Monday, 31 October 2011

Is this a Christmas song record?

I had the misfortune to have to listen to a bit of Radio 1 at the weekend (it's not my fault, the children made me) and suffered the new Justin Bieber record.

I'm sorry to go all grumpy old man, but it's OCTOBER for goodness sake, and he's released a Christmas record.

And what a Christmas record.

It's as if the writers said 'How many Christmas clich├ęs can we cram into one song?' To save you the pain of listening to it, here are the ones I spotted:
  • Beautiful time of year
  • [Christmas] cheer
  • Under the mistletoe
  • the winter snow
  • Chestnuts roasting [on a fire]
  • Santa's coming tonight
  • Reindeers flying in the sky
  • Making a list
  • Wise men followed the star
  • Very merry Christmas
Somewhat bizarrely in the chorus he seems to be enjoying being with his 'shoddy'. Rumour has it that what he was intending to sing was the southern US slang 'shawty' for girlfriend, but I'm convinced he's singing 'shoddy' - which pretty well describes this song.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Nostalgia cash

A Barclaycash slip - lug holes either end of blue strip
On a university tour with one of my daughters the other day, after an hour of trying (and often failing) to make out what a 'student ambassador' with an impossibly thick accent was saying, I stopped at a cash machine and was overcome by a sudden wave of nostalgia.

The thing is, I first used a cash machine when I was at university. But, children, we are not talking cash machines as you know them today. There was no plastic card involved. This was Barclaycash, a cross between an ATM and a chequebook.

You put the slip in drawer 1, entered
your pin and opened drawer 2

Customers were issued with a book of little slips and a PIN. The slips were for fixed amounts of money and had to be located on little lugs before the machine ate them and spat out the cash. Or, rather, you opened a drawer and there was cash waiting. (I had forgotten until seeing the example above that you signed the slip, just like a cheque.)

Ah, how jealous friends who were with different banks marvelled at the advanced technology. We were practically living the 21st century life. Any day soon we'd have jet packs...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Enter the wonder drug

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

We take painkillers like paracetamol for granted these days, but when aspirin emerged on the scene, it was a dramatic breakthrough. Its cousin might have been easing pain as powdered willow bark for millennia, but this was something special - so special, in fact, that it featured in a treaty that ended a world war. Have a listen to the rise, fall and rise again story of aspirin.

Monday, 24 October 2011

A dalek in Asda

A dalek (probably not in Asda)
Yesterday there was an dalek in our local Asda. Apart from offering the opportunity for a quick tweet ('Just seen a dalek at Asda. I always thought they shopped at Lidl.') it inspired me to think about what has happened to fear in children.

If, at the age of 8, when I first encountered daleks on TV, I had met one rolling down the frozen food aisle, I would probably have wet myself. In practice this couldn't have happened. First we didn't have a fridge when I was 8, and second there were no supermarkets in Rochdale yet. We still did our food shopping at the Home and Colonial. But I digress. I am a member of the generation that genuinely hid behind the sofa to watch something like Doctor Who.

We peered in terrified delight over the top of the couch at the rather murky images of that first Doctor Who adventure, ready to duck down if necessary. Daleks were seriously scary. In 2011, as far as I can gather, nothing much phases an eight-year-old. Given there hasn't been a huge amount of evolution in my lifetime (I'm not that old), what has happened? Is it that they're all exposed to Saw and other such DVDs from the age of two? I really don't know. But I didn't see one child clutching at their parents, showing fear when the dalek came down the aisle. Bring back the good old days, I say...

Image from Wikipedia

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Potatoes and dogs

Probably not very tasty
N.B. Before reading this, please be assured I do not condone eating dogs. It shouldn't be done. I love dogs. We are in hypothetical world here.

I was on one of my rare excursions to the pub the other day and the conversation turned, as it does, to potatoes (we'd just been served up with a bowl of chips). One of our number who should have known better (he has a chemistry degree) said something to the effect of 'I've always wondered how potatoes can be so varied in the way they cook. You know, some are great for mash, others for roasting or whatever.'

We raised our collective eyebrows and pointed out that given selective breeding had produced such a range in dogs (for instance), it was hardly surprising that you could get different kinds of potatoes that cook differently.

'Ah, yes,' he pointed out. 'Dogs look very different. But they probably all taste the same.'

Now here's the thing. In a purely hypothetical, scientific fashion, I can't help but wonder if he was right. Is a chihuahua like chicken, but a great dane more like beef? Or do all dogs taste the same? I really don't want anyone to find out, but it does make you wonder.

We then went on to discuss Greek gods. Specifically, did the ancient Greeks believe in their gods as actual entities, or did they consider them merely to be instructive myths?

You see, that's the sort of thing you get down the pub. Downright educational. It's not all football.

Friday, 21 October 2011

The missing translations

Between 1999 and 2001, initially with Paul Birch and then on my own, I wrote a series of business books for publisher Kogan Page titled Instant X where X was something like creativity or time management. These did reasonably well - a couple are still in print (and some out of print ones are available as bargain price ebooks - one is even free).

These books were written for a small advance, but some have made a steady little income through translations. To give you an idea, there are eight books in the series, but this is what my set of unique copies looks like:

Those eight books have gone a long way

After the first handful, the rest are all either in different languages or versions for other countries.

This is lovely, but there is something of a frustration that attaches to my rather nice boasting shelf. I haven't got copies of all the translations. Every now and then I will get a letter from the publisher to say they have sold these books in Indonesian - or a new entry will creep onto the royalty statements. And sometimes, as you see above, I get my author copies. But I know of at least two sets that I have never received.

There's something rather spooky about there being some editions of my books out there in the world that I've never laid eyes on. I can but hope they will arrive one day.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The key to the road

My very own, rather battered RAC key
This is the story of an iconic object that has become a useless part of a bygone age.

I was driving #1 daughter back from her shift in the pub kitchen the other night (if you've got children, it's only fair that they get sent out to work) and we passed a car pulled up on the verge. The owner was beside it, talking expansively into his mobile phone.

'What,' she said, as if speaking of ancient history, 'did people used to do when they broke down before they had mobile phones?'

I was able to explain that once upon time there were phone boxes scattered by the roadside in out of the way places, boxes that could only be entered by those who carried the special keys issued by the AA and the RAC. That's how you would ring for rescue. A bit like a Dr Who police box, but for drivers. I'm not sure if she believed me.

I don't know why, but I cherish my RAC key. It roots me in a different time. Don't get me wrong, I prefer having my iPhone. The key is useless for almost everything I use the iPhone for every day. But it still feels special.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Recovering nicely

My next book to come out is How to Build a Time Machine, which launches in the US on 6 December - expect to hear rather more about it then. It has produced a lot of interest, including an extract which is going to feature in a major US magazine (more on that later too), and I think it could do well.

What has been fascinating is that it will the first of my books from US publisher St. Martin's Press that will also be published in the UK by a British publisher that has bought the rights - in this case the fiercely independent Duckworth.

As I have already mentioned, they have decided that the UK edition will have a different title - Build Your Own Time Machine - and they have now gone public with the cover, which is strikingly different in style from the US version. I like both, but I'm sure some people will have a favourite.

The British version is out in January - and I'm looking forward to receiving my copies of both, and, hopefully, arranging to do some talks on the subject.

I have seen the original design for the UK cover, where the inventor had a suit and tie, with the tie flying back in the breeze. As open neck shirts are definitely more me, I'm pleased to see that he has thrown away his shackles of formality in the final version.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Turning a pale blue

I'm shocked. I have discovered that I'm feeling more positive about the Conservatives than I ever have before. I'm not a Conservative voter, which makes this decidedly worrying. (Apart from my very first election when, as a student, I voted that way as a protest against all the holier-than-thou preaching from the left wing students.)

The thing is, my heart is Liberal Democrat, but my head is Conservative. This is why, despite voting Liberal for many years, for a couple of elections I supported New Labour. I really thought we might be getting the best of the two, while the reality seems to show we got the worst. This is also why I was very pleased to have the coalition.

It's not that I agree with all Conservative policies. I think their ideas on the NHS are poor, and their approach to university fees is wrong, for example. But I've never yet come across a government that had policies 100% in line with my own - and this is hardly surprising. In the end, I am pro-business. I know capitalism is terrible - but like democracy, despite being awful, it's better than any of the alternatives. I like the idea of limiting government interference. And I like the idea of people being rewarded for making an effort.

What made me realize that the balance had tipped is that apart from the issues mentioned above, where a topic is contentious in the coalition, I tend to come down on the blue side, rather than the yellow.

Now there's a problem here. My friend Henry Gee has discovered that it's not a good thing to be a Conservative in the primarily left wing science community. His colleagues seem to feel that his political inclinations represent a moment of madness, and he should be regularly told how stupid he is about this. As the writing community also has more than its fair share of the left leaning, I expect I might get one or two nasty comments myself. But I felt it was important to be honest.

I'm open to persuasion to return to the fold. My heart still loves that black bird on a yellow background. But my head subscribes to the Times iPad edition.

Monday, 17 October 2011

New World dissonance

Ah, America. Love it or hate it, you can't ignore it. Looking from the outside it's a continent of contrasts and mysteries. Both north and south were colonized by great powers of their day, yet their histories could not be more different. I can hardly think of an American I've met who wasn't an affable, helpful, kind person - and yet American institutions have been responsible for so many unconscionable actions. Perhaps most of all, this is the continent that was once the New World but has now to face up with being the Middle Aged World as the New label moves to China and India.

Given the significance of the Americas, we could all do with a better understanding of where this continent's present state all came from, which is where Charles C. Mann's book 1493 comes in. As the tag line goes it's about 'how Europe's discovery of the Americas revolutionized trade, ecology and life on Earth.' That's a big claim, but on the whole it delivers. I'm no historian, so I can't give any comment on how accurately Mann covers the past, but I can say this is the kind of history book that draws you in. It's not dull, it's good historical story telling.

The only real complain I have about this book is the size. I can't stand big fat books - and this is, without doubt, a wristbuster. It's the best argument for the Kindle I've seen in a long time. It's getting on for 5 centimetres thick and weighs in at around a kilo with 535 pages including back material. I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been half the size. Still, undoubtedly interesting. Read more about it and (if you have delicate wrists it's also on Kindle at

Friday, 14 October 2011

What has happened to nursing?

Come back Florence, all is forgiven
There has been quite a lot of fuss in the news this week about terrible care taking place in hospitals. I was listening to the Health Secretary on the radio and he was saying that poor care from nurses was down to bad leadership. I'm not sure this is the whole of the answer.

When they had a vox pop on the programme a little earlier, the daughter of a badly-cared-for patient was saying that she repeatedly asked for help from nurses to do basic things, but 'they didn't care - they seemed to feel it was beneath them'. And I'd suggest that this is a contributory factor.

Once upon a time, nurses did basic medical checks - but their primary role was nursing. Caring for people. In the last 30 years, their training has become increasingly medicalized (if there is such a word). They are trained to be and to think of themselves more as doctors lite. The inevitable result is that some nurses feel that it really isn't their problem to worry about a patient's basic physical state, they are there to deal with the medical side.

Don't get me wrong. Many, many nurses do a wonderful job. But I would suggest that those who do are managing to do this despite their training, rather than as a result of it, and there should be just as much focus on this as on failings in leadership.

Picture from Wikipedia

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The compounds made to kill

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

My grandfather served in the first world war, lying about his age in his eagerness to sign up and fight for his country. In later years, he told many tales of warfare in Belgium. But nothing held the same horror for him as the gas attacks. Though he never experienced them first hand, they remained the ultimate bogeymen of that terrible conflict.

The sulfur mustards were the final, most terrible agents of chemical warfare deployed in the first world war - and they are the subject of today's podcast. The evil compounds that most of us know inaccurately but potently as mustard gas.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Litmus test for science in fiction

I love both popular science and science fiction, and like the idea of lablit, fiction with a science setting that isn't science fiction per se. But there is another crossover between science and writing that ought to be great but that never quite makes it - this is fiction that has the intention of putting across a serious scientific message.

Every now and then we get a book for review at that attempts to do just this. A good example was the novel Pythagoras' Revenge by Arturo Sangalli. The idea was excellent and Sangalli nearly achieved the desired result. It genuinely did put across the maths (in this case) in a more approachable way. Unfortunately the fiction itself wasn't great. And this seems to be the challenge that most attempts at doing this fall down on. Either the fiction is poor, the science isn't very good, or the whole thing comes across as too worthy and dull. It is clearly very difficult to do well.

So I had mixed feelings when I got a copy of Litmus, a collection of short stories illustrating science themes. You can see what I thought of the book by following the link to the review, but in summary it was another worthy failure. Many of the stories were either not very good, or so full of their own artistry that they obscured the science. The book tried to get around this by following each story with a little explanation of the science and historical context, but this made things worse. It broke the flow of the stories and poured on a rather condescending dullness.

I don't like to admit defeat in anything that is being used to popularize science. But I am beginning to think that using fiction to get across the message is doomed to failure because you have two such contradictory aims. Something rather similar seems to happen on TV show QI when someone on the panel who is into science starts to expound a little on a science subject. The other panellists typically start acting bored and the whole thing falls flat.

Don't get me wrong, there are lots of ways to get people more aware and informed about science that can entertain and inspire. But I'm not sure writing fiction with a science context is one of them. Science in fiction is fine - but as soon as it becomes 'education about science in fiction' it falls flat.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Fox and the hounds

UK news is currently full of the story of Defence Secretary Liam Fox. Doctor Fox, as he is all too frequently called (wasn't that the name of a DJ?), is in the middle of a storm of accusation because of allowing a close friend, Adam Werritty to act as if he were an official advisor and accompany Fox on a range of official visits. This doesn't look too good, especially as it's possible Werritty could benefit financially from it - something that he may not have done, but certainly could have done.

What I find fascinating is the way that those who speak up on Fox's behalf - bluff Tories one and all - are producing the most irrelevent arguments. They seem to fall into two camps:
  1. Liam Fox is a nice guy -  well, yes, so are quite a lot criminals. This doesn't signify anything.
  2. They are saying this about Liam Fox because they want to do him down
Let's look at that second accusation in a bit more detail. Notice that it is an argument about motive, not substance. Just transfer the argument to a mass murderer for a moment to show how useless it is. Imagine someone has very clearly committed a mass murder. There is absolutely solid evidence that he did it. No question. But his defence team argue that we should ignore it, because the people who are putting forward the evidence don't like the murderer. Yes, that's a fine argument, folks. That will get him off.

The facts seem to be that Werritty presented himself as an offical advisor, including having a business card saying this, embossed with the trademark portcullis of the government. There is good evidence that Werritty accompanied Fox on 18 of his 48 overseas trips (not spin from his enemies, data from the Ministry of Defence). It really doesn't matter why people are saying this, the facts are clear.

This was unacceptable behaviour for someone in Liam Fox's position and he must have known that. This makes it rather pathetic when those defending Fox say 'I'm sure he has learned from this.' A 15-year-old would know this isn't a good idea. If he needed to learn from this, he shouldn't be doing a serious political job. Send him back to the surgery.

I genuinely don't want the government destablized. I think it is bad for the country in the current difficult climate, and it's a shame. But this is a fox that should be given to hounds and dispatched immediately.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 10 October 2011

The joy of analogue

I was half-listening to the BBC radio show The Museum of Curiosity over the weekend when something caught my ear. One of the guests, popular maths writer Alex Bellos, was talking about a mechanical pocket calculator from the 1940s. One of the other guests, Jimmy Carr commented that it went out of fashion when 'everything went digital' (or words to that effect). I was expecting Bellos to jump on him from a great height, but instead he said that, yes, soon after computers took over.

Not only is Jimmy Carr's statement inherently wrong, but the whole discussion is an example of (probably unintentional) historical revisionism, missing out on a fascinating stage in the development of computing technology.

My dad's circular slide rule
Carr's comment was so wrong because a mechanical calculator is digital. We tend to equate digital and electronic - but forget why we do this. It's because (digital) mechanical calculators were mostly ousted in science and engineering by analogue calculators (also mechanical) which in turn were replaced by (digital) electronic calculators. To take the story straight from mechanical to electronic is poor history to say the least.

The analogue revolution that Carr and Bellos ignored is the slide rule, making fast complex calculations easy. We tend to look down on analogue solutions because they are approximate - though they can be made as accurate as you like - but all we're really saying there is that they're natural. Digital may be the reality at the quantum level, but the world we experience (including many aspects of the way our brains work) is analogue.

I used to have a beautiful circular slide rule that was my father's. The advantage of the circular version is that in a compact device, less than 10 centimetres across, you had the equivalent of a straight slide rule much too long to use. And it was lovely to twiddle and do those calculations. I confess I sold it, because I'm not much of a collector, and it is certainly obsolete, but it doesn't stop it being a wonderful device.

I'm all in favour of using humorous programmes to get across science and history - but do make sure you get your facts right, guys.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Ball of Confusion

For UK TV viewers of a certain age, Johnny Ball is something of a legend. Sadly I never watched him as a child, but for a whole generation he made finding out stuff about how the world works fun. And I can say from personal experience that (unlike many famous people) he's a really nice guy.

This is a book of 'puzzles, problems and perplexing posers' - just the thing for a Friday. They vary from classic 'if two cats could kill three mice in...' type problems, through logic problems to tricky little numbers that rely on very careful reading of the question.

Inevitably, if you've been about a bit like me, you will have come across a few of them before. And there are bound to be some you just can't be bothered with. But as long as you get any enjoyment out of these types of brain teasers you are bound to find something that is truly entertaining. And, of course, Johnny Ball presents them with his characteristic charm. Just occasionally I found his 'funny' intros to the problems better suited to a ten-year-old's taste than mine, but mostly they are fun and keep the book from being literally a list of puzzles.

The only criticism I have is that when you are setting puzzles, some of which involve trickery and misleading wording, you have to be absolutely spot on with the wording of your challenge, or it can be legitimately cheated. Here's an example where Johnny got it wrong:
Find a fluted glass and a large and a small coin; say a 5p and a 10p. Place both coins in the glass, so the larger coin lies flat and over the small coin. Your impossible task: can you get the small coin out, without touching either coin.
The solution given is relatively complex and not something you may think of (and it wouldn't work with the kind of flutes I have). But the book misses the obvious one. Pick up the glass and tip the coins out. You have got the smaller coin out without touching either coin. There's nothing in the problem statement that says that the larger coin has to stay in the glass.

This is a rarity, though, and many of the mental challenges and puzzles (mostly they don't involve something physical like this) are genuinely entertaining. If you have friends and relations who enjoy a bit of head-scratching fun, this is the present for them. See at and - also on Kindle at and

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A farewell to Jobs

It's very sad news that Steve Jobs has died. There will be plenty of pieces posted saying how wonderful he was, how visionary and how unique. And that's fine. He did some amazing things, and in the last few years has transformed Apple from a quirky personal computer manufacturer into the ultimate designer of personal electronic accessories. But I want to consider one point that is unlikely to be brought up in the eulogies that rightly will follow his death. How much he owed Apple's current success to John Sculley.

In 1985 - just one year after the Mac was launched - Jobs was forced out of Apple, as the company headed for crisis. The man behind this was Sculley, brought in from Pepsi to make Apple a more commercial operation. At the time Jobs was pushing Apple towards producing high end UNIX technical workstations. He would set up the not-particularly-successful NEXT computer company to produce the machine he thought Apple should be making. (The only time I've ever seen Jobs do his black turtleneck spiel on stage was at the launch of NEXT in the UK.) NEXT wasn't a total flop, but it wasn't a burning success either, and it was when the company was bought by Apple that Jobs came back to the fold in 1996.

Under Sculley, Apple was to produce one product and one vision that for me are absolutely the seeds of the iPhone and the iPad. Sculley's pet product was the Newton, a touchscreen personal digital assistant. It had problems, particularly with its text recognition, but it was a truly interesting product. Even better, though, was the 1987 concept video, Knowledge Navigator. This, without doubt, set the direction that would eventually produce the iPad. At the time I was blown away - and I still think the concept video is great (see below).

Now I suspect this period is going to be almost airbrushed out of Apple's history, but it's crucial. The really innovative ideas came when Jobs wasn't there, though I don't want to underplay the vast contribution he made in adding the detail and crucially the design orientation that made iPhone and iPad what they are today. I very much want to celebrate Steve Jobs' wonderful work in the history of ICT - but lets not forget the roots of that work either.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Don't blame TV for the cult of celebrity

Not the picture in question. But
a good one - whoever painted it.
We often hear moaning about how TV has exposed us to the cult of celebrity, where people are valued simply for being famous, not for what they produce or perform. I think it's very short sighted to blame TV - the real culprit is the traditional arts, which no doubt would snootily blame TV, but actually started this cult of celebrity long before Logie Baird came on the scene.

Take a point of example. We have recently heard that a 'fake' picture allegedly by Leonardo da Vinci could be real. If this is the case, the picture, which last sold for £14,000 'could be worth millions.' Now either this is a great work of art or it isn't. If it's great, it should be worth a lot of money. If it's not, it shouldn't. Why does it matter whose name is attached to it? That's just a matter of celebrity, as much as paying money for the rights to Kerry Katona's latest exploits. Who made the picture is irrelevent to whether or not it's a great work of art.

It's the same with music. Whether a piece is by Mozart (say) or one of his less famous contemporaries, it shouldn't make any difference - merely how good it is. Anything else is just idiocy riding on the back of celebrity.

Note this doesn't say there's anything wrong with expecting something interesting from paintings by Leonardo because he's a great artist. That's just like wanting to read the latest book by your favourite author. It makes sense. But when it comes to the value of an individual painting that should stand alone. After all, even the best author can produce a turkey, and the best book you've ever read could be by a new author.

Behold, the cult of celebrity in its worst possible form - and it's the art world that keeps it going.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Date me, I can explain general relativity

I was browsing through the pages of that excellent magazine, New Scientist, when I noticed this advert for 'New Scientist Connect'. Yes, now scientists have their own dating site where lovers of geeks and nerds can browse for a hot postdoc (with or without marshmallows).

I first became aware of this kind of thing a while ago when Classic FM started advertising a service called something like classic duets. (Geddit? Duets, classical music? Oh, for goodness sake.) I suspect they got too many complaints from people who thought it was a site to listen to, well, classical duets, not a dating site. But now it goes from strength to strength as Classic FM Romance.(It's interesting that the URL format of the two sites is similar. Surely it couldn't be the same company behind them?!)

I suppose the concept has some merits. You would know you had an interest in common. Or maybe not. Perhaps on the 'opposites attract' theory, New Scientist Connect is mostly browsed by beauty therapists and professional footballers.

It does make me wonder whether there also sites for, say, traffic wardens to get together (after all, who else could love them), or the Dawkins GeneSplice site where aggressive atheists can spend their time slagging off everyone else. And for that matter I also wonder who designed this ad, and really thought that someone dressed as Biggles, running across snow carrying a toy plane typified an attractive scientist...

Monday, 3 October 2011

Get your act together, Volkswagen

The naming of cars is an important and serious business. The sort of thing that pushes Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear buddies to the realms of ecstasy. Which is why I wonder about the sanity of those in charge at car manufacturer Volkswagen. It seems they name their models by picking nouns that look interesting out of a foreign language (i.e. English) dictionary.

They are so random in their selection.

For example, there's:
  • the one named after a dog-related wild animal, (Fox/Lupo), 
  • the pair named after hit-ball-with-stick games (Polo/Golf), 
  • the one named after a wind (Sirocco), 
  • the one named after a spelling mistake (Passat), 
  • the one named after an Essex girl (Sharan) 
and a couple that are so boring I can't even remember what they're called.

Come on, Volkswagen. You can do better than this. A five-year-old can do better than this...

Image from Wikipedia