Thursday, 31 May 2012

When is a bug not a bug?

Is it a bug or a feature?
I spent a fair number of years at British Airways both programming myself and working with programmers. Arguably the most fascinating sociological aspect of the computer programming environment is the concept of the bug. The error in the code that makes it do the wrong thing. I might not be rich, but I could probably afford a pint of beer if I had 10p for every time I heard a conversation between programmer and user going a little like this:

User: 'There's a bug in this software. It does X and it should do Y.'
Programmer: 'Sorry, that's not a bug, it's a feature.'
User: '??!?'

I need to briefly dive into the origins of this word 'bug' before exploring the sociology. You will see it said that the word originated from the early days of computing. A (valve) computer failed and on investigation it was found by the early computer expert Grace Hopper that there was a large insect in the machine had caused a short circuit. The insect was stuck in the computer's log book with a write up that said there was a "bug" in the system. And so the term started to be used.

This would be a good story for the origin if the term hadn't been in use by engineers in Victorian times. While it probably did refer to some such incident in the dim and unrecorded past with a mechanical device, the early computing example was just making use of a term that already existed.

Meanwhile back at that programmer/user conversation - a bug is when a computer program does something it shouldn't because of an error in the code. A (bad) feature is when it does something the user doesn't want it to, but there is no actual error. The code is operating fine. It isn't making any logical errors. It's just that (say) it won't let you put more than nine passengers on a plane. Not much use in a system for calculating loads on a 747, but it is a feature, not a bug.

This all came back to me when I had an argument with the support department of a software company called Yabdab. (Boggle.) As a result of my move to Mac I've started re-writing my websites, as my old website software doesn't have a Mac version. I'm using a product called RapidWeaver, which has lots of bolt-ons called stacks. And I'm using a nice little stack from Yabdab called PaySnap that makes it easy to take payments on a website. With me so far? A big advantage of this over using Paypal direct, as I did previously is that it sets up a nice little shopping cart/trolley on your site and you only go off to Paypal to handle payment when all the items are in the cart. Excellent.
Hang on, that was £10.99 a minute ago...

I was implementing this on my Hymn CDs site, which has two versions, one operating in UK pounds, the other in US dollars. This is appreciated by US customers, who prefer to pay in their own currency - and why not?  But here's the thing. As far as I can see, Paysnap only sets up one shopping cart on a computer. If I put an item into the cart from the UK site, then go to the US site and add an item in dollars, then the first item is still in the cart - but its price has been switched from pounds to dollars. Put it in at £10 and it is now $10. A bargain.

Yabdab aren't interested in doing anything to fix this because as far as they are concerned it's a feature. So stuff stays in the cart? Not ideal, but hey. I argue, though, that because it crosses the line and makes an actual mistake (converting from pounds to dollars or vice versa by simply changing from £ to $) it's a bug. They still won't fix it - but I feel I have the moral high ground.

Top illustration from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Goose bumps

I think the thing I enjoyed most about writing The Universe Inside You was the chance to explore how small aspects of the human body could help explore some entertaining science. Take skin, for instance.

The outer layer of your skin is primarily the same material as your hair and nails, a protein called keratin. One of the interesting things about keratin is that it isn’t a living substance. Your outer skin, hair and nails are not alive. This means, of course that all those hair adverts claiming that a product will nourish your hair are rubbish. You can’t nourish hair, any more than you can nourish a boulder. It makes no sense. But what I find particularly interesting is the paradox of what makes you a living creature. You are, without doubt alive – yet parts of you aren’t. Many of your cells could be considered to be alive, yet on their own, they aren’t you. Where does the divide come between you and the cells that make you up? Your hair and skin are certainly part of you – but they aren’t alive.

On a more mundane level, when we take a look at our skin, we can get some insights into the development of human beings. Because when we’re cold or feel threatened we get what was called goose pimples in my youth but now seems to be better known as goose bumps.

Goose bumps are a great example of the way many of our body’s responses live in the past. What is happening when you get goose bumps is that your body is fluffing up your fur. It doesn’t realize there’s not a lot to fluff because we appear relatively hairless. (I say ‘appear’ because we have as many body hairs as a chimpanzee, but those hairs are so small and fine as to be useless as fur).

The response happens when we’re cold because fluffed up fur is better at keeping an animal warm.  When the fur is fluffed up it traps more air, and this acts as an insulating blanket, just like a woolly jumper does. Only the body hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that we don’t have a nice coat of fur – so the result is to give you chicken skin.

Similarly we get the bristling feeling of our hair standing on end when we’re scared or get an emotive memory. Once more it’s a useless ancient reaction. Many mammals fluff up their fur when threatened to look bigger and so more dangerous. (Take a dog near to a cat to see the feline version of this in all its glory. The cat will also arch its back to try to look bigger.) Apparently we used to have a similar defensive fluffing up of our coat of fur – but once again, the effect is ruined by our relatively hairlessness. We still feel the sensation of having hair stand on end, but get no benefit in added bulk.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Selling top hats on eBay

Got the hat. Time to feed the pigs...
It sounds like a joke - Did you hear the one about someone selling top hats on eBay? - But it isn't, it's a demonstration of how flexible and innovative our farmers can be.

Many farmers have had to diversify. These days, with a relatively small farm, it's difficult to make a living from agriculture alone. So, for example, some good friends of mine who farm cattle now also have a successful microlight airfield and skydiving school operating from their farmland.

When I was running a creativity session for the CIME Project in Wales the other day, I came across another example of diversification at its best from a farmer. In this case he's selling things on eBay. Specifically he's apparently now one of the country's biggest seller of top hats. This, was, I hasten to add, not one of your gentleman farmer types, all Barbour and Range Rover, but a proper, hands dirty farmer.

More than that he imports and sells hat adjusters - on the whole these hats don't fit very well. A cheap little plastic add-on makes for a perfect snug top hat. And apparently sales of them are booming. They're more popular than ever for weddings and such.

I thought this was wonderful. The need to diversify coupled with real imagination coming up with something highly unlikely but profitable. A lot of our businesses could learn a thing or two from farmers.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 28 May 2012

That's the way the cookies crumble

If you have a website, you live in the EU and you aren't the slightest bit nervous about the European Cookie Law, you ought to be. This sounds like a 'Yes Prime Minister' plan by the EU that says we should stop calling biscuits 'cookies' (dratted American influence) and instead have to all call them biscotti. But no, the EU is trying to interfere with the internet.

Cookies, as I'm sure you are aware, are little files that websites use to store information on your computer. Of itself a website has no memory. A cookie lets it keep a note of some information and come back to it next time you visit the site - essential, for example, if you want it to remember what you've put in a shopping basket. The EU has decided, in its overpaid wisdom, that sites using cookies should be forced to ask visitors whether they want cookies to be used.

But isn't this stupid?

It certainly is, on a number of levels. First the EU doesn't own the internet. It really shouldn't attempt to apply this kind of petty jurisdiction. Secondly cookies are pretty harmless and many of us value the way they keep info so we don't have to re-input it. Thirdly every browser has a mechanism to block cookies, so why force the site to offer it as well? (And in principle, from Saturday when the law came into force, this is exactly what is legally required.) Finally, and with a real Sir Humphrey flourish, guess what is the only way a site can remember that you don't want it to use cookies? You guessed it. With a cookie.

Time to panic!

I had vaguely heard of this law, but it didn't really sink in until last week, with days to go. Like most operators of little websites, I have no idea if my sites use cookies, and no idea how to provide an opt-out. It might seem strange that I don't know if I use them, but anyone who uses site builder software like FrontPage or Rapidweaver, or a content management system like WordPress or Drupal (or even Blogger or WordPress for a blog) has no idea if that software is making use of cookies without explicitly mentioning it to its owner. This legislation is fine for big companies with dedicated professionals crafting HTML - it is a nightmare for all the rest of us.

No, no cookies here
So do I use cookies?

Luckily there is a way to find out. Fire up Firefox (if you don't use this browser it's free to download) and visit here to get the 'view cookies' add-in. Take a look at your web pages and when you are on a page, in Firefox select Tools > Page Info. Click on the 'Cookies' tab and it will tell you if your page has any cookies in it.

One place you will always find them is any site that remembers your login information - so if your bank, for instance, hasn't checked if you want cookies, technically they are breaking the law since last Saturday. Naughty banks.

A randomly selected bank breaking the law

What was the outcome?

I was, on the whole, clean. The WordPress login page has one, but unless you make users login, this doesn't apply to them. The only place I did have them was where I'm selling things: as soon as you use, say, a Paypal shopping cart you are loading on the cookies.

Does this mean I had to provide an opt-out?

Luckily, no. There is an exception to the need to offer opt-out if the cookies are being used for an essential function like a shopping cart. I am gradually adding a privacy statement to sites that do this, making the situation clear, but there should be no breach of the law.

So if you have websites, no need to panic, but for peace of mind it might be worth checking what's going on in those pages. Oh, and to think once again, do we really need to be part of the EU?

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 25 May 2012

The versatile compound

One of the all time favourites in any chemistry set was potassium permanganate. Those crystals look beautiful in their own right, and make a great purple coloured solution, but that's only the start.

My latest entry in the Royal Society of Chemistry compounds podcasts takes on this simple chemical that is equally comfortable as a disinfectant and as a source of spontaneous combustion. Embrace purple! Listen to the story of this chemistry set star.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lessons in WordPress

Despite being only a few days in, I am very pleased with the way things are going with the WordPress migration of the website - I just wish I'd done it sooner.

 However I do have a couple of lessons for anyone considering such a move. The first is that you will have to do something about spam.

Even though the site has only been live for about a week, it already has over 100 spam comments. I originally thought it would be enough to moderate them before they went live. Obviously this stops them being seen but it still would be very tedious. Luckily the anti-spam plug-in that comes semi-preloaded works brilliantly.

 The second lesson is the matter of backups. I've never bothered to back up my websites because they are created on my PC/Mac and uploaded, so the back up of the local machine keeps them safe. But now the Popular Science site is being updated online which means I have no backup on my desktop.

My immediate thought was to ask the web host if they provide a backup service. They don't, but their help desk kindly pointed out to me that 'there's a plug-in for that.' I begin to realise this is as much a mindset with WordPress as 'there's an app for that' on the iPhone/iPad.

 So now I'm safely backed up. The plug-in cunningly backs up to the brilliant free Cloud storage service Dropbox (if you aren't using Dropbox, you ought to be!), so there's no need to have anywhere to upload the backup to, and it will all trundle along happily on its own in the middle of the night. Very neat indeed.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Going all studio

Science and beauty can be uncomfortable bedfellows. Like anyone with the vaguest ideas of scientific terminology I wince at the 'science bits' in most beauty product advertising on the TV. 'New improved CrackFilla with DNA piped light technology.' What? However there is one place that science and beauty come together effortlessly and that's in software.

We all know that magazines have airbrushed pictures since... well since they've had photographs in them. And of late that touching up to make photographs look their best has all been done in software. Most of us don't have the Photoshop expertise to do this effectively manually, but I have been genuinely hugely impressed by some software that I have been sent to try out called Portrait Professional. It's described as 'intelligent retouching software' and it's remarkable.

Here on the right is the picture of me I tend to use as an author photo at the moment.

Andon the left is a touched up version. The differences are subtle but still surprisingly effective. My skin tone has been improved, the wrinkles in my forehead have been reduced, my teeth are a little whiter. Even the shape of the face has been subtly changed.

I have to admit it's an improvement. Of course there are limits to what can be done with this particular example. It's a head cropped from quite a large area of photo rather than a proper head and shoulders portrait, so it doesn't have as much detail to play with as a seriously taken photo.

And that, to be honest, this highlights the only hesitation I have in saying that everyone should get  copy of this software. In looking through our family photos to try to find a picture to demonstrate on, I found it really difficult to find a single full face portrait. It's not the kind of picture we tend to take.

I thought I'd have better luck with my daughters' collections of photographs because they are always taking pictures of their friends... but again they are very rarely anything like a studio portrait, and not  necessarily ideal for this software. But there were a few, enough to be able to do this before and after. So here's the original:

And here's my improved version:

Note I have done no manual touching up - all the changes from removing the freckles to changing the eye colour were done with sliders. Some of the changes are a bit clumsy - but bear in mind this was done in less than 5 minutes. Well, I was impressed.

I expected this to be the kind of software that had professional pricing, but it's actually surprisingly reasonable (just under £30 at the time of writing) - and you can try before you buy. If you ever take photographs of people it really is worth considering. Take a look at the website.

And yes, I will be using the improved photo from now on...

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Call that ancestry? Bring in the physics

The stately home
I get a bit irritated when you get some old buffer on the TV pointing out that his family has owned a particular house for 400 years, or that she has ancestors going back to the Norman Conquest. There are two problems with this. One is that unless such folk can claim to be a non-human species, we all have ancestors going back the same extent. But the more important one is that 400 or 1,000 years is a trivial ancestry compared to the way we can all trace our origins back billions of years.

As I point out in The Universe Inside You, the atoms inside you (and in the old buffers) have been circulating around on Earth since life began, well over three billion years ago. Fossils can be used to trace life back in rocks that were formed around 3.2 billion years ago, while the date can be pushed back a few hundred million years more on the basis of chemicals that suggest the existence of life. But before then, the atoms were still there. They didn’t appear out of nowhere. The atoms that make you up were present when the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago (apart from a few that arrived since on meteors from outer space).

Before that they floated for aeons through space. Some have been around since the beginning of the universe. According to the big bang theory, our best idea of how the universe began, all of the hydrogen in the universe and some of the helium and lithium was created when the remnants of the big bang that formed the universe cooled down enough to stop being pure energy and formed matter. So the hydrogen in the water and organic molecules in your body dates back to the very beginning of the universe.

After a while, some of this hydrogen clumped together, pulled by gravity, and formed stars, which burn in their youth by converting hydrogen, the lightest element, into the next element, helium. When most of the hydrogen is used up, helium too can be consumed, working up the elements all the way to iron. And this is where elements like the carbon and oxygen that are so important for life were forged.

Later still, some of those stars would become unstable and detonate in catastrophic explosions called supernovas. Ordinary stars don’t have enough energy to make the elements that are heavier than iron, but supernovas have so much oomph that they can create elements all the way up to uranium, the heaviest of the naturally occurring elements.

This means that quite literally you are stardust. Every atom in your body either came from the big bang – so is 13.7 billion years old – or from a star, which would make it between seven and twelve billion years old.

Now that's what I call ancestry.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 21 May 2012

Hello WordPress!

The new look WordPress site
No, when I mention 'WordPress' I'm not deserting Blogger for hosting my blog, but my oldest website is in the process of moving from being a bespoke website to a WordPress site. It's all the fault of this pesky Mac I'm typing on.

Almost everything I did on the PC translated across smoothly, but I knew there were two big issues to sort out. One was my business accounts, which I'd knocked up as a hand-crafted Access database back when I used to program regularly. This had become unwieldy and unmaintainable. So last summer I switched over to using SageOne, an online accounts package, which had the big advantage of being web-based, so there was nothing to migrate to the Mac. (It can also be accessed directly by my accountant, which is spooky.)

The other problem was my rag-tag collection of websites. These had all been written originally in FrontPage, but I had switched over to a host that doesn't support it particularly, so I had gradually replaced most of my websites (like with sites built in the flashy Webplus. This works well, but doesn't have a Mac version. So I've started a long process of redoing these using a Mac app (RapidWeaver).

So far, so good. But I never got the Popular Science website into Webplus, as it's simply too big (over 1,000 pages). I was maintaining the site by editing pages in FrontPage, then manually uploading them using FTP, unwieldy to say the least. So moving to Mac made me face up to the fact it was time to do something about it.

The obvious solution seemed to be WordPress - and so far it has been fairly painless, though I wouldn't recommend it for technophobes. My hosting company said the server is on wouldn't support WordPress, but they could move it to one that did. About an hour later I was ready to install the WordPress software - which is kind of a scary business. I wouldn't say their 'five minute install' took 5 minutes - more like an hour - but the same day I decided to go to WordPress the first pages were up and running.

I am putting all new reviews into the WordPress site and am gradually migrating the old posts (though it will take a while). It took me a day or two to sort out a suitable layout, but I think I'm getting there. Some things are less flexible than the old site, but it's much quicker to add a post and there are all sorts of new facilities for users - most notably, visitors can add comments to any of the reviews, which should be interesting. Using the link now takes you into the WordPress site, but the old site is still available, so nothing is lost.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Charley's Horse revisited

In my younger and child-free days, my wife and I (ooh, posh) sang in a vocal group called Nonessence, loosely based around Slough and Windsor. There were eight singers and the musical director/arranger/keyboardist. And on our good days we weren't bad at all.

It was with this bunch that I discovered a new and exciting cuisine - Mexican. At the time (we're talking the 1980s) Mexican food was pretty unusual in the UK, but lurking in a railway arch in Windsor (and yes, it was as dark and lurkacious as it sounds) was a newly opened 'Mexican cantina' called Charley's Horse. We went there a number of times, in part I suspect because it was reasonably priced, but also because of the novelty. After all, as the sign eventually and proudly stated, this was only the second Mexican cantina in all of England.

What is delightful about all this, and why I mention it is that we were in Windsor last Friday to attend a creakingly painful play at the theatre. (Never did I think I would have Liza Goddard looking me straight in the eye in a curtain call and I would look back with a big smile out of sympathy.) Usually we go somewhere like Brown's to eat, but as we queued to get into the town (the Horse Show was on), we drove under the railway arches and there was a sign for Charley's Horse, still standing after all these years.

And it was just the same. Of course memory plays tricks, but I would swear it was just the same. The menu was good, Mexican rather than Tex-Mex, and still reasonably priced (hence, I suspect, the way the rest of the clientele made us feel ancient). I won't bore you with details of the food, but the nachos I started with, including the likes of homemade guacamole and chorizo, were miles better than the typical chain joint nachos.

So if  you are ever in Windsor, in search of an unsophisticated but enjoyable meal, don't be put off by the location or the rather grim entrance that looks like a cross between a municipal dog's home and a seedy nightclub - take a look at Charley's Horse. (If you are tight like me, I'd particularly recommend going between 6 and 7 on Wednesday to Saturday, when they do starter + main for £10.50.)

It's here:

View Larger Map

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Just occasionally I get spam emails that are so hilarious that I feel I have to share them. I have just received this one 'from' the FBI.

I don't know what's more funny, the idea that the FBI would send emails from an AOL account (it's quite funny anyone still uses an AOL account), or that a/the director of the FBI would write 'this is the final warning you are going to receive from the fbi office do you get me?'  Or, for that matter, manage to put the entire email in the 'Subject' field. Whatever - enjoy:

Subject: Attn: This is to inform you that we the fbi have a warrant to arrest you if we dont hear from you immediately,this is the final warning you are going to receive from the fbi office do you get me? I hope youre understand how many times this message has been sent to you. We have warned you so many times and you have decided to ignore our e-mails we have been instructed to get you arrested immediately, and today if you fail to respond back to us with the payment then, we will close your bank account and jail you and all your properties will be confiscated by the fbi.Robert Mueller, III FB I Director

Ooh, I'm scared.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

I sometimes have the pleasure of being sent a book for review that doesn't fit with and cover it here. In this case I've got the double pleasure of both a review and a short interview with the author.

The book in question, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs has been very popular in the US and should do brilliantly over here. It's the kind of fantasy that I've always found particularly appealing - one that is set in the real world, but where some strangely different things occur. In this case it's peculiar (in the sense of strangely gifted) children, living on a island off Wales, and strange manipulation of time. But despite the author noting at the back of the book that he consulted a 'leading authority on time travel,' the time travel aspects bear no resemblance to the real physical possibilities for time travel, which is one of the reasons I label this fantasy - you've just got with it and ignore the obvious impracticalities and lack of sense.

It's a very atmospheric read, on a par with some of my all time favourites. This is particularly strong in the first part of the book before the main 'reveal' - I wish the author had kept this back until later, as once everything was explained you lost some of the tension. Even so the story continues in an excellent fashion. The only other slight complaint I have is that the book doesn't really finish - it was clearly written with a sequel in mind and is more the first part of a book than a real, standalone novel.

What sets this apart from other books of its ilk is the use of photographs. The author has made use of a pile of strange photographs, mostly Victorian/Edwardian and incorporates these wonderfully into the story. Although this might pale in future books, and I hope he has another trick up his sleeve, for this book it really was a wonderful extra, adding hugely to the atmosphere. Take a look at or

I can't say much more about the book without giving too much away - I'd only say it is one of the few YA fantasy novels I've read in the past 20 years (including the Harry Potter books) that really deserves to be in the hall of fame with the likes of the books I compare it to below. So, over to author Ransom Riggs:

Did seeing some weird photos inspire writing a book, or did the idea of writing a book this way inspire you to look for photos?

The pictures came first. I brought them to my publisher, Quirk Books, and told my editor there that I thought I had something interesting, all these creepy pictures of kids from years and years ago. He suggested I use them to write a novel, and I, having never written one before, was surprised that he had that much faith in me – it opened up all kinds of possibilities in my mind, and I went off and developed the story, and feverishly began to collect still more photos to use, and it went from there. But yeah, the pictures were the initial impetus for the story.

More specifically, were the photos used in the book the inspiration for those aspects of the story, or did you have the storyline in mind and look for appropriate photos?

I really used the photos as inspiration for the kids’ characters. I treated my collection of pictures almost like headshots in a casting call for a movie, and when it was time to introduce a new character I’d look through my photos and see who I wanted to invent. It was a lot of fun, a really new experience for me. Sometimes, though, I'd find an amazing photo and fit the story around it; other times, I'd have a story idea that cried out for a certain photo to go along with it, so I'd go out searching for something specific. That's a lot harder, though -- it's all about luck!

Why Wales?

I was looking for a country that most American readers wouldn’t know a lot about, but also where people speak English, and that hadn’t been done to death in fantasy fiction (not counting Arthurian legends), like Ireland has. And I have some Welsh ancestors, or so I'm told, so it seemed a natural fit!

What I really loved about the book was a similar feel to two of my favourite classic YA fantasy novels: A Wrinkle in Time and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Did you have any favourites when younger?

Oh, definitely. I loved all the Narnia books, and The Secret Garden -- I must've re-read that fifty times. Stories about people like you and me opening doors to find secret worlds. And since I couldn't find any actual secret worlds when I was a kid, I guess that's why I looked for them in books, or wrote them myself, in short stories and things.

Without giving too much plot away, given the choice, would you stay in a loop?

It can be pretty isolating -- maybe if I found just the right people to spend pseudo-eternity with. But while I would like to live a very long time, I don't think I need to live forever. So no! Unless horrible monsters were chasing me, of course.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The gap in Apple's imagination

Regular readers of this blog will be aware I have become increasingly enthusiastic about Apple products. I had a Mac SE as a toy at work circa 1990, but at the time, most things about Apple irritated me. Now, though, after being eased in by iPhone and iPad (with a touch of Apple TV) I have gone all-Apple.

The great thing about Apple products is that they combine style and function so well. They look good and they are a  delight to use - an irresistable (and sadly rare) combination. But there is one thing I have to seriously criticize them for, an essential for usability that they have repeatedly ignored.

For years now I have used a series of ergonomic keyboards. The picture shows my last one - Microsoft's robust battleship of a board, the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. I didn't go for this kind of thing because it looks funky. When I switched to writing most of the time, I found that I increasingly suffered from painful wrist strain after a typing bout. I can easily type 3,000 words or more in a day on a manuscript, without even counting blog posts, emails and all the other typy things I do. The ergonomic keyboard solved the problem overnight.

If you look at your wrists when you use a normal keyboard, what happens is that your arms are heading inwards from either side of your body towards the keyboard. Then, at the wrist, they angle outwards to make the hands parallel at the keyboard. This twist is where the strain arises. The split keyboard means that your hands are positioned in a straight line with your arms. It takes a little getting used to, but I've been touch typing on them for years now.

So, when I moved to Apple, surely this innovative, clever, aware company would have an ergonomic keyboard? No they don't. Of course you can buy a third party one, but it won't have the style of the Apple keyboard, nor necessarily will it have the special Apple keys. It's a real pain. Literally. Get your act together, Apple. Ergonomics is part of usability.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Wipe your feet

This is me, looking constipated
because I am slightly miffed.
You should see me angry.
I don't know about you, but I get slightly miffed when someone gets shirty in comments on my blog. I have no objection to people disagreeing with me. The posts here are my opinion, and though I am clearly always right, I accept that other people will have differing (if wrong) opinions. That is their prerogative. But I really don't like it when they get nasty about it.

A good example has recently occured over an old post of mine about why I dislike opera. This was always intended to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek (not least because a good friend of mine is an opera singer), but does express some genuine dislikes I have. Realistically there is no real right and wrong about an issue like this. Whether a piece of art is good (or art at all) is purely subjective.

Recently I've had a few comments from an anonymous poster and I just wanted to make a few comments about these.

First there is that anonymity. I have nothing against this per se - it can be practically easier to make comments this way - but when you come in on the attack, I think it is only polite to be honest about who you are.

Then there are some of the specifics:
  • 'This is the problem with the internet,' (s)he says. 'It gives a voice to self-important, ill-informed heathens.' Ah yes, the ad hominem attack. The last resort of those who don't have any legitimate arguments. (Oops, was that a recursive ad hominem attack?)
  • 'Your sarcastic put downs don't impress me.' I have no interest in impressing you. My remark was sarcastic - I retain the right to be sarcastic on my own blog - but with good reason.  
  • 'Understanding the true brilliance of a work like Tristan demands a certain higher mindedness that most people don't possess.' Ah ha! Now we have it. The common herd don't appreciate great art. I would suggest that if it's true that a work of 'art' can only be appreciated by the cognescenti it isn't art at all, it's just showing off. 'Aren't I clever,' it says. Art is a medium of communication. If ordinary people can't appreciate it, it's bad communication and bad art.
But I didn't want to get into a sparring match. My main point really is that this is my blog. I expect you to wipe your feet on the way in and play by the house rules, Mr(s) Anonymous. Feel free to disagree by all means, but try to be polite about it. If you want to play by different rules, get your own blog. Then you can make reasoned, cogent arguments like 'Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! That's the funniest thing I've heard all year' as much as you like.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The lifesaving killer

What do you think when you hear 'DDT'? Do you think of a dangerous chemical pervading nature, killing the birds and building up in fatty tissues of animals and humans? If so, it's down to Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring. But the funny thing is that Carson never advocated banning DDT, just using it in a controlled way - because this chemical saved millions of lives and could have saved many millions more had it not been for the stupid way it was used.

This is the latest in my contributions to the Royal Society of Chemistry's podcast series Take a listen and decide for  yourself if DDT is hero or villain.

Thursday, 10 May 2012


One of my favourite TV shows, Joss Whedon's inexpicably cancelled Firefly (boo to the studio execs) invents some future slang, including the use of the term 'Shiny!' as an equivalent of 'Great!' I loved this, partly because it works so well in context, and partly because it seems to reflect the magpie-like aspect of human nature I recognize so well in myself.

I can see this in my attitude to Apple products. Every time I use my iPhone or iPad, I get a little thrill out of it, because it does the job, certainly, but also because it is shiny, not in the sense of reflecting light, but rather in the way that its design lifts your heart, and using it gives you a little smile. I've recently gone through the turmoil of the decision whether to stick with Dell (after buying them for 15 years) or switch to an Apple Mac. You can talk about all the technical pros and cons (and the ridiculous Apple pricing) but if I can't help but feel i went with the Mac because it is shiny.

The ultimate in this respect is an object I'm drooling over after Facebook helpfully popped up an advert and just for once I did actually click on it. This is an object that is shiny with total purity. The thing is, the shiny Apple products do a job. They have a purpose that is useful, and being shiny is a nice extra that makes all the difference. But this new object of desire is a product whose sole role in life is to be shiny. I can think of no reason for having one whatsoever. But I really want one because it is shiny.

It's one of these lasers. 'The world's most powerful laser you can legally own.' (Probably not legal in the UK, but hey.) How I would have loved one as a teenager - and I still get slightly weak-kneed at the thought.

I can't see any possible reason to have one. I certainly couldn't justify buying one. But if I won the lottery tomorrow it would be on my shopping list. Because... well, you know why.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Shwop? Nope.

I am usually very positive about Marks and Spencers' green credentials. They really make something of it with their 'Plan A' materials plastered all over the stores. They were one of the stars of my Sustainable Business book. Many people think of M&S as the doyen of green businesses. But I think they have got it horribly wrong with their latest 'shwopping' campaign.

Firstly it's fronted by Joanna Lumley, who really gets on my nerves. (Partly because of all those injury lawyer adverts she does for the radio, but also because her voice is so irritating, and she comes across as totally false, hardly ideal for this kind of campaign.) Someone must love her, she's on the TV so much, but I really don't understand why.

But mostly I'm against it because the idea is awful. The concept is that if you buy a piece of clothing you can bring in an old piece of clothing to be recycled. You don't get any benefit from this - M&S just kindly recycles it on your behalf. But frankly it is so much more effort per item than simply flinging a pile of stuff in a bag and either leaving it out for a collector or popping it into a clothes recycling bank. You have to consciously be going to M&S to buy a piece of clothing and think to take one (and only one) item along with you. It's a nightmare.

If they gave some incentive, like 5% off if you 'shwop' something, fine. (Please, that word is awful!) But as it stands it neither makes good financial sense nor good recycling sense. One to avoid.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Want to write about science?

Brian speaking - this event will be less formal...
I spend most of my time writing books and articles on science topics. I've been given the chance to put on a workshop in Cambridge (UK) to help others with the necessary skills. It's on Saturday 30 June 2012 at the St John's Innovation Centre in Cowley Road and runs from 9.30 to 3.30 including lunch.

As well as my imparting words of wisdom there will be practical experience in choosing topics, getting together a pitch for an article or a book proposal and the whys and wherefores of science writing. Each attendee will be given free copies of two ebooks: Non Fiction Agent, which gives detailed guidance on putting together a non fiction book proposal and getting it submitted, and Upgrade Me, one of my popular science titles, which we will use to take a look at book proposals and the whole process of writing a science book in the workshop.

Attendees will also get a free review from me of a magazine article or book proposal, giving tips on improving it, after the event by email.

It costs £145 (set by the local organizers) but I think this is a realistic going rate for a professional hands-on workshop like this, which I think would be very useful both for anyone wanting to get a science book/articles published or working in science who would like to publicize their work.

If you would like any further details, you can drop me an email at - or take a look at the website, where you can also book a ticket (booking is essential as places are limited).

Monday, 7 May 2012

Want to be secure? Kill a tree

I am all in favour of online security, especially when dealing with banking, but I am currently experiencing the security equivalent of health and safety gone mad.

My business has a business savings account (one percent interest - whoopee!) with a fairly well known brand that has recently been taken over by a big five bank. So the big five company is switching the account to their side of the business, and their online systems.

Fair enough. But the paperwork and bits and pieces of stuff involved has been horrendous. So far I have received, each in a separate mailing (and I'm excluding all the leaflets, envelopes and assorted flyer type stuff):
  • Two 'authentication cards'
  • One Pinsentry device
  • Two Businesscall membership cards and letters
  • Two telephone banking passcodes
  • Two authentication card PIN letters
  • One 'more about the move' letter
  • One online banking membership card and number
I'm really not sure this is all necessary - and it certainly isn't environmentally responsible.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 4 May 2012

Something for the weekend

A little extra post for you, with some bouncy musical listening from the band Moho Mynoki which happens to feature my god daughter (but this in no way influences me in saying it's very good).

Not heavily into electro pop? Listen first, then criticize.

If you like it, you can download the music or a buy an EP from their website.

Have a good weekend!

Youth must adventure

The kind of engine that pulled us to Edinburgh (a Deltic)
- ugly things, but they made a great noise
I heard on the radio the other day that one of the reasons that young people aren't getting as much exercise these days is because their over-protective parents don't want them to go out. It's too risky. This is very silly - young people have to have adventures.

When I was fifteen, with two friends, I spent a week away from my parents on the railways. We all liked railways and we decided we were going to get the most you could out of a one week railrover, a ticket that allowed you to go anywhere on the railway network. Our timetable was superb. We even managed to include two of the great trains, the Flying Scotsman (the named train, not the engine) and the Cornish Riviera Express.

From leaving a grey Manchester on that week we travelled to London (several times), Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham, Salisbury and Penzance (amongst others). I admit we didn't do a lot of sightseeing. In the entire week we only left the rail network twice - one night at Salisbury Youth Hostel and one night at Lands End Youth Hostel (we had to get a bus to this from Penzance, which was the only bit of our timetabling that let us down). Apart from this we slept on trains, except for one horrible night spent until 5am on Cardiff Station, a truly terrible experience.

Okay it wasn't anything special - but it was an adventure. You really see a country from the railway, more so than from the road, and we might not have got off the system much - but we really took the place in. There was even the need for a little crafy deception. Back then the YHA didn't let you stay in their hostels if you weren't walking. We had to pretend we were hikers, then sneak off to the station, which felt very wicked.

Perhaps not very exotic. And yet our parents had let three 15-year-olds out on the loose for a whole week. We had been in plenty of evil big cities. They had no idea what we were doing about eating and sleeping - we organized everything ourselves. We didn't have mobile phones, so they had to make do with a couple of calls from phone boxes. They were no doubt totally stressed - but they let us do it. We had an adventure.

Was there risk? A little bit. But it was so worth it. Risk means that things will go wrong occasionally - that's life. It involves risk. Every time you do anything original or creative you take a risk. If you let young people have adventures they will sometimes get hurt, sometimes even get killed. But very, very rarely in the UK. We are so lucky that adventures here are relatively safe. And we ought to be letting our young people have them, however painful it is for us parents.

Picture from Wikipedia

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I Hypocrite

Not long ago I did a post about not having the patience to watch book trailers, so there is a certain amount of irony that my publisher has kindly produced one for my latest masterpiece, The Universe Inside You.

At first glance this might seem a touch hypocritical. One minute I'm slagging them off, the next I'm doing one. But in the end, it was fun to do ('Hey, I'm the centre of attention, this can't be bad!'), and it does demonstrate a little bit about why I think there's so much fun to be had with the human body (settle down in the back row) and why it makes a great linking theme for a science book.

So if you've got more patience than me (it's not very long), here it is:

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Archers and the objectification of men

I'm sure the title of this post would make an excellent PhD thesis. I was listening to the Archers omnibus on Sunday and struck by the remarkable sexism that was going apparently totally unnoticed. The cricket club has a very attractive new coach and we were hearing how women were attending practice just to watch him, and the gay characters were commenting on his attractiveness and how the women had turned up because they wanted to see him in his cricket whites (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

If a load of men turned up to see a new female hockey coach in her kit they would be rightly accused of being a load of perverts. So why the double standards?

It's the same on TV shows judged by a panel. It seems absolutely fine for female and gay judges to keep making suggestive remarks about the men, but it would rightly be frowned on if similar comments were made about the women.

I appreciate the 'You've done it to us for so long, now it's time to get our own back' argument, but I don't agree with it. Two wrongs don't make a right. We might not be perfect at it, but it is broadly accepted in the mainstream media that the objectification of women is wrong. Surely it's time there was parity for the men?

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A floppy what?

The sad remnant of my diskette collection
I was watching the first series of 24 the other day on my mission to use Netflix to catch up with the good stuff I never saw the first time around. At one point someone needs to get information from one computer to another. She puts a black rectangular object into a drive and uses this to pass the information. I swear this is true: for just a moment, I thought 'What's that?' It was, of course, a diskette, something that was central to our computing lives only a few years ago and yet, to all intents and purposes, disappeared off the face of the planet more rapidly and completely than black vinyl records ever have.

I had a sudden wave of nostalgia for floppy disks and diskettes. At one point I ran the PC department of a certain large airline whose initials include B and A. We genuinely did get those old hoary misuse stories of the 5 1/4 inch floppies. People really did occasionally staple them to a report. And one user really did complain that their disk wouldn't read when they shoved it into the gap between two drives.

When the rigid 3 1/2 inch diskettes came along, confusingly still called floppies by many, it was wonderful. They were much harder to damage, you could slip them in your pocket, they held about four times as much data (yes, children, over a MEGABYTE per diskette) - they were great. Unlike floppies they protected the read area of the magnetic disk, where floppies left it open for prying fingers and dirt. I used to have cases on my desk especially made to hold diskettes. I backed up onto diskettes. (And yes, after the hard disk failed twice on my IBM AT, I really did back up with some fervour on the more modern machines that took diskettes.)

And yet now they're gone. We don't have a computer in the house that takes them, though I do have an external diskette drive left over from an old Sony laptop that was too slim and sexy to have a built-in drive. And yes, in the drawer if I dig around, I do have one or two diskettes left. But even so - how the mighty have fallen.