Thursday, 30 April 2015

A bright burner

When I read about them in my youth, there seemed something magical in the description of the acetylene or carbide lamps that were used on early motor vehicles. The idea that adding water to the lamp started a process that could generate a flame seemed wonderfully counter-intuitive.

But acetylene, the unusually triple bonded inflammable organic compound that was generated by a reaction between water and calcium carbide is more than just a flash in the lamp. Find out more about this zippy little molecule, in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast.  Take a listen by clicking to pop over to its page on the RSC site.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Fed up of tribalism in politics

There is much wailing, moaning and gnashing of teeth* on the ineffectual nature of politics and politicians in the current general election, with the newer thrusting parties like the SNP, the Greens and UKIP (there's an unholy alliance) blaming the old guard and the Westminster elite.

Actually, I'd suggest that most of the problems with politics are caused by tribalism, and nowhere is tribalism stronger than amongst the likes of the SNP, the Greens and UKIP. They aren't the solution, they are even more dramatically more of the same.

I suggest it's time to redesign parliamentary democracy for the 21st century. After all, we don't do medicine the way they did back when Parliament was establish - why should the democratic processes stay the same in an internet interconnected world?

Here's a few suggestions:
  • MPs become solely local representatives. Their full time role is helping their constituents.
  • As well as a local MP, we vote for policies, which have to be fully independently costed before the election (it may be better for there to be a rolling set of policies with 'NHS week, defence week, education week etc. to avoid overload)
  • Each policy has a champion who is not an MP but an expert in the area, whose role after a policy is adopted is to manage it into practice using the civil service.
Of course there is a lot of detail you could moan about. For instance:
  • How would you balance the economy if people could vote for any old policy? Clearly you couldn't expect it just to happen by osmosis. There would have to be a balancing mechanism where you could only change policy to one that costed more if other changes enabled funding to be released.
  • But what if people voted for a policy that is bad? Erm, this is democracy. The most contentious issue is with things like the death penalty and ring-fencing the aid budget, where the 'elite' generally has a different view to the larger populous. The line between democracy and mob rule is an interesting one. I'm really not sure about this one, as I'm with the elite on both those examples, but I don't think it highlights a problem with my suggestion, but rather a problem with democracy as a concept.
And there will be lots of other picky details. Well, of course. This is a fuzzy handwaving idea, not a proper proposal. You wouldn't expect to sort out politics in half an hour. But I still think that this is the kind of radical re-think we need. Anything else is just tinkering.

* I can't type 'gnashing of teeth' without retelling the old Ian Paisley joke. 

Paisley is preach hellfire and damnation and tells his audience that when the sinners among them go to hell there will be a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

'I'm sorry, Mr Paisley,' says an elderly lady from the audience. 'But I have no teeth.'

'Teeth,' responds Paisley firmly, 'will be provided.'

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Enlightening the International Year of Light

It seems that 2015 is the International Year of Light. And to be honest, I'm all in favour of it. Not just because one of my favourite books, Light Years is out in a new edition this year*, but also because I can't think of a better topic to show how science can be essential, fun and fascinating.

Let's face it, we wouldn't have much of a life without light. In fact we wouldn't exist. Nor would anything else. It's not just a matter of not being able to see. Light also provides us with the energy to live. Apart from nuclear power, tidal power from the Moon and geothermal energy, light is responsible for all the energetic input to our lives. It's light from the Sun that keeps the Earth at temperatures that support life, and light from the Sun that powers the weather system.

More fundamentally at a quantum level, photons of light are the carriers of the electromagnetic force. No light, no electromagnetism. And that doesn't just mean no electricity and magnets. It's electromagnetism that enables us to interact with matter. It's electromagnetism that stops you falling through the floor - and that is the reason that the floor exist at all. Without photons - light - atoms wouldn't exist. So it's pretty important stuff.

I've far to little space to cover everything that's fascinating about light (you'd need a whole book... ahem) but a few pointers:
  • Light can travel faster than light – in the strange world of quantum mechanical tunnelling, photons carrying the signal of Mozart’s 40th symphony have travelled at over four times the speed of light.
  • We could soon be computing with light – electricity just isn’t flexible enough to keep up as computers get quicker and quicker. Soon the insides of a computer could be full of a spider-web network of light as data slams back and forth through thin air.
  • You can’t run away from a laser – If you were to travel at 99 per cent of the speed of light away from someone shooting you with a laser, the light would still come towards you at the full 299,792,458 metres per second. Unlike anything else, however fast you move away from or towards light, it still comes at you at the same speed.
  • The human eye can see a candle flame 10 miles away – your eye is remarkably sensitive, needing only a five or six of the individual photons that make up a light beam to trigger a response. The most distant thing most of us can see with the naked eye is the Andromeda galaxy, 2.5 million light years away.
  • Ordinary colour vision works using the three primary colours. Night vision is quite different, registering only brightness. But there is a cutover period (called mesopic vision) when both types of vision occur together. It’s as if there was a whole new colour added to the spectrum that hadn’t existed before. Sight at this dusky light level has strange qualities – perhaps why so many ghosts and other phenomena are seen at dusk.
  • Algae rules – more light energy from the sun is absorbed by photosynthesis by tiny algae in the sea than by all the plants on the land.
  • Special materials have been used to slow down light to walking pace or even bring it to a temporary halt.
  • Our eyes are incredibly flexible – light on a sunny day is 100 times brighter than a typical office, but our eyes balance out the difference. Full moonlight, which we can see quite well by, is around 300,000 times weaker than sunlight.
  • A waterspout inspired fibre optics – the fibre optics that carry most of our telephone and computer signals on beams of light were inspired by noticing that light followed a spout of water, gushing out of a hole in a tank.
So if you felt any urge to snigger when you read it was International Year of Light, don't. If anything deserves its own year, light does. And that's why I'm so fond of Light Years.

* This is the third edition, and for the first time I've been allowed to include as an appendix, as I always planned, a set of original documents from the history of understanding of light, including Newton's letter on light and colour.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Doing the science communication thing

The Guardian's rather wavy HQ and home of the Masterclass
On Saturday I had a great time up at Grauniad Towers, curating a Science Communication Masterclass. (Sorry, I hate that 'curating' word in this context, but it's what the G people call it.)

Marcus Chown, Angela Saini, Jenny Rohn and I covered science for magazines and newspapers, TV and radio, books and blogs with a really responsive and interesting audience of 50+ people.

It was a full day event, so it would be over the top even to give a summary, but a few snippety takeaways:
  • From Marcus: an article (for newspapers particularly) should be like a fractal. You should be able to take, for example, the first part of it and it should still give you look a bit like the whole. 
  • From Angela: getting into broadcast media is a bit like getting into Fort Knox. Have a showreel. Oh, and don't put a lot of effort into smartening up the sound quality of a recording: the BBC can do it much better and quicker than you can.
  • From Jenny: if you use pictures of your lab, make sure there are no caged animals or containers labelled 'dangerous genetically modified organism' in the background. Funny, but a serious point behind it. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words can be highly misleading if not carefully taken.
  • From me: check out the mouse if slides keep moving on themselves, and record podcasts under a duvet.
Just a quick explanation of my two lessons. During my talk, the slides kept backing up of their own accord. I first thought that I was accidentally pressing a button on the 'clicker' but it kept happening even when I put it down. What I discovered afterwards was that the presenter's desk had a slide-in shelf with the keyboard and mouse on it. The mouse was trapped between the shelf and the desktop, so every time I brushed against the shelf it pressed a button on the mouse. Spooky!

The duvet bit caused much amusement, but I genuinely was given this advice by a professional broadcaster/recordist. If you want a studio ambiance in your home, going under a duvet produces a suitable 'flat' soundscape. It does really work, though you feel a bit of a twit.

And no, I don't use a torch, I read my script from an iPad*.

*Other glow in the dark tablets are available.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Writers and social media

I am off this evening to sunny Bristol, where I'll be on a panel for the Royal Literary Fund, discussing the topic Social Media for Writers: Brave New World or Circle of Hell? If you are in the Bristol area and of a literary bent, please do come along and join us. It's free and starts at 7.30pm - the location is Waterside 2, The Watershed, 1 Canons Road, Harbourside, Bristol BS1 5TX.

If you aren't able to join us, just a few passing thoughts.

A platform
For quite a while now publishers have been very excited about writers (particularly book authors) having a 'platform'.

This does not mean that you should rush out and buy a train set (though feel free to do so, should you wish), but rather that you should have a mechanism for making yourself visible to as many potential readers as possible.

You might think that a publisher's website does this. After all, every book should be listed there, and they usually have some kind of author profile. Here, for instance, is mine for St Martin's Press, my main US publisher:

To be fair, it does also include a twitter feed and links to my books. But really... not only is it rather outdated, who looks at a publisher website (other than authors)? As a buyer you might go to a bookshop website, or an author's website - but it's pretty unlikely you'd even known which publisher to look at, let alone visit their site.

Given those two visit points, it's a good idea to have an author page on Amazon (here's mine) and a website (ditto) - but even these will need some first contact to encourage someone to go to them. And that's where the social media side can help.

What I can say for certain is that mentioning a new book on Twitter or Facebook or whatever won't sell lots of copies. It may well sell a handful, but don't expect floods of sales. But if you plug at social media over a reasonably lengthy period (we're talking years, not weeks), you can build up a network of contacts who will be interested in your work.

There are lots of hints and tips for doing this, but I think two are key:
  • Don't be always selling. No one likes 'Buy, buy, buy' all the time. (Or for that matter, 'Here's my breakfast' or 'Aren't my kids amazing?') I reckon at least 90% of your output should be funny observational material or stuff that's interesting for your target market.
  • Remember it's a conversation. Don't just broadcast, respond to others, particularly when they reply to you. The idea is to build a relationship, however stunted by the technology.
It's not really possible to quantify the benefit as an author from being accessible via social media (and I'd include blogging like this as well as part of a social media platform). But if you do it right it doesn't need to take up a huge proportion of your time, potential readers will be more interested in your work, and you will benefit from the contributions of others. What's not to love?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Mechanical computation

Digi-Comp I (photo from Wikipedia)
It's of the nature of coincidences (that's another post) that your attention is drawn to something when it comes up several times in a short time span, and recently for me this has happened with the matter of mechanical computers, which have come up four times in the past couple of weeks.

The first example was when I was proof reading my next title for St Martin's Press (not due out until significantly later in the year), called Ten Billion Tomorrows. The book about the relationship between science and science fiction, and I point out that when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in the cinema, the only computer I had ever seen before I encountered the remarkable Hal was my Digi-Comp I. This was a mechanical device with three plastic sliders, which could be programmed by adding extensions on the side of the sliders which flipped metal wires, and as a result could provide the action of different gates and reflect the outcome on 3 mechanical binary displays. Sophisticated it was not.

Examples two and three involve good old Charles Babbage. You just can't talk about mechanical computers without mentioning Babbage. He first came up in my review of James Tagg's Are the Androids Dreaming Yet, which confuses an image of the Science Machine's Difference Engine with the Analytical Engine. (The first was a hard-geared mechanical calculator, while the second, never built, was a programmable computer that would have used punched cards. Babbage built a small segment of the Difference Engine, but never got anywhere with the Analytical Engine, which probably would not have been practical given engineering tolerances.)

Then Babbage popped up again in a Guardian article about a graphic novel featuring the Analytical Engine. As Thony Christie points out in a blog post, the article wildly overstated the contribution of Ada King* to the project saying that 'Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage designed a computer' and 'for which Lovelace wrote the programs.' In fact King had nothing to do with the design, she translated a paper on the concept from the Italian and added a series of notes, which included a example of what a program might be like. We have no evidence that she wrote this conceptual program herself, and even if she did it didn't make her the machine's programmer.

The claim that King wrote programs comes up again in Matt Parker's entertaining Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, which I'm currently reading for review. But of more interest is his description of building a working computer (admittedly only capable of adding up to 16) with 10,000 dominos by using the interaction of falling dominos to produce gates. This was a wonderful feat for which this tireless maths enthusiast should be congratulated. You can see the 10,000 domino computer in action below.

* I prefer Ada King to the more commonly used Ada Lovelace, though I admit I seem to be about the only one who does. Her full name was Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. While in principle a countess can be referred to by her title in place of surname, the usual reporting standard is to use the surname. So, for instance, when referring to the Duke of Bedford, he is called Andrew Russell, not Andrew Bedford. People sometimes get confused because the royals don't really have surnames, so there's no other choice with them. But I think with Ada it's primarily done because 'Lovelace' sounds more exotic.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

It is time other governments met their responsibilities

For me, the only TV news worth watching in the UK is Channel 4 News, with its real depth of analysis, general lack of dumbing down and occasional playfulness. However, if they have one fault it is that they still think that Britain runs an Empire and, as a result, responsible for all the world's ills.

This struck me on their recent exposé of the way that migrant agricultural workers in Spain were struggling in terrible conditions, poorly paid, with dangerous exposure to pesticide. It was an important piece of reporting for me, but what seemed crazy was the way that the vast majority of the emphasis was on the responsibility of the British supermarkets who were among the (many) EU buyers of the salads from this region.

Spain is part of the EU and subject to all the European legislation on working conditions. The obvious culprits here were the Spanish companies producing the salads and the Spanish politicians who don't crack down on this. But, no, over and over again the blame went on our rapacious supermarkets. They even had a Spanish politician pushing the blame our way.

Just imagine if the situation was reversed and C4 News was reporting on farms in East Anglia which supplied several EU countries. Would they be blaming French supermarkets for their maltreatment of workers? Of course not. They sensibly would be blaming the companies, the regulators and the government in the UK for not intervening. It really was bizarrely biassed.

I don't deny that supermarkets have some pretty unpleasant trading attitudes, squeezing all they can out of their suppliers - British milk producers can tell you all about that - but I've negotiated plenty of business to business contracts, both as a buyer, trying to reduce prices, and as a seller, trying to get as much as possible. You don't agree to a ridiculous price and as a result mistreat your workforce. You walk away.

However, this still misses the point. Whatever the supermarkets are doing, it is the Spanish companies and the Spanish authorities that must take the blame here, and it's a shame C4 News was too old fashioned, with its apologetic taint-of-Empire attitude, and too inward looking to realise this.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Writing: not get rich quick

The Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society, a lovely organization which you need to sign up to if you are a UK-based writer, as they collect money from copying etc. for you, has published more detail from a study they did last year on authors' earnings. (If you feel like you're having deja vu, they published preliminary results last year.) They surveyed 2,454 writers, a mix of 'professionals' and spare timers.

When I tell people I'm an author, some assume that this can be equated with being rich, as the only authors they ever see are the bestsellers. What they ought to think is that it's a bit like someone saying 'I'm in a band' - the chances are that they play down the pub every fourth Friday, rather than packing out the O2.

The survey really brings home how far authors are from being rich. The median* income for a professional authors (someone who spends more than 50 per cent of their working time on freelance writing) is around £11,000. That's well below a living wage. Where in 2005, 40 per cent of professional authors earned a living solely from writing, now it's just 11.5 per cent. To quote the report:
A handful of highly successful authors make a very good living; for the majority, earnings from writing fall well below subsistence level.
Of course there are those high earners. The top 5 per cent bring in £100,000 a year or more - and between them account for 42.3 per cent of the total earnings. (This is why a median is more valuable than a mean**, as the vast majority of authors earn well below the mean, which was £28,577.)

There was an interesting division by genre (this is for all writers, where the overall median earning is just £4,000). The academics come out worst with a median of just £1,000 (but they do all have a day job), while audio-visual writers came out best with a median of £14,000, followed by children's fiction writers on £10,000. Us poor non-fiction types come in at £5,206.

Authors shouldn't expect huge advances either (this is the amount paid by the publisher before the book earns anything). Both the number of authors getting an advance at all has dropped and 44 per cent said their advances have dropped in the past five years - though we aren't told what happened to the rest.

One last interesting observation - only 17 per cent of those surveyed were under 45, while 54 per cent were between 45 and 64. However this may just reflect who was more likely to fill in the survey.

As always, the stats interest me and I need to give the ALCS a rap over the knuckles for saying that they surveyed 2,454 writers. What actually happened is that 2,454 started the survey, which was a 7 per cent response rate, but only 1,477 people actually finished it, and so not all of the data is based on that bigger number. Incidentally I was one of those didn't complete it, as the survey was immensely long - 65 questions.

There is also some fuzziness over what is meant by 'author'. The report repeatedly refers to this being about authors, but when you look at the breakdown of respondents, only 40 per cent identified themselves as authors, with the only other big heading being 'academic'. Only 5.3 per cent called themselves journalists. So they are sort of authors. The majority of respondents were people who earned more from books than other sources of writing, so that 'author' label is probably justified.

You can find the full report here.

* median is the middle value if you put all the earnings in a row in order
** mean is the average value found by adding up all the earnings and dividing by the number of people

Monday, 20 April 2015

What is a representative audience sample?

Poll of polls from BBC website
One of the reasons I wrote Dice World is that I love probability and statistics, so it was fun to see a stats row in the news.

Ukip has been kicking up a fuss over the makeup of the audience in the opposition leaders' debate last week. They say that the BBC (or, to be precise, ICM, who assembled the audience for the BBC) were biassed in favour of left-wing parties, producing the clearly overwhelming anti-Farage sentiment in the audience.

Here is what I've seen reported as the makeup ICM used: about 58 Conservative/ Ukip, 102 for Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP or Plaid Cymru, all arguably parties of the left. And 40 undecided. (This was from a fairly dodgy source, so if anyone can confirm, or has better numbers, please let me know.)

So if we ignore the undecided, that's 36 per cent who have said they will vote in a way that might make them relatively positive to Farage.

So the question is, how can you be representative? There are two significantly different interpretations of what 'representative' means in this context. One is to take the last election, the only true nationwide poll we have, as a starting point, and the other is to take a sample poll as organizations like ICM generally do.

If they had gone for the 2010 election, the Conservatives had 47 per cent of the seats (Ukip, of course, had none) - which sounds a lot more that their representation here, but that just reflects the oddities of the first past the post voting system. If you go on the only relevant figure, the percentage of votes cast, they had 36 per cent of the vote - which means that the proportion was perfect.

So how about asking people now? Based on the latest poll of polls (see above), the Conservatives have around 34 per cent of the vote, which might again make the numbers seem reasonable, were it not for the rise of Ukip. They currently stand at 12 per cent in the poll of polls, so the combined Conservative/Ukip percentage on this basis should have been 46 per cent: on this measure they were under-represented.

There is inevitably some room for subjective choice. Personally speaking, I think the votes from the last generation election (i.e. 36 per cent) is the best starting point. This is because we know general election polling is often well adrift of sampled polls, so these numbers provide the only truly reliable poll, but we do need to bear in mind that it is five years old - and that means it show the position before the rise of Ukip.

However, it would seem odd for ICM to use these figures, as the BBC wouldn't need to bring them in to use the popular vote from the last election. They could do what I did and look up the numbers. So ICM must have (and did) use a poll to decide the proportions, and in those circumstances, it does seem that Ukip has a reasonable claim that the makeup of the audience was non reflective of the UK at large. Here's ICM's explanation of what they did:
A total of 30 small geographical areas (Super Output Areas, as defined by the Office for National Statistics) were selected within a 20-mile radius of the venue. A minimum of 8 people were recruited within each area, in line with both demographic quota variables that reflected the composition of the UK population by gender, age, ethnicity, and social grade, and political protocols that reflected the balance as agreed between the broadcasters and the political parties. One fifth of the total number recruited was on the basis of being a self-defined 'undecided voter'. Separately, a small number of SNP and Plaid Cymru supporters were recruited in Scotland and Wales, using alternative recruitment strategies, reasonably decided upon by ICM. [my italics]
So, in fact, the audience was not representative of the country at all, but just of the location the debate took place, meaning that all bets were off.

Lies, damned lies and statistics, eh?

Friday, 17 April 2015

No, this won't tell us how life evolved on Earth

Probably the worst aspect of science journalism is the way that editors feel the need to have world-shattering headlines. New Scientist is one of the worst for the this. Time after time you see something really exciting on the cover like 'Black holes don't exist!', then when you read the actual article it delivers nothing of the kind, telling you that someone has a disputed theory that in some circumstance black holes may not form. In a way it's the grown-up version of what I was moaning about the Daily Excess doing yesterday.

So I was a bit wary when I saw the Observer headine Scientists hope Venus will give up the secret of how life evolved on Earth. And rightly so. What we got was an interesting article about Venus and how we might discover why Venus, a similar size to Earth and also 'well within the Goldilock zone' is so different from Earth (and so inhospitable to life).

In the end, the analysis came down to 'Venus may have had a water/carbon dioxide like the early Earth, but being closer to the Sun, the water could have been driven off - no water, no life.'

I have a couple of problems with this. One is whether Venus really is in the Goldilocks zone. See the image above from Penn State University, which clearly puts it outside. But also it's hardly telling us 'how life evolved on Earth' to say that a planet that has water is more likely to have life than a planet that doesn't. It's not news.

If you really want to find out more about the way life probably evolved on Earth you need a book like The Vital Question (though it is more modest in its claims, only saying 'why is life the way it is') not a study of Venus.

In case there's any doubt, I'm not criticising the original article - it has some good material on Venus and what may have caused it to be different to Earth (apart from my slight dispute over the Goldilocks zone), but putting an overblown title on it leads to disappointment. Science articles should do what they say on the tin.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Express excess

You might be surprised to learn that I follow the Daily Express on Facebook, but this is because the inaccuracy of their posts is often the funniest thing of the day.

This week they have excelled themselves. Let's see if you can spot the subtle difference between the headline and what appears after the first few paragraphs in the body text.

Here's the headline:

That sounds pretty definite, doesn't it. 'On collision course' in my book means 'is going to hit unless we take evasive action', which is pretty difficult to do when 'we' is the Earth.

But get through the first effusive paragraphs (by which time, apparently over half readers have stopped reading) and we get these two quotes:
Detlef Koschny, head of the near-earth object segment at the European Space Agency, said: "There is a one in a million chance that it could hit us.
NASA's Asteroid Watch said there is no chance the asteroid will hit Earth
Ri-i-i-ght. That's pretty conclusive, then. It's clearly on a collision course.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Friedrich lives!

I have to come clean straight away. I was already a huge fan of Friedrich when he first appeared online - and I still am in book form.

To simply consider the plot of Lucy Pepper's frankly bonkers story of a wronged mouse who takes to Quentin Tarantino levels of violence to extract his revenge (this is not a cartoon for pre-teens) is to find something entertaining, but nothing special. (I ought to say for any biologists that Friedrich has a rat grandmother, hence the tail.) However, Friedrich is so much more. 

The reason for this is artist Pepper's bewitching use of a whole range of different styles and techniques that sees characters in the cartoon sometimes drawn in pen, sometimes colour washed, sometimes 3D. Arguably Friedrich is a stunning serial doodle where Pepper uses whatever comes to hand to continue the increasingly gripping story. (At one point this features a plaster cast in a hospital, and at another an unexpected outdoor scene.) The outcome is totally unique. 
It is really difficult to describe this visual treat with its mix of time travel, German-style beer Kellers and evil hench-animals. But all I can really say is that I love it.

If I have one criticism it's that these miniature works of art deserve to be bigger - I'd have liked a square format with one image per page, but I appreciate that would probably have made the cost of the paper version astronomical.

Friedrich is available as a Kindle book from or, but despite being significantly more expensive, I would recommend going for the paper version to get the full impact of the images. (Definitely don't go for Kindle unless you have a proper colour graphics reader, such as a Kindle Fire or iPad - it would be pointless on an e-ink reader.) You can find the paper version at and

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Missing the point of non-doms

As the various parties' manifestos become clear before the general election, as usual what I really want to do is mix and match from various parties - they almost all have some good stuff on offer.

Although it's not a vote-winner, there's one point on which I'm 100% with Labour, and that's over the matter of non-doms.
For those who live under a bucket, or not in the UK, this is not people who aren't called Dom (like me), but those who are judged non-domiciled.

This was apparently a tax wheeze set up alongside income tax 200 years ago and that is now hopelessly out of date. A non-dom lives in the UK but is officially not a UK resident and can opt to pay tax on their earnings from outside the UK in another country.

Clearly some people find this highly lucrative, because they opt to pay up to £90,000 a year for the privilege. What is particularly bizarre is that you can be a non-dom even if you were born and spent all your life in the UK, as you can inherit it from a parent.

Labour has announced they will scrap the concept, which has resulted in the inevitable squealing from the friends-of-the-rich. Here's a typical whine from Mark Davies in The Spectator, reported in the i newspaper:
Labour claims scrapping non-dom status will raise hundreds of millions. But these figures are uncosted and there are incalculable factors, such as how many non-doms will leave the UK as a consequence.
I could point out the magnificent logical peculiarity in this argument - Davies complains that the figures are uncosted, then tells us that they couldn't be costed - but he entirely misses the point. To be honest, Labour shouldn't have even mentioned savings. Because this is not about savings. I wouldn't care if it did lose us a bit of revenue, because it is an unfair, ridiculous and outdated concept that needs doing away with. (A bit like the Royal Family, but that's a different blog post.) Sometimes government should do things that aren't about saving money, but about doing the right thing, and this is one of them.

It's not as if our non-doms can flee to another country to regain the status, because you won't find this bizarre system elsewhere. And, frankly, even if some did leave, would it be a great loss? I suspect not. The fact is that we would be doing the right thing - and it's a shame that the Conservatives can't follow suit on this one.

Photo of Dom Joly © paul bednall photography 2011

Apologies to Marcus Chown for stealing the Dom/Non-Dom joke

Monday, 13 April 2015

Snap, crackle and... what?

It's irresistible. You are eating your breakfast, and the most interesting reading in sight is the cereal packet. (It's that or more election news*.) So you start to read, and you notice that your cereal is 'fortified' with niacin. Now hang on there, cereal people. Why are you feeding me this strange chemical that sounds somehow related to nicotine? For that matter, why is my cereal so weedy that it needs fortification?

The answer comes with a decision made by government decree, but that strangely is more like to end in over-consumption than under-consumption these days. Find out more about niacin, aka vitamin B3, in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast.  Take a listen by clicking to pop over to its page on the RSC site.

* This is the expected humorous form. In fact, I can't get enough election news.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Parochialism is not inherently bad

There has been a certain amount of moaning amongst the chatterati of late that we (I'm not sure if that 'we' is the British press, or the British people in general) are terrible in our parochialism, as there has been no where near as much fuss about the 148 people killed in the Garissa attack compared with the overwhelming response to the much smaller Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

It's certainly not true that the media have been ignoring Garissa - the last time I watched the TV news on Sunday it was the lead story, for instance, and it led on the BBC News website on at least two days. However it is the case that the level of response has been different. What surprises me here is this negative reaction, which seems to come mostly from a left wing political standpoint (e.g. seen more in the Guardian than elsewhere).

One reason is that I find it rather disturbing that these people can try to play point scoring between atrocities. They are both atrocities, committed by Muslim extremists. Playing a numbers game, pointing out how many more people were killed at Garissa seems a really callous, unpleasant attitude.

But the main thing is that I don't understand why these people consider that parochialism is inherently bad, because it is a sensible human behaviour. If you genuinely don't consider your own family of more significance to you than random strangers, you are, I would suggest, a flawed human being. Similarly we are psychologically incapable of feeling the same degree of empathy and interesting in people we don't know than our friends - again it would be bizarre if we didn't. And this also extends in a weaker form to nearby countries and or/countries with a similar culture to our own. It's perfectly natural and there's nothing wrong with such parochialism.

The only time parochialism becomes a problem is if we use it as a reason to ignore the plights of people outside our 'friends and neighbours' zone - for instance when UKIP suggest removing the International Aid Budget. That is bad parochialism. But to expect us to truly feel the same about everyone in the world is unrealistic and unnatural. Of course we empathise with those involved in Garissa. And it is important news. But we can't be expected to respond the same way as we do to something in Paris or London - any more that the reverse would be true for someone in Tanzania, if you exchanged the Paris and Garissa information.

Parochialism (or localism as it is called when people don't want to be negative) is important, because in our 'parish' we can know more and do more. It doesn't prevent us reacting to and sending aid to those beyond our particular bounds, but to argue that parochialism is a bad thing is a silly response from individuals who really don't understand human beings.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The new ban-the-bombists

Credit: Tony French
I am old enough to remember CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) marches, and generally speaking was always a bit wary of ban-the-bombists, particularly because there was a tendency to lump nuclear weapons in with nuclear power - I'm all in favour of a power source with very little impact on climate change - but the thought of nuclear weapons terrified my when I was younger and the threat seemed greater, and they still fill me with horror.

After watching the leaders' debate on Thursday with interest, it struck me that the Labour party was missing out on a serious trick - something emphasised in today's quick defence of the nuclear deterrent after the Conservative attacks on the subject. After all, senior Labour figures have been ban-the-bombists in the past, and I think Labour should seriously consider adding not renewing Trident and scrapping the current 'nuclear deterrent' ASAP. There are several potential benefits:
  • Huge savings - while I'm suspicious of the £100 billion figure, it's certainly a hell of a lot
  • Win over lots of young undecided voters - young people, generally speaking, I suspect would support this move
  • Clearly distinguish Labour in a way that didn’t happen in the debate - it was very much the big three versus the littlies in the debate. A 'get rid of Trident' Labour position would really differentiate them
  • Reduce SNP’s leverage - without the nuclear submarines on the Clyde, the SNP would have less of a stick to wave at Westminster
Of course you might argue that there's a cost to put against my benefits: reducing our security. This morning on the radio, the defence secretary called Trident our most important expenditure, more important it seems than the NHS or the conventional army. But is it really true that losing Trident would put a terrible dent in our security?

The whole concept of deterrence is questionable, but it is only of any value against a rational superpower opposition. If, for instance, ISIS got a nuclear weapon, our weapons have no deterrent effect, as the unhinged are quite happy to sacrifice everything to wipe out those that they believe their religion opposes. The fact is, the threats we face are not the kind where nuclear weapons are any use, and even if Putin started to rampage across Europe, there are others with nuclear triggers to hand. Let's be realists. Germany, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, etc. etc. all get along fine without a nuclear weapon capability. It is perfectly possible to argue that we are clinging onto a past glory that we can no longer afford nor justify.

I sent this suggestion with my bullet points above on Saturday to both Ed Miliband (in the cringe-making 'Ask Ed' feature on the Labour website) and the Labour candidate for my ward, Mark Dempsey. (There didn't seem a lot of point sending them to the Conservatives, who seem more ideologically dependent on nuclear weapons.)  Dempsey's campaign has been largely on local issues, so I thought it would be interesting to see how he responded to a big picture question.

As yet neither has responded, but if they did, I suspect it wouldn't be an enthusiastic one. Apart from anything else, the Conservative intervention today pretty well ensures Labour can't back down. But for the future, maybe this is something they should consider.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

You tweet my back, I'll tweet yours

One of the mysteries of using Twitter is how a particular tweet gets spread to the world. I might have got all excited when my tweet about seeing Loki on the underground was re-tweeted over 1,500 times, but a typical tweet of mine probably only merits a handful of retweets.

There is a way round this. A site called CoPromote offers a service where you indicate a tweet you want to boost and others retweet it. Why should they? Because this earns them points that enable them to put up their own tweets for retweeting. (It also works for Facebook pages, but I'm less convinced by the value there.)

Assuming that being retweeted is a good thing, this doesn't seem a bad idea (I'll come back to whether or not it is). It's not like paying for fake followers (apart from anything else, a basic account is free), and it should get your tweets wider visibility. At the moment, the system has two problems. One is that the tweets offered to be retweeted are usually heavily self-promoting, so not the sort of thing you want to retweet. And secondly, even if you can find something worth retweeting, there is no opportunity to modify it to put your own stamp on it, so it's difficult to give it your 'voice'.

I think it's also worth revisiting that assumption. Is being retweeted a good thing? I think it is, but not as much as people think. It means your tweet gets seen by a wider audience - which in the end is part of why we use Twitter - there's a chance for a wider conversation - because Twitter is two-way - and a very small number of people might follow you who otherwise wouldn't. But it's not exactly transformational.

I think I will continue to play with CoPromote - but I'm not yet 100 per cent convinced of its merits... oh, and if you don't follow me on Twitter - feel free to click the follow button on the Twitter thingy in the right hand column! I'd love to connect.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Doorways in the Sand - Review

Every now and then I take a break from reading science books and unwind with a spot of fiction. This is often something new, but I also like to dip back into old favourites... and was so glad that I did with Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand, which I haven't read for about 20 years, but was a delight to return to because it remains totally brilliant.

I was a huge fan of Zelazny's Amber series in my teens (I used to haunt the SF bookshop near Piccadilly Station in Manchester, as it sold US imports, and had the latest addition to the Amber books long before they were published in the UK), and still enjoy them, despite the output getting a bit strained towards the end. Doorways, though, is SF rather than fantasy, with that same type of wisecracking hero who would have been portrayed by a young Harrison Ford in the movies.

For the first few pages this could be a 1920s comedy, with a night climber at university who has a trust fund that pays him until he graduates - so every time he comes close to graduating, he changes to a different course, never quite accumulating enough points to graduate, despite the university's determined attempts to see him pass, leading to a comic encounter with the latest in a series of student advisors.

However, there are strange things afoot. Fred, our main character, seems to be receiving garbled messages from the universe, while chapter endings result in sudden, often quite baffling shifts of situation. You have to be prepared to go with the flow and enjoy the scintillating words that Zelazny throws at you and eventually all will become clear (if not straightforward). The book is a total delight, and I don't know anyone currently writing in SF who can achieve this kind of masterful mind play mixing science fiction, humour and adventure. (If there is, please let me know.)

If you've never read it, you really must. Come one - there's a talking wombat. Need I say more?

Still available from and though you'll have to resort to second-hand.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Giving away money for profit

The internet has thrown up some interesting and different business models - but I think few are as innovative as Chris Holbrook's idea of giving away money. It sounds a pretty impressive way to get people to your site... and that's what he does at the Free Postcode Lottery site.

Before you get too excited, we aren't talking vast sums of money - it's currently around £170 a day, so it's not going to change anyone's life.  But it is free to enter, there's a guarantee that your email won't be sold on, and with Holbrook giving away around £62,000 a year, it is still, at face value, a fast route to bankruptcy.

So how is Holbrook managing this feat? Nothing magic - just advertising. It seems that he has managed to get enough revenue that way (which is pretty impressive, going on the few pence I get from Google) to fund the site, which is apparently significantly in profit. In fact, profitable enough that he has quit his job to concentrate on the venture. The growth in the daily prize fund (it was £20 at the start of 2014) gives some indication of the increase in interest and advertising revenue over a surprisingly short period of time.

He does have one little trick up his sleeve. Players are entered with their postcode (the clue is in the name), and each day a winning postcode pops up, selected at random from those in the draw. But it's only available on the site. Don't check if you've won and 24 hours later your winnings roll over to the next winner. So there's an incentive to get eyes returning to the site day after day - an advertiser's dream.

At the moment, players have to live in the UK. Holbrook has looked into other countries but a combination of strange local laws in some countries that don't allow money to be given away and postcode formats that don't work so well with the approach have limited the possibilities - however, he hopes to launch in the Republic of Ireland once their postcodes go live in the summer.

Will it work long term? I really don't know - but I do think it's a real example of being creative about making use of the different kind of interpersonal contact the internet offers. Holbrook already has three different lottery games running (which means you have to look at three different pages to check if you've won - more eyeball space) and I can see scope for expanding the model even further.

Gambling isn't everyone's cup of tea, and it's arguable that even free gambling might encourage you then to have a go at the better rewarded payed version, but for me it's a very clever piece of work. Well worth popping over and taking a look.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The fluoride terror

There are few compounds with such a range of associations as fluorides. To some, these compounds of the halogen fluorine bring to mind healthy teeth, but for others, terms like fluoride and fluoridation suggest a terrible danger to health (and quite possibly a communist plot).

Find out the pros and cons of this controversial compounds in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on fluorides.  Take a listen by clicking to pop over to its page on the RSC site.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Bored with the things

There was a time when large scale institutional practical jokes for April 1 were brilliant because they were so unusual. I'm thinking particularly of the 1957 Panorama mini-documentary on the Swiss peasants going out to reap the spaghetti harvest, and the Guardian's magnificent, very large scale special feature on the floating island of San Serriffe.

However, on April 1 this year, as has been the case for a while now, I was bombarded with 'really funny' stories like:
... and basically practically everything that anyone put on Facebook and Twitter on the 1st. 

Apart from getting tedious, there is a real danger that people think a genuine story is a joke. My piece about snake oil teas yesterday was not a joke, for instance. So we get confused claims like this that suggest that Amazon's 'dash button' (something you stick on your washing machine, for instance that you press to order more washing powder when you are running low) wasn't a joke... or was it? (Frankly, I'm still not sure about their drone delivery system.)

So, please, could we have a spoof news embargo for the next couple of years? Then, perhaps, we could get back to the naif joy that greeted the spaghetti harvest:

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Snake oil tea, vicar?

I have recently had brought to my attention the rather impressive way that in a single web page, a product by the name of Bloom teas manages to use three of the great woo-marketing terms.

Now, in the interests of fairness, I ought to point out that I don't drink ordinary tea, but I do enjoy the occasional cup of green tea, of which more in a moment.

So what's so woo-ified? There are three keywords here that raise the dubiousness alarm.

The first is rehydration. While the benefits of this are clear - it's good to keep hydrated - it really doesn't matter what you drink as long as it's mostly water and preferably doesn't contain alcohol. (And you certainly don't need 8 glasses a day - as with all this stuff, see my Science for Life.)So not an out-and-out negative, but something to be a little wary of. Then there the first biggy. Antioxidants. How many times does everyone have to say this? The antioxidants produced by your body are essential. But consuming extra antioxidants has no health benefit and serious supplementation seems to increase the risk of death.

And then, towards the end, there's that favourite of meaningless woo words: detox. There is no such thing as a detox product. Your body has lots of useful organs and processes that remove toxins, but nothing you eat or drink will have an active 'detox' action. It's marketing hogwash, pure and simple.

*ADDED* Thanks to Glenn Patrick for pointing out there's actually a fourth woo claim: that the tea kick-starts your metabolism, as if your metabolism was stopped and needed a starter motor. I could probably add some doubt to 'stomach-clensing ingredients too', while I'm at it. It's so full of... wonder.

You might think this is a matter of hunting butterflies with a bazooka - and to an extent it is. What's more, the reason I drink green tea is that I like the astringent effect that leaves you feeling refreshed and revitalised. But the key word there is 'feeling'. Where a manufacturer strays into snake oil territory is by making what  are effectively medical claims by using terms like antioxidant (or just fantasy by talking detox) - after all, they even make it sound medical by calling it a 'treatment plan'. So, I have nothing wrong with 'makes you feel good' type claims, but I can rightly bring out the bazooka when it someone says it 'makes you healthier.'