Friday, 29 January 2010

The wry catch

Author J. D. Salinger has died - and like any death, it's a sadness. But I couldn't help getting mildly irritated by the eulogy on Salinger's work I heard on the radio this morning.

If we are to believe what I heard, teenagers were rushing out, buying The Catcher in the Rye with the sort of enthusiasm they would now buy a new Harry Potter, because here was literature they could identify with. Tosh. What really happened is that English teachers found a book which they thought would go down well with the kids but was still real literature, and it was down to them that it achieved its current untouchable status.

Don't get me wrong - English teachers do a brilliant and difficult job. Much 'great literature' is hard work to read. You have to get your students past the barrier of the arty or dated writing to see there is actually some good stuff in there. But there's no doubt Catcher in the Rye was their idea of an engaging teenage read, rather than a real teenager's idea.

When I was forced to read it at school, I can't say I hated it, but I certainly didn't get a lot out of it. I found the 50s US culture alien (we weren't so well versed in American culture back then), and as self-centred teenager, I found the angst of another self-centred teenager boring and forced. I don't think it was rebellion against being forced to read it. At a similar time we had to read Lord of the Flies and I thought that was totally wonderful, buying my own copy and re-reading it over and over. But please, this picture of teenagers rushing to spend their allowance on a copy of Catcher in the Rye leaves me with a wry smile.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The startling significance of Mr Talbot's spectacles

I had the pleasure yesterday of accompanying Radio Wiltshire's Mark O'Donnell to the Fox Talbot museum at Lacock Abbey in beautiful rural Wiltshire. It was a great day for it - crisp, light sun, hardly anyone around. We were recording the first of a series of little pieces on Wiltshire science and technology.

At the museum, we met up with curator Roger Watson to do a three way chat on the significance of Fox Talbot's work. (Or Talbot as Mr Watson called him - it seems Fox wasn't part of his surname. But having said that, William Henry did sign himself 'Fox Talbot' sometimes, so there's some justification for using both.)

It was fascinating - apart from anything else, it's not every visit to a museum that you get the best bits pointed out personally by the curator. He was particularly proud of a new acquisition, Fox Talbot's spectacles. From them, they have been able to deduce that he had good sight in one eye, but very poor sight in the other. This potentially made him quite poor at drawing without aids - and that's important.

Fox Talbot came to photography, and his production of the first photographic negative 165 years ago (the picture to the left is a print from it, courtesy of Wikipedia), after using a device called a camera lucida, which superimposed a virtual image of a scene with the drawing paper in an artist's eye, enabling them to sketch the scene with help. This led to using a camera obscura, producing a real image on the paper - and then to playing around with photosensitive paper to capture that image.

So quite possibly these newly recovered spectacles give a clue as to why Fox Talbot started down that route. I love it when some little thing pops up like this and throws scientific history into a new light.

If you want to see the Fox Talbot Museum (and the remarkable Lacock Abbey), it's currently open at weekends, and goes to seven day a week opening towards the end of February. Check the website for details.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

England on $10 a day

When I was at university I had a tendency to buy random books just because they looked interesting (this was before the web, remember - it was a sort of physical version of StumbleUpon).

One of my favourite purchases was a guidebook to the UK called England on $10 a Day. Leaving aside the cheapness, which even then was impressive, I just loved the idea of seeing my country through slightly alien eyes - and I was not disappointed. What's not to love about a guidebook that treats Scotland as part of England?

Ninety percent of the book is on the south of England, but as a Lancastrian I couldn't help but be delighted with its different approaches to the East and the West. The North West it eulogises about. The North East? 'Unless you enjoy untamed scenery and perhaps a visit to an ancient city or two, such as York or Lincoln, then this huge hunk of north-eastern England may hold little interest for you.' Quite.

It's difficult to find a specific quote that evokes the feeling it gives. But here's an example when talking about travelling by train in the UK: 'There is something magical about travelling on a train in England. You sit in comfortable compartments, on upholstered seats, next to reserved and inevitably well-dressed Englishmen and served your meal in the dining car like a titled aristocrat.' Hmm.

Just to get a real impression of how prices have changed (the book was published in 1973), one of the recommended London hotels is the Heritage House Hotel in Bayswater where Mr. and Mrs. Bailey R. Irani charge £2 per person for bed and breakfast. Want a meal? You can get "bangers and mash" (their quotes) at The Cockney Pride in Picadilly Circus for 25p. Or (it gets quite excited here) "faggots and pease pudding" for 28p. Yum.

I ought to stress that though I may be teasing it, this was a good book for its day. Here's its philosophy, which I applaud: 'This book has not been written for the North American tourist who likes only the expensive and the gaudy - who goes through Europe rudely demanding "a room, a private bath and a good cuppa coffee." It is, rather, for those who want to experience a country's true charm, it's precious traditions, its authentic food - and who hope to make new friends.' And though those 'traditions' may occasionally be a little caricatured, it still does a very entertaining job.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Academics meet HTML - it's not difficult

I pretty regularly get emails from academics. They're easy to spot - they are the ones that look terrible. Here's a simple email from a normal person:

Hi Fred,
Could you let me have the latest figures on Losing Your Head, please. Also:
  • Do this
  • Do that
  • And do the other
    Best regards,
    Brian Clegg

    Follow Brian at
    And here's the same email from an academic:

    Hi Fred,
    Could you let me have the latest figures on Losing Your Head, please. Also:
    * Do this
    * Do that
    * And do the other
    Best regards,
    Brian Clegg
    Follow Brian at

    Can you spot the difference? The academic version looks terrible because it's plain text. There's no formatting, no fonts, no layout - it's rubbish.

    Once upon a time there was an excuse for this. Academics were using very early email systems that didn't have the bells and whistles. It's a bit like the way that many years ago I used to produce printed reports in upper case, because the line printer I was using didn't have lower case. But I've moved on. And it's time those academics did too. Now it seems to be almost a badge, rather similar to the way some people with an arts background seem proud of knowing nothing about science. 'Look!' it seems to say, 'I'm much too intellectual to have formatted emails.' Grow up, please.

    Monday, 25 January 2010

    Hear a real writer/scientist speak

    In an age of relaxing in front of the TV, we sometimes forget there's a big world out there. I just wanted to draw attention to the events listing page at - this page on the popular science book review site is dedicated to public talks given by science writers and scientists.

    I confess I have a personal interest. Apart from the fact that I edit the website, I have got a couple of my talks listed there. But apart from me, expounding on the murdering pioneer of moving pictures, infinity and ecologic, you will also come across a professor from Arizona State University on exterrestrial life, an Oxford professor on the realities of nuclear power, a superb writer on the science of music, a TV scientist on weird inventions and more.

    About half the events are in London, but you'll also find talks going on in Oxford, Hove, Norwich, Bolton and Moulton, so quite a spread across the country.

    Go on, give your brain a treat. Let it have an outing and explore the universe.

    Friday, 22 January 2010

    Why Radio One just isn't poptastic any more

    As I seem to spend most of my spare time driving teenagers around, I get exposed quite a lot to stations on the wireless playing the music of popular beat combos. In these parts there are really only three options - BBC Radio Wiltshire, Heart FM and BBC Radio 1.

    Radio Wiltshire we can dismiss straight away, as they aim at an older audience. So here's the thing. Neither Radio 1 nor Heart really make the grade, so we end up with the teenagers irritatingly flipping between the two with goldfish attention span regularity. This cannot go on. One of them needs to pull their musical socks up before I am driven round the bend.

    The problem with Heart is that their music buying budget is about 10p and their taste is fixed in the 1980s. So often we suffer 80s disco monstrosities. When they do pick up something new, they play it over and over. And they only really like it if, like Charlene Spiteri's Xanadu, it is indistinguishable from an old track. (Actually, I think the play the Olivia Newton John track, as it's cheaper, but no one can tell the difference. Why on earth did they think this song was worth covering with an identical rendition? It was terrible to start with.) The teenage verdict - the music is rubbish.

    So we flip over the Radio 1... and someone is talking. You can guarantee this. There's more speech on Radio 1 than on Radio 4. When they do play music there are interesting new bands and the tracks the teenage passengers really want to hear, but most of the time this station can't be bothered with the music. That's because the DJs on Radio 1 think they are celebrities, and we want to hear them drivelling on about themselves. No we don't, and more specifically, no my teenage audience don't. They'd rather listen to the adverts on Heart than yet another Radio 1 DJ rabitting on.

    So here's the challenge. Either Heart get some decent music (and change your playlist more than once a fortnight), or Radio 1 sack all your self-centred DJs and get some (cheaper) people who concentrate on playing the music. Now, please. Teenagers have no patience.

    Just to really make your day, here is the original Xanadu. Hands up if you can tell the difference:

    Thursday, 21 January 2010

    Scientists can be funny. No, really.

    It shouldn't really be a surprise that scientists can be funny. A fair number of comedians come from a scientific or medical background, after all. Yet, on the whole, scientists have the image of being po-faced and incapable of getting a joke, perhaps because of a tendency to over-analyze. (Oops, I've started to analyze this. Stop me.)

    One group in particular has tried to counter this image. It's a company called Biocompare which offers a comparison website that's not for insurance or electrical goods but for the kind of goodies life scientists (biologists to you and me) need. They have compiled a top ten of funny videos produced by the life sciences industry as a form of viral advertising (let's face it, if life scientists can't do viral ads, who can?) You can see all 10 here, but to get a flavour, here's one of my personal favourites.

    Wednesday, 20 January 2010

    Behold the pocket watch reborn

    Mine was the first generation to turn against the daily delivered newspaper. When I was a lad pretty well everyone had a newspaper every day. But I have never had one delivered. For me a newspaper is something to buy as and when, to enjoy as a special treat but not a daily source of news. The TV news, and latterly the internet, has always provided the updates I needed, well ahead of the papers. Why would I subscribe to yesterday's news on a regular basis?

    I know lots of people do still get newspapers regularly, but I would be very surprised if people my age and younger aren't much less likely to have a paper pushed through the door than the generation before.

    With a more recent generation, I think something similar is happening with wristwatches. My children don't wear watches. It's not that we've deprived them - they have had several, but they just don't bother with them. Apart from the general convenience of ask-an-adult, a lot of this has to do with mobile phones. If you always have your phone with you, you've got the time. Why bother with a watch as well? It's a kind of return to the pocket watch. It's only a matter of time before watch chains and waistcoats make a comeback, though, of course, these will be phone chains.

    If you are over 25 you might disagree. I think the cut off point is somewhere around there. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if watch wearing is declining in the under 25s. Watch out, erm, watch manufacturers.

    Image from Wikipedia

    Tuesday, 19 January 2010

    5 top tips to sell more ebooks

    When ebooks were first devised the publishers panicked. The buzzword on everyone's lips was 'disintermediation' - the idea that with ebooks writers could sell direct to their readers, so would no longer need publishers or bookshops.

    In practice it didn't work out like this. Okay, Stephen King managed to sell quite a lot of ebooks direct, but for the rest of us there was a serious problem. Let's say you've written a great ebook, how do you get the people who would love to buy it to notice it? How do you get them to the point of clicking the 'Buy Now' button? It's real needle-in-a-haystack country. I've got a range of ebooks on sale, and here's my top tips for getting them in front of people.

    1. Make use of free secondary sites - you will, of course, be selling your ebook from your own website or blog, but look for other places you can put up an ebook for sale without it costing you anything. One example is Lulu - although best known for producing print books, Lulu also sells ebooks, and charges nothing for hosting them. Of course you pay a commission when one is downloaded, but it's still a sale.
    2. Consider eBay - you may not get quite as much money for a sale on eBay, but every sale is a profit with an ebook. There is one potential problem. I did this successfully for over a year, then eBay suddenly started pulling the plug on my sales. They said it was because I was breaching copyright. Whose copyright? They were my own ebooks I was selling. Their logic didn't make any sense, but you can't argue with eBay, they just go round in circles, so I had to stop doing this. But it's still worth trying.
    3. Add value to the site you sell from - it's a bit of a shock, I know, but most potential readers won't be searching the web for Susan Smith, or whoever you are. You need to get them to your ebook. This means having a site that has some broader benefit, but that provides a good home for your ebook. Here's a couple of examples of the way I do it. I have a site that covers all sorts of murder mystery games, from boxed sets to mystery weekends with actors. And, yes, it also has my ebook of mystery games. Then there's a little ebook I wrote about choosing the music for your church wedding (in my spare time I run a choir). This is here at on a page with lots of useful information on music for church weddings - so it's worth visiting anyway and is more likely to get  noticed than on a site dedicated to the ebook.
    4. See if other people will host your ebooks for a cut - volume of exposure is important. I have an ebook of business creativity techniques, Instant Creativity which is one of my most popular ebooks. I sell more copies from someone else's website than from my own. They host a sales page on their business consulting website, I keep note of sales that way and pay them a percentage. It works for both of us.
    5. Use ebooks as added value for other products or services - I give away a fair proportion of my ebooks. This seems crazy if you are writing ebooks to make money, but I use them to make something else more attractive. So, for instance, I give training to large companies on being more creative. They get free copies of the Instant Creativity ebook as part of the training. It doesn't cost me anything, but it adds value to my training package.
    And a quick bonus one - put a little ad, linking to your ebook, in the signature of your emails.

    I'm not saying your sales will go through the roof. Most ebooks are well down the long tail of the sales graph. But you will be ensuring you are more likely to shift some copies.

    Monday, 18 January 2010

    Why aren't you asking the obvious question?

    Every now and then, during an interview on the radio or TV, I'll find myself yelling at the interviewer, 'Why aren't you asking the obvious question?' It seems to me that there is such a killer point to make, yet they fail to do so.

    I had such a frustrating moment this morning, during an interview with Michael Gove (pictured), the Conservative spokesman on children, schools and families. Now admittedly Michael Gove is one of those individuals who single handedly makes me not want to vote Conservative, even if I was in complete agreement with all their policies, but even so he was begging to be asked that killer question.

    Gove was telling us that we need to get better teachers - can't disagree with that - and the way to do it is to increase the standing of the profession. I can't disagree with that either, as long as it's not the only measure. However, when asked about paying teachers more, Gove said that no, no, this wasn't the answer, you don't get better people by paying more.

    On the whole he was allowed to get away with this - but I was dying for him to be asked 'What about the banks?' When all those bankers claim that the only way they can get the best people is paying oodles of cash, surely we ought to be saying 'No, not at all. You need to increase the standing of the profession (and let's face it, the only way is up).' Let's limit all bankers' pay to the same level as teachers (oh and do the same for civil servants and MPs too, I hope), and put a lot of effort into talking up the job. Because, after all, paying more isn't the way to get the best people. Michael Gove said so.

    Saturday, 16 January 2010

    I hate plumbing

    No, really, I hate plumbing. It is horrible. I don't mind electrics - wires don't leak. But plumbing seems designed to find ways for water to get out and cause disasters.

    About a week ago one of our daughters' friends was in the shower at our house... and water started coming through the ceiling below. After getting a plumber out (luckily on a maintenance contract, so no callout), it turns out the pipes are fine, but there are cracks in the grout that the water was getting through.

    One week later, the same friend is round. Scared to use the shower, she uses a bath... and water started coming through the ceiling below. Rapid ripping of the front off the bath showed that the water was coming from the control for the bath plug, which had come loose, allowing water running down the bath side from a showerhead to escape.

    Arggh. So two lessons. One, avoid plumbing if at all possible. Wash in a river. Two, if you want your plumbing tested, we can recommend someone to come round...

    Friday, 15 January 2010

    On downloadable party kits and the downside of internet selling

    On my Organizing A Murder website I have various types of murder mystery party kits. A particular favourite are the downloadable party kits. They have the big advantage of immediacy for a last minute event, and you can print out the instructions, clues and the like as and how you want. You might not have a glossy box or a DVD of third rate actors giving hints, but there's a lot to be said for the medium. What's more you can be much more flexible. Boxed sets pretty well always force you to have an 8 person party - the downloadable kits allow for anything between 6 and 33 players, depending on the game. (Not to mention the Organizing a Murder book of 12 events that can have any number of players.)

    But all good things have their downside. Cream cakes bring podginess. Alcohol makes you unhealthy. And selling via the internet puts your business in the hands of an internet hosting company. The people who make most of the downloadable games I sell had their server go down last week. For days there was nothing there. To make matters worse, their email was hosted on the same server, so it wasn't possible to contact them. I didn't have a phone number, so had to resort to writing by snail mail. In all they were unable to do business for about a week.

    Not a total disaster, but highly irritating, particularly when you are feeling smug about having a business that isn't put at risk by the snow. If you do have an internet-based business, it's worth making sure that your hosting company is easily contactable for when things go wrong. A colleague of mine always uses US hosting companies on the theory that most of his potential customers are in the US, and the site will be faster there. I think it's more important to have your hosting company relatively close by (and in the same time zone) so you can do something when the inevitable happens.

    Thursday, 14 January 2010

    Lovely cartoon on the way we deal with climate change

    Due to one of those random, pleasantly serendipitous moments of web browing afforded by the Google Reader's facility that shows you more items you might be interested in, I yesterday came across the excellent cartoon below on climate change.

    I really don't want to say anything else - the cartoon says it all for me.

    Calamities of Nature, irreverent webcomics by Tony Piro
    See more comics from Calamities of Nature

    Wednesday, 13 January 2010

    Neptunium - the element with a name issue

    Here we go with another element. My latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element is live and it's all about Neptunium, element 93.

    We’re so familiar with uranium and plutonium that it’s easy to miss that they are named after the seventh and ninth planets of the solar system. (At least, Pluto was the ninth planet until it was stripped of its status in 2006.) Between those planets sits Neptune, and the gap between the two elements leaves a space for their relatively unsung cousin, neptunium – element number 93 in the periodic table.

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


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    Tuesday, 12 January 2010

    Art imitating science

    I was delighted to get a contact last year from an artist called Cordelia Spalding, who has produced a range of work that was in part inspired by reading A Brief History of Infinity.

    Cordelia has an exhibition of her Museum of Infinities running from 15th to 20th and 22nd to 27th of February in the Forum at the Millennium Library in Norwich. If you're in that part of the world it's well worth dropping in and taking a look.

    As an added bonus (I hope), I will be there on Friday 26 February, giving a talk on the Brief History of Infinity in the Fusion space from 12.30pm. It's free of charge - just turn up and enjoy.

    Monday, 11 January 2010

    Look, I'm an idiot

    You tell me. What are personalized numberplates all about? What are they for? I really don't get it.

    Once upon a time they were the preserve of celebrities and the local mayor. That I can kind of understand. These are people with a burning need to say 'Look, here I am!' But now they're as unlikely to house a celebrity as is a stretched limo.

    I can just about understand the people who spell out their name or initials. But there are two classes of personalized plate I don't get. First there's the people who just spell out anything that can be made with a number plate. ST04TOK, for instance, to say 'STOAT OK!' (You have to look at the 4 at a slight angle.) Why would anyone want to say 'stoat ok'? Is this car driven by a stoat? Who knows.

    Even more bizarre are the personalized plates that refer to the type of car - Jaguar XKR owners seem particularly prone to having numberplates with XKR in them. Why? The car doesn't care. It isn't a person. Really. The worst thing with this type of plate is that those who have become short of cash end up displaying their reduced circumstances. I saw a BMW 3 series yesterday with an M3 numberplate. The trouble is, it wasn't an M3, just a bog standard 3 series. And that's just sad.

    Thursday, 7 January 2010

    Humble pi

    As someone who has written about infinity (and good fun it is too), I quite often pick up on big numbers. Regular commenter on this blog Ian Campbell kindly pointed out to me a piece on the BBC news site about the number pi being determined to 2.7 trillion digits.

    Many people will be wondering, 'what's the point?' The news article gives an excuse, but really this is justification after the fact. You might as well say that you can justify trainspotting because it provides useful statistics on train movements. Calculating pi to n digits is the trainspotting of the mathematical world. It's not particularly clever - anyone can do it given a simple algorithm and enough time - and it has no great value. It's just something to tick off.

    However, I don't want to put down Fabrice Bellard. There is no doubt it's an achievement. Why should everything in science and maths have a use? What's the use of a poem or a painting? Let him get on with it, I say. And good luck to him.

    The pi poster shown is from the Math Teacher Store.

    Wednesday, 6 January 2010

    Scraping through the snow and waving

    Now Appearing is snowed in.

    We will be back when we can dig ourselves out.

    Tuesday, 5 January 2010

    Unlucky number 13?

    I was walking past a row of houses yesterday which, unusually, were numbered sequentially, because there was no 'other side of the street.' This made it blatantly obvious that the numbering went 11,12,14,15... there was no number 13. I gather this is fairly common now, but I'm not sure why. The house I lived in until age 11 was number 13 (Birch Road, to be precise) and a good time was had by all. As far as I'm aware it is still there and hasn't been struck by lightning.

    If superstition really is so important to house buyers, I'm surprised builders get away with the gap. The composer Gustav Mahler famously didn't have a symphony labelled number 9 as he thought this was doomed to be his last symphony - so he went from the eighth to the tenth (admittedly via a piece that had the word 'symphonie' in its title)... and promptly died before he could finish it. There's a distinct suspicion that house number 14 is really number 13 when 13 is missing.

    In air travel, where there's more fear, and hence more active superstition, there are examples where an effort has been made to avoid the '14 is really 13' trap. When Terminal 4 at Heathrow was built, it was constructed with gates 12 and 14 at opposite ends of the terminal. This numbering system was undertaken on purpose, so it's not obvious that there is no gate 13.

    There are lots of reasons suggested for triskaidekaphobia (the fear of 13), with many ancient associations suggested - but the chances are it's a collection of historical coincidences. Clustering as was described in this post. Whatever the reason, we're stuck with it. There's lots of evidence that 13 is no different from any other number (take a look at the lottery statistics) - but human beings will always seek patterns to such an extent that they see them where they don't exist.

    I'm with the bakers whose dozen of 13 was never considered unlucky, but rather as something positive. Why worry about a number, when there's plenty else in the world to get worked up about?

    Monday, 4 January 2010

    The real climategate

    There has been a lot of fuss in the press about 'Climategate' - the leaking of a large number of emails from the University of East Anglia. Those who dispute manmade climate change claim these emails show that UoEA has been covering up results that show that there's no such thing as climate change.

    This is rubbish. The emails made no suggestion that there wasn't manmade climate change. All they showed was an enthusiasm to shoot down opposing papers - normal academic fare - and a reluctance to give out data to all and sundry as a result of repeated Freedom of Information requests.

    My initial response to the latter was some sympathy for the UoEA people. When you are trying to get on with a job, it must be irritating to have repeated FoI requests, requiring time and effort to fulfil.

    However, there is an underlying issue. Science progresses by sharing data. It's never enough for one source to say they've seen a result - it needs be verified and repeated elsewhere. This means data should be freely available to check and compare. But climate data is often held back. This isn't because of some climate science conspiracy - it's for commercial reasons. Bodies like the Met Office (pictured above) make a fair amount of cash from selling climate data.

    Now if a commercial organization produces some data it has every right to hang on to it and sell it - but when public bodies, whether universities or meteoroligical bureaux, do this, there's something wrong happening. We fund public bodies to do science for the public good - not to make a profit. There really shouldn't be a need for FoI request to access these data. Otherwise we're putting the cart before the horse.

    You can read more detail on this in Fred Pearce's New Scientist article.

    Sunday, 3 January 2010

    But where are the snowboarding ducks?

    We just took Goldie for a walk round a nearby lake (Mouldon Hill, for Swindonists), which was looking rather glorious with blue skies and a thin dusting of snow.

    The lake itself was particularly appealing - frozen over with a white snowcoat on top. There were a couple of swans attempting ice skating, but looking more like geriatrics in ill-fitting shoes as they eased their way across the ice. But no ducks. Not a duck in sight. I can only assume they're either frozen in or (more likely) sheltering in the bushes.

    A shame really. After the ice skating swans I would have enjoyed seeing a snowboarding duck.