Thursday, 29 October 2009

The superhero element

A double bit of fun for elements fans - my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element has just come out and it's on iridium.

With a name like that it really couldn't be anything but a superhero of an element. Take a listen.

If you like this kind of thing, you might also like to take a look at the RSC's interactive periodic table, linking to the different podcasts, so you can click through to an element of your choice.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Confessions of a barbecue sauce addict

I'm no foodie, but I do enjoy a good meal and I think I can tell good stuff from bad. But I have a cullinary Achilles heel. Barbecue sauce. I only have to see 'smothered in barbecue sauce' on the menu and I want it. 'Old boot, smothered in our signature barbecue sauce,' it might read. Mmm, yes, please.

I really don't know why it is, but barbecue sauce just pushes the brain out of the way and directly engages the stomach. Maybe they used barbecue sauce back in prehistoric times and it's some kind of race memory.

However, I have to report progress. We went to T G I Friday's the other day and I managed to resist the lure of barbecue sauce, trying their Jack Daniels glaze instead. And yes, it was good* - I didn't regret it. I can do this. There is life after barbecue sauce.

* T G I Friday's please note this piece is not advertising, but I would be happy to receive free vouchers etc.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Who will buy? Quantum physics for the wealthy

I've just received my copy of Compendium of Quantum Physics, a hefty book of short articles on all sorts of aspects of quantum physics. I was sent a copy because I have a small contribution - the closest I'll ever come to having my name on an academic paper - as co-author with Professor Guenter Nimtz of the article on quantum mechanical tunneling. (If I'm honest, Prof. Nimtz wrote it, I just edited it and tweaked it a bit.)

But what I really wonder is who is going to buy this book. At Amazon.co.uk it is just under £130, while at Amazon.com you can snap it up at a bargain $157.99.

This is clearly not a popular science book. I'd say from the content that you would have to be an undergraduate physics student to get something out of it, but I can't imagine any students buying it.

I guess it's just going to be libraries, which is a shame in a way, because for the right audience (science writers, for instance) this is going to be a really useful resource - but I just can't see many people buying it at this price.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Remember, remember

We're coming up fast on 5 November, that strangest of anniversaries when in the UK we have a tendency to let off fireworks and build bonfires. (And burn effigies, but we try to play that bit down.) What seems particularly strange is that it's in celebration of the failure of an attempt to blow up parliament - in most countries it would surely be a celebration of success that would be remembered.

I wonder if it's a lack of an independence date to celebrate. After the Norman invasion we drifted into independence rather than having a particular point to mark. It's somehow not the same.

I don't suppose I will be going to a display on 5 November as I've a choir practice to run - but if anyone in the Swindon area fancies a good evening of flashes and bangs I can recommend this one.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Word of mouth goes global

There has been much comment and complaint in the electronic world as a result of Jan Moir's unpleasant Daily Mail article about the death of Stephen Gately.

What I found most fascinating was how out of touch Moir was in her response to the wave of complaint that surged around the internet like a tsunami. She described this as a 'heavily orchestrated internet campaign.' This shows a magnificent lack of understanding of how word spreads around vehicles like Twitter and Facebook.

A 'campaign' like this doesn't need to be orchestrated - if it strikes the right nerve, it will grow and grow. The only difference between this and old, literally word-of-mouth responses is that Twitter, with its high speed and greater connectivity, ensures that any such reaction will take place in hours rather than weeks.

Twitter's role in the Moir affair also underlines the wisdom of something Malcolm Gladwell once wrote. I think it was in The Tipping Point that he suggests that there are some super-connected people, who push a trend out to a much larger network than the average person. On Twitter, such super-connected people are much more obvious and with an even bigger network. An obvious example is Stephen Fry, who claims he was very much a Johnny-come-lately to the Moir effect, but would still have provided a ramping up of the Twitter response. People like Fry act like amplifiers in a circuit, suddenly hugely boosting a signal.

It's fascinating, and though there are many people who over-emphasize the power of Twitter and Facebook, I still do think that they are changing the way we communicate, and so far (unless you are Jan Moir) the effect has largely been positive.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The ultimatum game

One of the things it has taken economists a surprisingly long time to realize is that people don't always act rationally. And yet there's a simple little game psychologists have used for some time that demonstrates beautifully why we can't be relied on to do the sensible thing. It's a game in which people are offered money with no strings attached, and turn it down.

Here's how it works. The person running the game offers a sum of money, say £10, to two people. The first person's role is to decide how the money is split between the two of them. They might go for a fair 50:50 or could decide to keep 99% for themselves - the choice is theirs. But here's the thing. The second person can then say 'Yes' or 'No'. If player 2 he says 'Yes', the money is awarded according to the split the first person decided on. If player 2 says 'No', neither of the players gets any money. This is a one-off game - it's not repeated.

Now, if player 2 was making a rational decision, they would say 'Yes' whatever the split. Because, however small the amount, they are getting money for nothing. In practice, though, unless player 1 offers the second person around 30% of the cash, the tendency is to say 'No'. They'd rather lose the money than be screwed.

That's as far as the game is usually reported. I must admit, I'd like to see more - specifically a range of games with different stakes. While I would certainly say 'No' if I was offered 1p out of a pound, I would definitely say 'Yes' to £1 million out of £100 million. It would be interesting to see where different people's breakpoint between 'Yes' and 'No' was - and to try to identify why that breakpoint is at that level.

It's probably quite a sophisticated decision. For instance, I would say 'Yes' to £1 if the other player was getting £9, but I would say 'No' if they were getting £999,999. What would you do? (And does anyone know of research going into this more detailed analysis of behaviour?)

Monday, 19 October 2009

Musical bumps

Contrast and compare two very different musical experiences this weekend.

On Saturday I was in Salisbury, to sing at a concert of music by the composer Robin Highcock. In the ancient (if much 'improved') church of St Martin, I helped contribute to an evening of very accessible, well written music. If the performances weren't always spot on perfect - with one practice we typified the motto of most of the singing I seem to do, 'never knowingly over-rehearsed' - they still sounded uplifting and even thrilling. I was particularly taken by a stunning little number commissioned by a Catholic school with the eye-widening title By the Light of Burning Martyrs.

Now jump with me, if you will, to Sunday night when I watched the results show of the X-Factor. Leaving aside the competition itself, where the British public once more demonstrated what a poor judge of musical talent it is, the most interesting bit for me was judge Cheryl Cole's performance of her new single.

This was impressively and dramatically staged, with Ms Cole demonstrating some effective Madonna/St Vitus Dance style moves. However two things came across strongly. One, the song was rubbish. Simply boring. And two - she's not a particularly good singer. When you think about it, it's rather dangerous appearing on a show with lots of big voices, and proving to have a nice, but frankly underpowered one yourself. Of course, Ms Cole came from such a talent show, but in a group where individual vocal power wasn't essential. On her own, the limitations show.

It was inevitable that the show's presenter, the manically effusive Dermot O'Leary, should ask Simon Cowell what he thought of the performance. But it was rather sad that Mr Cowell, who likes to give the image of putting honesty above personal feeling, felt the need to go into sales promotion mode. If he'd just heard a contestant he would have ripped them apart for that performance. But no, he limited himself to saying it was an amazing performance or some such weasel words.

It's the way the world is, and I can't suggest any way of changing it, but I can't help compare the Saturday evening, where an audience of about 30 heard some superb compositions, occasionally sung extremely well, with Sunday's mediocre performance. The laurels and the cash go the opposite way to the talent. Maybe now I understand John and Edward.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The helium of publicity

There's a remarkable story in the news at the moment.

American science enthusiast Richard Heene had a large helium balloon tethered in his garden. The balloon escaped, which was kind of sad, but suddenly this blossomed into a potential tragedy. According to one of Heene's children, his six-year-old son was 'in' the balloon.

What followed was a couple of hours of tense live TV until the balloon landed with no one inside, and the boy was found in the attic.

But was this a terrible accident that nearly happened, or a very successful publicity stunt? This might seem an insensitive question, but it's fuelled by two things. The family had already been on a reality TV show (Wife Swap), and the boy in the attic apparently said he heard his family searching for him, but kept quiet because his parents 'said that we did this for a show.'

We have to ask, was it realistic to imagine the boy was carried away 'in' the balloon? Or for that matter, would anyone undertake a stunt like this just to get publicity?

What certainly is true is that many participants in reality shows seem desperate for visibility at all costs. Somehow, they feel that being on TV, being recognized by the nation, is the only thing worth aiming for. Perhaps the saddest of the entries on X Factor are those who admit that what they want is to be a celebrity. They don't really care about singing, or music, it's being famous that counts.

Was the Heene balloon a publicity stunt? It's up to you to decide - but it certainly isn't an impossible deduction from the evidence.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Climate change hits the blogs

This is, apparently, Blog Action Day. The idea is that as many bloggers as possible make a contribution on the same subject... and why not. So here we go.

I've written two books around the subject of climate change, The Global Warming Survival Kit and Ecologic (which admittedly covers a wider range of green issues). When I wrote GWSK I was slated by some for being negative. The book assumes that we are going to suffer from the impact of climate change and addresses coping with all the things that are likely to be thrown at us. Some environmentalists reckoned that I was sending out a message 'It's too late to do anything, give up and panic.'

I wasn't. I do think it's important we do all we can to mitigate the impact of climate change by doing all those good things that cut back on emissions and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and all the rest. But I don't think it's enough.

In part this is because it isn't politic to make decisions based on long timescales. Politicians will never be draconian enough to impose sufficiently large reductions in emissions, because it's hurting today for benefit tomorrow. (Or, rather, for benefit years in the future.) And in part it's reflecting what I believe is the best scientific evidence of today, which is that we are going to feel the impact of climate change, whatever we do. It's too late to avoid it.

So while I genuinely do encourage everyone to do the right things that really will make a difference on emissions (and as Ecologic stresses, these aren't always the obvious, in-your-face things), I also think we should be putting more effort into preparing for and mitigating the impact of climate change.

Many Kenyans, for instance, are already feeling what is probably the results of climate change in the drought that they are suffering. All around the world we can expect changes in weather patterns that will influence our day to day lives. The issue is not going to go away, so we shouldn't be burying our heads in the sand and pretending nothing is going to happen.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Nutty clusters

'But surely,' said my friend, 'you would expect something like leukemia cases to be spread evenly across the country. Where there's a cluster of cases, there must be a cause. Like a phone mast.' No, no, no.

First you've got to realize that clusters are natural in something that's random. You wouldn't expect a coin toss to go heads, tails, heads, tails... repeatedly or the results on a roulette wheel to flip between red and black, time after time, all nice and evenly spaced out. You get clusters. Similarly if you drop a whole tray full of ball bearings on the floor, it would be really strange if they all lined themselves up nice and evenly spaced. You will get clusters and gaps. That's just the nature of something random. Yes, on average, across a huge sample, it will kind of even out, but in any particular place there's likely to be either a cluster or a gap.

So we can't make the leap in logic from 'there's a cluster' to 'it has a cause'. Many clusters don't have causes.

We also have to be careful when saying about something common like phone masts 'Look, lots of clusters are near phone masts, so phone masts must cause them.' It would be strange if lots of clusters weren't near phone masts. They'll also be near lots of other things that occur pretty evenly across the country. There will be lots near pubs and churches too. But those who seek to blame phone masts for the ills of the world don't think it through, they just jump in.

I'm not saying that no cluster has a cause. The cluster of asbestosis cases near the Turner & Newall asbestos factory in Rochdale was no coincidence, for example. But most clusters are simple statistical artefacts, arising from the nature of random numbers. There are good tests to see if a cluster is likely to be random or causal - but these are rarely employed by those who panic about clusters.

So next time there's a cluster of cases of something locally, don't fall for the same mistake as the medieval types who decided this must be down to their version of a phone mast, the local witch. Make sure you understand the numbers before using them in anger.

(The picture (from Wikipedia), by the way, is a star cluster. And, no, it wasn't caused by a phone mast.)

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

History as she iz rememberized

On the school run I get to listen (oh joy) to our local commercial radio station Heart FM, the replacement for the sadly missed GWR. (That's on the way to school - on the way back I can flip over to the Today programme on Radio 4.)

For all Heart's faults (do they really buy bulk rights to certain tracks cheap? they always seem to play the same 10 songs for weeks at a time), they have a quite entertaining breakfast duo in the matey sounding Jez and Roo, inherited from GWR. This pair have a good line in banter, but this morning demonstrated a worrying lack of grasp of history.

They were celebrating the fact that the Tatler magazine is apparently 300 years old, and wondering about the contents of the first edition. This would make it 1709, remember. Amongst the suggestions were that the latest fashion accessory would be a crossbow, and that hot celebrities would include Napoleon and the subjects of assorted witch burnings.

Napoleon wasn't born until 1769, so that would be prescient indeed. The crossbow had long been replaced by guns. And the last execution for witchcraft in England (where witches were hanged, not burned) was in the 17th century. All in all, they couldn't have got it more wrong if they'd tried. Now, okay, it was just a bit of fun, but what saddens me is that they couldn't invest five minutes effort into researching what was around in 1709 - something any teenager could do with Google without breaking a sweat - which would have enabled them to come up with equally amusing but chronologically sensible suggestions. It's lazy and pig ignorant.

However, one thing I did like. They suggested each magazine came with a free peasant on the cover, which I find a rather delightful concept.

Monday, 12 October 2009

A bewilderment of peacocks

If I'm honest, I don't know what the collective term for peacocks is (probably something boring like a 'flock'), so I made up 'a bewilderment.'

I bring up peacocks to celebrate a new expression (well, new to me), I've just come across on Wikipedia. I was looking up the remarkable creativity guru Edward de Bono on that rollercoaster ride of an encylopedia, and was given this opinion on the article on de Bono: 'Its quality may be compromised by peacock terms.'

Two things immediately came to mind. One was that this is just such a wonderful concept. The term may have originated elsewhere, but for me this is Wikipedia enriching the language. Secondly, anyone who has ever met Mr de Bono couldn't help but smile at the aptness of the expression.

There's something very pleasing about language that is rich, where a few words can put across a whole palette of meaning. For me, 'peacock terms' is just such language. Thanks, Wikipedia (also for the photo).

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Give me my road back!

This isn't going to make me popular, but hey, what's a blog for if not to occasionally indulge in a good rant?

I was just driving home and the road I should have used was closed. Instead I had to take a diversion, which had resulted in long queues of traffic, much irritation and general unnecessary sitting around. Why was the road closed? Because there's a half marathon on it tomorrow.

First of all, why does it need to be closed this morning? What have they got to do that's so urgent it has to be closed 24 hours before the run takes place?

But that's just a minor gripe. I'm afraid I don't hold with roads being closed for runs. Sorry - I have good friends who run, but I'm not with you on this one. Imagine you were settling down in front of the TV to watch Strictly Come X Factor, and instead you had a blank screen with lots of peeps and whistles. A quick angry phone call to the broadcaster and you discover that the bandwidth has been given over to radio hams who have a marathon on this weekend. (No, really, radio hams do have marathons.) You would be a bit peeved. What's the difference?

Just so some people can do their hobby, the road that my road fund licence pays for has been closed. Why? There are plenty of parks/bridleways and other places they can run in without disrupting everyone else. Roads have a function - running races isn't it. End of.

Friday, 9 October 2009

What is an element?

I know it's Friday, but pay attention, we're going to do a bit of philosophy. I'm dredging this up from memory, so feel free to correct me if I've got the details wrong, but the essence is there, which I think will prove significant.

I suspect it was Plato who suggested that there are types and shadows (I just love the medieval terminology) - types or archetypes are the 'real thing', the ultimate essence of the concept, while shadows are the physical world entities corresponding to those types. So, for instance you might have the type of 'cat' which embodies all catness, while the moggy down the street is just a shadow, embodying parts of the ultimate concept.

I was interested to see a very similar idea emerging from a discussion of the philosophy of chemistry (no, really). Eric Scerri of the University of California, Los Angeles (general nice guy and author of an interesting book on the periodic table) suggested we need a similar approach to the elements. Sodium, for instance. Yes it's a grey-silver metal that does exciting things when you drop it in water. But 'It is more proper, perhaps, to think of elemental sodium as that thing that gives properties not just to the metal but also to NaCl and other compounds. Sodium may be best described as that abstract thing that you point to on the periodic table, defined only by its atomic number...'

In this picture, the abstract thing on the periodic table is surely a type, with the lump of metal, or the component of salt, a shadow.

Whatever, I think it's fascinating - and for those who think chemistry is all test tubes and fume cupboards, a bit of an eye-opener. Click here to read more about a recent discussion on the philosophy of chemistry.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Roundabout discovery

I live in a town that has few claims to fame. Leaving aside Diana Dors, Melinda Messenger and Billy Piper, for many years the name 'Swindon' was synonymous with steam engines.

The Swindon works of the Great Western Railway turned out some of the UK's most beautiful steam locomotives - and it's still an interesting sight, half designer outlet, half railway museum (with the National Trust's headquarters thrown in for good measure).

But now, if you ask someone what's the first thing that comes to mind when you mention Swindon, it's probably roundabouts. Not the funfair variety, but what are know as traffic circles in the US. Specifically, a monster of a roundabout (see photo) officially known as the Magic Roundabout.

But the inspiration for this blog post was another, more conventional roundabout on the busy dual carriageway that leads to junction 16 of the M4. It's one of those roundabouts where the traffic planners in their wisdom have decided that traffic lights are essential to keep the cars flowing. Now traffic planning is a fascinating task - taken as a whole, traffic has all the problems that make fluid flow nightmarish physics, including turbulence and waves. And that means it's difficult to get right, as was demonstrated this morning.

This morning the traffic lights on the roundabout were out of action. And the traffic was flowing better without them. You might expect that to be the case in the priority directions, the ones where the traffic naturally flows. But the bizarre thing was, the queues were shorter in the direction that the traffic lights are supposed to help cars get out from.

I'd say there were two reasons for this. One is that at the moment the lights are badly set. There's often a tailback across the roundabout, and the lights don't give long enough for the queue to disperse, so often they go from red to green to red without anything much getting through. The other is that drivers round here are much nicer than in the south east. This was really noticable when I first moved out west. They often let people out - and people power proved much better at managing the traffic than badly timed lights.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

With great power comes great pomposity

Don't you just hate people who write about movies they haven't seen? That's just what I'm about to do, though I have had reports. It's Ricky Gervais' latest vehicle, The Invention of Lying.

The moment I heard about the plotline it struck me, here is a five minute gag that won't stretch to a whole film. You can almost hear the mental process as the idea was developed.

'Just imagine... just imagine you were the only one in the world who could lie. Then [snigger] you could tell someone they had to go to bed with you or the world would end, and they would believe it. Or, or, you could tell someone their pants were on fire and they would take them off! [Guffaw]'

It's made for the Beano or the Dandy. Only, after the initial delight, there's really not much more to be said. It's like the old X-ray specs fantasy. Wonderful for 2 minutes, but then what?

As that ultimate source of zen wisdom, Spiderman, once said 'With great power comes great responsibility.' If you've the power to get a movie into the local cinema and expect us to spend £7 or whatever to go and see it, you've got the responsibility to give us more than a five minute gag.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The season of mellow mists and homicide

I don't know why but there's something about the month of October that leads the mind to murder. Maybe it's Halloween lurking up on the 31st. Or maybe it's the way the shops already have Christmas items in that encourages murderous feelings towards the shopkeepers.

Whatever, I always get a surge in purchases this month from the Organizing a Murder website - not an online hit squad agency, but a website with information on mystery party games.

To celebrate this descent into darkness I'm offering a free copy of either Organizing a Murder - my ebook containing 12 mysteries (not all murders, in fact), with a rather different twist that they're not role playing and can be run in teams or with individuals, or of my role playing mystery game Transatlantic Tragedy for eight players (click the links to find out more about them).

All you have to do is add a comment below with your suggestion for a new mystery game plot. It can be a one-liner or in detail, but I'm looking for something original and fun (ghoulish fun is fine). Next Monday (12th) around 12 noon GMT, I will select the best and the winner can choose which prize they'd like to receive.

Time to think nasty...

Monday, 5 October 2009

The elementary element

It's element time again and this is the big one. Or rather it's the smallest one, but when you're talking elements, you can't get any more fundamental. I have the pleasure - nay, the honour - to present to you... hydrogen.

It's one of the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element which I have been enjoying contributing to over the last few months.

What can you say about hydrogen? Take a listen, and you'll find out why I just had to label it the king of the elements, where the least is the greatest.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Mirror world

I was driving along yesterday and saw a flag fluttering in the breeze by a motorcycle garage. It looked like the picture here.

'Ooh, I've never heard of that make of motorbikes,' I thought. Then I realized that I was looking at the flag from the back, and the logo was perfectly readible, without any sign of being strange, in mirrored fashion.

It made me wonder how many other signs can take a mirror translation and still appear normal. When I worked at BA I used to regularly walk past a manhole cover with the initials MH on it - but I was never sure if it really was MH or HW, depending on which way up you were supposed to read it.

Excuse me, I'm just off to play a little tune on our Ahamay Clavinova...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Creativity and the masses

When I left British Airways, many many moons ago (in 1995 to be precise), I set up a company providing training in business creativity. Creativity is a subject that has always interested me, and while at BA I'd taken various courses with the likes of Edward de Bono, and now wanted to explore the area further.

I ought to clarify that by 'business creativity' I don't mean getting business people to paint pictures and write music. I'm looking at a very specific area of creativity - problem solving and idea generation. These are essential for business, and involve creativity. If everything stayed the same and there were never any new challenges, you could get away without being creative. But in practice, 'in this ever changing world in which we live in' as Sir Paul McCartney put it so poorly, being creative is a survival essential for businesses.

One of the premises of running these courses is that everyone is creative - and everyone can enhance their natural level of creativity by using some straightforward techniques. This is something I've had lengthy arguments on with another writer on creativity over the years. He believes that only a few really are creative, and the majority never will be.

What I do accept is that we have different natural levels of creativity. Some people naturally spark ideas left, right and centre - others don't. However, the best ideas often come from unexpected sources, and the point of taking a systematic approach to creativity is that it can be enhanced, making ideas come more on demand, and of better quality.

The reason for bringing this up now is I was listening to someone ranting on about genius and how the common herd never really get what it's all about. That may be the case - but everyday creativity, in some ways more important than genius, is something we can all benefit from. You can find out more about business creativity at the Creativity Unleashed website.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Posing with a pooch

Every now and then I get a request for an interview to appear on a book blog or something similar - these are often great resources (and I make similar requests for popular science authors to contribute to www.popularscience.co.uk) so mostly I say yes.

One recent one was Writers Read, a rather neat idea where writers confess to what they are reading at the moment (in my case it was The House on the Strand and We Need to Talk about Kelvin).

This led on to a rather more unlikely contribution, as Marshal Zeringue, the owner of Writers Read, also has a blog called Coffee with a Canine, where contributors describe something of their relationship with their dog and, er, coffee. Sadly, Goldie rarely accompanies me to the coffee shop, so we had to make do with my domestic instant coffee fix, where she often comes and keeps me company. (In the picture she appears slightly radioactive. Apologies - she will keep fiddling around with the particle accelerator, and dogs aren't known for their expertise in nuclear physics.)

The mug, by the way, also portrays a golden retriever. So it's sort of coffee with a canine in canine. Or something.