Saturday, 31 March 2012

Kindle Spring Sale

I'm breaking my usual absence of posts at the weekend to comment on the Amazon Kindle spring sale. They have a range of new books on sale at ridiculously cheap prices. I'm most interest because my latest book (which hasn't been mentioned here because it technically doesn't come out until 5 April, though it has been spotted in Waterstones) The Universe Inside You is one of these books, just 99p in the UK and $1.57 in the US.

Some have questioned whether it makes good business sense to sell a book that costs £12.99 (admittedly often quite heavily discounted from this) for just 99p in ebook form. I think as long as it is a limited duration offer, as this is, it makes a very good way of drawing a new book to people's attention. After all, for 99p it is surely worth taking a punt - and with awareness enhanced, it will hopefully then be more obvious as a print book.

The process started yesterday and so far it seems to be going pretty well. At the time of writing, The Universe Inside You is the #54 bestselling paid Kindle book in the UK, second only to The Selfish Gene (also currently 99p) in science.

I'll be posting some more detail about The Universe Inside You in a few days time... for the moment, it is an interesting reflection of the benefits ebooks bring. You can't do this sort of promotional pricing on real books, but ebooks give the flexibility to use a short-term discount to draw attention to both the electronic and paper versions.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Not happy with Holiday Inn

See, we have culture in Swindon
Yesterday I had to hang around for about an hour on the outskirts of Swindon. I know you are thinking that sounds a bit like some sort of 'outer circle of hell' joke, but you are cruel, and indulging in a malicious stereotype. Swindon is really quite nice. There wasn't time to go anywhere with a nice little coffee shop or even Starbucks, so I popped into the nearby Holiday Inn for a quite acceptable if rather expensive cappuccino.

Out came the iPad (in fact I am writing this blog on it in the Holiday Inn coffee shop right now, yesterday, if you'll pardon the time mangling). When I know I'm going to have time to kill I always take my iPad with me and that does everything I need. In fact, thanks to the ubiquitousness of free Wi-fi I don't even bother to download anything as I know all my latest work will be there on Dropbox ready to access.

So I hit the Wi-fi button and up pops 'Holiday Inn Swindon Wi-fi' as you would expect. I click on 'Lounge Access'. (Does this make me a lounge lizard? Who remember the Larry game?) And I'm told it will cost me £5 for an hour. What? I can get free Wi-fi in Starbucks. I can get free Wi-fi in my local independent coffee shop. I get it free in pretty well every hotel I've stayed in for the last two years. But Holiday Inn want to charge me £5 for an hour. Giving free Wi-fi is a no-brainer.  It doesn't usually cost the business much on top of their Internet connection and it has become an expected essential. Charging for it is a bit like charging for a chair.

It's not even as if the coffee was particularly cheap. As I have said previously, I'm prepared to pay a premium for a nice place to sit. But I expect it to have the basic amenities. A chair, a table, access to a toilet, heating and light where necessary. And Wi-fi. I really don't think it's too much to ask.

(In case anyone is worried for my efficient use of time, I still had plenty to do offline, what with writing this post and reading an ebook I had already downloaded for research. But it's the principle of the thing.)

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Ooh, er, bishop

A Lord Spiritual, not in the House
I am not an atheist or a rabid religion basher like our good friend Dr Dawkins. In fact, like Martin Rees I am very fond of the Church of England. But I am afraid I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea, apparently supported by all the main political parties, that the reformed House of Lords should retain a built-in set of bishops.

The main argument seem to be that there have always been 'Lords Spiritual', ever since the House of Lords was founded over 700 years ago. So what? Until it was banned there had always been dog fighting and bear baiting. Tradition is only a useful argument when it has some bearing on morale or makes a good profit, which hardly seems to be the case here.

It's not that I think bishops should be excluded from the House. I'd be happy to see them there. I just don't think they should have reserved places, they should be elected (or whatever the mechanism) like everyone else. If they are to stay, I think we should have lots of other places prescribed for specific occupations. Seriously - I would be very happy to take one of the places allocated to science writers. But if we don't get a set of reserved slots (and there are more of us than there are bishops) I don't see why they should.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Why are online festival bookings so rubbish?

On Sunday I kindly offered to attempt to make my children's bookings for Radio 1's Hackney Weekend. It was an experience all too familiar to anyone who has attempted to make an online booking for a ticket for a major festival.

To begin with, the site simply crashed with the sheer weight of people trying to get on it, producing error messages that suggest it didn't like your IP address, but I think were simply just its way of saying 'I can't cope!'

For the next hour, every attempt put you through to a holding page that said the booking page was too busy. What was mildly fascinating about this (you take fascination where you can when you are spending an hour repeatedly clicking the refresh button) was that the design of the screen seemed to change several times. I'm not just referring to the times when it only half-loaded and you got a text version, but even when you got the whole thing there seemed to be at least three different versions of it.

Then - joy, oh, joy, the buying screen came up - only to time out before all the information could be input.

For the next 20 minutes elusive sightings of the buying screen would disappear with dashed hopes, especially when over-enthusiastic clicking meant that the refresh button was clicked when the buying screen was on its way, returning me to the holding screen.

But finally, finally, I did manage to get them both a ticket. One and a half hours of mind-numbing tedium. Were they grateful? That's another story.

What I was struck by, though, was the sheer awfulness of a website for this sort of task. If you were designing a real computer system to deal with this, an entry module would hand out queue numbers (behind the scenes) - you'd go into a queue. While you were waiting you would gradually bubble up the queue and your position could be shown on screen. When you reached the top of the queue you could join the however many people the buying screen could cope with and have (say) 5 minutes to complete your transaction. It would be painless, there would be no fiddling about and crashing as 50,000 people tried to access the same web page simultaneously.

In the real computing world this should be relatively easy. Booking systems are not exactly a new idea for computing. Is it really beyond the wit of web programmers to embed some sort of queueing system into a web database? A lot of brownie points would go to the people who sort this out.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The candidate dilemma

Political parties are anything but scientific (and let's face it, many politicians are totally ignorant about science). In one way, at least, it's rather good that they are so scientifically naive. If they weren't they could be even more devious.

I'm reflecting on some remarkable information in an equally remarkable book, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind (take a look at my enthusiastic review of it). In one of those lovely bits of research that psychologists delight in doing, a group at Princeton discovered that when people were shown pairs of photos of candidates for various political roles (the participants did not know the people, or what party they stood for) and were asked to assess which was the more competent of the two, around two thirds of the time they picked the person who actually won the political contest.

It wasn't that they were always picking the most attractive person - snap judgements of attractiveness did not predict victory so well. They were picking the person who looked most likely to do a good job. And the amazing thing is that they could do this in one tenth of a second.

That's it. Forget all your campaigning and policies and goodness knows what. Pick the more competent looking candidate, get their image widely seen, and you're there (two thirds of the time). I can only assume from the look of many of our politicians that they are not currently chosen this way. But how long will it be...?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Imaginary friends

The only writer's block I have
I saw a lovely quote a couple of days ago (thanks to Lynn Price of Behler Publishing). It was along the lines of 'Writer's block - when even your imaginary friends won't talk to you.' It's partly such a clever line, but also, for me, emphasizes the fictional nature of writer's block. You can always write - not necessarily at your best, but that's what editing is for.

However, the reason I brought it up here was a completely different reason. A few weeks ago we went to see the comedian Chris Addison (the one behind the desk in the Direct Line adverts for UK readers). I'd never been to an evening of pure standup, so wondered if it could hold up for a whole show (after all, the likes of 'Live at the Apollo' are heavily edited so you only see the best bits). In fact it could, and he was great.

Addison seemed particularly lucky with his audience. He asked the audience a couple of questions and hit rich seams both times. On one of these occasions he asked if anyone had lied to their children. The story that emerged, about an imaginary friend, is just wonderful and worth repeating.

The woman who answered said that one of her children had an imaginary friend, and his younger sister was upset because she too wanted an imaginary friend, but hadn't got one. The mother switched into 'lie' mode and said 'That's not a problem, darling. I'm going to give you an imaginary friend.' And she put out her hands and picked up a chunk of air and passed it to the little girl.

She had expected a postive reaction. But the girl stared at the space in front of her and burst into tears. 'What's the matter?' asked the mother.

The girl managed to speak through her sobs. 'But I didn't wan't a parrot!' she said.

You really couldn't make it up.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Newspapers and science

Among the mystery guests in our bodies
covered in the article
I've got a piece I wrote on a science subject in one of the national newspapers on Sunday. It might be a little surprising to learn that it's in the Mail on Sunday.

I'll be honest, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday aren't the newspapers that spring to mind immediately when it comes to science. The Mail has a reputation for having a constant programme of announcing that different foods and drinks either cause or prevent cancer (or both). But I have to say that with newspapers, the reality is often quite different from the caricature.

I'm reminded of many moons ago when I attended the Microsoft Windows 95 launch. (As an aside, I got the best giveaway I've ever had a product launch - a Windows 95 shoulder bag that I'm still using today.) It was at a venue in Leicester Square and the audience were all sitting round tables for a meal before the event proper. I was sitting next to the Sun's business editor. We all, I suspect, have an image of people who work for a red top like the Sun. Brash, Jack-the-lad types. Kelvin Mackenzie and Piers Morgan clones. In fact, said business editor was urbane, clever and personable. And rather shy.

Similarly, my experience with the Mail on Sunday has been very positive. They ran a superb review of my Inflight Science written by Alain de Botton last year - and this piece I've just done for them has been a delight to write. What's more, there was no attempt to dumb it down - it fact they asked me to put more science in it than my first draft had.

So if you want to see what I'd modestly have to say is a rather interesting piece about the various invaders in our body that help us rather than cause us problems (a non-trivial number of them when you consider we have ten times as many non-human cells in our bodies than we have human cells), take a look at the Mail on Sunday this weekend (25 March 2012).

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Save NASA's robots

I gather from the Beeb that 'swingeing cuts' have been proposed to NASA's robotic exploration budget. It seems that there is going to be a change in priorities away from unmanned explorers as 'The FY2013 budget proposal shifts funds to human spaceflight and space technology...' This is madness.

If you think of what NASA has achieved over the years, we get far more value from its satellites and robotic missions than from human spaceflight. Manned exploration is primarily a political showcase. Of course there are always things a human being can do better - but when you weigh up the risk in human lives and the vastly increased cost to support human beings against all the benefits that we've had from satellites and probes it's a no-brainer.

If they really want to seriously trim NASA's budget - and science needs to accept that it can't be exempt, even though I would argue that R and D, science and creativity are things you really don't cut in a recession if you want to get out of it - then they should discard all spending on human spaceflight and focus on the stuff that really delivers. It's time space science stopped being a way of showing off who as the biggest willie and started being a truly scientific venture that has a proper grasp of costs and benefits.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The tax morality dilemma

It's all about the money (money, money)
It's budget day in the UK and there is much headscratching about taxation and its avoidance. There was a fascinating discussion about the morality of tax avoidance on yesterday's Channel 4 News between representatives of a conservative think tank and UK Uncut which calls itself 'a grassroots movement taking action to highlight alternatives to the government's spending cuts'.

Tax avoidance is one of those things that it's so easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to - 'We need to clamp down on it!' - but when you start looking at it in detail, it's not all black and white. Tax avoidance is about keeping your personal tax burden to a minimum - realistically, who wants to pay more tax than they legally have to?

At its most morally friendly, tax avoidance is putting your savings in a tax-free ISA. That way you avoid paying the tax on the interest you would otherwise pay. Few would argue this is a problem. Then there's the middle ground. So, for instance, anyone who owns their own company will have some leeway on deciding whether the individual or the company pays tax on various items. For example, the individual could buy a computer and pay the tax on it, or the company could buy it and not pay the tax. If it's for business use, most people would argue it's morally okay to avoid the tax - yet you will hear moans about 'sharp practices.'

Then there are the still (currently) legal, but dodgy feeling things, like setting up a trust to buy your house so you don't have to pay normal levels of stamp duty. That's where things get a little unsure. Finally there's the out-and-out illegal cases that are tax evasion. So, for instance, if you take payment in cash and miss out the VAT.

What was so fascinating about that interview is that the UK Uncut guy was arguing that the absolute morally worst example (taking cash and not declaring it) was okay, because this was just a small person making ends meet, not a rich fat cat or company raking in the profits. That is such hypocrisy. If you decide to bring morality into a taxation issue, then the last thing you can do is let through an example that breaks the law, just because it's not the person you want to hurt. Morals aren't like that. If it's wrong, it's wrong. Make your mind up guys. Do you want tax to be about morals or not?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

More ammo for the climate sceptics

The hottest year on record? We don't know
Scientists have to be precise. It is their downfall when they try to communicate. The media don't want precision, 'if's and 'but's and error bars. They want black and white 'facts'. It's not a trivial problem. If, as a scientist, you over-simplify then you are in danger of getting a twisted message across (and losing the respect of your peers). If, on the other hand, you apply normal scientific caution people switch off and your political opponents rip you to pieces.

This is a problem that climate scientists face all the time. Every time they revise something or hedge their statements with probabilities, or admit there are competing theories, those with a vested interest in playing down climate change wade in and give it to them with all guns blazing. And it wouldn't surprise me if this happens again with the recent announcement that they've changed their mind about what was the warmest year on record. 'If they can't even decide this,' the professional sceptics will crow, 'how can they possibly say what the climate will be like in 50 years time?'

The trouble is, deciding on the warmest year is not a trivial task. It is all very well to ask how the average temperature on the Earth is varying – but how do you find out the average temperature of such a huge body, with such varied weather at any one time? It isn’t actually possible to calculate a meaningful average for the whole world. Apart from anything else, there isn’t a good enough spread of weather stations evenly across the Earth’s surface to achieve this.

Instead, what they do is make use of 'temperature anomalies.' These compare the average temperature for the required year against long term averages using the same weather stations. That way you get a like-for-like comparison and can understand the way temperature is changing without knowing the 'real' average temperature across the world.

The trouble with this approach, producing those disputes over what is the hottest year since records began, is that the chosen year will vary depending on the spread of years you use for your long term average. Hence the fact we used to think the hottest year on record was 1998, but now it is 2010. So when the anti-climate change brigade leap on this, bear in mind it isn't a mistake, it's merely refining the data. It doesn't actually matter how you cut it - the different averaging processes all say that the decade up to 2010 was the hottest since records began. But it's fairly easy to fiddle around with the specific hottest year.

Not error, just the true scientific process. As I've said many times before, science isn't about 'true and unchanging facts' - dogma should be for religion, not science - it is about our best understanding given the data we have at the moment and will always be provisional and open to change in the future.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Forget the two car family - now we have the two broadband family

Sneaky new router hiding behind the TV
It's several weeks since we acquired our Apple TV box and it is getting very heavy usage. The quality of TV shows and movies from iTunes and Netflix is much better than I expected - generally indistinguishable from ordinary TV.

But a problem has reared its head. Inevitably the Apple TV box takes a hefty chunk of our internet bandwidth. If one person is watching TV this way and someone else wants to download a file or watch something on YouTube, the viewing becomes pretty well impossible, with lots of pauses and hiccups.

Where we live we can't currently get ultra-high speed broadband, because there is neither cable TV nor fibre optic cabling. (I find this bizarre in a yuppy estate built less than 10 years ago, but who can fathom the minds of BT and Virgin?) But luckily there was a solution.

As it happens, we have two phone lines into the house, one for my business, one for home. Our internet has always come off the business line. So I bit the bullet and got broadband on the home phone as well. In one of those rare bits of sensible planning by the housebuilder, there is a phone socket behind the TV, so I was able to hardwire the Apple TV to the new router, while our computer-based internet use still remains on the old router. Web heaven.

As an added bonus, if I want to do two heavy things at the same time, I can always hook up on the new router's wifi - and if my business broadband goes down (which it has twice so far for at least a day each time), I have a fallback. It isn't hugely expensive either... but somehow it does feel decidedly decadent, being a two broadband family.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Oh, goody. A book trailer (yawn)

I've just put a competition on the home page, giving away a copy of the excellent James Gleick's new book, The Information. When it had gone live, I was asked if I could add a link to the book trailer video. I did, but with gritted teeth. I really have no time for book trailers.

In the end, a book trailer is an advert for a book. I resent spending my time watching a video for this purpose. It's probably because I'm an old curmudgeon, but I'd much rather have written words than a video. It's all a matter of scanning.

If you give me a written press release on a book, I can scan the whole thing in about 10 seconds. If there's anything interesting I can then home in and read the detail I want. Video is so low tech in this regard. It's so twentieth century and linear. You have to sit through the thing in the order the maker put it in, at the speed they produced it. I want to control the input of media in my brain with this kind of thing.

I'm not saying I would never make a book trailer. I appreciate there are plenty of people for whom video works well, and so I'd be willing to give it a go. (And I even get mild entertainment from the trailer for one of my German books, even though it's not great.) But don't ask me to watch one. I don't have the patience and I resent not having the control.

In case you are interested, here is Gleick's trailer. It could be a good one, but I only got 5 seconds into it and got bored. I mean, it lasts over three minutes! If you like book trailers, why not watch it and give me a precis in the comments. Is it any good?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Service business 101: Starbucks Wars

My recent post about Stabucks versus Costa produced a surprising level of response, I think (as I indicated at the start of that post) because of a knee-jerk reaction to Starbucks-as-corporate-behemoth. But what I found fascinating in the comments was how many people don't understand the basics of the kind of business Starbucks is in, and think that it is all about selling great coffee. It really isn't. Before I was a science writer I spent a long time in business and I hope you won't mind a quick excursion into service business 101.

Some companies - the no frills ones, typically - are pretty much about what they seem. So EasyJet is in the business of getting people from A to B. But many businesses are really about something else - the experience. British Airways, for instance, is not primarily about getting you from A to B. They can get away with charging as much as 10 times what EasyJet does for the same journey because this is the case. Of course they have to do the basics as well - but the reason a customer goes to them and not to a no frills company is because of what they provide on top.

The same is true of most clothing shops. They are not really in the business of selling clothes, or they'd all be like Primark or George at ASDA. And, perhaps most starkly of all, most coffee shops are not about the quality of their coffee.

For one thing lots of people going in these places to buy coffee. But even if they do, it will usually be a secondary aspect of the visit. If I look at occasions I've drunk coffee in Starbucks I'd say about a third were to socialize with friends and family, about a third because I had to wait to do something else and wanted somewhere to sit, wait and use the Internet and about a third when I was in a strange place and needed somewhere I could rely on to deliver some refreshment with familiarity because I hadn't time to explore and find the better local version. Pretty well never was it because I wanted a great coffee. To be honest, coffee isn't that important in my life.

What you are buying with a service business like Starbucks is primarily the experience, not the coffee. And that's where in my humble-but-at-the-same-time-I-have-written-an-excellent-book-about-customer-service-recommended-by-Harvard-Business-School opinion Starbucks does a lot better than Costa.

You might wonder about takeaway coffee. Frankly there is no good reason for paying those prices for anyone's takeaway coffee. And if you have someone who makes better takeaway coffee that is convenient I can't see why anyone would sensibly buy from Starbucks. That a lot of people do is partly a testament to the power of brands, but also reflects the fact that Starbucks has some good locations. With takeaway convenience rules.

Think about it. Drinks like tea and coffee cost pence to make. Allow a 100 percent markup to make a profit - it's still pence. All the rest of the £2.30, or whatever you spend, is for something else.

One last observation - one of my commenters dug up the old 'I would never use Starbucks because they refused to serve war veterans' line. I can strongly recommend the website for checking out urban legends (despite their irritating pop-up advertising, the content is excellent) - and their analysis of this story makes really interesting reading. It is a fascinating insight into the way untrue rumours can spread, and in this case could even be changed from the original US soldiers to Royal Marines. But it appears the 'wouldn't serve war veterans' line is a total fabrication.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Storm in a teacup

The recent solar storm was a classic example of the way the impact of scientific information on our everyday lives can be misrepresented with the best of intentions (in this case to get a story noticed) but can result in more harm than good.

I happened to be appearing on our local BBC radio station on Saturday with the excellent Mark O'Donnell and inevitably the solar storm was a big talking point. There was much fun had with audience suggesting things that could be blamed on the storm (e.g. The crisps were all crushed in someone's packet, Swindon Town losing to Oxford) and that's not surprising as some of the coverage suggested we could expect the end of life as we know it, where in practice no one noticed anything.

The problem is that the media is terrified of using probabilities, so tends not to paint a good picture of an event which we can only predict the impact of in statistical terms. Instead we got dire warnings of the worst possible outcome, which given the reality made the reports look like scientists were crying wolf.

Although this one was a false alarm we do have to face up to the distinct possibility that at some point we will get a repeat of the great solar storm of 1859. This caused sparks to fly from telegraph poles, gave telegraph operators electric shocks and set recording paper on fire. The aurora boreal is visible throughout the UK and as far south as Rome.

There's no doubt such a zapping would damage some of our ground-based electronics, but the biggest impact would be on satellites which could be uniformly and permanently knocked out because they have less protection from the Earth's magnetic field.

Just think - no GPS, devastated weather forecasting, loss of satellite communications for TV, telephone and Internet. We wouldn't lose all our electronic world, but it would be severely restricted for at least a decade before satellite capability could be restored.

Oh and no Sky TV. Not all bad, then. (Sorry, Sky, you'd be missed really, I'm sure. I just couldn't resist the tradition of Murdoch bashing.)

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Exploring the Universe

Apologies to anyone who thinks my books are turning up rather too thick and fast this year - but I've got another one out! (It will be a bumper year: there are three more due out in the next six months.) On the other hand, it's very different from anything else I've done.

Exploring the Universe is a book of striking photographs in an exploration of astronomy and cosmology. It's a sort of manageable coffee table book - big enough for the photos to be impressive, but small enough to be able to read with your wrists falling off.

That reading part is important because although the pictures (around 100 of them) are a significant component of this book it was really important for me that the text was both readable and had plenty to say. I think a real danger with this kind of book is that they can be just a collection of pictures with some hastily assembled text. In this case I've tried to make sure that the text packs in plenty of fascinating information.

So, for example, while I hugely recommend the iPad Solar System app which inevitably is driven by the graphics, the book version of it was a bit of a let down, because the text is too bitty. In my tour through the universe, the text came first - and it flows through the book, rather than being a set of tiny standalone articles.

I ought to explain one thing - the title. It might sound like a book on space exploration, but I wanted to make the point that our main vehicle for exploring the universe is light, not spacecraft. Going out and experiencing things close up is never going to be an option for most of the universe. We have to rely on light in all its forms to enable us to find our way around our remarkable universal environment.

Take a look at the book's web page to find out more or buy a copy.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Starbucks versus Costa

I know some people think that Starbucks are on the same axis of corporate evil as McDonalds and Microsoft, but quite like them. I've recently had the opportunity to do a bit of a head to head comparison with their main UK competitor, Costa Coffee - and I'm afraid, Costa, for me Starbucks is well ahead.

It's interesting that last year Costa ran a 'we asked people to compare and 4 out 5 (or some such number) preferred our coffee to you know who.' This is falling for the dreadful Pepsi marketing error. Many years ago, Pepsi did taste tests and 'proved' that a lot of Coke drinkers prefered the taste of Pepsi. Pepsi entirely missed the point. People don't sit down, compare two colas on taste and buy the one they like better. When they buy Coca Cola, they buy the package - and when it comes to the whole ethos, Pepsi comes second best.

Similarly, it wouldn't really matter if Costa's coffees do taste a little better. Because that's not an issue. Starbucks coffee tastes fine. (I'm sorry coffee snobs, it does.) But the whole experience of going and having a coffee at a Starbucks is significantly nicer. Some key points to take note of, Costa:
  1. Starbucks premises have a lighter look and feel. Costa has dark wood to Starbucks' light wood. Result - you feel depressed the minute you walk in a Costa shop.
  2. The staff are better in Starbucks. I'm sorry, I don't know why, but they are. (It would be interesting to compare pay, but I don't know if that's the reason.) Starbucks staff are pretty well always cheerful and friendly. Costa grudgingly serve you. What's more, almost every Costa I've ever been in, all or almost all of the staff had English as a foreign language. This just doesn't help when you ask for anything that isn't straight off the menu board. It's a pain.
  3. The design of the counter is better in Starbucks. Practically every Costa I've been in has the serving bar too close to the till. So you end up with the queue to collect drinks running back into the queue for the till. Messy.
  4. The loyalty card system is better at Starbucks. With Starbucks I have an iPhone app that not only keeps track of my reward information, I can even use it to pay for my drinks. At Costa I have to manually enter the LONG card number into the website to check my points.
  5. The fun extras are better at Starbucks. I love the little card you get every week that has some iTunes giveaway like a book or music. Costa may do something, but I haven't seen it yet.
All in all - no contest. Get your act together Costa. It's not all about the coffee. Actually it's not mostly about the coffee. Coffee is cheap. We pay around £2 of that £2.30 not for the coffee but for the experience. Don't take this as a put down, take it as cheap consultancy. I'd normally charge several thousand pounds (and please do get in touch at if you'd like more detailed help). But you can have this for free.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 9 March 2012

Mindstretching time

Come on, it's Friday. Take a moment to give the leetle grey cells a spot of exercise. (Shut up, Hercule.) You may have heard this problem before. Don't stop reading if it seems familiar, though, we are going way beyond the usual conclusion.

Every morning a man gets into the lift (elevator) on the floor of the high rise block he lives in and rides down to ground level. Every evening he comes home, gets in the lift, rides up to the tenth floor (four floors below his own), gets out and walks the rest of the way. Why?

If you haven't heard it before, think about it for a while before reading on.





Now an extra piece of information. The man was easily tall enough to reach every button on the lift's control panel. Think about the problem some more. (I throw this in because the conventional 'right' answer is that the man is too short to reach any button higher than the 10th floor. But I'd like to expand your thinking beyond that 'right' answer.)





There are many possible solutions. The man could want a little exercise, but four floors of stairs are enough. He might suspect his wife of adultery and want to surprise her. He could stop off at a friend's flat four floors below for a drink each evening. And so on. But what if he actually has to get out rather than wants to - surely the conventional solution is now the only one? No. The higher lift buttons could be broken. The owners of the building could charge for each floor you ride up. He only has a ten floor ticket, so he has to walk the rest. Or there is building work going on in the afternoon which restricts the travel of the lift. Feel like arguing with these solutions? The traditional solution is equally frail - whenever there is someone else in the lift, a short person can get to the right floor. Or he could use a stick.

There are two useful lessons here. The first is that a late arriving piece of information can totally change your knowledge base - and it's difficult to give up an established position. The second is to observe just how many solutions there are - and how conditions can be used to question any idea, however valid. And a not so useful lesson - this also demonstrates why Sherlock Holmes style deduction is rubbish: there are always too many variables to strike lucky as often as he does.

If you come across such 'logic problems' in the future,  please look for alternative solutions.

Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 8 March 2012

E-ink begins to sink

A Kindle - be honest, does that look exciting?
There are reports about that e-book readers are in decline. Apparently Amazon has significantly cut orders of its Kindle e-book reader. This seems strange news, when you consider how we are always hearing that e-books are taking over the world, but I don't find it at all surprising.

I'd say there were two factors at play here. One is that people have increasing availability of other devices like phones and tablets (particularly iPads but also Kindle Fires etc.) that work perfectly well as an e-book reader. It's true that a Kindle has some benefits - it's lighter and it has the e-ink screen which is easier to read outside, and less of a strain on the eyes (not that I find an iPad a strain). But multipurpose mobile devices have become the norm. We no longer want a pure e-book reader, any more than we want a pure mobile phone.

The other factor is that e-ink is dull. I'm sorry, it is. Not only does it show you the world in black and white, it just looks rubbish. Comparing an e-ink screen with an iPad or iPhone screen (* other tablets and smartphones are available) is like comparing reading something printed on an old dot matrix printer with laser printer output. It looks old and tired and grey.

E-readers were the triumph of practicality over style - but consumers are fickle and rarely stick with pure practicality for long. E-ink has begun to sink.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My Loch Ness Monster photo

I ought to say straight away, to avoid any disappointment, that I don't have a photo of the Loch Ness Monster. Sorry. But I do have a picture that I think exhibits some of the features of many LNM (as we scientific types prefer to call Nessie) snaps.

This is something that I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't been peering at the picture quite intently. This might seem unlikely, but I happen to have this photo as a desktop background, as a result of which it tends to be in front of my nose quite a lot. And this is the first similarity I suspect with those who find pictures of the LNM (or ghosts or whatever). To do this, people are staring at a picture, in their case hoping to find something.

In my picture (cunningly pretending to be a Polaroid thanks to Picasa) you see a vertical streak of sunlight on the water to the left of the scene. The question is, is there a person in the water, or is that little blob about halfway up the whole image just a rock or an effect of the light? To an LNMologist that might be plenty to report a sighting of the beastie. But what is really there?

In case you think I'm now going to reveal the truth, I haven't a clue. Here's what it looks like in close up and it could well be a person... but it could equally well not be.

For that matter the blob on the left could be another person reclining (though if they are, they either have an enormous head or it's a Sontaran).

I really don't know for certain. And that's the point. Unless it's a fake, the kind of photo that is presented to 'prove' the existence of the LNM (or UFOs) is almost always this kind. One that's easy to interpret as what you want to see. A bit like toast with someone famous's face on it.

So there you have it. My Loch Ness Monster photo. What do you think? Person or not?

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

It's the Bible truth

It might seem a little odd to review a book of Bible scholarship in a blog that's primarily about science and science writing, but bear with me. This is no normal religious book - and I came to it because it was recommended by no less than Richard Dawkins.

I have to say I found this book, which looks at the way the copying of the New Testament of the Bible introduced errors into it over the years, fascinating. This was for three reasons. First because as a writer. It's remarkable to see such a study of how a series of manuscripts going back a couple of thousand years have accumulated errors and changes. Secondly it really makes you wonder about people who think the Bible is an inerrant source of guidance (Dawkins' main point) and thirdly it shows how some of Christianity's less popular aspects are probably not part of the original version.

Because the book is quite thorough in detail, it helps to really be interested in language and also to have a mild familiarity with the Bible - otherwise it could be a bit of an uphill struggle.

What Ehrman reveals is the way that our translations of the New Testament of the Bible are based on various copied manuscripts and how errors in copying (both accidental and intentional to change the meaning) made various versions drift away from the originals. The detective story of piecing this together is really interesting, especially bearing in mind we don't actually know exactly what the originals said, so textual analysis has to be used to try to pin down what are the changes and what was the earliest version.

This is clearly a body blow for any intelligent person who believes the Bible is the absolute word of God containing no errors. (If that's not an oxymoron.) Such people often take the King James (AV) Bible as their 'absolute truth' version - yet it turns out that the New Testament of this was taken from a single, pretty dubious, late Greek source. It gets lots of things wrong.

I won't go through all the interesting stuff, but one result of reading this is that St Paul has gone up in my estimation. Some of his letters in the Bible make him come across as seriously misogynistic. He appears to say that women shouldn't speak in public and should only do what they are told by their husbands. But it turns out this anti-female stuff was added later by a tinkering scribe who clearly wanted to assert the traditional place of men in society. The original has quite a lot that puts forward women as equals, including naming a female apostle, a female deacon and eminent female members of the congregation. So, sorry St Paul - I got you wrong.

All in all an absorbing read for anyone into the way the written word changes with time and an absolute must for anyone who takes the Bible seriously.

See the book at and

Monday, 5 March 2012

What makes a good bookshop?

I spent a chunk of Saturday in sunny Brighton a week ago (actually it was raining when I arrived, but let's not be picky). I was giving a talk at the Brighton Science Festival, but then had an excellent chat with one of the owners of an independent bookshop in Brighton, City Books.

I have to say I was very impressed. Their stand at the festival had an excellent collection of popular science books, and there was such obvious enthusiasm for the product, without the preciousness of some independent bookshops, where the people working there don't seem to even realize they have a product to sell.

I guess that's the downside to the kind of location I live in. With Borders closed, Swindon's only bookshop is Waterstones (I'm afraid I can't count W H Smiths). Our Waterstones is very nice and friendly, but in the end, even under the new regime, they are limited in how much flexibility they can have in what they do. The nearest independent I'm aware of is the White Horse bookshop in Marlborough. It's a lovely little shop, but it's a very local-books-and-stone-circle-lovers (not entirely surprising in Wiltshire), so not really the natural home of a popular science writer.

Running a bookshop is a brave venture in the economic climate booksellers face - I really just wanted to celebrate the fact that those who do it well are true national treasures.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The acid that rules your life

Generally speaking you expect to find really strong acids locked away in the cupboard of a lab. So it may come as something of a shock to find out that one of the big names - hydrochloric acid - plays a big part in your everyday life.

Find out why - and much more about this stomach-churning compound - in the latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on hydrochloric acid. Click here to listen...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The 24 Mystery

One of the delights of having acquired Netflix (see previous post) is being able to take a look at films and TV shows that caused a big buzz when they came out, but I never got round to seeing. Last night I watched the first two hours of the first season of 24.

As everyone said at the time, the real time format is very clever and engaging. What's more, how sweet all their antique 'modern' technology is. Jack Bauer is using my old phone! But I desperately need a 24 fan to explain to me the logic of the bad guys in those first couple of episodes.


Okay, it's clever of the writer to make us all think the photographer is the killer to start with. But come on. WHY does the following happen? What the bad guys want to do is replace a top photographer with a ringer, who can then get close to a target and kill them. Fair enough. The photographer is flying in to LA. So they wait for him to get off the plane, kill him and replace him quietly and efficiently? No way.
  1. They blow up the plane with the photographer on in mid-air. So the people involved in this highly secret plot think the best way to keep things secret is to blow up a 747? Nice one, guys.
  2. Their evil agent takes the photographer's ID and jumps off the plane before it blows up. Okay, so their ringer can now turn up with a real ID. Great. Only this is real ID for someone the authorities know was blown up on the plane he was arriving on. A little thinking through required here, guys.
  3. The evil agent (after sitting around with no clothes on, as she appears to be a naturist), buries the ID with a radio beacon before being taken to their evil lair. About five seconds later (this is real time, remember) someone else on a motorbike with a detector for the radio beacon digs up the ID. This newcomer then hides the ID and extorts money from the rest of the baddies. But why did they bury it and retrieve it seconds later? What possible advantage was there to burying the ID and having it dug up five seconds later?
Someone please explain!

Image from Wikipedia