Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Update from the front

It's hell here right now. The skip has left. The eBay sales and Freecycles have gone... and still every room is full of stuff that hasn't been boxed up. It's not so much the organized stuff - the books, or clothes, or crockery, it's the assorted bits and pieces of debris that slip into the cracks of existence.

The computer was packed this morning (sob). Now only the emergency laptop remains. Soon we will be carving our own bits and bytes from driftwood...

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Farewell to the Village People

After 13 years of living in a village, with all that implies, we are about to move to somewhere more urban in feel.

It's a move with mixed emotions. I'm going to miss the friendly conversations in the Post Office and the near-impossibility of walking down the street without saying 'hello' to at least one person you know - I'll miss the community. I'm going to miss a house that has become like a comfortable piece of old clothing. And I'll miss the instant country walks.

On the other hand we'll have shops and cafes in walking distance (which would have included Borders until the swines closed it down), a very different atmosphere, new places to walk - and we will be constantly popping back, as we're only 15 minutes drive away.

Because of the move, this blog will be rather intermittent for the next two to three weeks. Bear with me. Normal service will resume again. But for the moment, who's for a rousing chorus of YMCA?

Friday, 24 July 2009

My life as a lumper bumper

When I was a student, I worked two summers in a chemical lab - the only time I've ever worked in a real lab, albeit a commercial one. It was at a factory that processed organic chemicals - and to be honest it was very much the B lab. The A lab was the research & development people who dreamed up processes and products (they devised the original fabric conditioner). Our job in the inwards lab was to check the quality of raw materials before they were allowed into the factory.

The part of the job I remember best was being the lumper bumper (no, I don't know why it was called this). I did this my first summer in the lab, though the second summer there was someone junior to me, so he got the job. The main raw materials the factory used were fats and oils. Several times a day a tanker, like an oil tanker, would turn up. I would have to pull on an overall and head off to meet it.

I then had to climb up on top of the tanker, open a port on the top and lower in a cunning device which enabled me to take samples from different depths in the tanker. With a mix of top, middle and bottom layers poured into my bucket, I then had to trudge back to the lab to do a series of tests on colour, pH and more.

The worst tankers were the tallow tankers - liquid animal fat, kept hot enough to stay liquid. It stank, and the ladders were always coated with it, making them dangerously slippy, especially in the rain. The best was coconut oil. It smelled wonderful, and was great for your hands.

There was a lot of titration involved, I remember, though I can't dig out the details of what we were titrating for.

It wasn't my favourite part of the job. This was going down to the adjacent canal several times a day and taking water samples above and below the factory to see if anything had escaped. It was just rather nice, being paid to take a stroll along the canal. Having said that, I did enjoy (in a masochistic way) the rare days when the incoming materials were substandard, and I had to go and tell a big tanker driver he wasn't allowed to make his delivery.

The sad postscript to this is that I drove past the factory site, at Littleborough near Rochdale, a year or so ago and it was in the process of being demolished. The whole thing, that vast site was disappearing. When I passed again this spring it was blank earth. My entire experience had been erased. But I won't forget being a lumper bumper.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

A website name to wind up the French

My business creativity training website has a three letter name - I'm always half expecting offers to buy it up, as short names are rare on the interweb. It's a simple enough name, the initials of the company, Creativity Unleashed Limited, but for many years it resulted in my carrying a French disclaimer on the site. The reason was a bizarre email I received way back in 1997. It claimed to be the result of an automatic translation, though I've never been sure if this was the case, or if it was a wind-up. Either way, for your delectation, this is the email I received:

Please allow the transfer, I use a mechanical software because I very English of cannot. On the 14éme, in the porque one, I slap a search with the form returned www.cul.co.uk.

Then to say to you, cul is a bad French word? It average rest-on the flesh of the rectum of anybody. Since this, cannot think you the need to want the nation French with the arrangement of creative. Thus I give to help in all fraternity, to think please for the change.

Familiar the most pleasant

Henri.


I expressed my concern (also using an automatic translator), pointed out it was the initials of the company and that I used an umlaut on the logo, which hopefully meant it wouldn't be misunderstood - and got another amusing reply:

Brian Estimable

The considerable thanks of you answer. You software for the language is improved much that my kind of shareware - where is to be found.

It is now possible to include/understand the reason of the bad word. Internet is problematic with much pornographique available if the button supported on danger pressed. I do not require to see the French bottom of erotic principle of Alta-Vista that www.cul.co.uk accidental gives. Families with the small particular person in danger.

Since the text of slit into type is vanilla, umlauf nonvisible. Is very the easy error in time forwards with the European of the trade unions.

Better to speak friends than the argument of the football which recent English have.

pleasantries

Henri


So for a long time I had a Frence apology on the site, but in the end decided it really wasn't a huge problem that the French nation would read cul.co.uk as arse.co.uk - after all, many of us in the UK live in a cul-de-sac - which must sound pretty worrying in French too...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Back in the quantum again

I'm delighted to discover that my book on quantum entanglement, The God Effect is now out in paperback. Due to a bit of dodgy scheduling, the hardback ran out before the paperback was available, so it's wonderful to have it back.

In case you aren't quite up on quantum entanglement, this is about the weirdest thing in all of science. Einstein dreamed it up as a way of demonstrating that quantum theory had to be rubbish, because obviously nothing so strange could happen - but Einstein was proved wrong. It makes it possible to produce unbreakable codes, to build computers that can solve problems our current best would take the lifetime of the universe to get through and even to produce Star Trek-like matter transmitters. It even sounds like it could make time travel work, though in reality this proves impractical.

The book also has my most commented-on title. I have been accused of picking it 'just to get attention.' Well, yes, that's what a book's title is for. In fact it reflects the way that an elusive particle called the Higgs boson has been called the god particle (even by the likes of New Scientist).

You can find out more about The God Effect here - or get hold of a copy from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Floosybell48 responds

I have a number of mailing lists, notably the list for the Popular Science website, as a result of which I see a string of random email addresses. What I really can't get the hang of is the number of people who resort to silly names. For every brianclegg@ or suziesmith@ there are two or three sexkitten384@ and fatbutfun33@s.

Several things strike me about this. Why would you possibly want to have a silly name for your email? Every time you tell someone you are going to be embarrassed. ('Hello, Miss Smith. This is the Inland Revenue. Could we have your email address to send your tax details? Erm, pardon? How do you spell that? Do what to a ferret? {Snigger}.') You might as well wear a tea cosy on your head.

Another striking thing is how many of these silly names end in a number. This means one thing and one thing only. Lots of other people have picked the same silly name. Now it's one thing to be called wetwipe, but it's another to be wetwipe342. People try to pick memorable numbers - but these are usually only memorable to them, so of limited use. (A worryingly large percentage on my mailing lists go for 666.)

No doubt the people who have these names will say they do it for fun. Why not? Well, yes. But it's hard not to suspect that they are lacking in self esteem (or have a very common name). Many of these email addresses seem more camouflage than fun.

grumpyoldman3921 has spoken.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Being a lifeline

I see Who Wants to be a Millionaire is back on the TV. Leaving aside the obvious appeal of winning a million, the most interesting aspect of this show, making it subtly different from a straight general knowledge quiz, is the ability to play lifelines - 50:50 (dropping two wrong answers), ask the audience and phone a friend. That third option particularly causes some interest. What's going on at the other end of the line? Is that person locked in a room away from the internet to avoid cheating?

I can reveal all - I have been a phone-a-friend.

I have to admit it's a stressful thing to do, in some ways more stressful than appearing on the show itself. You receive a call from the studios telling you that your friend is going into the chair. You are asked not to use anything to look things up - but that's as far as the security goes. In practice, I was seated in front of a computer because I was using the phone in my office, but I had no intention of using it. And you are asked to sound surprised when Chris Tarrant calls. A bit hokey, that bit, but hey.

You are then asked to wait for a call. If the phone rings, to leave it for a set number of rings before answering. And the waiting begins. It really was one of the most tense 20 minutes of my life. Eventually, the phone rang. I left it the requisite number of rings. 'Here we go,' I thought. But instead of Chris Tarrant's voice, it was the producer. 'It's okay, they've finished,' he said. 'You can stand down.'

It was, perhaps, strangest of all to watch Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire about six weeks later and see the period of time I was hanging on the phone. They did phone a friend - but not me. It wasn't a science question, which I suspect I was being held for. The sad thing is, the person they rang didn't know the right answer (it was about the meaning of palindrome) and I did. But such is life.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Underground, overground, cycling free

We're in the process of having a good clear out before moving house. My natural inclination (being tight) is to stick things we don't want on eBay, but there are some items that would require too much effort to make saleable, yet still really aren't ready for the skip.

We had four children's bikes of various sizes. They'd all been in the garage for a good few years, so needed a bit of TLC - cleaning, tyre checking, chain cleaning and the like. Not really good enough for eBay. But help was at hand with Swindon Freecycle.

This is a cunning plan that (I think) originated in the US. You advertise items you don't want on a local online bulletin board. People come and take them away. The unwanted goods get used, rather than scrapped - it's great for the environment, and someone gets something for free. Genuinely everyone wins.

I'd been aware of this for a while, but this was the first time I'd tried it - and it was stunningly effective. Within 5 hours of listing the bikes, they'd gone. And I don't mean we'd had an email from someone who might want them - they had physically left the premises. Brilliant!

So next time you're considering sending something that's usable or do-up-able to landfill, give a consideration to Freecycle. Our local Swindon one is here - otherwise, head over to the Freecycle website and put in your town name. Uncle Bulgaria would be proud.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Petty people

Mostly the British are very generous people, but what is it about turning in their drives? Are they worried the tarmac will wear out?

Weird. At least it says 'please'.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Organ donors

Tradition is a big thing in a small village - but it doesn't always have the right answer. I want to illustrate this with the strange case of the village organ.

Our village church, pictured here, is ancient (though a mere whippersnapper compared to some of its neighbours as it's only six or seven hundred years old), and in it, as is often the case with British village churches, sits a battered and indifferent organ (see below). It's in serious need of overhaul, and the community is in the process of raising £30,000 to give it a serious working over. Fine and good and an excellent display of community spirit. But I would question whether it really should be done up.

Tradition says 'Of course, it must! Churches always have organs!' Well, yes. Though the vast majority of this church's life it won't have done. Until Victorian times, only the big churches and cathedrals had organs - villages like ours would have got along nicely with a village band of whatever instruments came to hand. (Funnily, the modern 'worship group', so despised by the traditionalist, is probably closer to this tradition than an organ.)

In fact, I'm not against having an organ. It's one of the few instruments that one person can play and really fill a building like that - and it sounds right. But what I do doubt is whether it's worth refurbing a never-particularly-brilliant pipe organ. I would at least give serious consideration to spending the money on a decent modern electronic church organ. These aren't like the things granny had in the parlour - they make a serious noise, indistiguishable by most from the real thing, and for that kind of money you'd get one with much more range than our current organ (which can't, for instance, manage that wedding favourite Widor's Toccata), a much wider selection of stops and much less ongoing maintenance. (Tuning? Pah!) It could be fitted in the existing cabinet, keeping the pretty pipes and all.

I could be wrong. But no one asked me, so I thought I'd say anyway.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Why isn't wireless music taking off?

I am totally baffled by the British public.

I did consider leaving that as my entire post. It has a certain succinctness to it - but perhaps it's a little obscure without more detail. What I don't understand is why wireless music isn't more popular. These days you can buy a neat little box to go with your stereo. A couple of mystical passes and a wireless network, and this little box will let your stereo play every single track you've got squirrelled away on your PC - in my case the equivalent of around 300 CDs. You can pick and choose as you like from your collection, or use a playlist for (say) randomly selected Christmas music or music for dinner parties.

It's easy, painless - and you just won't want to go back to CDs once you've done it. Yet rather than taking off, these devices seem, if anything, to be scarcer now than they were a year ago. Pinnacle which sold the device I use (the one in the picture) is pulling out of the market. You can find a dozen or so devices on Amazon, but there are really only a couple of brands. And instead of becoming cheaper - we should be seeing sub £50 devices by now - they are, if anything, dearer.

I have a suspicion of an answer to my own question. Whenever I propose a piece on wireless technology to the various lifestyle magazines I write for, they always say 'Ooh, it's a bit leading edge, isn't it?' or 'Much too techie hardcore for us.' Yet my wife hates trailing cables and surely can't be alone in loving the wireless connection. And lots of people have wireless internet in the home these days.

One other problem is that most of the manufacturers that are out there have been stupidly proprietary. They each have their own bit of server software to run on the computer to feed the music to their boxes. Pinnacle was much more sensible about this - they used software that comes with the PC, so you don't have to install anything... but then it's Pinnacle that are giving up.

It's so depressing. It works! It's brilliant! Do it. Now.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The early inhabitants of our garden

We live on the edge of the Wiltshire downs, and these days, apart from birds and creepy crawlies (you can tell I'm not a biologist), the living things we see out there are mostly rabbits (the photo was taken a few days ago, from the window), occasional foxes and very occasional badgers.

However, this chalk escarpment was, of course, once under water, and when we had to dig rather a long way into the chalk some while ago it was difficult to move for fossils of ancient sea creatures. Unfortunately, being chalk, many of them were broken, but I wanted to share a couple of the best preserved.

I'm not sure if I like the sense of continuity, or I'm slightly unnerved by the idea of these things swimming around outside my study window...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The importance of historical context

I've just reviewed a book with the catchy title The Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-Baker. (The book's name is a play on Richard Dawkins' most famous book, The Selfish Gene - Elsdon-Baker makes it clear she considers him neither selfish nor a genius.)

The book neatly exposes the limitations of Dawkins' particular version of evolution and the negative effect his attacks on other people's beliefs has on science communication. (For another review of the book, and an example of how Dawkins' fanatical followers are rather like religious fundamentalists in the comments it received, see Dawkins' website.)

Now, generally speaking, I rather like the book - but it does at one point forget the importance of historical context, even though context is essential if you are to understand science. To be fair, the error seems to be Wittgenstein's as much as Elsdon-Baker's.

She is describing the way a sudden change of view in science (the process that Kuhn gave that really irritating label, a paradigm shift) involves a transformation in the way of looking at things, not necessarily a huge change in the underlying data:

A famous anecdote about Wittgenstein illustrates this quite well. Wittgenstein apparently once asked one of his students why people would ever have thought the sun went round the earth, rather than the other way around. The pupil reportedly answered 'Because it look as if the sun goes round the earth,' to which Wittgenstein posed the question 'And how would it look if the earth went around the sun?' Of course the answer is that it would look exactly the same.


No it wouldn't. This totally misunderstands the situation. The student was right. But the reason that early civilizations thought the sun went around the earth was because of the earth's rotation, not because of its movement around its orbit. They thought the sun went around the earth once a day. Later on, as early science developed and it become obvious there was a more subtle motion that could equally have been interpreted as the earth going around the sun or the sun around the earth, the mindset was already there from that early model that the earth was fixed and the sun moved around.

With that context, there's no 'of course' about it. Context might not be everything, but it helps a lot.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Mine's a pint

These days I'm more inclined to go for a meal to a pub that does good food, rather than a restaurant. One of the main reasons for this is the matter of beer. I believe that a good glass of draught bitter is better with a fair number of foods - red meat, game, pies, sausages, offal - than pretty well any wine. Yet most restaurants simply don't serve decent beer. There are a number of reasons for this:
  1. Snobbery. It's considered beneath them to serve beer. I blame William the Conqueror - when the Normans invaded they introduced a class differential between wine and beer that has stuck to this day. And, of course, many restaurants have a continental European influence, and their idea of beer is lager (which itself is fine with many foods, but not in the same league).
  2. Ignorance. Your average wine waiter hasn't a clue about decent draught beers, and certainly wouldn't know how to keep one. Your best hope in most restaurants is a good bottled beer. But with bitter, the difference between a bottled beer and the stuff from a barrel is like the difference between wine from a box and wine from a bottle. These people, who sensibly wouldn't give a wine box room, are serving the equivalent in beer.
  3. Mark up. My suspicion is that this is the big one. Even in a seriously over-priced restaurant, it's hard to charge more than about £4 for a pint of beer. Wine can range from maybe £10 to £500 a bottle. Are they going to provide beer if they can get away without it? Nope.
Don't get me wrong. I'm very fond of wine. But any restaurant would be the better for hosting a good draught bitter.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Why would I want clothes taking photos?

I sometimes despair of the science and technology breakthroughs we get reported on the news. The latest to hit the BBC is that new smart fabric can detect the wavelengths and direction of the light falling on it. So immediately we get 'clothes could one day take snaps of everything occuring around them.'

This kind of thing is often partly the fault of the university press office, which churns out releases intended to catch the eye of the media, and may well have made this claim, but equally we have to raise an eyebrow at a broadcaster like the BBC. This isn't factual reporting.

The fact is, this is some interesting work, that could (probably in the rather distant future) have applications, particularly around the coordination of arrays of nanodevices. But the chances are that those applications won't be clothes that take photographs (the very thought of underwear taking snaps fills me with horror). It's a huge leap, and not necessarily a sensible one.

Yes, we need to make science writing interesting - but not by using fantasy.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Probably the best press release in the world

I've seen a lot of press releases in my time, from IT companies, consumer organizations and publishers. Frankly, most of them are really dull. (The press releases, not the companies. Well...) They try to convey a sense of excitement, but they have a staid format, and often fail to engage.

So occasionally PR companies will try something rather different to grab the attention. Some of these 'rather different's have clearly been very expensive - flash, pop-up constructions and other strange fabrications. But the best press release I've ever received was just whipped off on a standard colour printer.

Why do I think it's so special? First, it's personalized. Yes, I know this can be a bit Reader's Digest. You, Brian Clegg of Grotbottom Villas have been selected from many thousands of people to receive this press release... but here the personalization works. Second it's a different format. Not that tired old press release look. And finally it gets its message across with some humour, and in a way that encourages you to read it - which can't be bad.

I can remember nine years on what it was about (an event by Microsoft on dealing with forged products). I think the PR agency was Text100 - forgive me if it was your (different) agency. What's perhaps most remarkable is that nearly a decade later, such excellent press releases are still a rarity. Remarkable and - if you're in the business of issuing releases - a wonderful opportunity.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Being a geek has its just rewards

When I was at school I was a bit of a swot, I admit it. Now, usually, this doesn't result in immediate rewards. The geeks in the science club might be the heroes of some teen TV shows (have you noticed, cheerleaders are always evil?), but in reality life isn't like that. But just once... I want to take you back many years to when I was about 13.

It was an English class, I think. At the end, the teacher held us back. 'I need a couple of people to write letters for me,' he said. No response. Eventually I and one other did volunteer. 'What a mug,' I'm sure I heard someone mutter. Yet seconds later, they would all have their hands up, begging to take our places.

'You see,' said the English teacher, 'two Swedish girls have written to the school asking for penfriends in England. So these two will be writing to them.' No, really.

And so it began. It was a strange pen-friendship (this was before emails, children). Rather bizarrely we both quite liked science and stamps, but Ann Oldman of Skelefteå otherwise lived in a very different world. We were the same age, but they seemed... a bit more advanced over there. Not to mention having a habit of putting crowns of candles on their heads, something we rarely did in Rochdale.

It lasted a couple of years. We never met, but I still fondly remember receiving those letters - and occasionally wonder what happened to Ann Oldman.

(Science Geek t-shirts available here.)

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Will eBay win the battle of the monsters?

There was a time when Japan produced a string of monster movies featuring Godzilla battling various other monsters (Godzilla versus Mothra, Godzilla versus Ghidorah, even Godzilla versus King Kong). An email I received yesterday from eBay reminded me of the beginning of one of these epic battles, with eBay as Godzilla lining up to fight the evil designer brands.

eBay, we are told, was set up to empower the people (no, really), 'But that idea is now under threat from certain brand owners and manufacturers who are trying to turn back the clock and block the sale of their products on online marketplaces and other websites across the EU.'

Apparently these brands - and it's not just luxury items, but manufacturers of children's toys, electronic equipment, lawnmowers and pushchairs - argue they are trying to stop their products being sold on eBay to prevent the sale of counterfeits, but according to the big E, only 0.15% of listings last year were 'detected or reported as potentially counterfeit.'

While that statistic is itself a touch questionable, I do agree with eBay that this isn't about protecting against counterfeit, but an attempt to block the resale of products to keep prices artificially high. I didn't imagine I'd ever find myself siding with eBay, which can behave in an autocratic and bizarre fashion. For example, they prevented me from selling copies of my mystery party ebook Organizing a Murder because I was breaching copyright (whose?) I don't approve of people selling fakes and copies, but I do defend people's right to resell items they've bought legitimately, whether new or secondhand, and whatever its faults, eBay is a good way to do this.

So, in case you're interested, they have a petition, calling for an amendment to EU policy law. I won't include a link here, just on the off-chance there was something dubious about the email I was sent, but anyone with an eBay account should have a message in their inbox with details.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Our survey said...

Every day we are bombarded with the results of surveys. Many of these are now a rather odd breed of survey, where an organization will sponsor a survey company to produce results for a story they want to push. It's a form of editorial advertising.

The survey companies make no bones about this. If you look, for instance, at the website of OnePoll, they proclaim that they are 'survey-led news specialists.' The cutting from the Daily Mail above is a good example of their output. A survey for the National Trust was used to support the idea that children should spend more time out with their families. At National Trust sites, say. A worthy enough cause, but it is still very much manufactured news (The OnePoll sites has cuttings from the Mail, the Star and the Telegraph picking up on this story.)

But, leaving aside the doubtfulness of generating 'news' this way, do the surveys really tell us anything? How careful are they about demographic? These are online surveys, where the participants are paid to take part. How many truly make an effort to consider the questions? I suspect surveys with one or two questions will mostly get sensible answers, but surveys with 20 questions could easily result in random selection. And, of course, those who are likely to fill in surveys online tend to be an atypical slice of the population.

I've nothing against the survey companies. They're making a living. But I'm slightly more concerned that an organization like the National Trust should be taking this approach - and particularly worried that our newspapers are prepared to take this sort of thing as gospel. (No prizes for guessing which papers tend to rely most on iffy surveys.) One more reason, I suspect, for regarding newspapers purely as a form of entertainment, not as a way of gathering information.

Monday, 6 July 2009

How we'll know that banks have changed

Banks aren't the most popular institutions right now. I'd go so far as to say that they are a trifle disliked. It was fascinating watching Top Gear yesterday, when the presenters had a big crowd of bankers out in the heart of the City at London, looking at three cheap and nasty cars. They pointed out that they were doing the nation a favour, because by distracting all these people from their work, they were stopping them losing us money. The bankers laughed, as if they got the joke.

The problem at the heart of banking, I would suggest, is that they have never seen themselves as providing a service to the public. Instead, they've always seen themselves as doing the public a favour by deigning to lend us money, or keep our savings safe.

How will we know they've really changed? When bank branches are open, fully functioning, the same hours as shops. Late night shopping on a Thursday? Late night banking too, please. And when we don't witness everything stopping for the weekend. Why is it they can't process transactions over the weekend? It is, frankly, pathetic that everything grinds to a halt for 48 hours. Haven't you heard of 24/7, guys?

When we see banks really operating for our convenience, rather than their own - that's when we'll know they've got the message.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Blue skies and 22 degrees

The last few days in the UK we have had a heatwave. (There's some faffing about in high places in the Met Office, and a few chickens have to be sacrificed, or something, before it's officially a heatwave, but I was there. I can tell you, that was a heatwave.)

So what happens? First of all we're told that we're inches away from death because we're not used to the heat. Some say this doesn't make a lot of sense, because millions jet off to this kind of weather every year and survive very nicely, apart from sunburn and stomach upsets. But when you're on holiday you slow down. The danger seems to be mostly from rushing around in work mode in the heat - and that makes sense. Second, we complain. It's too hot. You can't work. You can't concentrate.

Now zoom back in time to the last couple of summers, which have been practically non-existent in the UK. What happened then? Well, we were warned of the dangers of flooding. We probably had a hosepipe ban. And everyone moaned. 'We don't get summers anymore,' they said. 'This weather's terrible.'

I have come to the conclusion that in the UK we are only happy with the weather if there are blue skies and it's 22 degrees Celsius or thereabouts. As it happens, this morning is much like that here. So for the next hour or so, I'm going to be happy. After that I'll get back to some serious moaning.

The wedding singer

I'm singing at a couple of weddings today (not on my own, you understand, with a choir). It's an enjoyable experience, and you even get paid a little bit for it. What's more, in the choir you've got the best seats in the house. The friends and family spend the service staring at the backs of the bride and groom - we get to see their faces.

The choice of hymns to sing at the wedding tends these days to be fairly limited. Perm any three from Jerusalem, All things Bright and Beautiful, Morning has Broken, Give Me Joy in My Heart, Love Divine and Lord of the Dance - and you've got the selection for around 75% of them. Things get more interesting when it comes to the signing of the register. They may have a soloist or a special request... otherwise they're likely to get one of the choir's greatest hits (not that this is necessarily a bad thing).

Some weddings don't bother with the choir, but it has a dual function of adding a bit of drama to the procession and keeping the singing going in those hymns - often these days, the congregation need a lot of help. I have sung at one where the choir proved essential. The organist didn't turn up. Everyone was panicking. How would we do the bridal procession? In the end we sung something unaccompanied as she walked in - and everyone said what an original idea it was, not realizing that the organist who played the hymns was an emergency stand-in, rapidly summoned by a whispered phone call.

In case you know anyone who isn't sure about music for a church wedding, I've set up a little web page with suggestions for music and more.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Pirate Bay plays Napster

I gather that the music and video sharing site Pirate Bay has been bought with the intention of steering it into the safe waters of legal downloading. It will probably maintain a faint presence for a while, but there are a number of reasons I'd suggest it's doomed. I ought to admit to an indirect interest here - as a writer, I can't sit back and watch people's work being stolen without feeling it's wrong. If people just copy the stuff I write without paying for it, I don't earn a living, simple as that. And I can't see the difference between doing it for words and doing it for music or video.

So why is Pirate Bay going to sink as a legitimate download site? There'll certainly be, I suspect some reluctance from the people who own the material. Pirate Bay's attitude to date has not been one to encourage them - it's hard to see what the music and video people gain by playing nice. But I think there's a double problem from the side of people who want to download the tunes.

If these were people who used to use Pirate Bay for free, why should they stick with it? They weren't there out of some kind of brand loyalty, they were there because it was free and easy. Now they'll jump ship and head for another illegal site. If, on the other hand, they're people like me, who usually pay for downloads, why would they switch to Pirate Bay? It's tainted. Damaged goods. It feels wrong to go there, even though we're told it's going to be legitimate. It was exactly the same when Napster switched from the dark side. I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole - it still was Napster. What was appealing about that?

The Pirate Bay brand has not got a lot going for it - certainly nothing to make it worth the millions that were allegedly paid for it.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Is HD just hype?

These days, most new TVs sold are 'HD ready'. This means they can display high definition, and have suitable sockets to take an HD feed. And high definition ought to be good, because it promises up to five times the picture quality. Having an HD ready set doesn't mean that the picture you see will be high definition - you need an HD source as well. This could be a Blu-Ray player (that's just an HD version of a DVD player), a Sky HD box (around 30 HD channels), a Virgin HD box (BBC iPlayer in HD) or Freesat (2 HD channels).

But is it all worth it? Does having all that extra detail make a huge difference to the picture? I'm yet to be convinced. There are two reasons for my doubts. One is that, a few years ago, I went to Sky's launch for HD. It was impressive, but something they never did was have HD and an ordinary Sky box side by side on the same type of screen to compare them. That made me suspicious. If it was so good, a side by side comparison should really demonstrate its worth. Without that, it was tempting to think 'maybe we can't see much of the benefit.'

Similarly, when I go around a TV store, I don't find myself thinking 'Oh, those are obviously HD pictures.' This amazing extra clarity doesn't jump out at you.

Now, I could be wrong. I am happy to be convinced. But I am waiting for the evidence. Someone persuade me! As the poster on X-Files said, I want to believe.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A fair picture of the Alpha course?

Channel 4, as is their want, showed an interesting, if slightly eyebrow raising documentary on Sunday about the Alpha Course, the worldwide phenomenon started by Nicky Gumbel in London that claims to give agnostics the chance to find out what life is really about through a particular religion (Christianity).

I have heard one or two moans about the way the presenter seemed to go in with a preconceived idea of how the documentary was to turn out. I was interested, as I have been on an Alpha Course, to see how his version compared with my experience.

There were several aspects that didn't ring true, though some of these may have been down to the course portrayed being a high power version at St Aldates in Oxford, where the one I attended was a small village affair, held in someone's home. Probably the most doubtful aspect was the claim that part of the course's template was to have food served by (I paraphrase) 'attractive young Christian women.' Having a meal was certainly part of it, but that's as far as it went.

However, the documentary was, I think, quite fair in picking out some of the oddities of the course. The weekend away that I attended was much lower key than the one shown and didn't involve speaking in tongues - I would have been among those who were clearly highly uncomfortable if my experience had been like the one shown.

Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, missed what was, for me, the weakest part of the course. Each session introduced a concept. In the discussion afterwards, just as in the film, concerns were voiced about some aspects of the concept, which were rarely effectively answered. But then next week, the course moves on as if the previous session has fixed all the issues. So the whole thing does seem, to me, to be built on shaky foundations.

All in all, I thought it was a surprisingly fair look at Alpha. Before each advert break there were examples of ridiculous over-hyping about how 'someone would make an amazing change' or whatever... and it should have been made clearer that the big flashy St Aldates course is not typical of the sort of thing most churches around the world do with Alpha - but I can't agree with those who think this was a hatchet job.