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.