Monday, 31 January 2011

Electric Eden

Inspired by my post on the book The Rest is Noise, my niece kindly bought me a copy of Electric Eden by Rob Young for Christmas, which I have just finished (something of a mammoth feat, as the book is over 600 pages long before you hit the notes.

It's sort of on the 20th century British folk music revival and the development of folk rock, though it goes beyond this in many ways. This isn't a musical form that I've had a lot to do with, and it was really interesting to find out more about it.

There were three aspects that really stood out for me. One was the early 20th century stuff, where the likes of Vaughan Williams and Holst were rediscovering folk music live from old country performers and bringing it into serious music. Then there was the group, the Strawbs. I knew the name, but I didn't know either that they did a form of electric folk or that, bizarrely, their keyboard player was briefly that wonder of the synthesiser, and now grumpy old man, Rick Wakeman. (I just love his schlocky Journey the Centre of the Earth). I really must buy a Strawbs album. (In fact since writing those words, I have been over to Amazon and ordered a couple.) Then there was Pentangle, the only folk/rock group whose output is reflected on my shelves.

For the rest, I must admit, I tended to know the names (Fairport Convention, for instance) or their one or two pop hits (Steeleye Span), but nothing much of their output or lives. One absolutely fascinating factoid comes through. When someone heckled Dylan as a traitor for using an electric guitar, he was being accused of being a traitor to a 'tradition' that had only been around for a couple of decades. The guitar didn't feature in folk music until after the Second World War, so that whole acoustic guitar sound is actually a modern construct.

What I found a little frustrating is that several performers I do like - Al Stewart particularly, and one period of Jethro Tull, for instance - are on the edge of folk crossover, and get passing mentions, but there is no detail about them at all, which was very frustrating. I also found that some of the book was pretentious and unfocussed - I can't see the point, for instance, of an opening chapter wholly dedicated to an obscure folk singer called Vashti Bunyan, who seems to have sold about 500 copies of two albums and spent years wandering around in a gypsy caravan, unless it was supposed to be a metaphor for folk music's commercial ambivalence, or something.

Despite occasional frustrations, though, this was a fascinating read about a strangely unworldly twig of the tree that is the music business and well worth investigating. See at - See at

Friday, 28 January 2011

How to ruin the car buying experience

A car (not the one I bought)
I have just bought a car and I hated the experience.

It wasn't for me, it was for one of my daughters. (Of itself, this is just wrong. You shouldn't be buying cars for people whose nappies you have changed.) Now, apart from one disastrous experience that put me off buying privately for life, I have always bought cars from a proper dealership. It's a process in which you feel cherished. I know they're only after your money, but they take it off you very nicely. Unfortunately, dealers don't sell cars of the sort of age I was looking for, so I had to look elsewhere.

Specifically, I looked at the Car Shop, a huge secondhand car 'supermarket' that apparently has over 1,000 cars on site. And that's where I bought the car - but I wish I hadn't.

I didn't mind too much the strange Argos-like operation. You specify the kind of thing you want, the salesman writes it on a card, goes away and comes back with a list of matches. You then sit and wait while the cars you like are brought round to the side of the building so you can take a look at them. It felt odd, but I could cope. However, what I found really unnerving is that they won't licence the car for you.

What I've always done before is got the insurance, take it to the dealer and they sort out the licensing. The way the system works here, you are forced to drive the car away before it is licensed. (They do provide Aviva 7 day insurance, though I'm not sure this is valid if the car isn't licensed.) There is no other way to get a car from them. You have to break the law. Now, I'm the sort of person who will get back in the car and repark if the tyre is touching the white line in a car park. Driving is something I can't do outside the rules. I literally lost sleep over the thought of having to drive the blasted thing home without a licence.

And it gets worse. When I'd decided to go for the car, I went into the usual car buying mode, briefly feeling wonderful at that point. Because car buying is one of the few opportunities British people have to haggle. I'm quite proud of my haggling skills. I was taught by a gypsy on a Croatian market when I was 15 (no, really), and I love doing it. But then the Car Shop people killed it dead. They don't move on price. They can't, any more than the supermarket checkout person at Asda can. They are constrained by their system. There is no haggling. If I hadn't got a very excited daughter waiting for the news, I would have walked out there and then. Seriously, had I been buying the car for myself, however much I wanted it, I would have walked away. I don't buy cars without haggling. It spoils the whole experience.

So there you are. I bought a car from Car Shop, I think I got it at a reasonable price. But I would not touch them again with the proverbial barge pole. They are killjoys.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A cold call press release

I get a lot of press releases. Many of them are sensibly related to books, science or technology, but some seem a little off the wall. In fact I got one the other day that had more than a hint of spam email about it. There was something about the way that it was phrased that suggested that English wasn't the author's first language, even though the name at the bottom implied a UK origin.

It didn't start auspiciously. 'Dear Editorial,' it said. I can just about understand 'Dear Editor', as I do sometimes style myself editor of, but this mode of address seemed to suggest I was an inanimate object.

However, this didn't matter too much if the content was spot on. What exciting new development would it reveal?

A study has shown that cold calling is becoming customary, according to a group of consumers.

What? Cold calling is becoming customary? What does that mean? Could it be that rather than say 'Good morning', the custom is now for these consumers to cold call one other?

Apparently this statement is true because companies are carrying out their direct marketing while understanding the consumer's best interest. 'How so,' I hear you ask, while marvelling at the wording. Because these companies are honouring 'Do-not-call' lists and as a result, they are increasing their reputation as direct marketers.

First of all this is a very strange statement. It seems to be saying customers who opt out of receiving cold calls think more of direct marketers because the marketers don't make irritating phone calls. But surely, if you opt out, you don't think of the direct marketers at all. Unless they are the evil kind who contact you even when you have opted out. I certainly don't find myself thinking, on a quiet, call free afternoon, 'Gosh, those direct marketers are more reputable than they used to be.' And I certainly don't think 'I wish they would start calling me.' All this really says is that not having cold callers makes you feel good. Probably not what they intended.

More significantly, there is no context whatsoever for this 'study'. We don't know:
  • What 'cold calling becoming customary' means
  • How many consumers were asked
  • What kind of consumers were asked (Did they all work for cold calling companies?)
  • Where this study took place
  • What methodology the study used
  • Or anything else that demonstrates whether the study has any value
Even TV commercials for hair products do better than this. (In the interest of fairness, the press release did have a link to a web page for, erm, another press release that did contain some data on the 'study', which turned out not to be a study at all, but rather a survey of 1430 consumers. We don't find out what questions were asked, or how this 'panel' of consumers was assembled.)

Is it just me, or is it ironic that a press release that suggests cold calling is getting better proves a particularly unhelpful unsolicited communication? Back to the drawing board, guys.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

It is not in the stars

Have you heard, it's in the stars, next July we collide with Mars goes that catchy little number by Cole Porter What a Swell Party this Is. And that is astrology's greatest contribution to human culture. The rest, as they say, is rubbish.

Now, I had assumed that this was hardly news. We surely no longer need to hammer out the mantra:
  1. Astronomy and astrology are not the same thing.
  2. Astrology has no scientific basis. It's something newspaper editors do to fill up the space. It's a bit of fun.
But no. It seems that this apparently obvious state of affairs is not at all obvious to some. Apparently the Astrological Association of Great Britain (ahem) has taken umbrage because Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain said both 'astrology is rubbish' and 'astrology is nonsense' on the BBC. The little tinkers.

Like alchemy, astrology does have an interesting history, and just as alchemy started people on the way to real science, so did astrology, and for that we should be thankful - but it's time to put away childish things. Interestingly, in medieval times, some people espoused a version of astrology that had more chance of having a scientific basis than the current version. My old mate Roger Bacon held that it was silly to suggest that astrology could predict the future, but it seemed reasonable that natural conditions, including the state of the heavens, could influence a baby's development, so could shape, to some extent, its personality. He was wrong - but there was a kind of sense to this thirteenth century astrology, unlike the modern, future predicting version.

For goodness sake, astrologers. You are just as entitled to write fiction as J. K. Rowling - but please don't expect us to consider it in some sense valid as fact. There's a great Monty Python sketch where someone's horoscope predicts all sorts of strange things about them (including 'you have green scaly skin'). After hearing all this rubbish, the recipient picks up on the one thing that was true - she wears glasses. 'It was good about the glasses!' That's astrology, folks.

Original story from the Guardian - image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Burns Night? There's an app for that

It's hard to imagine anything more steeped in tradition (even if much of it is rather artificial tradition) than Burns Night. Yet those nice people in the Scottish government have managed to put a few of their Scottish pounds aside to drag Burns Night into the 21st century by producing a Robert Burns iPhone app.

If you've ever been to a Burns Night celebration (and I hope all photographs of my improvised kilt have, by now, been destroyed) you will know that as well as consuming haggis, neeps, tatties and whisky (never, ever, whiskey) it is traditional to recite from the works of the great Robert. Download this free little app and you will have 558 of hisself's poems to hand, enough to last more than an evening.

I do find it quite amusing that the press release describing the app makes a big thing of Auld Lang Syne. We are told: ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as being one of the top three most popular songs in the English language.  The other two are ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. It seems they didn't watch the episode of QI where it was pointed out that Burns didn't write Auld Lang Syne - he said himself he only wrote down a well-known verse and there is evidence of it well before his birth.

But after all we are dealing with the stuff of legend here, and Rabbie (as apparently he never, ever referred to himself) is certainly worth celebrating. So lift your iPhones and recite with me...

Monday, 24 January 2011

I hope these Leafs are going to fall

I've been writing a lot about sustainable business recently for a secret reason that will soon be revealed. One of the lessons I came across time and again when researching the subject (and one I've already commented on elsewhere) is that it's absolutely great having, say, environmentally friendly products. But if you really want to be serious in sustainability, you have to be able to sell those products at a similar price to the non-friendly alternative. People do want to be sustainable, but not at a huge price.

I really thought manufacturers had got the hang of this. Then along comes the Nissan Leaf. My main car use is pootling around on 5 to 20 mile journeys, so for me an electric car would be ideal. (When I do long journeys I swap cars with 'er indoors.) The Leaf looks superb. Usually the cars I feel that I really want are totally impractical. (Words like Aston Martin and Morgan spring to mind.) But I genuinely would love a Leaf. It looks good, the performance is fine and it is indubitably green. (You can argue about the greenness production side, but that's for another post.)

Great, I thought. Where do I sign up? Now an equivalent petrol car would probably start at around £12,000. Fair enough. I expected a bit of a premium, but there's a £5,000 government incentive, so that should cover the difference. After all, lesson #1 is 'don't price your sustainable products much higher than the normal ones.' So what does it cost? Prices start at £23,990. And that's with the £5,000 off.

Come on, Nissan. It might have to be a loss leader to start with, but if you get production up high enough, you can crack a decent price. You know it makes sense.

Friday, 21 January 2011

How do they get away with it? The detox debunk

'Detox' has for a good number of years been one of those words that is bandied around by companies to sell products because it sounds good, without actually meaning anything much. Infamously the Prince of Wales' Duchy Originals sells a detox tincture (now available through Waitrose, hurrah!) that is supposed to be 'a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion'. Despite the ASA upholding a complaint about their advertising, the stuff is still on sale.

Even worse, I saw in a women's magazine the other day (don't ask) blurb for a 'detox diet' that told us 'a detox diet can be just as good as botox!' According to the magazine:
  • This diet will rid you of stored toxins so your complexion clears and skin tone and colour becomes even
  • Excess water is flushed out, taking with it debris and toxins, reducing puffiness and dark circles around the eyes
  • Antioxidant foods combat the aging damage done by free radicals in your body when you're emotionally stressed, sunbathe or exercise a lot.
  • Includes foods that will take years off your skin: such as spinach, which is full of beta-carotene to improve skin firmness, omega-3 rich oily fish to reduce redness and watermelon to give you a dewy complexion
I don't know where to start with what's wrong with this. It is full of misleading information.
  • There are no such things as ‘stored toxins’
  • There’s no such thing as detox
  • When you use botox you are adding a toxin, not removing it – botox is a toxin
  • Excess water is a meaningless concept in the way it’s used here
  • Antioxidant foods don’t combat free radicals. The antioxidants naturally produced by your body do, but trials of consuming antioxidants have had, if anything, a negative impact on health. It’s a myth.
What I don't understand is how they (by which I mean all these people who make money out of ripping customers off by selling them snake oil) get away with such blatant stuff. Don't get be wrong, of course you look better on a good diet than when you are eating rubbish. But 'detox'? Give me strength. (Prince Charles probably has a tincture for that.)

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Clever after the event

We've all done it. You put the phone down, and then you think of all the clever things you should have said. It was like that for me yesterday.

The phone rang with that strange caller ID that usually means it's a sales call from another country. I picked it up. 'Hello, this is Mark calling you from Windows...' Now, from his accent, 'Mark' was clearly not Mark - and unless Windows is a suburb of Mumbai, probably not calling from Windows. I hadn't had breakfast yet and couldn't be bothered. 'Sorry,' I said, very loudly. 'I can't understand you. It's a very bad line!' And hung up.

To give 'Mark' his due, he had perseverance. Five minutes later the phone rang again. 'Hello, this is Mark calling from Windows.' I tried the 'Bad line, can't hear you,' approach for a bit, but this got boring. 'What do you mean?' I suddenly said. 'How can you be from Windows?'

'Windows,' he said, 'the operating system you are running on your PC at home.'

Ok, now I knew this was a scam. There's a well known one going around where they claim your PC has a problem, it has contacted them, and all you have to do is pay £s on your credit card and they'll sort it out. I went into aggressive mode. 'You can't be from Windows,' I said. 'Windows isn't a company. This is a fraud and I will call the police if I hear from you again.' And put the phone down. Strangely, he didn't ring back.

But afterwards. Ah, afterwards. I started to think of what I could have done. This wasn't just some poor call centre worker doing a sales call, this was an out-and-out attempt at fraud. He was fair game for anything. I could have:
  • Said 'Hang on a moment,' the put the handset down and left him on the line. All morning.
  • Suddenly started talking in a nonsense language.
  • Or, my favourite, when he said 'the operating system you are running on you PC at home' I should have said 'Oh, you want to talk to Windows. Just a moment.' [Clicking noises off] Then in a robotic voice: 'Good morning, this is the Windows Operating System voice recognition package. How many I help you?' and conducted a conversation as long as he would let me, playing the part of a computer.
Oh how I would have chuckled. But sadly I didn't. Next time, however... Please ring back, Mark.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How to find bliss

Many people have spent much of their life looking for satisfaction, for bliss, for that feeling of being loved. I think I know where to find it. In the roof space of supermarkets.

Let me explain.

I know some people hate them, but I am very fond of supermarket self-checkouts. I like being able to zip through when other people are queuing. I like the speed with which I can make the transaction. And despite the complaints of the 'society is going to the dogs' brigade, I like not having to speak to another person when I'm in a hurry, feeling anti-social or generally not in the mood for inane chat.

If you use a self-checkout regularly you will be so familiar with those little remarks they make. 'Unexpected item in the bagging area' has  become a catchphrase. But there is one of these remarks that often gets missed - and this is why I think there's an opportunity for a feeling of being appreciated up in the ceilings of supermarkets.

The very last remark the machine makes is something like 'Thank you for using the fast lane' (or whatever they call it). But it is timed to play a few seconds after you pick up your bags. Now since the whole point of self-checkout is speed, I am (and I'm sure many others are) well on my way to the door at this point. So that 'Thank you' fails to hit the mark. There's no one there. My supposition is that the sentiment then drifts up to the ceiling to mingle with all the other unaccepted 'Thank you's. (I think 'thank you's are lighter than air, though I have no evidence).

So one day a worker is going to be up there, mending a pipe or something, and his head will enter this pool of unaccepted 'Thank you's. The impact should be quite shocking. It will be as if he has saved the world. There is a distinct danger of falling off the ladder.

So that's it. Want ultimate satisfaction? Search in a supermarket roof space.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Dear God, about bananas...

Bananas, caught in the act
Dear God,

I wouldn't trouble you as a rule, but I wanted a word about something I don't understand. It's bananas. I don't mean 'it's bananas' in the sense of 'it is lunacy', I am referring to bananas in the sense of fruit. You know, the bendy yellow things.

I like bananas very much, but they have to be just right. Too green and they are like eating medicated soap. Too ripe and they become disgustingly gooey, with the texture of sick. (I'm sorry, but this is true, and presumably sick is one of yours too.)

So, fair enough, you have to catch them when they are just right, with a tinge of green but before those black spots arrive. But here's the thing. They only seem to spend approximately 37 minutes in this state. For ages and ages they sit in the bowl looking hard and green, then you turn your back to make a cup of coffee and when you turn round they've gone black. It's not good enough. I'm not asking for miracles (though presumably these could be provided on request), just bananas that stay edible for a few days at a time. Is it too much to ask? I can keep apples in the fruit bowl for weeks, and at worst they get a little wrinkly, but they are still edible. Bananas, by contrast, are downright sneaky. So just tell me... why?

Yours sincerely,
Brian Clegg

P.S. If this one proves too easy, please explain the offside rule.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Bring back my bookshop to me, to me

In the UK there is only one significant chain bookseller left - Waterstones. They aren't perfect by any means - but they're a lot better than nothing. Yet nothing is what a fair number of towns look likely to be left with soon.

I gather the HMV chain, which owns music/video store HMV and Waterstones has had a bad quarter. They still made a profit, but profits were down on the previous year. Because of this, they have decided to close 60 shops - 40 of them HMV and 20 Waterstones. But here's the thing. It is the HMV part of the chain that has done really badly - Waterstones isn't the problem, yet 20 bookstores are to go.

I don't know if this on top of, or as a well as a separate announcement I saw that Waterstones in Maidenhead and in Slough are to close. This seems like someone with a grudge - these are adjacent towns, leaving a big hole in West Berkshire's book buying capability (I know there's Windsor still, but even so...)

Lovers of independent bookshops might be rubbing their hands with glee, seeing the demise of the chain as a good thing, but I really not sure. I am very fond of good indies (though I do know a couple of rubbish ones), but there should be room for both - like it or not, somewhere like Waterstones (and the sadly demised Borders) are better at pulling in the borderline book buyer than the slightly clubbish, in-crowd feel of an independent. Now the large group of occasional buyers will be left with W. H. Smiths and supermarkets. I'd also say in Waterstones' favour that, as an author, I've had really good experiences with both the Waterstones at the Science Museum and in Swindon.

This is very sad news for the towns involved (I don't know which yet), and I wish HMV would reconsider. We need our Waterstones.

Friday, 14 January 2011

If you can't blow things up in chemistry...

Here's a deep philosophical question. Why did chemistry sets get young people all excited, then let them down? Because, try as you might, it was very difficult to make explosions. Let's face it, as any chemistry teacher will tell you, bangs and flashes are what grab the attention.

So when the Royal Society of Chemistry decided to add compounds to its series of podcasts on elements, the first one that sprung to mind for me was nitrogren triiodide. This black powder is pretty well useless in the real world. But we are talking a substance that explodes when you touch it. Listen to the story of a schoolboy chemist's dream.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Variations on a theme

The other day I was trying to hum the tune of Copeland's Fanfare for a Common Man, and what came out was the Channel 4 News theme.

I can't believe that I have listened to C4 News for so many years without realizing that it's a variation on the theme of Fanfare. In case you doubt me, here's the evidence (note in both cases you have to go through a bit of initial burbling before you get to the main theme - it starts at 14 seconds in C4 News and 21 seconds in Fanfare).

Here's the C4 News theme:

And here's Fanfare for the Common Man:


Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Lies, damned lies - you know the rest

Every now and then you see the use of a number that takes your breath away in the total lack of intelligence in the way it is used. This particular misuse was described on last week's More or Less, the excellent Radio 4 show that specializes in naughty numbers, but it so startlingly stupid that I have to describe it too.

The sad thing is, the initial misuser appears to be Channel 4 News, which of the UK TV news shows is, I believe, the best - but, hey, everyone has their off days. The story was also picked up by a number of newspapers that should have known better. It concerned a contraceptive implant called Implanon. This uses slow release of hormones to provide contraception for up to three years. Channel 4 was horrified to discover that nearly 600 users had unwanted pregnancies. Shocking!

However, on its own, that number 600 (actually 584, but 600 is easier to publicize) is totally useless. How many is it 600 out of? How does this compare with the alternatives? Statistics always need context.

It turns out that this was 600 out of over a million. Now here's the little bit of information that Channel 4 omitted. This is vastly more effective than any other form of contraception - even male sterilization. It really is a superb success rate in contraception terms. Compare it with condoms - there the unwanted pregnancy rate with typical use is around 140,000 out of a million. Even with perfect use it's 30,000 per million.

The fact is, the story was 'Contraceptive implant is a huge success' but somehow that's not what Channel 4 and the medical-panic newspapers put across.

Context, chaps. Context.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Get real, Mumsnet

I gather that that mighty political force in the land, the Mumsnet website, has been moaning about a storyline in BBC 1's flagship soap opera Eastenders. I'm afraid I don't watch this programme (life is miserable enough without having misery for entertainment, Coronation Street please note), but it appears that around Christmas, Eastenders featured a storyline involving a cot death and the grieving mother swapping her baby for another.

The BBC had several thousand complaints, apparently in some large part due to a campaign by Mumsnet, and as a result has curtailed the storyline. It seems this storyline was disliked by the site because of the combination of a distressing theme which would impact on some of their readers and the unlikeliness of the substitution story.

This really isn't good enough - either that anyone should think this argument worth listening to or that the BBC should actually respond to it. It is a fact of life that we all go through unpleasant experiences, and when we do it seems the TV is full of dramas related to it. When I have been bereaved, suddenly everything I saw on TV seemed to be about loved ones dying. Of course it is distressing - but we can hardly say there should never be any dramas about anything nasty happening to people because someone will be going through it at the time and will be upset. That's ludicrous.

As for the juxtaposition of unlikeliness argument this is just bizarre. Why aren't these people complaining about Midsomer Murders? After all, having a loved one murdered is at least as distressing as a cot death, and no one could argue that the Midsomer Murders set up or storylines are likely. The whole genre of murder mysteries would have to be banned, as well as any serious drama, if these emotion police had their way.

For goodness sake, Mumsnet people, understand the difference between fiction and real life. And as for you, BBC, don't be such a wimp. Next time, don't roll over and give in at the first moan. In an internet world where a site can generated hundreds or thousands of email complaints in no time there is no need to take such complaints as anything more than an indication that you are doing your job right. This is just the modern version of Mary Whitehouse moaning that Dr Who is too scary. You didn't give in to that, and you shouldn't give in to this.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Queen of Clean, 1 - New Scientist, nil

I like New Scientist. It might have a love of over-the-top headlines that promise more than the article delivers, but it provides up-to-date science news and good features. However, like everyone else it occasionally gets it wrong, and I'm rather disappointed that it seems unwilling to recognize this.

In December the entertaining Feedback column decided to have a go at TV cleaning guru and nice person (as opposed to the other one), Aggie Mackenzie. They pointed out that Aggie is fronting up a range of cleaning products with the brand name 'Probiotic.' Having used Wikipedia to provide an explanation for us of what probiotic means (could do better, Feedback), the piece goes on:
So if you feel like adding thousands of extra micro-organisms to the ones that already live in your toilet, go ahead and buy the ones Aggie is offering. We don't think we will, though.
I thought this was a bit heavy handed, as did Aggie, who came back the same day with a response. She pointed out that those 'extra micro-organisms' inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria on the surface by 13,200 times* compared with a conventional antibacterial cleaner. She also noted that they can carry on working and protecting against harmful germs for up to 8 days, which does sound rather impressive to me. It seems that it's a good idea to add 'thousands of extra micro-organisms' if these are harmless ones that leave less room for the bad guys through competitive exclusion.

If I'm honest, when I first heard about this Probiotic range I was highly suspicious. After all, probiotic foods have no proven benefits. But I'm quite impressed by Aggie's argument. I'm not trying to sell the products, but rather to suggest that the Feedback people at New Scientist should have done a bit of homework to find out just what the product was before subjecting it to one of their attacks, usually reserved for genuine fruit loopery like 'quantum holistic healing.' This particular attack, I'd suggest, was wrongly aimed at a product that was taking a genuine scientific line. Admittedly that 'probiotic' term is tainted and perhaps was a mistake, but if New Scientist can't look past a label, who can?

So come on, NS - own up. Publish an apology. (To be fair, they might still - the latest issue carries a letter I wrote the week before this happened.)

* Dubious statistic alert. This is after an arbitrary period of time of 24 hours. But it doesn't demolish the argument.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The border between security and inconvenience

We are all used to undertaking a balancing act between security and incovenience. When we fly, we accept (for the most part) that it is necessary to go through all those hurdles to get to the plane, as long as they don't become too personal or take too long. On the news last night we heard how Christians in Egypt, about to celebrate Christmas, have had to install metal detectors at the entrance to their churches because of attacks by radical Muslims. Again, they might not be happy with the measure, but they think it is worth the inconvenience for the added security. Well, I've got an example where I don't agree.

It's nothing so serious or life threatening - just a matter of internet security. But it's very irritating. My bank (I won't name them, but the picture is a bit of a give-away) has recently introduced a system for business accounts where, instead of providing a second password, you now enter an 8 digit number generated by a calculator-like electronic keypad. To do this, you have to insert your bank card into the keypad, enter your PIN, read off the number and type it into the computer. If you try to make an online payment it is even more stringent. Here, as well as the PIN, you have to enter into the keypad the account number you are paying to and the amount to be paid.

When this was first mentioned, I was quite excited. I like a bit of technology, and it felt rather James Bond. However - I check my bank account every day, and after a few days it has become intensely tedious. Where with my personal account I can pop in the passwords in seconds, here I have to find the reader, dig out my wallet, get out the debit card, shove it in, and go through that process. It's a pain.

Furthermore, one of the great things about internet banking is flexibility. If I had an emergency, I used to be able to pull up my bank account on my phone screen and undertake a transaction even if I were giving a seminar in Edinburgh. Now, unless I think to take the keypad with me wherever I go (highly unlikely) I can only do my business banking from my desk.

Without doubt this is stronger security than the old system, but was the old system really so bad? If it is so bad, why is it still good enough for my personal account? The second password, where you have to select three random characters and enter them in drop down lists seemed pretty bulletproof. This is one example were the balance between security and practicality has tipped too far. I want my convenience back, please.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

I'm a rent author!

With the paranoia that goes with my trade, I have a Google Alert set up to see who is mentioning me online. Occasionally this leads me to new and wonderful places - and I have just discovered that you can rent me (or at least my books).

The British Council has an English language library in Mumbai called mylibrary which has a really rather excellent online service - not only can you access ebooks, but you can select online physical books that you want to read. They are then delivered to your door and collected when you've finished with them. And some of my books are in there. So, for instance, here is my book for teachers, Getting Science.

Over and above the entertainment value of the juxtaposition of the word 'rent' and books, I think this is a great idea. The big pain with using libraries is getting round to going. We are so used to delivery pizzas, delivery shopping... why not a delivery library? I love it.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A new science blogging venture

I've given it a little while to settle in, but I want to take the opportunity to welcome a new science blogging environment, Occam's Typwriter* onto the scene.

I first started blogging through a science blogging environment, Nature Network. This had pros and cons. On the plus side, I met and become friends with several other excellent blogpersons, some of whom I have since met for real. And the association with the journal Nature gave the environment considerable gravitas. But there were negatives too. Nature management were quite fussy about exactly what you put on your blog, and the blogging environment was from the stone age. Relatively recently they upgraded to a new version (the fabled MT4) which certainly added some features, but makes the whole thing so byzantine as to be practically unusable.

I had already pretty much left by this point, but MT4 and some mismanagement seems to have been the final straw for a number of Nature Network regulars, who set up their own new home Occam's Typwriter on the much more amenable Wordpress environment. I won't list them all, but a couple of examples of the eminently followable inhabitants of this space are Henry Gee (who has migrated his Blogger musings there) and Stephen Curry.

Two questions remain. Why set up a 'science blogging environment' at all, and why am I not on it?

The point behind it, I think, is that the environment makes it easier for a group to pull together. Membership gives a feeling of corporate unity, rather than lone struggle (and most scientists are used to working in teams). It also makes for an easy way of finding other blogs to read. I follow individual Occam's Typewriter blogs via Google Reader rather than going to the environment itself, but for new readers it's a good way to expand your experience of science bloggers. I wouldn't know these nice people if it weren't for Nature Network providing that stepping stone.

The simple answer to why I'm not on it is that I wasn't asked. I was always a little skew on NN, in that I'm a science writer where most of the others were scientists, which may have been why they didn't think to ask. (It wasn't just because I had already left NN, as Henry Gee had left also.) When I pointed out that I was a little miffed that they hadn't asked me, I was told I could do some guest blogs and then the community would then decide whether or not they wanted me. I have to say, I found this rather offensive, though I'm sure no offence was intended. As it happens, though, I had already decided that I didn't want to join as I'm quite happy with this blog and didn't want the upheaval caused by moving.

So if you are interested in reading a wider range of science blogs, I can do no better than recommend that you pop over and take a look at Occam's Typewriter.

* For all pedants, yes, they didn't have typewriters in William of Ockham's day, and 'Ockham' is the more accepted form of the name, rather than Occam these days. But hey, it's just a name. They could have called it Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.