Friday, 28 June 2013

Civil engineers? Nice chaps!

A long time ago, in a galaxy that bore a distinct resemblance to the Milky Way, I co-authored a book on business creativity called Imagination Engineering. It did quite well and it still sells today. This was when my colleague Paul Birch and I were first setting up giving training in creativity, and the main purpose of the book was to be the guide to our method. It described our approach to stimulating ideas and solving problems.

Something we thought that might be useful was to give some sort of simile or metaphor that would help us to describe and encourage the process of producing an enhancing ideas. We wanted it to be something that was all about pioneering, about boldly going and all that kind of thing. So we hit on the simile of civil engineering, saying our approach to creativity was like being the first to build roads and railways and structures out in a new and unexplored land.

To be honest, we don't use the simile anymore, as it got in the way more than it helped. One of the essential learning points of creativity is that you will fail sometimes. It's all part of the creative process. (Which is why politicians struggle so much with anything creative - they can only see failure as being a disaster. I think it is because they played too many competitive sports at school.) So that wasn't a problem - in fact it has helped us refine the approach.

Even so, the simile is still there in the book, which is why we were initially rather disconcerted, but then delighted to discover this in Yellow Pages:

Of course, the civil engineers we had in mind were the pioneering kind, not the kind that lay sewer pipes in Surbiton high street. But even so it was a salutary reminder that not everyone views things the same way. That was a genuine entry, by the way. It disappeared after a few years, presumably as a result of complaints from the Institute of Civil Engineers or some such body.

I wonder, has Yellow Pages or its equivalents ever carried any equally entertaining accidental comments on the topic advertised?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

It's a fraction but my fraction

The way most of use computer programs makes sledgehammers and nuts a minor infringement on the 'getting the scale right' tally. Our requirements are orders of magnitude simpler than the programs' ability. 

Take Audacity, the impressively free audio editing program I use. It can do all sorts of exciting things. Just look at that huge menu of effects of which I use... one. The program comes in hugely useful when I edit the tracks recorded for my company's increasingly vast emporium of organ pieces and hymn accompaniments, but my routine is always the same. Read in a track, make sure the lead in and out are consistent times, wipe any audio before the playing, fade out the audio at the end. And save. Touching a tiny part of the application's capabilities.

Though it's not so extreme most of us also have a limited repertoire in more familiar programs, whether it's an office suite like Word, Excel and Powerpoint, or image manipulation. Just like Audacity, the image editor I use, Pixelmator, has vast power - it's rather like Photoshop without the diamond encrusted price tag. But I only ever use a tiny fraction of it.

So some people think that the answer is pared down, super-efficient programs that just do the essentials. The Mac world is littered with writing apps, for instance, many of which boast that they only provide the basics, clearing away clutter, helping you concentrate on the task at hand.

But therein lies the rub. What is the task? What are the basics? Because, while I only use a few features of Word, they are my features. The features that are important to me. I've been involved with PCs since the very beginning and many of the early word processors didn't have a word count feature. It simply didn't occur to the developers - why would anyone want to know how many words there are in a document? And that was fine from their viewpoint. In fact most business users don't really care. But if you are a writer there are two certain facts. First, you need a word processor. Second, it needs to be able to do a word count.

As a writer you don't need most of the fancy layout abilities. When someone asks me how to do a page border or why fancy table layouts aren't working I hoot with amusement. I don't care. These aren't my features. But for others, they are essentials.

So next time you hear someone moaning about 'feature bloat' and how ridiculously over-complex applications are, and how the developers need to get back to basics, raise a quizzical eyebrow. 'Yes, but whose basics?' you should say. And feel suitably smug.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Shaping the past

In my project to scan all my old photos I have just come across this little number from circa 1917.

 Before anyone adds a sarcastic comment I should add that I was not around in 1917, but the picture is of great interest to me as the young lady reclining at the front in her exotic harem pants (but jolly sensible shoes) is my grandmother, Annie Clegg (though at the time Annie Pickersgill, as my grandad was still just her sweetheart, fighting in the First World War).

This is some sort of pageant organized by the local vicar, the Reverend Oakley, best known probably for his rather entertaining book of local legends In Old Days, which features the story of the Clegg Hall boggart that I replicate in my article on Clegg Hall.

I don't have any great observations or wise words about this photo - but I find it fascinating, not just in terms of my seeing my grandma in a whole new light, but those others. What became of them? Are their families still in the area? What kind of lives did these girls on the edge of becoming women have?

I hope they were happy ones.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The plans are on display

One of the best bits of The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and there are, indeed, many best bits) involves the development plans that result in the demolition of Arthur Dent's house. When he complains, he is told the plans have been on display for the last nine months. Yes, points out Arthur, they were in the cellar, which had no lights or stairs, in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'.

I felt something of this coming back to me when I decided to follow up just what was going on with the form I was kindly sent by the 'World Trade Register' for my company to be listed on their website.

The form kindly tells me that 'Updating is free of charge', and I should only sign if I want to place an insertion. Okay, what does that actually mean? There is no mention on the form of any charges incurred if I do sign, but in the small print it tells me that signing the document means I accept the terms and conditions on their web page.

Okay, I like a challenge. So I went to the web page and sure enough I am told that 'by sending an order the customer accepts these terms' (though the signature part isn't mentioned here) and that they will be invoiced if they don't cancel in 7 days. Yes, an invoice. Because updating may be free of charge, but inserting certaining isn't. How much does it cost? Go down a few paragraphs and it is casually mentioned that the insertion fee for the first 3 years is €2,985. That's about £2,500 or $4,000. Not a bad profit for listing someone in a register.

Of course, this may be all of huge value to the companies in question, though it would make a very interesting business case. But what is without doubt is that the 'Updating is free of charge' (the only print in that section in bold, and the only statement in the covering email about charges) is at best misleading, and the indirect route via the small print to the terms and conditions page on the website is not what you might call the most transparent bit of pricing.

Somehow I don't think I will be signing up.

Monday, 24 June 2013

What does 'live' mean to us?

The Thursday before last I went to see a play that was being performed that evening in a London theatre. I was in Swindon. This was the NT Live presentation of The Audience. The play itself was on in London, but we were watching it beamed into our local cinema.

I have to say, the experience was excellent. The play was very good and the visuals were excellent. They even had programmes, not to mention wine and beer for sale in the interval. And the staff were unusually attentive as we went out more like... well, a theatre than the local multiplex. So many thanks to Joe and Sarah for organizing it, as we would have never have got round to it.

It got me to thinking about the nature of seeing something live. With some kind of events, there is definitely something special about seeing it live, even if it is via a video link. It was interesting that someone I know online saw the same production from a cinema on the Isle of Man - and I had a real sense of shared experience, far more than if we had both just watched something on the TV. I think it is the immediacy and more real-feeling aspect of the location. Being in a cinema is a lot more like being in a theatre than sitting on the couch at home.

Increasingly I tend not to watch TV shows truly live. I'd say around 75 per cent of my viewing is either timeshifted using a PVR or streamed from Netflix. And that's fine. But there is something special about truly watching it live. The idea that it really is unfolding in front of you. Even the possibility that something could go wrong as you watch. It is why at the tender age of 14 I stayed up all night to watch the Moon landing. You just had to be there.

Once upon a time, 'being there' was cut and dried. Either you were there or you weren't. End of story. Now it is a continuum. There is really being there, there is being there in the sense that we were there at the performance of The Audience, there is being there live on TV and there is being there in a recorded TV broadcast.

Of course really being there is often best. If you take Wimbledon, for instance, the actual view is much better on TV, but I remember my only time at the real thing, seeing Jimmy Connors in his last ever semi-final, far more than anything I've ever seen on screen. But there is no doubt that with events like NT Live we are making it a lot easier to almost be there where it's not practical to do the real thing. And we got home by 10pm without an immense hole in the wallet. What's not to love?

Saturday, 22 June 2013

BBC lunacy - official

The Supermoon will not look like this. Unless you
have a telescope. In which case, any full moon could
look like this.
Yes, the BBC's science correspondents are lunatics - and it's not only the BBC that I accuse (in the original sense of the word 'lunatic' - driven bonkers by the influence of the moon). For once again we are bombarded with 'news' about the Supermoon tomorrow when, yes, it will be a teensy bit brighter than it was last night.

The night sky is set to be illuminated later by what will appear to be a much bigger and brighter Moon, screams the BBC tagline. Well, no, it won't. This is misuse of statistics, but those stats just happen to be hidden beneath weasel terms like 'much bigger' and 'much brighter'.

First of all, we have to ask 'much bigger' and 'much brighter' than what? The obvious comparison is with the night before, and I can confidently predict that the difference will be unnoticeable. But let's go all the way and compare the Moon's appearance this weekend with the way it is at its most distant and dimmest, because of course we can all remember what it looked like months ago. According to the BBC article, it will be 14% brighter than when it is at its furthest away. That sounds a lot, right? Let's compare with light bulbs. The light output of a bulb does not have a linear relationship with the power, but I have calculated that a 66 watt bulb is roughly 14% brighter than a 60 watt bulb. That's the kind of difference we are looking at.

Even more dramatic is the website's claim that the Moon will seem '30% bigger'. Of course this is a meaningless statistic as it doesn't define what is bigger, but let's assume this is the increase in area, as that sound more dramatic than the increase in diameter, and they are bound to use the most dramatic figure to add, erm, a sense of drama to a totally uninteresting event. The apparent diameter of the Moon is about the same as a 5mm punched hole held at arm's length. (Sounds ridiculously small? That's your amazing brain, fooling you.) To produce a 30% increase in area requires a 14% increase in diameter. So assuming my 5mm is the average between Supermoon and Weeniemoon, we are looking at around an apparent diameter of the Moon of the equivalent of about 5.3mm at arm's length at its biggest. Whoopie-doo.

The article compounds confusion by talking about the psychological effect that makes the Moon look much bigger than it really is when it is close to the horizon, trees or buildings as if this is an effect of the Supermoon, rather than something that happens whenever we see the Moon. Groan and double groan.

Altogether an appalling bit of work of which the BBC should be ashamed. They say 'We'd like to see your pictures of the supermoon' as if anyone could tell the difference between them and pictures of any other full moon.

Sadly, even properly scientific sources are going a bit bonkers over this, trying to get their moment in the spotlight (or Supermoonlight). Stop being naughty, people. It's a small effect of very little significance. Tell us some real science.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 21 June 2013

Contactless missed a trick

My trusty Oyster card
I haven't used contactless payment cards much. This isn't an aversion to using new technology - I love it - or worries about the security, it's just that the only contactless bank card I've got at the moment is a credit card and I pay for most things with a debit card. But seeing it in action the other day made me think that those rolling out the technology have (perhaps because of a vested interest) missed a big trick.

Like many others, even though I don't live in London, I have an Oyster card, the contactless payment method that is the most convenient way to use London Transport. It's a card you load up, then use - so effectively an electronic cash wallet. And it struck me, why don't contactless payment devices accept Oyster cards? It's the same technology, and with a bit of inter-connection on the back end so it could access your Oyster account, the card would become a cashless payment wallet. Great, for instance, to give to children with no danger of over-spending.

We have some experience of this in Swindon. When I first arrived here it was on the tail end of the trial of Mondex, one of the first large scale trials of a cashless payment system. Even though I was late to the game, I relished it. But Oyster would have huge advantages over Mondex in the way it is already well established in London, and with the flood of contactless payment terminals that is spreading through the land. (Contactless payment for car parks next, please, guys.)

For that matter, the Oyster system would be much better if it accepted contactless debit and credit card payments too, but that would be a bigger infrastructure change. Getting Oyster cards accepted as cashless wallets seems to me a much more practical possibility.

How about it?

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Bloomsday doomsday

The shrine of the literary trainspotter
I gather Sunday, apart from being Father's Day, was also 'Bloomsday' the day when James Joyce fans with nothing better to do celebrate their master's work.

You might suspect that I am not among their number - and you would be right. I have had a couple of attempts at reading Joyce and failed miserably. In part it is because I absolutely hate stream of consciousness. I have never, ever seen it work acceptably. It is just boring. But also because, while I am prepared to put some effort into reading a book - I don't expect it all to be effortless page-turning - I do expect the author to have some expertise in putting information across, and, frankly, I think Joyce is terrible at it.

This is rather similar to my beef with the kind of artists where it is impossible to appreciate their work without an instruction book. Art should communicate. If you need help to understand it, it is bad art. It might take time for the language to be fully understood (think of the iffy reception the likes of Beethoven had early on), but the viewers/listeners should be able to get there on their own.

To me, being a Joyce fan is a bit like being a trainspotter or a mountain climber. (As far as I am concerned they are basically both people who like to tick things off in their little books, mental or otherwise. It's just the trainspotters have found a way to do it where you don't risk your life and you can  drink a flask of tea at the same time. We won't mention anoraks.) Reading Joyce is about patting yourself on the back for having managed to achieve the feat, but you don't get photos of yourself on the summit to bore your friends with.

Let's be clear. I have nothing against mountain climbers or trainspotters. But I think we need to put Joyce into proportion - and making the comparison helps clarify things for me.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Why I am not impressed by a lot of flying saucer photos

 A while ago I reviewed a book of UFO photos, commenting that I had severe doubts about the images, partly because a fair number of them were very similar to the fakes I used to do in my youth (just for fun).

I commented 'One of the problems with the hubcap technique is that it tended to fly, and so to be photographed, at an unnatural angle – yet time after time these “unexplained and inexplicable” shots in the book are of fuzzy, out of focus hubcap-like objects at the same kind of angle as I found so irritating when I tried to fake my pictures.'

I am gradually scanning in my old photos and have just found a couple of these hubcap style photos (this was actually a metal camping plate). They were taken over Aviemore in Scotland in a very high wind that meant if you threw the plate against the wind it would hover extremely impressively.


This is clearly a real saucer because it is hovering in the same position in two separate photos, just at a slightly different angle. This was intentionally done, using the mound the person is standing on in the second image as a reference point. Note also that it was clearly there a long time, as the first shot is in early dawn light and the second much later. (Actually they were minutes apart, that's a bit of cheeky post-processing.)

Here is the traditional much-too-blown-up shot from the image above. If this was in a UFO book we would be asked to note the clear pyramid-shaped lighter coloured propulsion unit beneath, the suggestion of a superstructure above the saucer, and the way the drive field is distorting the air around it. 

No, it is just a tin plate, throw frisby-style into the wind.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Of agnostics and unicorns

I am not agnostic about this. It is a horse with
a narwhal tusk as a rather showy bit of bling
Every now and then the hoary business of religion and science rears its head. I am generally quite happy with Stephen Jay Gould's concept of non-overlapping magisteria, and if we stuck to that we'd have a lot less bickering (and hopefully hear a lot less from Richard Dawkins), but I made the mistake of commenting on a Facebook post after someone was promoting atheism as the best scientific viewpoint. I retorted that I thought the only true scientific viewpoint was agnosticism. (This doesn't mean, by that way, that scientists can't be believers or atheists - merely that when they do so, they are not being scientific. NOMa.)

I got a kick-back moaning that you couldn't be agnostic about god, and if you did, you might as well be agnostic about unicorns. This irritated me and I made a rather snippy remark, asking if they knew what 'agnosticism' means. The dictionary definition of agnostic is 'A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of immaterial things, especially of the existence or nature of God' - so to say you can't be agnostic about God doesn't make a lot of sense, because it is inherent in the definition of the word.

In fact, the comparison with unicorns misses the point. I believe that sloths exist, even though I have never seen one, based on indirect evidence. I similarly believe that unicorns don't exist based on a total absence of evidence. Although as they (irritatingly) say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, we would expect there to be some physical evidence of unicorns because they are supposed to be physical creatures. But we don't.

God is a whole different ballgame, and the proper comparison would be an invisible dragon in my garage that does not trigger any kind of sensor, not a unicorn. As these are hypothetical non-physical entities, the absence of physical evidence is clearly not enough to establish non-existence of either God or the dragon. So the starting point really ought to be agnosticism. In principle I am agnostic about the existence of invisible, undetectable dragons. But I tend towards atheism on the matter of there being an invisible dragon in my garage, because no one is making this claim. Certainly not me.

There is a difference of scale, though, between God and the dragon. Billions of people claim that God exists. This doesn't make it true. Lots of people used to think the Sun went around the Earth. Lots of people still believe the Earth was created in 4004 BC. There is good evidence they are wrong on both counts. But the point is that there is no evidence that the God believers are wrong - merely absence of evidence that they are right. And this being the case, I genuinely believe that agnosticism is the only scientific view to take.

If you want to tell me there is an invisible dragon in your garage, and you genuinely believe this to be true, then I am happy to be agnostic about that too.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 17 June 2013

Deer Island

This is a book I would never have read if I hadn't met the author in a writers' forum, but I am very glad I did. It is way outside the classifications I generally read. In fact it is probably outside classification altogether. It is a sort of social issues/nature memoir.

Realistically, the author's life experience is way outside mine. Leaving aside the two main topics of the book, in the intermission, as it were, he is riding an ancient motorbike around the far North of the UK with his Swedish girlfriend. In a rough Scottish town he is told to keep his voice down as it's a rough place and if he were noticed it would be provocative. He comments he had often been told this - in Belfast, Harlem and Bogotà. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen. Or for that matter, most of us dear readers.

If, like me, you find flowery descriptions of nature off-putting, don't be thrown by the introduction - like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which famously begins ('Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.') after a while it settles down. 

The main thrust of the book alternates between life pretty much down but not out in London and life in semi-paradise on the Hebridean island of Jura. The London segments are the more gripping - one working with a charity for the homeless and the other as a squatter in a building with what starts as a quite a gentle experience but goes down hill over the year the author was there. I can relate slightly to the first of these - it reminds me in some ways of my time as a volunteer with a rather down-at-heel branch of the Samaritans - but the second is scarily alien.

Then there is Jura, twice visited, so different in character from the city. This I find much easier to relate to. The author mentions hitchiking a lot elsewhere, and when his bike broke down on Jura on the first visit, he and his girlfriend had to hitch to the village. I have never hitched in my life, I am far too wary. But when I spent 2 weeks  on the next island out from Jura, Colonsay, it was notable if ever you walked along the road, every passing car would stop and ask if you wanted a lift. You didn't hitch a ride, they hitched a passenger.

This is a short book - if it had been fiction, it would be a novella - and you can read it in afternoon. It left me wanting more, and having read it, I suspect I will savour it much longer.

You can find out more/buy Deer Island at here, and at here.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Science is not my friend

Now look, I am all in favour of this science thing. I spend my time telling people how good it is, and writing about its wonders. So you would think that in return it could at least behave itself. But no. It has to go and show itself up for the spoiled brat of an intellectual field that it is. It's all a matter of carnations.
Go red, you horrors!

In my role of occasional domestic lab assistant I was asked to prepare a classic 'carnations with food dye to demonstrate osmosis' jobby. No worries. I did it all by the book. Fresh flowers? Check. Newly cut diagonally under water to prevent air bubbles? Check. Warm but not hot water? Check. Ten to twenty drops of food colouring? Check. And three days the later the little horrors have not taken on a hint of colour.

My suspicion is that they are now treating flowers to make them last longer out of water without wilting with something that prevents or at least reduces their ability to take in water. But that's not the point. This is science. Repeatability is everything. I have been let down.

On a more serious note, it demonstrates how a small variation in materials/initial conditions can be disastrous in terms of outcome - and this does make you wonder just how many real science experiments, with much more complicated setups, have elements in their construction that the scientists aren't aware of that could introduce a variation in output. Could a new type of oil on some minor component in ALICE produce a different result for the LHC? I doubt it, but can we be certain? 

Last year's brief 'neutrinos go faster than light' shock demonstrated that it is entirely possible in one of these big experiments for a small aspect that doesn't seem central to the measurement to totally throw the results, just like my carnations. 

Of course it's not really science I have a problem with, it is our ability to know exactly what we are dealing with when we assemble an experiment. In his fascinating book Time Reborn, Lee Smolin makes the point that we tend to assume our experiments are closed systems. That most fundamental of physical principles, the second law of thermodynamics, only applies to closed systems. Yet, in fact, we have no experience of a true closed system (unless the universe is a closed system, but even that may well not be the case). 

There are many ways that closing a system is impossible, but the most obvious one is gravity. We can't exclude the impact of external gravitational forces because we have no way of shielding against gravity. We are just very lucky that gravity is incredibly weak compared with the other physical forces, so on the whole (but not always) we don't have to worry about its impact.

So spare a thought for scientists, whether building an experiment on the desktop or something on the scale of the LHC. They don't just have to get the right equipment together to make their measurements, they have to try to exclude all possible misleading inputs - even when they don't know what they are. There are unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. 

I think I might have to ring CERN for some help with my carnations...

Thursday, 13 June 2013

All in a good cause

I am currently scanning in some old photos from my university days and I feel I have to share the Winter 1976 British Lecture Attendance "Record Breaking" Expedition that took place in Cambridge on 20 February 1976. The aim was to attend as many lectures as a possible in a single morning, raising funds for RAG '76.

Those present above are Dave Izod, Rod Hill, Me, Helmut Jakubowicz, Dick Lacey, Neil Thomas and Andy Brookes and (taking the photo but on the right below) Mark Saville. We stormed into the lectures, held up the lecturer and demanded money with menaces.

I do appear to be wearing a skirt. This is because a couple of those present designed a 'British Board of Lecture Censors' certificate to post up at each lecture. In the corner of the certificate was a picture of their sponsor, 'Mrs Ethel Trappit.' For some reason they used a picture of me with a Newcastle Brown bottle. (I was not amused initially.) So I had to, really.

Those attending the lectures seemed highly entertained. Not surprising really. They were students.

Perhaps rather more surprising was the good grace of the lecturers, who allowed us to disrupt their teaching with surprisingly few moans. Although the physicist below did seem a little wary of the (toy) gun. (We would probably be arrested as terrorists today.)

What I had totally forgotten was the 'Boo Now' sign in the bottom left of the photo below, prepared to get the audience on our side in case we had any trouble from lecturers. It is also notable that the gangster with the hat, shades and violin case to the right below is now himself a professor. I wonder how he would react if this happened to him?

There is an epilogue. A year later I went to visit someone I knew from home, who was at Lancaster University. He had on his wall one of the British Board of Lecture censor certificates, given to him by a friend of his who had been at one of the lectures we hit. So this person who I was visiting had my picture on his wall without realising it. Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the certificate any more, but this is a fuzzy picture of what was there:

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

What's yours and what's mine?

We have a difficult dilemma. Our daughter has had an iPod (and now an iPhone) for a number of years. When she started using it she was a child, so of course we set her up on our account.

Over the years she has bought a fair amount of music. Now, this is fun for me, because my iTunes has access to all these trendy songs, some of which I rather like. But here's the thing. Now she is an adult she wants to do her own thing. She doesn't want to be on our iTunes account any more. But if she starts a new account, she starts from scratch. She loses her hundreds of tracks. And there is no way to transfer them across.

Take a look online and you will find lots of people asking how to split an iTunes account, sadly in many cases because a couple has split up. It's almost a cliché, a couple deciding who gets which CDs from their collection when they break up and go their separate ways, but on iTunes they are scuppered. It is all or nothing.

Now it is possible that the indivisible iTunes library could mean fewer divorces. But I think on the whole this inability to split a digital library is a bad thing. It is going to be needed more and more as we move to a more cloud-based world. And it is time companies like Apple and Amazon caught up with the reality that they are hosting some of our most treasured assets - and they had better find a way to split these when someone starts off on their own.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Is the Director of Public Prosecutions innumerate?

It varies a lot, so Mr Starmer couldn't average it
Listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 a few days ago (5 June), I couldn't help wonder if the Director of Public Prosecutions, the exotically named Keir Starmer, struggles with numbers and particularly with statistics.

There were two issues with Mr Starmer's answers. The interviewer was trying to get Starmer to put a percentage on the point at which the prosecution service would take a case forward. What was the probability of success required before prosecuting? Starmer couldn't reply. There just, he said, had to be a reasonable chance of success. The actual percentage could vary from case to case. That's really not good enough. What does 'a reasonable chance' mean? There is an implied number in there - but he's not admitting what it is. And if it does vary from case to case, fine. But what are the criteria? It's fair enough to say there isn't a consistent percentage of likelihood across different types of case (though there needs to be a clear reason for varying it), but there needs to be a good logical reason for doing this. Without it, the justice system is anything but transparent and potential subject to misuse.

The second problem Mr Starmer has is that he clearly doesn't understand what an average is. He was asked how long it took them to consider a case and replied 'It varies a lot, so we can't come up with a average.' Well, no Mr Starmer, this is exactly when you can come up with an average. If it was always 21 days you wouldn't need an average - it is only if there is variability that you need one. Of course if it is an interesting distribution you need to tell us a bit more - the median, perhaps, and what the distribution is like. But this provides no excuse for hiding behind vagueness.

There are two possibilities here. Either Mr Starmer is innumerate or he was trying to conceal things with deliberate vagueness. Taking the kind view that no deception was involved, perhaps we can make sure that when he is replaced we get someone who has familiarity with the basics of statistics and can make sure his department is acting fairly and logically - impossible without having a grasp of those numbers.

Monday, 10 June 2013

With light handling marks

One of my sales
We hear a lot about how evil Amazon is, the way they ruin things for friendly local bookshops. And there is a degree of truth in this. But it isn't an entirely balanced view. After all, with Amazon I can be shopping in the afternoon and have a book delivered next day, far easier than ordering a book from my local shop. But that isn't the advantage I want to discuss here.

I get sent a lot of books to review, and when I have finished with them I sell them most of them. I don't feel guilty about this - I'm mostly not paid for doing the reviews so a fiver or whatever I get for selling the book on is not exactly an unreasonable compensation. And I am always reminded of science fiction author Brian Aldiss's excellent memoir Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith's in which he remembers working in a bookshop in Oxford which had frequent visits from poet laureate John Betjeman, turning up with boxes full of books he had been sent to review and wanted to sell.

I am a very careful reader, and the books usually still look new after I've finished them, so I tend to sell them 'Used like new - has been read with light handling marks.' And here's the point I wanted to make about bookshops. That is the condition of a book you buy as 'new' from a bookshop. If you are lucky. Because they have been taken off the shelves, manhandled, sneezed on and generally abused by the browsers. Where if I by a book new from Amazon it really is new, as pristine as when it left the publisher.

This might seems trivial, but it is not. Why, after all do I still buy paper books? I can read them just as well and usually cheaper on an iPad. But I quite often do buy paper books, for the pleasure of owning and handling them. And if I am going to do that, I much prefer them not to have been pawed by the general public.

One up for buying online, I feel.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Too many charities

As I left the supermarket the other day I had to run the gauntlet of someone collecting for an obscure charity. I pointedly looked the other way and hurried past. This sounds heartless, but I genuinely believe that we have too many little charities, which result in dilution of the results that the money provided could bring.

Don't get me wrong - I am not talking about all small charities. I used to be a trustee of a local charity called the Zaslowya Project (ZP), and I am still a supporter. This was one of a good number of charities, usually with 'Chernobyl' in their name, that were set up in response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, usually targeting children in neighbouring Belarus, which bore the brunt of the fallout.

Like most of these charities, ZP was set up to bring children to the UK on extend stays - usually about a  month - because it has been put about that by doing so, the level of radiation in the children's bodies dropped significantly and this extended their predicted lifespan by a considerable amount. It has turned out that the whole Chernobyl/radiation thing is something of a red herring. There was never any scientific basis for the original claim, the impact of the radiation seems significantly less than first thought, and even if it were true, taking the children out of the country for a few weeks could only ever have a minor, short term effect.

What ZP does now is concentrate on supporting the children back home - because there is a lot of poverty which, combined with rampant alcoholism amongst adults, results in some dire home lives. The charity does still bring children over on a small scale, but this is primarily to make bonds with donors - the real work goes on back in Belarus.

I have no problem with ZP, or a charity supporting, say, a local hospice. They do great work. No, the ones I have problems with, like the one in the supermarket foyer, are those that nibble away at a bigger charity's important work. They usually combine children with a disease - leukaemia is a common one, tugging at the heartstrings. And I absolutely understand why people feel the need to do this. However I would suggest that the most important thing with diseases is to get them cured, and it would be much better if the money given to these small charities was focussed instead with the big boys like Cancer Research. Yes, care is also important - and if you want to, go with something like Macmillan. But cure and prevention is by far the top priority. I'm afraid these little, well-meaning me-too outfits must divert funds from where they can do most good.

You may wonder if the same should also apply to something like ZP - as I mentioned this is one of many 'Chernobyl' charities. There are several others in Swindon alone. However, ZP concentrates on a single Belarusian town (as many of these charities do), confusingly called Zaslavl rather than Zaslowya (don't ask) - and as I've already indicated, it seems to be one of the few that really understands the need on the ground, rather than reprising the 'holiday from radiation' story.

The news suggests people are giving to charity less at the moment. The last thing I want to do is encourage that. But I do think we ought to be a bit more discriminating - find out a bit more about a charity before we donate. And that means, unless you know the charity already, ignoring those heart-rending pleas at the supermarket entrance.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Shiny isn't always best

The soundbar looking just right under an iMac
 I like to think I'm very rational when it comes to choosing my IT equipment. Those of you who aren't Mac users may be sniggering and rolling around on the ground at this point because you know perfectly well that us Mac users pay far over the odds for what is basically just a prettier PC. Well, you are wrong. I am now into my second year on a Mac and it's still the case that every day I use it I get far more enjoyment out of interacting with it than I did with my old PC. If you are on the computer most of the day like me, that is well worth paying a bit extra for. And that's without all the added slickness in interworking with my iPad and iPhone. However...

... I must admit that there is a mindset that goes with being an Apple lover that says 'if it looks sexy and shiny it's worth paying extra for.' And I have just had a classic example of why this isn't always true.

Although the iMac's screen is superb, its sound through the built-in speakers is so-so at best. It's not bad on the high registers but it has very little bass. I don't have music on while I'm writing, but during the rest of my activities I quite like to delve into my reasonably chunky iTunes portfolio - and to be honest the iMac's sound just isn't good enough. So I invested in something called an XtremeMac Tango soundbar. Let's see what it had going for it:

  • It has the word 'Mac' in the name
  • It looks sleek and Apple-like in its design
  • It fits beautifully under the iMac screen
  • It has good reviews on Amazon
Old speaker hiding coyly behind iMac and sounding great
(the subwoofer is on the floor)
Now, I think my soundbar was faulty. There certainly was more bass than with the built-in speakers,  but the higher frequencies were very fuzzy, like listening to an AM radio. And it soon developed an irritating interference buzz. So I sent it back. But here's the thing.

Once I'd got the improve-the-sound bug, I thought 'let's see what things sound like with my old system.' Because I had a circa 15-year-old Altec Lansing 2 speaker+subwoofer rig sitting on my desk, still attached to my old PC which I keep around in case there's some ancient email I need to access. I plugged it into the iMac... and wow! Not only does it blow the soundbar out of the water, it is much better than it ever was on my PC. Even the little alert pings and whizzes the computer makes sound exquisite.

So there's my lesson. Rather than shelling out £70 on a soundbar I should have checked out the old tried and tested first. Ok, it's ancient. It looks rubbish (though it's out of sight, so that doesn't matter). It's dirty and has seen better days. But boy does it make my iMac sound better. 

Repeat after me three times: Just because something is shiny doesn't mean it's better (at least, if you don't have to look at it to use it).

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Who was the monkey in this trial?

Anyone who knows anything about the battle to preserve rationality in supporting the theory of evolution against marauding creationism will know of the 1925 Scopes trial - or 'the infamous Scopes monkey trial' as it is often known. What I didn't realize until reading John Grant's excellent rallying cry for embattled reason, Denying Science, was that the whole Scopes trial was a publicity stunt.

It's not that there wasn't a serious issue to be fought. The trigger was the signing of an act prohibiting the teaching of evolution in universities and schools in Tennessee. But the Scopes trial was apparently one of those good ideas that civic leaders have when they've had a drink or three down the local saloon. Apparently the dignitaries of Dayton, where the trial took place, spotted that any such trial would bring a lot of cash into town. So they got together both the prosecution and the defence, and looked for a likely candidate as defendant.

Scopes, a general science teacher (who had probably never taught evolution) was approached and agreed to be prosecuted. The town's bigwigs then went on a hunt for celebrities to be involved in the case. They failed to get H. G. Wells as a witness, but they succeeded superbly in getting hold of the lawyer Clarence Darrow to represent Scopes. It's a mark of how much this was all a setup that one of the main prosecution witnesses, pulled to pieces by Darrow, William Jennings Bryan, offered to pay Scopes' fine if the prosecution was successful.

I ought to stress that the fact that the whole thing was a setup in no way contravenes the effectiveness of the demolition of the prosecution done by Darrow. This was the first of many clear legal decisions in favour of evolution - though in the end, the legal system with its ancient Greek idea that the best way to get to the truth is have an argument and the best argument wins (as opposed to science, which is dependent on data and experiment, rather than the quality of the legal team) is not a great way to make an appropriate decision. There are still legislators, particularly in the US, attempting to impose creationism and 'Intelligent Design' on schools and colleges, which have no place in the science classroom (except when studying the psychology of self-deception).

But I do find it fascinating that the Scopes trial, in many ways the pinup of the good guys in this battle, was a setup job to get a town some publicity. And the fact that we are still talking about it today shows what a good job it did.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Stop blaming the customer

I am fed up with the way that every time farmers get ripped off by the supermarkets, or a tragedy occurs while manufacturing cheap garments, the customer gets blamed. Frankly, it is a load of reproductive oblate spheroids, and not of the canine variety.

What we hear, both from the stores and on ill-thought out TV documentaries and news reports is that it is the consumers' fault because we demand cheap milk and cheap clothing (say). That is ludicrous. When did anyone ever stand outside a supermarket yelling 'What do we want? Cheap milk! When do we want it? Now!'? When did anyone email Primark saying 'It is disgusting that your tops cost £6! I want them for £4!'? It just doesn't happen.

Of course customers will buy things cheap if they are made available cheap. They would be stupid not to do so. I would rush out tomorrow to buy a Jaguar XK if they were £10,000 instead of £70,000, but strangely Jaguar has no intention of selling them at that price.

So yes, it's true - I buy my milk at 25p a pint from Asda, because that's the price they sell it at. If they decided to sell it at 35p a pint and give an extra 10p to the farmer, I would still buy it. But the choice of how much to pay the supplier is entirely down to the shop, not to me. Of course if they made it £10 a pint I would go elsewhere - but no one is suggesting that should be the case. In reality, if Asda wants to sell milk for 25p a pint, that is entirely up to them. But they should still pay their farmers a fair amount - if they want a loss leader, Asda should take the loss, not the farmer.

Similarly, it is entirely the responsibility of Primark et al that they squeeze every penny out of the suppliers, not the consumer. No one asks the shops to do this. And when there is a disaster like the terrible loss of life recently in Bangladesh, while most of the blame has to go to the local country's government that didn't maintain safe standards, the rest falls squarely on the shoulders of the aggressive retailer.

Some retailers will try to play the competition card at this point. 'We can't increase our prices,' they say because everyone will go to our competitors.' Unfortunately this just doesn't hold up. I suspect there is little evidence that price sensitivity is so strong that the few pence per item required to move from being an aggressive squeezer of suppliers to a more sustainable model will make much difference. But if it really does, then make the price change anyway - and instead of aggressively squeezing your suppliers, aggressively take it out on your competitors. Point out that the only way they can undercut you is by mistreating their suppliers. Make a big campaign of it. Name names. Blame and shame. Of course, this is only a safe course if you yourself are squeaky clean, but then you will be, won't you?

So please stop this ridiculous claim. Customers don't 'demand' low prices. They will take advantage of them, naturally. But pricing is not their decision, and to suggest that it is is to shift blame and weasel out of responsibility. Only the shops (or the government through legislation) can ultimately make the choice to set prices fairly and pay their suppliers fairly. And it's time they did so.

This has been a Green Heretic production

Monday, 3 June 2013

The mystery of memory

This is definitely in colour. Sort of.
Human memory is a strange and wonderful thing. We can't help but think of what we remember as fact - but in reality we need to, erm, remember that memory is a totally artificial construct of the brain, not a video recording of the world. And it is often wrong.

I had a wonderful of example of this at the weekend. I was doing one of my regular appearances on the Saturday show of the excellent local radio presenter Mark O'Donnell. On my way in to BBC Wiltshire, I was listening to the show, as I like to be able to fit in with any discussion that has been taking place. Mark was asking listeners to recall when they first saw colour TV. Two separate listeners said the first thing they saw in colour was the 1966 World Cup final - always remembered in the UK as England won. Even I, not exactly a sports fan, watched it, though in black and white as we didn't get a colour set until around 1970.

However, a niggling doubt set in. 1966 seemed very early for the introduction of colour. So as I sat in the car park, before going into the studio, I did a quick Google search and discovered that according to a BBC website, the first colour broadcast was of Wimbledon. In 1967. Both listeners were describing false memories. This was fascinating and Mark got the listeners back on the line, where they had to admit that they couldn't be quite sure.

What is likely to have happened is that they have seen colour images since and combined the two in their memory. Memories are both faulty and not fixed and permanent. I pointed out the example of the remarkable experiment undertaken in the early years of the 20th century that I describe in Extra Sensory:
On December 4, 1901 there were as a horrendous incident during a seminar on criminology at the University of Berlin. As Professor Franz von Liszt gave his lecture, one of the students interrupted to give an alternative viewpoint to the professor’s “from Christian morality.” A second student jumped up and disagreed profoundly. He said that he was fed up of with these Christian morality arguments. The first student was incensed. He pushed the desk over and strode over to his opponent, pulling a gun from under his coat. There was fight, the two students wrestling for control until the gun went off. The second student fell to the floor, apparently dead.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the class was in shock. Von Liszt picked up the gun and asked for attention. He apologized, telling them that he had staged the event in order to perform an experiment. He now wanted everyone present to write down exactly what they had seen. Still shaken, they all obediently wrote out witness statements. And here’s where it gets interesting. The versions that the students gave differed wildly. This was no distant memory and featured no ordinary everyday event. They were giving their recollection of something amazing that had been seared on their memories just minutes before.
When the different reports were compared there were, for example, eight different names given for the person who started the fight. Across the observers there were wildly differing accounts for the duration of the event, the order in which things happening and how the whole scene finished with von Liszt’s explanation. Some were convinced that the gunman had run from the lecture room – which he hadn’t. He had remained standing over the body.
 My point in describing this was that there is an exact parallel with those who remember seeing remarkable events like spoons that they thought they saw bending on their own with no one touching them under the influence of performers like Uri Geller, again dramatic events that they believe they have witnessed. There is very good evidence that we can’t believe what people 'have seen with their own eyes' if the only information we have is their testimony. Without clear video evidence, for example, such recollections are practically worthless.

The same, frighteningly is true of witness evidence in court (which was von Liszt's main point). A jury puts a lot of weight behind what a witness says they saw - and yet the fact is that it is amongst the least reliable of the evidence that is likely to be presented. We really need to change our legal system to take account of this - and we have known this for over a century.

Luckily, memories of the World Cup are not going to put anyone in prison. But it still is a reminder of just how uncertain memories really are - and how remarkable the human brain is.

Image of the 1966 World Cup champions' statue from Wikipedia