Tuesday, 31 August 2010

You don't need to be a great composer to write great music

An anonymous commenter got a bit heated a while ago when I dared to say that there hasn't been a great composer since Stravinsky. I think possibly his/her problem was confusing great music with great composers. Let me explain.

I think it is entirely possible for a good, but not great, composer to produce a great piece. But being a truly great composer requires more - a whole swathe of great music and a shift in the nature of music itself from that of his/her* contemporaries. (*Political correctness, I suspect. I don't think there have been any great female composers yet.)

Just to stress the lack of need to be a great composer to produce great music, my absolute favourite piece is by someone I couldn't regard as a great composer, as are several more of my top ten.

Oddly, I was introduced to my favourite piece by a game. Many moons ago I used to review games for various VNU publications, and one game (I can't remember its name) started with a bit of video giving backstory of how the human race was forced to leave the Earth. In the background, as the ships departed the dying planet, was the most evocative, heart-tugging piece of music I had ever heard. It turned out to be Barber's Agnus Dei, the vocal arrangement of his Adagio for Strings, which turned out even better than the original.

Another example of a composer even Anonymous couldn't regard as great coming up with a stunning piece, is down to one Robert Lucas de Pearsall (no, really) an early Victorian composer who wrote the very impressive 8 part arrangement of In Dulce Jubilo in Carols for Choirs. His masterpiece is even more surprising than Barber's adaptation, as it's essentially pastiche. Yet Pearsall's Lay a Garland - in essence a cod slow madrigal well after its time - is simply wonderful.

And finally, just to rub the point home, not only a piece I like, but the UK's favourite piece of classical music according to Classic FM, and yet by a composer not generally regarded as a great. This is Ralph Vaughan Williams. While he has more excellent compositions to his name than Barber or Pearsall, he still doesn't quite make it into the ranks of the mighty. Yet who can resist the eloquent summeryness of The Lark Ascending? Not I, for one.

Friday, 27 August 2010

What Next After School

'What Next After School?' is a very appropriate question as I've two children who have done their GCSEs this year. It's also the title of a book with a hot new edition on the shelves from Kogan Page, the nice people who publish my business bestseller Instant Creativity and who kindly sent me a copy to peruse.

This is a real compendium of guidance for those who are leaving school. I liked the way it didn't talk down to its readers and attempt yoof speak, or too much trendiness - instead it's extremely solid and practical.

There's good stuff in here about career planning, getting it right with interviews and application forms, opportunities for further education, gap years and working abroad. I liked the way it gave a good, round picture of what's needed - for instance was very helpful to have a section on dealing with your money (perhaps there should have been a dealing with your laundry/cooking sections too). The final chunk is a 'spotlight on key professions' - I found this least satisfactory, as it's a rather arbitrary set of jobs that doesn't really reflect the range available these days.

Overall, then, these chunky 341 pages (formatted rather like a slightly oversized rough guide) has an awful lot of content, much of it extremely useful. I do have a couple of issues, though. The book is scattered with full page colour adverts, which I found much more intrusive and in-your-face than the equivalent in a magazine, I think because of the page size and proximity to the text - I really didn't like these.

The other problem I have is how many young people would bother to read it. I know my 16-year-olds aren't the target audience really, as they're just heading off to sixth form, but I can't imagine either of them reading this book. The text is very dense and sometimes quite heavy going. Although I was pleased it isn't dumbed down, I think it could be thinned out and given better page layout (there's relatively little white space), and perhaps some graphics, to make it more approachable.

I also felt that it was structured as a book to read through, where the topic might have been better served with a more segmented, dip in, dip out format.

Because of this, I wonder if the target market is more parents than the young people themselves. Despite this consideration, though, I think it is a very useful and informative book. Young people might not be inclined to buy it for themselves, but I would give serious consideration to buying it for them as a useful addition to their future planning kitbag. You can find it at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Thursday, 26 August 2010


The title 'me-me-me' was supposed to be the sound of a singer warming up, but it's rather appropriate in that I want to briefly explore the X Factor debacle, and let's face it, this is a show that is very much about 'me, me, me.'

In case you haven't come across it (or like to pretend so), the X Factor is a 'talent' contest for singers, where thousands of hopefuls are whittled down to a few potential recording stars, from whom one winner gets a lucrative contract. In essence the show splits into two distinct halves. The first, the 'open' auditions and then the live finals, where around a dozen acts get to perform live before the nation.

Some, such as the serendipitious Dr Gee, find it difficult to understand the appeal of the X Factor. While I personally don't like the show, as it is hugely manipulative of the audience, I can see why it's popular. The two halves have a totally different attraction. The first is a direct descendant of the Roman circus - it's primarily about watching desire and suffering in contestants. The vast majority of auditionees never make it to this stage, whittled out because they aren't interesting enough/bizarre enough/don't have good enough sob stories. The second is a more a matter of settling on your favourite and supporting them, so is more like a knockout sports event.

However the mild uproar in the news has been because it has been discovered that X Factor has been using tuning software to manipulate the auditions of the best singers to make them sound better. 'This is not fair in a competition!' trumpets the media.

Phooey, I say. The first half isn't a competition, it's bread and circuses, remember. But more to the point I have heard two separate individuals (Channel 4 News' Jon Snow, and the presenter of Radio 4's Media Show) have their singing put through the tuning software so we could hear before and after - and frankly, I couldn't hear any difference. It doesn't take a rubbish singer and make them sound like a superstar. Yes, it can round off mild tuning issues, but that's all. It's really no different from using a mixer to get the best balance of sound. Get over it, press people.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The people who live in the garage

You may remember Stig of the Dump. I have a feeling that some of the small children who live near us think that we live not in a rubbish dump, but in our garage.

It's not a totally mad assumption on their part. Our house backs onto a sort of mews lane, and our garage is situated on this lane, rather than the road our house is on. So when we go out in the car, rather than on foot, we walk down the garden, pass through the garage and emerge through the garage door.

This makes it quite a reasonable hypothesis that we've spent our time sitting in the garage before we opened the door. It would certainly explain the strange looks we sometimes get from the smaller children.

However I ought to stress that they are wrong. We do not live in that garage. No, really, we don't. (I must move that lawn mower, it's getting in the way of my computer keyboard...)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Why donations have been slow to the Pakistan disaster

The news has been full lately of analysis of why many sources have been slow to donate to the Pakistan flood disaster. To be fair, the UK general public has been generous with over £30 million given already, but apparently worldwide, giving is lower than expected.

Speculation in the media has been about the assertion that a flood seems less of a disaster than an earthquake (say) because it happens slowly and the thought of 'a bit of water' isn't as distressing as 'the earth open up and shifting.' Another possibility I have heard is that the TV reports haven't been showing enough close-ups of people, concentrating instead on sweeping shots of flood water where people appear small on the screen. The theory is this prevents personalization of the disaster, and if we think of it as impersonal, we don't identify. It's the same reason that many charities will tell you individuals' stories, rather than give the whole picture.

I think there is one piece of reasoning they've missed. It's false reasoning, but I can't help but feel it is influencing people. Is it so unlikely that some people and organizations are thinking 'If a country has enough money to spend billions of dollars on nuclear weapons, why do we need to help them?' I can imagine it being considered a bit like seeing a beggar, bedecked in Cartier diamonds.

There are a couple of reasons this is a false argument. Firstly, the disaster is on such a large scale that even a rich country couldn't cope without external help. Remember how the US struggled with New Orleans, which was tiny by comparison. Secondly, the weapons aren't evidence of riches, but rather of spending far too much on something unnecessary and then having even less left for the essentials. Reprehensible of the government, certainly, but it doesn't help the people in trouble. And unlike the Cartier diamonds, the weapons can't be sold to raise cash.

Just to emphasize my position - it is essential we give to the Pakistan appeal. If you haven't already, why not head over to the DEC website and donate now? But I feel the media are missing something in their analysis of the international response.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Blank page panic

I know some people consider me a grumpy old man, and I'd be the first to confess that (having reached a certain age) grumpiness does come fairly easily to me. But for all its hazards, pitfalls and lack of cash, I love the writing life. There are few things more satisfying than seeing your book on the shelf in a shop, and thinking 'I did that.' Or getting a nice email from someone who has read one of your books and got something out of it.

I even enjoy some of the more grump-generating aspects of the whole process of being an author. Many don't like proof reading, but I get a small buzz out of fine tuning the book... and by the time we reach the proofs stage I've almost forgotten what's in there, so it's a nice surprise when it's really quite readable.

But there are two stages of the process I dislike. One is writing proposals. This is primarily because they are such hard work. You have to put in some research, some writing skills, all the effort involved in writing a book, but in a more concentrated fashion to craft a little jewel... only for it to be rejected more than half the time. It is truly soul destroying.

The second of these stages is the one I'm at right now. The one where you sit down with a totally empty word processor file and start to create something. Where to begin? How can I turn this blank page into 90,000 words? Luckily, one advantage of the proposal is that it acts a template. You can, in fairly brainless fashion, put in the chapter titles and a quick outline of each chapter. Even better, if you start each chapter with a quote, you can spend an idle hour finding suitable quotations to head up each chapter.

Then it's into serious prevarication time. Let's do some more research now. Let's investigate illustrations, because they can take a long, long time for permissions to come through. Let's do almost anything rather than type those first words. Eventually, though, you have to give in. Your brain and notes are full of research. At least one of the chapters is beginning to mentally take shape. You sit down at the keyboard. And begin.

It's easy to forget, when peering out of an aircraft window...

And all of a sudden you are wondering what all the fuss was about. It's easy, this writing game, isn't it?

Friday, 20 August 2010

Favourite bands of the 70s revisited - Curved Air

It's popular to knock the music of the 70s, prog rock and similar stuff - but actually there was some superb stuff back then. So for those who want a heady trip down memory lane (or an introduction to a serious band from before you were born that is worth listening to), I would like to occasionally revisit some of my favourites.

One of my more obscure loves was Curved Air. This was anything but your usual lineup. The main features were a surprisingly good violinist (Darryl Way), a great keyboard player (Francis Monkman) and an unusual female vocalist in Sonja Kristina. (Oh and a guitarist and a drummer.)

They are probably best known for the cod baroque/rock piece Vivaldi on their first album Airconditioning, but it was their downright strange and mind bending sound on many of their other tracks that makes them unique. Personally I'd go for the second album (inventively called Second Album) for the very best of Curved Air.

Here's their bestselling hit from that album (though not the best track on it, and an imperfect recording) Backstreet Luv:

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Jaywalking with a kite in Washington

Many moons ago, when the world was young and children nonexistent, we had a family outing to Washington D.C. to stay with friends who were living there. I can promise we did not set out to offend, yet looking back, in just two days we managed to get in trouble with military police, risked seriously offending the locals... and committed what surely is an offence with a kite.

The military police episode verges on the farcical. We were driving to Arlington Cemetery and took the wrong turn, driving into the military base next door. So sure was our host of his navigation that we swept past the security gates without a second look (no doubt these days we would have been shot). But having found out we were in the wrong place, on the way out we stopped by military police with big guns, asking what we were doing and how we got there. They couldn't understand how we had got in without being questioned, but eventually took pity on us as foreigners.

As for being offensive, we later visited the Lincoln Memorial, which I think is truly inspiring, one of my favourite monuments in the world. Unfortunately, on the way out, the two wives of the party felt that the broad balustrade at the side of the steps was ideal for sliding down and caused many raised eyebrows and tuttings by doing so.

But the piece-de-resistance was the kite. This was bought from the wonderful Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We proudly flew our kite down the grassy bit (as I'm sure it is known to the cognoscenti), heading for the Washington Monument. And this is where things got interesting. Knowing jaywalking is frowned on, we waited at a crossing, across the traffic circle in front of the monument. The kite was flying towards the monument, over the traffic at an angle (with our exuberant host at the string). We saw a bus coming. It was just so obvious that its large aerial was not going to clear the kite string. Unfolding into disaster in slow motion, the string wound around the aerial, and the kite headed off down the road after the bus with our friend in tow.

Somehow he managed to sever the string. The kite flew free and started to head towards the Washington Monument, its string dangling a foot or two off the grass. There was only one thing for it. We had to plunge across the traffic or the kite would be lost forever. It was like something out of a movie. Our friend didn't speak for a while after hurling himself at the string and collapsing on the grass.

Interesting place, Washington. But I'm not sure they'd allow us back.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Karaoke fiction with science - tell us your stories!

Here's something completely different if you're anywhere near Birmingham (UK) and have an interest in science and/or fiction. As part of the British Science Association's Festival, we're holding an Open Mic event where you can come and read your science-inspired stories and poems. It's free, and there are great prizes including a Focus magazine subscription and champagne.

The judges are me (a popular science writer), Tania Hershman (who writes science-inspired short fiction) and Sue Guiney (who writes science-inspired novels and poetry).

What's with this 'science inspired'? It can be science fiction, straight fiction that happens to have a science setting, like Lab Lit, or fiction and poetry that started with inspiration from science.

It'd be great to see you. The event is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Old Joint Stock Function Room. That's location 14 on this map, and you can find more about the festival here.

Go on... tell me a story!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The last word

A manuscript (which Blogger refuses to insert the rightway round)
I have just finished a book. I don't mean the one I'm reading, that's not a huge step forward for writerkind. I mean the one I'm writing.

In a way there's a sense of anti-climax. It's not like I just wrote the last word, typed THE END and sent it off. I finished writing it over a month ago, and since then have been editing and editing to make sure it reads well. What I've just done is my last pass through it... but even so, there's a sense of satisfaction.

Satisfaction tinged with dread. Because now I'm waiting for my editor's verdict. It has always been positive. Every book needs a few tweaks, but usually the feedback is good. Even so, like many authors, I suspect every time I send in a manuscript that I am going to be found out, and it will come back with a big red REJECTED stamp on the cover. (At least, on the virtual cover. These days submitting a manuscript is just a matter of attaching a document to an email and sending it off.)

The experience is also one of satisfaction tinged with a sense of waiting. It will be a while before the editor responds. A while more before I get paid the advance on acceptance. And perhaps a year before the actual book is in my hands. It's a step on the road, not the final destination.

But despite all this, there is that sense of satisfaction. For an hour or two.

Then it's thinking about the next project. And the book that's due out in October (Armageddon Science: The Science of Mass Destruction - more on that later). You didn't think I was just going to stop, did you?

Monday, 16 August 2010

The naughty young person's friend

I tread carefully here, for I am about to suggest that young people are sometimes naughty. As I got berated for daring to say that yoof aren't necessarily as caring and sharing about the environment as the media tells us, I prepare myself for a hail of insults. But I ought to stress that I'm talking pre-teens here.

When I was young, the playground was in some ways a more dangerous place than today. Thinking back to the play equipment on the recreation ground that was wonderfully sited in a field that ajoined my garden when I was 0-11 (it has now been built over with houses - bad move, Rochdale Council), most of the apparatus would now be condemned as too dangerous to play on.

There was one piece of equipment that was actually removed as such while I was there - a long bar with seats on, suspended from above at both ends, so it rocked back and forth. The trouble with this was that the ends of the bar were roughly at head height, and it had a huge amount of momentum once going, so really was a deadly weapon. Rumour had it a girl was killed by one, though pre-teen rumours aren't awfully accurate.

Other devices that wouldn't be allowed now were the witches' hat - a conical metal frame, suspended from the point at the top that rotated and bumped - and a slide that must have been a good 15 feet high.

However, the health and safety elves missed the most unpleasant thing you got in the playground - bullies. Having bright red hair, I got my fair share of bullying, and back then those naughty young folk had to resort to simple pleasures like twisting your arm both ways at the same time (known politically incorrectly as a 'chinese burn'), ramming your face in the sandpit or doing unspeakable things with swings.

Although the dangerous equipment has gone, it strikes me that the playground bullies of today have a much more powerful weapon than the ones we were subjected to. As I walk my dog I pass several playgrounds, which are all usefully provided with dog poo bins, like the one in the illustration. For me these are very useful - it saves carrying the unwanted output all the way home. But they have the potential to be the naughty young person's friend.

I think it's fair to say, that if anyone was held with their face in close proximity to one of these bins for more than a few seconds, they would find it very difficult not to throw up. Now there's a weapon of choice. Thankfully, I am yet to see it in use - the potential users hopefully don't have the imagination to employ it. Even so, I can't help but shudder whenever I use one of these useful devices and think how it might have been.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Cats n Dogs

Most people I know are either cat people or dog people. There's the odd exception like the venerable Doctor Gee who seems equally fond of both (though I think he favours Heidi), but most have a preference, often strong.

This view is more than reflected in the animals themselves. Let's face it, dogs don't like cats, and cats don't like dogs. In a big way.

So this gives me a distinct dilemma when I take Goldie for a walk. We are strolling along, Goldie on the lead, and a cat hoves into view. Immediately she tries to run after it, making whining noises. 'That cat,' thinks Goldie, 'should not be here. And it's my business to make sure it isn't for long.'

Now I have two options at this point. I can pull here away with the mildly offensive sounding command 'Leave it!' (Not really anti-cat, it's just the standard 'leave something alone' command.) Or I can give her a bit of free rein, let her chase towards the cat, which runs away and we carry on with the walk.

I have to confess I sometimes do the latter. The way I look at it, it gives Goldie a bit of exercise, it stops her straining at the lead (once the cat has gone she stops pulling), and I never let her get anywhere near the cat. She's only doing what comes naturally.

Oh, and I only do it if the cat looks really smug.

No cats were hurt in the making of this blog post.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Bach to the future

A string of somewhat trollish comments in my previous post criticizing opera reminds me that music can raise strong emotions. One emotion that music rarely does well is humour. Generally musicians tend to the twee or downright painful when trying to be funny. Which is why I want to make sure no one forgets P. D. Q. Bach, the last and least of the children of the great J. S.

I don't think I give too many secrets away in saying that P. D. Q. is the invention of Peter Schickele, self-styled professor at the University of Southern North Dakota, Hoople. Schickele has put on a number of concerts and produced a range of recordings over the years celebrating P.D.Q.'s fictional musical output, which strays through many musical styles. Sometimes he can write a piece of some length and complexity without a single original musical theme in it, wonderfully stealing from left, right and centre. At other times he sets a piece for unlikely combinations of instruments like his Pervertimento for Bicycle, Bagpipes, and Balloons. Or simply sets wonderful words, as in his madrigal where the original line 'Your face is like the sun,' is overlaid by a second line that runs '...set over Pittsburgh USA.'

For anyone who cares about music, there is a huge rich vein in all the references Schickele builds in, along with a magnificent fictional biography of the great-ish man himself.

This is absolutely wonderful stuff. I first came across it accidentally on a vinyl record in Cambridge over 30 years ago and have since collected quite a few of the records (though sadly all on vinyl, so I can't listen to them at the moment) and the P.D.Q. biography. All well worth hunting out.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 9 August 2010

Nikola who? The remarkable Mr Tesla

In the last few months I've read not one, but two biographies of the remarkable early late 19th/early 20th century engineer Nikola Tesla: Tesla: Man Out of Time by Margaret Cheney and Wizard by Mark J. Seifer. Although there is no doubt about some of his achievements, Tesla has a reputation of being a man of mystery, and has been taken up by New Agers for his dramatic claims to be able to broadcast power around the world, produce beam weapons and contact aliens.

I hoped that these biographies would help me separate the wheat from the chaff in Tesla's attainments, but in both cases I had to apply a lot of selection to what I read, because the authors both seem to hero-worship Tesla and take as gospel most of his scientific ideas that might politely be described as unlikely (or accurately as downright weird).

If you haven't heard of Tesla, be assured he wasn't just a crackpot. One of the SI units is named after him - and for a good reason. He was a superb engineer and he single-handedly designed the AC system that we use today, including inventing the first serious AC motors, and the basis for practically every AC motor since. He also invented the fluorescent light (though never commercially developed it, as he had already moved onto his next excitement).

However, and it's a big however, Tesla was also an over-the-top showman, who delighted in showing off by lighting up fancy bulbs with electricity that had been passed through his body - and, on the whole, he was nowhere near as good a scientist as an engineer.

Specifically, he rejected both relativity and quantum theory for decades after they were widely accepted in the scientific community, and he had a strange hangup about radio. He believed that the 'Hertzian waves' used by the likes of Marconi were a piffling use of electromagnetism for communication, and that instead it was possible to use 'Tesla waves' - mysterious longitudinal waves (compression waves like sound) he believed also exhibited by electromagnetism, and which he believed could be pumped through the Earth, using the Earth's resonant frequency is such a way that amplitude grew with distance rather than falling off. With a big enough tower and enough voltage he believed he could communicate to the whole world at once - or distribute power wirelessly through the same mechanism.

He was also given to lavish over-exaggeration of his inventions. So, for instance, he developed the first radio controlled boat - an excellent invention. But he claimed that this would soon be extended to be able to act on its own, thinking for itself. He did not distinguish between remote control and AI-driven robots - a bizarre exaggeration.

Of the two biographies I would strongly recommend going for Wizard, which has much more interesting detail of historical context. However it still needs to be read carefully as Seifer frequently shows that he doesn't understand the science Tesla was using (or claimed to be using). So, for example, Seifer refers to 25,000 volts being '[stepped] down to usable frequencies when they reached the exposition', clearly confusing voltage and frequency. He tells us that 'Electricity in its natural state is alternating,' whatever that means. He tells us that John Herschel discovered Uranus (it was actually his father, William). Most remarkably, we hear that Tesla was capable of something that would shock modern physicists: 'Tesla also appears to have come close to the idea of breaking up the electron into subatomic particles.' It's hard to know where to begin on how wrong that statement is.

Tesla was a fascinating, wonderful, wild character. But we need to distinguish his very real engineering genius from his scientific flights of fancy. I'll leave you with a bit of movie with David Bowie playing Tesla in The Prestige. Note that the effect of the start echoes a real photograph of Tesla - but Tesla admitted it was a multiple exposure; if he had really been in the electrical 'storm' he would have been killed:

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Is element 114 just for the trainspotters?

Yes, it's another element that no one has got round to giving a name to (other than 'ununquadium' - just 'one-one-four-ium) - but I've just covered it in my latest podcast. Is this just something for chemical trainspotters, who can tick it off in their little 'I made it' book? Or something more significant?

Find out the truth about element 114 in my latest addition to the Royal Society of Chemistry's series of podcasts Chemistry in its Element

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

Powered by Podbean.com

Friday, 6 August 2010

Will you dance your way to psychic sex?

There are times when it’s good to read something completely different. It clears out the mental pipes. And it’s hard to imagine anything further from my usual diet of non-fiction with the occasional murder mystery or science fiction novel than Dance Your Way to Psychic Sex. It’s certainly a title that grabs the attention – and it gives a focus that won’t be lost throughout the book. This is the kind of read where you just want to go on and take in a little bit more of the strange and wonderful revelations.

Set largely in Hebden Bridge, a small town in West Yorkshire, this is anything but a Hovis commercial book. The characters are much more metropolitan than rural tyke. Although surrounded by other quirky individuals, at the heart of the story are two damaged characters, Henrietta and Leo. She has OCD, is a single mother and is escaping from a bad experience in a cult to find some kind of peace and stability in an everday working life. He is a magician, specializing in mind tricks, confused and bitter as a result of a strange upbringing by his magician grandfather, unable to admit his own sexuality.

The other star of the book is psychic dancing and an associated fictional book, cunningly called That Book (as in ‘have you read That Book?’). That Book seems to be woffly New Age guff (we read a few extracts), but it has inspired psychic dancing, a phenomenon that is sweeping the nation, what appears to be a strange and exciting mental linkage between two individuals as they make synchronized movements, waving hands in the air.

The real craft that Alice Turing effortlessly employs is to have two main characters who initially aren’t particularly likeable – quite the reverse – yet despite their continued flaws, they win us over. We want them to succeed, yet they seem to be set on tracks heading for an inevitable train wreck. It’s a recipe for page turning, as Turing piles on the pressure and suddenly these characters become something close to those irritating friends that are always doing the wrong thing, but you still love.

Something I particularly enjoyed was the interweaving of a thread that really makes you think. A minor character who is pretty much Derren Brown (Darryl Black) is set up as a rival for Leo, a success on TV because he combines his mental act with debunking those who claim to have true psychic powers. Turing subtly examines just why people want to believe so much, and starts questions in the mind about whether it is better to allow people the comfort of their beliefs or to expose what is really happening.

I ought to put in a small readership warning – the book does contain a few explicit scenes, so definitely isn’t for a young audience.

The fascinating thing about reading Dance Your Way is that part of you really wants psychic dancing to be true, wants strangers to start interacting with each other in the street – and yet Turing shows the painful practical limitations of a world of joy. It’s funny, bitter-sweet and disturbing in equal parts. It isn’t perfectly crafted – the writing can be quite raw – but that’s part of its attraction. It reminds me of those trays that come with poppadums in Indian restaurants – just watch out for the lime pickle. We’ve got flawed characters we care about, a plot that takes entertainingly surprising twists and turns, and a central concept that is both clever and thought-provoking. It’s a recipe for success. A fascinating novel that has already been published in German but is coming out for the first time now in the original English, I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a novel that’s both entertaining and a feast for the mind.

Now available at Amazon.co.uk

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The sound of silence

As I think I've mentioned before, I think, one of the stranger websites I run is a sort of karaoke hymns site. The idea is that there are decreasingly few organists out there, so this site provides CDs of an top flight organist playing the accompaniments to hymns (also some excellent solo voluntaries), which can be used to sing along to. It's not as good as the real thing, but it's better than not having an accompaniment, and they are quite popular.

There are just three tracks that aren't keyboard music. This is because we have a Remembrance CD, which apart from appropriate hymn accompaniments includes various national anthems plus the Last Post and Reveille on trumpet. These two tracks feature frequently in remembrance services and military events. The third track, though is something particularly special. This is our very own postmodernist track. It's 1 minute 52 seconds of silence. No, really, a CD track (also available as MP3) that is just silence.

However, unlike a certain 'serious' piece of music that is just silence, this one has a point. Each track has about 2 seconds silence at the end and beginning, plus there are 2 second gaps between tracks. So stick this 1 minute 52 second track between the Last Post and the Reveille and you've got an automated 2 minute silence, without needing to time it.

It was quite amusing recently when someone bought the track as an MP3 - in the end I had to let him off the payment. I really can't justify charging for silence.

Monday, 2 August 2010

How big is the moon?

A while ago I had a slightly surreal discussion with a radio presenter and the boss of the UK Space Agency. Us two science types were trying to educate said presenter in one or two basics of solar system science. At one point I asked the presenter a simple question. If you were looking at the full moon and held a coin out at arms length, which coin would be roughly similar in size to the apparent size of the moon?

What would you answer?

The most popular answers are 2p and 10p. Some opt for 5p. In fact it's a bit of a trick question. There are no coins small enough to be the same apparent size as the moon when held at arm's length. The nearest approximation is a hole punch hole. If you hold a piece of punched paper out at arms length, that little hole is about the same size as the moon appears to be.

This explains why photographs of the moon are so disappointing unless you apply a serious zoom. The photo here is a hurried snap taken on my phone because you don't often see the moon and a rainbow simultaneously. The (pretty well full) moon is that little white dot just above the bus shelter and to the right of the centralish tree. The camera tells us what our brain doesn't - it really does look small.

So why does it look bigger - in fact sometimes quite enormous (though never as big as Hollywood suggests)? This is where the UK Space Agency supremo and I deviate. He said it was big near the horizon because of optical effects due to the light passing through more atmosphere. There certainly are optical effects of this kind, but the influence on the apparent size is relatively small. Almost all the variation in the size of the moon (and it pretty well always looks bigger than it should) is down to the way our brain processes images.

We are so familiar with cameras, we tend to think that the eye/brain combo works like a camera. It doesn't. The image that we 'see' is a composite assembled by the brain from a whole host of processes. It is a fake construct. This should be obvious, because we don't see the blind spot, where the optic nerve renders part of the retina inactive, nor do we witness saccades, the fast, jumpy movements our eyes are always making. We see a fake image. One of the modules in the brain recognize shapes - so we can give extra weight to a known shape like the moon. If it is near trees or other relatively close items on the horizon, we tend to see it bigger - but this is only our brain's processor getting things wrong. Seeing really shouldn't be believing.