Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Relativity can be riveting

Looking back a long (long) way to my physics degree, special relativity was one of my favourite subjects. It's weird and wonderful enough to be amazing, but (unlike general relativity) the maths is relatively easy. Don't worry though, I'm not going to throw equations at you - I just wanted to share one of the remarkable paradoxes of relativity.

I've seen paradoxes defined as contradictions that can't be true, but I think a much more appropriate definition for physics is situations that appear to involve a mind-boggling contradiction, that the physics tells us really is the way things are. And special relativity is full of them.

This particular one below I hadn't seen before, and I picked up from Andrew Stearne's book The Wonderful World of Relativity. (This sounds like a children's book, but actually it's a relativity primer that is probably best appreciated by those about to start a physics course at university, as it's a bit too textbooky for the general reader.)

Here's the scenario. We've got a table with a 10mm deep hole in it. At the bottom of the hole a beetle is happily beetling about, unaware that we are about to fire a rivet into the hole. The good news is that the shank of the rivet, the bit that will go into the hole, is only 8mm long, leaving room for our (rather small) beetle to feel safe and snug.

Unfortunately, though, the rivet is fired towards the table at a fair percentage of the speed of light. It's somewhat typical of this book that all it tells us about the speed is that γ is 2, which doesn't really give you an idea of how fast the rivet is going, but if my back of an envelope calculations are right, this is around 0.87 times the speed of light. Quite a fast rivet, then.

Now one of the weird effects of special relativity is that an object moving at high speed is squashed up in the direction of travel as seen by an observer. So from the bug's viewpoint the rivet won't by 8mm long, it will be just 5mm long. 'Wow,' thinks the bug, 'what was I worried about?' But before it sits back and starts reading the newspaper, there's something it needs to consider. Relativity works both ways. From the rivet's viewpoint, it's not the rivet that's moving, it's the table. This means from the rivet's view it remains 8mm long - but the hole is contracted and is now only 5mm deep. Squish goes bug.

So what really happens? (I use 'really' loosely. Let's face it, Wickes does not sell a 0.87 times the speed of light rivet gun.) Is the beetle somehow both live and dead, in the manner of the famous quantum cat? Sadly no. It's squish all the way.

Let's follow the event from the beetle's viewpoint. Down comes the rivet and slams into the table. At the moment before the impact the rivet is still just 5mm long as far as the bug is concerned. But here's the thing. Just because the head of the rivet has come to a sudden stop doesn't mean the whole rivet does. A wave has to pass along the rivet to its end saying 'Stop!' The end of the rivet will just keep on going until this wave, typically travelling at the speed of sound, reaches it. That fast-moving end will crash into the beetle long before the wave arrives. It will then send a counter wave back up the rivet and after a degree of shuddering will eventually settle down as an 8 mm rivet in a 10 mm hole. Too late, though, for that bug.

Isn't physics great?

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

It's toys time of year

I confess I asked for a review copy of this book because it's hard not to get nostalgic about toys as Christmas approaches - waves of James May style nostalgia wash over you. I realized they were onto something good here when I opened the book to flick through it and found I'd read about 25 percent of it before I could force myself to stop. It's just good fun.

My suspicions are that the reason a book like this is so attractive is that when we were young (well, at least when I was young) and there were no personal electronic goods to tempt us, toys were the prime objects of our desire. We genuinely used to look into toyshop windows and lust after these things. We used to wait with eager anticipation to see if Father Christmas (none of this 'Santa' rubbish) had delivered on the day. We hadn't been bombarded by give-aways in McDonald's Happy Meals - toys were exciting.

Inevitably there are one or two favourites missing. Matchbox and Corgi cars were present, for instance, but not Dinky. And the text, while providing a lot of interesting historical factoids, was occasionally too rose-tinted. The Spirograph entry, for example, didn't mention that hardly anyone has ever made a Spirograph picture without slipping and spoiling it. Yet this collection of double page spreads, with big colour photos and genuinely interesting content was pleasurable and page-turn-demanding.

Really this ought to be the ideal gift - many, many adults over the age of 30 will appreciate it (though plenty of the toys shown are still going, or were until recently, so the appeal may be even wider). The only trouble is that some people may wonder what you are saying about them if you give them a book about toys. (Especially if it's a bloke and they're getting a book with a picture of Barbie on the firont.) So it may be that this is a gift that, on the whole, you will have to buy for yourself. But if you fancy an escape from the Christmas pressures into a time when things were less complicated, I can highly recommend it. Take a look at and

Monday, 28 November 2011

Wonderful magazine, great taste

There is no doubt that for those interested in popular science in the UK, that the premier magazine to buy is New Scientist. I can say this with firmness as they've just published their collection of 'popular science worth giving this Christmas':

I draw your attention particularly to the penultimate book on the 'shelf. Of this we read:
Inflight Science: Brian Clegg, Icon Books - Everything you ever wanted to know about the science of flying - from the terrible taste of tepid in-flight tea to how we manage to defy gravity in a pressurised aluminium cylinder.
 What can I say? Excellent taste guys. (And some of the other choices are pretty good too.)

Friday, 25 November 2011

What is it with zombies?

If I'm honest I'm not a great fan of zombie movies (I even found Sean of the Dead a little hard going). Partly it is because I find gore-based horror sickening and in no sense entertaining. (I have to look away in bits of Casuality.) For me a great horror film is one that can scare you without showing you anything gross. And then there's the usual problem with zombie movies of the slow moving predator that somehow the prey can never manage to run away from.

However, I can't deny the popularity of zombies, whether they're turning up in civil defence planning, variants of Jane Austen or in the government.

So I was very interested when 'Dr Austin' provided me a copy of his Zombie Science 1Z. This is rather a neat idea - Austin Low (the real name of Dr Austin) is a Scottish performer who specializes in comedy, working with children and science. He performs a spoof lecture on 'zombieology' and this is the book of the lecture. The idea is to take the idea of zombies seriously, try to explain them, getting in quite a lot of medical science (he suggests it's a prion-based infection) and to entertain as well.

The original version of the book was, frankly, rather poorly produced - in fact, I thought it was self-published - but it has now been significantly tidied up and though I find the content occasionally a little whimsical, it's an excellent way to get a young(ish) zombie fan interested in a bit of science. Take a look at and (Kindle fans can find it here for the UK and here for the US).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

What were they thinking?

There's a lot to love about the new TV advert for the UK's electrical/electronic retailers of last resort PC World and Curry's.

The pastiche of Star Wars is rather well done. The landing craft is believable and there's some nice acting like the almost-entirely-suppressed wince when the manager's car is crushed. Darth Vader is pretty good too.

However, have they really thought through the picture this ad puts across? Here are the key messages I pick up:
  • Our shops are run by an evil empire - buy things here and you are funding evil
  • Our training involves fear and peril
  • Our attitude to customer service takes its lead from Darth Vader, a (fictional) mass murderer and war criminal
  • Our staff are massed mindless automata of a controlling state
  • We are the bad guys
All in all, is this really the image that they want? Back to the drawing board, I think.

The version shown is the 'Director's Cut' which is slightly longer than the advert as broadcast

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Have a word with your authors, please, publishers

A review by some bloke
I know a bit about reviews. The first paid writing I ever did was a review for PC User magazine of a brand new shiny piece of software called Excel. I quite liked it. There followed a number of years writing reviews of business software, then computer games (which really is money for old rope) and finally books.

These days, apart from reviewing for and for my blog, I do a fair number of book reviews for print publications from Wall Street Journal to Nature. And I have noticed a worrying trend. Probably because of the increase of easy communication through websites and social networking, people rather expect to be able to get in touch with a reviewer after reading their review. And a rapidly increasing number of authors are dropping me an email.

I put these emails on a scale, from 'appreciated' to 'not a good move', and sadly there are rather too many down the bottom end. Here's how they look:
  • Appreciated - a nice little note saying thank-you for the review. What's not to love, though the only downside is than when I see an email from an author titled 'Your review' I do get a few moments disquiet before I see it's a nice one.
  • Okay if justified - some emails correct an error in a review. This is fine with an online review as the correction can be published, though there's not a lot of point with a print review. However, make sure it is a genuine error. I recently had one complaining because I'd said the author used a technical term without saying what it meant. He asked me to correct the review, as he had explained the term in a note at the back of the book. Sorry, hardly anyone reads notes - the book was still difficult to understand as there was no explanation in context. I did correct the review, but I can't say I was impressed.
  • Silly - complaining about an opinion. A lot of the content in a review is inevitably an opinion. I recently received one as an editor (someone else wrote the review) starting 'I'm really sorry you thought this, and I am surprised at your conventionalism.' Frankly, so what? Why should I take any notice of your opinion of an opinion? All you are going to do is irritate me, and I may be responsible for another review of one of your books in the future. What's the point?
  • Not a good move - ad hominem attack. Some authors can't resist starting to make nasty remarks and name calling if they don't like a review I wrote. I'm sorry, I can't like every book. I didn't like yours. This is really self-defeating. Not only will this somewhat discourage me from saying nice things about you, if the insults are bad enough I will inform your publisher that you are a loose cannon and they won't be particularly happy. This isn't good for your career.
So, my recommendation: by default stick with a dignified silence. If you've got another review that's good, read that instead. If not, wonder why not. I really would only get in touch with a simple thank-you or to correct a specific factual error in an online review (e.g. if it says your book doesn't have an index, and it does). Anything else may make you feel good for a few seconds but isn't going to help and might make things worse.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Back to the apocalype

I've been revisiting post-apocalyptic Britain. (Any poor camera work was an attempt at Blair Witch style immediacy. It says here.)

There's something about the cold, heartless autumnal sun that makes it particularly appropriate for one man and his dog to feel like the last survivors in a post-apocalyptic world.

It's all very sci fi. But Goldie doesn't care. There might be rabbits still.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Oi, copper nob!

I'm the one on the right
I'm inspired to write this by a point made in a discussion about the Sepp Blatter/racism in football argument on our local radio station. The host, Mark O'Donnell, recalled a diversity meeting where he asked if it was any different to be insulting to someone because they're black and because they have red hair. He didn't say what the answer was, but I think it is a genuinely important question.

I admit, I'm biassed. You might not believe it now, but when I was younger I had very red hair. (And, as you can see, curly.) And I did get regular abuse because of it. Lots of name calling and nasty little remarks and even stone throwing once.

I honestly can't see why there is any difference between racial abuse and this. (In fact, technically it is racial abuse, as red hair is a Celtic racial characteristic.)

In saying this, I am not in any sense suggesting that racial abuse is okay because somehow it's 'just banter.' It is inacceptable. But I also think that it equally inacceptable to make fun of people for being ginger or red haired. It's time we stopped shrugging it off as okay because 'It's just a bit of harmless banter.' It's not okay.

When this was discussed on the radio someone phoned in to say that he worked in a bar and someone had refused to be served by 'a ginger.' This isn't just a bit of fun. It's no more or less harmless than racial insults and ought to be given exactly the same treatment. Any other attitude shows that the fight against racism is not about equality but about political correctness.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Why did the lemming cross the road?

Aww, cute. Apparently it's stuffed.
You might be surprised that some of the most entertaining press releases I get come from the Institute of Physics. I love them dearly, but just hearing the name 'Institute of Physics' you might think they're a bit po-faced. The reality is quite different, as reflected in the latest release, a doozy entitled Could lemmings be involved in regulating our climate?

According to a paper published in the IoP's Environmental Research Letters, the greening of the Arctic may not be down to global warming alone. Although lemmings eat grass and sedge, when they are present in an area these plants actually increase their hold. There are a number of suggestions why, but the important point is that a sudden burst of extra green cover isn't necessarily a sign of climate change if there are lemmings present.

I think this is quite fun, though they could have done better. The opening paragraph of the press release says:
The mention of lemmings usually evokes images of small rodents throwing themselves off the top of cliffs in acts of mass suicide; however, their reputations might no longer be determined by hearsay as a new report suggests they could be having an intricate effect on the Earth's climate.
There's a missed opportunity to point out that the throwing themselves off cliffs bit is generally considered to be an invention of a Walt Disney nature film where they were encouraged to do so to dramatic effect, rather than 'hearsay.'

You may be concerned that the story isn't about lemmings regulating the climate (I just love the idea of a horde of lemmings in a vast control room, pulling levers to control the Earth's climate) in some Gaia-like fashion. Rather it appears to be saying that a potential flag for climate change may be being corrupted by lemmings - but there is a section a bit later on that points out that if they increase the greenery they may be changing that area's ability to be a carbon sink, hence influencing climate change, though it's a bit tenuous.

Even so, I think we should pat the IoP on the back for the way lemmings have successfully drawn attention to what otherwise could have been a rather dull story.

P.S. Anyone else remember the computer game Lemmings? I loved it!

Photograph from Wikipedia

Thursday, 17 November 2011

When does marketing become lying?

Faced with the question 'When does marketing become lying?' many of those who are suspicious of capitalism and business are likely to come up with the knee jerk response 'Is there a difference?' But that's not fair. Marketing is a perfectly legitimate and sensible activity. You would have to be stupid not to want potential customers to see your product or service in the best light - and as soon as you aspire to this, you are thinking of marketing.

Unfortunately sometimes marketing crosses the line into deception. I posted quite a while ago about a marketing campaign where apparently hand-written post-it notes were attached to fake newspapers describing a trainer's work. I've also complained to advertising standards a couple of times about advertising that I think crosses the line. In both cases they didn't agree. One involved paper junk mail for a charity where the envelope implied it contained important personal information and it didn't.

The other was an email that had a subject line that said you had won a prize - in the body of the email it turned out that you hadn't won, you just had an opportunity to enter a competition to win said prize. Now I think that's deception. I wouldn't have read the email if it hadn't been for that lying subject line, and that wasted my time. But advertising standards didn't back me up. Sigh.

I've just had some spam that really pushes the boundary on fibbing, though. It starts out like this:
Hi Brian
I had so many business cards in my drawer that
I have put them all in a Rolodex efficiently.

It may have been a while since we met,
sorry I haven’t been in touch sooner.

However, I would like to get you lunch if I may please,
it would be a great opportunity to meet again after
such a long time.
It goes on to try to get me to go along to some kind of (apparently free) event including lunch. Now I have never met this person and have certainly not given them my card. This is made doubly clear because I received the mail twice to two different email addresses, one of which isn't on my card. What I don't understand is why the people sending this out think it will encourage me to think positively of someone who is fibbing about knowing me. Sorry, guys, it's a turn off. When marketing crosses the line it ceases to have a positive value. And that's a lesson every business needs to learn.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


I sometimes get sent to read a book that doesn't fit with but that I want to tell the world about. Such a book is The Etymologicon.

I ought to get a disclaimer out of the way - this title is published by Icon, the same people who publish my Inflight Science, but don't worry, I've slagged off their books in the past.

As the name sort of suggests, this is a book about where words come from, which as a writer I'm a sucker for - but anyone should find it fun. It's light, entertaining and fascinating. Did you know for instance that 'pool' as in pooling resources and playing pool has nothing to do with water and everything to do with chickens (poulets en France).This is really one of those books where you have to fight hard to resist telling anyone in earshot little snippets every five minutes.

Any moans? Just occasionally I lost interest a tad, but it quickly picked up again and the flowing structure of little chapters meant that it's easy to just read one more. And one more. And another. Someone I spoke to who had already read it made a big thing of the way the end of each mini-chapter leads into the next one (ending up pointing back to the first chapter, hence the 'circular stroll' in the subtitle). I actually found this the least endearing part of the book - I found these links forced and unnecessary. But it just shows, you can't please all the people all the time.

In its rather handsome small hardback form (no dustcover, though) it's clearly intended as a gift book - and is going to make a great one - but this is also a book I would consider unashamedly buying for yourself. If you like words, it's for you.

You can see more about the book at or and for Kindle readers here in the UK and here in the US.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Top ten book marketing tips

Working an audience at Blackwell's, Oxford

Something that's regular asked over on the Litopia website is why authors are expected to work at marketing their books (surely that's what publishers get such a large chunk of the income for?) and what authors should realistically be expected to do.

The simple answer to the first part is because your book is more important to you than it is to them. I'm not saying that the publisher doesn't love it, but they've got to share that love across however many books they are publishing this season. You just have the one.

It's not that the publisher won't do stuff. They will put a lot of effort into trying to get the book reviewed and mentioned in the media (including sending out typically 100-200 review copies). They will look for opportunities for you to appear at festivals and similar gatherings. They may, if it's a big book, set up a website. But don't expect too much. Specifically they are very unlikely (unless you are a celebrity) to do any poster/TV advertising, so don't be disappointed.

However there's a lot more that you as an author can do. Here's my tips to help get your book noticed:
  1. Be prepared to give time for anything your publisher sets up (interviews, broadcasts, public appearances). If you are reluctant to do your bit, they will soon lose interest.
  2. Make it part of your everyday communications. Put the details (including links to buy it) in your email signature, for example.
  3. Look for opportunities to be visible locally, things the publisher might not do - local radio/newspaper, contact your local bookshop about a signing etc.
  4. Use blogging, Twitter, Facebook etc. to spread the word. But don't get tedious about. All too often people stop following you if all you do is sell. Try to give added value.
  5. Set up a Facebook page for your book and optionally a website for your book.
  6. Consider doing your own book launch if the publishers aren't doing one (and most books don't get one). I've never done this, but quite a lot of authors do, and if you organize it right you can get some visibility.
  7. Get yourself set up as a Goodreads author and set up author pages on
  8. Email everyone you know. This has to be done subtly. Do a personal email, but include stuff about your book. It takes time, but is much better received than a generic mail to a mailing list.
  9. Look for specialist websites (like my for popular science books) that might tell a targeted audience about your book.
  10. Do an online search for relevent businesses that might have an interest. For example, when I did a book about infinity, I emailed companies with 'Infinity' in their name to see if any wanted to buy copies as a corporate giveaway. One ordered 100 copies.
Does this sound like too much effort? It probably is compared with the return you will see for any particular activity. But the fact is there are a couple of million books out there in print in English. If you don't do everything you can to get noticed, in a way that will get you noticed rather than irritate people, then you can resign yourself to staying in the long tail of books that don't sell many copies. It's up to you.

Added P.S. - Excellent 11th suggestion from Neil Ansell:
One thing you don't mention is a book trailer. I filmed mine myself but it was edited and posted by the publishers. It's had 4000 hits and counting, which doesn't exactly make me Justin Bieber, but is encouraging nonetheless.

Monday, 14 November 2011


  I've always been interested in nanotechnology. In part it's because it winds up the Soil Association, who really don't like it. But mostly because there's something fascinating about technology that uses components that are verging on the quantum scale. And there's the 'Fascinating Voyage/Incredible Shrinking Man' aspect of seeng the world differently when looking from a very small perspective. As Richard Feynman said in a piece on the subject, there's plenty of room at the bottom.

Although the pinups of nanotechnology are nanobots, which for the moment remain more comfortable in science fiction than in a manufacturing plant, the everyday uses are both more mundane and more realistic. Probably the most widely used at the moment is in sunblock, which makes use of nanoparticles to block the nasty UV, but I rather like the look of a nanotechology being used to make trainers and other flexible materials water repellant. Let's face it, there's nothing more depressing that a pair of trainers the water has leaked through. The smell of soggy trainers is bad enough at the best of times, and the feel of that water coming through is horrible.

Abingdon-based P2i have produced a nanotechnology coating that is 'hydrophobic.' This possibly isn't the best choice of adjective, as hydrophobia is another name for rabies, but the idea is simple enough - we're talking molecules that don't like water and repel it, while allowing the material to 'breathe.' The neat thing about working at the nanolevel is that water works that way too. Unlike ordinary coatings, this stuff takes on water molecules at their own scale, reducing their chances of slipping through the gaps.

Apparently the technology is already used by a range of snazzy sports brands, is employed on around 50 percent of hearing aids (who wants a soggy hearing aid?) and is soon to appear on mobile phones. But the specific application that caught my attention was the pictured running shoe from Magnum, which has the added benefit of a £10 donation to Help for Heroes from each pair sold.

In good hair product advertising mode, let me put on my white coat so I can say here is the science stuff and lazily reproduce some information from a press release:
The liquid-repellent nano-coating technology is based on PhD research carried out by Stephen Coulson, at Durham University. It originated as a project within the UK Government's Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL), to make soldiers' protective clothing more effective against chemical attack while maintaining comfort.

P2i's technology employs a special pulsed ionized gas (plasma), which is created within a vacuum chamber, to attach a nanometer-thin polymer layer over the entire surface of a product.  This dramatically lowers the product's surface energy, so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply roll off.

The nano-coating technology can deliver performance benefits for a wide range of materials, including polymers, metals, fabrics, leather, ceramics, glass and paper. Even complex, 3D objects incorporating several different materials can be treated successfully.
Ooh, er. Apparently the trainer to look out for is the V-Lite Intrepid HPi H4H, which isn't the catchiest of names, but hey. They are rather scarily priced at £100 (even more scarily they're £175 on Amazon, which I like to think is a mistake), which is more than I would pay for a pair of plimsoles, but if you are into this kind of thing I'm given to believe that this not usual pricing for such hi-tech kit.

Friday, 11 November 2011

If you mess up, don't sue people who point it out

An award that does not get anyone sued
This is a very sad story from the world of writing. A couple of years ago a company set up an awards scheme for British writers called the Brit Writers Awards. Their company's business was making money from helping starting writers, but the awards appear to have been genuinely to support new writers, and the first ones went well. I really have no problem with their aiming to make money from the services they offer to authors if they're upfront about it.

Unfortunately, after a couple of years, things started going a little wrong. I have no information on what happened, but my suspicion is that they weren't making enough money out of the business to keep things going properly. At this point, when people were starting to get disappointed and suspicious, a well respected authors' site published some comments about this situation - only to be threatened with legal action.

This really isn't good enough. The people running the company need to accept responsibility for their mess, and to accept that people will flag it up. They should answer the questions being posed to them. But most of all, they should desist from threats of legal action, which simply make it look as if they guilty of more dubious dealings than they really are.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Getting back at the spammers

One of my fun emails this morning
I'm sure I'm not the only one who gets deluged with a daily dose of spam, though I probably get more than most as a reward for having one of my email addresses on my website. On the whole I just delete it without a moment's thought. It's part of the background that I don't really notice, like breathing.

I have to admit I was caught out once. I had just done something on eBay (can't remember what) and at just the right timing a spam email arrived asking me to log into eBay to check a query from my buyer. I fell for it for about 30 seconds, then hurriedly got into the proper eBay and changed my password. As far as I know nothing resulted.

However, when I'm in a less easy-going mood I want to get my own back. Take just a few of today's batch.

When I get told that I have 'irregular activity on my Internet banking account' at Barclays or HSBC (or some American bank I've never heard of) I want to take the spammers by the scruff of the neck, shake them, and say 'I don't even have an account with this bank, you moron!' Or better still, I want the bank in question to make good use of some of those obscene profits they make to trace the sender back through the net, pick them up, and lock them in their vaults.

Similarly when I get a message from 'Larry Grahams' at Canary Wharf that starts:

Attn: Dear Partner
I got your response to my proposal I am so delighted to Informed you that the Consignment’s in question is currently in the UN Cooperate fiduciary agent office in U.S. 
Upon your respond to this message i will put together a special arrangement to have the Consignment’s deliver to you directly in your door step with the same help of the UN diplomat.
I want to take 'Larry Grahams' and shove his consignment where the sun don't shine, taking similar action with all those 'no need to enter' lotteries and bequests from random people (mostly called something like Reverend Cheerybell Butterbucket or something) I keep receiving.

I realize I can't do anything, but I so want to get back at them. Is there no way? I want to irritate them back, to get the authorities kicking their door down, and quite possibly to have something illegal under various international conventions happen to them. But all I can do is delete their spam. It's not fair.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

It's all J. K. Rowling's fault

I've finally realized who is responsible for the current financial mess in Europe - it's J. K. Rowling. I think that the malevolent influence of her Gringotts Bank has leaked out of novel-space and is corrupting the real world. Let's look at the evidence.

The way Rowling's wizarding world works is to take some aspect of the real world and twist it in such a way that it becomes odd, strange and lacking real-world logic.

Just look at what has been happening with Italy lately. The financial community has concerns that Italy may not be able to pay its debts. What's the logical thing to do in such circumstances? Obviously lighten the load a bit. Perhaps temporarily reduce the interest rates they have to pay. So what do the financial wonks do? Put their interest rates up. Oh, yes, that will help them stay solvent. Logical? Only if you think quidditch makes any sense.

If this kind of mad, fairytale behaviour isn't enough to convince you, just look at the rating agencies. Can you really believe that companies like Standard and Poors, and Moody's (Moody's?!?) are part of the real world? What logical world would put the financial security of countries in the hands of a few small private companies who can arbitrarily decide if they are good credit risks? This is clearly Potterworld logic.

I'm sorry. I'm sure she's a nice person. But it's time Ms Rowling was hauled in front of a parliamentary committee to explain how she is managing to influence the money matters of the planet.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Can supermarkets ever be green?

On the way to the corner shop (picture not same day)
I was toddling down to our corner shop, aka the Asda Walmart superstore on Sunday on a beautiful (if chilly) blue skies morning, wondering why anyone ever drives to the supermarket if they live as close as I do. It was so much nicer to walk.

At least, that's what I thought on the way. Coming back, carrying everything for a Sunday roast plus milk, cans of Coke etc. I felt like a decidedly overloaded beast of burden. Usually, though, I manage fine, using the supermarket as a corner shop and just buying what I can easily carry. It means I go more often, but I can walk and feel smugly green.

The only thing is, I'm not really encouraged to do this. Asda has a deal that if you spend £40 you get £5 off your next shop - but unless you are buying high value items, it's hard to spend more than about £20 and carry it home. This isn't just an Asda problem. All the main supermarkets have deals where you have to spend £40, 50 or even 60 pounds to get discounts, money off petrol and so on. In effect these deals tie the customer into using a car.

Come on supermarketpersons! Let's see a deal that allows your shoppers to be green! There must be some way to amalgamate a series of small purchases over a relatively short period of time. Get imaginative.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Replication and big toys

A simulation of a Higgs discovery. Allegedly.
The recent kerfuffle about faster-than-light neutrinos has stirred an old concern in my mind. One of the essentials of good science is being able to replicate the results. Any particular experimental setup can always mislead those using it because they get something wrong that they don't realize. This is why the neutrino guys have asked other experimenters to try to confirm what they have found.

A classic lesson in the dangers of relying on a single experimental setup is the one that emerges from the work of Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. They were the people behind the cold fusion debacle in 1989. This was, as far as I can tell, a serious experiment by good scientists. They got some amazing results from their single experimental setup then did something stupid. Instead of attempting to publish in a journal and get peer review, they went straight to the press.

There are two reasons this was stupid. It was partly because it missed the opportunity for critical suggestions from reviewers. And it was partly because the science community hates a show-off and is always suspicious of going directly to the press. It meant that the rest of the community was much heavier on the pair, who had a perfectly legitimate idea that turned out not to be particularly good, than they otherwise would be. Most ideas in science fall by the wayside. There's no problem with this, if you go about it the right way. But once other labs tried to duplicate cold fusion and got nothing, the suspicions started to rise and Pons & Fleischmann were torn to pieces. (Not literally. Scientists aren't that bad. Not quite.)

But here's the concern I have. Just imagine the LHC gang announce that they've found the Higgs boson. Whoops and hurrahs all round. But who is going to duplicate this result? If theirs is the only toy big enough to do the job, who can say that this isn't another cold fusion? Of course they'll check it and do all they can to ring the changes - but the fact is it's the same experimental setup with the same people, and that always carries a risk. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade - but I do think particle physicists need to be really careful about exactly what they announce when their experiments can't be duplicated.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A pleasingly rotund Rumpole

As many a comedian-turned-writer has found to his or her cost, writing good humorous fiction is a whole different level of difficulty to simply being funny on stage. I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who have consistently managed to combine genuinely funny writing with style and readability. Wodehouse, of course, has to be one of those digits. (But don't get me started on so called humorous Booker Prize nominees - they wouldn't know funny if it bit them.) And one chubby finger surely must be allocated to John Mortimer and Rumpole of the Bailey.

Mortimer wasn't the first to combine the law and humour. There was a lot of gentle amusement to be had from Henry Cecil's series of law-based novels like Brothers in Law. Cecil's was observational humour. His stories were based on experiences real barristers might go through, just exaggerated to bring out the funny side. Rumpole, on the other hand, is full scale legal pantomime, bringing on full scale laughter to Cecil's gentle smile.

As a character, Horace Rumpole has everything going for him. He is a supporter of the underdog, always the defender, always prepared to pull a success from the jaws of failure, despite the whole legal system weighing against him. If he has a tendency to resort to catch phrases... it's not exactly unheard of in comedy. He is a relic in his chambers, for ever battling the forces of modernization and efficiency, forever injecting the human touch... plus a cigar, and a large glass of Chateau Thames Embankment.

Rumpole is, simply one of the best literary creations of the twentieth century. If you haven't read any Rumpole, the new collection I've just got hold of is going to be the ideal introduction. It combines seven stories chosen by the author as his favourites in 1993 with seven of a more recent vintage. This gives an excellent feel for the whole opus, around 80 stories and a handful of novels. If, like me, you are a long term Rumpole fan, I admit there is less to make you rush to the bookstore, as they've all been published before, though the most recent of the stories, Rumpole and the Christmas Break, is one that had so far evaded me.

For the out-and-out Rumpole devotees there are also the first three chapters of a Rumpole novel, left unfinished on Mortimer's death. I really can't bring myself to read this, as once I've started a Rumpole I need to finish it, and as soon as possible. To venture into that would be cruel indeed.

If you haven't read much Rumpole (or none at all), or if you want a Rumpole-oid gift it's hard to go wrong with this 500 page collection, as pleasingly rotund as the great man himself. It's pure legal comedy gold. Forever Rumpole is available from as a hardback or on Kindle and similarly from as hardback and on Kindle.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The HD/Blu-Ray fraud

Please don't ask why they're watching an HD microwave
I was privileged to be one of the first people in the UK to see broadcast HD TV in action at Sky's launch of their HD box many years ago. At the time very few TVs were HD ready - now it's the majority. Yet there was a question I was bursting to ask at Sky's event that still applies when you see HD and Blu-Ray being pushed today.

What I couldn't understand was why Sky didn't show HD alongside normal TV, so you can see how much better it was. They kept going on about the extra detail and clarity and brilliant picture, so I asked this at their launch why we didn't see that side-by-side comparison. They came out with some technie-wechnie excuse for why they couldn't show both images simultaneously. But there was a much better reason for their decision.

Just go into a TV showroom and look at all the TVs showing HD and Blu-ray. Again, why isn't there a clear comparison so we know it's worth paying extra for the technology? Here's that same issue rearing it's ugly head.

The fact is that, although HD is significantly higher resolution, producing clearer, sharper pictures, ordinary digital TV is already pretty good and on many programmes the difference is hardly perceptible. They don't do side by side comparisons because if you saw them, you'd realise there's no great advantage to switching. Except to the wallets of manufacturers and retailers.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

My head's in the iCloud

For many years my definitive address book and diary have resided on my computer. I really can't remember when I last used one of those paper things. The problem with this was that when I was out at a meeting, I couldn't check my diary, so had to cross my fingers and hope, if necessary ringing up to modify an appointment later.

Since having the iPhone (and more recently the iPad) things had improved significantly, because every time I synchronized my mobile devices they got up-to-date copies of diary and address book, so when I was out and about I had access to these crucial resources. They might be a touch out of date, but essentially it was all there. What's more I now had extra backups of this essential data - and unlike users of a mobile phone with a conventional, unsynchronized address book I would never lose my phone numbers.

In the last week, Apple has launched iCloud, and with it my situation has changed again - and more fundamentally than I first thought. The migration was not without a little pain. When the Apple software was attempting to set things up, its duplication correction module went beserk, so now every entry in my diary is in twice and several people in my address book have two copies of their address.

What's more, the process has partially screwed up my desktop control centre, Outlook. It has moved my address book and diary to one hosted on iCloud, patched through to the Outlook system. Outlook is designed to be able to incorporate external sources, but it very much regards them as 'the rest' rather than the main one. So several of Outlook's useful features, like displaying the next six diary entries on the home screen and being able to add flags to emails to put them on your to do list have stopped working.

But in return I have a more fundamental change then I realized. Up to now, mentally, my 'real' address book and diary have been on the PC. So if I want to look up an address I would use the PC, even though it's a bit clumsy. Now my 'real' address book is in iCloud, so my natural tendency has moved to use either the iPad or the iPhone - and that's quite a fundamental shift. (It also means I can see my diary and address book from any internet connected computer, but the times I'm likely to use this seem very small.)

This is a significant shift of mindset, which I simply hadn't realized would come with the process. It will be interesting to see how things evolve...