Monday, 30 April 2012

What exactly are they witnessing?

At tract ive?
In 14 years at our previous house, thanks to its relative isolation, we never got Jehovah's Witnesses at the door once. Now, in a more cosmopolitan area, we get them regularly. In my head, beforehand, I am happy to engage them and challenge them on their own level - but somehow when they turn up I crumble. So there was that jolly smily person with the neat opening line:

'Do you ever think about the Lord's Prayer?'

And all I could do was mutter (after a bit of a pause) 'I'm afraid I'm at work.'

So, with their usual politeness and lack of pushiness, they gave me a tract and left. In fact the one occasion when I've desperately wanted to invite Jehovah's Witnesses in (for the only time in history it was two incredibly attractive women), I was at home ill with flu and had to send them away.

Usually the tract goes straight in the bin, with the usual observation about look and feel. I don't know why it is, but material like this from the US always has a look and feel that seems very old fashioned. But this time I happened to glance through it. Given they'd mentioned prayer, my eye was caught by a section on prayer. I don't know the Bible off by heart, but I have read it and am familiar with most of the key bits, and something seemed wrong with the quote they had used. It says:
Jesus taught us to avoid repeating set formulas in our prayers. "When praying," he said, "do not say the same things over and over again." (Matthew 6:7).
It just didn't seem right. So I dug out the real thing. It actually says
'In your prayers do not go babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them. Your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him...' And then it gives the Lord's Prayer.
Now of course all English bibles are translations. My version, the out-of-favour New English Bible will be different from the US version they used. But I think their 'translation' reverses the meaning. Our JW's are saying it says 'don't use a set formula', where the text actually says 'don't go on and on with miles of specific detail, just use a set formula (and here it is)'.

What is fascinating here - and I think it's something we should bear in mind when anyone of any religion says they are doing something because that's what scripture says - is how easy it is to take the same original text and put two very different interpretations on it - in this case pretty well opposite interpretations. I almost felt like running after them and finding them and pointing this out. But I didn't.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Go creative for Friday

Before getting into popular science books I wrote a number of business books on being more creative in business. Not how to paint a nice business-related picture, but how to generate ideas and solve problems in a business context. My book of creativity techniques, Instant Creativity, written with Paul Birch is still a steady seller and I thought it would be entertaining to give you a little technique from it to try out.

You can do this individually or in a group. Pop over to an 'on this day' website - if you don't know one, try the BBC's or this rather encyclopedic site. Pick out two or three entries that appeal because they are bizarre, exciting or just make you think of something. Typically the dates in such lists represent an event in history, or the birth or death of a person. Imagine yourself present at the event, or being that person. How would you look at the problem? What would you do about it? What different perspectives would you get from being at the event or from the sort of activity that was typical of this person? Would the period of history involved generate any misunderstandings?

Combine different ideas from different sources. Be prepared to treat them as a starting point, rather than a final solution.

Like most creativity techniques the approach here is to give you a different starting point so you come at a problem or need for a new idea from a different direction. The mix of people and events should give a source of inspiration (and it can be a bit of fun too). If you wanted to extend the technique you could try combining events to interesting effect. What would the painter Gaugin do about your problem if he had just seen the first Zepplin destroyed? What would Richard the Lionheart (or Harry Houdini) make of the first Olympic Games, and how would it inspire him?

You can find out more about Instant Creativity and whole bunch of other books on improving business creativity on my creativity books page.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Randi science

I admire the work James Randi does in debunking fake mentalists and demonstrating how easy it is for trained magicians to pull off the same stunts, though I do find that his in-your-face words can have something of a Dawkins effect - they can put people off by being insulting.

I've recently read his old but still entertaining book, Flim Flam (tip - the Kindle version is a lot cheaper than paper equivalents). It is an effective dismemberment of various claims to supernatural and paranormal abilities and events. It might seem at first sight he over-analyzes some cases. For example he spends page after page on the detail of the Conan Doyle fairy photos. This might appear unnecessary, because those pictures are so obviously fakes - the images of the fairies are quite clearly paper cutouts. Yet Randi usefully examines the different ways those who were apparently taken in by these crude fakes supported their beliefs and ignored the obvious.

However, I do notice one thing. Randi is understandably heavy on scientists who have a tendency to be naive when presented with fakery. It isn't their field. But because of this, he ought to be careful himself when writing about science, because his opinions in the scientific arena can be more than a little naive too. I found one example rather entertaining. Randi writes:
 Jack van Impe, a TV evangelist who perspires and preaches his version of science regularly to millions of believers, recently gave us an Easter message that reflected his ignorance of science. He referred to the preposterous "Jupiter Effect" so beloved of some nuts, which is supposed to cause wonderful catastrophes in 1982. The Earth should be a mess at the end of this claimed alignment of the planets, and I can hardly wait to see the show. Said Jack, "The Earth will be seven times hotter." Codswallop. The term has no meaning. "Seven" is a number, Jack. If you take the normal temperature to be 70 degrees Fahrenheit, that makes the new reading 490 degrees Fahrenheit. If you're in Europe or Canada, that same temperature is 21 degrees Celsius, giving the other folks a break with 148 degrees C, which is equal to only 298 degrees F.
Yes, of course seven is a number - but that doesn't mean that something can't be seven times hotter than something else. Temperature is a measure of the mean kinetic energy of the atoms or molecules in a substance, and one thing can have seven times as much energy as another. So something can be seven times hotter than something else. (Or the world can be seven times hotter at one point in time than it is at another.) What Randi is really identifying is the arbitrary nature of the temperature scales he uses in his illustration. (And the stupidity of the prediction.) But the way he phrased his attack shows that he too can get it wrong when working outside his field of expertise.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The universal postal myth

I was listening the other today to someone from the Royal Mail moaning about competing services cherry picking and doing the lucrative postal deliveries inside London, while the poor old Royal Mail had to do all the difficult expensive stuff. And this had to be the case because of the need for a universal post, which 'everyone agrees' is essential.

Well, I don't think everyone does agree. I, for one, don't think it is essential.

Think about it. Would you expect to pay the same price for a bus into town and to get to Edinburgh? Hardly. Why should mail be any different? We understand we need to pay more to send a letter to, say, Hong Kong - why shouldn't it cost more to send it somewhere far distant and expensive to reach in the British Isles.

Yes, you might say, but what about the poor people who live at the furthest reaches of the UK? What indeed? They have every right to live there. But I'm not sure they have a right to expect me to subsidise their postal service every time I send something just down the road to Salisbury.

I think part of the problem with the universal post system is the lack of creativity applied to getting around the practical difficulties of doing anything different. At first sight you might imagine it would be a nightmare, having to work out how far it is to your destination. And it would be if you did this (although the railway manages to operate a fares system that copes - and so could the Post Office). But here are two easy-to-implement alternatives:
  • Simple banding. Anything to the same postcode letters is local, anything in the same country is country, anything to a different country within the UK is crossborder. Three bands, automatically detectable from the postcode. Easy peasy.
  • Receiver pays. This is the more interesting idea. Still have a universal price to send a letter anywhere in the UK. But if you live more than a certain distance from the nearest sorting office, you pay a premium to receive your post (or go and collect it for free). This would be fiddly to do on a per-item basis, but could be simply implemented monthly or annually through the council tax collection.
If we moved away from a universal pricing system, we could then get proper competition in the postal system and Royal Mail wouldn't be able to whinge about other companies cherrypicking as they would be adequately compensated for the difficult-to-get-to destinations and could provide a competitive base price for the local stuff. It would probably bring down the cost of many mail items.

It's not perfect - it's top of the head, 5 minutes thought stuff, I admit it. There would be extra complications. But the fact is that the idea of having a single price for a letter to anywhere in the UK is not sacrosanct, it is not written into the constitution (hardly surprising when we don't have a written constitution), and it's not necessarily the best way to go about things. It is at least worth thinking about the alternatives, rather than taking the usual stick-our-heads-in-the-sand approach.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Don't hide the A303

Stonehenge when I first visited and you weren't kept out
Every now and then there is a scheme to send the A303, the main road that passes Stonehenge, through a cutting or a tunnel. The idea is that it means those visiting this stunning ancient monument don't have to see traffic rumbling past. However, I think this suggestion gets things totally back to front.

First of all, it's silly to think that somehow you would be able to lose yourself in neolithic times if only the road were hidden. That might have been the case in my youth, when you could wander around the stones to your hearts content. But now you are kept a good distance away by a fence (unless you have some ridiculous druidical religious belief (largely made up in a pub in London in Victorian times - I've seen the plaque), in which case you can trample all over the ancient monument that has nothing to do with your 'religion'). This forces a visit to Stonehenge to be a 21st century experience, so just accept it.

The reason I say the idea of burying the road gets things back to front is that I think it takes the wrong viewpoint. I drove down the A303 to and from the Brympton Festival on Sunday and it was totally wonderful getting that heart-stopping view of the monument as I drove past each way. If they put the road in a cutting or tunnel, thousands of people a day would miss out on that stunning view of Stonehenge - and I think that outweighs any prissy attempt to make the visitor experience better.

Keep that wondrous view from the road, please!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Festival fun

Brympton House, location of the festival - gorgeous building
I spent Sunday at the Brympton Festival near Yeovil. It was an interesting experience. This was the first attempt at this festival and inevitably the organizers were on a bit of a learning curve. It was a lovely venue and a very warm and friendly experience (the festival is still running until Thursday with some excellent speakers to come, so do get along if you can). And, unusually for such events, there was brilliant food. But the organisation was a bit mixed - part of the problem being, I think that the programme was too complicated and also because day ticket holders don't seem to have had to pre-book events, meaning the organisers had no idea who would turn up at any particular talk.

Numbers were quite low overall, and I did wonder just how many literary festivals the UK can support - I would say this one deserves to keep going more than a fair number of festivals that I have attended, but there has to be a point where festival fatigue sets in.

Because the venue was so unique (it's worth going just to see the house) I do want to just reflect on the remarkable opportunity to experience life as it was in a great house 100 years ago. The speakers' hideaway room was a remarkable drawing room. It must have been about 20 feet high and at least 30 feet square. As far as I could detect, the only heat came from the roaring fire in the sizable fireplace.
The speaker's drawing room

This led to the bit that was fascinating - the realization that in a big house in Victorian times it was COLD. Sitting on the sofa on the left of the photo (that's my book), fairly near the fire, I was just about okay. But I still felt the need to occasionally come close to the fire and warm various bits - in fact I recreated that traditional Victorian image of standing in front of the fire warming up. They really did have to do it.

For me, it was worth going for this experience alone. (Not to mention a toilet that Queen Victoria would have recognized.) Lovely.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen

I have never subscribed to the adage 'treat them mean, keep them keen.' The suggestion that this is a good way to deal with a member of the opposite sex, presumably because they will take you for granted otherwise, has always seemed to me to be fine if you are effortlessly attractive, but not necessarily helpful for ordinary mortals. I am fascinated to discover, though, that this approach extends beyond humans, and indeed living creatures, to companies.

The example that has brought it to mind is Apple. There is no doubt that Apple is a marmite company - one that you either love or hate. If you hate them they are the kings of style over substance, peddling overpriced technology that doesn't do anything more than the cheaper stuff, but that has a strange hold over the media, and that is particularly good at product placement (just take a look at an episode of Neighbours and you'd be convinced there is no other make of computer). If you love them, they are the ultimate innovators, the champion of the individual over the corporate machine (that was so much easier when the enemy was IBM), the people who realize that technology should be beautiful and functional.

It has been quite entertaining watching Apple, with their recent success, go from being the underdogs to the hated corporate on the opposite side to the plucky Android (from that tiny startup, Google).

I have to be honest - I love Apple products. But something I've found out recently doesn't help my image of the company - because they are the ones I was thinking of when I opened with 'treat them mean, keep them keen.' (Yes, I hadn't forgotten that bit.) According to someone in the know, a source I can't reveal in case they send round the heavies, Apple takes exactly this approach to its resellers. Apparently if you go into a shop that sells Apple products and buy a replacement power supply for you Macbook, the shop will make exactly £0 on it. They have no markup at all. Even more bizarrely, buy a Macbook battery and in theory the shop will make a loss, because the wholesale price is actually higher than the retail. (I say 'in theory', because I presume the shop doesn't source from Apple wholesale, but perhaps they are made to.)

It seems that Apple's attitude is exactly that of the highly attractive lover. They know that their resellers adore them, so they treat them mean to keep them keen. And that's fine in the good times. But Apple ought to be careful. There's nothing worse than a spurned lover. Maybe it's time to go back to your roots a little, Apple. Remember this:

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Should you buy a self-published book?

Once upon a time you knew, on the whole, that if a book had been published (unless it was written by a celebrity) that it would be of a certain quality, because the whole of the publisher's might from copy editing to proof reading had been applied to it. Of course there were always the products of vanity publishing, but you ignored those by the plague.

Now, though, there is a middle ground - the self-published book. Because it is so easy to pop something onto Kindle (say), these are appearing in large quantities. So what to do? Ignore the self-published books, stick a toe carefully into the water, or plunge in neck-deep?

I certainly wouldn't totally ignore self-published books. Think of the parallel with jams. I could always buy Bon Maman, and be sure I was getting the same high standards all the time. But equally I could pick up something at a farmer's market, lovingly crafted that may well taste much better. Or could have gone off. Or could have a dead mouse in it. The difference, I suppose, is that it is much harder to write and edit a good book than it is produce a good jam... yet many more people think they can write a book than think they can make jam.

I get bombarded with suggestions for self-published books to be reviewed on but I ignore 95 percent of these. One or two do catch my fancy, though. I very much enjoyed The Rocketbelt Caper, which subsequently became a real published book. And most recently I have been sent Nothing and Anywhere, a novel by Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, which I was told had enough maths content in it to make it worth considering for the site.

In the end, I didn't include the book on Popular Science because it really doesn't have enough science/maths content to be appropriate, but I do feel it is worth commenting on it here. I love edgy real world fantasies like those of Neil Gaiman, and the opening section of the novel, which is the best part, has that kind of feel - it reminded me a little of Gaiman's Neverwhere, not just because of the title but also because of the strange visitors and the way the main character is plunged into a confusing and life-changing world. Other aspects of the novel - particularly the big set piece attack on a Scottish castle and the very random conversations about favourite pieces of music and the like (a little self-indulgent, I'm afraid) - didn't work so well.

Overall, though, I felt it was a book I was glad that I had read. I was conscious throughout that it could have been a lot better if it had been well edited, but it had a raw enthuasiasm. This very much echoes my experience of reading two other self published novels - Alice Turing's Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex and Henry Gee's gothic By the Sea. I enjoyed the read, even though the experience was a little bumpy in places.

So my conclusion? You have to be very selective. I really need to be sold on a self-published book before I take a look at it. But it is worth dipping a toe into the water. After all, some of those homemade jams really are delicious.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Be your own laboratory

When I wrote The Universe Inside You I wanted to include a series of experiments to try out as I had done in Inflight Science. The difference was that many of these experiments were going to involve using your body as a lab, with quite a few using the brain.

It seemed the best thing to do would be to put together a website with those experiments that aren't so easy to do on the kitchen worktop, as opposed to (say) dropping antacid tablets in vinegar or extracting DNA (both in the book). And while I was at it, I could provide a more detailed 'further reading' section with links to other books, as a good few people had suggested that Inflight Science should have had suggestions for finding out more.

The outcome was - I originally intended this purely as an adjunct to the book, but I've showed it to a sample of people who assure me it is quite interesting in its own right, so on their recommendation it's worth taking a look even if you don't have the book, whether you want to see someone walk on custard, experiment with optical and audio illusions, hear a piece of music that has travelled at four times the speed of sound, or interact with a piece of software that pretends to be a human being. Take a look!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Black holier than thou

When I give talks on the universe I often get questions about black holes. Everyone loves a black hole. They are the movie stars of the cosmos with a whole mythology of their own, which is pretty amazing when you consider that they are basically theoretical concepts that have never been directly detected (although we have good reason to believe they're out there).

Here's a quick black hole primer, if you haven't quite got the hang of them:

Although quantum physics is mostly about the very small, there are some hypothetical large scale quantum objects. Perhaps the best know is the universe at the point of the Big Bang - but it is pretty much rivalled by the black hole.

In a crude form, black holes were dreamed up in the 1700s when British astronomer John Michell imagined the way escape velocity - the velocity needed to get away from a planet - getting bigger and bigger as the planet got more massive. With a heavy enough star, Michell realized, the escape velocity would be bigger than the speed of light, and light would never get out. The result would be a dark star, or as the astronomer John Wheeler first called them in 1969, a black hole.

The modern idea of the black hole came from Einstein’s general relativity, which considers gravity to be a warp in space and time. The more massive a body, the more it bends spacetime. With enough mass in a small enough volume, the warp would be so great that nothing - light included - would get out. To get the Sun, a middling-sized star 1.4 million kilometers across, compressed enough to go black it would have to be condensed to just 3 kilometers in diameter.

Normally when a star is active, the outward pressure from the nuclear reactions that power it keeps the star “fluffed up”, but as nuclear fuel runs low, pressure drops and the star begins to collapse. Now another force comes into play - a quantum feature called the Pauli Exclusion Principle that means that similar particles of matter that are close in distance must be different in velocity. This will counter the gravitational collapse - unless the star is too massive. The mass required for this is around one and a half times that of the Sun. Some such stars explode as a supernova. But if this fails to happen, the star should contract, getting smaller and smaller until it becomes a black hole.

In theory, the contraction will continue until there is a singularity, a point of infinite density, at the center of the black hole. This singularity is a quantum object. I say 'in theory' because at a singularity the maths breaks down and this could mean that something completely unexpected happens.

There are several inaccurate myths about black holes. Their gravitational pull is nothing special for a star. If you were orbiting a star that became a black hole, the pull would get no stronger. It's just that you can get much closer to one than an ordinary star, so can experience much more dramatic forces that way. Also they're not totally black. They are expected to give off faint 'Hawking radiation.' And they aren't gateways to another universe. Get in a black hole and you're stuck.

To finish off, a few fun black hole factoids:
  • If you flew towards a black hole, the difference in gravitational pull between your feet and your head would be so big that you would be stretched out long and thin like a piece of spaghetti. This process is actually known as spaghettification - who says physicists don't have a sense of humour?
  • General relativity says the stronger the gravitational pull, the slower time runs as seen from the outside. If we watched an object travelling into a black hole it would get slower and slower before stopping forever at the event horizon (the point beyond which no light escapes). It should take an infinite amount of time (from our viewpoint) for the object to get any further.
  •  Technically, the singularity at the heart of a black hole is a point in time, not a point in space. Onve you have passed the event horizon (which from your viewpoint is no problem) you will inevitably reach the singularity at a particular point in time.
Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 16 April 2012

Pretty pictures

There seems to be a trend towards the use of infographics in blogs. I think what has happened is that people realize that us bloggers are lazy types, and if someone gives you a pretty graphic to use for free, then they are happy to do so. The blogger gets a nice look, while the graphic owner gets a little push.

Those nice people at Icon Books have produced one for The Universe Inside You. Not only am I going to share this with you, but if anyone wants to reproduce it, they are very free to do so. I just ask that you link from the post either to the book's page on my website or the book's own website. Here it is in all its glory (if it doesn't fit on your screen, click on it to see a suitable sized image):

Friday, 13 April 2012

Acute accents

Eeh, by eck, it's t't mill. Beam's gone
skew on t't treadle!
Many years ago, while still at BA, I had the misfortune to cross the Atlantic sat between two large ladies. They were GI brides who had decamped from Newcastle to Texas in the 1940s and were now returning to the States after a nostalgic visit to the North-east of England.

The worst thing about sitting between them is that they talked across me for the entire flight. I tried to swap seats with either of them without avail. They seemed to find it amusing. The one slight consolation for being in this trap was listening to their accents. Although they had been in Texas for a good 40 years, there was still a strong Geordie twang amongst the American drawl. It was an unusual mix, to say the least.

The reason I bring this up is that I sometimes get asked about my accent, and I think people get the question the wrong way round. As I've mentioned before, I come from Rochdale, in the North-west of England. It's a place with quite a strong Lancashire accent and as a child I had the full works, as broad as you like. Yet, if you hear me speaking now, I have very little in the way of a regional accent, with just the struggle with the odd word (bucket is a classic) to give me away to those with an ear for the voice.

People have often asked me how I lost the accent, but this is what I think they get wrong. Instead, they should ask why some people keep their accent after many years in other parts. As far as I can see, it's very easy to pick up an accent. I only have to spend a day in part of the country with a strong accent to start getting a few shifts in pronunciation. And take me to somewhere like Wales, Ireland or Scotland and I have to actively fight off slips that might be taken as offensive. It just happens - and I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

My suspicion is, when someone does hold onto a regional accent that is different from the local accent where they live, it is most often an attempt to cling on to identity, perhaps because the person is a little insecure. This may be conscious or unconscious, but it certainly happens. You even get people whose accents get significantly stronger after a while away from home territory. This is defensive, pure and simple.

 I think as I've always felt reasonably at home in the various places I've been in the South, I haven't felt the need to put up the barriers. And I actually think that's a good thing. I know many would disagree with me, but I don't think there's any great merit to clinging on to your accent. Go with the flow, I say. It really isn't a matter of identity. If you really know who you are, and have your own views, you don't need the crutch of an accent.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Why waterproof?

 One of the great rites of passage of childhood was the loss of innocence provided by the waterproof watch.  Back in the 1960s there was much less care with the meaning of such terms and many a proud owner of a 'waterproof' watch emerged from a first venture into the sea or swimming pool to discover that their prize possession was full of water. I can still remember that feeling of horror.

Now there are much tighter restrictions over the use of the term 'waterproof.' That’s not a bad thing - but it brings up the confusing distinction between devices that are waterproof and those that are water repellent. There can be no doubt that with mobile phones and other portable electronics playing an ever more important role in our lives, we want to prevent our gadgets from being damaged by water. You only have to see the contortions of someone using a phone outside in the rain while trying to keep it dry to see the importance of this. But what protection do the two categories provide?

The sceptical buyer might observe that a waterproof phone keeps water out while a water repellent one... doesn't. Even though there is an element of truth in this, it doesn't mean that waterproofing is necessarily the best answer to the problem of keeping your mobile device safe.

Waterproofing attempts to keep water out by using an outer casing that prevents water (or other liquids) coming into contact with anything inside the device that the water could damage. Typically such damage would either involve the water itself shorting out a circuit, or the more long-lasting threat of corrosion wrecking components or leaving deposits which form a permanent short circuit. At its most crude, waterproofing involves putting an object into a totally enclosed casing. This is the kind of waterproofing we expect from a car or a building. But unless you are a tortoise, carrying your house around with you is an unnecessary burden. And the same goes for waterproof shells for phones and other electronic devices.

Take a look at a traditionally waterproofed phone and you'll see something that could have come out of a Fisher Price catalogue. Leaving aside the designers' strange affection for making waterproof casings bright yellow, they make the most sophisticated, elegant pieces of mobile technology seem clunky and difficult to use. But the latest waterproof phones are quite different. They rely on a seal - either a gasket or an o-ring - to stop water getting into a conventionally styled casing. This takes away the need for the clumsy outer shell but brings a new problem. As NASA discovered with the Challenger shuttle disaster, caused by a failing o-ring, such seals always have the potential to deteriorate. They have to be perfectly positioned and can be compromised if anything gets between the seal and the casing. Not to mention that this form of waterproofing can add considerably to the manufacturing cost.

This is where water repellent comes in. Waterproofing involves a constant struggle to prevent water getting into the interior of a phone. Water repellent takes a more lateral thinking approach, recognising it is going to be difficult to keep 100 percent of the water out. Instead, the idea is to prevent any water that does get in from doing damage.

This is achieved in two ways. One is to make it easy for water to escape. A water repellent phone must be anything but waterproof. The second is to apply a coating like P2i's Aridion that stops water from hanging around. Such materials are hydrophobic - essentially they ensure the water is more attracted to itself at a molecular level, than the surfaces of the phone. Traditionally such coatings have not been practical to apply to the inside circuitry during manufacturing, and were too thick, stopping flow of electricity. But the new breed of water repellent materials are bonded to the surface of the phone at a molecular level in a process that can coat an assembled device inside and out.

Water repellency won't enable a phone to keep working during a scuba diving expedition. But it does mean that a device can be used safely in the rain and can stand up to the kind of brief dunk in the bath or toilet that is the nemesis of so many mobile phones and MP3 players. And this protection does not require a clumsy outer casing, nor a redesign to incorporate a gasket or o-ring that always has the potential to be a weak spot. You will routinely find water repellent phones mislabelled 'waterproof' in the media, but if anything, for the general user who doesn't need a ruggedized model, the subtlety of water repellency is the better choice.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Am I a real writer now?

As a writer of non-fiction I can't help but harbour a little chip on my shoulder. Real writers, it seems, do fiction. This must be true - look at how many more prizes there are for fiction writers than non-fiction. What's more, compare the amount of publicity the big fiction prizes get against the handful of non-fiction, not to mention the fawning coverage from presenters in the media.

Let's face it, non-fiction writers are second class citizes of the literary world.

So (even though the above is highly tongue in cheek - because I don't agree with the people who set up these prizes, and the literati in general) I'm rather pleased to say that my first piece of real paid-for fiction has been published. It's in the Communications of the ACM, and I'm rather proud of it.

Unfortunately as this is paid-for journal, unless you are a member, you can't look at it apart from the abstract (yes, it's a short story with an abstract. This is a journal, after all). But I know it's there, and that's a nice feeling.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Electronic OCD

My actual email inbox a few seconds ago
Anyone looking at my desk would realize in an instant that I don't suffer from OCD. You can't tell if the pens are all neatly arranged parallel to each other, because you can't see the surface of the desk. But there is one aspect of my business life where I am compulsively tidy, and that's my email inbox.

I really can't understand people who moan that they didn't see an email because they have about 3000 items in their inbox. Having an empty inbox is painless and very effective.

It doesn't mean you have to check your emails every ten minutes. Just that whenever you do, you empty it. Completely.

I use a kind of triage system. Junk gets binned straight away (that's 90 percent gone). Anything that needs a reply, and that I can reply to immediately, I do there and then. (Not got time? Don't look at your emails. Do it when you've got a few minutes.) Anything that needs action but that I can't deal with immediately I flag up for attention and file in a folder. (You can't see, as I've scrunched it up to take the pic, but I have a large number of folders down the left hand side.)

If your email system allows for flags with alerts you can use these. Otherwise, put an item to deal with that email in your diary (with an alert), and do it as you file it. Either way, you can now clear that item out of the inbox and yet it won't be ignored. It will be dealt with when it should be dealt with.

It really takes very little time, and leaves you totally on top of your communications. I get around 200 emails a day, yet it's not a major time consumer and ensures that I am very rarely caught out. What's more there's a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing that empty inbox.

If you are an email inbox hoarder, give it a try. It will take a few days, but before long you will find a great delight in that empty inbox. And a bit more on top of your life too.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Bank holidays bonkersness

I am confused by bank holidays. I think, in part, it's because I spent 17 years working for British Airways. An airline really has to ignore bank holidays. You can hardly bring all your planes down around the world every time a country has a public day off work. You can just imagine the announcement over the PA. 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I'm afraid a bank holiday has now started in Surrey, where I live, so I will be making an emergency landing on the island of Bdong. I'm afraid I can't possibly work on a bank holiday.'

What I find bizarre is that outside the airline world, it often seems to be the most important organizations that down tools, while others that are less essential on a day-to-day basis carry on regardless.

Today, if you hadn't guessed, is a public holiday in the UK, as it is in many countries. This means I can't:
  • Go to my doctor's surgery (sorry, you can't be ill on a bank holiday)
  • Go in a bank (well, duh, it's a bank holiday)
  • Use the post (why would you want to post something? Doesn't all business stop?)
And yet my dustbin and recycling were emptied today, and I can happily go along to pretty well any shop and buy things to my heart's content.

I've nothing against public holidays. But I think it is time the likes of doctors, banks and the post office realised that they are essential services - certainly more essential than a gift shop, say - and they should open as usual. (Same goes for weekends.) It's a bit scary when you think they are putting GPs, who apparently think you don't get ill on bank holidays and weekends in charge of resources. ('I say, why do we need to keep hospitals open at weekends? No one ever comes to our surgeries!') Frankly, this is the best argument against the health service reforms there is.

But don't people deserve holidays? Of course they do. But other organizations, private and public, manage to arrange things so holidays are staggered and services continue all year round. It's about time these very Victorian services changed their attitude.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Universe Inside You

It's out!
It has rather crept out in dribs and drabs - but today is the official publication date of my new book, The Universe Inside You.

We start with looking at your body in the mirror. Usually you might think 'I need to lose a few pounds.' But that's not the point. Really look. What you see in front of you is one of the most amazing things in the universe. I wanted to start from your body and use that to explore science, both the direct science of what is in there and everything that contributes to making that body you.

So we explore the brain - using optical illusions amongst a whole range of experiments, and all the unexpected science in your body, like the amazing zoo of bacteria - you have 10 times as many bacterial cells as human in there. But also we get a chance to see how the science of the universe impinges on your body. We see how light from the Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light years away stimulates your eyes. Those photons of light have been on their way for 2.5 million years, long before humans existed. Or taking a rollercoaster ride we discover how we have many more than 5 senses, detecting things like acceleration and heat - and how our bodies experience the warps in space and time that Einstein showed were the cause of gravity. That's not just a body, it's a lab to explore the wonders of the universe.

I can't remember when I last enjoyed writing a book so much - I suppose in the end because it's hard not to be interested in your own body, but more so because of all that you discover along the way.

The book has an accompanying website which includes a range of experiments, some involving the brain, for the reader to try out. Do take a look at and see what you think.

As I write this, but not for long, you can get the Kindle ebook for just 99p in the UK and $1.57 in the US.

If you would prefer a hardcopy you can click through to Amazon from here.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

My invention

When I run business creativity training sessions the participants often come up with great product ideas, which I encourage them to go and do something with. I came up with an invention the other morning which I am giving to the world - feel free to go out and make your fortune with this.

After my stint at the Edinburgh Science Festival I was having breakfast at the hotel before heading off through the snow, rain and howling winds (come on, it was Scotland) to get to the train.

It was a good breakfast, though it did suffer from some of the food snobbery issues I have highlighted previously (they did allow me brown sauce, though). But here's the thing. The toast, as it almost always is in such circumstances, didn't live up to the rest of the meal.

They brought a basket of toast, which then sat on the table through the meal. The trouble is, you need to butter toast when it is piping hot. It's only then that the butter sinks invitingly into the bread. Leave it to cool for more than 30 seconds before buttering and it is ruined.

So here's the invention. A battery-powered table top toaster. I'm sure with modern batteries you could get enough oomph for one meal into a self-contained unit. And that way, the diner can just pop in a slice as and when they want it, getting the perfect toast at their table. Of course they'd sell elsewhere as well, but any decent restaurant serving breakfast would need one per table.

Anyone care to take up the challenge?

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

In the storytelling centre

Yesterday morning I set off from Swindon station at silly-o-clock to head up to Edinburgh to take part in the excellent science festival. My venue was to be the splendidly named Scottish Storytelling Centre, and my topic Build Your Own Time Machine.

I'll admit it was a long journey, but one I would much rather do by train than any other way - I got loads of work done on the journey, and everything ran smoothly (we even arrived early), though I was a little confused by the new Kings Cross.

After a spot of recuperation at the splendid Hotel du Vin (accommodation provided by the festival) - even if I was slightly unnerved to be put up in a former asylum - I headed off for the venue.

I think it's fair to say it was a brilliant talk. That sounds even more big headed than you might expect from me, but what I mean is it was a capacity crowd, they were a wonderful audience and the Q&A at the end was one of the best I've ever had, with great questions, some decidedly insightful ones coming from children.

We finished off with a book signing, where there were more great questions, but just one sad problem. The bookshop had ordered the wrong book. It was one of mine, but not Build Your Own Time Machine. This was really depressing as I think I would have sold a good number. As it was, I had taken one copy of the book with me to wave around on stage and I had three people fighting over who got it.

I ought to stress this wasn't down to the event manager, who was charming and very helpful. But it was just so sad and I felt embarrassed and kept apologising to people.

Despite that, it certainly wouldn't put me off coming back to Edinburgh Science Festival - I had a great time, and I hope they invite me again.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Get your brainstorm right

I'm currently reading the popular-despite-not-being-released-in-the-UK-yet Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (any relation to the great Tom? We ought to know).

As someone who has helped people with creativity for over 15 years it is really interesting to see the approaches that have been pragmatically adopted for so long get some scientific basis with brain studies to support what those practising in the field have known for a long time.

However, Mr Lehrer does make one big error (admittedly following an academic who did the same thing). He isn't very impressed with Alex Osborn's method of brainstorming as a way of generating ideas. But the thing he totally misses, as so many do, is that Alex Osborn didn't devise brainstorming as a method for coming up with new ideas. It was simply a way of collecting ideas that ensured they weren't evaluated too soon and shot down before they could be thought about a little more and developed.

What Osborn always intended, but so many forget, is that the intention was for people to use an idea generating technique - a totally separate process - to come up with the idea, and then make use of brainstorming to collect these ideas. Without this generation component, brainstorming is pretty useless. But then driving a car doesn't work too well if you don't put petrol in it - and that's the exact equivalent of what Lehrer is proposing.

If you want to get a better idea of how brainstorming should really be used, do feel free to avail yourself of my free ebook, Instant Brainstorming where I try to put the record straight.