a gloss where style was more important than substance.

Specifically in one of his books (I think one of the Dirk Gently books, but I can't be bothered to check), one of his main (if dead) characters is an entrepreneur who makes his money out of add-on software for spreadsheets that turns the financial data into music. Somehow you can spot bad company results by discords or some such guff. You really have to be blinded by the technology to really imagine accountants responding well to a package that only runs on Apple and that turns your finances into electropop or Stockhausen.

The reason I bring this up is a BBC report (genuine, unlike my news from the USND at Hoople yesterday) that 'Scientists have simulated the sounds set to be made by sub-atomic particles such as the Higgs boson when they are produced at the Large Hadron Collider'.

Unfortunately the idea that they have simulated the sounds 'made by' particles is rubbish. They aren't simulating the sound of collisions. What they are doing, a la Adams, is representing the data from collisions musically, with position represented by pitch and energy by amplitude. It's really no surprise when we discover that a composer is involved in the project. Yes it's one of those half-brained, waste-of-tax-payers'-money attempts to do a science/arts crossover. (Where's the Chancellor's axe when you need it?)

But to suggest that this is seriously going to be used to analyze the data is insulting our intelligence. A software engineering is quoted as saying When you are hearing what the sonifications do you really are hearing the data. It's true to the data, and it's telling you something about the data that you couldn't know in any other way.

I'm sorry, leaving aside the irritating word 'sonifications', this is balderdash. It may make it easier to spot certain very specific things than it is if you check the data by eye. But who is going to check it by eye? A proper computer analysis would be able to spot anything the ear could pick up from the sounds, and much more. It's a gimmick. You can either look at it as a silly art project or a good way to get publicity. But I no more expect particle physicists to start analyzing data by digging the musical vibes (man) than I expected Adams' accountants to be jiving to the company reports. It's not going to happen, and I'm rather disgusted by the BBC science reporting that they reported it straight without the hint of a raised eyebrow.

Want to know more about the Original Radio Scripts? See at or  at

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Is this the write gene?

From the BBC Science Correspondent

Scientists at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople announced today that they have discovered a relationship between a relatively unusual form of the gene Pax2t and the urge to be an author. In a state-wide trial it was established that a variant of this so far unremarkable gene makes it impossible for an individual not to write. The gene is also responsible for our tendency to 'nest build' which has led to the suggestion that for authors, books are in a very real way their children. It is hoped that with further research it will be possible to develop drugs to target the gene and correct the mutation.

Okay, you guessed, it's not true. The university so far best known for its discovery of P.D.Q. Bach has not come up with a 'writer's gene', though it's interesting to speculate whether the urge to write is a mutation that really ought to be corrected.

What does appear to be the case is that many writers are driven. There seems to be a strong divide between people who feel 'they have a book in them' or 'would really like to write a book when they get round to it' and those who simply can't help churning out text. (Perhaps, in this sense it's more a written Tourette's than a nest building phenomenon.)

The strange thing about this is that writing is such a modern concept. In genetic terms it happened yesterday. So clearly it's a distortion of something else that was already there. I can't think it's a general urge to communicate, because a lot of good writers aren't particularly good at talking to people. But there has to be something behind this often irresistable urge to put words on paper. With a lot of other authors, I'd say that writing isn't something I choose to do, it's something I have to do. But why? I await the next press release from Hoople with interest.

Photo by Peet Morris, titled by the photographer 'Come over here and say that.' It shows an author, attempting to communicate, in Blackwells, Oxford.

Monday, 21 June 2010

How do you consume news and comment? The enrichment of bloggery

My parents always took a newspaper. When I was young it was the Manchester Guardian, for instance, though their reading matter drifted more right wing with old age. It was absolutely assumed when I was at school that one would take a paper - there was even discussion about the merits of different rags as a part of setting us up for life. But I never have.

Don't get me wrong, I buy newspapers, but on an ad-hoc basis. If I've got a bit of time to spare, as a treat. Actual news I get from the TV and the interweb. In fact I think it's time we examined just what news is, and how best to get it.

Just as it's being suggested that banks are split into two parts - the high street, basic banking functions and the speculative, risky actions, perhaps it's time we more explicitly divided our consumption of news. Part of it is reporting on what's happened (or in the case of Radio 4's Today Programme, speculating about what will happen later today). Part is opinion. Traditionally these have been packed into the same bundle, but it's a bundle that is coming unravelled. Perhaps we should accelerate the process.

When you think about it, isn't a paper document published the next day a pretty terrible way of getting news? It is, after all, out of date before it's printed. So why bother? How about, instead of newspapers, selling commentpapers. Okay, you could have a one page summary of the news, but the rest would be just comment, opinon and analysis. We've already had the news the day before from broadcast sources, let's enjoy some risk and speculation, just like that second arm of the bank.

This is also where blogs come in. They are the comment section alongside online news services - and already run separately. Although I do buy newspapers, I much more regularly stock up on comment from blogs - and I think every sensible reader should be.

If you aren't doing this already, the two essentials are to get holder of a blog reader, and to get in a habit of making a note of blogs you come across that are interesting.

For blog readers I'd recommend starting with Google Reader, as it's simple and easily accessible. Just go to Google, click on the little drop down at the top that says 'Reader' and you're there. Once you've set it up you will see the latest posts from all your favourite blogs, so you can have a quick 10 minute boost of opinion and comment whenever you fancy it.

Of course, just having the reader is no use without selecting content. You might want to search out a few blogs to add to begin with (including this one, of course). But then, just add them when you serendipitously come across them. You might be directed to a blog from Twitter and find the post interesting, for instance, or see a reference from a news item. Try for a mix of blogs - some on general topics, some matching your own areas of interest.

Add the blog. With most, if you are using Google Reader, this is as simple as clicking on the Add to Reader button, often found under a 'Subscribe to Posts' widget or similar, like the one to the right of this blog. If there isn't such a facility, just copy the URL of the blog, the pop over to the reader, click on 'Add a subscription' and paste the URL in.

If after a few weeks you find you are skipping through all the posts from this blog, simply weed it out of your list. (I would leave it a few weeks, because any blog can have a run of a few poor posts.) That way your list evolves, always interesting, always expanding on your current interests.

I'm not saying abandon newspapers - but it is worth thinking a bit about just why you read them and what you get out of the process.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Keyboard roulette

Until I went to work in the British Airways OR (Operational Research) department, my use of keyboards was pretty limited, but once there I was spending all day programming various models. I was never formally taught to touch-type, but I just picked it up by habit.

It's one of those strange abilities, because if you ask me where an X is on the keyboard, I couldn't tell you. But if I have to type 'X' I can do it without looking.

And that's just as well - because my keyboard is showing distinct signs of heavy usage. Specifically, quite a lot of the letters are starting to wear off. Because I do touch type, it's not a problem for me - but it's quite amusing when someone asks to borrow my computer.

First they are thrown by the ergonomic keyboard, where two parts are split into separate blocks, at an angle to each other with a biggish gap in between. I began using these about 10 years ago, when I started to suffer from wrist pains after typing and find them absolutely brilliant. But it is, I admit, slightly offputting if you are used to the usual layout.

Then they start to hunt-and-peck type. And it's all 'Where's the O? What happened to C? M must be somewhere.'

Interestingly, although it's starting to disappear, E isn't the most worn character - all these seem to be in the lower two rows, which suggests I use less force on the upper keys, a reasonable suspicion if you think about the different angles your fingers are at.

So next time you ask to borrow my computer, unless you are a touch typist familiar with ergonomic keyboards, prepare for some keyboard roulette.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The passive music defence

Freedom is a funny thing. We all like to be free to do what we want, but it usually comes with the rider 'provided it doesn't harm/distress/etc other people.' Possibly even 'As long as it doesn't scare the horses.'

The classic example is the smoking ban in public buildings. Some smokers still moan about this, but the fact is it was foul for the non-smoking majority who had to suffer smoke-filled pubs, restaurants and the like. I don't care how much people moan about how it was better in the good old days - it wasn't. They wanted to do what they liked in public, and it caused the rest of us discomfort, distress and quite possibly harm.

The smoking ban is not, as some have suggested, the nanny state, it is a matter of freedom - freedom for the non-smoking majority to go to a pub or restaurant without an accompanying smog and stink.

I was drawn to an interesting parallel listening to whinging buskers on the radio yesterday. They were saying how terrible it was that many towns and cities require them to have some sort of permit to perform in public places. Some towns even have the temerity to ask them to audition, which they found outrageous. Well, I'm sorry, but I'm all in favour of getting rid of horrendous noises from the street, underpass and Tube. The passers-by are subjected to a cacophony from some buskers, just so they can, in effect, beg for money with a horrible noise to attract the attention. Audition them within an inch of their lives, I say.

If I'm honest, I don't like any passive music. Even a virtuso violinist or a superb singer irritates me. If I want to listen to music, I'll choose what and when. I don't want to be bombarded with musical graffiti as I go down the street. I appreciate I'm probably in the minority in this, but I'd do away with the whole concept. If they want to perform, they can put on a concert where people can choose to listen or not to. Don't force it on me. Why does their right to perform trump my right to peace?

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Heard of the element darmstadtium? My mug hasn't

The periodic table is large and rich, but most of us are a touch hazy about the newest elements, the heavy substances that sit at the far end of the table and have only been around, in the case of darmstadtium, since 1994. But even after 1994, element 110 wasn't darmstadtium, it was ununnilium.
Confused? Time to find out more in my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element

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


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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

How food snobbery can ruin a full English

One of my favourite treats is having a meal out, and every few months I treat myself to a cooked breakfast. Today I had an hour to spare while one of the daughters was in an exam, and it's wasn't worth driving all the way home, so I popped into The Pantry coffee shop in Swindon's Old Town, were the breakfast illustrated comes in at under a fiver, which isn't bad.

While eating breakfast it struck me that there are a number of ways that food snobbery in some establishments (often posh hotels) ruins this great British tradition. They are as follows:
  1. No beans - baked beans are an essential component of the full English, but often omitted in smart establishments becuase beans are what common oiks eat. They provide essential contrast and help to cut through the excessive meat content that is otherwise at the heart of the breakfast.
  2. No potatoes - I'm afraid The Pantry, as you can see, let me down here. Potatoes make or break the full English. I can understand why posh venues don't want to include hash browns (though there is nothing wrong with these if all else fails), but there is no reason for not providing the real thing, which is fried potatoes. Polly Tea Rooms in Marlborough is excellent at these, though they fall down on the baked bean test.
  3. Too high fallutin' sausages -  possibly my most controversial suggestion, I believe that some sausages are too good for the full English. Let me stress straight away that the tasteless and textureless mush tubes served up in (say) Asda aren't good enough. But if you go for a massively flavourful Cumberland sausage, say, it can overwhelm everything else, and the essence of the full English is being able to mix, say, sausage and potato or sausage and beans and appreciate all the tastes coming together. The right level to pitch it, I'd suggest, is the quality of sausages most supermarkets sell as their premium (Buy the Best/Extra Special/etc.) range.
  4. No sauce - it looks from the picture as if The Pantry let me down on this too, but I just hadn't put it on yet. Most venues will provide brown/tomato sauce, but it can feel very intimidating having to ask for it in a posh venue. For me, breakfast without brown sauce is a limited experience. I also recommend sauce be served either in sachets or bottles. The posh venue will tend to serve it in a ramikin or similar with a spoon. The trouble with this is you don't know what's got into it, or how long it has been standing open to the atmosphere, flies etc. They have no problem putting a bottle of wine on the table - the same should go for sauce. (It also shows if they've gone for a good brand or generic).
The full English (or Irish, Welsh or Scottish) is, without doubt, one of the triumphs of British catering. Long may it remain so, without being watered down by foodie sensibilities.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

When multiculturalism becomes cultural imperialism

As I've observed previously, I've been involved in music in my spare time as long as I can remember. My particular favourite genre is Tudor and Elizabethan church music - rather specialist, I admit - though I'll happily sing (and have sung) practically anything.

I also conduct a village choir, and it's indirectly from this that my concern arises. The choir is affiliated to an organization called the Royal School of Church Music, which sounds very grand (and sometimes considers itself to be very grand), but is really just a practical support group for choirs performing church music.

Every quarter, the RSCM produces the imaginatively titled Church Music Quarterly. In the most recent issue it was suggested we should all investigate church music from different cultures, which is fair enough in principle. But one of the articles went further and told us that every service ought to involve a piece from another culture, preferably involving singing a language we don't understand. I'm not so sure about that.

What I particularly resent about the tenor of these articles is the way that multiculturalism seems to be a one way street. No one seems to suggest that (say) African churches should include some Byrd or Tallis in their music. But we are expected to drop it in favour of music from a different culture. If the RSCM were to say that Chinese churches should not use Chinese music it would rightly be seen as cultural imperialism. But when I want to use the music of my culture, it is looked down on as being patrochial and isolationist. It's time we did away with double standards of this kind.

The picture shows one of my earlier experiences of singing in a choir, in this case a subset of the choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge c1976. I'm second from the left.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Hey! I'm an iPhone app!

In truth, the headline is inaccurate in practically every way. I am not an iPhone app. And strictly speaking one of my books (which is what I meant) isn't an app either, it's an ebook that is bundled with an ebook reader as an app. But the result is much the same - the fact is that US folk can get a copy of Before the Big Bang for their iPhones, iPads or iPod Touches (you can see it here)... and I am very jealous. Because I can't.

The problem is the intensely messy tangle that is the way book rights work. Before the Big Bang is published by the superb St Martin's Press in New York. They have world rights, so can sell it wherever they like. But US publishers don't usually sell into UK bookshops, because the traditional approach was to sell subrights to a UK publisher who brings out another version. When this doesn't happen, as is the case with B4tBB, Amazon sensibly sells the US version in the UK. So is doing a roaring trade in the book, other online stores like Waterstones online do list it but typically have a 2-3 week wait while they get a copy from the States, and bricks & mortar shops don't have it at all.

When it comes to ebooks, it's generally possible to buy an ebook anywhere if the rights support this - but Apple is clearly taking more of a Music/DVD approach, so isn't allowing a US ebook to be sold in the UK. Which, frankly, is a pain.

I'm particularly disappointed because it means I can't buy a copy. I'd love to have B4tBB on my iPhone, but iTunes won't let me. (Note, 'buy a copy'. Although authors get free copies of all editions of their physical books, it seems we aren't allowed ebook freebies. But I would have bought one if I could.) Still it doesn't take away from the fun of it. My very own iPhone app. I feel like a proud parent.

Image from iTunes website

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Desert Island Disc-aster

Moan disclaimer: it has been commented in the past that I moan a lot on this blog. Let it be noted that I am blogging about this topic specifically because I was asked to by my friend Helen, not because I intended to.

There are bits of BBC's Radio 4 of which I am very fond. But there are certain programmes that I switch away from as fast as the radio's buttons allow - and one of these is Desert Island Discs. For those not familiar with it, a famous person (the 'castaway') is supposed to be washed up on a desert island with a solar powered music machine, a handful of records, a book and a luxury. Their choices are weaved into a discussion of their life and work, with snippets played from the records.

In one sense, my aversion is pure gut. I hear that awful theme tune (see below) and I just want to run and hide. There's no logic to that, simple knee-jerk reaction. If I try to analyse the dislike, in part it's that the format is so dated. It was started in an age of reverence for authority figures, and you feel the presenter should be dressed in a DJ (even though she is now a woman), as all good radio presenters once were.

My second problem is that the whole thing feels so false. The scenario of the castaway, certainly, but also the whole pally, 'Let's chat over a coffee and learn a little about your through the music that was important in your life,' makes me shudder. It's hardly probing and insightful.

Perhaps most of all it's because I'm not interested in 'famous people' (not that I've heard of half the people they drag on). If it were someone I knew personally, then, yes, I'd listen with interest. But what do I care that some obscure painter or orchestral conductor or politician or whatever was inspired at the age of 13 by Elvis Presley?

Is that Desert Island Discs I hear on the radio? Must dash, I've some paint to watch drying.

Image from BBC site

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP's directors should go to the movies more

I was listening to an analysis of BP's rising problems of anti-British antagonism in the US over the oil spill yesterday, and couldn't believe what I heard.

In hindsight, said a commentator, putting (British) chief executive Tony Hayward in the US media was a mistake. They would have been better to have used an American executive to be the voice of BP. There were lessons to learn.

This is a terrible excuse. It's a bit like saying after spending millions developing a perpetual motion machine, 'We should have learned the lessons of thermodynamics.' It's not news, guys, it's basic stuff. You should have known already.

Have these people never watched an American movie? Generally speaking, if a man has a British accent, he's a baddy. (Women are allowed to have British accents and not be bad - this is apparently less threatening.) US culture hammers home time and again that you can't trust the British guy. Even the way they speak isn't right - their use of English is, like, unamerican!

So what do BP do? Put Tony Hayward up there. The moment I heard him speaking, without at all listening to what he was saying, I thought 'This is a mistake. They should have used an American.' There's no excuse, it was cultural incompetence, pure and simple. We've had multinationals long enough that we should have learned the lesson by now. HSBC even uses the need for global companies to understand local mores in their TV ads.

I can only assume BP executives spend much too much time at the opera and not enough in the cinema.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Forget Houston, I've been to Swindon

It comes as a surprise to many people that the UK has a Space Agency - but perhaps even more of a shock is where the British version of NASA is based - in sunny Swindon. Yes, it here that you find the headquarters of the UK Space Agency.

I went along there a couple of days ago with Mark O'Donnell of the BBC in our several week mission to boldly go where science and technology have had an impact in Wiltshire. After the likes of Porton Down, the Science Museum Library and Dyson I expected a rather dull trip. In the end, the Swindon centre is an administrative hub - there's no mission control or satellite building going on here. But in practice it was an engaging visit with a number of individuals for whom science and space are clearly a passion.

We interviewed three of the staff, including Dr David Williams, the acting chief executive, who is anything but your average stuffed shirt administrator. Part of the joy of the visit was the richness of the projects involved. There's a good mix of inward-looking satellite systems with immediate practical applications, and the outward looking work, with involvement in everything from Hubble to Planck, engaged in fundamental research on the nature of the universe.

Another role of the agency is education. They quite sensibly argue that there are two topics that effortlessly grab the attention of younger children - dinosaurs and space - and use space and satellites as a way of injecting excitement into anything from monitoring the decline of forests to geometry (through looking at how GPS works). They also have a set of goody boxes for schools containing bits of meteorite and slices of moon rock. I'd seen one of these before, but not quite so intimately. Funnily, the meteorites make more of an impact, because they are big, hefty lumps you can hold in your hand, where the moon samples are on glass slides and can't be touched.

In a final, rather engaging, chat we compared early influences - Dr David Parker of the Space Agency staff being fired up by a Magpie A-B-C of Space annual which he still proudly owns along with his album of space tea cards... the inevitable science fiction whether in books or the likes of Star Trek... building Airfix kits of rockets and space capsules... and even good old Patrick Moore.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Me and my history teacher

I ought to start straight away by saying that the vast majority of teachers are great, and that this isn't knocking the teaching profession in any way. But I want to tell you a little story about me and history.

At secondary school, I loved history. I was a leading member of the History Society for the lower half of the school. I lapped it up. And yet the last history test I did, I got 18%. They wouldn't let me near a history O-level.

Now I admit, in part, this is because I was bad at memorising lots of information. This is why I loved physics O-level so much. I condensed down everything I needed to remember for this on half a sheet of quarto paper. (We hadn't got A4 back then.) Everything else I could deduce. But history wasn't like that. (There's still too much memory in the subject as taught, I'd suggest, today.)

However I put my total incompetence at history down to a single teacher we suffered. He was a lovely man, dedicated to the school. In fact he didn't really know much else. He'd been educated there and he spent all his working life there. He's dead now, but long after his retirement he spent much of his time at the school. Striking character though he was, he was a terrible teacher.

His lessons consisted primarily of two things. The major part was recounting his experiences in the war. These were quite interesting. He alleged (and it may well be true) that he was the soldier who just happened to be nearby when Hess parachuted into the country and gave himself up, so that first night he was in charge of Hess, before someone more senior could turn up. But his reminiscences had nothing to do with any history curriculum known to man.

The other thing I'm a bit more vague about, but seemed to consist of being told how one should and shouldn't behave. This meant not being like the yobbos from 'Slopton on the Slush'. And also (I really can't remember why) regularly featured the catchphrase 'If you haven't been to Manchester, you haven't lived.' Manchester was pronounced 'Minchester' in this. Great for the school mimics, less useful for history.

We simply learned nothing. This was at what was, and still is, considered one of the best academic schools in the country. So it doesn't surprise me to hear there are some bad secondary school teachers out there. But what surprises me in this child-centred world is why we don't have any mechanism for doing something about it. All the students know who bad teachers like this are. Those who want to learn (and there are plenty) get really frustrated by them. But there doesn't seem to be a mechanism for pointing this out to the school. If parents do, they're whingers. If students do, they are overstepping their bounds.

And that's a shame. I have no intention of sitting the exam now - I console myself that I have at least written some history of science books - but I still regret never getting further with history.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The excessive cleanliness brigade slip up

I'm all in favour of sanitation and hygiene. But I think there is good evidence that an obsession with cleanliness is pyschologically worrying - and that if we want children to develop reasonable natural defences, they do have to be exposed to a bit of dirt now and again.

The latest weapon in the fight against dirt is a system from Dettol which provides a handwash dispenser where you don't have to touch the device to have the soap dispensed. From the manufacturers point of view it's a no-brainer. This is a way to get people to pay more for their soap, and to lock them into buying Dettol rather than cheaper supermarket own brand. (The dispenser itself is quite cheap at £9.99*, but the handwash is £2.69 per 250ml - which is decidedly expensive and where they'll make their money.)

In their advertising, Dettol claims this is a great step forward, because the plunger of a traditional handwash dispenser harbours bacteria, so when you press it you get bacteria on your fingers. However, they seem to have had a bit of a logic fail. What do you do after touching the plunger? You wash your hands. So it doesn't matter if the plunger has bacteria on it. Now if they were offering a way to turn off the tap without touching it after washing your hands, that would be different. But they aren't.

Prices from (I tried to get them from, but you have to log in before you see a product. Not very friendly, Tesco.)

Monday, 7 June 2010

Will ebook readers go the way of the PDA?

Now, listen and attend, for this is an important lesson. Once upon a time there was something called a PDA, a TLA (three letter acronym) for the rather pompous 'Personal Digital Assistant.' It was, in essence, an electronic Filofax. Somewhere to keep your diary, address book, notes and the like. As in reality it was a pocket computer (as sung of by Blondie), it could also do snazzy things like display photos (though not take them), play music, record a voice and, with suitable add-on hardware, provide satellite navigation.

Now the PDA is no more, thanks to the smart phone. A Blackberry, an iPhone, or one of the alternatives does pretty well everything a PDA could, some things it couldn't (take pictures, make phone calls) and often has hardware built in for GPS and more. Why would you possibly want a PDA? Okay, it was a little bit better at some of its functions because the screen might have been a bit bigger. But you wanted a phone as well, so why carry two bits of hardware?

When smartphones first came out, I argued they were too big - but by the time the iPhone arrived, the form factor was perfectly acceptable. We've moved on.

Now I'd suggest the same thing is happening to the dedicated ebook reader. The iPad and a host of other tablets that will come out over the next few years will kill the dedicated reader. I'm not saying at this stage that the iPad itself will be the killer in the same way the Blackberry and iPhone were for the PDA (though it may be) - but the type of device will make the e-reader redundant.

'But, no!' scream the e-reader fans. "Ebooks are much better on e-readers. The screens work just as well in sunlight. The contrast ratio is more natural, more like paper. They don't use power when you aren't turning the page. They MUST survive.' Piffle, I say. This is the argument for Betamax over VHS (do we remember video recorders?) - it was technically superior in one respect, but that wasn't enough to make it survive.

The fact is, I'd rather read an e-book on my iPhone than an ebook reader. Page turning is much more natural, and the screen is fine in the places I'm likely to use it. (Not an a beach, I admit, but I don't use it on a beach.) And I have it ready, for instant use, wherever I am. The iPad or equivalent carries this forward. Okay, it's not pocketable, but I'm more likely to have it with me for its other features. It's not the best screen to read ebooks on, but I will balance that negative with all the other positives it gives me over those frankly clunky, black and white, slow to refresh, limited in facilities ebook readers. They don't stand a chance.

Image from Wikipedia

Saturday, 5 June 2010

History of the world in 100 objects? No, it isn't!

Every now and then I happen to be in the car at the right time and catch one of the BBC's History of the World in 100 Objects series. It's very good - informative and entertaining, but it irritates me that the title is almost entirely incorrect. It's not a history of the world and though it is about 100 objects, it's a misleading label.

I have a personal reason for complaining. They're doing this on local radio too, and I took a local object with real interest for history in a while ago - a lovely pair of ammonites from my previous garden (shown here), found in the chalk. The BBC lot thought they were wonderful, but I wasn't allowed to include them in the local set of objects. Why? Because they weren't man made.

Okay, BBC, now listen very carefully. The vast majority of the history of the world has not involved human beings. And the vast majority of objects are not manmade. What you are actually doing is The History of Humanity in 100 Artefacts. That's fine. I have no objection to you doing that. But please use words a little less carelessly.

Friday, 4 June 2010

We Need to Talk about Kelvin

My friend Marcus Chown has an excellent popular science book by the name of We Need to Talk about Kelvin. But this isn't the Kelvin I had in mind. I mean Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun 'newspaper'.

This particular Kelvin was on last night's BBC Question Time to balance out Matthew Parris (nasty journo/nice journo) - don't you just love BBC balance?

At one point they were discussing the Israeli attack on the aid convoy on the high seas. Our Kelvin pointed out that if he were on a British street and someone attacked him with an iron bar, then if he had a gun, he would shoot the attacker, just as the Israeli soldiers did. They were entirely in the right, he suggested.

I can't understand why no one pointed out that his analogy was flawed. Try this. If he were sitting in his open topped car and a gunman from another country dropped down into the car from a helicopter, then he would have defended himself with an iron bar if he had one. That seems a lot closer to the truth.

I'm not anti-Israel. I support their right to defend themselves. But attacking a boat on the high seas - in international waters - just in case it has weapons on board is not acceptable behaviour.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

I say 'nobellium', you say 'nobeelium', let's call the whole thing off

What can you say about an element like nobelium, number 102 in the periodic table? Neither use nor ornament? Well, probably. But you can have great fun with the name. How did it get it? The story is tangled. How do you pronounce it? Even the Royal Society of Chemistry had an argument before choosing between nobellium and nobeelium.

Time to find out more in my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element

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

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Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Wiltshire Words

I had a very enjoyable evening last night, speaking at the Wiltshire Words event in the library at Corsham. The idea of the event is to bring various authors, many with Wiltshire connections, along to local libraries for different events. I think this is great - it's a shame more libraries don't do this kind of evening.

One of the things that was particularly enjoyable was that it was quite cosy. There was tea and cake, and we were in a compact enough space for the discussion at the end (I was covering Ecologic, which always evokes a fair amount of discussion) to be very much among the whole group, rather than just Q&A.

They've had a great collection of authors along and there's still a chance to catch some if you're in the Wiltshire area. Highlights coming up include a creative writing workshop at Devizes tonight (2 June), Piers Bizony on Space Tourism (tonight in Warminster) a Roald Dahl party at Bradford on Avon tomorrow afternoon, David Aaronovitch on conspiracy theories at Bradford on Avon (7.30 on 3 June), and amazing trio of Lucy Diamond, Sarah Duncan and Veronica Henry at Corsham (7.30 on 3 June), Sue Mongedien at Westbury on Friday (4th) afternoon... and much more. Take a look at the programme. Now.

Photo from Google maps

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Ghost hunting with Derren

I have to confess Derren Brown has gone up in my estimation. Just based on his shows, I thought this stage magician/mentalist was rather a pain, but his recent series investigating various paranormal claims have shown him to be an effective sceptic and (apparently) quite a nice guy.

Two interesting points came out of his recent piece on ghost hunting. One was a shocking statistic. Apparently nearly 50% of the population believes in ghosts. That doesn't surprise me, it's about what I would have guessed. But was does it that it seems this has quadrupled since the 1950s. Now that is worrying.

The other was when Brown was dealing with an American ghost hunter (or demonologist as he classed himself). I was fascinated by the way Buffy style fiction seems to have taken over people's lives. It's fiction folks! We had a house with demon possession, where the owner was certainly seeing things. But it was also a house with a picture of a demon on the mailbox and the word HATE as a decoration on the sideboard. Might the owner be a teensy bit inclined a certain way?

The ghost hunter, who definitely believed in what he had seen, had two big physical proofs (leaving aside a video of someone having a fit). One was photographs. The one he thought was best 'showed' a human face in the mist in a graveyard. But as Brown later pointed out, you could make out all sorts of shapes from the mist. And given how we are programmed to recognize faces, it's hardly surprising you could see one. (In fact Brown could see another face, and I saw a third.) They were just random shapes.

The other biggy was EVP, Electronic Voice Phenomena. These are produced by asking questions to a voice recorder then leaving a space. When the recording is played back there are strange noises in the spaces. Only these noises sounded like static or wind noise. The ghost hunter interpreted them to be what he wanted to hear - but to the unbiassed ear (including Brown's) there was no information there.

What wasn't pointed out, but I thought was telling, is that there wasn't one recorder present there were two. There was also the recorder used by the TV crew. And strangely that one (which unlike the ghost hunter's handheld hadn't got automatic volume control, so didn't boost the silences) didn't pick up anything. Hmm.

When I first heard about EVPs I was really interested. They sounded like a genuine physical proof of some sort of phenomenon. As Brown claims, though I'm a sceptic, I genuinely would like there to be something to ghosts and such - I've been fascinated by ghost hunting since reading about Borley Rectory in my teens. But if the sort of random noise produced on the show is the best you get, I'm afraid they aren't worth the bits they're recorded on.