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 Gr√ľneberg 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.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Old new worlds

When I was purchasing Henry Gee's Sigil trilogy from Reanimus Press (review of Henry's masterpiece to follow - I haven't had a chance to read it yet), I noticed they had reprints of some classic science fiction. I'm a sucker for this - my SF enthusiasm peaked in the 60s and 70s, so anyone who has emerged since isn't really on my radar (seriously - I consider Ben Bova trendy). Something that caught my eye was a book of short stories by Norman Spinrad. To be honest he's not an author I had had much to do with, but it was reasonably priced, and short stories are idea for ebook reading, so I downloaded a copy of The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde - and I am so glad I did.

Although these stories are probably 50 years old, they are mostly timeless. Okay, one or two have a slightly dated feel to the female characters, and there are a couple where the technology caught him out, but story after story was brilliant - really exploring the implications of different types of life and world for very ordinary human beings. I particularly liked the way he thought through the commercial implications of interstellar flight.

With the exception of the last two pieces (including the title story), which seem to have been strongly influenced by the SF 'new wave' urge to write something that doesn't make a lot of sense, these are some of the best SF stories I have read in a long time. They work so well on the iPad too. Highly recommended if you like this kind of thing.

You can download the book direct from the publisher, or get it on Kindle from or

Monday, 12 November 2012

Should you go back? OR revisited

Long ago, in an airport far, far away
My first job was in Operational Research. If this doesn't mean much to you, it was a discipline that originated in the Second World War to provide mathematical problem solving for challenges like what was the best pattern to drop depth charges to be most likely to hit a submarine. After the war it became popular in nationalised industries and when I joined the soon-to-be-privatised British Airways in 1977 it was going strong there.

Last Friday was a 60th anniversary reunion of people who had worked in OR at British Airways over the years. I must admit I had mixed feelings about going. My general principle is 'never go back.' I really can't understand people from Oxbridge, for instance, who return to their college to make use of their 'dining rights'. Why go all that way to have a so-so meal in uncomfortably formal surroundings with a bunch of academics you don't know? But this was rather different - a chance to see a whole bunch of people many of whom I haven't come across for 20 years or more, and I'm glad I went.

When I first worked at BA I was trained in an office in a building called Comet House (now demolished), and of the circa 8 other people working there 6 were present, which was wonderful. Of maybe 150 people present, I knew at least half, and it was a constant, pleasant stream of 'Oh, what are you doing now?'s and even the occasional 'I've read one of your books!' or 'How do you keep putting so much rubbish in your blog?' (or words to that effect).

There was one of those inevitable Powerpoint shows with a panoply of events of the years - I was honoured to get a mention, though with the bizarre twist of memory, I had totally forgotten the event I was mentioned for. I had championed a new PC software environment, something called 'Microsoft Windows' in the company. According to the slide, the IT department decided it would never catch on...

There is still a thriving Operational Research department at BA - what I don't understand is why OR isn't more common in large companies. The ability to do flexible decision making and problem solving using mathematical and hi-tech solutions is surely of demand everywhere, but OR still seems to be largely limited in the UK to a very small range of industries. (If you want to find out a bit more about OR, take a look at the OR Society's 'learn about OR' website.)

All in all, though, an excellent evening - and a good example of when 'never go back' does not apply.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Kindling in the UK

Yes, I'm on
There's a lot about ebooks that is still a mystery - never more so than when we're dealing with Amazon's Kindle. As an Amazon Prime customer I was interested to see they've added the ability to 'borrow' Kindle books... but was then rapidly let down to find out that you can only do so on Kindle devices, not my trust iPad or my desktop computer. (Not really the topic here, but I am also still very peeved that US Prime customers get free movie streaming and we don't in the UK.)

But the thing that made me write this post was the complications of books and territories. When, as an author, you sell a book to a publisher you sell various rights. You might, for instance, sell world rights, or English language rights, or just UK and Commonwealth rights. And the publisher can then sell the book in those territories. But the internet potentially makes a nonsense of this. I have long been able to buy a book from that only has US rights to be shipped to the UK. However, once you get ebooks in the mix, things get even more complicated.

Take my books with the US publisher St Martin's Press. They have world rights, so no issues here. But for a long time the Kindle versions were only available in the US. Why? No one knows. You couldn't even see them on from the UK. After I moaned about this, they have now made some available on (huzzah!)... but there's still an oddity.

My last two books with St Martin's were published in the UK by the British publisher Duckworth. Rather than export their own copies, St Martin's sold Duckworth the UK rights, just as they would to a German publisher, say, for a translation. The question then is, whose ebook gets published? Because Amazon only does one Kindle edition. Well, surely the St Martin's Press version, as they have world rights? Nope. Bizarrely, even if you buy the ebook of Build Your Own Time Machine from it's Duckworth's edition. The are even using the UK title - the US paper book is called How to Build a Time Machine. Puzzled? I certainly am.

If you are either of my UK fans and have been waiting patiently for Kindle editions, you can now get the following on Kindle:

and you have always been able to get:

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The science they didn't teach at school

I have recently added a new website to the family - The idea is to provide bite sized bits of the most interesting bits of science, the science they didn't teach at school. The stuff that makes you go 'Wow!'

It's early days on content, but the idea is to have short videos and articles/blog posts on the bits that make science so interesting.

Please do take a look and give me any feedback. Realizing I can't exactly do super-slick videos I decided to go for a very informal (ok, amateurish) approach - I am hoping this will come across as endearing, rather than than incompetent.

To give a taster, if you can't be bothered to click through (but please do!) here's the first video produced for the site, explaining why, given time travel is possible, we haven't be inundated with time travellers from the future:

Monday, 5 November 2012

Graphic novels get heavy - Anomaly review

Anomaly in its rather smart cardboard case
When I was a kid, you read comics until you were around 11, then you moved on to real books. I know things have been rather different in the US, where comics always had an older audience - and of course the term 'comic' has to be quite broad when it takes in both The Beano and Batman - but the thing that really changed attitudes of (at least some) readers in the UK was the graphic novel. This was the comic form taken to novel length and treated as serious material for grown ups.

Personally I have never quite got into graphic novels. In part it is a slight embarrassment - I wouldn't read one in public because it gives the impression, like it or not, that you struggle with reading. The other problem I have is that I'm more a word person than a visual person - so when I do read one I have to force myself to slow down and look at the pictures, or I just hurtle through the relatively limited text. However, I'm always interested in a new reading challenge, so when the publisher offered to send me a copy of the indubitably remarkable graphic novel Anomaly I jumped at the chance.

What we have here is an epic story in graphic novel form. It's huge, literally a heavy piece of work and has an impressive dramatic span. Set in the 28th century we have a fairly conventional post industrial wreck of an Earth, run by a corporate conspiracy theorist's delight called the Conglomerate. Traditionally their attitude to other planets is to conquer them, wiping out life if necessary. Some ethical types propose instead taking a more friendly approach. They are sent to a planet, not realizing that this is actually a plan to get rid of them and take over their shares in the Conglomerate, as no one has ever returned alive from this planet.

On their arrival all their technology is destroyed. They find a wide range of humanoid life forms, mostly as separate tribes, but with a major organized force of bad guys. There's the usual swordplay with a touch of magic stuff, a uniting of the various tribes to take on the baddies - you know the kind of thing.

Open in all its glory - drink can for scale

In one sense this is a very impressive work. You've got hundreds of pages of well-drawn artwork. It is like working your way through a very detailed storyboard of a visually impressive movie. There are one or two nice twists, like the technology destroying goo, but if I'm honest the story isn't very original. The uniting of the tribes to take on the baddies is hugely reminiscent of the defence of Minas Tirith segment of The Lord of the Rings (the baddies even resemble the orcs in the movie version of LoTR).

Tell me that doesn't remind you of Lord of the Rings
For the rest, there's a lot that seems derivative of Rider Haggard Martian adventures with a modern gloss. It's entertaining, I did want to read on and finish it, but I'm not sure the originality of the storyline lives up to the presentation. There are some interesting loose ends, both in terms of what happens to the Conglomerate when our heroes return and why the names, as someone in the novel points out, are all Celtic or Greek. But it's a shame the story wasn't as original as the presentation.

It's also worth mentioning the app-based extension. With a free app for tablets and smartphones, some pages open up with extra detail, including 3D images and extra information. This augmented reality stuff is fun, but it's a bit like the extras on a DVD. Many people will ignore it altogether, and it really doesn't make a huge difference to the product.

I have two other problems with Anomaly. One is the sheer weight of the thing. You can get an idea of this in that it cost £9 for the publisher to post it to me. I usually get a feel for the weight of heavy books by putting them on the kitchen scales, but Anomaly left them reeling, and they give up at 2.3 kilograms. To illustrate why this is a bad thing, I need to take you back to my university days.

I used to sing in a Cambridge college chapel choir, and at one choir practice the junior organ scholar turned up and told us that the senior organ scholar would not be joining us. Apparently he had sprained his wrist in bed, so couldn't play. It was at least five minutes before the choir could be pulled together sufficiently to continue. (This did happen.) You really don't want to read this book in bed, in case of suffering a similar fate. And I found it was getting uncomfortable holding it to read wherever I sat with it, resulting in various mechanisms being adopted to prop it up.

Funky! Let's warp...
The other issue is the price. This is a very big book, with over 300 glossy full colour pages. That's not cheap to make and it is reflected in a massive cover price of £45 ($75). Okay, you can probably get a 40 to 50 per cent discount if you buy it in the right place, but it's not cheap. I compared the experience of reading the book to that of watching a movie, and I'd be happy to pay as much as I would for a DVD, but that feels about the limit for me. The augmented reality app is a bit of fun, but more gimmick than anything.

I can't help feel the pricing will limit the audience. But if this is your kind of thing it's likely to be well worth the pennies. Take a look at and

Friday, 2 November 2012

Equality works both ways

I don't know if it's because of the Jimmy Savile case, but I've heard several pieces on the radio recently about sexual harassment at work. (I know what Savile is alleged to have done is far worse than harassment, but it seems to have triggered the discussion.) I think it's important we recognize that sexual harassment exists and needs dealing with, and also that it exists in both directions.

I had to deal with three cases that could be classed as sexual harassment when I was a manager. One was by a male - a very simple one. This was in the early days of being able to display a photo on a Windows background and an employee had chosen a picture of a topless woman. It was inappropriate, caused offence and he was asked to remove it. The other two incidents were by females. One was a classic case - standing too close, inappropriate touching and suggestions - and was dealt with firmly. The other was more subtle. The offender was either very knowing or naive. Early on I had to suggest to her that a body stocking with a jacket over the top was not appropriate workwear. And later I had to point out that it wasn't ideal for her to speak to a male colleague while sitting on her desk, wearing a skirt, with her legs wide open pointing in his direction.

The reason I bring this up is that I think we do tend to treat harassment of men by women differently from the other way round. We are rightly shocked and offended when a man harasses a woman, but if a woman harasses a man it tends to be laughed off. 'What kind of a man is he?' I heard commented when someone once complained.

An extreme example of this asymmetry came up in an interview with a film star that was on the TV the other day. It turned out said (male) star lost his virginity age 15 to a woman in her forties. The response of the audience and the interviewer was not shock (for the victim) and disgust (for the predator) but rather big smiles, nudge-nudge, wink-wink - who's a lucky boy, then? Yet this is an exact parallel of the sort of thing Savile is being accused of (if on a smaller scale).

I don't think we will take any kind of sexual harassment and predation seriously enough - from the small scale comments to assault - until there is no sexual discrimination in the way such behaviour is treated. Perhaps this attitude has changed now. It's a while since I worked in an office. But I suspect it hasn't.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The nails are out

It's strange when you come to think of it that despite human beings being living creatures of flesh and blood, the aspects that define our outward appearance - hair, skin, nails - are all dead. They have something else in common. They are all based on the wonderfully versatile compound, keratin.

And that's the subject of my latest Royal Society of Chemistry compounds podcast. So if you've 5 minutes to spare take a listen and discover the wonder of keratin.