Friday, 29 July 2011

Asking the wrong questions about advertising

An advertisement, yesterday
Yesterday a nice man paid me some money to ask me about advertising. (I am quite happy to pontificate on any subject, as long as you pay me.)

He had a series of queries about my response to various adverts, but failed to ask the two key questions, as far as I was concerned.

The first is 'Do you pay any attention to adverts?' And the answer is 'Hardly any.' Online or on the iPad I whiz past them without ever taking in what they are advertising. If they are on the same page as text I'm reading, my eyes bounce off them harmlessly. I might take in an image - I've seen one recently with a blue zebra on it - but I have no idea what it was advertising, or what it said about the product or service. Similarly on TV these days, 95% of what I watch is timeshifted on a DVR. All adverts are skipped through. Sorry - never saw it.

The second is 'Why did you rate that ad with Lewis Hamilton in so badly?' One of the ads in the interview was for a watch, featuring a big picture of the racing driver. Any ad with a celebrity endorsement (particularly if it's an over-paid sportsperson) immediately and powerfully turns me off the brand. I know perfectly well that said celebrity has been paid a big chunk of money to appear in the ad, and their endorsement means nothing - they probably never even saw the product before the ad was made, and certainly never paid their own money to buy the product. So my feeling is, if a product is so desperate it has to cling onto dubious celebrity, then it too is dubious and should be avoided like the plague.

(The same goes for people telling us they are the official X of the Olympic Games. So? All this means is they will be responsible the frustration I feel when I'm stuck in a queue or can't watch anything decent on the TV because of people playing silly games.)

So advertisers, get the message. I don't get the message.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The OneNote blues

 Yesterday should have been a really exciting day. I've been pestering Microsoft's PR people for ages about when the iPhone version of their notebook software OneNote would be available in the UK. It has taken then around 6 months to convert from US to UK English (I know it's difficult guys, but you've had enough practice) and now it is available, and currently free.

So I zapped OneNote on my iPhone, and it should have been like Christmas, only it wasn't.

I'm a very heavy user of OneNote on the PC. I have a dual screen setup and most of the time I've got what I'm working on filling one screen and OneNote filling the other. OneNote is my work repository. If I see a scrap of information that could come in useful for a book I'm writing, I slam it into OneNote. I keep the books themselves there too, and all the articles I write, and checklists and goodness knows what. The thought of having it accessible on my iPhone filled me with delight. But it hasn't worked out. For two reasons. One is the way I work, the other the way OneNote works.

The thing is I've got vast quantities of stuff in there. Including plenty of full length manuscripts as Word documents and goodness knows what. It's my filing system. And it just won't translate into the mobile OneNote. It's really for a totally different purpose.

So if I'm going to use OneNote for iPhone, I really need to split off from the morass the useful bits of information that I might need anywhere any time. They're in there, but mingled with all that stuff that wouldn't work on the phone. Now I could put this stuff into a separate folder and just share that. But if I do, here's the sad, thing, OneNote isn't the best way to do it.

If I did separate that stuff off, it would work much better in Evernote, which I'm already using for notes on my iPhone and iPad. Why? Well:
  • Evernote has both iPhone and iPad versions already. OneNote will run on an iPad but only in a little iPhone sized window.
  • Evernote automatically wirelessly synchronizes with all versions every time I make a change. With OneNote I would have to buy and install OneNote 2010 for my PC (as the iPhone version doesn't work with the 2007 I have), set up an online account, link the various bits and, if I'm lucky it'll all start talking to each other.
  • In principle OneNote should be better than Evernote because it has nice features like tables and urgent markers that I use a lot. Guess what? Tables and urgent markers don't come through to OneNote for iPhone.
I haven't given up. It is too early to be certain and I have no intention of writing off OneNote for iPhone at this stage. But the experience could have been so much better. Maybe it's my fault. Perhaps I used OneNote the 'wrong' way. But the honeymoon has not gone well.

P.S. I'm not planning a Paris trip - these are Microsoft's sample screens

    Wednesday, 27 July 2011

    Does anyone like the Eden Project?

    Staring down at the domes in wonder: best bit
    I feel really mean writing this. It's a bit like kicking a worthy old aunt who is very into good causes. But if I'm honest, the Eden Project is the most boring 'visitor attraction' I've ever come across. And this is from someone who was dragged round every ruined castle imaginable in my youth.

    I think in part it's one of those 'not living up to the expectation' things. You stare down at the domes from up at the top  of the quarry, and it looks amazing. Superb. Like something alien that has invaded the Cornish landscape. You can't wait to see alien invaders, pod people replacing humanity. But once you've trudged round it and experienced its viciously expensive caff, it is hard not to think 'never again.'

    Now I know there are people who love the place and go back again and again. And it is undoubtedly worthy. Heck, one of my books is published by Eden Project books. But no, I'm sorry. It is soooo boring.

    Tuesday, 26 July 2011

    Been there, done that

    Coventry Cathedrals, old and new
    I don't know why, but there are some things in life that you do, and enjoy, but decide that you really don't want do again.

    In some cases, once was enough. I've been to a football match and Wimbledon, for example, and that was fine. But I have no intention of going to either again. In my early 20s I had a couple of years going to a fair number of the Proms, queuing all day to get near the rail in the arena. Loved it. But you'd have to pay me to do it now. A lot.

    The latest activity that seems to have run its course is singing in cathedrals. Over the years I have joined visiting choirs in a fair number of cathedrals and enjoyed a unique environment to sing the most beautiful music there is. In this time I've sung at Blackburn, Chester, Manchester, Lichfield, Bristol, Portsmouth, Winchester, Salisbury, St Albans, Lincoln, Ely, Peterborough, Rochester, Canterbury, Oxford and Westminster Abbey, not to mention three years in a Cambridge chapel choir.

    This weekend I was at Coventry. And I think it is going to be the last. It's not because Coventry is to the great medieval cathedrals what a B and Q Superstore is to Hampton Court. Architecturally, I mean. I think it's brilliant the way the bombed out old cathedral acts as a forecourt, and I can see what they were trying to do with the style of the new building, but it just doesn't work for me. There's something about sixties architecture that doesn't age well. But the experience was as good as ever. And the people I was singing with were lovely. I've just done the singing in cathedrals thing enough.

    Worryingly, I think theme parks might be next...

    Monday, 25 July 2011

    Walking on eggshells in chemistry

    It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again. The subject today has me seeing double and walking on eggshells. No really, I know it's true because it says so on the RSC website.

    Today's subject is calcium carbonate. This may be a pretty common mineral, but it more than makes up with it thanks to some clever tricks. As Paul Daniels used to say, when it comes to clever tricks, 'You'll like it. Not a lot.' But what did he know? This isn't boring old magic, it's chemistry. Take a listen. Take a listen. Now I'm typing double as well.

    Friday, 22 July 2011

    Keeping the numberline dry

    Although A Brief History of Infinity has been around a while, it is still one of my best selling titles and I probably get more letters and emails about it than anything else. I think it reflects the timeless fascination of infinity. Any road up, I thought I'd bring a little brightness to your Friday with a paradox of infinity that didn't make it into the book, though it does appear on the Popular Science website.

    We start by thinking of the number line - let's say for simplicity, all the numbers from 0 upwards. So we've got a line, rather like the edge of a ruler, starting from zero and heading off to infinity, featuring all the numbers and fractions along its length.

    Now we know the rational fractions (n/m where n and m are whole numbers) have the same cardinality as the counting numbers, thanks to a proof by Cantor (it's in the book). Simply put, this means you can match off each of the of the rational fractions with a positive integer. They are the same 'size' of infinite set. And we're going to use another set of fractions alongside them - the sequence 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16... It is simple enough to show that these also have the same cardinality: you can match one of these with each of the positive integers too. And we can prove that the sum of the whole series 1/2+1/4+1/8+1/16... is just 1. With these 'given's the fun begins.

    Imagine we wanted to protect the whole number line from getting wet. What we are going to do is issue each rational fraction along the line an umbrella. The umbrella will be a simple T shape. The first umbrella we give out is 1/2 a unit of the number line across the T. The second umbrella is 1/4 of a unit of the number line across and so on. Once every rational fraction has an umbrella, then the whole number line is covered. The umbrella extends half its width in either direction - so, for instance, the first umbrella will cover all numbers for 1/4 of a unit to its left and 1/4 of a unit to its right. Note that this too is a rational fraction - and adding it to or subtracting it from the starting point (itself a rational fraction) will reach another rational fraction.

    Okay so far? Each umbrella spans from its starting point to a rational fraction on either side of it. Now bearing in mind we've issued an umbrella to every rational fraction, the whole number line is covered, because there's at least a meeting of umbrellas and in most cases an overlap.

    We've covered the whole line from 0 to infinity with our umbrellas. But, remember how wide the umbrellas were. Their widths form the infinite series 1/2+1/4+1/8... so with no overlaps, the maximum amount of the number line those umbrellas can cover is 1 unit - and with overlaps they will cover even less. A set of items with a width of just 1 covers a line that goes all the way to infinity.


    Thursday, 21 July 2011

    An engaged author is a happy author

    I've had a fair few books published by a fair few publishers (not because I'm fickle, but because different books suit different publishers). In that time I've experienced a whole spectrum of ways that publishers interact with authors, from the awful to the brilliant.

    At the awful end are those publishers that expect the only interaction to be a contract, a manuscript, proof checking and royalty statements. As far as they are concerned, the author is like a chicken that lays an egg. Why should they consult the chicken on omelette recipes?

    At the other extreme, thankfully occupied by my current publishers, are companies that realize two things. First that the author has a lot to offer besides writing the book. And second that keeping an author informed makes them happy bunnies. So, for example, I am often involved in writing the blurb to go on the back and in publicity campaigns. I'm kept up to date on sales and where foreign rights deals have been struck.

    Another example of that involvement is with covers. My next book for my US publisher, St Martin's Press, due out in December, is called How to Build a Time Machine. They sent me a suggestion for the cover which looked very nice, but I pointed out that a lot of my covers are based on a black background (see above), and the only problem is that these covers really don't stand out on the shelf. The emphasis on black makes them disappear when they are face-on.

    Before you can say 'Subtle hint to the designer,' they had come back with the cover on a blue background, which still works well as far as contrast, but will have a lot more 'Look at me!' impact on the shelf.

    Similarly, at the moment, I am in the middle of discussions on covers for the paperback version of Inflight Science and another proposed title. The publisher, Icon Books hasn't just stormed in with a design, they are asking me for input. Even if they take no notice of this, it makes me feel involved. Knowing what's going on and having some input is essential to a good business relationship.

    It is increasingly recognized that authors are a key part of the marketing structure for a book. You can't leave it to the publicist and marketing person alone, however good they are. If authors feels they are involved in the whole process, they are going to contribute a lot more. As long as publishers can change their mindset from seeing this as being interfering or not an author's business to being a useful partnership they can surely only benefit.

    Wednesday, 20 July 2011

    Could a device that isn't for reading ebooks make people read ebooks?

    Like many authors I have mixed feelings about ebooks. It is always great to have people reading your books, and ebooks get to places that other books can't... but on the other hand it's rather like Aston Martin producing a competitor to a Ford Fiesta. For all their hi-tech, ebooks are rather crude because they lack the careful page layout that goes into a 'real' book, so inevitably they feel like they've been designed by a ten-year-old.

    Even so, there is no doubt that some people will buy an ebook version of a title they wouldn't bother to buy in paper form. (Especially when there's a sale on like the one Amazon has at the moment, with Inflight Science currently at the bargain price of £2.49 at or $4 at There are other goodies too. I'd recommend taking a look at Manjit Kumar's chunky Quantum. As you'll see from my review I've mixed feelings about the book, but at this price, who can complain? This fat tome is £6.15 in paper form, but currently 99p at or $1.60 at

    The difficulty, though, is getting people to dip a toe into the ebook market. Why would you buy a Kindle unless you wanted to read ebooks? But many people still they are quite satisfied with paper, thank you. To quote one writer, Jean Hedelstein, 'I have never found reading books to be a problem, so I’ve equally never felt the need to own a device that mitigates the non-problem of having books to read.'

    It's here that I think that universal tablets like the iPad will help the digital market. Lots of people buy iPads with no particular intention of reading ebooks. But you can download ebook readers like Apple's iBooks and Kindle for free. With a few free titles to try out. And the ability to download free samples of most current ebooks. Once you get to that stage, it's no longer an abstract concept, but something real that you have done. I have only bought one ebook so far (and, yes, downloaded quite a few free ones), and I will mostly stick to paper. But there are times when the convenience of getting hold of an ebook will win through. And those cheapo offers on Amazon are sorely tempting. Increasingly, I feel, ebooks will sneak onto my iPad until I am at least partly converted.

    So, bizarrely, I think a device that isn't particularly designed for reading ebooks is going to be more influential in converting the 'don't knows' to ebooks than dedicated readers like the Kindle. And tablets aren't going away. Rumour has it that Amazon is bringing out its own universal tablet this year, while ASDA is already selling a sub-£100 tablet. Interesting times indeed...

    Tuesday, 19 July 2011

    Why I don't agree with lottery Scrooges

    It's traditional for those with some grasp of probability to belittle those who enter the National Lottery. 'Clearly idiots,' they say. 'These people don't understand probability, or they wouldn't play.'

    I must admit, I've taken this stance a little in the past. Imagine, I've said, that the lottery balls came out one Saturday as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. There would be questions in the House no doubt. A new scandal to rival phone hacking - how could the National Lottery draw be so obviously rigged? Last Saturday's draw numbers were 4, 9, 13, 15, 18, 40 (as the website kindly sorts them into numerical order, I don't know what order they were drawn in). But in drawn order, that sequence of numbers had exactly the same probability of coming up as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

    Our natural suspicion of the ordered set arises because it makes it more obvious just how unlikely it is that a particularly sequence will be drawn - yet the same goes for the numbers on your ticket. It is ridiculously unlikely that your numbers will be drawn. So why bother? It's a waste of money.

    But here's the thing. I play the lottery. Every four weeks I allow myself £10 to play. No more - very tightly controlled. I don't enter the main Lotto draw, but rather the Thunderball draw, which has lower winnings (£500,000 for matching a full set) - but that would be enough to change my life, I don't want to be multi-millionaire, and the lower jackpot comes with better odds. Even so, it's an immense longshot. So why do I do it?

    Essentially it's a kind of utility that conventional economics is not very good at reflecting. If the sum involved is so small that I can consider it negligable (we're talking a coffee and cake for two at Starbucks per month), then I can effectively mentally lose it and easily offset it against a very low chance of winning a rather exciting amount. To add to the benefit side of the equation, with this style of play I get a win about once every couple of months. This will inevitably be for between £3 and £10, but there are still a few minutes of delicious anticipation after getting the 'Check your account' email from the National Lottery when it could be oh so much better.

    One of the important factors in making the decision to play rational to me is I totally forget about my entry unless I do get one of those emails. I don't anxiously check my numbers. I don't know what my numbers are. As far as I am concerned, once the payment has been made the money has gone, just as if I had spent it on those coffees. That way, any win is pure pleasure, because it has no cost attached to it. Let's face it, the only thing I'm likely to get the day after a visit to Starbucks is indigestion.*

    All in all, then, I say pish and tush to those who put down lottery players. If it's done in the right frame of mind, and in a controlled fashion, why not? Of course you aren't going to win the jackpot. But is there anything wrong with having a dream? After all, one thing is certain. If you don't take part you will certainly never win anything.

    * This is not casting aspersions on Starbucks, espresso-based coffee always gives me indigestion.

    Monday, 18 July 2011

    What is the first thing a PR company should be?

    This is beige. This is what you get
    if you put 'Beige' into a search engine.
    I occasionally do a spot of journalism that requires me to get in touch with PR agencies - but because I might only be picking up on a particular topic after, say, a six months absence, I quite often find that the PR person I've been dealing with has disappeared off the electronic face of the Earth (they are rather like mayflies, PR people) and so I have to go back to the switchboard and start again.

    I recently wanted to get some PR information for a client of the Borkowski agency. I emailed my latest contact there - only to have the email bounce. No surprise. I looked up their website - it wasn't there, but there was a PR agency at the bizarre address (apparently just so they can have the slogan 'No one can do what Borkowski do') - what the heck, I rang them, but no they don't handle the client I want - the client is now with Beige.

    Now, this is something that happens as well - clients change agencies, and usually the PR companies are quite nice about passing you on. But I picked up on a certain vibe about Borkowski and Beige that made me go back to the search engine and discover that Beige had been set up after a nasty bust-up between Borkowski founder Mark Borkowski (with whom I recently appeared on Litopia After Dark) and the rest of the management. Mark took his name, and the agency left behind rebranded as Beige.

    But here's the thing. They aren't Beige PR, they proudly say, they are just Beige. Well, that's all very well, but try putting Beige into a search engine. It doesn't tell you anything about PR agencies. Try Beige PR? Well, no, because they aren't called Beige PR etc. etc. Eventually, after reading half a dozen articles about the split between Borkowski and Beige I found an article with the Beige email address format, which led me (hurray) to their web address, which is, in case you are interested.

    I don't know about you, but I think the most obvious requirement for a PR company is to be easy to get in touch with. Journalists are lazy people. They can't be bothered to spend half the afternoon on a treasure hunt, trying to find an agency's website. Come on guys. Swallow your designer creative pride. Make sure Beige PR finds you, because Beige certainly doesn't.

    Friday, 15 July 2011

    Not a clubbable man

    It's the big dark one
    Not long ago I met up with a colleague who works in the publishing arena. 'Why don't we meet at my club?' he said. Before you could say 'What ho, Jeeves?' I was rolling up at the unmarked front door of the Reform Club in Pall Mall.

    It was certainly an experience, remarkably like the sort of thing you see in a period TV drama. The elaborately suited lackey on the door (after relieving me of my bag, which was rather riskily left in a 'help yourself' pile) took me to the person I was meeting. We sat in low leather armchairs, seemingly designed for snoozing. And at the press of a bell push, a waiter turned up to serve tea and teacakes. ('Not coffee, sir, coffee is outside.')

    I can sort of see the appeal, but in some ways it was restricting. It seemed inappropriate to talk at anything more than a low pitched murmur, we weren't allowed to take our jackets off, and I couldn't demonstrate something I was talking about on a phone or iPad because, of course, such things were not allowed in those hallowed halls.

    It was an interesting experience, but I'll be honest, it's just not me. Ever since I graduated I get occasional reminders from the Oxford and Cambridge Club that I can join, and how it makes an excellent base when up in town. The thing is, I've got an excellent base on every street corner, called a coffee shop - I don't need to tramp across town to an expensive single location. And in a coffee shop I can take my jacket off and use technology as I want.

    If I really did want a more substantial pied-a-terre, as a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), I have access to the RSA House in John Adam Street, where I can get hold of a meeting room, relax in the library or bar or entertain in the restaurant. But I confess I've only been twice. It's just not something I often need. If I have a business meeting it is usually at my client or publisher's office.

    The other problem is I don't think I'm very clubbable. Don't get me wrong, I was delighted to be invited by my friend, who clearly revels in the environment, but it's just not me. I don't really want to go regularly to somewhere that won't let you in if you aren't wearing a jacket and tie. As I've mentioned previously, I hate black tie, but frankly wearing any tie is something I don't do these days. Weddings and funerals is about it. Why I would want to do it for something I'm supposed to enjoy, I don't know.

    To make matters worse, the dress code specifies no jeans. Now I have plenty of trousers that aren't jeans, in the sense that they aren't denim, but many of them do have rivets or other jeans-like features, which means I thought it best not to wear them (I don't mean I didn't wear trousers, just had a very limited selection to choose from), as the kind of person whose job it is to check if you are wearing the right clothes doesn't get much job satisfaction beyond being picky.

    It was an interesting glimpse into the past and into a passing world. Frankly I will be surprised if many of these institutions survive in their current form for more than a couple of decades. They have had their day. It's a different world now, and I, for one, am glad.

    Thursday, 14 July 2011

    Authors? What do you do all day?

    I was rather inspired by the short series Evan Davis (one of the BBC's treasures, I feel) did on how Britain pays its way, called Made in Britain. Okay, it was a bit heavy on stunts, like Davis taking a ride in a jet fighter or a Davis-stand in doing a rooftop chase (see below) - but it was enjoyable and helpful in encouraging us to think about whether we should stand around bemoaning our loss of manufacturing, or get on with earning export revenue regardless.

    The programme divided the opportunities for making money into three - manufacturing, intellectual property and services. Davis argued that we actually do more manufacturing than we think - it's just that we have moved to more high end, high price manufacturing - and that we should not discount the importance of the other two. On the IP side, for example, he showed how chip designer ARM makes loads of export money without manufacturing anything. On the service side too there were hidden exports which happen within the UK, as when, for example, a foreigner buys and staffs a house in London.

    It inspired me to think about us writers. When the bureaucrats do the export statistics, do they remember us? After all, quite a lot of my books go to other countries, and then there are rights deals were a foreign publisher buys the rights to produce a local version, another hidden export. I also wondered just what it is that we authors do in terms of those three headings. Obviously there is an intellectual property component in producing the content of the book - and when it is sold as an ebook, I guess it is almost entirely IP. But a paper book also involves manufacturing, often still in the UK. And to complete the set, most authors offer the service of giving talks (though this is less likely to involve exports).

    All in all, I'm rather proud of the contribution us authors make to Britain. We might not have made Evan's programme, but we're in there in all his sectors, turning brainpower into cash. So authors, next time someone asks you what you do all day you can proudly say 'I'm responsible for manufacturing, intellectual property and services earnings for Britain.' Or at least you can think it - you'd probably sound a bit silly saying it.

    Wednesday, 13 July 2011

    Why science on TV is like magic on Britain's Got Talent

    I know it looks like F, but it's an E, okay?
    Blame the 3D shading.
    Recently I was watching an old QI on Dave, the way you do. (For non-UK readers, QI is a humorous general knowledge quiz, and Dave is a TV channel. No, really.) One of the contestants was a comedian with a background in physics. At one point he tried to explain some sciencey thing, I can't remember what. Within seconds, the other comedians on the panel were miming going to sleep and generally acting like bored kids at the back of a class.

    Now admittedly this wasn't a great exposition of science, as he was thinking on his feet, but it really didn't need this response. Suddenly I made the connection with magic on Britain's Got Talent. This TV talent show that is manipulative within an inch of the viewers' lives has a reputation for chewing up magic acts and spitting them out. The trouble is simple. The judges have the attention span of gnats. This is communicated to the audience, who similarly start to get restless if something dramatic hasn't happened within 10 seconds of the act beginning.

    This presents magicians with a real challenge, because the actual magic illusion is usually very quick and in some ways quite trivial. What makes great magic is the gradual build, often injecting some tension and danger, before the sudden amazing event occurs. Stripped of the build there isn't really an act. But the Britain's Got Talent mob don't have the patience to sit through a build.

    And here, I believe, is the problem with people explaining science on TV (or the radio). It's often the case that to get to the amazing bit, you need quite a long build. Our local radio presenter and I have discussed doing a piece on quantum theory for my next appearance on BBC Wiltshire. I was thinking about how to do this, and there is exactly the same problem those magicians have. To get to the amazing bits I have to do quite a lot of building. So, for instance, to talk about a photon going through both of Young's slits and intefering with itself (that should get the attention from the back of the class) I have to woffle on about how the slits were used to 'prove' light is a wave and so on and so forth.

    The only answer I can see (and I guess this is a hint for how to succeed with magic on Britain's Got Talent too) is not to let the build get boring - which can only mean injecting a lot of interest along the way. It's not enough to know that in 2 minutes time you will get to a really interesting bit, by then you will have lost them. You can still have the amazing peaks, but get the interest factor in early and keep it going through the build.

    Tuesday, 12 July 2011

    Whatever happened to the giant hogweed?

    Does anyone remember the giant hogweed scare? Some time in the late 70s or early 80s there was a panic that this plant, brought back to the UK by Victorian plant collectors and now escaped into the wild, could be extremely dangerous. We heard how it was phototoxic - its poison was activated by sunlight - and could cause blisters, blindness and possibly even death in children.

    For months, every time anyone came across an innocent but rather large cow parsley on a walk they would avoid it in a panic or attack it with sticks. It was Day of the Triffids for real. Giant hogweed was plastered across the news (quite possibly it was the silly season). And then suddenly it was gone, never to be mentioned again. What happened? Was it literally just a pointless media scare? Is the giant hogweed still out there, lurking, plotting, waiting to get its revenge?

    As a great fan of 70s prog rockers, I could hardly finish this post with anything other than Genesis and the Return of the Giant Hogweed:

    Monday, 11 July 2011

    How not to compare paper books and ebooks

    I've recently seen an environmental comparison of using an ebook reader and paper books in an august US newspaper, and I was very impressed at how much it managed to get wrong - or at least the way it put a particular spin on things.

    First it claims to be comparing paper books with 'e-readers like Apple's new iPad and Amazon Kindle,' and goes to on to quote very exact amounts of resources consumed in the manufacture like '33 pounds of minerals.' Yet the iPad and the Kindle are hugely different - there is no way a Kindle would have the same manufacturing footprint as an iPad. The article is also rather sneaky in comparing e-readers with 'a book made with recycled paper.' I'm not sure I've ever seen a book made from recycled paper. I'm not even sure it's possible to do cost effectively. This is not realistic - it's cheating. Almost all books are made from trees, with possibly a small percentage of recycled paper thrown in - get over it.

    Next it talks about fossil fuels. There is plenty described about the energy hungry consumption in manfacture of electronics, but nothing about the fossil fuels used in cutting down trees and trucking the logs all over the place and converting them to pulp. Again, cheating here I'm afraid.

    Then there's a bizarre section about reading the book. It says if you read a book in bed, you can save energy with an e-reader because of the cost of the electric light, but read in daylight and the paper book wins. Has this person never seen a Kindle? Yes, you could read an iPad in the dark (though I'm not sure many people would), but you can't read an e-ink based e-reader in the dark. It's not backlit. Doh.

    In then asks how many volumes you need to read on an e-reader to break even (environmentally). The answer given is 40 to 50 on resources or 100 with global warming thrown in. And the conclusion the writer seems to give is this shows that paper books are best. Leaving aside the fact that the sort of people who buy an e-reader probably read 40 or 50 books in a single year, there's a huge problem here, at least when looking at the iPad. Most people who read books on an iPad had an iPad anyway. They didn't buy it to read ebooks.

    I admit you aren't going to have a Kindle 'anyway' - reading books is what it is for. But if you have an iPad for other reasons, then once you've got it, reading books on it makes great environmental sense, because you are only comparing the incremental energy consumption with all the environmental cost of producing a paper book. Oh, and I notice the writer doesn't take into account the additional environmental impact of all the books that are made, transported to bookshops, transported back to the publisher, then pulped because of the idiotic sale or return system.

    Don't get me wrong, although I do sometimes read things on my iPad, I still prefer 'real' books. I am very happy for people to buy real versions of my books - I think they are worth the environmental impact. (Though e-book fans should note that Inflight Science is currently at the bargain price of £2.49 at or $4 at I love having books on the shelf in a way that having a pile of titles on an ebook reader will never satisfy. But please don't try to use pseudo-green arguments to turn people off e-readers. It's just wrong.

    Friday, 8 July 2011

    Just call me senator

    Cambridge rooftops, shortly before my first visit to the Senate House
    From now on, feel free to address me as Senator Clegg.

    This all started when I got an email from a friend asking if I was going to be voting for the next Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Apparently the candidates are the actor Brian Blessed, the politician Lord Sainsbury, the barrister Michael Mansfield and the local convenience store owner Abdul Ahrain. Now I was vaguely aware that the Chancellor was elected by the university's senate. My only rather indirect experience of this august body was when I got my degrees, ceremonies which took place in the rather stern building called the Senate House.

    However, on checking on the University website I see my friend was right. I am informed as follows: the Chancellor is elected by the senate, and the senate consists of holders of any Doctor's degree of the University, any Master's degree of the University, or the degree of Bachelor of Divinity of the University, and all current members of the Regent House. So indeed, as a holder of a Master's degree of the University, I am a member of the senate. A senator.

    In case any US readers feel my adoption of the title devalues their honourable politicians, I ought to point that, while I have a deep respect for the United States of America and its constitution, the University's Chancellor was first elected in 1226, a convenient 550 years before US independence. So we got there first.

    Which means... the Senator is in.

    Thursday, 7 July 2011

    Are comparison sites really killer apps?

    I first encountered the concept of online price comparison many years ago with a book comparison site called Bookbrain. At the time, I wrote in PC Week magazine that I thought this would be the killer app for the internet. It was such a simple but excellent idea. Something like a book is a commodity. It doesn’t matter where you buy it from, you just want the cheapest price. Here was a way to find that price instantly, click a few buttons and buy the book.

    As it turned out, book comparison hasn’t been the success I expected it to be, I suspect because most people stick with a single trusted supplier that they know will give them a good deal. By doing this it’s easy for them to buy again once they’ve set up an account. But the obvious area now where there’s a lot to be gained from comparison is sites where you can compare car insurance.

    I recently needed to get car insurance for a 17 year old – a scary proposition when you consider the size of some insurance quotes – and went to a comparison site, while a friend called in at the local broker. I’m sure she got excellent service, but the fact remains she was charged nearly three times as much for a comparable policy.

    In the early days, when they were first set up, insurance comparison sites were frankly dubious. When I first tried one a number of years ago I vowed never to use one again, because I was bombarded with a flood of unwanted phone calls and emails. However, with so much cash at stake on a teen policy, I risked going for a comparison site again. Perhaps this time I was more careful about checking a ‘don’t pass on my details’ box, but that flood of calls doesn’t seem to happen any more. I don’t think I’d go so far now as to say that price comparison was the killer app for the internet, but to buy car insurance without at least checking the prices on such a site is… short sighted.

    Behold the tesseract

    In my teens I was fascinated with a mathematical construct called a tesseract. This is a four dimensional hypercube. A cube is constructed in three dimensions from six faces, each a square. A tesseract is constructed in four dimensions from eight faces, each a cube.

    Funnily both my youthful introductions to tesseracts were from fiction. The first was in Madeleine L'Engle's wonderful children's classic (still very readable for adults) A Wrinkle in Time. I know some people don't like this book because it has an underlying religious message, but for me it is one of the best children's science fiction stories ever. In it, a tesseract is a gateway for interstellar travel.

    But much more informative is Robert Heinlein's brilliant short story, And he Built a Crooked House, which appears in the collection The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. Dating back to 1941, this story tells of an architect who builds a tesseract house. Now, clearly you can't build a 4D structure, so what he built was an unfolded projection. We're all familiar with the way we can draw a cube on a 2D piece of paper. Similarly you can make a 3D projection model of a tesseract.

    The best known version of this is a cube with another cube inside it. Each vertex of the inner cube is linked to the equivalent vertex of the outer cube. The eight cubic faces are the six shapes surrounding the inner cube, plus the outer cube and the inner cube. You might say 'That can't be right, those six surrounding shapes aren't cubes,' but remember this is just a projection. Look at how you draw a cube on paper. Most of the faces aren't squares in the projection.

    You can also unfold a tesseract from four dimensions to three. If you make a 3D cube out of paper, you can open it up into a sort of cross shape and lay it flat as 2D. Similarly, you can open a hypercube out and 'lay it flat' in 3D producing a sort of cross shape of cubes. This is what the architect built in the story. But then, as a result of an earthquake, the house folds into a true hypercube. This means that various transitions from room to room are weird - and some of the windows look out on different universes.

    We can't really make a hypercube, but here's the next best thing (thanks to Ramon Quintana for pointing this out). I don't know if it's correct, but it's certainly beautiful. Here is a 2D rendering of a 3D projection of a hypercube, being rotated on various axes:

    Tuesday, 5 July 2011

    A weighty matter

    I read an awful lot of popular science books (though, thankfully, not a lot of awful popular science books) to review them. One of the joys of this is when a book makes you think of something in a fresh way, perhaps something very ordinary, seeing it in a different light.

    The book I was reading is too early in its production to talk about, but the thing it made me think about is how strange a thing weight is once you examine it.

    Mass, as a concept, is pretty straight forward. It is how much stuff an object has in it. If you like to think in Einsteinian terms, it shows how much the object warps space and time. Easy enough. But weight is different. Mass is an inherent property of that object. Take it wherever you like and it won't change. But take an object to the Moon and its weight changes. That's because weight is a property both of the object and the gravitational field it lives in. Weight is the amount of force with which gravity pulls on an object, and so (and the reason why it is a useful measure) it is also the amount of force we need to exert to pick up that object against the pull of gravity.

    But there's a catch here. If weight is a force, it shouldn't be measured in kilograms. So we seem to have two choices. We can either ask a new parent 'How massive is your baby?' to which the answer is 'Oh, around 2 kilograms,' (say). Or we can ask 'How much does it weigh,' to which the answer should be 'Oh, around 19.6 newtons.'

    The fact that we measure weight in kilograms rather than newtons reflects a parochial outlook. If the only acceleration due to gravity you ever experience is 9.81 metres per second per second, you can 'simplify' things by forgetting the acceleration and just using the mass as the weight - but it's an odd simplification when you think about it.

    One last thought about weight. When I was at school we often used to discuss what would happen if you took a package to the Post Office filled with helium balloons. (Yes, this is the sort of discussion I had at school. And you're surprised I ended up writing about science?) With enough helium in a flimsy container, we reckoned that it should float, giving it a negative weight, and hence have a negative reading on the scales. Would the Post Office have to pay us to post it?

    Sadly we were confusing two forces here. If weight is just the force imparted by gravity, then it is always proportional to mass - and assuming a positive mass, it will always have a positive value. A balloon full of helium may be lighter than air, but it still has a positive mass, so it still has a positive weight. The fact that it would appear to have a negative weight on a scale merely reflects that there's another force acting on it.

    After all, you wouldn't say a brick has a negative weight just because it doesn't register on a scale when you hold it above the scale. It's just that you are applying an upward force that more than counters the weight. Similarly the buoyancy of the balloon (because it is lighter than the air it displaces) gives it upthrust, a second force acting in the opposite direction to gravity. No reduction in weight. I admit the Post Office doesn't have scales that produce a true weight. But in principle we got it wrong.

    Monday, 4 July 2011

    I am not worthy - I'm worthless

    One of the joys of writing a blog is that years later people can still discover the articles you wrote. Recently I've had an interesting comment on a post I wrote back in 2010 on why I'm not a great enthusiast for opera. I'd like to let you see Mr/Ms Anonymous' comment in all its glory:
    Appalling ignorance of classical music (its history) in general, and of opera in particular. The author has NO feel for the genre, and how could he possibly understand the funding side of things unless he loved the music? He doesn't, and his ignorance fuels his rant of public support. In Europe, where opera companies and orchestras receive state funding, culture is appreciated with an understanding of its true value. Worthless article.  
    Now I responded as follows:
    Dear Anonymous, someone with your obvious cultural depth will obviously understand what 'ad hominem' means and why intelligent people regard it as the most pathetic form of argument.

    I am also impressed with your psychic ability to deduce my ignorance or otherwise of the history of music from an item that isn't about the history of music. Marvellous.
    ... but I feel there are few more things I could have said. Apparently I have NO feel for the genre. I have NO feel for mud wrestling either, but what has that got to do with the price of fish? To have a 'feel' for something implies an emotional bias, which is hardly an ideal state to be in to make a dispassionate decision. And then we get to the real doozey. I can't understand the funding if I don't love the music. Presumably this is why most of us can't understand the funding of the E.U. - because we don't love it. Silly us.

    I think even Anonymous would agree that most people don't love opera. So (s)he is saying that only a tiny minority can understand the funding. Is that a good argument for publically funding something? What's more (s)he says Europe provides state funding. Okay - so European countries are a good guide on how to operate finances? Three words: Greece, EU Budget.

    All in all, you can't help but feel that Anonymous has not done opera any favours...

    Friday, 1 July 2011

    Politely saying 'I don't agree'

    As I've mentioned before, I like receiving letters and emails from readers. Sometimes they are a little strange, but often they are just pleasant thank-yous. And then there are the quibbles.

    I received from my publisher the other day what they referred to as a piece of fan mail. But it wasn't what I'd call fan mail. It was a quibble. These happen when you get something small wrong. And of course this always happens somewhere in a book. It happens most often when I write something 'obvious' from memory, or commit an elementary slip where my fingers are busy without my brain being engaged. (I once said an alpha particle was a hydrogen nucleus, instead of a helium nucleus. It is a big mistake in a sense, but it was a small slip in terms of not watching those fingers.)

    Sometimes you want to say 'Get a life,' but  just occasionally you can get one up on the quibbler. In this case, an ex airline employee was taking umbrage with something I'd said about turbulence in Inflight Science. In an effort to reduce nervousness when turbulence hits I pointed out that no modern airliner has been brought down by turbulence. Ah-hah, said my correspondent, 'the NEVER is not correct.' And he went on to list two incidents where an airliner has been brought down - a Boeing 707 in 1960 and a Vickers Viscount in 1961.

    Now I had chosen that word 'modern' with care. I did know about one of the incidents he mentions, and I think there has been a more recent one featuring an antiquated Russian jet. But that was the whole point. I didn't expect anyone to think of planes designed in the 1940s as modern. I would hardly refer to a car or computer that had a problem in 1960 as modern. Of course the picture isn't quite so clearcut with planes. After all, the Boeing 747 is still widely used and that dates back to the 1960s. But even so, the 707 and the Viscount are a generation earlier.

    In the end, I can sort of understand why people write letters like this - it's the same reason as why I shout 'You're wrong!' at QI. But it probably isn't really worth it.