Thursday, 31 January 2013

Chopping logic

These are twins. The one on our left is older.
I have had an interesting discussion with Paul Nahin, the author of The Logician and the Engineer, which I'm currently reading to review.

Nahin quotes a logic problem that is apparently well known amongst mathematicians. In it, one person is trying to guess the (integer) ages of the other's three daughters. He is given some information that allows him to narrow the possible ages down 1, 6 and 6 or 2, 2, and  9. Then the first gives an additional pieces of information. 'My oldest daughter,' he says, 'likes bananas.' Immediately the second person knows the girls' ages.

The accepted correct solution goes that the daughters can't be 1, 6 and 6 because there isn't an oldest daughter in this scenario, so our logician can deduce they are 2, 2 and 9. But I say that this is rubbish - at the very least poor logic.

Why? It is perfectly possible to have two six-year-old daughters born 10 months apart. Clearly one is older than the other. However even with twins, one is always older than the other for legal reasons. 

Prof. Nahin counters with two points. One is that integer ages were specified, and the other than this is a pure maths problem so legality doesn't enter into it.

I would say it doesn't matter about the 'integer' ages bit - both daughters have the integer age of six in both my counter examples. (And even if they literally had to be six that day, they could still be twins). As for the 'pure maths problem' argument, that doesn't hold up either. This clearly isn't a pure maths problem. It features a person liking bananas. Pure maths? I think not. It is an attempt to apply logic to a (admittedly rather odd) real world situation. In the real world it would be perfectly acceptable for the father to comment about his 'oldest daughter' even if the six-year-olds were twins, because she is accepted as such. As a father of twin daughters, I have done this.

If logic is being applied to a real world problem, I'd suggest it should take into account the way that the real world describes things.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Beating Andy Murray

There are all sorts of unlikely but possible things in life. I could win the lottery. one of my books could win a major prize... but there equally many things in life that are never going to happen. I'm not going to be king of England, I'm not going to play sport for my country and I'm never going to beat Andy Murray. At least that's what I thought.

However, I had a piece on 20 amazing human body science facts in the Observer on Sunday, and for some reason it caught the readers' imagination. On Monday morning it was pointed to me that it was the most viewed piece on the Guardian/Observer website. I pulled up the listing and there it was at the top. Above Andy Murray and his defeat, which was in second place.

By the time I grabbed the picture Murray had slipped out of the top six - but I did comfortably beat Andy Murray. And came higher in the charts than Justin Bieber.

I too have slipped off the list now - such is the inevitable fickle nature of news, but I do know that in those first couple of days, the article had more than three times as many page views as this blog has had in its entire lifetime.

And who said the press has no influence anymore?

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Music of Business

I don't usually do guest blogs, but I'm making an exception for Peter Cook. For nearly 20 years now, Peter has written, spoken and consulted about the parallels between the business universe and the world of music, be it rock, jazz, classical etc.  This follows his much longer involvement with three passions that have fuelled his career: Science, Business and Music.  We met when he hired me to speak on creativity and physics.  He recently completed his 5th book “The Music of Business”, acclaimed by Harvey Goldsmith. I asked him to explain more:

"The Music of Business” offers a carefully crafted cocktail of business intelligence, mixed with the wisdom of pop and rock’s monarchy.  I have a Slideshare presentation which gives a rapid overview of the book.  One way into understanding what the book is about is via some of the questions it attempts to address:
  •  What can you learn about creativity and innovation from The Beatles, David Bowie and a night at the opera?
  • Can Jazz and structured improvisation help you succeed in a complex and changing business world? 
  • What can Lady Gaga teach you about business strategy and using social media to build a powerful and durable brand?
  • What can Spinal Tap, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin teach you about business strategy and project execution that a business school cannot? 
  • Can Britney Spears, Bill Nelson and The Kaiser Chiefs help you become a true learning company? 
The book has come from my career, which seems to rotate (accidentally) in 18 year cycles – almost Schumpeterian in nature!  I spent 18 years in Pharmaceutical Research and Development at the Wellcome Foundation, bring novel life-saving drugs to market and fixing factories around the world; 18 years working for Business Schools on MBA programmes and 18 years running my own business.  Along the way, I’ve played win a number of rock bands, which added “attitude” to my CV, performing with people such as Bernie Tormé, John Otway, Wilko Johnson, The Fall, Altered Images and Classix Nouveau to name a few.  It’s an unusual combination of deep industrial experience, supported by formal learning about business and management and less formal lessons from the school of hard rock.

In case anyone is in any doubt, the book has four solid business themes: Strategy; Creativity; Innovation and; Leadership of Change.  Each chapter offers a solid business idea, reinforced by bite sized examples of how such ideas work in business, using the musical concepts to help make the business pills go down better for longer lasting and better learning value.

Strategy is no longer just about rigid plans and Gantt charts to execute your strategies.  In a turbulent world, strategy is a continuous process of reconnaissance, involving colleagues, clients, customers and competitors.  Execution of strategy is also about responsiveness and the ability to change course in mid-stream, whilst avoiding being blown off course by the myriad of business fads that bedevil the business landscape these days.  We compare AC / DC with Radiohead and the Kaiser Chiefs in this respect, making connections with Unilever, Apple and many other business examples.  Failure is an instructive way of looking at strategy and we examine strategic mismanagement, along with a trip to the Opera to examine complex strategy execution where there is no room for error or failure.

In Creativity we look at examples of great improvisers such as Deep Purple, Joe Pass, US creativity specialist Michael Michalko and virtuoso jazz-fusion guitarist Scott McGill, drawing parallel business lessons out in each case.  We also compare the creative style of Hendrix versus Clapton.  We look at the importance of creativity principles and techniques via articles from The Beatles with parallel lessons from Proctor and Gamble, First Direct and others.  Punk rock offers a metaphor for disruptive thinking and we explore punk creativity via chapters on marketing and spontaneous thinking.

Under Innovation we address questions of individual personality via the examples of Marc Bolan, Steve Jobs and Richard Strange, the godfather of punk.  We also examine principles of business innovation, using the examples of The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, Prince, Lady Gaga, Dyson, Innocent Drinks and more.  Finally we explore the impact of the built and psychological environment on innovation using Stax Records and the experience of my hard rock friend Bernie Tormé, guitarist to Ozzy Osbourne and Ian Gillan.

Under Leadership we examine questions of stability and reinvention via Bill Nelson, leader of 70’s pop art group Be-Bop Deluxe and who reinvented himself at the expense of x-factor style popular acclaim.  We compare this with chameleons who have done the same thing but taken their audiences with them – Madonna, David Bowie, Nokia, Stora Enso et al.  Leaders need to have abilities to bounce back from setbacks, be sensitive to others but not overwhelmed by feedback and this part of the book has significant content from Professor Adrian Furnham, Punk folk group Chumbawumba, Britney Spears and Daniel Goleman.  Toyota is compared with Sony and Marks and Spencers, as a company that is responsive and adaptive compared with others that have nearly perished through their rigidity.

The most enjoyable part of writing this book was the day when I had a chance encounter with Harvey Goldsmith – I felt that it might be worth making an approach but, what do you say to start the conversation?  In the event I pointed out that I’d been to a lot of his ‘gigs’ but he had never showed up!  Against the advice of what many PR experts would have given, he laughed out loud and this resulted in getting his endorsement for the book.  It is the hallmark of all great people that they make time for others less important than themselves and make them feel like they are the only person in the room.  Harvey Goldsmith is a shining example of this.

The Music of Business is available (at bargain prices for business books) at Amazon.co.uk as a paperback and on Kindle, and at Amazon.com as a paperback and on Kindle, or alternatively via The Music of Business webpage.  Peter is also offering a free iPhone app with daily business tips on business in the same mode, available via the webpage.  Peter also has some Business meets Music events planned with HSBC.  These include a launch event aboard a ship with some very special rock star guests.

Friday, 25 January 2013

What's your best price?

If we can accept it's okay to use vouchers, why not haggle?
British people are infamously bad at haggling. On the whole we tend to accept the price and just buy something - and yet all the evidence is, especially at tight times, that people who are selling goods and services are prepared to negotiate on price.

I've experienced this from both sides. When I give creativity training to a company I have a list price for my services, but I am well aware that some customers will discuss modifications to this. What surprises me is the ones that won't. I don't mean the companies who just pay up the full price - I have no objection to them, not surprisingly. I mean the ones who say 'Sorry, we won't be using you, you are too expensive,' who haven't even attempted to negotiate on price. This I really don't understand. When I was was at British Airways, our purchasing people where like razors. There is no way they would limply say 'Ooh, sorry, we can't afford that.' They would say 'Okay, how about doing it for free?' Admittedly they probably went a bit far, but at least they knew an unaffordable price is a starting point, not a reason not to do business.

As a purchaser, I have traditionally had certain categories of product and service where I expect to haggle. When I last bought a car, as I've mentioned before, I bought it primarily for one of my daughters from one of those car supermarket places. I have never paid full price for a car, and they were adamant they never drop the price. In the end we bought it (with some free mats thrown in because the manager realized he had to salve my pride) - but only because it was for my daughter who loved the car. If I had been buying for me I would have walked out. They couldn't believe I was prepared to drop the sale because they wouldn't budge - but I so wanted to.

Similarly I would expect to negotiate on price when buying tyres. The last time I did, I must admit I said to them 'I could phone around and get a better price and come back to you, but to avoid wasting our time, how much can you drop that price?' Quite a lot, apparently. I also do it when buying office stationery. But. There are lots of purchase where I don't haggle.

I can't quite believe it, but according to one of those money saving websites, even supermarkets will haggle over 50% of the time. (I can't imagine this is for a pound of onions - I assume it's if you are buying a big ticket item.) I really must try harder.

One of the problems is that the interface with the shop or service provider doesn't always support haggling. I love buying things online, but have to face up to a lack of a haggle box, where you put in the price you are prepared to pay and it comes back with a compromise. (Please, internet shopping software providers, we need haggle boxes! It would make the experience so much more fun.) And in many chain stores you are served by a 16-year-old who a) doesn't know what haggling is and b) has no authority to do so. So you have to find a manager and it's all a bit painful and embarrassing.

However, I really think it's something we could do much more. Vouchers have become socially acceptable these days. No one raises an eyebrow if you produce your 20% of voucher in Chiquitos or wherever. (And if you ever eat in a chain restaurant without getting a voucher first, you have money to burn.) You would be mad to buy anything from Dell without hunting down a voucher. This acceptance that saving money is not, somehow, bad form should spread to the way we purchase things more generally. Haggling is part of business - and it makes you feel great when you achieve a saving. It's mano a mano, facing up to an opponent and bringing home the bacon.

Feel the haggling force, people. Feel the haggling force.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

It's a blitz

At Christmas, my niece bought us a card game. Now I love my niece dearly, and she usually has exquisite taste, but this time I thought she had blown it. We aren't great game players, and I thought this was going to be something that was quietly put away and ignored. And such would be the case if we hadn't thankfully been forced to play the game with my brother and sister in law (who also received one). And it was brilliant. I can honestly say I haven't enjoyed a game as much for years. It's quick, fun and simple.

The game is called Dutch Blitz. Apparently it's not easy to get in the UK, but well worth tracking down. In essence it is a bit like each player is undertaking a shared game of patience/solitaire. That sounds deadly dull - but the competitive aspect makes it fast, furious and wonderful.

Unfortunately the printed rules are quite hard to take in - the actual game play is a lot simpler than the sheet seems to suggest. We were lucky as we got the simplified explanation and didn't have to work it out ourselves. But I can assure you that it is well worth fighting past those instructions to play.

You can play with two to four players (more if you get extension packs) - I think it's best with four, where  you get more pressure than two, as you are trying to follow what everyone is doing simultaneously.

It is really hard to describe how enjoyable it is. An indication is what happened on New Year's Eve. We tend to see in the New Year, then go to bed pretty soon after. But we had been playing Dutch Blitz up to 11.30 and decided we just had to go back to it... and were still playing at 3am.

So even if you don't really like games I would encourage you to track down Dutch Blitz. It's brilliant. If you fancy it, it is available in the UK on Amazon, but you can get it at half the price (don't ask why) from this motor parts shop. You can also find out more on the official site - including seeing the rules... but remember actually playing it is much simpler than the way they describe it!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The socket is the new black

I quite regularly drive two cars - a VW Golf Plus and a Vauxhall Corsa. In principle the Golf should win on everything. It's more comfortable, it has considerably better acceleration and it is better made. However give me the choice (which I don't often get as I share the Corsa with daughter #1) and I will go for the Corsa almost every time.

The reason is ridiculously trivial at first sight. The Corsa has a better sound system. It produces better quality sound - more bass and treble - but most significantly of all it has an 'aux' socket to plug in an MP3 player. The Golf doesn't. We have one of those radio transmitter workarounds in the VW - but it's not the same by a long way, especially if you want to play classical music, which is typically recorded at significantly lower levels, so gets a lot more interference when you blast the audio up to an appropriate level.

These days I tend to stare at the CD slot in a car's audio system in bemusement, trying to remember what it's for. We do still get CDs - I had 12 as presents at Christmas - but once they have been imported into iTunes they go on the shelf as backup.

I think I can honestly say that whether or not I can connect my phone to play music would now be a make or break when we next buy a car - about the same level as 'does it have a heater' and slightly above 'does it have air conditioning.' If car manufacturers are still making cars without the appropriate socket, they are, frankly, stupid. It isn't a luxury. It isn't an add-on. It's a basic now as far as in-car entertainment is concerned.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Silent Spring dilemma

I was listening to a programme on the radio the other day about Rachel Carson, arguably one of the founders of the environmental movement, whose 1960s book Silent Spring had such a huge influence, particularly on the banning of DDT. The programme was little short of a hagiography. You would not think, listening to it, that there was any controversy about Carson's influence - yet some would say that she was responsible for millions of deaths.

There is no doubt at all that the way DDT was being used in some countries when Carson wrote her book - in America in particular - was wrong. This potent compound was being sprayed in a blanket fashion as an agricultural pesticide and was causing much damage to the environment and quite possibly to people. This was, without doubt, dire - and Carson did the world a favour by pointing out the terrible consequences, like the eponymous idea of killing the birds and producing a 'silent spring.'

However, it is also true that used in a controlled fashion, targeted on areas where mosquitoes breed, DDT was a very effective way of reducing the spread of malaria. Had it not been banned, a ban instituted in large part as a reaction to Silent Spring, and had it been used in an appropriately controlled way, there would have been millions of lived saved.

This Silent Spring dilemma illustrates the biggest problem the traditional green movement has. It is often based on knee-jerk reactions to words and concepts. Natural good; artificial bad. Chemical bad (forgetting that every substance we eat, drink and breathe is made of chemicals). Organic good, intensive bad. Burning wood good, using nuclear power bad. And, in this case, pesticide very bad. If we really want to be green and be rational we need to think through the implications of words in context, not just react to the words themselves. Most things are good in some circumstances and bad in others. Often it's a case that doing something to excess is bad, while doing it in a controlled way is good.

The devil is in the detail. Unless we can get down to that detail and really understand the science that often lurks behind it, we will be like people who respond to advertising and marketing, rather than understanding what's really good for us. And surely an ignorant, marketing-led response not the right way to be green?

This has been a green heretic production.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Two nations divided

This is NOT a napkin
As an Englishman* who quite often writes for an American publisher I am all too aware of the way we are indeed two nations divided by a common language. To be fair, modern media has weakened this significantly. We all know over here what an American means when she refer to an elevator, and even cope with the confusion over purses, vests, suspenders and pants. Similarly, I gather from articles in the US press, that some quaint English English terms like loo and saying 'cheers' for goodbye have become more familiar that side of the Atlantic. Even so, I do occasionally make a slip.

A while ago, for example, I was referring to the peculiarity of action at a distance. The idea that you can make something happen remotely without anything passing from A to B is a difficulty that underlies some of the confusion caused by quantum theory, and was why Newton got so much stick for his work on gravitation. I said that we expect something to travel from A to B to make something happen. For instance, in a coconut shy, we expect to have to throw a ball at the coconut, rather than just look at it and make it fall off its stand. 'A coconut WHAT???' said my US editor. In the book it ended up as having to throw a stone to knock a can (not a tin, of course) off a wall.

Even those who are experts can get caught out with subtle differences of meaning. I remember being most amused a number of years ago by a book by an American expert on international business. The topic of the book was not making errors by using words and methods that weren't appropriate in a foreign country. He gave the example of an American opening a restaurant chain in England. 'You must make sure,' he said, 'that you call the napkins "serviettes". In England, a napkin is the word for a diaper.'

UK readers will get why this is so wrong. For US readers, we actually call a diaper a 'nappy' over here. Although that word is derived from napkin we would never call a diaper a 'napkin'. In fact in UK English, napkin is the more proper word for a napkin (well, duh) - 'serviette' (the French word) is considered rather common, a bit like saying 'john' or 'can' rather than 'bathroom'.


*I don't know why, but I get a buzz from referring to myself as 'an Englishman.' Perhaps it's something to do with Sting's song, An Englishman in New York.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Rust - pretty unpopular


My latest podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry takes a look at a compound that doesn't have many of us cheering - in fact it's pretty unpopular all round. I'm talking about rust. We may rather like the fetching patina of some metal oxides, but no one cheers when rust appears - especially if it's on a car.

Even so, that doesn't mean that rust isn't interesting stuff from the chemical viewpoint. Quite the reverse. So pop along to the RSC compounds site - or if you've five minutes to spare, click to to have a listen to my podcast on rust.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Walk away from the Sony

Want one of these? Resist the urge..
I think Sony has taken a significant business opportunity of becoming a big player in small e-devices and has managed to turn it into a disaster.

Let me explain. I used to be a regular buyer of Sony products. I've had a Walkman, TVs, a VCR (remember those), a laptop... but I would never buy one of Sony's small electronic devices post-Walkman because they made a fundamental error of judgement. They made it 'our way or not at all.'

I have never had a Sony video camera or digital camera. Why? Because they insist on using their own memory card format that's incompatible with everyone else's. And when you come to connect the device to your computer you can't just drag and drop files, you have to use their proprietary, slow and clunky PC software to communicate with the device. The same goes for their music players. Hopelessly  crippled by the truly awful associated software you are forced to use. And as for their ebook readers... you get the picture. (It's also true that Sony's seems the least supported ebook format in terms of new book releases these days.)

But am I not being hypocritical? Don't my iPhone and iPad also use proprietary and slow software on the computer? There's a big difference though. If yours is the dominant environment (as with iTunes) or if you have software that is built in with the operating system (like iTunes or Windows Media Player on Macs and PCs respectively) it's fine to expect us to use it. But when you are only an aspiring small fry it doesn't work to try to impose your 'standard'.

I think the trouble is that Sony were so used to being dominant with the Walkman that they assumed they were top dog in other parallel small electronics markets as well. At risk of mixing the animal metaphors, Sony was so used to being a big fish that it forgets that in this particular pond it is down with the minnows. And that has led to a fall.

If they haven't already, Sony should drop the proprietary formats, lose their awful software and get in with the masses before it's too late. We all know it makes sense.

But does Sony?

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

When space isn't cold enough

Not a Blue Peter model - the actual Herschel Space Observatory
We are used to thinking of space as a cold place. And it is, sort of - but not always in the ways you might expect.

For instance, if you were suddenly dropped into space you might assume that the minimal temperature out there would mean that your blood would freeze solid in your veins, while simultaneously trying to boil where any is exposed due to a lack of pressure. But here's the thing. It won't boil - your circulatory system will keep it under pressure - and it won't freeze because a vacuum makes a great insulator. Remember vacuum flasks - there's a lesson there. The only heat you will lose is through radiation and you aren't hot enough to do that quickly.

Even so, it's rather ironic that space just isn't cold enough for the Herschel Space Observatory. It was sent up with 2160 litres of liquid helium to keep it cool. but that is due to run out by the end of March, leaving the Herschel to die of warmth in space - without that helium, the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the satellite itself will be enough to mask the subtle stream of photons it has been detecting.

The Herschel has done great work on helping us understand how stars and galaxies are formed, peering back around 10 billion years in time, picking up weak sub-millimetre light from the dust around newly formed stars. The good news, though, is that although the Herschel is soon to stop functioning, according to Steve Eales at the University of Cardiff, an astronomer who leads one of the telescope’s largest surveys,  'the treasure trove of Herschel data will be picked through by astronomers for years to come.' That's good to know.

Thanks to Physics World (also featuring an excellent article by me (ahem) on the need for double blind experiments in physics to deal with experimenter bias in the January edition) for this info.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

In praise of Jeremy Clarkson

The book what I got for Christmas
(sic)
A couple of years ago at Christmas I commented that I was in danger of turning into Jeremy Clarkson. Now, having received another of his books in my Christmas stocking, I want to reflect on why he really doesn't deserve the opprobrium that is heaped on him. (Can you do anything else with opprobrium but heap it?)

People who whinge about how terrible Clarkson is miss the point. The same people probably say how clever the Alan Partridge character is. And yet Alan Partridge is not Mister Likeable. He is thoroughly detestable. The same goes for Keith Lemon if you like him, which I gather some do. (I can't stand either of them, but that's a different story.) The point is that these are grotesque characters invented for TV. And, I would suggest to you, so is Jeremy Clarkson. Okay, he may not use a fictional character name as the other two do, but what he does is still an entertaining act.

You may, by now, be frothing at the mouth, determined to point out that Clarkson really means it where Partridge and Lemon are pure fiction. And some of the time I'm sure Clarkson does. But really this is beside the point. If you treat him as a character, he is very amusing. His writing style is light and entertaining. He sometimes even makes quite sensible observations when political correctness has forced us all in a different direction. What's not to love? No one gets nasty about the highly amusing rants that David Mitchell writes - they accept that they are amusing journalism. And I argue Clarkson should get the same treatment. So give the man a rest.

If you're an author you only hate him because he sells more books that you do. And otherwise, you're only jealous because he has a nicer car than yours...

Monday, 14 January 2013

We've had babies

Look, dear, we've had babies!
(Trade at top, mass market at bottom)
I'm delighted to say that the paperback versions of The Universe Inside You have arrived and now are on sale. I thought it might be a good opportunity to consider the different book publishing formats and how they are to be approached in an ebook world.

It can be quite confusing as there are two distinct types of paperback - trade and mass market. In this instance, Universe was first published as a trade paperback. This is a somewhat larger format and typically has a slightly more robust cover, often with opening flaps on the edges.

Universe has now come out as a mass market paperback. This is smaller (more so than is obvious in the picture - the mass market paperback is noticeably smaller when handled for real) and cheaper - in this case £8.99 as against £12.99 full price.

The trade paperback is an alternative to a hardback, which is usually priced higher still. There seem to be two reasons for producing these more expensive versions. Hardbacks/trade paperbacks are, for some reason, more likely to be reviewed, and they make more imposing presents. Sales of these, particularly hardbacks, seem to be holding up in the face of ebook competition.

The mass market (wishful thinking as a term in many cases) paperback is, of course, the cheap and cheerful format. But as it's usually undercut by the ebook, should there be one, it has been suffering sales in comparison with its big brothers.

With ebooks produced in parallel with the paper version being pretty much the norm, will publishers keep going with the two/three tier approach? I really don't know. Traditionally if there was only one tier it would either be just a hardback (because it didn't sell enough to go into paperback) or just a mass market paperback (as it wasn't the sort of book that would treasured/given as a gift). Now, maybe, we will see more trade paperback only issues as a kind of comprise to accompany the ebook. Having said that, the production costs of hardbacks aren't hugely greater than paperbacks (far less than the price point suggests) so we may see more hardback only pbooks at trade paperback prices.

As for the ebooks, the format decision isn't about size or cover, but which platforms to go for. Kindle seems a no-brainer. The best of my ebook publishers, Icon, also goes for iTunes, Nook and Kobo. But is it worth also going for the apparently drooping Sony ereader? Should publishers bother with any other formats? It's a tricky one. But what remains sure is that books will not settle into a single format that is set in stone. They will continue to mutate to match our reading habits.

There have been triumphant reports from conservatives suggesting that ebook sales are tapering off. This is rubbish. But equally silly are the predictions we have been seeing for about 10 years of the demise of the printed book. There may be tweaking, but both formats have a long way to go yet.


Friday, 11 January 2013

The uncomfortable thank-you note

Everyone knows that if you say something with your arm twisted up your back it doesn't really count. Parents are normally as aware of this as everyone else. But there is one case when parents, particularly middle class parents, have a blind spot. And that is the 'Thank-you' note. (How do you spell that? Should it be 'Thank You' note? Who cares?)

I have broached this subject because Amazon, perhaps feeling guilty about avoiding paying tax, has turned into a nagging parent. I had turned some Nectar points into an Amazon gift certificate, applied it to my account and Amazon gave me a quick nudge in the ribs and said 'Oi! Where do you think you are going? Before you play with your new certificate, send Nectar a thank-you message like a good boy.' Leaving aside the amusement value of being asked to thank the piece of plastic that is my Nectar card, it made me think about thank-you notes and how much I hate them.

I can remember all too horribly that long drawn out process over several days attempting to get small children to write thank you notes, contemplating writing them with the left hand myself, and finally pinning them down long enough to scribble some platitudes. And to be honest they aren't always nice to receive either. When you receive that 3 page essay from little Marmaduke, complete with a few pencil sketches and an impromptu sonnet of praise for your gift of a handkerchief, the feeling is not one of pleasure but rather of guilt at never achieving this level of response.

Don't get me wrong. Thank-you's of the right kind are wonderful. When they aren't automatic responses, but someone takes the time to say 'Thanks for that book, it was absolutely brilliant,' who most of the time doesn't bother to thank you for gifts then you know it has really meant something. You get a little warm glow of self-congratulation. But the knee-jerk thank-you note (something I never experienced as a child because we weren't really middle class, and anyway I saw everyone who gave me presents most weeks) is not something I can warm to.

As to Amazon giving me a nanny nudge towards issuing a thank-you:

Dear Amazon,
Thank you so much for your unexpected reminder to issue a thank-you. It was a lovely surprise, just what I've always wanted. I will print it off and put it on the mantlepiece, alongside the invitation to the Lord Lieutenant's Ball. Super.
With much love,
Brian
For those of you who were fans of Searle & Willans' How to Be Topp, (and if you aren't a fan you should rush out and buy a copy now), I leave you with the Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter:

As an after xmas wheeze n. molesworth presents his self-adjusting thank-you letter. Cut out hours of toil pen biting wear on elbows blotches and staring out of windows.

Strike Out words with do not apply.

Dear (Aunt) (Uncle) (Stinker) (Gran) (Clot) (Pen-Pal)
Thank you very much for the (train) (tractor) (germ gun) (kite) (delicious present*) (sweets) (space pistol) (toy socks)

It was (lovely) (useful) (just as good as the other three) (not bad) (super)

And I hav (played with it constantly) (busted it already) (no patience with it) (given it to the poor boys) (dismantled it)

I am feeling (very well) (very poorly) (lousy) (in tip-top form) (sick) I hope you are too.

My birthday when next present is due is on . . . . . .

From . . . . . .

(Postage must be prepaid.)

* When you can’t remember what it was. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The interweb at its finest

My favourite entry in Yellow Pages
(sadly long since removed)
I think we sometimes forget how much the internet/world wide web has changed the way we do things for the better. Here's a little story to illustrate this - and also I think to show that the power of something like the web is the ability to use it in unexpected ways.

I needed to replace a couple of tyres on a car. I was quite happy with the outfit I'd used for new tyres before, but because I don't buy tyres very often, I couldn't remember the company's name. This has happened before, rather a lot.

Of course, if I was all organized and such I would have carefully noted down the details of the tyre place in Evernote and I could just search that and pull them up in seconds. But I wasn't and I didn't. What can I say? I'm lazy.

In the old days I would have hunted for that tree graveyard the Yellow Pages ('I'm sure I left it there...') looked up tyre services, and then would have spent 15 minutes looking through the adverts, trying to decide which of the silly names was the business I used before. 'That seems vaguely familiar... but then so does this...'

Now, though, with the interweb at hand, the way I came to it was more a parallel of the way the brain deals with information. Though I couldn't remember the name of the tyre shop, I could remember where it was. But only in the sense of 'It's on that roundabout, you know, the one near Go Outdoors' - I didn't know a street name. No problem. Pull up Google maps, follow the route from home to 'that roundabout' and I have the location pinned down. Zip into Streetview - and I can see the building and read the name of the company.

At this point, quite recently I would have then turned to the electronic version of the phone book to get the number. But why bother? Type the company name in Google and up pops the phone number. I'm there in under a minute after employing the vaguest of search algorithms.

And that's why the internet/web is so good.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Ooh, I'm a green heretic

Many thanks to Karen James on Twitter for pointing out to me an article by Paul Kingsnorth for Orion Magazine* in which I get a mention as a green heretic (presumably for my book Ecologic):
Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.
Now I could simply take issue with this 'self-declared' tag - this is not something I have ever called myself, so I'm not sure how I can be 'self-declared'. And for that matter I post-date Lomborg in writing on this stuff, rather than being a figure from his past. But rather I would like to examine Kingsnorth's argument (as he clearly doesn't agree with me) in a little detail.

This is easier said than done, because I have to say it's one of the most impenetrable articles I've ever read. (And I read scientific papers on a daily basis.) Not so much because Kingsnorth's arguments are complex, or his jargon difficult, but rather the way he puts those arguments across seems designed more to obfuscate than illuminate. I probably need to summarise the thesis, as most readers, I suspect, will, as I did on the first attempt, give up by the time they reach the fourth paragraph and find that Kingsnorth is still wittering on about the name for the handle of a scythe (I think).

Eventually we get to some content. Us 'neo-environmentalists' it seems are almost uniformly in favour of technological solutions to environmental problems. Even, dare to think it, nuclear power. We have an 'excitable enthusiasm for markets' and an 'almost religious attitude towards the scientific method.'

This is immediately put down as bad (with one proviso, which I'll come back to). But let's take away the rhetoric and see what he's attacking. It's a bad thing to be pro-science? As this is our means of getting a better understanding of the universe, I guess this means the preferred alternative is ignorance in a kind of wishy-washy sentimental rosy glow. You certainly need plenty of ignorance to think people had better lives before science intervened. Back in those lovely times when the majority of funerals were for children, when people regularly died of easily preventable diseases and when most people were uneducated, limited, overworked, had no entertainment to speak of and wouldn't have travelled more than ten miles from home. Ever. Ah, idyllic times indeed.

As for markets, I don't have an excitable enthusiasm - I think they're awful. But I also think, like democracy, despite being bad, they are the best option we have to make things work.

The one proviso where Kingsnorth reckons us heretics are 'half right' is that little human scale efforts like recycling your tights won't make enough difference. The difference being that the 'neo-environmentalists' believe we will have to engineer our way out of environmental trouble (including again those dreaded nuclear power stations), while the option Kingsnorth seems to prefer is that we all abandon pretty well everything and concentrate on getting to know our scythes. He advocates withdrawing from the technological world, without acknowledging that withdrawing is a luxury that needs that wider world to support it - unless you are truly happy to return to medieval brutishness.

I'm not against everything he says. He points out that we should recognise that nature has a value beyond utility. But the argument that this is contrary to a scientific viewpoint is that hoary old chestnut, unweaving the rainbow. The idea that somehow, for instance, knowing how a rainbow is made makes it less wondrous. And this is bilge, as it has been ever since Keats came up with the term. Knowing the science doesn't prevent you from appreciating nature at an emotional or spiritual level - quite the reverse, it enhances that appreciation. And much of science, as opposed to technology, is nothing to do with utility. The LHC and the Hubble telescope are not about utility, but about exposing the universe to our sense of wonder. It is the romantic who ignores the science who only gets the small, limited uninspired and ultimately unsatisfying view.

It is science and technology that has made it possible for Paul Kingsnorth to eulogise endlessly about the wonders of handling a scythe. If his life depended on wielding it 12 hours a day, he would not have a romantic view of it, he would come to hate it. He would have, of course, no laptop to write his article on - and no audience for his writing - he would not have the time, the finances, the energy or the opportunity to do anything other than scrabble for survival.

To pretend it is possible to return to some mythical past where we were in tune with nature and life was wonderful is romantic fantasizing at its worst. But to turn away from what science can offer is even worse. It is simply ignorant.

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* I have to confess to never having heard of Orion Magazine. My apologies. According to its website, Orion’s mission is to 'inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community.' Right on.

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Later addition: thanks to Kiley Dancy for for pointing out this great animation by Fraser Davidson illustrating Richard Feynman's brilliant counter to 'unweaving the rainbow':

Richard Feynman - Ode To A Flower from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Brilliant books

I have always loved science fiction, and also fantasy books set in the real world. But I have found it difficult to come across new titles I like outside my favourite authors - so this Christmas I consciously looked out for recommendations for something new to try and have read a pair of crackers that I have to get all excited about.

On the science fiction front, I have to confess that pretty well every author I like I already liked in the 1970s. I really haven't picked up anyone new. But I was blown away by Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. I suspect what made this for me is that Roberts consciously was setting out to write a book that took on some of the conventions of the golden ages of science fiction and crime writing - both favourites for me. It is a new book. It is a modern book. However it encompasses the best of the old. And the result is absolutely wonderful.

The antihero of the novel, Jack Glass, tells us up front that he is the murderer in each of three sections of the book - but this doesn't prevent the stories (which fit together almost seamlessly) from working in terms of suspense and anticipation.

The first section is probably the weakest and the middle the strongest, so if you make a start and struggle a little with the starkness of the first, do keep going. Roberts happens to be a professor of literature and if I say it doesn't show, I mean that in the best possible way. Although the book is very well written with some elegant turns of phrase, it doesn't get in the way of the storytelling as is so often the case with 'literary' writing.

If I'm going to quibble, Roberts gets the faster than light science wrong in the third section - but I always say that SF is fiction first and science second - this really isn't too much of a worry. If you like old school science fiction and haven't found anything you can really enjoy for years you should rush out and buy Jack Glass. See more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

In real world fantasy I have been better served. Despite the sad loss of Ray Bradbury, some old favourites like Gene Wolfe, Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin are going strong, while relative newcomer Neil Gaiman quickly became a favourite. However I still struggle to find something new that really appeals, so I was delighted by The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I know this has been around a while, and even managed to make the long list for the Orange Prize, but it's the first time I've seen it and I was bowled over.

One of my favourite fantasy books ever is Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Bradbury makes the fantastical aspect of the circus that arrives by night by train truly marvellous. And Morgernstern has picked up on this concept to make something wholly new and not in any sense derivative. (I was rather peeved she didn't admit to the debt in her acknowledgments, though.) This tale of a magical duel between two unwilling and sometimes unwitting competitors and the richly described late Victorian setting it takes place in is wonderful. And at the heart of it is the night circus.

This is such a fantastic (in every sense of the word) concept. The idea of a circus that opens at nightfall and stays open at dusk, that is really more like a collection of wonderful sideshow tents, that never tells you where and when it will be next is so brilliant I feel it really could be done for real (though of course without the magic at the heart of the circus in the book). The two sets of principle characters with interweaving stories always linked through the circus are also wonderful and endearing. The cover is plastered with comments about how truly, breathtakingly captivating it is. And they don't exaggerate.

As usual I have a couple of small quibbles. The book is too long for me - I think it could have been 100 pages shorter and would have worked even better: it sagged just a little before picking up the finale. And I really don't like the use of the present tense. I have never yet read a book that is in present tense that wouldn't read better if it used the more conventional past tense. It makes the sentences seem jerky and detached from each other. For me it just doesn't add anything positive. However this book is so wonderful that it pushes that concern aside. The Night Circus is definitely in my best ever fantasy top 10.  See more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The paradox of the resealable can

It has been brought to my attention that a product called 'No Fear Extreme Energy' (a drink) comes in a 'unique resealable can.' I do wonder if the manufacturers have really thought this through.

One issue is the implication of providing this feature. The fact you need to be able to reseal the can suggests that it is difficult to drink a whole can in one go. Does this mean it's not exactly delicious?

However there is a much deeper problem.

On my creativity seminars I often use a technique called 'the level chain' which is great for developing new product ideas. Before letting the participants loose I demonstrate a couple of uses of the technique, one of which is looking for a new paint product. The outcome of the demonstration is to come up with the idea of selling paint in cans with ring pull tops. After all, one of the biggest issues with cans of paint is opening them.

One of the reasons I use this example is that is great to remind the participants of a blockage to creativity they have to be aware of - premature evaluation. It's very easy when someone comes up with an idea to instantly spot what's wrong with it and kill it. Ideas are like little green shoots - easy to tread on with hobnail boots. And when I use the example of a ring pull can of paint I can guarantee (I ask for a show of hands) that some of those present will be thinking 'Yes, but how do you close the can?'

Those who do, miss the point. I have a great product idea, it just needs a bit of development. After all, I'm a paint manufacturer. (In the example. I'm not really, even though you can buy Brian Clegg paints.) I don't want my customers to close their cans of paint, I want them to leave them open to dry up so they'll buy more paint. What I've done is transformed a difficult question (what new and distinctive product can we make) to a simpler one (how can I persuade people to buy cans of paint you can't close).

There are lots of potential solutions to the 'can't close' problem, from selling paint in packs of small cans rather than one big one, to selling separate reseal lids. But the point is it's a good idea and I'll sell more paint.

Drinks manufacturers already have this advantage. Going on the number of half-full Coke cans I find around our house, just as mustard manufacturers were supposed to of old, Coca Cola must makes loads of dosh from the Coke that's thrown away. But No Fear is saying 'let's not make those profits.' Nice one guys. Time for a rethink.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Non-fiction detritus

They made me do it - in Gravity I lost the battle.
But at least the note is funny.
Although I still have yearnings to write fiction, I have to accept that, on the whole, I am a non-fiction writer, and it is something I very much enjoy doing. But there is one aspect of putting together a non-fiction book that really gets on my nerves, and that's the bit that has leaked through from textbooks and other academic literature. I hate doing notes, cross-references and the like.

I feel I have to put them in. The publisher tends to insist on notes, and I know they will moan if I don't stick in a few random cross-references. But, really! Does anyone ever follow a cross-reference? Nah, they're just there as a sort of intellectual security blanket. I occasionally get the urge to put in totally random page numbers - but of course I  don't.

And don't get me started on notes.

I have a regular battle with publishers over these bits of useless information. I don't really want to do notes at all, but if I have to, which is usually the case, I insist on putting them in with page references on the note, but nothing in the main text. A couple of times (as in the illustration) a publisher has pulled numbered references on the main text on me, converting my original to this format, and I hate it. Numbered references break up the reading flow. This isn't a text book. It isn't a reference book. It's popular science - a book that should read fluidly. However subtle you make it, a numbered reference in the text will distract you.

What it won't do, though, is send the reader scurrying to the back of the book to follow it up. Because no one looks at them. Well almost no one. The only people who ever make use of reference notes are other authors who are cribbing bits out of your book and want to have an identified source. For their notes. Anyone else who claims to enjoy ploughing through notes like this is just showing off.

Oddly, though, I have just gone against my 'breaks the flow' rule with a book I have in the edit for later in the year. For reasons I don't understand, it cried out as I wrote it to have little expansion notes at the bottom of the page, with their inevitable numbers or asterisks in the text. I really don't know why it happened. It's a bit like when fiction authors say that a character does something they didn't expect. It just seemed the right thing to do.

But this is quite different from end notes that are just references to sources. They are cringe-makingingly painful. Publishers please take note (ahem).

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Ditch the alloys

Is it alloy? Who knows.
But I hope it isn't.
When I next get a new(ish) car, I'm not going to have a lot of choice. Let me explain. Around 70% of them are too expensive and around 20% too cheap and nasty.

I then have to eliminate all the cars with those ludicrous fairy light eyebrows as running lights.

Finally, the new car must not have alloy wheels. I just don't see the point of alloys. The slightest encounter with a curb and they go out of shape. And then alloys mean locking wheel nuts. And inevitably you either can't find the key when you need a new tyre, or the key breaks (as it did once when I tried to change a tyre), or you discover, as I did once, that the same car was made by both Ford and VW - I had Ford nuts and an incompatible VW key. The garage had to drill the nuts out.

So, definitely no alloys.

By the time I add in all my requirements I think there are going to be about two cars to chose from. In the whole world. Maybe I should learn to ride a bike.

Really I just want to say to car makers - stop it. Ditch the alloy wheels. They aren't clever, they aren't nice, they are just a pain. Give us wheels that are easy to take off and that are solid and dependable. Okay?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A diner to die for

You could argue for several things as the greatest contribution that the US has made to world culture. You could point to rock music. You could highlight personal computers or the internet (though not the world wide web). However I would like put in a vote for American food.

I pause here for foodies amongst you to pick yourselves up off the floor and suppress your hysterical laughter.

Okay, I accept there are some problems with this concept. Like cheese that bears more resemblance to plastic than a dairy product. And American chocolate. And we won't even contemplate much of their beer. Yet I can't help loving many aspects of American food. Pancakes with maple syrup and bacon for breakfast - come on! I prefer American pizzas to the Italian version. Tex Mex has largely been Europe's route into Mexican food. And, of course, the pinnacle of the American food pyramid is the hamburger.

We won't discuss the pros and cons of McDonalds - but T.G.I. Friday's has been doing a reasonable job of giving us a respectable American eating experience over here for a while now and I am fond of them. But T.G.I. has lost its crown now that Ed's Easy Diner has moved into town. I fear I am a little in love.

They seem to have got pretty well everything right. The atmosphere is great - very 1950s diner down to the table-top jukebox selectors and the option to sit at the counter. The food is good, and most importantly you can get the right things. Burgers, hot dogs and chicken with all the essential variants. (I personally recommend the chilli cheese burger). Not to mention the impressively huge milk shakes, malts and, yes, cola floats. The staff are excellent. And it only costs about twice as much as a McD's for a fun sit-down experience.

The newly opened Swindon Ed's is in our designer outlet centre and it's telling that when visiting at late night shopping hours in the lead up to Christmas, when most of the shops were dead (we spent about five minutes in Kurt Geiger and never saw a soul, including sales assistants), Ed's Diner was packed.

If you decide to find an Ed's (there are about 15 in the UK so far) I'd recommend visiting the website first and signing up for their 'Ed's Club' as you get some generous benefits. Apparently the brand has been going for 25 years, but this the first time I've come across it.

I'm sorry if this sounds like an advert - but if, like me, you are fond of American food, and find it hard to get a decent approximation in the UK, then try Ed's and you'll understand why I'm so enthusiastic. Woo and not a little hoo.