Friday, 31 January 2014

Nerd vision

Last night saw me at Swindon's Art Centre for a performance by Festival of the Spoken Nerd in their Full Frontal Nerdity tour. I mean, I was told there would be entertaining spreadsheets: how could I resist?

It was great to see an audience of 150 or so really getting into maths and science with an edge - and no doubt the nerds could tell you the edge's exact angle. The trio of Matt Parker, Helen Arney and Steve Mould work well together in a combination of science demos, wryly humorous scientific songs, banter and what was alleged to be maths, although it turned out to be primarily technology, fluid dynamics (physics) and computer science. But there were truly amazing spreadsheets!

Probably most impressive was the physics demos (I would say that) from the amazing electrified pickle to the revelation of the non-existent colour, but the whole was supported by well-scripted chat from all three. Even old chestnuts like breaking a glass with an amplified voice (achieved despite the technology coming over all prima donna) and Conway's Game of Life came alive with the FOTSN touch.

All three proved entertaining performers with a great balance of laughs (often reliant on a little geeky knowledge) and genuine enthusiasm for science. They kept the audience with them all the way and spread the word for nerddom.

I was surprised by the range of the audience - I expected mostly twenty-somethings, and they were certainly well represented and the noisiest, but there were plenty of oldies there too. No children, which is worth emphasising as a recommendation, both because there's what you might primly call 'inappropriate language' and because health and safety is gloriously and explicitly abandoned at the beginning of the gig - and there are couple of things here you definitely don't want kids trying at home.

For the rest of us, though, a great night - and there are plenty of opportunities to see them around the UK through to April. Take a look at the website for venues and bookings, but hurry, as some have sold out already.

[Added later]

If you are curious about the nature of nerds in action, see the video below (not the same show).

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Dual flushed away

One of our dual flush controls, earlier
Now here's the thing. Any modernish toilet in the UK is obliged to be dual flush. The idea is that, should you not want a great deluge of water, then you can opt for a lightweight flush, thereby reducing your water consumption, saving the whale and generally being ecologically friendly and getting a gold star. And I have nothing against that. But as someone who has always taken a great interest in user interface design, the design of most dual flush controls is downright useless.

Take, for example, the dual flush control illustrated, on one of our toilets (yes, we have more than one - aren't we des res?). Clearly there is a big friendly button and a smaller rectangular bit. My guess is that pressing the big button without the rectangular bit is a small flush, but pressing it with the rectangular bit is a large flush. But it is a guess, because there is nothing about the controls that indicates what they do. There's no reason why, for instance, pressing both shouldn't mean 'special economy flush'.

It's also a guess because, frankly, there is no obvious distinction to the amount of water that flows whether you press just the big button or both of them. In fact I sometimes suspect toilet manufacturers don't fit dual flush at all - they just fit dual buttons and hope no one notices that they don't do anything different.

Failing to make controls obvious is a common enough design fault. Think, for instance, of the controls of a four burner cooker hob. Usually the hob is arranged with the burners in a rectangular array, but nine out of ten times, the controls are in a nice straight line. Because the designer thought it looked neat. But this means it is impossible to deduce which control is for which burner - and the manufacturer accordingly has to give us an instruction book, in the form of little graphics we have to check to see which control does what. If they had put the controls in a rectangle too, there would be no need for instructions.

In the case of dual flush, the design is doubly disastrous, because not only is not obvious what to do, there usually isn't even a graphic to instruction you what the controls mean. It's guesswork all the way. It's easy enough to design a triple flush with no instructions. You have a big button split in half unevenly. The small part does a small flush, the big part does a big flush and pressing the whole does a royal flush. It's a little harder to design a dual flush control that is obvious from the shape of the control on its own, though I believe it is possible, but simply engraving a + on the square button (if that's what it means) would at least bring the flush control up to the level of a cooker.

Come on, sanitary ware gurus. Get your fingers out.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Flat Iron experience - anything but flat

I recently had the pleasure of having a meal up in London with one of my daughters. Until recently the default fare would have been something like T. G. I. Friday's, and being a sucker for US food, however chainified, I wouldn't have complained. But as my offspring are now adult(ish) and sophisticated, it was suggested that we try a trendy London restaurant.

Of itself, this was a bit worrying, as trendy usually means expensive, but I was assured that in the case the main courses come in at a wallet comforting £10 a head. So my only remaining concern was a review I read, which said that the writer was the only person in the place over 30. This turned out to be approximately true for me too, but as it happened it didn't matter and I had a great meal.

The venue is Flat Iron, in Beak Street, just off Regent Street, where you'd expect to pay tourist prices. But this is an ex-popup restaurant with rather original ideas of how to behave. It's no booking, which is actually an advantage if you are prepared to eat at an off-peak time. I've heard of people waiting 2 hours for a table in the evening, but we turned up 5 and were seated straight away (it was getting quite busy by 6).

Said seating is on shared tables, most of six, though there was at least one four. The gimmick, if you want to call it that, is that the menu only has one main plus a special. The main is a flat iron steak, not one of the more expensive cuts, but tasty and a bargain at £10. I went for the special, which is sometimes a different cut of steak (this isn't a place for veggies), but on our day was an excellent burger, with plenty of shallots and a bĂ©arnaise sauce.

The main - flat iron steak
The main comes with a tiny dressed salad, and there are optional sides of chips and a couple of veg - and that's about it. But it really was good, and came in with drinks at around £20 a head. Oh and there's a nice little pot of seasoned popcorn while you are waiting for the food.

The place has a good feel to it too, very friendly staff, and a dinky oddity of providing a small meat cleaver instead of a knife.

I rarely bother to write up restaurants, but this was both different enough, and likely to put me off if I hadn't been forced to go, that I think it's worth a mention - and worth a try.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Unplug and unwind

For anyone who has missed my posts since last Thursday - apologies, but I have had a glorious unplugged weekend. We had a short break in our favourite rental holiday cottage, which amongst its best features includes no mobile phone reception and no internet. When we first went to it about 17 years ago it also had no TV aerial. There was a TV, but you could only watch DVDs - but now it's all hi-tech and TV is available.

Does this mean it offers lots of activities instead? Yes and no. If by activities you mean going for a walk or... going for a walk, then, yes it does. Oh, and Saturday and Sunday you can have a cream tea, should you desire it, in the cafe which is handily but not obtrusively attached to the cottage. Anything else you would have to drive to get to, and we didn't use our car all long weekend.

This might sound like hell in our zappy, connected world - but it really isn't. It is glorious. We did watch a bit of TV and read a newspaper (at the cost of a mile walk to the nearest shop), but mostly it really was a case that being detached from the world for a few days was brilliant. Seeing 'No Service' on the phone was not an irritation, it was a joy.

I admit this would only work with the right location - but there's a reason this is our favourite holiday cottage. This is the view from our bedroom window in the morning.

I usually have mixed feelings about liking houses based on the view. We currently have no view, where our last house had superb vistas. And I really don't care. Once you've looked at the view and gone 'Wow!' for the first 30 seconds, the excitement wears off and you hardly ever look at it. But the thing about looking out on the sea is that something is always happening. It's a view with action, whether it's the sea itself, or the boats or the beach activity - mostly dog walkers and mad surfers at this time of year. It's great.

With a view like this, only the words quoted so often by Wellington in that great cartoon strip, the Perishers can suffice: 'What is life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?'

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Randi devil

In my book, Extra Sensory, I describe how the magician James Randi reproduced a trick that Uri Geller did on the Barbara Walters show in the US.

The source I had, involved Randi carefully not telling us how he did the trick, so in the book I speculate how he might have done it. In the trick, Walters draws a picture and seals it up. Randi concentrates, then appears to draw on a pad, then puts his pen down. Walters opens up her envelope and shows it to the camera. Randi then, almost immediately shows a similar drawing. Here's what I said:
What we see when watching the show is Randi apparently drawing his copy of the picture on a pad using a ball pen, before Walters reveals her picture. It is possible, even using the technique I’m going to suggest, that Randi did do a little drawing at that point in the proceedings – if so, what he produced was probably a basic box, which he could adapt later for whatever was needed. It’s equally possible that he didn’t draw anything, but merely moved the pen to make it look as if he was putting something on paper. 
When Walters shows her picture to the camera, and all eyes are on the image, Randi is holding his pad in front of him, with the writing surface facing towards his body. He isn’t holding the pen, so he can’t be drawing anything, right? Except there is an old magician’s trick of fixing a pencil lead under the fingernail, and using that to draw something unseen, concealed behind the pad. The same thing can be done with the end cut off a ball pen refill. What you get, in effect, is a finger end that draws like a pen. 
This is, I’m convinced, is how Randi performed the trick, adding in details to the image while Walters was displaying her picture to the camera. He couldn’t look at his own picture much as he did so or it would have given the game away – and this would explain why his stick figure ended up on top of (or as he put it “in”) the house rather than alongside it. The clues that Randi may have given when he described what happened are that he made a big thing at the time of adding the sun to make the picture more like the original – emphasizing, perhaps how he worked by adding drawings after the event – and also he would later stress in a video where he discusses the event, that he used a ball pen where Geller used a big marker pen which would be harder to duplicate with this technique (in fact, Geller drew his image in plain sight, so couldn’t use this technique).
Take a look and see what you think.

Yesterday, though, I received an email from an Italian reader. Apparently Randi had admitted on Italian TV how he did this, and it wasn't with a fingertip pen. It seems he used his belt buckle - and certainly, just before the camera pulls away from Randi and onto Walters showing her image, his pad is moving very close to his belt. Even if it wasn't prepared, some metals will leave a coloured marking on paper, and I'm guessing that this is what my Italian correspondent (himself suitably magically mysterious) was suggesting.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

London blinkers

Media City, Salford -
where Londoners can't be bothered to come
When I lived in Manchester, the general feeling was that the local news spent far too much time on those scouser scallywags in Liverpool. However, something I think both Manchester and Liverpool could then and can now come together in agreement on is that institutions in general in the UK are far too London-centric.

I hear it time and again - the London-based chattering classes use London as a picture of what the UK is like - and yet, inevitably, the English capital is entirely different from the vast majority of the country. They assume we all have an excellent public transport system and a chi-chi smoothie shop on every corner. They assume what they experience is Britain. But it's not.

Even when an organisation tries to do something about it, there are difficulties in making it work. When I went to Media City in Salford to record University Challenge I thought it was wonderful - and yet I hear that there are difficulties getting people to go there to be interviewed, so it wouldn't be surprising if at least part of the BBC section moves back down to London when the lease is up for renewal.

The thing that set me off on this minor rant was some self-opinionated person on the Today programme this morning. He was talking about how disappointing the lack of black and Asian people in film and broadcasting is. And he was right - his message was spot on. And then he spoiled the whole thing for everyone outside London by comparing the ethnic makeup of people working in the offices in the BBC with the ethnic makeup of London. Assuming, as his type always does, that London is the UK. I'm sorry, it's not the London Broadcasting Corporation. That first word is British, and any comparison should be against British statistics not London ones.

So, please, broadcasters at least, make an effort. When you want to do a vox pop or visit a school, go somewhere other than a London suburb. When you think of what the country is like, don't just think of London. Don't get me wrong - I love London. But it's hard to imagine anywhere less typical of the UK.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

You say causation, I say correlation... let's call the whole thing off

Thanks to the excellent Rosy Thornton for pointing out this piece in the Guardian blogs, suggesting that we should 'make sure the next book we read is by a woman.' I find this offensive and I suspect behind the rhetoric is my favourite bugbear, a confusion of correlation and causality.

I would suggest that the vast majority of people do not choose their books based on the gender of the author, even subconsciously. Instead, most of us read books in a genre or genres that we like (and there's nothing wrong with that, though I always encourage people to experiment and take a tiptoe out of their habitual genres).

Here comes the correlation bit. In quite a few genres, one sex of author dominates. I happen to read mostly popular science and science fiction, which have a preponderance of male authors. If instead I happened to enjoy reading fiction the genre that is usually labelled 'chick-lit' (though I think the term is going out of fashion), I suspect I would be reading books where most authors are female - but I don't. In fact a genre I read less frequently, but do read occasionally, is crime, and there female authors do dominate my reading. If you look on my shelves for crime books*, you will find titles by Margery Allingham, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Susan Hill, Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George hugely dominating those by Colin Dexter and Jonathan Gash, who are the only male crime writers I own books by.

Now I don't think there is anything sinister in the predominance of male writers in science fiction or women writers in crime. It isn't some conspiracy by the publishers - it's quite simply that more men choose to write science fiction and more women choose to write crime. In both cases there are plenty of exceptions, but I'm just talking about the overall picture. So if I, as a man, have chosen to read more books by men (and I think that is true), it is due to an incidental correlation of the sex of the author with the genre they write in, rather than a causal connection between the authors' gender and my decision to read their books.

I think to suggest that we should consciously decide to read a book by a woman is a terrible approach - because we should never be choosing books on the gender of the author (surely the whole point of this business), yet that is exactly what we are being asked to do. I suspect if there was a better understanding of the difference between correlation and causality in the literary world this wouldn't be an issue.

* If anyone thinks this is unrepresentative as a sample of modern crime authors, I only really read the sub-genre of 'traditional English crime'.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Chemical conundrum

A (relatively harmless) ingredients list, earlier
Anyone with the faintest sympathy for science winces when a friend announces that they are 'Fed up of food that is full of chemicals' or 'Only buying organic food, as it's the only way to get food that is 100% chemical free.' As I'm sure we're all aware, everything we eat (and most things we don't) is totally and entirely made up of chemicals. However, when you look at the ingredients list of processed food at the supermarket, it's easy to see why people are concerned.

Take this product, which you can find in any major UK supermarket:
Aqua 84%, sugars 10% (of which fructose 48%, glucose 40%, sucrose 2%), fibre 2.4% (E460, E461, E462, E464, E466, E467), amino acids (glutamic acid 23%, aspartic acid 18%, leucine 17%, arginine 8%, alanine 4%, valine 4%, glycine 4%, proline 4%, isoleucine 4%, serine 4%, threonine 3%, phenylalanine 2%, lysine 2%, methionine 2%, tyrosine 1%, histidine 1%, cysteine 1%, tryptophan lt 1%), fatty acids lt 1% (linoleic acid 30%, linolenic acid 19%, oleic acid 18%, palmitic acid 6%, stearic acid 2%, palmitoleic acid lt 1%), ash lt 1%, phytosterols, oxalic acid, E300, E306, thiamine, colours (E163a, E163b, E163e, E163f, E160), flavours (ethyl ethanoate, 4-methyl butyraldehyde, 2-methyl butyraldehyde, pentanal, methylbutyrate, octene, hexanal, styrene, nonane, non-1-ene, linalool, citral, benzaldehyde, butylated hydroxytoluene (E321), methylparaben, E1510, E300, E440, E421, aeris (E941, E948, E290)
Scary, isn't it? To start with this stuff is 94% sugar water (quite similar to Coca Cola which is also approximately 10% sugar). It also contains a range of toxins and carcinogens. Then there are all those colours and flavours - surely unnecessary? And there are enough E numbers in there to make the average hyperactive child bounce of the walls. It probably ought to be banned.

What makes this contents list interesting, though, is that it isn't some artificial rubbish - it is a blueberry. Not vaguely blueberry flavoured gunk, an actual blueberry fruit, that most beloved of the superfruits amongst the healtherati.

I think there are number of lessons here. Fruit is primarily sugar water, and as such should be consumed in moderation. There are good things in there, but you don't want too much of that sugar. The trouble with 'five a day' as a concept is that it doesn't distinguish between fruit and veg. Of those five at least three and arguably four should be veg.

Secondly, practically every food contains poisons and carcinogens. Many edible plants, for instance, contain vicious natural pesticides that are harmful to humans too. But they are in such small quantities that they have no noticeable effect. Poison is always a matter of dosage.

And finally, for the E-number obsessed, remember that many natural and/or harmless substance have E numbers, as the blueberry kindly demonstrates. Note the last item for instance. Ingredients listers (is there such a trade?), especially those in cosmetics, like to call water 'aqua' to make it sound more impressive. So I have done the same with the last item, which is just air. Simply putting it in Latin makes it aer, which is a bit too close to English, so I've taken the liberty of making it 'of air' to sound more impressive. And look - good fresh air contains E numbers.

Of course I'm not saying every item in a ingredients list is harmless in the quantities used. However, the fact that we don't provide contents list for fruit and veg does make other foods seem unfairly nasty and unnatural, and I think it is valuable to see how much this can be an illusion.

This has been a green heretic production

Data courtesy of Graham Steel who passed it on from James Kennedy.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Nice one, Stanley

For Christmas I was given a Blu-ray of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. I quite often refer to this film in my books, usually to point out the dangers of making extrapolations based on the present, but it's the first time I've actually watched it properly since seeing in Cinerama in 1968, and I have to say that one segment absolutely blew me away.

Effectively, it's a film in four parts. There's the first 'dawn of man' segment, which these days looks rather hokey, a second section on a space station and the Moon, the third on Discovery's voyage to Jupiter and the fourth the weird bit through the stargate that no one really understand.

The part I've usually criticised is the second. Here, for instance, we see space shuttles operated by Pan Am (remember them?) and a Bell Telephone operated video phone with large screen live video - but no mobile phones. However I had forgotten just how great the third segment is.

This is the part with the infamous HAL 9000 speaking computer who becomes murderous (giving us the film's catchphrase line: 'Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.' Of course, once more the tech extrapolation is way off. Here we have a pretty well sentient computer built in the 1990s and the ability to send a manned mission to Jupiter in 2001. If only. (For IT history buffs, by the way, it struck me for the first time that when Dave takes out Hal's circuits to 'kill' him there is an interesting reversed parallel with the old IBM 'golden screwdriver' trick, but that's a different story.) However, there were three aspects of this segment that were stunning.

First was the silence. Kubrick made the brave decision to play it how it really is, so whenever we see action out in space, it is completely silent. When it's from the viewpoint of someone in a spacesuit, you hear their breathing, but in the 'outside' shots it is dead, eerily silent. This is particularly effective when Dave has to enter the ship without a helmet and is blasted into the airlock by the outrush of air from the pod. Wonderful - and really shows up pretty well every movie since.

Second is the quality of the visuals. As we watch the Discovery float past a star field it's easy to be blasé, because we have seen it all so many times with CGI. But what you have to remember is that this was 1968. There was no CGI - or anything even comparable in looks. This was the original and it still looks stunning. Much kudos to Kubrick, Douglas Trumball and the rest of the special effects people.

Finally there was the interior environment. It would be impossible to send a mission to Jupiter without using some sort of rotating environment to provide artificial gravity - and there it is in all its glory. (Admittedly, I think the diameter is too small to avoid motion sickness, but that's being picky.) And boy does Kubrick use it. His main interior set is basically a circular strip that the two main characters walk around the inside of. Wherever their feet are, is down. So you will see them walk to what was, effectively, the ceiling to sit in a chair - all looking perfectly natural. It is a work of genius.

The shame is, I don't think many young sci-fi movie buffs would have the patience to sit through it, because it is glacially slow. In 1968 these visuals were so jaw-dropping you could happily spend 5 minutes just watching a spaceship passing - but it is agonisingly slow now. Bring yourself to get past that, though, and you can only marvel at the wonders of this film.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 16 January 2014

My name is Big Brother, but you can call me Big

 Science, on the whole, is morally neutral. It can be used for good or evil. The same goes for many technologies, which is why you will sometimes find a new piece of technology that can engage a really uncomfortable bit of mental discomfort when on the one hand it is extremely attractive - I want it, and I want it now - yet on the other hand it has really scary and potentially nasty implications.

Just such a piece of technology is NameTag, one of the products of Facial Network. First working on Google Glass, the search company's ubergeek specs, NameTag can also be expected soonish as an app for your favourite phone.

What Name Tag does is spot people in the camera's visual field and tries to identify them - from social networks, online stuff and a database of criminal history. So, you just look at someone (or look at them through your phone if you aren't a Glassnerd) and you find out who they are, (assuming it works) not to mention if they are registered as not very nice. 

As I say, I can think of all kinds of good reasons why I want this. I'm rubbish at putting names to faces, and having a little prompt that reminds who people at a meeting are would be great. And just walking through the streets, identifying people would give a wonderful sense of omniscience. And as the makers point out:
“I believe that this will make online dating and offline social interactions much safer and give us a far better understanding of the people around us,” said NameTag’s creator Kevin Alan Tussy. “It’s much easier to meet interesting new people when we can simply look at someone, see their Facebook, review their LinkedIn page or maybe even see their dating site profile. Often we were interacting with people blindly or not interacting at all. NameTag on Google Glass can change all that.”
However, you don't have to be paranoid to see all sorts of negative possible uses of this technology. While you can register as not wanting to be identified, it has the potential not only for invasion of privacy, but sinister manipulation of knowledge about an apparent stranger. Apparently Google is not currently supporting facial recognition on Glass, and it really isn't surprising.

So there we have it. The technology will exist. It will inevitably be used by some, whether or not it is made commercially available. Do we take the 'bad people will find a way to use it anyway, so we might as well all have it' approach, or the 'this feels wrong, let's ban it on principle' approach? It really is disturbing, because I absolutely understand the negatives... but I'd still like to have it myself.

O tempora, O mores.

See it in action:

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Finders keepers?

A 2p piece on the pavement (photo has been blurred
in case someone recognises it and says 'it's mine')
There are various bits of path I quite often cover on my daily dog walks, and I've noticed a 2p piece on the pavement now for several days. This got me thinking. Clearly a lot of people (me included) couldn't be bothered to pick up 2p. So what is the minimum we'd go for? And what if it were a lot of money? What would be the maximum you would pocket, rather than hand in?

After a very unscientific Twitter/Facebook poll, it was interesting to see quite a few people would pick up any coin (some because picking up a penny is lucky), though others wouldn't bend over for less than a quarter (25¢), or 50p. Personally I think my minimum is 5p financially, but I might leave it because they're just too small and fiddly, making my actual minimum 10p. Others pointed out the condition of the coin mattered - they would only pick a coin up below a certain value if it was 'clean' (I'm not quite sure how anything on the pavement is going to be clean, but I know what they mean).

The large sum aspect generated a more varied response, though quite a few would set a break point around £50-£100/$100. One obvious factor here is where the note(s) were found. If it is on an anonymous bit of pavement, most would quite reasonably be less likely to hand it in than if it's somewhere with an obvious location to do so, like in a shop or outside a bank.

Personally, the lowest I've tried to hand in was £5, which I found in a basket in Tesco - but they didn't want me to hand it in, because it was too much trouble for them to fill in the forms for that amount. I've also handed in £100 which, rather amazingly, I found just sitting in the dispenser of a cash machine at a shopping mall. Someone had made the transaction, taken their card, then walked away leaving a wedge of cash.  As it happens, honesty had its reward here, as it wasn't claimed, so the mall gave it to me, meaning I could keep it without feeling guilty.

Some clearly do feel guilty, though, and mentioned giving the found money to charity instead. I can sort of see the logic of this, though if it's not practical to return it to its owner, I don't see any great onus on the finder to give the money away. I certainly never asked one of my daughters to do this when she used to regular harvest lost notes at Center Parcs. At the end of the rapids outside the swimming pool is a big plunge pool. She used to swim down to the bottom where several times she found notes on the extractor grating. I think it's fair that she kept the money a) because she went to the effort to retrieve it and b) because anyone foolish enough to go round a water rapids with banknotes in their swimwear pocket deserves to lose it.

I'm sure, if it hasn't been done already, there's a nice psychology PhD in the whole business of how we do or don't pick up lost money, what we do with it, and how it makes us feel. I suspect we are much more likely to keep cash than something more concrete - a piece of clothing, say, or a wallet - even if there is still no way to identify the owner. It's almost as if cash is so abstract and transactional that it doesn't really belong to the individual, they just borrow it, so once it is in the public domain it is up for grabs.

Whatever - it makes you think, which can't be bad.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Tax is always taxing

There has been a minor explosion of outrage in the knee-jerk political twitter/Facebooksphere telling us that David Cameron's advisor has suggested getting rid of income tax and putting VAT up to 33%. Most of this response seems to be to red top tabloid articles, which we should know better than to rely on, rather than the original blog post from Paul Kirby, so it's worth reading that (rather long and tedious though it is) first.

One thing that is worth emphasising, as the headlines got it wrong, is that Kirby is not 'Cameron's advisor', he is Cameron's former advisor - and to be honest, if he still was an advisor I imagine he'd be given the push for this, as it's political suicide and I am sure Cameron wouldn't touch it with the proverbial bargepole.

Let's see what Kirby's arguments are first. Yes, I know we can immediately see what's wrong with the idea - but the thing I've learned with looking at green issues is that you mustn't have a knee-jerk reaction to keywords, you have to check the substance first, and the same goes for all politics.

Kirby suggests that if we kept all our salaries then we would be in control, deciding what to spend, what to do with it. This is true as far as it goes. Getting rid of income tax with no other change in taxation would be a good thing for us all, if there was some magic way to fund necessary spending without it coming out of our pockets. Cloud cuckoo stuff, yes, but it's an acceptable point. After all, one great thing the Liberal Democrats have done in the coalition is to push through the increase in the point at which income tax cuts in to £10,000. (I know it's fashionable to criticise the LibDems for not doing everything in their election pledges, but that is ridiculously naive. You can't do everything you want in a coalition, and I think the LibDems have done reasonably well under the circumstances.) Not paying income tax is actually a good thing, but you have to go about it the right way. In fact I think we should go a step further and introduce negative income tax for the first chunk of earnings - so the government pays you for every pound you earn up to a certain point - but that's a different debate.

Kirby then suggest replacing the lost revenue by removing all VAT exemptions and putting the VAT rate up to 33%. I have to take his figures as correct that this would balance out the loss from income tax. But does it make sense?

He says that it would encourage people to save more, and would give them more choice over what they did with their money. He does also acknowledge that it would hit those on lower incomes harder (something the second hand reports tend not to carry), and says that to compensate we would have to increase benefits.

But look what the implications are. By removing exemptions there would be just as heavy taxation on essentials as on non-essentials. You can argue that the current exemption system is far too complicated - it is - and has all those silly loopholes - like the 'is a jaffa cake a cake or a biscuit?' argument - it does. But there are very good reasons for having exemptions and Kirby makes no attempt to counter those arguments. A more sensible version of his scheme would keep the exemptions but push up the VAT on luxuries even more.

What he doesn't do, though, is consider the impact on UK business. There's a good reason that businesses are uniformly in favour of reducing (or even getting rid of) VAT, rather than income tax. VAT turns businesses into tax collectors, adding significantly to their administration costs, and it makes their goods less attractive. Ramp up VAT significantly and, yes, people will save more. But they will also stop buying things. And lots of businesses will go bust. Meaning more unemployment. And more benefit payments. Doesn't seem awfully sensible to me.

Also, of course, he fails to address the elephant in the room, the point we all saw at the start. The lower your income, the harder this will hit you. If you earn £10,000 a year you get no positives but your outgoings shoot up by a vast percentage. It simply doesn't work to say that you can give people on low earnings more benefits to compensate, both because of the way Kirby's brand of politics stigmatises benefits (and would immediately be crying for them to be taken away again) and also because benefits are a poor answer that totally corrupt Kirby's argument that people should be able to do what they want with the money they earn, because benefits aren't earned. We should be trying to minimise the need for benefits, not putting in a system that hugely increases dependence on them. It is absolutely bonkers.

However, I still think we should actually thank Paul Kirby for making us think (those of us who are thinking, rather than knee-jerking about this), because there is no doubt that the current system isn't good enough. He's right - we need more opportunity to decide on what we do with our money. Why not, for instance, cut all income tax for the first £20,000 and rebalance the books further up the earnings scale (or even better by getting a decent cut of tax from all company income)? That would mean we all had a good chunk of money to decide exactly how we spent. There's no doubt the tax system can be improved... if we could ever get a government that had the guts to do it.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The Club Revisited

The Garrick's rather dour exterior hides a gem of a place
A while ago I commented on my visit to the Reform Club in London and how I couldn't really understand the attraction of such places. I now discover I have to rejig my thinking a little. It's still true that most of the traditional functions of a club are easily provided in other (and cheaper) ways. If I want to have a meeting up in town, a coffee shop is fine (and I get wifi). If I want to stay over, Late Rooms will find me a cheap hotel bed. And there are several of the other benefits of the club, such as a library to work in when I've a few hours to spare, or a convivial bar, provided for me by the RSA's London House, which I have access to as a fellow.

However, I confess I was impressed by the charms of the Garrick Club when attending a publisher's function there last week. Despite all that tradition and yes, a certain fustiness, it seemed a lot more of a fun place than the Reform. People were clearly having a good time. Somehow, despite having to wear the dreaded jacket and tie, there was a sense of informality to the formalness. Not to mention being a place where you are almost bound to have the chance to casually not react to a famous actor sitting across the room, or passing on the staircase.

It was interesting when, with two female members of the publisher's staff, I was shown round the place by a member. Although, not surprisingly, the other guests were not happy about the Garrick's current 'no women members' policy (as was our host), their response was not to say 'I wouldn't want to have anything to do with anywhere that is so sexist' but rather 'I hope it changes, because this is a great place.'

So there we have it. Perhaps not a whole hearted conversion on the road to Damascus, but what was once the club for the unclubbable (actors and literary types, beyond the pale, don't you know) has certainly made me realise that London clubs aren't necessarily all bad.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 10 January 2014

All skued

Give us back some controls!
A New Year request to Apple: give us back some skeuomorphism.

If you aren't familiar with the term, a skeuomorph may sound like a monster on Dr Who, but it's just the use of virtual real world items in a computer program user interface to make it more approachable.

Until recently, Apple went a bit mad on skeuomorphism. You would get, for instance, a calendar app with a background like a sort of leather blotter. This serves no purpose and looks a bit tacky, rather like those early American electronic devices that came in a plastic casing made to look (badly) like wood. But functional skeuomorphism - making an on-screen control look like a button you can press, for instance, is very valuable because it clearly identifies which bits on the screen are active and which aren't.

Take a look at the current iPhone calendar app, pictured alongside. The words 'Wednesday 8 January 2014' are not controls - they are just a label. But the words 'Today   Calendars    Inbox' at the bottom are buttons. If you touch them, they do something. The only distinction is the colour, which isn't enough.

Not only do the words at the bottom just look like labels, rather than controls, there is no indication of the span of the active area. Is that bar divided into three equal segments, or is it just the text that is active? It's not clear.

The fact is, on-screen buttons are just as well established now as real buttons. They aren't really skeuomorphic, they are just very useful. A good visual user interface, which is what Apple aims for, should be so obvious that you never have to ask for help. It should be clear where you touch the screen to do what. And that just isn't the case with this uber-minimalism.

So don't go mad. Don't bring back the visual knickknacks for the sake of it. But for goodness sake give us back decent, functional controls that are obviously that, and not confusable with basic text. It's not difficult to do. And you know it makes sense.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Tread lightly

For Christmas I got a DVD set that took me back to my youth. It was the Granada comedy series The Lovers. I hadn't seen this programme, written by the late, great Jack Rosenthal, since it was first broadcast in 1970/71 and was a little nervous, because at the time I thought it was brilliant. In fact, despite the inevitable ageing, going on the first episode (all I've seen so far) it has in many ways stood the test of time, because it was genuinely unique in style and approach.

The show features Geoffrey and Beryl, who have just got back together after going out a while before. The basic premise sounds tired and dated - Geoffrey wants to have sex, Beryl wants to get married - but the way it is handled makes it far more interesting. After all, it was a new world. As Geoffrey points out, in the trendy 70s 'everyone is at it', so why not?

There are two things that made the series great - and still make it watchable, though not as funny as it once was. The first is the writing. Rosenthal mixes very naturalistic dialogue with strangely poetic lines, delivered in an almost artificial way that make the whole thing feel special. This was clear from the opening, where we see the two main characters (and despite various supports, this really is a two-hander) and hear their thoughts for a good few minutes before anything really happens. There are also some aspects of the writing that were deliciously memorable. Despite a 43 year gap since seeing it, I could remember that Beryl refers to Geoffrey as 'Geoffrey bubbles bonbon', and could also remember one line (approximately) that I am sure is in there, though I am yet to encounter it: 'Everything has an end, Geoffrey, except a [black] pudding, which has two.' It's no surprise that both those examples have a character's name in them: one of those poetic artificialities is that the two leads use names in dialogue far more than is natural.

The second contributory factor was the actors themselves. I have to be honest, at age 15 I was a little in love with Paula Wilcox (if not Beryl) - and she is quite remarkable. She delivers Rosenthal's lines with aplomb, but is out-acted by the remarkable Richard Beckinsale. Because he died so early, Kate Beckinsale's dad only ever acted as young man, but his ability to come across as truly likeable and intelligent (as the characters point out, they did get their O-levels) yet occasionally a little slow to catch on is superb.

If, on my recommendation, you decide to take a look at it, I ought to warn you that there is a truly shocking line in the first episode. Before they get back together, Geoffrey and Beryl are covertly watching each other and thinking about their former boyfriend/girlfriend. At one point in each chain of thought they get so carried away that their thinking is said out loud - when each is standing next to an increasingly shocked woman with two children. Geoffrey's out loud line is horribly unacceptable now. I can't imagine it was brilliant then, though to be fair to Rosenthal, what I think he really would have wanted to write was a more straightforward expression of sexual desire, which would have been unbroadcastable then, but what was written sounds horrendous now. I know they should have known better, but bear in mind that this was broadcast in the heyday of On the Buses. We can't really judge output of the period by today's standards.

Is it dated? Well, of course. The colour is washed out and everything feels a bit Warmington on Sea. But the handling of the difficult dance of courtship is wonderful - as are some of the period observations. At one point, Geoffrey comments (while standing outside Beryl's front door) 'I see your neighbour has BBC2') to which she replies 'Only the aerial.' I had totally forgotten the switch from 405 lines to the higher resolution 625 line broadcasting that came with BBC2 and how it required very visible new aerials. BBC2 also, of course, brought colour - and that was the final surprise, as I originally saw The Lovers in black and white, but now could see it as intended.

Overall, a great trip down memory lane, and a truly innovative series that makes many modern situation comedies look unimaginative and dull. If you want to take a look, it's available on DVD at

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The night of the hamster

The picture in question (I'm bottom right)
For my recent appearance on the University Challenge Christmas Special I was asked to provide a picture of myself while at Lancaster University, which has caused some amusement to those who saw the show (they seem surprised by the hair). What wasn't obvious is that this was actually a group photograph of those of us who shared a kitchen in Bowland College, pictured after a birthday celebration.

Looking at it brought back remarkable memories of an excellent year - but also of one of the spookiest moments of my life.

I was in bed, determined to finish a book I was reading that night. (Not because it was a great book, but because I just wanted to get it over with. It might have been Inferno by Niven and Pournelle, but it might not.) It was about 3 am. (What can I say? I was a student. Students do crazy things.) As I read, out of the corner of my eye I caught a movement in my room.

I sat up abruptly. The only illumination was a dim reading light over my head. But I could see nothing out of place. Two pages later, I glimpsed it again. Something white, moving rapidly across the floor. A small, white ball. Could it be a ball lightning? It had gone again. I looked back at the book, but kept a side-view onto the floor. And then it appeared in all its glory. A fluffy white hamster. I had no idea how it got into my room, but I had no intention of letting it stay.

Bearing in mind that it was 3am, it seemed reasonable to try to catch it by putting a carrier bag on the floor with a piece of cheese in it. Remarkably, this also seemed reasonable to the hamster, who casually entered the bag and I scooped it up. So far, so good. But I knew no one with a hamster.

So I went into the kitchen portrayed above, clutching my carrier bag. By now it was about 3.15 am, but there were a couple of people around. (We were students, crazy things, etc. etc.) Remarkably someone knew that my next door neighbour but one, who I didn't know as he used another kitchen, had a hamster. I knocked on his door and reacquainted him with his pet. While not ecstatic at being woken up, he seemed quite pleased to get it back.

Back to my room. I shut my door behind me, grabbed my book, slid into bed, looked down... and there on the floor was the hamster. Again. I checked that door. There was no more than a half inch clearance, while the hamster looked four times that height, but somehow it had followed me back.

This time it let me pick it up by hand. Finally the hamster was returned and placed firmly in its cage. I was worn out. There was no hope of finishing the book. But there was one more memory attached to Bowland College and that (rather tatty) kitchen.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Spin dizzy

I had an interesting tweet the other day from a reader of my book Gravity. Richard Atkinson said: 'reading your gravity book. P3 "the whole thing is rotating" why? If uni started from a single point what made it spin?' It's a thought provoking question.

I ought to start by clarifying the quote. The 'whole thing' I was referring to was the cloud of dust and gas from which the solar system formed, not the whole universe. Whether the universe as a whole is spinning is a whole different question, where the mind struggles to get around the concept of 'spinning with respect to what' given that there may be nothing else. It is possible it does spin (see this article) but we certainly don't know for sure.

But let's get back to the actual quote, about the solar system. What made that spin? Pretty well everything within the universe spins. Overall the angular momentum of the galaxies seem to pretty much cancel out, but for any particular galaxy, as it forms, the slight rotation produced by linear motion combined with gravitational attraction inwards gets magnified as the galaxy condenses (the old 'skater spins faster as (s)he draws her/his arms in' effect). In principle, if all the bits that coalesced to form a galaxy started off still and symmetrical, a galaxy (or solar system) could form without spinning, but in practice there is always movement and asymmetry to start with and the result is to produce a rotation, which then increases with time.

Similarly as the solar system forms, the cloud of gas and dust picks up an increasing spin, which produces the flattened disc shape of both galaxies and solar systems. Yet again, planets spin increasingly quickly as they condense under gravity. The real oddity here is Venus, which rotates in the opposite way to expectation. There is a theory that this could be due to a massive collision, but there is no good evidence for this (other than the spin), so at the moment it is arguably an intriguing mystery.

If you fancy a little mental challenge yourself, you can take a look at Gravity on and

Monday, 6 January 2014

Evolving statistics

One of the great puzzles for British people is that Americans seem quite like us, mostly because of a shared language and to some degree a shared culture, yet at the same time there are aspects that raise our eyebrows - and never more so than over the attitude to evolution.

Thanks to US legal writer Donna Ballman for pointing out a fascinating survey on public views on human evolution in the US. I just wanted to pull out a few of the figures.

The headline number that is decidedly worrying in what is, after all, the world's leading nation for science and technology is that 33% of adults believe that 'humans existed in present form since beginning' - i.e. they have not evolved over time. But what was really interesting was the way these beliefs varied significantly when put alongside a few other measures.

There is, perhaps not surprisingly, a strong correlation between religious views and attitude to evolution. Unfortunately we aren't told anything except about Christians or 'unaffiliated' - there is nothing about other faiths. But the variation within Christian sects is stark. Where 78% of 'white mainline protestants' are behind evolution (well above the national average), only 27% of 'white evangelical protestants' think evolution had a role in our development. That's pretty shocking. Perhaps less surprisingly, there is also a correlation with education - the more educated the person, the more likely to believe in evolution.

But perhaps the most distressing breakdown is the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Where 67% of Democrats believe we evolved, only 43% of Republicans do. As always with statistics, we have to be careful about confusing causality with correlation. The chances are that it is not the case that being a Republican makes you less like to support evolution, but rather you are more likely to be a Republican if you have certain religious beliefs (for instance). But the reason I label this distressing is that in just 4 years there has been a significant shift in the split. Back in 2009, those percentages were 64% Democrats to 54% Republicans, only a few percentage points off being statistically insignificant. The split is getting stronger and that can't be good.

Interestingly, the Democrat/Republican split is almost exactly the same as the 18-29 versus 65+ split, where 68% of the youngsters are pro-evolution, but only 49% of the oldsters. 

It's not my place to tell US political parties what to think, but surely the Republicans powers-that-be should be worried about the statistic that less than half of their voters think human beings evolved - and that this percentage is dropping. It doesn't bode well for the future of US science under Republican administrations.

Friday, 3 January 2014

A quite interesting year

The 'quite interesting' year I refer to is not a look back at 2013, but a glimpse of the summer of 1927 given to us by Bill Bryson in his latest book. In fact a glimpse is a bit of an understatement as a description of this doorstep of a tome.

As the cover suggest, one of the major themes of the book is the rise to outstanding fame of Charles Lindbergh as a result of his aerial Atlantic crossing. As Bryson surprisingly informs us, this was not actually the first crossing by air but around the 120th. It had certainly been done by plane earlier by Alcock and Brown. But somehow Lindy's flight caught the imagination of the world and he became a superstar.

The rise and fall of Lindbergh occupy a fair amount of the book, but we also meet his competitors and other notables of the period in America from politics to sport (notably baseball and boxing) and bringing in everything from famous murders of the period (through to the details of their electrocution) to the sad disaster that was prohibition and the gangsters who profited from it.

Overall, Bryson's skill is in weaving all this together into an enjoyable tapestry. If I'm honest I much prefer his travel books, where the personal story and humour makes the writing a lot more fun, and I had to skip over the sports sections which I found deadly dull, but despite being about an obscure year in a foreign country it still made for a very readable book that kept the pages turning.

For me, one of the greatest delights of the read was finding out more about Texas Guinan, who features in one of my favourite numbers from the Yale Song Book, George Jones.

You can find out more about One Summer at and

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Prime time

I am indebted to Simon Singh's excellent new book The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, which I recently reviewed, for providing me with what must be the longest trivially memorable prime number at a whopping 31 digits.

Prime numbers are much loved by mathematicians. Of itself this is no great achievement - mathematicians are routinely besotted with numbers that only their parents could love - but primes are genuinely interesting. (For a start, the RSA mechanism that keeps your banking details safe when you buy online depends on them.) You will probably remember from school that primes are the whole positive numbers that are only divisible by themselves and 1 - so they begin 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17...

You may wonder why 1 is not a prime and you would not be alone. In fact it was until a couple of hundred years ago, when mathematicians decided it was too unique (they probably missed the pun) and excluded it. Mathematicians can do this (unlike physicists), as they make up their own rules.

The number revealed in the book is Belphegor's prime, named after one of the princes of Hell, though I think it would be much better called the devilish prime. One thing that helps make it memorable is that it is a palindrome - it reads the same forwards as backwards - but the main (dare I say, the prime) reason it springs to mind so easily is its devilish construction.

Start with the number of the beast, 666 and stick a horribly unlucky 13 zeroes either side. Finally cap it off with bookends of 1 and you get


... a 31 digit prime number that is entrancingly memorable. Thanks, Simon!