Thursday, 30 June 2011

Hey man, dig this compound!

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again. We tend to think of chemists as, how can I put it, rather dull scientists. Not the oddballs of the science world. But take a listen to this famous chemist:
I was sitting writing at my textbook but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold confirmation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together, all twining and twisting in snake like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.
This was the discoverer of today's compound, the magnificently named Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz speaking of his inspiration on a Clapham omnibus (no, really) that lead to an understanding of the structure of benzene. Take a listen. It's a trip, man.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Antioxidants II: the shampoo

Recently I had a little rant about antioxidants and how much they were misused as a selling tool by making it sound as if a product was better for you than it really was. I thought the way antioxidants were being pushed in food and drink was the limit of such dishonesty. Silly old me.

I often find the rest of the family has borrowed my shampoo, so I sometimes get my revenge by borrowing theirs. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this morning I was washing my hair with a product that boasts antioxidants as its main selling point. Yes, it's Alberto Balasam antioxidant shampoo. How do they justify this? Here's the bumf:
Pomegranate, the "superfruit" packed full of anti-oxidants, is now great for your hair too. This Pomegranate shampoo deeply cleanses and strengthens your hair and leaves it smelling "superfruity"!
Oh, wow. Now, to be fair they don't make any claims for benefits from the antioxidant (or should I say anti-oxidant), and they even qualify the cringe-making term superfruit with "embarrassment inverted commas". Even so this is one of the most extreme examples of taking a word that sounds if it should be good for you, and making use of it in a way that has no relevence at all (even if it worked in the first place, which it doesn't). This is surely one step better than all those products that claim to 'nourish' your (dead) hair. 

What's next? Homeopathic shampoo? Now there's a thought...

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Sorry, Professor Cox, science is a belief system

I just heard Brian Cox getting himself in a real twist, arguing with Billy Bragg whether science was a belief system on Radio 4's Infinite Monkey Cage, coming from Glastonbury festival.

I think our Brian's mistake was that he was arguing on a false premise. He could never win the argument because science is a belief system. But it is one that operates on totally different rules to a religious belief.

When evidence comes up that counters a scientific belief (or theory as we call them), that belief is changed to match the evidence. Scientific beliefs are kept in line with our best information about the universe. By contrast, many religious beliefs are unchanging in the face of contrary evidence. So, for example, many fundamentalist Christians and Muslims believe that the Earth was created within the last 10,000 years. There are vast swathes of evidence to the contrary, but they just ignore the evidence and continue with their beliefs unchanged.

I think Brian Cox would have done much better to accept that science is a belief system, but a particularly effective kind of belief system that is self-correcting in a way that a religion that takes rigid attitudes to ancient texts never can be.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Getting down to business

If you look really closely you can
see my name...
Before I became a popular science author I spent a few years writing business books. Never one to miss up an opportunity, I wondered whether there was a chance to do a business equivalent of Ecologic - after all, businesses have plenty to win and lose when it comes to getting it right with the environment.

I contacted one of my old publishers and the answer (as usual with a publisher) was no. And yes. While they didn't really want what I was offering, how about writing something on sustainable business (close enough to the Ecologic theme) for their new series, Financial Times Briefings? The idea of the series is an interesting one that I've pondered in the past. If you address a book to a particular niche - senior executives and CEOs - what you need is not a fat doorstop, but rather a slim summary of the essentials. And even more interesting is the pricing model.

Typically, slim summaries sell for less than an ordinary chunky business book - yet this particular market is not price sensitive. If you are a top person in an organization you are used to paying quite a lot up front for consultancy. So what I've ended up with is the most expensive book I've ever written, retailing at £49.99 (though Amazon does have it half price if you are intending to rush out and buy a copy).

Edward de Bono once tried this pricing strategy but took it to extreme. He charged over £200 per book. His argument was that many people were prepared to spend more than this to spend a day being trained by him, so why not pay it for a book that contained at least as much good stuff as his lectures? That does not seem to have been a success. But I can see the price point on the FT book could be about right for this market.

One thing that has been fascinating, coming back to business books after all this time, is how bad so many of them are. A lot of the books I looked at in preparation for writing this title were 5% content and 95% woffle. They would make a handful of useful points, but drown them in continuous repetition, pointless diagrams and meaningless jargon. You just couldn't get away with this kind of thing in popular science. I like to think that Sustainable Business is different, not only because it is relatively compact, but also because it's more about practice than theory.

So there you have it. The most expensive book I've ever written. I'll understand if you don't rush out and buy a copy, even at Amazon's bargain rate. But just in case, here it is at Amazon.co.uk and here at Amazon.com.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Doing the Darwin scribble

I know it doesn't appeal to everyone, but one part of the book writing process I really enjoy is research. For example, when writing my book about pioneer moving picture photographer Eadward Muybridge (The Man Who Stopped Time) I spent many a happy day in the local history room at Kingston-upon-Thames going through box after box of their Muybridge archive, handling original letters and photographs by the man himself as well as many photocopies and duplicates.

Anyone interested in really getting into the head of Charles Darwin might like to know that those nice people at the University of Cambridge have put scans of Dawin's personal library online. So far 330 of his books have been scanned with around another 400 to go. (He had 1480 books, but he didn't write in all of them.)

Now these aren't Darwin's notebooks or anything so personal, they are books by other people, so you might think 'So what?' But Darwin was a top notch defacer, a librarian's nightmare. He scribbled notes all over the books he was reading for research - and that's the point of these scans you get the Darwin touch, and an insight into how he reacted to the scientific books he was reading.

If you are writing about Darwin, this is a wonderful resource. But even if you aren't, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mental processes of the great man.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Historic historical murders

This is the book that reminded
me about Judge Dee

These days historical murder mysteries are common fare. We might not hear much about Brother Cadfael any more, though the legacy remains, but I challenge anyone who likes their mysteries with a touch of history not to like the Shardlake series. However recently, while looking for a bit of fiction on my shelves to recover from a bit too much review reading, I re-discovered Robert van Gulik.

In my teens I loved his murder mysteries set in seventh century China, featuring the remarkable Judge Dee Jen-djieh. Dee, based on a real historical character was a magistrate - a role that combined local admininstrative official, judge and CID inspector. van Gulik has an interesting style. While creative writing classes would probably reject him (he's fairly liberal with adverbs, for instance) he manages to set the scene using quite sparse description - he never gets bogged down in floweryness, yet you really do get a feel for the time and place.

I think one of the reasons these books appealed to me so much in my teens was their alien environment - it was almost more like reading a fantasy book than a historical one. The judge had huge power and authority - he could have witnesses tortured and criminals executed - yet at the same time there was a powerful balancing control. If he got it wrong, he would suffer extreme punishment.

I'll be honest, I don't know how women readers would feel about the books - mostly due to the setting rather than anything wrong with van Gulik's writing. Women in the stories are primarily daughters, wives, courtesans or prostitutes. These are very male-centred stories. But there are some strong female characters, and the approach reflects the culture of the time.

The books were written in the 1960s, but really don't feel dated. As always, on returning to one of the titles, I was drawn in and feel the urge for a bowl of noodles and pickled vegetables. Worth discovering if you don't know them. see at Amazon.co.uk

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Hey baby, get off my cloud

Sometimes the computing world comes up with a term that truly gets on my nerves, especially when it used portentously - few have succeeded as fully as 'the cloud' and 'cloud computing'.

Part of the problem I have with this is why 'the cloud' is necessary at all? We've already got the terms 'network' and 'server' that seem to work quite well. By comparison, 'the cloud' is more than a little nebulous. (Smug smile.)

However, it seems we're stuck with it. But there have been interesting signs lately of a split in the cloud. We now have (my terms) clean cloud and dirty cloud. Clean cloud is Google's vision. This puts pretty well everything on the net. (Sorry, in the cloud.) Your device will have a bit of storage for temporary work, but all your data and all your programs are online. When you want to do something you call up a cloud-based application and access your cloud-based data.

It is, in many ways, a consummation devoutly to be wished (literary reference). Wherever you are, whatever device you have access to, you can simply pick up where you left off. Want to give a Powerpoint presentation in a village hall in Norfolk using their computer? No worries. Need to do a quick edit of a key document using only the seatback video screen of a train? You've got it. Or on your phone, or your tablet, or grannie's TV... you never carry anything, never lose anything, always have everything available.

Leaving aside the trust issues of having all your essential data and programs in someone else's hands, this is a dream scenario with one proviso. A big, fat, juicy proviso. For Google's clean cloud to work you need access to the internet anywhere and everywhere, 24/7 without interruption. The moment you don't have high speed access to the net you are screwed.

Now in some rosy picture of the future where we have high speed wireless access anywhere, this is great, but realistically it is not the world we inhabit. Even the best internet connection is down occasionally, and away from wi-fi hotspots, 3G access is slowish at best - and fails regularly. Just try it on a train. Or in Aldbourne (a village near us where mobile phones rarely work at all).

So traditionally we've fallen back all the way to having everything on the PC with all the limitations that entails. But now, Apple is tempting us with a dirty cloud. Here, the software (an app) resides on your device, but new apps are easily downloadable whenever you have internet access, giving you flexibility. Your data is backed up in the cloud, and can be accessed directly from it when you have a connection, but key data is also held locally so you can work offline. Wherever and whenever you like. As soon as you get a connection, everything is synchronized.

The dirty cloud isn't perfect. There is less flexibility over swapping between devices, particularly if you want to work on someone else's hardware, though it's still entirely possible to swap between your PC, laptop, tablet and phone. Yet it seems the most practical compromise until we do have universal reliable wireless internet - something that seems a good number of years off. What's more, perhaps it's my age, but I'm more comfortable with apps on my device than programs floating in someone else's cloud.

We're already part way to the dirty cloud. A combination of apps and facilities like Evernote and Dropbox that allow wireless synchronization make the online/offline working feasible. Similarly, for example, an app like the Times newspaper requires a connection to download today's paper, but after that you can use it in the darkest, wirelessless (sic) tunnel. And Apple intends to fill out the dirty cloud later this year with its iCloud service which will provide much more automatic wireless sharing of data.

Now much though I love my portable Apple devices, I don't like the Apple closed shop - and with other innovations it has been a case of 'Anything Apple can do, Android can do soon after.' It will be interesting to see if this is the case with the dirty cloud. Because, of course, Android is Google's baby. Will Google throw the baby out with the bathwater by insisting on staying with its pristine but often unusable clean cloud, or will it join in and play dirty? Only time will tell.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Ivor game for you

I recently mentioned a few of the games that I had found made the iPad fun as well as a practical business and information tool - and I have been sent for review another game that has recently been added to the iPad store.
Ivor is moving just as you remember

If you are a certain age (or your children are a certain age) you probably have fond memories of the TV series Ivor the Engine. With its hypnotic voiceover, gentle imagery and rubbish animation it was somehow rather appealing (especially for those of us brought up on Noggin the Nog).

The Ivor the Engine game brings all that Ivor used to be to an iPad app. The sounds and look are perfect. The music, the voiceover, those proto-beatbox vocal chuffs from the engine, they are all there. There are even the joins in the paper of the backdrop. There's authenticity, isn't it?

The game play is straightforward with little hints popping up to start with to show you what to do. As you meander around Ivor's world, you will pick up items and hints of what needs to be done. So, for example, you might see written down somewhere (you need reasonable reading skills - not for the very young unaccompanied) that you must remember to take someone his shoes, then somewhere else you will happen on a pair of shoes. All you need do then is work out where that person is, and how to get there.

The 'how to get there' part is central to the game. A map shows you all the locations Ivor can travel to. To get to them you need to set the levers in the signal box correctly. Just what those codes are will be picked up at various points around the game, where you will be faced with little puzzles to help unlock information and find objects.

All in all, then, a straightforward puzzle-based adventure with a nostalgic setting if you knew the TV series. For me rather too many of the puzzles are memory based - I would have liked to have seen a bit more variety from the beginning. I also found it frustrating there was no way to hurry through the link scenes/narration - in the Back to the Future game, a swipe jumped you through to the next key point - this was very useful. I also couldn't find any way to save a game - so when you came back to it you had to start again from the beginning. This was very frustrating.

While I'm not quite sure who will play the game - it really needs the appeal of nostalgia, and is a bit slow paced for today's children - it is nicely put together and warmly entertaining, and at £2.99 is hardly going to break the bank. Find out more at its page on the iTunes site.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The antioxidant myth

An antioxidant, yesterday. (Ascorbic acid)
We are regularly bombarded with advertising about products containing antioxidants. 'Whoa! Healthy stuff!' we are supposed to cry. Because we all know that antioxidants are good to consume. Don't we? Even aircraft manufacturers have got in on the act. Apparently Airbus' concept cabin for 2050 include 'vitamin and antioxidant enriched air.'

Now antioxidants are really good things. The antioxidants produced in your body do essential work in mopping up free radicals that can cause damage to cells. And tests where antioxidants are used directly on cells show a benefit. But here's the thing. There isn't any good evidence that consuming antioxidants gives you any benefit at all. In fact there may even be a small cancer risk as a result of the eating and drinking them. (This in itself should not be too worrying. Lots of good things have a small cancer risk attached to eating them. Celery, for instance.)

Why, then, do we keep hearing about products that are packed full of antioxidants? Early in the last century it was thought that radioactive products were good for you. You could buy radioactive toothpaste and radioactive hair tonic. The advertising was full of the benefits of these products. Strangely enough, you don't see them advertised any more. Now I'm not suggesting antioxidants are as bad as radium as something to boast about in your products, but it's still bizarre that the advertising of antioxidants continues, and is allowed to continue, when there are no proven benefits.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 17 June 2011

I, for one, don't rejoyce

At the moment you can hardly turn on Radio 4 without hearing a mention of James Joyce. We keep hearing about what a great writer he was. I'm sorry, but I just can't agree.

Probably 99 percent of the population has never read any Joyce. And the majority of those who have attempted to read Ulysses (say) have given up because it is practically unreadable. Yes, I admit, Joyce has a small but very vocal cadre of fans, but I'd suggest the majority who nod to the genius of Joyce do so because of his repute rather than out of personal enjoyment of his work.

I would like to be a trifle iconoclastic here and suggest Joyce is not a great writer at all. Being a great writer is about being a great communicator. Joyce is a rubbish communicator. I'd also like to suggest that you can't be a truly great writer unless your works appeal to the public at large. This doesn't mean you have to be writing populist tripe. You can be covering deep and troubling issues - but if you are a great writer you should be capable of making those issues approachable and comprehensible. Otherwise you are someone with great ideas (possibly) who can't write for toffee.

Now, whenever people take the line I am taking they get accused of trying to drag things down to a lowest common denominator. Clearly I am saying that Dan Brown and Geoffrey Archer are great writers because their books are very popular. Not at all. That is totally and deliberately missing the point. Just because I'm saying a great writer should be approachable and popular doesn't mean that all popular writing is great. That would be like saying because beer is bitter, everything bitter is beer.

The fact is that Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens (to name but three minor talents) were all very popular and populist as well as being great writers. Some may struggle with Shakespeare today because the language is unfamiliar, but there is no doubt he wasn't writing to be appreciated by a few obscurantists. And that his work still has a very broad appeal if it is presented correctly.

So I am quite happy for James Joyce fans to go on their pilgrimages to Ireland and be thrilled by little quotes and events and twee names for days. But don't impose it on the rest of us.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Beware peroxide blondes

It's time again for the Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on compounds you just have to love.

This time round, starring role goes to hydrogen peroxide, beloved of dangerous blondes and rocket scientists. You need to listen. You know you want to.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Okay, I was wrong about electric cars

Quite recently I was getting all het up about electric cars, and how I'd quite like one if only they were priced more reasonably. I have to put my hand up right now and admit I was wrong. One of the huge differences between the approach taken by politics and science is that science has to be eager to admit mistakes and move on - and I got this one wrong on good scientific reasons.

The trouble is, as was the central theme of my book Ecologic, and will crop up repeatedly in my soon to be released business book Sustainable Business, with green issues it is all too easy to let go of logic and go for emotion. And susceptible as I am to iAnything, I let logic go out of the window in my interest in an electric car.

Rule number one with being properly green is to think holistic. I don't mean by this that you should go all fruit-loopy and do a quick meditational chant over your fuel tank, or try acupuncture on your tyres. I mean when thinking of the costs and benefits to the environment you have to take into account the whole life cycle of the vehicle, not just the running costs. So you need to include, for example, CO2 emissions from manufacture, servicing and disposal of the vehicle.

Because of the heavy carbon dioxide output in the production and disposal phases of an electric car, it only breaks even (in terms of savings over conventional cars) on emissions after driving it for 80,000 miles. But the thing is, I (and a lot of others) would only use an electric car for little bitty journeys. The sort of thing I currently use my Toyota Aygo for. It would take me at least 10 years to clock up enough mileage to just break even. The fact is, for most of us, a low emission conventional car with a small engine like the Aygo or a Polo Blue Motion would be better for the environment than an electric car. And cost about 1/3 to 1/4 the price. The only reason to go electric, I'm afraid, once you've looked at this logically is to be a poser.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Can you play games on an iPad?

I've already waxed lyrical about the iPad for work purposes, but it is also supposed to be a fun device, so I felt obliged to check out whether you can play games on it in a satisfactory fashion. I have to confess I'm not much of a games player these days, but I was once. When X-wing and its sequels came out I spent days playing them, and for a few years one of my main sources of income was reviewing computer games for a magazine.

The good news is, yes, the iPad does work pretty well as a game playing device. Ok, we're not going to get X-box/PS3 level of graphics, but it's pretty nifty. Once you've got over doing a labyrinth type game using the motion sensors to tilt the board, it's easy to find some rather nice backgammon games like the one illustrated above (just called Backgammon). You can play against a fair computer opponent, 2 player or online.

Making a bit more use of the graphics, I've downloaded rather a nice pinball game in Pinball HD. Only 3 tables, but a good variety of types. I confess I've always been a sucker for pinball in its physical incarnation, so the excellent look and feel of this game appeals a lot. The only slight surprise, given those motion sensors, is that you can't tilt.

Finally, I've had a quick go at the (free) opening section of the new Back to the Future game to see what leading edge graphics in an iPad game are like. Although I found the exposition of the story a little slow (you can swipe to hurry it up, through), it's a nice combination of an interactive video and a puzzle game. It looks good and it plays smoothly.

I haven't tried any shooter games yet, but on this early sample, games and the iPad go together well. I bought it thinking of it as a toy and it has proved much more - but it doesn't mean you can't have fun with it too. There are plenty of free games, and even those you pay for are rarely more than a few pounds - very refreshing if you have been paying £30-40 for a game.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Water, water everywhere

Listening to the radio the other day I heard that parts of the UK are in a state of drought. This a trifle ironic after a weekend of heavy rain, but that wasn't enough to make the problems go away. We have had less water for this time of year than has been seen in the last 100 years. Looking at an aerial picture of the UK there seems to be something wrong with this idea that we could ever be short of water - we are surrounded by the stuff. The statistics are stunning.

As I point out in Inflight Science, In round figures there are 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water on the Earth. This is such a huge amount, it’s difficult to get your head around. A single cubic kilometre is 1,000,000,000,000 litres of water. Divide the amount of water in the world by the number of people and we end up with 0.2 cubic kilometres of water each. More precisely, 212,100,000,000 litres for every person. If you stack one person's share up in litre containers, the pile would be around 10 million kilometres high – 26 times the distance to the Moon.

With a reasonable consumption of 5 litres per person per day, the water in the world would last for 116,219,178 years. And that assumes that we permanently use up water. In practice, much of the water we ‘consume’ soon becomes available again for future use.  Even at 10,000 litres per person per day (a more reasonable estimate of our consumption if you add in the production of the goods we consume), we still should have enough to last us over 57,000 years without adding back any reusable water.

So why don't we take water out of the sea? With global warming this would be doubly beneficial. We are told that sea level rise could cause serious problems by the end of the century. You will hear that desalination is too expensive. But surely this is because no one is putting any significant investment into the research and development needed to make it cost effective (plus there's a lack of investment in alternative energy sources like nuclear fusion, as desalination takes a lot of energy).

Let's be clear. There is no water shortage. There is a shortage of the kind of long term thinking needed to provide a solution to the problems the world - and the UK - faces.

Image from NASA via Google

Friday, 10 June 2011

Welcome to Upgrade Me 2.0

I don't really have favourites among my books. While there are some like First Scientist, my book on Roger Bacon, that are always going to be a bit specialist, and others like my most recent, Inflight Science, that have particularly wide appeal, I hope they are all going to sell well. But just occasionally, for some reason, a book doesn't get that sales drive.

This happened to Upgrade Me. If I did have favourites, this would probably be one of them. What I usually try to do is explain science in a way that makes approachable. With Upgrade Me I admit (and perhaps this was the problem) I also did some theorizing. Yes it was based on good science/history, but I was setting out to show why I feel that biologists have got it wrong when they say that we haven't evolved in 100,000 years - because our technology has transformed us in a kind of artificial evolution.

Take a simple example. A while ago I was walking the Ridgeway with a friend. It was a really hot day. According to my natural capabilities, I should have been in trouble. I was losing a lot of fluid, and there was no water available on that stretch of the path. But I had a 50p water bottle and that meant I was fine. I had used that basic technology to enhance my natural capabilities. And the same goes from everything from the ability to fly to the way we can extend out brains' capabilities.

The Kindle cover - okay, not so slick,
but all my own work...

I think this is a fascinating subject and though the book didn't sell well (possibly because it was only ever in hardback, and there was no UK edition), I regularly receive emails asking me where readers can get hold of copies.

I'm delighted to say that Upgrade Me is now available again in an incredibly good value for money Kindle edition. We're talking £3.50 from the UK shop and $4.99 for the US store.

If, like me, you haven't got a Kindle, never fear. There are also free Kindle reading apps for iPhone, iPad and Android, and even reader programs for boring old PCs and Macs. So you can still get your hands on a bargain version and read it.

If you fancy snapping one up (or just trying out a free sample) take a look at the book's page on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Touchy feely Windows might just work

I've been reading about Windows 8 recently, the totally redesigned Windows interface for the next version of the operating system, which owes as much to smartphones and iPads as it does to a traditional WIMP environment.

My first reaction was scepticism. Don't get me wrong - I love the touchy-feely interface on the iPhone and the iPad. When did manipulating things with a mouse last seem enjoyable - which the gesture-based interface does. But surely things are different on the desktop? The enjoyably reactionary IT minds at The Register certainly feel this way. Although they give a lot of coverage to the iPad, they sarcastically refer to it as a 'fondle slab', and so, by extension call Windows 8 'FondleWindows.'

The key phrase from their introduction to Windows 8 is: 'As even the iPad's biggest fans might admit, while it's a terrific viewing device, for office work it's actually a sub-optimal UI, for now. Nothing beats a mouse and a rich UI designed for a mouse.' And I found myself nodding sagely and agreeing with author Andrew Orlowski. But then I had second thoughts.

Anyone remember Minority Report? Weren't those gesture-interface screens cool? And really that's pretty much what happens with an iPad, but on a small scale. So think big. Yes, when it comes to simply piling in text you are going to use a keyboard. But for all the control aspects, working directly with the screen and gestures can be much more effective than anything in a standard WIMP. Part of the problem with Mr Orlowski's view is that it takes a very one-document-at-a-time attitude. When I'm writing a book I usually have seven or eight documents on the go at once. Maybe three Word files, at least as many browser windows and OneNote. Now imagine having all those on a big enough screen that each document appears at least the size of a piece of A4. Flipping content around, zipping from place to place - it is going to work so much better with gestures.

Don't get me wrong - when Windows 8 comes along, we aren't suddenly going to transform the way we interact with the desktop. But just as I've gone from working on a single 13" screen to dual 21" screens, I can imagine in some years time it'll be a massive touch screen, as well as a keyboard and mouse. And FondleWindows could just be the answer to making it a great experience.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The big red switch

I've have just emerged from around a week of email hell. Something had gone wrong with the mechanism by which emails were retrieved from my POP mailboxes to arrive in Outlook, meaning even a little iddy biddy text email could take a minute to arrive. Anything with an attachment was simply too big ever to make it.

I naturally reported this to my hosting company, who faffed around a bit with no obvious outcome. But a day or so later they started displaying a notice saying that customers who used BT to get to their servers were experiencing slow-downs. Ah-hah! Time to get the well-oiled BT support machine whirring into action.

Their first suggestion was an interesting one. I was to try pathping. I was vaguely aware that ping is a program for checking that a device on the internet is 'there' - pathping is apparently a cunning extended version of this that pings every hop along the way between your router and the final destination, and also does a test detecting packet loss at each stage. That sounded fun. Only pathping wouldn't work. So I moaned to BT.

'Are you an adminstrator?' they said. 'It works for us in Dundee.' Good for you in Dundee, I thought. Yes, I was an adminstrator.

So at this stage I was getting nowhere fast, when I happened to have a quick discussion with Peet Morris, someone I've known since my BA days when he used to come in as a programming guru to snigger at our attempts to program PCs. At this point my web host and BT had taken about 5 days to come up with nothing. Peet came back about 20 minutes later saying 'Have you tried "run as administrator" for pathping?'

I didn't want to admit I hadn't a clue what he was talking about, so a few seconds furkling in the Windows help system came up with the fact that you can right click a program and select 'run as administrator' which forces you into full adminstrator mode even if the PC isn't set up that way. I did this on the Cmd window and low and behold pathping worked. It shouldn't have been a problem because I am an adminstrator (in fact the only user on the PC), but it was.

Unfortunately pathping didn't help, because it came back saying all was hunkydory along the 13 or so hops it took to get from my router to the email server. No matter. Peet to the rescue again. He made a suggestion that actually fixed the problem (while BT still hadn't a clue). Now he made this suggestion for a fairly complex technical reason involving re-assignment of IP addresses, but the fact is it is a solution I should have thought of myself. In fact it's a solution Goldie, my dog, could have come up with. (No offence, Peet.)

It's what, in the mists of time, we used to call the 'big red switch' solution. When I first worked with PCs back in the early 80s we were using the first IBM PCs. On the side of the PC box was a really chunky red switch. It was the on-off switch. In the early days PCs often locked up and the inevitable solution was the big red switch. Switch it off and on again. My current PC doesn't have a big red switch - it's a rather sexy blue glowing thing. More to the point, neither does my router. But I duly switched the router off and on again. And guess what? Emails were suddenly winging their way in with the speed of... something very quick.

How could I, who ran the British Airways PC department at one point, have forgotten that most fundamental of solutions to all known problems? The big red switch.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Twitbook will never be the same

My Flipboard home page. Images are from posts
I try really hard not to get too enthusiastic about the iPad too often, or people will get bored - but I can't resist pointing out the occasional app that really delivers for me.

A Twitter page - each story is a tweet, but incorporates
data from links (if there are any)
One I'm rather pleased with is Flipboard. It's a beautifully laid out app that can tap into your Facebook and Twitter accounts, your RSS reader and also various interesting feeds from Wired to Popular Science magazine. Each appears as a top level box. Tap the box and it opens into the relevent stream of information - but rather than just provide a simple list of contents, it picks up any photos or web pages linked to and incorporates them into a newspaper-like format. The result is very impressive. I like using Tweetdeck for reading Twitter, but Flipboard takes Twitter to a new level because you don't have to click through to find out what a link refers to or to see a photo.

It's quite simple in approach and needs a few additions (for instance handling Twitter groups). It also isn't great at some of the extra bits of Facebook like comments and liking (in principle it can handle these, but it doesn't seem to work properly). Even so, it's very elegant, and particularly with Twitter it really opens up the interface.

Oh, and it's free.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Having coffee with Doctor Happy Mac

A couple of weeks ago I had coffee with Doctor Happy Mac. He may sound a bit like a cross between a Bond villain and a Macdonalds character, but Doctor H M (aka Andrew Stephens) is in fact the man to know in the Cirencester/Swindon area if you have problems with Apple products and want them fixed. Or just a bit of Appley advice.

As it happens our conversation was not primarily about computers, but I thought Andrew's invitation to have coffee at the particular location we ended up in made an excellent allegory for my deliberations on whether to buy a Mac or a PC as my next desktop computer. 'Come and have a coffee at Made by Bob,' he said, 'and you'll never fancy a Starbucks again.'

Now there is no doubt that the Made by Bob coffee was nicer than the equivalent in Starbucks, and the place certainly had more interesting food (not that I tried any). But the thing is, Starbucks is within walking distance of my office and provides free wi-fi. Made by Bob is a 10 mile drive away, and doesn't. Which is why today I am sipping a Starbucks. This seems like a nice allegory because the Mac is without doubt nicer than the PC. It looks better, it does some key tasks better, it oozes class. It's shiny and it cries out 'You want me!' But practicality means not always choosing the absolute best product, but rather the best fit under the circumstances. And that's why I think I'll end up knocking on Dell's door again.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Can this really be true about Britain's Got Talent?

After a blog post (now removed) claiming to be from a Sony Music executive, the national newspapers now report on behind-the-scenes allegations about Britain's Got Talent.

There are several allegations that, if true, are truly unpleasant. We all know when we watch a show like Britain's Got Talent or X-Factor that we are being manipulated. They tug on our heartstrings with sob stories that have nothing to do with talent, and have been shown in the past to be using electronics to 'fix' bad singing. However, what this article suggests goes much deeper than manipulating emotions.

There are two allegations I want to cover. One is that all the winners of Britain's Got Talent and X-Factor have been specially invited, rather than waiting in line for auditions. They are people the producers and/or Simon Cowell's company already knew about and were asked along to timed auditions with the panel, rather than having to queue with the rabble and be pre-auditioned by the producers. It is definitely true that there are such 'special' auditionees, which is not something the show tells us. But if they truly have always won, then it makes a farce of all those poor people queuing for hours to get in, and it misrepresents the process to the viewer.

The other allegation is that one of the contestants on this year's Britain's Got Talent was signed by Simon Cowell's company two years ago and his appearance on the show has been manipulated throughout with the aim of pushing him towards winning. If this is true (and I stress that I have not seen any evidence, but it ought to be possible to establish whether the contract exists), then this is intensely deceitful to the audience and surely must be very close to illegality, if it doesn't cross that line. This would change BGT from a talent show to a profit-making advert.

Some say this is just what you should expect from a show like this - get real. But I don't think that's right. Millions of pounds are being spent on voting, and this means any manipulation of the truth has to be taken very seriously. I very much hope that we will see these allegations clarified by an investigative journalist very soon. And if any of this is true, that appropriate action will be taken by the authorities. If it's not true, someone is engaging in serious muckraking - which is entirely possible. Either way, there is clear public interest in discovering where the facts lie.

Edited as original source disappeared and quoted now in national newspapers

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The genius of Vaughan Williams

Apologies if it seems this is a heavy music week, though to be fair my earlier post was only using music to get to catchphrases. We've seen heavy defenses of Parry as an English composer recently - I think Ralph Vaughan Williams should get more recognition.

But, you say, this is the man who wrote the Classic FM listeners' favourite piece, The Lark Ascending. True. But Vaughan Williams has tended to be sneered at by the serious music mafia. After all, the man was a 20th century composer who liked tunes! Terrible.

I think part of the problem with appreciating RVW is that some of his big orchestral pieces verged on the mediocre - his true genius was in small music. Yet this isn't the kind of stuff that sniffy musical bigwigs bother with. I admit I'm biassed. I live all of five miles down the road from Down Ampney where Vaughan Williams was born. But the bias mostly comes from having sung some of his music that is wonderful.

The particular piece I love most is called Bushes and Briars. It's based on a folk song (which is another thing the musical great and good have against him. Folk songs are for silly people with beards), and it's a lovely tune, but what makes the piece is RVW's exquisite harmonies.

I have an absolutely rubbish recording for you to listen to (you'll probably have to turn your volume up). It's of my old college chapel choir (including me), and it was recorded over 35 years ago by the high-tech means of sticking a portable cassette recorder at the back of the concert hall. So the sound quality is awful. But I hope you will get a slight feel for the wonder of those harmonies.



Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Science fiction blasts from the past

As a break from reading popular science books for review I try at least once a month to dip into some fiction. My latest venture was to revisit two science fiction classics from my youth. At first glance they couldn't be further apart. Fritz Leiber's 1943 Gather Darkness! tells of a future where high technology is used to create a fake religion to quell the masses, while Brian N. Ball's 1965 Sundog is a rollicking space adventure - yet the similarities between the two books would prove remarkable.

I ought to put in a brief proviso in case anyone had the idea of reading one these books - please do, but bear in mind they are of a different age. Even the greatest Dickens fan would admit that to the modern eye he can sometimes be dull and ludicrously wordy. Similarly, these books use much more exposition of the main character's thoughts than would happen now. The technology also, inevitably lets them down. Interestingly the biggest failing in both is IT. They are set hundreds of years in our future, yet Gather Darkness! uses tapes to store information, and Sundog has computers as massive mainframes where information is punched in and output is on printed tapes. But this doesn't make either of them unreadable.

This one cost 95p new
Gather Darkness! has the wonderful premise that, taking religion as the opium of the masses literally, a future world government creates an artificial religion based on science that the masses don't understand, which is used to rule and control society. Our hero, a minor priest by the name of Jarles, is an idealist who wants to tell the people the truth - but faces being destroyed. Meanwhile a rebellion, armed with some technology slightly in advance of the religious hierarchy (how they manage this is explained) sets up as a pseudo-witchcraft to oppose the religion and destroy its hold on the populous.

Along the way our hero is mentally programmed by the bad guys to change his behaviour, but manages to escape his conditioning. As well as the rather fun pseudo-magic, there's a bit of biology thrown in: the witches have 'familiars' that are creatures made from their cells but relying on them to provide blood.

This isn't the only science fiction book to cover pseudo-religion as a cover for superior science. Robert Heinlein, for instance, had a cracking little number where the (US) locals fought off an (Asian) invasion using advanced technology posing as religious/magical power. I can't remember the title off-hand, but it suffered from rather advanced racism, I think. But Leiber's book is the daddy of them all and does it very well.

Set me back 3/6d (17.5p) new
Brian Ball's book is less well known, but I think it is great. The main character, Dod, is a space pilot on a grunt run from Pluto to the Moon. (The weakest aspect of the book is the assumption that anyone would want to have a regular route to Pluto.) A few hundred years before, the solar system was locked in by some unknown alien force. After a military coup, the Company runs the whole solar system with an iron grip based on a mixture of brute force and psychology.

In one sense this book is a classic 'rebellion against the empire' book, the sort of thing Asimov was doing years before - but there's more to it, and here's where the similarities with Gather Darkness! come through. Our hero turns out to be mentally programmed by the bad guys to change his behaviour - previously a brilliant scientist he is now a thick pilot. But the conditioning starts to crack when suddenly he is endowed with a halo. (This proves to be a result of contact from the aliens, but that comes much later.) Bizarrely, halos also feature in the other book as part of the priests' uniform.

So imposed on top of the rebellion against empire story is our hero's gradual discovery of who he is (decidedly Bourne Identity), plus some mental frippery that eventually enables him to contact the aliens. It is actually a much more layered book than it first appears. There is also a slight link to Heinlein here too. Heinlein's later books almost all featured a character that seemed to be a thinly veiled version of himself. This guy would be old, incredibly wise and rather cynical. The Gompertz character in Sundog is just such a person - all he lacks from the Heinlein clones like Jubal Harshaw (the only name I can remember offhand) is he's not obsessed with sex.

I enjoyed both books, but Sundog was the more gripping. Gather Darkness! isn't a bit too wordy to really pull you in, and flits around in focus rather than staying with the main character. Sundog, which would make a great movie now we've got the technology to do the space battle scenes justice, has a better balance of action and thought. I'd recommend either, though, if you fancy taking a peek into the history of science fiction. Be gentle, though. You will be treading on my childhood.

(I ought to emphasize I wasn't around to read Gather Darkness! when it was new. I just encountered it as a youth. But Sundog was pretty well new out when I got it.)