Monday, 24 December 2012

The long winter's nap

It's the time when this blog prepares to hibernate until the new year, but before I go, I just wanted to briefly contemplate the wonder of single day songs.

I suppose the most used one day song is 'Happy Birthday to You,' though this is a bit of a cheat. It might only apply to one day for any individual, but around the world it is being used each and every day.

A more realistic choice is 'Auld Lang Syne', traditionally sung on New Year's Eve (though I have heard it sung at other Scottish celebrations, so it doesn't quite make it).

Then there are Christmas carols. Most are certainly not one day songs, designed for the Christmas season (though strangely usually sung in the Advent season that precedes it), though a few should be according to the words - for example 'Hodie, Hodie, Christus Natus Est' (Today, Today, Christ is born) - in practice, though, they are not limited to the one day.

Perhaps the most outstanding example is the carol with the one day verse. O Come All Ye Faithful is a very familiar carol but has one verse, beginning 'Yea, Lord, we greet Thee/Born this happy morning' that is only ever sung from shortly after midnight on Christmas Day. And it feels rather splendid because of it. It's like having a shared secret, a clandestine verse you only allow out on a special occasion.

To those who celebrate Christmas, have a happy one - and to the rest of you, a merry bah, humbug. And to all a happy and prosperous New Year.

I won't give you O Come All Ye Faithful, as it's more than a little over-played, but here's my idea of a beautiful carol if you have a couple of minutes to spare:

Friday, 21 December 2012

Brainstretch Friday

It's either a brain or a Christmassy enormous walnut
However much we like to think those noses are pressed as firmly as ever to the grindstone, when we get this close to Christmas, there's a certain tendency to ease off. You may say this is easy for me, as I don't have a 'real job', but as far as I recall it was much the same at British Airways.

That being the case I request - nay, respectfully order - you to take a moment from the busyness of business (see what I did there?) to give your brains a little stretch. You never know - it may even make you more effective at thinking thereafter.

I normally drive over to pick up my daughter from school at 4pm (this is not true, it's a story. Go with the flow). One day, she is let out of school one hour early and decides to walk back, meeting me on the way. We get back home ten minutes earlier than normal. If I always drive at the same speed, and left home at just the right time to pick her up at four, which of the following pieces of information would you need to determine how long she had been walking (you can choose as many as you like): her walking speed, my driving speed, the distance from home to school, the colour of her coat, the speed limit.

If you haven't already got an answer, try to jot one down now. Don't read any further.

Last chance to consider your answer.

There was an element of sleight of hand here. The answer is you need none of these extra pieces of information: you already know enough. As we got back ten minutes earlier than normal, I met her five minutes earlier than normal (trimming five minutes off outbound and inbound journeys), so she spent 55 minutes walking.

I think this is a useful reminder of how often we get overwhelmed by - or spend our time chasing - unnecessary information.

This exercise is from my book Instant Brainpower.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Is it time to stop worrying about freemasons?

I've just re-read Stephen Knight's book The Brotherhood which is an early 1980s exposé of freemasons and the malign influence of masonry (not the bricks, you understand. It would be silly to think that bricks could have a malign influence. I mean the organization).

Knight goes out of his way to be unbiassed (or certainly to appear so), which makes the book sometimes rather tedious reading as he balances different statements and pieces of evidence, but the overall conclusions are clear. Knight tells us that this is an organization based on a religion that is incompatible with most major faiths, it has been misused by criminals, spies, politicians and the police and it really isn't an organization that anyone with a public role should touch with a bargepole. Yes, there are plenty who live up to the stereotype of harmless, sad, boozy old businessmen with rolled up trouser legs - but the opportunities for and evidence of misuse were considerable.

At the time Knight wrote the book, soon after the P2 masonic scandal in Italy, he was able to credibly give real concern to the possibility that the KGB could use the masonic system to infiltrate the  British establishment. I suspect the post-Soviet position is very different. But also I wonder if, to be honest, the whole business of masons will soon be gone and forgotten.

This is an organization based on the fundamental acceptance that the establishment is always right, that conservatism with a small c is the essential way to carry on, and that the Englishman was most happy away from the company of women, enacting silly rituals and swapping anecdotes over a brandy and a cigar. (I know there are many masons outside England, but the blame seems to lie firmly with the English.) It's the sort of group that I suspect is finding it harder and harder to get members. Of course there will always be those who join in the hope of self-preferment (you aren't supposed to join for selfish reasons, but we all know it's not like that). However the appeal of this whole bizarre business seems as dated as liking spam and pining for powdered eggs.

Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps people (sorry, men) are queuing up to join the freemasons. But in some respects, modern society is significantly better than it once was. And I suspect the general attitude to the whole masonic rigmarole will reflect a healthy taste for such distasteful, secretive mumbo-jumbo and fraternal backscratching.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A farewell to the Christmas CD

Joe who? I can say with some certainty this
won't be on any of our Christmas lists...
Traditionally, Father Christmas has tended to put a CD into each of our daughters' stockings (hung on the chimney with care/in the hope that St Nicholas soon will be there). It's not exactly one of those family traditions that goes back decades - when I was a lad, Santa would have had serious trouble stuffing an LP into my regulation grey knee sock. But the CD makes music a natural gift. At least, it used to.

The thing is, young people - it is impossible type that without sounding over 70 - young people don't listen to music the way we used to. On the whole we were linear music listeners at their age (no more so than under the influence of the dreaded music cassette). We put on an album and played it from the beginning to the end. If there was a track we didn't particularly like (think Beatles' White Album) well, it might grow on us and it would soon be over.

Now, though, we're in zippy zappy instant access music world. It's not just a matter of pressing the exciting shuffle button on their iPods. Them young things never listen to an album linearly - in fact they rarely buy albums anymore, just downloading the tracks they fancy. And that's without mentioning their most IRRITATING habit, which comes to the fore when an iPod/phone is connected to the audio system in the car. They NEVER listen to a track all the way through. By around 70% of the way into the song, they are already looking for the next thing to play.

So, under the circumstances, it doesn't seem right for Father Christmas to pop a CD into those stockings. My suspicion is that he may resort to an iTunes voucher. Okay, it's not as personal as a CD of a favourite band. But it fits much better the way the yoof of today consume music. And old MC FC is never one for being behind the times.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Molecule vs Molecule

In a number of recent posts I’ve looked at the ways that nanotechnology coatings like those produced by P2i can be used to make everything from mobile phones to trainers water repellent – and at the natural examples of this same phenomenon – but I haven’t really considered the science behind this technology – which is all about the electromagnetic interaction of molecules.

We’re probably most familiar with this kind of interaction in an attractive way. As I write this, there is a heavy frost outside. Water is turning from liquid to solid. Yet were it not for a particular molecular interaction, this would be an impossibility because water would boil below -70 °C. There would be no liquid or solid water on the Earth and, in all probability, no life.

The interaction that makes life possible is hydrogen bonding. This is an electromagnetic attraction between a hydrogen atom in one molecule, and an atom like oxygen, nitrogen or fluorine in a second molecule. When hydrogen is bonded to one of these atoms there is a relative positive charge on the hydrogen and a relative negative charge on the oxygen (say). This happens because the hydrogen atom’s only electron is in its bond, leaving a positively charged ‘end’ to the molecule, while the oxygen atom has four outer electrons not in its bonds, which are repelled away from the electrons in the bonds, giving it a negative charge.

Put two molecules alongside each other and the positively charged hydrogen is attracted to the negatively charged oxygen in its neighbour. The two molecules are drawn towards each other. There’s a force pulling the molecules together, and that means if you want to break them apart – say to boil liquid water – then it takes more energy that it otherwise would, as you have to overcome that force. Result: a much higher boiling point.

This inter-molecular attraction also accounts for another oddity that means aquatic creatures can survive in icy cold weather. Solid water – ice – is less dense than the liquid form, so it floats, leaving the water beneath still liquid. It’s sometimes said this is a unique property of water. It’s not – acetic acid and silicon, for instance, are both denser as a liquid than a solid – but it is unusual. It happens because the six-sided shape of a water crystal won’t fit with the way the hydrogen bonds pull the hydrogen of one water molecule towards the oxygen of another. To slot into the structure, these bonds have to stretch and twist, pulling water molecules further apart than they are in water’s most dense liquid form.

Hydrogen bonding would not be a good mechanism to consider if you wanted to keep liquids off an object. It would tend, rather, to keep them in place. So to produce a water resistant coating, you are looking instead for molecules that won’t attract. I have a personal interest in this. My father was an industrial chemist and was part of the team that developed one of the world’s first fabric conditioners. He used to bring home experimental jars of turquoise gloop from work to try out at home. And the principle behind a fabric conditioner or fabric softener is the opposite of cosy hydrogen bonds.

Such conditioners work by making clothes dirty with a special kind of dirt. Conditioners leave a thin residue on the fabric fibres. These molecules have several roles, but the significant one here is that they tend to repel each other, making the detailed structure of the fibres fluff up and giving the fabric a softer, more luxurious feel, lubricating the fibres when they move against each other.

This is very much fabric conditioner on fabric conditioner interaction. But to achieve a water-repellent coating we need to combine aspects of the two effects to get an interaction between the molecules in the coating and the water molecules that we are trying to get away from a product as quickly as possible.

P2i’s nanocoating is a polymer with molecules that are long-chains which can be either hydrocarbons or poly fluorinated . These start out as individual monomers – the molecules that will eventually be bound together in a polymer – which are exposed to a low power radio signal at 13.56 MHz to produce a plasma, a gas-like collection of ionised monomers, which then polymerize directly on the object being coated. It’s not a case of applying a polymer like sticking on an outer coating, but rather of creating it in place on all surfaces of the object to be protected.

Water forming droplets on a tissue with a P2i coating
The molecular action here is rather more subtle than in a fabric conditioner. The coated surface has a low surface energy – significantly lower than that of water. Surface energy is a way of describing how much ability the surface of a substance has to produce interactions. P2i’s coating is unusually reluctant to interact, giving it a very low surface energy, around 1/3 that of the non-stick substance PTFE (Teflon). This means that the water is much more attracted to itself, through hydrogen bonding, than it is to the surface of the material. The result is that rather than wetting the surface – spreading out as a thin layer – the water forms spherical drops, because most of the attraction the water molecules feel is towards other water molecules and with all this inward attraction the natural result in the formation of a sphere.

As the water is in self-contained droplets on the surface, it will roll off in these beads without interacting with the material. This is why you can have the kind of remarkable result shown in the Richard Hammond TV show where he pulled a ringing phone out of a toilet and it still worked. The water was not given a chance to wet the surface and short out or corrode the electronics.

We tend to think of a substance in terms of its macro properties – those that we can see and feel. But we can only properly understand what’s going on by taking a close up look. When it comes to how stuff works, it’s a molecule versus molecule world.

Images courtesy of P2i

Monday, 17 December 2012

What shall we buy Fred?

Ho, ho, ho!
I try to avoid the hard sell on my books here, but I like to think of this more as a helpful hand than a hard sell.

Every year we get faced with those difficult-to-buy-for people. You know the ones. They are often, but not always men. A pair of socks won't hack it as a present, and perfume is really not their thing. You would like to buy them a book... but don't really know what they like.

As long as they enjoy exercising their minds, you can't go wrong with a popular science book. As a particular incentive, I'm offering a range of my books at just £7.99 including first class post in the UK. What's more it'll be a signed book - always goes down well. But you have to be quick. I'm afraid it's too late for Christmas for all but UK buyers - last posting date is Thursday 20th, but for safety I would recommend getting any orders in by tomorrow, Tuesday 18th.

I've got on offer: Inflight ScienceBuild Your Own Time Machine, Gravity, Before the Big Bang, Upgrade Me and Armageddon Science. If you don't think any of those would do the trick, head over to and check out the five star books for some more recommendations. But, of course, they probably won't be signed.

If you aren't giving books this Christmas... you aren't giving. (Actually that's rubbish, but I felt I should have some suitable salesy tag.) Not long to go now. We're in last minute territory. I would say 'Don't Panic!' but that's sadly inappropriate. Panic, immediately.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Artists and Spirit Mediums

My artistic masterpiece, created in 2 minutes on an iPad:
brown vista with blue things
As you may have gathered from previous posts, I am not a great fan of abstract or conceptual art. I can see the point of art that really grabs you when you look at it, or art that involves real skill - but when it is about painting a whole canvas the same colour, dribbling paint at random, or displaying a pile of bricks or an unmade bed, perlease!

It struck me recently that there is a parallel between abstract / conceptual artists and spirit mediums. There seems reasonable agreement that spirit mediums fall into two classes. There are the frauds who know perfectly well what they are doing is rubbish, but do it to get money out of the people they deceive, and there are the innocents who genuinely believe that what they are doing is genuine - even though their performances are just as worthless as the conscious fraudsters.

Similarly, I suspect there are abstract/conceptual artists who frankly know perfectly well they are producing worthless stuff, but sit back and enjoy the vast amounts of money thrown at them by the idiot but rich punters, and there are those who genuinely believe in what they do. Like the mediums, this doesn't make what they do any more worthwhile, but this section of the artistic population has no intention to con anyone.

And what of the glitterati of the art world - the gallery owners, the people with the big cheque books? They are the equivalent of the venues and audiences where the spirit mediums operate. Some know it's rubbish, but cynically make a profit, others are true believers, as deluded as some of the mediums/artists.

There you have it. The contemporary art world explained. The only difference from spirit mediums is that sceptics haven't turned their beady eyes and attacks on the art world. Yet.

In case you have any doubt that the art world is deluded, I leave you with a story told in Paul Bloom's book, How Pleasure Works:
David Hensel submitted his sculpture, a laughing head called One Day Closer to Paradise, to an open-submission contemporary art exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. He boxed it up with its plinth, a slate slab, for the head to rest on. The judges thought that these were two independent submissions, and they rejected the head but accepted the plinth.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A touch of literary madness

Every now and then I have the pleasure of appearing on the internet radio show Litopia After Dark. Usually this features interesting discussions of the latest events and developments in the literary world, but this was the Christmas special in the form of an office party (with games) and was totally bonkers.

If you want to hear Professor Elemental the ever so jolly British imperial rapper, Ian Winn, Ali Gardner, Dave Bartram and myself having a somewhat surreal conversation and playing some silly games while literary agent Peter Cox attempts (but fails) to maintain control - and perhaps join in and see if you can beat us to the answers - take a listen.

According to Mr Cox, Phyllis Diller once said "What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day." Exactly.

Why not dip in and enjoy, preferably with alcohol and mince pies. You can listen on the thingy below or nip over to the show's page.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Through a media glass darkly

Was it really only last year?
There has been a lot of buzz in the UK media in the last couple of days about the 2011 summary census results, which are just out. However, strangely, the headlines missed out on one significant conclusion - how distorted some aspects of media reporting are.

Most English media organizations, with the exception of the BBC's recent major move to Salford, are based in London. This makes a lot of sense. The media world is one of communication, and though today's technology in principle means that you can work from anywhere, I appreciate (if only from the number of invitations to press events I turn down) that there are lot of opportunities for first hand interaction that require journalists to be in London.

However, the trouble is that whenever, say, a TV news programme wants to interview pupils or teachers in a school they are rather lazy. Being based in London, they will nearly always go to a London school. And  this will be totally non-representative of the country as a whole. This comes shining through in the census reports.

Take ethnicity. According to the reported census results, in London 45% of people identified themselves as 'white British'. In the population of England and Wales outside London that figure is 86%. It's pretty easy to see that doing a vox pop in London will not give you a representative ethnic mix. The same is very likely to be true of many other factors, like wealth distribution and occupation, but these weren't reported in the media response to the census, which for some reason concentrated on ethnicity and religious beliefs.

The message of the numbers is clear. Broadcasters and journalists need to break out of the capital and use more representative vox pops, school visits and other ways they portray the nation. It simply won't do to use London to represent the country as a whole, because it is patently so different to everywhere else. In many respects that's a good thing. We want our capital to be special, unusual and outstanding.  It shouldn't be average. But it is time that shoddy, lazy journalism stopped presenting such a misleading picture.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Psst - want to borrow an ebook?

Whether you are an author or a reader, ebooks have taken a bit of getting used to. But there is no doubt after years of posturing about the death of paper books that ebooks have finally taken off. It has been interesting to hear politician Margaret Hodge in her campaign to avoid using corporate tax dodgers like Starbucks, Amazon and Google that she has said that she loves her Kindle and is finding it a real pain going back to paper books.
Lovely ebooks! Borrow your ebooks 'ere!
Rip off an author!

I am not the kind of person who throws my hands in the air and bewails the coming of the ebook, nor one who forecasts the demise of paper books any time soon. Bear in mind 25% of the UK population doesn't even use the internet - I suspect a significantly higher percentage will resist ebooks for a good number of years to come (though admittedly some technophobes will not be enthusiastic readers). But I do think we need to keep an eye on the pros and cons of ebooks.

One aspect that has come to my eye recently is the facility called Overdrive that allows you to borrow ebooks from libraries.

At the moment (from my library, at least) the facility is fairly limited. It provides a small selection from popular authors, but mostly its pretty obscure stuff. However it won't necessarily stay that way. We could in principle see every ebook in existence available for borrowing this way. And what happens to the author's income then?

In the UK and a number of other European countries (but not in the US) there is a facility called PLR. This provides a small payment for the author (currently around 6p in the UK) when a book is borrowed, or rather it is based on the scaling up of borrowings from a number of sample libraries. It's not something that will make you rich. I just got my Irish PLR and it amounted to £6.50 for the year. But the point is that you are being paid for the use of your books.

The danger with ebook lending is that it is much closer in nature to buying ebooks than conventional library lending is to buying paper books. With an ebook you don't really care that you don't have anything to treasure and own, and unlike a library book it will be no more battered after its 1,000th loan. It could mean a whole lot fewer people buying ebooks. So if it is allowed, there need to be a number of restrictions.

One is that you can't lend the same ebook to many people at once - it should be (and the system allows it to be) a check-out/check-in resource. It is also possible that ebooks for loan should cost a lot more than for purchase. This isn't impossible - the same has always applied to videos/DVDs, where a loan copy cost the hire shop or library much more than buying a personal copy for yourself. And the final essential is that ebook lending is taken into PLR. And here we have a problem.

The UK government agreed in the Digital Economy Act 2010 that PLR could be extended to audiobooks and ebooks, and that audiobooks and ebooks counted legally as books for PLR purposes. But it has since announced that 'It will not be extending PLR at this time' and so PLR 'remains restricted to books which are printed and bound.' This is ludicrous and arbitrary. So it's time the government got its finger out and caught up. Otherwise ebook lending should be disallowed until they can get their act together.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Don't (always) make it your own

TV singing shows like the X-Factor are infamous for their repeated use of nauseous clichéd phrases like 'It has been a rollercoaster' or 'You have been on such a journey.' (Pause to cringe.) But one such phrase that hasn't had the attention it deserves is 'You have made that song your own.'

This is a feature of the age of recording stars. In the olden days, if a song was ascribed to anyone (and many weren't) it was the composer. Now, though, it's the performer. When competitors are asked what they are going to perform they don't say 'New York,' (say) they say 'New York by Alicia Keys,' not meaning she wrote it, but that she recorded it. So making a song your own is essentially about singing a song someone else has recorded, but putting your own mark on it so it doesn't sound like their recording, something this year's X-Factor finalists were particularly strong on.

That's all very well in the context of the show. If you do, say, a Michael Jackson song and do it purely in the style of Michael Jackson, you are an impersonator, not a performer in your own right. But the trouble is when you apply the same logic to music that doesn't have the taint of pre-ownership. And this is where things went horribly wrong when the X-Factor finalists sang Silent Night when the Downing Street Christmas tree was switched on. If you haven't seen it, and have a strong stomach, you can hear it at around the 42 second mark in the video below.

Oh dear. Each of the three tried very hard to make 'Silent Night' their own. And thoroughly ruined it. This is because with most decent music, what is important is the music, not how clever you can be in your rendition of it. If, for instance, you listen to different recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas or Byrd motets you will hear subtle differences of interpretation. But it is the music itself that shines through. The performer is secondary to the music. And these sad little people thought it ought to be the other way round.

I'm not saying Silent Night is a great piece of music. It is a simple tune written to be sung simply. But by attempting to make it their own, those three murdered it. Excruciating is probably the best word. Surely someone in the X-Factor production team could realise this. You can almost see David Cameron's blood curdle - just look at his expression in the starting still on the YouTube video above. Whether or not you support his politics, it's not fair that our Prime Minister had to suffer this. X-Factor - you should be ashamed of yourself. Learn a bit more about music, and a little less about showing off, please.

Friday, 7 December 2012

I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas?

I've always had a lot of time for the Centre for Alternative Technology in the heart of Wales. Okay, the hippyish feel of the place isn't really me, but when I was writing Ecologic it proved a very helpful resource, and though they may be evangelical about being green, they don't go about it with a big stick like some of the green lobby.

For that reason I was rather taken with a press release they sent out on having a green Christmas. I am going to pass on that festive-but-caring message, though I will be throwing in one or two of my own comments as I go. So here we go. From now on the CAT gets the ordinary text and my comments are italic:

Christmas is a time for excesses and whilst its [sic] wonderful to kick back and relax with family and friends there are lots of things we can do to make Christmastime more sustainable and reduce our environmental impact. “ From reducing the amount of rubbish we produce, making our own Christmas decorations to buying ethically sourced and traded Christmas gifts there are loads of things we can do to make Christmas more sustainable.”

While I could quibble about their ability to punctuate (and what are those inverted commas for, guys?) - a perfectly sensible sentiment.
  • Buy ethically traded gifts, shops such as CAT's eco store offer a wide range of products, specially selected for their low environmental impact and eco- credentials. >> You may be thinking 'There's a time for composting toilets, but I don't want to find one under the Christmas tree, there are some rather entertaining gifts here (bamboo socks, anyone?) including some made from PLASTIC! I emphasise this merely to highlight that they are properly green, not knee-jerk green.
  • Give someone a course, CAT short courses make the perfect present for family and friends to learn about more sustainable ways of living and allowing them to put those ideas into practice. >> Sorry, I really can't go for this one. Courses don't make a perfect present, they are very disappointing gifts. Don't do it, unless either a) you don't like the recipient or b) you know the recipients are really worthy people, the sort that like yurts.
  • Reduce the millions of Christmas trees ending up in landfill sites. The alternatives are to get a tree with roots so it can be potted and reused next year, ensure that your local council will recycle dead trees (many councils grind them down into chips to be used as mulch in parks or gardens) or be creative: use branches, paint and cardboard. >> While the last suggestion is a joke - please don't do it - I do strongly encourage you to go for a rooted tree or to recycle. Our council takes them away: jolly convenient. The only thing with the rooted tree, if you put it in the ground after Christmas, leave it there and get another. Don't disturb it again, you risk killing it.
  • Reuse your Christmas decorations. Bring out your old decorations rather than buying new ones every year, turn scratched CDs into personalised decorations, create decorations out of fruit and popcorn which can be fed to hungry birds in the new year. >> Ah, the Blue Peter spirit. Actually I don't think many of us need much encouraging to bring out old Christmas decorations. It's part of the delight of the season. By all means get one or two new ones (we need to support the economy) but don't go mad. For me, the only reason for using DIY decorations is because your children made them, so you can go 'Ahh!' Otherwise avoid like the plague unless you are really artistic. Trust me on this.
  • Recycle Christmas cards and wrapping paper. Many charity shops sell gummed labels to stick over previous messages and addresses and E-cards are an eco alternative to paper based cards. Be creative when wrapping presents use fabric, magazine pages, aluminium foil that can be reused for cooking, to create beautiful, unique wrapping paper. >> A hearty 'Yes!' to the be creative bit. I've seen some brilliant gift bags, for instance, made from scraps of old wallpaper, sewn up and given a string handle. (Not sure about magazine pages, though.) By all means recycle cards and wrapping paper, but reusing them is just a bit... tacky.
  • Reduce the number of polluting food miles your festive meals clock up by buying locally grown or reared produce. Locally produced, organic food tends to taste better too! For those Christmastime essentials from faraway places i.e. chocolate and coffee - make sure you buy Fairtrade products. >> Mixed feelings about this one. Yes to buy local. We get our turkey from a local farmer, and it's brilliant. And fresh local food may well taste better. It has been clearly established that organic food does NOT taste any better, and I try not to buy it myself as I don't approve of many things the Soil Association does. But their animal welfare standards are good. Our turkey is free range but not organic, and that's what I'd go for. Fair trade is fine, but don't think this is limited to the 'Fairtrade' label - that is a marketing organization. 
  • Recycle your scraps. Turn your vegetable peelings, fruit cores and nutshells into fertile compost and avoid unnecessarily using landfill sites. If you avoid composting cooked food, you will not attract unwanted wildlife and it won't smell. Many local authorities provide free c >> That's not me editing them, the original stopped like this. If your council does food recycling (some do) I'm all for it, but if it's DIY, do make sure that you avoid attracting rats etc. - they don't just go for cooked food - by making sure your composting is done in a closed, robust bin, rather than an open compost heap. 
Most of all, enjoy it! Don't feel guilty about not always being green in your Christmas celebrations. It's always a balance. But if you can have fun and be green too, why not? All together now: 'I'm dreaming of a green Christmas, just like the ones we never knew...'

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Tread lightly on the fossil record

The view from my Southend hotel room on Wednesday morning
On Tuesday and Wednesday I spent two days in Southend, giving talks at the High School for Boys. Perhaps as karmic revenge for my referring to the town as 'sunny Southend' I woke up on Wednesday to a surprise snowfall, which was rather fun.

The talks went well (I think) but a useful bonus was a chance to attend a little symposium the school was running for a group of students. Said students were entering a competition to write a piece about science and religion, so the school put together a panel of five of their teachers, who each gave their personal opinion on science v religion, from an out-and-out atheist perspective to one that put the two on very much equal footing and could see no conflict between them.

The students were then given the chance to ask questions of the teachers. One, rather daringly, questioned a statement from the head teacher that while he had no problem with evolution, we need to recognize that as a theory it has some big problems. Would the head like to identify one of these problems, asked the bold student.

The head responded that the fossil record does not provide good evidence for evolution.  Not that it counters evolution, but is not sufficient to support it. With the thoughts of what my friend Henry Gee would say, who gets rather hot under the collar when the fossil record is waved around in a dangerous fashion, I waded in and pointed out that the fossil record is inherently incomplete in a big way, and any attempt to use it to cast doubt on evolution was dubious at best.

Ah yes, said the head, but the fact remains that there are not, for example, enough dead-end fossils. We should expect many more fossils of creatures that were evolutionary errors, the outcome of random variation gone wrong.

A breakfast view that morning
Now this, I admit, is where I chickened out. Bear in mind that this was the head of the school that was employing me and (I hope!) may do so again in the future. So rather than come back on that remark, I let it lie. (I also thought it was wrong to hog the debate, when it was supposed to be for the students to ask questions.)

However, it's not going to stop me responding now. I know very little of palaeontology and the likes of Dr Gee are welcome to correct me on this, but my response would have been 'So what?' I'm not at all surprised there aren't many dead-ends for three reasons. One is that by definition many dead-ends would be, well dead-ends. They'd be one-offs. Chances of being fossilized? Vanishingly small.

Then what I always feel is the most amazing aspect of evolution, something that isn't made enough of. This is that every individual creature throughout history has been the same species as its parent. Even though if you follow back through our parental history you will eventually get back to bacteria-like ancestors, you will never see a species change from one generation to the next. It's a glorious paradox. So inevitably the first step down a dead-end will be indistinguishable from a non dead-end fossil.

Finally, I very much doubt how well we can deduce whether or not many fossils are dead-ends, bearing in mind what a fossil is. There may be some where it's pretty obvious but surely there will be many where it won't. To use a breeding rather than evolutionary analogy, I doubt if anyone looking at a fossilized mule would say 'that's a dead-end animal. It won't continue the line.' But the fact is a mule is just that.

As for the religion v science debate it was inevitably open ended. But it was fun trying and much kudos to the school for trying it.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

A little brain work

I'm just about to catch a train to sunny Southend for a couple of days of talks, but before I go, I'll leave you with a little brain stretching challenge.

I have two bottles, one containing water and the other containing wine. I pour one measure of wine into the water bottle. I then pour an equal measure from the water bottle back into the wine bottle. At the end, there is just as much water in the wine as there is wine in the water. Which of the following have to be true to make this possible (you can choose more than one):

  • The bottles are the same size
  • The water and wine are thoroughly mixed after the measure is poured into the water bottle.
  • The wine and water have to be thoroughly mixed after the measure is poured back into the wine bottle
  • The wine has the same density as the water
  • The water and wine are miscible

… or is it impossible to be certain that there is just as much water in the wine as there is wine in the water?


Don't go any further until you've attempted some sort of answer.


Last chance to consider your answer.


In fact, none of the conditions have to hold true - there will always be just as much wine in the water as water in the wine. Think of it like this: at the end of the process, the wine bottle holds exactly the same amount as it did initially, so it must have had exactly the same amount of water added to it as wine was removed.

Notice how the way that the question was phrased can distract you from the true facts. Even if you got the right answer, the chances are that the phrasing proved a distraction. You probably worried about partial mixing of water and wine, for example. Sometimes re-phrasing the question is an essential for knowledge gathering and creativity.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Christmas Music dilemma

I was on BBC Wiltshire with the excellent Mark O'Donnell on Saturday, and a topic of discussion was whether to play a Christmas song or a winter song (as it was a bit early for Christmas stuff). What was interesting in this discussion, as so often is the case, was the hinterland.

There was significant debate over whether a song that doesn't mention Christmas, or Christmas specific appurtenances like Santa Claus and Rudolph, but that is traditionally associated with Christmas is a Christmas song or a winter song. Think Frosty the Snowman, Let it Snow or Winter Wonderland. Okay, we're in 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin' territory, but hey, it's December.

Personally I was strongly in favour of letting these through as winter songs. But it led me to think of another Christmas music dilemma. I'm a great fan of church music, both singing it and listening to it - and I love carols. Now, technically we are currently in Advent, the season leading up to Christmas - the equivalent of Lent before Easter. And there is plenty of good Advent music. So there is an argument that you should only sing Advent music until Christmas begins at midnight on 24 December. But...

But, I think most people would agree, that Christmas carols seem limp and out of place after around 26 December. It would be ridiculous to limit ourselves to singing and hearing these brilliant bits of music to one day. So reluctantly I have to say, I think it's okay to go with the carols from the start of December. Ding Dong away, folks. Ding Dong away.

Just in case you think all carols are crass, here's an example of a high class Christmas carol - Peter Warlock's Bethlehem Down. Nice story too. Warlock (real name Philip Heseltine) and his friend Bruce Blunt wanted to get drunk over Christmas. They had no cash, so they ran off this little number to pay for the festivities. And here's the thing you couldn't imagine today. The Daily Telegraph published it - sheet music and all - on Christmas Eve 1927.

Friday, 30 November 2012

In the Night Lab

It's that time again when it becomes respectable to dig out your Christmas CDs as tomorrow the great chocolate countdown begins. (Hands up who can remember advent calendars without chocolate? Boring, weren't they?) Yes, despite my repeated cries of 'Bah, Humbug', I have to give and get a quick coating of tinsel.

A number of years ago, on my old blog on Nature Network, a miniature masterpiece evolved. It was an 'anyone can contribute a line' poem, based on 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' but set in a lab. Yes, folks, this is both lab lit and evolutionary poetry. I feel it deserves to be preserved (indeed pickled), so I like to dig it out on a regular basis.

For those who like their pomes read out (here with sound effects by the excellent Graham Steel), here it is:

And for those who are members of the campaign for real written words, here it is in all its glory:

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the lab
Not a Gilson was stirring, not even one jab.

On the bench, ’twixt a novel by Jennifer Rohn
And the paper rejected by Henry’s iPhone
Lay a leg, still trembling and covered in gore
And Frankenstein sighed ‘I can’t take this no more’.

He exclaimed panic struck, as he took in the scene,
of horrendous results from NN’s latest meme.
‘having one extra leg wasn’t part of the plan
to create a new species, anatomized man’.

And then out of the blue, ‘twas a bump in the night
A girrafe ’pon a unicycle, starting a fight
Held back by a keeper all smiling with glee,
It was then that I knew that it was Santa Gee.

His iphone, it jingled, his crocs were so pink,
It was all I could do to stammer and blink.
‘There you are’ cursed old Frank’stein, approaching the Gee,
‘Call off the girrafe, and hand over the fee.’

“The Beast” then leaped up, from O’Hara’s new leg
Attacked Santa Gee and his elf, Brian Clegg.
One sweep of the sack and the beast was laid out
When hoof of girrafe gave a terminal clout.

Then its leg fell off quaintly, with a sad little ‘plonk’,
Santa Gee, from his sled, gave a loud, angry honk
And the mask on his face slipped – sadly ’twas loose -
To reveal not a man but a fat Christmas Goose.

To Frankenstein’s horror, the bird reared up high
He realized then that this goose could not fly.

So he grabbed the elf Clegg, who stood by buggy-eyed
and hoisting him up with great gusto he cried:

“O’Hara and Beast, I have them at last.
Sprinkle on Ritalin, for a tasty repast.”
But five minutes had lapsed, so the beast was asleep
Having dreams that were complex, clever and deep:

Half warthog, half carrot? What would look nice?
Half girrafe, half O’Hara? Yes! Made in a trice.
He dreamed a solution, to this horrid scene:
Unite the spare legs! To waste them is mean!

Much later that evening, the creature awoke!
One Bob-leg, one g’raffe leg! He rose up and spoke:
“Beloved creator, I wish you’d not meddle,
My unicycle now needs a quite different pedal."

Like all truly great works of art, it helps to have some background knowledge. The named persons were all contributors to Nature Network. 'The Beast' is Bob O'Hara's cat. And for obscure reasons 'a unicycling girrafe [sic]' was an in-joke.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Beware the average

Which one's the average house?
I was struck by an item on the local news this morning saying that the average house price in the UK was £163,910 according to the Nationwide Building Society. This seemed a dubious statistic. Why? Because the average (or mean) is not a good measure of a distribution that isn't symmetrical. It's highly misleading. That's because the vast majority of houses in the UK are worth less than the average house price - and that is downright confusing.

Let's look at a simpler example to see what's going on. Imagine we have a room full of people and take their average earnings. Then we throw Bill Gates into the room. Bill's vast income would really bump up the average - so probably everyone else in the room would earn less than the average. The new average would not be representative of the room as a whole.

The reason a relatively small number of cases (in our room, Bill) can have a big impact is because the distribution - the spread of the incomes - is not symmetrical. Let's say the average income before Bill entered the room was £26,000 a year. Then the absolute maximum anyone can fall below that average is by £26,000. But there is no limit to how far above the average you can be. In Bill's case, he will be millions higher. So he has a much bigger impact on the average than a poor person does.

In such cases, the median is a very valuable number to know. This is just the middle value. We put all the people in a row in order of earnings and pick the middle number. With a distribution like our room - or house prices - the median gives us a much better feel for what a typical value is like than the average.

Which takes us back to the Nationwide. I took the liberty of dropping their Chief Economist, Robert Gardner an email and he was kind enough to call me back within 10 minutes (and to email through some bumf). You really wouldn't expect a financial institution to make such a basic statistical mistake... and they haven't. What the Nationwide repeatedly calls an average in their press releases isn't a simple average at all. Instead they stratify the data according to region, type of house and so forth and produce a rather messy weighted figure that could arguably be said to be the typical value - but it certainly isn't an average.

You can argue whether they should be rather clearer about just what the figure they are producing is, rather than calling it the average house price as they do, but at least it is a meaningful figure.

In other statistics, I'm afraid the press simply gets the words wrong. Quite often a government bureau will publish a median value and an average - they do so on earnings, for instance. What the media often does is to take the median value, because it's more meaningful, but calls it the average (presumably because they think the poor public can't cope with a hard word like 'median'). That's just bad journalism.

This distortion of the average is something that politicians wishing to attack another party and not being too scrupulous about their statistics can use to their advantage. If we want to tax those on high earnings and find the tax hits someone on the average wage, then there is an outcry, because that seems to imply that it hits the majority of ordinary people – but the majority actually earn less than the average wage. The naughty politician can play the numbers even more effectively by putting two people on an average wage into a household. Now we are not only using individuals that earn more than most, but a household where both partners do so. This pushes their collective income up so high that it puts the household in the top 25 per cent of all households, even though we are talking about two people who are on an average wage.

There's a simple message. Whenever you hear 'average' in statistics on the news or see them presented, it's worth taking the numbers with a pinch of salt unless you can verify just what lies behind that value.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Turing's statue

There is a Turing statue in Manchester, but frankly
it's unrecognisable. You can do better, guys.
There is nothing editors like more than anniversaries. Recently I suggested a feature to a magazine. 'It could work,' they said, 'as long as you can find an anniversary to tie it to. We need a hook.' Frankly, this is a load of rubbish. The reading public really doesn't care why a magazine or newspaper is coming up with a particular story as long as it's interesting. But editors feel they have to devise a justification. They need a reason that a particular story should be used, so they arbitrarily use the factor of a significant date. It keeps them happy, bless them.

This being the case, we can expect a flood of books on Alan Turing as it was the 100th anniversary (wey-hey!) of his birth in June. Leaving aside the fact Turing would certainly have preferred a binary anniversary (2018 will be the 1000000th anniversary of his death), I'm currently reading the first of these books for review. I don't want to talk about that book itself here (it's Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age by Jack Copeland) as it will be reviewed on very soon - suffice it to say it's shaping up well - but I would like to shamelessly steal what appears to be Jack Copeland's thesis.

This is that the remarkable things we remember Turing for are probably his lesser contributions to the world. Many know that Turing was one of the leading codebreakers dealing with the Enigma and Tunny machines at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. And we may well remember Turing's contributions to the idea of artificial intelligence, with the 'Turing test' that is supposed to show whether or not a computer can pass itself off as a human being. And the tragic end to his life, committing suicide after being handled terribly by the ungrateful authorities (who should have been treating him like a national hero) because he was a homosexual. But there is even more to this remarkable man who, in his biography, sometimes comes across a little like Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.

Arguably the reason we should really remember Turing is that at the most fundamental level he invented the modern computer. Forget Babbage - well, no don't forget him, but cast him, as Copeland does as grandfather of the computer. It was Turing that dreamed up the real thing. In a sense it was just a throwaway initially. His theoretical universal computing machine was devised as a way of exploring an abstruse (though important) aspect of mathematics. But as Turing himself came to realise, this was much more. In effect, what Turing did was invent computer science. Pretty well everything else everyone else has done that is labelled 'computer science' is the engineering to put Turing's vision into practice. Turing's work was the 'theory of everything' of computing.

Companies like IBM, Apple, Microsoft and Google should be putting up statues in his honour all around the world faster than you can say 'serious profits.'

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Look first, then tell the world

With some regularity I get sent emails about scams, viruses and strange things that Facebook is going to do. Almost always these are accompanied by a request to pass them on the world and its aunty. And there's the thing. Because almost always these dire warnings (some of them very dire) are themselves a form of virus. What they describe is totally fictional, a hoax that by panicking people into spreading the word, reproduces and travels the world. It is this 'chain letter' effect that is, in fact, the awful payload.

Whenever I get these warning emails and Facebook messages my first step is to pop over to Snopes (thanks to Andy Grüneberg for introducing this to me many years ago). Snopes is primarily a way of checking out urban myths, but most of the time these spoof warnings also get a write-up.

So, for instance, I recently got an email from someone, asking me to pass on to everyone I know a warning about cards being left by Parcel Delivery Service. Anyone who rang up to have their parcel redirected got landed with a bill of £315 for making a phone call to a premium rate number. There was, of course, no parcel. This warning is vastly out of date. The scam did exist - but the bill was £9 not £315. More to the point, the number being warned about was deactivated in 2005. It was a real problem (and may well still be with a different name and number) - but the specific warning doing the rounds in 2012 was 7 years out of date. It was a ghost warning, a Flying Dutchman of a warning.

I was also warned about a virus that showed a happy smiling Gordon Brown (okay, that's weird, I admit). PLEASE INFORM EVERYONE said the much copied message. Open the attachment with Gordon's pic and your PC will be trashed by an 'Olympic Torch' that burns your whole hard disc. Don't get me wrong. Viruses exist and can do damage. But whenever you get an email or Facebook message it's worth checking, because chances are that these 'Pass it on to everyone' messages are fakes.

When I've established it's a fake there's the difficult decision. It's not to bad if the warning was simply a Facebook post. You can just add a comment. But it's harder when someone has just sent the warning to everyone in their address book. Do you point out it's a spoof? Probably you should, as really they should be warning all their friends not to pass on this message. But it always seems a bit mean.

So here's the thing. Next time you hear about a terrible email that will make your computer explode if you open it, or the latest phone scam, or Facebook's latest outrageous terms and conditions, pop over to Snopes first (another good source is Hoax Slayer) pop in a few keywords and check it out. You could save yourself time and embarrassment.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Getting that vinegary feeling

My latest podcast for the Royal Society of Chemistry is not about some complex biological molecule, or even the sort of serious compound that is treated with respect in the lab. We're talking about an acid that's so weak we're happy to shake it onto our food, whether it's an essential condiment for chips or to give a salad dressing a bite. To be fair, this is because vinegar is only very dilute acetic acid.

But in some ways the most interesting chemicals are the ones we hardly notice, they are such an everyday part of life. So pop along to the RSC compounds site - or if you've five minutes to spare, click to to have a listen to my podcast on vinegar.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Sorry, CofE, you have made me angry

Generally speaking, the Church of England is an underrated organization. As religious organizations go it is moderate and caring. CofE vicars do a remarkably good job on the whole in difficult circumstances. The local church still plays a role in its community, particularly when it comes to big events like weddings and funerals. But the recent women bishops debacle was terrible.

What I find bizarre is what has happened is due to an abysmal organizational structure, not in any sense a reflection of the will of the majority. If you look at the Synod, the 'parliament', only one of the 3 houses, the laity (i.e. the ordinary folk) didn't pass the motion for women bishops. But the church also has local synods, based on the diocese structure. Of these, 42 out of 44 supported women bishops. So how was the vote lost? Where's the representation in this?

The anti-vote comes from a strange (some might say un-holy) alliance of the two extreme wings of the church - it's as if the extreme right and the extreme left came together in parliament. The extreme right, the  anglo-catholics, basically don't want anything that's different from Roman Catholics, so don't want women priests at all, let alone bishops. The extreme left, the evangelicals, take a very literal view of the Bible as their guide. The trouble is, their interpretation relies on two dubious points. That the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and that you should apply magic.

Let me clarify that. The first bit ignores that a) the Bible most people read is a translation, and b) that was written by men. Like it or not, the Bible and the doctrine of the early church was decided by men with an agenda. It is very clear just from comparing the four gospels, describing the same events in sometimes conflicting fashion, that each book was written to get a particular message across, and slant things accordingly. They are not historically accurate documents, each is worded to establish one particular view. And one faction of the early church very much wanted the message that woman should keep quiet and know their place. It seems pretty clear that Jesus himself was atypical of Jewish attitudes of the period and treated women as equals - but the men who set up the early church were not comfortable with this.

As far as I understand it, the two arguments against women bishops are these. 1) The apostles - the 12 who Jesus set up to pass on the message - were all men, so bishops should be men, and 2) Jesus was a man (can't argue), so priests (let alone bishops) should be men to represent Jesus (that's the magic bit). The first argument is irrelevant. There were female disciples and the only reason we only hear about male apostles is because that's what suited the bible writers, and because it was what worked with the social structures of the time. It doesn't work for the present.

I'm being provocative but accurate when I label that second argument as an appeal to magic. There is no reason why a woman can't represent a man. (My MP has been a woman several times.) The only reason you could argue against a woman is if somehow the magic won't work if a priest/bishop is a woman. That's not right. It's just silly. A representation is a model, it's not the real thing. The fact that Jesus was a man - so what? He was also a Jew. If you take this argument seriously you would only allow Jews to be priests or bishops. Why draw the line at a man? I'm happy for you to say only a human being could represent him, so sorry, no canine applications for bishop. But no women? Give me strength.

My only positive take on all this is that it will be sorted. I can say with some confidence that the Church of England will have women bishops fairly soon. Certainly before the Roman Catholic church has women priests - or Moslem religious organisations have women in positions of authority. I've heard some people say that equality law should apply to the Church of England - and I agree. But only if it also applies to all religions. Good luck with that one.

Quick addition: thanks to Henry Gee for pointing out another potential 'reason' that is flawed. Apparently some people cite one of the epistles in which we are told women should not have authority over men. But the word used is mistranslated. It is not the Greek word for authority as used elsewhere in the Bible but rather implies sexual licence. It seems the writer was warning against getting together with the dubious priestesses of some of the other religions.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Science needs stories

Scientists are fond of moaning about science writers, saying we simplify the science too much. This is sometimes true, though to be fair, some science needs simplification, and it’s better to say something in a simple way that’s not the whole story than to say it in a way that is totally incomprehensible. But historians of science have a different complaint. They reckon we are too fond of stories.

So science books, for example, will tell you about Newton’s amazing breakthroughs (quite possibly inspired by an apple falling), or Einstein turning physics on its head. But the historians will grumble and groan saying, ‘No, it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t a straightforward story of one hero making the breakthrough, it was a whole lot of tiny steps, some of them backwards, by a whole range of people, that come together to make the big picture.’

There is an element of truth in this, but it is an argument that’s only any use if you have an audience of computers. People need stories. That’s how we understand the world. And science needs stories if we are to get a wider understanding of science. Because popular science is here to get the story of science across, not the story of history. If we have to slightly simplify history to do this, I think it’s worth it. The fact is, all heroes are human beings with flaws. All processes of scientific discovery are flawed and often piecemeal. But we don’t do harm by making a coherent story of it, we get the message across.

Sometimes the obsession historians have with denying the existence of story can go too far. I’ve seen, for instance, some dismiss the business of Newton and the apple. Yet this story is  not based on a book produced after Newton’s death, it’s taken from an account of a conversation with Newton from a (relatively) reliable source. I personally am quite confident that Newton said he was inspired by seeing an apple fall. (Not that one fell on his head – that is rubbish.) Whether he was storytelling himself, of course, we can’t know. But why must we assume that he was? Give the guy a break!

Here’s a different example of a good story being denied by a historian. British physicist Arthur Eddington led an expedition in 1919 to observe a total eclipse of the sun, which was intended to support Einstein’s general relativity. The interesting story popular science writers tend to tell about this is that the observations he took were insufficient to support the idea that Einstein was right – and results from another expedition at the same time told the opposite story. It has since been shown that the instruments used could never have produced values of sufficient accuracy to support or disprove the theory. Now that’s a good story, because it suggests that – as sometimes happens with science – Eddington was so enthusiastic to get the result he wanted that he didn’t worry too much about the experiment.

However, in an article in Physics World magazine in 2005, Eddington biographer and historian Matthew Stanley commented that this is a myth ‘based on a poor understanding of the optical techniques of the time’ and that Eddington did not throw out data that was unfavourable to Einstein. But that was never suggested. The suggestion is, rather, that Eddington based his analysis on too little data, ignored someone else’s contradictory data, and hadn’t good enough equipment to be sure anyway. It’s hard not to assume that Dr. Stanley was a bit too enthusiastic in sticking up for his subject.

Overall, I think historians of science are right that we should allow some ‘warts and all’ into popular science – and from my reading of it, there is more than there used to be. But we will always need stories to help us understand science and its context, and if those stories sometimes oversimplify the history to get to the science I, for one, won’t complain.

This piece first appeared on and is reproduced with permission.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

They can play 'Happy Days Are Here Again'

We have a friend who has her funeral organized to the last detail - and has had for years. She has written down exactly what she wants to happen and exactly what bits of music she wants to be sung/played when. For all I know, she has probably written out the menu for the post-funeral meal. Perhaps less extreme, at the moment there is a Co Op Funeral Service ad on the TV (am I the only one who thinks this isn't an ideal subject for TV advertising? - if you think differently, you can enjoy some of their funeral ads here) where someone tells us 'My song? It's got to be "I Did It My Way"', referring, of course, to what he wants played at his funeral. I listen to this kind of thing with an eyebrow dramatically raised. Frankly I don't get it.

At my funeral, if those present want to, they can sing Happy Days Are Here Again while hopping round on their left legs playing the ukelele banjo. Or sit in complete silence. Whatever works for them. Surely this is the point. I really won't care myself. Whether you are religious or not, we can surely agree on one thing. I won't be there. So what does it matter to me? It's the people who are left behind who will be struggling to cope, and it's their feelings that will be important.

As long as they are comfortable with whatever happens, as long as it helps them, it will be right thing. I love Tudor and Elizabethan church music. If I were going to a funeral, I would squirm in my seat if I had to listen to a boombox belting out Frank Sinatra - but some tudorbethan music would really help me. But for my own funeral I truly hope that, if there is any music, they use whatever works for them.

So do me a favour. If you are thinking of having your funeral soon and inviting me, forget 'My Way'. Make it something like this. I'd even sing along:

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Sigil - SF with the bones left in

When I was a teenager I very much enjoyed E. E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series. These six novels were, frankly, pretty poorly written - but the sweep of the story arc - the sheer scale of a storyline that spanned over 2 billion years - was astounding. And in some ways, the Sigil trilogy by Henry Gee, which I've just finished reading, has a similar impact (though the writing is considerably better). And yet it's not really 'space opera', because most of the action takes place on Earth.

Some of the ideas in these books are astonishing, with the sun threatened by a herd of star-eating phenomena (not exactly living, but sort of) that were created soon after the big bang, an Earth civilization going back millions of years and the discovery of a whole range of hominids other than Homo sapiens still living on Earth, plus an archeological dig uncovering a vast underground city older than any known human civilisation and a massive space battle millions of years ago. That's a whole lot to conjure with.

This is without doubt 'hard' science fiction in the sense that the science plays a central role and as much as possible is real science - though unusually, thanks to Gee's background in palaeontology, there is not just fancy physics but a lot about the development of different hominid species too. And yet these books do not shy away from the softer aspects of life. There's a lot about people in here. And a lot of religion. Somewhat surprisingly, Catholics probably get the best of the deal. You won't be put off you are an atheist - but you do need to be prepared to think a bit about religion, rather than just dismiss it with a Dawkinsian knee-jerk reaction.

There is also sex. Rather a lot of sex. You'll be pleased to know it's no 50 Shades, but there are some fairly explicit scenes and language, so you might think twice before giving it to a 12-year-old. Interestingly quite a lot of the sex is not between humans, but is still made fairly steamy. There is also some stomach-churning description of man's (or at least hominid's) inhumanity to man - one image will stay with me forever, and I'd rather it didn't. So not always a pleasant read - and quite spooky when I happened to get onto a section where Israel is under a massive attack at almost exactly the same time as the latest escalation of violence in the Middle East.

There are things I wish were different. I'm not a great fan of long books, and taking the trilogy as a whole (because it's not really three separate books), it was too long for me. I also found the way chapter-to-chapter it jumps back and forward in time, sometimes millions of years, confusing. I am a bear of little brain when it comes to fiction. Too many flashbacks in a movie or book leave me floundering, and here, pretty well every other a chapter is a flashback to around six different times in the past. In fact at one point, when the main 'current' timeline story was particularly gripping, I confess I skipped an entire flashback chapter just to get on with it.

If I was going to be really picky, I also don't understand how one of the main characters can suddenly pull the whole thing together with an explanation near the end. It's useful, but I don't know how he knows (even though he is the Pope (don't ask)). Overall, though, this is a book I'm really glad I read - and if you like science fiction with a sweeping scale, and can cope with a mix of sex, violence, philosophy and religion in your SF, this is unmissable. I don't want to give too much away, but the central concept is as outrageously impressive as Douglas Adams' idea of the Earth being a computer set up by the mice that is destroyed just before it can come up with an answer (in fact, come to think of it, there are even certain parallels...)

The Sigil comes in three books - Siege of Stars, Scourge of Stars and Rage of Stars, but really it's all one big book which you can buy in one lump (something I'd recommend), either as a paperback or an ebook. You can get it straight from the publisher's site in all formats, or from as paperback, on Kindle (this is individual books, for some reason the single ebook version isn't on Amazon) or as paperback and for Kindle.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Butterflies and toilets

What do a South American butterfly and motorhead TV presenter Richard Hammond have in common? Both have a need to avoid close contact with water. In his 2012 BBC programme Richard Hammond’s Miracles of Nature, Hammond demonstrates an all too common problem: dropping a phone down the toilet.

Apparently 19 per cent of us admit to having had this accident occur at some point. It’s all too easy, particularly if you have a phone in a breast pocket and bend over – or simply slip while holding your handset in the smallest room. We won’t resort to Hammond’s dodgy statistics: he combines the 40 per cent who admit to taking their phones into the loo in the first place (what do the other 60 per cent do with their phones, leave them by the door?) with that 19 per cent to suggest half of those who take their phones drop them down the pan. However, there is no doubt that the toilet and all the other water hazards we face from puddles to simply using our phones in the rain put those most essential of personal gadgets at risk.

Rather in the same way that I recently took a look at the lotus leaf effect in my series Nature’s Nanotech, Hammond was inspired by the magnificent electric blue wings of the morpho butterfly. Living in the rainforest, this large-winged butterfly is in constant danger of inundation, bombarded by large water droplets in a way that could cause its fragile wings permanent damage.

To avoid every truly coming into contact with water, the butterfly’s wing surfaces are covered in a series of sharp-edged ridges, making a repeated waffle-like pattern. When a drop of water hits the wing, only a tiny part of the droplet – less than one per cent of the surface – ever comes into contact with the wing. There is no wetting effect – the droplet just rolls off, leaving the wing undamaged. And this is exactly what Hammond wants to see happen to his phone.

To see just what’s possible, Hammond takes a trip to the Oxfordshire laboratories of our friends at P2i, where a nanopolymer coating produces a very similar hydrophobic water repulsion effect to the butterfly’s wings. To show just how much this approach could do for us, Hammond’s team knock up a Heath Robinson machine where water repellency ensures that things we normally can’t afford to get wet continue to function in simulated rainfall. We see:

  • A newspaper that droplets simply run off
  • An egg carton that won’t become sticky
  • Utensils and containers that don’t dribble or get dirty
  • A book you read on the beach or by the pool

With surely conscious echoes of the film The Man the White Suit, Hammond finally dons a coated white suit which takes everything that can be thrown at it: beans, coffee, red wine, mustard, fruit juices and soy sauce.

In that film, inventor Sidney Stratton, played by a young Alec Guinness, produces a new fabric that will never get dirty or wear out. Interestingly, clothing manufacturers hate the idea and take increasingly desperate measures to try to destroy Guinness’s pristine white suit. It’s rather surprising in some ways (but encouraging) that modern manufacturers of phones and sportswear take a rather different attitude and embrace the concept. There is one huge difference, though. In the end, the treatment causes Guinness’s fabric to break down, coming apart in pieces, where the surface coating used here has no impact on the substances in covers from fibres to electronic components on the inside of a phone.

This takes us back to the phone down the toilet – with a quick treatment at P2i, Hammond’s phone not only survives the submersion but rings underwater (rather him than me when it comes to holding it to his ear – and Richard, take off the bracelets next time, they will get soggy).

In the classic ‘light entertainment science’ mode that Hammond pioneered with the Sky series Brainiac, the programme rather firmly makes the point. This is something we really want for our phones. They are far too precious to be damaged by water – and the whole point of having a mobile is that you should be able to use it safely wherever you are.

I think Hammond missed an important point he made, which is that this is a concept with even more potential than the essential role of keeping phones safe. I know the coating is also used on trainers and some military clothing, but I would have thought there are a fair number of much broader applications, just as the Heath Robinson machine suggested, that go beyond the current imaginings of the marketers of this technology.

For the moment, though, our phones remain the main target for this technology. We shouldn’t think this is only a problem in the bathroom – there are plenty of other opportunities for water damage to phones that could be averted with well-applied water resistance. It’s time for that butterfly to stretch its wings.

Images - As seen on BBC 1's Miracles of Nature

Friday, 16 November 2012

Apple Maps - not so bad, but stupid

Finding my way around Swindon with Apple Maps
Wow, you have a Peacocks and two Greggs?! Respect.
People like to knock the big guy, and why not? We enjoy giving Starbucks a good kicking for not paying any tax in the UK, for instance. Traditionally Microsoft was always hated by many as the big corporate IT behemoth, but of late Apple has taken over this role. What used to be the cool rebel alternative has become mainstream, large and ... a target.

So it was delight for many when Apple kicked themselves firmly in the iOS with their Maps app. If you haven't come across the many Apple Maps jokes and the reason behind them, here's the thing. Google used to provide the mapping application used on iPhones and iPads. It was a very good mapping application - Google have been in this business a good time. But Apple decided they'd go it alone and do their own app. Which wasn't always perfect. To say the least. So much booing and hissing for Apple and kudos for Google (itself not insignificant in the corporate behemoth stakes).

However, I have to say my own experience of Apple Maps is rather different from the online wailing and gnashing of teeth. I use maps on my phone a lot. If I've got a meeting in London, for example, and emerge from a tube station, 10 second with Maps and I've oriented myself, know which road to walk down and I'm off. It's brilliant. And to be honest I have not found any real difference in this respect in switching from Google to Apple mapping.

For me, the idiocy with the Apple Maps change was not so much the errors - they were/will be fixed soon enough - it's the focus. The new Maps app was much hyped before launch because of its ability to do flyovers of a few cities. If you go to Apple's site describing the new operating system, it's the flyovers that stand out. Frankly, who cares? It's a gimmick, a toy you will play with for 2 minutes. But Maps is a bread and butter app. It delivers really important stuff day to day: finding your way around, specifically on foot. (Yes, it has turn by turn directions for cars, but I prefer my satnav which tells me the names of the streets and doesn't stop working when I lose signal.) To concentrate on the flyovers feature is a bit like Word making a big thing of WordArt. Yes, it's pretty, but it's not what Word is mostly used for. If the developers had concentrated on how people actually use Maps, rather than the gimmicks, they would have done a better job in the first place.

And I think that's a lesson for business as a whole.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Turning Japanese (I really think so)

There's something special and just a little bizarre about receiving translations of books - here is something you are being paid for, that should contain your thoughts,  and yet you have not got a clue what is actually in it. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure the translator has done a superb job, I just don't have any idea what this book says. It could be the (very large) instruction manual for some hi-tech equipment for all I know. But what book is it? Could you guess from the cover? I'll come back to this later.

As you can see from the photo (and the title of the post is a bit of a give away), this is a Japanese translation, and rather a handsome hardback. If you aren't sure if a book is Japanese or Chinese, in my experience the Japanese translations usually come with those distinctive paper strip covers (the yellow bit at the bottom) that only stretch to half or less of the book's size.

When I get translations like this I usually give them away when I do talks if I can find anyone in the audience who speaks the appropriate language,  but as I've several to spare, I would be happy to provide one to any readers of this blog who would like them - I just ask that you pay the post & packing, which I reckon will be £4 in the UK, £5 for the EU - I'm asked not to send them outside the EU. If you would like a copy, just drop me an email at with your address and I'll let you know how to pay for the postage.

Oh, and what was the book? It's Gravity.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Where does money come from?

Listening to one of the RSA's excellent 15 minute 'Four Thought' talks on Radio 4 the other day I was struck how naive I was about how money was created. And I think I'm not alone. When I say how money is created, I don't mean companies earning it, I mean extra money added to the supply. My naive reaction would have been 'The Bank of England does it - quantitative easing, that sort of thing.' But actually the BoE is a small player in this.

The reason I missed the point is that I hadn't really thought about what ordinary high street banks do with money. Don't get me wrong. I wasn't like a young friend of ours many years ago who thought that the bank had a series of shoe boxes (or equivalent), and when she paid money in, they put it in her shoe box in the safe. I knew the money you pay in just enters the system and can go anywhere. But I hadn't thought about another aspect of dealing with banks.

Let's imagine you go to your bank and get a loan. You can do it online in about 2 minutes - it's frighteningly easy. At the end of the process, the bank waves that magic wand and the amount you borrow - £1,000, say - is in your account. Nothing has actually moved anywhere. All they have done is increased the number on the computer file that says 'Brian's balance' (my electronic shoe box). And here's the totally amazing thing. They just created that money. They didn't need anything to back up that number. They just changed the value and hey presto there was more money in the system. Simples.

And scary. That is, on the whole, how money is made without any need for any reserves to back it up. Which it's hard not to see as a contributory factor in the financial mess we got into. You can hear the original talk here and I recommend it.