Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Homecraft Book - review

This is the time of year when many of us are looking for good presents for those difficult-to-buy-for people. I have done my bit for this cause with the science quiz book How Many Moons Does the Earth Have (traditional shameless plug), but even I, through gritted teeth, have to admit that not everyone would greet a science book in their stocking with a cheery smile. And if that's the case, you are recommended to get hold of The Homecraft Book by Ann Hathaway.

In case there's a suspicion that the Hollywood actress is following her colleague Ms Paltrow into telling us how to run our lives, this was the pseudonym of an Irish writer of home tips. Written at the end of the Second World War, the book has been edited by the author's grandson, who has the even more unlikely pseudonym of Thaddeus Lovecraft. 

The reader knows that there is a fun trip ahead when seeing the 'mostly non-lethal advice' comment on the cover, reinforced by being informed that we won't need to have a maid (or a Hoover). Some sections are marvellous read aloud, preferably in a Joyce Grenfell voice, e.g. 'use two dusters at the same time - one in each hand when dusting your rooms. You'll find you can do your work much more quickly'. (And don't forget to 'paint your cork tablemat with enamel, cheerful and easy to keep clean.')

Realistically, this isn't the kind of book you are likely to sit and read from end to end as it does contain a lot of lists for advice, for instance on mending everything from the household bucket  (using putty) to getting rid of cracks in china (the secret is an application of the anything but harmless quicklime). But it is a great title to dip into and to get a feel for a very different world from our disposable society. Back then, make do and mend was essential - an approach that arguably we can learn a lot from.

Appealing both to older readers for nostalgia reasons and younger trendy folk for its ironic appeal, I expect the book to do very nicely this Christmas.  And you will be pleased to know that there is even a section on making the most of your Christmas festivities. Available from and

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Damned if you do...

I am, as I not infrequently do, feeling rather sorry for the Church of England. This most inoffensive of religious organisations is being lambasted by certain parts of the media and by atheist bloggers for an attempt to place an advert in cinemas alongside the showing of Star Wars this Christmas.

Now I confess that my knee-jerk reaction was much the same as those who want the ad not to be shown. It didn't seem quite right as not everyone in the audience would appreciate it. To quote a spokesperson for the company responsible for the advertising, Digital Cinema Media: 'Some advertising - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faith and indeed no faith at all.'

However. When I actually think about this action rationally, I am less happy with the decision. First of all, I am never comfortable with any curtailment of free speech, unless said speech is inciting a crime. Too many people find it far too easy to restrain free speech because it offends them. I'm sorry, but there is, and there never should be, a human right not to be offended. 

The other point that seems to have been missed is that this was not a documentary, it was an advertisement. Many kinds of advertisements offend me. I am offended by shops bombarding us with Christmas advertising in November. I am offended by advertising for sugary drinks and food. I am offended by advertising for films and games that feature gratuitous violence. But no one considers my offence a reason to ban the advertising. 

Of course I am not arguing that anyone should care about the (genuine) offence I feel about this advertising, but rather wanting to call into question whether avoiding offence is a suitable justification for pulling a Christian ad at Christmas. The Church of England is reportedly baffled at the decision. I'm not, because I am aware of the increasingly strident calls never to say or do anything that could possibly cause offence to a small but very vocal constituency. But I am saddened. 

In case you want to find out what the fuss is about, here's the offending advertisement in all its offensive glory (and let's face it, in the still you see before the video plays, Justin Welby does not look happy):

Monday, 23 November 2015

Five writing lessons from a master

No, I haven't got delusions of grandeur - the master in question isn't me. However, I do quite often get asked for writing hints and tips, and I think there can be no better example to point an enquirer to for fiction guidance than Joss Whedon.

If you were expecting Steinbeck or Proust or Shakespeare, you might not know who Whedon is. His first big success was as a writer on Toy Story, and he's now involved in the Avengers series of films, but his personal masterpieces, to my mind, were a set of TV shows, including Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse and, most notably, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

I can almost feel those with literary inclinations fainting with shock. How can real writers who pour their soul into books learn anything from a screenwriter? And you may well also be writhing at the mere title of the show, but anyone familiar with Buffy will tell you that this programme was far more than the name suggests. I am sad for a new generation coming up who may never watch the show because they think it will be too dated. And yet the mere fact that many writers love Buffy (and they do) suggests that more lies beneath than the title suggest, and that reflects Whedon's guiding hand.

So here are my five six Buffy-driven tips to make fiction more appealing:

  1. Invert expectations and clichés - this is the very essence of Buffy. Whedon's concept was to take the cliché of a monster chasing and killing young women and invert it to have a young woman chasing and killing monsters. It is so effective and can be applied in all kinds of ways. A lack of such inversion is the limitation of many comic book stories that have reached the screen - they rarely get away from expectation, especially in their villains. It is also why I've been pleased by the two Netflix Marvel adaptations, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which show signs of a Whedoneseque attitude to expectation.
  2. Avoid the obvious hero - Buffy's central cast of main characters, sometimes self-referenced as the Scoobies (pop culture references are another Whedon speciality) are mostly the outsiders, looked down on by the other characters. The troublemakers, geeks, socially inept and even that most difficult of heroes for Americans to accept, an Englishman. We all know the English characters in US dramas will be bad guys, and occasionally this is even the case in Buffy, but surprisingly often they aren't.
  3. Embrace ambiguity - things are rarely what they seem in Buffy. When a rather fluffy-brained person becomes a vampire, she remains a rather fluffy-brained person, despite also being evil. Buffy was one of the first examples of recognising the true ambiguity of being a superhero, which Buffy effectively is. She can't live a normal life. She doesn't do well in school and when her friends go to university, she doesn't cope and ends up with a dead-end job in a burger joint. Even one of the truly unpleasant characters, Spike, becomes both a source of humour (I refer Buffy fans to the moment it Tabula Rasa where he has lost his memory, tries to work out who he is, and realises that he is English) and an unlikely ally for the good guys.
  4. Humour works in the most unlikely places - talking about humour, most Buffy newbies thinks a Buffy fan can't be serious when they say that one of the main reasons they like the show is its humour. Surely, the newcomer thinks, a show like this is all schlock and horror. Where does the humour come in? Yet Whedon uses humour all the time, particularly in the dialogue. And it works wonderfully.
  5. When it's working well, do something different - the greatest episodes of Buffy work because they are unexpected. For me, three of the best are an episode which has almost no dialogue whatsoever - a shock in a show so dialogue-driven as Buffy, an episode that becomes a musical (I know this has been done in other US shows, but never as well as here), and the episode after Buffy's mother's death - where this horror show has no incidental music (stunningly effective), and no horror elements other than the characters' reactions, except in the last couple of minutes.
  6. Play the long game - I know the title said five lessons, but I couldn't resist throwing in a bonus one. Although most Buffy episodes work standalone, the show has always had impressive story arcs that run through a whole season. Where these are particularly effective is when an element that belongs to the arc is thrown in without explanation and then ignored for the viewer to store away, perhaps for several episodes. Two examples I'd give are a season where military characters suddenly appear and take down a monster without any explanation, and the occasion where we suddenly discover Buffy's teenage sister, living at home and clearly having been part of everyone's lives for many years, even though up to this point she has never appeared or been mentioned.
If you've never come across Buffy, I hope I've whet your appetite to take a look (the first season is the weakest, but you need to start at the beginning, and it picks up hugely in season 2). If you know your Buffy, I hope you will think back to the impressive writing guide that it provides.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Pump up your physics (in German)

 I've heard about a new project from Germany, aiming to make physics more approachable. With a background in natural sciences and industry, Ottmar Koegel works to support foundation issues in teaching science in Germany: Pumping Physics is his baby.

His idea was to pick up on the kind of exercise-based learning that is found in musical instrument training, making the educational side more fun with a mix of illustrations and real-world scenarios, providing straightforward multiple choice questions to test and learn.

At the moment there is no English version, but for English readers, here's a taster (the translation is not a polished one).

More importantly, for any German readers, you can find out more about the book and see some of the actual examples at the Pumping Physics website.

I don't think this kind of approach is ideal for a popular science audience - I admit, the English example above was one of the less technical, but some of the questions do expect the reader to do some calculation and formulae work, so it feels more like a friendly textbook than popular science. But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting project, currently for the German speaking audience.

The book will be available in December.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Why French flags are fine

Many people have changed their Facebook image to incorporate a French flag, in solidarity with the French nation over the atrocities in Paris last week. I certainly don't think we should be critical of people who haven't - I haven't, for one. There are a number of reasons for not doing so, but one objection that I think is suspect is the kind made in this article by Nathalie Bonney on the Good Housekeeping website.

The broad argument is that to show solidarity with the French this way is parochial. There have been thousands of people killed by terrorists this year, and yet no one is putting up flags of other locations. (Actually, not no one - one of my Facebook friends has made his own Lebanese flag cover for his Facebook photo.)

I have two problems with this complaint. One is that it seems petty to discourage someone from doing something positive for one group because they aren't doing something positive for another. It's a bit like saying 'I would never give any money to Cancer Research because I'm not giving anything to the British Heart Foundation.'

The response from supporters of the objection, I guess, would be that the argument is more nuanced than that. They don't have an issue with showing solidarity with France, but it's not fair that it took an atrocity in France to generate this kind of response from Facebook, and there wasn't an option for previous atrocities.

I would suggest this reflects the false 'small world' impression given by the modern media and many commentators. Because we can see disasters happening anywhere, we think that it is possible to have exactly the same attitude to an event wherever it happens - but that is totally unnatural and if we are honest and not self-deceiving, it is impossible to truly do. The fact is, I will always feel closer to, and more affected by, a disaster in my family than one to someone else who lives down the same street. And I will be more affected by a disaster to someone else in my street than to someone who lives in London. And I will be more effected by a disaster in Paris, a place that I have regularly visited and that has strong cultural ties with the UK than I would by a disaster in the Middle East.

We can't feel the same about everyone and everywhere. This doesn't mean we ignore things outside our own neighbourhood, but it is entirely natural, and should not be a matter for criticism, that we put more weight on events that are closer to home, physically or culturally. To try to feel exactly the same about everybody and everywhere is both inhuman and impractical, leading to a cold, thin porridge of a response. or universal outrage with no focus.

So, while, as it happens, I have not added the French flag myself, I think entirely fine that other people have, and consider the criticisms misjudged and unnecessary.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The seat of evil

An office chair, today
Many years ago, when I worked for a large airline with the initials BA, I had a back problem, which due to some problems pinning down exactly where the physical sensations were coming from led to a fairly unpleasant time. (Suffice to say that it was only diagnosed as a back problem after I had been asked to attend an STD clinic.)

With some excellent exercises from a physiotherapist, the most embarrassing of which appears in my murder mystery novel A Lonely Height (great Christmas gift - shameless plug), the back pains came under control, and disappeared altogether many years ago.

Now the pains are back, if you'll pardon the circular expression. And I think I know why.

Ever since I started working for myself I've had a good quality office chair (I think I'm on my third now) with effective lumbar support. Even though I can often spend most of my working day at the computer - with frequent breaks, of course - I never have back problems. However, since September I have been rolling up to the University of Bristol two days a week to perform my duties as an RLF Fellow. And the office chairs, as illustrated, lack any back support.

I ought to stress I'm not picking out the University of Bristol for criticism here. I think this is still typical of many office chairs. But it is just surprising how a mere two days a week on one of these contraptions can bring it all back. Thankfully I haven't forgotten the exercises, and they have helped a lot already. But if you are a desk worker who suffers from back problems, do see if your chair could be the cause. You don't, in my experience, need one of those fancy kneeling chair thingies. Just a bit of decent back support can make all the difference.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Tearing of hair - the sequel

Not long ago I reported on a piece in the Metro paper claiming that a 'maths theorem could pave the way for installer travel.'

I was delighted to receive an email from one of the paper's young authors, Ivan Zelich, pointing out that the media had distorted his message.

The Metro carried a quote from Zelich that read 'The theorem will contribute to our understanding of intergalactic travel because string theory predicts existence shortcuts in space, or so-called "wormholes" to cut through space.' However, I'm told that this 'quote' was never said. Zelich pointed out 'I actually meant the following, and you will understand how it could be misinterpreted':
The main lemma we developed to prove our theorem was highly projective in nature, which indicates to us that it could be generalised to possible more complex structures in high dimensional projective spaces. Since we are talking about applications, I would like to find a way, after such generalisation, to link this in order to understand the structure manifolds better and perhaps ultimately find something new to help aid (super-)string theory. 
Why does this help with intergallactic travel? 
It doesn't really show us a link with it, but of course solutions to one of Einstein's equations is a bridge, called wormholes if you will. 
And with planetary travel, structures etc... the Fermat point is the minimal possible sum of the distances from the vertices of a triangle, and this has been generalised to polygons, so I said there may be connections there.
This is certainly very different from the story as reported, though I was confused how wormholes came into it at all, as the Einstein-Rosen bridge came from a paper in the 1930s based on the general theory of relativity long before string theory was a glint in a physicist's eye. A further clarification from Zelich was to say that he did not mention intergalactic travel 'They asked me about it.' Which makes it puzzling as to why the media types thought of it. He then added, in danger of revisiting exaggeration 'What I meant to say was that if we understand the universe and this solution is true, then we have these short cuts in space. If the theorem is generalised it could have implications in algebraic geometry, and the leap I suggested was from isopivotal cubics to algebraic cubics in high projective spaces, which to my knowledge are important in the mathematics behind string theory.'

As I suggested in the original post, the main problem here is the way that the media exaggerates science stories to make them more eye catching. It shouldn't have been necessary. I would have been happy as a science journalist with 'Teenagers come up with theorem that could be pivotal in major physics theory,' even though my suspicion is that string theory is a dead end that will fade away over the next couple of decades.

However I do hope that the teenagers have also learned an important lesson - a lesson that working scientists and university PRs also need to learn - that it can be dangerous to give the media the tools with which to misinterpret you, because, given the opportunity, they surely will.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Bonkers Dice World

Mmmm! Dice World!
I've just come across this short video that intercuts an interview I did on the book Dice World with a few remarks from one of my talks on it.

The filmmaker seemed to take to heart the idea that Dice World is all about randomness by randomly inserting odd little asides. I can't decide if it's clever or just bonkers...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Why I don't wear a white poppy

I have the perfect upbringing to wear a white poppy today. My father was a Manchester Guardian reader who encouraged a healthy distrust of the establishment and had little time for the military. None of my friends or blood relations served in the armed forces - you have to go back to the First World War to find any relatives who did. Yet I always wear a red poppy.

I understand where the supporters of the white poppy are coming from, and I absolutely support their right to wear it, but I think they miss the point. You can't re-write history, and it doesn't make sense to throw away the symbolism of the red poppy. If you are aware of its conceptual origins you know that it has nothing to do with triumphant militarism and everything to do with a tragic human sacrifice, even if that sacrifice has sometimes (if certainty not always) been justified.

If I am honest, I'd much rather the poppy, as a symbol of remembrance, were separated from the Royal British Legion, an organisation that certainly can slip into an over-emphasis on glorifying the military. A crass example of this is the folly of a Legion-produced photo of young children holding huge poppies with T-shirts saying things like 'Future Soldier'. Not to mention the saccharine and unsettling marching spectacle of their 'festival of remembrance'. 

For me, though, the red poppy transcends its establishment associations and remains the symbol of so many ordinary men and women who gave so much for the rest of us, whatever the wisdom, or lack of it, exhibited by the generals and politicians. And because of this it remains for me the best symbol of remembrance. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

When physicists say many processes are independent of time, are they cheating?

A lot of physicists like to say that time doesn't exist. This is, to be honest, showing off, and they don't really believe it. (If they insist they do, wait until dinner time and see how they react to not being fed because dinner time doesn't exist.) However they have a number of different arguments to support their claim, one of which is that many physical processes are totally reversible as far as time is concerned, showing no interest in the 'arrow of time.'

A classic example of this is a pair of pool balls which head towards each other, collide and bounce off each other. They will point out that if you run a video of the event in reverse, it is indistinguishable from the video shown running forward. The direction of time is irrelevent. However, in making this assertion they are cheating, both subtly and in a very big way.

The subtle cheat is one that they will admit, but get around. You can point out that in traversing the pool table and in hitting each other, the balls will lose energy due to friction and the heat and sound generated in the collision. So the balls will be travelling slower after the collision than they are before. All you need do is measure the speed on the two journeys, and they video is no longer reversible.

True, say, the physicists. But for the purposes of the experiment we are assuming frictionless pool balls that lose no energy on collision. We understand that these don't really exist, but this is an acceptable simplification.

While you can argue whether or not this is truly acceptable, however, there is still the big cheat. It's what is called, in a different kind of experimental setup, cherry picking. Cherry picking is where you choose the results (consciously or unconsciously) that match your desired outcome. It can be a real problem in science, and one that good modern scientists are very strong on avoiding. However our (imaginary) physicists are cherry picking in the pool ball experiment too. Because they have selected only the frames of the movie that support their argument.

Pool balls do not, suddenly and for no reason, hurtle towards each other. Someone had to give them a push. So the full movie of the event should include that initial push. Show the entire movie backwards and it is very clear that the process is not symmetrical.

I ought to stress that there is still plenty of useful science that can be done by making this kind of cheat/simplification. But I also think that scientists have to be very careful to remember that this is what they are doing, and that in the real universe their models are supposed to represent, it is impossible to apply such a simplification. Otherwise it becomes very easy to confuse a model with reality.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Book of Magic - Review

I have always been fascinated by magic, whether in its use in fiction or beliefs about magic. As I read more popular science than anything (and because I was sent a review copy) I had got it into my head that this was a book on the practice of and attitude to magic from a scientific, analytical viewpoint - looking at what was believed and why they believed it. However, the actual book was very different from this, and I suspect it will only appeal to a very narrow readership.

What Brian Copenhaver does is to take a series of texts: biblical, medieval and renaissance (but no modern ones) that reference magic in some way and gives us a brief commentary on each (usually just one paragraph) before quoting the document at length. I am sure from a scholastic viewpoint this is useful and may even be important, but I really can't see why it is being published by Penguin in a manner that implies it is for a general readership, because it certainly isn't.

So unless you have the patience and the interest to read a whole string of obscure and verbose medieval documents, it probably shouldn't be on your to-read list.

If you are the kind of person for whom this should be on your to-read list, The Book of Magic is available from and

Friday, 6 November 2015

Sound of tearing hair

Not long ago I mentioned the evils of science exaggeration. It's all too easy for journalists, often aided and abetted by either university PRs or scientists themselves, to make over-the-top claims. I think I've just come across the most dramatic example of this I've ever seen.

'Teenagers' maths theorem could pave the way for interstellar travel,' screams the headline. No, it really, really couldn't. There's a lot to be said for that Metro masthead 'news... but not as you know it'. Though to be fair, they were by no means alone in making this claim.

The origin of this hysterical unlikelihood was a geometry paper by a pair of 17-year-olds. The fact that Xuming Liang and Ivan Zelich produced the paper, published in the International Journal of Geometry is certainly newsworthy. But the leap from Generalisations of the Properties of the Neuberg Cubic to the Euler Pencil of Isopivotal Cubics to Starfleet is considerable.

Here is the phrase that does all the damage. 'The theorem will contribute to our understanding of intergalactic travel because string theory predicts existence shortcuts in space, or so-called "wormholes" to cut through space.' The quote is from co-author Zelich. But the journalists involved don't seem to have given any thought to the possibility that a 17-year-old could be good at geometry without knowing too much about life, the universe and PR.

The first problem with that statement is that string theory doesn't predict wormholes. It doesn't predict anything - that's one of the problems with string theory. Nothing predicts wormholes actually exist, but general relativity does provide a potential mechanism for them with the proviso that they would be  pretty well impossible to travel through. But even if string theory did predict wormholes, so what? String theory is not at this stage a useful scientific theory for anything, and may well end up being discarded. And even if it that weren't the case, a geometry theorem does not somehow turn string theory into an interstellar transport mechanism. To put it politely, it's baloney.

Perhaps slightly more with-it journalists than those on the Metro would have raised an eyebrow at Zelich's other quote 'It also helps finding minimal possible math between certain planets based on their structure,' which I've read ten times and still haven't a clue what it means.

So, thanks to the wonders of science exaggeration, what was a really good story - teens publish impressive original geometry paper - has become a truly naff example of non-science reporting. Nice.