Monday, 25 July 2016

Are smart meters really smart?

My meter is dumb - and I like it that way
Interesting news that British Gas is finally offering the first real benefit to the consumer of having a smart meter - 9 to 5 free electricity on either Saturday or Sunday to people on the appropriate plan. And that's great, possibly - but it also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

I've always been a touch suspicious of the way smart meters are being sold. We have been told that they enable consumers to be more aware of their electricity use, and hence to save money. But I'm not really not convinced that seeing that your kettle uses more electricity when it's boiling water than when it's off is really a great surprise to anyone - even if we can actually see the smart meter while boiling the kettle, which often won't be the case.

In practice, what these meters are primarily about is enabling the energy supply companies to get more of a real time monitoring of individual usage, which in principle could benefit the consumer, but is primarily aimed at being able to extract more cash.

In principle, the British Gas 'all you can eat for free' on a weekend day of your choice 9 to 5 (odd times for the weekend) is a clear benefit to the owner (though it hardly encourages good green thinking - 'Hey let's use as much energy as we can today, it's free!'). And you certainly would save money, estimated to average £60 a year, compared with being on the same tariff without it. However, bear in mind that most households can save between £200 and £300 a year by switching supplier - so it looks suspiciously like offering lollipops to tie the consumer into paying more.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Coalition: David Laws - review

By a genuine coincidence, I ended up reading David Laws' inside account of the five years of Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK immediately after reading the book form of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister - still hilarious after all these years.

Although Coalition hasn't got anywhere near as much in the way of funny bits as the satire, it is genuinely readable despite its wrist-busting 600+ pages. Laws doesn't have a particularly outstanding writing style, but he comes across as genuine and the book is well structured, in relatively short, themed chunks that tend to span across months or years, rather than trying to do the whole thing in a single, chronological bore-fest. (The effectiveness only breaks down at the end, where it could have done with some serious editor's blue pencil, but that's really only in the short postscript.)

I think two things are particularly fascinating. One is to get a better feel for the characters, many of them still in the Conservative government, as people. We get to used to treating politicians as if they were Spitting Image puppets, simply voicing their extreme views and then being put back in the cupboard, resulting in the kind of extremely negative personal comments made to no one's advantage during the recent EU referendum. Here we see people like David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove and Theresa May more as actual people - we see much rounder personalities: if they're funny, how conservative they and, interestingly, how socially liberal some of them are. Perhaps most fascinating of these are Cameron - who comes across sometimes worryingly like Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister - Osborne, displaying a surprisingly human side and Gove - who comes across as both likeable and downright weird, prone to distinctly odd behaviour. Obviously, given turns of events since, it is also fascinating to see the trajectory with which many of the key players went into the EU referendum (which was obviously after the book was written, though thoughts about it coming in the future are often referenced).

The other thing that is interesting is, if we believe Laws, how much they all genuinely put a huge amount off effort into keeping a workable coalition going, and achieved a fair number of positive things between 2010 and 2015. There is also a sad inside view of the pretty much total destruction of the Liberal Democrat party as a result, in part, of the electorate simply not understanding how much they had contributed to the coalition.

Of course, this is one person's view - but Laws seems to have been well-placed to give it and it shows us everything from the workings of the senior civil service (capable of the odd Sir Humphrey moment, despite mostly coming across as very efficient) through to the practicalities of government most of us never get to see. Recommended.

Coalition is available from and

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The brilliance of stuff that just works

The ticket as it popped up on my
phone (original not pixilated)
A few years ago, when I first moved over to using Apple, a friend of mine who likes to get up to his elbows in the technology, tweaking this and twerking that, said 'I could never live with that walled garden.' He wasn't talking about some rural pleasure grounds, but rather the way that Apple rigidly controls what does what on its devices.

I can see the point if you are the sort of person who likes to nurgle around changing settings and writing macros and linking box X to widget Y to make things just the way you want them. And I probably was that person in my 20s. But now I just want things to work together, and with a few notable exceptions, the good thing about using Apple is that it all does.

I just had an example of that. I had received an e-ticket notification from Eurostar. On the email it said 'click here to download your ticket'. I did this on my iMac. Up popped a web window showing the ticket. This had a link on it saying 'Click here to send the ticket to your wallet.' Yeah, right, I thought. So I clicked the link. And five seconds later, there was a ticket sitting in the Wallet app on my phone.

I'm not saying this wouldn't necessarily work as well with Android or Windows - it may well do so. But for me, that ability to click a link on my desktop and have a ticket appear as if by magic in the wallet on the phone is why the walled garden can be a lovely place to live.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Say after me 'cost and price are not the same thing'

I saw this on that unique source of information, Facebook, the other day, accompanying an image of some generic paracetamol (acetaminophen):
This paracetamol is 25p but it's as low as 16p in Home Bargains. When you choose to get paracetamol for 'free' from the pharmacist or GP it actually costs the taxpayer and NHS about £10. If you want to help save the NHS choose to refuse free paracetamol when you can...
It certainly would be silly to get an over-the-counter painkiller on prescription unless you need large supplies for a chronic condition. However, what raised my 'failure to understand numbers' antennae was the bit that says 'it actually costs the taxpayer and NHS about £10'.

Now it's certainly true that the price of a prescription to the patient in the UK (unless they qualify for free ones) is £8.40. But price and cost are not the same thing. When you buy something in a shop, the price is the amount you pay - the cost is what the shopkeeper (or in this case, indirectly, the NHS) pays. In the case of paracetamol, it is going to be a fraction of the price.

Prescriptions have an unusual pricing model, in that the price to the consumer is fixed, whatever the cost to the NHS. So the cost might be 10p for those painkillers or £10,000 for some leading-edge treatment: you still pay the same £8.40, or nothing at all if you get prescriptions free.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, with both bulk discounts and the cost to the NHS of dispensing a prescription (though the incremental difference of the cost of a single prescription is likely to be pretty small). However, the main thing is to remember is that just because a packet of paracetamols would be priced at £8.40 if you bought them as a prescription - making it more sensible to buy them off the shelf - and you will save the NHS some money if you buy them yourself instead of using a free prescription - this doesn't mean that your get them free costs the NHS £8.40.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Banking baloney

Branches like this may be doomed
(image from Wikipedia)
As Bohr almost said, forecasting is difficult, especially about the future - in fact it's pretty well always wrong. And never more so when we try to predict cataclysmic change. As I discussed in Dice World, the problem is that the systems we are usually trying to predict are so large and complex (and often mathematically chaotic) that we are almost always blindsided by major changes. So I raised an eyebrow when I saw an article claiming that within a decade, retail banks will be dead.

It's certainly true, as the writer suggests, that bank branches are closing because we are doing more online banking, but I think there is far too much conservatism about retail banking to see such a massive change as the end of the familiar banks in ten years. Look how long after Europe was paying its bills with direct debits the USA was still tediously printing off cheques to pay bills. Not to mention the time it took for chip and pin to be available over there.

The author of the post envisages that 'thе biggеѕt bаnkѕ in thе world in 2025 will bе technology companies'. This may be true, in the sense that they are edging into financial services through things like ApplePay - but it's extremely unlikely. And even if it is true, it doesn't mean that 'retail banks will be dead'. Nor does it mean that 'the biggest banks in your country will be technology companies', as we still have huge country-to-country variation in retail banks. You don't see many Lloyds and NatWest branches outside the UK, for instance.

Although bankers aren't trusted, we still invest significant trust in familiar high street banking brands, plus brands like Virgin and the supermarkets which have a similar feeling of national acceptance. We are far less likely to trust Google or Apple with our money. Handling payment transactions is one thing. Handling our bank accounts, particularly current accounts and mortgages, is another.

I am not saying we won't see a gradual shift away from today's retail banks to a wider range of options. But I think the reports of retail banking's (future) death are greatly exaggerated.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Farewell to consumer electronics laptops

My defunct Sony laptop, designed, as the label says,
for Windows 98
There has been an interesting evolution in the world of laptops - one that you might not even have noticed. It's a kind of mass extinction.

Back in the old days, when luggable PCs and laptops first entered the market (yes, I can remember than far back), there were two distinct types of manufacturer involved in electronics. Computer makers, mostly American - whether traditional (IBM, say) or newly minted (Compaq, Dell etc.) made computers - while consumer manufacturers, mostly from the far east, made things like TV sets and stereos.

It was a mystery why those consumer electronics giants never got into computing in a big way, but for some reason they only seriously took on one segment of the market - laptops. And they were very good at it. The first (actually, the only) laptop I ever bought was a top of the range Sony. It lasted me 10 years and was brilliant. It was also the consumer manufacturers (as opposed to the business-dominated computer firms) who realised it might be a good idea to bring out low cost netbooks and who, apart from Apple, dominated the stylish end of the market.

The big three were Sony (always the top end option), Samsung and Toshiba. But Sony pulled out of the market a few years ago, then Samsung followed suit. And now Toshiba is ceasing to make consumer laptops (they say they intend to stay in the business market - but it would seem an odd long-term decision). All three are now gone.

What has happened? It's certainly true that desktop computer sales have plummeted, while Apple and Microsoft's high end tablets have nibbled away at a segment of the laptop market. But laptop sales remain pretty solid with around 165 million laptops and Chromebooks selling in 2015. So why this very focussed move away? I can only suggest that the consumer electronics companies have never been comfortable with the sheer complexity and support requirements of PCs - far greater than, say, a TV set. Nor, more importantly, have they liked the need to deal so closely with a third party - Microsoft or lately Google - for their operating systems.

This may come down to control. In the old days when there was a good range of MP3 players before phones took over the role, Sony's were always notable because their software took over. This wasn't such a surprise with iPods, because Apple operated in a closed world, but it didn't matter because they did it slickly. However, almost every non-Apple player treated the MP3 player as a storage device, pop your MP3s on it with, say, Windows Media Player and you were away. To use Sony's MP3 players, you had to use Sony's proprietary (and awful) software to handle all the interactions.

It seems companies like Sony didn't like giving over control to Windows, or whatever is running on the associated computer and needed to impose their grip, allegedly to make things easier, but in practice making their products less useful. And it wouldn't be too much of a surprise if the demise of the consumer electronics laptop was similarly because the companies involved were used to controlling their own devices through their own software and never became comfortable with the separate hardware and software PC model.

Whatever the reason, it's a shame.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Stone age observatories or motel of the mysteries?

Terrified prehistoric (well, 1980s) adolescents in
West Kennet Long Barrow
I was interested to see in New Scientist that 'prehistoric tombs may have doubled as star-gazing observatories,' because this reminded me of one of my favourite books from the 1970s.

The idea put forward in the article is that in the extended, narrow chamber of a long barrow or passage tomb, an observer would peer in darkness down to a small fraction of sky and be able to see stars around dawn that would otherwise be washed out by sky light. And it's certainly possible. I particularly liked the quote from Fabio Silva of the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, conjuring up an adolescent initiation rite:
Imagine a young boy forced to spend the night in the passage – probably scared to death. In the morning he would see this star rise days before the rest of his tribe. That may have been presented as secret knowledge.
The reason I find this so delightful is that it has immensely strong echoes of that book I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which was called Motel of the Mysteries. Written by David Macaulay, the idea was simple but excellent - a couple of thousand years in the future, archaeologists excavating the ruins of America dig up an old motel (the Toot N C'mon Motel, to be precise). With no way of understanding its uses they assume, for example, that the toilet seat is a ceremonial collar for ritual purposes and that the TV set was an altar.

Of course, Dr Silva could be spot on. But I would just love it if his interpretations had the same delightful inaccuracies as the interpretations of the motel. And it is entirely possible that it's the case.

The book was out of print for a long time, but is now available again. You can get a feel for it (though the real thing is much better) from some of the text an illustrations, which are available online here.

Monday, 4 July 2016

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick - review

Although a huge fan of science fiction, I've never been overly fond of the New Wave authors of the 1960s. Their ideas were remarkable - but their stories tended to be relentlessly bleak and unrewarding - a bit like post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd without the wonderful music. And there's no better example than Philip K. Dick. (It's Kindred, since you ask.) The sheer inventiveness of Dick's stories come through in the number of 'adaptations' of his work, from Blade Runner (taken from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) to The Man in the High Castle. But the negative side of his work comes across in those inverted commas round 'adaptations' - the stories usually need a lot of adapting to be less odd and nihilistic to work for a wider audience.

I knew nothing about Dick himself before reading The Divine Madness, a kind of psychoanalytic biography that attempt to retro-analyse Dick's strange life and thinking. His upbringing was never going to leave him normal. His twin sister (the book says 'fraternal twin' as if he could have had an identical twin sister, which is odd) died of malnutrition, as Dick almost did, when their mother didn't manage to feed them properly. For some reason, Dick's mother then seems to have brought him up blaming him for his sister's death and telling him he should have died too. Alarmingly, they even put Dick's name on the gravestone. Throw in a mostly absent and uncaring father and it's not entirely surprising the result was a troubled young man.

All the evidence in the book suggests that Dick had a serious mental illness - from apparently staging a burglary at his home (the book's hypothesis as Dick never admitted it) to paranoid delusions - compounded by massive prescription (and other) drug taking. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this slim volume was the occasional analysis of Dick's stories and novels. I had read many of them (though I wasn't fond of New Wave, I read a lot, because I felt I ought to) and it was genuinely interesting to see how a couple of major underlying themes, revolving around the loss of his sister, and the idea that the world we experience is not reality and reality will occasionally poke through and show itself, are replayed time and again. The book also explores effectively why Dick's female characters are almost always evil or unsympathetic.

What I was less sure about was the heavy lashings of psychoanalysis in the book. Freud's work has already been pretty well comprehensively dismissed as pseudoscience, and there is little evidence that later practitioners had any more scientific basis for their work. The Divine Madness, written by Kyle Arnold, an assistant professor of psychiatry, lays the analysis on thick. One clear example of this is when the author claims that the song-game parents play with their babies and toddlers 'Rockabye Baby' plays out a death wish in which the parents secretly want to commit infanticide. Unfortunately, as anyone who has had children this age knows, the game, like the similar action game 'The Farmer goes a-clip', is all about anticipation of a safe drop - it's the nursery equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. It's not about parents secretly wishing to finish off their little ones, any more than theme park ride owners secretly want to kill large numbers of people in vehicle crashes.

There are times it is difficult not to wince when reading the book - and I certainly couldn't include it as a review on the popular science website due to the lack of science - but it does give some fascinating insights into the mental processes and life of a very inventive but tortured science fiction writer.

The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick is available from and

Friday, 1 July 2016

The PR corner - issue #4

 I was always a fan of Pseud's Corner in Private Eye. These days, the most purple prose I receive is often in the form of press releases for books being offered for review. I will provide an irregular series of these, both for your entertainment and, I hope, as pointers of what not to do with the press releases for your own books. 

Note that the books themselves could be brilliant... or not. But a poor press release is unlikely to generate many reviews. Names will be omitted to protect the innocent and guilty alike. 

I suspect the problems are fairly self-evident, but just in case here's a few key pointers to look out for:
  • Are you ready to be empowered?
  • A diary-style journey? Is that a bit like a blog-style elephant?
  • Who would have thought that India was a land of geography?
  • Can people collectively form a wisdom?
  • Apparently we are unlikely to read the like of the author in our lifetime. No, doesn't make any sense to me, either.
  • I have read 'Just as quantum physics presents a very different view of the world from the classical physics of Newton, the same is also true of consciousness' three times and still don't understand what it means.

[Title]: Uplifting New Memoir Empowers Readers to Unleash “Transcendental Consciousness”
Written by X and inspired by a life-changing, spontaneous trip to India, [Title] takes readers on a diary-style journey through the author’s daily life alongside the goddess Durga. From falling in love with a guru to undergoing a series of transformational experiences, X's true and incredibly vivid memories will lift readers up to a new state of being.

United Kingdom – For thousands of years, people have turned to the mystique and allure of India for assistance in all facets of their life; a land of geography, culture and people who collectively form a wisdom unmatched by anywhere else on the planet. [...]

This is a remarkable book by an equally remarkable man, the like of which you are unlikely to read in your lifetime.

An inner prompting sent X to India – the home of the timeless knowledge of the Veda. In the topsy-turvy world of modern times, we are more au fait with our mobile phones than we are with the even smarter circuitry, lying latent within our own nervous systems.

Just as quantum physics presents a very different view of the world from the classical physics of Newton, the same is also true of consciousness. The more we expand ours, the more we find there.

The Veda tells us in its own symbolic language that everybody is born with a nervous system capable of being refined and perfected with the right input.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Does physics describe reality?

What do physicists study? It seems a simple enough question, but if you talk to a modern physicist who isn't in 'speak slowly for ordinary folk' mode, you might suspect it's not the world as we know it. I'd say about nine times out of ten when I ask a friendly physicist to elucidate some aspect of modern physics, what they say provides no light on reality. And this thought has been around a long time.

In effect the idea that we aren't talking about reality is the picture Plato had, often summed up in the image of the cave - that we are in a cave and can only study the shadows of reality on the wall of the cave, not the 'true' world that is not part of our world. Plato took this viewpoint from an arbitrary philosophical basis that the 'real' world was perfect - so, for instance the real world might contain the perfect archetype of 'dog' where in our cave we just experience a shadow of dogness.

Something closer to modern science comes out in Kant's 'Ding an sich', explored so enjoyably in Adam Roberts' science fiction novel The Thing Itself. Here, there is a (non-perfect) reality in our universe but we can never experience it. As we can only interact with it through our senses, we can will never know what it is. And that brings us on neatly to the strange case of the superposed Bohr.

In his excellent collection of essays Why Quark rhymes with Pork, physics professor David Mermin discusses the Niels Bohr quote:
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description, It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
Now Mermin gets his knickers in a twist claiming this isn't a quote, as Bohr didn't write these words, but rather it was reported that he said it by Aage Petersen. Mermin uses a very odd definition of a quote that only allows the written form - the OED defines a quote as a 'quoted passage or remark' - some of the best quotes in history would have to be erased if we only accepted the (initially) written form. But it is true that reported quotes are more likely to contain errors, and the topic becomes interesting when Mermin speaks with two physicists who knew Bohr personally.

Apparently, Victor Weisskopf claimed that Bohr could not possibly have said anything like this, while  Rudolf Peierls said that this was exactly the kind of thing that Bohr liked to say. So in good quantum style, Bohr appears to be in a superposition of the 'said it' and 'didn't say it' states. (For what it's worth, I think Peierls was right - Weisskopf seemed to be denying the possibility because he thought it was a ridiculous idea, rather than because Bohr wouldn't have said it.)

There is something very Ding an sich like about this statement (whoever said it). And apparently Bohr did write 'In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience.' Which comes pretty close.

Although the original quote (or non-quote) was specifically about quantum physics, the second was much wider and reminds us of something it's easy for both working physicists and those who report science to forget. When we talk about the constituents of the atom, when we say that light is like a wave or a particle or a disturbance in a quantum field, when we speak about black holes or the big bang - these are not reality. There are real phenomena which we can indirectly observe, but we will always be dealing with models, with descriptions based on our indirect measurements and theories, not 'the real essence' as Bohr put it.

This doesn't mean we can't make huge achievements using these models. All our modern electronics depends on the effectiveness of the modelling of quantum mechanics. So, in practical terms it really doesn't matter that we aren't dealing with reality. But when considering pure science, we should never fall for the glamorous elegance of our models or the bewitching glitter of a big machine like the Large Hadron Collider. We are not exploring reality. All we can ever do is construct a better model, a better way to talk about nature. Don't get me wrong, though - it's a wonderful achievement, but often misunderstood.

Altogether now:

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Why time travel is just fine

Those of us who enjoy science fiction - and all the indications are that a good proportion of those who are interested in science do enjoy it - might have felt a little depressed at the recent announcement that the discovery of a new shape for an atomic nucleus could 'ruin our hopes of time travel.'

According to Science Alert (an outfit, I must admit I hadn't heard of), 'Physicists have confirmed the existence of a new form of atomic nuclei'. Now, putting aside that unwanted plural, they reference the BBC, which also makes the claim that this discovery 'may [..] end hopes of time travel.'

What the discovery actually shows is a nucleus with an unusual symmetry, and a Dr Scheck of the University of the West of Scotland says that this Radium-224 nucleus 'violates the theory of mirror symmetry and relates to the violation shown in the distribution of matter and antimatter in our universe.'

Now that's interesting and important stuff (if verified), but Dr Scheck goes on to say 'We've found these nuclei literally point towards a direction in space. This relates to a direction in time, proving there's a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present.' From which the BBC deduces 'So time travel would appear to be a non-starter.'

No need to give up hope, though, time travel lovers, as I don't know where to start on what's wrong with this, and I hope that the last part of the quote is BBC interpretation, rather than Dr Scheck's thought on the matter. First, I'm not sure that Dr Scheck's assertion that this proves that 'there's a well-defined direction in time and we will always travel from past to present' is even true. This seems a huge leap to make from this discovery.

However, more to the point, the practical implications for time travel rely on a total misunderstanding of the nature of the beast. Firstly, travel into the past and future are not symmetrical. It's much easier to get into the future than the past. Hang on a second. We just moved into the future. Okay, that's not very impressive, but with a touch of applied special relativity, anyone moving quickly through space can travel into the future of the place he or she is moving quickly with respect to. The Voyager 1 probe has moved around 1.1 seconds into the future. It works, we know it works - there's no questioning it. There is time travel - and it's a bizarre assumption that it has to be into the past.

When it comes to travelling into the past, it certainly is impractical for the foreseeable future, apart from small scale effects such as those experienced by GPS satellites (which effectively drift a tiny amount into our future, so on returning to Earth, if they ever did, would move into their past). But even more dramatic backward shifts are not impossible, whether or not what Dr Scheck asserts is true. This is because the sensible approaches to travel into the past, making use of general relativity, don't involve travelling backwards in time per se - they involve finding or making somewhere that time runs slowly (easily done thanks to special relativity) and finding a mechanism to get into that place (that's the hard bit - but as the GPS example shows, you don't need time to 'run backwards' to do so).

Sadly, then, this is a case of looking for a dramatic media hook for a science story and forcing one to fit, even if it means distorting the science far away from its real, and still very interesting, implications and possibilities.

There's far more on time machines and time travel in my book Build Your Own Time Machine (UK)/How to Build a Time Machine (US).


Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Apple drops a thunderbolt

I'm what you might call a middling fan of Apple. I use Apple products, for which I think it's worth paying a premium. I've had so much more fun with my iMac than any PC, and after over 3 years it is still running well, unlike every PC I've ever had.

However, I'm not a total Apple fanboi - I couldn't justify buying an Apple Watch (though I'd be very happy to have one if Apple would like to give me one) and similarly I've never seen the point of buying an Apple Thunderbolt monitor. Admittedly they're stylish and sit well alongside an iMac, but at £899 for a 27" screen, they are only on the shopping list of those with more money than sense. When I got a second screen for the Mac, I never thought of lashing out even half as much.

So, although it's sad in a way, it's no surprise that Apple appears to be dropping its monitors - most Apple products, though expensive, can at least justify that expense because of what they do and are. But, frankly, a monitor is a monitor. As long as it's reasonably quality, it's spec that matters, not the badge. In effect they were a luxury brand selling into a commodity market. Let's hope this decision means they will concentrate on making what they do really well even better.