Monday, 28 February 2011

The dividing line between last hope and false hope

There was a very sad story in the latest edition of our local free magazine, Swindon Link. It concerns 27-year-old Tami Brown who has been fighting cancer for seven years and has now being told it's terminal. She is hoping to raise £5,000 to take a last hope therapy. We are told about the new 'High-Dose Intravenous Vitamin C therapy':
Based on research by Noble [sic] Prize winner Dr Linus Pauling there is a lot of reported success in the USA and New Zealand.
 There are several problems with this statement. Taking it at face value you might think that medical researcher Dr Linus Pauling has recently won a Nobel Prize for his successful therapy. The reality is a little different. Pauling did indeed win the Nobel Prize - twice, in fact. Once the peace prize and once for chemistry. He was a chemist, not a medical doctor. In the 1970s he became interested in the idea that high doses of vitamin C could cure the common cold, and later that it could have a positive effect on cancer. At the time this was just a speculative idea - he had no personal involvement in work demonstrating this.

In clinical trials in the 1980s, this treatment was shown to be no better than placebo, though Pauling always questioned the results as the trial had not been intravenous. He died in 1994, so has no recent part in this story.

There has since been some evidence that high doses of vitamin C do slow the growth of some cancers in mice. the effect is small, however - there are many other substances that would have a bigger effect. Unfortunately the 'lots of reported success' mentioned in the article does not appeal to have a scientific basis. To quote a scientific analysis (see link below):
If high dose intravenous ascorbate has antitumor activity in humans, that activity is almost certainly quite modest at best, and to achieve even such modest antitumor activity definitely requires incredibly high doses of ascorbate. Once again, I point out that any other experimental drug requiring such high plasma concentrations and high doses to achieve such a modest antitumor effect would probably garner very little interest from anyone, even if it were a potentially patentable product of big pharma.
It's a really difficult one. If this were a totally unsubstantiated treatment, like the suggestion that cancer can be treated by homeopathy, then it would be easy to say 'there's no point' - and it would probably be illegal to say that the treatment could cure cancer. But this is less clear cut. When does a last hope become a false hope?

You can read the full Swindon Link story here, visit Tami Brown's website here, and read a detailed analysis of the science here, emphasing how limited the effect of vitamin C was in the mice trial. Then, perhaps you can make your own mind up.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Why are business savings accounts so rubbish?

Like most people running a business, I have a business bank account. This is fine for doing the various transactions of business life, but it is useless if you have any money squirreled away - for example, to pay that evil Corporation Tax bill lurking months in the future. The standard business bank account doesn't pay interest. But no problem - my bank offers a business savings account.

Now when it comes to personal savings, I tend to shop around and change accounts for the best interest every year, but I've been with my current business savings account for about 10 years, so I thought it was worth looking for a bit more interest. I started searching and was horrified by what I found.

If you shop around you can get maybe 2.5% on a personal instant access account for the first year (admittedly then it will typically drop to 1% or 0.5%). But if you look at the instant access business savings accounts the typical interest rate is 0.05%. No, that's not a misprint. 1/20th of a percent. That is, frankly, an insult. I asked my bank why this was the case and they muttered about money being kept longer in personal accounts, but that's really beside the point. That's a ludicrously low rate.

The good news is the account I was with was already offering 0.5% and I found one from the same provider that provides just over 1% if you are prepared to give 10 days notice, which isn't usually a problem with business savings. If you want to take advantage it's Standard Life's business savings (part of Barclays). Yet even they hide this away in a filing cabinet at the bottom of a missing staircase, with notices up saying 'Beware of the tiger.' (Thanks, Douglas Adams.) It's quite difficult to find these accounts by doing a web search or looking on a comparison site. Is this a conspiracy? Why are the rates offered so terrible? If Standard Life can offer decent rates, why can't other banks? Colour me mystified.

Wordle by www.wordle.net

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Pondering plastic

For this week's exciting Royal Society of Chemistry podcast I'm pondering plastic - to be precise, Bakelite, the first of the truly artificial plastics and a one time favourite with everyone from jewelery makers to phone manufacturers. No one who was around in the 60s could forget the feel of those old phones. It's somehow wonderfully period, is Bakelite.

Take a listen!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Writers need to make notes

OneNote in action
It's pretty obviously really, but whether you are a non-fiction author like me or a fiction person, you need to make notes. Traditionally writers have used nice chunky notebooks - and many still do, and that's fine. But I like the searchability and cut and paste options of a computerized notebook. For a good number of years I've used OneNote (see my post on it) and it serves me well in most respects. But one thing I've always been irritated by is a lack of a good version to have in my pocket.

As it happens, there is now a version of OneNote for the iPhone - but it isn't available in the UK yet, and Microsoft's PR department is being very tight lipped about when it will be released. Once I was aware of this I started to think just how useful it would be to access and input notes from my phone. And there is an alternative - the free product Evernote. The great thing about Evernote is it's available on pretty well everything: PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android, Palm, Windows Mobile. Slap the application on your devices and you can start making notes.

Desktop Evernote - it's less confusing than it looks!
It's not as sophisticated as OneNote. One thing I like about OneNote is the way you can structure information in various folders and sections and tabs and such. And the OneNote notes are very rich - they really are like a piece of paper. You can plonk text and photos and sounds and documents wherever you like on the page. By comparison, Evernote does pretty straightforward text notes (though you can have notes with a photo/sound in them). But the big thing about Evernote is that it synchronizes across your devices.
Evernote on the iPhone

Make a note on your phone and soon it will be accessible on your desktop. And vice versa. Without you doing anything. There are limits to this. The free version has a relatively low upload per month - fine if you are just doing text, but relatively easy to use up with photos. There is a pay version with a much bigger limit that isn't too extortionate, and also throws in offline access to the notes on your phone (the free version has to download them when you want to access them).

When OneNote for iPhone comes along I will certainly give it a try, but for the moment I've adopted a hybrid approach that works pretty well. I use Evernote for random notes and scraps. I see something online I might want to use - clip it into Evernote. I remember while I'm walking the dog that I need to do something - I make a note in Evernote. But OneNote remains my structured repository for notes about the books I'm writing and my business. So far it's working pretty well. If you haven't tried Evernote, particularly if you use a mobile device part of the time I'd really recommend giving it a go.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Late Frank

On Saturday I received an envelope in the post. Of itself this isn't particularly remarkable. I often do. If it had been, say, a wallaby, I would have been surprised, but envelopes are pretty run of the mill. I opened it up. It was a batch of royalty statements, forwarded by my agent. Again, not particularly surprising, although he tends to scan and email them these days. But there was something a little odd. They were all statements from 2009.

Okay, perhaps he'd been having a clear out. It happens. You have one of those piles of relatively unimportant paper that you don't get round to, things get buried at the bottom and you discover them a couple of years later. At this point I took a look at the postmark. For your entertainment and amazement I have included it here. Yes, it was posted on 27 October 2009 and arrived on 19 February 2011. Even by the Post Office's standards, this is pretty amazing.

So what happened to it? In speculation it's possible to have a considerable amount of fun. Perhaps it has travelled around the world, getting slipped into the wrong bag on numerous occasions. Perhaps it has been to places I can never hope to visit. Alternatively, perhaps it slipped down the back of the sorting machine at Mount Pleasant (a misleading name if ever there were one) and has been sitting there ever since, until an official Post Office feather duster happened to winkle it out, when it got thrown into a delivery sack.

What slightly disappoints me is that there is no attempt to apologize. You'd think wherever it was found someone would have glanced at the postmark, noticed how late it was and might have scribbled on a brief acceptance of remorse. But no. Not a word. Anyone would think they didn't care.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Settling down with a good byook

   'What do you make of this, Watson?'
   I caught the object Holmes languidly tossed in my direction from the ottoman. 'It's a slipper, Holmes.'
   The great man sighed. 'Inside the slipper.'
   I carefully opened the persian slipper, within which Holmes habitually kept his tobacco. But instead a most remarkable device befell my gaze. An engine of outstanding craftsmanship, like a piece of polished jet that glowed alight with the richest colours. 'It seems to be a computing engine, Holmes.'
   'And much more beside. It is an iPhone, Watson. But I refer to the "app" that resides in its capacious memory. Do you recall the adventure of the Speckled Band?'

I can't keep this up. What I'm setting out to do is review a new iPhone app. It's the classic Conan Doyle short story, The Speckled Band, but this isn't just a common or garden ebook. It's a new format, called by the makers a byook. (We'll come back to that.)

The idea here is a very good one. Ebooks are often, if anything, a step back from from a traditional paper book. Because of the need to change pagination to fit text size and page orientation, they have very little of the elegant formatting of a good book. In fact, ebooks are often rather a mess. But the byook format takes the text, and adds to it, using the multimedia capabilities of the iPhone.

Yes, you are reading an ebook - this isn't a computer game. But there are animated illustrations, sound effects and more. It sounds brilliant. Back in the relatively early days of computer gaming, when graphics really started taking off, I was a great fan of a game called The Seventh Guest. It was spooky, atmospheric and intriguing. The byook format has the potential to apply the same sort of atmospherics to the process of reading an ebook.

There are, however, a few issues with the implementation in this first ever byook. I suppose I have to start with that name. The makers do not have English as a first language and, I'm sorry, 'byook' just doesn't work in English. It syucks. Then there's the chosen title. I have nothing against using a Conan Doyle story. And I think byooks will work best with atmospheric titles, so in that sense it's a good choice. But what we have here is not a novel. The Speckled Band is just one of the short stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and this byook isn't even the whole short story, only covering the first half of it. They're charging $1.99 for half a short story. Now bearing in mind the Sherlock Holmes stories are out of copyright, and you can download the whole book as an ebook for free, this is quite steep.

Is the experience worth the difference? I'm not sure. It is very clever. A lot of the pages are animated just with a change of page colour and some marginalia sketched in around the outside as if Watson is doodling as he takes notes, but they also accompanied by music and sound effects. These vary from the spot-on, like a gently ticking clock to the excessive, where a fire in the hearth sounds like the whole building is burning down. The effects come into their own on occasional pages where there is more animation, and the sillhouette of Holmes appears, blood spatters across the page or, perhaps most effectively, lightning flashes across the screen with the phone vibrating in time to the thunder. There are also neat effects where the text shakes, or blurs before settling down.

So - a good idea? Definitely. Atmospheric? A resounding yes. But it costs too much for too little content. (It was also too big at around 50 Mb - I hope most of that was the environment and a new byook title wouldn't add a similar amount, as that's an awful lot of storage for half a short story.) Without doubt it added atmosphere to the reading process. If I had a gripe there, it's that I'm a fast reader, and I found myself having to wait on each page (effectively just a paragraph or two) for the effects to do their bit before I turned on. This meant I tended to lose the flow of the story.

Am I dismissing byooks (please change the name) out of hand? No, not at all. With a suitably atmospheric story they are great fun and I hope to see more of them. But we need more content in a single title before they can really take off. You can buy The Speckled Band Part 1 byook at the iTunes Store.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Why is science teaching so variable?

Yesterday I visited North London Collegiate School to give a talk. It's my third visit to the school and it's always a pleasure - apart from being a lovely venue, the students (and staff) are always enthusiastic, interested and supportive.  In a conversation about teaching over lunch, I started wondering why it is that here there were so many students with a real passion for science, yet at many schools this isn't the case. After all, most 10 year-olds are excited by science. Where do we go wrong?

Of course NLCS isn't a typical school - it's a very good private school. Of itself, the 'private' part isn't too significant. I've been to state schools where there is a similar enthusiasm, and to private schools with little interest. Now, some of the drop off in interest in science (or the ability to sustain it) as students get older is a result of peer pressure - and though there have been doubts expressed about socialization issues with single sex schools I think it's fair to say that there is less of the peer pressure that says 'Don't seem interested in academic subjects!' in single sex schools like NLCS. But the two factors I'm most interested in are quality of teaching and content of the course, both of which can engage or turn students off.

As far as teaching goes, we need teachers who know their subject - I am worried by how many schools might have a biologist teaching physics, for instance - love their subject, and have a passion to communicate it. This is a difficult combination, I admit. Many scientists aren't great communicators. We're asking a lot in a science teacher, because we want them to understand and be excited about the science and put it across well. But I don't think this is impossible, provided we see teaching science as a fundamentally important role (and, yes, reward it appropriately). I know there is a shortage of science teachers as it is - but all that says is we need to put even more effort and money into the next generation. No money to spare in these hard times? So running some games in 2012 is more important than science education and the future technological fitness of the country? Politicians can find the money if they have the will. It's just that few of them understand science at the moment. (We should have compulsory science classes for MPs - but that's a different post.)

Then there's the content of the teaching. The big difference between academic science and popular science is that popular science is more built around stories and people. Yes, you get the science, but you get some context - and though I think it has improved since my day, science courses could probably still do with more context along the way. The other powerful tool popular science communicators have is using the sexy bits of science. In physics, for instance, we drag in relativity and quantum theory and all that good stuff at the drop of a hat. There's very little basic physics that doesn't have a component that really is exciting and mindboggling provided you are up on the 20th century developments - but most science as taught in schools is 19th century science. By bringing in the exciting stuff early - and it's not a problem: I talk about relativity and quantum theory to junior school children - you not only give them science that's closer to the real thing, but give it much more of a wow factor.

I'm not saying it's easy. But it is important. We need more students as engaged as those at NLCS. And that means some fundamental change.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The pain of deadlines

Deadlines are a fact of life when it comes to writing books. Of course not everyone sticks to them. Douglas Adams famously said: 'I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.' But for most authors, particularly if it's your first book, the deadline can be a pretty scary thing. This isn't helped by contracts that contain dark threats along the lines of 'If you don't submit your manuscript by the agreed date, you will have to pay back your advance and sacrifice your first born.'

The good news is that most publishers will cut you a little slack if necessary. I didn't really understand this to start with. My first professional writing was for weekly magazines, and with them, the deadline was 5pm on day X, and that was it. Then on one book I misread the deadline as the last day of the month, where actually it was the first. When I was about two weeks late, the editor mildly asked if I would be ready soon. It wasn't a problem. In fact I've talked to academic publishers who reckon most academics think that if they get a book in within 3 months of a deadline, they've hit it.

That's excessive, but as long as you give them some warning, editors are usually happy to be a little flexible. For me, though, that magazine heritage is still there, and it's very rare that I don't deliver on the specified date. (In fact apart from that accidental overrun, I think I've only once delivered 2 weeks late by agreement.)

You might think that the pain of a deadline goes away once you've sent off your manuscript, but in some ways the worst bit is still to come. Now there's a pause. You know that eventually the editor is going to come back and say:
  • This is great, we just need a few tweaks, or
  • I do have quite a few notes, but it's fine or
  • Okay, we have  a problem here
... but you don't know which. Being a writer, you are naturally paranoid, and despite any experience to the contrary tend towards the third option. So you are on tenterhooks. And the editor doesn't get back to you. Days roll by. You might think this is because the editor is spending a lot of time on your book, but I've had editors admit a month after submission 'I haven't got round to it yet, I have another project to finish.' Sigh.

I realize an editor isn't just working on my book. But I do think there could be a little more communication in this period. If (s)he knows a few days before deadline that (s)he isn't going to pick up your manuscript in the next month, it would be nice to be given some breathing space. If once (s)he's got it there is a delay that isn't caused by trying to work out how to salvage your book from disaster, it would be great just to get a little 'Everything's fine, I should get round to looking at it next week.' But on the whole there is very little communication.

It's not true of every editor - some really keep you in the loop, and/or are lightning fast with an initial assessment - but these are relatively rare. So perhaps the worst thing about a deadline is that you hit it not so much with a bang as a whimper. The big day arrives... and nothing happens for a month. Hey ho. Don't you just love deadlines?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Going all floppy

I am delighted to announce that my book Before the Big Bang is now available in paperback. (To be more precise it is available in paperback in the US - it doesn't reach the UK until next month, so presumably a crate is bobbing its way across the Atlantic as we speak, but you can pre-order it on Amazon.)

I have to confess that this is one of my favourites of my books to date, and I've been really pleased with the way it has sold in hardback, so I hope the paperback version will take off and keep up with its older sister The God Effect.

It's interesting that for the cover (which has that rather nice, silky feel of many modern US paperbacks) they have chosen an image that was rejected for the hardback. I think it was a good move, because the cover on the hardback was a little dark. Okay, this is dark as well, but it does have some colour in it.

This has been a problem with my books for St Martin's Press - I suppose because they often involve space or quantum physics (?) or some such, it's felt that a black background gives the right impression, but the trouble is that the cover doesn't grab your attention if it's face forward - from a distance it's just blackness. (The same thing was going to happen with my next title, about which more later in the year, but I think I've persuaded them to go for a brighter cover.)

One thing about the paperback that really excited me, but might seem strangely 'So what?' if you aren't an author is that my name is above the title on the spine. The reason this feels exciting is that having the name first, rather than leading with the title, seems to suggest 'Hey, here's another book by that excellent author, Brian Clegg,' and you don't need to know any more.

Whether or not this was what St Martin's Press had in mind, it makes me feel rather chuffed.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Time to put on the thinking cap

According to the news (thanks to Ian C for pointing this out), Australian scientists are working on a 'thinking cap' that would help stimulate creative thought. The idea is to use electrical impulses to stimulate the right side of the brain and suppress the left, enabling more creative thought to take place.

Now, for a good number of years I've been helping people be more creative about problem solving and idea generation through Creativity Unleashed. And, yes, we do discuss the two sides of the brain. But the simplistic view portrayed in this story (which to be fair, could be the fault of the news media, rather than the Australian researchers), is really not good enough.

Firstly, although the brain does have two modes of operation that are labelled left brain and right brain, as illustrated in the rather pretty slide from one of my talks (it's either a brain or an enormous walnut), the left/right labels are now rather out of date. A fair amount of 'left brain' activity takes places in the right hand half of the brain and vice versa.

And secondly, it's a mistake to think that creativity is all about right brain (as conventionally labelled) activity. Most people do need to push up the right brain side when trying to be creative in a business context, because the natural tendency when doing business is to use a left brain style - but a lot of creativity in the artistic context has too much right brain and not enough left. What's more, even the business creative process needs both. Typically business creativity involves a sequences of activities, where you might need more right brain (say when generating ideas) or more left brain (when structuring and assessing ideas). Without doubt you need both, and the artificial example of solving a puzzle is really no help when looking at real creativity. Sorry guys, you are working on a myth.

Hey, I managed to get through a whole post on 14 February without mentioning Valentine's Day! Damn.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Okay, now I'm vitriolic!

There is much joshing from both sides of the Atlantic about differences between UK and US English. In some cases it's down to simple usage - terms, for example, that never made the voyage across with the early settlers. I was surprised a while ago when I refered to a coconut shy in a US book and editor hadn't a clue what I was talking about. But in other cases it was down to a specific urge on the part of America to be different. And one example of this is in rationalized spellings. Although the original proposals were watered down, the US consciously took some of the less obvious spellings in English and made them 'easier'.

The watering down resulted in some some oddities. There is no doubt, for example, that 'colour' is an odd spelling for that word. But so, frankly, is color. They really should have gone for something like culler. However, one simplification that seems particularly strange from the UK side is the random way that some 'ph' spellings were changed to 'f' and some weren't. Those 'f' spellings really offend the UK eye, so I was mildly horrified to discover that the official spelling of sulphuric acid is now sulfuric acid. (Interestingly Microsoft isn't aware of this - the spell checker kept telling me I'd got it wrong.) You might say I was so irritated I become positively vitriolic.

You can find out for sure by listening to my Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on, groan, sulfuric acid. Click here to have a listen.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Pop sci vs Pop business - no contest

Most of the time my non-fiction reading is largely around science, but in the last few months I've gone back to reading business books, and I've had a shock.

When I worked in a corporate I was a big fan of business books, but coming back to them with the fresh eyes of a popular science reader and author, most of them are terrible!

The writing can be deadly dull, but this is the least of their problems. Most business books - not all, by any means, but most - seem to have a pageful of useful material scattered through a couple of hundred pages of padding. In some ways this shouldn't come as a surprise to me. A few years ago I was asked to contribute to a series of A4 laminated cards on business topics. The idea was to condense everything you needed to know into a two-sided sheet. I did this one, on time management. These cards really did deliver very well, but the trouble is few people wanted to pay the price of a book to get a sheet of A4 (even if it was laminated). We like to get our money's worth - and bulk says this, even if we discover that it is all padding.

Contrast this with most popular science books, which are absolutely packed with information. One chapter of a typical popular science book would more than cover all the content requirements of a typical business book.

The other problem I had was the business books' use of diagrams. In a popular science book we use a diagram if it's necessary to explain an arcane point that doesn't come across as well in words. In a business book they use diagrams because it's traditional to use diagrams, particularly to illustrate processes, so you get absolutely useless ones like this. But I suppose it does fill up a bit more space.

Overall I was so disappointed. Of course there are noble exceptions of business books that really read well and are a joy to consume, with real detailed help to get something done. But there is so much woffle. So many ways to take 'Seven habits' or 'Ten tips' or whatever and stretch them to fill an entire volume. Back to science, quick!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Say goodbye to some old friends

We're used to complaining that the teenagers of today don't read books and don't write letters. And the not reading books part is really sad. (Yes, I know your son/daughter/niece/grandchild reads lots - but on average teenagers are reading less than we did at the same age.) It's a trend I truly wish (without too much hope) will be reversed. How can I not, as a writer? But I think these are part of a significantly bigger change that will take place as the current generation grows up. Here's a couple of suggestions based on observations of nearby teens:
  • Watches are doomed. Well, not exactly doomed, but they will become something to wear occasionally for show, rather than everyday essentials. Neither of my teenage daughters wears a watch. They have them, but they don't bother. 'Why should I? I've got my phone.' And it does so much more with alarms and all that stuff. The wristwatch looks set to go the way of the pocket watch.
  • Cards will get their cards. (See what I did there?) Christmas cards, birthday cards, holiday postcards - will become niche products. Holiday postcards are likely to go first. I mean why suffer the agony that is 'It's time to write the postcards!' when it's all on Facebook anyway? But I have also noticed a very casual approach to birthday and Christmas cards. Yes, right now they do still give them, because it has been drummed into them - but when the teens get cards, they don't carefully line them on the mantlepiece or in the bedroom. They're left in pile. Some may not even get opened. Cards imply a social network that you aren't in regular touch with. But again, why bother when you can do it on Facebook? I don't think all cards will go. Cards to convey an emotion (Valentines, 'Get well soon', 'Sorry you're leaving') are likely to stay, but not the ones based on convention.
I'm sure there are plenty more examples for would-be futurologists to have fun with. But if I were you, I wouldn't plan to sell watches or to own a card shop in 30 years time.


Wordle by www.wordle.net

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The stuff of champions

There's something rather special about being the best at the world in something. It really doesn't matter what it is. I was once, briefly, the world champion at speed reciting Hamlet's soliloquy. No, really. A friend and I went through the Guiness Book of Records the way you do, looking for likely records to be able to break, and this seemed feasible. We managed to record my young voice zipping through the soliloquy faster than the time in the book. The next day that popular TV show of the period Record Breakers came on. Guess what. Someone broke my record, before we could even send the tape in. Bugger.

Of course, athletics records are much more serious than speed reciting. (Why?) But sometimes the sports people get carried away with themselves. They suffer from a classic problem of the non-technical faced with data. They want to go into meaningless detail, and as a result, they produce records that don't hold up to scrutiny.

Take the 5,000 metres race. Apparently the IAF (International Athletic Federation) rules specify very precisely how long a running track should be, but inevitably they allow a margin for error. If you translate this error into typical top end running time for 5,000 metres it amounts to around a half second variation in the time it would take a runner to get around the 5,000 metres. So to declare anyone a new world champion based on breaking the record by less than half a second is entirely meaningless. Yet in 1985, someone was declared the new champion after breaking the record by 0.01 seconds.

This shows remarkable ignorance of the way numbers work on the part of the athletics people. It also makes me think how odd it is that we consider some world records more important than others. The athletic disciplines are ludicrously arbitrary. Why is running 5,000 metres something of world importance, but being the fastest person ever to hop round Leicester Square isn't? Both are feats of extreme physical exertion (I'm not sure why this matters, but there you go). Both make someone the best in the world. It's just so arbitrary.

I don't expect the powers-that-be to go for a hopping race any time soon, but they could, at least, recognize the limitations of their measurements and keep world records to realistic limits of accuracy.

Information on 5,000 metre measurements from Quantify! by Goran Grimvall

Monday, 7 February 2011

Blogs for sale!

Would you buy a used blog from this man?
I quite often get request to put advertising links on my blog or websites, and as long as they are to a reasonable website, I don't see the problem. However, I got an email a few days ago that absolutely floored me. The subject was straightforward and to the point:

I want to buy your blog

'I'm sorry,' I thought, 'what?' It must be some advertising person's idea of a catchy subject line. So I read on. It told me that the author of the email was interested in buying my blog. What price would I put on it? What price indeed?

Intrigued, I emailed back. 'I'm not sure what you mean by "buy my blog",' I said. 'Could you elaborate?'

In theory there were two things he could mean. He might want to buy the URL - I could just about imagine that some other Brian Clegg (or company of that name) really wanted the brianclegg.blogspot blog. Or he could mean the whole thing, content and all. But surely not - that would be ridiculous.

Back he came. He wanted to buy the entire blog with all the content. What was my asking price?

Whoa! This was bizarre. Out of interest I tried to find out how I could protect my reputation and what he would be prepared to pay, but all he had to say was they were buying blogs to increase search engine presence for their clients, so were looking for blogs with correct English and grammar. Aw, shucks. But I had to come up with a price.

Half of me wanted to say £10,000 and see how he reacted, but the other half stopped me, because what if he had said 'Yes'? I wouldn't object to the cash, but just think about it. I would be handing over my entire blog to someone else. Okay, they could add some marketing links, but also they could change the content. Without anyone realizing this was no longer Brian Clegg's blog, this could become a site for extremism, hate or just good old libel. It's more than a bit scary, when you think about it. How many bloggers have they approached? Did any say yes? Is your favourite blog still written by the person you think it is?

Now, while I've got your attention, who would like to buy some excellent stuff?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Clegg's Theorem

If I'm honest, there are probably not many children who, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, say 'A mathematician.' Similarly, while many kids want to be famous, have a hit record or play sport for their country, not too many, when asked, would admit that they would want to have a mathematical theorem named after them. But when you're a bit older, you have to admit it's kind of cool. After all, it didn't do Fermat or Pythagoras any harm.

Well, now you can have a theorem named after you - without doing the hard work. A spin-off of the University of Edinburgh,TheoryMine, produces new, unique mathematical theorems which for a small fee (£15) they will assign to you, allowing you to give it whatever name you like.

You might object that, since you didn't devise the theorem, your name can't be attached to it. Well, we don't know if Fermat did devise his 'last theorem' and Pythagoras definitely didn't originate his - and they haven't done too badly. The fact is, the originator of the theorem can do what they like with it, including assigning it to you.

You also might think that this is just another version of the Star Registry idea. You know the one. You pay a fee and the Global Star Registry names a star after you or your loved one. It certainly has some similiarities, but I would argue it is actually much better as a concept.

The trouble with the Star Registry business is, first of all it's not official. It's just a company that allocates these names, but they have no standing. Astronomers will never call that star 'Enid Snoopbottom's star.' And secondly the star was already there, so all they are selling, even were it legit, is a name.

With the theorems, something new has been created for you. This is a genuine mathematical theorem that has not been previously discovered. (If they make a mistake and someone else has priority, they will give you two new theorems in return.) And this is, for real, the actual discovery of the theorem, so your name is genuine. Now it's quite likely that, should another mathematician later make use of this theorem, they won't know it's yours so won't refer to it as 'Enid Snoopbottom's theorem'. But you will have priority - it really does belong to you.

So there you have it. The theorem above is a genuine mathematical theorem by the name of Clegg's Theorem. (What does it mean? I haven't a clue. That's not the point.) And it's mine, I tell you, all mine!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Taking out a contract

Imagine you are a new writer and you are lucky enough to be taken on by a publisher. Before long you will be faced with a contract. It's natural to want to get it signed as quickly as possible before they realize they've made a mistake and change their mind. But hold on. You need to read it and make sure you are happy with it. This won't upset the publisher - they expect you to check it.

Now it might be you have an agent. Well, good for you. But even so I would read through that contract. Because some agents are better at making deals than sorting out the fine legal detail, and in the end, it's your neck that's on the line. It might look boring and/or complicated, but you need to read every word. Just take it slowly and most of it is quite comprehensible.

If you are in the UK and you already have an agent or a publishing contract I'd recommend making use of the Society of Authors contract checking service (unfortunately you need to have an agency or a contract before you can join), but even if you do this it's worth checking through yourself.

I can't identify every nasty that could be in there, but here are a few things to look out for:
  • Has it got your name and address right - trivial but can be messed up.
  • Are the basics of the book right - length, delivery date and the like.
  • If there are illustrations, who is paying for them? These can cost a lot, so if it's you it's worth querying this.
  • It's usual for them to expect you to warrant that the book is your original work.
  • The contract should specify that the book will contain a copyright statement in your name and the assertion that you are the author.
  • Your advance (initial payment from the publisher) will typically be split into two (on signing/acceptance) or three (signing/acceptance/publications) chunks. These shouldn't be too heavily loaded to the later payments. You can always try negotiating on the advance, though the publisher may not have much movement. Your advance is only returnable if you don't write the book, or the book isn't acceptable (this, of course, can be a bone of contention). They can't have it back even if they only sell two copies of the book.
  • Check the royalties (the payment per book sold, which will first offset the advance, then be paid to you if the advance is ever paid off) - it's not unusual for paperbacks to start around 7.5% and hardbacks around 10%. This is likely to be 'net' or 'on revenue', not on cover price - so it's a percentage of what the bookstore pays them. If there isn't an escalator (the percentage increases after so many thousand sales) ask for one. Most publishers will give way on this, as they only pay if they're making a fair amount of money.
  • A fair number of contracts have a 'witholding' clause. This means they can withold a percentage of the royalties in case booksellers return too many books. This is quite common and as long as it's not more than about 15%, not too onerous.
  • Ebooks cause a lot of concerns. These days you won't get much higher percentages on ebooks than on ordinary books, but you can argue for a little more. 
  • Subsidiary rights like translations and serialization should bring you at least 50%, otherwise they are ripping you off.
  • If Accounts are rendered annually, ask for six monthly accounting, otherwise they are sitting on your money for around 15 months.
  • There should be a specified number of free copies for you - this is typically between 5 and 20. If you have an agent they should get their own free copies on top of this - you shouldn't have to share.
  • Going out of print is a thorny issue. If it's the sort of book you might want to resell or publish yourself after it goes out of print, make sure the 'out of print' clause doesn't include Print on Demand and ebooks, and has minimum sales levels. Otherwise the publisher can hang onto the book indefinitely.
If in doubt, ask. Once you sign up there's no going back.

Updated to correct requirements to join SoA - thanks, Emma

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A Mini disappointment

When the new BMW Mini came out it was advertised as 'a Mini Adventure.' I've had the chance to drive one a few times recently, and I'm afraid it was more a Mini Disappointment.

There is nothing wrong with the car. In fact it's an excellent car - smooth, sophisticated and with a luxury car feel. To be accurate, there is one thing wrong with it, one ridiculous design fault. In a burst of nostalgic style over substance, the speedometer is plonked right in the middle of the dashboard, well out of the driver's line of sight. This is so bad that there is actually a second, digital speedo in the middle of the rev counter, which is situated where the speedometer should be. But that's a minor niggle.

Excellent though the Mini is, though, as a town car it isn't a patch on my usual Toyota Aygo. Over 45 miles per hour, the Aygo is pretty useless. At high speed it's sluggish and noisy. But for nipping around town it's wonderful. It's little engine is peppy and loves being pushed. The car is nippy, it's very lithe, and most of all it is great fun to drive. By comparison, the Mini feels big, fat and dull. Safe, absolutely. Luxurious, certainly. But it wouldn't recognize fun if it bit it on the bum.

Bearing in mind also that new the Mini costs twice as much as the Aygo to buy, it drinks half as much petrol again, and it's road fund licence costs over seven times as much, you can begin to see why I would say that, lovely though Minis are, I wouldn't consider swapping my Aygo for one.

Picture from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The Common Sense Solution

We hear a lot about common sense these days. It's hard not to imagine a politician like Eric Pickles, for instance, failing to stress the importance of common sense. (For some reason, it goes with the voice.) So what is common sense? Before we answer that, consider a little problem.

An airliner flies at 500 miles per hour and makes a return trip between two cities 500 miles apart. One day there is no wind. The next day, there is a 100 mile per hour head wind (so the plane is 100 miles per hour slower on the journey out and 100 miles per hour faster on the journey back). Does the journey time differ on the two days?

Common sense probably says 'No, there is no difference.' But common sense is wrong. If you think about the numbers, when the wind is blowing the slowed down plane is going to take 500/400 hours - 5/4 of an hour. So it will take 1/4 of an hour longer. The speeded up plane will do the journey in 500/600 hours - 5/6 of an hour. So it takes 1/6 of an hour less. As 1/4 is bigger than 1/6 the whole journey will be longer.

You don't even need to involve numbers, just take the example to the extreme. Imagine the wind was so strong it reduced the plane to a crawling speed - it is going to take days. But adding that wind speed to the plane's won't quite double it. If the wind were 500 mph or more, the plane would never make it on the outbound journey.

So what is common sense, and why does it fail us? Originally common sense was thought to be a literal sixth sense that combined the inputs of the other senses. Thirteenth century proto-scientist roger Bacon tells us that the common sense ‘judges concerning each particular sensation. For the judgement is not complete in regard to what is seen before the form comes to the common sense…’ But it has come to mean the obvious, the clear solution that comes to mind without thinking about it. And, when you do think about it, there is no good reason for this to be correct.

The most common example of common sense failure tends to be in situations where probability and randomness are in charge. Our brains are so good at spotting patterns - it's how we relate to the world around us - that we imagine them where they don't exist. The failure of common sense in the plane example is also a matter of imposing a pattern, but it's rather more subtly done.

I think it comes down to a sense of balance. Balance is a sort of pattern in its own right. We are adding a wind speed to one journey and subtracting it from another journey. This seems to balance, so we expect the effect to be the same. However the thing that is the same is the change in speeds, while we are looking for a change in time. There is no reason to suppose things working in totally different units will necessarily balance - there is another contributory factor we are not considering.

Common sense is handy in many circumstances, but as soon as we start combining common sense and anything involving pattern or number we need to take a step back and give common sense a rest.