Friday, 30 December 2011

What is job security?

Umbrellas - not doing a lot of protecting
With all the sad news of job cuts and redundancies I feel a strange reversal of role coming over me.

When I left British Airways around 17 years ago to work for myself, lots of people said 'I couldn't do what you're doing. I'd love to be my own boss but I couldn't cope with the lack of job security.' It was a scary thought, coming out from under the protecting umbrella of an organization that paid your salary with satisfying regularity at the end of the month.

It's true that over the years there have been times when things have been very tight. There are no guarantees when you work for yourself. Your next bit of earnings won't just come drifting in, you've got to go out and find it. And yet the whole idea that I was doing something risky compared with those who stayed working for a company, or a public body, assumes that there is such a thing as a guarantee.

But now when I compare myself with someone who has been made redundant, I feel strangely secure. They suddenly have nothing come in. I don't doubt it's harder for me to get projects going at the moment, but on the whole I can find ways to keep going. In a sense I have more security because I can't be made redundant. There isn't a circumstance where I would have to start again from scratch. What a strange reversal.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Exceeding expectations

If I'm brutally honest, I've never really understood the attraction of Dickens. Those of his books I've read have been overlong, often dull, filled with ridiculous character names and caricatures, and mawkish. But I have to confess I so far have found the latest TV adaptation of Great Expectations a delight.

This is not harmed by having the wonderful Gillian Anderson in the Miss Haversham part, which she endows with a wondrous mix of otherwordlyness and downright nuttery.

But it's more than that. The whole thing is both gripping and engaging. There's really only one truly silly Dickens character, the uncle with the stupid name. Bumblewick or some such gobbledygook.

So maybe I was a bit premature writing Dickens off. At least in TV adaptations.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Do we live a charmed life?

I am puzzled by a statistical blip. Quite a high proportion of our children's friends have parents who have split up. Not that surprising you might say. Yet when I look at our own friends, none of our close friends, and only one or two friends in the 'go for a drink occasionally, but not what you'd really call mates' category are divorced. All the rest just got married and got on with it.

The last thing I want to do by saying this is jinx things, but luckily (?) I don't believe in such superstition, magpie greeting apart. It is quite interesting, though. Does it reflect the kind of friends we seek out, the circumstances in which we meet people, a statistical outrider or a whole combination thereof? Probably. Dunno. But it's interesting to think.

And finally, as they say on the news, I gather from the excellent Mark O'Donnell on our local radio that the chimpanzee that played Cheetah in the old black and white Johnny Weismuller films has died. He was 80. I don't know why, but that's something I find interesting too.

Ain't statistics wonderful?

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

In praise of girls and women

Although the title of this post could be general, I had something specific in mind - cathedral choirs. This time of year we get more than usual exposure to cathedral choirs and their college equivalents, and they look as if they're preserved in aspic. But recently there has been a small revolution which I heartily welcome.

Traditionally such choirs have been all male, with boys taking the top treble part. There are choirs with women at a good few of the cathedrals, but they tend to be a separate, 'second league' choir. Some believe that boys and men provide the best sound there is. There's even an organization dedicated to preserving the traditional cathedral choir. But I think it's a load of tosh, which is why I very much welcome the fact we're seeing the occasional female singer joining first rank choirs.

What the anti-women brigade argue is that women's voices don't have the same clear purity as a boy's. And actually, on the whole this is true. In part this is because most good female singers will have been trained by a wannabe opera singer and will have had vibrato introduced, which is all wrong for a cathedral choir (take note, Oxford). And in part this is because women's voices do break, just less obviously than men's - and women don't have the same sound as boys (or girls).

However I think there are two ways we can and should see mixed choirs flourishing. One is that the boys should be joined by girls, with the same age limits. I defy anyone to do a blind test between well-trained boys and girls of the same age and tell which is which, as long as there is an age cutoff. Younger girls also have that clear purity. And the other aspect is that I think we are long overdue replacing male altos with women.

Cathedral choirs traditionally use male altos. I'm not biassed against them - I was one for a while. But their tone is very harsh. They work well in medieval music, but for practically everything else a female alto (provided she doesn't have too much vibrato) has a much better, blending tone. So I not only think we should allow women to sing alto, but we ought over time to replace all male altos. Sorry guys.

With these changes cathedral music would be significantly better. Then all we have to do is work on the FA/FIFA to allow football teams to be mixed...

Friday, 23 December 2011

I don't know much about art... but I ought to

'LOOK WHAT THE DOG DID' Pixels on screen
Brian Clegg - 2011

Although I earn my living as a writer I see this more as a craft than an art. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to the arts. Not that I don't appreciate music or painting - I just don't understand why it needs to be subsidised. But really when you look at the letters after my name, I ought to know what I'm on about.

I very rarely use these - who does these days? But technically my name should be followed by M.A., M.A., F.R.S.A. Three sets of letters - and every one of these has an 'A' for art.

In the first place I'm a Master of Arts in the original sense of being a 'magister artis'. There are those who moan about the fact that Oxford and Cambridge graduates only have to sit around for a few years and not go to gaol (I think the Oxford lot have to pay as well) to have their B.A. transform into an M.A. - but this misses the point. That's how it's meant to be. After all, these two establishments started the whole university business in the UK. A magister is someone who can teach - the idea is that after a few years you have gained the experience to be able to pass on the subject.

That first M.A. is in natural sciences. Why a master of arts for a science degree? Because 'art' didn't orginally mean just painting and such. It was the work of man as opposed to the work of God. So everything other than theology was arts. The second M.A. is in Operational Research, effectively applied maths. But at least it's a masters in the modern sense.

And then I'm a fellow of what many would call the Royal Society of Arts - but the clue as to why I'm there is the full title: The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Aha. Yes, I'm from the common end of the title.

So there you go. I may not know much about arts, but the letters after my name don't agree.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Colour me yellow

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

I had quite a lot of fun with this one, which has had the biggest response on Twitter of any podcast I've done. It's about the dye tartrazine. Chemically it's one of the azo dyes, which are by far the most commonly used dyes, but of course it also has its controversy as a food colouring, which is why I got the Twitter flood.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the RSC did a slightly flippant tweet about it saying Tartrazine might send kids crazy, but it's definitely a pretty colour - now if you actually listen to the podcast I was a lot more measured about its potential effects, but this introduction was enough not only to get significantly retweeted but also to cause the wroth of one individual who posted 7 tweets mostly along the lines of 'Ever read Nerves In Collision by Walter C. Alvarez, M.D. about the many epilepsies?' Well no, Mr Wild (with excellent nominative determinism that really seems to be what he's called), I haven't.

I don't know about anyone else but as soon as someone puts 'M. D.' after the name on a book spine I think that they're either a boy called Doogie Howser or they are not exactly producing scientific fact. Sadly most of Mr Wild's academic references were to a Yahoo group, which doesn't exactly raise confidence either. I knew E numbers caused concern, but I hadn't realized how knee-jerk the reaction would be.

However, the mini-tweetstorm isn't the subject of this post, it's tartrazine - so why not take a listen and see if Mr Wild was right?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

E books can get physical

A book selling online recently
I see from a YouGov survey, via a report in the Bookseller than books - real, solid paper books - are 'among the most popular online buys.'

I must admit, I don't find the results of the survey particularly surprising. For example we are told that customers are 'likely to use a different retailer for electronic and bricks and mortar shopping' - well, yes. It's not exactly a surprise, for example, that a lot of people buy online from Amazon and don't on the high street for obvious reasons. (Amazon really ought to buy out Argos - it would be a great fit.) Similarly, my daughters buy quite a lot of clothes online from retailers like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch that don't have stores in our town, so it's not surprisingly that they rarely visit these shops in the brick and mortar form.

As an aside, just as the next generation has a different view of electronic communications to us oldies, they also buy remotely in a different way. If I buy stuff online, it's stuff I want. I may occasionally send it back if there's something wrong with it, but otherwise I keep it. They will buy a bunch of clothes with the intent of sending up to 50% of it back. They regard online shopping more as a visit to a changing room than a visit to the till. (In this regard, BOO HISS to Urban Outfitters, which is about the only online shop that doesn't pay the postage on returns. So guess which mug does.)

But my main theme was the observation that books are amongst the most popular online buys. This makes a lot of sense. I know it's lovely to browse through a bookshop and thumb through books (though it is less pleasant then buying some of those thumbed-through books - some of the stock on the shelves is in terrible condition). But a lot of book purchases are either a gift or another book from an author you already know and trust. It's an ideal type of product to buy online. (And it's the right shape to post.) And long may people continue to buy this way - as well as through traditional bookshops.

I love a good bookshop, but I'm not one of those book police types who think if you don't buy from their favourite little indie store you are a philistine. I just want people to buy books!

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christmas slow-down

As happens every year, I'm afraid blog posting is going to get rather erratic over the next couple of weeks. Many apologies - but I will try to appear as often as time is available. The trouble is, with the dual requirements to

a) Rush around the house like mad clearing up because 'Someone* is coming round.' and

b) Indulge in far too much eating and drinking and watching TV that would be painful the rest of the year but is somehow right at the festive time

there really isn't enough time to blog as well.

So, in honour of my choir, which did an excellent job of the carol service on Sunday, I'll leave you with one of my favourite carols instead (this, incidentally isn't my choir):



* Not a euphemism for Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Just someone.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Science jokes bode well

There's been quite a lot of physics in the news lately, what with the faster than light (ish) neutrinos and the possibility of a sighting of the Higgs boson (not to mention a rumoured sighting of Brian Cox). It's rather nice - it even makes up for the BBC's nautical version of the goings on at CERN, repeatedly calling the elusive particle a Higgs bosun. (It's named after a guy called Bose, folks. Get with the plot.)

A very welcome sign of the interface between physics and the real world are the physics jokes doing the rounds, no longer confined to geeks and nerds.

You will all have seen (ad nauseam) A barman says 'We'll have no faster than light particles in here.'
A neutrino walked into a bar.

... But how about (via Calum Scott) this?: Argon walked into a bar. The barman says 'We don't serve noble gasses.' Argon doesn't react..

And thanks to Mark O'Donnell at BBC Wiltshire for this cracker: A Higgs boson goes into a church on Christmas Eve but the vicar says: 'Sorry, we don't allow Higgs bosons into our service.' The Higgs boson replies: 'But how else are you going to have Mass?'

All in all excellent stuff, though I have to say there's a lot of exclusion going on in these jokes...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Off the shelf makes sense

A shelf something could easily be got off
We hear in the news that our military has wasted around £1 billion failing to come up with an armoured vehicle so had to buy off the shelf. That piece instantly transported me back to my days at British Airways.

We got involved in an EU project to design a better check-in system. Great idea - check-in systems were incredibly fast, but had a terrible user interface. We went through months and thousands of pieces of paper in the set up process and finally got to the first real stage. And the Euro-powers-that-were told us the first thing we needed to do was design a computer terminal. From scratch. So that we had the best equipment for the job. We pulled out. If you want a way of interacting with a computer you grab a PC of the shelf. To design such hardware from scratch was ludicrous.

Firstly it would have been extremely expensive. I think the cost per unit was four or five times that of an off-the-shelf PC. Secondly all this time, effort and money could at best produce maybe a five percent enhancement in terms of matching our exact requirements. And most important of all, that 'at best' was never going to happen. The fact is that after years of deliberation by committee we would end up with a worst of all worlds device that was worse than the PC was back when we first started, let alone today's model.

Of course there are circumstances when off-the-shelf isn't the answer. But my experience with BA and other organizations (particularly public ones, or ex-public ones) is that many people have a ridiculously strong urge to build something bespoke that provides nowhere near the benefits that would be needed to outweigh the vast increase in cost over off-the-shelf. It wastes time, it wastes effort and very often you end up with something worse. My suspicion is that this is true of most MoD purchasing.

Now, time for my cup of coffee. Should I use an off-the-shelf kettle, or design something myself that will end up taking three months to build, will cost £527.47 and will start leaking after two weeks use. Hmm. Difficult one. Better get a committee together...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Get drawn into a book

Another of the books in the series
We all like the feeling of being immersed in a book that we're reading. You could say that you get drawn into the book. Now there's a chance to have this happen literally.

It's a rather fun idea from my UK publisher Icon. They produce the pocket-sized 'Introducing, a graphic guide' books, which combine punchy text with artist-created illustrations. You can see the kind of thing in this sneak peak of Introducing Relativity, though I have to say that the illustrations in the new book are much crisper and better drawn than these appear to be in the sample. Icon is running a competition to get a cameo role by being drawn in a new book by a well known popular science author (ahem), Introducing Infinity. So the winner will have themselves drawn as one of the figures in an image illustrating one of the pages.

To enter all you have to do is summarize a topic that the Introducing series covers in 100 characters in a tweet which contains both the hashtag #beinabook and the link http://tinyurl.com/bpal8od (that's just a link to their competition page). Simples, as all the best meerkats say. The closing date is 5pm GMT on Thursday 5th January 2012. The winner (judged most amusing and accurate by Icon Editorial Director Duncan Heath and me - sadly bribes are not allowed) appears in the book, while the 25 runners up get a free copy of an Introducing book.

That should be enough to enter, but to find out more see Icon's page on the competition, and to see the range of topics, here's a list of their books.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Turner tat

They thought if they did it in Gateshead no one would notice
Last week was Turner Prize time again (sorry for the delay in commenting on this, but another artform, Playboy, seems to have got in the way). Yes, it was that annual opportunity for those who have the suspicion that much of the arts is pretentious claptrap to have a field day.

The slightly surprising discovery was that I really liked Martin Boyce's winning exhibit Do Words Have Voices. Admittedly I haven't seen it for real, but from what I've seen in photos/ on the TV it is very impressive, and certainly no pile of bricks or dirty bed.

However the arts community can't yet emerge from its bunker grinning with relief. ('I say, Brian Clegg liked it. Can you believe it? Now we can have a happy Christmas!') Because I still heard a load of posing garbage spouted about it on the TV and radio.

What particularly got me was the way the arty types were saying of various entries (including the winner) 'Of course, only those in the know will appreciate this.' Apparently you have to be one of the cognoscenti to get anything out of these 'art works' because understanding them is all about spotting subtle references. If that is true, then what we are dealing with is not art, it's an in-joke. The whole point of art is to communicate. If the art doesn't do that unless you get the in-jokes, it's crap art. End of.

Picture from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

My photo is in Playboy

Don't get too excited now, but my photograph has appeared in Playboy magazine. (December issue if you're interested.) Here it is:
Okay, not necessarily what you were thinking of, but that's definitely my photo and you can take my word for it that it's a cutting from Playboy, specifically the edition shown here.

I must confess that I have never bought a copy of Playboy (no, honestly), so I was always very dubious about those people who claimed that they only bought it for the articles - but I must admit there was a lot more text in it than there were dubious photographs (and they were relatively tasteful). And, of course, all the great writers had pieces published in this august journal.

As the 'playbill' intro suggests, what is featured is a piece adapted from How to Build a Time Machine, so if you're a regular Playboy reader (for the articles, of course), you can get a bit of a preview of some of the material on offer. They've done quite a dramatic job with the opening spread, as you'll see with part of it below (though the real thing looks more impressive). I don't know if they have different versions of the magazine worldwide, but it's certainly in the US edition.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Goodbye Mr Higgs

The only Higgs definitely spotted
Or not. There have been a lot of rumours flying around the physics world as to whether or not the latest batch of info from CERN, released tomorrow, would include a sighting of the infamous Higgs boson. Frankly, as rumours go they don't have the same bite as a good sex scandal, but, hey, this science.

The search for the Higgs is, of course, one of the main justifications for building the LHC. This is a hypothetical particle that may be responsible for giving some of the other particles their mass. But something that the newspapers don't seem to grasp is that the LHC would be just as much a success if it showed that the Higgs doesn't exist. Personally, I'd prefer it if it doesn't.

There are bits of physics which have a kind of neat, natural simplicity. This doesn't necessarily mean that the maths is simple. I would include the notoriously tricksy general relativity in this class. But quite a lot of the more recent physics depends very heavily on complex, intertwined sets of mathematical conjecture - and I really don't like that. My not liking it doesn't make it wrong, but I would prefer it if the whole tangled structure was brought crashing down and someone came up with a more satisfying solution.

So part of me will be happy if the Higgs gets pinned down, because at least we will be making progress - but that happiness will be accompanied by a deep sigh. Because the alternative, whatever it turns out to be, could be more exciting - and much more approachable. Is that irrational? Quite possibly. But it doesn't stop me hoping that they don't find the Higgs boson.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 9 December 2011

Reach for the aqua fortis

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

Although chemists can devise some impressively catchy names –‘photon’, for example was coined by the chemist Gilbert Lewis – the standard naming conventions of chemistry can be a little dull. Nitric acid seems an uninspiring name for such a powerful compound. The old name ‘aqua fortis’ – literally strong water – has a much more appealing ring to it. Have a listen to find out more about this hugely important industrial compound.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Back to the Future

I know I've mentioned it a bit already, but I'm delighted to say that my latest book, How to Build a Time Machine is now published in the US and available in all good book stores/online. You can read more about it/buy a copy if so inclined at its web page. It also has a Facebook page for those interested/who want to discuss it and the physics of time travel.

Until recently, travelling through time seemed little more than fantasy. But quantum theory and particularly relativity open up ways to make time travel possible - and I still find it remarkable that no physical law prevents it.

How to Build a Time Machine explores our best understanding of time but really concentrates on how to manipulate it. There's the story of a time traveller's convention where no one turned up, and a tour through the remarkable possibilities of real time travel that emerge from quantum entanglement, superluminal speeds, neutron star cylinders and wormholes in space. There's even a physics professor who believes it's possible to build a working general relativity time machine on the desktop. I think it's just a fascinating subject.
If anyone in the UK fancies a copy, I'm afraid it doesn't come out here until January (as Build Your Own Time Machine) - but it can already be pre-ordered from Amazon, via the book's web page.

It's a bit soon for reviews (except those sent through a time machine), but here's a couple of early comments:

Brian Clegg conjectures on the world of time and space travel and brings it all beautifully down to earth. Brilliant. - Johnny Ball 
A solid overview of some of the quirkier corners of physics, with an entertaining connection to pop culture. - Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Spot on Monbiot

If I'm honest,George Monbiot has not always been my favourite environmental writer. Sometimes in the past he has come across as po-faced and impractical in his ideas. But I wholeheartedly support his Guardian article on Tuesday supporting nuclear energy.

He points out the vast damage the anti-nuclear lobby is doing to the environment. How, for example, the knee-jerk panic of the Germans shutting down their nuclear programme will result in an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere between now and 2020 alone.

He is also brave to point out at least two significant examples of totally spurious information being used to bolster the anti-nuclear cause. One is from an individual selling 'anti-radiation' pills whose claims have been exposed as false, yet whose 'findings' are widely used by anti-nuclear protestors. Another is the ludicrous statistics from Chernobyl, again brandished by the campaigners, claiming amongst other things that deaths from cirrhosis of the liver were caused by the nuclear accident. I was a trustee of a charity working in Belarus, and I can assure you that a much more obvious cause is by far the biggest medical threat there, not radiation.

I love the way Monbiot aligns anti-nuclear protestors with supporters of homeopathy and anti-vaccine campaigners. When misused it's exactly the same kind of dangerous woo. Great stuff, George.

He finishes with details of a fantastic sounding reactor that can produce energy safely and in large quantities from nuclear waste. While I can't believe it's quite the no-brainier he suggests, it sounds amazing. My suspicion is that it will be expensive, as otherwise the government would be biting people's hands off to get it. Yet it certainly sounds the way forward.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

It's too soon

A Christmas tree (not this year) plus reindeer substitute
I can't say I'm overwhelmed by the way people seem to be decorating their houses earlier and earlier for Christmas. I must admit I'm extreme. Given a free hand I wouldn't put anything up until a week before, but I have to give way to family pressure and go for a fortnight before. However I was quite surprised how many Christmas decorations I saw on houses in November.

Days-to-Christmas-ometer
It's not that I'm against Christmas jolity. And I must admit our days-to-Christmas-ometer does go up at the start of December. But I think there are good arguments for not decorating too early:
  1. If you do, you've given in to the shopkeepers. There was a time when no one would have decorations up this early. But as shops have pushed back the point they go into Christmas mode sooner and sooner, so houses have started to get their fairy lights out of the loft at an earlier date. I think we should stand up for our right not to be hustled into Christmas decor too soon.
  2. If you have a real tree it will be looking pretty sad by Christmas Day. This is, after all, the start of Christmas, and more to the point, the day when you are likely to spend more time in proximity to your Christmas tree than any other. Remember it has to last another 12 days after this. Get it at the start of December and it will be balding by Christmas Day.
  3. You can only sustain so much 'specialness'. If the decorations are up all through December they have become everday by the 25th. The whole point is to make Christmas special, but there's a real danger it just becomes part of the wallpaper.
So give it a thought. Let's have a campaign for a real Christmas and not an extended retail period.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Strangely pleasant

Now here's a challenge. I quite often write a bit of a blog post when an idea occurs to me, then fill it in later. Thanks to Blogger's mobile app, I can do this anywhere, tapping it in on my phone. So I'll write a title and a couple of lines of text that summarize the idea, then fill in the details later.

This particular post started that way, but with a difference. All I wrote was the title. And I can't for the life of me remember what it was supposed to be about.

It certainly wasn't about the sensation you get when you pull a piece of dry skin off yourself, though I do find this strangely pleasant. (I still remember when, age 10, I broke my arm and after the plaster came off the entire arm was covered in dry skin. Heaven.)

Nor was it about the slightly related pleasure that comes from an unopened jar of instant coffee. You take off the lid and there underneath is that pristine seal, waiting to be broken through. For some reason I remember discussing this with someone I used to work with at British Airways (I don't suppose you remember, Sue), well over 20 years ago. We both agreed about the pleasure, but then discovered it was from a totally different action. Mine was to run the end of a spoon around the edge, crisply slitting it open. Hers was to attack it with a spoon, bashing dramatically through. (Freudians have a field day. But remember psychoanalysis has no scientific basis.)

So what did it concern? Junk food? The peace that sometimes unexpectedly turns up during the day? Cadbury's Whole Nut? I really have no idea. Perhaps you have some thoughts...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Some different Christmas music

It's that time of year when, should you venture into a shopping mall or supermarket, you will be bombarded with Christmas music. Similarly the radio stations be increasingly groaning with Christmas tunes. Now, I like Christmas music. And I can't be humbuggy enough to point out that it's currently Advent, and Christmas doesn't start until December 25th. For some reason, Christmas music is all about anticipation. But I just wish they pumped out a bit more variety.

There are about 10 Christmas carols and 10 Christmas songs (please, not Slade!) that will get circulated over and over again. But it really doesn't have to be like this. I try to buy myself a new CD of Christmas carols every year, and this year went for this one - Fear and Rejoice, O People. It's mostly quite modern stuff (in the sense of post 1900), but nothing too weird.

There's a good mix of really top notch numbers, from the moving Howells Sing Lullaby that opens the disc to Tavener's hypnotic A Hymn to the Mother of God at the end. Generally the performances from St John's College Cambridge under Christopher Robinson are excellent, though the solo trebles are perhaps lacking in a little welly. The inevitable Rutter is one of his most subtle, There is a flower. There are two of Robinson's own carols - I preferred his traditional Hereford Carol, though Fear and Rejoice is interesting. Two lesser known treats are Geraint Lewis's Howells-like A little hymn to Mary and Arthur Oldham's Remember, O thou man, which has become one of my favourite choir carols since singing it at the Oxford University Physics Department Carol Service a couple of years ago.

Overall I really liked it. You can hear samples of the tracks at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. If you want to stretch your Christmas music experience there's a whole range of recommended CDs here, from traditional carols to quite challenging modern stuff.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Flipping coins!

Thanks to Peet Morris for this excellent example of probability running counter to common sense.

Imagine I have a huge stack of coins and flip them one after another. These are fair coins, with a 50:50 chance of coming up heads or tails.

First of all I flip the coins one after another (leaving the flipped coins on the table) until the sequence H T H comes up. At that point I stop and count the coins. Then I repeat this experiment many times.

For the second part I again flip the coins, leaving them on the table, until the sequence H T T comes up. At that point I stop and count the coins. Then I repeat the experiment many times.

On average would you expect it to take more flips to produce H T H, more flips to produce H T T or the same number of flips?

Common sense says this is pretty obvious. It's the same number of flips. And certainly if I take three coins and flip them, there's the same chance of H T H or H T T coming up. But, remarkably, things are different in the experiment above. On average you will take fewer flips to produce H T T than you would to to produce H T H.

Just take a moment to think how that might be possible.

Here's the sneaky probabalistic component that isn't obvious: in both cases, you need the sequence H T to come up first. Now imagine that you then get the wrong face on the next flip. So if you were looking for H T H you actually get H T T and vice versa. With this starting point, H T T has an advantage. If you were looking for H T T, and actually got H T H, then the last coin in the sequence is H. So you only need T T to complete your sequence. If you were looking for H T H and actually got H T T, then the last coin the sequence is T, so you need all three of H T H to complete the sequence.

The reason H T T does better is that the sequence of faces that isn't correct ends in the face that starts your sequence. For H T H, the wrong result produces a bad starting point, so you have to run the exercise that bit longer.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Relativity can be riveting

Looking back a long (long) way to my physics degree, special relativity was one of my favourite subjects. It's weird and wonderful enough to be amazing, but (unlike general relativity) the maths is relatively easy. Don't worry though, I'm not going to throw equations at you - I just wanted to share one of the remarkable paradoxes of relativity.

I've seen paradoxes defined as contradictions that can't be true, but I think a much more appropriate definition for physics is situations that appear to involve a mind-boggling contradiction, that the physics tells us really is the way things are. And special relativity is full of them.

This particular one below I hadn't seen before, and I picked up from Andrew Stearne's book The Wonderful World of Relativity. (This sounds like a children's book, but actually it's a relativity primer that is probably best appreciated by those about to start a physics course at university, as it's a bit too textbooky for the general reader.)

Here's the scenario. We've got a table with a 10mm deep hole in it. At the bottom of the hole a beetle is happily beetling about, unaware that we are about to fire a rivet into the hole. The good news is that the shank of the rivet, the bit that will go into the hole, is only 8mm long, leaving room for our (rather small) beetle to feel safe and snug.

Unfortunately, though, the rivet is fired towards the table at a fair percentage of the speed of light. It's somewhat typical of this book that all it tells us about the speed is that γ is 2, which doesn't really give you an idea of how fast the rivet is going, but if my back of an envelope calculations are right, this is around 0.87 times the speed of light. Quite a fast rivet, then.

Now one of the weird effects of special relativity is that an object moving at high speed is squashed up in the direction of travel as seen by an observer. So from the bug's viewpoint the rivet won't by 8mm long, it will be just 5mm long. 'Wow,' thinks the bug, 'what was I worried about?' But before it sits back and starts reading the newspaper, there's something it needs to consider. Relativity works both ways. From the rivet's viewpoint, it's not the rivet that's moving, it's the table. This means from the rivet's view it remains 8mm long - but the hole is contracted and is now only 5mm deep. Squish goes bug.

So what really happens? (I use 'really' loosely. Let's face it, Wickes does not sell a 0.87 times the speed of light rivet gun.) Is the beetle somehow both live and dead, in the manner of the famous quantum cat? Sadly no. It's squish all the way.

Let's follow the event from the beetle's viewpoint. Down comes the rivet and slams into the table. At the moment before the impact the rivet is still just 5mm long as far as the bug is concerned. But here's the thing. Just because the head of the rivet has come to a sudden stop doesn't mean the whole rivet does. A wave has to pass along the rivet to its end saying 'Stop!' The end of the rivet will just keep on going until this wave, typically travelling at the speed of sound, reaches it. That fast-moving end will crash into the beetle long before the wave arrives. It will then send a counter wave back up the rivet and after a degree of shuddering will eventually settle down as an 8 mm rivet in a 10 mm hole. Too late, though, for that bug.

Isn't physics great?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

It's toys time of year

I confess I asked for a review copy of this book because it's hard not to get nostalgic about toys as Christmas approaches - waves of James May style nostalgia wash over you. I realized they were onto something good here when I opened the book to flick through it and found I'd read about 25 percent of it before I could force myself to stop. It's just good fun.

My suspicions are that the reason a book like this is so attractive is that when we were young (well, at least when I was young) and there were no personal electronic goods to tempt us, toys were the prime objects of our desire. We genuinely used to look into toyshop windows and lust after these things. We used to wait with eager anticipation to see if Father Christmas (none of this 'Santa' rubbish) had delivered on the day. We hadn't been bombarded by give-aways in McDonald's Happy Meals - toys were exciting.

Inevitably there are one or two favourites missing. Matchbox and Corgi cars were present, for instance, but not Dinky. And the text, while providing a lot of interesting historical factoids, was occasionally too rose-tinted. The Spirograph entry, for example, didn't mention that hardly anyone has ever made a Spirograph picture without slipping and spoiling it. Yet this collection of double page spreads, with big colour photos and genuinely interesting content was pleasurable and page-turn-demanding.

Really this ought to be the ideal gift - many, many adults over the age of 30 will appreciate it (though plenty of the toys shown are still going, or were until recently, so the appeal may be even wider). The only trouble is that some people may wonder what you are saying about them if you give them a book about toys. (Especially if it's a bloke and they're getting a book with a picture of Barbie on the firont.) So it may be that this is a gift that, on the whole, you will have to buy for yourself. But if you fancy an escape from the Christmas pressures into a time when things were less complicated, I can highly recommend it. Take a look at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Monday, 28 November 2011

Wonderful magazine, great taste

There is no doubt that for those interested in popular science in the UK, that the premier magazine to buy is New Scientist. I can say this with firmness as they've just published their collection of 'popular science worth giving this Christmas':

I draw your attention particularly to the penultimate book on the 'shelf. Of this we read:
Inflight Science: Brian Clegg, Icon Books - Everything you ever wanted to know about the science of flying - from the terrible taste of tepid in-flight tea to how we manage to defy gravity in a pressurised aluminium cylinder.
 What can I say? Excellent taste guys. (And some of the other choices are pretty good too.)

Friday, 25 November 2011

What is it with zombies?

If I'm honest I'm not a great fan of zombie movies (I even found Sean of the Dead a little hard going). Partly it is because I find gore-based horror sickening and in no sense entertaining. (I have to look away in bits of Casuality.) For me a great horror film is one that can scare you without showing you anything gross. And then there's the usual problem with zombie movies of the slow moving predator that somehow the prey can never manage to run away from.

However, I can't deny the popularity of zombies, whether they're turning up in civil defence planning, variants of Jane Austen or in the government.

So I was very interested when 'Dr Austin' provided me a copy of his Zombie Science 1Z. This is rather a neat idea - Austin Low (the real name of Dr Austin) is a Scottish performer who specializes in comedy, working with children and science. He performs a spoof lecture on 'zombieology' and this is the book of the lecture. The idea is to take the idea of zombies seriously, try to explain them, getting in quite a lot of medical science (he suggests it's a prion-based infection) and to entertain as well.

The original version of the book was, frankly, rather poorly produced - in fact, I thought it was self-published - but it has now been significantly tidied up and though I find the content occasionally a little whimsical, it's an excellent way to get a young(ish) zombie fan interested in a bit of science. Take a look at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com (Kindle fans can find it here for the UK and here for the US).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

What were they thinking?

There's a lot to love about the new TV advert for the UK's electrical/electronic retailers of last resort PC World and Curry's.



The pastiche of Star Wars is rather well done. The landing craft is believable and there's some nice acting like the almost-entirely-suppressed wince when the manager's car is crushed. Darth Vader is pretty good too.

However, have they really thought through the picture this ad puts across? Here are the key messages I pick up:
  • Our shops are run by an evil empire - buy things here and you are funding evil
  • Our training involves fear and peril
  • Our attitude to customer service takes its lead from Darth Vader, a (fictional) mass murderer and war criminal
  • Our staff are massed mindless automata of a controlling state
  • We are the bad guys
All in all, is this really the image that they want? Back to the drawing board, I think.

The version shown is the 'Director's Cut' which is slightly longer than the advert as broadcast

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Have a word with your authors, please, publishers

A review by some bloke
I know a bit about reviews. The first paid writing I ever did was a review for PC User magazine of a brand new shiny piece of software called Excel. I quite liked it. There followed a number of years writing reviews of business software, then computer games (which really is money for old rope) and finally books.

These days, apart from reviewing for www.popularscience.co.uk and for my blog, I do a fair number of book reviews for print publications from Wall Street Journal to Nature. And I have noticed a worrying trend. Probably because of the increase of easy communication through websites and social networking, people rather expect to be able to get in touch with a reviewer after reading their review. And a rapidly increasing number of authors are dropping me an email.

I put these emails on a scale, from 'appreciated' to 'not a good move', and sadly there are rather too many down the bottom end. Here's how they look:
  • Appreciated - a nice little note saying thank-you for the review. What's not to love, though the only downside is than when I see an email from an author titled 'Your review' I do get a few moments disquiet before I see it's a nice one.
  • Okay if justified - some emails correct an error in a review. This is fine with an online review as the correction can be published, though there's not a lot of point with a print review. However, make sure it is a genuine error. I recently had one complaining because I'd said the author used a technical term without saying what it meant. He asked me to correct the review, as he had explained the term in a note at the back of the book. Sorry, hardly anyone reads notes - the book was still difficult to understand as there was no explanation in context. I did correct the review, but I can't say I was impressed.
  • Silly - complaining about an opinion. A lot of the content in a review is inevitably an opinion. I recently received one as an editor (someone else wrote the review) starting 'I'm really sorry you thought this, and I am surprised at your conventionalism.' Frankly, so what? Why should I take any notice of your opinion of an opinion? All you are going to do is irritate me, and I may be responsible for another review of one of your books in the future. What's the point?
  • Not a good move - ad hominem attack. Some authors can't resist starting to make nasty remarks and name calling if they don't like a review I wrote. I'm sorry, I can't like every book. I didn't like yours. This is really self-defeating. Not only will this somewhat discourage me from saying nice things about you, if the insults are bad enough I will inform your publisher that you are a loose cannon and they won't be particularly happy. This isn't good for your career.
So, my recommendation: by default stick with a dignified silence. If you've got another review that's good, read that instead. If not, wonder why not. I really would only get in touch with a simple thank-you or to correct a specific factual error in an online review (e.g. if it says your book doesn't have an index, and it does). Anything else may make you feel good for a few seconds but isn't going to help and might make things worse.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Back to the apocalype

I've been revisiting post-apocalyptic Britain. (Any poor camera work was an attempt at Blair Witch style immediacy. It says here.)



There's something about the cold, heartless autumnal sun that makes it particularly appropriate for one man and his dog to feel like the last survivors in a post-apocalyptic world.

It's all very sci fi. But Goldie doesn't care. There might be rabbits still.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Oi, copper nob!

I'm the one on the right
I'm inspired to write this by a point made in a discussion about the Sepp Blatter/racism in football argument on our local radio station. The host, Mark O'Donnell, recalled a diversity meeting where he asked if it was any different to be insulting to someone because they're black and because they have red hair. He didn't say what the answer was, but I think it is a genuinely important question.

I admit, I'm biassed. You might not believe it now, but when I was younger I had very red hair. (And, as you can see, curly.) And I did get regular abuse because of it. Lots of name calling and nasty little remarks and even stone throwing once.

I honestly can't see why there is any difference between racial abuse and this. (In fact, technically it is racial abuse, as red hair is a Celtic racial characteristic.)

In saying this, I am not in any sense suggesting that racial abuse is okay because somehow it's 'just banter.' It is inacceptable. But I also think that it equally inacceptable to make fun of people for being ginger or red haired. It's time we stopped shrugging it off as okay because 'It's just a bit of harmless banter.' It's not okay.

When this was discussed on the radio someone phoned in to say that he worked in a bar and someone had refused to be served by 'a ginger.' This isn't just a bit of fun. It's no more or less harmless than racial insults and ought to be given exactly the same treatment. Any other attitude shows that the fight against racism is not about equality but about political correctness.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Why did the lemming cross the road?

Aww, cute. Apparently it's stuffed.
You might be surprised that some of the most entertaining press releases I get come from the Institute of Physics. I love them dearly, but just hearing the name 'Institute of Physics' you might think they're a bit po-faced. The reality is quite different, as reflected in the latest release, a doozy entitled Could lemmings be involved in regulating our climate?

According to a paper published in the IoP's Environmental Research Letters, the greening of the Arctic may not be down to global warming alone. Although lemmings eat grass and sedge, when they are present in an area these plants actually increase their hold. There are a number of suggestions why, but the important point is that a sudden burst of extra green cover isn't necessarily a sign of climate change if there are lemmings present.

I think this is quite fun, though they could have done better. The opening paragraph of the press release says:
The mention of lemmings usually evokes images of small rodents throwing themselves off the top of cliffs in acts of mass suicide; however, their reputations might no longer be determined by hearsay as a new report suggests they could be having an intricate effect on the Earth's climate.
There's a missed opportunity to point out that the throwing themselves off cliffs bit is generally considered to be an invention of a Walt Disney nature film where they were encouraged to do so to dramatic effect, rather than 'hearsay.'

You may be concerned that the story isn't about lemmings regulating the climate (I just love the idea of a horde of lemmings in a vast control room, pulling levers to control the Earth's climate) in some Gaia-like fashion. Rather it appears to be saying that a potential flag for climate change may be being corrupted by lemmings - but there is a section a bit later on that points out that if they increase the greenery they may be changing that area's ability to be a carbon sink, hence influencing climate change, though it's a bit tenuous.

Even so, I think we should pat the IoP on the back for the way lemmings have successfully drawn attention to what otherwise could have been a rather dull story.

P.S. Anyone else remember the computer game Lemmings? I loved it!


Photograph from Wikipedia

Thursday, 17 November 2011

When does marketing become lying?

Faced with the question 'When does marketing become lying?' many of those who are suspicious of capitalism and business are likely to come up with the knee jerk response 'Is there a difference?' But that's not fair. Marketing is a perfectly legitimate and sensible activity. You would have to be stupid not to want potential customers to see your product or service in the best light - and as soon as you aspire to this, you are thinking of marketing.

Unfortunately sometimes marketing crosses the line into deception. I posted quite a while ago about a marketing campaign where apparently hand-written post-it notes were attached to fake newspapers describing a trainer's work. I've also complained to advertising standards a couple of times about advertising that I think crosses the line. In both cases they didn't agree. One involved paper junk mail for a charity where the envelope implied it contained important personal information and it didn't.

The other was an email that had a subject line that said you had won a prize - in the body of the email it turned out that you hadn't won, you just had an opportunity to enter a competition to win said prize. Now I think that's deception. I wouldn't have read the email if it hadn't been for that lying subject line, and that wasted my time. But advertising standards didn't back me up. Sigh.

I've just had some spam that really pushes the boundary on fibbing, though. It starts out like this:
Hi Brian
I had so many business cards in my drawer that
I have put them all in a Rolodex efficiently.

It may have been a while since we met,
sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner.

However, I would like to get you lunch if I may please,
it would be a great opportunity to meet again after
such a long time.
It goes on to try to get me to go along to some kind of (apparently free) event including lunch. Now I have never met this person and have certainly not given them my card. This is made doubly clear because I received the mail twice to two different email addresses, one of which isn't on my card. What I don't understand is why the people sending this out think it will encourage me to think positively of someone who is fibbing about knowing me. Sorry, guys, it's a turn off. When marketing crosses the line it ceases to have a positive value. And that's a lesson every business needs to learn.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Ety-what-Icon?

I sometimes get sent to read a book that doesn't fit with www.popularscience.co.uk but that I want to tell the world about. Such a book is The Etymologicon.

I ought to get a disclaimer out of the way - this title is published by Icon, the same people who publish my Inflight Science, but don't worry, I've slagged off their books in the past.

As the name sort of suggests, this is a book about where words come from, which as a writer I'm a sucker for - but anyone should find it fun. It's light, entertaining and fascinating. Did you know for instance that 'pool' as in pooling resources and playing pool has nothing to do with water and everything to do with chickens (poulets en France).This is really one of those books where you have to fight hard to resist telling anyone in earshot little snippets every five minutes.

Any moans? Just occasionally I lost interest a tad, but it quickly picked up again and the flowing structure of little chapters meant that it's easy to just read one more. And one more. And another. Someone I spoke to who had already read it made a big thing of the way the end of each mini-chapter leads into the next one (ending up pointing back to the first chapter, hence the 'circular stroll' in the subtitle). I actually found this the least endearing part of the book - I found these links forced and unnecessary. But it just shows, you can't please all the people all the time.

In its rather handsome small hardback form (no dustcover, though) it's clearly intended as a gift book - and is going to make a great one - but this is also a book I would consider unashamedly buying for yourself. If you like words, it's for you.

You can see more about the book at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com... and for Kindle readers here in the UK and here in the US.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Top ten book marketing tips

Working an audience at Blackwell's, Oxford


Something that's regular asked over on the Litopia website is why authors are expected to work at marketing their books (surely that's what publishers get such a large chunk of the income for?) and what authors should realistically be expected to do.

The simple answer to the first part is because your book is more important to you than it is to them. I'm not saying that the publisher doesn't love it, but they've got to share that love across however many books they are publishing this season. You just have the one.

It's not that the publisher won't do stuff. They will put a lot of effort into trying to get the book reviewed and mentioned in the media (including sending out typically 100-200 review copies). They will look for opportunities for you to appear at festivals and similar gatherings. They may, if it's a big book, set up a website. But don't expect too much. Specifically they are very unlikely (unless you are a celebrity) to do any poster/TV advertising, so don't be disappointed.

However there's a lot more that you as an author can do. Here's my tips to help get your book noticed:
  1. Be prepared to give time for anything your publisher sets up (interviews, broadcasts, public appearances). If you are reluctant to do your bit, they will soon lose interest.
  2. Make it part of your everyday communications. Put the details (including links to buy it) in your email signature, for example.
  3. Look for opportunities to be visible locally, things the publisher might not do - local radio/newspaper, contact your local bookshop about a signing etc.
  4. Use blogging, Twitter, Facebook etc. to spread the word. But don't get tedious about. All too often people stop following you if all you do is sell. Try to give added value.
  5. Set up a Facebook page for your book and optionally a website for your book.
  6. Consider doing your own book launch if the publishers aren't doing one (and most books don't get one). I've never done this, but quite a lot of authors do, and if you organize it right you can get some visibility.
  7. Get yourself set up as a Goodreads author and set up author pages on Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk
  8. Email everyone you know. This has to be done subtly. Do a personal email, but include stuff about your book. It takes time, but is much better received than a generic mail to a mailing list.
  9. Look for specialist websites (like my www.popularscience.co.uk for popular science books) that might tell a targeted audience about your book.
  10. Do an online search for relevent businesses that might have an interest. For example, when I did a book about infinity, I emailed companies with 'Infinity' in their name to see if any wanted to buy copies as a corporate giveaway. One ordered 100 copies.
Does this sound like too much effort? It probably is compared with the return you will see for any particular activity. But the fact is there are a couple of million books out there in print in English. If you don't do everything you can to get noticed, in a way that will get you noticed rather than irritate people, then you can resign yourself to staying in the long tail of books that don't sell many copies. It's up to you.

Added P.S. - Excellent 11th suggestion from Neil Ansell:
One thing you don't mention is a book trailer. I filmed mine myself but it was edited and posted by the publishers. It's had 4000 hits and counting, which doesn't exactly make me Justin Bieber, but is encouraging nonetheless.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Nanodry

  I've always been interested in nanotechnology. In part it's because it winds up the Soil Association, who really don't like it. But mostly because there's something fascinating about technology that uses components that are verging on the quantum scale. And there's the 'Fascinating Voyage/Incredible Shrinking Man' aspect of seeng the world differently when looking from a very small perspective. As Richard Feynman said in a piece on the subject, there's plenty of room at the bottom.

Although the pinups of nanotechnology are nanobots, which for the moment remain more comfortable in science fiction than in a manufacturing plant, the everyday uses are both more mundane and more realistic. Probably the most widely used at the moment is in sunblock, which makes use of nanoparticles to block the nasty UV, but I rather like the look of a nanotechology being used to make trainers and other flexible materials water repellant. Let's face it, there's nothing more depressing that a pair of trainers the water has leaked through. The smell of soggy trainers is bad enough at the best of times, and the feel of that water coming through is horrible.

Abingdon-based P2i have produced a nanotechnology coating that is 'hydrophobic.' This possibly isn't the best choice of adjective, as hydrophobia is another name for rabies, but the idea is simple enough - we're talking molecules that don't like water and repel it, while allowing the material to 'breathe.' The neat thing about working at the nanolevel is that water works that way too. Unlike ordinary coatings, this stuff takes on water molecules at their own scale, reducing their chances of slipping through the gaps.

Apparently the technology is already used by a range of snazzy sports brands, is employed on around 50 percent of hearing aids (who wants a soggy hearing aid?) and is soon to appear on mobile phones. But the specific application that caught my attention was the pictured running shoe from Magnum, which has the added benefit of a £10 donation to Help for Heroes from each pair sold.

In good hair product advertising mode, let me put on my white coat so I can say here is the science stuff and lazily reproduce some information from a press release:
The liquid-repellent nano-coating technology is based on PhD research carried out by Stephen Coulson, at Durham University. It originated as a project within the UK Government's Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL), to make soldiers' protective clothing more effective against chemical attack while maintaining comfort.

P2i's technology employs a special pulsed ionized gas (plasma), which is created within a vacuum chamber, to attach a nanometer-thin polymer layer over the entire surface of a product.  This dramatically lowers the product's surface energy, so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply roll off.

The nano-coating technology can deliver performance benefits for a wide range of materials, including polymers, metals, fabrics, leather, ceramics, glass and paper. Even complex, 3D objects incorporating several different materials can be treated successfully.
Ooh, er. Apparently the trainer to look out for is the V-Lite Intrepid HPi H4H, which isn't the catchiest of names, but hey. They are rather scarily priced at £100 (even more scarily they're £175 on Amazon, which I like to think is a mistake), which is more than I would pay for a pair of plimsoles, but if you are into this kind of thing I'm given to believe that this not usual pricing for such hi-tech kit.

Friday, 11 November 2011

If you mess up, don't sue people who point it out

An award that does not get anyone sued
This is a very sad story from the world of writing. A couple of years ago a company set up an awards scheme for British writers called the Brit Writers Awards. Their company's business was making money from helping starting writers, but the awards appear to have been genuinely to support new writers, and the first ones went well. I really have no problem with their aiming to make money from the services they offer to authors if they're upfront about it.

Unfortunately, after a couple of years, things started going a little wrong. I have no information on what happened, but my suspicion is that they weren't making enough money out of the business to keep things going properly. At this point, when people were starting to get disappointed and suspicious, a well respected authors' site published some comments about this situation - only to be threatened with legal action.

This really isn't good enough. The people running the company need to accept responsibility for their mess, and to accept that people will flag it up. They should answer the questions being posed to them. But most of all, they should desist from threats of legal action, which simply make it look as if they guilty of more dubious dealings than they really are.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Getting back at the spammers

One of my fun emails this morning
I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets deluged with a daily dose of spam, though I probably get more than most as a reward for having one of my email addresses on my website. On the whole I just delete it without a moment's thought. It's part of the background that I don't really notice, like breathing.

I have to admit I was caught out once. I had just done something on eBay (can't remember what) and at just the right timing a spam email arrived asking me to log into eBay to check a query from my buyer. I fell for it for about 30 seconds, then hurriedly got into the proper eBay and changed my password. As far as I know nothing resulted.

However, when I'm in a less easy-going mood I want to get my own back. Take just a few of today's batch.

When I get told that I have 'irregular activity on my Internet banking account' at Barclays or HSBC (or some American bank I've never heard of) I want to take the spammers by the scruff of the neck, shake them, and say 'I don't even have an account with this bank, you moron!' Or better still, I want the bank in question to make good use of some of those obscene profits they make to trace the sender back through the net, pick them up, and lock them in their vaults.

Similarly when I get a message from 'Larry Grahams' at Canary Wharf that starts:

Attn: Dear Partner
I got your response to my proposal I am so delighted to Informed you that the Consignment’s in question is currently in the UN Cooperate fiduciary agent office in U.S. 
Upon your respond to this message i will put together a special arrangement to have the Consignment’s deliver to you directly in your door step with the same help of the UN diplomat.
I want to take 'Larry Grahams' and shove his consignment where the sun don't shine, taking similar action with all those 'no need to enter' lotteries and bequests from random people (mostly called something like Reverend Cheerybell Butterbucket or something) I keep receiving.

I realize I can't do anything, but I so want to get back at them. Is there no way? I want to irritate them back, to get the authorities kicking their door down, and quite possibly to have something illegal under various international conventions happen to them. But all I can do is delete their spam. It's not fair.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

It's all J. K. Rowling's fault

I've finally realized who is responsible for the current financial mess in Europe - it's J. K. Rowling. I think that the malevolent influence of her Gringotts Bank has leaked out of novel-space and is corrupting the real world. Let's look at the evidence.

The way Rowling's wizarding world works is to take some aspect of the real world and twist it in such a way that it becomes odd, strange and lacking real-world logic.

Just look at what has been happening with Italy lately. The financial community has concerns that Italy may not be able to pay its debts. What's the logical thing to do in such circumstances? Obviously lighten the load a bit. Perhaps temporarily reduce the interest rates they have to pay. So what do the financial wonks do? Put their interest rates up. Oh, yes, that will help them stay solvent. Logical? Only if you think quidditch makes any sense.

If this kind of mad, fairytale behaviour isn't enough to convince you, just look at the rating agencies. Can you really believe that companies like Standard and Poors, and Moody's (Moody's?!?) are part of the real world? What logical world would put the financial security of countries in the hands of a few small private companies who can arbitrarily decide if they are good credit risks? This is clearly Potterworld logic.

I'm sorry. I'm sure she's a nice person. But it's time Ms Rowling was hauled in front of a parliamentary committee to explain how she is managing to influence the money matters of the planet.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Can supermarkets ever be green?

On the way to the corner shop (picture not same day)
I was toddling down to our corner shop, aka the Asda Walmart superstore on Sunday on a beautiful (if chilly) blue skies morning, wondering why anyone ever drives to the supermarket if they live as close as I do. It was so much nicer to walk.

At least, that's what I thought on the way. Coming back, carrying everything for a Sunday roast plus milk, cans of Coke etc. I felt like a decidedly overloaded beast of burden. Usually, though, I manage fine, using the supermarket as a corner shop and just buying what I can easily carry. It means I go more often, but I can walk and feel smugly green.

The only thing is, I'm not really encouraged to do this. Asda has a deal that if you spend £40 you get £5 off your next shop - but unless you are buying high value items, it's hard to spend more than about £20 and carry it home. This isn't just an Asda problem. All the main supermarkets have deals where you have to spend £40, 50 or even 60 pounds to get discounts, money off petrol and so on. In effect these deals tie the customer into using a car.

Come on supermarketpersons! Let's see a deal that allows your shoppers to be green! There must be some way to amalgamate a series of small purchases over a relatively short period of time. Get imaginative.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Replication and big toys

A simulation of a Higgs discovery. Allegedly.
The recent kerfuffle about faster-than-light neutrinos has stirred an old concern in my mind. One of the essentials of good science is being able to replicate the results. Any particular experimental setup can always mislead those using it because they get something wrong that they don't realize. This is why the neutrino guys have asked other experimenters to try to confirm what they have found.

A classic lesson in the dangers of relying on a single experimental setup is the one that emerges from the work of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. They were the people behind the cold fusion debacle in 1989. This was, as far as I can tell, a serious experiment by good scientists. They got some amazing results from their single experimental setup then did something stupid. Instead of attempting to publish in a journal and get peer review, they went straight to the press.

There are two reasons this was stupid. It was partly because it missed the opportunity for critical suggestions from reviewers. And it was partly because the science community hates a show-off and is always suspicious of going directly to the press. It meant that the rest of the community was much heavier on the pair, who had a perfectly legitimate idea that turned out not to be particularly good, than they otherwise would be. Most ideas in science fall by the wayside. There's no problem with this, if you go about it the right way. But once other labs tried to duplicate cold fusion and got nothing, the suspicions started to rise and Pons & Fleischmann were torn to pieces. (Not literally. Scientists aren't that bad. Not quite.)

But here's the concern I have. Just imagine the LHC gang announce that they've found the Higgs boson. Whoops and hurrahs all round. But who is going to duplicate this result? If theirs is the only toy big enough to do the job, who can say that this isn't another cold fusion? Of course they'll check it and do all they can to ring the changes - but the fact is it's the same experimental setup with the same people, and that always carries a risk. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade - but I do think particle physicists need to be really careful about exactly what they announce when their experiments can't be duplicated.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A pleasingly rotund Rumpole

As many a comedian-turned-writer has found to his or her cost, writing good humorous fiction is a whole different level of difficulty to simply being funny on stage. I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who have consistently managed to combine genuinely funny writing with style and readability. Wodehouse, of course, has to be one of those digits. (But don't get me started on so called humorous Booker Prize nominees - they wouldn't know funny if it bit them.) And one chubby finger surely must be allocated to John Mortimer and Rumpole of the Bailey.

Mortimer wasn't the first to combine the law and humour. There was a lot of gentle amusement to be had from Henry Cecil's series of law-based novels like Brothers in Law. Cecil's was observational humour. His stories were based on experiences real barristers might go through, just exaggerated to bring out the funny side. Rumpole, on the other hand, is full scale legal pantomime, bringing on full scale laughter to Cecil's gentle smile.

As a character, Horace Rumpole has everything going for him. He is a supporter of the underdog, always the defender, always prepared to pull a success from the jaws of failure, despite the whole legal system weighing against him. If he has a tendency to resort to catch phrases... it's not exactly unheard of in comedy. He is a relic in his chambers, for ever battling the forces of modernization and efficiency, forever injecting the human touch... plus a cigar, and a large glass of Chateau Thames Embankment.

Rumpole is, simply one of the best literary creations of the twentieth century. If you haven't read any Rumpole, the new collection I've just got hold of is going to be the ideal introduction. It combines seven stories chosen by the author as his favourites in 1993 with seven of a more recent vintage. This gives an excellent feel for the whole opus, around 80 stories and a handful of novels. If, like me, you are a long term Rumpole fan, I admit there is less to make you rush to the bookstore, as they've all been published before, though the most recent of the stories, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, is one that had so far evaded me.

For the out-and-out Rumpole devotees there are also the first three chapters of a Rumpole novel, left unfinished on Mortimer's death. I really can't bring myself to read this, as once I've started a Rumpole I need to finish it, and as soon as possible. To venture into that would be cruel indeed.

If you haven't read much Rumpole (or none at all), or if you want a Rumpole-oid gift it's hard to go wrong with this 500 page collection, as pleasingly rotund as the great man himself. It's pure legal comedy gold. Forever Rumpole is available from Amazon.co.uk as a hardback or on Kindle and similarly from Amazon.com as hardback and on Kindle.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The HD/Blu-Ray fraud

Please don't ask why they're watching an HD microwave
I was privileged to be one of the first people in the UK to see broadcast HD TV in action at Sky's launch of their HD box many years ago. At the time very few TVs were HD ready - now it's the majority. Yet there was a question I was bursting to ask at Sky's event that still applies when you see HD and Blu-Ray being pushed today.

What I couldn't understand was why Sky didn't show HD alongside normal TV, so you can see how much better it was. They kept going on about the extra detail and clarity and brilliant picture, so I asked this at their launch why we didn't see that side-by-side comparison. They came out with some technie-wechnie excuse for why they couldn't show both images simultaneously. But there was a much better reason for their decision.

Just go into a TV showroom and look at all the TVs showing HD and Blu-ray. Again, why isn't there a clear comparison so we know it's worth paying extra for the technology? Here's that same issue rearing it's ugly head.

The fact is that, although HD is significantly higher resolution, producing clearer, sharper pictures, ordinary digital TV is already pretty good and on many programmes the difference is hardly perceptible. They don't do side by side comparisons because if you saw them, you'd realise there's no great advantage to switching. Except to the wallets of manufacturers and retailers.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

My head's in the iCloud

For many years my definitive address book and diary have resided on my computer. I really can't remember when I last used one of those paper things. The problem with this was that when I was out at a meeting, I couldn't check my diary, so had to cross my fingers and hope, if necessary ringing up to modify an appointment later.

Since having the iPhone (and more recently the iPad) things had improved significantly, because every time I synchronized my mobile devices they got up-to-date copies of diary and address book, so when I was out and about I had access to these crucial resources. They might be a touch out of date, but essentially it was all there. What's more I now had extra backups of this essential data - and unlike users of a mobile phone with a conventional, unsynchronized address book I would never lose my phone numbers.

In the last week, Apple has launched iCloud, and with it my situation has changed again - and more fundamentally than I first thought. The migration was not without a little pain. When the Apple software was attempting to set things up, its duplication correction module went beserk, so now every entry in my diary is in twice and several people in my address book have two copies of their address.

What's more, the process has partially screwed up my desktop control centre, Outlook. It has moved my address book and diary to one hosted on iCloud, patched through to the Outlook system. Outlook is designed to be able to incorporate external sources, but it very much regards them as 'the rest' rather than the main one. So several of Outlook's useful features, like displaying the next six diary entries on the home screen and being able to add flags to emails to put them on your to do list have stopped working.

But in return I have a more fundamental change then I realized. Up to now, mentally, my 'real' address book and diary have been on the PC. So if I want to look up an address I would use the PC, even though it's a bit clumsy. Now my 'real' address book is in iCloud, so my natural tendency has moved to use either the iPad or the iPhone - and that's quite a fundamental shift. (It also means I can see my diary and address book from any internet connected computer, but the times I'm likely to use this seem very small.)

This is a significant shift of mindset, which I simply hadn't realized would come with the process. It will be interesting to see how things evolve...