Wednesday, 30 April 2014

We need to be enterprising

The Careers Fair was lively all day, but I caught it at a fairly quiet moment
I spent an interesting day yesterday at the Civic Centre in Trowbridge at the invitation of Wiltshire Council. The event was a 'Careers Fair and Enterprise Day', with the idea being to give 16+ young people some help with with moving in the direction of their desired careers. It was a great idea, though I think there were a few lessons to be learned in terms of how to do it.

The Careers Fair part was buzzing and clearly doing a good job, as was the Apprenticeship Bus parked outside. Then there were the opportunities to undertake practice interviews and tables where various interesting people (including me) sat, able to provide Q&As on what it's like to work in their particular field. These were less successful.

The interviewers were quite busy in the morning, but mostly unoccupied in the afternoon. This was a real shame - mock interviews are hugely useful. I've interviewed for real, and a lot of young people don't have a clue how to present themselves. I also do mock interviews at our local secondary school, and know how much these help - so there should have been some gentle pressure to ensure the young people attended at least one of these, perhaps stressing they didn't have to have an interest in the particular organisation that was doing the interviews.

As for the Q&As, I think these were the least successful, because of a lack of structure. The young people didn't know where to go or how to use us. The principle's good, but I think there should have been more Q&As tailored to specific requirements (we had a huge batch of people who wanted to be electricians, but no electricians doing Q&As, for instance), and also perhaps a clear schedule - so if, for instance, you wanted to hear about science, to visit me (perhaps in a separate smaller room) at 2pm or whatever.

There was a bright side about sitting around most of the day with little business to occupy me, though, which was meeting the other people involved. As well as the Wiltshire Council folk, who it was good to meet (and weren't at all 'councilly' if you know what I mean), there were four people who stood out for me.

I got to meet the High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Peter Addington, which was fascinating, if only to find out more about his role and to add him to my collection of strange position holders I've met in the county, as I already know the Lord Lieutenant. It's quite mind boggling, but apparently all the counties still have sheriffs, the longest established official role in the country after the monarchy and the direct descendants of the likes of the Sheriff of Nottingham (though much nicer).

Jemima (right) joins Wiltshire Council's Susan Barker
in pretending to read my books
Equally interesting were an Asda community rep (she had a fancy title, but I've forgotten it), which every store apparently has - someone whose role full time is to work with the community, which is a great idea - and a youth worker with a charity that helps young people who don't get on with education but haven't been able to get a job, who was clearly highly dedicated and very eloquent about his role.

Last, but certainly not least, I shared my table with a genuine member of Team GB (she had the official track suit to prove it). Jemima Duxberry is currently fourth in the world in her class in Judo (number one in Europe) and hoping to represent us in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. I'll be honest, with my inbuilt dislike of all things sporting, I wasn't quite sure what it would be like to be sitting alongside an athlete - but she proved to be an excellent conversationalist and not at all how you might expect a sportsperson to be if your main experience of hearing them speak is interviews with footballers.

All in all, the kind of thing we need more of to help young people into the right employment.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Small is beautiful

I have had my fingers burned in the past by taking part in a small literary festival. The Brympton Festival, near Yeovil, involved a lovely location, but was a disaster because hardly anyone turned up, and the festival organisers were unable to pay the promised expenses. But when they work well, the small literary festival can be a delight - and never more so than last weekend with the Kempsford festival, just a few miles from where I live, which I attended both as a speaker and audience member.

Arguably it was thanks to Roy Hattersley, who sadly was unable to speak due to illness - but this left a last minute slot to fill, which saw me giving my time machine talk. The festival ran for three days and featured a fascinating range of speakers from Barry Norman to Douglas Hurd. We had everything from a Countess turned historical novelist to an MP who is an expert on the Tudors.

There are several reasons this festival worked so well. The venue was unusual, to say the least - a large village church with unusually comfortable seating and stunning architecture. The organisers combined enthusiasm and professionalism - the whole ran smoother than any festival I've ever attended, including the big ones. And the range of speakers was top quality, but compact enough that I could happily have attended every session on all three days.

As it was, apart from my own talk I only made it for Barry Norman and Chris Skidmore (on the battle of Bosworth). Norman was someone I've grown up with on TV, and who has certainly fostered my love of film, so it was great to hear him speaking in person - and he proved to be a wonderful raconteur, ably assisted by Tim, the festival's MC, who ran the session as a Q&A. Skidmore made me realise just how ignorant I am of British history, and gave a chilling description of the death of Richard III as part of his explanation of how the Tudors came to power.

However, next time around, I will certainly be attending far more of the talks, if this year's line-up is anything to go by. I just love the eclectic mix of topic and the genuine crossover of education and entertainment. When you think that I could have been watching Britain's Got Talent if I hadn't attended the festival, there was no contest - far more of us should be going to events like this, rather than sitting slumped on the TV. And I haven't even mentioned the cakes and wine. I do wonder if the term 'literary festival' puts some people off because it sounds too highbrow and unapproachable - where instead this was thought provoking, warm and fun.

You can find out more about the festival at its website. If you live anywhere around the confluence of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire (yes, I know, counties don't flow, but you know what I mean) it makes Kempsford well worth visiting, I'd recommend keeping an eye out for future events. I think the next one is due in 2016.

Friday, 25 April 2014


Younger readers may find it hard to believe, but when I was young there were still gas lights in our town. When I was very young my Grandma's street in Smallbridge still had gas lights, and Rochdale station had them until 1970. But they were already long doomed. As soon as electric lighting became widely available, gas lighting was inevitably on its way out, and the sooner the better. Yet I am sure it had its fans in its day.

I mention this because I am wondering if there's a similar picture with the milkman. I'm probably of the first generation that has never had a milkman. My parents did as a matter of course - and at one point it made a kind of sense, when most households didn't have fridges, so you really needed fresh milk every day. But things are different now.

I had always assumed that people still used the milkman because they were prepared to pay a few pence more for the convenience, but I was shocked the other day to discover just what the premium is. Someone I know using a milkman is paying 40p a pint more than I do at the supermarket. I found that quite shocking. Assuming a family gets through about a pint of milk a day that means the milkman customer is paying around £150 a year to have their milk delivered. To be honest, there is a lot I'd rather do with £150 than subsidise a milkman.

Like all change, there is a cost attached. As milkmen cease to be employed there is a loss of jobs - but is it the kind of job, with its antisocial hours, that we really want to be preserving? You can talk about the social benefit, but frankly there's not a lot. The fact is, the milkman is the retail equivalent of the gas light. It is a concept that has had its time, but is now past.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A tale of two alarm clocks

The now defunct clock
Over fifteen years ago I bought an alarm clock, which served me well all that time until the button that had to be pressed to set the time broke, so when the clocks went forward, it was a goner.

It was a very simple alarm clock. It wasn't a radio. It didn't play music. It didn't make tea. It just did two things - woke you up and told the time. Frankly, I don't need an alarm to wake me up any more. My phone does that just fine. But this alarm had a big (I mean 4 cm high) numbers in a clearly illuminated display, which was wonderful. I wake up a lot in the night, and a quick glimpse at it, without my glasses on, was enough to check the time. It was brilliant, and all I wanted was to replace it with an identical clock. Only as far as I can see, Ross, the manufacturer, doesn't exist as a company any more.

In the end I went for about the only decently large display alarm I could find. It's clearly different in that the display is red rather than green - but that's no matter. I was delighted to discover that it is exactly the same alarm in different clothing. Apart from that colour change, the display is identical - and it's clearly the same chip, with exactly the same setting mechanism.

The new clock, on the bedside table, earlier
Okay, the alarm sound, which used to be an irritatingly blaring buzzer, is now a rather mellow peeping - but that's all to the good. The only other difference is the controls. Though functionally identical, they have moved from the top of the clock to a panel in front, which is taking a little getting used to. They have also been designed by someone who hasn't been taking their medication, with strange, arrow shaped sliders that make no sense at all - but this just adds to its charm.

I am a happy bedtime bunny. (If you want to be too, here's the clock on

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Who should I vote for?

I have a problem with the upcoming European elections - I don't know who to vote for, so I'm asking for your help. Not voting is not an option that I am prepared to consider - I value democracy too highly - but I struggle to be happy with any of the options.

As a starting point I am a genuine floating voter. I change my allegiance from election to election - I don't understand the tribalism a lot of people exhibit when it comes to political parties, I just want the best option. If everything was even, I would probably vote Liberal Democrat as the broad feel of the party aligns best with my generally liberal orientation, but I have two big problems with their policies. These issues don't include, by the way, the business over tuition fees. Anyone who holds that against the LibDems is incredibly naive - you can't enter into a coalition and carry forward all you policies. To expect that to happen seems very silly. I wish they had been able to do away with tuition fees, but they weren't able to.

The two big issues for me with the LibDems are energy policy and Europe. On energy they have for so long been anti-nuclear, and that is just poor science*. I don't know the current policy in the hierarchy, but my suspicion is the majority of LibDems still don't understand why we should by now be getting a lot of our electricity from nuclear power. As for Europe, the LibDems were the only party wholeheartedly behind going into the Euro - we know what a disaster that would have been. More importantly now, they are just not critical enough of the European Union. While I accept the 'you can change more from the inside' argument, the EU is without doubt a ridiculously overinflated bureaucracy that interferes with far more than it should. And the European Parliament is not a real parliament - it really doesn't debate and alter legislation the way a parliament should. So given this is an EU election, I can't vote LibDem.

Looking at the list of candidates I will be voting for**, I can similarly dismiss the Greens for their opposition to nuclear power and general misunderstanding of environmental issues, putting knee-jerk emotional response over what is actually best for us. I find the Conservatives view on Europe too rabid, though I do like the idea of a referendum on Europe - the trouble is, my vote in the Euro elections has no influence on this. And anyway, I'd rather not vote for them on principle. My problem is rather different with Labour - I really don't understand their position on Europe. They may have a closer view to mine than most of the others, but I'm not clear they want to stand up for reducing European bureaucracy - they had over 10 years to attempt this and in that time did nothing. And then there is UKIP. (Groan.)

I can honestly say almost everything about UKIP makes me feel nauseous in the extreme. I don't make the mistake of thinking they are largely ultra-right wing bigots, a kind of BNP lite, because that's not a rational assessment. They are mostly older voters who are fed up with change, and I can understand that and don't think we should belittle them for it with terms like 'swivel-eyed' - I just think they are wrong. Admittedly I do enjoy the way they openly despise the EU bureaucracy (and can't help but smile at Mr Farage's rants in the European Parliament), but in the end, their approach is not the right way to get anything done. It is too negative and not constructive. And anyway, have you seen some of their candidates?

So there you have it. I want to vote, but I'm not sure there is anyone I can vote for. The only other party on the list is the 'English Democrats', which I knew nothing about before researching this post, but is apparently trying to be the English equivalent of the Scottish Nationlists/Plaid Cymru - but it also seems to be positioned well to the right of UKIP on the political spectrum despite claiming no left/right allegiance. This does not fill me with enthusiasm - in fact they even come below the Greens in my preferences. So I'm stuck. Help!

* [UPDATE] I have since noticed that the Lib-Dems became pro-nuclear last year - but I still can't forgive years of opposition.

** When I first wrote this piece I had no idea who my candidates were: thanks to Hayley Stevens for pointing out this website which, though still under construction, at least lists them.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Glow in the dark CSI

Many of us enjoy a good murder mystery, and at some point we're liable to come across a forensic scientist at work on the TV screen - in fact in shows like Waking the Dead and assorted CSIs, they have played a central role in the drama. Many of the tools and techniques used on screen are fictional but my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast covers a genuine CSI compound - luminol.

To find out more about this glow in the dark blood detector, take a listen by clicking play on the bar at the top of the page - or if that doesn't work for you, pop over to its page on the RSC site.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Could Cameron be right?

I agree with Dave
(sort of)
I will be honest, this does not come easy to me, but I sort of agree with David Cameron about something. Don't get over-excited, I have not gone over to the dark side. George Osborne is still not on my Christmas card list. But I did get rather irritated about the flak Cameron received for daring to suggest that the UK is a Christian nation.

The critics point out that most of us aren't practising Christians, and this is true, but entirely misses the point. The enthusiasts for multiculturalism, no doubt the same ones who bemoan Cameron's remarks, are always quick to say that we ought to encourage everyone to cherish their cultural heritage, not to forget it. And to suggest that our cultural heritage in the UK is not Christian is perverse. Of course Cameron got it wrong in the detail. He should have said CofE not Christian as they aren't identical concepts, and that's what is central to our cultural heritage. And of course it isn't the same thing to be a 'Christian nation' and to 'have a Christian cultural heritage', so the wording wasn't perfect - even so, the attacks he has received would apply equally to the correct wording.

Don't get me wrong, I think that religion should have less part in many aspects of life than it does. I think there should not be religious schools, or bishops in the House of Lords purely as a result of their religious affiliation. I think the Church of England should be disestablished before the clearly non-Chrisitian Prince Charles becomes its nominal head. (For that matter I think we should get rid of our royalty before he becomes King, but that's a different story.) But I also think that it is important that we celebrate British culture just as much as any other - more so as we are, after all, living in Britain - and to pretend that Christianity is not not a significant part of that culture is blinkered and biased.

Image from 10 Downing Street website ( via Wikipedia

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The first kiss thing

Hollingworth Lake, not by moonlight
The other day I was on a train, and glancing over the lurid magazine of the person sitting next to me, saw the headline 'Do you remember your first kiss.' All of a sudden, just like one of those montagey bits in a Hollywood movie, I was plunging back in time, because indeed I do.

Like many geeky teenagers, to be honest I had very little experience of the opposite sex when 14 or 15, but age 11, before the confusions and complexities of secondary school, I did indeed have a girlfriend, Helen Margaret Shadforth. I only really have two memories of her. One is evoked by a little handwritten letter (they were back then) which clearly came when our grand age-11 passion was fading, as Helen says 'I don't suppose you want to go to the cinema, but if you do there is the new Dr Who film on at the Odeon.' Oh, fickle youth. But the outstanding flashbulb memory is the kiss.

Helen lived near to Hollingworth Lake, a local beauty spot near Littleborough in Lancashire where I was brought up. Technically a reservoir for the nearby canal, it is nonetheless a pleasant location. It was night time and the two of us walked around to the back of the lake. This was a non-trivial outing. We aren't talking a London-style boating lake, this thing is about a kilometre across. I'm not sure I'd ever been round the back of the lake - most of the activities took place at the front, but round the back was a rather lonely little playground.

We sat on a roundabout or swings or some such thing (come on, this is distant memory), and a big moon was out in a clear sky - or at least that's what my probably semi-fictional memory tells me, and there we kissed. I can't remember what I thought of this, because when we had wandered back, we were in terrible trouble for wandering off after dark on our own and this wiped out any details. But first kiss it was. And I just hope Helen remembers it still too.

Picture by I, Carelesshx from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Why politics makes for bad ecologic

I was interested to read a news report telling us that the IPCC's focus on cutting carbon emissions was ignoring the development needs of the poor. Apparently Dr Chukwumerije Okereke, from Reading University, said 'The argument has been shifting away from the view that the developed countries, who have been mainly responsible for the problem, should take leadership in solving it, to this centre-ground view that we are all in it together and we all have to do our share.' Dr Okereke thinks this is a bad thing, because those 'who have been mainly responsible' should shoulder their guilt and sort it out, leaving everyone else to do whatever they like. The trouble is, this attitude is all about politics and nothing to do with science and solutions.

I have three problems with Dr Okereke's viewpoint.
  1. It's a classic attempt to bring blame in - the developed countries, the argument goes, are most to blame for the current situation, and hence they should do most to fix it. However, as James Lovelock pointed out in his recent book A Rough Ride to the Future, blame is both counterproductive and wrong. It's a bit like blaming people in the 1930s for smoking so much and inflicting passive smoking on their children. They had no reason to do otherwise. Blame is irrelevant.
  2. This approach is backward looking. We can't undo what has been done in the past, but we can change what we do in the future, and that starts today (not in 2005 or 1825 or whenever). We do all have to do our share because we are all contributing to the increasing problem, and while some countries like the UK are reducing their contribution, many are not.
  3. Even out of pure self-interest, the developing nations need to do all they can. Just look at the way climate change is predicted to influence agriculture around the world. Which countries get hit worst? With the exception of Australia and the US, the majority are developing nations. Some Northern countries even get improvements in agricultural capability. Where is flooding going to have the worst impact? The Indian subcontinent. Which countries can least afford to mitigate the impact? The developing nations.
The fact is that climate change is not something where we can afford to play politics and the blame game. It needs to be about realistic solutions. Many of these may be about adaptation, others are about slowing down the change. But we don't get anywhere by playing silly games.

This has been a green heretic production

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Who wrote the book?

As, for obscure reasons, I am replacing Roy Hattersley at the Kempsford Literary Festival and talking about Build Your Own Time Machine (if you're interested it's in St Mary's Church, Kempsford, 4.30pm on Sunday 27 April, £5 - tickets from or on 01285 810588, or on the door), I thought I'd do a quick time travel related post here.

As I describe in the book/talk, there is nothing in the laws of physics that prevents time travel, and relativity makes forwards time travel relativity simple. Backwards is a lot more tricky, but in principle this is possible using general relativity effects. But many physicists believe that it can never actually happen, in part because of the paradoxes that arise if you can travel into the past.

The best known time paradox is the so-called grandfather paradox, where you visit the past, kill a grandparent before you are born (I don't know why it's a grandparent, but it's traditional) and you're in a bit of a pickle. (Think about it.) But I prefer a rather more elegant and less bloody paradox.

Let's say I sent a copy of Build Your Time Machine back through a time machine to before I started to write it. Then, rather than bother to write the book, I just copy it out and send it off to my publishers. Who wrote the book, and when? The 'me' in the past didn't - he just copied out an existing book. And the 'me' in the future didn't - he just took a book of the shelf and put it into the time machine. Somehow, the book has sprung into existence from nowhere, fully formed.

Although many see this kind of thing as the death knell for backward time travel, others suggest that either it simply wouldn't happen - somehow nature would conspire to avoid my ever getting the book to myself in the past - or even that this is perfectly reasonable and explicable thanks to the the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. In 'many worlds' every time there is a quantum event that could have more than one outcome, all possible outcomes occur in different universes, making the 'reality' we experience merely one path through a near-infinite tree of universes.

If such an interpretation is true (there is, as yet, no good evidence either way), then it is possible to get around time paradoxes by assuming that the 'original' and 'post time travel' versions involve crossing between different many worlds universes. So I still wrote the book - but it is a different me in a different universe who did so, and the 'me' in this universe really does get a book without any effort.

Mind boggling? Absolutely. But fun to think about.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Let's hear it for Chiropractic Awareness Week

Could you sue this man?
I mean, look at that smile!
Yes, folks, it's Chiropractic Awareness week, that time of year when we are all asked to give a thought to our local chiropractors and their chiropractices. And what better chiropractic activity to give some thought to than the British Chiropractic Association's (BCA) legal attack on Simon Singh.

In case you don't remember, back in 2008, around this time of year, Singh, one of the UK's leading popular science writers, contributed a piece to the Guardian entitled Beware the spinal trap. In it he described the odd origins of chiropractic and the assorted ailments that have been claimed to be cured by this spinal manipulation, including 'children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying'. Singh asserted that the BCA 'is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.'

He then described the various proper clinical trials that have been done to show whether or not chiropractic produced the benefits concerned, and also described the studies that have showed adverse side effects - some very serious - individuals have suffered as a result of being a chiropractic patient.

Singh ended up with the telling remark 'Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week - if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.'

As a result of Singh's use of the word 'bogus', the BCA made a legal complaint that resulted in a two year lawsuit. In the end Singh was vindicated - but he lost two years of his working life in this process and went through a very painful experience.

As a result of the judgements received, the BCA withdrew its libel action against Singh, and his original article was reinstated in all its glory: you can read it here, and treasure the wonder of free speech.

So there we have it, for Chiropractic Awareness Week. I trust that anyone who decides to make use of a chiropractor reads Singh's article first. Because there is certainly some material there that is worthy of serious thought.

Image by Richardc39 from Wikipedia

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Do you know yourself?

A friend of mine is doing PhD research on personality and needs some volunteers to fill in two online questionnaires. They do take 15 to 25 minutes each, but you would be contributing to valuable research.
 He is researching the extent to which an individual displays seemingly opposite qualities in different contexts e.g. can somebody be both “introverted” and “extraverted” – or can they be “tough” and “compassionate”. His PhD is looking to refute traditional “type theory” that likes to make you exclusively one (and not the other). He is also researching how using opposite qualities may boost an individual’s “emotional intelligence”.
After he has analysed the data, he will email out a short personality report based on the 1st questionnaire and a short emotional intelligence report based on the 1st & 2nd questionnaire combined, so you get some feedback about yourself.
If anyone could help it would be great. These are the surveys - you do need to do both.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Sequel or prequel?

Purely by coincidence I have two posts about young adult fiction in a row, though this is quite different, as I am delighted to welcome author S. P. Moss to describe a strange aspect of time in her latest novel:

‘… you see, Grandpop, this has happened once before, or I suppose I mean after...’

One man’s past is another man’s future. This was the conundrum facing me when I came to write the sequel – or is it a prequel? – to the children’s adventure story, The Bother in Burmeon.

The Bother in Burmeon is a retro-style tale. Young Billy slips back in time to 1962 to join his RAF pilot granddad in a rip-roaring jungle adventure. But what on earth is going to happen if, a few months later, Billy takes another time trip? – As he does in the new book, Trouble in Teutonia.  He ends up in a country not dissimilar to Germany - in the middle of a Cold War winter, in 1957.

It’s “after” for Billy. But it's “before” for Grandpop. This leads to all manner of dilemmas for the twelve-year-old. Can he spill the beans about what will happen in the future, or is that just not cricket? Are the events he has experienced in 1962 pre-destined to take place, or has he just messed up the future? And what is the nature of time?

On this last question, Billy has some hair-raising lessons from the eccentric Professor Brian Blunderby, a breeder of fox terriers, designer of jet fighters and dabbler in matters of space and time. The inspiration for Prof Blunderby was J. W. Dunne, aeronautical engineer and author of An Experiment with Time (1927). Dunne proposed the notion of “serial time”, in which past, present and future are present simultaneously. But normal human perception is only capable of experiencing time in a linear, unidirectional fashion.

I came across Dunne via a connection that might, on first sight, seem curious: John Buchan. Now, I freely admit that John Buchan has been a huge influence on all the derring-do in my stories, but – philosophical questions of time and consciousness? Well, in Buchan’s Dunne-influenced novel The Gap in the Curtain (1932) a professor conducts an experiment on precognition at a country house party. The participants are shown a copy of The Times, a year on. Is their destiny pre-ordained, or can they change the course of events?

Which brings us back to my dilemma. Prequel or sequel? Maybe, in the same way that Dunne believed all time was eternally present, a story can be both before and after. Which makes Trouble in Teutonia neither prequel nor sequel, but a sprequel.

Trouble in Teutonia will be launched on Thursday, 17th April, at Brooklands Museum, Weybridge, Surrey.

For more information, please see and

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Bone Jack review

I have been a huge fan of British fantasy writer Alan Garner since I was 11. I went to the same school as Garner, and all the locations of his earlier books were extremely familiar to me - which made the books extra special because a sense of place is central to Garner's superb fantasies. I stayed with him until what was, for me, his best book The Owl Service, after which we parted company as Garner's writing headed into a more confused place.

Since reading Garner I have come to enjoy other fantasy writers - notably Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman - whose real world fantasies are far better than pure sword and sorcery because their locations, myth and legend, whether existent or conjured up for the book, intertwine with the lives of ordinary people in a world we know and understand, making the stories much more powerful.

What Sara Crowe has done with Bone Jack is remarkable - she has brought back the intensity of reading Garner. While entirely its own book, and not a pastiche, I felt that same sense of real connection with the landscape, and the dread of the kind of dark fantasy that teenagers understand but adults tend to forget. This is pitched pretty much at the same level as Garner's Elidor - more sophisticated and knowing than his Alderly Edge books, but without the adult connotations of The Owl Service.

It would be an understatement to say I loved it - it was my teen reading recaptured. There isn't an awful lot of 'young adult' fiction I enjoy. I'm generally happy to leave it to its target audience. But Bone Jack hit me fair and square between the eyes.

If I am going to be really picky, I thought Ash's father's problems felt a little engineered to isolate the main character, rather than working as a true part of the plot. I also felt Bone Jack was underused. But those are tiny writers' points that really don't signify much at all.

If you, or a teen you know, likes the kind of fantasy that is tied up with dark legends, blood and the land - but not so dark that the main character can't win through - then you are going to love this book. Run, don't walk to and click up a storm. (It isn't on for technical reasons, but you can still order it in the US from here.)

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Designer error #1

I've always been fascinated by user interface design - the design of the way a person interacts with a product. It tends to be thought of as a computer software thing, but it applies to anything a person interacts with: a car, a fridge... even a door. And as soon as you design a user interface, you are open to designer error. When people try to use your product and get it wrong, the natural inclination is to think that they are idiots. But, in fact, I think of this as Designer Error #1, which is simply defined:
If someone uses your product incorrectly, it is your mistake, not theirs.
I suffered from Designer Error #1 myself on one of my websites recently. But before getting to that, one or two of you may have a nagging doubt. Surely Designer Error #1 can't apply to a door? Does it make sense to talk about user interface design of a door? It certainly does. For quite a while, designers loved producing minimalist glass doors with no obvious hinge or handle. Often these were set in a large swathe of glass. And it would be discovered after their installation that no one could find the door. And when they did, they didn't know which side to open it. Often the post design fix was to resort to signage - but it would have been so much simpler if they had made the hinges visible or put a push plate on the door.

Another example of Designer Error #1 with doors was when British Airways built its swish new headquarters, Waterside. I spent an enjoyable half hour once watching this error in operation on the toilets there. The door into the toilets had a nice clear pull handle on it - a large vertical tubular bar type handle. And person after person would come up to the door and pull the handle. And nothing happened. Because you had to push the door to open it. The designer, it seems, loved symmetry (as they often do), and because there was a pull handle on the inside, put one on the outside too. Fail.

My Designer Error #1 came on my website which sells CDs and downloads of accompaniments to hymns. Most of the purchase are straightforward - you either buy CDs or you click through to download from the likes of iTunes and Amazon. But there is an option to order a bespoke CD - one where you choose the tracks from the circa 2,000 strong library and the CD is made to order. Because of the way the pricing works, there are two items required to buy a bespoke CD - a flat production/shipping cost, and a variable amount for the tracks, depending on how many you want. The website made this very clear with a label immediately above the purchasing buttons saying:

However, two purchasers within 24 hours simply paid for the tracks and didn't buy the CD itself, which then required an apologetic email asking for more money and general messing about.

The natural inclination is to think 'Can't they read?! It was obvious, in big letters!' But that's Designer Error #1. It was my fault. The ideal fix would have been to make it only possible to buy one with the other, but that isn't an option with the software I have. So instead I've made two changes. Rather than just have the instruction, then a string of purchase buttons, I have merged the two into a kind of action list:

And then, if you do just add the tracks to your cart, you get a reminder there as well:

It's not perfect, but it's a heck of a sight better. If buyers still get it wrong, they are clearly silly. But it would still be Designer Error #1, and I would have to go back to the virtual drawing board.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Beyond Flying review

I was delighted, if rather torn, by the opportunity to review about Beyond Flying, a book about the appropriate green response to air travel.

There were two reasons for being torn. One is that I think it is important to be green, and that climate change is a huge challenge facing us all - but on the other hand, most green organisations and their stances make me squirm. I am all too conscious that if it wasn't for the opposition of green pressure groups we would, by now, be generating most of our electricity from clean, green nuclear energy, which would have done far more to reduce our carbon emissions than fiddling about with flying habits.

The other way I'm a little divided is I worked for British Airways for 17 years, and keep a residual affection for the company and the airline business (not to mention having written Inflight Science) - but at the same time I have only flown once in the last 20 years, which frankly puts most of the green polemicists in the book to shame. I dislike flying and more to the point, I don't see any need for it.

The book itself is in a format I'm not fond of - a collection of essays from different authors, rather than a single readable whole - but most of the essays are interesting and well-written. I didn't agree with them all, but I agreed with bits of many and they all made me think.

The message is varied. Some think we should just cut down on air travel, keeping to essential travel (like visiting a dying relative), others think we should try to cut it out altogether (though being uniformly liberal with a small 'l', I don't think many would want to impose this on everyone else). There is a lot about the joys of slow travel, how you see more of the world doing ground travel, and a lot about substituting videoconferencing etc. for business travel. What everyone agrees is that there is no sensible way to significantly reduce the environmental impact of air travel - we aren't going to get electric airliners - and we need to do something about it.

I thought it was worth pulling out some of the key points and giving my analysis.

  • It is important that we reduce air travel as it has a big impact on the environment. Probably not strictly true. As is pointed out in the book, air travel only produces around 5% of global emissions (I can't remember if this is factored for the higher impact produced because of the height the emissions are produced at.) If we stopped all flying overnight it would make very little difference to global warming. We need to hit the 95% not the 5%. Realistically, if everyone inclined to read a book like this made the change we'd probably reduce emissions by 0.001%. This is fiddling at the margins.
  • If we made local (e.g. across Europe for us) rail travel more affordable, better and easier to book we could practically do away with local air travel. I absolutely agree. I don't know why anyone still flies to Paris when you can take Eurostar. We need far more of this kind of train travel. But to make this happen we do need good unified booking systems, and crucially cheaper rail travel. So remove the fuel subsidies from air and go back to serious subsidy of rail. And ignore the NIMBYs and get high speed rail like HS2 in place as quick as possible. Quicker than the current schedule. High speed rail is more comfortable, enjoyable, productive etc. etc. than flying. We just need to get rid of the barriers that remain and invest more.
  • People should video conference more. Absolutely - I don't think there is any good reason to fly for business meetings or for conferences (scientists take note!). This includes, as some wryly point out in the book, all the global conferences about climate change and reducing its impact. The technology is there to do it cheaper and greener without flying. Interestingly, in the opening essay, someone from the New Internationalist magazine weasels out and finds excuses why journalists still need to fly. Sorry, no. You can't do 'One rule for us, one for the rest of you.' If you need someone on the spot, use a local. I'd apply the same to all news gathering organisations.
  • There are different levels of need for flying. I think this is impossible to balance, because it is a value judgement that can't sensibly be made. You can't say 'this reason for flying is more valid than that' - or police that value judgement without having a totalitarian state. It's all or nothing.
  • If people want to travel longhaul they should take a few months off and really enjoy travelling slowly. Bullsh*t. This illustrates the worst aspect of this book. So many of the articles assume we're all middle class people doing the sort of middle class job that can be done on a train (hence it's more productive) and that we can take a sabbatical from. Tell that to nurses and teachers and factory workers and waiters etc. etc. This just isn't in the real world. I love travelling places by train and have holidayed very successfully in Switzerland from the UK by train - but that's about the practical limit in the holidays most people can manage the time to do slowly. The vast majority of people will never be able to fit this 'few months off' picture.
That last point in the list above illustrates the biggest problem of this book. The approach it advocates is only ever going to apply to such a tiny percentage of people, typically the chattering classes, that it can have no impact on climate change. But I do think we should be thinking about air travel, and particularly how we can make rail a better alternative, with some urgency - and for that I am grateful.

You can buy the book at and - and all the usual green-friendly sources.

This has been a green heretic production.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Peaking late

I'm a great enthusiast for Netflix - partly in terms of the range of interesting TV available (we're currently working through the original Swedish/Danish version of The Bridge, and Last Tango in Halifax for light relief) and just because of the impressive way it just works to do something that is quite amazing, when you think about it.

Recently, though, I've dipped a toe into what used to be Lovefilm Instant, which I now get free through Amazon Prime. One of the advantages of watching Netflix is I can do so on a proper TV, using an Apple TV box, but that doesn't support Amazon's offering - luckily, though, our Blu-ray player does (ah, the wonders of modern technology). To be honest there's not a lot in the free stuff on Amazon I wanted to watch, but I was delighted to see one thing. When I first got Netflix, I'd noticed the classic David Lynch TV show, Twin Peaks was on there and duly put it on my 'to watch' list. To my horror, by the time I got round to it, Twin Peaks had dropped out of the library. But joy etc. - there it was on Amazon.

So over the last couple weeks I've had a Twin Peaksathon, watching both seasons with some serious binge viewing, something TP is ideal for. For those of you who remember it, it's still just as weird and wonderful as everyone said it was at the time - and holds up very well to the modern eye, apart from the 4:3 ratio. It's remarkable how much of a buzz it caused back then - even though I never watched it, I could remember from 1990 that the murdered girl was called Laura Palmer. For those who didn't see it, this starts off as what appears to be a straightforward murder mystery, featuring a very strange FBI agent (played wonderfully by Kyle MacLachlan - whatever happened to him?) - but ends up with strong elements of fantasy and downright strangeness.

I know the show was cancelled, so the ending might not have been exactly what Lynch would have hoped for the whole enterprise (and there is a movie prequel/sequel, though it sounds as if that doesn't exactly tie up loose ends), but it did illustrate for me the classic 'great urban fantasy issue.' I'm a huge fan of fantasy writer Gene Wolfe, not for his off-Earth stuff that seems to have made most of his money, but for the superb fantasies set in a not-quite-right real world like Castleview and There Are Doors. But if Wolfe has one flaw it is that he builds up such a weird and wonderful and intriguing complex scenario that the end of the book is almost always a disappointment. I suspected this would be the case with Twin Peaks... and it was. In spades.

Nonetheless, there are many characters in there I'll treasure (though I could have done without the one played by Lynch himself) and a story and setting that will haunt me for a long time. If you have access to it, and didn't see it first time around, I'd recommend giving it a go.

For fans, here's the theme music:

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 3 April 2014

The ride is rough with Lovelock

A couple of days ago, I mentioned James Lovelock's antipathy to peer review in his new book. The review of the book is now live on and because I think it is a book worthy of wide exposure, I am reproducing that review here.

James Lovelock is unique, both as a scientist and as a writer. He may be most famous for his Gaia hypothesis that the Earth acts as if it were a self-regulating living entity, but has done so much more in a 94 year life to date.

Rough Ride (not to be confused with Jon Turney’s Rough Guide to the Future) is an important book, but it is also flawed, and I wanted to get those flaws out of the way, as I’ve awarded it four stars for the significance of its content, rather than its well-written nature. It is, frankly, distinctly irritating to read – meandering, highly repetitive and rather too full of admiration for Lovelock’s achievements. But I am not giving the book a top rating as a ‘well done for being so old’ award – far from it. Instead it’s because Lovelock has some very powerful things to say about climate change. I’ve been labelled a green heretic in the past, and there is no doubt that Lovelock deserves this accolade far more, as he tears into the naivety of much green thinking and green politics.

He begins, though, by taking on the scientific establishment, pointing out the limitations of modern, peer reviewed, team-oriented science  in the way that it blocks the individual and creative scientific thinker – the kind of person who has come up with most of our good scientific ideas and inventions over the centuries. He does this primarily to establish that he is worth listening to, rather than being some lone voice spouting nonsense. I’m not sure he needs to do this – I think there are few who wouldn’t respect Lovelock and give him an ear, but it’s a good point and significant that he feels it necessary.

The main thrust of the book is to suggest that our politicians (almost universally ignorant of science) are taking the wrong approach to climate change. He derides the effort to develop renewable energy, despises the way the Blair government chickened out of nuclear power (and is very heavy on the Germans and Italians for their panic reaction after the Japanese tsunami) and makes it clear that from his viewpoint, our whole approach to climate change is idiotic.

With the starting point that the whole system is far too complex to allow any decent modelling, or to be sure what any attempts at geoengineering could achieve, Lovelock suggests that the answer is to let Gaia get on with sorting itself out, and instead of worrying about trying to manage carbon emissions in our current situation, we should instead put our efforts into adapting the way we live to cope with changes in the climate. He points out, the kind of climate we had before the industrial revolution (or accelerated evolution, as he believes it to be) was not the typical climate of the Earth either, which would be more like its state in the grips of an Ice Age.

Rather that trying to somehow get it back to an imaginary utopian state, he argues we should be looking at new ways to live that will enable us to manage despite what the climate throws at us. He points out, for instance, that in our fears of the impact of 2 to 6 degrees of warming we miss that Singapore manages perfectly well in an environment that is 12.5 degrees above the global average. Of course, you might argue that we couldn’t sustain that way of life for 7 billion people – and Lovelock is sanguine about this. He doesn’t expect humans to carry on at that kind of population level, as part of the adaptation.

What’s fascinating is that while reading the book I also read an article by that most demonised of environmental figures, Bjorn Lomborg, and it was remarkable how much similarity there was in their views of the approach we should take, though coming at the problem from very different directions and with very different predicted outcomes.

A final thrust of the book is perhaps less convincing. Lovelock, looking 100 million years or more into the future, suggests that the best way our descendants can survive to keep Gaia going is in electronic form, as it would be possible to live on for many more millions of years despite the Earth warming, due to the Sun’s gradual increase of output, to a stage where it is uninhabitable by biological life. At the same time he dismisses terraforming Mars (and doesn’t even consider starships) as a mechanism for keeping a future humanity alive. This seems a bit of an stance and dilutes, rather than helps the central message of what we should do about climate change and human existence on Earth.

As I mentioned earlier on, you may well find the book a frustrating read because of all the repetition, but this is a book that will really get you thinking about our approach to climate change, and whether we’ve got it all terribly wrong. Read it.

You can find out more about the book at and, and it's also on Kindle at and

This has been a green heretic production

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Employment transformation

After George Osborne's recent enthusiasm for full employment there has been a lot around in the media about getting people into jobs, helping people find an employer and the ways that employers can be encouraged to get more people on their payroll. I do think there's an element here of the way the gas companies reacted to the electric light by trying to invent a better gas mantle.

My problem with all this is that you hardly ever hear anything about providing support to people to become self-employed. And yet, as dinosaur industries bite the dust, we can expect that more and more of us are likely to be self-employed. And I think that's a good thing. Having spent about half my working life with a large company and half self-employed there is no comparison. Being your own boss is wonderful, with the upside far outweighing the negatives.

So it's fine to have all this stuff, but why don't newly self-employed people get a national insurance holiday, like the one being offered for newly employed people? Why isn't there as much effort going into helping people set up their own businesses as there is in apprenticeships and encouragement to take on staff? The fact is that micro businesses are an extremely important part of the economy, but governments of all political colours are welded to the old idea of working for large companies as an employee being the only significant model.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not falling for the easy trap of 'I have got on okay for 20 years self-employed, so why can't everyone do it?' I know it's not for everyone. Some just want to clock in for a job, do the work and clock off. And there still will remain plenty of companies that need to be big, with lots of employees. But a sizeable part of the workforce is self employed, or runs their own extremely small companies - and that part could and should grow considerably.

Self employment and startups really are by far the best solution when a dinosaur industry dies out. Yet despite whatever weasel words there may be from the government (and from Labour), the fact is that politicians just don't get it. Our whole system (especially the tax system) is set up to support and reinforce the old way of working. It's time for a radical redesign, and to really give help to those who want to earn money by their own efforts. How about it, Mr Osborne?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

End of the peer show

I am currently reading for review the latest book by James Lovelock, and a strange and sometimes wonderful thing it is too. I was fascinated to read fairly early on an impassioned attack on something most of us take for granted as part of the mechanism of modern science - peer review.

The idea of peer review is that before a paper is published or an experiment etc. is funded a group of other scientists (the peers in question) with appropriate knowledge assess the value of the paper/experiment and act as gatekeepers, only allowing through work they feel is worthwhile. But Lovelock points out that this process tends to support the status quo, rather than radical new thinking, and is heavily biassed in the way it is operated towards the 'throw large teams at it' approach that emerged largely in the Second World War and is strongly weighted against individual scientists working on their own, which, he suggests, is a problem.

Lovelock points out, correctly, that only individuals can come up with an idea. You can't have an idea by committee. (It's interesting, we use 'team' when we want to make the concept of throwing a group of people at a problem to sound good, and 'committee' when we want it  to sound bad.) It's not that he's against teams, but he sees them as largely responsible for the grunt work to support the ideas from the individuals. And this is fine and good, but unfortunately the peer review process has come to assume a certain way of working, and will tend to reject without consideration input from individuals who don't fall within the classic academic institution model.

One of the examples used to support this is an experience Lovelock had in the early days of the CFC/ozone hole debacle. Lovelock had applied for a small grant from the Natural Environment Research Council as part of a plan to travel on a ship to Antarctica and back, using a device he had invented that enabled him to measure the levels of CFCs in the atmosphere down to parts per trillion. The peer review included this wonderful piece of text:
Every schoolboy knows that the CFCs are among the most inert of chemicals, it would be difficult to measure their abundance in the air, or in sea water, as low as a part per million; the proposer claims to be able to measure their abundance at parts per trillion. The claim is bogus and the time of our committee should not be wasted by frivolous applications of this kind.
Lovelock made the journey and took the readings unfunded, providing the primary evidence that would result in the eventual banning of CFCs. The more common form of peer review, deciding on whether or not a paper should be published in journals, he suggests, is equally biassed against anything new/outside current received wisdom/from individual scientists working alone - it's just rare that the negative comments get seen.

There is no doubt that Lovelock is right, but unfortunately what he doesn't do (unless it comes later in the book - I am only part way through) is come up with a solution to the problem. Because the fact is that there are far more people who really will be making bogus claims and coming up with silly papers than happen to be effective individual scientists like him. But at the very least, the processes should allow for an individual who, like Lovelock, has the appropriate qualifications and experience to be published or funded just as much as those who are part of academic institutions. (Admittedly there aren't many such people, but there are still a few.) At the moment this just doesn't happen.

What's more, I do think Lovelock has a point when he suggests that the vast majority of new thinking and new inventions come from such individuals, rather than from big teams. The way we go about science now is very conservative (with a small c). Which is fine where things can continue in 'more of the same' mode, but when we need a radical idea to overthrow current thinking - or for a really impressive new invention (Lovelock stresses most of the great scientists have also been inventors, something big team science doesn't seem capable of matching) - then we are likely to be moribund if we don't find a way to support these maverick individuals. Science will, frankly, be a poor cousin of what it could be otherwise.