Friday, 30 May 2014

The toilet roll dilemma - an online experiment

Every now and then I feel the urge to do an online experiment - today we are dealing with one of the biggest social issues to face humanity. Which way do you put the toilet roll on the holder?

I am personally convinced there is only one way for a sane person to do this, but not everyone agrees.

So what do you think? Which way up should we put the toilet roll? I'd be grateful for as many replies (here or on Facebook/Twitter @brianclegg) as possible.

Please don't just vote, though - I would like a logical explanation, with workings where relevant.

Thank you in anticipation. Littlendians and Bigendians have nothing on this one.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

DIY volcanoes with ammonium dichromate

One of the saddest things about the way chemistry teaching has progressed is the way experiments have been made safer and safer. In our after school chemistry club I once did an experiment using hydrogen cyanide as an ingredient - somehow I can't see it being employed today. And the modern idea of a chemical volcano is the impressively bubbly but totally un-volcano like result of combining sodium bicarbonate and vinegar.

But back in the day we could produce much more impressive volcanoes that threw out sparks and sent ash flowing, as you will discover in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast.

To find out more about ammonium dichromate, 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.

And in case you'd like to see it action (though the real thing is better):

 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The ecologic of streaming

...ish
It might seem obvious that streaming a video is more environmentally friendly than going to get a DVD and watching it, but one of the rules of ecologic is that in the environment, common sense doesn't always deliver the right results. Think, for instance, of tomatoes, where British tomatoes raised in greenhouses have a worse carbon dioxide footprint than Spanish tomatoes, despite all those extra food miles.

It would have been entirely possible that the heavy energy use at the data centre, plus the transmission costs balanced out the production, shipping and driving back and forth that is the life of a rental DVD - but no. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime really do have an environmental benefit (for the reasons above, and also because DVD players take a lot more energy than a streaming box like an Apple TV or a Smart TV with built-in streaming services) - and there's a study to prove it. 

Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Northwestern University have come up with impressive savings that suggest  if all DVD viewing in the US in 2011 was shifted to streaming services, around 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could have been avoided and around 30 petajoules of energy saved—the equivalent of the amount of electricity needed to meet the demands of 200,000 US households. Not trivial.

It seems the impact of online rental/purchase of DVDs had a similar impact to streaming, but renting or buying DVDs from a physical store is much more energy intensive because of the impact of the drive. Clearly this would also be true in the UK, but my suspicion is that the impact here would be less, as car journeys in the UK tend to be shorter, and cars tend to be more environmentally friendly than those in the US. And 2011 was a long time ago in the video watching world - I suspect significantly fewer of us now drive to get a DVD (bye-bye Blockbuster).

As streaming increases, the report's authors suggest that effort should be put into improving the efficiency of end user devices and network transmission energy to bring down the energy use even further.

Even so, those of us who have largely moved from DVDs or Blurays to streaming can feel suitably smug.

If you are the kind of person who likes to dig into the actual paper, you can find it by clicking this link.

Fast Facts courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood Institute of Physics:
  • An estimated 1.2 billion DVDs were purchased in the US in 2011 
  • An estimated 17.2 billion hours of DVDs were viewed in 2011 in the US 
  • An estimated 3.2 billion hours of movies and television programmes were streamed in the US in 2011 
  • The percentages of total video streaming viewing time attributable to computers, televisions, and mobile devices in 2011 are estimated at 20%, 77%, and 3%, respectively 


Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The dangers of name calling

Could I apologise to people who like this blog for the science/entertaining bits that this is yet another piece on politics - but the good news is that I promise to shut up on the matter now until the general election next year.

I pride myself that my friends on Facebook and the people I follow on Twitter are nice, intelligent people, with a far better understanding of science than the average member of the public. Which is why I have been very disappointed by the social media storm coming from them during the recent UK election.

I don't normally discuss my political affiliations, but I think I ought to say up front that I am one of the few remaining Liberal Democrats in captivity, in case anyone makes assumptions from what I am about to say.

What I think has been very silly is the swathes of abusive posts and tweets about UKIP, calling them fascists and racists. (Or just launching ad hominem attacks.) Now, bearing in mind I am a Lib Dem (come on, I'm called Clegg), I should stress that I strongly dislike UKIP policies and I would never support them or vote for them. But. Name calling is not the answer. We need proper debate, not spittle-powered invective.

Some of the people who were doing the name calling identified themselves as Greens. Now you can do exactly the same thing with the Green party if you want to, but using the opposite wing of extremism. You could easily label the Greens as Marxist. Not because they are, but because a number of their policies overlap with Marxist ideas, just as a number of UKIP policies overlap with fascist ideas. It's easy to forget, but Marxism is a totalitarian, anti-democratic system just as much as fascism is. I've done work in the past with a charity that helps in Belarus, and I can tell you that if you doubt this, you have never seen Marxism in action.

But my point is not that we ought to be pointing fingers at the Greens and calling them Marxists, because mostly their supporters and activists aren't, but rather we shouldn't be pointing fingers at UKIP and calling them fascists, because mostly their supporters and activists aren't. (In both cases, the parties will contain some extremists from their respective wings.)

Instead, if parties want our respect, they should be pointing out their own policies and explaining why they are better for us, not spending all their time in attack mode. The European election gives a strong message that people are fed up of the EU as it is currently constituted, and I can understand that. It is a bloated bureaucracy. It does waste vast amounts of money and interfere where it shouldn't. I've been involved indirectly in 3 EU funded projects, and every one of them wasted vast amounts of money and didn't achieve what they were trying to do, because they were all about bureaucracy and ticking the boxes.

So tell us how you will sort the EU out. Tell us how you will make the UK work better! But don't bombard us with 'I hate UKIP' messages, because they are counter-productive and actually encourage support for more extreme parties. When the general election comes round in just under a year's time, focus on your policies and how they will things better. If you fight a negative campaign, attacking another party - however much that party's ideas may be wrong - you are making a big mistake. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

The penalty dilemma

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am passionate about football - specifically I am passionate about avoiding it at all costs, which is why the current relentless advertising on ITV for World Cup coverage is filling me with dread. But I did read something the other day that was a really interesting point on the subject of the dreary game.

It was in Think Like a Freak, the latest tome from the guys who brought us Freakonomics (review follows soon) and they were applying their usual sideways thinking to the matter of the England team's favourite occupation, the penalty shootout. It is a tiny bit of psychological warfare between the player taking the kick and the goalie, as the goalie has to dive before it is clear which direction the ball is going in.

What Levitt and Dubner point out is that the best way to win is actually to kick straight at where the goalie is standing, as that way it is likely to get through whichever way he dives. Of course you couldn't do it every time, but it's certainly a winning tactic if it comes out of the blue. And yet players don't do it. Why? Because of the cost of failure. If you guess the direction of the dive wrong, or just miss because you are trying one of those fancy shots that skims in at the top of the net, then it's fair enough. But if you kick the ball straight at the goalkeeper and he just stands there and stops it, you are the kind of football player I used to be. You would be mocked and derided. Most of the time this won't happen, because the goalie will dive. But you can't be sure - and that fear of being belittled is enough to make sure that footballers don't take the option that is most likely to win.

Neat. (Please don't bombard me with footballist theories on why this is wrong. A) It's not my idea and B) I don't really care, it's just the dilemma that interests me.) You can see more about Think Like a Freak at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Thursday, 22 May 2014

What message does your vote send?

So, polling day in the European elections is upon us. As I've mentioned previously, I really don't want to vote for any of the options available, but I do intend to vote, so what to do? Let's have another go.

Logic says something like this. Of itself, this vote won't make anything happen, because it doesn't really matter what party our Euro MPs belong to, as it won't make any difference to what the European parliament does (which is pretty limited anyway).

So the only point of the vote is to send a message to the political parties about Europe ahead of the election that really does matter, next year's general election. Some people think that they will also send a message about other policies, like the NHS or the environment, but I think this misses the point. The message that will be received will simply reflect the relevant party's attitude to Europe.

So here are my options (in order of the latest poll I've seen):

  • Labour: Let's be vaguely in favour of change in Europe, but not really do anything
  • UKIP: Let's get out of the EU
  • Conservative: Let's try to negotiate a change (almost impossible) and if we don't get one then have a referendum
  • Lib-Dem: Let's learn to love Europe
  • Green: Make the EU even more bureaucratic and ineffective by having a 'multiplicity of independent bodies' and do away with free trade
  • English Democrats: Let's end democracy as we know it
Okay, they are caricatures, but close enough. Realistically, only Labour or Conservative can form the next government (with or without a coalition) - so they are the target for whatever message I send. The question is, what should that message be?

Sigh. I'm going to have to wait until I'm standing in that booth and hope inspiration comes at the last minute.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Has the Daily Mail gone too far?

The Daily Mail's ongoing mission to boldly assign everything we eat or drink into the categories 'causes cancer' or 'cures cancer' is a cause of much amusement, but essentially harmless. However, its latest magnificent misunderstanding when it comes to science could actually cause serious harm.

A couple of days ago a Mail travel reporter (note they didn't let their science person, if they have one, anywhere near it) gave us the striking headline shown above (spot the typo). You will note there is no suggestion that there is no known scientific reason why this stuff should work - we are told straight 'just a teaspoon will offer three hours' protection' and apparently with a straight face that it causes your skin to vibrate and cancel out ultraviolet light.

The article goes on to explain that the liquid sunscreen, retailing at £17 a bottle, works, according to its manufacturer, as follows: 'If 2 mls are ingested an hour before sun exposure, the frequencies that have been imprinted on water will vibrate on your skin in such a way as to cancel approximately 97% of the UVA and UVB rays before they even hit your skin... This is similar to the amount of UV reflection created by SPF 30 titanium/zinc sunblocks but distinctly better than UVB chemical sunscreens which prevent certain damage that leads to the visible/painful/inflammation reaction we identify as sun damage.'

The article also reproduces testimonials from users including 'My year and a half year old drinks it as well and hasn't burned once this summer and is out everyday!'

The suggestion seems to be that somehow the frequencies ‘imprinted on the liquid’ can cancel out light the way noise-cancelling headphones cancel out noise. If this were possible, the military would be rushing out to buy this product for their planes as ‘cancelling out light’ would make them invisible. But in fact light is nothing like sound – you can’t cancel it out with a vibration, even if something you drink could make your skin vibrate with a particular frequency – which it can’t.

The real concern is that people will use this product and then undertake dangerous levels of sun exposure – and a particular concern is that such a simple apparent solution would be ideal for children. There’s no worse job when arriving on a beach than having to coat your children in sunscreen. Imagine how attractive the idea is of just being able to give them a drink and they are protected. But should parents do this, they will be exposing delicate skin to the sun’s rays without protection, which can result in very serious outcomes.

Of course scientists are coming up with new treatments and products all the time – but when the description of how a product works is one that bears no resemblance to known science, when the product has not been tested by any authorities for safety, and when the result of it not working could have very serious health implications, it was extremely irresponsible of a newspaper to cover it in this way.

The Mail does provide a few provisos:

  • The company's claims have not been approved by the US FDA - but there is no suggestion that they never will be
  • A representative of the British Skin Foundation is quoted as saying they 'advise extreme caution of any product claiming UV protection using methods not supported by clinical research' and emphasising it is important to stick to tried and tested methods when protecting children's skin - which is all good stuff, but hardly the kind of warning that is necessary
When it comes down to it, all the editorial in the piece, apart from the remark about the FDA, is positive and reads more like a press release than an article. There is no suggestion that the advertised basis does not make scientific sense. There is no warning from the Mail about the consequences of relying on this product. Frankly, this article is very disturbing indeed.



Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Who makes the public ignorant?

I was interested to be pointed to these survey results in '12 things the British Public Are Completely Wrong About' on Buzzfeed (and finally to the actual survey results here at IPSOS Mori). This is partly fascinating because two of the results simply don't show what the headline suggests, yet no one seems to have noticed this, and partly because it's interesting to think about why public perception is wrong on these issues - and a large part of the blame has to go to politicians, TV and newspapers.

Let's deal with that little quirk where the figures don't reflect what's being said. We are told that 29% of people think that the government spends more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions and, by coincidence, 29% of people think foreign aid is one of the government's top three expenditures. (In reality we spend 15 times more on pensions than JSA, and foreign aid is not even in the top 10.) The actual figures were 29% and 26%, which surely don't support the headline hypothesis 'Things the British Public are Completely Wrong About'. The title tells us that most of the public are wrong, and yet we are talking about a quarter of those polled. My suspicion is that one reason some people did get this wrong is that it involves doing comparisons with ridiculously large numbers, because the numbers spent on the health service, say, makes anything else seem negligible. In reality, for normal people, as opposed to the government, the £7.9 billion spent on foreign aid is still a massive number, which could easily make it sound like one of the higher expenditures.

But it is particularly interesting to take a look at some of the other assertions (which do seem to be more representative of public views) and see where they might have come from.
  1. On average, those questioned thought that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year. This is the most bizarre statistic of the lot. Assuming girls can get pregnant from around 12, this would require more than half of those who could get pregnant to get pregnant every year. In fact if you look at the breakdown of responses, around 70 people thought that 40% of girls under 16 got pregnant - which means every single girl who was capable of becoming pregnant doing so, plus rather a lot of others. Boggle. It certainly demonstrates a poor understanding of basic statistics. Where does the wrong impression come from? Probably right wing politicians, reinforced a bit by the media, who talk about teenage pregnancies far more than the actual data (which is a rate of about 0.6%) suggests is necessary.
  2. 58% do not think that crime is falling and 51% think violent crime is rising (again the Buzzfeed article got a number wrong). There's an element of politicians talking too much about this, but the fault is primarily with the media. Admittedly I have heard several times on the news that crime rates are falling, but there is always a 'but' immediately afterwards where after some scraping around they manage to find some crime statistic (any crime statistic) that is rising. They can't just report good news, it goes against their miserable natures. And, of course, day after day crimes are reported in the way many other things that happen day after day aren't.
  3. We think that there are nearly as many muslims (24%) in the country as christians (34%) where the figures are actually 5% and 59% (sort of, though that second figure is an overestimate by most measures). This has to primarily be a news agenda thing. I can't remember when I last heard a news bulletin that didn't mention muslims in some way - in large part because a lot of world problems are happening in muslim countries. So the religion gets more media coverage than is representative of the muslim presence in the UK. It isn't helped when we get the silly halal meat type blowups, when people will assume that surely restaurants wouldn't make a change like that to accommodate such a small percentage of the population. This is a hard one to do anything about because the news agenda is so driven by strife.
  4. We thing 31% of the country are immigrants and 30% are black and asian, where actual numbers are around 13% and 11%. The immigrant side of the equation surely comes from the politicians making such a fuss about it. My suspicion is that the black and asian misjudgement is mainly because the media is so London-based, so whenever they, say, visit a school it has a different black and asian mix from that you would expect in the country as a whole. The media also tries so hard not to exclude minorities that there is a tendency to have a higher representation of black and asian presenters in some parts of the media than reflects the national average, though strangely the percentages tend to be too low in many dramas.
It seems a mix of poor understanding of statistics (I still can't get over that '15% of girls under 16 getting pregnant'), disproportionate focus by political parties and imbalanced reporting in the media, which is always happier, for instance, to tell us about crimes than about the eradication of crime, means that the British public is sadly misinformed. 

If you'd like to see some more detail on the data behind the headlines, take a look at these slides:

Monday, 19 May 2014

Tax schmax

I'm always surprised how many otherwise intelligent people respond emotionally rather than logically to news stories about tax. We hear them moaning about celebrities' tax avoidance schemes, and boycotting Amazon and Starbucks because of their immoral attitude to taxation. Fair enough, but let's take a step back.

How many people write to HMRC saying 'Actually, it's immoral for me to just pay the 20p in the pound I am legally obliged to pay, could I pay 30p instead? That way we'd have a better NHS etc.'? Not a lot, I suspect. But when companies and individuals employ tax avoidance, all too often people say 'Why aren't they paying more? It's immoral? That's money that should be going to the NHS etc.' However, just like the 20p in the pound PAYE, all they are doing is paying the minimum the tax system requires them to pay. (Gary Barlow's scheme failed to do this legally, hence the problems he is having.)

Rather than whinging about the corporations and rich individuals that do this, we should be pressing for a root and branch modification of the tax laws. Firstly, they're ridiculously complex (including all that silliness over whether a Jaffa Cake is a cake or a biscuit) and secondly they have far too many loopholes. The simpler the system, the fewer the loopholes.

This would be relatively easy to do for the Gary Barlows of this world - the problem with doing it for Starbucks, Amazon etc. is that what the moral argument seems to require is that corporation tax on money earned must be paid to the tax authority of the country in which the purchaser lives. And although in principle we could do this unilaterally we are almost certainly not allowed to by the EU. So it would require an overhaul of EU law, not just UK law... and we all know how easy that is.

It also would get quite complicated to administer. For example, I have a UK-based company. I pay UK corporation tax on all my earnings, even if I'm selling something to, say, someone in America. But if this kind of rule was applied, I suppose I would pay less UK corporation tax, and also pay some tax in America. And every other country where my books etc. are sold. Which would get pretty messy.

Nevertheless the principle is clear. We might like to have corporate scapegoats like Starbucks and Amazon to boo and hiss at, but they will comply with whatever laws are available - we just have to make sure our tax laws make sense. It's the politicians we should be complaining about (just for a change), not the tax avoiders. When it comes down to it, we're all tax avoiders, it's just that for the majority who pay their tax by PAYE the avoidance is done for them automatically by the system.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Time Bomber review

UPDATED 18 May 2014 - the book, formerly known as In Apple Blossom Time is now out in paperback and has been renamed Time Bomber.

At first glance I am the last person to be part of the target audience of Time Bomber by Robert Wack, set in 1944. I hate war films (or rather I have never seen one and never particularly want to). I even avoided War Horse because of the setting. As for written material, the last time I read anything set in the Second World War it was a comic back in the 1960s (usually, as I remember it, involving daring raids to blow up a submarine pen) when there was still a considerable appetite for gung-ho WW2 stories. But this is different.

I'll admit it appealed to my vanity that the author claimed to be inspired my book How to Build a Time Machine to create a novel around the extraordinary war career and death of Dutch-American mathematician Willem van Stockum, one of the first to take on the implications of Einstein's work on general relativity that implied the possibility of using warps in spacetime to create closed time-like loops that should enable travel backwards in time.

I can't deny I found the book gripping. I expected to read bits of it as and when I had a bit of time between research reading for my next book, but in practice once I started, Time Bomber took over and wouldn't let me put it down. If you are going to be picky, some of the dialogue is a little stilted and there are too many pages given to introspective thought, but the wartime scenes, both van Stockum's experience as a bomber pilot and the scenes on the ground in Normandy in 1944, are well-crafted and place the reader uncomfortably deeply into the action.

The book would have been quite interesting if that were all there were to it, but it is lifted to a new level by the inclusion of mysterious figures, some who appear to be trying to save van Stockum from his 1944 death, and others to prevent this interference. Van Stockum's impact on the physics of time travel would, it seems, have repercussions in the future, if he can continue his work after the war.

Technically there is a flaw in the approach taken to time travel here, as no device reliant on general relativity to travel backwards in time could reach further back than when the machine was first created, but I am always sympathetic to the argument that in science fiction the most important word is 'fiction' and it while every effort should be made to stick to known physics, if necessary the detail has to give way to making the story work. Apart from the violation of what I think of as the 'cardboard box of time effect' (more on that another time) the author does pretty well at keeping the science on track.

It won't appeal to everyone (and if you find the first couple of chapters confusing, bear with it), but I recommend giving Time Bomber a go. It is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Do you have moth balls?

Napthalene, for many, will always be the substance of mothballs, with all the association of decay and faded Edwardian splendour that form a part of those outdated items’ baggage. But there's more to this smelly compound, as you will discover in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast.

To find out more about bicyclo[4.4.0]deca-1,3,5,7,9-pentene, as chemists like to call it on a bad day, 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.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The trouble with tabloid science


The tabloid newspapers have a strange take on science which isn't always ideal. Take a look at the latest Daily FailExcess exclusive:

Our teenagers are facing a new and dangerous threat in the craze for helium hyperventilation. Mother of three Amanda Green (46) from Todmorden in Lancashire worries for her daughter. 'Lucy was an ordinary teenager. She did the sort of things you'd expect a girl of her age to do. Pony Club, that kind of thing. But then she started hanging out with the wrong kind of people. They introduced her to helium.'

Helium, the second most common gas in the universe, is usually employed innocently in party balloons, but in a new and sinister twist, teenagers, inhaling the gas to produce silly squeaky voices, have discovered that it can cause them to float. Lucy Green (14), pictured, was only saved from floating away into space when her parents threw a weighted net over her.

We would have asked a physicist, but no doubt they would have spouted some rubbish about this being impossible, as helium balloons only float because they are less dense that the surrounding air, while the overall density of a teenager is always going to be excessive. But we always try to avoid asking so-called experts as they often get confused by facts - a prime example being the 'consensus' over global warming. Some 'experts' might even suggest that the photograph is a fake. But a whole string of photographic professionals have proved that this photograph has not been altered in any way. IT IS GENUINE. (Really.)

To get a better, balanced picture we have approached media nutrionist Doctor Selena Fox, who clearly has appropriate expertise as her speciality ends in 'ist' and she has a doctorate from a real American internet university.

'This is very interesting,' said Dr Fox. 'The trouble with conventional science is that it is always attempting to explain phenomena by resorting to physical laws. Yet we know from human experience, that the world is far more mysterious than these so-called "laws" can explain. We need to take a holistic view. Yes, helium of itself could not provide enough lifting force. Take the movie 'Up' - it clearly demonstrates that far more helium than could fit in a body is required to achieve lift. But combine this with mental energy, harnessing chi at a quantum level, and there really is no limit to the possibilities of human achievement.'

The facts are clear. Our teenagers are at risk. We need to end illegal imports of helium cylinders, brought into the country by illegal immigrants, now. Or will the government wait until one of our sons and daughters is found floating, lifeless in space? The FailExcess demands action!

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

A gym to avoid

I have long been of the opinion that gyms are among the worst businesses there are when it comes to customer service, and I've just witnessed some incredibly bad behaviour from Feelgood Fitness gym (in Briton Street, Southampton), to the extent that I would strongly recommend avoiding them (aka Parkside Health Club) after the way they treated a teenage customer.

Said customer decided to leave the gym. She told them and stopped her direct debit. A couple of weeks later she got an email saying her account was in arrears. So the very same day she replied, apologising, saying she thought she'd already cancelled, please cancel immediately and let her know any final payment required. There was no reply.

Five days later, she emailed again, saying she hadn't got a reply, and if she didn't hear anything within 7 days she would assume they had closed the account and there was nothing further to pay. There was no reply.

Then on 24 April, 17 days after her second email, she got a threatening letter copied below. There were two problems with this letter. One is that it threatened action if there was no reply within 7 days - but the letter was not received until 7 days after the date on the letter. Secondly it totally ignored the communication in writing that had already been received.

This simply isn't acceptable behaviour. Avoid.

(Update: the cheque was sent immediately and signed for at the gym on 26 April. On 6 May an email was sent asking for confirmation of receipt. Guess what? As of 13 May there has been no reply.)


Monday, 12 May 2014

An interesting way to get children into programming

Yes, you can even use the environment to write
the kind of games we used to knock up in the old days
We keep hearing how not enough children get the basics of programming. I did my first programming towards the end of secondary school. We didn't have a computer at the school, so we would punch cards (by hand, a character at a time - we didn't have the card punching 'typewriters' we had at university), pop them in the post so they could travel down from Manchester to London where they were put through either University College or Imperial College's magnificent machine, then we would get a printout back in the post one to two weeks later saying we'd made a punching error. It taught you to be precise.

Now, of course, computers are everywhere, but surprisingly few children get a feel for programming them. Here's one possible way around it - http://www.robotbasic.org - what these guys do is to provide an environment where you can use a variant of BASIC to program a simulated robot. You can use the same code to control real robots if you've the money for the hardware, but the great thing about this for cash strapped schools is that the students can have the thrill of bringing something to life with their programming without any financial outlay. I must admit I haven't had time to give it a go, so I don't know how good it is - the website does look more functional than flashy, but that might be a good thing under the circumstances - but in concept at least it's great.

You might say 'but no one uses BASIC any more, this is a waste of time and effort,' but that misses the point. It gets young people into the mindset of programming, to get a feel for the idea that you can control a computer or a device any way you like, rather than running existing programs, and that surely is good. As for the language itself, I have no problems there. When I was at BA, we often recruited programmers who hadn't done a computer science course, because there was always so much for the compsci students to unlearn because the academic approach to programming was so different to the real world. It's probably a good thing these young programmers aren't learning bad habits in a 'real' language, but rather getting a feel for what it's all about that will stand them in good stead if they ever take it further.

Friday, 9 May 2014

When will the green groups apologise for their contribution to global warming?

The infamous anti-nuclear power badge,
featuring the largest nuclear reactor within 4 light years
When I talk to people in the media about their treatment of science, they often admit, rather sheepishly, how bad they are at apologising for misleading the public - even when it's something with the devastating impact of the way the media turned parents against the MMR vaccine with no basis in fact. However, I don't think they're the only ones to shirk their responsibility to apologise. How about Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth?

The fact is that without substantial green campaigning there is a good chance that the major percentage of our electricity - as is the case in France - could now be generated by nuclear power with a huge beneficial impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So much so that we could have probably filled the gap with renewables and had pretty well zero carbon electricity. Instead we are now playing catch up far too late.

Long term, the best solution is likely to be nuclear fusion, but until that comes on stream, not until 2050 at the earliest, we need nuclear fission to tide us over in a low carbon fashion. Instead though, when they should have been building new power stations, governments gave way to the media impact of these green behemoths and failed to invest.

So how about it, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth? Time to say 'Sorry, we got it wrong'? Because your action seems at least in part to be responsible for one of the biggest segments of carbon emissions from the UK. Well done, guys. But my suspicion is that we won't see any such apology, because unlike science, campaigning groups (with the exception of a few individuals like George Monbiot) are not very good at accepting that they got things wrong and changing tack. They are happy to wave the 'scientific consensus' banner when it comes to manmade global warming - and that's a good thing - but they ignore the scientific consensus when it comes to the role nuclear power should take, suggesting that emotion is more of a driver than actually caring for what is best for the planet.

I think there's an interesting parallel in an email conversation I had with the Soil Association, the UK's main organic body, a while ago. I was pointing out that their policy on nanoparticles, which was that natural nanoparticles are ok, but artificial ones aren't, doesn't make any sense, as any problems with nanoparticles comes from their size and physical properties, not how they are made. In a burst of perhaps unintentional frankness, their spokesperson replied: ‘[T]he organic movement nearly always takes a principles-based regulatory approach, rather than a case-by-case approach based on scientific information.’ In other words, theirs is a knee-jerk reaction to concepts, rather than one based on genuine concerns about the dangers of various products. What's sometimes called greenwash. And sadly that is all too often the case with the big green organisations too.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Review - Why Science Does Not Disprove God

There have been a good few attempts to counter Richard Dawkins' best selling The God Delusion (I know I've reviewed this somewhere - I think it was on my old Nature Network blog, but I can't find it, so I'll have to review it again some time soon!), but I think this is one of the more interesting, as it's written by a mathematician and physicist turned science writer, who certainly knows a lot more about physics than Dawkins.

What Amir Aczel sets out to do is to look at the claims made by the likes of Dawkins which attempt to use scientific arguments to 'disprove' the existence of God and to counter those, and on the whole he is quite successful. I ought to stress what he doesn't do - and could never do - is in any sense 'prove' the existence of God. As Aczel says towards the end 'In this book I have not proved the existence of God in any shape or form, and this has obviously not been my purpose. What I aimed to do was to argue - convincingly, I hope - that science has not disproved the existence of God.' (My italics.)

Aczel approaches this task with a lot more science than I recall Dawkins using. Along the way we get summaries of quantum theory, cosmology, evolution, the mathematics of infinity and more, all used to show the flaws in the 'science disproves God' argument. These have to be fairly rapid summaries - there are plenty of better books covering each subject in detail - but might be helpful to give context to those who aren't familiar with the scientific theories that get thrown around in these kind of arguments.

There's a degree of subjectivity, inevitably, but for me Aczel makes three quite strong hits. He shows the weakness of the anthropic principle as a way of deriving anything (something most scientists are perfectly well aware of), he makes the multiverse interpretation of quantum theory as a way to explain the strange 'tuned' nature of our universe look a bit silly, and most interestingly for me he demolishes the negative aspect of the 'God of the gaps' argument.

This is essentially a suggestion that the tendency of non-fundamentalist religious believers to accept scientific theories that contradict early religious teaching results in God being just responsible for 'the gaps' left behind by the science, making the God concept more and more pointless. Although Aczel doesn't use this terminology, I think he nicely demonstrates that the current position is more 'science of the gaps' - almost all the big questions like how could a universe start from nothing, why do the charges of the electron and quarks balance out the way they do, how did life start, what is consciousness and how did it emerge are still left to be answered. Science does a wonderful job, but frankly we've only managed the easy bits.

So, quite an interesting book that successfully demonstrates the emptiness of much of Dawkins' argument. However, on the down side, it isn't as readable as a Dawkins book, some of the history of science is too simplistic (we get the good old myth that Giordano Bruno was burned to death 'for believing that the sun was a star and that the universe contained other civilisations' which is utter tosh), and it suffers from being a negative book, constantly attacking Dawkins et al, which gets a bit tedious after a while.

I have always argued that the only scientific viewpoint on God is agnosticism rather than atheism, as atheism espouses a belief without evidence, but in the end that's all this book can and does deliver. Science doesn't disprove God - case closed. So what it does in its own right is limited, but I do think it is useful in highlighting the way the opposite attempts from the 'new atheists', as typified by Dawkins, to show that science can somehow manage this impossible feat is flawed and hollow.

You can get hold of Why Science Does Not Disprove God at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Why Apple should love Netflix

Note how Netflix lurks under the iTunes Movies and TV Shows
on the default Apple TV interface layout
Some may wonder why Apple, never famous for supporting anyone else, allow Netflix, a kind of rival to iTunes, onto their Apple TV box. It might not be true, but my suspicion is that Apple is entirely aware of what you might call the Season 1 effect - and how it can positively influence their balance sheets.

Here's the thing. Netflix is a great place to consume a TV series voraciously. Once you pay your monthly subscription for Netflix you can watch as much as you like. But the service quite often doesn't have the most recent series of a programme. That's happened to us twice recently with shows that had a strong following when on 'normal' TV, but that we never got round to watching - Last Tango in Halifax from the BBC, and The Bridge from Sweden. In both cases we've cruised through season 1 on Netflix, and know that season 2 is out there - but it has already fallen off the BBC's very short iPlayer timescale. So we've ended up buying the second season on iTunes so we can keep feeding the habit.

I'm sure we can't be alone. You really get into a series, you know there's more, but Netflix hasn't got it yet, so you plunge in with the cash. (I had to do the same with Season 5 of Fringe, though for that I bought a boxed set.) And so Apple should be really pushing Netflix for all its worth. Okay, it means once something is on Netflix, Apple's sales drop off. But even so, as long as Netflix tends to be around a season behind the world, Apple will have the chance to make easy pickings.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

People are more important than buildings

Heritage asset and liability simultaneously
The poor old Church of England is getting bad press again. And in this case it certainly deserves it - or at least some individuals on Parochial Church Councils (PCCs) do.

Apparently around 250 PCCs are using a medieval law that allows them to register 'Chancel Repair Liability' against properties that have this provision in their deeds. This anachronistic law requires the owners of certain houses to pay for the upkeep of the local church - sometimes it can be  single household that in principle is responsible for this liability.

This is appalling, ridiculous behaviour, which to be honest I don't blame the Church of England as a whole for, but rather those PCCs. I know something of these, as I was on one accidentally for 3 years when I was in my 20s (don't ask) and sadly PCCs, like parish councils (think Vicar of Dibley) all too often seem to get frequented by the kind of committee-loving person who really hasn't a clue but likes to hear the sound of their own voice.

It's not that I don't sympathise with the problems the PCCs face. They have to keep up a very expensive, very old building and are bound around with restrictions in what they can do. If we want to keep old churches standing and accessible to all in our villages and towns - and these are some of the most beautiful buildings in the country - we all should take some responsibility paying for them one way or another. But not by using this ridiculous archaic law, which should be repealed immediately.

I think there are a couple of things that need to happen (apart from scrapping the law). One is that the churchgoers need to be prepared to give up some buildings. In many rural communities you have a collection of villages - sometimes as many as 7 or 8 - with a single vicar, but each with their own church. They could easily lose half the buildings, as these villages are often just a few miles apart. That would slash their upkeep costs (and increase the size of their congregations at any particular service). Then there should be a clear mechanism to make disposal easy.

Official bodies (local councils, English Heritage etc.) should be given the option to take the building on in return for paying something to the PCC - but if the bodies don't want to do this, the PCC should be allowed to sell the building off for any use, provided it is preserved and accessible to the public on certain days of the year. And if no sale is possible with these strictures, the official bodies (including the locals) should be given a final chance to take it over before the building is sold for redevelopment. That would liven up the decision making process!

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UPDATE 7/6/2014 - There's been an interesting discussion about this on Facebook, so I wanted to include it here:

PCC Member: Indeed it is a stupid law but I don't blame PCC members. As charity trustees they have a duty to maximise the income/assets of the charity. I'm no lawyer but my understanding is that (in theory at least) failure to enforce a source of income such as this could lead to action being taken against individual PCC members.

Brian: And who would take such action against them? I can't imagine it happening. A Christian approach would be to be actively working to get the law removed, rather than trying to enforce it. Alternatively, maybe they should lose charitable status if they act in such an uncharitable fashion.

PCC Member: The Charity Commission for starters. Very difficult moral and legal decision for an individual PCC. There are FAQs on the Charity Commission and CoE website e.g. http://www.churchofengland.org/media/51407/crlfaq.rtf or http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/.../parochial-church.../

Brian: You really think the Charity Commission would push a PCC to act immorally just to maximise income? It's meaningless. They could maximise income by selling the church for development - are the CC pressing them to do that?

PCC Member: Possibly not - but the CoE might! However if someone brought it to the CC attention they would no doubt investigate. I am a PCC member and we were told by CoE that we had to deal with this. Luckily there were no issues in Shrivenham. Just think it is a very hard thing for an individual PCC especially as the CoE FAQs imply that it is right to go after people and they will lose out on other grant income if they don't. Fully agree that a law change is required.

Brian: I do understand your situation - it sounds like the CofE is more to blame than PCCs if they are leaning on them.

 Brian: Actually, having thought about it, I take back my sympathy for the PCCs. If a PCC is put under pressure by anyone - Charity Commission, CofE or whatever - to act immorally, as I believe this action to be, I think the PCC should resign en masse rather than go ahead with it. You can't use the 'We were only following orders' escape clause.

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P. S. My book 'Universe Inside You' is no longer a daily deal, but it got to #6 in the Amazon ranking (and #1 in Science and nature. It's still good value, so if you haven't a copy, please take a look and help keep it high!





Monday, 5 May 2014

Trouble in Teutonia review

I enjoyed  Trouble in Teutonia (by S. P. Moss, who recently contributed a guest post for this blog), because for me it was pure nostalgia. Since I stopped reading to my daughters (something I really miss) I don't read many children's books, usually only straying into the rather older targeted YA books that are intended to cross over to an adult readership, where this seems solidly for young people. But the nostalgia wasn't so much for those bedtime stories as for the kind of tales I used to read when I was that age.

For one thing, a lot of my comics when I was young were still set in World War 2, with the Germans inevitably the baddies, and the heroes being plucky British servicemen (not many women, sadly). This story may be set primarily in the early 1960s (where our modern hero is plunged back in time on a carousel to once more meet his then young airman grandfather), but the feel is still very reminiscent of those war stories. There's almost a touch of Biggles. I never liked the actual Biggles books, but I loved W. E. Johns' science fiction series when I was 9 or 10 (I've read one since - they're terrible!), but I don't mean that the Bigglesy flavour is a bad thing, it just contributes to that feeling of nostalgia. What's more, the war comics almost always seemed to involve attacking an underground submarine pen, reminiscent of the main setting here (and of early Bond movies).

There are a few nice puzzles to crack as young Billy works to free the trapped heroine - she's suitably feisty, though I don't think she had enough to do. In some ways, my favourite part was the handling of another character who is also in the present and the past sections of the book - the rich Leslie de Winter of the 21st century 'top and tail' sections of the book, who in the past is just Airman Les Winter, something of a sad character, making the modern day, pompous man, who initially comes across as a total waste of space, as someone with more pathos.

What slightly grated for me was the way the book was primarily set in 'Teutonia' which is Germany (down to people speaking German, not Teutonian) with a different name. I really couldn't see the point of this - I prefer real settings for books and there didn't seem any reason for this name change.

However, it's a rollicking, fast paced adventure, with a bit of time travel thinking thrown in, primarily requiring a bit of care because Billy has already travelled back in time in a previous book to have an adventure with a slightly older version of his grandfather, so knows parts of his relative's near future. It should go down well with its target audience, particularly those 9-12 year olds who struggle to find a book they'd like to read.

You can find Trouble in Teutonia at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Getting a bit of a tan

If your only association of ‘tannin’ is that stuff that makes tea taste astringent, you’ve got some surprises to come in my new podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry. After all, 'tanning' and 'tannin' don't just sound similar by coincidence... and then there's the tannenbaum.

To find out more about the stuff that links leather trousers to a nice cup of tea, 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.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Where are the normal families?

I have to confess to a sneaking liking for Coronation Street. (I'm from near Manchester, I am obliged to. It's an old charter or something.) But I do think it is high time the Street was allocated a permanent family counsellor.  Because its children are suffering like no others in the UK.

At the moment, Coronation Street features approximately 15 children under the age of 18. These are:
  • Faye - adopted
  • Craig - lives with mother, father unknown
  • Simon - mother died, lives part time with father and part time with (separated) stepmother
  • Amy - lives part time with mother and part time with (separated) father
  • Hope - father died, lives with mother and boyfriend
  • Joseph - lives with mother, separated from father
  • Liam - father dead, lives with mother
  • Ruby - lives with father, separated from mother
  • Dev's children (2) - mother dead, live with father
  • Cal's children (2) - mother dead, live with father
  • Kylie's children (2) - one father unknown, the other lives with mother and father (though they were separated until recently)
  • Tina's (surrogate) baby - living with genetic parents, but not birth mother
I might have missed the odd one, but that's most of them. And here's the thing. I know a 'normal' family where a child lives with its mother and father is less common than it used to be, but this is ridiculous. According to government statistics, around 75% of children under 2 live with both parents and the majority of all children live with both parents. Yet on Corrie, only around 7% of children live with both parents. And the only child with an 'ordinary' family has David Platt for a father. I mean, really. Come on.

Oh, yes, these people need a counsellor, and they need one quickly.