Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Health and safety should have gone mad

I share with many a concern that we are over-protective of children these days. Some people won't even let their children camp out in the back garden in case an evil lurker gets them. Statistically this is ludicrous. They are much more in danger every time you take them near a road. However, we shouldn't totally ignore risk either. I have to confess I did something with a group of teenagers many years ago that still gives me a cold shudder when I contemplate the dangers involved.

I had done some caving while at university, and when the youth club I helped run went on an adventure holiday (this was a few years later) I offered to lead a caving experience. This was straight caving, not potholing, I should stress. I picked three caves out of a guide (I think it was the one illustrated), all easy.

The first was very straightforward. A little narrow in places, but basically a straightforward walk into the hillside. The most exciting thing was getting there by car as it meant going up a 1 in 4 hill - the car really felt as if it was going to flip over backwards, most unnerving.

The second could only be accessed by walking up a stream bed, and had a stream running through it (very like the one on the book cover) for greater interest. But the third was the icing on the cake. It had two great caving experiences. After the entrance there was a crawl, sufficiently shallow that you had to have your arms ahead of you and your head on its side. It's really quite something when you are in contact with rock above and below in a person sandwich. After about 10 or 15 feet of crawl it opened up into a huge cavern - maybe 30 feet high and 100 feet wide - the contrast was stunning.

But access to this one was a pain. It involved a long trek from the nearest road, often with very little in the way of paths. To make it more interesting, when I did a recce beforehand, I discovered a shaft quite near the route. It was just a big hole in the ground, protected by walls maybe two feet high. I dropped a pebble down and counted about 5 seconds before it hit the ground. So I knew to keep my little band well away from this. However, on the first real visit with a group of teenagers I got lost.

I followed what I thought was the right route and ended up on a little path that seemed to be going the right way. Eventually, the destination was in sight - but I realized with horror that to get to it we would have to traverse a bit of path with a steep cliff on the left and a 100 foot+ drop on the right. At its narrowest, the path was about a foot wide, and was crumbly soil, sloping towards the chasm.

I should have backtracked - but it would have taken us about an hour to get back on the main track. I decided to take them along the path.

We made it - obviously - but when I look back it was just so dangerous, it scares me even now. Before I took the next group I made sure I had a safe route. But that stomach churning memory of that crumbly little path over the drop makes me realize - health and safety isn't always a bad thing.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Feeling the strain

I'm currently reading for review the very entertaining book Boffinology (I don't know what US readers would make of this title - I don't think 'boffin' is a word in the States, though to be fair, it's hardly in common usage in the UK). The book consists of a series of articles on quirky aspects of the history of science.

I was particularly taken by the piece on clinical stress. Apparently, when first discovered in the 1930s, the scientist in question (you can read the book if you want to know who), did not have English as a first language, and when he published a letter on his discovery in Nature, he used 'stress' where he probably meant 'strain.' (This despite pleadings from a Nature editor to change the term.)

The point here is that in engineering 'stress' is the cause and 'strain' is the outcome, but in the medical term, 'stress' was the outcome.

The article goes on to describe the confusion this caused when the terminology was translated into other languages. Should they use his term, or the 'right' term? Apparently many chickened out, so the French have, for instance, with 'le stress' and several languages that don't use our alphabet, do use it for this word.

Although he probably shouldn't have used stress, I do find the apparent confusion a bit exaggerated, though. If 'strain' had been used instead of 'stress', surely there would have been confusion with a physical strain to a muscle etc? And anyway, in general usage at least, we tend to employ stress in a way that understands it to be the cause. We don't say 'I've got stress,' we say 'I'm stressed' or 'I'm under stress.' Now admittedly that isn't the clinical usage, and perhaps there they do say 'he's got bad stress' - but if that's the case, they should have taken the same sensible route that general usage has.


I don't know if the author/publisher knows, but I notice on searching for Boffinology on Amazon that you can download an MP3 of that name. Song of the book?

Friday, 26 November 2010

I agree with Nick

I am quite saddened by the naivety of those who are complaining that the Liberal Democrats are backing tuition fee rises. Before I disappear under a pile of brickbats, let me explain that statement, and first throw in a couple of provisos:
  • I do not agree with the increase in tuition fees. There are plenty of other ways to raise this money that would be better for the country.
  • I think the Liberal Democrats were stupid to sign those pledges saying that if there was a LibDem government they would not increase tuition fees.
BUT there is not a LibDem government. A coalition is in government, and the Liberal Democrats are the junior partners of that coalition. Anyone with an iota of brain should be able to understand that this means that the majority of policies will not be Liberal Democrat policies. Nevertheless, the coalition does mean that more LibDem policies will be enacted than if the coalition hadn't been formed, and I believe the coalition is a good thing for the country, which could really benefit from Conservative drive softened by LibDem social responsibility.

To get all snotty about the LibDems because of the tuition fee rises is a reflection perhaps of people who have never been in a serious relationship. Give and take means you don't always get your own way - get over it.

Am I telling students not to protest? Not at all. As I said at the start, I'm against the tuition fee rises, and I think peaceful protests are a good thing. But don't make out that the LibDems are some sort of backstabbing monsters. They are just doing what good partners do.

So, yes, like those almost forgotten prime ministerial candidates, I agree with Nick. And not just because he's a Clegg. No, really.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Will the internet really kill the jury system?

There have been dire warnings in the press that use of the internet is putting the jury system at risk. There seem to be two components to these legal worries. One is jury members discussing a trial while it's underway on social networking, the other is the dangers of jurors researching elements of the trial online.

The first of these is a genuine concern, but one that was always there, magnified by the power of social networking. It has always been possible for jurors to gossip with friends and relations about their thoughts on the trial, which clearly has potential dangers in close-knit communities. However, the social networking dimension does magnify the effect, particularly if a broadcast-style network like Twitter is involved. It has to be drummed into the jurors that it is a no-no.

But the second aspect is more complex. Unless the legal system believes that jurors have totally blank minds when they come to the court, they will already have a limited set of knowledge overlapping the context of the trial. If, for example, I was a juror in a trial that depended on statistical evidence, I would have a better chance of understanding it, and any flaws in it (in all probability) than a typical juror.

Some of the 'information' the jurors come pre-loaded with will be incorrect. In many ways it could be advantageous to getting a good hearing if they do research topics, particularly where it's a technical trial, or one that hinges on the evidence of expert witnesses. Yes, there is a danger that jurors will be swayed by some blogger baying for the death penalty or whatever, but the chances are, if they tend to look for this, they will already have been steeped in whatever the sensibility is. However, researching facts is a different matter.

The lawyers argue that this should be a good, ancient Greek style conflict, with presentations by the opposing barristers in the courtroom the only influence the jury's decision. This is an out of date and frankly naive approach. It would be much better if the juries had the best possible understanding of the technicalities that are being discussed. This is unlikely to be provided by biassed barristers. They aren't interested in the jury getting the best understanding, they want, if possible, to mislead the jury to get a result. Not only should we stop discouraging jurors from going online, we should actively help them to research the topics properly, so they can make an informed decision, not the judgement of an idiot, swayed by hot air.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The spray head that probably won an award

In his classic book The Psychology of Everday Things (see at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com), Donald Norman shows how the aesthetics of design often triumph over usability. So designers make doors you can't work out how to open, or cooker controls where you need instructions to know which control is for which ring, simply to make them look pretty.

He has a section called something like 'it probably won an award', suggesting that the artefacts in question were just the kind of thing the design mafia love and give themselves gongs for, but are practically useless. I have my own suggestion for such an award. It's the spray head on the pictured kitchen cleaner from Marks and Spencer. Very pretty, but frankly it's rubbish.

Firstly, at a glance it isn't at all obvious which way round you use it. Though seen from the angle of the photo it's fairly obvious, seen from other directions it's easy to think it sprays the other way round. This is because the press lever is on the same side as the nozzle, where usually it is on the opposite side. Result? I have at least twice picked the thing up and sprayed cleaner straight into my eyes.

Secondly it dribbles. Because your fingers are pressing on the same side as the nozzle, it's almost impossible to use without getting the cleaner on your fingers.

And finally it has a clever locking mechanism. Really clever. I locked it by accident, and after five minutes trying to unlock it gave up, screwed the top off and poured some out.

Sorry, guys. It's a fail. But a stylish fail.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The real danger of turning the military into saints

This morning on the radio we had General Sir Loudly Blustering, telling us how appalling the BBC was and how it ought to reconsider its role as a public service broadcaster. Why? Because the BBC had dared to show a drama - fiction - in which members of the armed forces were shown doing bad things.

That the general should do this reflects what I feel is a very dangerous shift in our attitude to the military. I ought to say straight away that our armed forces do an important and dangerous job, and that we ought to do everything sensible to make sure that they are well treated, especially when injured. However, it really does seem that we are seeing a Princess Diana effect in the emotional attitude that is now attached to the military.

This comes through in the distinction between the Poppy Appeal and the charity Help for Heroes. The Poppy Appeal is a sober, thoughtful appeal for remembrance, which raises funds to help veterans. Help for Heroes also has a very worthy cause in raising cash for those wounded in recent conflicts, but it is no surprise that the X-Factor has just done a charity spot for Help for Heroes. Shows like the X-Factor are masters of manipulating emotion, and Help for Heroes is very much a charity of the X-Factor generation. Emotion is in real danger of turning heroes into saints who can do no wrong.

I support the work of Help for Heroes (although I'd rather give to the Poppy Appeal), but this emotional debt to the armed forces must not be used to allow the military to have a greater presence in our everyday lives. I wasn't totally comfortable with a display of soldiers on stage during the X-Factor - it was worryingly reminiscent of the sort of thing you would expect to see in a military dictatorship - but at least this was linked to supporting injured servicemen. What we can't have, though, is generals telling us what sort of dramas we are allowed to watch.

Next the generals will assume it's okay to tell us how to deal with the financial crisis. And while they are at it, why don't they just take over running the country? And if we have come to view the military as saints, it's all too easy to say, 'Yes, why not?'

Hands off, please, generals.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Time for a stained glass renaissence

Our village church has relatively recently had a new stained glass window fitted (the one pictured) and it has made me realize what an undervalued artform stained glass is.

If this had been an ordinary painting, hung on the wall, I would have glanced at it once as I passed it, but probably not looked again. But in the stained glass form, time after time I've stopped and looked. The glowing colours just cry out to be stared at (much more so than in the photograph). When you think about it, this is a kind of art with so much going for it - it doesn't just deal with image and colour, it deals with raw light. This is painting with light, and a light the varies with time of day at that - it can be stunning.

Back in Victorian times there was huge amount of bad stained glass produced (and some excellent stuff - quite well known artists like the Pre-Raphaelite Burne Jones indulged), which I think gave stained glass a fusty, old fashioned image.

I know there has been some excellent modern stained glass in churches and cathedrals, but I think it's time the art form broke out and became mainstream. Let's see more excellent stained glass in civic centres and shopping malls. This is glorious art that has mass appeal. Wake up, art world!

Friday, 19 November 2010

Talking the talk - five key tips for public speaking as a writer

Ok, it aint pretty, but the boy has passion. And a play button.
I do a fair number of talks based on my books - and I have to (modestly) admit they're usually well received. I'd like to share some top tips on making talks work. My experience is with non-fiction, but I hope some of this will have a wider relevence.

#1 - Prepare!
The exclamation mark is justified. When I see talks that don't go very well, it's often down to lack of preparation. If it's a talk I haven't done before I will run it through around four times before giving it. And by running through, I don't mean flipping through the notes on the train, I mean acting it out as realistically as possible, which means standing up and speaking aloud. It can be embarrassing (especially if you do it on the train), but it makes so much difference.


#2 - Get your notes right
This isn't one where I can be prescriptive, but it is essential to get your talk into a form that works well for you when you present. I personally totally script a talk in written form. But by the time I get to the real thing, after those run throughs, I'm not really reading the script, I just use it as a prompt. (Whatever you do, don't just read your talk from a script. This is dire.) You may find key points work better for you, but make sure you have a mechanism that will give you the right prompts. There was a period when there was a craze for having notes on cards that the speaker held while talking. I really don't recommend this. Find some way to leave your hands free, otherwise you are immediately cramping your style. Insist on a lectern and print your notes big enough so you can see them at a distance.

I was speaking to someone the other day who said the great thing about Powerpoint is that he used the bullet points on his Powerpoint slides as his notes. They prompted him on what he was going to say. The trouble with this approach is that you are always lagging behind the visuals, always having a slight hesitation in your talk (and it means you have to have a Powerpoint). I do have a couple of business-based talks that are fairly traditionally Powerpoint based without detailed scripts - with those I always print a copy of the slides (even if I don't necessarily look at them) so I can look ahead, not at the text as it comes up.

#3 - Think twice about Powerpoint
I use Powerpoint quite a lot. But most of my slides in science talks have negligible text. I use Powerpoints for graphics (preferably animated), but not for bullet points. Generally speaking, an author talk isn't like a university lecture (and this is where academics doing author talks often fall down). You don't need people to take detailed notes, and there's rarely a need for bullet points. If you do have Powerpoint with text on, whatever you do DON'T read the slide. They can read the slide. That's why it's there. Say something else.

I'd also encourage you not to use laser pointers. Generally speaking, if you have a slide that needs a laser pointer, there's too much on it. I've been to so many academic presentations where they put up a vast, complex diagram, much too detailed to see properly and say 'You can't read this, but it says (blah blah)' while pointing with the laser pointer. If we can't read it, why have you put it up? Go to the bottom of the class.

I do now do several talks without any visual aids. Coming from a business background this was hard, but I almost always get people coming up afterwards saying how refreshing it was. But you have to choose your audience for this. Children, for instance, particularly appreciate more visual content.

#4 Pitch it at your audience
Know what your audience is going to be like and pitch the talk appropriately. I have several versions of some of my talks so I can fit them to the audience age. All sorts of things go into this, even the way you speak. I'm not talking about gettin down wif the yoof speak, like. But I do tend to be more informal in the way I speak when there's a younger audience.

Think about using props - this is particularly good with a young audience. When talking about light, I use a toy light sabre as one of my props. Okay, it's a bit silly, a 55-year-old guy waving around a light sabre that keeps making comments like 'May the force be with you' and producing realistic sound effects - but here's a bit of news you knew already. Children like silly. It's amazing how much simple props can lift a talk.


#5 Perform
This is the one that comes hardest to many writers. In a very intimate setting you can turn a writer talk into a conversation, and that's fine. But generally it is a performance. Now, as it happens, I'm lucky here. I love performing. Though pretty hopeless at one-to-one verbal communication, I'm a big show-off and get a huge buzz out of performing. But it doesn't matter how you feel about it. Perhaps the most important difference between a dull talk and a great one is making it a performance.

So this means don't drone on in standard lecturer style. Be a bit dramatic. Put lots of energy into it. If you aren't drained after an hour, you really aren't doing it right. Look at your audience as much as you can while you speak - yes you will have to glance at your notes and the computer screen if using Powerpoint (don't look at the big screen behind you more than you can help, as you are turning your back on the audience). Sweep the audience with your eyes, so they all feel they are getting eye contact. Show emotion in your face. Does this sound like acting? It is. You have to be larger than life. I don't mean go over the top and ham it up. But project yourself and your message.

Okay?
It seems like a lot of effort - and it is. But it entirely worth it to get the right reaction from an audience. They will get much more out of your event (which means they are more likely to buy your books), and so will you. What's not to like?

If you'd like to see me in action, most of my talks are for schools and colleges, but my public talks are listed here.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

There's nothing wrong with being on our own side

I heard an academic moaning on the radio the other day that some programme was about Western civilization. 'Why should we single out the West [to talk about]?' (s)he whinged. Why not? Yes, we should be fair and tolerant, but what's wrong with having a particular interest in our own culture and background?

Take this down to a smaller scale. I'm more interested in my family than the Blinge family of Clacton-on-Sea. I'm sorry, but it's true - and it would be ridiculous if I weren't.

I can understand the importance of being inclusive, and all those good things, but it is equally important that in the process of appreciating everyone else's culture and history we don't lose sight of our own. We have a great cultural and scientific heritage in the UK. We did things wrong. Lots of things. Just like everyone else. Only they get on with their lives and don't beat themselves up for dubious moments in history. (How often do you hear Scandinavians saying they're really sorry for the Vikings?)

In the end, it's fine to be self-deprecating, but we shouldn't be self-hating. We take things too far. Every other country seems proud of its cultural heritage - but not Britain. That's ridiculous. Please stop disappearing up your own bottoms, academics.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Nibbling the guilt-free way

I used to be very restrained when it came to naughty nibbling. (Things like biscuits, I mean. Good grief.) But I have to confess I had sunk into a bit of bad habit. I felt, after I'd walked the dog, I needed a biscuit or three with my coffee just to get my energy back. And then when it came to my afternoon coffee, well, everyone knows you get low energy in the afternoon... so out came the biscuits again.

I may have found a partial solution - there's a company called graze.com that sends little boxes of relatively healthy nibblables through the post. It's a cunning scheme. They supply about 100 different products, of which your box will contain four. You can filter this online, knocking out the ones you don't like, though I left it as open as possible to start with. These range from straight forward things like nuts and dried fruit to interesting chocolate coated goodies and mini flavoured breads.

Our first box has definitely been a success. Admittedly there was one item everyone hated (wasabi peas) - but even these were a success as the girls have taken them to school to get their friends to try them and see their faces. Even more of a success because it's free. If you enter this code: W8HJ87RN at graze.com into the offers/code thingy on the form you get your first box free and the second one half price. After that it's £3.49 a pop. We've done some feedback on the first offering and await the second with interest. We even got excited about the packaging, which is brilliant.

I don't think it will 100 percent replace the biscuits, but it certainly helps. Tuesdays (you can choose which day your box arrives, but it can't be Mondays if you want the chance of bread) will never be the same again.

My thanks to Kate Grant for pointing out the existence of graze.com

Monday, 15 November 2010

That's the way to do outreach! Some good news about UEA

Let's face it, the University of East Anglia has not had great press of late. The first thing anyone thinks of is the supposed scandal over the climate change emails (supposed as it was rather a fuss over nothing - see earlier post). But I had an experience there at the weekend that puts the UEA high on my list of good places.

I had an invitation to speak at their Saturday Morning science lectures. Aimed at young people (roughly 8+) and their parents, this seemed a great concept... but how would it work in practice? I was deeply impressed.

Firstly, the audience really stuck with it. They didn't just have to suffer me, but also had one of the University's lecturers talking on the history of medicine. That meant they were there from a 10am start to 12.30 (there was a half hour break) - pretty hard work for an eight-year-old. Then there was the audience themselves. To be honest, I wasn't sure how many would turn up, but my guestimate was around 300, of whom over half were children. This was no cosy chat.

Finally, as is often the case with a young audience, I was impressed by the enthusiasm to ask questions. I was speaking on 'how the universe works' and had mentioned black holes. When my very first question, from a girl who looked about 10, was 'What is a white hole?' I knew it was going to be a stimulating q&a session.

This is such impressive outreach. Every university ought to be doing this. With the best will in the world, Norwich is a relatively sleepy place - if they can get an audience of 300, pretty well any university town should be able to. I really believe that more of this kind of thing could help prepare the ground for scientists of the future. Get to it, other universities - follow the excellent lead of the UEA.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Where do our tastes come from?

We all know what's tasteful and what's not, even if everyone's assessment differs. But where do our individual tastes come from? They seem to come in layers - but not for every application. Take three categories.

My taste in cars was, I believe, set in childhood. Strongly influenced by Bond films back then, I would still say my dream car is an Aston Martin. Popular culture seems a strong driver here. (As more, sad evidence, one of my daughters desperately wants a black Range Rover. I can only think this is because 'celebrities' like Wayne Yobbie and his lovely wife Slobeen tend to drive them. As long as it's not because of Jamie Oliver having one.)

Musically, my taste was influenced both by school days, where trendy music teachers meant I mostly heard 20th century serious music, and student days, where I picked up prog rock and Tudor/Elizabethan church music. But it really hasn't changed since.

As for food, there seem to be three layers of taste (not that kind of taste). From childhood, the Sunday roast and pies. From student days, curries, tomato soup with cheese sandwiches and cooked breakfasts. And from adulthood French cuisine.

I wonder if it's a coincidence that the more recent a subject of taste in human history, the less sophisticated is my layering? Someone has no doubt studied this, but it makes for an interesting ponder. Have you thought about your tastes and when they came into being?

Thursday, 11 November 2010

History is bunk

Well, no, history isn't bunk, it's very important, but you have to admire the power of the statement. There certainly are occasions when history gives a wrong steer, and I think I've just heard one. The problem is, that if you try to predict the future based on experience from history, you assume that things will continue in the future the way they did in the past - but this misses out on the way sudden major step changes can (and often do) totally throw the effectiveness of the prediction.

Take one simple example - speed of human travel. Science writer Damien Broderick has apparently cited this as an example of exponential growth. For millions of years we were restricted to walking. Over thousands of years, we got a little faster by using donkeys and horses. Just 200 years ago the steam train arrived, followed by automobiles, prop planes and jets. According to Broderick, “By 1953, not even the Air Force technologists could believe what the trend curves were telling them: that within four years they would have achieved speeds great enough to lift payloads into orbit.”

Despite that disbelief, the curve went on, with Sputnik going into orbit on schedule in 1957, and twelve years later man was on the Moon. The idea of this example is to show how exponential growth can transform things in a shocking way – and it’s a great example up to a point. Yet in its use of carefully selected data it is also extremely misleading.

To start with, the world didn’t end with the introduction of space flight. Bear in mind that as much time has now passed since Sputnik was launched in 1957 as had gone by between the Wright brothers’ first flight and that satellite launch that triggered the space race. Even with linear growth we would by now expect to be crossing the solar system with ease – with exponential growth, we should be hopping to the stars after fifty years has passed. It hasn’t happened. Our space vessels are no quicker than they were in the Apollo days.
Look a little deeper, and things are even worse as far the growth curve goes. Broderick has compared apples with oranges.

His story begins as a description of mass travel speed – the rates that ordinary people can achieve – but ends with specialist travel speed. Very few people have become astronauts. If you stick to the curve of mass travel, something even more remarkable has happened. From the Wright Brothers’ handful of miles an hour we did see immense jumps with the jet plane, and then with the supersonic Concorde at around 1,300 miles an hour. But since Concorde went out of service, our fastest mass travel speed has dropped to less than half its previous value. Not only are we failing to ascend an exponential curve, or even a linear curve, we have actually plummeted backwards, with no real contender in sight to reverse this.

The reason I bring this up now is I've just heard a couple of academics arguing about whether English will continue to be a world language. One, arguing from history, pointed out how quickly 'universal' languages get dropped. But all of history before English has been without the Internet, email and other high speed world communications. I personally think this totally changes the game. Yes, English might be supplanted by another language - but I don't think history is any use here in predicting the outcome, because the situation is so dramatically different. Here, at least, history is bunk.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

You can love a place and not want to go back to it (writers please note)

A while ago I read Stuart Maconie's excellent travel book on his tour around Middle England, called Adventures on the High Teas. Towards the end he reflects on the places he has been, and admits with candour that much though he loves the north of England, where he was born, he actually would prefer to live in one of these lovely southern towns.

I can't agree more. I deeply love Rochdale, the town near Manchester where I was born and brought up (now probably best known as the home of Waterloo Road, but also the birthplace of the Co-operative movement, Gracie Fields and more). It really gives me a lump in my throat when I go back. But if I'm honest I do prefer living in southern parts. It's partly the weather, but there's something else that Maconie puts across so well, a different feel, I suppose you could call it. It's not the natives are more friendly - they aren't. But there is something about the places that makes them nicer to live in.

It may be a cliché, but you really can't go back when you have changed. Not successfully. Once you've moved away and lived elsewhere it doesn't work. I really feel there's a lesson here for fiction writers. Please don't keep writing the same book, over and over again.

You may think, but hold hard there! What about highly successful series? What about well-loved characters? This misses the point. I'm still me - but I can't go back for more than a visit (or at least I shouldn't). You can still have those same significant characters - you can have a story arc that covers several books - but there is something more fundamental, the equivalent of going back to live in the old home town. As your characters develop, so should the plot lines. All too often I feel I'm reading the same book again.

Move on - there's nothing more to see here.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The joy of homeopathic music

There was quite a lot on the radio yesterday about recordings of silence. It transpires that there is a new CD for the Royal British Legion which features a track of a 2 minute silence. So then they started on about the John Cage piece, 4' 33".

If you aren't familiar with the composition, it consists of (you guessed it) 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. I first 'heard' this when at school - one of our music teachers performed it in assembly. It is interesting, it probably is art, though I'm not sure it's music.

As it happens, I also sell a CD with a silence track - the hymn CD site I run has a Remembrance CD which features on trumpet the Last Post and Reveille with a 2 minute silence in between, so you don't have to time it. It's a separate track because some people like to go straight from Last Post to Reveille, or otherwise shift things around. (We also do the track as an MP3, free of charge. Feel free to drop me an email if you'd like a copy. Please don't be too disappointed, though. It's only 1 minute 54 seconds long to allow for the gaps at the end of the previous track and the start of the following track.)

What struck me while listening is that these tracks are homeopathic music. Just as homeopathic remedies are medicine with no ingredients, these are music with no notes. Apart from wondering if they play these pieces in homeopathic factories to keep the workers entertained, I was struck by another parallel.

Apparently someone (poet with a Yorkshire accent - can't remember his name) had Cage's 4' 33" as one of his records on Desert Island Discs. They played part of it. Now the question is, did they actually play from a CD of Cage's work, or did they just not transmit anything for the period? The parallel is with the suggestion that homeopathic manufacturers could save a lot of money by just taking untreated pills and sticking different labels on them. Not playing a CD would be the equivalent of using untreated pills. No one could tell the difference.

To keep you entertained while reading this post I have been playing a backing track of my silent composition 'In the Void'. (Sheet music available on request.) Or have I?...

Monday, 8 November 2010

The strange case of the French bottom of erotic principle

Please excuse me if I've already told this story here - I think I've only done so on my old blog, but if it was here too, blame old age and failing brain cells.

My oldest web address belongs to my creativity training company - it's www.cul.co.uk. At the time I got it I was rather proud to have a 3 letter URL, which matches the initials of the company and thought no more about it. I was probably vaguely aware that 'cul' means bottom in French, as in 'cul-de-sac' but otherwise it was just a URL. Imagine my surprise, then, to receive this email:

Please allow the transfer, I use a mechanical software because I very English of cannot.

On the 14éme, in the porque one, I slap a search with the form returned www.cul.co.uk. Then to say to you, cul is a bad French word? It average rest-on the flesh of the rectum of anybody. Since this, cannot think you the need to want the nation French with the arrangement of creative. Thus I give to help in all fraternity, to think please for the change.

Familiar the most pleasant

Henri.

Though a little suspicious this was a wind up, I replied and got the equally entertaining response:

Brian Estimable

The considerable thanks of you answer. You software for the language is improved much that my kind of shareware - where is to be found.

It is now possible to include/understand the reason of the bad word.
Internet is problematic with much pornographique available if the button supported on danger pressed. I do not require to see the French bottom of erotic principle of Alta-Vista that www.cul.co.uk accidental gives. Families with the small particular person in danger.

Since the text of slit into type is vanilla, umlauf nonvisible. Is very the easy error in time forwards with the European of the trade unions.
Better to speak  friends than the argument of the football which recent English have.

pleasantries

Henri

Delightful indeed. (The bit about the umlauf is because I pointed out that the CUL logo, as illustrated, had an umlaut on the U.) Of course, Henri could be un artiste des pissoirs, but I like to think he was a genuine Frenchman with a concern for my moral welfare.

Familiar the most pleasant,

Brian

Friday, 5 November 2010

Windows still hasn't got it

I am not really one to enter into the Windows versus Mac fray. I have dabbled in Windows since Version 1 (tiled Windows, anyone?), and used it in anger consistently since Version 3.0. But at the same time I used to also have a Mac on my desk at BA, and I have an iPhone. I feel no great bias between Windows and Mac operating systems - they both now do the job pretty well - but I happen to know Windows (and before that DOS) a lot more intimately, so feel safer with it. But just occasionally there's a crack in Windows that displays its roots, and then it makes you wonder why Microsoft didn't do a ground-up rewrite.

Yesterday, while faffing about in a program trying to decide where to save a file, I accidentally dragged one folder into another. Easily enough done - easily enough rectified. Unfortunately, the folder I dragged was the Desktop. Although the Desktop looks like a friendly enough beast, it is in fact several folders, with underlying instructions how to give priority between them. By dragging my Desktop into another folder, I disrupted the delicate balance. Result? I couldn't save anything to the Desktop, and all the icons that were on it appeared twice. ARRGGH!

I did manage to sort it out, thanks to this advice. But it involved editing the Registry, which is not something anyone should do lightly. And certainly not something a typical user should have to do. It simply shouldn't be possible to drag the Desktop into another folder - and until this sort of inconsistency is sorted (it has remained possible for at least 3 versions of Windows), Microsoft really haven't got the hang of idiot proof. We all do silly things occasionally, but we shouldn't have to blame ourselves - the software should prevent this kind of thing happening. It's what they call usability in the trade.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Lessons for fiction authors from Buffy

I was giving a phone interview about my new book Armageddon Science yesterday to a US website, when Buffy the Vampire Slayer came up, the way it does. We were talking about the concept of the Singularity, originally devised by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge and later picked up by futurologist Ray Kurzweil. He believes that by 2040, computing technology will have advanced so far that hybrid human/machine species (probably fairly quickly discarding the biological bits) will push human beings out of the way.

One of my doubts about this picture is how primitive robot technology is. And this is where Buffy comes in - and the lesson for fiction authors.

All fiction, to a greater or lesser extent, involves suspension of disbelief. We want the reader to get away from 'this is just a story' and immerse themselves. It's a problem for every work of fiction, but never more so than with fantasy, where we have (in the example of Buffy) to accept vampires, werewolves and the whole Hellmouth setup. (Incidentally, I gather Stephenie Meyer claims she came up with Twilight in a dream. Of course - after all, it's really original having a story about vampires in high school.)

The really interesting thing I find watching Buffy is that I have no trouble suspending disbelief about a whole host of fantasy material. But where it goes horribly wrong is in the use of robots. Now and then humanoid robots come into the story, created by a college kid. Until they are damaged, these robots are indistinguishable from human beings. This is so not possible that my suspension of disbelief circuits can't cope.

The difference is that the robots are allegedly created by current day science. I know that isn't possible, so my mind rebels. All the fantasy stuff is just that - it's part of the world they're in, and I can accept it. I've no problem with a story set in a world that has technology that can create humanoid robots - but if that's the case, I wouldn't expect all the other technology in that world to be exactly the same as ours.

So the lesson is, I think, be as bold as you like, but make your world self-consistent. Suspension of disbelief continues quite happily in a fantasy world with consistent rules, but when you start ignoring that consistency then you lose your audience.

Wordle created at www.wordle.net

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

How do we tell pop music from serious music?

As I've shown before, I'm interested in why different types of music appear good (or not). It struck me the other day, I'm not really sure how we tell the difference between different kinds of music. Specifically, how do we tell, just by listening, that a piece is pop/rock or serious? (I'm using 'serious' for what's often called 'classical' music, as I want to include music from the medieval up to the 21st century, rather than just from the classical period.)

One obvious factor is the way pop/rock etc. use drums (or electronic substitutes) and guitars. But of course lots of serious music uses drums, and some pieces use guitars (if rarely the electric variety). Admittedly, though, the need to have a constant drum beat is almost entirely absent from serious music, and guitars are used in a very different way. So that's one distinction. But let's take that away, strip it down. How do we know that an a-capella boy band is pop, but an unaccompanied choral piece is serious?

You might say it's because the serious music will have more sophisticated harmonies - and you certainly won't get pop with the kind of harmonies you'll find in the Eric Whitacre piece in the post I've linked to above. But that's not always the case. Take something like the Schubert Sanctus from the Deutsche Messe:



The harmonies are simple and predictable like pop music. It has a tune (of sorts) like pop music. How do we know instantly this isn't pop? (Pretend the words weren't Latin and were about romancing someone.)  Admittedly it's slow, but some pop is slow, and I'm sure it's not just that.

All suggestions welcome.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Apocalypse Now!

There's good news, and there's bad news.

The good news is that my latest book, Armageddon Science is now for sale in the US. Whoo-hoo and much throwing into the air of hats!

The bad news is that it's not out in the UK until early December (though, of course you can pre-order it). And the even worse news is I haven't seen a copy yet. They are somewhere in the mystery that is translatantic shipment, hopefully due to arrive soon.

What's it all about? I've a sneak preview of the opening below. But, in case you feel the urge, you can also pop over to its page on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

ARMAGEDDON SCIENCE - Chapter 1

Mass destruction – killing on a vast scale – is a uniquely human concern. It’s not that other animal species aren’t threatened by it. Many have been driven to extinction, and many more now teeter on the brink. But unlike human beings, even the most intelligent animals don’t worry about the possibility of being wiped out in a terrible catastrophe. It is only thanks to the human ability to contemplate the future that fears of mass destruction have arisen. As the continued popularity of disaster movies at the box office demonstrates, we are all too aware how, as a race, we might be wiped out.

Mass destruction has, historically, been a natural phenomenon. The Earth has witnessed widespread devastation numerous times, most famously in the destruction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We could still see a similar act of mass destruction in the future that does not require a human hand behind it. But with the introduction of the weapon of mass destruction, the notion is most commonly associated with the work of the mad – or at best, amoral – scientist.

The term “weapons of mass destruction” first appeared in a Christmas sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1937. He encouraged his audience to promote peace. “Who can think without dismay of the fears, jealousies and suspicions which have compelled nations, our own among them, to pile up their armaments,” he said. “Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction.”

The archbishop was concentrating on the political will to use such weapons. His was a generation that had lived through the First World War, expecting it to be the “war to end all wars”, yet was seeing the rapid buildup of military might in Europe as the Second World War loomed. However responsible politics was for the warfare, though, it goes without saying that scientists would be the ones who made such weapons exist.
It’s a truth that can’t be avoided. Science itself – or at least, the appliance of science – has a dark side. Scientists present us with dangerous gifts.

This isn’t a new idea, though for a brief period – from Victorian times through to the mid-twentieth century – scientists were seen in quite a different light. New technologies and scientific developments transformed the unpleasant life suffered by the vast majority of the population into a new kind of existence. It was no longer necessary to spend every moment scratching a living. For the first time, it wasn’t just the rich and powerful who had time for leisure and enjoyment of life. Scientists were briefly considered saviors of our race.
These men (and back then they almost all were men), were bold bringers of wonderful new things. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny rolled into one real package that delivered all year around. All the marvels of electricity, of modern medicine, of new modes of transport and labor saving devices were their gift. And we still see echoes of this in TV ads for beauty products, where the person in the white coat is the bringer of magic ingredients that are guaranteed to make you look better and younger.

But the warning of Pandora’s box, the dangers inherent in bringing knowledge into the world, could not be held off for long. If you live in a physically dangerous environment, trying new things, finding things out, is a high risk strategy. If a cave person decided to experiment with a new approach to saber tooth tigers, patting them on the head instead of sticking them with a spear, she would soon be a one-armed cave person. For most of history, the scientist and his predecessor, the natural philosopher, has been a character of suspicion, closely allied with magicians, sorcerers and other dabblers in arcane arts. This was not a stereotype that even the wonders of nineteenth and twentieth century technology could hold off for long.

Scientists as dangers to the world would return in pulp fiction and cheap movies, where they are often portrayed as barely human. At best, these driven souls are over-idealistic and unworldly. They are what my grandmother would have called “all cleverness and no common sense.” They are innocents who don’t know – or don’t care – what the outcomes of their acts will be. At the nasty end of the spectrum, they are even worse, evil beings filled with a frenzied determination to achieve world domination or to pursue what they see as scientific truth at any cost.

Such two dimensional, caricature scientists don’t care who they trample over to reach their goal. They have a casual disregard for the impact of what they do on human life – or even the planet as a whole. They are scientific Nazis for whom the end always justifies the means. They are nothing short of monsters in human form.

Practically every scientist I have ever met was not like this. They have been warm, normal people. They have had the same concerns as everyone else about the world their children will inhabit. The same worries that preoccupy us all. Admittedly some are unashamed geeks – and if you include in the term “geek” anyone who has a sense of wonder about the universe they live in, it’s a group of which I’d happily proclaim my membership – but they aren’t inhuman thinking machines. So where did this idea come from?... You'll have to read the book to find out!