Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The terrible science of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

Those of you who enjoy spotting the science errors in Dan Brown's books will be pleased to know that I've read his latest, The Lost Symbol so you don't have to (see at amazon.co.uk: The Lost Symbol/amazon.com: The Lost Symbol).

If you aren't familiar with this sport, Dan Brown's books regularly depend on science for their plots - but often get it entertainingly wrong. My all time favourite is Digital Fortress (see at amazon.co.uk: Digital Fortress/amazon.com: Digital Fortress). The entire plot of this book depends on something that Brown  has his characters repeat over and over - it is impossible to create an unbreakable cipher. Unfortunately, not only is it possible, they have been around for nearly 100 years, so poor research there, Dan.

Angels and Demons is also replete with poor science (see at amazon.co.uk: Angels and Demons/amazon.com: Angels & Demons). What makes this book (and successors) particularly entertaining is that Brown starts the book with a section labelled 'FACT' - and much of the science in that section, particularly about antimatter, is painfully wrong.

But we're getting distracted from The Lost Symbol. Here, Brown lays himself wide open by putting in his FACT section 'All rituals, science... in this novel are real.' Bring it on. I'd like to start with a touch of piquant being too clever for your own good. He makes a big point that someone is using an iPhone. Trendy, huh? But then he shows a text from that iPhone - and clearly this is wrong. Why? Because every sentence begins with lower case letters. iPhone texting automatically makes the first letter of a sentence uppercase - is our Dan really suggesting that the character, hurriedly texting, went out of their way to set each starting sentence letter to lower case? Nope, he's just not used an iPhone.

We also get the old chestnut that the soul has a weight that can be detected leaving the body on death - sorry Dan, that's been pretty well disposed of. Oh and while we're on the subject of old chestnuts, he also implies that in medieval times they thought the world was flat. No, they didn't, Dan. That's a myth.

Minor stuff, though. When it comes to fundamental science, the two main planks of the book are that ancient wisdom knew it all first and we're just re-discovering it, and that the 'new science of Noetics' will enable us to harness the powers of the mind. Oka-a-y.

The ancient mysteries bit is hammered on about for page after page, chapter after chapter. This is a classic example of the 'later books of J. K. Rowling effect' where a writer has got so powerful that the editor dare not suggest cuts. It really needs paring down. However, when you examine the reality of it, it's a load of coincidental tosh. You can see some of this in more serious books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which attempts to link modern physics and ancient Eastern philosophies. No Dan, it's not all in the ancient writings. There are just coincidental similarities that would be strange if they weren't there.

For instance, Yin and Yang is often considered to prefigure the bipolarity of nature - positive and negative in electricity, north and south poles in magnetism. But Yin and Yang is easily derived from obvious 2-way things (male and female, dark and light) and doesn't have to prefigure anything. Anyway, of course it 'prefigures' things that come in twos. But how about things in ones (gravity), in threes (quarks) or fours (fundamental forces of nature). Sorry, it's woffle - and the same applies to all these great mysteries. The ancients knew nothing about how the world worked. They produced woffly sayings which can be made to parallel pretty well anything given a bit of massaging.

As for Noetics - all his stated facts are wincingly unproven. I particularly liked his suggestion that thought has 'mass' and can influence matter, and (this is the important bit) the force increases exponentially with the number of people doing the thinking. So with even a tiny force, the crowds in St Peter's Square (for instance) should have no problem making the pope float over his balcony, say. Strange nothing like that has never happened. Suffice it to say that all the talk about this new science that is going to transform the world isn't registering on many scientific radars.

I'm not saying there is no point researching psi phenomena, by the way - I'm all in favour of the sort of thing PEAR used to do. But all that research has yet to come up with any usefully reproducable science. It is to physics what homeopathy is to real medicine.

In the end, then, The Lost Symbol was a bit of a disappointment. Although most of the science and technology was wrong, it was too woffly to have the sheer incompetent joy of earlier books. Never mind, though. I'm sure there'll be another one soon.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

No more kinky addressing, please

I'm not what you'd call an outspoken feminist, but one thing that does get up my nose is the old fashioned style of addressing an envelope to a woman with her husband's name, but with 'Mrs' in front. So 'Fiona Smith' becomes 'Mrs Robert Smith'.

I've two objections to this. One is that I can't help but imagine Robert Smith in twinset and pearls, very Monty Python, but not at all as intended by the writer.

Second, it really does smack of ownership, in a very unpleasant way.

Please stop it. Now.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Howard Goodall's Enchanted Voices - the cheese strings of choral music

Regular readers will be aware that I'm fond of choral music, especially Tudor, Elizabethan and twentieth century. Over the last couple of weeks I have been listening to more Classic FM than usual, because they play a lot of Christmas music, and as a result I have been exposed to something called 'Howard Goodall's Enchanted Voices.'

To me, comparing this music to a good choir singing great choral music like Byrd, Sheppard, Howells or Leighton is just liking comparing cheese strings to a good mature cheddar or a magnificent stilton.

Let's see why. Cheese strings are highly packaged - and so is Enchanted Voices. It's not really clear whether this is the name of a group or a sound - it's just a package, really. Cheese strings are processed cheese - this is processed singing. It's either has artifical reverb added, or it's recorded in an acoustic that sounds very artificial. And then cheese strings have a very limited texture and a single trick of being peelable. Similarly, Enchanted Voices are just sopranos, lacking the full texture of a four part choir, and have an unremitting hard tone. I think it's supposed to be crystalline, to suggest enchantment - I just find it grating.

Now of themselves, cheese strings aren't evil. If they get people into cheese, and as long as they move on as they mature, that's fine. But if adults eat cheese strings after a meal (say), something has gone wrong. Similarly, I don't mind Classic FM using Enchanted Voices to get people into choral singing - but for goodness sake, please move on to the real thing!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Christmas 'aww' moment


As it's Christmas Eve in the workhouse (literary reference), for fans of Goldie I just wanted to show you how she looked when she was a little younger.












And even younger still (I'm not sure which one she is):

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

You are repeating yourself, Gloria

As Christmas approaches I'm spending quite a lot of time in the car (sometimes enjoying stunning snow-frosted landscapes, but that's a different story). At this time of year I confess I listen to Classic FM a bit, as I enjoy the Christmas music. But something is driving me away - an advert voiced by one Gloria Hunniford.

Our Gloria is advertising Benecol, a range of products containing plant stanol which apparently partially blocks the intake of cholesterol in the diet with the useful effect of lowering cholesterol levels.

I have no particular problem with the product (though I've a suspicion that you would need quite a lot of it to have a similar effect to the cholesterol lowering medication you can get from your doctor) - but I am really irritated by the way the advert begins. 'A while ago,' says Gloria, 'I used to have high cholesterol' (or words to that effect). The important thing is that she says 'A while ago I used to have...' Now that's just repeating yourself. Either 'A while ago I had high cholesterol' or 'I used to have high cholesterol' but not both. If consuming Benecol makes you repeat yourself, it's a touch worrying.

Thanks to Rob for pointing out this advert was for Flora Pro-activ, not for Benecol. I was so distracted by the irritating language, I missed the product name!

Friday, 18 December 2009

But it's a British institution!

I gather from this excellent blog post by Matt Brown (whose photo I have nicked) that the Royal Institution in London is in financial difficulties. This is really sad news. The RI is a wonderful facility, especially since its fancy makeover, and does excellent work. I have had the honour of speaking there a couple of times, and there are few things more scary for a speaker than an RI introduction, when standing at the desk where Faraday did demonstrations, your audience is told that 'n of the elements were discovered here, they have had x Nobel Prize winners... and now Brian Clegg is going to speak to you.' Gulp.

Some argue, and I'm afraid that I would agree, that the current director Susan Greenfield has not done a great job. I certainly feel that the RI could be handled differently. With hindsight, spending £20 million on a refurbishment programme was probably not wise (though I guess a fair amount of this came from grants).

Personally, I would suggest that those in charge of the direction of the RI bite the bullet and ask 'What do we do best?' Despite that history of fundamental research, I'd suggest that the RI's real strength has been science communication to the general public. If money has to be saved, I would reluctantly chop much or even all of the research work and concentrate on the communication side.

It used to be that every month the RI put on a wide range of 'Talking Point' events for the general public. It was at one of these that I did a session on infinity a few years ago, and it was totally sold out. But during the refurbishment, the momentum for these events was lost, and there still isn't anywhere near as good and wide ranging a programme as there used to be.

Matt worries about the RI being too formal and offputting. I don't - its tradition stands it in good stead. It shouldn't try to be another Dana Centre. But the RI does need to re-focus before it's too late.

This is the last post before the schools break up for Christmas - I expect posting to be rather intermittent for the next couple of weeks, but back to normal in the New Year.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Einsteinium - not exactly the most useful element


Yes, folks, it's element podcast time again. My latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element is live and it's all about Einsteinium, element 99.

It might seem obvious that an element would be named after Einstein... but there's no newtonium, so being a scientific superstar isn't enough. So why does element 99 have this name? And why is it so, well, useless?

Take a listen, or select it in from the list of my element podcasts below:
       

                               
   
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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

A lament for the chemistry set

According to some research results which I obtained via the highly dubious route that someone mentioned them on Twitter - i.e. I have no idea whether this is true or not - over a recent period in some country or other (see, it's detailed research), 0 children were injured by chemistry sets while 600 were injured by Wendy houses.

You might be inclined to deduce that Wendy houses are much more dangerous than chemistry sets, but I think it's more likely that no one gets given chemistry sets any more. I can't remember when I last saw one in the shops. And that's sad.

Chemistry sets were wonderful. You could make interesting colours, smells - if you were lucky, minor explosions. And I suppose that's the problem. In our elf and safety conscious world, chemistry sets were watered down so much that in the end they just weren't worth having. I suspect they took out all the good bits and left you with little more than bicarbonate and vinegar.

Now even in my day, chemistry sets did not contain the materials to get up to the adventures I used to have in my evil basement chemistry lab. I was the master of producing nitrogen tri-iodide, the interesting black stuff that when dry explodes when you touch it. I revelled in the spontaneous combustion of potassium permanganate and glycerine (tip - it works best if you warm the glycerine up a bit). Yet even so, they were fun.

The conclusion? Should we be campaigning for there to be more accidents with chemistry sets? Quite probably. We might get more scientists that way.

You'll be pleased to know that some chemistry sets do still exist - the one above is here at Amazon.co.uk.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Freak show impressario

Until Edwardian times, the freak show was a standard part of the entertainment scene. Not, admittedly, a high class part - but perfectly respectable. Since then we moved away from the freak show on the intellectual argument that it is degrading for those involved. But you don't make an entertainment that appeals to the gut lose its appeal by intellectualizing. And this is clearly something Simon Cowell understands as he has had a huge influence on bringing the freak show to prime time TV.

Cowell's X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent (or US spin-offs American Idol and America's Got Talent) are primarily freak shows. You can argue (and no doubt Cowell would) that they're talent shows, and the beautiful performers who made it to last weekend's X-Factor final were anything but freaks, but this misunderstands the nature of the freak show. It was always important to put any freakiness alongside beauty and talent - the freak show is very much about contrast, about beauty and the beast. For many viewers, the early auditions of these shows are more engaging than the talent-led finals - because that's where you get the real oddballs.

Perhaps the ultimate case in point is the huge success of Susan Boyle from Britain's Got Talent. She has a good voice - I'm not trying to take that away. But it's no better than that of thousands of classically trained singers. Literally thousands. What has propelled Boyle into having vast numbers of YouTube hits and an album that topped the charts is her appearance and her limitations. It's the contrast - the whole raison d'etre of the freak show.

I can't really dislike Simon Cowell for this. He is just giving the punters the bread and circuses they want. But it's a shame that in 100 years we haven't managed to move our aversion to the freak show from the head to the gut.

Friday, 11 December 2009

One Christmas carol = x pints of beer. Calculate x

Whatever your religious persuasion (and even if you tick the 'atheist' box) it's hard to deny that many Christmas carols are evocative and beautiful. One of my favourites is Peter Warlock's haunting Bethlehem Down. In a recent survey of the great and good in church music it came up as one of the top carols, and I'll be doing it with my little choir this Christmas, just as I sang it with Selwyn College, Cambridge chapel choir many moons ago.

Music apart, the best thing about Bethlehem Down is the story of how it came to be written. According to Bruce Blunt, who wrote the words, in 1927 Warlock and Blunt 'were extremely hard up, and in the hopes of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper.' The carol was completed in a few days and sent off to the Daily Telegraph, which reproduced it on Christmas Eve, funding an 'immortal carouse' according to Blunt. It wasn't just the poem that was in the paper, but the whole hand-written score. Can you imagine a newspaper doing that today? Boggle.

If you want to hear what it sounds like when sung with enthusiasm if not too much polish, feel free to come along to St Andrew's in the Wiltshire village of Wanborough for 6pm on 20 December. And if you do, mine's a pint. After all, there's a tradition to uphold.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Trading up on standards

I'm not usually a great fan of common sense. That sounds wrong, but what I mean is that what's often labelled 'common sense' is more an example of letting feelings push facts out of the way. However, I do wonder if it's sensible when I hear of officials sticking with the letter of the law and not applying... yes, well, common sense.

I gather in the recent furore over Mclaren buggies trapping children's fingers, the Trading Standards line is that they comply with European regulations, so there's nothing that Trading Standards can do. When it's a product where the manfacturer has been forced to provide a fix to all customers in the US, when it's quite clear that there is a risk that can easily be overcome, why should Trading Standards hide behind European regulations? Surely they should be able to say 'Yes, there's a problem. Fix it.'

My only brush with Trading Standards was not particularly helpful. I called into an unfamiliar petrol station. There was no indication on the pump of pricing for the different options (I later discovered this was illegal, but that isn't my point). With no price to guide me, I had to choose between two versions of unleaded fuel, one labelled 'Super' the other 'Premium'. Now to my mind, 'Super' means very good, 'Premium' means of a special quality, commanding a greater price. So I went for Super. And got charged quite a lot more than the unleaded price on the big sign by the entrance.

So I moaned to Trading Standards, only to be told that this is the convention. Premium is cheaper than Super. Apparently it doesn't matter than this doesn't make any sense. Sigh.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

I'm going to twin my house with the White House

Exciting news for Swindon. It seems that we are to be twinned with Walt Disney World in Florida. No, really.

The whole concept of town twinning a bizarre one. As far as I can see the only purposes of town twinning, are a) so you can put up a sign with the names of the towns you are twinned with and b) so town/city officials can have jollies where they go off on official visits of the other place. If you live in a city of world renown like Bath, you get to twin with somewhere exciting and well known. Swindon is currently twinned with Salzgitter in Germany, Ocotal in Nicaragua and Torun in Poland.

You might think that the Disney people have slightly lost the plot. Surely a more appropriate place to twin with would be somewhere with a fairy tale castle, like Windsor? (Or even better Neuschwandstein in Germany.) But no - apparently we were chosen because someone won it as a prize in a competition. This should have meant that there was no sense of local pride out of it. It was a competition, guys. Nothing to do with the place. But this hasn't put competition winner Rebecca Warren off. She has commented (with no hint of irony, as far as I can tell): I think there are a lot of similarities between Swindon and Walt Disney World – the friendly atmosphere, the fact that there is always something new and exciting in the town and all the famous people we have coming to gig here. Ah, right. I can see it now.

Apparently we are going to have a twinning sign on the Magic Roundabout. Where else, really? And now all those Swindon Council people are going to have slog over to Florida for twinning meetings. What a drag. But I suppose somebody has to do it.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I'm a rat, get me out of here

'Gino and the Rat' sounds like a good title for an age 4-8 story book, but followers of celeb events in the UK will realize immediately that we are dealing instead with an incident important enough to make it onto the main news bulletins. Rumour started spreading yesterday that TV chef and winner of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Gino d'Acampo was in jail for the terrible crime of killing a rat. Immediately the political correctness hackles rose. After all, rats are vermin. Killing a rat is our right - and in his case he killed it to eat it, so it's doubly okay.

When the initial panic settled down it turned out that the effervescent Gino was not in jail at all, but on his way back home to the UK. However the Australian authorities were considering charges. Still enough to get those hackles up? I'm not sure. In fact, once you look beyond the over-reaction, it's a good spotlight to throw on the nature of reality TV shows.

On the one hand, what d'Acampo did doesn't seem particularly bad. After all, I'm sure those same Australian authorities merrily poison rats, as a result of which they die a much more horrible death than the rat that became supper in camp. But when we defend the TV company (and it's the TV company that's at fault, not d'Acampo) we are falling for an illusion. The illusion that these people are out in the wild, dealing with the wild animals they face.

Instead what we're talking about is a bunch of celebrities on a TV set. Okay, it's an open TV set, but it's not the wild. Specifically, the encounter with the rat took place when a group of celebrities had been sent to an intentionally down market second camp. And the chances are high that the rat was there because the TV company put it there. So rather than a chance encounter with wild game, what we have is a TV set to which an animal (quite possibly bred in captivity) has been introduced for a celebrity to kill. Suddenly it doesn't sound right.

I'm not a rabid animal rights person. I'm a meat eater, and I accept what that implies. But in a civilized society I expect people not to hurt animals for entertainment. There's rather too much of this on the programme. It started with horses, clearly distressed, being forced to swim across a river with people on their backs. It continues with a whole range of 'jungle critters' from bugs and spiders to rats and eels being trampled on, kicked, rolled on and generally damaged in the 'bush tucker trials'. The rat incident just brings it to a head.

Fine, let your celebrities abuse themselves for entertainment - but there's no need to make other living things suffer in the process. I have nothing against people killing rabbits, pigeons or rats to eat them. But there's a difference between going out in the countryside with a shotgun and stabbing a rat that has been dropped onto a film set by the crew.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Apologies from nowhere

When out on the road in sunny Swindon I quite often pass busses carrying the inscription SORRY NOT IN SERVICE. I feel a strong urge to scream at said bus 'No you are not. You are not sorry at all. A bus can't be sorry, it's inanimate.'

I get the same irrational urge to talk to technology at the railway station. Over the tannoy we hear 'I'm sorry to announce that that the 3.17 to Upper Wombleton has been cancelled. I apologize to passengers for any inconvenience.' No you don't. You can't apologize, you are are a recording.

If I talked to a bus or a loudspeaker as if it were a person then I would rightfully be taken away for a little care and recuperation. So, equally, we ought to scrap any technology with pretensions of consciousness. Until someone really builds HAL 9000, and we have technology with a personality, it should stay that way.

Resist the urge, please, companies. Your equipment isn't sorry - don't make it tell me that it is.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Christmas Science Verse Revisited

Over on Nature Network there has been a burst of activity on a blog post I made last year. In the post you can see the collaborative effort that generated a piece of scientific Christmas verse a line at a time.

It's rather riddled with in-jokes - but such was the passion at the time I think it's worth repeating this masterpiece of line-by-line writing. Here's an audio version (thanks to Graham Steel for the effects).


And here's the pome itself:
’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the lab
Not a Gilson was stirring, not even one jab.
On the bench, ’twixt a novel by Jennifer Rohn
And the paper rejected by Henry’s iPhone
Lay a leg, still trembling and covered in gore
And Frankenstein sighed ‘I can’t take this no more’.

He exclaimed panic struck, as he took in the scene,
of horrendous results from NN’s latest meme.
‘having one extra leg wasn’t part of the plan
to create a new species, anatomized man’.
And then out of the blue, ‘twas a bump in the night
A girrafe ’pon a unicycle, starting a fight
Held back by a keeper all smiling with glee,
It was then that I knew that it was Santa Gee.

His iphone, it jingled, his crocs were so pink,
It was all I could do to stammer and blink.
‘There you are’ cursed old Frank’stein, approaching the Gee,
‘Call off the girrafe, and hand over the fee.’
“The Beast” then leaped up, from O’Hara’s new leg
Attacked Santa Gee and his elf, Brian Clegg.
One sweep of the sack and the beast was laid out
When hoof of girrafe gave a terminal clout.

Then its leg fell off quaintly, with a sad little ‘plonk’,
Santa Gee, from his sled, gave a loud, angry honk
And the mask on his face slipped – sadly ’twas loose -
To reveal not a man but a fat Christmas Goose.
To Frankenstein’s horror, the bird reared up high
He realized then that this goose could not fly.

So he grabbed the elf Clegg, who stood by buggy-eyed
and hoisting him up with great gusto he cried:
“O’Hara and Beast, I have them at last.
Sprinkle on Ritalin, for a tasty repast.”
But five minutes had lapsed, so the beast was asleep
Having dreams that were complex, clever and deep:

Half warthog, half carrot? What would look nice?
Half girrafe, half O’Hara? Yes! Made in a trice.
He dreamed a solution, to this horrid scene:
Unite the spare legs! To waste them is mean!
Much later that evening, the creature awoke!
One Bob-leg, one g’raffe leg! He rose up and spoke:
“Beloved creator, I wish you’d not meddle,
My unicycle now needs a quite different pedal."

Thursday, 3 December 2009

On the gradual acceptance of reality in vetinary measures

About once a year, or a little less frequently, Goldie our golden retriever gets an ear infection. Apparently, despite the big ear flaps and lots of hairy protection, a grass seed or something else irritating gets into one of her ears and the result is irritation, brown gunk and scratching.

It's cleared up quite quickly by a combination of a wash and antibiotic drops. But now here's the thing. The ear drops used to carry the instruction 'put four or five drops in the ear'. As an instruction, this sucks. It's entirely possible to do this with human ear drops, as you can start the drop off well clear of the ear and aim it down the appropriate orifice (assuming the patient has their head tilted). But not only is it difficult to get a dog to tip her head on its side, dripping from above results in an ear drop that sits on the protective fur at the entrance to the ear. You can't drip into it - you have to insert the nozzle in the ear, which means you can't see and count those drops.

So I was delighted that this time round, the instructions say 'small squirt to the affected ear' - a triumph for common sense.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

It moves!

Following up on yesterday's post on Eadweard Muybridge, when I was writing the book I discovered that I had totally the wrong idea of how we see a film as moving images. I was all prepared to write about 'persistence of vision' - in fact I did so in the first version of the manuscript. I was not alone in this mistake. You can still find plenty of websites and books that talk about persistence of vision - How Stuff Works, for instance, says 'Movies work because of persistence of vision, the fact that a human eye retains an image for about one-twentieth of a second after seeing it.' But if I'd left it in, I would have been writing a load of rubbish.

The idea of persistence of vision, first put forward around the same time as the emergence of the movie industry, depended on the assumption that some sort of after-image remained in the brain long enough to overcome the blank gap while the picture was changing to the next one, and that the two slightly different images then merged together to form the effect of motion. Unfortunately, more recent research makes it clear that after-images don’t form until around 50 milliseconds after the image has ceased to be projected, which isn’t quick enough to bridge the gap between frames.

Practical experience from the early days of cinematography showed that you had to change the pictures around 50 times a second to fool the eye. Early silent movies were shot at around 16 frames per second, with each frame shown three times, while sound movies run at 24 frames per second, showing each frame twice. The images are on screen for too short a time for persistence to account for the lack of visible flicker. And persistence of vision was never an adequate explanation for the second effect, apparent motion, as persistence would result in multiple images building on top of each other, not in the appearance of movement.

This illusion is a reflection of the brain’s ability to interpolate and substitute what it thinks is the right thing to see for the actual visual signal it is receiving from the optic nerves. The concept of persistence of vision relied on an outdated idea that the eye was like a camera obscura, projecting images onto the “screen” of the brain. In fact the brain contains a range of different visual sensory “modules” dealing with requirements like motion detection, object and pattern recognition, detail selection, and so forth. (These modules are conceptual rather than physical; they don’t uniquely occupy a single set of brain cells.)

These different modules don’t handle a single picture, but rather many different elements. The retina of the eye contains around 130 million light-sensitive receptors. When a photon penetrates to the back of the retina (the photoreceptors are back-to-front with the sensitive part at the rear, a clumsy arrangement that may well be an accident of evolution), it triggers a photochemical reaction. This reaction sends a signal back toward the surface of the retina, where input from different receptors is combined before feeding the information through the optic nerve to the brain. This nerve has a lot fewer nerve fibers than there are receptors in the eye, so the signal has already been processed before reaching the brain.

The combined image we “see” is much more an illusion than it appears, being a reaction to these complex inputs and a combination of the response of the brain modules that cope with motion, pattern, detail, and so forth. The suppression of the flicker between frames of a movie and the merging of still pictures into motion is not due to simple persistence; it is a side effect of the way the various complex systems involved in processing the optical data work together. Fascinating stuff.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Man Who Stopped Time

Eadweard Muybridge gets a truly bad deal in the history books. Significantly before the Lumiere brothers were in action, Muybridge was projecting moving pictures. He even built the world's first purpose built cinema for the Chicago World's Fair. Yet he often fails to be given the laurels for his work.

The argument is that his technology was not the same as the one that would eventually be used. 'Real' movies consisted of a string of images on a length of celluloid, each taken through the same lens a few moments after its predecessor. Muybridge's moving pictures were taken using a sequence of still cameras, producing at best a few seconds of movement.

There is no doubt that Muybridge's technology was something of a dead end - but that shouldn't detract from his importance as the father of moving pictures. No one argues about Babbage being called the father of computing, yet his technology was just as detached from the one that was finally used as was Muybridge's. Mechanical computers were a dead end too.

Because of this, although Muybridge's multiple still images like the ones on the book cover are iconic, particularly in the art/design world, his work with projecting moving images has largely been forgotten. So too his fascinating life. This was a man who went from the stuffy Kingston upon Thames of the 1850s to the raw life that was San Francisco in the gold rush. This was a man who murdered his wife's lover, only to be let off by the jury, as they felt it was a reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.

I'm delighted to say that apart from the book I wrote a few years ago on Muybridge, The Man Who Stopped Time, I'm being given the chance to do a talk about him at the British Library in London. If you're in town on 1 February 2010, why not help put Muybridge in his proper place. Here's some details of the talk.

If Muybridge sounds interesting, see my online account of tracking down Muybridge in Kingston upon Thames at the Popular Science website.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Fiction benefits from holding back

As a non-fiction author it's always with some trepidation that I offer advice to fiction writers, but I can't help passing on a lesson I observed the other day.

I was watching the Joss Whedon show Angel on DVD with my daughter - she was too young to watch it first time around - and couldn't help be awed by some clever work in the writing.

For those not familiar with Angel, the running big bad through all five seasons was a law firm called Wolfram and Hart. Sounds a convincing name for a law firm. But at the end of the second season - two years into the show - we learn that the company had its origins in three mystical creatures, the wolf, the ram and the hart.

Now if Whedon had chosen to reveal this in the first few weeks, it would have been of passing interest. 'Yes, that's clever,' we might have thought... and moved on. But because we had been given time for the name Wolfram and Hart to become part of the fabric of Angel reality, the revelation was much more impressive. It really shocked.

Assuming this was planned, rather than accidentally noticing the way the name could be broken down, the delayed reveal was masterly. (As it happens, it is done in a rather throw-away manner, possibly because they were worried about the show being dropped, but that's a different issue.)

In writing a book, you aren't going to be able to wait two years for a shock reveal - but this does emphasize the importance of planting some seeds, making sure the 'seed' version of the idea really gets set in our minds and only then, much later, revealing the twist as a great writing technique. The more time and reinforcement you can give to the 'normal' interpretation, the better the reveal will be.

Friday, 27 November 2009

New online game in beta version

Every now and then I like to try something different - I've just launched in beta (i.e. it works, but might have one or two glitches) a little online game called Xenostorm. It involves travelling around the virtual world, solving cryptic clues to reveal evidence about a strange creature that threatens the future of humanity.

The game is free to play (though there is the opportunity to be a 'benefactor') and I hope will be enjoyable. Why not take a look when you've a few minutes to spare?

All feedback welcome - either as a comment, or drop me an email at info@xenostorm.com

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity

Every now and then there's an outbreak of distaste from almost everyone who writes about being an author on the subject of vanity publishing. Most recently this blew up when the big US romance publisher Harlequin announced it was coming out with a vanity imprint. Such was the reaction that within a week they had decided that, though they'd still go ahead, they would take their name off the imprint.

Just to clarify terminology, we're talking about a way of getting books published where the author pays to be published. There are broadly two approaches to this. The more respectable is self publishing. This could be anything from using Lulu.com to setting up your own deal with a printer etc. When you self publish, you take on the costs of producing the book, print as many copies as you like and try to sell them yourself.

There are a number of good reasons for self publishing. It might be to produce a special book for friends and family, or to sell as part of your business dealings. Or it might be that you have a good idea for a book that will have niche 'long tail' sales, and you are happy for a copy or two a year to trickle out.

The despised end of the market is vanity publishing. This is where a company claims they will do everything for the author a conventional publisher does, including marketing and distribution into bookshops. They will typically charge up to ten times as much as is involved in self publishing. Generally speaking, this is a rip-off, because the vanity publishing company gives the impression that you will be treated just like a 'real' author. But in fact they won't provide the same level of editorial service, they won't usually do much in the way of marketing, and they have little chance of getting your books into a bookshop.

I don't discourage people from self publishing - though you do need to be aware that it's very hard work if you want to sell your books yourself. And it's very rarely a useful route to get into 'real' publishing - consider it a totally separate activity. Vanity publishing is a different kettle of fish.

I wish, in a way, that the word 'vanity' wasn't attached. In a sense all publishing is vanity publishing. It all requires the chutzpah to think 'what I write is good enough for other people to want to read it.' But vanity publishing is really not the route to take if you want to see your name in print. There is always a better way.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

I'm quite in favour of PC, but...

Political correctness gets an unfairly bad press (probably mostly thanks to the likes of the Daily Mail). In part, this is because it's easy to forget just what things were like before PC. Take a look at a comedy TV show of the 60s, full of racist or sexist jokes, and it is absolutely cringemaking. We have moved on a long way, and political correctness has helped shape our thinking.

It's also true that when disgusted of Tonbridge Wells complains about political correctness, the 'news' story (s)he is reacting to is often fiction. Infamously, Birmingham is supposed to have once banned Christmas from the city, insisting that the 'neutral' Winterval be used instead of Christmas in any council activities. This is just baloney. The city ran a winter festival, called Winterval, but this had nothing to do with Christmas, and didn't replace the Christmas celebrations, which ran as usual.

However, the danger with political correctness is when it comes up against logic, and a knee-jerk reaction to what might be but isn't politically incorrect causes an overreaction.

A couple of weeks ago on the news I heard an interviewer in absolute PC shock. 'Are you saying,' he said to his interviewee, 'that Asians aren't British? How can you say that Asians aren't British?' Quite easily.

Just take away the racist connotations and substitute neutral terms. 'Are you saying that Europeans aren't American? How can you say that Europeans aren't American?'

This isn't about racism, it's about poor use of English. Asians are inhabitants of the continent of Asia. British people are inhabitants of the British Isles. Of course they aren't the same thing. Now if the interviewee said that Britains of Asian origin, or of Asian descent aren't British, then there would have been cause for concern. But this was different. I'm of second generation Irish descent. I would love to say I'm Irish - I think Ireland is great. But I'm not, I'm British. I was born in Britain and I hold a British passport. It would be ludicrous to say that I was Irish.

Come on, media, get your act together. PC will be mocked if you use it an illiterate fashion. And it shouldn't be.


If you aren't convinced, I gather the T-shirt is available here.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

That is not an anthem

This is a time of year when music impinges on everyday life rather more than usual. Christmas music is everywhere, and even the most bah humbug atheist (with the possible exception of the Grouch himself, Richard Dawkins) may well admit to a secret enjoyment of belting out a few Christmas favourites, or hearing a children's choir mangle Silent Night.

It's also the time of year when record producers go into overdrive, promoting CDs for people who don't buy music the rest of the year, but know that a CD is an excellent present (almost as good as a book. Have you thought of a science book as a Christmas present? See the Popular Science website for great book and gift ideas. {sound of slapping} Sorry about that. Normal service will now be resumed)

This is a time when the moaners and bleaters who tell us that the CD is dead have to have brief second thoughts, because no one wants to unwrap an MP3 file on Christmas morning. However, one thing about the adverts for CDs that squeeze onto TV and radio fills me with dread.

Every second album advertised will be 'dance anthems' or 'the 20 greatest power anthems' or whatever. According to the dictionary, an anthem is 'a composition in unmeasured prose set to music' (i.e. NOT a versified song). An anthem is a very specific musical form. A well known song is not an anthem. And even more ludicrously, a 'dance anthem' is a total contradiction in terms - an anthem is defined by its use of words, you can't have an instrumental anthem.

The rot set in quite a while ago with the term 'national anthem'. Practically all national anthems are hymns, not anthems. The anthem form contains many of the greatest musical pieces in existence. Stop polluting the term, please. Now.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The radiation bogeyman

Every now and then, Swindon, for all its negative connotations does something that makes it interesting. We had the Mondex (electronic cash) trial here. Swindon proudly decided to get rid of speed cameras, to cheers from Top Gear. And now Swindon has announced that there will soon be public WiFi available throughout the borough (thanks to Paul Tuck for bringing this to my attention).

I'm going in to Radio Wiltshire this morning to discuss this - because there has been some talk (I was told by an organization called Powerwatch, though I haven't seen it) of Swindon's action putting us at risk. Because of the 'radiation' from the WiFi transmitters.

This is what I describe in Ecologic as a bogeyman, where fear of something nasty that doesn't really exist gets people in a panic. And one of the classic ways of inciting a bogeyman is to use terms like 'radiation' - which sounds scary. Technically WiFi is radiation - electromagnetic radiation - just as is the light from the Sun, or a TV broadcast. A much more neutral term for WiFi is radio waves - but 'radiation' is used to scare us.

The fact is that there have been over 30 controlled trials of the impact of WiFi and phone masts, none of which has come up with positive results that should make us worry. There are a few trials that do claim to show that such transmissions cause headaches and other unpleasant feelings - but they are mostly subjective questionnaires, and don't have any kind of double blind control to ensure that the trial is producing actual data, rather than what people believe.

Let's face it, statistically people are going to have headaches around WiFi. I often have a headache in the kitchen - does this mean kitchens are bad for you?

Even if there is some small risk attached to WiFi - and there is no evidence there is - we need to get it in proportion. For example, if we were talking about a technology that killed over a million people a year, then, yes, I would be worried. Such a technology does exist - and you probably use it - but it's not WiFi. It's the car (or, at least, road transport).

So I, for one, am cheering this move by Swindon Council. Good on you, guys.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Marvellous uselessness

As you may have gathered, I love technology, and sometimes I think it's important to celebrate technology - even when it is, to all intents and purposes useless.

Such an example of useless technology has recently been introduced to me by the inestimable Dr Henry Gee aka Cromercrox. It's Google's latest toy, Latitude. It's a little application you run on a suitable mobile phone which puts your current location on a map. And this can be seen by friends who you authorize to see it, either on their computer or their phone. So, for example, in the picture alongside you can see where I was three days ago, on a visit to my daughter's orthodontist.

It's totally useless for two reasons. One is that (certainly with an iPhone) it only pinpoints your location when you ask it to. So it's rarely going to be really where you are. And the other is that there isn't a lot of reason to find out where someone else is anyway, unless you are meeting up when you will probably have arranged a location. Okay you might both find yourself in London, say, and decide spur of the moment to meet up. Then you could even get walking directions to get from A to B. But otherwise it hasn't much point.

But so what? It's fun. I can, both from my PC and my phone, see where Henry was 6 days ago. What is there not to like?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Small but beautifully formed

Here's a sheep and goats question. What's the first thing that comes into your head when I say 'Physics'? If it's 'Wow, exciting stuff!' go to the top of the class. If it's 'Boring!', please stay after school.

Actually school probably has a lot to do with this impression. Physics shouldn't be boring. It's how the universe works, after all. But all that stuff with ray diagrams and force equals mass times acceleration can get a trifle tedious, I admit.

So I'm quite pleased with my latest little book, Instant Egghead Guide: Physics. Rather than start with the dull Victorian stuff it starts where we should start - with the real essentials (and the fun bits) like quantum theory and relativity. The book has 100 bite-size sections on a wide range of physics topics, each with a little 'cocktail party tidbit' (sorry, prudish US spelling) to liven it up.

If you'd like to find out a bit more, see its page at my website or at Amazon.co.uk (if you click the buy new/used from Marketplace you can buy a signed copy from me) or Amazon.com

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Teenage angst

On a regular basis we hear how social networking sites like Facebook are destroying the universe. Apparently, because of them we will soon cease to be able to interact with anyone in person, shortly followed by the withering of the ability to speak. Or some such thing.

I tend to take these tirades with a pinch of salt. It's true that it's easy to waste a lot of time on such websites, but I'm not sure it's any worse for you than vegetating in front of the TV watching I'm a Celebrity, get me out of Strictly Come X-Factor, and certainly if you're in a job where you spend a lot of time alone, like being a writer, Facebook, Twitter and the like offer a lifeline of social involvement that simply wouldn't be there otherwise.

The latest moan is that teenagers are spending too much time in their rooms because of social networking sites. Now, come on. This is hazy memory syndrome. Do the people who proclaim the end of civilization caused by these absent teenagers have no memories of their own teenage years? Do they really believe that they spent all their spare time in the living room, playing Monopoly with Mum, Dad and the young siblings? I certainly spent most of my teenage time at home in my bedroom (or the evil chemical laboratory in the basement, but that's a different story). The difference is that at least today's teenagers are communicating while they're locked away - I didn't have any way to do this from my bedroom. It was monastic by comparison.

Social networking sites do cause problems, some serious. But so does practically every human activity. Don't forget our love affair with the car kills around a million people a year worldwide. We can blame teenagers for a lot - but not for being teenagers.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Is sneakiness acceptable in a good cause?

I've just heard a deep philosophical conundrum on Heart FM. No, really. Their men have been growing moustaches for some charity event, and one of them (Jez of the Wiltshire breakfast show) has added a goatee to look less of a prat. The argument that then raged was had he still grown a moustache, or once you add a goatee, is it just part of a beard? I said it was deep.

This put me in a philosophical frame of mind, which accordingly got me a touch riled up when I received this advert from the Performing Rights Society, the UK group that collects royalties for composers and the like when their music is performed.

Now, I'm all in favour of the PRS. It's the musical equivalent of PLR, the wonderful organization that collects money for authors when books are borrowed from libraries. Composers should get their dues when their music is performed. But the reason this ad got me riled is that it seems to be sneakiness employed in a good cause.

At first sight there's nothing wrong with it. The PRS is running a competition for choirs - excellent. We should encourage singing. It's good fun and good for you. But if I were to enter I would have recorded a nice Tudorbethan anthem. And what does the small print say? 'Your performance can be a version of any genre or style of song, commercially released or arranged within the past 70 years.' Why that odd period of time? Because it makes sure the piece is still in copyright - so to be able to enter, you will have to pay a fee.

I'm sorry, that is sneaky. And really not good enough. Shame on you, PRS.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Ecologic - the motion picture

Last week I blogged about my trip to Almere in the Netherlands to speak on Ecologic at an event called Ecocities: systems and alternatives, organized by the International New Town Institute.

Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, I've got a video of the evening. In the unlikely event you want to see me in action, there are a series of small images below the main video window - you can hear my bit by clicking on the Brian Clegg/author of Ecologic button.

Monday, 16 November 2009

GDP - grossly distorted phigures

There's a fascinating article in New Scientist about the shortcomings of GDP as the measure of a country's economic success or failure.

From the green perspective, GDP is fundamentally flawed, simply because it doesn't have a green perspective. It takes no account of the impact on the environment of a country's actions, giving no benefit to undertaking measures to save the planet.

But even without this inherent short-termism, there are some downright weird things in there. There are silly book-keeping measures (people who own houses are considered to pay themselves rent to live there), there is no value whatsoever given to state services like the provisions of the NHS or education services, and the measure fails to reflect the actual meaning of expenditure. The article gives a good example that having your roads gridlocked increases your GDP, because it takes into account the spending on the fuel that gets wasted, but doesn't take into account the time wasted and general negative impact on quality of life.

The article goes on to describe potential alternatives - it seems clear that there's a fundamental flaw in the idea that you can describe the economic health of a nation in one number. It's a bit like the IQ fallacy - IQ is nothing more than a measure of ability to do IQ tests. You need many more pieces of information to give a real picture of an individual's mental capabilities. Isn't it time we faced up to the fact that GDP also is meaningless and stopped giving so much weight to it? GDP is like a TV celebrity - all show and no depth.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

In defence of Gordon

I am not a Labour Party supporter - as a wishy-washy liberal (even if I do tend to read the Times rather than the Guardian) with the surname Clegg, I don't have much choice, really. But I do want to express sympathy for Gordon Brown over the whole Sun/Jacqui Janes letter furore.

Given the demands on his time, I think Gordon Brown should be patted on the back for hand writing letters of condolence - and if he makes a few spelling mistakes, so what?

I have every sympathy for Jacqui Janes as a grieving mother, but I do think two questions in all the blame game over whether it's the Sun or Gordon Brown at fault don't seem to be answered. How come an ordinary person like Ms Janes records her phone calls? This seems a very strange act. And how did the recording get to the Sun? Were they tapping her phone? Or the Prime Minister's phone? If so, the Sun should be in a lot more trouble than it is. If not, it's hard not to question the motives of whoever supplied the recording to a newspaper like that.

Image from Wikipedia

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Whatever happened to Bradford and Bingley?

In all the furore about banks - bonuses, extra loans, mergers and de-mergers - one thing seems to have quietly been forgotten. The demise of Bradford and Bingley. One sunny day it simply disappeared from public hands, grabbed by the government to save it from collapse. And since then, hardly a peep has been heard.

At the moment an administrator has announced he is considering just how much (if anything) it was worth at the time of its grab, so the shareholders can be recompensed (if at all). But surely this shouldn't take more than an afternoon with Excel? It seems to be taking about a year to work out, and that's not good enough. I have to confess a slight interest - I am a Bradford and Bingley shareholder. In fact, it's worse than that.

Just before I bought the shares (only a few pounds worth, I hasten to add), one of the other banks had plummeted on the stock exchange, then bounced back about 40 per cent in a few hours. When B&B plummeted also I thought 'Aha! A chance to play at day trading!' And bought a few shares. Hours later, the company was nationalized. I literally was a shareholder for about 6 hours. That's what I call timing.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Influential spinfluential

At the station on Tuesday I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard ('Enin Stannit!'), now a shadow of its former self as it has gone free. In it was a list of 'the 20 people who keep London leading the world' - their idea of the capital's 'top 20 influentials'.

It consisted of 6 politicians, a banker, a policeman, 6 business people, a handful of vaguely arty types and two pop stars. No journalists or TV people. No scientists or educators. No sports people. But it did have Dizzee Rascal, so it must be okay, and 'down with it', mustn't it?

The article pointed us to the web for the whole top 1,000, which at least filled in a number of my missing categories. Notably, though, there were still no scientists, and the only educators were in schools.

All such lists are open to debate - but with this one, the whole premise is bizarre. Surely, to begin with, the entire cabinet should be in top list, not just three MPs. Can you really expect me to believe that Dizzee Rascal (sorry, I just can't get over his inclusion) is more influential than the Home Secretary or the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Remember that, next time you get a tax rise - it wasn't as important as some rap rubbish.

However, my real sadness is that lack of scientists. Perhaps next time the Evening Standard should scratch its list on a rock with a bit of flint. After all, there is obviously nothing influential that has come out of science and technology. Grrr.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Can you have a religious phobia?

Listening to the news last night I heard that someone (I think it was the German nation) was being accused of Islamophobia. The word worried me. Could you really have a phobia about a religion?

According to my dictionary, a phobia is an 'extreme or irrational fear'. The sort of thing that has people cowering in the corner of a room, screaming, when they see a spider, or becoming dizzy and unstable when at a great height. Were they really claiming that the German nation reaction this way to a religion?

There are a number of responses to a religion that tend to get the 'phobic' label. There is hatred of a particular type of people, simply because of their belief. This is a despicable and sad response, but hardly a phobia. Then there is dislike of the religion itself. There is nothing wrong with this, unless you take it to extremes as Richard Dawkins does. It's perfectly reasonable to dislike a religion, just as much as you might dislike a political party.

Most subtle of all, there is statistical fear - this is wrong, but is understandable and as a similar error to buying tickets for the National Lottery and expecting to win. Just as 30 years ago the most likely people in London (say) to be bombers were Irish, now the most likely people in London to be bombers are Muslim. That's undeniable fact. However, in neither case is it a cause for fear when encountering a person from the relevant grouping, because that would be a misunderstanding of statistics. The vast majority of Irish people in London 30 years ago were good, ordinary people. Just a very few were terrorists. The same holds true for Muslims today. We are still much more likely to be killed in a road accident (or by flu) than by a terrorist.

However, statistical fear is an understandable fear, because human beings are inherently bad at statistics. We are programmed at a deep level not to get it. This is why we would be shocked if the lottery came up with the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 in that order, even though it's just as likely to come up as the sequence that won on Saturday. We can understand statistical fear, but it is impossible to make it go away - it's entirely rational, because it's part of the pattern recognition system that enables us to function in the world. It's just that we are seeing a pattern in this case that doesn't really exist.

In none of these cases do I see an example of a phobia. So would the media and politicians please stop using that word and come up with something better. Now, please.

Added later - thanks to Kenan Malik to pointing me to his excellent essay on Islamophobia and Islamophilia to expand this consideration.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Adventures in Almere

I'm just back from a visit to Almere in the Netherlands. For those not familiar with the place, it's a new town (pronounced roughly Ahl-meer-uh), about 30 minutes train ride from Amsterdam.

I was there to give a short talk based on Ecologic as part of a lecture evening on sustainability and eco-cities. As no great fan of flying (and it would have seemed a touch hypocritical, given the topic) I went by train.

On the whole the train travel worked very well, though I was amazed that I couldn't book a through ticket online, and ended up having to book with three separate agencies to get a train from Swindon to Almere. It also reflected badly on British rail pricing. To get from Swindon to London (80 miles) cost £109. From London to Brussels (193 miles) £88. and from Brussels to Almere (137 miles) £71. (All prices are for return journeys, and distances are by road, but give a reasonable indication.)

There's still something special about standing on St Pancras International station and seeing trains heading off to destinations like Paris and Brussels - it's commonplace in mainland Europe, but there was a frisson of excitement for me.

The event itself, run by the International New Town Institute, took place in Almere's starkly beautiful theatre on the waterfront. It was humbling as an English speaker. There were four lecturers and an audience of about 100. Most of the audience were Dutch, as were two of the lecturers, the moderator, the local mayor who took part in the closing discussion session, and the director of INTI who opened the event. But the whole thing was run effortlessly in English. I was particularly impressed by the presentation by architect Winy Maas, who managed to get through about 150 Powerpoint slides in 30 minutes - often almost subliminally - yet somehow it worked to get his message across.

On the way back, it struck me that Brussels has the most confusing railway stations in the world. Central station is a different station to Midi station... but Suid station and Midi station are the same place.

An excellent couple of days all told.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Volkswagen get too clever

I occasionally drive my wife's VW Golf Plus, and I'm always impressed by the cleverness that has been employed in little subtleties that make the driving experience so much better. For example, the irritating warning beep when the front seat passenger hasn't put their seatbelt on only starts once you start driving.

My favourite little clevernesses are around the windscreen wipers. I love the way that, if you've got the wipers on and go into reverse it automatically starts the rear wiper. And best of all is the way that the wipers go from continuous to intermittant when you stop, then go back to continuous when you set off again. I almost want to keep stopping and starting, Homer Simpson like, just to experience it.

But there's one little cleverness around the wipers that doesn't work. If you wash the windscreen, it automatically does a burst of wiping to clear it. Fine - most cars do. But then, a few seconds, later, it does an extra single wipe, presumably intended to catch any drips. But what it really does is smear the windscreen, because it has just about dried. Every single time.

Somehow it's comforting that German technical excellence can still slip up this way.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Phantom Firework Display

As fireworks bubble and squeak around us, and some really dodgy shops selling fireworks appear on the backstreets like fungus sprouting on a rotting tree, I am reminded of the most entertaining firework display I was ever involved in arranging. It was, to be honest, a practical joke.

When I was at university I was involved in a whole string of practical jokes. Not the 'silly prank that irritates a person' kind, but entertaining ones that ranged from the simplicity of placing a rubber pigeon (we couldn't get a seagull) in the chapel stalls above the Master's seat on Sea Sunday to the amazing pageantry of the fake Immersion of the High Professor ritual I have blogged about previously.

The firework stunt was like a military operation. At 1 in the morning on 5 November, a series of dark clothed pairs of individuals snuck out into the Old Court of Selwyn College (pictured). One of the pair had a bag of fireworks, each fitted with a timed fuse. The other had a bottle of water to douse any accidental pre-lighting. We set up the fireworks all around the court, with fuses timed from 5 minutes to 15. (The fuses were the rigid kind of firework lighter things that glow for ages - the scientists amongst us had had great fun experimenting with these to get the timings right.)

Once everyone was clear, a madman among us ran around the staircases, flinging bangers in to ensure we had a reasonable audience. And then it began.

From the safety of a friend's bedroom (I didn't have a room overlooking the court) we watched as the display began. Before long the staff were roused. And this was where it got very funny. They were convinced there was someone out there lighting these things. So you would see the heavy figures hurtling across the court at random every time a new firework went off. But of course there was never anyone there.

It might not have been the most sophisticated of practical jokes, but it did take a lot of preparation and some precision setting up. And watching officialdom running around, trying to catch the guilty parties, will stay with me forever.

Friday, 6 November 2009

I am not a clothes horse

'Do you want to go clothes shopping?' she said. No. Let's be clear about this, I never want to go clothes shopping. I don't mean this in some idle threat fashion - my ideal would be never to go clothes shopping again. Ever.

I'm reminded of an ex-colleague at BA who years ago pointed out that the way a shampoo was being sold - it's so gentle you can use it every day - only appealed to one part of the market. He wanted a shampoo that was so good at its job that you only had to use it once a month. Frequency of use was, to him, not a benefit but a curse. Washing your hair, he argued, was a complete waste of valuable time.

Similarly, the clothes shopping market is split. There are those who enjoy it and those who don't. (It may be one of those male/female brain things, who knows? Note this isn't the same as male/female - a percentage of women have 'male' brains and vice versa.) As far as I am concerned my ideal wardrobe would be one with as limited a choice as possible to match my requirements, and one that would last for ever, meaning never having to go clothes shopping again. Bliss.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

I'm ready for my closeup, Ms DeMille

A couple of days ago a film crew descended on my house to record an interview on quantum theory.

Well, if I'm honest (I was talking about storytelling yesterday) it was two students with a video camera.

And in practice, both these statements are deceptive. The first sounds all professional, slick and well prepared. The second sounds haphazard and amateurish. I must admit, when Jane Weavis from Royal Holloway in London got in touch about doing the interview for her Physics and Science Communication course I was a touch doubtful. But hey, she was prepared to come all the way out to sunny Swindon (I'm not sure if she realized quite how far it was), so surely I could spare a half hour, however uninspiring it might turn out to be.

Jane turned up with a media studies mate in tow as camera person, we got set up and, I have to say it was one of the slickest and best prepared interviews I've done. So often with a professional broadcaster they haven't really got a clue what my book or the subject is about. They've read the press release and picked out a couple of juicy points. (When I did Global Warming Survival Kit, for example, every single one asked me about eating worms.) But their questions are often shallow and near-irrelevent. There are exceptions like our local man, Mark O'Donnell, but they aren't too common. However, for this interview, the questions were well structured, clearly founded on knowledge, and interesting.

Admittedly there were a couple of challenges. When we started the interview, the camera wouldn't switch on and both members of the team had an anxious minute or two fiddling with menus and muttering. And a fly decided to take residence behind the window blind alongside me - until it was dextrously caught and removed by our ace reporter. However, I've seen both BBC and commercial people struggle with technical problems too.

All in all, a very positive experience. It's just a pity that the resultant masterpiece won't be airing outside a course assessment.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Storytellers suck

I was a little depressed to hear on the radio the other day that we now have a 'storytelling laureate' (Taffy Thomas, pictured) because, I'm afraid, I just don't get on with storytelling.

Before I have to duck a few bricks I ought to explain. I know some enthusiastic storytellers, and they're good at it. I don't mean people who excel at gossip, I mean those who practice the ancient art of oral storytelling. We are a storytelling species - it comes naturally to us - and for many thousands of years the only storytelling form was oral. And it still works fine for an audience of children, but for some (and I stress some) adults, myself included, it just doesn't make the grade.

When compared with reading a book, I think storytelling is a bit like going back to a typewriter after you've been used to a good computer. It sort of does the job, but nowhere near as well. The thing is, I'm a very fast reader. I hurtle through books, taking things in at breakneck speed. I probably miss some of the nuances of fiction because of this, but it's how my brain works. Oral storytelling is, by comparison, desperately slow.

You can listen to the new laureate, Taffy Thomas, here to get a feel for the sort of thing I'm talking about. Not only is the pace fairly turgid there's a lot of repetition. This is common in oral storytelling, and is, I think, both for rhythm purposes and to aid memory in the oral tradition. But I just find it irritating. The other problem I have is that oral storytelling often labours the point. In Thomas's story on the radio, there's a punchline when he reveals the grandmother watching them rock the baby in a golden cradle, but then he has to go on to explain why this fulfills the wishes of the protagonist. I don't need that. It was obvious. Move on.

I love books, and loving good books (fiction or non-fiction) means loving story. But I don't have to love a particular medium. I'm not that fond of graphic novels either. They just don't work for me like a proper book. And the same goes for storytelling. Sorry, Taffy, but you're boring.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Meet the authors


I spent six hours in Newbury on Saturday. It was an interesting affair - publisher Tim Hirst had got together twelve authors to set up stalls in Newbury's Kennet Centre (the picture is where we were located, but before the authors were inserted). The idea was that all the shoppers would come in and see those lovely signed books and buy them as Christmas presents.

It managed to be a failure and a success at the same time - but certainly a worthwhile experiment.

The failure part was that none of us really sold many books. The sad truth is, most of the people going into the Kennet Centre of a Saturday weren't book buyers and had zero interest. I think the concept would work in the right location, with the right people - but this wasn't it.

The success was the opportunity to meet the stallholders. It was great, for example, to meet up with John Brindley, with whom I once shared an agent, but who I'd never met. And at the table next to me was Anneke Wills, one time Doctor Who companion, signing both books and photos - and she proved a fascinating person to talk to.

All in all, it was a few hours well invested. The books I did manage to sell covered costs and an interesting time was had by all.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Life expectancy in Sheffield

I've just heard on the radio that the divergence of life expectancy in Sheffield between the best off and worst off has now increased so much that it differs by 17.9 years. Those with the best life expectancies will live for nearly 18 years longer.

The presenter was appalled. 'Surely,' he said, 'this can't all be down to lifestyle.' I don't think it is - but I didn't find the expert's response particularly helpful. 'No,' he said, 'what's happening is that well off people are moving to better areas and you are getting well off people all living together and poorer people all living together, and this is bad for both of them.' This may well be true, but I'm not sure it's an answer to the presenter's question.

Firstly, I think he underestimated the power of lifestyle. There really is a big lifestyle difference in this country between different strata of society, both in terms of eating healthily and taking exercise. When you're doing heavy manual labour all day you need a fairly calorie rich diet, and you don't need to take extra exercise - but that culture seems to be maintained even when the manual labour isn't. It isn't a caricature in many households that diet and exercise reflect social position - and this has a very significant impact on life expectancy.

The second cause, I'd suggest, is lack of control. There was a classic study of civil servants from the very top to cleaners. Traditionally you would expect those in positions of high responsibility to be more stressed and to suffer from more stress related illness. In fact it was the other way round. The more control you had in your job, the less stress you were under, despite all those difficult decisions and extensive responsibility. Being in control of your life has a major impact on your wellbeing, and life expectancy. Particularly in times of recession, this magnifies the difference between the rich and the poor, the employed and the unemployed.

It's just rather worrying this wasn't mentioned.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

No more a Trick or Treat virgin

Until yesterday we had never been visited by Trick or Treaters. Never, ever. In our previous house we were simply too far off the beaten track for anyone to bother to come. (We didn't get Jehovah's Witnesses either.) And before we'd moved there, the practise was yet to be imported to these shores. Yes, just 13 years ago the idea simply didn't exist. We had apple bobbing and other Halloween activities - but Trick or Treating was an alien concept.

So last night we stocked up on sweets, prepared the high pressure hoses in case we had to fend off the more difficult brigade and waited.

In practice it was almost an anti-climax. We had six visits, all from very polite children under 11 in nice costumes with parents hovering on the pavement - just how Trick or Treat is supposed to be, rather than the teen destruction fest that it seems to be in some places.

I'm not saying it will always be like that. We might have been lucky. But for our first experience, it could have been a lot worse.

Image from Wikipedia