Friday, 31 May 2013

Dealing with royalty

If you are an author, one of the mixed joys and horrors of your life is the royalty statement. The joy part is that this could be a piece of paper telling you that you have earned some money. The horror is two-fold. Sometimes instead, the royalty statement tells you the reverse. Because books are sent out to stores sale or return, it is entirely possible in a six month accounting period to have negative sales when returns outweigh outgoings. This is highly dispiriting the first time it happens. But the other horrific aspect is that royalty statements often suffer from byzantine complexity. And this means it is very easy for the publisher to make mistakes. This is not malicious - it is just that as an author you are one of many and there is only a limited amount of effort they can put into getting it right.

Because of this, I recommend that all authors check their royalty statements with a fine tooth comb. If you have an agent you may feel 'It's okay, I don't need to do this, my agent will do it for me.' And perhaps he or she will. But in my experience agents have neither the time nor the inclination to do this properly (and some, I suspect, struggle with the numbers). It really is on the author's shoulders.

Here is a royalty statement:

As you can see it is quite a loaded document. (Incidentally this particular format has one oddity which is that it is almost impossible to find the name of the book. It is positioned where I have put the little green arrow, quite difficult to spot.

I have accumulated a whole list of possible mistakes that have been made in royalty statements - not all to me, and not all from the same publisher, but all things that the sensible author should check. So here we go:

  • Is it the right kind of book? Contracts often have different rates for, say, a hardback, a trade paperback and a mass market paperback. If they use the wrong category, you could get the wrong rate.
  • Are the basic values right? Are, for instance, the percentage royalties the same as the ones in your contract?
  • Have escalators been applied properly? The percentage the author receives often increases after a certain number of sales, but this isn't always reflected in the statement. This is one of the most common errors.
  • Do the return numbers make sense? If you have returns, add up the total for a particular type of sale across all periods. If the final value is negative there is a problem: it seems they have had more returned than they sent out.
  • Have any special triggers been reflected? Contracts sometimes have special triggers, providing, say, an extra advance if a certain number of books are sold. Make sure these are applied.
  • Are returns being counted at the same percentage as sales? If there is an escalator you could have  several different percentage royalties. If for instance your base percentage is 10% and the escalated value 15%, but it hasn't been triggered, make sure that returns are not being made at 15%.
  • Are translations, rights deals, serial rights etc. in there? A lot of money can be made from, for instance, giving rights to another publisher to do a translation. As these are not part of the normal accounting it is easy for the publisher to forget to include these. Don't rush this one - they may not come in until the period after the deal is set up, but if there's nothing by then, flag it up.
I'm sure there are other possible mistakes - these are just the ones I'm aware of, so please do let me know of any others! I am not suggesting you should be a thorn in the flesh of your publisher - you are both on the same side - but they can make errors, and it is in your interest to check. If you do think you've found an error, don't be aggressive - ask nicely. Apart from anything else, you could have got it wrong!

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Think before opening mouth

As someone who is passionate about science communication, I am all in favour of any means that can get information about science out to the general public. Scientists often criticize science journalists for being too simplistic, but I can testify to the ease with which an over-simplified explanation slips out when you are in a radio studio, being interviewed by a jolly breakfast DJ who hasn't a clue about science and, to be honest, hasn't much interest. It is natural to highlight the sexy aspects of the science and inevitably to distort the picture.

The same temptation occurs when writing about science, but at least then there is the opportunity to take a step back and think about what it is that you are saying. However there is always a difficult balance to be made between making a subject approachable and capturing the science accurately.

There is another sin of science communication, though, which strangely scientists are just as prone to as science writers - and that is drawing unnecessary conclusions.

I found a great example of this in a piece in Chris Smith's Naked Scientist book, which consists of Smith's short write-ups of really interesting scientific papers. The example in question comes in a piece on the discovery of complex planetary system around the star 55 Cancri, about 41 light years from Earth. It was already known this had four gas giant sized planets, mostly occupying the space that rocky planets take up in our solar system (one is so close to the star that it orbits every 2.8 days).

The paper in Astrophysical Journal (back in 2008) described a fifth planet, in a 260 day orbit (so roughly positioned like Venus), at least 45 times the size of Earth - which made 55 Cancri's the largest planetary system that had been identified. So far, so interesting and uncontroversial. But the piece ends with a quote from co-discoverer Geoff Marcy. It's not clear if this is in the journal or whether Chris Smith interviewed Marcy, but either way the remark is a classic of what not to say. Marcy remarked 'We now know that our Sun and its family of planets is not unusual.'

The implications of this statement are a) this system is like ours and b) there are lots of them out there. But what are the facts? Admittedly 55 Cancri is not dissimilar to the Sun, but this is a system with five planets discovered, all of them vastly bigger than Earth, and with the closest three in 2.8, 14 and 44 day orbits - extremely tightly packed around the star. (Compare Mercury's 88 day orbit.) So not at all like the solar system. And discovering one other example doesn't make something is not unusual. We think there are billions of planetary systems in our galaxy. This deduction is made from two of them. Two points, it has been observed, do not provide any information on a graph.

You might argue that everyone has the facts, so will be aware this is a dramatic exaggeration. But when an expert makes a pronouncement like this it is those words that get picked up on, not the detail. There's some pressure at the moment for scientists to make more effort to communicate directly to the public. And that's fine. But they need to be trained to think as carefully about their public pronunciations as they do about their peer reviewed publications.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

A little competition is a good thing

To celebrate my newest book Extra Sensory's arrival I am arranging a little giveaway with a 1 in 4 chance of winning.

We'd all love to have 'psi' abilities like telepathy, telekinesis, and remote viewing. But is there any solid evidence to back up these talents, or are they nothing more than fantasy? That's what Extra Sensory is about.

We still only understand a small percentage of the capabilities of the human brain—and we shouldn’t dismiss such potential powers out of hand. Although there is no doubt that many who claim these abilities are frauds, and no one has yet won James Randi’s $1M prize for demonstrating ESP under lab conditions, we still have a Nobel prize winner suggesting a mechanism for telepathy, serious scientists researching the field and university projects that produced potentially explosive results.

What’s the verdict? By looking at possible physical mechanisms for ESP and taking in the best scientific evidence, the reader can discover if this is all wishful thinking and deception, or a fascinating reality.

If that sounds interesting and you fancy a copy, then buy either a paper book or a Kindle version from Amazon via my Extra Sensory page between now and 12 June and you can win a signed copy of one of my other books. If it's not up your street, the same offer applies to my other recent book Dice World.

In Dice World, we take an incredible trip around our random universe, uncovering the truths and lies behind probability and statistics, explaining how chaotic intervention is behind every great success in business, and demonstrating the possibilities quantum mechanics has given us for creating unbreakable ciphers and undergoing teleportation. Along the way we meet Maxwell's demon and Schrödinger's cat, and an experiment involving a mug, a golden retriever and the most controversial theorem in probability. Again, buy either a paper book or a Kindle version from Amazon via my Dice World page and you can win a free signed copy of another book.

I'll pick a quarter of entrants as winners - a 1 in 4 chance of winning - and you can choose from:

  • Inflight Science
  • The Universe Inside You
  • How to Build a Time Machine
  • Before the Big Bang
  • Argmageddon Science
  • Upgrade Me
  • Global Warming Survival Kit
  • The God Effect
  • Light Years
  • Gravity
(See to find out more about the books on offer.)

All you have to do is drop me an email at if you buy a copy of Extra Sensory or Dice World from their pages on my website. No need to send proof of purchase unless you win. I'll email you on 12 June if you are a winner. Simples!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Audio train spotters

Me as a student being very careful with a vinyl record
(this was just before I bought my decent deck & amplifier)
When I was a student I took my music reproduction seriously. While I couldn't afford top of the range equipment, I did eventually save up money from my holiday job to buy a nice record deck, and treated my vinyl collection like they were made of, well, vinyl. (You had to if you didn't want clicks, pops and bangs as you played them - remember that, folks.)

When CDs came along I heaved a sigh of relief. No more dust removal and clicks and pops. No more delicate handling. Clean, digital sound wherever and whenever I wanted.

Now I'm somewhat older and probably wiser I really don't give a monkey's about the quality of my sound system. When I was student I used to sit down and listen to music in a chair carefully positioned to get the best stereo placement. Now, to be honest, I don't sit and listen to music as a sole activity anymore. Ever. I have it on while I'm doing something like driving or boring admin or tidying up (I can't write with music on, it's too distracting), and as long as there's reasonable tone and volume I'm not particularly fussed about the perfection of reproduction quality. Frankly, I probably wouldn't notice if I had left and right channels reversed.

So I was a bit saddened to see in the excellent Observer last Sunday, in the same section as my piece on lightning, an article about some called Pete Hutchison who is bringing out new vinyl records that cost around £300 each. Hutchison is quoted as saying that digital music 'is the great con. They said that CDs were indestructible, but they weren't. They said it would sound better, but with the MP3 we are at probably the lowest point in the history of sound. It's a compressed file. If you try to play an orchestra over a proper sound system on MP3, it's just garbage.'

Now the first bit is just silly. The music industry did perhaps over-stress the robustness of CDs, for example showing how they could still be played after they got jam smeared on them. But you have to put this in the context that up to then we had lived with these nightmare vinyl discs that warped at the first sign on the sun, and that you only had to look at and they were coated in enough dust to make them sound like a bowl of Rice Crispies.

It is certainly arguable whether CDs or vinyl sounds better - and MP3s definitely are worse quality, because they are a compressed format. But again, a CD always sounds better than a vinyl record with lots of clicks and pops - which is pretty well every vinyl record, unless you dedicate all your spare time to keeping them pristine. And while it's true that in the early days, when storage was at a premium, people over-compressed MP3s and got fuzzy audio, at the kind of sample rate used these days, you have to be a real anorak of an audiophile to notice the difference.

Since most of us spend most of our time listening to music in the car or through earphones as we walk, or blaring out from a different room as we do the washing up, rather than in a dedicated music room with a perfectly positioned listening chair, let's face it, an MP3 usually works a lot better. Try playing vinyl in your car or on a record deck in a backpack and see where it gets you. And that's just the start of the convenience of MP3s in terms of being able to manage a huge library to great effect in a way that just wasn't possible with LPs. Instead of playing through a single LP at Christmas, for instance, I can pull up and randomize a playlist of 200 carols. Let's see you do that, Pete.

I much prefer to listen to my MP3s routed through my stereo amplifier and my Monitor Audio speakers. It is a vastly better sound than through earbuds or the computer's built in speakers. But taking that extra step of plugging a record deck in to get the final 3% improvement has very limited extra value for all normal listening. I'm sorry, Pete, but you are wrong - an orchestra sounds just fine from decent MP3s through a good system.

Don't get me wrong, as long as people want to buy Pete's products they are welcome to. It's not for me to say they can't, just that they are silly. The tiny minority who will are the trainspotters of audio, in the sense that they pursue something that has no value simply for the sake of the pursuit. They are people who are fanatically interested in the technology and the way it reproduces exact tonal qualities, rather than people who just enjoy listening to the music. One is tempted to say 'Get a life.' But it's probably too late for most of them.

Monday, 27 May 2013


It being a public (bank) holiday here in the UK I am having a lazy day and simply referring you to my piece in yesterday's Observer newspaper on lightning. Enjoy!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Wide Open Spaces

PCs and I go back a long way. My second PC at work, for instance, was IBM's AT model, of which I was privileged to have the second one that IBM imported into the UK (at least that's what they told me - they probably said that to all their customers). And it was a huge improvement on my previous XT, doubling the hard disk* space at a stroke to 20 Mb.

I tell you this, not so you can snigger at granddad, but to emphasise how things have moved on. In the early 1990s there was a huge business in software that automatically compressed files on your hard disk so you didn't run out of space. It slowed the computer down, but the introduction of music and photos was jamming up disk space terribly. But then something changed. Disks got really big. For my last few computers I've had more disk space that I knew what to do with. Let's take a look at what my computer has on offer and what I've used:

... and that is keeping every email I send, every important one I receive, everything I've written since I started writing, lots of scanned documents, music, photos etc. etc. I've still got 73% free.

The same thing is now happening online. I recently mentioned cloud backup services like Dropbox, Skydrive and Google Drive. But things are even more extreme with photo storage thanks to a breathtaking move from Yahoo. Where, for instance, Google's Google+/Picasa gives you a respectable 5 Gb free, Yahoo's Flickr has now started offering 1 Tb. A terabyte. 1,000,000,000,000 bytes (actually more than this as a Kb is really 1,024 bytes because computer scientists can't count, but let's not be fussy). That's as much space as my entire hard disk. Stunning or what?

(At least, that's the theory. I suspect Flickr has been overwhelmed by people signing up, because when I just went to get a screenshot of my pathetic 100 Mb of photos in 1 Tb of space the image to the right is what came up.)

It has left me rather confused. I really don't know what to do now. I could now have all my photos for all my life available online, sharable how I like. It would take a long time to get them up there, but it would probably be worth it. Will I do it? I don't know. But I'm tempted. How about you?

*If anyone wants to point out to me as a British person I should spell this 'disc', the convention is in computing to use the likes of 'disk' and 'program' instead of the UK equivalent.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Addressing the bits we don't talk about

One of the joys of being a green heretic (TM) is that you are able to talk about the bits of ecological theory that traditionally aren't talked about. Because in most environmental issues there are topics that are considered off-limits, either because they result in bad publicity or are considered politically incorrect.

Yesterday a small one of these reared its head on our local radio show. The excellent host Mark O'Donnell was talking about the recent report showing a major decline in some wild species in the UK. I pointed out that one way to improve things was to get rid of cats, as they kill at least 50 million wild birds a year. I was expecting a deluge of complaint from cat-lovers, but even when Mark expanded this to point out that over 300 million wild birds and mammals killed by cats each year, most of the response was in support of reducing the cat population. But despite his personal support, it was also interesting that Mark treated the cat aspect as a humorous adjunct, the sort of skateboarding duck of the item. When he spoke to two experts about what we should do, in neither case did he mention the cats.

The fact is that the impact of cats isn't a joke, it is a real contributory factor to species decline and we need to consider which is more important, the need for cats to roam or the survival of our wild species. It is not ideal for the cat, but it is perfectly possible for a cat to be an animal that isn't allowed to roam wild, like a dog - it only takes a change in attitude in society. (And, as a bonus, those of us without cats would get our lawns covered in cat poo.)

This is a relatively minor example, but there are plenty of others we sweep under the carpet. The biggest by far is the impact of human population growth on the environment. The fact is that when we talk about global warming or our consumption of natural resources, the human population size is a fundamental variable. Admittedly it is difficult to do anything about it, which is part of the reason why it is usually treated as the elephant in the room. Adopting something like China's one child policy is not the answer and is not compatible with most ideas of democracy. But what we certainly should be doing is countering cultural and religious arguments that result in large families that are unnecessary in a modern civilization where so many children survive. It is time, for instance, for environmental lobbies to take on medieval attitudes to contraception and to consider education to encourage smaller families to be as important as setting up nature reserves to preserve the habitat of the lesser spotted, swivel-eyed peewit.

This has been a Green Heretic production.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The great East-West mint debate

Like most people from the North West of England, I might grumble about the people of the North East, especially those from Yorkshire, but also have a grudging respect for them. However there is one subject that totally divides North East from North West. And that is mints.

Each of these great regions has a mint product they are deeply proud of. For us in the North West it is Uncle Joe's Mintballs. For the North East it is Black Bullets. Each comes proudly in a tin. Each is really rather a similar product (though slightly strangely, Black Bullets are more, erm, ball-shaped than Mintballs). They are brown, hard sweets with a strong mint flavour. I've never done a comparative taste test, but my suspicion is that they are very similar. Of course, Uncle Joe's are more sophisticated - they come in wrappers, where the Geordie equivalent is naked - but to be honest the sweet itself is much the same.

I have to grudgingly admit that having discovered they can be bought from Amazon we now tend to have the dreaded Black Bullets in the house, though while researching this piece I discover they also sell Mintballs, so we may see a change. After all, I'd rather they were Uncle Joe's, just on principle.

It's a bit like supporting the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest. It might just be a mint. It might not even be the best mint in the world. But it's our mint.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Top twelve tips for brilliant customer service

Although I don't write business books much these days, I am still passionate about creativity and customer service in business, and I thought it would be useful to occasionally throw in something from my customer service book, Capturing Customers' Hearts. I've called this 'top twelve tips' but really it's more the twelve aspects of customer service you need to focus on if you want your business to have charisma - to actually appeal to customers, rather than be somewhere they go because there's no other choice.

1. Going the extra light year

In a way, this first component pulls all the others together. It’s an attractive trait if someone goes out of their way to help you. Equally it’s attractive if a company goes that extra mile. But for true charisma, to stand out like a beacon, you have to do more – to go the extra light year, the first component of capturing customers' hearts.

2. If it’s broke, fix it

We all get it wrong sometimes. Zero defect is a fantasy beloved of quality circles, but it is not a fact of human life. However good our systems and procedures and staff, things will go wrong – and then the customer measures the company's worth on how well we fix things. All too often, service recovery is grudging, set about with conditions and rules that make the hard-done-by customer feel like a criminal. If this is how you treat your customers, you are missing a huge opportunity for building up charisma.

3. I’m in love with my car

There are some products and brands that produce a reaction in the customer that is wildly disproportionate to their nominal value. It’s true of some cars, for instance, which have an almost fanatical following. Often these aren’t the best products by any conventional measure – instead they have a certain quirkiness that seems to generate such affection. You can’t engineer a product to be charismatic, but you can encourage it in that direction – and make sure that you maintain the benefit once you have a product that has achieved this status.

4. They know me

The whole field of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) has built up around the thesis that you can give customers a better experience if you know about them and make use of that knowledge in the way you serve them. Unfortunately, all too often, CRM has been driven by systems (and systems manufacturers) rather than the realities of human relationships. But this shouldn’t be allowed to cloud the reality that the company that really makes the customer feel recognized and welcome has a big stake in the charisma game.

5. Star power

Companies who don’t have a star figurehead tend to be cynical about those who do. The key figures (think Richard Branson) are regarded as unrepentant self-publicists for whom the limelight is more important than the success of the business. Yet this overlooks the fact that the public like a recognizable human face for a company. You can’t identify with a corporation – you can with a famous chief executive. For that matter, you can with any famous employee (remember the Halifax's Howard?) – or maybe the whole team. Perhaps everyone can be a star.

6. They’re people like us

As a gross generalization, people like people. They like dealing with real people. They have relationships with real people, not with companies. So the more it is possible to make your customer contact staff into real people, the better. That means staff who behave like people, not like automata. It means real people with real enthusiasms – especially those that are shared with the customers. And it means people we have to trust to get it right. There can be no charisma from staff in a strait jacket.

7. Surprise, surprise!

Dullness and charisma don’t go together. Once upon a time, consistency was a customer service god, but if everything is the same, if everything is predictable, there can be no excitement, no charisma. The element of surprise, provided it is a pleasant surprise is a key component to keeping your customers intrigued and coming back for more. Don’t bore them until they run over to the competition – keep the creativity and fun flowing.

8. Technical wizardry

It’s often said that men don’t really grow up – they remain enthralled by toys for their whole life. Whether your customers are men or women, technical flair will appeal to their male side. Sometimes charisma needs a little gloss – used correctly, technical polish is a valuable addition. Technology needs to be optional – some customers are turned off by it – but for many it is an effective attractor.

9. They’re mine, all mine

To call someone parochial is usually an insult, and yet we all have a degree of positive parochialism. It doesn’t matter if it’s my town, my country or my football team – we like to see our own do well. The more we can bring customers to feel that they own the company, the more they will feel inseparable from the company and its fortunes. Make the company theirs and loyalty is no longer an issue – it’s a fait accompli.

10. Cute and cuddly

If technology appeals to the male in us all, there’s something about being cute and cuddly that tugs at our female side. To be charismatic is not necessarily to be loveable, but companies that give their customers that warm glow are inevitably charismatic.

11. We keep in touch

Communication is at the heart of human relationships and is equally important in fostering the relationship between a human being and a company. So often the things that go wrong are a result of a breakdown in communications. Keeping up a dialogue and making it obvious that you enjoy that communication makes it difficult for a customer to resist. You should never let up on communications.

12. The twelfth component

That’s eleven out of the way, but what of the twelfth? I have to confess that consideration of a twelfth component arose initially out of a sense of order. There’s something lumpy and unsatisfactory about the number eleven, compared to the serried order of twelve. When I began to think about what a twelfth component could be, I realised it was just as well that I had undertaken the exercise, because I had missed something big. Most people would accept that some companies have attributes that make the unique. What I came to realize, however, is that this statement can be generalized. Every company has its unique attributes, and these form the twelfth component that can bring charisma.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Liquid gold

This is one for the Mac users amongst you (or those with secret Mac cravings) - I have fallen in love with a little app called Liquid.

One of the biggest surprise when you come into the Mac world from the outside is how obsessed the heavy-duty Maccers are with doing things with keyboard shortcuts. Given that the Mac popularised the mouse, it's rather amusing that Macfans just love to do as much as possible without ever taking their hands off the keyboard. Now this works quite well for me - in Windows, I always used to cut and paste using keystrokes, for instance. But when it comes to the Mac much more seems frequently done this way, and there are plenty of helper apps like Alfred to extend the possibilities.

Liquid is a productivity tool for people who often look things up - ideal for a writer. Let's say I'm writing about Jupiter and wanted to check a fact in Wikipedia (yes, it is possible to do this - the science coverage is usually very good). I've just typed Jupiter in Word (say). All I do is highlight the word Jupiter and hit Liquid's activating key combination followed by RW (short for Reference Wikipedia). Zippo zappo and Wikipedia opens on the page for Jupiter.
At the point I've typed Cmd-§R but not the W for Wikipedia

I can equally look things up in (say) a dictionary or Wolfram Alpha, can search the likes of Amazon and Google or can do an instant conversion, say from Celsius to Fahrenheit (something I do quite frequently). This takes a few more key presses, but it's still just select, activate keypress then C(onvert) T(emperature) C(elsius) F(ahrenheit).

It is brilliant. All that I have described so far is in the free version, but I've gone for the paid for 'Pro' version, partly because I think it is worth £2.99 and only fair to pay for it, and partly because this adds translations and the ability to include your own searches. So, for instance, I can now search as well as, can reference the full OED, which I have online access to, rather than the the cut down dictionary, and can make use of my own site (or this one).

The app's not perfect - in fact it can be rather frustrating. The default key press is Cmd-@ (for Windows users, Cmd is the equivalent of Ctrl in keyboard shortcuts). But @ is a shifted character, so it takes three fingers to do. I have switched this to Cmd-§, which is just two keys, so practical with one hand. But changing the setting isn't as easy as you might think, as you have to do it in the Mac's services control panel, as Liquid has to act at a low level to intercept keypresses. The other irritation is that occasionally the key press does nothing, and occasionally the text you highlight isn't copied into the app. You can still type what you are searching for, either calling up the app with the keypress or using its little toolbar thingy - and sometimes that is better because you might not have typed the text you want to look up - but it is a real pain when it doesn't work, as to be efficient, you want to type the control keys without needing to check the word has passed through.

Despite these minor moans, though, it's a real winner.

Friday, 17 May 2013


If you have a Kindle (or a device you can read a Kindle book on like an iPad, or Android tablet, or smartphone or PC or Mac... you get the picture) today is a momentous day as between now and 21 May, to celebrate the Cromer and Sheringham Crab and Lobster Fest (I kid you not), my friend Henry Gee's dark and gothic crime mystery By the Sea is free! (Check it out at or

It's worth writing this post just to tell you this. I mean, it has a creepy museum with a preserved mermaid! However I did have a larger point. I will be rushing to download a copy to my iPad... and yet I have already bought the real, paper version. Why would I do this? I think it represents a fundamental shift. My life is getting cloudy.

It's not that I'm abandoning paper books, but if I can have a book available in e-format as well, I will - because then if I want to look at it and I'm not at home I can do it, just like that. My library is heading cloudward.

The same thing is happening with music - I still sometimes buy CDs, but immediately slam them into iTunes. It's the same with photos. Nowadays if I take a photo it will be native in electronic format, but I am also going through a lengthy programme of scanning my old hard copy pictures. In fact the scanner is getting quite a hammering, as any documents I get in physical format that may be useful go straight into the scanner and via a nifty little app are transferred to PDF and hoovered up by Evernote - which then means I can access them wherever I want, whenever I want.

So don't look at getting a Kindle version of a book as neglecting the old paper friends. You can still keep your hard copies - but consider it a widening of your horizons. How else could you decide at a moment's notice to read about a pickled mermaid for free?

Thursday, 16 May 2013

History comes of age

History is not unlike science, an observation made by Richard Carrier, the author of Proving History - and when you think about it, this idea makes a lot of sense. They both involve weighing up evidence, testing hypotheses and drawing up conclusions. In fact arguably cosmology is, in effect history rather than science, as it involves looking into the past and it is rarely possible to subject it to experiment or repeat it to see what happens.

That being the case, to do history properly, historians really ought to be using some of the tools available to scientists, but that they tend to ignore, in part because history has been around longer, but primarily, I suspect, because most historians have neither the training nor the inclination to dip their toes into mathematics. But the message of Proving History, written by a historian, is 'Come on in, guys, the water is lovely!' Carrier doesn't mention it, but there is a precedent here. Until recently biologists were basically natural historians. They merely observed and classified - they were doing Rutherford's 'stamp collecting' - they too avoided mathematics with fear and loathing. Now, though, some branches of biology make heavy use of maths, and have been transformed as a result. Biologists have learned to love numbers and a new breed of historians (it's probably too late for the old brigade) can and must too.

The tools Richard Carrier employs are logic and Bayes' Theorem. The logic is simple enough (though it is surprising how many examples Carrier gives where historians have drawn illogical conclusions). Bayes' Theorem is a little harder to get your head around. This statistical method is something I cover at some length in Dice World, because it is arguably one of the most powerful tools we have for predicting the future. What I didn't really full absorb is that it is also a great way of weighing up historical evidence and hypotheses. (It's odd, now I think of it, that I didn't do this, as the main example I give to demonstrate Bayes is deducing whether or not my dog is a golden retriever, which is, in effect, history, rather than future gazing.)

What Bayes' Theorem does is allow you to work out the probability of something being true with limited information, and modified by secondary evidence. As mathematics goes, it is actually very simple - a doddle compared with calculus, for instance - but for some reason, the way it is traditionally described makes it really hard to grasp, so one essential in selling the value of Bayes to historians is making your description simple. Unfortunately this is where Carrier falls down. If anything he makes Bayes' theorem sound more complicated than it is.

There are a couple of other problems with the book. I'm not quite sure what the target audience is, but the book is far to dry and dull to be anything but an academic text. This is a real shame, as the message is one that everyone should be interested in - here is a tool that could transform the way we assess our historical data, that could transform history. He perhaps should have had a co-author to make the text more approachable. It's not that the content is too complex, just that the way it is put across is often difficult to absorb.

The other problem is that Carrier is setting up this method primarily to be ready for his second book, in which he will dispute the historical reality of Jesus. This being the case, most of the examples in the book are from the Bible. I think this is a mistake, because this approach is so powerful it ought to have been set out in general historical terms in book 1 before he got onto his 'historicity of Jesus' theme in book 2. I think the subject matter will put some people off, who would otherwise benefit greatly from the underlying theme.

So if you are interested in the nature of history and how it can be improved, it is worth wading through the rhetoric to get to the juicy bits. It's a shame there aren't more examples, as the writing comes to life when dealing with specifics - it is only when it is being generic, which is much of the book, that it is hard going. If you are interested in Christian history, well and good - but if you aren't, again I would urge you not to be put off because the underlying approach applies to all of history and is far too good to waste. You can see the book at and

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Is no stats worse than bad stats?

There's nothing easier than attacking the media for misusing statistics - but I am puzzled at the moment by a major story in which the news media are avoiding statistics altogether. This may be an even worse reality, because the misuse of statistics is usually accidental, where this suppression may be deliberate.

Yesterday's news was full of the outcome of the Oxford trial where seven men were found guilty of grooming and abusing young girls in a terrible fashion. It is notable that the BBC report says nothing about whether the culture of the seven might have influenced this behaviour, not even in a piece headlined 'Who were the abusers?' Last night, though, Channel 4 News bit the bullet that most are dancing around and asked if race, religion or culture could have had an influence. Here Jon Snow asks the Deputy Children's Commissioner the straight question (and this is why I love Channel 4 News) 'Is it race?' Here's the interview:

She responds equally bluntly 'No.' She tells us this is taking place across all parts of our community and in all ethnic groups. The suggestion is that the reason we only see primarily muslim offenders, mostly with Pakistan as a place of origin, is down to the way the media reports the stories, and the way cases have been brought to trial. There was, for example, she tells us, the Derby group, which was primarily white (I wanted to put a link to that, but the only Derby trial I can find details of is clearly not the one she is referring to.) That's useful. But it isn't enough. The question that needs to be asked, but wasn't, is what the statistics are.

The UK population is currently around 62 million of whom maybe 20 million fit into the broad sex/age bracket giving them the potential to commit these crimes. The equivalent numbers for UK muslims is around 2.7 million, giving around 900,000 potential perpetrators, and for those of Pakistani origin 1.2 million in total with maybe 400,000 in the right bracket.

Given these figures, if there is no influence from these factors, we would expect around 4.5% of perpetrators to be muslims and around 2% to be of Pakistani ethnicity. If the actual percentages are significantly more than these,  and with the proviso that to do the stats properly we would have to look at other factors to make sure there is not another hidden dominant influence that needs to be controlled for, we can reasonably draw the conclusion that there is influence from race, religion or culture. If, on the other hand, these percentages are roughly comparable with the distribution of actual offenders, there should be an outcry because the media and the police/courts are grossly distorting the facts.

Let's be clear - I don't have these statistics, so I can't say which is the case. But either way this would be an important fact that needed acting upon. By not giving any statistics, we are being deprived of the key element of this news story. Statistics matter.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Google Glass is half full

The world is traditionally divided into those who see a glass half full and those who think it's half empty. The optimists and the pessimists. Those who see opportunities and those who see problems. You get the picture. And I think nothing brings this out more than the widely talked about Google Glass product, in development at the moment.

In case you have just emerged from a year in a cave, this is a wearable computer interface that is like (and can be incorporated into) a pair of glasses and features a display, camera, speaker and microphone.

The Glass half full picture is that this is the sensible and wonderful extension of what you can do with a mobile phone. At the moment, when I'm walking about I will quite often ask Siri something on my phone (say to look something up, add something to my diary or reminders, or send a text), or will use maps on the phone to guide myself while walking. Similarly if I want to snap a photo or take some video I just whip out my phone and I'm doing it in seconds. Glass lets you do all this and more, hands free without looking down at the phone. Want to take a picture? Ask it and it's done in a second. Need walking directions? You can see them as you walk. Want to check your diary? No need to drag out the phone and stare at it, just carry on. It sounds life transforming and life affirming.

The Glass half empty picture is that this is the monster Google getting its tentacles into even more of your life - and the life of those around you. As you use it you could potentially constantly be providing Google with information and even images if the camera is live. And it's rude. When someone thinks you are listening to them, you may be consuming information on Glass. It is obtrusive, Big Brotherish and a nightmare. Some locations are already banning the devices.

When it comes to technology I'm largely glass half full - and this extends to Glass. I really want one, though with a number of provisos. It would need to be integrated with prescription glasses, something promised fairly quickly, but which I suspect will only be available in the UK after quite a while. It would need to be affordable - there is no way I would pay over £200 for this, as will probably be the initial price. They would need to work where I am most of the time - I don't know enough about the way they access the internet to know if this applies. And ideally they need to integrate well with my Apple technology, which given this is from the House of Android somehow seems unlikely. But that apart I would love to be able to do all that stuff.

Am I not worried about privacy? No, not really. I happily use mobile devices without panicking about losing my privacy now and I will continue to do so.

Google Glass is half full. And I can't wait to try it. But, strangely, Google is yet to send me a free headset (hint), so I thought I'd do a DIY experiment and see if I can learn anything. I stuck my phone in my top pocket with the camera on as I exited my local supermarket and this was the result:

I think there are some interesting lessons here, both for those who think Glass will give them excellent video and those who think it will be a snooper's charter:

  • Uncontrolled video is rather bumpy. Okay Glass will 'see what you see' - but bear in mind the brain is very good at editing out jerks and shaking. And this is after YouTube kindly offered to stabilize it for me.
  • There will be a lot of close-ups of things that aren't interesting. If your head is there, that's what Glass will see.
  • You will video/photo people without them realizing you are doing so. A bit worrying - but then, as I just demonstrated you can also do this with a mobile phone without anyone realizing.
  • There's a heck of a lot of ambient noise in the world. I wasn't aware of the child wailing in the supermarket.
  • Videos of your life are boring. This was 30 seconds. Imagine hours of it.
Of course, I'm not suggesting Glass wearers will constantly video everything - apart from anything else, it would drain the battery quickly. If I had Glass probably 95% of my use would be information consumption, not capture. But it was still an interesting exercise.

Monday, 13 May 2013

It's not logical, captain!

I saw the new Star Trek movie at the weekend. I really like the new version of the franchise - as a fan of both the original series and STTNG, I think they have really done well in capturing the feel of Star Trek. And, boy, did they load in the references in this one, from a tribble to the lovingly crafted inversion of Star Trek II.

However, most Star Trek movies have had fatal plot flaws. One of the STTNG movies, for instance, had the saucer section crash landing on a planet - no power, yet somehow a) it stayed in one piece and b) the crew weren't killed. They were however, as usual, thrown all over the bridge - so nice to see in the new movie the deployment of seat belts. Clunk, click, Spock! In Into Darkness there was unfortunately also a significant plot point that just didn't make sense.

[SPOILER ALERT, but I won't give too much away]

Towards the end, our heroes are desperate to get hold of Benedict Cumberbatch's character (a great, surprise reveal, by the way), as they need his blood to save one of the crew. Spock and Uhura risk their lives for this. Yet on the Enterprise they have 72 other people who all have the same blood characteristics, all handily frozen and accessible. They even defrost one so they can use his cryo tube. Why doesn't anyone say 'Let's use this guy's blood instead'? Duh.

It's fine to build drama, but not by using totally stupid reasoning. Not with Spock on board.

Image from IMDB

Friday, 10 May 2013

Truth makes great PR

Over the years there have been a number of those irritating photo messages that get repeatedly shared on Facebook showing just how different the hamburgers McDonalds shows in its advertising look from the actual burger bought in a store. In the comparison photos the one in the advert is plump with all sorts of good things visible - the real one is saggy and usually just displays a bit of meat and an ooze of cheese.

Generally speaking, the McDonalds response to this has been to ignore it - the usual corporate approach to bad publicity, but some while ago the Canadian branch of McD's decided to address the matter face on. I think this was a bold and actually very sensible thing to do from a PR standpoint. Once you get over the fact that the burger in the photo is not made in a restaurant, but in a studio (using the standard ingredients) the difference in appearance does make a kind of sense. Yes, the bits and pieces are carefully arranged to stick out of the bun, which is plumper than the real one because it hasn't been steamed in the container. But they are the usual bits and pieces.

Frankly, to moan about deception misses the nature of advertising. Arguably this is less deception than the car ad that implies that if you drive their car your kids will sit in the back enjoying the ride and amazed by the design, as opposed to attempting to skewer each other with pens, spilling drinks on your seats and screaming. You might as well moan that the actors in adverts are wearing makeup. At least the hamburger in the video didn't suffer than indignity.

See what you think:

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Do you supper?

Last week I gave a talk at the University of Bath and afterwards was invited to supper. I don't know about you, but generally speaking, I don't do supper. The word is not part of my everyday vocabulary.

Of course, being a northerner*, when I was young we used to have dinner as a midday meal and tea in the early evening - but these days it's more likely to be either lunch and tea or lunch and dinner. (The distinction between tea and dinner being primarily timing and/or where you have it. Tea is earlier than dinner, and you have tea in a tea room/the Ritz, but if you go out to a restaurant it is dinner.)

So what is this 'supper' thing? I think the origins were when some households had a quite substantial afternoon tea - 'high tea' - sandwiches and cakes, for instance - and then topped up in the evening with a light meal, perhaps a bowl of soup. But then we come across something like Colley's Supper Rooms, where 'Supper' appears to be a seven course meal. (Or rather used to be as Colley's seems to have gone bust in its original form.)

I am at a loss. Supper just doesn't work for me as a concept. (I don't like the word, either - it is too close to suppurate.) It's dining confusion. Or should that be supping confusion?

* Someone (Amanda) asked recently on Facebook whether they were still a Northerner after living down south longer than they had up north. Simple answer, yes.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Great customer service requires great recovery

In my book Capturing Customers' Hearts I emphasize how important recovery is. It's not good enough to give excellent day-to-day customer service, when things go wrong (and sometimes they will) you have to be able to recover from the problem in a way that leaves the customer thinking you are brilliant. And it's entirely possible to do so if you go about it the right way.

I've just had a great example of how not to do it at Asda. Asda (the UK Walmart) is generally on top of its day-to-day service standards. Its staff are amongst the most helpful in any UK supermarket. However they clearly haven't been trained to cope with things going wrong and to make the most of the situation. This became clear when at approximately 13.22 yesterday their EPOS system went down in our local superstore. Every single till, human-operated and automatic, stopped working.

First failing: it took too long to get announcements out about what was happening. And they ought to have got an extra person on each till lane immediately to manage the irritated queues, preferably with a nice tin of sweets.

Second failing: the system came back pretty quickly on the operative tills, but the self-checkouts got confused. In the lane of six where I was trying to check out, three of the tills (including mine) decided to reboot, two froze just after apparently taking payment but without issuing a receipt or confirmation of payment and one continued operating normally. Here there were multiple failings:
  • The staff member in charge of the tills spent most of the down time on the phone, asking what to do. It was fine for her to do a get a quick 'get a manager here now!' call, but her focus should have been on the customers.
  • The customers at the two tills that had apparently taken payment should have been given the option to leave with their goods, if they didn't mind not having a receipt. Okay, the store might have taken a £10 loss, but it would have been worth it a) to please 2 customers and b) to reduce the number of irate people in a concentrated space.
  • The three tills that were rebooting were going to take 10 minutes or so to become functional again. This should have been made clear, but wasn't.
  • The till that was still working was initially ignored. It was only because I said 'Can I try that one, it seems to be working?' (and it was) that the staff member started routing people through it.
  • The people queuing to enter the lane were being ignored. They should have been warned that only one till might be operating for some time.
  • I would also have offered people a voucher (£1 would be enough) as compensation for being messed around. Easily done, cheap, helps ensure people come back.
This is top of the head stuff. There's more they could have done. But the main problem is that the staff had no training in what to do if things did go wrong, nor any discretion to sort the problem out. Without those two keys there is no good recovery, and customer service goes down the plughole.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

How not to write a TV series

I have just finished watching the new Netflix originated series, Hemlock Grove. As I had really enjoyed their previous (and first) attempt at a home-grown series, House of Cards, I was looking forward to HG. Admittedly it is a horror show, and I am rather averse to gross horror (though clever, funny horror makes Buffy my favourite TV show ever), but I was willing to make allowances.

By about half way through the 13 episodes I thought that watching was a good move. The show was genuinely mystifying, very atmospheric and though leisurely in the extreme, there was enough complexity in the plot to keep the viewer interested - plus some genuinely intriguing characters. Ok, some aspects (Shelley's appearance, particularly) were trying too hard to be weird, but that was forgivable.

But then I watched the last two episodes and it all fell apart. Entirely. [ALERT - Spoilers coming.]

There was a lot left hanging for the next season. Well you expect that from a US series - they love their cliffhangers. That wasn't the end of the world. But first there was a senseless sacrifice, when it would have been perfectly possible to destroy the main killer of the series without any loss on the side of the good guys. Given the choice, which would you go for? Kill a werewolf before it turned (as it was actually asking you to do), or wait and let it bite your face off? So you could turn into a werewolf. And then have it kill you again. Limited on the logic front, to say the least.

And there was a sudden and senseless sequence of killings of most of the strong female characters. It isn't done all at once, so the sexism was not totally obvious, but women were dying left, right and centre. This was confusing, ruined any feeling you might have for the show and really left the viewer floundering. Add to that a decidedly unpleasant move from one of the (admittedly fairly weird) male sort-of-heroes and the revelation that the thing that has been striking terror throughout, carefully concealed to build its importance, is just an update of a Bodysnatchers pod person and it was a huge anti-climax.

The TV series is based on a book, and it's possible the book originated many of these problems. But as it was, what happened was there was great mystery and atmosphere built up... that all collapsed when the reveal showed the whole basis to be a sham. Bad choice of story, I'm afraid - and I'm not sure I will be bothered with season 2.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 3 May 2013

And the prize for head in the sand goes to...

This won't replace an iPad
The whole history of computing is littered with people making wildly inaccurate predictions. Famously Thomas J. Watson, Mr Big in the early days of IBM, believed that there was only a worldwide market for about five electronic computers. If we ignore things like washing machines, but include smartphones, games consoles and PVRs, we must have around three times that in our house alone.

Even so, you would think by now that some computing bigwigs would learn their lesson. But no. The head honcho of struggling mobile manufacturer BlackBerry, Thorsten Heins has announced that tablet computers - iPads and Kindle Fires and all those other Android equivalents - will be dead within five years. A flash in the pan. A short term craze that will go the way of hula hoops (the toy, not the crisp) and clackers.

Apparently Thorsten said 'In five years, I don't think there'll be a reason to have a tablet anymore... Maybe a big screen in your workplace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.'

No, Mr Thorsten, BlackBerry tablets - the much derided 'Playbooks' - were not a good business model, because they weren't very good tablets. But to expand your experience to the whole market is ridiculous.  Thorsten sees mobiles like their latest, the BlackBerry Z10 (which is basically BlackBerry just about  catching up with Apple and Samsung) replacing tablets. I'm sorry, they won't.

The fact is I have a very nice smartphone, and I can read books and PDFs on it, or do spreadsheets or Word documents - and I do when all else fails. But I don't most of the time, because it's so much more practical and productive on my iPad. I can see it's quite possible that laptops will only still exist for power users as they are replaced by tablets for most people - but not tablets replaced by phones. I have now abandoned laptops and only use my iPad for mobile computing - and I know increasing numbers of people who do this.

Tablets are taking the domestic market by storm, but inevitably they are slower to penetrate in business, BlackBerry's heartland, because business IT departments are (often sensibly) very conservative, but they will come. Of course there will always be power business users who do serious graphics, or write all day who will want a 'real' computer, but I can see an awful lot of business computing eventually done on next generation tablets.

I don't know if there is a head-in-the-sand award for business, but if there is, I know who should get it.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

An elegant folly

There was a time when any rich landowner worth his salt would build himself a folly, a bit of architectural madness designed to improve the view from his house or garden. Some of them are absolutely stunning - a fake castle built on the hills above or a bizarre three-sided tower looming at the edge of the grounds. The are all about appearance. They don't do anything apart from sit there and look wonderful. But this doesn't detract from their value.

I would say that a book I've been sent for review recently is the literary equivalent of one of those follies. It is magnificent, if practically hollow. The Resurrectionist is the first book by E. B. Hudspeth. It is a book of two parts. The first is the fictional biography of a late Victorian medical man, who starts as someone with a brilliant reputation as a surgeon helping to repair deformities. But over time he comes to believe that birth defects hark back to earlier forms of life now lost, forms that we retain in folk memories as mythical beasts like centaurs, harpies and satyrs. As this idea takes hold we see the surgeon, Spencer Black, descending to become a sideshow artist in a carnival, displaying first preserved freaks of nature (common enough in sideshows of the time), then creating his own fake corpses of hybrid creatures before finally plunging into the abyss of attempting to create these creatures alive. It is a dark and often unpleasant history.

The second part of the book consists of multiple anatomical drawings of these 'real' mythical beasts, with detailed skeletons, partially muscled cutaways and complete images of what they may have looked like when they roamed the Earth. I was a little disappointed there wasn't more narrative here. The problem, for instance, with flying horses and people is that they have far too much weight for the size of wing/musculature to ever lift - but there was no explanation of how this was got around.

However, there is no doubt that the drawings are beautifully done, with a totally straight face on the part of the author. It is truly a magnificent folly - but for me it doesn't quite work. The problem is that, unless you are into anatomy, once you've seen one detailed drawing of a skeleton, you've seen them all. So the second half of the book is worth little more than a quick flick through.

As for the first half, it is very neatly done with faked up posters and newspaper cuttings and sketches - but the problem here is that is almost too well done. What we have is a sober short biography of a Victorian character - but because this is how it is presented it has none of the dramatic drive of a good bizarre novel. I had to force myself not to skip some bits, because it was just a bit, well, worthy. Of course it isn't really - like the folly it is a cunning, intricate fake - but the trouble is it is a cunning intricate fake of something which is, despite the bizarre subject, rather dull.

Overall then, a brilliant idea, superbly executed, it just doesn't quite work as a piece of fiction for me, and I'm afraid the anatomical section, while briefly entertaining, did not hold my attention.

Find out more at and

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Science in a pub? What can possibly go wrong?

Science festivals are great. A brilliant opportunity to hear about exciting science with similar minded people - which is another way of saying fellow geeks. (Don't worry about this, by the way. Ever since Buffy the Vampire Slayer it has been okay to be a geek. Embrace your inner geek.) The only thing is they tend to be rather pompous, formal affairs in venues that would otherwise be used for events like weddings (think marquees and town halls) or for dull university lectures. However there's a shiny new festivalette that is putting the science in possibly the best conceivable place - the pub.

It's called 'Pint of Science' and the organizers proudly say 'We are bringing science out of labs, seminars, lecture halls or classrooms to a place where everyone feels comfortable voicing their opinion over a pint.'

Another innovation is that it is on in three venues simultaneously: London, Cambridge and Oxford and in total there are 75 speakers and 15 pubs involved. What's not to love?

You can find out more at the website, imaginatively named (if, like me you get a blank page, try a different web browser. The site seems incompatible with Safari). There are three strands: the brain, the body and biotechnology. And best of all it's free! (Though don't get too excited, you will have to pay for drinks.) It's important you book online as some of the events (in fact most of the London ones) are already sold out.

And the dates? Tinglingly soon as it's 14-16 May. Go forth and sciencify! And mine's a pint.