Sunday, 30 November 2008

Writing triggers

One of the marks of a great author is the ability to use a sparse few words that trigger off a whole gamut of feeling and memory. However good, though, these generic triggers are but a pale imitation of the personal memory triggers. I had a good example of one of these today. On the radio, someone mentioned Strawberry Studios, and all of a sudden I was 14 again.

When I was at school I was a stalwart of our very accomplished school choir. We sang a number of times with the Halle Orchestra, both at the sadly demised Free Trade Hall and at the Festival Hall in London. But the outstanding memory, imprinted on my brain, was singing in Strawberry Studios, Stockport - 10cc's own studio!

We'd been hired to sing on a record being put out to celebrate some anniversary of Stockport Social Services. No, really. It was, arguably, the most inane song known to man. I still have etched on my brain from nearly 40 years ago the opening lines: 'The Council for Social Service is/a big umbrella shield./It helps groups grow/and lets them go/into far reaching fields.'

Umbrella shield? Hold the sick bucket, please. Even back then I knew this was garbage. And yet. And yet we were performing in the very studio 10cc used. We had headphones and everything, just like a real recording, to hear the instrumental part of the track. For those long minutes, our bunch of schoolboys were stars.

So that's all you need to do to be a great writer. Use a handful of words to conjure up that sort of response. Go on, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, 27 November 2008

How to confuse an agent

I attended a lovely dinner the other night - five writers and their agent. It was worth it for our agent's reaction alone. It was only afterwards that I got a feeling for how strange it seemed to him - meeting up with five clients, each of whom he works with closely individually, but each normally in their own compartment.

That it was a roaring success was down to the superb characters present. I was like a kid in a sweetshop with conversational partners like these. Not just the most remarkable agent in the business (Peter Cox of Redhammer Literary Agency), but three successful children's authors - alphabetically M G Harris, responsible for the wonderous Joshua Files books, Amanda Lees who is about to follow her Kumari series with something that seems to involve getting up close and personal with the SAS, and Sarah Mussi, author of the exciting African adventures The Door of No Return and The Last of the Warrior Kings - with last, but not least, David Yelland, former editor of the Sun and soon to have an exciting-sounding book project of his own out there.

There are times when it's fun being a writer.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Do Outlook programmers think in binary?

Like many people I use Microsoft Outlook for my email and diary, and in many respects it's quite good. But there's one thing I just don't understand. If you decide to print, say, the first page of a 20 page email, you can't. You get 10 pages printed. Every other program known to man, you can select how many of the pages in a document you want to print, but noooo, not Outlook. It gives you the choice of all pages, odd pages or even pages.

What's that all about? If it's not that the programmers think in binary, maybe they can't manage to count past two...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

ABBA and the perils of being British

As I entered Sainsbury's my stomach curdled. There by the door were two of the staff wearing glittery ABBA T-shirts. I drew near as one of them switched on a ghetto blaster, which started to churn out an ABBA backing track. They were promoting Mamma Mia's publication on DVD, which is fine, but suddenly I felt a terrible urge to run from the shop.

In my head I was saying over and over again. 'Please don't sing. Please don't sing!' I just knew it would be so painfully embarrassing if they started singing when I was anywhere near them.

I'm sure it's something about being British. If I was American I'd probably have stood there and cheered them on, but I couldn't have scuttled into the store faster...

Monday, 24 November 2008

Pity the poor commissioning editor

By the time a writer trying to find a publisher receives their twentieth rejection letter, they are about ready to make voodoo dolls of commissioning editors - those brave folks who have to decide whether or not to take on a new book. To be frank, this is an entirely understandable emotion, but it's not really fair to the editors.

Firstly commissioning editors are human beings. Really. So you have to make allowances. Secondly, although your manuscript is superb, they do receive an awful lot of rubbish, so you have to expect that they may be a little curt. Finally, and most importantly, they aren't all powerful.

In most publishers - certainly all big publishing houses - the commissioning editor will also have to do a pitch. They can't decide themselves whether or not to take on a particular book. If they love it, they then have to sell it at a meeting - and it's only if they can convince their hard bitten colleagues that your masterpiece is worth publishing that you will get that longed-for green light.

So two lessons. One, don't be too hard on the editor. Two, give them every bit of ammunition they can use in making that pitch. Ensure that your submission is superb before you send it. Of course they may still hate it, but if they love your work, they need all the help the can get.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Hole punch drunk

Why is it when I receive seven pages of statements from the bank, the holes don't line up? So to file them I have to wobble them around in a tedious fashion until they fit on the binder's rings. All that technology, all that automation, yet they clearly have grannies punching the holes by hand with knitting needles. How else could they be so badly aligned?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

I'll just...

I don't know anyone as good at prevaricating as a writer. You've got a book to write. You want to get a good, solid 4,000 words in today. So you check your email. Read those interesting new blog entries that have popped up in Google Reader. Better check your bank account online, just to make sure. Oh! The post has arrived.

Technically starting work around 8.30, I can easily get to 10am before a single word is written. But then I like to take the dog for a walk down to the Post Office around 10 so I can catch the outgoing mail collection. That's another half hour...

The sad thing is, once I get started, I love it. I'm no Douglas Adams (yes, yes, in many ways), having to be locked in a room to produce because he hated writing so much. I have a great time. Then I'll stop for an essential break. Check my email... and even though I know I was having that great time a few minutes before it's hard to get started again.

In one of his recent podcasts, literary agent Peter Cox pointed out that writing is actually much harder work than most people think. It's enjoyable work for me, but it is hard. It's not like writing an email or even a blog. And I think that's what underlies the ease with which prevarication comes.

Now I've done my blog post. What else can I do before I get down to writing?

Friday, 21 November 2008

Get off your reviewing high horse

Recently, a mid-sized publisher (Thomas Nelson Books) offered to send free review copies of their books to bloggers in exchange for a review. The review could be positive or negative, but they had to put it on their blog, Amazon and the like.

The reaction from some of the bookerati has been swift and damning. According to posts like this and this, bloggers who signed up for the reviewing deal were selling out by agreeing to give a review in return for a free book. So 'real' book reviewers pay for their copies, do they? I think not. This is simple case of 'only the special people can do it'. While I have mixed feelings as to whether or not most of these reviews will have any value as guidance for potential purchasers, I think to suggest that bloggers are selling their souls for free books is condescending and unpleasant.

I don't doubt that this is a marketing ploy - but so are all reviews from the publisher's viewpoint. It's unusual (and quite cunning) in the requirement to post the review on Amazon. But the reaction has been totally out of proportion to the action.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Farewell, PC Magazine. I haven't read you for years, but I'll miss you

I gather from Martyn Daniels' blog that PC Magazine is to cease publication. I find this sad, as I started my professional writing career doing pieces for computer magazines, and PC Magazine was the daddy of them all.

I had already had one sad moment when PC Week died. Although not my very first publication, PC Week was where I started writing regularly. This free weekly survived on advertising and job ads - it was the rise of IT job websites that killed it. Now PC Magazine is moving to be web only.

Although I never wrote for it (though I did have a column for quite a while in its UK home-grown rival, Personal Computer World), PC Magazine was the authoritative source when I first became involved in PCs back in the mid-80s (yes, children, we had PCs in the 1980s). Back then, I couldn't have done my job without it. Now it has virtually gone virtual.

What's in your inspiration?

A recent article in the Times featured children's books that inspired various people who write for that newspaper. As always with such things you get the impression that some are only putting something down because they 'ought to' - they are the ones who you know secretly read lots of Enid Blyton. To be fair, someone does admit to Blyton-inspiration, but only chooses that unfairly derided author's most obscure titles.

A good example of a suspicious selection is the very first entry in the article. After saying that his inspiration was Winnie the Pooh, he tells us that the book is okay as a child but really it's best appreciated by adults. While I agree that its subtly is wasted on children (my mother thought it was too pretentious and I didn't come across it until I was at university), it makes you wonder why Daniel Finkelstein put it down as the work that most inspired him as a child. It's hard not to imagine the editor yelling 'Someone's got to have bloody Winnie the Pooh!'

However, suspicions aside it's a great exercise. For me it was, without doubt, Alan Garner's books. They aged as I aged - he brought out books for older and older children just as I reached the right age and he kept my later childhood alive with his brilliant writing. It helped that he had been a pupil at the same school that I was attending and regularly came in to give talks to star struck readers. For what it's worth, my favourite is The Owl Service, but they're all brilliant.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Is there a difference between art and craft?

I've just finished reading Emma Darwin's excellent novel, A Secret Alchemy and very much enjoyed it, perhaps even more so because it's not the kind of book I would normally read. If you give it a try it's important to persevere - I got a bit confused to begin with by a combination of multi-threading and a whole host of historical characters whose names meant little to me, but if you go with the flow and give the author a chance, it's well worth the effort.

One small segment in it particularly caught my eye: Craft is art made possible, I think suddenly: possible and functional. Art that feeds and clothes and houses. This really interested me. When I'm not taking a modern view of art (mostly worthless rubbish), I tend to the medieval, when the question with which I started this post was meaningless. Art was the output of artifice. It was anything man made as opposed to natural. So when on Top Gear a while ago they tried to present a car as art to a bunch of art professors, and the academics dismissed it because it had a function, I have, with my medieval hat on to shake my head sadly. Of course it's art. It hardly grew on a bush.

What's interesting if you do take the 'craft is art with a function' view, then it seems logical that art does not have a function. And maybe that's where art has gone so wrong in the last 100 years. It always used to have a function. Medieval art either did something practical, pleased the eye or was to the glory of God (or any combination of the three). Some modern 'art' does cover one or more of these functions but much of it doesn't. In reality, I would suggest, there are two categories of unnatural product. Not art and craft, but art and garbage. Both are made by human beings. One has a function, the other doesn't.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Beyond Words in North London

Spent yesterday at the Beyond Words festival in North London. Good fun in a packed festival (they have over 100 events over the week) with an audience mixing the school it was held at and the local community.

I gave talks accompanying my books Light Years and A Brief History of Infinity. The latter was rushed - it's normally over an hour, but I cut it down to 45 minutes to allow time for questions (though, unusually there were hardly any). I was a little concerned no one would come to Infinity, because it was scheduled at the same time as a talk by journalist/MP Martin Bell - but I was reassured when I mentioned this to a couple of the sixth form students who hosted me for lunch, and they had clearly never heard of him.

Lunch was surprisingly good for a school, apart from being shouted at by a dinner lady. The students had abandoned me briefly, scared of being in what they thought was the staff section, but apparently no one was supposed to be using that bit of the canteen, and I nearly committed the crime of helping myself to food, when I was supposed to be served.

Perhaps the best bit of the event for me was meeting as real people three individuals I had only known electronically or via their writing. One was a fellow member of the excellent writers' website Litopia - it was particularly good to put a face to someone who had only been a nickname on a forum. Then there was the writer Piers Bizony, whose books The Man Who Ran the Moon and Atom (the subject he was talking on) I had enjoyed reading to review for the Popular Science site. He proved an excellent conversationalist in the gap between sessions. Finally there was a book PR.

These are the people who have the thankless job of trying to get the world interested in books. Because of being editor of the Popular Science review site I have lots of email contact with book PRs (and of course I've had my fair share of dealings with them for my own books), but in this case it was one of the most helpful people I've dealt with at two different publishers, who was at the festival to support a number of her authors, so again it was great to put a face to an electronic contact.

All in all, a fun event, if not always for the expected reasons.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Is my brain in the minor key?

My favourite music is Tudor and Elizabethan church music. This was written before the idea of music having a key signature, but a lot of it has a minor feel. Also, whenever I try to indicate what a tune sounds like by singing it off the top of my head, my wife accuses me of singing it in the minor.

I was wondering, is it possible to have a brain that works in the minor key? What would be the implications?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Covering the Big Bang

It's cover sneak preview time again. Before the Big Bang is my new book for St Martin's Press, due out in Spring 2009. And here it is, at least in current incarnation:
The subtitle isn't quite right yet, but it gives the general impression. I think it's striking - I was a bit worried to begin with that a lot of astronomy/cosmology titles have black covers, but I'm told it really stands out at a distance on the mock-up, so fingers crossed for next May or thereabouts.

Friday, 14 November 2008

To age band, or not to age band, that is the question

There's something of an unseemly struggle going on in children's publishing in the UK, usually a very civilized place. Most of the children's publishers feel it would be a good thing to put an age label on the back of the book, along the lines of 9+, 11+ or whatever to indicate the target age range. A large group of authors, including big names like Philip Pullman, plus many librarians, are dead set against it.

You can see the anti-banding concerns at their website. In essence the argument is that many people either to match their ability or for fun like to read books that technically aren't aimed at their age group. Putting suggested limits on a book would stigmatize those who like to read a 'younger' age book, and put young people off stretching their reading beyond their age band.

The publishers, genuinely bewildered by the reaction, I think, don't see the problem. It will just be a little label on the back. Many books are bought by an adult for a young reader, and this will help them choose something appropriate.

I have to admit I can see both sides of the argument. I know just how sensitive children are - anything that suggests they are reading something for a younger child will put them off, and the last thing you want to do is put children off books. On the other hand, it can be difficult to know what will work for your friend's eight-year-old when buying a present. Some kind of guidance in the shop is handy.

In the end, I signed up with the No to Age Banding site because I think the labelling misses the point. Labelling on shelves already directs people in bookshops and libraries to the right kind of books. But by not putting the label on the book itself, there's no stigma to being seen with a book that's 'too young for you'. There is simply no need for age banding, it could put some youngsters off, so let's do away with the idea and move on.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Is this the worst customer service ever?

Ever since my time at British Airways I've been passionate about customer service, and in the dim mists of the past I wrote a book on the subject called Capturing Customers' Hearts - still available, and dare I say it, still rather good on the subject.

This being the case, I have a sad tale to relate that I suspect is about the worst example of customer service I've ever come across. It's all down to a company called Anglian Windows. Look away now if you can't stand pain.

Despite a couple of letters pointing out what they've done, Anglian hasn't even apologized for the sorry tale that is about to emerge. Remember as you read it that each time there was an appointment I had to spend half a day waiting for these people.

A few years ago we replaced some old patio doors with shiny new ones from Anglian. After only a couple of years, both panes of glass - big panes - had condensation inside them. Because we have something of an upside down house, these patio doors are upstairs. I first contacted them in September 2006. They said they'd ring me back. Now it begins.
  • Booking 1 - 20 November 2006. I had a call to say they couldn't make it because the engineer had injured his hand. But he would come out to me before Christmas. I heard nothing, so finally called them on 9 January 2007, and had a booking made for 20 February. I was told they already had the measurements, so this would be the fitting.
  • Booking 2 - 20 February 2007. The engineer arrived. Hurray. Just to measure up. Boo. I wrote to complain, got a letter saying 'we're looking into it' and never heard anything more. I rebooked.
  • Booking 3 - 3 April 2007. When no one came I rang them up. The engineer was off sick, and they had had to re-order the glass, as they couldn't find it. I was rung back to say now they had found it, but the engineer was sick and they didn't know why no one had called me. I wrote again to complain. No reply ever.
  • Booking 4 - 16 April 2007. Guess what? No one came.
  • Booking 5 - 20 April 2007. Yes! They came. AND fitted one pane. But the other was too heavy for two of them to carry up the stairs. They needed a third person.
  • Booking 6 - 6 July 2007. Got a call that morning. They had three engineers, but the glass wouldn't fit in the van they'd been given. I was told the customer service manager would ring me. He didn't.
  • Booking 7 - 5 September 2007. Deja vu. I got a call to say the glass wouldn't fit in the van they'd been given. I would get a call from the customer service manager, one Nick Sugg, (but they made the mistake of giving me his mobile number). I rang him on 11th, 12th and 17th of September. After the last call he rang back and said he would fix a date within 24 hours and this time it WOULD happen.
  • Booking 8 - 31 October 2007. I got a call to say one of the engineers had gone sick. They would call back and reschedule within 24 hours. I left a message with the manager, who called back, apologized and said I should expect something in a day or two. I didn't hear anything. Left messages on 15 November, 28 November, every day from 30 November to 6 December when finally he rang back. He said he had been to the local Avon branch (I think he meant the branch in the area called Avon, not the local door-to-door cosmetics firm), and would have a team round tomorrow morning. I emphasized, and he noted, that it would take three engineers.
  • Booking 9 - 7 December 2007. No one came. I left messages with the manager, but he was out of the office until 24 December. I spoke to his office - they had no record of the promised booking on 7 December. The earliest they could fit it was 9 January. The supervisor would call me back. They didn't. I called again 2 and 4 January, emphasising the need for a big van and three engineers. They said they would ring back, but didn't.
  • Booking 10 - 9 January 2008. THE SECOND PANE WAS FITTED.
Beat that. The address I was given for complaints was Anglian Home Improvements, Customer Services, P O Box 65, Norwich NR6 6EJ.

At the time of writing I have still to get an apology.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Sale or return

The prolific US blogging editor who writes anonymously at Editorial Ass makes a valuable point: the biggest chain around the necks of book publishers, is that almost all bookshops operate on sale or return.

This leads to bizarre accounting practices and business difficulties for publishers. It means, for instance, that an author can get a negative royalty statement, because the publisher has had more returns than books sold (and it has to pay the bookshops back for those returned books). Thankfully the author isn't expected to pay back negative royalties, but it's still quite a blow to the ego.

Many publishers now hold back a portion of a book's earnings to cover the initial returns before handing these over as royalties - again, more accounting confusion.

The blog mentioned above reckons sale or return is why some publishers seem to be in financial difficulties despite sales holding up - because booksellers did a much larger than usual return of books to be able to stock up with shiny new stuff for Christmas.

Bookshops argue that sale or return is essential - without it, they say, they wouldn't be able to take a risk on new writers. But to be honest the chains don't take many risks anyway, and it's a system that makes the whole accounting system much more complicated, and can endanger publishers' business survival.

Should it be scrapped? To an extent it's academic. Publishers can't see a way out of it, because anyone who dropped it would be ignored by the booksellers, and they aren't able to act in unison (even though they seem to be able to do this over age banding, an issue I'll come onto another time). It probably won't change any time soon.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

I'm a writer, get me out of here

A recent piece in the Guardian runs together two dangers for popular writers - celebrity and commercialization of their work through merchandising. Frankly, it's a load of bunk.

Very few writers are in any danger of becoming celebrities (I've never even heard of the Michael Faber mentioned as someone who 'doesn't enjoy the public figure thing'). Of course their fans will have heard of them, but they aren't in any danger of pushing TV and movie celebs out of the limelight. Even J K Rowling manages to keep a relatively low profile compared with the latest reality star's moment of glory.

As for the 'dangers' of commercialization, do me a favour. This is the literary old guard in their death throws. These are the people who could never really see books as a business, prefering to consider it 'art'. Publishing is commercial. Writers and publishers sell books; readers buy them. If you don't want to be commercial, give your writing away. It's easy to do on the internet. I'm doing it right now.

If readers are so enthusiastic they want to buy Harry Potter games or Golden Compass, erm, compasses, then why not? The very fact it was felt necessary to raise this as an issue verges on the pathetic.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Judging a book by its cover

Book covers can be a delight or a subject of horror to an author - I'd like to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of the book cover business.

An author's involvement in choosing a cover design can range from nothing at all - not even being told that the cover design has been established - to being asked to comment on different designs, or even making a suggestion that ends up on the cover.

There is also the interesting aspect of different editions. Sometimes, when a book is published in a different country they will take the cover wholesale from the original design. Others will be subtly changed... or the cover will bear no relation.

Here's one book that incorporates several of the issues in a single title. It's The Man Who Stopped Time, my biography of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. It was originally commissioned by a publisher who will remain nameless. This publisher panicked when another book came out with Muybridge's name in the title (it was only tangentially about him) and didn't publish it.

However they had already produced the cover without telling me - I only realized when I came across it on Amazon. To be honest, I'm glad it was never used.

The book was then picked up and published (in improved form) by Joseph Henry Press in the US. Their cover was modified after some comments by me. It wasn't bad, but to be honest still didn't entirely work for me.

Finally, it came out in the UK.
Here the publisher used an approach that was clearly influenced by the US cover, but made a significant improvement on it.

It's what I consider the best job of the lot, a cover that really does justice to the title and looks elegant and attractive. Of course that's just my opinion... which is always the problem with this business.

I'll come back to this some time in the future to look at some other cover variants and how a title has been interpreted when a covers had to be provided in translation in another language.

How much fun can you have in 30 words?

Whether you are a budding writer or an experienced pro, I recommend the Your Messages exercise that's going on at the moment. If you pop along to that site, each day in November there's a prompt, a short piece of text. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write something in response to the prompt, exactly 30 or 300 words long.

When I heard about this, I wasn't entirely sure about it, but once I had a go I was hooked. It doesn't have to take long at all, and some of the results are great to read. Give it a try. (But don't read the others until you have submitted your own).

Saturday, 8 November 2008

What's on?

The rather interesting site about writing and writers, Bookarazzi has a monthly update on opportunities to see authors in action and news of what they're up to - see the site for details.

Highly illustrative

In looking through the copy edit of Before the Big Bang (see the previous post) I noted with mild horror that I had forgotten to source an illustration.

It might come as a bit of a shock if you don't write non-fiction books, but generally it's down to the author to find the illustrations and (here's the nasty bit) pay for them if they need to be paid for.

The worst example of this was my book on the Victorian moving picture pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge. I could hardly write a book about a photographer without including a fair number of photographs, but the amount I was being quoted would have eaten up most of my advance.

Because this was a biography rather than a book about his pictures per se, I didn't need anywhere near as many photos as a true illustrated book, and I persuaded the sources (mostly universities) that I was an impoverished writer and couldn't afford to pay much (it helped that the book was published by the US National Academy of Sciences press, the Joseph Henry Press). Even so, it was quite a strain on the finances.

Luckily I only needed one photographic illustration for Before the Big Bang and that was courtesy of NASA who, bless 'em, don't charge if you credit them appropriately. But I was worried for a moment there.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Copy copy

Only a month ago I was reading through a copy edit of Ecologic - now I've the copy edited manuscript of the subsequent masterpiece, due out in May 2009 from my American publisher, Before the Big Bang.

Rather daringly, to my mind, the publisher has sent the original, in all it's colour markup glory, across the Atlantic for me to peruse and add yet another coloured set of comments. (Traditionally these are in red, but the copy editor has already used this, and there were also pencil and blue pen markings. As black doesn't show up well, after a hurried search of the house for a different coloured pen I have had to resort to green, trying to ignore all the implications of writing in green ink.)

The copy editor has commented how much she enjoyed reading the book - my estimation of these wonderful people goes up even more. Partly because she liked my book, partly because they can work at such detailed level of checking, yet still be able to read the thing and take it in as well.

Now all I have to do is get the now rather dog-eared pile of pages back to them undamaged, without resorting to the extortionate courier charges they must incur getting it over here.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A feast of colour

I'm not sure why, but I felt a strong urge to show you my veg box, just arrived on the doorstep, so here it is:

Apart from being interestingly colourful, I wanted to demonstrate that despite the fact I'm a little hard on organic food in my next book Ecologic (out in January), it's not because I've anything against the food itself. Admittedly I only get an organic veg box (from the excellent Riverford) because I want a nice box of fresh local vegetables (very different from some of the stuff in the supermarket) delivered to my door - I really wouldn't be bothered if they weren't organic, but there don't seem to be non-organic veg boxes. Even so I've nothing against the food, just the antiquated, anti-scientific organizations that go along with the label.

There is one downside to getting a veg box. Whenever I go to the supermarket I feel really guilty, because I hardly buy any vegetables, and the people on the checkout must think 'what an unhealthy person'. Sometimes you can't win.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Google roulette

I don't think I should be too embarrassed to say that I have occasionally put "Brian Clegg" into Google. I think most people have tried searching for themselves occasionally. (I seem to remember Russell Brand (who?) saying that his name was the only thing he'd ever put into Google.)

When I do, I usually respond with a gentle sigh. Because once again I've missed the top spot. There's another Brian Clegg from my home town of Rochdale who sells art products for schools, and he always seems to beat me. A less generous person might suspect that he pays for this privilege, but I have to believe that one day I will beat him in the Google race. I can dream, can't I?

Phew. Made it through the post without mentioning Barack Obama's victory.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Beyond Words?

I'm appearing at 17 November at the Beyond Words Festival in North London. It's called this because it's 'not just' a literary festival, incorporating everything from dance to cookery, but books are still very much at its heart. There's a good line-up from Martin Bell to Michael Wood, and plenty going on every day from the 17th to 21st November.

I'm doing two sessions - Light Years, on the history of humanity's fascination with light at 11.20am and To Infinity and Beyond on the most fascinating and mind-bending subject in maths at 2.15pm. Entrance is free to most day-time sessions, including my own, but it's best to secure your ticket by calling the box office on 020 7433 2219.

The festival takes place at University College School - see the Beyond Words website for more details. I hope to see some friendly faces there.

Monday, 3 November 2008

It's not easy being green

The whole green agenda is a confusing one, and I think I know why. Saving the planet is a concept that is all black and white. Saving it is good. Destroying it is bad. End of story. But when it comes to taking actions to make that concept a reality things get more complicated. It's not black and white anymore. Many actions with green consequences are frowned on by environmentalists. It's shades of grey.

Take wind turbines. Great for helping prevent climate change. Clean, green energy. Only people don't like the thought of them on the pretty landscape. Oh, and maybe they'll kill a few birds. (Never mind that cats kill millions more.)

Here's another example of this kind of green greyness in a story from the excellent site the Register (though I wish they weren't so busy being ironic they had to use the 'boffin' word). There's a simple technology that will reduce plane fuel consumption and emissions. But the price is that planes are noiser. Difficult one. Worthy of debate. And the story is doubly interesting because it shows how the media can't cope with this kind of thing. What do they do with this important story? Pick up on a passing reference to atomic powered planes that's almost irrelevent and make that central point. It's not.

The real story is this grey nature of doing the right thing. Yes you'll help save the planet from climate change, but you'll make it look less pretty or noisier.

Kermit was right.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

PR news and witches

There's a whole industry these days that you could label PR news. Stories dreamed up by someone with something to sell, which the news media pick up on and present as straight news. There are companies, for example, that produce surveys specifically so they can be used as a tag to get the newspapers interested in a product. And, as Ben Goldacre points out in the excellent Bad Science the PR people also pull in scientists and universities, for instance trying to find some academic who will come up with a 'formula for the best night's sleep' for a mattress company, or some such thing.

However this technique is not just the preserve of the PR agency and survey companies. I have to confess I have myself got the occasional story in local papers by sending them a 'press release' about the Popular Science website. And now a shop that sells Halloween costumes has got in on the act. Last Friday they hit the news because they had arranged petitions trying to get retrospective pardons for the people put to death for being witches, hundreds of years ago. (What was distinctly shocking was the witch-killing scoreline between England and the much smaller Scotland. In Scotland they killed five times as many 'witches'. What does this say?)

This was a superb piece of PR. When I first heard the story on the BBC news they gave it as straight news. Then later they said the costume company was behind it, 'but was still serious about it'. Of course they were serious about it - wouldn't any business be serious about getting free publicity in the national media? It even made the News Quiz.

As for the request itself, it's ludicrous. You can't retrospectively apply today's laws and morality to a different age. You would probably have to give pardons to 95% of those put to death or transported for crimes we either wouldn't recognize or wouldn't punish that way (or at all) today. It's a pointless exercise from that point of view. But what a great publicity stunt. I take my hat off to whoever dreamed it up.