Wednesday, 31 March 2010

What's wrong with death tax?

I caught bits and pieces of the debate between the finance spokesmen for the three main UK political parties a couple of days ago. The papers generally felt that the Conservative representative, George Osborne was the weakest of the three. But what I found fascinating was the one bit where he seemed to gain a brief momentum. This was when he (repeatedly) attacked the Labour government for proposing a 'death tax'.

The idea seems to be that we fund care for the elderly by taking a percentage (10% was bandied around) of the value of the estate of that person after they die. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, was quick to point out that this was just one of many ideas considered, and that they had dismissed it for the moment anyway.

I've two real problems with the attack on this idea.

One is that it is pathetic that political parties should try to make political capital out of ideas simply because they have been considered. All ideas should be open for consideration. To take this sort of 'they're going to do something nasty' attitude to what was just an idea is a good way to shut down creativity. You don't get good ideas unless you allow free rein in the idea generation session. Yes, evaluate them afterwards - and this seems to be what the government was doing - but it shows a total lack of understanding of how to have ideas if you make a fuss because something was considered. Very bad management.

Secondly, why is it such a bad idea? The Tories have tried to make it sound bad by calling it a 'death tax'. Ooh, scary. But why not have a death tax? The care of the elderly is vitally important and very expensive. What's wrong with having a tax on them after they are dead (after all, it won't hurt them at all). The Conservative party seems obsessed with inheritance, but this isn't an inheritance issue. Three cheers for the death tax.

Photo from BBC News website

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Before I was famous

When you listen to the people turning up for auditions for the X-Factor, many of them are attending with the intention of becoming famous. It's an end it itself. They crave fame. I can tell you here and now that being an author is, for the vast majority, anything but a route to fame. For every J. K. Rowling there are thousands of us published authors who don't really appear on the radar. So any wannabe famous authors, get in that X-Factor queue.

This reality made it doubly pleasing to discover (thanks, Wendy, for pointing it out) that according to this website I am, apparently, one of the 20 most famous people to be born in my home town of Rochdale. The town is probably best known for being the place the modern format of Co-operative movement started (or these days, where the TV show Waterloo Road is set).

The list includes a fair smattering of actors, mostly bit part players on Coronation Street or Emmerdale (Rochdale is handily situated between the two), though we can claim the old stalwart Jack Howarth, who played Albert Tatlock many years ago. We've also general TV represented by Sky presenter Ginny Buckley and one-time comedy actor and now birder Bill Oddie.

Politics is represented by the 19th century trade reformer, John Bright, and 20th century MP Cyril Smith, while music gets a fair look in. Apart from Liz and Andy Kershaw and Lisa Stansfield, we have, of course, the early to mid twentieth century superstar, Gracie Fields. With my aversion to sport, I'm delighted that the only sportsperson we can claim is John Virgo - if you are going to have sport, snooker is about as ironic as it gets.

And saving the best for last, the real surprise for me was that actress Anna Friel was on the list. Shooting to fame with a lesbian kiss on the soap Brookside, she was stunning in the Stephen Poliakoff TV play, The Tribe. Most recently she has been a fascinating presence in the US show Pushing Daisies. Although its ambition exceeded its reach, this was a truly original programme (despite Ms Friel's rather so-so American accent).

So I want to thank the organizers of this list for including me. After all this is surely the closest I will ever come to Anna Friel.

Photo of Rochdale from
Photo of Anna Friel from

Monday, 29 March 2010

I've found my shopping home

Like quite a few other men, I'm not a great enthusiast for shopping. The only real appeal of going to our local designer outlet village, for example, is the opportunity to eat out (yes, I'm so fond of eating out, I can even enjoy eating at a place like this, though things have gone downhill since the gourmet burger place closed). However I have found a website where I really could enjoy shopping.

Called it has all the geekiest products you could imagine. The item that first brought it to my attention was the T-shirt illustrated. It has a built-in light up WiFi detector. How cool is that? Fussy people may wonder about how it will survive the wash (though people who wear this kind of thing may respond 'Huh? You wash T-shirts?') - don't worry, the electronic bit is removable for washing purposes.

As well as 9 other interactive T-shirts (one is a guitar you can strum), there's just about every gizmo that you could imagine. Want a wooden case for your iPhone? They've got it. A little electronic device that randomly turns TVs off and on? No problem. This is an online shop with a section called 'lights and lasers.' Enough said. Sadly it is US-based, so UK customers are likely to get hit with customs import duty.

If by now you are thinking 'So what?' then this isn't the site for you. But I guarantee some of you will find it fascinating. Just lock up your credit card before visiting

P.S. Just noticed a T-shirt where a heart gauge lights up when you are near someone else with the same T-shirt. The idea is you give a second shirt to your girl/boyfriend so the hearts light up when they are nearby. I just love that they sell a separate transmitter in case you haven't got a girl/boyfriend, so you can put it near your favourite Star Trek memorabilia or whatever. Now that's real geek thinking.

(As I occasionally review products/sites in exchange for a freebie, I ought to make it clear that I have not been bribed in any fashion to mention this site - I just came across it by accident.)

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Why are we so ignorant about inverted commas?

Punctuation is an essential tool of the trade for writers, and in the UK we seem particularly ignorant about inverted commas. They're even taught incorrectly in schools. I'm not referring to the punctuation mark that shares the same symbol - the apostrophe - but inverted commas, a.k.a. speech marks, quote marks or quotation marks.

There are three regular misuses. One is the idea that there is somehow a difference between speech marks and inverted commas used to isolate something, perhaps something 'dubious.' No - same rules apply to both.

The second problem is overuse of inverted commas to indicate 'terms' that we aren't really 'comfortable' with. If you find yourself doing this, go back and put in terms you are comfortable with. Using inverted commas in this way is amateurish.

Finally, and this is the one schools get wrong, there is the convention on when to use single inverted commas and when to use double. In the UK the convention is to use single pairs of inverted commas, then double ones if you need more inverted commas inside that first set. For example you might write:

'I just heard Mary say "I'm fed up," but she's not really,' said Peter.

In the US the convention is the opposite - double for first use, single for ones inside the first set.

For some reason, British schools teach students to use double inverted commas first - but the convention is very clear and you will find it in any UK writing style guide. Take a look in practically any book published in the UK and you will see it done this way. (Newspapers and magazines aren't such a good guide as they often go their own way on style.) So please, please, British teachers stop getting it wrong!

Several times I've pointed this out in my children's schools, but just got blank looks. Sigh.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Lives and Times of the Great Composers

A little while ago I wrote about the book The Rest is Noise, after a recommendation to lay my hands on a copy to find out more about twentieth century music.

In response to this, Icon Books kindly provided me with a copy of The Lives and Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen. They describe it as magisterial - and this is certainly true if it means bulky - there are almost 1,000 pages in this chunky concoction. The book has chapters on most of the big names from Handel to Puccini, so roughly 1700 to the early 1900s. There are also some rather summary compound chapters taking in, for instance, the big twentieth century Russians (I think it's bizarre that as trivial a composer as Puccini has his own chapter where Stravinsky doesn't, but the author does seem to have a particular favouritism towards operatic composers).

The main chapters are full of rich historical detail - fascinating if you like this kind of context. It hadn't really occured to me until reading this book, but history of music is very like history of science, in that to get it just right the author has to achieve a balance between historical context and details of the discipline (music and science respectively). Get too little of either and it's a fail.

Here you certainly can't criticize the historical context. There's masses of it. Rather too much for my liking sometimes. You can get three or four pages where the composer himself (I think they are all men) isn't mentioned, it's just about what the local royalty or political faction or doing. This got a little wearing occasionally. We also get plenty of the domestic details of the composers' lives, which is excellent. By contrast, the music is given rather skimpy treatment. There is very little on what made these composers great, which seems odd - like writing a book about Newton but not saying much about his theories on gravity or light.

A good example of this is in the chapter on Mahler. We hear a little bit about the Second Symphony, then the next one we hear about is the Eighth. Nothing about the remarkable structure of the Third Symphony, or the effectiveness of the Fifth, arguably his most approachable... or for that matter the famous 'hammer blows' in the Sixth. Although very occasionally we get a mention that, for instance Beethoven changed the rules, we really don't get a feeling what where the significant differences between his music and Mozart's. All in all, the musical side is a disappointment.

Overall, then, a good read if you like plenty of history, and an effective introduction to the private lives of these composers, but not something to give any appreciation of why their music is great.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Just because entanglement is 'spooky' doesn't make it mystical

If your write about evolution or cladistics, (applying a system/structure to species) like my friend Henry Gee your work inevitably get picked up by creationists and intelligent design merchants. In an attempt to prove that everything was created 6,000 years ago, and that dinosaurs were wiped out in Noah's flood or put there to fool us by a (presumably) malicious God, they take little snippets from the words that someone like Henry writes and use them as justification for something that can't in any way be deduced from those words.

I don't know if I'm pleased or saddened to have joined the 'misquoted' brigade, though in my case it's on the fascinating physics of quantum entanglement. This is the subject of one of my best selling books, The God Effect. Einstein first wrote about entanglement in 1935 in an attempt to disprove quantum theory (he failed), and called it 'spooky action at a distance.' It is quite remarkable. When two quantum particles are entangled, you can separate them to opposite sides of the universe and a change in one of them will instantly be reflected in the other. Although you can't, as first appears, use this to communicate faster than light, it does make also sorts of interesting things possible from quantum computers to quantum teleporation - a Star Trek transporter on the scale of an individual particle.

However, this is all good solid physics - no woo required. So I was rather bemused when it was pointed out to me that a website talking about 'healing the body with energy' and 'empaths' was using me as a reference. Here's what it says:

I have so so many physical sensations that I had desperately sought for solutions. Also have you heard about the long experiment by Brian Clegg that demonstrated the use of the law of entanglement with empathic and telepathic individuals? I will be bringing up those foot notes of his soon.

Wow. I look forward to reading about my experiments, because it's the first I've heard about them. What I do say in The God Effect is that Nobel Prize winning physicist Brian Josephson, on the text to accompany some stamps portraying the Nobel Prizes a while ago, said that if telepathy exists, then entanglement would probably be the mechanism behind it. When I spoke to Josephson about this, he admitted it was in part just to be provocative, though he has an open mind. But let's be clear about this. There is no good scientific evidence to date that telepathy does exist. If it did exist, then a likely mechanism would involve entanglement - but if that was the case, it wouldn't show that entanglement is somehow all mystical, it would show that telepathy is just another straightforward, physically explainable phenomenon.

The website that refers to my experiments says that We have synthesized quantum theory with Eastern philosophy in order to explain human life. But quantum theory has no more than a passing resemblance to Eastern philosophy - and doesn't need such philosophy to explain how things work. See my review of The Dancing Wu Li Masters - any linkage between Eastern philosophy and quantum physics is sad wishful thinking. Hands off, please.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Miss Leavitt's Variables

Today, it seems, is Ada Lovelace day, an international day of blogging about the achievements of women in science. Although she is not my subject, I ought to say a little bit about Ada, since the day is (somewhat inaccurately) named for her. She was born Ada Byron, daughter of the romantic poet and was a long term friend of, and enthusiast for the work of, Charles Babbage, the computing pioneer. Although there was some talk about a match between Ada and Babbage, she was married off to William King who became Earl of Lovelace in 1838, so strictly Ada is Ada King, not Ada Lovelace - in full she was Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.

Ada is often described as the first programmer. This is a slight exaggeration, in part because the 'computer' she 'programmed' never existed. What she in fact did was translate a paper on Babbage's work by Luigi Federico Menabrea from the French, and added a series of notes of her own - notes so detailed they ended up longer than the paper they accompanied. In her notes she showed a deep understanding of the importance of Babbage's conceptual Analytical Engine and the means by which it could be used. She wanted to do more, offering to help Babbage with his work, but he turned her down.

However it isn't Ada I wanted to mention today but Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a major player in astronomy at the end of the nineteenth century. Born in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1868, like a number of other women, she was first involved in science as a computer. This was not a device back then, as we now take 'computer' to mean, but a person who made measurements and calculations from photographic plates.

Despite ill health, she rose to become the head of stellar photometry at the prestigious Harvard College Observatory. Here she did not limit herself to simply recording observations but painstakingly built up a theory that would be central to our understanding of the size of the universe. Her subject was Cepheid variables.

These are variable stars which, as the name suggests, fluctuate in brightness, pulsing in a regular fashion from darker to lighter in a period that can last anything from hours to a year or more. Cepheid variables are named after the constellation Cepheus. Anglo-Dutch amateur astronomer John Goodricke discovered the first true variable star, Delta Cephei (hence the name Cepheid) in 1784, just two years before his death. He had already observed another star with varying intensity, Algol (Beta Persei), but this, as he suggested, varies because it is a pair of stars orbiting each other, one dark, not due to direct variation of the star itself. From observation of a good number of Cepheid variables that we can get a parallax distance on, it seems very likely that the speed of flashing of these variable stars is directly linked to their brightness.

Henrietta Leavitt was directly responsible for the theory that linked the speed of variation of the Cepheids with their brightness. This meant they could be used as 'standard candles'. If you saw a Cepheid variable, its flashing rate would tell you how bright it actually was - compare this with the apparent brightness and you could estimate just how far away the star was. Miss Leavitt's stars were a yardstick for measuring the universe. The work was completed shortly before Henrietta Leavitt's death at the age of 53 in 1921.

You can find out a little more about Henrietta Leavitt (biographical details are sketchy) and a lot more about her work in the book Miss Leavitt's Stars by George Johnson.

And you can see what's happening with the Ada Lovelace Day posts here.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

It's time that Tories dropped the sheep costumes

I've recently had a go at religion, so on a brief tour of subjects you should never touch upon in the pub or on a blog, I'm moving on to politics.

Before I make a remark some might think is attacking the Conservative party (even though with hand on heart I can say it's not), I ought to say I am a genuine floating voter. I have voted for all three main parties in my voting lifetime. My default inclination is towards the Liberal Democrats (not just because they have a leader called Clegg), but I'm easily swayed.

Now the problem I have with the Tories is this - they are wolves in sheeps clothing, and I think they would be better off dropping the sheep costumes and saying 'there's nothing wrong with being a wolf.' Whenever anything comes up, like the recent suggestion of ex-ministers trying to make money by pretending they had influence, there is much crying from the Conservative benches about how terrible it is, the way some people are in it for what they can get. No, no, no.

Surely this is the central tenet of Conservatism. Or even capitalism for that matter. We should all be in it for what we can get. Once we've got it, yes, we should be generous in letting a good portion of it benefit others, whether through buying their goods and services or through charity. But initially, absolutely, if you are a Conservative you should be in it for what you can get. So stop whingeing, Tories, and get grafting.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Make Your Own Mystery

For a while now I've run a website which lists a whole host of downloads and boxed kits to use at murder mystery parties and other mystery events. However it's a limited field. Most kits are for a specific number of players, and there are relatively few themes that everyone who makes these things seems to revisit.

To try to increase the flexibility, I've added a new ebook Make Your Own Mystery, the idea being that rather than buy an off-the-shelf mystery, you get instructions on how to put a new one together yourself. It covers both traditional role play party games - the sort where each guest plays the part of a character in the mystery - and the more flexible type of games, from treasure hunts to murders, that I provide in the Organizing a Murder ebook - games that can be played by any number of people and don't require the role play aspect.

I'm sure this won't be for everyone. The thought of coming up with your own mystery can be quite challenging (though some of the styles are very easy to put together). But I hope that it will help those who fancy having a go but don't quite know where to start.

If you know of any mystery party games I don't list on the website (or mystery party organizers that aren't on my list), do let me know at and I'll add them.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Understanding the difference between a symbol and the real thing

There is always a danger when a science writer strays into writing about religion, as Richard Dawkins has so ably demonstrated by putting everyone's backs up. But I'm afraid I just have to wade in after something I heard on the steam wireless.

This wasn't news, it was a documentary, so could be refering to something that happened some while ago, but apparently some clergyman or other commented that 'Women priests are witches who ought to be burned at the stake,' (not an exactly worded quote, but that was the jist). When interviewed he admitted this was hyperbole, but his point was that he found it ludicrous that a woman could represent Christ, who was a man.

Now this is wrong on so many levels, I don't know where to start.

To take what he said literally, I've been represented by a woman MP for years now. So it is possible for a man to be represented by a woman. But maybe that's not what he meant. What I think he was driving at was that the vicar/priest symbolically represents Christ when he does his bit at the altar. Okay, fine. And your point is? A symbol is, by definition, not the thing it represents. Otherwise it would be the thing itself, not a symbol. A woman can symbolically represent a man, just as some paint on a canvas can represent a landscape or a person. Or a button in a lift with the number 2 on it can represent the second floor. I don't suppose said moaning clergyman would not get in a lift because a number on a button can't possibly represent the floor of a building.

Also, why pick particularly on Christ's attribute of being a man? He was also a jew. Should all vicars/priests be jewish? He was ethnically middle eastern. So no vicars from the UK, then? And he was not born in the 20th century. So presumably no vicars or priests should be allowed who were born in the 20th century? Doesn't make sense? No, of course it doesn't. Neither does the assumption that the male aspect has to be, erm, religiously followed.

What people who take this stance don't want to admit is that they are really resorting to a form of magic. Not magic a la Tommy Cooper or Paul Daniels, but ritual magic. The only possible reason for saying that a woman can't fulfil the role is that you believe the magic won't work unless a man does the job. I can't claim to understand most Christians' belief systems, but this seems far fetched for the majority.

Recent developments in the Catholic Church have shown the damage that can be caused by the hugely damaging decision to have celibate priests. (Something even the Catholics didn't have for hundreds of years, so in no sense a requirement of theology, just an arbitrary rule.) It's time that Christians recognized that the rejection of women as priests equally has no basis in theology, nor in logic. It really isn't a matter of changing with the times - the decision not to have women priests (and there is a degree of evidence that the early church did have some) never made any sense.

Friday, 19 March 2010

A titan of an element

Of all the figures in Greek myth, Prometheus has to be one of the most significant for science. This Titan brought fire to mankind. For that gift he was punished by having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day. Such was the reward for being an early technologist.

In other legends Prometheus gave us maths and science, agriculture and medicine – or even created humans in the first place. This uncertainty of just what Prometheus was responsible for is echoed in the uncertainty of who discovered the element promethium, number 61 in the periodic table.

This is the opening of my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element. It's live and it's all about promethium, element 61.

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

Powered by

Thursday, 18 March 2010

An evening of fun science

I took part in 'An Evening of Fun Science' at Burford School (glad to see it shared the motto Sapere Aude with my old school) last night as part of the Oxfordshire Science Festival.

It was certainly a wide-ranging event. We started of with Mad Science, or rather a part of that franchise, with what was essentially a chemistry demonstration. There was much messing about with dry ice, most dramatically when the carbon dioxide/water vapour from a 'dry ice shower' was used to blow white marble-like soap bubbles, which burst in little clouds of vapour. Liquid nitrogen also got a look in, freezing a flower to the be crumbled. And a couple of hydrogen peroxide driven reactions provided a bit of drama. Technically their advertising 'a whizz-bang fun presentation full of explosive fun' was a little exaggerative, as there where no bangs or explosions - but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Second up was me, giving a practical session on memory, covering a little about how the brain stores memories, but mostly giving the audience a chance to try out techniques to give memory a boost, which seemed to go down well.

Finally came Mike Leahy, an interesting character who I spent most of the spare time chatting with. A science show presenter specializing in nasty creatures, Mike has allowed various insects and parasites to bite him and infect him for TV - and had graphic enough illustrations of the work of parasites and toxins on victims to turn the stomach of some of the audience. He kept things going with entertaining drama, and had the pre-teen boys practically begging to ask questions about various unpleasant experiences afterwards.

That pre-teen boys bit reflects the most diverse audience I've ever seen at a science event. Afterwards, seeing the brochure, I notice it was labelled as 7+ and this had been taken literally - the audience was 7 to 70, with plenty of tired young things by the time we finished our 3 hour marathon about 8.30.

Did they learn a huge amount? Probably not. But did they go away thinking science was worthwhile? I think so, and that can't be bad.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

How oxygen was first discovered in an adventure playground

Okay, oxygen wasn't really first discovered in an adventure playground, but I enjoyed watching Richard Hammond's hokey but visually stunning Invisible Worlds programme last night and the presenting style has rubbed off a bit.

Yesterday I had another of my outings with BBC Wiltshire to a science/technology site in the county. The target was Bowood House between Calne and Chippenham, which is known to anyone with children in the county as the best outdoor adventure playground in the vicinity. I have to admit to my shame that in all the visits I've made with the kids I never once noticed its scientific gem - the laboratory where Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen.

It was a lovely sunny day for a visit to this rather odd country house. Odd because the house itself was pulled down in the 1950s, and the 'house' now available to visit was really just the service block of the departed 'big house'. Luckily, Priestley's lab was (just) out of the big house itself.

One thing I love about these visits is the behind the scenes feel, taking me back to my British Airways days, when I always used to feel rather special going airside at Heathrow as part of my job. At Bowood it was curator Kate Fielding who led BBC presenter Mark O'Donnell and me in through the back route, heading via the kitchen and the currently stripped tea room (the house opens to the public in 2 weeks time) to the orangery (now a picture galllery) and next to it Priestley's laboratory.

This small room - maybe 4 metres square - seems smaller now because it is surrounded by bookcases, which weren't there in Priestley's time. It has none of the feel of a laboratory - it's just a typical country house room with no doors, but a wide opening onto the South front. It was the windows here, outside the lab, that Priestley used to capture sunlight with a large burning glass, which he focussed on mercuric oxide and produced a gas with strange properties like re-lighting glowing spills and keeping mice alive. A gas he would call 'dephlogisticated air' (it was the French chemist Lavoisier who named oxygen soon after in his radical shakeup of the naming of chemical substances).

We had lots of fascinating input for the recording from a classic amateur enthusiast, retired GP Norman Beale, who has made a study of Priestley's time in Calne and at Bowood. Mostly we inevitably concentrated on Priestley's work in the house, sponsored by the Marquis of Lansdowne, but there were inevitably some references to his other achievements, from inventing soda water to having his house burned down by an angry mob for his republican views. I also learned about the Dutch scientist Jan Ingenhouz, the discovered of photosynthesis. I knew the name, but not that he did his key work in the UK, nor that he spent his last years (after his discovery) at Bowood.

If I'm honest, Wiltshire hasn't got the greatest record of scientific discovery - but it's still fascinating looking into these locations, being in the places where something significant happened, and tapping into the local knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject.

Photo of Priestley's laboratory courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Now what was 2 + 2 again?

If there's one thing we expect it's for computers to be able to add numbers up and get the right answer. It's their forte. They aren't so good at (say) writing novels, winning the X-Factor or developing a new scientific theory, but they really are hot on sums.

This is such an obvious reality that it got me on the BBC consumer programme Watchdog in my (relative) youth. I ought to stress I was not there as a dodgy dealer, or a dubious salesman, but rather as an expert to make tutting noises about the spreadsheet on a Psion pocket computer, which had a bug that made it capable of producing basic arithmetic errors. Being Watchdog, they couldn't just interview me - I had to go to what was then a trendy location - a cyber café in London. The two main things that stick in my mind about my first ever TV interview were that they were unspeakably patronising about their audience, and they were tight.

Bearing in mind they were expecting me to travel all the way to London just to be interviewed, I assumed they would pay first class rail fare. They did (grudgingly), but muttered that they normally only pay second. As for their audience, they said to me something to the effect of 'Don't use any technical terms or hard words. You have to remember, our audience is mostly housewives.' I suspect that this particular producer is no longer with the BBC.

However, the issue was a real one, if quite rare. Spreadsheets tend not to make basic adding errors with whole numbers. Yet when we get to decimal places, there is a need for care. Because if you aren't dealing with whole numbers, there will have to be some assumptions about how the numbers are handled in the limited space available. (That's the wonder of a quantum computer, which isn't limited to a finite decimal expansion - but that's a different story.) What this means is that you can get calculations where the order in which you make a step will change the final value, even though in pure mathematical terms, it shouldn't. It's usually with more complicated equations than this, but what we're saying is that A+B is not necessarily exactly the same as B+A.

Luckily there is a group poised like a mathematical equivalent of Superman to leap high problems at a single bound and to smash the incompetance of computer calculations. Called the Numerical Algorithms Group, it specializes in providing solutions to numerical nasties. You'll find a paper on computers getting sums wrong here (it's a trifle dated at 10 years old - certainly the (5.01+5.03)/2 problem it mentions doesn't challenge Excel) and a whole host of articles here.

As a writer, if I'm honest, I don't have anything more challenging to do numerically than to work out the VAT (and it's surprising how often other people make rounding errors in this), but for those with a more numerically-based discipline, the NAG is well worth knowing about.

The picture, incidentally, is (part of) Babbage's difference engine. This was really more a mechanical calculator than a computer, and Babbage couldn't manage the precision engineering to build it - the version shown was built by the Science Museum for a Babbage anniversary.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The power of a good blog

There has been much debate as to whether or not blogs, tweets and the like achieve anything concrete. I believe that they can be very effective in a number of ways, as I mentioned in this article in the Institute of Physics magazine, Physics World.

Regular commenter Ian, aka Laurasdad has suggested I mention a very effective example of the power of blogging. The science blogger Frank Swain (SciencePunk) recently described finding an undeveloped film in an old camera he brought, and featuring mystery images from the film in the blog post. Before long, commenters were adding information that began to fill in the facts behind the mystery of the grave shown in the rather spooky shots. Another SciencePunk post fills in the (unsolicited) detective work that arose from his blog post.

As Ian comments:
I know about SETI and harnessing the power of down time on PCs and I know that the  genealogical forums can turn up all sorts of stuff on ancestors but for something so trivial to get solved so easily made me wonder whether there are other solutions for business problems or for (maybe) police/national intelligence.  It depends on having a critical mass of users with that particular interest; the question is how can you tap into those users with an interest and time on their hands ?

The SciencePunk mystery photos have demonstrated well the power of harnessing reader power, if you can provide a challenge that engages people. It's an interesting approach to researching a topic that we may see more and more of as internet communities develop.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Rest is Noise

I must apologise to anyone who isn't interested in music that I seem to have had a string of musical posts lately - normal service will be resumed soon, honestly.

After my recent suggestion that there hasn't been a truly great serious composer since Stravinsky, I was pointed to a book called The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. (Thanks to the erudite Andrew Furlow of Icon Books for the recommendation.) You can see this book here at The Rest is Noise and here at The Rest Is Noise.

I'd highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to find out more about the development of serious music in the twentieth century. I had an unusually trendy music teacher, so I was very much brought up at school on Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern et al, but there was still lots there that was new to me in the early twentieth century, and more so on the more modern composers.

The book isn't without fault. It's very long and I did skip read various parts that didn't interest me too much. The (US) author doesn't cover British composers enough - you'd think Britten was the only 20th century British composer, which is a little unfair. And his most modern section omits many of the better known modern composers. Even so, it's a very useful book and one that I'll be adding to my library.

Does it change my opinion? No, not in the slightest. If anything it reinforces the idea that Stravinsky was the last great, with the likes of Mahler, (R) Strauss, Schoenberg, Poulenc and Shostakovitch nibbling at his heels, but never achieving the same true greatness. Equally it seems to support the assessment that the Cage, Glass, Stockhausen etc. never achieved and never will achieve public acceptance or true greatness, that they remain music of the intellect, not music that really grabs people and enthralls them. Like much modern 'art', I'd suggest anything you have to have explained to appreciate it isn't very good art.

One thing this has done is encourage me to revisit some old favourites - so I will be digging out the Mahler and Stravinsky recordings - and visit for the first time since school some Schoenberg et al. I've tended to spend so much time listening to Tudorbethan church music (still unrivalled), that I've neglected this stuff. That reminds of one other slight flaw in Ross's book. To read it, you would think that serious music has always previously used major or minor keys, and the modernists were the first to move away from this. But when you go back to the Tudorbethan stuff, the concept of keys hadn't been invented yet. You get strange effects, like what is in essence using one key for ascending notes and another for descending notes simultaneously. You get those piercing clashes that the likes of John Sheppard are so fond of, that make you think 'He can't do that!' But he does. I think that's why my favourites are either old or modern - in the classical rump of serious music post Bach and pre Mahler they stuck to the rules too much.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Musical adapations that were meant to be

Every now and then you come across a piece of music that has been transfered to a different instrument or body of instruments to the ones it was originally written for. Often such translations are painful. Grieg's piano concerto rendered on a kazoo, say. Or to be less facetious, a brass band rendition of a string quartet.

However occasionally, just one in a thousand of these perversions produces something better than the original. I can think of two examples. Purists might not agree, but I think that Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is better than the composer's original piano version. Even more dramatic is Samuel Barber's transformation of his Adagio for Strings into the vocal Agnus Dei. The Adagio is a striking and wonderful work, but when Barber transfered it to voices it was given a haunting, gut-wrenching quality that isn't there in the original, making it quite possibly the most emotionally power piece of music ever written.

So here's your challenge, if you choose to accept it. Can you name other pieces that have been improved by being moved away from the composer's instruments of choice?

Friday, 12 March 2010

The joy of seeing minds boggled by infinity

Of all the talks I do in schools, public events and businesses, the one I enjoy most is the one on infinity. There's just something wonderful about the mix of fascination and sheer boggledness of mind that I see in the faces and get from the feedback afterwards.

This boggling is nothing new. The first person to really consider the true mathematical oddities of infinity in any depth was Galileo. In his book Discorsi e dimostrationi matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences) he explores infinity in a way that had never been done before. This book is his masterpiece. Forget the one about the Earth going round the Sun that got him into such trouble, this book sets up the basis for mechanics, laws of motion, relativity and more.

Written while he was under house arrest, it's in the form of a discussion between three characters. These are Filipo Salviati (named after a friend of Galileo’s who died 16 years before in 1614), representing Galileo’s ‘new’ viewpoints, Simplicio, who remained stuck firmly in the ancient Greek tradition, and Giovanfrancesco Sagredo (named for another friend, who had died in 1620). Sagredo is the independent observer, listening to the discussion and pulling out points to highlight.

Simplicio, as his name suggests, is there to go 'Duh, I don't understand this,' so the Salviati character can explain. A bit like an assistant in Dr Who. It was Simplicio that got Galileo in trouble with his previous book. The basic content had been agreed with the Inquisition. Galileo accepted he would have to put a bit in the book saying it was just theorizing, and the Earth was really at the centre of the universe. But he put this view, the pope's view, in Simplicio's voice, and this Richard Dawkins-like unsubtlety seems to have been what caused such offence.

A little way into the book, our three have been discussing the nature of matter and decide to have a bit of a break and contemplate infinity, which came up in a model of matter that Galileo has suggested. In one of their thought experiments it turns out that there are two lines, both with an infinite set of points in them, one longer than the other. Simplicio is baffled. How can you have two infinities, one bigger than the other, he grumbles. Salviati admits it is mind boggling. He says:

This is one of the difficulties which arise when we attempt, with our finite minds, to discuss the infinite, assigning to it those properties which we give to the finite and limited; but this I think is wrong, for we cannot speak of infinite quantities as being the one greater or less than or equal to another.

... and that's the joy of infinity for me. The way the concept simply won't fit in our minds, the way we seem to almost grasp it, then it flits away. It's a feeling both frustrating and delightful.

Read more about infinity...

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Can youth really save the planet?

We're always being told how the hope of the planet is our young people. The media bangs on to us aged folk that young people are much more aware of green issues, and won't make the same mistakes we did.

The most delicate term I can think of to describe this hypothesis is bullshit. (Good, organic stuff, bullshit.)

Have the people who spread this message ever seen a teenager? Amount of brain dedicated to self 100%. Amount of brain dedicated to the planet 0%. Just as one tiny example, every morning after my children go to school I have to go around the house turning off lights and electrical devices they've left on. Given the choice of walking, talking the bus or demanding a lift in a car they will go for the car every time. Time after time I have to retrieve recyclable materials they've just dumped in the bin. Of course it could be that my children are atypical teenagers - but I don't think so.

The reality is that we have been brainwashed by the media into thinking children are green. This is partly because we are always seeing a few token kids doing green things on the likes of Newsround and Blue Peter, and because schools (primary schools in particular) make a big thing of the green message, so the children will have done a project on recycling, and can spout the right message when interviewed for the TV news. 'Ah, they're the hope for the future,' simpers the newsreader.

No, they're not. Not without help. It's those of us with a good dose of middle age guilt who are most persuaded by the green message. If we really want youth to save the planet, we can't sit back and think 'They've got it, we're in safe hands.' We need to give them a loving shove in the right direction.

So Mr/Ms TV producer - next time you feel the urge to produce a piece showing how green the kids are, get real. For the planet's sake.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A revelation in Wroughton

The second recording session for the BBC Science in Wiltshire radio series I'm taking part in was yesterday at the Science Museum's outpost in Wroughton, and it was an amazing afternoon.

On the sprawling site (it was literally about five minutes drive from the gatehouse to the offices) of a disused airfield, perched over the village of Wroughton near Swindon, the Science Museum has two treasures - its large objects archive, and its library.

The large objects archive is a store and conserving centre for the vast range of objects that aren't on display in the museum in London at the moment. This can be anything from the UK's first fuel cell driven bus to a cider barrel (as it happens these were adjacent to each other in the transit hangar when we took a peek in).

Along with BBC presenter Mark O'Donnell, I was taken round the controlled environment store. Imagine a cross between an Ikea warehouse and that scene in the Raiders of the Lost Ark where they store away the ark of the convenant in a packing case in vast warehouse. There were 20 foot high powered stacks with a ridiculously varied array of artefacts. The eye was first caught by a Belling cooker with an eye-level grill, only to be drawn down the storage rack along cooker after cooker, including some of the earliest electric models.

In another section of the store there was a magnicent jumble. An ejector seat (complete with dummy pilot) next to a penny farthing bicycle, next to an Edwardian dentist's X-ray machine. Elsewhere there was a startling contrast when Mark put the device he was using to record the interview - all built into a hand mike - alongside a professional metal tape recording machine the size of small car, and no doubt with much lower quality of recording.

This isn't a 'real' museum, in the sense that it's not generally open to the public, but they do have special events where different hangars are opened up for public viewing - and I'd really recommend taking the opportunity.

But for me, the absolute gem of the place was the library. I don't know how much this is a writer's view, but it was stunning. They have 26 kilometres of books and archives, but just the few on display were enough to take the breath away. On the same table was a first edition of Newton's Opticks, the very first copy of Einstein's popular science book on relativity (with a hand-written dedication by Einstein to a friend in the front) and the Apollo 11 Flight Plan, signed by the astronauts. The thrilling thing is that these books aren't in glass cases. You can touch them, turn the pages, read them. This is a real library, not a museum of books.

The library is open to the public (you need to make an appointment, though) and free. Both Mark and I were rendered near-speechless by the proximity of these texts. It's so much more powerful than seeing a picture on the web.

To find out more about the Science Museum at Wroughton, the library, visits and special events, see their website.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Important lesson for newsletter owners

The Popular Science website which I run has a newsletter. You know the sort of thing - you sign up with your email address and every now and then an email update pops into your inbox.

Until recently I ran this manually. It was a huge hassle, and the straw that broke the camel's back was when I switched email providers and the new one wouldn't let me send emails to large numbers of people. So I switched to a mailing service. (I had resisted this before for one reason - money - but it was well worth it.) On the recommendation of a couple of friends I chose MailChimp - and as I've documented elsewhere, it's really great.

This has made sending out newsletters painless, except for one new hazard. They're very fussy about people opting out of the emails. Their software flags up how many people unsubscribe, and if it makes 1% of your list, they ask you why. It also flags up anyone who complains that your email is spam. Apparently they are required to investigate if by US authorities if more than 1% unsubscribe. This seems pathetically low, especially with a small list. It only takes 11 people to unsubscribe and I trigger an investigation as I did with the last mailing. That's not a lot of people. This has made me rather nervous when I send out a newsletter.

So is the lesson 'Don't do it?' No. I've omitted one extra fact. I quite often have competitions on the website, when a publisher or the Royal Society generously donate books to give as prizes. For the last couple of years, I tended to make signing up for the newsletter the way to enter the competition. I know a fair number of those who subsequently sign up just do so for the competition entry, but some might read the newsletter and find it interesting, so it seemed worthwhile. And when I was running the list manually, it was. But now it's a big problem.

The trouble is, competition enterers will typically unsubscribe fairly soon after, often when the next newsletter arrives. So they artificially boost that percentage of unsubscribers. I haven't run this sort of competition since last summer, and I think I have weeded many of the compers out, but there are still some in there. The newsletter I just sent out has already had three unsubscribes, one with a complaint as spam, clearly from a competition entering person who totally forgot they had signed up. I want to email them and say YOU'RE AN IDIOT! You signed up for this - it's the only way to get it. But I can't help but think it's going to make things worse rather than better.

So if you run a newsletter, don't run a competition which is entered by signing up for the newsletter. It'll come back to bite you. I'm just amazed that the big companies who do this all the time don't have problems.

Monday, 8 March 2010

I'd really rather dark matter didn't exist

A few hundred years ago, it was assumed that the process of burning something produced a substance called phlogiston. After all, the ashes of a piece of wood were lighter than the original substance, so clearly something was given off. Roll forward to Victorian times. By now, phlogiston was considered a rather silly idea. However, Victorian scientists did think there was something called the luminiferous ether.

Like phlogiston, this was a substance that was assumed to exist because it made it possible to explain a physical phenomenon, even though the substance itself had never been observed. The phenomenon in question was light. Young had shown conclusively that light was a wave. And a wave is a movement in a material. That's why you can no longer hear a ringing bell in a jar that you pump the air out of. There's nothing left in the jar to do the waving, so the sound disappears. But you can still see the bell. Light's waves seemed to be a wave in nothing and that wasn't possible.

The ether (or aether) was a mechanism to get round this. It was a material that filled all space, which light rippled through. But it was a very strange material. It was so diffuse that it had no effect on objects that passed through it - there was no equivalent of wind resistance. Yet at the same time it was incredibly rigid. It had to be because it was known that light travelled vast distances through it. When you send a wave through a material, the floppiness of the material gradually absorbs the energy of the wave and it disappears. But the ether seemed to let light go on for ever - so it had to be almost infinitely rigid.

Although there was strong support for the ether at the time, it was really quite a relief when the triple whammy of Maxwell, Michelson-Morley and Einstein doomed it to non-existence. Maxwell came up with a mechanism for light that didn't require a medium for it to move, Michelson and Morley demonstrated the ether could not be detected by experiments that should have shown it up, and Einstein came up with a way of thinking about light that made the whole idea of an ether silly.

Roll forward to the present. The universe is too heavy. Specifically, when we look at other galaxies out in space, they are rotating too quickly for the amount of mass we estimate they contain. We need a whole chunk of extra mass that we can't detect in any way. So the concept of dark matter was born. Some kind of material with mass that is largely undetectable, to explain away the behaviour of galaxies and a few other cosmological oddities.

And we're not talking about a teensy bit of extra mass. The amount of dark matter that is required has many times more mass than all the conventional matter in the universe.

The defenders of dark matter say that the concept is quite different from the ether - but I'm really not sure. It is, once again, a hypothetical undetectable substance to explain away a phenomenon that doesn't seem to make sense.

Don't get me wrong. The fact that I don't like dark matter doesn't make it any less likely to exist. Science doesn't work by assuming something has to feel right for it to exist. (Just consider the existence of bankers' bonuses, if you make this assumption.) However it does mean that we should perhaps consider more seriously than we currently do alternatives to the existence of dark matter. All too often popular science books are written as if dark matter were a fact. It's not, it's a rather uncomfortable hypothesis.

There are alternatives to dark matter, the strongest of which is probably MOND, MOdified Newtonian Dynamics. This essentially says that the gravitational effects of mass are slightly different on the scale of a galaxy. We tend to assume that physics applies in exactly the same way everywhere. But we already know that the physics of the very small scale - quantum physics - produces effects that are very different from the scale of the ordinary world. It's not stretching things too far to think that there may be some variation on the scale of a galaxy.

We may be coming to a point where this can be tested. An experiment has been devised for the first time that might show the impact of MOND in the laboratory. It's early days, but I, for one, would be delighted if we can do away with dark matter. It's currently the mad aunt in the attic of cosmology - and I'd rather that mad aunt were fictional.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Will there ever be another great composer?

I seem to be in musical muse mode at the moment. I was listening to a piece on the radio about the Diaghilev ballets and it got me thinking about Stravinsky - specifically, whether there has been another great composer since. In fact, it got me to wondering if Stravinsky would be the last composer who could truly be called great.

Before you rush in supporting your favourite 20th/21st century composer, let me explain.

There have been plenty of composers of serious music since Stravinsky, but I would say they divide into two camps, neither of which quite makes the level of greatness. Some are good composers, writing excellent approachable music, but they haven't really changed the acceptability of something new. I'd include in this people like Ravel, Poulenc, Britten, Barber right through to the modern serious composers like Karl Jenkins.

The other camp really have done something new and original, but they don't produce music that grabs the listener and makes them want to listen. This would include the 12 tone brigade, Glass and so on. Their music has an intellectual appeal, but it's not actually enjoyable to listen to.

Stravinsky, I would suggest is the last to straddle both camps and hence achieve greatness. His music grabs the audience, is often very listenable - and yet he challenged the musical status quo and produced something new and outstanding. Perhaps the clearest mark of Stravinsky being a great is that you can hear the influence of his music so strongly in commercial music, from the music of Tom and Jerry cartoons to practically any movie soundtrack. You can't say the same of anyone since.

I do wonder if this division between listenable music that grabs the emotions and original music that has zero contact with the audience and is all of the intellect does mean that we will never see a great composer of serious music again. At least until fashions in the musical hierarchy undergo a radical change.

The illustration is Picasso's drawing of Igor Stravinsky.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The jar of sweets game goes large

There's a popular game at fetes where you have to guess how many sweets there are in a jar. Making an estimate like this can be an enjoyable intellectual exercise. In a similar, but more complex, vein, the Cambridge entrance exams and the general exam sat by science students there used to feature fun little challenges. Two still stick in my head. One was A violin plays the A above middle C. Estimate the tension in the string. And the other: Estimate the distance from the North Pole to the Equator around a great circle.

Under exam conditions you just had to use your brain to achieve a result - challenging but fun. (Incidentally, although most people fiddled around with geometric calculations, the second one has a very quick way of coming to a surprisingly accurate answer. Solution at the bottom of the post.)

Now there's a blog dedicated to this kind of mental exercise - and it has a competition at the moment too. Run by Aaron Santos, the blog, A Diary of Numbers features challenges to work out everything from how much he would have reduce the size of the Earth to bring a day down to a second, to how many mirrors it would take to melt an aircraft carrier in a second (rather unnecessarily quick, I would have thought).

These types of calculation are often known as Fermi problems after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, who was famous for his ability to make top-of-the-head estimates that turned out to be surprisingly close to reality. Really, though, they ought to be called Archimedes problems. This isn't just because that idea of melting an aircraft carrier is inspired by Archimedes' plan to use curved mirrors to focus sunlight to set Roman ships on fire. It's also because Archimedes wrote a whole book that addressed such a problem over 2,000 years ago - giving him something of a precedent over Fermi.

The book was called The Sand Reckoner, and in it Archimedes set out to work out the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. I ought to say that by universe, he had in mind something around the size of the solar system - but still it was pretty big. Intriguingly, he worked out values for two universes - the conventional one with the Earth at the centre, and one based on a weird idea from someone called Aristarchus that had the Earth going around the Sun. This is the only reference we now have to this early heliocentric idea.

Archimedes wasn't just having fun, though. He wanted to show you could extend the number system as far as you needed - something rather essential, as at the time the biggest number was a myriad - 10,000. The result is a tour-de-force of Fermi thinking. You can find out more about it in my book A Brief History of Infinity.

Meanwhile, back at A Diary of Numbers, the competition is to win a copy of Aaron's book How Many Licks, and what you have to do is come up with the best estimate for the number of times Mario has been killed in the various computer games he features in. Go to the competition page to see more details and enter.

The trick to working out that distance is knowing how metric distances were first defined. A kilometre was defined as 1/10,000th of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator through Paris. So an immediate and pretty accurate estimate is 10,000 kilometres.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

When the exception proves the rule it disproves it

I heard it again on the TV the other day, that dreaded sentence It's the exception that proves the rule. If ever a sentence (and a cliché at that) wreaked havoc it's this one. The way it is almost always employed is confusing nonsense.

It's likely to be something like this. Someone says 'Every time we catch the train it's late.' Someone else says 'You've got a short memory. It was dead on time this morning.' The first person nods sagely. 'Ah yes,' they say. 'That's the exception that proves the rule.' Meaning that in some way this was a one-off blip, and the rule still holds. According to this philosophy, you should expect some kind of exception to all rules, and now we can tick it off. The rule has been proved true.

No, no, no!

Prove here is as in proving ground. It means to test. Think The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So when we say 'The exception proves the rule' we mean that the existence of an exception tests the rule to breaking point - the rule is incorrect and can be ignored. In the case of the train, it's simply not true that that 'every time we catch the train it's late' - the exception of it being on time tests this rule and finds it wanting.

Everyone gets this wrong. Except you, I'm sure. You must be the exception that proves the rule.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A window on the past

I came across this photograph the other day and it opened up a powerful window on the past, in a number of ways.

First there's the technology. Not the computers (we'll come back to them), but the photograph itself. This was taken by a professional photographer in 1988, and back then, pre-digital, the pros took test shots with a Polaroid back on the camera before putting the real film cartridge on. This photograph is such a Polaroid.

Then there's the setting. This is PCHQ at British Airways. Opened on Halloween in 1988, this was a newly fitted out centre to handle everything to do with PCs in the company. It was responsible for purchasing and support, but more importantly back then, it had a role of evangelising. People didn't really get PCs at the time. Bear in mind that BA got its first PC in 1984. They were still strange objects in 1988. What we set up was a centre where you could drop in and try out the different PCs and exciting new facilities like 'Desktop Publishing.' One of the PCs even had an ENORMOUS 19 inch screen. There was a lecture theatre with a computer projector and exciting curvy workstations for people to get to know the technology.

PCHQ, known affectionally as Snoxid in the early days (read it backwards), was a hugely innovative concept. I personally think it delivered a great benefit - but one that wasn't understand by the IT management, who wanted to control PC use, not help users to become more independent. Said management deeply regretted having to move away from dumb terminals, where the IT department had all the control from the centre. When the founding manager left PCHQ it was rapidly run down and phased out. But for several years it was a shining beacon for better information technology. And there in shade at the front left is the aforesaid founding manager. Looking a little younger to say the least than I do now.

Finally there's the people in the photo. To be honest, it was a matter of grabbing whoever was in the vicinity. Although supposedly showing some of PCHQ's staff, two of the people in the shot were managers from outside of the IT department who just happened to be there. But we look very professional, I think. In a sort of shop dummy way. Or possibly one of those rides where you are taken round a series of tableaux. Welcome to 1988 and the PCHQ Experience.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star, where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods.

In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is:
  • Mediocre music
  • Melodramatic plots
  • Amateurishly hammy acting
  • A forced and unpleasant singing style
  • Ridiculously over-supported by public funds
I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some expansion. There is no doubt that opera is heavily supported by public money. And there is no reason for it. Opera lovers argue it needs to be shored up financially because the stars are expensive, and so is the orchestra. Exactly the same argument applies to West End musicals - but no one suggests we should subsidize them. Cancel the subsidies. If opera is so wonderful, it can stand on its own financial feet.

Then there's that singing style. An opera singer just can't compare to a good soloist in a cathedral choir with pure tone and perfect enunciation. You can even make out the notes and the words better when most pop stars sing. I thought it was interesting on Pop Star to Opera Star that the couple of times Katherine Jenkins sang, I couldn't make out a single word - the words were lost in the tone. I'm not saying it's easy to sing like an opera star. But it's not easy to stand on one leg for three days in a row either. So? The fact is, opera style is wobbly with vibrato and sounds forced and bellowing. There was a historical reason for doing this, but it's not needed any more with modern sound systems. And don't get me started on opera singers trying to sing pop music or church music, while still employing an operatic voice. That is just unbelievably unpleasant.

Finally there are the composers. Yes, some great composers (Purcell and Beethoven, for instance) did venture into opera, but that was just as a sideline. The real, dedicated opera composers (Rossini, Verdi and Wagner to name but three) are, without exception, second rate. Don't get me wrong. They can pump out a good tune. But they are the exact parallel of an Andrew Lloyd Webber, and should be treated as such. They aren't in the same league as Byrd or Bach, for instance.

So there you have it. Opera. Badly sung, dated musicals pickled in very expensive aspic. What's not to like?

Please note - I know some people who sing opera or have operatic training and they are lovely people. It's not the people (with the exception of the more outrageous opera stars), it's the opera itself, and the way it is reverentially treated.