Monday, 30 January 2012

The Bulgarian connection

I still can't quite believe that I recently appeared on Bulgarian TV. Speaking in Bulgarian. (Sort of.) It was all rather surreal.

The interview took place via Skype, between me, sitting at my desk in my office and the glamorous presenter, Sophia Tzavella, in a sizeable serious TV studio.

We discussed various weird aspects of science in English. They have then dubbed over us (presumably Sophia dubbed herself) in Bulgarian, so you hear the voice of a suitably scientific sounding Bulgarian actor.

If you would like to take a look at me in action, it's available online here. I'm on from about 7 minutes 17 seconds, but I particularly like the shot at 8 minutes 4 seconds (screenshot on the left) which shows the studio in all its glory with me on a big screen in the background.

All in all a fascinating experience!

Friday, 27 January 2012

One more Time

Time, as they say, waits for no person. Neither do books about time machines. Because I'm delighted to say the UK version of my book on the science of time travel, Build Your Own Time Machine is now available. I didn't get my own copies until the very last minute, so it's brilliant to be able to see it for real at last.

So run, don't walk to your local Waterstones and demand a copy yesterday. Or even easier, nip over to Amazon (there are links to do so on the book's web page) and order one up.

At risk of being a touch biassed, this is one of my favourites of all the books I've written. Time travel. What's not to love?

I'm glad to say the publisher was able to respond to a concern about the cover. The original version didn't have the subtitle, which meant there was nothing to distinguish it from a science fiction book. They were able to slip in 'The Real Science fo Time Travel', which is great.

I'm expecting talks based on this book to be popular - there are already a couple booked, at Pewsey Library at 7.30pm on 1 February, at the Scottish Storytelling Centre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival of Science at 5.30 on 2 April and at the Brympton Festival at 1pm on Sunday 22 April. You can always keep an eye on my upcoming events on the web page.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mr Newton's Rainbow

I'm currently reading for review a book called Quantum Physics for Poets (the next step, I suppose, from How to Teach Physics to your Dog). In it, the authors comment
A glass prism hanging in our window splits the white sunlight into its spectral constituents Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet (ROY G. BIV)
Now, leaving aside the rather bizarre idea that 'Roy G. Biv' is somehow a useful way of remembering anything, I thought it rather sad that this book, written by a Nobel laureate and friend, passes on as wisdom without comment the idea that there are seven colours in the rainbow. It's a load of tosh, for which we have to thank Isaac Newton.

If you take a look at a rainbow and look for blocks of colour, it's hard to see more than six. Alternatively, if you consider the rainbow of colours on your computer screen, it is likely to be made up of millions of subtly different hues. Either way you consider it, seven is wrong.

There's a good reason for this. There was no scientific basis for Newton's assertion that there are seven colours. We aren't absolutely certain, but the best supported theory for why he came up with this number is because there are seven musical notes - A to G - before you come back to the A in the octave. If music had seven notes, Newton seems to have argued, a rainbow should have seven colours, and he came up with a set to match.

Interestingly, he was lucky to be able to come up with those particular colours. One of Roy G. Biv's constituents didn't exist a few decades earlier. When I do talks on this subject and ask people to guess which colour didn't exist they usually go for one of the obscure colours at the far end of the spectrum, but in fact it was orange. The word existed. It was the name of a fruit. (Still is.) But the colour didn't take its name from the fruit until the 1600s.

Newton did many wonderful things, and contributed vastly to science. But his rainbow colour scheme was a bit of a fraud.

Image from Wikipedia: D-Kuru/Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The secret life of the Dell press office

Spot the contact details
I do a bit of consumer/technology journalism, which means I'm frequently in touch with technology press offices and PR companies. There was a time when you relied on a little black book of contacts, but these days you just zip onto the net and type in Company X Press Office and the details pop up. Unless you are trying to contact Dell. Their press office is so well hidden it verges on farce.

Go to their News Room press office contacts page and you are told the following:

Dell UK and Ireland Press Office
Dell Computers
Innovation House
Cherrywood Science and Technology Park
Cherrywood, Loughlinstown
Dublin 18
Ireland
Note no phone, no email. Yes, the press office of one of the world's leading computer companies only provides a postal address. Snail mail. Nineteenth century at best.

Admittedly they do then go on to give a telephone number for 'UK Head Office Contacts' followed by a Bracknell address. Ah ha! Got em. But no. The phone number is for their (Indian) call centre. Who don't have any phone numbers for anyone. At all. But they do have an email address for the Marketing department. Excellent. If you can't get a press office, the marketing department is the next best thing. So I zap off an email. And get this reply:
Thank you for your mail. Please note this mailbox is used for outbound messaging only and therefore checked very infrequently. If you are internal to Dell, please contact the relevant member of the Marketing team to answer your query. Kind regards UK Marketing
For crying out loud! Dell Marketing or Dell Press Office - if you are monitoring this (and it's not impossible, I have had companies getting in touch as a result of my blogging about them), PLEASE drop me an email at brian@brianclegg.net so I can contact you. I want to write nice things about your computers. In a large circulation national magazine. But I can't if you hide. Come out, come out wherever you are...

P.S. A journalist contact has told me who their PR agency is (Axicom), so I'm fine. But this cloak and dagger stuff is still bizarre.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Grow up, guys

It's an iPhone - get over it
As long as Apple Computer has existed it has roused strong emotions. It has been a marmite company. You love it or you hate it. We shouldn't feel too sorry for Apple. They started it. Once they had the Mac, they undertook aggressive comparative marketing, putting the savvy, smart Mac against the creaking, boring PC. And they had a point. But back then I wouldn't have touched a Mac with a bargepole. They wouldn't work with anyone else's network, they had poor file interchangeability and they were closed systems that you couldn't add hardware to, nor could you do much with the software.

So it's not surprising that back then there were strong pro and anti feelings. But I think it's time we got over it. Macs are good computers - so are PCs. Android phones are excellent - iPhones are brilliant. As yet the iPad is the only decent tablet, but it won't be for long.

It really quite saddens me when I see the silly, unthinking, knee-jerk reactions from the pro- and anti- camps springing to life. When a while ago I contemplated switching my desktop to Mac, I got plenty of emails and messages from Mac lovers telling me that it would transform my life. It really wouldn't. As it happens I decided it would transform my bank balance too much, and didn't go ahead, but the emotion in their response was worrying.

Similarly, a friend recently announced on Facebook that he'd got an Android mobile phone that was much cheaper than an iPhone. He immediately got a string of really quite nasty comments from his anti-iPhone friends. Comments included:
  • Nice phone - and Samsung are miles better than an Apple! - Well, I've compared them and no, they're not.
  • iPhones, smart phones for the dumb - That's a really reasoned argument. Not at all ad hominem.
  • With Android you can set it up exactly how you want, with iPhones you can set them up exactly how apple allow you to. - I'll come back to this.
  • You resisted being assimilated then ! - Oh, please.
  I thought that penultimate one was interesting. It was certainly always the argument against Macs that swayed it for me when I was at BA. But in a phone it misses the point. Leaving aside that there's plenty you can do to change the setup of an iPhone, I don't want to have 'set it up exactly how I want', I want to be able to take it and use it. Someone else accused the iPhone as being style over substance - but concentrating on how you can set it up, as opposed to how good it is at its job, is exactly style over substance. The fact is the iPhone does the job brilliantly without having to faff about making it work.

But for that matter, in my experience, good Android phones work well too. (The difference with Android is that you get crap phones and great phones, so you have to avoid some.) Which brings me back to my original point. Lose the tribalism, guys. Apple make great, stylish products. If you want one, that's excellent. There are also great and more affordable PCs and Android phones. If you want one, that's excellent. Arguing you shouldn't buy an Apple product is like arguing we should all drive Fords and Vauxhalls. Arguing you should only buy Apple is like insisting everyone should go for Jaguars and Range Rovers. Remind me, what's all the fuss about?

Monday, 23 January 2012

This book's a horror

I love classic science fiction and fantasies set in the real world, but I've not ventured that much into reading horror. Okay, I've got a secret pleasure in Dennis Wheatley, and my favourite fantasy writers Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman can all produce a form of horror but I've rarely gone for the pure thing. Apart from Mr Wheatley, my only real experience is Steven King. I think some of his work - particularly It - is surprisingly well written and pins you in place as a reader. So it was interesting to be sent the latest book by Dean Koontz, an author I've never tried - 77 Shadow Street.

To look at it's quite a chunky hardback, but I found it a reasonably quick read as it's a page turner. This is certainly my kind of horror, in the sense that it's fantasy horror, rather than simply man's inhumanity to man. The setting is very well built, and the sense of menace effectively done. It's interesting that I mentioned It earlier, as in some ways there are similarities - the dark, almost elemental inhuman force occupying an island of humanity and attacking it.

If I'm honest it's not as good a book as It. I don't think Koontz produces the same quality of writing as King. It's fine, but lacks the finesse. He also spent far too long on the build. Although there are lots of strange goings on, nothing definitive happens for well over 100 pages. There's also far too much internal narrative from the characters. We get page after page of their thoughts. I sometimes wanted to scream at Mr Koontx that creative writing mantra SHOW, DON'T TELL!

And the final problem is that it suffers from California Suite syndrome. I'm sure everyone knows those films that ought to be great because they have lots of great actors in them, but that fall down because there isn't a main character or characters to identify with. Instead we get a whole cast of different people and follow their intertwining storylines. Great idea, but it never quite works. The audience is always distanced. And the same things happen here. We meet all the different characters who live and work in apartment building - but it's difficult to get too involved with any of them.

All that said, this is an intriguing story, Koontz is quite brave in introducing several mysterious and confusing characters long before there's any certainty of what they are - and parts of it are genuinely horrific in a good way. What's more there is an excellent twist in the storyline (though you have to get past page 300 to reach it), even though the premise depends on a highly unlikely coincidence that one of only two people in the world that would enable this storyline lives in a specific house. As long as you are happy with suspension of disbelief, it's definitely a book I'd recommend trying, and I may well try some more Koontz as a result of reading this. You can see more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

P.S. - funny how the mind works. I was just loading the cover photo above and read the tag line as 'Elvis is real.' Sigh.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Seven steps to a better brainstorm

All we need now is some brains
I was rather pleased to be interviewed the other day by CNN on the subject of brainstorming. It's one of those subjects that it's easy to mock, because it is often done so badly. It probably featured on The Office. Yet do it right and it's very powerful.

If you want to see brainstorming done badly, just watch an episode of The Apprentice. It's almost like they follow a rule book called 'How Not to Brainstorm' (or Brianstorm as I just typed). They sit round a whiteboard and think up ideas. Some get written down, some are ignored. Many will be argued with. And they end up with some fairly feeble ideas. And go with one. Not a great advert for the process.

If you are going to brainstorm I'd suggest seven steps for success:
  1. Make sure you are addressing the right problem. Don't rush in and assume you know what it is you need to do. Quickly think through just what it is you are trying to achieve and see if their are alternative problems to solve that would give a better solution.
  2. Use a technique to generate ideas. When Alex Osborn devised brainstorming he never intended people just to sit down and wait for inspiration. Use a simple idea generation technique, like using a randomly selected picture to generate a string of associations, then apply each of those associations as a starting point to solving your problem. (If that description is too condensed, see the ebook below for more details.) That way you will come at things differently and are more likely to come up with fresh ideas. It's fine to use top-of-the-head ideas too, but they often won't be the best.
  3. No negatives, no editing. All new ideas are easy to shoot down. Collect all ideas at this stage, however impractical. Make sure whoever is writing up captures everything - don't let them edit as they go. Stop anyone in their tracks if they try to criticize an idea.
  4. Give it some structure. I like putting each idea on a Post-it note. That way, when you've collected them you can move them around and structure them, bringing similar ideas together etc. Alternatively capture the ideas on a mind map, preferably using software and projecting the result on a big screen so everyone can see - that way you can restructure easily.
  5. Choose wisely. Don't select ideas on practicality, but rather on wow factor. It's much easier to take an exciting but impractical idea and make it practical than it is to take a practical but dull idea and give it appeal. Give everyone an imaginary £100 to vote with. They can put it all on their favourite idea, or split it as they like, but make sure they vote on appeal, not practicality. Be prepared to go back and develop more than one idea.
  6. Improve the ideas. Once you've selected an idea, refine it. Identify the key good points. Then find the main things wrong with. Finally improve the idea to get rid of the bad points, but keep the good points in front of you as a reminder. It's very easy to lose these as you fix the bad. Make sure your fixes don't wipe out the benefits.
  7. Prepare for selling and implementation. It's very easy when you're all excited about an idea to rush out and tell everyone without thinking about practicalities. Make sure you know how you are going to sell your idea to anyone who has to give it the go-ahead, and have an outline of how you will implement it. That way you are much more likely to get it into practice.
It sounds a lot, but it's actually very simple - and makes all the difference. If you want to find out a bit more I have a free ebook Instant Brainstorming you can download here.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

I don't believe it

I was interested to see that loveable old grumpy Richard Wilson on TV the other night moaning about all the automated systems we have to deal with.



A lot of it was fair enough. I mean, who could love automated telephone menu systems? (Can anyone explain how on over 50% of the calls I make, whatever time of day, they appear to be experiencing higher than usual call volumes?)  And I agree that those systems for paying for car parking by phone are a nightmare. But there was one thing they got wrong - and the way they went about it was very naughty.

Young Mr Wilson was moaning about supermarket self-checkouts. To try out (or rather to try to disprove) the claim that they are quicker to use, they took an immense sample of four people to compare self-checkout and going through a traditional till. And it was a fiasco of a test.

Firstly they compared the times for the two checkout processes from the point the checkout started. This misses the whole point, dumbos! When I go into the little Tesco which contains our Post Office, the manned checkout always has a queue of 3 to 4 people. At least one of the self checkouts is nearly always available. What you should compare is the time from entering the queue, not the time from starting checking out. Doh.

Secondly, they had suspiciously many problems with the self checkout. (I noticed one of the testers had actually put a piece of paper over the scanner and then spent ages wondered why it wouldn't scan.) I think the best of them had to be rescued by the operator about five times. Now I use a self checkout most days. And I'd say over half the times there are no interventions, and the rest there is usually one or two. I don't think I've ever had five. It was just ludicrous.

So Channel 4, by all means attack the irritating systems that give no benefit - but do it in a fair way. This was very naughty indeed.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

When does a gift become a bribe?

A product I've never reviewed
The other day I got an email from a PR agency that was more like the sort of scam that originates from Nigeria. The email (I won't name the agency to spare their blushes) said:

I’m updating the finance database to ensure any future payments will not be delayed. Could you provide me your banking details, please?
Although I've had information from this agency plenty of times, I've never done any work for them. Scamming apart, my immediate thought when putting 'PR agency' alongside 'payment' was around the area of bribery. It wouldn't surprise me if those who read reviews suspect that reviewers are being given lots of goodies, if not downright cash payments, to write good things.

Now I've been writing reviews since the 1990s - it's how I started in professional writing - and I have to say that, on the whole it is all squeaky clean and above board. If the product has a low production cost (software, for example, only has the incremental cost of the medium it is distributed on), then chances are you will be allowed to keep it. And I admit this used to be quite good when I was reviewing business software costing £200 a pop. But in my experience hardware manfacturers hardly ever let you keep anything. Even getting your hands on a review product can be quite difficult, and then it's only for a limited time period.

Similarly I've never been sent nice Christmas presents by PR companies or manufacturers. (Hint.) Not that it would make any difference. It's true that when I did a lot of IT journalism, we often got given some goodies for attending a product launch or briefing (I still use my Windows 95 bag), but this seemed much more a thank-you for your time, rather than anything to influence what you wrote.

I'm not saying it never happens. When I was reviewing business software I did get one blatent attempt at bribery. Someone from a PR agency (I genuinely can't remember which) rang and said that they would like me to write an open review of a new product (i.e. not for a specific magazine) and as long as I made sure it was very positive they would pay me a four figure sum. I told the PR where to stick it, and he sounded genuinely offended and shocked that I would turn down what could only be seen as a bribe. He didn't quite say 'You'll never work in this business again,' but there was a hint of it.

That, though, was a one-off with what I assume was a bad penny. On the whole the only inducement to write something nice is the urge to please the nice PR people (or in the case of a book, the author). So I'm sure that the PR agency asking for my bank details wasn't intending to slip me a little something. Professional reviews are, on the whole, pretty upright things in the UK - and that can't be bad.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The mysteries of technology

As you may have gathered by now, I rather love my iPad and use it all the time. When, for example, I get sent proofs of my books to check through as PDFs, I tend to fling them over to the iPad and read them on there, as I find it much easier to read a document that way than on a computer screen. But the only danger is that you are at the mercy of the quality of the software interpreting the PDFs, which don't have as straightforward a file format as an image file. I discovered this recently when I was looking at the proof of a page from an illustrated book I've got out later this year. Part of one of the pages looked like this:

  
You can see there's a statue of Galileo to the left and to the right, bleeding across to the next page is a strange bit of hieroglyphics like something out of the Da Vinci Code. Very nice, I thought, but what does it mean? 

So I sent a note to the editor, who came back swiftly, something to the effect of 'Isn't it obvious? It's Galileo's signature.' Well no, it wasn't obvious. But then I was struck with one of those IT inspirations. I thought I'd take a look at the same PDF on my computer. And this time, this is what I saw:


Now this is exactly the same file. All that I have changed is the device I'm looking at it with (and hence the software interpreting the PDF).

I'll continue to use the iPad to read PDFs as it is so much better an experience than doing it on a conventional screen. But in future, if anything looks strange, my first port of call will be to check what it looks like back on the old dinosaur machine.

Monday, 16 January 2012

At last I get rap

The other day I was listening to a bit of hard core, or possibly thrash metal, the way you do. At least, the way you do if your children insist on listening to Radio 1 sometime around midnight when you pick them up, even if they can't stand the music. And I had a bit of an epiphany.

For a long time I have struggled to articulate why I dislike rap so much - and hearing this stuff made me realize what the answer is. I didn't enjoy the hardcore/thrash sounds that were coming from the car speakers. It really wasn't my kind of thing. The closest you'll find on my iPod is somewhere between Van der Graaf Generator and Pink Floyd at their most destructive. But I could appreciate what I was hearing as music. It clearly was someone producing music, and what they were doing had obvious antecedents in the musical tradition.

What I hear when I listen to a rap 'song' has a totally different antecedent. Where those extreme forms of rock grew from heavy metal, which came out of mainstream rock, rap clearly came out of a child, standing on a kitchen table showing off. Saying 'Hey, this is me! Aren't I clever with all these words I can say? Look at me! This is my name. Aren't I great?'

The reason I've never understood rap is that I was thinking of it as music, rather than simply childish showing off. Silly me. Now I get it.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Standing on the shoulders of giants

With permission of the Institute of Physics
The seventeenth century physicist Robert Hooke has had something of a roller coaster ride of a history.

Although Hookes' law on the elasticity of springs has kept his name visible, he largely disappeared as a person in the glare of the spotlight placed on his indubitably great contemporary and rival Isaac Newton.

When Hooke re-emerged onto the world stage it became briefly fashionable to belittle Newton and big up Hooke's achievements. Now we have mostly got more of a balance. Hooke did do a remarkable amount in his own right. Yet the feud between Hooke and Newton was certainly not one-sided. In fact it started when Hooke dismissed Newton's paper on light and colour without even bothering to read it. And there is good evidence that Hooke had a tendency to claim other people's ideas as his own.

But there is no doubt that Hooke was a great experimenter, science populariser (his book of drawings of microscopic views is still stunning) and had some theoretical ideas that helped Newton immensely. For instance Hooke suggested using a pendulum to measure the acceleration due to gravity. And it was Hooke who realized that an object in orbit is freely falling towards the body it orbits, while at the same time moving sideways at the right speed to keep missing it. We know that Newton got this idea from Hooke because he wrote to Hooke that he had never heard of this hypothesis before. When the Principia was published, Hooke claimed that Newton had stolen his ideas, yet in letters between the two, it seems that Hooke had got as far as he could manage and was encouraging Newton to take his ideas further – something Newton certainly would.

Now the Insitute of Physics is celebrating Hooke's achievements in the rather imposing painting pictured here. It's an impressive work of imagination. Apparently the only known portrait of Hooke was destroyed in the early 1700s (possibly at Newton's instructions), so this image can only go on descriptions. We know Hooke had something of a hunched back and (in part as a result) did not come across as a particularly large man. It seems likely that when Newton quoted the remark in a letter to Hooke that if he had seen further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants, it was a bit of a dig, as Hooke was anything but a giant physically.

It's probably also worth saying that the artist, Rita Greer buys into the now largely discredited extreme view that Hooke's genius remains a surpressed fact thanks to Newton's hatred of him. She comments 'Robert Hooke, brilliant, ingenious seventeenth century scientist was brushed under the carpet of history by Sir Isaac Newton and his cronies. When he had his Tercentenary there wasn't a single memorial to him anywhere. I thought it disgraceful as Hooke did many wonderful things for science.' Note the emotive word 'cronies'.

But even though it's certainly not true that Hooke is regarded in a lowly fashion any more, it doesn't do us any harm to be reminded of this remarkable man. I find the idea of this being a portrait of Hooke when we don't really know what he looked like rather odd. It clearly isn't a portrait. But it is a powerful image to make us think about Hooke's achievements, and as such should be celebrated.

The portrait was hung yesterday at the Institute of Physics in London.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Food of the gods

It's Royal Society of Chemistry podcast time again.

What can you say about a substance that brings us back time and again to a favourite treat, but is poisonous to dogs? We're talking theobromine (literally food of the gods from the Greek), the main active ingredient in chocolate. In fact this close relative of caffeine is poisonous to all mammals to some degree - us included - but you would have to eat a very large amount to suffer. Cats are even more susceptible... but they don't have a sweet receptor among their taste buds, so don't care much. Take a listen and find out more.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Those eureka moments

The original Apple Computer logo
Historians of science tend to downplay 'eureka moments' when a scientist suddenly has a great idea. 'Constructed after the fact,' they mumble into their beards. 'Real science isn't like that. It's a slow grind, a team effort. Fake memories. Blah, blah...' Arguably this says more about historians of science, and their lack of imagination, than real scientists. For while all eureka moments are certainly not true, I think many are.

To dismiss a couple of unlikely ones, I very much doubt that the original Archimedes jumping out of the bath story has any validity. And there's good evidence that Galileo didn't get a sudden understanding of gravitational pull while dropping balls of different weights off the leaning tower of Pisa. (The evidence for this is that Galileo never mentions it. It is only told by an assistant who was writing about Galileo near the great man's death. But Galileo was a superb self-publicist. If he had done it, he would have bragged about it.)

However I'd also like put forward a classic that I feel probably is true. Newton and the apple. I'm not saying that an apple hit him on the head - that is pure fiction - but I don't think it's at all unreasonable that seeing an apple fall sparked a chain of thought. Here's Newton's own words on the subject, related by the historian William Stukeley:
After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea [sic] under the shade of some apple trees; only he and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.
The fact is that there is strong evidence that humans tend to come up with their best ideas when they are not sitting at their desk trying to work, but rather when they are only half conscious of what they are dealing with. Perhaps on a walk (I get most of my ideas walking the dog), driving, or in Newton's case, sitting relaxing. It feels right.  So hands off, historians of science. Even if it wasn't true, this kind of story is useful as myth - but in this case there is every possibility that it was.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Just go away

Two words. Scottish independence. Please.

I'm sorry, I have no interest in keeping the Scots in the Union. The sooner they break off the better. Just think about it. No more Alex Salmond on UK television. It's worth it for that alone. No more Scottish MPs at Westminster. (It would be interesting if we had as few MPs of Scottish origin as they have MPs of English origin in the Scottish parliament. BTW, isn't Cameron a Scottish name?)

No more subsidies. No more need to fund postmen and medics and other vital services to go all the way to the Highlands and Islands. No more whingeing from Scottish politicians. (Actually there would be plenty of it, but hopefully it wouldn't make it onto our news.) Of course we'd lose out on North Sea Oil revenues - but it would be worth it. As would the mangling of the Union flag.

But please make it all or nothing. Any further devolution is no help. We'd STILL have all the whingeing. Still have their MPs at Westminster. And still see Alex Salmond.

It worked with the Americans. We've got on well with them (on the whole) since we've split. Please, let's have Scottish independence, sooner rather than later.

Monday, 9 January 2012

I talks detox

I'm writing this quickly before heading off to BBC Wiltshire to talk detox. They thought this would be rather a fun thing to discuss post Christmas and the New Year, and I'm delighted to oblige.

Detox is one of those subjects that really gets me irritated at the way manufacturers and health shops rip people off. As usually presented, detox is total rubbish.

Let's break it down. What does detox mean? Removal of toxins - poisons - from the body. What are poisons? Pretty well anything taken in excess of an acceptable dose. Water, for example, is poisonous if you drink enough quickly. A couple of athletes have died as a result of water poisoning. (I think it dilutes your electrolyte levels sufficiently that your nervous system packs in.) Your body has brilliant systems for removing toxins - your liver and kidneys, for example - but if you shove too much in, it will have trouble getting rid of the bad stuff fast enough.

So what should you do to detox? It's so boring, which is why they make up all this garbage to sell products. All you need to do is cut down on the crap you shove in your mouth. Less fat, less sugar, more fruit (but not too much as that has a lot of sugar in it) and definitely more veg. A touch of exercise. And you've got detox perfected. Resultant expenditure - probably negative after cutting down on fatty and salty treats.

I was trying to look up the most infamous detox offender, Prince Charles' Duchy Herbals 'Detox Tincture' as an example, but they've gone all coy about it. The Duchy web page still tells us that for a mere £10 we can buy a little bottle, and that
Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture has been produced to help support the body's natural elimination and detoxification processes. It includes extracts of Dandelion and Artichoke, the latter of which is a well-known digestive aid, making it the ideal product to help kick-start your body after the festive period!
But if you click the link to the Detox Tincture page, you get take to page still called 'http://www.duchyoriginals.com/detox_tincture.php' but that tells you about sheep shearing. Hmm. Maybe Prince Charles doesn't want to fleece us any more.

Friday, 6 January 2012

A toy to conjure with

When I was young I had an educational toy that was called something like an Electrokit (definintely not the Meccano Electrikit). It was a set of electronic components, each protected in a chunky housing with standard split-pin plug fittings at the bottom. You then got a series of circuit boards with appropriate sockets in and you could plug the transitors, resistors etc. in place to make up real working electronic devices.

I can't find a picture of the kit or the door, so here's
the Science Museum
As far as I can remember, and I'm really dredging the depths of memory here, it was brilliant. I feel a real nostalgia for this kit. The ultimate thing you could construct was a radio, which was quite exciting, but for me this wasn't anywhere near as good as another project. The thing is, a radio was an everyday item, but you also got the chance to build something cool of practically Star Trek wonder.

Before I reveal what this project was, I ought to point out something I have since shown to my children at the Science Museum in London. I don't know if it's still there, but last time I went round this particular part of the mueseum I spotted an antique exhibit of an automatic opening door. The first time I went to the Science Museum, aged 6, this door with an 'electric eye' was absolutely mind boggling. You walked up to it, and it opened. Automatically. Like magic. I must have gone through it about a dozen times. This was the future. Really.

So given this context, here's my favourite project with that home kit. As well as the basic electronic circuitry you added a buzzer (and possibly a light) and a pair of wires. At the end of the wires was a little panel with a series of conducting bars. This panel broke the circuit - the buzzer didn't go off. But if the panel got wet, the water conducted electricity across the bars and the buzzer sounded, controlled by a transitor on the board.

So what you could do, for example, is tape the sensor to the side of the bath and leave it filling, careless not bothering to watch it. Surely it would overflow, causing terror and destruction? No! The amazing technology started to buzz and you could turn off the taps. Ah, joy, pure joy. This was twenty-first century living in the 1960s.

Picture from Wikipedia

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Trying not to be Prejudiced

I'm a great fan of Jane Austen, and love a good detective story, so was delighted to get the P. D. James follow-up to Pride and Prejudice, the murder mystery Death Comes to Pemberley for Christmas.

It was quite eerie to start reading it, as I had watched the film adaptation of P and P with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet just the evening before. It somehow made it particularly easy to immerse myself in the book - and I ought to stress that I'm not a picky traditionalist, so was not in any sense worried about what Ms James would do to the hallowed characters. (As credentials, I love Stephen Moffatt's modern day Sherlock).

Sadly, though, I can only be lukewarm about what I read. If I'm honest, P. D. James is not one of my favourite writers - I find her usual murder mysteries rather stiff and stilted. (In fact the best thing about the Dalgleish stories is the superb theme tune of the TV adaptation.) Although the Austen sequel is cleverly written, it seemed to lack that immense warm humour that is the absolute essence of Jane Austen. Elizabeth is little more than a bit part, rather than the central character. And at least once the author seemed to be using the book as a vehicle for her politics, when bizarrely the characters suddenly start discussing whether there ought to be a right of appeal in a trial (not available at the time), and how this would be absurd as it 'could presumably result in a foreign court trying English cases. And that would be the end of more than our legal system.' Presumably a pointed reference to European interference in UK justice.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad book. I was interested to read it to the end and enjoyed it. But I simply felt it lacked the energy and brilliance of an Austen, while it was too slow to develop to work as a murder mystery. Still, worth taking a look at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

To cheer you up a bit, here is that excellent theme music:

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The fight against racism must go on

Amidst the floods of coverage of the recent successful trial of two of the attackers of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, a crime committed 18 years ago, there have inevitably been a matching set of articles, TV and radio pieces on the nature of racism.

I read an article that seemed shocked that there was still racism in schools after all this time. To be shocked about this is to have a very poor understanding of human beings. The fact is we are naturally disposed to distrust, and at the extreme to hate, those who are different, whether based on race, religion, appearance (red hair, for instance), accent - pretty well anything. If we can't find anyone who is different enough, we will set up an arbitrary difference, which to an outsider looks pathetic.

In olden days, when few travelled far enough to know anyone really different, English people looking down on the Irish, those from Lancashire and Yorkshire hated each others guts (despite being almost indistinguishable to outsiders), and if all that failed, most places had a local town which historically was regarded as being in some ways different or backwards, so providing the alien to shun or attack. Where I came from it was a town called Heywood. Although this 'localism' had pretty well died out by my time, a hammer was still jokingly referred to as a 'Heywood screwdriver.'

In a primitive, dangerous tribal environment, any and every stranger, anyone who is different, even if they are just from the next town, is a potential threat. Thankfully we have moved on. But just as our bodies are still functioning as if we lived on the diet of 100,000 years ago, so our brains still have this inbuilt fear and distrust of the alien. You can't turn it off in a generation, or ten generations. It will take much longer. We have pushed out our boundaries, but we still automatically find an alien somewhere.

You may say 'But many of my friends are from different races, creeds, appearances, class etc.' This misses the point. Once you get to know a person, that individual is no longer 'them'. The British class system survived so long because there were institutions in place to ensure that you didn't have to mingle with 'them', so plenty still remained alien. But the ability to shift an individual from 'them' to 'us' (probably developed because the early tribes tended to ensure genetic variation by stealing mates from other villages) doesn't mean the fundamental fear and distrust of the alien isn't still there. We all have it. So have our children, and so will many generations to come.

The fight against racism - and all the other -isms is not over. Our current enlightened view (not shared by the whole world, let's face it) is a triumph of mind over nature. We need to sustain this mental battle indefinitely. It's incredibly naive to think it has gone away and we can sit on our laurels. We need to keep up the steady pressure for the long haul.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

I'm back - paper back

Ok, that title I'm back - paper back didn't really work as a pastiche of James Bond introducing himself. But I am delighted to be starting the new year in the way I hope to be going on with montonous regularity, with a new book out - to be precise the paperback version of Inflight Science.

If you are wise, attractive and generally wonderful enough to have already acquired a copy of Inflight Science you may be puzzled and be saying 'But it was already a paperback'. This reflects the way the first edition was in a rather strange format called 'trade paperback' which is half way between a hardback and a paperback. (See this post for more info on the concept.) What has now come out is the mass market paperback version. This is smaller and cheaper than the original - so even handier to slip in that pocket prior to a flight.

Unfortunately the publishers in their wisdom (and I'm assured there is a good reason) have only brought this version out in the UK - so in the US there's only the trade version, which is also still available in the UK, as it's rather snazzier to buy as a present. However, the Amazon.com price is very good on the chunkier version, so it's not too much of an issue.

So there we have it. Even more choice of Inflight Science possibilities. Even more affordable. What's not to love? Check it's web page for more info.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Why are banks so stupid?

A bank. As stupid as the rest, but at
least it looks interesting
I can't believe the stupidity of banks. I'm not referring to all the usual reasons for hating bankers (like their bonuses and breaking our economy) - but because their computer systems are so rubbish.

A lot of this stems from their philosophical inability to recognize weekends and bank holidays. 'What, us, work like normal people in a service industry? Do us a favour?' You might think they do work at the weekend. After all many banks are now 'open' on Saturdays. But that is just a shadow, a ghost of a bank, to fool you into thinking they care. All the transactions they make at the weekend or on bank holidays are saved up to go through on the next 'working day', because their computers don't believe it is really possible to work at the weekend.

Here's one ludicrous example. I have a standing order that goes out on the first of the month. If I go online today, 2 January, which this year is a bank holiday because New Year's Day is on a Sunday, and try to change this standing order I'm presented with the following conflicting information. When's the next upcoming payment? 1 January 2012 (as it won't be processed until the 3rd). Can I change the next transaction? No because you can't change a transaction in the past. But I want to change the  next one. In the future. Argggh.

Picture from Wikipedia