Friday, 30 September 2011

Entrepreneurial rhubarb

I was listening to some Labour shadow minister on the radio. 'The biggest obstacle to people setting up their own businesses is lack of capital,' he said. Utter rhubarb. The biggest obstacle that prevents most people setting up their own business is that they don't really want to start their own business. Certainly not enough to put the time, effort and money in. They want someone to give them a job. And that's fine. But Labour shouldn't imagine there are millions of people who would be entrepreneurs if they only had that startup capital.

Now you may say, 'They do need some money,' and that's true. But it's often not the case that you need huge capital investment to start a business. Need a computer? - the price of 10 cigarettes a day will cover it. Need a website? - easily covered by the cost of a basic Sky subscription. Both expenditure that many people looking for jobs these days would consider part of everyday life.

To be honest, I also get more than a little narked by the way governments of all colours disregard people who just get on with it and earn a living self-employed or running their own company, without necessarily employing other people. You'd think the only good company is one that employs others. Yet there are millions of us beavering away, making money for the country, gaining exports, paying taxes, all without ever employing anyone else, or wanting to. Joining this forgotten army, starting your own business, doesn't have to depend on a huge injection of capital - this is a myth that seems to depend as much on Dragon's Den as it does good economics. There are plenty of ways to take a little ingenuity and very little cash and earn a living.

Let me stress, I'm not saying everyone who is unemployed should start their own business. It's not for everyone, and I accept that. But we would do a lot better making it more attractive in tax terms to work for yourself, even if you don't employ others, that worrying so much about startup capital.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Come back ammonia, all is forgiven

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again. We're off to visit the compound that hair dye manfacturers delight in telling their customers isn't in a particular product. Because it's not the most beautiful of smells, reminiscent of the farmyard and animal houses at the zoo.

Yes, it's ammonia. Smelly - and yet it's a chemical that is made in vast quantities every year for fertiliser and other uses. Any idea where the name comes from? It's a back formation that links camel dung and the temple of an ancient Egyptian god. Which turns up in Chaucer. Take a listen...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Identity theft blues

I have been the victim of a really shoddy bit of identity theft. Let me explain. A few days ago in the post I received two statements from a mail order company, one for more than £500 worth of goods, the other for more than £300. I had never bought anything from them in my life.

I rang them up and it seems that someone had managed to slip through their anything but rigorous security checks. I'm really amazed that the company in question didn't have systems that could spot that this was a fradulent activity. They did a credit check on me to see if it was okay, but there were so many oddities in the application that it's bizarre nothing was flagged up. After all:
  • Two accounts were set up for the same address (mine) on the same day
  • One was for a Ms B Clegg, the other a Mr D Clegg, so neither matched me exactly for the credit check
  • The date of birth given was wrong - again something the credit check should have picked up
  • Two orders were place, each using up most of the credit, each going to a different delivery address, not my address. One in Middlesex one in the midlands. Not suspicious, guys?
  • The kind of order was not typical. These were orders for lots and lots of relatively low price items like T-shirts, not for big money goods
It wouldn't exactly take top flight artificial intelligence software to spot there was something strange. Don't get me wrong, the company was very good about it, assuring me that they would sort it all out - but they seem to be very casual about giving away around £1,000 of credit.

The one good thing that came out of this, apart from having a topic for a blog post, is that at the company's suggestion I did a check on myself with one of the credit checking agencies, something I've been meaning to do for ages, and it was fascinating, though it emphasized even more how much incorrect data the mail order company was ignoring. Also it's interesting that when we hear 'identity theft', we think 'internet' - but in fact this was good old fashioned basic personal information misuse that could have been done without a computer in sight.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Faster than light neutrinos

The first sighting of a neutrino, only 41 years ago
Oh, wow. Physics is in the news. Just for once someone at CERN other than the LHC teams has made the headlines. It seems some neutrinos have been measured moving faster than light. I have seen headlines saying 'Einstein's theory shattered!' or similar. This is baloney. Here's the reality.

Neutrinos are particles produced in nuclear reactions that are almost impossible to detect. Every second about 50 trillion neutrinos pass through your body as they pour out of the Sun. They aren't exactly obvious. Neutrinos can be detected, but only indirectly as a very small percentage of them will interact with matter - what you see is that interaction, not the neutrino itself. It's telling that when a picture was taken of the Sun using neutrinos, the Sun was the other side of the the Earth at the time. Most neutrinos zip through the Earth as if it's not there.

In the CERN experiment neutrinos were sent down a 732 kilometre tunnel, and the timing was out by a matter of 0.00000006 seconds, making it seem that they went very, very slightly faster than light. This, then, is the evidence that is being presented and that has produced statements like this from the BBC:
The speed of light is widely held to be the Universe's ultimate speed limit, and much of modern physics - as laid out in part by Albert Einstein in his theory of special relativity - depends on the idea that nothing can exceed it.
It's really interesting, but I don't think it's earth shattering. The chances are, this is experimental error. Although the experiment has been repeated around 1500 times, it was using the same setup and assumptions. They've only got to get the length of the beam wrong by a tiny amount, for example, for the whole thing to be a mistake. And there is other evidence, comparing neutrinos and light from a cosmic source where there is no such disparity - so there is already some contradictory evidence.

However, even if it is true, the BBC's version is simply wrong. Modern physics doesn't depend on nothing exceeding light speed. We're talking about special relativity here, which is the basis of some modern physics, but light speed being a limit is a consequence of that theory, not a starting point. In fact we already have well established experiments in which particles travel faster than light speed.

This is a consequence of quantum mechanical tunnelling. One of the strange aspects of quantum physics is that particles don't have an absolute location, just a probability of being in various places. This means that particles can jump through an obstacle without passing through the space in between.

This sounds like something obscure and unusual, but it's actually how the Sun (or any other star) works. For nuclear fusion to take place, positively charged protons have to be pushed incredibly close together. So close that even the temperatures and pressures in the Sun aren't enough to get it going. The Sun only works because every second billions of particles tunnel through the barrier of the repulsion and fuse.

That same tunnelling technique has been used to send particles faster than light. All the evidence is that there is zero tunnelling time. A tunnelling particle literally doesn't travel through the space in between. So if you imagine a particle going 1 centimetre at the speed of light, tunnelling 1 centimetre instantly and going a further centimetre at the speed of light, it will have traversed the entire distance at 1.5c - one and half times the speed of light.

I'm not saying this is what is happening in the neutrino experiment, but I do imagine it is going to be something similar. Not a collapse of special relativity, just a way around it. If it's not experimental error, which still seems most likely. Special relativity has been tested so many times and has always delivered. GPS satellites have to be corrected for it, or they'd get more and more inaccurate. Particles demonstrate it in experiments every day. As far as I'm concerned, special relativity is solid as a rock.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Heavy handed supermarket?

I was, to say the least, shocked to read a piece on the Guardian website where a journalist describes being approached in a Tesco supermarket while writing down the price of  a bottle of water. The assistant manager apparently told him: 'You're not allowed to do that. It's illegal.' When the journalist was then faced with the manager, he was told 'Look, it's company policy, you're not allowed to do it.'

I found this absolutely bizarre. Clearly it's not illegal. Of course they can decide they don't want you to do something in their shop and ask you to leave if they don't like what you are doing, but you are not breaking the law. But could it really be company policy that you aren't allowed to write prices down?

I emailed Tesco, and this was their response:
Please be assured it is not company policy to stop customers, or journalists, checking or writing down prices in our stores. We have contacted the journalist in question to apologise and we're looking into this to ensure it doesn't happen again. As I'm sure you're aware, our prices are displayed on our website so are readily available for all our customers to compare with others, if they wish to do so.
While the final sentence is irrelevent (as website prices aren't necessarily reflected in stores, especially Tesco Local or Metro or whatever they call it), the Customer Service Executive who contacted me makes it clear that it is not company policy to stop people from writing down prices. This seemed likely to be the case, though it makes you wonder why the store manager didn't know company policy. And for that matter, why he thought that the company would have any objection to people writing down prices.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Am I human?

A not-chatbot
I hear that at the Techniche Festival (whatever that is) in Guwahati, India, a chatbot finally beat the Turing test (sort of). A chatbot is a bit of software that emulates human conversation, while the Turing test is supposed to show that if an artificial intelligence can fool you into thinking your are typing to a human, then the technology has finally come of age.

In the test 30 volunteers typed conversations, half with a human, half with a chatbot. Then an audience of 1334 people (including the volunteers) voted on which was which. A total of 59% thought Cleverbot was human, making the organisers (and New Scientist) claim it had passed the Turing test.

By comparison 63% of the voters thought the human participants were human. This can be a bit embarrassing for human participants who are thought to be a computer (there's rather a nice description of taking part in this process in the book The Most Human Human).

I don't think this is really a success under the Turing test. First, they only have a 4 minute chat, which gives chatbot designers an opportunity to use short-term tactics that wouldn't work in a real extended conversation, which I envisage is what Turing had in mind. And then there's the location of the event. A key piece of information that is missing is how many of the voters had English as a first language. If, as I suspect, many of the voters did not, or spoke English with distinctly different idioms, their ability to spot which was human and which wasn't would inevitably be compromised.

See what you think. You can chat to Cleverbot yourself here.

Picture from Wikipedia

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The joy of car insurance

When new parents moan about the cost of having a baby – buying a push chair and a car seat and a cot and so on – I nod sagely and hide a knowing smile. ‘Just wait,’ I am thinking, ‘until that baby is 17.’

For non-UK readers, 17 is the age at which our young are let loose on the road in cars. Even if you manage to resist the constant nagging to buy a car (‘Everyone else’s parents are buying them cars. Why are you too tight to buy me a car? It’s not fair!’), the expense and organization involved with making this happen is phenomenal.

First there’s getting a provisional licence. Then the wallet-sapping experience of driving lessons. Tests to pay for and arrange, of course (though you can now book these online – but always go to the site, there are rip-off sites that charge a fee). And did anyone mention insurance? Still, it’s all worth it when they pass the test, rip up the L-plates (more expense) and you can see the smile on their faces. Well, no, it’s not really worth it – but there is the consolation of not having to drive them all over the place any more. There’s just the matter of forking out for petrol, servicing and, yes, even more insurance.

Still, once they get to this stage you can relax, and this is exactly what we did with the daughter who has passed her test. Until the day we got the call saying, was it okay, she just wanted to drive down to Bristol. Okay, fine. Some trepidation. But it wasn’t until a little later that a horrible thought occurred to us. What if she broke down? Because we had thought we’d arranged everything, but not breakdown cover. High speed resorting to the internet and a few minutes later she had this too.

Please don’t tell me if I’ve forgotten anything else. I really don’t want to know. But excuse me next time someone tells me how much you have to sort out with a baby if I burst into hysterical laughter.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The lottery insight

A while ago I mentioned how those who criticize people who enter the National Lottery as stupid individuals that don't understand probability miss the point, because it's a relatively low investment you can forget about, in return for quite a lot of pleasure occasionally when you do win something.

We can also use the mechanism of a lottery to explore how human beings get their gratification.

One of the UK's National Lottery games is called Thunderball. The player has to choose 5 numbers between 1 and 39, and a sixth number between 1 and 14. The maximum prize for matching all six is £500,000, while you get £3 for just matching the Thunderball.

Imagine two strategies, both costing £14. One is to play the same set of numbers each week for 14 weeks. The other is to play 14 lines on a single night, using all the numbers between 1 and 39, shuffled, to populate the first 5 (you would have to do this nearly twice), and sequential numbers from 1 to 14 as the Thunderball.

Most people, I think would prefer to have 1 go a week for 14 weeks, rather than blow it all on one week. Yet the second strategy is the better of the two in terms of being certain to win. Both strategies have the same chance of winning the jackpot. But the second strategy ensures you win a minimum of £3, and that you are guaranteed to match at at least five of your numbers. The first strategy could go through the whole 14 weeks and never have a single match. (Admittedly, it's slightly more complicated than this, as in principle with the first strategy you could win 14 times, where with the second, your maximum number of wins is likely to be 3. But the fact remains that one is a certainty and the other isn't.)

What this shows, I think, is that the primary enjoyment value of the lottery is anticipation. The first strategy gives you 14 nights when you could be a winner. ('It could be you!' as the slogan goes.) The second strategy only gives you one night. So even though the chances of winning something are better, it will tend to be less attractive.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Whatever happened to climate change?

A few years ago I wrote a couple of books on green topics (Ecologic and The Global Warming Survival Kit) -and the timing was terrible.

In the first place, after selling a storm, people suddenly stopped buying books on climate change. I think initially it was exciting and scary - but then it began to feel hopeless, and you don't want to read about hopelessness. Secondly, the financial crash and recession hit. You can protest as much as you like that our financial problems don't make climate change go away, but they certainly make it easy to ignore.

Here's the thing. I don't think we're going to do much about climate change until things get fairly dire for a sizeable chunk of the world. We're lucky in Europe that we won't get much of the really bad impacts at that stage. But a lot of people may suffer. And I also suspect that as much as possible, we are going to invent our way out of the problem, rather than go backwards and stop doing things - and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, whether green hairshirted types like it or not, despite the 'dark satanic mills', things are a lot better now for the vast majority of people than they were in the green, bucolic medieval times. Because we invented our way out of it.

Some claim this means we should give up even trying to be green. I don't agree. There's no harm in slowing things down. It gives us more time to invent our way out. But if I'm really, really honest, most of the green things I do have an ulterior motive. So, for example:
  • I recycle - but this means I don't run out of room in the wheelie bin
  • I don't fly - but this is because I don't like flying, and I did enough to last a lifetime when I was at BA
  • I drive a small, low emissions car - but if I won £10 million on the lottery tomorrow, I would be off down to the Aston Martin showroom before you could say 'Jeremy Clarkson'
  • I use low energy bulbs, have a well insulated house and all that - because I'm tight and want to save on fuel costs
  • I walk to the shops rather than drive - to save money, because I hate faffing about in busy car parks and for my health
 So, please do keep being green. Keep doing good things. But maybe it's time we got a little more realistic.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Punk Rock People Management

One of the joys of doing occasional training in creativity is that I get to meet some great people, and one of the most remarkable I've had the pleasure of working alongside is Peter Cook. Peter combines business training and rock music (not always at the same time) - can't be bad.

He has just come out with a book on managing people (primarily from an HR perspective), taking what he describes as a punk rock approach. You've got to love it for the cover alone. Inside, he takes key areas of dealing with staff and gives them a serious working over. Often the 'punk rock' approach involves stripping out all the fancy stuff and getting back to basics, which is why the chapters are just double page spreads. Frankly a lot of this stuff is much simpler than HR professionals would have you believe - and Punk Rock People Managment is excellent at showing where the Emperor's New Clothes are in action.

The best news is that, at the moment the book is free in PDF format. I downloaded it to my iPad where it was an easy read in Apple's ebook reader. But if you don't fancy an ebook, you can also buy a solid version.

If you have to manage people, it's well worth taking a look. It's not as transformative as Ricardo Semler's Maverick, which I think is just about the best business book ever written, but there's a lot of common sense and cutting away the deadwood.

And did I mention it's free?

Friday, 16 September 2011

Free books and moral dilemmas

Yes, one book in the whole of the UK. And what
a surprise, it's in London.

I was interested to read about the Guardian's attempt to get us all leaving books all over the place for other people to find. Apparently they've conned 15,000 copies out of publishers which they (what, just the Guardian staff?) are going to leave randomly about the place, and they are encouraging the rest of us to do likewise. You can even download a special bookplate to paste into your book for the purposes.

What's more there's a funky map showing where all the books have been left or found, though when I looked it only had one book on it, left by the Guardian's literary editor (Gormenghast, how... literary).

I really can't make up my mind if this is:
  1. A very good idea that will encourage people to read more
  2. Going to result in lots of people (e.g. staff in a cafe where you leave a book/street cleaners) picking up books as rubbish and binning them
  3. A typical wishy-washy Guardian idea that's great fun (isn't it, Jacinda?) and totally pointless
The trouble is, if I took part, and if I could resist giving a book I wrote away, my inclination would be to give a book I really hate. After all, the books I love I want to keep and read again. And then I would have to lie on the bookplate and sing its praises, when really I think it's total rubbish. Do these Guardian people realize the moral dilemmas they are creating?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

A new website is born

Small fanfare of trumpets. I'd like to announce the arrival of a new website, - like most babies, it doesn't do much at the moment. In fact it's just a placeholder really. It may gurgle occasionally, but no nappies are involved.

The website is for the followup to Inflight Science. The Universe Inside You uses your own body as a vehicle to explore everything from quantum theory to the workings of the brain.

The book won't be out until next April, but when it is published, like Inflight Science it will feature a range of experiments to try out. By putting some of these onto the website, they can be made more interactive and (hopefully) interesting.

The other thing the website will bring is links to find out more about other books where you can read more on a topic you've got a taster of in the book.This was something several reviews of Inflight Science said would be useful.

For the moment, though, it's just an opportunity to take a better look at the cover than the small version above. I rather like the cover - it matches the cover of the new paperback version of Inflight Science, out on 5 January, of which there's a sneak preview below:

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Ooh, I just had a McGurk moment

I'm currently reading for review Brain Bugs (my fingers wanted to type Brian Bugs, hmm) by Dean Buonomano. (I'll link to the review when it's available.) This is an exploration of the human brain, using the things it gets wrong as a way of understanding it better.

On mental glitch it mentions is the McGurk effect. This is well known, so you may have come across it already, but if you haven't, it's a great one. What it demonstrates is the way that the brain's processing of sensory information can result in us receiving a false impression of what's going on.

Take a look at the video below. It's important you have the sound on, as I want you to see what the guy says.

Now replay the video, but this time, close your eyes as soon as you click the replay button and listen the sound of the whole clip without the picture.

It's exactly the same video, and exactly the same sound 'Ba ba, ba ba, ba ba.' But when your eyes see the lips forming the 'Da da' sound, your brain gives more weight to your eyes than your ears and translates the electrical impulses from your ears as 'Da da' instead of 'Ba ba.' Try it watching the video again. You can't force yourself to hear 'Ba ba' even though you know that's what he is saying.

Yet another excellent example of the way our senses don't provide us with a video camera like snapshot of what is out there, but rather the brain's interpretation of what it thinks is happening. Excellent!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Welcome back, Mr Galton

Nothing to do with eugenics, but a note by Francis
Galton that messed up Eadweard Muybridge's career

I was recently reading for review Lone Frank's interesting book on gene tests and their implications, My Beautiful Genome. It makes a point that really hadn't occured to me before, raised in a discussion between Ms Frank and Armand Leroi, the author of another interesting human biology book, Mutants. And it concerns the dark side of genetics.

Many aspects of science have their dark sides. Nuclear physics - wonderful... nuclear bombs - not so wonderful. Similarly, genetics has transformed biology, but its dark side is eugenics, the brainchild of Victorian scientist Francis Galton.

Eugenics has a kind of logic, but most people find it distasteful. The idea is that genes alone should be enough to determine who will have the best children, and so you should use genes to determine who should breed and who shouldn't. (That's a vast oversimplification, but it gives a flavour.)

What Leroi pointed out to Frank is that despite the fact that eugenics is a dirty word, we operate a kind of neo-eugenics, that is generally not regarded as a problem unless it is given that loaded name. Thousands of abortions are carried out every year of fetuses that have some detected defect, physical or genetic. What is this if it's not a kind of eugenics?

I think what this illustrates is the important consideration that labels are not good ways of making decisions. 'Eugenics' as a label comes will all sorts of baggage, and at its worst, the concept is despicable. But the fact remains most people are comfortable with the process described above. Applying moral decisions to science and technology is rarely a black and white process, and should never be based on labels alone.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Coming over all boustrophedon

Awful cover - I much prefer
the older one
I was reading an old Morse book at the weekend to have a break from science. Specifically Service of All the Dead. This is not my favourite of Colin Dexter's novels. The plot is ridiculously unlikely. And the attitude to homosexuality (pretty well equated with paedophilia) and women ('You're a pretty little thing,' being a commonplace and inoffensive sort of comment) seems more 1960s than 1979 when the book was written. But it did get me thinking.

Specifically, at one point Morse is searching a church and Dexter says he does this boustrophedon. My immediate reaction was to think he was showing off, and this was a classic example of using a word many people didn't know just for the sake of it. As it happens I did know what it meant. It was originally a form of writing where, having reached the end of the line, the writer starts the next line at the same end, writing the next line backwards. Then starts at the usual end again and writes forwards. And so on. The term comes from the way parallel furrows are ploughed (by an ox).

Thinking Dexter was showing off, I thought 'Why didn't he just say that Morse zig-zagged up and down the pews?' This would certainly be easier to understand. But on giving it a bit more thought, to be fair to Dexter, it's not quite the same thing. A zig-zag should be like the letter Z, with the connecting back movement at an angle. You don't do that with ploughing or writing, and you can't do that if, like Morse, you are constrained by church pews. Technically you have to go boustrophedon.

So here's the dilemma. I still think Dexter was showing off, and I still think that it's not a good idea to use words most people don't understand (and all but a tiny fraction won't bother to look up). This reduces your ability as a writer to communicate. Yet at the same time, it was, without doubt, the right word. I think maybe I would have engineered some way for Lewis to calling it zig-zagging, so Morse could correct him and introduce the proper term. But I can't really falt Colin Dexter for using the word that does the job best.

See Service of All the Dead at and at

Friday, 9 September 2011

Ideas and books

I love being an author. There's very little about it (apart from writing proposals) that I don't enjoy. And one of my favourite things is talking to people about writing, science and (yes, sorry) my books. I'm happy to discuss practically anything. But there's one subject of conversation that comes up all too regularly that does make me wince just the tiniest bit. It goes something like this:

Them: 'You write books, don't you?'
Me: (Slightly embarrassed, but pleased): 'Yes.'
Them: 'I know what your next book should be about.'
Me: 'Well, actually...'
Them (Getting warmed up): 'I've got this great idea for a book, you see. You should write a book for children, make it a story, but put science in it, and...'

You get the picture. If I'm really lucky they will then say something like 'But if you use my idea, I expect my cut of the royalties!' Hmm.

The truth of the matter is that having ideas for books is really not a problem - at least I don't find it to be. I have a list of book ideas as long as your arm, tucked away on OneNote on my computer. I probably add to it about once a week. But the fact is, most of them will not get turned into books. If I am looking for a topic, on second examination, in the cold light of day, many of them will be so-so at best. Those that still do seem good will need a considerable amount of working over, then I have to sell them to a publisher (sadly, they don't leap on every idea I come up with as if it were manna from heaven), and there's also the teeny matter of writing the book.

I am quite happy with my ideas (and those of publishers, who sometimes suggest a cracker). If someone has a great idea for a book, why not write it themselves? By the time they've worked at it a couple of months, perhaps they will revise their thoughts on it. Or perhaps they will write a great book.

It's not that I don't appreciate the thought. But, really, getting great ideas is by far the easiest part of being an author. So I'm happy to hear an idea, but I'm pretty unlikely to do anything about it.

P.S. Apparently Katy Price defends the fact that she doesn't write 'her' books by saying 'But I did have some of the ideas for them!' Nuff said.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Farewell incandescent light bulb, we shall miss you

As the 60 watt bulb follows its 100 watt cousin into European illegality it's time to say a fond farewell to a light bulb that has kept our houses lit for over120 years. Admittedly the filament went from being carbon to tungsten, but this was a matter of tweaking and subtlety, not a huge change in the design.

If you ask the famous man in the street (that one, standing on the corner) who invented the electric light bulb, he would probably say Thomas Edison, as would many pub quizmasters. But they would be wrong. It's certainly true that in 1879 Edison produced an electric light bulb after much fiddling around with different filaments. And he did claim to be first on the scene, but English scientist Sir Joseph William Swan had demonstrated a bulb, like Edison’s based on a carbon filament, nearly eight months earlier.

Swan, much less of a businessman, hadn’t bothered with the level of patent applications that Edison had. Nor had he the same cutthroat commercial sense. Edison’s reaction to the news of Swan’s invention was to launch a patent infringement prosecution.

Patent law often seems to favor the commercially strong rather than the most original thinker, but in this case Swan’s earlier invention was recognized by the court and Edison failed. As part of the court settlement, Edison was obliged to recognize Swan’s independent and earlier invention and to set up a joint company, the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company, to exploit the incandescent bulb.

Rumbunctious beginnings, then for the humble incandescent light bulb. But still an invention who passing we can mark with a certain sadness.

Picture from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Light Reading

Diamond Light Source in all its glory
It's not surprising that as a writer who specializes in science, I'm all in favour of the intersection of science and words. This can mean the sort of non-fiction writing I do, but equally could be science fiction or the rather intriguing category lablit - fiction with a science context, but not science fiction. (Take a look at the Lablit website for a clearer idea what it's about.)

If you ever fancied writing either S.F. or lablit, there's a new competition called Light Reading that's just up your street. It's run by the Diamond Light Source synchrotron people, one of the UK's top physics research centres and has cash prizes from £500 downwards. What's not to love? Entries and more details at the competition website. Closing date for entries is 30 November.

If you aren't familiar with Diamond, this powerful facility generates incredibly bright light from infra-red to X-rays and is used by thousands of scientists every year to study all kinds of materials, from artificial hips and samples of the Mary Rose to virus proteins and potential new fuel sources.

Gerd Materlik, Diamond’s Chief Executive, comments 'The first experiments took place here at Diamond in 2007 so we are still a relatively new science facility.  Light Reading is a great way for us to highlight what Diamond is all about to a more general audience and we hope to get entries from both inside and outside the science community.  Aspiring or experienced fiction writers are warmly invited to submit a story.  Diamond is a really fascinating place and I’m sure the competition will lead to some brilliant stories, which I’m really looking forward to reading.'

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Why is it so gut-wrenching?

The game mentioned.
I still have it.
I was just listening to a piece on the radio about a show that is being put together to commemorate 9/11 in the US. Listeners have been asked to select a piece of music they feel works best for such memories. By far and away the most popular choice is Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.

I agree absolutely, but can anyone explain why this piece is so visceral? How do a few notes, strung together in a particular way, manage to cut through the emotions so surgically? I know music always influences the emotions - there are plenty of songs that bring a smile to the face, for example. But Adagio for Strings (and for me, even more so Barber's vocal adaptation, the Agnus Dei) is unequalled in its ability to manipulate.

A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away) one of the things I used to do to bring in the pennies was review computer games. It was as the backing track to the opening sequence of a game that I first came across this piece (back then it wasn't played on the radio anywhere near so often). The backstory of the game involved the evacuation of a planet, and as the screen showed the ship departing from a dying world, the backing track of Barber's Agnus Dei worked magnificently.

I don't know if anyone has researched it, but I'd be fascinated to know why this particular piece is so powerful.

So go on. Have a wallow:

Monday, 5 September 2011

Science joke

This is an excellent joke to spot scientists in an audience. They are the ones who laugh.

A dietician, a geneticist and a physicist are arguing over how to get a horse that's good at winning races.

'It's easy,' says the dietician. 'You just feed it a carefully balanced and monitored diet.'

'No, no,' says the geneticist. 'It's all a matter of breeding for the best attributes for racing.'

'Hmm,' says the physicist. 'Let's assume the horse is a sphere...'

The only way is up (baby)... until it comes down

If there's one thing authors obsess about most it's sales figures for their books. This is often reflected in an addictive urge to check the Amazon sales rank - but that's only a substitute for the real thing. We want to know how many books are selling.

Publishers typically have a lot of information about sales, but rarely share it with the author in detail, except every six months or so in the royalty statement. But thanks to a service called Book Scan, the data is out there on a weekly basis for most (though admittedly not all) retail outlets. And we're not talking orders, which can always be returned, but hard sales through the till.

Amazingly Amazon now makes this available to authors with books published in the US. It's only paper books, not ebooks, but includes both Amazon and plenty of outlets. You can look back over 8 weeks data, broken down to the main selling books, a display that can either be uplifting or depressing, depending on the way the bars are going. The bar chart shown, by the way, is my sales for the last 8 weeks. You can either look on it that things are going rather well, or that they were rubbish 8 weeks ago. (The actual chart includes totals, and you can hover the mouse to see how many books are in each part of the bar.)

This is fascinating information - if you are published in the US and aren't on Amazon's Author Central service which provides this data, run don't walk to your computer.

Now I just have to wait to see if that slight fall was just a random variation or could be the start of a trend. Once more with the feeling. The only way is up...

Friday, 2 September 2011

There's another pile-up in aisle thirteen

Not the Cromwell Road Sainsbury's
I gather that the supermarket Sainsbury's is trialling shopping trolleys with built-in iPad docks in their Cromwell Road store in London. When I saw the headline, I assumed that there would be some funky Sainsbury's shopping app which meant you could set up a shopping list at home and it would then guide you around the store on the best route to get all the things you need. (Yes, please, Sainsbury's.) But no. Apparently the idea, sponsored by Sky, is that you can watch things like the BBC iPlayer, music videos or, no surprise, Sky's online sports facility.

To add to the fun, the dock is equipped with speakers so you can blast out your favourite tunes or catch all the dialogue in Doctor Who.

Are they serious? Okay, there are going to be lots of fun opportunities for collisions (apparently the trolleys are equipped with sensors on the front to warn you if you are about to collide with another trolley or a pile of tins of beans, something that you only ever see in the movies, sadly). But I'd be more concerned about the noise pollution. Do you really want to walk around a supermarket being blasted by a distorted version of Nero's ecstatic drum and bass in one ear (yes, I is down with the kidz), and a football commentary from the other side of the aisle? No-o-o-o-o!

For that matter I'm surprised Sainsbury's think it is a good thing. Supermarkets are designed to encourage you to spot things you didn't realize you wanted to buy. Huge effort is put into the layout of shops and the order in which you reach things. Bakeries are generally put at the back of the store, for instance, so the smell of fresh bread draws you in. But all this commerical wizardry would be wasted if your shoppers are trundling around zombie-like, watching a screen and missing all your nice displays.

So here's the deal, Sainsbury's. By all means give us a dock and a shopping app. But take away the speakers. Otherwise I'm off to Waitrose.

* Disclaimer - there are other supermarkets, and to be honest I rarely shop at Sainsburys these days, but it's the principle of the thing *

Thursday, 1 September 2011

I'm prevaricating again

An author prevaricating recently
I know I've written about this before, but it's important. If there is one thing authors like to do, it's prevaricate. I've never yet met an author who didn't admit to the fact that the moment they sat down to write, they felt a strong urge to do something else. Anything else. Even the dishwasher or the hoovering. Or hoovering the dishwasher.

Some authors have taken this to a fine art. Douglas Adams famously had to be forced to write by locking him in a hotel room until he came up with the goods. But pretty well all of us do it.

The silly thing is that once you get going, it's hard to stop. Once you are writing, you want to keep at it. I know this. It should mean that I want to get in there and start writing right now. But I don't. (Okay, I am writing this, but anything other than the book counts as prevarication.)

At the moment I'm at the worst possible point in the cycle. I'm just about to take the plunge into a new book. I'm looking at a word count of about 500 words (with chapter headings and a few outline contents) and I have to turn that into 80,000 words. It's daunting. Where to start? But I know that my old friend prevarication will be back every day as I get to the point when I've checked the bank account, done the emails, got up to date on Google reader and done pretty well anything else I can think of to prevent myself writing a book.

So here we go. I'm going in. Wish me luck. Hang on, though. I think the dishwasher needs emptying. I'll just get that done first...