Thursday, 30 September 2010

Tripping over interns

I've been aware of the concept of interns for a long time. It was something American banks, and one or two other corporates, did. They allowed wannabe bankers to be unpaid slaves for a while so the wannabes could gain work experience, and the bank could get unpaid labour to do all the jobs no one else wanted to do.

Now, not only are they over here in the UK, but interns seem to be spreading. At least two of the publishers I deal with for the Popular Science website now use interns for communicating to lowly oiks like me. Similarly, when I attended the British Science Fair in Birmingham the other week, we had a couple of people from the lovely Naked Scientists group, a team at Radio Cambridge that record a weekly science show and science podcasts, and who do the recordings for the Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts I sometimes appear on.

I thought the dynamic duo at Birmingham looked young and fresh - but then everyone under 97 does these days. But when I later spoke to my usual contact at Radio Cambridge, she said something to the effect of 'Oh, yes, we had a couple of interns doing interviews there.'

I'm really not sure about the concept. Work experience is fine, but for anything more than a week or two it ought to be paid a reasonable wage. And there's a distinct danger, just as school governing bodies sometimes prefer to employ newly qualified teachers (NQTs) because they are cheaper than experienced teachers, that companies will end up shoving out experienced staff, because they can get by using interns.

By all means employ people on a provisional contract where they have to leave after a period if they don't come up to scratch - but employ them decently, please, or not at all.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Analysing Luck

I've just been reading an interesting new book called Science 1001 (See at or The idea of the book is to cover all of science in 1001 easily digestible topics. Some of them are on obvious subjects - like Newton's laws. Others less so. I was particularly struck by the entry on luck.

This asks why some people seem to have an endless supply of luck while others are sadly lacking. Apparently Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, has found out that people who rate themselves as lucky are often extroverts, while those who think themselves unlucky are often introverts, whose self-doubt holds them back.

It's certainly true that creativity and getting on in life is, to some extent, a Pygmalion effect. If you believe your ideas are rubbish, you won't tell anyone about them, and you won't try to put them into practice. But I have two problems with the theory as presented.

Firstly, self-doubt and introversion aren't the same thing. It's entirely possible to be introverted and full of confidence in your own ability (the typical geek caricature, for instance). Secondly, though I am convinced by the Pygmalion effect, I think Dr Wiseman has partially got causality back to front. I suspect luck is primarily just that. It's a very common mistake to think that because something is distributed randomly it is distributed evenly. In fact a random thing like luck comes in clusters. You would expect some people to have a lot and some very little. (See my post on clusters.)

So I would expect some people, entirely randomly, to be more lucky than others. (Many entrepreneurs spring to mind.) And after a while, it wouldn't surprise me if those people became more extrovert as a result of their success.

Of course, a one paragraph article can't give the detail of the research, and I suspect Dr Wiseman's conclusion is more complex than 'luck is caused by extroversion' - but it's interesting to ponder.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

That's me on your wall!

The Certificate, rather wrinkly now (like its owner)
Just occasionally a coincidence happens that really takes you by surprise. Many years ago, while I was doing my MA at Lancaster University, I went round for a coffee to the room of someone I had lived virtually next door to in Rochdale, but hadn't seen since I was 15.

It was typical university halls accommodation, livened up a little by a few posters on the wall. One of these posters made me nearly drop my cup of coffee. 'You do realize,' I said, 'you've got my picture on your wall.' He didn't believe me initially, but he had.

A year or so before, while a Cambridge undergraduate, I had taken part in a rag stunt that involved raiding a whole series of lectures. We descended on them, held the lecturer up with water pistols, announced we were the British Board of Lecture Censors and collected a 'registration fee' from the students. We then left a rating certificate on the blackboard. The lecturers were surprisingly nice about this, and several took the certificates home as souvenirs - but some left them behind, and my friend at Lancaster, who had been at on one of the Cambridge lectures we hit, snaffled the certificate at the end of lecture.

What he hadn't noticed is that there was a section in the bottom left hand corner referring to 'Our sponsor, Mrs Ethel Trappit.' When the arty type who put the certificate together had wanted a picture of 'our sponsor' he had, for some reason, used a shot of me looking very gormless with a bottle of Newcastle Brown in hand. When I saw the prototype of the certificate I had objected, as I hadn't been consulted and didn't particularly want to be Mrs Ethel Trappit - so the word 'censored' was put across my photo, but I was still on there. I later saw the funny side, and appeared in the lecture censoring jaunts as Mrs Trappit, thanks to some clothes provided by a member of the Newnham College Rowing Club (don't ask).

And so there I was, hanging on the wall in Lancaster of someone who had no idea that this was a picture of a one-time neighbour.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Authors, please don't use this!

Once you have a book published, it's very tempting (if extremely tedious) to keep checking the sales rank on Amazon. Sales rank is a single number that (in theory) ranks your book for number of sales against all other books on the site. So it can go from 1 ('You may soon be a millionaire') to n million ('Don't give up your day job.') You can't read too much into this figure, but clearly every time it bobs down to a significantly lower value, you have made a sale.

It really is quite possible to drive yourself mad, checking these numbers. But now there's a website to help drive you even further towards being a raving wreck. Novel Rank monitors the page rank of your book, and converts its movement into sales numbers. It's a little bit fiddly to set up. You have to draw a book to its attention by putting in the Amazon URL for it. You can then pull up a page for that book whenever you like, showing rank, sales and sales history since you added it on (optionally you can add in the non-English language Amazons).

Alternatively, if you have several books published, you can pull them together on a single page if you set up an account (it's free and trivial to do). You only see the results on your account page for one Amazon at a time and there's no graph, but if you let your mouse hover over a book it pops up the rank and sales numbers on the other Amazons.

It's truly wondrous/horrifying (depending on how well your book is selling). Just don't say I didn't warn you. Visit this site and you might never be able to stop going back.

Thanks (I think) to Jessica Ruston for bringing this site to my attention.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The wonder of cardinality

Cardinality: one leg per horseman, but we don't need to know how many
The cardinality of which I speak has nothing to do with the Pope's visit to the UK, or even Cardinal Fang from the Spanish Inquisition sketch on Monty Python. No, it's maths, but a truly wondrous aspect of maths.

Cardinality is part of set theory. It defines the size of a set. But the clever thing about cardinality is that you don't have to know how big a set is to see if it's the same size as another set. All you have to do is pair off the items in one set with the items in the other. If they have one-to-one correspondence, the sets have the same cardinality. They're the same size.

This may sound trivial but it's really quite profound. I first came across this when writing my book on Infinity. It's very useful to be able to do this with an infinite set, because it's a touch tedious counting the contents - but provided you can set up a way to pair off the items in the sets working all the way through in a repeatable pattern, you can establish the two infinite sets have the same cardinality. (Things get particularly exciting when you discover there are some infinite sets that are so big you can't pair them off this way - but that's a different story.)

That sounds a bit abstract, but in fact this approach to cardinality has been used since time immemorial in real life, practical applications. Imagine you are shepherd with what we now know is a flock of 100 sheep. But you can only count up to 3. How are you going to see if you've got all your sheep back in the fold? Easy. As they leave the fold, make a mark on a piece of wood or a slate with a line for each sheep. Then on the way back in, run your finger along the tally as each sheep comes back. You can check you've got all your sheep without ever knowing how many there are.

This technique, where you score a mark on a piece of wood (or whatever) is where we get the idea of keeping score or scoring from. And these score marks were often grouped into 20s which - you guessed it - makes 20 a score. As in three score years and ten.

Nice one, cardinality.

Okay, I can't resist:

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Water - the compound of life

Just when you thought it was safe to put away your chemistry set, I'm back again with the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemistry in its Element podcasts. 'But hold on there one cotton pickin' minute,' you say. 'I thought they'd done all the elements?' And you'd be right. The RSC's interactive periodic table now has an entry for every element you might like to hear about (and one or two you wouldn't). But this is series II. Yes, like Arnie in Terminator, we'll back - and this time it's compounds. We're taking no prisoners.

I was given carte blanche to pick a compound, any compound, and couldn't resist starting with water. It's kind of useful stuff, after all. So click here to have a listen, or select it from my ever-growing chemistry podcast list below.


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Wednesday, 22 September 2010

In praise of the concept album

Further to my recentish celebration of Curved Air, I want to consider another of the great bands of the 1970s who I think haven't had the recognition they deserve - Supertramp. They are probably best known now for their excellent album of straightforward songs, Breakfast in America, but their masterpiece was the concept album Crime of the Century.

Of all the output of 70s bands, the thing that most often gets critics' upper lips curling is concept albums. It's strange when you think about it. A concept album is just an album where the songs have a running theme, or storyline. So it is, in comparison to a conventional album what a novel is to a collection of short stories. Or what a symphony is to a suite. Generally speaking, the novel and the symphony tends to be regarded as greater forms in their genre... but not so with concept albums. Now, admittedly, some prog rock bands did get very pretentious with their concept albums. But that doesn't mean the... well, concept... is a bad thing.

There's nothing overblown about Crime of the Century. It's just a collection of great songs that have an underlying backstory. It's never heavy handed, but it's always there. Oddly enough, two of my favourite moments in the album are both as a result of the use of sound effects, something that Pink Floyd would take to the extreme, but Supertramp used more sparingly. In the opening song, refering to the playground, there is a child's scream just before the music goes from a laid back intro to a driving beat that is absolutely electrifying. And towards the end, when the central character is 'on a train to nowhere' we hear the departure announcements at Paddington Station, which I find wonderfully evocative.

All together, one of the great albums of the 20th century - and demonstrating why 'concept' doesn't have to be a euphemism for 'crap.' As I write, Crime of the Century is a remarkable £3.99 at

Here's a live version of one of the better-known songs from Crime of the Century, though it lacks the subtlety of the album:

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Could lamb's ears save the planet?

Lamb's Ears
Well, no, a lamb's ears couldn't save the planet alone. But the idea is a nice tag from a press release I received recently. We're not talking gory butchered bits of animal, but a broad leafed plant, known to its fans as Stachys byzantina. You can read the press release in all its glory below, but the basic idea is that you cover the roof of a building (say) with these plants and they can reduce the surrounding air temperature by as much as 1.5 degrees. So, they suggest, if we cover all the buildings in a city, we could reduce the urban heat island effect, a powerful effect that means that temperatures in cities can far exceed those in the surrounding countryside.

With my Ecologic hat on, I love the idea, though I would like some more data. This 1.5 degree claim is relative to dry bare soil. But how would a roof of lamb's ears compare, for instance, with a roof covered in reflective foil to send back a fair amount of the sun's rays, reducing the 'storage heater' effect that is an urban heat island? I'd be interested to know.

Any road up, here's the press release for your delectation:

Research, to be presented this afternoon, 15th September, at an environmental conference in London, by Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Scientist Dr Tijana Blanusa highlights the merits of certain plants in helping reduce the higher temperatures found in cities. One plant in particular, Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina), which represents silvery and hairy leaved plants, may be very important in the future.

It is well recognised that air temperatures in urban areas are higher than in surrounding rural areas, a phenomenon called ‘urban heat island effect’. This increase in air temperatures is largely due to vegetation being replaced by dark and impervious surfaces.

A number of studies have shown the importance of roof vegetation in decreasing summer-time air temperatures and in counteracting urban heat island effects. They achieve this by cooling surrounding areas through evapo-transpiration, a plant’s equivalent to sweating.

The paper, presented at the World Green Roof Congress, has being produced in collaboration with researchers from the School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading.

Dr Blanusa looked at the three broad leafed perennial plants and a Sedum mix, the most popular plants for roof covers. The first year of her research showed that Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) significantly reduced the surrounding air temperature near the surface of the leaf during early afternoon on a hot summer day, by some 1.5 degrees for example when compared to the bare, dry soil.

“Green roofs are not just about looking good,” says Dr Blanusa. “There is much more interest recently in providing additional ecological and economic functions such as regulating internal building temperatures. But this research emphasises the potential in helping reducing air temperatures. If only every building had a green roof and a green wall.”

Earlier research in the UK, based on model predictions, has shown that increasing green space such as parks, gardens and green roofs by 10 per cent would reduce summer-time air temperatures by something like 4 degrees (i).

“With our climate getting warmer gardeners will be playing an even more important part in helping reduce the effects,” says Tijana. “Getting planting right in urban spaces, which as we all know can be very limited, is particularly important and can have a major effect in not only helping reduce urban temperatures but will also provide other environmental benefits.”

Monday, 20 September 2010

The grammar police never sleeps [sic]

Okay it's time to don the grumpy old man suit and make the neighbourhood safe for humanity.

Listening to the radio the other day I found myself cringing at something that has always got my back up when talking to primary school teachers about maths. These days if you want to do, say, multiplication, there are a number of different techniques available. The teachers refer to these (often while speaking to baffled parents) as 'strategies.' They may even ask little Johnny 'Which strategy are you going to use, little Johnny?'

No, no, no, NO!

These are not strategies. The strategy is having a range of different techniques. A strategy is a broad direction, not a specific methodology. The specific approach being employed at any one time is a tactic, or a technique or a method. It is not a strategy. It is not strategic, it is tactical.

Why do they do this? We've got perfectly good English words for what they want to say, but they have to distort the meaning of another word. I suspect they think it sounds clever, but it's not, it really isn't. So stop it, please. Now.

Incidentally, in the unlikely event you are intrigued by the slightly odd title, it's a reference that might have been picked up by old folk rockers to the Jethro Tull song with the repeated line The mouse police never sleeps.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Authors beware - check your illustrations!

One of the rough illustrations I've knocked up in my time
I've got really mixed feelings about illustrations in the kind of books I write. They can help explain something that's difficult to put across in words - but sometimes they feel like the easy way out. And at the same time, they are a pain for the author who usually has to source photos (and pay for them!), or is required to put a line drawing together with his/her limited graphics skills which might be improved on by a professional artist or might even just used as is.

However I have recently come across a situation where illustrations can have a painfully negative effect. This was in the Steven Hawking book The Grand Design, which has caused so much fuss because of Hawking's pronouncements that God and philosophy are no longer necessary. The illustrations in this book are beautiful - but I strongly suspect they were put together by an art editor without consulting the authors, because two of them are plain wrong.

At one point we read about a solar eclipse and how it is visible 'only in a corridor on the earth about 30 miles wide.' That's fine - but the accompanying illustration shows the moon throwing a shadow covering a fair proportion of the earth's hemisphere. This shadow certainly must be 15,000-20,000 kilometres across. Whoopsie!

A little later, there's quite a good explanation of the basics of relativity, but the illustration, showing a bouncing ball on an aicraft as seen from the plane and from the ground is totally confusing. The reason is the view from the ground shows the ball moving diagonally. That's fair enough. But it is shown moving diagonally with respect to the plane, rather than with respect to the ground. And that's just wrong. It's a Relativity 101 fail.

There is no way the authors could have made these basic errors, so I can only assume they never even bothered to look at the illustrations. A good lesson here. If you ever get paid so much for a book you don't need to look at the illustrations, it shouldn't stop you from doing so.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Science as you've never heard it before in Birmingham

As I write, the British Science Festival (run by the organization formerly known as the BA) is still trundling along in Birmingham, ironically due to finish on 19 September, the day the Pope arrives in the city.

Last night I took part in one of the most unusual science/writing events I've ever attended. I was a judge, along with fellow writers Sue Guiney and Tania Hershman (the mastermind behind the event) of an open mic session for fiction and poetry inspired by science. It took place in this rather imposing building, The Old Joint Stock, a cavernous pub in the baroque railway station restaurant style. The venue houses a theatre, but we were in a rather cosier function room, tucked away on the first floor.

The judges were, to say the least, a little nervous. There had been no choice about the location, away from most of the Festival events, nor about operating without tickets (which gives no clue as to how many will turn up). In the end, a small but very interesting group joined us - enough to run the competition, with further particpants and audience straggling in over the next two hours. (Students, eh?)

Each of the judges read a little bit of their work (I was the joker in the pack, as the only non-fiction writer), then it was over to the competitors. I really had no idea what to expect. As it happened, the results were diverse and fascinating - genuinely good fun. Diversity was lacking in form - it was all poetry - but we had everything from a love poem cleverly based on the nature of quarks (the particles that make up protons and neutrons, whose attractive force gets stronger as they are separated) to a short epic (if that isn't an oxymoron) on the celebrated pioneer forensic pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, from a sophisticated poem describing the impact of an atomic bomb as 'flash photography' to a delightful piece for children about the moon, which would work very well as the text for a children's book.

Prizes were duly awarded (from the table shown), a few of our books sold and a good time was had by all. General agreement was it a real success and ought to be done again. Only next time, you'll be there, I hope.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Inventing a better shampoo

Invent a better mousetrap, it used to be said and they will beat a path to your door. (Whoever they are.) But what about a better shampoo? I'm not sure.

When I worked at British Airways, I had someone called Chris Brown in my team a couple of times. He was (and still is) a great programmer with a laid back attitude. You can tell he was laid back because when we once made a little movie to illustrate the differences between the PC operating systems, with different individuals playing, say, Windows and OS/2 (yes, it was that long ago), Chris played the part of Unix. (And yes, weren't we wacky if geeky folk, for making such a movie? One day I will get it on YouTube, but it's 8mm cine film, so non-trivial.)

At one point Chris had quite long hair and made a strong argument that the companies making new shampoo products were doing so for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of their customers. At the time, some brand or other was proudly announcing you could wash your hair every day with their product, without causing any damage. This, Chris pointed out, entirely missed the point. What would be a real breakthrough would be a shampoo that meant you only had to wash your hair once a month or once a year.

After all, shampooing is not fun. It's not clever. It's something you have to do to avoid moss growing and to keep things looking vaguely acceptable. It's a chore, not a pleasure. You can see why the manufacturers haven't gone down this route. They want to sell more shampoo, not less. But if you make a product that plenty of people want, surely it would be worth it? How about it, shampooistas? Hit the labs, please.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Scary advertising

The innocent product with the sinister ad
Every now and then someone asks me what I think about online advertising being targetted. (I don't know why they ask me, but they do.) You know the kind of thing. Instead of getting random ads, you are supposed to get ads for products that are more likely to interest you. So I might get book ads, or science-based stuff. I've always said I like the idea, and I do. In principle it should stop me seeing so much irrelevent stuff. But I've had two examples of doing this in a cack-handed fashion that make me wonder whether the technology can live up to the concept.

The first is those Facebook ads that are pseudo-targetted. The ones that claim to have a special offer only for people over {YOUR AGE-1}. I'm sorry, those are just pathetic. But the other kind is downright scary.

A couple of weeks ago I downloaded a trial copy of a program called iMindMap. I have a page on my creativity website dedicated to creativity software, and I hadn't mentioned this product, so I thought it was worth a go. As it happens it was one of the best I'd seen, so I updated the page accordingly, then let the trial software expire, thinking no more of it, as I already have mind mapping software I'm quite happy with.

Then the scary thing started. After my trial expired, about every fifth Google Ad I saw was a graphical banner for iMindMap. It could be a total coincidence, but a straw poll suggests other people haven't been getting this. It seems there is a mechanism to target me as a vaguely-interested-potential-customer. Now I find that a little scary. It's the advertising equivalent of stalking. I wouldn't mind if it had just popped up once or twice, as a vague reminder, but the constant repetition started to get wearing. It was like every time you turned a corner, there was the same strange person with an inane grin on their face. (It seems to have died down now after a couple of weeks.)

I really can't think of a better way to turn someone off a product. I did like iMindMap, and I suspect they don't know that this particular use of Google's Ads can be so scary - but it's not an option I would choose to encourage people to buy my product. So do feel free to take a look at iMindMap... but don't buy yourself this kind of advertising for your own products. Please.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The painful politeness of crossing the road

Why did the parent and child cross the road? I don't know, but I wish they wouldn't at the same time as I am.

On the way to our local shopping centre, a mere 5 minute walk from Clegg Towers, I have to cross a dual carriageway road. This is equipped with an effective but rather overwhelming crossing system that demands some concentration, as getting from one side to the other can mean crossing as many as five road segments, each with its own button to press and red/green lights telling you when to walk.

Once you get to know the crossings, it's often possible to cross quite smartly, making use of the traffic flows to ensure that various segments are safe to cross. But here's the thing. The little crossing light is often red even when it is totally safe to cross that segment. While one of the set of lights switches to green whenever's it's safe to cross, for some reason the other ones only bother to go green if you've pressed the button - and even then can wait an inordinate time before changing.

So here you are, about to charge across against a red light as it is totally obvious that it is safe to do so, because there is a flow of traffic blocking the lane you are crossing. And then you see a parent with a small child. And instantly you are faced with a difficult decision. That parent, being a responsible parent, is nobly waiting for the little green man to indicate it's safe to cross. (S)he is teaching junior the safe way to cross. Excellent. But this means that either you get bored, waiting with them even though you know it's perfectly safe to cross, or you blunder on anyway, facing evil looks from said parent as you set junior a bad example. You can't win. They should have to ring a bell, or something, so you can avoid them.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The hypnotic sight of books selling

Image from The Book Depository, Powered by Google Maps
Geographical Information Systems have been around for a while. When in Victorian times, Doctor John Snow pinpointed the source of a cholera outbreak in London to the Broad Street pump by marking outbreaks on a detailed map he was using a manual version of such a system. The geographical presentation gives a view on the data that is much richer than simply looking at a table.

But such systems are coming of age with the likes of Google Maps making it easy for companies to pump data into a map, providing a visual representation of  that information.

As an author, I find a particular fascination in the application set up by the online bookseller The Book Depository. You can watch in near-real time as book sales ping up around the world. (Rather confusingly, after the initial sale they seem to go backwards in time, but hey, no one's perfect.) Who is buying what, and why? See the Compedium of Crochet Techniques followed swiftly by The Legend of Zelda Vol. 10. Yes, they're all buying deep literature or stimulating non-fiction. But seriously, it's downright hypnotic. Take a look.

Thanks to Martin Daniels for bringing this to my attention

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Numbers in the news

When people ask me about statistics they hear on the news, I suggest two questions they ought to bear in mind, and as a result of which they should employ appropriate scepticism. Those questions are:
  1. What does that mean?
  2. How do they know that?
Let me demonstrate. You hear there has been a 100% increase in a particularly nasty crime over the previous year. That's horrendous. The world is unsafe. We'd better legislate. But hang on. What does that mean? 100% of what? It turns out the previous year there was one instance. This year there were two instances. Stand down the national guard.

Another example to deploy question 2. I heard recently on the news that exports were up by so many percent over the previous year. How do they know that? I have several activities that count as exports. For instance, one of my main publishers is St Martin's Press in New York. As a result of selling them my books, money flows into the UK. This is an export, even if a physical object doesn't get popped in the post. But will that show up in their statistics? I can't see how. There must be many thousands of small businesses, exporting physical goods for internet sales, for example, where again I can't see how those sales will get into those export figures. The fact is, though they don't admit it, that this must be a guess - and not a very good one.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Why does Stephen Hawking talk such twaddle?

Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous scientist alive. In the popular mind he has taken on the role of the new Einstein or Newton. Now there is no doubt that Professor Hawking is a good scientist - but there are two big problems with this.

One is that if you compare him with those illustrious predecessors, frankly he hasn't changed our understanding of the world a lot. When he was still alive, Richard Feynman could arguably have come close, but Hawking doesn't. Yes, he has done plenty of fine work, but it really isn't comparable.

The other big problem is that the media take all his pronouncements and push them out to the world as if they were great wisdom, when in fact, off topic, he often comes up with dramatic statements that frankly wouldn't be worth the time of day were it not for his media status.

When the COBE satellite came up with the first images of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the so-called echo of the big bang, Hawking called the results 'the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.' I'm sorry, but that is absolute baloney. They were certainly interesting, providing useful but not conclusive evidence on the early nature of the universe, but to take his 'discovery of the century' comparison, could he really say they were more important than relativity and quantum theory? Hardly.

More recently, he was warning us we should be hiding from aliens. And now he's on the news telling us that both religion and philosophy are irrelevent now, because science can explain everything. Not only is it not true that science can explain everything, it is just so arrogant. Susan Greenfield, who to be honest I don't usually have much time for, called these 'Taliban statements' on the radio this morning, and I can see her point. Hawking does science no favours by coming up with these plonking opinions - and the media doesn't help by bigging them up far beyond their importance.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Tremble - it's sales conference time

Many newbie authors think that once they've got a contract with a real publisher, they can just sit back and wait for their book to become a bestseller. Only it's not quite as simple as that.

Leaving aside all the contributions the author still has to make, there will be an event on the horizon where arguably the success of your book is dependent on the presentation skills of your editor. You might imagine that once a publisher takes on a book, they simply instruct the sales force to SELL, SELL, SELL. However, the sales people don't know anything about your book. Enter the sales conference.

As an outsider I have always seen this as a bizarre process. The in-house sales staff sit in a room and along troop the editors, yours included. Each editor has to pitch their books to the sales people. Depending on how those few minutes (seconds?) go, the sales staff will decide if this is a book they are going to get wholeheartedly behind or give the sink-or-swim treatment to.

I have never been to sales conference, but speaking to editors, some find them quite intimidating. I have known editors plan dramatic stunts, like switching off all the lights, leaving the room in darkness and silence for as long as they dared, to demonstrate how dependent we are on electricity. Others have requested powerful images, soundbites and factoids - anything to grab the attention of those butterfly-brained sales people.  (I'm sure they're not really butterfly brained. It's just the concept of the sales conference is so alien to me.) A great book cover design helps a lot, too.

So next time you are moaning to friends that your editor never seems to do anything, give them a thought as they line up like lambs to the salesforce slaughter.

If my subtle subliminal sales tool has got you wanting to buy a copy of The God Effect, pop over to its web page.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Bag for Life Top Trumps

As someone with green aspirations (come on, I did write Ecologic), I'm all in favour of supermarket 'bag for life' offerings, which mean you reuse your bags rather than throw them away. However, I think it is boring, and quite possibly in bad taste, to use a bag in the shop from which it was obtained.

Instead, to keep the shopping experience amusing, the shopper should play a game of Bag-for-life Top Trumps®. The idea is simple. Always use a bag with snob value at the supermarket in which you are shopping. So:
  • In Aldi/Lidl use at least an Asda bag
  • In Asda use at least a Tesco bag
  • In Tesco use at least a Sainsbury's bag
  • In Sainsbury's use at least a Marks & Spencer bag
  • In Marks & Spencer use at least a Waitrose bag
  • In Waitrose...
... ah, yes. What to do in that doyen of supermarkets? No problem, because there is one bag that trumps them all - a French supermarket bag. In fact it's best to stick to one of these at any store, then you don't have to worry about whether you are properly attired. You can always feel superior.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Why do they do it?

Appearing on the Litopia After Dark internet radio panel show last night, I quite surprised myself how worked up I got about the futile nature of the glory given to people doing stupid things. There is something very sad about the obsession with doing things because they stretch human beings to the limit. This is what leads to attempts to trek across the North or South Pole on foot, or to climb Everest without oxygen. To any sensible onlooker, it’s stupidity. There is no scientific benefit. There is no discovery. It’s little more than risky posturing.

The ultimate example of this madness is that awards have already been funded for the first person to climb Mount Olympus on Mars, to cross the Martian poles 'without airborne support or resupply' and to descend the vast Valles Marineris on Mars 'using no technological support other than that required for life support and basic mountaineering.' Leaving aside the total strangeness of these challenges (for example, what airborne support do they have in mind?  There is no air on Mars), this is Boy's Own stuff that now seems hugely dated - it is celebrating vast effort for no benefit whatsoever. You might as well have an award for the first person to hop all the way round the Moon, or the first person to eat a whole asteroid (it's possible in very small pieces) - these are challenges that should inspire a huge 'so what?'

Those who design great treks across vast wastes would laugh at a challenge of standing on one foot for as long as you can, or hopping around Manhattan with a paper bag over your head – yet each has exactly the same benefit: it tests the limit of human endurance. If that doesn't present enough danger, stand on one foot as long as you can on the edge of the roof of a 20 storey building. We should see these 'great feats' for what they are. A way of showing off that has no more value than standing on one foot.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Sipping a glass of Cotes du Brian

This summer we had a little expedition to France, and though the miserable exchange rate with the Euro means that the booze cruise is a thing of the past, if you are over there anyway it's well worth stocking up on wines.

Apart from the usual red we were buying a bit of the pink stuff for the alleged summer days. (I've no idea why we call it rosé - it would be very pretentious to call red wine 'rouge'.) It proved absolutely impossible to avoid buying a box of the wine illustrated. Who could resist sipping a glass of Cotes du Brian? (And it really is quite sippable.)

It strikes me there's a real opportunity here. Find out the 20 most popular names in the UK (first and last) and put out wines with that name on the label. You'd get lots of sales.

In case there is any suspicion that this had already happened I ought to point out that the Cotes du Brian is a real wine growing area. If you take a look at this page in Oz Clarke's Wine Atlas you will find it in Languedoc-Roussillon, fairly near Carcassone (number 72 on the map).

As well as my cheap and cheerful stuff, there's also a slightly posher Cotes de Brian producer - see for example this and this.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Dara vs the Media

Adrian Edmondson was slagging off the new, younger comedians the other day. So many of them, he suggests, perform basically the same act, interspersed with appearances on panel shows. You could interchange them and no one would notice the difference. He has a point, but some of the bright young-ish things have a certain something (in fact Ade did acknowledge this), and among those bright stars I would include Dara O Briain.

I've recently read our Dara's book Tickling the English (subtitled a funny man's notes on a country and his people), in which he tries that popular sport, analyzing what makes the English, erm, English, in this case through observation on a tour of comedy venues. Leaving aside the somewhat biassed sample that is represented by a comedy audience, it is quite interesting, though doesn't have the insight as an observational travel book of Stuart Maconie's cracking pair of titles Pies and Prejudice and Adventures on the High Teas.

There was one very interesting point, though. Dara (sorry for the familiarity, but if I write 'O Briain' it looks like I'm back in Latin class, using the vocative: 'Briain; O Briain; Briain; To a Briain; Of a Briain; By, with or from a Briain') wonders why we get so worried about immigration in the UK. He points out that in the last census (admittedly rather dated figures now) only around 2.5% of the population were ethnically Asian and around 2% Afro-Caribbean. He can't understand why some people get so worked up about us being overwhelmed - which is strange, because his own work area (the media, I mean, not comedians) can surely take a major portion of the blame.

Take the news. I have many times seen news bulletins that go on (and on) about the number of immigrants coming into the country and the difficulty of controlling the process and supporting them. I have hardly ever heard the news put this into context with percentages of the population as a whole. Result? It sounds like we're drowning in unwanted multiculturalism.

Even worse, whenever said news cameras need to portray a school (say), you can pretty well guarantee the class will not have a mix of ethnic background that is representative of the national demographic. In part this is because of laziness - the TV crews can't be bothered to move away from London to find a more representative picture - and in part it's incorrectly applied political correctness that assumes any classroom with less than half the students of varied ethnic background is biassed.

So really, Dara, it's not surprising people misunderstand the position when you lot are always showing us that it's different from the way it really is. Have a word with your mates in the newsroom, won't you?

Photo from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I was reading in some authors' publication (I think ALCS News) that an author who writes for the teen audience asked the young people at his talk a question about how much money they thought he earned from booksales.

'You buy a book in a bookshop for £10,' he said. 'How much of that do you think the author gets?'

The most popular answer was 100%, followed by 50%, then 75%, which between them accounted for most of the replies. Now leaving aside the total lack of business sense in 100% (come on, guys, the shop has to make something out of this), it's still quite remarkable how much they believed authors get.

On a paperback, it is often 7.5% of net. Let's assume the bookshop gets a 50% discount - that means that on this £10 paperback, the author gets around 37p. I have to say, when I type that, even I find it shocking. To be fair, it's not always so bad. If you sell above a set number, say 10,000 copies, you might get 10 or even 12.5%, while hardbacks usually start at a higher percentage. But even so, on a £17.50 hardback an author will still only get around £1.

Now I know authors are always whinging on about money. It's an old charter or something. But the trouble is, with only the earnings of people like J. K. Rowling making the media, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate that we aren't all raking in vast quantities of cash. So do us a favour, guv. Buy a book.

Photo by Clare Dudman