Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Whatever happened to catchphrase quotations

Guess the composer (not Parry)
Watching the Prince of Wales' recent programme on the composer Parry I was struck by an error in an old catchphrase. It was an interesting programme - I think someone else could have presented it better, but it was good to get a bit more of Parry exposed. (I was a bit disappointed in all the mentioning of Elgar and Vaughan Williams there was no mention of the man who, I think, eclipsed Parry as an Edwardian British composer, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.)

The catchphrase in question was one that was uttered by a friend, now sadly dead, in a choir I used to sing in whenever we did anything by Parry. He would say: 'Ah, Sir C. Hubert Harry Parry!' Which is now firmly locked in my mind as an association with Parry. The funny thing is, it was wrong. Parry's third name seems to have been Hastings, not Harry.

This made me think of other shaky catchphrase quotations, like 'Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.' This misquote was very common in my youth. In fact practically anyone faced with a skull (in a non-serious setting) would come out with it (or if they were better educated the actual quotation). This seems to be a dying art. We seem to be losing these literary catchphrases, which I think is rather sad. Of course it may be that only the people I was exposed to when young used to do it, but I find this hard to believe.

In the meantime, and in support of my non-existent campaign to give Stanford the same recognition that Parry now seems to be belatedly getting, take a listen to Stanford's cracking Beatus Vir. It's not a great performance, I'm afraid, but it's the only one I could find on YouTube:

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 30 May 2011

The politics of superstition

I was stunned to read that the German government has decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima incident. Not surprised, because this kind of knee-jerk reaction is the kind of thing I expect of politicians, but appalled nonetheless. This is, in my opinion, the politics of superstition.

Why superstition? Superstition is basically a failure to understand probability, risk and causality. When a group of bad things happen, even it they have no causal link, our gut feel's inability to deal with randomness and probability - in that case the nature of clustering - means we look for someone to blame. Like a witch, or a phone mast. In the case of nuclear power stations we are dealing with something scary - radiation - which most of us don't understand and we go into full superstitious mode.

Let us just put this all into perspective. As I've mentioned before, radiation is a natural thing - the sort of thing the Soil Assocation is usually all in favour of. We are all exposed to radiation all the time. It's not a good idea to have levels increase, because there is a risk attached. But at the levels involved in the Fukushima incident we are talking a relatively small risk.

I'd like to compare nuclear power with another technology that we aren't scared of. The internal combustion engine. How many people have died so far as a result of the Fukushima incident? None, as far as I'm aware (as opposed to the many who died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami (not that common in Germany), but we seem to forget them). How many people are likely to die? The chances a handful may get cancer who wouldn't otherwise - and that's terrible. But it is a small risk. Now tell me. How many people worldwide die on the roads? Every time I see this figure I'm shocked. 1.25 million people a year. Yet somehow I don't think Germany is going to phase out cars and trucks by 2020.

Come on politicians. Risk exists. You have to start to understand it, and to explain it to people. Then, maybe, we can move away from the politics of superstition.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 27 May 2011

Guten tag, Eierköpfe!

Over the years I have had many of my old business books translated into foreign languages from Turkish to Portuguese, not to mention Chinese, Japanese and Thai. (Though strangely, never French. They don't seem to like me, the French. Could it be because the name of my business creativity website www.cul.co.uk is rude in French?)

The original for comparison
It has taken a while, but now, at last a number of my science books are getting translations, notably into German. The first has arrived on the doorstep, so I can proudly present Physik für Eierköpfe, the possibly worryingly literal translation of the Instant Egghead Guide to Physics. There are quite a few more to follow, but translation is a mysterious business.

It starts with something of an exciting bang. The publisher lets you know that they have achieved a translation. This is really good news as it involves an advance payment (except in the case of this particular book, which for complicated reasons I won't get paid anything for). These vary hugely from the pathetically small (I think I have had one as low as £50) to bigger than the original advance for the book in English. Then things go quiet, usually for a very long time. Egghead has only been a year, but often it is two or more years before, out of the blue, a couple of copies of the foreign translation drop through the post.

This is really good fun, as, unless you speak the language (I have a little German, but certainly no Thai, say), you have in your hands a book with your name on but which you can't understand a word of. It could say anything, quite possible something rude.

In principle this isn't an end to it. Just like the original version of the book, the idea is that sales of the book make royalties and these gradually pay off the advance, and then start to accrue for the author. In practice this hardly ever seems to happen with translations. The nice view is that they are generous with their advances. The less nice is that they don't bother to do the sums, because you can't really check. Either way, being translated is wonderful as you (usually) get money for doing nothing extra, plus there is the delight of having that non-English version in your hands. Which is certainly fun.

Just for amusement, here is my current shelf of publications. (The fuzzed out bit isn't my obscene publications, they just aren't my books.) Each is a unique book, either a different English edition (e.g. hardback/paperback) or a translation. More than half are translations:

Thursday, 26 May 2011

A spot of the blue stuff

Just when you thought it was safe to take out your earplugs, we have another of the Royal Society of Chemistry podcasts. This time it's about a compound that is familiar from many a chemistry set - copper sulphate (or copper sulfate as the PC police require us to call it). This brilliant blue substance (at least in its hydrated form - pure copper sulfate is practically white) finds its way into a wide range of places from agriculture and book binding to the arts, where it has the honour of taking part in one of the few Turner Prize shortlisted artworks that the general public can actually enjoy. So come on - succumb to blue. You know you want to: take a listen.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Can there be an ethical experimental psychologist?

I was listening to Radio 4's All in the Mind yesterday. It's not a programme I often catch, but I was on a long drive back from talking at Spalding Grammar School, a situation where I tend to give myself up to whatever Radio 4 has to offer. (I even listen to the plays.) Something really strange happened on this programme, which illustrated either the dangers of doing science journalism badly, or the ethical dilemmas facing experimental psychologists.

The story was illustrating how feedback influences sporting performance. Dr Tim Rees of Exeter University was putting forward the idea that positive feedback after failure, emphasing what can be changed rather than what can't improves performance. Although this is vaguely self-evident, it's quite interesting - but the BBC presenter decided to illustrate the theory with an 'experiment.'

The idea was that she was to throw darts at a dartboard blindfolded. She would then be given feedback and they would see how it influenced her performance. Leaving aside this being a meaninglessly small sample, there seemed to be a significant problem with the experimental design. There is going to be a large element of randomness in the outcome, so it is very hard to read anything into what you discover. And this seems to have made them come a cropper.

The presenter threw her first darts and scored 6. She was then given very negative feedback suggesting there was nothing she could change. The implication of what had been said was that she would then do worse. She threw again... and the sound faded out before we heard her results. The obvious implication - she did better on the second throw than the first (statistically quite likely if she got a single dart on the board), but they didn't want to admit it.

Then, to make things even more dubious, at the end of the show she claimed that she scored not 6 but 46 on the first throw. Yet they clearly said 6 - I checked on Listen Again. So there are two possibilities. Either they are fibbing to make the programme give the answers they want - not how we do science, guys, very poor journalism - or the psychologist lied to her when he told her she scored 6, where she actually scored 46. (Remember she was blindfolded.)

The Milgram experiment
If the latter was true it just joins a whole host of examples where experimental psychologists lie to their participants. There was another story in the same programme of an experiment where one of the subjects in an experiment was a plant, put there to elicit a reaction. And all the way through the history of experimental psychology you hear time and time again 'This is what the subjects thought was happening, but really...' I suppose the classic is the famous Milgram experiment where the subjects thought they were giving electric shocks to a stooge, but really they weren't. (In fact a double lie as they were told it was a study of memory.)

It's entirely possible that the BBC example was just fiddling the figures to get the experimental result they wanted - bad science journalism rather than bad scientists - yet the fact is experimental psychology is solidly based on lying to people, to the extent that I'm amazed anyone intelligent taking part in a test doesn't assume they're lying. (Which may make the test findings increasingly dubious.) Once upon a time it was considered fine to do things to experimental subjects they weren't aware of. Now it's not. You have to make it clear exactly what's going on. So how come psychologists get away with lying all the time? Is it really okay to say 'We can suspend ethics for the duration of the experiment'?

It may well be necessary to get results, but since when has 'The end justifies the means' been a rule of science? Is it time experimental psychology was radically changed? Perhaps so.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

New ways of communicating science

As an author of popular science books I will defend to my last breath the superb effectiveness of good popular science writing to get across the message of science and the sense of wonder that goes with it. But there are, of course, other good ways of communicating science. We've seen a lot recently about TV, podcasts and video, but here are two other great examples to give science lovers hope, both of which I've recently reviewed for www.popularscience.co.uk.

The first is Marcus Chown's beautiful Solar System app for the iPad. Okay, it has a limited audience because of the platform. And, yes, I'm getting a little boring about the iPad, but this app works so well. I'm not a huge fan of big mega-illustrated science books. I think the entertainment value wears off very quickly. But the genius of this app is that it combines the wow factor of the images plus good basic text with some superb interaction. It was interesting that without any instruction to do so, my natural inclination was to try to turn around objects (like the Sun and planets) on the screen... and rotate they did. Just occasionally this interactivity verges on the self-parodying, as when a (rotatable) bunch of bananas on a stand is used to illustrate that the Sun is, erm, much heavier than a bunch of bananas, but on the whole it is immersive.

This app is never going to reach as wide an audience as a great book. The iPad is self-restricting in a number of ways. What's more there will probably only ever be a couple of such apps a year. They are just too cost and effort intensive to create. But there is no doubt whatsoever that what we have here is a new, improved and shiny (so shiny!) way to explore some aspects of science. Brilliant.

The second example is, in a sense, totally opposite in approach. Although it's a new idea, it is technology free. We're talking a science-based board game. This is the rather clumsily named The Art of Science. At first glance it's a science/maths only version of Trivial Pursuit, which is in itself quite interesting, but in practice it's much better than that. The clever game structure means people with different areas of interest can play against each other on equal footing. It's simple, straightforward - and good fun. The only problem I have with it is that it is expensive (more than four times as much as the iPad app - but then you don't have to buy an iPad to run it). Nonetheless, science-based games are another great and underused way to get science across.

All in all I'm rather encouraged by these two products. I don't see in them the death of the popular science book, but the widening of the opportunity to spread the science message. For which I give three hearty cheers.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Science and making a cup of tea

From (a rather battered) New Scientist
I was delighted to discover that a letter written to New Scientist described how a reader responded to the NS review of Inflight Science by doing an experiment with tea making.

In the letter, Joan Mascaró points out that the review had said 'that airline tea tastes so appalling because water boils at too low a temperature to make a decent brew.' The writer then goes on to test tea at different temperatures and concludes that too low a temperature is a real problem, but 92 °C doesn't seem to make much difference.

While I could dispute minor details - cabin pressure varies, and can drop boiling point as low as 90 °C - it's unfortunate in a way that the whole thing was based on the review rather than what I said in the book. My actual words were:

Tea enthusiasts like their tea made with boiling water – which means getting the water up to 100 degrees Celsius. That is never going to happen on a plane. Not because the cabin crew can’t be bothered to do it properly, but because it’s impossible get water up to 100 degrees on board the aircraft.

Definitely not tea
Now I ought to make clear that I am not a tea enthusiast. In fact I can't stand the stuff (except green tea). However, time and again tea lovers have hammered into me that the water has to be actually boiling (100 degrees) when it hits the leaves. They want to see bubbles. Leave the kettle five seconds before pouring and they start to twitch and get uncomfortable. 'The water isn't hot enough!' they cry. And they insist you switch the kettle on again.

So taking this assertion (it doesn't have to be true, but it's a nice touch if it is) as a starting point I went on to discuss cabin pressures and its impact on making tea. It was really just what they call in the trade a 'hook' to discuss pressure onboard the aircraft. It seems to have been quite a good hook from the number of times it has got picked up in reviews and interviews... and now in an experiment.

So while I am delighted that the experiments were carried out, I'm not too worried that they change things substantially.

Friday, 20 May 2011

The Emperor's new bottles

I have just finished reading a book I received as a birthday present that's rather outside my usual span of reading. Okay, there were a couple of brief mentions of science, but the topic here was wine, and specifically the selling of very old wine.

Like many people, I enjoy a glass of wine with a meal, though I usually go for the house plonk. (To be honest I often prefer a good pint of beer, but it's rare that you can get one of these in restaurants.) However I have bought nicer wine for home consumption and special occasions. We've occasionally partaken of the likes of Chateau Beychevelle or Chateau Talbot, or the second wines of some the top names like Margaux and Latour. And there is no doubt they taste a bit different from the ordinary stuff - more complex for sure.

However this book concerns wine collectors and their quest for bottles dating back as far as the 18th century. When I first heard of wine collectors, I assumed they were like stamp collectors. I don't think many stamp collectors will take their most precious mint stamp and use it on an envelope, and I thought the same applied to wine collectors. But no, a lot of them, after paying maybe $10,000 or $50,000 or in extreme cases over $100,000 for a bottle tend to open the bottle and drink it.

At this point they will sometimes come up with much praise for the wine. It's always praise 'considering', but even so the experts can get quite ecstatic, though as the book points out there is fairly good evidence they are likely to be fooling themselves.

However the main thread of this fascinating book is not the tasting self-deception of wine enthusiasts, it's some downright dirty dealings. Over the years various ancient bottles turned up with the initials Th. J. engraved on them. It was known that Thomas Jefferson had been a wine enthusiast and lived in Paris at roughly the right time, so they were sold as being his bottles, even though the Jefferson experts were doubtful that this incredibly detailed record keeper would omit to mention these specific purchases.

It was these 'Jefferson' bottles that sold for the biggest cash values. But we become increasingly aware that they may well be fakes. After all, even more than art, appreciation of the difference between a good wine and a great one, or a real bottle and a fake one, is subjective.

All in all an excellent read in a non-fiction-as-narrative style. Like some wines, the ending is perhaps a slight let-down, but the journey is well worth it. Take a look at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Can mainstream software prices hold?

As I have mentioned earlier I have recently started using an iPad as my 'away' computer - and does everything I need much better than any compact laptop/netbook.

One particular app on the iPad has got me thinking seriously about the way software for 'real' computers is priced, and whether this pricing can hold. What you have to remember with software is that the pricing (like for ebooks) is almost entirely arbitrary. Although there is a big development cost, the unit production cost is minimal - pricing is a marketing decision. Obviously if the price is lower you have to sell more units to pay off your development costs - but then you may well succeed because they are cheaper.

Up to now having two platforms, PC and Mac has done little to drive down the cost of programs, because most people have one or the other, so there is little competitive effect. However, if someone has, say, a PC and an iPad, then there is more opportunity for comparison and resultant impact on pricing.

I use mind mapping software, both for note taking and to produce handouts for seminars. The good mind mapping software on the PC/Mac isn't particularly cheap. My personal favourite is MindManager, which is very much the Microsoft Office of mind mappers and a very powerful application. It comes in at a whopping £238.80. Another strong contender is iMindMap which is linked to the man who coined the term 'mind map' (though he didn't invent concept mapping), Tony Buzan. A copy of iMindMap will set you back between £29 for the basic 'Elements' version and £199 for the 'Ultimate' version.

Now the iPad is a very natural environment for mind mapping, and I just had to get a piece of mind mapping software. I chose iThoughts, which looks one of the best mind mapping apps (there are others at 59p), produces beautiful mind maps and can export files to all the major software as well as PDFs and images. Now that cost £5.99. That's not a typo - just £5.99. Interestingly iMindMap also has an iPad edition, but that costs £19.99.

Admittedly iThoughts has less function than the big boys on a PC/Mac - but it's function I never use. I can do everything I want at a fraction of the cost, much easier than I can on a PC. Of course there have always been cheap and cheerful programs for PCs. In fact there is a free mind mapping program, Freemind. But most cheap software for the old platforms looks just that. Cheap. The big difference is that a good iPad app has to be as good looking and usable as a top notch PC program at a fraction of the price.

Can the big boys go on charging large amounts when we can do the same thing for a fraction of the cost elsewhere? We shall see. But my suspicion is that PC and Mac software pricing is going to tend downwards. It will still be dearer than the iPad, but not by the kind of factors we see today.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

What, me? Middle class?

We Brits are famous for our obsession with class. In fact it's true in most countries (put an American socialite in the wrong part of America if you doubt this), but we have always been open about it. However, it is getting more and more difficult to distinguish between working class and middle class. I am not talking about sheer ignorance. At some point leading up to the recent royal wedding I heard some chinless wonder comment with great condescension that Kate Middleton had done so well for a working class person. (After all, she only attended Marlborough, my dear.) I mean that there's real confusion for many people.

Of course there are still obvious stereotypes. No one sane would describe Nick Clegg or David Cameron as working class, for example. But many, many people occupy what is, after all, a very broad borderline. Some would really like to be working class because it feels more authentic. Others enjoy the comfort of middle class values. Whatever our hopes and desires, it is useful to get a clear picture of our own class status. So here is the beginnings of a questionnaire designed to help place yourself. It's not a test. Simply for self identification. But I need more questions. All suggestions welcome.

1. You encounter a small bowl of green goo. Do you assume it is:
A) Guacamole
B) Mushy peas

2. You taste the green goo and it turns out to be guacamole. Are you:
A) Disappointed
B) Delighted

3. You are watching TV and a visitor calls round. Do you:
A) Switch the TV off
B) Turn the sound down a bit

4. Thinking of the main living room of the house are you more likely to call it:
A) Living room or lounge
B) Sitting room

5. And do you sit on a:
A) Couch
B) Sofa

6. When talking about TV at work do you discuss:
A) Soap operas and programmes about people from Essex
B) Documentaries and serious drama (even though you watched soap operas and programmes about people from Essex)

7. Do you think that opera is:
A) High art and worth supporting
B) A waste of public funds and boring

8. Do you think the Sun is a newspaper?
A) Yes
B) No

Score 1 point for each of the following and 0 points for the rest: 1 A), 2 B), 3 A), 4 B), 5 B), 6 B), 7 A), 8 B) - the higher your score, the more middle class you are.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

When brand names become everyday

Those responsible for brands have an unenviable task. Their aim is to make the brand part of everyday speech without it becoming part of everyday language. If that sounds convoluted, let me explain.

Big brands like Coca Cola or Apple want it to be natural for your to know, recognize and talk about their brand. When you ask for a cola drink, Coca Cola want you to ask for 'a Coke' and expect to get Coca Cola. But there is a lurking danger to becoming well known. It's genericization. (Is that a word? Don't care.)

In the UK, at least, the term 'Coke' for a cola has taken on a degree of the generic. Most people wanting a cola will ask for 'a Coke'. Very few will ask for a Pepsi. However, even if they have a preference (which I do), most will happily accept a Pepsi when asking for 'a Coke.' But they wouldn't expect to be given a Panda Cola. 'A coke' has become generic for a big name (probably US owned) cola, but doesn't cover the whole spectrum.

To see the generic brand in all it's glory, you've only got to look at Hoover's products. In the UK, 'hoover' is pretty well the standard word for a vacuum cleaner (with 'to hoover' as a verb). It has lost its association with the brand name. I don't know how Hoover feels about this. I do know that Dyson got pretty irritated when I kept referring to their products as hoovers when I went round their factory for a radio programme. I think if I owned Hoover, I wouldn't be too upset - at least it keeps the brand in mind. This seems to be the attitude of Coca Cola.

However one company that gets a bee in its bonnet about misuse of its name is Rolls Royce. Many years ago I wrote a review for PC Week magazine about a program called WinFax Pro. This was, at the time, the best computer fax program around, and back then (we're talking 1994), when a lot of people still didn't have email, computer-based fax was really important for business. I refered to WinFax as 'the Rolls Royce of fax software' a usage so common that it's pretty well a cliché. So far, so good. But WinFax used the quote from the review in their advertising, and Rolls Royce came down on them like the equally clichéd ton of bricks. They seem to have accepted the term's use in reviews, but don't like other companies making commercial use of their name, even if the implication is very positive for RR, as it smacks of the dreaded g word.

They talk about writers being brands these days. I wonder who will be come generic first. 'What a load of Dan Brown,' they might say. Or 'I've had a Stephen King of a day.' Or 'I prefer restaurants with plain English menus, this is so Martin Amis.' Actually, I rather like this idea. You never know. It might catch on.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Behold the reluctant Apple warrior

The on-train office. Screen reflection was
in photo, but not in use of iPad.
There was a time when I was very wary of Apple. I was a DOS man. I knew my way around that operating system like the back of my hand. I could do things with a command line prompt that would make your hair curl. I sneered at the limp wristed Apple users who hadn't a clue what was going on in their machines. If anything went wrong (and it seemed to quite a lot in the early days of Mac - remember the 'bomb' icon?) they were stuffed, where I could reach under the covers and sort it out.

Now, of course, with Windows 7 or Vista I'm just as stuffed as they were. But I couldn't possibly think of changing operating system, could I?

Then, under the influence of alcohol and Dr G. of Cromer I got an iPhone. Up to that point I was of the 'all I need is calls and text' persuasion. I was still using my 10-year-old Nokia, persuading myself it was cool because they had them in the Matrix. But very soon the iPhone became an essential part of my daily life. It wasn't just all the features and apps, it was so usable! But I didn't give a thought to changing my main computing platform.

Last Wednesday I acquired an iPad. I spent a whole day on Thursday using it as my 'away' computer and never once thought 'I wish I'd brought a real laptop.' I really can't think of anything I used to do with a laptop/netbook that I wouldn't be able to do on my iPad. It did everything I wanted, had all those brilliant apps and the battery lasted me all day with plenty to spare.

And while I was using it - in fact while I was writing this blog post on the train - a sacrilegious thought came to me. Later this year I am going to be replacing my desktop. Do I really want a Windows 7 PC, or should I get a Mac? And for the first time ever I really wasn't sure which way I should go. Two bites of the Apple and I was in danger of being thrown out of the garden of Eden. As an omen, my laptop bag is on its last legs. Why an omen? Because it was a giveaway from the Windows 95 launch. It's as if Windows is coming apart in my hands.

If I am honest, if it weren't for a number of issues I'd take the plunge. I was teetering on the edge, but a quick comparison of costs between Macs and Dell quickly poured on a bit of cold water. Up to £1,000 worth of cold water if you include the software. I'd have to buy much of my software again (one key application isn't even available on Mac). There are a couple of hardware issues too. For example, I use a Pinnacle Soundbridge to play music from my computer through my stereo, which uses Media Player as a server and wouldn't work with a Mac. I suspect in the end I will stick with a PC. But I came so close.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Does anyone care who publishes a book?

Amazon has recently moved into book publishing. It's not entirely surprising - they've already bought a print on demand service, and a very successful at 'publishing' Kindle ebooks. Yet some have reacted with horror. 'Would anyone buy a book published by Amazon?' they ask.

Frankly, I think this is a response seen through the misleading eyes of the publishing business. I want to take you back to the old days at the massive Foyles bookshop in London. They used to (for all I know, the still do) have their books arranged by publisher. So you would have a bookshelf of Penguin books, another bookshelf of Random House books and so on. It was a nightmare. No one goes into a shop saying 'I want a Random House book.' They either want the latest book by author X or a book in category Y. No other way of organizing a bookshop than authors within categories makes any sense. The only situation where you might want to group a publisher's work together is where they effectively define a category (and that's pretty well limited to Mills & Boon).

So why would anyone even realize they're buying a book published by Amazon, let alone have it influence their buying decision? This, incidentally, is why publishers waste their money putting a lot of effort into their websites. Just like bookshops, you should concentrate on authors and categories. So set up author websites, certainly. And category websites (like www.popularscience.co.uk) absolutely. But it really isn't work working too hard on publisher websites.

Here's a quick test for anyone who still feels that who published a book is important. Who published these books in the UK?:
  1. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon) paperback
  2. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco) paperback
  3. The Ascent of Man (Jacob Bronowski) hardback
  4. Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson) paperback
  5. American Gods (Neil Gaiman) paperback
  6. Lord of the Flies (William Golding) paperback
  7. The Lost Symbol (Dan Brown) hardback
  8. Inflight Science (Brian Clegg) paperback
If you got most of them right, and you don't work in the publishing trade, you're in the wrong job. I would imagine the vast majority of people would get zero out of eight. And that's something that publishers forget at their peril.

(Answers a bit further below)
(Isn't this exciting?)
(Nearly there...)
  1. Vintage (Random House)
  2. Mandarin (Reed)
  3. BBC Books or Book Club Associates
  4. Black Swan (Transworld)
  5. Headline Review
  6. Faber
  7. Bantam (Transworld)
  8. Icon Books

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Inflight Science making a Discovery

Even those who knock the BBC (take note, Dr G. of Cromer) would acknowledge that the World Service is a good thing. In fact, I gather quite a few people in the UK are surprised to discover that they are, indeed, part of the world and can listen to it.

I'm delighted to say that the World Service's flagship science programme, Discovery has dedicated a show to Inflight Science. During this week (commencing 9 May) you can hear it live most days, or play it using the Listen Again facility - but don't worry if you come to this later, as it is also available as a podcast either by clicking that link or through iTunes.

Here's their bumf:
Physicist and science writer Brian Clegg guides Jon Stewart on a journey though the science of aeroplane flight. The whole experience of flying is filled with scientific discoveries – starting with how huge, heavy jumbo jets manage to get off the ground, how they navigate and why, unlike in Hollywood movies, it’s practically impossible to open the door mid flight?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Forget 3D, we're just discovering 2D. Badly.

Where does it go? Smartphones at
the ready...
You may have been puzzled by the rather strange looking blobs, like the one on the right, that are regularly appearing wherever you look these days. I've spotted them on products, on advertising on the tube, in on-screen graphics on the TV - all over the place.

These are often called QR codes - and are nothing more or less than two dimensional barcodes. Typically they point you to a website, so that you can find out more information about a product or advertisement.

If you have a smartphone, just download a free QR/2D barcode reader and you can pick up the code with the phone's camera and pop straight to a website without bothering to type in that fiddly URL. The idea, which seems reasonable, is that you are more likely to follow up links that aren't clickable this way.

This is all very well and fine (and if you have a smartphone, you are welcome to have a go at my 2D barcode here - it is a genuine one). However there is one thing that I think the designers of these blobs got wrong. They are so ugly! Why couldn't they have made them look smart? If they had been all swirly and interesting they would look suitably sci-fi. As it is they look like a badly conceived, highly pixellated, black and white Pacman game.

Worse still, the designers of adverts who are forced to incorporate QR codes really haven't got the hang of using them. Time after time on the tube I saw nicely designed adverts totally ruined by plonking a QR code randomly (so it seemed) on the page. Please think, designer people. You wouldn't do this with a company's logo. Put the QR code where it fits with the design - for example you could have a greyscale bar across the advert that features the QR code in it like the buckle on a belt. Or make it look as if it's a label hanging from a product. Or... well, anything that stops it look like something stuck on afterwards by a sticker freak.

You know it makes sense.

2D barcode generated by Kaywa

Friday, 6 May 2011

iPads and ebooks

Sorry if you hate multimedia - it is just turning out to be one of those weeks.

According to the Bookseller, there has been a report published that says that just because people buy iPads they don't necessarily read ebooks. Apparently 40% of owners have not read a book on the device and 45% say that instead they read ebooks on PCs or Macs.

Apart from the rather confusing combination of numbers, I think the first statistic isn't entirely surprising. To start with, a lot of people, even iPad users, still buy paper books. I think it's interesting to put the hype about ebooks into perspective that last year sales of consumer ebooks in the UK amounted to £16 million out of a total book market of £3.1 billion. Now admittedly that's growing fast - it was just £4 million the year before - but it's a still a very small piece of the market. So I suspect some iPad owners simply prefer to read from paper in many circumstances. Others simply won't be book readers at all. Plenty of people play computer games without doing much reading - and the iPad is, at heart, an electronic toy for grownups. A wonderful toy, you understand, but a toy nonetheless.

I do, however, find the second statistic remarkable. I've read ebooks on a computer, on ebook readers and on iPhone/iPad - and the iPhone/iPad interface is so much more natural and pleasant to use than the rest. Yes, you might access a bit of an ebook on a PC or Mac to use as a reference for something you are working on, but why would anyone sit down to read a book cover to cover on a PC screen when they own an iPad? I think that number needs greater investigation.

What the article doesn't point out is that that if 40% don't read ebooks on their iPads, 60% do - which is still quite a lot of people. At the moment I'm a rather on the fence. When my iPad finally arrives I will certainly try out ebooks. I do currently use them occasionally on my iPhone, particularly when I'm stuck somewhere with nothing to do. But I like having the physical items to browse on the shelf, and I like the reassurance they will still be there in 20 years time or more (I have books on the shelf that were bought 100 years ago by my grandparents

If you aren't the kind of person who gets rid of all their books once they've read them (and many do), then ebooks can't help but feel a bit ephemeral. Admittedly I don't keep all the books I buy, but the rest I resell on Amazon Marketplace. Can I do this with my ebooks? I'm inclined to think I'll end up with a hybrid mix of the two, but it's the paper books that I'll treasure the most.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Fuel up - it's time to take a look at petrol

Let's mosey on down to the Royal Society of Chemistry oil well and take a listen to a podcast on gasoline. Yep, the latest compound (well, collection of compounds) to be featured in this entertaining series is the ubiquitous petrol. You may not like the prices at the pump, but for five minutes why not find out a bit more about these power-packing hydrocarbons that we can't live with... and can't live without.

Take a listen!

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Does multimedia science work?


That would be a short blog post - but things are a little more complicated. There is no doubt that some multimedia presentations of science work. A great example is Marcus Chown's Solar System app for the iPad. I confess I haven't played with it yet (as soon as iPads come back in stock, I will be reviewing it), but by all accounts it is superb, really making use of the multimedia environment. But elsewhere I have more mixed feelings.

Some new technology gurus insist that we all should be moving to video. 'Why aren't all authors doing videos to promote their material?' they cry, or 'Why do you still bother with print at all?' I don't know if it's just me, but I have a very low tolerance of videos. I can watch a video online for maybe two minutes - beyond that, I can't be bothered. I don't understand why exactly. I'm quite happy to sit through a one hour documentary or a two hour movie on the TV, but stick me in front of an online video and I want to be moving on. It has to be brilliant to grab my attention - and the fact is most of these videos aren't. The worst thing is, with words I can scan through and get a jist very quickly - it's just not possible with a video where you have to plod through at a fixed pace. Compared with text they are boringly linear.

It's the same with audio. Unless I'm in the car, when it's a godsend, I can't be bothered to listen to anything for more than a couple of minutes. Even the excellent RSC podcasts on elements and compounds. I really struggle to listen to a whole five minutes. I know quite a few people do, so perhaps it's just my pathetic attention span. Apparently those podcasts are downloaded at a rate of around 50,000 a month. Yet this doesn't prove, of course, that everyone listens end to end. Again it's that relentless linearity that does for me. I like to be able to scan, to jump around. I want to be in control.

The good news is that apps like Solar System do give this control back to the multimedia viewer. But the bad news is these are always likely to be high budget productions. The great thing about text is anyone can do it at minimal cost. The same in theory goes for podcasts and videos, but to my mind less effectively. Before anyone trumpets the end of print, let's celebrate its flexibility and ease of production.

If you are the sort of person who can cope with video, here's one I managed to watch for at least 4 minutes. It shows some examples of what can be done with a top end multimedia book - and it's very impressive.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The recursive curse of news-based PR

Public Relations is a dark art, and the practioners of PR have many tricks up their sleeves. Unfortunately they do have a tendency to use the same tricks over and over, to the extent that some of them have become close to a cliché - and probably the most obvious of these is news-based PR.

It works like this. You keep an eye on the news for attention-grabbing stories, then put out a press release that uses that story as a 'hook'. So, for instance, last week, those of us who are priveleged to received our fair share of press releases were inundated with royal wedding releases, mostly totally unrelated to the event. You know the kind of thing - 'Wills and Kate have the ultimate drive home in classic car!' followed by a release by a classic car hire company.

But it wasn't the royal wedding that sparked this post. It was darker news - the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I received a press release from a company called Imperva that has an 'Application Defence Centre' (whatever that is), warning that hackers were intending to 'monetise on this story' (sic).

Apparently in a 'black hat search engine optimization forum' (boggle), Imperva discovered suggestions to create a fan page celebrating Bin Laden's death. If it were created, when users thought they were liking this page on Facebook they would in fact be liking a page for a sex site and/or triggering some virus like entity.

This is mildly interesting, but what I found more attention grabbing was the recursive nature of the use of hot news events to get attention.

Here we have the hackers proposing to make use of the Bin Laden event. Then Imperva picks up on this and presumably does something appropriately defensive. Then their PR agency sends out a press release, where the hook is Bin Laden. And finally I've done this blog post. All driven from a totally irrelevent (in the context of this story) world event.

So, what shall we do for a press release on the AV system?