Tuesday, 30 June 2009

I'm investing in dog chews

These days, a savings account with anything better than a 2% return on your investment is headline news. And even then, the outcome often isn't overwhelming. Lloyds TSB has an ad out at the moment for a savings account that gives 5% on regular savings of up to £250 a month over a year. And the most you can earn from this? £65. Not quite enough to fund your retirement.

When savings return so little, it's worth looking at alternatives - and one simple way of investing is supermarket special offers. No, really, it's not as mad as it sounds.

Take the example of dog chews. We buy these bits of rawhide offcuts for our dog to help keep her teeth clean - and eating one is her favourite moment of the day. When I last looked, Sainsbury's had these chews at 25% off. Big deal. It's not exactly buy one, get one free. But think about it. If I buy two boxes, rather than one, I'm investing the cost of the box of chews for a couple of weeks. At the end of that, when I would have to buy at full price, I'm getting a return on my investment of 25%. Now that's what I call interest.

Of course there are some provisos:
  • Only buy stuff you would buy anyway
  • It only works for purchases that don't have a short shelf life
  • You need to make the investment over the period that the items are reduced, so that the purchase you are avoiding would have been full price
  • You are never going to earn a huge amount, because you don't spend that much on these items
But given those provisos, this is an investment that makes the Lloyds TSB interest rate seem a joke. Next time you're at the supermarket, take a few minutes to look for heavily reduced long life items you can stock up on. Most of these things are discounted a few times a year, so you don't need to amass vast quantities - but make sure you have enough to keep you going a few months. And feel smugly satisfied.

Monday, 29 June 2009

The superhero's day job

I'm a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (If you don't know the show, I'm not being sarcastic - I genuinely think it's one of the best TV shows ever made.) When I first got into it, my wife was highly suspicious that it had something to do with attractive young female cast members - but when she watched it herself she was quickly hooked on the combination of action, humour and superb dialogue.

Something Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, was always trying to do was to push at the conventions - and one of these was the matter of the superhero's day job. Clark Kent just isn't realistic. Being a success at anything else when you're busy saving the world isn't practical. It seems entirely reasonable that, like Buffy, a superhero would be bad at school and end up in a dead-end job (in her case, in a burger bar). It's just so right, and full of true dramatic irony.

So my suspicion is that the jolly ending, tacked on to the Harry Potter series of books, lacks verisimilitude. I think Harry would end up in an unlikely job. Not necessarily mundane, but unlikely. So I was pleased to find confirmation of my theory in the pretty little church of All Saints', in Liddington in Wiltshire. There on the organ, for all to see, was the truth of Harry Potter's career prospects.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

All digital radio by 2015 - yeah, right.

We have been told by those on high that in the UK we could be switched over fully to digital radio by 2015. I'm not convinced.

Yes, a lot of us now have access to digital radio, through the internet, Freeview, Sky and cable - but most houses also have a scattering of ordinary analogue radios that they're in no hurry to get rid of.

However, the in-house problem is truly insignificant when compared with car radios. Pretty well every one of the millions of cars on the road has a radio. And to all intents and purposes they're all good old fashioned FM/AM. I have literally never seen a digital car radio. I'm sure they exist - but they mightily scarce, even in new cars.

Replacing the car radio stock is horrendous task - all the more so because of the anti-theft measures many manufacturers take. Both our cars have radios that are inherent parts of the dashboard - you couldn't just slot in a replacement even if you wanted to.

If Digital Britain seriously thinks that we will come close to their criteria for switching off analog radio by 2015 they have been on the happy pills again.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Twitter Power

Forget the impact of Twitter as a means of communicating what is happening in Iran, the recent Daily Mail poll really demonstrates the power of this microblogging marvel.

The Mail produced a bizarre online poll along the lines of 'are you still beating your wife?' It said, approximately, 'Should gypsies by allowed to jump the NHS queue?' Yes or no?

As a reaction to the terrible phrasing, a Twitter campaign spread the word to go and vote 'Yes' - not because anyone thought this was the 'right' answer but because there wasn't one. When I voted (alerted I think by Dave Gorman), Yes already had 80+% of the vote. By the time the Mail pulled the poll and pretended it never happened it had passed 90%. Wonderful.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Five steps to a good author's website

Everyone seems certain that it's a good thing for an author to have a website these days - but what makes the difference between the kind of site that delivers value and a site that's a waste of web space or full of trash?

#1 - Keep up to date. It seems obvious, but it's so easy to let it drift. A good example of what not to do is John Gribbin's page - it says it's in hibernation, that he's too busy to update it. That's not a great message for readers. But equally it can be just that little detail. As well as checking the obvious spots like the home page, it's a good idea to go through the whole thing occasionally. You can make it less of a problem by trying not to make statements like 'my latest book X' anywhere other than the home page. Then, when you've got book Y out, the page doesn't sneakily go out of date.

#2 - Give them some news. Make sure your home page includes your latest book and some bits of news that change quite regularly. On my own site, I've a news section with just two headlines. Keep it short and sharp, not piles of text. They can always click through to find out more. If you've written more than one book, make sure there are details of all of them. And include links to buy them from an online store - this isn't being pushy, it's giving people the chance to buy, if they want to.

#3 - Tell them something about yourself. I've seen author sites that are great on the book, but just don't give anything about the author. You may feel that it's showing off to include photos of yourself or your biography - but readers can be genuinely interested. If there's nothing there, they will feel less connection with you. And that means less interest in your next book. Take a look at Amanda Lees' neat information page. As well as a biography and my blog, on my 'Meet Brian' page I've included a little interview. Get a friend to ask you some questions (it can be by email if you don't fancy doing this face to face) and think up some answers. It all adds to the richness of the page. Lots of people won't read it, but you don't want your site to look thin and lacking content.

#4 - Include your blog. This is a quick way to make sure your site has up-to-date information. You could, like M. G. Harris, make your author site an enhanced blog. What, you don't blog? Consider it. It's a low effort way to keep a flow of communication with your readers.

#5 - Make it interactive. Received wisdom has it that this is the way to get people involved. At the most basic you can have a mechanism for getting in touch, a way that visitors can email. At the other extreme, you could set up a discussion forum for your fans. This is only likely to be worthwhile if you are already reasonably popular, or aiming at an audience where this works particularly well, like the youth audience. It means a lot of work, if you want to monitor it and avoid nasty material appearing on your site. You may, like this site for Michelle Paver, like to split the interactivity off into a site dedicated to your books. For many authors, it may realistically be a waste of time. The point of having a discussion forum is that it will keep bringing people back - but most author sites are one-time visits, and no amount of interactivity will make people return.

#6 - (Bonus) make it look as attractive as you can. We can't all be designers, but if you are going to bother with a website, make it look inviting. Otherwise, what's the point?

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Do competitions get your site new readers?

Anyone with a website likes to attract new readers, and one popular way of doing this is through a competition. It certainly draws people to the site, but the question is, how many of them are interested in the site itself, and how many simply want to enter the competition and totally ignore the site?

I'd like to share some observations from the Popular Science site, the science book review site I run. We've just started a wonderful competition with the help of the Royal Society. They're offering a copy of every book on the longlist for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books - a total of 13 books. All you have to do to enter is to sign up for the Popular Science newsletter.

The theory is that this gets people along to the site, they sign up for the newsletter and they maybe take a look around. What's fascinating is watching the newsletter signups come in - and how quick the competition entering information circuit is to respond. There are a number of websites run for people who enjoy entering competitions. It was quite clear that, around 6 hours after the competition went live, our little venture was listed on one of these sites.

Usually about one person a day signs up for the newsletter. Suddenly they were flooding in. Around 50 signed up on the first evening, and this rate continued through the next day. This isn't quite as good as it sounds - a fair number were signed up already from previous competitions. Even so, within 24 hours the newsletter had around 100 new subscribers.

The good news is, this does involve some exposure. Occasionally one of those new subscribers will see something that interests them, either on the site or in the newsletter. They'll take a moment to look around and see what's available. But I suspect that this is relatively rare. Most competition enterers (compers for short) absolutely rattle through their entries. Using a competitions website, they can jump to dozens of competitions in a spare half hour. There just isn't time to look at the what they're entering. So the site itself doesn't get much of a look-in. And though the newsletter may get more of a glance, it may well be deleted without reading.

So are competitions worthwhile? Probably. They do draw some attention that sticks. But I wouldn't put a lot of your time (and particularly money) into them, because there's a lot of churn along the way.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

It's elementary, my dear Crookes

Many countries are honoured in the periodic table. There’s americium, germanium, polonium, and francium, to name but a few. Usually these place names reflect where their discoverer worked. But despite the number of elements first isolated in England – ten were found at the Royal Institution in London alone – there is no englandium, unitedkingdium or brittanium. However, there is europium, which allows for the possibility of a UK discoverer.

Find out who really discovered it, and more, with the latest chemical element in the Royal Society of Chemistry's series Chemistry in its Element.

Discover the truth about europium by listening to my podcast here.

(Why Crookes? You haven't listened, have you?)

Google ads fruit loopy

The other day I was checking my murder mystery party site www.organizingamurder.com when I noticed with a bit of a shock that the Google adverts at the top of the page had come over all literal on me. Usually they're for murder mystery parties, which makes sense. But this time they were for real detective agencies. Clearly the AI at Google reckoned there was the material of real murders on my site.

Sadly I can't prove this, as when I just looked they were back to murder mystery ads. But I have had an equally strange set of ads running on this blog. If you look at the ads for any particular post, they tend to fit reasonably well. My recent post about nettles, for instance, brought a whole rash (geddit?!) of gardening adverts.

But on a scan of the adverts for the blog as a whole, the ads alongside came up? Why? Is it the name, Now Appearing? Do they think I'm talking about the appearance of spirits? Or maybe it's my book about infinity... whatever, I can't seem to escape the psychic connection. Spooky.

(Just to be confusing, when I looked a moment ago, the ads were on blogging, but my psychic side has been coming up for several days. Maybe I should consult my horoscope.)

P.S. I've had a sudden thought. Perhaps Google can't spell physics?

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Dear Bill Gates

Imagine my surprise when I checked my PC this morning and found an email from Bill Gates! I have spoken to one or two Microsoft directors in my IT journalism days, but never his Billness, so this was really exciting. In fact, I'm so excited I'd like to share the email with you. Here it is, word for word:

FROM MR.BILL GATES (get back to me)
RE: FINANCIAL AID

Many write me for Scholarship, Sponsorship, Financial Aid, Invitation (visa Purposes), Variety of other items and Services; in as much as I would like to help I decline this request since I do not have much resources to meet them, and refer all appeal to:
The Committee of The Microsoft Promotion.

If you need my help as stated above your request shall be send to them for consideration If approved as one of the winners you will be paid the sum of $USD1,250,000.00 only.For more information write me with the following:

FULL NAME:
CONTACT ADDRESS:
DIRECT TELEPHONE NUMBER:
AGE:
OCCUPATION:
MARITAL STATUS:

For security purpose, the money will be paid to you through AUTOMATED TELLER MACHINE (ATM) to enable you make withdrawal through any of ATM at anywhere in the world.

Yours in Microsoft Corporation,
Bill W. H. Gates.


Now, call me cynical or something, but one or two points worried me about this. Why did Bill's list of reasons people wrote to him sound best read in a phony Russian accent? (Go on, try reading it aloud, it really works.)

Secondly, I know Bill is famously tight (I don't know about you, but I absolutely believe the old story about him holding up a supermarket checkout queue while he searched through his pockets for a voucher for a few cents off a purchase). Even so, I don't think that with a straight face he could write 'I do not have much resources to meet them'. I suspect his grammar is better than that too.

Finally, I'm fascinated to discover that the sum of $1,250,000 will be paid through an ATM. Let's say it issues $100 a second. That would take 3 3/4 hours to issue. Don't you think there would be a bit of a rumpus in the street? Oh, and 'Yours in Microsoft Corporation'? What's that all about?

All in all, and with much regret, I'm inclined to think that this was a fake. But just in case, if it was you, Bill, and you happen to read this, drop me an email. I'd love to hear from you.

P.S. Next time, don't use Google mail. I've heard of keeping your enemies close, but that's ridiculous.

Monday, 22 June 2009

I hate nettles

I'm sorry. I can't be politically correct about this. I hate nettles. They are evil. And to show I mean business, here's a sack of them I ripped up yesterday.

I'm sure someone reading this is thinking 'But nettles are wonderful plants. You can make lovely soup out of them, and nettle wine and nettle tea. They're eco-marvellous.' Well, I'm sorry, it's rubbish.

Just imagine I was talking about local youths: 'They take over my garden uninvited, and they hurt me. Hours after our encounter I was still in pain.' In fact, the local youths are mostly pretty nice, but that applies absolutely to nettles. If humans did what they did, they'd be arrested and sent down.

Death to all nettles.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Supermarket Sweep

Supermarkets spend ages agonizing over how they can keep customers loyal and stop them defecting to the opposition. I think they often overlook their most important selling point.

I've just zoomed around Sainsbury's in about 20 minutes, getting everything I wanted, because I know where everything is. Contrast with last week, when we happened to be near an Asda, so thought we'd do the shop there. I was lost. Some things took ages to find. Most bizarre - Branston pickle wasn't with the pickles, it was in a different aisle with the sauces. Not on, chaps, not on.

So one of the few real ways a supermarket can keep customers loyal is to stick to a layout, enabling regular customers to know where everything is. And what do they do in practice? Every few months they move things around. In supermarket lore this is supposed to increase opportunistic sales, when you notice something you weren't looking for but suddenly fancy when you see it. But in practice, what it does is really irritate the regulars.

Here's a proposal, shoppers. Next time your usual supermarket switches things around, go to that other supermarket you've always wanted to use, but couldn't get the hang of. You might as well, now you're lost anyway - and it'll teach them a lesson for messing with your familiar store.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

How I terrified my parents

Memory is a funny thing. If you take away the fake memories that are tied to photographs and videos, there are all sorts of strange snippets and cameo moments. When I was at Lancaster University, as a group of postgraduates, we discovered that the University would give a small lump some of money to any new student society. So we set up BOPOGS - the Bowland [College] Postgraduate Society, with the sole intent of spending the startup funds on having a good time.

One of our investments was a rail trip to Scotland and I can only remember two things, each a cameo moment. The first is sitting on a seaside wall, eating some of the best fish and chips I've ever had (it's always better at the seaside). The second was the train, on the way back, passing a gypsy encampment complete with horse drawn carriages and open fires - it was an illustration out of an Enid Blyton book, and it was there and then it was gone for ever.

But the cameo moment that inspired this post was the day I put a look of sheer horror on my parents' faces, totally unaware of what I was doing. I was ten and had been playing out at the front of the house. I fell off our front wall and hurt my arm a bit, so went in for a touch of sympathy - but wasn't particularly in pain.

Before I could say anything, I could see from the look on their faces that I had done something terrible, and that moment was burned into my memory. They've since told me how they felt. As I walked through the door, it was obvious I had broken my arm - it was hanging at an impossible angle. So some concern, yes, but why the horror? When my father was six, he broke his arm. It never mended. For the rest of his life it needed support. They were terrified that my arm would be the same - something that never occurred to me at the time. I was blithely ignorant (and probably just as well).

It makes me wonder, sometimes, what cameo moments we're leaving for our own children.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Riding the Google Wave

Recently Google announced a new potential product called Wave that has had the e-experts all of a flutter. It's trumpted as the next generation of email. But is this just hype?

Email goes back a long way - before the internet, for example. As soon as people were using computers in real time, rather than punching cards and waiting for a result, it became obvious that this would be a great way to flip little messages between each other. It has become more sophisticated, but the model is very much traditional mail. (The name's a bit of a clue.)

If Wave has a model, it's more a conversation with friends than the post. Instead of a mail item being something fixed, it grows over time as responses are added. It's a living thing. You can add to and edit your original mail. As you get replies these build up, real time as a visible conversation. You can insert your reply part way through someone else's mail, to respond to particular points... and if you get confused by a complex conversation you can replay it so it builds, entry by entry. You can also do instant messaging within the mail if you are simultaneously online. And you can drop photos into the 'wave', producing a kind of active photo album.

One of the really exciting features is you can embed one of these 'waves' in a blog - and the whole thing is still interactive, so blog readers can interact with it too.

It looks remarkable. My only concern is its closed nature. The thing that makes email ubiquitous is that it is so basic. You can use it on anything. It all ties together. You can use it offline and just fire off your messages when you get a connection. Wave is different - it is inherently locked into Google's servers. You can't see your mail unless you are connected to the internet. Of course, in principle, you could have an offline copy, but this loses the whole interactive aspect. And there is no integration with history. I make a lot of use of my old emails, going back years - Wave is totally separate, it's inherently web based.

Will it catch on? I don't know. You will still have to use conventional email for communication with everyone who isn't using Wave - I guess a Wave user could have interface into his Wave client, but then you would be confused as to who you could and couldn't use the Wave features with.

As is so often with great new ideas, the biggest problem is not the benefits the idea delivers, it's how we get from here to there.

Here's a video demo of Wave - you might want to skip over the first bit. Or read more at wave.google.com

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

That Segway moment

Back in 2001 there was a huge buzz in the air. What would it be? Something, with the baffling codename 'Ginger' was coming out and it was going to be huge. It would revolutionize transport. Whole cities would be designed around it. What was it? The Segway PT.



What followed when the product was produced was pitiful sales after a vast investment and huge hype. Why? The backers must have all been asking 'Why aren't people buying it?' They were asking the wrong question. The real puzzle was 'How could anyone fool themselves into thinking people would buy it?'

The Segway had a triple whammy against it. First was the price. Who would pay the cost of a good motorcycle (or even a cheap car) for a high speed kids' scooter, however technically advanced? Second was where to use it. Until someone bothered to design those cities around it, the Segway just didn't work in most environments. Finally there was the prat factor. As the Mall Cop movie (and NASCAR clip above) demonstrates wonderfully, anyone using a Segway looks totally silly.

I'd suggest the people behind it were fooled by the 'It works for me' syndrome. These were likely to be multi-millionaires - so the price wasn't important, and it was wonderful for riding round their 200 acre estate. They were probably technical enthusiasts - the technology that makes it work is great. And, well, they were geeks - so, hey, appearance isn't everything. They loved it. But who would really buy one? Sadly there wasn't a large enough market of multi-millionaire, techie geeks.

We can laugh at the Segway - but remember this next time you write a book, or dream up a great product that you love. Are you having a Segway moment?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Can you really build an author platform?

Something authors hear more and more about is the need to build a platform. While the image this conjures up may involve putting the author on a pedestal in Trafalgar Square, the idea is rather that publishers are beginning to realize that the pitiful budgets they have available for promotion simply aren't enough to get a book visible. In most cases, it's now down to the author's own visibility to pull people towards the book.

There's an element of truth in this, but there's also an assumption. Can you build a platform, or is it something you have (or don't have) anyway?

Obvious platforms include being a celebrity, or doing the kind of public speaking job that puts you in front of tens of thousands of people each year. Yes, we can see the value of a platform then. But what about the ordinary person who happens to have written an excellent book? Can you start from scratch, or are you doomed?

The message is mixed. There's good news and bad. The good news is you can build a platform to a degree. The bad news is that it may take a long time, and you may never get very far.

In the end, there's a lot of luck involved. Forget those who tell you they have a magic route to visibility. They're like the people who told you they would magically increase the value of your money (or your house) every year, without fail. They are riding on luck. Instead, I'm afraid, it's a matter of backbreaking (or at least carpal tunnel breaking) work - hammering away at as many means of exposure as possible.

So it means taking up every opportunity for publicity, constantly looking for new ways to appeal to the media. And making the most of your internet exposure. Blogging, yes. Using Twitter if you like (though don't expect wonders). And best of all, if possible, finding a way to get exposure that gives added value. Few people (apart from your Auntie Violet) are going to be interested in a website that's about you. At least to begin with. But if you can set up a really good website about (say) pandas, the best panda website in the world, you are going to draw people in - and then you truly are starting to build a platform. (Assuming you want to write about pandas.)

Your blog/web site/whatever has to be interesting in its own right, and just incidentally happens to give you exposure. Perhaps more important still, you have to really want to communicate about pandas (or whatever). It's not enough to stick in a bit of panda material around a core of 'I'm wonderful'. You should truly care about pandas, or find something else to help build your platform.

I'm not saying you can't do it. I'm not saying don't do it. But be aware, be very aware, that this could take a huge amount of time and effort... and in the end it's luck that will probably swing things your way, or the other.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The curse of Desktop Publishing

No one really talks about Desktop Publishing any more - certainly not with capital letters. We just do it.

The youngsters amongst you won't remember the thrill in the mid-to-late 80s of using Aldus Pagemaker. We had a dedicated PC at work with a massive screen (well, it seemed massive - I think it was 20 inch) just for Pagemaker wrangling. It was a whole new world when compared with word processing - you could lay things out, make beautiful documents, just like in a real publication.

Now, of course, it's commonplace, and though there are still DTP packages around, most of us can do all we need with a word processor. There isn't really a separate concept of desktop publishing. We all do fancy layout.

And there, I'd suggest, lies the source of a small but sad development in our culture. When I was little, if you got a certificate, it was something special. You'd put it in an album or on your wall. You'd be proud of it. Now, certificates are so easy to knock up, that you can get one for turning up at school with your shoelaces tied. Or for wiping your nose correctly. They're so easy to make, they've been devalued. They come home crumpled up in schoolbags and half the time we don't even get shown them.

Of course, it could just be that our children are getting older... but my suspicion is that certificates are now too common because they are too easy to make. {END GRUMPY OLD MAN MODE}

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Can fiction educate?

I've just reviewed a very interesting book - Pythagoras' Revenge by Arturo Sangalli.

It's a novel... but its aim is more that of a popular maths book. Although there is a storyline and characters, it explains quite a lot of maths along the way.

In previous posts I've looked at books that were science books without being science fiction - whether it was the lab lit of Experimental Heart and Tangled Roots or the nuclear energy thriller Rad Decision. This book is slightly different - where they have a science setting and incidentally get across some of the science, this explicitly sets out to be a vehicle to educate as well as entertain.

It's a mixed bag - I wasn't particularly impressed with it as a novel, and occasionally it just goes into information dump mode - yet despite this, I'd say it was a success. The fact is, it was a lighter read than a traditional popular science/maths book. It did make me want to read on, like fiction does.

I think there are some real opportunities for doing this kind of thing even better in the future.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Whatever happened to Hi-Fi?

I accused my agent of being a hi-fi geek the other day, because his sound recording equipment has a valve in its amplifier. He made the observation that no one bothers about hi-fi anymore, and it got me thinking - as is all too often true, he's right.

When I was at university I had individual component hi-fi. I had big, chunky speakers, which I carefully positioned so that I got a good stereo field when sitting in the right place. My first decent speakers were heavy. I know this because I lugged those Monitor Audio beauties all the way from the specialist shop near the railway station to my college - and anyone who knows Cambridge knows that this is a serious walk to be carrying speakers with the approximate weight of a large dog.

Now, what you see is what I've got. A titchy Sony mini system, which I've not even bothered to separate the speakers on. And half the time the input is coming from that little box on top, which feeds MP3s or WMAs from my PC via the wireless network - so degraded quality sound too. If I'm not listening to that it's direct from the PC, with its silly little speakers, or on iPod earbuds.

Some will blame the iPod for this. It's certainly true of the next generation - my daughters happily listen to music on an iPod or phone's speakers, which is just too tinny for me. But that's not why I abandoned the chunky stereo. The fact is, I don't sit down and listen to music any more. I have it on in the background sometimes, but it's very rare that I dedicate time to purely listening to an album. I just can't be bothered.

Somewhere along the line there has been a psychological shift - and I don't think it's just in me (and my agent). Music has become so ubiquitous, and there's so much choice available at the click of a mouse, that it doesn't seem worth giving full attention to anything less than a full scale, live gig. I don't know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I can feel a touch of nostalgia for the old days... but I have a sneaking suspicion that I prefer things the way they are now.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Are you reading the runes right in these difficult times?

After the furore over the legal action involving Simon Singh and recent developments in that area I wonder if there are other opportunities for a rational backlash. I offer without comment and in full the following press release I received yesterday:

More and More Business Owners are turning to Psychics

Russell Grant Astrology, the leading authority in over 30 years of Astrological advice has been nurturing a carefully selected team of Psychics and Mediums for some time now - selected from the best psychics throughout the UK; only a very small percentage of readers who ask to join the team are ever accepted after various tests from Russell himself and members of his team.

1 in 3 calls used to be regarding a love related matter - until it was evident over the past few months that more and more business owners have been calling up to get advice during this tough climate; Russell’s psychic team at http://www.russellgrantpsychics.co.uk state.


Using psychics and mediums for business use is not unusual, in fact they are usually employed to suss out prospective employees, solve mysteries within the workplace or indeed work hand in hand with astrologers and Financial Directors to plot the business moving forward.


“Many worried self-employed men and women have been calling me during the past few weeks” one Psychic commented, “I was very pleased to be able to guide a number of people into opening their minds to other avenues within their businesses to limit the losses they have been facing over the past few months”.


Turning a business around in a recession is a very difficult task - especially when you have the added financial pressure; it is difficult to think logically and this usually results in Crisis Management - additional stress for the main person involved which leads to all other illnesses, relationship issues and so on.


In addition, it has been reported that Church ministers have seen a significant rise in attendance amongst bankers, analysts and other city workers at the lunchtime services within the financial districts in London.


During these very uncertain times, whether it’s Psychics, Astrologers or Religion that you seek solace in, it certainly can’t do any harm… so here’s to giving it a try.


Boggle.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Adieu Personal Computer World

This is a farewell, not to PC World the retailer, which is just fine, but to the magazine Personal Computer World, which sadly is following PC Magazine into the ether.

It was a fine, really solid (and chunky) magazine that had an excellent balance of technical know-how and practical, application driven approach. It was the generalist of the computing magazines, the broad market number. It wasn't aimed at newbies or at heavy duty techies, but the wide sphere of readership, and it did what it did very well.

I wrote the business column for Personal Computer World for a number of years and really enjoyed doing so. Anyone in the UK of a certain age with an interest in using computers is likely to remember the magazine fondly.

You may wonder why I've used such an old fashioned cover shot. It's from the issue that would have been on the newsstands 10 years ago. And just for fun, here's my column from that issue - the photograph makes a passport photo look good, I fear. It's not my best column, but it seemed the right one to include. (Incidentally, Word still doesn't put business name into an address, something I was moaning about 10 years ago.)

Another casualty. Another milestone. I'm feeling old.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

To infinity and beyond

I occasionally discuss books here, and one or two people have asked me to put something about one of my own - so this is a brief dip into Infinity, one of my favourites, with a free sample of the actual thing thrown in.

We human beings have difficulty with infinity. Philosophers and mathematicians have gone mad contemplating its complexity - and yet it is a concept that is routinely used by schoolchildren. In looking at infinity, I explored the borderland between the extremely large and the ultimate, from Archimedes counting the grains of sand that would fill the universe to the possibilities of a physical reality for the infinite.

What delighted me when writing the book is that the history of infinity was a surprisingly human subject. Whether it was St Augustine contemplating the nature of creation, Newton and Leibniz battling over ownership of calculus, or Cantor struggling to publicize his vision of transfinite numbers, infinity's fascination was as much with the characters involved as the maths they were wrestling with.

Perhaps best of all, infinity is full of paradox. One of my favourite paradoxes of infinity, covered in the book, is a simple mathematical structure called Gabriel's Horn. It has the bizarre property of having a finite volume, but an infinite surface area. You can fill the whole thing up with just pi units of paint... but you can never finish painting the outside.

I've uploaded the first two chapters of the book so you can read it for free. Or if you'd like to read more you can find the book at Amazon.co.uk and at Amazon.com.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Should blogs be censored?

Although this is now my 'real' blog, I started blogging elsewhere, on Nature Network (and I still occasionally post here at my old blog, where it's a purely sciencey topic). Nature Network is an excellent environment for people in the science arena to share information, set up by company behind the world's leading science journal.

However, recently, a Nature Network blogger has been censored. One of his posts was pulled by the management. Ironically, it was a post that was inspired by the current attempt by the British Chiropractic Association to sue Simon Singh for libel because he referred to a claim as bogus.

I have seen the original post, and I can see why the management was nervous. It mentions several individuals, mostly big name scientists, who are either trading on their name to make money on products that make dubious scientific claims, or leading people astray (in the blogger's opinion). However, it's worth saying that the suggestions that worried the management have all been made elsewhere (one of them on this blog), especially on Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science blog.

On the one hand, I can see that the management at Nature Network don't want trouble for themselves or for the blogger in question - but equally this seems to play into the hands of those who want to use the UK's outrageous libel laws to suppress science and personal opinion. There is a campaign to get this changed - you can sign a petition to this effect and read more about it here.

If Nature Network's actions interest you, you can see the reactions of the bemused blogger here, the response of the NN management here (and it's rumoured you can see the original post here).

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Seated one day at the organ

No, I haven't gone post crazy, this is Sunday's post, early.

A number of people made nice remarks when a while ago I featured a video of John Keys, the organist who plays on the recordings I sell from my church music site, at work.

So just for fun, here's more of John in action. A bit of subtle stuff with Ride of the Valkyries:


Playing Purcell's Voluntary on Old Hundredth:


Giving us an extract from Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks:


And with Cocker's jubilant Tuba Tune:


all on the remarkable Binns organ at Nottingham's Albert Hall.

The blood of the Irish

Several times when I was a boy I was told how my grandmother on my mum's side was born in Ireland - but she wasn't Irish, she was born in the barracks in Cork. It came of something as a shock, then, when I mentioned this about 30 years later and my mother casually commented 'Oh no, that was a joke. Of course she was Irish.'

It was like a sudden shift in my picture of reality. A part of me belonged to that wonderful, vibrant country. I was a quarter Irish. (Then I realized I'd been a bit slow in ever believing the tale about my Catholic grandma, whose name before marriage was Eileen Mulligan.)

It significantly changed how I looked at myself - I was delighted.

Perhaps what's most surprising is just how much attitudes had changed in a generation. To my mum's generation, being half Irish was something to keep quiet about. To me, having Irish roots was something to celebrate. I've been to Ireland a couple of times since (though not yet to Cork) - and a part of me knew it was going home.

Friday, 5 June 2009

How to put off Twitter followers

If you haven't a clue what Twitter is, read the bit in italics at the bottom first!

Most users of Twitter want more followers. I won't say it's quite an obsession, but they watch the number of followers as assiduously as authors track their books' Amazon rankings. However, a surprising number of Twitter users don't seem to think through how they tweet to make sure they are encouraging potential new followers.

Whenever someone starts following me - or I see an interesting comment retweeted - I take a look at that person's recent tweets. Two things particularly put me off following them. One is if their recent tweets are dominated by replies. A few replies are interesting - it gives the reader a chance to check out new people. But a whole string of replies starts to become a barrier to getting any feel for the person's twittering. Secondly I'm put off if the majority of the tweets are just 'I did this' or 'buy my stuff'. I don't mind the occasional bit of self-promotion - we all do it - but too much and it becomes tedious.

So get the balance right. If you've done a couple of replies, slip in an interesting link or a spot of wit or a great observation. If you've encouraged people to take a look at your product, tell them about something completely different. You only have a few seconds while I (and other potential followers) scan down your recent tweets to capture our attention. And because you never know when a new follower is about to check you out, you need to keep this pattern going. Of course you might not want followers, and that's fine. But if so, you're in the minority.

You can follow me - I'm @brianclegg - if you like what you see.

Twitter is often described as 'micro-blogging'. Like a blog it's posted to the world - anyone can read what you say - but you are limited to 140 characters. Despite this restriction it is proving a powerful means of communication, more open than a social network like Facebook, and providing a continuity through the day that isn't possible with a conventional blog. Twitter really takes off when updated from a mobile phone.

Broadly twittering splits into three types. 'What I'm eating' - an update on what you're up to, only really interesting to friends unless you are a celebrity twitterer like @stephenfry, 'witty observation' - something interesting or amusing that strikes you (here a camera phone can be particularly effective as you can link to a picture), and 'interesting finding on the net' - with a suitable link.


You can get a Twitter account (it's easy and free) at www.twitter.com

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Seventies music mythbusting

For a long time I've been puzzled by the assertion that seventies music was rubbish. (Clothes, yes, that I'll admit.) Much of my favourite music originated in the 1970s - I couldn't see why people were so snide about it.

It's only recently I've realized the reason for this. Seventies pop music was garbage. Truly awful. (But then that's true for the pop of most decades.) Seventies rock music, which is what I'd always listened to, was a whole different kettle of fish.

I'm not going to burden you with a huge list, but think of Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis. Or, with a lighter touch, 10cc and Supertramp. If you're feeling a little folky, how about Jethro Tull, Al Stewart and Simon & Garfunkel? Or for sheer style, the remarkable music produced by Curved Air at their best. I think, if I had to pick my top three albums ever they would be Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, Supertramp's Crime of the Century and Curved Air's Second Album.

Of course it's still possible to attack music of that period. Some of it was overblown, grandiose and self-important. (But then, have you ever listened to Wagner?) Other examples were failed experiments. But much of it was great in a way that has rarely been equalled.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Being more creative about making money

Sometimes I see a business that is just throwing money away, and it's quite sad. This happened on my recent excursion on the Oriana. There's a group of photographers on board who capture assorted meaningful moments, providing pictures at prices ranging from £5.95 for a gangway shot to £14.95 for the posh formal night snaps. The day after they are taken (and for the rest of the voyage), these are displayed for you to buy. So they've invested all the time and effort in producing the shots. Some people buy them, some don't. At the end of the voyage I saw them taking down literally hundreds of photographs to throw away.

You might think they could be more creative by only printing the photos that are wanted. These are digital photographs - so they could have lots of screens you can scan through the photos with and choose the ones you want. They could even automate the payment for them, as everyone on the ship has a mag stripe/barcode ID card used for all onboard purchases. But I'm not sure if screens sell as well as real photos - and many passengers are elderly and might not like the technology.

However there is a way they could squeeze more money out of the punters. Compare the photographers with an airline. Both are selling a commodity that loses all value after a certain point in time - when the plane takes off, or when the punters leave the ship. Airlines maximize income from those seats by selling off anything left at the last minute for low prices. So rather than throw away those revenue opportunites, why not sell off prints on the last morning at greatly reduced prices - say £2 instead of £14.95? I'd have bought some.

At this point you are probably spotting a flaw in the idea. But almost all new ideas have flaws. The essential of creativity is not to dismiss the idea out of hand, but to grow it into something better. The problem is, why would anyone buy at full price, if they could get the photos at a fraction of the cost on the last day? The reason this isn't a problem for airlines is that by buying at full price you're guaranteed a seat - by waiting for standby (or whatever) you may well not fly. Most people don't do it, but it fills up some seats.

So apply the same probability restriction to the photos. Randomly dispose of a proportion of the photos before making the cheap offer. This way, if you really want a photo you will have to buy it at full price. But if you wouldn't have bought it and it happens to be one of the chosen few, you may will pay up the small amount. It would be necessary to experiment with percentage sizes to see how risky you have to make it - I suspect you could get away with leaving 1/2 or 1/3 of the photos for sale - but once you'd established this, you would be printing money. Snaps anyone?

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The Edwardian Diet

I'm back in action and refreshed, in part from my absence from the e-world and in part from a holiday - we've been on a cruise. It might seem I was cheating in saying I was voluntarily withdrawing from the internet for a while, but thanks to the wonders of satellite communications I could have stayed connected while on-board - I guess it made staying offline a lot easier, though.

Life on the Oriana made me think of what it must have been like to be one of the Edwardian gentry. A constant round of meals, punctuated by assorted entertainments and strolls around exotic places. In fact, it made me wonder why our current obesity epidemic wasn't happening 100 years ago among the rich.

After all, by the time you've had a cooked breakfast including those country house essentials devilled kidneys, a heaped buffet lunch (cold collation, my dear), perhaps afternoon tea, a five or six course dinner and attempted to resist the always available service to produce a little something more to eat, the pounds are bound to pile on. And this is day after day. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It was a great holiday. But how did they manage to live like this all the time and not blow up like airships? Any suggestions gratefully accepted.