Thursday, 31 March 2011

News reporting with brains

The use of statistics (and numbers in general) in news reporting is often a cause of concern. Sometimes, you really wonder if there is anyone with a brain involved in the process that goes from observing a piece of news, through writing the script to presenting it. This comes through particularly strongly when numbers that make the eyebrows raise are thrown about with no thought and no comment.

This morning, I heard on Newsbeat on BBC Radio 1 (don't ask) that it has been estimated that there are around 2 million potholes on Britain's roads, and that it will cost over 10 billion pounds to fix this. Story done - on to some bit of pop trivia.

But just a minute. Didn't anyone even think to do some basic sums here? If 2 million potholes cost £10 billion to fix, that's £5,000 a pothole. Now, okay, some will be expensive because of the difficulties closing lanes on a motorway or whatever. But the vast majority seem to involve half an hour with a couple of fat blokes and a barrel of tarmac. With optional addition of a road roller. In our previous house we had a space large enough to park around 10 cars surfaced with tarmac. This cost around £200 (not counting preparation, which wouldn't apply with the road). Most potholes are a fraction of a metre across. So let's say £50. Where does the other £4,950 go? Perhaps people should offer adopt a pothole. They sort it out and we pay them £2,000. Winners all round.

That's my top-of-the-head, ill-informed take on it. Anyone could do even better with a bit of research. But what irritates me is that the people on Newsbeat didn't exert a braincell to notice this price and to comment on it. It's not enough to parrot facts - you need to think about what they mean and give us a sensible commentary, particularly with the kind of audience that Newsbeat has. Come on news media. Get the thinking caps on.

Picture from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Keeping safe the New Zealand way

Because of a certain book (don't worry, I'm not going to mention Inflight Science. The fact that it is now available on Kindle, or that it had a wonderful review by Alain de Botton in the Mail on Sunday will not be mentioned... damn) air flight is in my mind at the moment, so I feel it would be useful to share a couple of videos for passengers produced by Air New Zealand. There's a real problem getting people to pay attention to the safety briefing. So what did ANZ dream up? How about naked cabin crew doing the briefing? Okay, they've got body paint, but still...



Now that's quite subtle. You might not even notice they're naked. So undeterred, our friendly kiwis decided to drop subtle and go for the tasteless zone:



Ah, who said the age of sophistication in the air is dead?

Thanks to The Register for pointing out these videos.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Will we ever see another scientific genius?

A genius in captivity
The whole concept of genius is a very arbitrary one, something that struck me very strongly while reading Genius - a very short introduction for review. Part of the problem seems to be that the same label is applied to (say) the arts and the sciences, yet the criteria are very different.

To be a genius in the arts seems based on public acclaim and on the need for that acclaim to last - yet it is ultimately purely subjective. The author of the book clearly thought, for example, that Virginia Woolf was a genius - something I found totally mind-boggling. Genius in art is ultimately a matter of fashion.

In science there are very different criteria. If artistic criteria were applied, you would probably label Stephen Hawking a genius, yet most of his colleagues would simply see him as a very good scientist. However, when you find a real scientific genius like Newton, Einstein or Feynman it's very hard for anyone to argue because it's not such a subjective, publicity driven concept, but rather based on the fundamental level of their contribution to scientific knowledge.

Having begun to think about scientific genius as a result of reading the book, I do wonder if there will ever be another true genius in the field. Most geniuses in science had very limited scientific qualifications when they did their great work. Neither Newton nor Einstein had a PhD at the time. A fair number had very limited scientific training - Faraday springs to mind. Darwin, for that matter, did his great work well outside his area of expertise. Genius in science seems to have come from the ability to span different areas of thought, to bring breadth of knowledge and originality to bear, rather than concentrating on a tiny area of expertise.

It does seem likely that our current scientists, who don't seem to be allowed to think at all before they get their PhDs, are simply too constrained to ever produce a work of genius. You have to have too much technical and mathematical training to have the freedom of thought required.

I'm not saying that great work won't be done in the sciences - but this is the age of the narrow-focussed team, not the individual, broad-thinking genius. And in some ways that's rather sad.


Photograph from Wikipedia

Monday, 28 March 2011

Whirlwind weekend

With 10 day to go to the publication date on my new book, Inflight Science, it has been a rather interesting weekend. It all kicked off with a very large review in Saturday's Times, naming it 'book of the week' (Times subscribers can read the review here.)

I've always had the opinion that reviews are great for making a book visible (and for providing nice quotes for subsequent editions), but don't necessarily get copies moving off the bookshelves. Out of curiousity I recently monitored the sales (well, the Amazon ranking) of Angela Saini's excellent Geek Nation. The reason I did this was because the book was getting a lot of media coverage - significantly more than a typical popular science book - and I was interested to see how this impacted on sales. Large (and very positive) articles in serious newspapers seemed to only make small blips in sales, where an appearance on Radio Four's Start the Week really pushed the book up the rankings to the upper echelons of sales.

When the Times review came out, Inflight Science was ranking something like 200,000th on Amazon.co.uk. This is the sort of position you might expect with a book that was yet to be published and wasn't a Harry Potter or equivalent. Based on past experience, I was expecting this to dip to maybe 100,000 or 50,000.

But over Saturday and Sunday, the ranking suddenly took off. At its peak, the book was ranked 32 - it was the 32nd best selling book on Amazon UK, making it #2 in the science section (pipped to the post by, you guessed it, Brian Cox). Not bad for a book you can't even buy yet.

The ranking is falling back a little now - only to be expected - and marketing people will tell you that you mustn't read too much into Amazon's rankings. But even so, it made for an exciting weekend!

If you would like to keep the ranking flying, please feel free to preorder a copy at Amazon
or if you're a Kindle person you can get it straight away!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Corrupting the innocent

I have been a fan for a long time now of Ross Horsley's My First Dictionary. The concept is simple but wonderfully subversive. Horsley, a librarian, takes images from an old children's dictionary and gives them a whole new piece of text that is twisted and darkly funny. These sometimes disturbing (but always entertaining) images have been appearing for some time on Horsley's website - do take a look. I recommend either using the alphabetical listing down the side or starting with some of the older ones, as some of the best are in the early contributions.

However, for those who prefer to savour their reading on paper, there is now a book version, which I found even better to peruse than the website. Highly recommended if you aren't easily shocked and like dark humour. It's perhaps a badge of honour that at least one US bookshop has had requests from a couple of customers to have it removed from the shelves. It's that good.

You can see more about the book version of My First Dictionary at amazon.co.uk and at amazon.com

Thursday, 24 March 2011

It's time radiation stopped being a scare story

I am appalled, if not surprised, by the reporting of the problems at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan.

I ought to begin by saying that I'm not playing down the significance of the incident (although it is tiny in comparison with the impact of the earthquake and Tsunami on the country). It was a serious event, and it shows that this kind of reactor, which doesn't self-damp when left to its own resources like modern reactors, should be phased out as quickly as possibly and should never have been used in an earthquake zone.

However, what really gets to me is the way radiation itself is reported. We are told that radiation levels somewhere have increased - but how much? And what does that increase mean in context? The reason these questions are so important is that exposure to radiation is a perfectly normal part of everyday life. It's bad for you, it's true - but lots of natural things are. Even if you sat in a box that totally isolated you from every drop of radiation in the world, your body would still be subject to a radiation level that has a potential to cause damage. This radiation comes from inside you - every one of us is naturally radioactive.

More significant, the places we live in are exposed to a considerable amount of natural radiation all the time, and this is why it's so important to have numbers and context, not just 'radiation levels have increased'. (I ought to stress that there is absolutely no difference between 'natural' radiation and radiation from nuclear power plants. It is exactly the same thing. Being 'natural' doesn't make it safe.)

Just imagine, for example, there has been a nuclear accident near London with a significant leak of radiation. News headlines are screaming that radiation levels have increased by 100% over normal background radiation - this is a much higher increase than has mostly been the case in Japan. Not surprisingly, people would leave London in droves. And because we are so wary of radiation, they may well try to get a good distance away. We could imagine City folk heading for that little bolt hole they've got in Cornwall, where they will feel safe and smug that unlike the plebs they can get away from the threat.

Now here's the thing. Natural background radiation in Cornwall is around 3 times as high as it is in London. So by going to Cornwall they will have gone from somewhere that's 100% above normal London background radiation to somewhere that's 200% above normal London background radiation.

Without making it clear how large the radiation increase is, and how this compares with natural variations in radiation levels that we ignore as a matter of course, the news media are being highly irresponsible in their reporting.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How the mighty fall - and achieving perfection

A couple of days ago I watched M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening for the first time. In a sense it was a reasonably good film. I can say this because I said I'd watch the first 10 minutes then go to bed, and stayed up for the whole thing. However it was extremely flawed, not just in the hokey main premise, but in the creaking ending that could have been seen coming a mile away. How far this is from Night's (as I like to think of him) masterpiece. What I hadn't realized until I looked him up on IMDB was that he was also responsible for the truly awful Last Airbender - this is a man on a serious downhill curve.

But surely he can do better again. I challenge anyone who has seen The Sixth Sense to argue that this isn't a brilliant movie. (If you haven't seen it, get hold of it this week. But don't let anyone tell you what happens first.) This has one of the most cleverly crafted structures, building to a stunning reveal I've ever seen in a film. However, I do think there was one thing he should have done differently to achieve perfection. (If you haven't seen the movie, you can tune out now, because this will be meaningless, but shouldn't give away the plot.)

There was one scene that I watched thinking 'Why are they doing that? These people wouldn't do that!' What happened made sense in terms of the underlying plot, but was wrong in terms of the immediate storyline. Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, and the boy, take a bus to visit some house or other. 'You'd never see a professional man in the US catching a bus,' I thought while watching it. To make it work, old Nightie should have put them in a taxi, not a bus. But hey, it's easy to be critical after the event.

So, how about coming up with something equal clever, M? You know you've got it in you. Here's a little reminder of how to do it:

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Playing with headlines

One of the best bits in the Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the moment when then starship Heart of Gold, powered by the infinite improbability guide, arrives at a planet. Because of the residual improbability, a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias are created hanging in space to plummet to the surface below. The sperm whale excitedly and optimistically names the phenomena it is experiencing until it goes splat. But the bowl of petunias simply thinks 'Oh no, not again.'

That is sheer genius, and a comfort when I think 'Oh no, not again,' as I did when I saw a headline from the online BBC News that read Physics threat to religion. Here we go a Dawkins-ing, I thought. But what a strange headline. Physics threat to religion. Is a fundamental force going to break religion apart? Is the sheer existence of quantum theory too mind boggling for God, who has given up and gone home?

When I read the article I was more than a bit disappointed. I was hoping for a good Dawkins-style bust-up with physicists going head to head with theologists. But no. It's a simple (and frankly rather simplistic when you consider the complex nature of the groupings involved) analysis of census data that shows that religious affiliation is in decline in several countries and then makes the probably unjustified leap to suggest that this will eventually result in a fall to zero.

It seems I wasn't the only one who thought that the original headline was misleading. It has now transmogrified into 'Extinction threat' to religion, which makes more sense. But why that original headline? Could it be that Dawkins apart, most of the science vs religion animosity is generated by the media? It just goes to show the power of the headline.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Cars I wouldn't buy

I like cars. I even like Top Gear. I'm sorry, I know it's not green or politically correct, but I do. Not in an obsessive, knowing the difference between a Ferrari AK47 and a Maserati B52 sense. But I'm rather fond of cars and play the 'what I'd buy if money were no object game' with the best of them. But sadly I've had to add another marque to the list of cars I wouldn't touch with the proverbial barge pole.

I'm not going to bore you by going through the whole list, but you know the kind of thing. I would never, for example, by a BMW because of... well, the kind of people who buy BMWs. (Except you, of course, if you have a BMW. You are clearly an exception because you read this blog. But think about buying something else next time, okay?)

Up until recently I rather liked Audis. Okay, they're just tarted up VWs, but they are often very nice tarted up VWs. Unfortunately they then came out with their new lights. I'm sorry, I can't take seriously (and certainly couldn't pay cash for) a car with sidelights that form a long curvy line. It's just so chavvy. Why don't they go the whole hog and string blue LED fairylights around the skirt of the thing? They really make me shudder. So there we go. Audis are off the list until they see sense. Vorsprung has left the room.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Cover Story

Mark 1 cover
 The advance copies of my new book Inflight Science have arrived - expect one or two references to it as we build up to it going out to the world on 7 April. Despite this being book number 36, I confess that the excitement of holding a new book in your hands doesn't go away, and I've got big hopes for this one.

It certainly has one of the best covers I've had, which has undergone an interesting tweak. The original version of the cover was all drawn, while the new version incorporates photographic material as well. When I heard this was being done I was a bit dubious, but in fact I hope you'll agree that it somehow makes it crisper and more attention grabbing - it certainly looks great on the finished book, with the red lettering embossed on the surface.

Final cover
I had the rare opportunity to yesterday to get some unbiassed and pontentially highly critical opinion on it. I was doing a talk at the Piggott School in Wargrave. (One of two talks yesterday, both brilliant if very different audiences. The school was over 150 year 9s (13 to 14-year-olds. The evening talk was a more select and somewhat more mature audience at the the rather lovely shiny new Pewsey Library. Both audiences were very attentive and produced a great range of questions at the end.)

Back at the covers, I had laid out a range of my books on a table at the school before the students came in. When they did, I was sitting some distance from the table, not obviously connected to it, but close enough to hear what was being said. A group descended on it and immediately homed in on Inflight Science saying how great it looked. One of them picked it up, and was so impressed by the factoids on the back that she began to regale the others with them. All in all, I think a good field trial for what I hope will be a successful book.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The poster I've always wanted

Okay, someone in Sheffield has kindly produced the poster than I clearly have waited my whole life for. I don't quite understand all of it, as it shows some politician or other, so I have cut that part off. But even so, the message is clear from the text part.

So be clear next time you invite me to come and give a talk. There is risk. But isn't it worth it?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Are they really our heritage?

A country house in need of rescue
I was watching the quite entertaining Country House Rescue the other night, where bossy hotel and events expert Ruth Watson goes and tries to persuade mildly bonkers country house owners to become more commercial if they want to stop their properties falling around their ears.

So far so good - and I particularly love the derivative background music, which has influences both from the computer game Seventh Guest and from the Harry Potter movies. However, I have two problems with the content of the programme.

One of these applies to almost any of this kind of output. They appear to be made for people with an attention span of 10 minutes. Every time there's a commercial break there has to be a recap when we come back. We were just watching it, guys! We can remember what happened 2 minutes ago. What's more, many of us are watching it on DVRs and have whizzed through the adverts, so in practice, we only have to remember what we heard 15 seconds ago. Give us some credit, please.

However, the thing that was beginning to niggle me watching this particular show was the way that the voice over person kept saying that this work or that effort or whatever was necessary if this piece of 'our heritage' were to be saved. Now, I sorry, but in what sense is a country house in Devon run by an ex-hippy with a penchant for over-the-top childish reactions to GM crops (including dressing up as a failed genetically modified potato) part of my heritage? I'm from Rochdale. My biological heritage is the Co-op, Cyril Smith, Gracie Fields, mill workers and meat and potato pies on a tray with gravy. My intellectual heritage is John Bright and the wonders of science.

This decrepit building is not my heritage. It belongs to that ex-hippy. It's his heritage. I've nothing against that. he's welcome to it. But don't suggest I get any personal benefit from his finances being sorted out, because I don't. Okay?

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

How to Spotify a good book

On Friday I took part in that leading internet literary radio show, Litopia After Dark. One of the other panelists was Simon Flynn, MD of the excellent Icon Books (I have to say this, as they're publishing my next book - but I would have said it anyway, honest).

In the show format, each panelist has to have some subject to witter on about, and I found Simon's topic absolutely fascinating. The more I thought about it, the more remarkable it seemed.

What he was suggesting was there may well come a time when an ebook platform like the Kindle or the iPad provided the same service for books as the Spotify subscription service does for music. If you are not familiar with Spotify, it's simple but impressive. You pay a subscription per month (£9.99 in the UK), and for that you get all the music you want to listen to. You don't buy the music, you just consume it as part of your subscription. (There is also a free version, but this has ads and you can't use it on mobiles.)

Just imagine a similar service for, say, Kindle. You pay so much a month and for that you can read any ebooks you like that are in the Kindle library. As many as you like, whenever you like. You never have to buy a book again. When Simon mentioned subscription someone misunderstood and thought he meant splitting a book into bits and you subscribe bit by bit, like buying a story as a serial, but this is more like subscribing to a digital library with unlimited borrowing.

From a reader's viewpoint it's highly enticing. It means you can start reading books by new authors try them out without committing yourself to the usual price of buying a whole book. You could be much more daring in your choice of reading, because you don't lose anything. It costs the same whether you read one book or start 20 books and only complete one of them.

So I can see why it's great for readers - and probably for Amazon too, who would get a steady revenue stream. But how would it work for authors, publishers (and agents)? I don't know how Spotify divides up its revenue, but somehow you would have to split the cash between the interested parties. It seems a nightmare to me.

Will it happen? I really don't know. It certainly wouldn't surprise me, it's such a powerful concept - but I presume authors and publishers would have to sign up for it first, so they would be able to hold out for reasonable remuneration if they act together. Oh, what an interesting digital writing age we live in...

Monday, 14 March 2011

iTrain

Discovering just how late my train is
(taken before the piece was written)
Just occasionally I find an iPhone app that's so good I want to bleat on about it. I recently highlighted Evernote, of which I am growing increasingly fond. I'm writing this on a train to Cardiff (we've just arrived at Bristol Parkway if you're interested), yet when I get home it will be waiting for me on my desktop PC, without my doing anything, ready to copy straight into my blog.

But the app I want to rave about a little is the UK railway timetable app shown here (I know, not much use if you are in New York, but hey). It's one of the few apps I've paid for and I don't resent a penny.

Of course it does the obvious things like looking up train times, but there's so much more. I can check departure boards at any station. I can choose one of those trains and see just how it's progressing. I can even ask for the next  train home from 'here' with a single touch.

What's more I can think of so many clever ways it could be even better. At the moment, if I'm leaving from Paddington, I stand with hundreds of others watching the departure boards, waiting for a platform to be announced, then get trampled in the rush. Imagine instead I could set an alert on a particular train on the board. The app could then monitor it and signal when a platform has been displayed. I could go and have a coffee without hovering by the boards. The opportunities are manifold.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sand in your sandwiches

What, another exciting Royal Society of Chemistry podcast? Be still your beating heart as I contemplate the wonders of silicon dioxide, from sandy shores to concrete, from beautiful glass to quartz crystal timers. You know you want to listen. Go on. Take a listen!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

How to murder a slice of toast

As I've indicated previously, I am not averse to a cooked breakfast. In fact I'd go as far as to say it's one of my favourite meals. When all else fails I have even been known to resort to one of those breakfast-in-a-bun things, though they are second best. (if you must have one, I'd highly recommend the Marks and Spencer Cafe 'all day breakfast ciabatta'. It's small and overpriced, but very tasty. Even better with a touch of brown sauce.)

Alongside the usual plate of goodies I like to see a piece of toast. And this is where things go wrong at many of the supermarket style eateries and some hotels, where all the breakfast components are laid out in a buffet. The better establishments prepare toast to order, but lesser places make toast ahead of time and leave it under an infra-red lamp. Result: it's limp and nowhere near hot enough. The essentials with toast are that you can hold a piece in your hand by the edge without it flopping about, and that it has a high enough surface temperature to melt the butter (or spread if you prefer - I'm not fussy). What you don't want is a cold, pale yellow layer of fatty substance on the surface. That's a sure sign of disappointment ahead.

So please take note, eateries. Make your toast to order. You know it makes sense.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Three things not to do when you get a bad review

 I have been lucky enough to have some wonderful reviews, but let's face it, however brilliant your book you may also get some painful ones. For example, Catch 22 is some people's favourite novel, yet I detest it and would produce a blistering review were I to be writing it up.

So what shouldn't you do when you get a stinker?
  1. Don't take it to heart - I know this easier said than done, but bear in mind a review is a personal opinion, not fact. You can revel in the fact that not many people read reviews any more. Then you can play the 'out of context' game. Find some snippets of the review you can use in a positive way on your website. So, for instance, if it says: 'Absolute rubbish. This is a brilliant novel compared with a heap of used toilet paper, but nothing else.' put 'a brilliant novel...' on your website. That'll teach the reviewer.
  2. Don't email the reviewer - unless it's an online review containing a factual error that can be corrected. And 'This book is rubbish' isn't a factual error. To argue about that would be to argue with opinion which is pointless. What's more, the same person may review your next book. Why make enemies unnecessarily?
  3. Don't set up a web page dissecting the review and attacking the reviewer. Someone did this about a review I wrote recently and it really isn't a sensible move. At worst you will end up facing a libel action and at best you will end up looking a sore loser. Once again, you could be reviewed again by the same person. Feel free to tell your friends and relations what you think, but don't go public.
I know it's annoying. I know it hurts. But the best thing to do with a bad review is to ignore it and move on. Some people just don't look at their reviews. I can't do that - I have to peek. But I can shrug my shoulders and think 'They don't get it' without carrying forward a grudge or making a fuss.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Does literature lack staying power?

Albert's the one on the right
It has been 106 years since Albert Einstein came up with his formulation of special relativity and his early contributions to quantum theory. Yet for everyone but career physicists, relativity and quantum theory remain fresh and exciting. This feels like modern science.

It is 111 years since Schoenberg wrote Verklärte Nacht, yet this piece of music is still fresh, and to many quite challenging in its approach. This feels like modern serious music.

Yet if you look at novels from this period, they seem very old fashioned indeed. And most people, frankly, would find the vast majority of them dull. There is certainly no way you can really represent a novel from the 1890s as feeling like a modern novel.

One way to look at this is to say that the novel form has developed a lot more since that time than science or music. But my suspicion is that it shows that literature (as opposed to story telling) is a lot more ephemeral than these other fields. Great stories will have a life of their own well beyond their age - arguably why Shakespeare still does well. But literature is so dependent on rules and form and fashion, that's a different beast altogether.

I'm not doing literature down... but maybe it ought to be ranked more with, say, cinema than serious art and science.

The thing that started me on this was thinking about Albert Einstein in 1905, when he looked like the photo above, not the white haired old sage who springs to mind. Then it struck me - this work was over 100 years ago, yet it is still something so modern feeling.


Picture from Wikipedia

Monday, 7 March 2011

A little in love with a shoe

Until recently I thought I had nothing in common with veteran politician Tony Benn (except for once being in the same building in the 1990s). But now I discover I do. We both are rather fond of Doctor Marten's shoes.

They have three things going for them. They're very comfortable and hardwearing. It's no surprise that a lot of policepersons wear them to pound the beat. Secondly, they're safely dangerous. You know what I mean - like theme park rides. They give you a thrill without the real danger. For me Doc Marten's do this in part because of their period associations with naughtiness and in part because they're quirky, a bit different. Finally, they're morale boosters. You don't walk in Doc Marten's, you bounce. Not literally, but with an enlivening of the spirit.

I got my first pair almost for a joke. They are classic black bovver boots, which I only bought because they were selling them off for £10. To begin with I never wore them, but then came the pantomimes. At the time (we're going back more than 15 years) I helped run a youth club. Somehow I got landed with directing 3 pantomimes over the years. (I wrote two of these, one of which, Dracula, the Pantomime, was conceived in the queue for the Vampire ride at Thorpe Park. But I digress.) Because of some image of classic Hollywood directors, I though boots would be good for the role and wore them to the first rehearsal. From then on I never directed without them.
My latest Doc Marten's

Somewhat later I bought a pair of black Doc Marten shoes. These have become inseperable companions for giving talks. I just wouldn't think of doing public speaking these days without that boost from the Doc Marten's.

Most recently, my everyday shoes wore out. I nearly bought a cheap pair to replace them, but then thought, given how much I loved Doc Marten's, why not get an everyday pair too? So now with the addition of these brown short boots I am the proud owner of 3 pairs of Doc Marten's, all still going strong. Next time I buy shoes, DM's will be top of the shopping list. If you love something, why go for second best?

Friday, 4 March 2011

That 'Oh bugger' moment

It's almost impossible to write a whole book without the odd mistake creeping in. But what really winds me up is when you have a book that isn't printed yet, but has gone past the point of no return, then find out that something you put in it (believing it to be true) is wrong.

So here I am, innocently reading for review a book called What if the Earth had two Moons? when I come across a denouncement of the usual explanation of why the tides are the way they are. As an author, when you can point out a commonly held misunderstanding, it's very satisfying. So, for instance, when I was able to write in The Man Who Stopped Time that most websites and many books got it wrong in ascribing the mechanism for us seeing cinema as moving pictures to 'persistence of vision' (a Victorian concept that was just plain wrong) I felt rather smug. But here was a book denouncing the explanation I'd given for the tides in a book due out this April.

My version of the tides (not to scale)
As it turns out, it wasn't as depressing as I thought. Where the persistance of vision explanation of movies is totally and utterly wrong, the explanation of the tides is really just an over simplification. Which isn't quite so bad. Ignoring the effect of the Sun (which I mentioned) I had put the tides down to the water on the side nearest the Moon where the gravitational pull is stronger being pulled more towards the Moon, making a bulge on that side, plus the water furthest from the Moon bulging away because the pull is weaker. This is true, but also there is also an extra force contributing to the tide due to the Earth's movement around the 'barycentre', the centre of mass of the Earth/Moon system, providing a fairground ride push on the oceans. Oh well. You can't win 'em all.

One small consolation. I've just spotted a mistake in What if the Earth had Two Moons? The author says 'We can only see objects today that are within 13.7 billion light years of Earth.' This would be true if the universe weren't expanding. But because of this the objects we can see whose light has been travelling nearly 13.7 billion years are actually getting on for 40 billion light years away. I don't say this to get my own back, just to point out how easy it is to slip up.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Training for MPs

Do our Members of Parliament get on-the-job training? I hope so. After all, these people were, until the election, doing perfectly ordinary jobs, then all of a sudden they are making decisions about foreign policy or education or science. I'm afraid it's not enough that 'common sense' prevails - because common sense is often demonstrably wrong.

So what's the alternative? If there isn't already, I think there should be compulsorary training, perhaps one day a week during the parliamentary term, and full time during parliamentary recesses. (We'll allow them 25 days annual leave.) This could cover a wide range of foundation topics, but obviously anyone getting a departmental post (however junior) should have a crash course in the appropriate subject.

Perhaps then if an MP tried to drum up support for (say) public funding of homeopathy, or demonstrably didn't understand the mechanisms of nuclear fusion and fission as applied to future power plants they could be given emergency tutoring - and if necessary, be failed for the job. Let's face it, in every other job we realize there will be some failures. We have mechanisms for measuring the performance of a teacher or a doctor and saying they should be thrown out if they aren't up to the job. Similarly, if MPs don't pass the appropriate tests they should be replaced with someone who can.

Is this elitist? Going against the will of the people? Not at all. Those people who voted for them presumably wouldn't have done so if they knew their MPs would be incompetent. This is just making sure that the people in charge are up to the job. Do you really want such people running the country?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Why is it always about employing people?

Whenever we get stories on the news about the recession, there is always stress on the need for companies to create jobs so more people can be employed. I can see why this is important - but what I don't understand is why they don't also mention the benefits of people employing themselves.

I left British Airways in 1994 to set up my own creativity training company and later to get into writing. Since then I haven't been a drain on the state,  and I have been paying taxes and all those good things. But I don't employ anyone (except myself). I do work with several others, but we all have our own companies. They are resources I can call on if I need several trainers for an event (say), but I don't have all the hassle of employing people.

Now I'm not getting into hyper-Tebbit mode and saying everyone should get on their bikes and work for themselves. It doesn't suit everyone - that's fine. But I do think we could do with a bit more recognition, when the media and the government are droning on about how important it is for companies to take on more workers.

This message has been brought to you by the Federation of Small Businesses. (No, it hasn't, in case they complain. But you know what I mean.)