Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Buying into hashtags

If I'm honest, I didn't get the point of hashtags to begin with. These aren't some strange aid for substance abuse, but those little features of Twitter posts (and hence Facebook status lines) that start with a "#" symbol - known as hash to its friends.

The idea of hashtags is to make it easy to pull together a stream of tweets on a linked topic. So, for instance, when there was the recent business over Scientology and the attack on a councillor for making a humorous tweet about them, the associated hashtag was #StupidScientology. Anyone wanting to follow comments on this matter could search for this particular hashtag.

Initially I really couldn't see the point. Twitter doesn't use # as a special symbol - it would work just as well if everyone just put StupidScientology in their post. But in practice it was useful to avoid confusion in a short message by having a word or phrase intended as a search term that didn't necessarily fit with the rest of the text. However, more recently I have come to see that the hashtag is more than this - it can be used as a shorthand explanation of what is happening.

I've done a couple of tweets lately using the hashtag #teenlogic - the idea being that these tweets were demonstrating occasions when teenagers had come up with an argument that didn't work in real world logic, but worked to the teen mind. One of my posts was this:

Whose shoes are these? Emily's. So how did she get home? She wore mine. Doh! #teenlogic

What I realized is that the hashtag does more than act as a search tool here - it explains what's going on. Without it, I seem to be suggesting that Emily has taken my shoes. But the #teenlogic tag tells us this is a conversation with a teenager, putting the whole tweet into context. This is really remarkably powerful, allowing a lot to be condensed into a few letters. Go hashtag!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The wall of sound - sixteenth century style

Record producer Phil Spector is famous for having created the "wall of sound" technique back in the 1960s, described in Wikipedia as a 'dense, layered and reverberant sound'. But I was reminded by something that popped up on the steam wireless as I drove home the other day, that the wall of sound was nothing new in Spector's day. (Geddit? Inspector? Suit yourself.)

The man responsible for the Tudor wall of sound was Thomas Tallis. He lived from around 1505 to 1585 and really took English music and dragged it kicking and screaming into the best 'modern' polyphonic style. He could write subtle, compact pieces. His hymn tune that would be used by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis is quite simple, but beautiful and unusual for a hymn. It was written in response to a request from the new Queen Elizabeth to have something a congregation could sing. However he could also go over the top in experimentation, and this is where his own version of the wall of sound comes in.

Most polyphonic music has three, four or five parts. You might occasionally double up, so have perhaps eight voices, each singing a different line at once. But Tallis's motet Spem in Alium features forty separate parts. That's not 40 people with ten per part, but 40 people, each singing an independent line at the same time. Sometimes, frankly, it's a bit of a mess - but often it's glorious, particularly when the voices suddenly come together and move in unison.

Why not check it out:

Picture from Wikipedia - allegedly Tallis but not produced until at least 150 years after his death so bears no resemblance

Monday, 26 July 2010

Mark Twain does time travel

I've been reading around time travel quite a lot lately, and have just finished Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It came as quite a surprise.

I'd read the usual suspects when it came to Mark Twain, but my memories of this time travelling tale mainly came from seeing the old 40s/50s movie on the TV as a boy and very much enjoying it. At least, I thought I did. While I remembered the time traveller's use of a handy solar eclipse he just happened to know about to save himself for death, most of the rest of my memories were false. This is because I'd conflated the film with Danny Kaye's superb medieval vehicle The Court Jester. So in my mind, Kaye was the time traveller, and the film featured the catch phrase 'Get it? Got it? Good!' and that wonderful tongue twisting schtick about the vessel with the pestle/the chalice from the palace and so on. In fact it was Bing Crosby in the real film, totally wiped from my memory by Kaye.

However, either way, the movie was a frothy confection of lightweight fun. Not so the book. Twain uses it to lecture us repeatedly on a number of his bugbears. He takes on slavery (still extant in the Southern US during the early part of his lifetime), supports the free market over protectionism, knocks down the whole business of someone being more important because of birthright - and perhaps most vitriolic of all, leads a frontal assault on the Catholic church. He's not anti-Christian, but wants to replace it with a wide range of non-Established protestant sects so the church can't do any harm.

There is humour - a fair amount of it. But there's also hanging, burning at the stake, slaves dying in chains,and in the apocalyptic finale, the hero with 53 helpers takes on and slaughters 25,000 knights, using dynamite, electric fences and Gatling guns. This is certainly no Once and Future King style 'right is better than might' - here it's 'high tech might is better than swords and armour might.'

There are few bits it's necessary to skip over, but mostly it's still highly readable, and a fascinating mix of story and social/political tract. If you haven't read it, dig out a copy - it's still in print. See at and

Friday, 23 July 2010

I think we'd prefer companies with a sense of humour

One of the UK's favourite advertising campaigns is that used by Marmite. For those not from the UK, Marmite is one of the most ingenious products ever. Beer production leaves behind a brown sludge of yeast remains and other good stuff. Most would throw this away, or at best use it as fertiliser. But someone had the idea of turning it into a spread to be put on toast and the like. This is Marmite or in Australia, (though they would claim their version is much better) its competitor Vegemite.

Marmite is one of those things you love or hate (I'm in the hate camp), so much so that it has become something of an adjective - if you describe something as marmite, it's something that polarizes opinion. Now the clever thing about the ad campaign is that Marmite's makers picked up on this and run ads in which some people find their product absolutely disgusting. This gained them a lot of admiration because it seems to show a genuine sense of humour. They can laugh at the adverse reaction to their own product. This ability to share a joke about your product is considered a good thing, at least in the UK.

In other companies, however, this ability is profoundly absent. Many, particularly dare I say US companies, are entirely po-faced about their product. I have never seen a better example than Apple's reaction to the iPood. Apparently an Australian company makes rather dinky (and stylish) little shovels for disposing of your, ahem, bodily waste while camping. They came up with the very witty name iPood for this product. But low and behold, the Apple lawyers dumped a ton of bricks on them from a great height (as it were). And now the Perth company Sea to Summit are renaming their product the Pocket Trowel.

Thanks, Apple, for taking a wonderful joke and turning it sour. I suppose the only consolation is that Sea to Summit will have got a lot of publicity out of this. We now all know where to turn when we need to shovel... IT company press releases.

Thanks to the Register for alerting me to this story

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Science is good news

As an author of popular science books I'm inevitably a tad biased on the subject of science. I think scientific discoveries are thrilling. I still have that child-like sense of wonder that so many, so sadly seem to lose in their teens. Sometimes 'awe' is a good word for the feelings I get when I come across a new, good bit of science. But last night, watching the news, I was struck by another benefit of science that isn't often mentioned.

Channel Four News (the best TV news in the UK, as far as I'm concerned - certainly the most grown-up and the least dumbed down, unless they give their graphics person a bit of free reign) was full of the usual misery and despair. People killed. The US indulging in Brit bashing, suggesting somehow the British government was responsible for the release of the Lockerbie bomber (even though it was a totally independent decision by the Scottish Executive, but thanks to Braveheart, the Scots come next to the Irish in US romantic mythology, so it can't be their fault). The Ministry of Defence trying to weasel out of cost cuts. Conservative MP to be investigated for his election costs. Banks behaving badly. More financial misery...

And then we had a story about the discovery of the biggest star yet to be detected. And it lit the programme up. As we heard about R136a1, how it was 50 times the diameter and 300 times the mass of the Sun, as we watched the Very Large Telescope array in Chile do a little dance, suddenly there was some good news. A brief moment of happiness in an otherwise miserable bulletin. Even if you don't care that much about advancing knowledge, we need a regular burst of science to keep our chins up. We should demand at least one good science story in every news bulletin. Just so we know there really is something worth living for.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A pinch of literary salt

I am, by and large, a market kind of guy. Although I don't have any illusions about the imaginary benefits of economics (see the wonderful Economyths), and don't believe that markets always optimize, when we're dealing with commercial trade, I think it's usually best to leave things to the market, because interfering simply props up products that aren't wanted or companies that are bad at doing their job.

However, there are lots of caveats to this. It can be beneficial, for instance, to subsidize a product that in the long term will be hugely beneficial but initially is restrictively expensive. Another situation where I think it's appropriate to distort the market is where there's a good company with good products, but they are struggling to get the exposure they need. This happens all too often in publishing. You can get a great book that never achieves visibility. Or a publishing company with an excellent track record that is too small to buy the attention of the bookstores.

One such company is Salt Publishing. They've produced a string of excellent literary novels and are even brave enough to publish poetry. But they are finding things tough at the moment, and are on the edge of going bust.

In response, the Salt authors and management have started a 'just one book' campaign. The simple message is if enough people buy just one Salt book, the company can be saved to carry on publishing its excellent works. So with some hesitation, I've joined the queue, and purchased a book. (In my case it's Elizabeth Baines' Too Many Magpies (I'm fascinated by magpies, and anyway I can't resist a come-on that says 'Can we believe in magic and spells? Can we put our faith in science?') which I am now awaiting with interest to add to the holiday reading pile.

This isn't a decision I've come to lightly. Salt first tried this campaign last year and got enough sales boost to survive 12 months, but are now in real danger again. I didn't take part the first time because I'm really dubious about much of the subsidised arts. I think, on the whole, that the arts ought to be able to stand on their own feet. (I don't include museums and galleries, which I'd class as education rather than art.) If I had Dave and Nick's budget axe in my hands, I'm afraid subsidies for the likes of the Royal Opera House would be among my first targets.

In principle I have sympathy for the argument that we ought to be subsidising struggling young artists who need some source of income before they sell things - but I don't see why that subsidy shouldn't come direct from people like Damien Hirst, and from the auction houses, rather than the rest of us - a sort of artists' graduate tax.

But I've come to realize that what Salt is doing isn't a subsidy. After all I'm buying an excellent book. It's more a viral marketing campaign, and I wish Salt all the best with it.

So don't just nod wisely and move on. Nip over to Salt's website (you might as well give them all the dosh, rather than sending a slice to Amazon) and buy a book now. Just one book. You never know, you may even enjoy it.

PS my copy of Too Many Magpies has arrived with a surprise bonus. It seems that if you buy direct from Salt by 31 August you get an entry in their raffle - see their blog for details.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Should someone who wants the libel laws liberalized sue for libel?

Science blogger Ben Goldacre faces a remarkable decision of conscience at the moment. Goldacre, along with many who write about science, has expressed concern about our libel laws and the way that they have been used to suppress scientific views. Yet now, Goldacre appears to have been libelled. Should he sue, or should he rise above the libel system that has been so misused?

I won't go into the details of the alleged libel here - you can get an excellent summary from Jack of Kent's blog. Suffice it to say that a tweet that appears to have been from 'nutritionist' Gillian McKeith or her organization apparantly called Goldacre's book Bad Science lies. After a spate of negative tweets in response, the original message disappeared to be replaced by a string of posts defending McKeith's mail order 'doctorate'. Even more bizarrely, the Twitter account was then removed from McKeith's website (though left in the page code), and a post added hinting that it wasn't really Ms McKeith's Twitter account at all.

So Ben Goldacre has a strong case for taking legal action if he wanted to. But should he? He is among the vanguard (rightly) criticising our libel laws, the libel laws that resulted in the ridiculous Simon Singh case. Yet no one arguing for libel reform has suggested we should remove libel entirely from the legal system. What should Ben do?

For what it's worth, in his case I would not begin legal proceedings. His reputation has not been damaged by this. Quite the reverse - he has come out smelling of roses, while poor Ms McKeith (okay, these are crocodile tears) does not come out of the encounter well. If she's smelling of anything, it's the bodily product she is most associated with. I think Goldacre can afford to be magnanimous. I don't even think he should press for a retraction, appealing though an endorsement of Goldacre by McKeith would be. Provided this affair has mass media coverage (at the moment, Goldacre's paper The Guardian seems to be the only one to have covered it) then I would be entirely satisfied that honour has been satisfied in the traditional manner of shooting yourself in the foot.

Image from

Monday, 19 July 2010

A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees

Before reading Clare Dudman's new novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, I was only vaguely aware of a Welsh presence in Patagonia. I knew, in a Trivial Pursuits kind of way, that there was a pocket of Welsh speaking down there in South America, and I had the bizarre fictional images from Malcolm Pryce's wonderful noir detective stories set in a fantasy Aberystwyth (like Abertystwyth, Mon Amour), where Patagonia is frequently referred to as the Welsh equivalent of Vietnam, with war veterans cropping up in the stories now and again. But I knew nothing of the real nineteenth century attempt to colonize part of Patagonia.

Although the book is a novel it really does capture the historical context beautifully - you can feel the hardship of reaching the place, only to discover that the promised meadows and tall trees are actually scrubland and bare earth. The colonists battle against remarkable odds, losing loved ones (particularly poignantly, several of the children of the central character Silas James) and nearly starving. They survive because of three factors - help from a local Indian, support from Argentina (which wants to make sure that the area isn't annexed by Chile) and the idea of Silas' wife to irrigate the fields rather than rely on very random rainfall.

The main thread of the novel, featuring the colonists and the difficulties of deciding whether to keep on trying or move to Argentina proper can't be falted. I wasn't quite as convinced by the interlaced sections seen from the point of view of the Indian Yeluc. It's just so difficult to present such an alien view without seeming a little contrived. Having said that, the author avoids the common modern assumption that everything the ancient wisdom of the Indians says is beneficial. It's true that the colonists learn a lot from the Indians, particularly about hunting, but equally the Indians learn from the colonists.

If I mention a couple of small negatives it isn't because they in any way spoil the book. One is that Clare Dudman is just a little too subtle. She could have made more of the irony of the Welsh moving to Patagonia to preserve their language and culture, only to contribute to the supression of the Indians' language and culture. And I found the ending rather puzzling (I really can't say much more without giving too much away). But that doesn't take away from this being a really engaging read. The author is always wonderful at giving us a feel of what it's like to live in a different environment, and I've never seen it done better. Lyrical and informative in equal parts, this is a novel that a non-fiction reader can appreciate for its descriptive content while still giving flight to the imagination and good development of characters that the reader cares about. Recommended.

See more at and

Friday, 16 July 2010

Miniature musical masterpieces

As I may have mentioned before, I am very partial to Tudor and Elizabethan church music, and want to get all excited about an aspect of this music that rarely makes it as far as recordings (I conscious I may be falling into the trap I mentioned yesterday of being blinded by enthusiasm, but hey).

The reason this particular music is rarely heard outside of churches is that the pieces in question are so short. They consist of a series of little prompts from a priest or cantor that are responded to by single lines of music from the choir - specifically I'm referring to what's known as the preces and responses. Yet despite their brevity, some of these little musical fragments can be exquisite miniature masterpieces.

The examples I've got are a couple of samples from the early 17th century. They are from a piece that will be known to anyone who has sung this kind of music with a choir, but the composer is otherwise meaningless as he seems to have been a one hit wonder, who despite being technically Stuart is very much Elizabethan in musical style. His name was William Smith of Durham.

When Tudorbethan music started to come back into favour in the twentieth century after many years in the wilderness, it was thought this was the late 16th century Durham Cathedral organist William Smith, but it now seems more likely to have been a minor canon at the cathedral of the same name whose dates were roughly 1603-1645.

The recording I have is amateur quality, and of an amateur performance. To be precise it's my little village choir augmenting the larger Newbury choir. But it gives something of a feel for this music. I'd like you to listen to one of the responses (preceded by the 'versicle' sung, I'm afraid, by me) and also the final amen. This is just an amen after a prayer, nothing special... and yet Smith makes it sublime.

I appreciate it's not to everyone's taste - but for me it's gorgeous.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The blindness of enthusiasm

Many moons ago when the volcanic ash was disrupting air flights (how soon we forget - just wait for big brother to blow), I heard an interesting discussion on the radio. A slow travel enthusiast was, in a rather trainspotterly way, noting how people were having to travel home by bus or train, and how the experience would no doubt win over many converts to slow travel.

It's hard to imagine anyone getting things more wrong than this. You have been waiting days in an airport with the heaving masses. Now you are stuck on a sweaty bus for hour after hour. All you want to do is be home, NOW. But still the bus journey drags on. And on. And let's not talk about toilets. Yet our slow travel guru reckoned this would be winning over converts.

Now, don't get me wrong. I rather like rail-based slow travel. A few years ago we went to Switzerland by train, and it was a great holiday. But that was with the expectation that we would be travelling (relatively) slowly, stopping off in Paris and generally enjoying the journey in its own right. If it's forced on you as a last resort, you are not going to be won over.

I think what happened here is a much wider phenomenon. One where someone gets really enthusiastic about a subject and assumes everyone else will fall in love with it too. And they are so wrong. We see it in Bill Oddie when he goes on about birds. We see it in anyone who does morris dancing (and particularly those who suggest we should have morris dancing at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics). We see it in barbershop singers. We see it in those who believe we should all go and live in a self-constructed wooden hut in the wilds to be ecofriendly.

Number one lesson for anyone trying to persuade others to latch on to their enthusiasm: You have to see the subject through the other person's eyes, not through your own joy goggles. Otherwise you have lost the argument before you begin.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Gourmet Burger Kitchen fail

I love a good burger. I'm not talking a Bird's Eye frozen job, cremated on the barbecue. A proper handmade chunky burger, well presented. So I was delighted to have the chance to eat at Gourmet Burger Kitchen last night on an impromptu visit to Cabot Circus in Bristol.

According to the review quotes on the window this was the best thing sinced sliced... er... buns. And I had enjoyed a GBK burger a few years previously, so all sounded good. As has previously been mentioned, I also love barbecue sauce so inevitably I went for the barbecue burger. I was told it featured their home made bbq sauce. That's great - I sometimes make my own with onions and various other goodies in it, and obviously it's better than stuff out of a catering pack.

When it came, it was a good burger, that I won't deny. But the barbecue sauce was foul. It was loaded with whole grain mustard, so much so that it was, to all intents and purposes, a mustard sauce. Okay, it was dark brown in colour, but the mustard totally overwhelmed it. This was an attempt to be clever-clever gone all wrong. The primary flavour in barbecue sauce is tomato. Yes, it has other piquant touches that make it a dark red (and I do include a touch of mustard in my homemade version), but the stuff I was given just didn't do the job.

Being suitably British (and short of time), I didn't complain, but I was deeply distressed.

While I'm at it, I noticed another fail on the menu. Their chilli burger had 'chilli sauce' on it. No, no, no. A gourmet chilli burger is smothered in good chilli con carne. This was not the real thing.

As an experience it paled into insignificance with the burgers I used to have when I had to travel up to London to get a decent burger a good number of years ago. It couldn't rival Wolfe's, and certainly wasn't a patch on the hallowed memory of Chicago Meat Packers. You need to pull your socks up, GBK.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The past is another country

A little while ago I mentioned going back to my old school on a reunion. Thinking about this brought back a memory which seems unreal with the distance of time. When I was at school we undertook a weekly activity that is probably illegal now.

The school in question was the Manchester Grammar School. Without doubt a great school. Yet when our helpful sixth former took us on a tour, he visibly winced at one point. He had obviously heard a certain story too many times from old boys. He was, no doubt, suppressing a smile. The location this reminiscence took place was the swimming pool.

I was never a very good swimmer, andI really didn't like swimming lessons. I honestly can't remember if this probably-now-illegal aspect was part of the reason I didn't like them. I suspect it was more because I found swimming so hard. But a psychoanalyst would have a field day. A whole generation of output from this school, she would deduce, was scarred. Why? Because when we made that trip to the outfitters and bought the expensive school uniform (you had to go to a particular shop in Manchester that had one of those wonderful tube setups at the till, where the money whizzes away in a cylinder), said uniform did not include swimming trunks. Swimming lessons were undertaken in the nude.

I don't remember this ever being justified at the time, though I presume it was explained to our parents - I can't imagine modern parents going along with it, but there was more respect for authority back then. I seem to remember reading since that it originated in fabric shortages in the war. Apparently, because of this, the standard issue school swimming trunks were made out of wool, which soon became sodden, like swimming in lead. Doing without them was a welcome release - one that continued into the 1960s and 70s.

The mind utterly boggles, trying to see this practice from really not very long ago through modern eyes. The past truly is another country.

Monday, 12 July 2010

How They Blew It

I occasionally get sent books that don't fit with but are still interesting in their own right. How They Blew It by Jamie Oliver (no, not that Jamie Oliver) and Tony Goodwin is just such a book.

The premise is simple. It's a set of stories of how entrepreneurs and chief executives have lost vast sums of money for themselves or their companies (or both). There are some amazing stories in this collection, including the big names like Ken Lay, Dick Fuld and Jon Asgeir Johannesson, but also rather lesser known entrepreneurs and chief execs like Rueben Singh and Kevin Leach. Each of these key figures has nominally been worth a lot of money, and then made a huge mess of things.

Several of the people featured have been sent to jail. Two (Adolf Merckle and Christopher Foster) committed suicide. This is heavyweight stuff. Merckle is particularly fascinating psychologically in this respect as despite his big losses he was still worth several billion euros. He wasn't exactly poor - but couldn't stand the loss of face.

I was more than slightly surprised by the omission of Gerald Ratner, especially as none of the stories resemble what happened to him - but this is still an impressive collection. I'm sure you remember, but just in case, Ratner managed to wipe around £500m off the value of his business by disrespecting his customers and trashing his stock. He said, for instance, that they sold earrings for less than the price of a Marks and Spencer's prawn sandwich, and that were likely to be outlasted by the sandwich.

Of itself, the collection of stories is interesting, and encouraging for those who like to see others fall from a high place. But it also has significant value as a lesson  for business. Primarily the lesson seems to be about keeping your eye on the ball, understanding your business and market, and keeping the business clean, not tying it up in complex instruments. Being an entrepreneur is all about risk taking - but the stress here is on a calculated risk.

What is less stressed (though briefly mentioned) is the sheer luck involved in entrepreneurial success. This is too important a factor to be played down. A lot of these people (before their disaster) just happened to be the ones that statistically succeeded. Although the importance of luck is mentioned in the book's conclusions, the authors really don't understand this factor. So, for instance, they will comment that one individual clearly knew what he was doing because he predicted something on the stock market. No, he just happened to be lucky that day. As I write there is an octopus that has successfully predicted the outcome of every one of Germany's world cup games. That's the sort of expertise these people have.

Despite this error in understanding on the part of the authors, it's a fascinating collection of stories from life than any budding entrepreneur or would-be director of a large organization should read, if only to draw their own lessons. See at and

Friday, 9 July 2010

Blog censorship

I want to tell you a story about a science writer called Sid.

Like a lot of writers, Sid had a blog where he mused about all sorts of things, everyday and deep. Back in December he received an interesting piece of mail. It came in a green envelope, hand written with a second class stamp. Inside it was a cutting from a newspaper with a scribbled post-it note from a 'J' saying (s)he thought Sid would be interested.

Sid was a bit suspicious and noticed that the 'handwritten' envelope was actually printed in a handwriting font. Yes, the whole thing was an advert - very clever, if a little sneaky. They had even made the edge of the 'cutting' frayed. Sid wrote this up on his blog, half admiring, half dubious about the approach. Soon the comments started to flow in, and this became by far the most viewed post on Sid's blog.

Lots of other people received the same mailing. Many thanked Sid for pointing out that it was a mailshot. After a while, a commenter noted that there was an ASA ruling against this advert, which Sid linked to. The mailings would have to stop. But no, the comments kept coming in. Those 'cuttings' were still being sent out. It seemed the ASA had no teeth to back up its stop order.

At this point, Sid got a Fed Ex from America. It was a 'cease and desist' order from a US law firm. Sid had a choice. He could do as requested and take down the blog post, or he could stand up to the bullying. Sid would have loved to be another Simon Singh and to have done what was right. There is no doubt he was in the right - but any further legal process could have been very expensive. Sid didn't have Simon's financial clout. So Sid took down the blog post.

Was it a defeat for Sid? I'm not sure. A lot of commenters had been delighted to find his blog post - he had helped these people. And even if this was a cheap and cheerful lawyer, he had cost the company sending out the adverts something. The trouble is, Sid was only ever amused by the ad - he thought it was clever, if naughty. The people who really have an axe to grind are those who have spent money. To mix a metaphor (as Sid would never do), the baton is with them now.

Any resemblance to people and organizations living or dead in this post (with the exception of the ASA) is purely coincidental. This is fiction.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The softer side of Today

Despite all its faults, I very much enjoy my fix of the Today programme on weekday mornings. This BBC Radio 4 show is probably technically a news magazine programme, but it is known for hard hitting political interviews, anticipating the content of reports due out later that day, and not being shy about tackling difficult issues.

However, the Today programme has a soft side - you might even say a flabby underbelly. Expose it to an artist, literary author, or classical musician and the presenter (particularly if it's James Naughtie) goes to pieces. Gone are the incisive queries and probing investigation. Instead there's a mix of awe and reverence. Do we get sharp digs at subsidies for the arts when times are tough? Nope, just more reverence.

I mentioned this on Twitter a while ago and Dave Bartram commented that they take the same approach with scientists - but it's not really true. They are more positive with scientists than politicians, but they are happy to talk about scandals and funding. You certainly don't get the sort of approach Jim Naughtie took to Placido Domingo a few days ago. I was waiting for him to say 'Can I lick your boots, Mr Domingo.' Scientists certainly don't get that soft 'I think I'm in love' voice the artists and musicians are treated to.

What I'd love is if they had a reversal day. Where they gave all the over-funded, over-valued artists a hard time, asking them to justify their existence, and instead of grilling politicians about the budget or cuts to schools, said something like: 'Oh, your performance in the chamber yesterday was magnificent, Mr Cameron. How do you feel when you stand up on the floor? Do you have to prepare yourself mentally with special exercises before taking on Prime Minister's questions?'

Now that would liven things up.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A trial and punishment page turner

I'm not a great true crime reader. I find an excessive enthusiasm for the details of real crimes rather ghoulish. So when Icon Books sent me a copy of Slaughter on a Snowy Morn, which according to the cover is 'a tale of murder, corruption and the death penalty case that revolutionised the American courtroom' I was a bit hesitant in getting round to reading it. But that hesitation was unnecessary - it's a stunner.

Colin Evans tells the story of a double murder in rural New York state in 1915. Charlie Stielow, a farmhand with little education and less mental acuity is prosecuted for the crime and ends up on death row at Sing Sing prison, heading for the electric chair. But the crime is almost unimportant. It's the legal proceedings that provide an incredible story of one step forward, two steps back that eventually brings Stielow within one hour of execution.

For the first half of the book I read with interest, but as Stielow's increasingly high power team (as New York lawyers come in on what they believe is a terrible miscarriage of justice) face unbelievable setbacks in the face of strong evidence, I literally got to the stage where I couldn't put it down and had to read to the end. Bearing in mind Stielow's date with the electric chair, I hate to say this - but it's electrifying.

There are several themes of interest that come through. One is the dubious expert for hire who totally bungles the examination of the bullets used in the killings, swearing they came from Stielow's gun. Remarkably in his enlarged photos of the bullets he manages to show the opposite side to the side where the scratches that identify them are alleged to be - yet he still sways the jury. One outcome of this case is a direct link to the setting up of the first proper forensic lab for examining bullets. Then there are confessions extracted under pressure by corrupt officials who are so determined to be proved right in the spending of county money that they are prepared to send an innocent man to the chair. And there's the incredibly parochial nature of the grand jury assembled to see whether another man who has confessed to the crime should be tried, and who ignore swathes of evidence, apparently once more under pressure from the local administration.

Stielow himself sits at the centre of all this, mostly ignorant of what is going on while dramatic legal battles and last minute attempts to win a reprieve are fought.

There are a couple of things that aren't perfect. You'd think from the way the author writes about the growing storm of the First World War, which acts as a backdrop to the case, that he believes Germany was in the right and Britain the aggressor. This might have been intended to highlight the negative feelings against Stielow who was German in origin (though this doesn't come out anywhere in the trials), but instead comes across as anti-British. And there's a bit tacked on the end about the founding of the forensic bureau to deal with bullets that is vaguely interesting, but a real anti-climax after the book's main story.

But these are very minor complaints. This is a true crime story for people who don't read true crime stories - because it's not really about the crime at all, it's about justice and the legal system - and a number of individuals fighting to overcome corruption and petty parochial stupidity - which makes for a riveting read.

You can see more about Slaughter on a Snowy Morn at and at

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

If the Vatican's a state, I'm a banana

Unlike many in the science community, I'm not an atheist, nor am I anti-Catholic. But I find it ludicrous in times of financial belt-tightening, that UK taxpayers should be expected to foot a bill of £8 million - or even £12 million (plus policing costs)- for a papal visit.

Set aside any concerns about Pope Benedict's weak handling of the child abuse scandals in his church. He may well have got it very wrong, but that isn't influencing my attitude. What lies at the heart of the problem is the ridiculous medieval concept (bizarrely only brought into being in 1929, though the 'Holy See' has much longer recognition) that the Vatican is a 'state' and, as such, makes the pope a head of state who therefore gets major elements of his visit paid for by us, rather than by his organization.

Why do we keep up this pathetic pretence? The Vatican isn't a state, anymore than Lambeth Palace is a state. It's the headquarters of a church. And similarly, why can the 'Holy See' issue diplomatic passports? It's a joke.

What's more, if we got rid of this concept, and any diplomatic powers given to the 'Holy See', not only would we do away with the costs of the pope's visit, we wouldn't have to pay for an ambassador to the Holy See - again, surely a useless concept if there ever was one. And I say this despite the deep sadness I would feel at wiping the smile off Anne Widdecombe's face*.

I'm not quite sure what is involved in un-recognizing a state... but it's time we did it.

* I'm very impressed that in the picture in the Telegraph article linked to here, Ms Widdecombe somehow manages to be smiling with her mouth turned down. I didn't think that possible.

Picture from Wikipedia

Monday, 5 July 2010

You can only go back to a foreign place

I know people who take every opportunity to go back to their school or university. They just love to revisit those hallowed halls. I'm afraid I don't get it. I've moved on. I've been there, done that, and now I'm doing something else. I don't want to be mired in the past.

Now there are some who would take a similiar viewpoint to mine because they had a horrible time at their place of education. But that's not my problem. I had a great time at school and an even better time at university. I loved it. But I don't want to go back. I have done so once, because a friend was desperate to, and twisted my arm to go to a school reunion. What a mistake.

First there was the tour, where we were guided round by a sixth former. He was very nice, but it was hard not to imagine him boggling that such old duffers were once at the school. Then there was a mediocre meal with a group of people most of whom I didn't know (the event was for several starting years, and even within my own year I probably only knew 20% back then, far fewer to be remembered now). Followed by speeches. Oh, joy. Speeches. I paid for this, and drove 3 hours to attend? Never again.

That same friend was in the habit of taking up his dining rights at college. In case you aren't familiar with the idea, a couple of times a year you can go and get a free meal alongside the fellows of your old college at high table. He loved it, but I don't know where to start on how horrendous this sounds to me. To begin with, though I ate in hall plenty of times as a student, the whole environment would be totally alien now, particularly from the senior combination room side (even those words worry me). But then there's the thought of eating a meal with a group of complete strangers who might expect some sort of intellectual conversation. Shudder.

This isn't the inverted snobbery of some Oxbridge graduates who wouldn't go back because they consider it elitist or something. I just would find the whole thing hugely cringe-making. Do people really enjoy putting themselves through such an ordeal? I'm afraid I don't understand it.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Finding out who invented science in Wrexham

Despite the joys of driving through Spaghetti Junction at rush hour, I had a great time at the Wrexham Science Festival last night, discussing who could be classed as the first scientist, and through this exploring the nature of science.

As you can see from the photo, I decided it science was 'about this big'.

I'm going to be lazy about this - the excellent author Clare Dudman was in the audience and has blogged about it, so you can read about it here.

Photo by Clare Dudman

Friday, 2 July 2010

You pressed the Fn button, didn't you?

I was in a petrol station yesterday, filling up. When I got to the till, I did the usual business with the card machine, pushing the card into the slot, punching in my PIN and pressing Enter. Nothing happened. I must have look puzzled, staring rather blankly at the keypad. The salesperson smiled at me benignly.

'You pressed the Fn button, didn't you?' she said. 'I don't know why it's there, it doesn't do anything.'

I peered at the pad. Most chip and pin keypads are laid out pretty much the same. Numbers in a block at the top, Enter (or OK) key - the one you have to press to make a transaction - at the bottom right. But on this particular pad, Enter was second from the right. The rightmost key was this functionless Fn button.

This is a wondrous example of a designer not thinking through the way a product is used. When it's something as ubiquitous as a keypad we don't really think too much about what we're doing, it's mostly automatic. So it really throws the user if you mess around with the position of something that has to be pressed every time like the Enter key. I can guarantee that loads of people press the Fn button instead. The salesperson knew this. The designer was, simply, incompetent.

It reminds me of one more example of designers not thinking through the use of a simple item they designed. A door. How can you get a door wrong? Quite easily. One of the classic ways to do this is to make an all-glass door with no push plates and no obvious hinges. So you don't know which side it opens. But I've watched an even better example in action, infallibly tripping up users.

This was in the BA headquarters building Waterside, built about 10 years ago. It's beautifully designed with a sweeping interior street, pavement cafes, all the goodies of a modern, well-thought out office complex. And then they let the door designer loose.

A big failing of many designers is a love of symmetry. This one had designed beautiful high wooden doors for the entrance to the toilets. And to keep them nice and symmetrical he had put a long pull handle on both sides of the door. But this door had to be pushed from the outside to open it. I have watched person after person walk up to this door, pull the handle, fail to get in and then push. Even if there was a person in front of them making the same mistake, they would probably still do it.

Okay it's not major. Just a minor irritation in life. But it could have been avoided. If the designer had specified a push plate on the outside instead of a pull handle, everyone would know what to do. Trivial for the designer, but many, many instance of minor irritation arising from a lack of thinking it through. I wonder if (s)he went on from designing doors to designing keypads...

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 1 July 2010

What's element 100 called? Quick? It's fermium

The number 100 is a very significant one for human beings. It’s partly because our number system is based on ten – so ten tens seems to have a special significance. In years, it’s around the maximum lifetime of a human being, making a century more than just a useful division in the historical timeline. But in the natural world, 100 isn’t quite so important. There’s nothing about being element 100 that makes fermium stand out – the periodic table doesn’t attach any significance to base 10. But it’s hard not to think that fermium must be special in some way.

So find out if fermium is special in my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element

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


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