Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Muted impact

I've kindly been sent a review copy of Chris Brogan and Julien Smith's The Impact Equation by those nice people at Penguin (henceforth Random Penguins).

I used to write business books (this kind of thing), but I always find it strange coming back to them after being so immersed in popular science, because a popular science book is usually so packed with fascinating information, where the actual content of business books is often incredibly sparse, with about a page's worth of useful information packaged in a whole load of woffle. Interestingly, a while ago, a company did try to do business books on two sides of a sheet of laminated A4. They genuinely did get everything in, but even though people are supposed to want bite sized chunks these days, they wouldn't pay a book price for something so slim. We are victims of our own greed.

The Impact Equation doesn't entirely escape the limitation of having a lot of padding between gems, but it definitely does have some good content. It describes using modern communication channels, essentially the internet, in order to get noticed and achieve things rather than, as the subtitle says, 'just making noise.' The authors point out that just setting up a blog, say, and expecting it to make you widely noticed is a bit like running a seminar and only advertising it inside the venue. You won't get many people turning up.

The equation in the title is the rather corny one that Impact = C x (R+E+A+T+E), where C is contrast and the others are reach, exposure, articulation, trust and echo. You'll have to read the book for the detail of what these are, but they do mostly make sense, though there's the inevitable feeling that the categories have been stretched a little to fit the acronym. Along the way the authors make some very good points that may not be original, but that so many people get wrong. So, for instance, you don't get impact from constantly blogging about what you are trying to sell or tweeting your products 24/7. You need to create content that works with the relevant medium and that people actually want to consume.

There was a really interesting programme on the radio the other day about the slender man phenomenon on the internet. I confess I had never heard of this, but it's basically a story that has gone rogue, taking on a life of its own and becoming a kind of internet myth. One of the contributors made the point that we have gone through what he calls the Gutenberg Parenthesis. This is grandeous-academic-speak for the simple but powerful observation that for all of human history we have had individuals communicating stuff (stories or whatever) directly to other people or groups of people. The printing press took us into a side world where the stuff communicated was set in concrete (or at least paper), without the directness of communication. But now the internet has brought us back into the historical mainstream of direct links. Brogan and Smith don't mention this but I think it underlines everything they say. All their wisdom on good ways to enhance impact is about being aware of this different, more personal type of communication - even if you are tweeting to several million followers.

I did have a few issues with the book. The authors are constantly referring to 'Chris did that' or 'Julien once did this'. I know they are trying to connect with their audience, but as a reader I really don't care about them or want to know about them. I just want the good stuff to make my online impact better. I got really fed up of this self-referential approach. They also clearly haven't read (or at least haven't absorbed) the message of the Black Swan, apparently thinking that you can somehow learn to be another Richard Branson (say). I don't agree with a lot that Taleb says in that book, but his central point that you can only achieve mediocrity as a result of ability in fields like this, and the rest is down to uncontrollable luck (I crudely paraphrase) is incredibly important. You can't learn how to be another Branson by emulating him, nor can you learn how to be another internet sensation by emulating an existing one. Black Swans aren't like that.

There's also one point the authors miss, which is that the internet is international, and it is very easy to assume that your world view (typically a US one) will work everywhere. They unintentionally demonstrate this very well with this blooper: 'BBC viewers may become upset if something interrupts Coronation Street.' This misses the point anyone in the UK could have corrected that Coronation Street (the UK's most popular soap opera) is not broadcast by the BBC, but by its commercial rival ITV.

Overall, then, if you are struggling to know how to go about improving your impact through the internet this is a good place to start. But like practically every other business book, do expect to have to wade through a lot of padding to find a collection of nuggets that would probably fit on two sides of a sheet of paper.

See The Impact Equation at and or go for Kindle at and

And enjoy the authors talking about it in this video:

... for me this illustrates neatly why the modern multimedia approach is a mixed blessing. I was quite happy to take their advice from a book, but now I've seen them in person, I'm not so sure...

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

What's our Belisha Beacon?

A Belisha beacon
I was crossing the road (the way you do) on a zebra crossing and enjoying the mellifluous name of the flashing orange ball-on-a-stick that alerts drivers to its presence: a Belisha beacon. It is named, of course, after Leslie Hore-Belisha, who introduced both the driving test and these handy crossings when a transport minister in the 1930s.

When you think about it, it's rather sweet, naming something after the minister responsible in this way. I think it is something we ought to see more of. Forget 'free schools' which sounds like something Victorians set up for the deserving poor. Let's have Gove schools. Or Blair wars, Brown gaffes, Osborne cock-ups and Cameron u-turns. Actually, with the exception of the schools, they're a bit vague - we need specific, detailed objects like the Belisha beacon. Perhaps a Grayling commissioner for police commissioners.

They don't have to be named after politicians, of course. We might speak of a Dyson cleaner, for instance (though in practice we tend to call it a hoover, something that really irritated them when I kept doing it while touring the Dyson R&D department). Or a Branson stunt. (Not cockney rhyming slang.)

What are your suggestions for the new equivalent of a Belisha beacon? Who, for instance, introduced dog poo bins? I'd love to know.

Image from Canthusus at the English language Wikipedia

Monday, 29 October 2012

Phoney Phun

I had interesting time last week trying to get my phone line back.

I received a phone call which was irritatingly dead. But for once there was a caller ID number, so I called them back. At least I tried to. But I couldn't dial out because the line was blocked. Their autodialler had called me up but it hadn't released the line. Not everyone knows this, but it's the caller that 'owns' the line. If you hang up on someone who calls you and they don't hang up too, the line is still held. So no matter what I did at my end - unplugging the phone, whatever - I couldn't get my line back.

I called the caller ID number on another line. A recorded message told me it was research call from a respectable market research company I've dealt with in the past. if I wanted to confirm they were legit I could call the Market Research Society. But it gave no way to contact them. So I called the MRS, who gave me the market research organization's number.

Cue rambling conversation with receptionist there who didn't know, for instance, that you can't hang up on a number if the dialler doesn't release the line. Eventually, after several sequences of them muttering to their IT people, 35 minutes later the line was freed up. Apparently this was a result of a frantic check around their call centre, checking all the lines.

It just goes to show - autodiallers are dangerous things in the wrong hands.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Playing the writer

My Starbucks 'office'
As I type I'm sitting in our local chain coffee shop (what the hell, it's Starbucks). I've a fairly quiet day, so I thought I'd play the writer for once and have breakfast and work here a while, as I'm told this is what real writers do.

On the whole, though, I'm not sure it works for me.

Don't get me wrong. It's great having the sort of job where you can decide to have a leisurely breakfast and a quick peruse of the paper, but when it comes down to real work, I'd rather be sitting at my desk at home. Here there's background music, chatter, barista rattle... how is this supposed to help me concentrate? I brought with me the copy edit of my next book to check over, as I thought this might be the sort of thing I could do in a coffee shop, because it doesn't require the same level of concentration as writing, but even that I'd prefer to do in a comfy chair at home.

I can only think that those who do get all excited about working in a coffee shop miss the hustle and bustle of people around them. They want to be with people. And I can understand that. It's why I so enjoy giving talks and the like. But for writing I want peace and comfort. I only have music playing if I'm doing something brainless like the accounts - otherwise I work in silence.

So this isn't for me. But I'll still enjoy a read of the excellent i newspaper and finish my coffee before getting back to the grindstone.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Too soon, Apple

Yes, Apple, thin is sexy... but not always practical
Recently there has been an IT media frenzy on the subject of Apple's new iPad Mini. What's it for? Does it go against the better judgment of the late St. Steve? Does it make the iPod Touch redundant? In amongst all this, Apple has made another technology decision that I think in some ways is more important, yet it has hardly been noticed. The new version of their desktop all-in-one, the iMac, no longer has a CD/DVD drive.

I use an iMac and I love it. You only have to see one of those huge, shiny screens to get all excited. It is a superb product. And I probably would buy one without a CD/DVD drive - but I would resent it.

The reason they've done it is, as far as I can see, is primarily to make the computer wafer thin. It does look stunning because of this, but the fact is I can't get too excited about the difference in depth. In the end, I look at the front of my computer. As long as it doesn't stick out beyond the edge of the desk, I don't really care how deep it is. But I would miss the CD/DVD drive.

Apple would probably say it's just like losing your diskette drive. Do you miss that? Well, no, I don't. Not only does my iMac not have a diskette drive, neither did my previous Dell desktop which I used for three years prior to the iMac, and I never once missed it. And no doubt at some point it will be similar. But I think Apple has made the move too soon.

Okay, I can buy music on iTunes or from Amazon, but I still get a fair amount of my music on CDs. Sometimes it's a gift, sometimes it's something that isn't available as a download. And just occasionally I want to take a look at a DVD while at my desk. And then there's the writing side. Admittedly an external hard drive handles backup via my network, and I usually transfer files to other computers here via WiFi or memory stick. But I still find myself putting things like homebrewed music onto CD or DVD-ROM to provide it to someone outside the house. I don't know if it's still the case, but when one of my daughters did a Media A-level recently, she had to provide videos on disc as part of her course. A CD/DVD drive and burner is still useful.

Okay, yes, I could use an external drive. But I don't want to - it detracts from the whole point of having an all-in-one. And yes, eventually I will abandon CDs and DVDs entirely. But not yet, Apple, it's too soon.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Paid to view

We're all familiar with pay per view - the idea of paying money to watch a sporting event or whatever on TV, but now there's the inverse. Paid to view. An opportunity to be paid to watch those miniature masterpieces known as adverts.

At the moment, apparently, you have to be invited, but soon I think anyone will be able to pop along to the Nectar Adpoints site and be made rich beyond their wildest dreams by watching a few ads.

Okay, I exaggerated a bit. A lot. All the payments are in Nectar points (which as cunningly worth half as much as pennies, so the impressive-sounding 500 nectar points is £2.50). There's an up-front joining award (currently 250 points), then you get an amount for watching an ad (typically 4 points), another 4 points for answering a couple of multiple choice questions and a bonus point for clicking through to the manufacturers website. So that's typical 9 points, or 4.5p per ad. As most ads lasts 30 seconds, allowing another 30 seconds for faffing around with the questions that's £2.70 an hour, rather below minimum wage (though I suppose it's more fun than working in McDonalds).

However, don't give up your day job. You are only allowed to earn 250 points - £1.25 - a week.

The question that fascinates me is whether or not this process gives any real benefit to the advertisers, who presumably are paying for the privilege. And funnily I would suggest it doesn't, because of the way Nectar has decided to make sure you are actually watching the ads. Some time in every 20 to 30 seconds they pop up a little box on the screen. The viewer then has to click the box within 5 seconds or the ad starts again. I can see why they do this, because they don't want you starting an ad then doing something other than looking at the screen. But I still think it's a bit of a shot in the foot.

To see how the system worked, I did try out a few ads (the things I do for my readers...). To begin with I was treating it like a very slow video game. Wait for the box to come up and click it. But after a few ads I actually watched one or two of them I hadn't seen on TV. And found every time I actually watched the ad, I missed the box and had to start all over again. So the only way I could get my magnificent reward was to not watch the ad. Of course it is possible to do both with a bit of practice, but I did find the more interested I was in the ad, the more likely I was to forget to click the box, and so got irritated with the advertiser - surely not what they are trying to achieve.

Time, I think, to rethink the attention checking mechanism!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Where are the flying saucer pics?

My UFO photo, possibly concealed by the MOD/FBI*
On Sunday I appeared on that interesting internet literary radio programme, Litopia After Dark (it's the 21 October show, not yet uploaded when this post was published). I was slightly thrown as I expected to be talking about publishing and books, but because of the closeness to Halloween, the topics were primarily the supernatural. At one point this strayed into the matter of flying saucers. One of the other guests was asking, if a flying saucer landed on your lawn and an alien came in for a cup of tea, what would you do? Would you tell people?

This started me on a different train of thought. Flying saucer photographs. As Fermi once asked about  visitors from another world, where are they all? You might say that there are plenty of photos of flying saucers. In fact I recently reviewed a whole book of them. But in a way, these emphasise my point.

Most flying saucer pictures are really, really bad or look fake (or both). I know a little about such fakes as I went through a phase of making them in my teens. (Just for fun.) Broadly there were two kinds. A relatively detailed model, suspended against the sky with fishing line, which typically had to be a little out of focus to cover up that this is what it was, or a hubcap or metal plate, thrown high in the sky, frisby style.

The trouble with this second approach is that the thrown object usually travelled at an angle that made its flight look totally unrealistic. And fascinatingly, several of the 'UFOs' in the book I reviewed had exactly the same problem - they were flying at a weird angle, just like my hubcap. I was also amazed that the book included a famous picture of UFOs over the nighttime Capitol building in Washington. It does look impressive. A formation of flying lights apparently close over the dome of this impressive structure. That's what you see in the book. But if you take a look at the uncropped version of the photo, there are a series of street lights on the steps in front of the building. In exact mirror formation to the 'UFOs'. The UFOs are just the camera producing a reflection of the bright lights on the dark sky.

The point that occurred to me during the radio show was this. The reason UFO photos are universally so awful is that the vast majority of the people who claim to have seen them didn't have cameras with them when they come across a UFO. So it's just that 1 in a 1,000 time someone did have a camera that we get the shots, and there are sufficiently few that most are rubbish. At least, that's the argument. Only it's not like that anymore. These days I never go anywhere without a camera and video camera. It's on my phone. And the same goes for many millions of others. So why haven't we seen a sudden burst of vast quantities of good photographic/video evidence of UFOs and little grey men?

Sadly, the answer seems straightforward. Because they were never there in the first place.

* I had hoped to illustrate this with one of my old fake UFO photos, but my albums are in boxes in the loft and the relevant albums weren't in any of the easily accessible boxes. Coincidence? Or conspiracy?!?

Monday, 22 October 2012

Hitting the lithium

It's time for another Royal Society of Chemistry compound podcast - and today I'm an contemplating the joys of lithium carbonate. It's a surprisingly versatile molecule, even though it tends only to have one association for most of us.

Take a listen and in around 5 minutes you'll find out more...

Like this? There are plenty more compounds here, not to mention the whole periodic table of the elements.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Today versus clean energy

Rather worryingly I have just heard the Today programme make a total hash out of explaining a new and clean way to produce petrol. Frankly, they were very close to just laughing at what, to me sounds an excellent idea.

You might say that petrol (gasoline) is yesterday's fuel - but you'd be wrong. It's today's fuel and we are a good way - 20, 30, maybe 40 years off it being seriously phased out. We neither have the infrastructure, cheap enough vehicles or good enough range on electrics to switch to hydrogen and/or electric cars. People who think it will be sooner live in cloud cuckoo land. And don't think the switch will be driven by us running out of oil. Apart from untapped oil reserves in harder-to-get-to places, many countries have coal reserves, and coal can be converted into oil. The US alone has enough coal to fulfil current oil usage for around 200 years at costs less than current oil prices. So we need ways to do petrol in a more environmentally friendly fashion, which this is.

The scheme is a clever one because it gets its carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, so when you use the petrol you aren't adding any CO2 to the atmosphere. It's a demonstrator at the moment, producing something like 5 litres a day, but in principle it can be scaled up. It uses carbon dioxide and water vapour to produce methanol, which is then converted to petrol, and the energy to do all this is renewable. Here's a quick video:

So let's see how Today got it wrong. First, Evan Davies, for whom I usually have quite a lot of respect was mocking the fact that it only produced 5 litres a day. 'That'll solve our problems,' he said (roughly). Come on, Evan. It's a demonstrator. The quantity is irrelevant.

Then their economics correspondent (or environment correspondent, this is from memory) waded in. He pointed out that you have to put the energy in to make the petrol here, where the energy came from the Sun in fossil fuel, so it will take a lot more energy in compared with the energy you get out. This is true to a point - but bear in mind petrol doesn't jump out of the ground into your car's fuel tank. We have to have extremely expensive (both financially and in energy terms) discovery and drilling operations, not forgetting the cost of cleaning up nasty oil spills. And it's not petrol that comes out of the ground, it's crude oil. So then you have the energy intensive operation of cracking and extracting the petrol from this.

Finally, there was no mention of the most significant point. That pretty well all the energy expended in the extraction, preparation and use of petrol today involves burning fossil fuels and adding to the CO2 load of the atmosphere. By comparison, in this method the energy used in producing the petrol is renewable and the petrol itself came out of the atmosphere so doesn't add to the CO2 load when its burned.

Realistically there are problems. The process might not scale up well. It could be expensive both financially and in energy terms (I don't know how much energy goes into the discovery, drilling, extraction and refining of petrol). But to effectively dismiss it out of hand the way the Today team did is appalling.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

But is it art?

brown vista with blue things
It's not art. It's not anti-art. Roughly the words of the 'yellowist' who scrawled on the Mark Rothko painting at the Tate Modern. If you read the 'yellowist' manifesto on the subject, it is either a delightful wind-up, or overinflated tosh. I am strongly reminded of the Henry Cecil book Ways and Means. In this enjoyable, if slightly dated, book a pair of conmen and their wives perform some excellent examples of what would now be known as the long con. Complicated setups where they fool people into paying them large sums of money.

In one of the stories, Basil and Nicholas invent a fake school art called something like partists (I don't have my copy to hand to check the actual name) who only paint parts of the body. The plan itself is mostly a way to get round the rather limited gambling rules of the time to run a kind of football pools on paintings, but somehow yellowist always brings back the idea of this made up style - so I hope it is indeed a wind-up.

However, either way I am surprised how little the news coverage has picked up on what, to me, is the obvious point that there really is no difference between the scrawl and the original. There is no talent in Rothko's work and similar 'art'. It really is the case of the emperor's new clothes, or in the case of art, the art world's new works. There is nothing there to appreciate.

Above you will see my original art work 'brown vista with blue things' (it is essential that the title is only rendered in lower case). I am proud of this. It took me at least 2 minutes to create on my iPad. I genuinely feel that the longer you look at it, the more you will see in it. This is actually a function of the way the brain works. What I can't see is any difference between this and the Rothko in terms of artistic merit, except mine has more interesting patterns in it. What makes his red blobs great (expensive) art and mine worthless? The interpretation? In that case it's not the picture that's art, it's the words that describe it. And let's face it they are pseudo-intellectual claptrap. The man who did it? Then we're looking at the merits of designer labels, not art.

I find it hilarious when they show the gallery and inevitably someone is sitting one of those rather uncomfortable gallery benches, staring at a canvas with a few strokes of paint on it that some conman or other has persuaded a naive and brainless 'elite' to spend millions of pounds on. They should go out and sit on a bench and contemplate nature or the stars instead. Because there really is something to see there.

P.S. A serious question. Could you honestly say if you went in Tate Modern and saw the picture above on the wall labelled as a serious work by a serious painter, that you would immediately spot that it wasn't? If you say yes, I think you need to re-examine your honest circuits, they're on the blink.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Voting for police commissioners is idiotic

Like me, if you live in the UK and you are on the electoral register, you will probably have had one of these through the letterbox: an invitation to go and vote for your friendly local police commissioner. (Sorry, I just can't say that without thinking of Batman and Commissioner Gordon.)

I think this is probably the most stupid thing the present government has done: electing someone to the job of police commissioner. I mean, think about it. Imagine you ran a big business and you are recruiting someone to an important position. What would you say to the HR person who came along and said 'I have a bright idea! Instead of the usual recruitment process, we'll ask each candidate to produce a glossy brochure about themselves (though you won't see all of them), and you will then give the job to the person whose brochure you like best! {Bright HR person smile}' If that happened you would be advertising for two jobs: the original one and a new HR person.

So how would I appoint a police commissioner? I would use the existing jury service system to call together an electoral jury for the police area. That jury would do exactly what an appointment board would do for a real job. Read an application form, see the results of psychometric and problem solving testing (yes, our would-be commissioners would have to undergo testing, shock, horror) and interview each candidate before deciding on the best person for the job.

Which approach do you think would get the best candidate?

Come to think of it, what about MPs? I don't propose removing the franchise to elect MPs, that's too important for democracy. But at the moment we know very little about our MPs before we vote for them. So I would have several electoral juries assessing each candidate and the results of those assessments would be put online (including videos of the interviews) for everyone to see. You could look at each would-be-MP's psychometric and problem solving test results, read their application forms, watch their interviews.

Why several juries? Because I think would-be-MPs ought to be tested on a number of areas, so I would have juries with a range of specialities. These might be:

  • Local issues
  • Finance
  • Foreign affairs
  • Education
  • Science
  • Health
  • Environment

The 'local issues' jury would be for any voter from the electoral district, but we could give weighting to people with expertise in science etc. for the specialist area juries. Each jury would recommend a person for the job, information that would also be available to voters along with the test results, videos etc.

What's not to like?

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nano nightmares

Nanotechnology, like genetically modified food or nuclear power, often produces a knee-jerk reaction. It’s somehow ‘not natural’ and so is considered scary and dangerous. This is primarily a reaction to words, the same way that it easy for advertisers to push emotional buttons with ‘natural’ as good and ‘artificial’ as bad.

This is a silly distinction. There is a lot in nature that is very dangerous indeed – and much that is artificial protects us from that. If you doubt this, try removing everything artificial when you are flying in a plane over shark infested waters. For that matter, many of the most virulent poisons like ricin and botulinus toxin are natural. Water crammed with bacteria and faecal matter is natural. Clean, safe drinking water from a tap is artificial. Yet we can’t help reacting like puppets when the advertisers use those magic words.

Sub-microscopic machines: NOT what we're talking about
Some concerns about nanotechnology are down to what is at best futurology and at worst science fiction. Prince Charles infamously caused headlines back in 2003, when newspapers reported ‘The prince has raised the spectre of the “grey goo” catastrophe in which sub-microscopic machines designed to share intelligence and replicate themselves take over and devour the planet.’

Charles later denied ever meaning this, commenting that he never used the expression ‘grey goo’ and saying ‘I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet. Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction.’ But he certainly did express concerns that not enough was being done to assess and manage any risk associated with the use of nanotechnology.

Unlike the grey goo headlines, this is a perfectly reasonable attitude. The very nature of nanotechnology implies using substances in physical formats that our bodies might not have encountered, and hence we can’t make assumptions without appropriate testing and risk assessment.

If we are to be sensible about this, we need to first avoid a blanket response to nanotechnology. You would be hard pressed to find a reason for being worried about the impact of nanometer thin coatings, such as that used by P2i (sponsors of the Nature’s Nanotech series) There is a big difference between manipulating coatings at the nanoscale and manufacturing products with nanoparticles and small nanotubes.

We know that breathing in nanoparticles, like those found in soot in the air, can increase risk of lung disease, and there is no reason to think that manufactured nanoparticles would be any less dangerous than the natural versions. When some while ago the Soil Association banned artificial nanoparticles from products they endorsed, I asked them why only artificial particles. Their spokesperson said that natural ones are fine because ‘life evolved with these.’

This, unfortunately, is rubbish. You might as well argue it is okay to put natural salmonella into food because ‘life evolved with it.’ Life also evolved with cliffs, but it doesn’t make falling off them any less dangerous. There is no magic distinction between a natural and an artificial substance when it comes to chemical makeup, and in practice if there is risk from nanoparticles it is likely to be from the physics of their very small size, rather than anything about their chemistry.

There are three primary concerns about nanoparticles – what will happen if we breathe them, eat them and put them on our skin. The breathing aspect is probably the best understand and is already strongly legislated on in the UK – we know that particulates in the air can cause a range of diseases and have to be avoided. There is really no difference here between the need to control nanoparticles and any other particles and fibres we might breathe. Whenever a process throws particulates into the air it ought to be controlled. (And this applies to the ‘natural’ smoke from wood fires, say, which is high in dangerous particulates, as well as any industrial process.)

When it comes to food, we have good coverage from The House of Lords Science and Technology committee in a 2010 report. They point out that nanotechnologies have a range of possible applications in food that could benefit both consumers and industry. ‘These include creating foods with unaltered taste but lower fat, salt or sugar levels, or improved packaging that keeps food fresher for longer or tells consumers if the food inside is spoiled.’

The committee’s report sensibly argued ‘Our current understanding of how [nanoparticles] behave in the human body is not yet advanced enough to predict with any certainty what kind of impact specific nanomaterials may have on human health. Persistent nanomaterials are of particular concern, since they do not break down in the stomach and may have the potential to leave the gut, travel throughout the body, and accumulate in cells with long-term effects that cannot yet be determined.’

Their recommendation was not to abandon these technologies, but rather that it was essential to perform appropriate research, preferably across the EU, to check the impact of such nanomaterials when consumed, and to ensure that all such materials that interact differently with the body from ordinary foodstuffs are assessed for risk before they are allowed onto the market. This seems eminently sensible.

The final area, applying nanoparticles to the skin, is perhaps most urgent, because most of apply them on a regular basis. Most sun defence products, and a number of cosmetics contain them. It is hard to find a good reason to allow for any risk in a pure cosmetic, and arguably they should be prevented from containing nanoparticles. But the story is more nuanced with sun creams.

Most sunscreens contain particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These invisible particles, ranging from nanoscale to significantly larger, provide most of the sunscreen’s protection against dangerous ultraviolet. What has to be weighed up is the benefits of using products to prevent a cancer that kills over 65,000 people a year worldwide – and would kill many more if sunscreens weren’t used – against a risk that has not been associated with any known deaths.

The potential for these nanoparticles to cause harm depends on them penetrating through the outer layers of the skin to reach cells where they could cause damage. In theory a nanoparticle is capable of doing this. But the current evidence is that the particles remain on the surface of the skin and do not reach viable skin cells. Skin cancer is a particular risk in Australia, so this is a topic that has been studied in depth there. As Cancer Council Australia concludes: ‘there is no credible evidence that sunscreens containing nanoparticles pose a health risk. There is plenty of evidence however, proving that sunscreen can help reduce the risk of skin cancer, in particular non-melanoma skin cancer.’

Overall, then, we should not be lax about nanoparticles and their effect on our bodies. We need careful testing and where necessary regulation. But equally we should not be swayed into knee-jerk reactions by emotional words carrying little meaning.

Images from iStockPhoto

Monday, 15 October 2012

Prometheus versus Cabin in the Woods

Over the weekend we had a bit of an iTunes smackdown, watching Ridley Scott's prequel to Alien, Prometheus and the Joss Whedon produced Cabin the Woods. I can't say either was brilliant, but I definitely preferred the lower budget number.

First, Prometheus. You have to say there was great CGI - very realistic looking. Inevitably there were movie references - I couldn't help sniggering when a ship's computer with a voice like HAL addressed someone called David. That couldn't be a coincidence, even though there were no pod bay doors mentioned. And there is no doubt that Ridley Scott has a good line in creating tension. Of course if you've seen Alien (I did first time round in the cinema) once the protagonists got in the room with lots of egg-like cylinders you couldn't help feel a little nervous for them. But even though Alien was little more than hide and seek in space, it was very good, tense hide and seek in space, where I struggled more to get engaged in Prometheus.

There was very little plot structure, the aliens were tediously consistent in being homicidal monsters and I really didn't care for many of the characters. Whenever Hollywood does someone really old by piling on the rubber it looks so fake that you wonder why they can get monsters right but not this - the really old man, who was an important part of what plot there was, was truly bad. (On the plus side, Charlize Theron was stunning, if something of a cipher.)

I'm afraid I couldn't help but laugh aloud at one point, when two of the protoganists were trying to run away from a huge space ship that was falling on them... by running along the length of the ship rather than going sideways and covering a fraction of the distance to safety. It was pure Road Runner. And the baby Alien at the end looked far too much like a child dressed like Alien for Halloween. All in all it made me appreciate how brilliant Blade Runner still is. But at least Prometheus was better than the remake of Total Recall.

So we come to Cabin in the Woods. This was a relatively low budget movie that for some reason was shelved for several years before it came out. Despite getting very mixed reviews, I had to love it to some degree as I'm a huge Joss Whedon fan. Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse all score high amongst my favourite TV. And Whedon didn't do badly with the Avengers Assemble movie, though I think his ability to combine drama, fantasy horror/science fiction and big dollops of humour works best on TV because there's more time for things to develop. He also has more chance to produce his trademark reversal of expectation in TV - but having said that, this was something this film certainly packed in. Whedon wasn't the director, but he was writer and producer, and it shows.

Whedon fans will be delighted that three of his rep company are present in the cast, though mostly underused, apart from the nerdy self-deceiving scientist from Dollhouse, who is excellent as a stoned fool who turns out to be a key character against all expectation. It might be portrayed as a traditional teen horror slasher, but the first scenes with a kind of industrial control room, manipulating what's going on in the teens' horror story make it clear that it's something different and won't play as expected. (One of the best bits was the phone conversation with the evil harbinger at the gas station near the cabin, who really gets peeved when he finds the control room has him on speakerphone to laugh at his portentous remarks.)

In the end, I don't think it quite works. The overall concept is brilliant if bonkers, and some parts of it work well, but the ending clearly was a 'we can't think want to do next' bit of writing. Having said that, a major theme in Buffy et al is how you might have to sacrifice your friends and everything to save the world. The ending inverts this traditional Whedon mainstay by putting friendship ahead of saving the world.

I can't stand gore/slasher movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Saw, so when it turned out that some of the baddies would be zombies with TCM tendencies I was not thrilled - but actually even though there are times when a scene is absolutely swilling with human blood, you don't see too much detail, which makes it more acceptable for me. For all its problems, there was much more originality and inventiveness in Cabin in the Woods than there was in Prometheus and I have to say it made for much the more enjoyable evening of the two.

Both are now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

Friday, 12 October 2012

The Perishers Dilemma

Where a Perishers strip would be shown if I had confidence I owned it
As I think I have mentioned before, I am a great fan of the old UK comic strip The Perishers. This started, I suspect, as an attempt to cash in on the success of Peanuts in the US, but it very quickly developed a feel and approach that was all its own. Although the humour could sometimes be childish, it often had a surreal character that lifted it far above its apparent level. I don't know if Wellington's habit of remarking something like 'Colour me amazed' originated with the cartoon, but it was certainly highly appropriate for a black and white strip.

However, this post isn't really about the Perishers per se but about the whole position of reproduction rights of a work of art. Specifically, if I buy an original artwork, do I own it or not?

The reason I ask this is that is that many years ago, a friend who knew I loved The Perishers very kindly bought the original artwork of one of the strips for me. I assume I own this - it was certainly paid for. Yet do I have the right to reproduce that strip on this page? I really don't know. Anything else I own I would say 'yes.' And surely it's only fair if the thing is the original and has been paid for that I can do so. Yet I have a suspicion that I don't have that right. Which seems a little unfair.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Rise and Rise of Linked-in

I was a member of Linked-in, sometimes described as Facebook for business, before I'd even heard the term social networking, but for years did nothing with it. In fact, if someone asked me to be added as a contact, I used to reply 'Yes, but I rarely use it.' Now something has changed.

I have started taking Linked-In seriously. What tipped me over the edge was an email conversation with a publicist at a publisher. I had asked said publicist if she knew what had happened to an editor at a magazine I had written for in the past, as the email address was bouncing. Oh, yes, said the publicist, according to Linked-in she (the editor) has moved to work here (a different company). And within seconds I was back in contact with said editor.

The light bulb went on. I finally saw the point.

So since then I have been working on expanding my Linked-in connections and making myself more visible in the environment. It genuinely is a valuable tool for keeping in touch on the business side - much more reliably so than Facebook or Twitter. I won't drop either of those as they have a different, if overlapping, world of people - but I am now treating Linked-in with respect.

Apart from anything else, I absolutely love going on Linked-in and scrolling through the 'People you may know' page. This is a list of contacts of contacts and it's fascinating, because it takes me back to previous workplaces with all sorts of names that bring back memories, and it takes me off into new interesting new areas, particularly with new science communication contacts. Brilliant. It's contact porn.

If I pull it up now I have in front of me the Head of Planning at British Airways, freelance writers, editor of Science Radio at the BBC, a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, an administrator at Swansea Met University, a New Scientist editor, the Chief Executive at World Book Night, the Web Development Manager for Tesco... it is truly awesome.

Are you on Linked-in yet?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Public key, private key banking

Money, made easy
I was standing in the queue to pay at M&S food yesterday and noticed a leaflet for their new current account. 'The only trouble with switching current accounts is,' I thought, 'it's a pain.' And despite all supposed efforts to make it easier, particularly for business, this remains the case. All the more so now most of our payments are done electronically, so a change of account means getting the finance department of every client/customer to change their systems. And we know how good finance departments are at making changes.

Yet we can switch mobile phone company, transfer our number and zingo! Calls still keep coming in. As long as you have your own URL, the same goes for email address - I've changed ISP twice, but my email address hasn't altered since 1994. So why can't bank accounts be like this?

What we need is to model bank account access on the public key, private key encryption mechanism. In this clever security system, you have a public key that you merrily give to anyone and everyone freely that enables encryption - but you need a separate key that only you know to do the decryption.

My bank equivalent would be that you have a public account number that stays with you for life and that you can let everyone and anyone know. You can stick it in large letters on your website. And that is all that is needed to pay into your bank account. It is bank independent - it's just for you. So when you move banks, anyone paying you still pays to the same public account number and it reaches your new bank. Simples.

Paying out is a different matter. In my scheme you would have a private key to enable money to go out of your account, and that key would only be shared with one individual - the payee. You would have a different key for each relationship between you and a payee (you wouldn't need to see this, it could all be covered by the software, just as the public key/private key is online). If it was a one-off payment you could include the amount in the key - if it's a direct debit or equivalent it would specify the duration. No one else could use it.

With these in place you have two things. The ability to switch bank accounts without informing everyone of a change of details, and much better security. What's not to like? Would the banks do it? I doubt it. But I can dream...

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Musical metaphors

With the exception of a post about a dubious advertising campaign that I had to take down in response to a cease and desist order, my blog post that has generated the most comments (and certainly the most ire) is one about my dislike for opera. I like to revisit it occasionally, if only to add accelerant to the flames.

On Sunday I was driving back to sunny Swindon from darkest Southampton and happened to have Classic FM's chart show on, which featured a couple of operatic numbers and it struck me that there was a very useful metaphor to be had for the nature of operating singing when compared with my own favourite singing form, Tudor/Elizabethan/20th Century church music, in the manner of ice cream desserts.

Operatic singing, I would say, is like a visit to Pizza Hut's Ice Cream Factory (R). As well the gooey, sweet icecream, you can pile on the hundreds and thousands and marshmallows and Smarties and sauce to make something that is over-the-top, dramatic and altogether remarkable, if a little predictable. Listening to a piece by Byrd or Palestrina by comparison is like taking on a Heston Blumenthal ice cream. It's a sophisticated taste, and frankly a lot of people probably won't get it. Not only is it subtle but it can shock you by putting things you would never expect together (musically speaking).

The important thing here is that both are, in there own way, appealing. Neither will work for everyone, though more people are likely to get the Ice Cream Factory approach. I'm not saying I'm a convert. But I think I understand the appeal better now. And life would be boring (and not like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates) if we all like the same things.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Stand up science

Last Friday at Oxford I had my first experience of contributing to a sort of stand up science - and it was great fun.

The event, in the hallowed halls of Oxford's Mathematical Institute was, in effect, part of a book tour for Ig Nobel Prize founder Marc Abrahams' new book This is Improbable. As this is a series of short articles it is quite difficult to do a talk about, so Abrahams has hit on a brilliant way of covering the topic. His book describes a whole host of the sort of whacky papers that make you laugh and then think - the kind of thing that typify the Ig Nobel prizes. And what Abrahams does is brings along a pile of the original papers, gives them out to guest speakers like me and then each of us is given 2 minutes to read snippets from the paper as a dramatic rendition.

It works surprisingly well - though some readers were better than others at what was a fairly frantic bit of preparation to make snippets from an academic paper seem entertaining. To add to the fun, after each reading the audience had the opportunity to question the reader about the details of a paper that they'd never seen before.

I chose a paper that studied the effects of wearing socks over your shoes on an icy pavement in New Zealand, a paper that luckily had a number of priceless phrases to quote. (I knew I'd do okay when the audience burst into laughter at the revelation that the experimenters had issued their test subjects with different coloured socks.) Others, I think, found the experience a little wearing. Marc Abrahams was standing alongside us and frequently had to prompt readers to stop breaking the rules by commenting on a paper rather than simply quoting it.

There was one heartstopping moment when one of the other readers, another science writer, who was presenting a paper about racial preference in choosing colour of cheese, was asked a question from the audience about whether the study covered people of mixed race. The science writer turned to the timekeeper on the stage and said something like 'You're mixed race, what do you think?' It felt horribly like one of those moments when someone says 'I didn't know you were pregnant,' to get the reply 'I'm not.'

Overall, though, brilliant fun. Click here for a review of the book/links to Amazon.

Friday, 5 October 2012


I am delighted to announce that my latest book, Gravity is now available in the UK as well as the US. My first encounter with it was a bit of a shock, when I turned up at my talk in Lichfield last Sunday and there it was for sale - but I now have my own copies, so it seem real.

There was one other surprise, though. I was expecting a white cover featuring Harold Lloyd hanging off a huge clock face, clearly being seriously influenced by gravity and fitting the new tag line dreamed up by UK publisher Duckworth 'What goes up, must come down.' At the time of writing, the Harold Lloyd cover is still on Amazon. But instead we have the cover shown here - about as different as you can get.

I rather like the new cover. It has gravitas, which is rather appropriate. The earlier cover suffered, perhaps, from too much levity. (Gravity and levity were in ancient Greek times simple opposing tendencies. Heavy objects had an urge, a desire even, to head towards the centre of the universe, i.e. the Earth. This urge was gravity. Light objects had an urge to move away from the centre of the universe - levity.) It's rather handsome too with that subtle blend of the apple and the Moon having nice Newtonian connotations.

But a little part of me misses Harold Lloyd...

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Physics lessens (sic)

The book is for teachers, but primary
children need to get why physics is fun
There has been much talk in the news of late, thanks to an IoP report showing how few girls are taking physics at A level. The fuss arises because we are in serious need of more physics graduates for science, engineering and business alike. This seems to be the prime driver per se. As one of my daughters pointed out, you don't hear much moaning about how few boys take textiles at A level, so it's more about utility than equality. (Which is fair enough.)

However, I think if we want more people doing physics A levels and degrees (and we do!) we need to address the rot much earlier. I've just reviewed a physics book for primary school children. As a book it's fine, but the content, driven by the curriculum, is rubbish.

The first problem is that it is pure Victorian science. We teach primary school children the basics as they were understood well over a hundred years ago. There are two problems with this. You don't teach them English by giving seven-year-olds classic texts, you use modern catchy stuff - but we still get the dull old droning stuff about friction and mechanics and such. Mechanics is important stuff, of course, just as Shakespeare is in English - but why not start with the weird and wonderful stuff to grab their attention? The other problem is that you want to get the fundamentals in place. What the curriculum fails to recognise is that all the fundamentals of physics changed in the twentieth century.

The second problem (in part because of that Victorian viewpoint) is that what we do teach often verges on being wrong. So, for instance, electricity and magnetism are treated totally separately. Light is often just considered as 'rays', but after that purely as waves. Mirrors, we are told, flip left and right. No they don't. And so on.

Those who justify the current crappy curriculum have two arguments. One is that the children can't understand complicated stuff like relativity and quantum theory and modern cosmology and particle physics. This is just, to use the technical teaching term, bollocks. I don't often resort to bad language, but I have to here, because the premise is so offensive, condescending and ridiculous. I regularly expose primary children to all these areas and they lap it up. It's where all the exciting stuff is, after all. It is perfectly possible to teach relativity, for example, in a way that eight-year-olds can totally get it.

The second argument is that the teachers in primary school don't understand complicated stuff like relativity and quantum theory and modern cosmology and particle physics. This is certainly the biggest barrier to effective teaching of physics in primary schools. Most primary teachers do not have a science background. They are more comfortable with potato prints than Large Hadron Colliders. They will certainly need some handholding to get them past their own blockages until they too realize this stuff isn't complicated and scary at the level they will be presenting it.

The first step, I would suggest, then, is to change the primary school science curriculum and to re-educate primary teachers so they can do physics justice. I have a rather nice little book, Getting Science which gives primary school teachers the basics they need - but without that curriculum change we haven't a hope because most won't bother. It's not what they are supposed to teach.

Let's be clear about this. At the moment, primary school children, who could be fired up with excitement about physics are taught that it is mostly rather dull stuff about materials and friction and forces, with an uninspiring bit of light, sound, electricity and magnetism thrown in. If instead they were taught it was the most amazing, mind-boggling stuff, full of particles that can be in two places at once, and time travel, and big bangs creating a universe that is 94% missing... maybe, just maybe, fewer children would drop the subject as soon as they could.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The spam fairy

Blogs traditionally suffer from a fair number of spam comments, which try (feebly) to look like real comments, but are really just there to include a link to their own website. I didn't realize just how much this happened until I changed the website into a format that allowed comments on each page and got absolutely inundated - probably at least 10 spam comments a day.

So I signed up to a spam blocking service that's well-integrated with the WordPress environment I now use for that website. For months, all those comments were slammed into a holding area by the blocking service and I could see them building up more and more. But then they just stopped coming. For weeks now there hasn't been a single one. Somehow, the spam fairy is catching them before the blocker gets its hands on them.

I thought initially that this was down to a change of approach by the blocker, simply trashing the spam rather than displaying its trophies. But now I'm not so sure.

The thing is, I subscribe to the comments on this blog as an RSS feed, meaning I get alerted whenever someone makes a comment, so I can come back with a snide (sorry, supportive) reply. What is really weird is that I am still getting the spam posts here (the spam blocker isn't on this site) - they turn up in the RSS feed - but the spam fairy is deleting them before I get to the actual blog to do anything about them. They have just disappeared.

I really have no idea what is happening and where this beneficial help is coming from. Can I stop paying for the spam blocking service, thanks to the spam fairy? I really don't know!

Just to show you the kind of thing I receive, particularly because I love the wording of this one, here is the latest spam comment for this blog, as seen in my RSS reader, but which simply isn't there when I go to the blog. Don't you just love that sentence? Eat your heart out, James Joyce.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Magnetic moment

Taken in a break on my visit to Lichfield
I very much enjoyed appearing at the Lichfield festival on Sunday to speak about Build Your Own Time Machine. At the end of the talk, I opened things up to questions, as usual offering to discuss not only the subject of my talk, but any aspect of physics or science communication. And I came a bit of a cropper.

I'm generally able to answer the typical questions that arise on abstruse topics like relativity or quantum theory. I cope, on the whole, with the latest news stories - I've lost count of queries about the LHC and Higgs bosons or, a little while ago, faster than light neutrinos (remember them?). But the ones that tend to catch me out have a habit of being questions that rely more on the kind of basic physics I've not had to think about for a long time. And the one that tripped me up on Sunday was just such a question. It was about magnetism.

The questioner asked why is that a (permanent) magnet doesn't run out of energy. After all, it seems to be able to hold a piece of metal up against the force of gravity indefinitely.

I could answer part of the question. If you think of the magnet attracting a piece of metal up off the ground, then keeping it in the air, it only takes energy to move the metal. Keeping it in place takes no energy. It can be useful to think of what happens with gravity, as it's something we're more familiar with than magnetism. If I lift a ball off the floor and put it on a table, I do work (use energy) to lift the ball against the pull of gravity. But once the ball is on the table there is no energy being used to keep it there. How could there be? Where would it be coming from? Out of the table? Then surely the table would some how drain away?

We tend to be fooled into thinking there is an exertion of energy required just to hold something up because if we imagine holding a heavy object up for a long time ourselves, our arms would begin to ache more and more and eventually we would have to drop it - but this is all about human physiology, not physics.

That leaves us with the energy needed for the magnet to lift the piece of metal in the first place. Where did that come from? This is what threw me at the time, and I was only able to prevaricate. It's tempting to think that somehow the energy is coming out of the magnet, so if it lifted things often enough it would run out. But that's wrong. Once again this is a case where thinking of the case of gravity can be helpful.

If I lift something off the Earth, then let go, there is energy required to move that object. I put the energy into the system when I lift it, the energy is then 'released' when I let go to propel it back to Earth. Potential energy from its position in the gravitational field is translated into kinetic energy of movement. Exactly the same goes for the magnet. The potential energy the piece of metal has from its position in the magnetic field is translated into the kinetic energy of movement. The energy is not somehow sucked out of the magnet to propel the metal.

I think the reason it's fairly obvious with gravity, but less so with magnetism is that our experience tends to be inverted. On the Earth we usually lift things up against gravity's pull, then let go. The only things that get placed in the Earth's gravitational field from outside (the aspect that confuses us with a magnet) tend to be meteors and other space debris. By contrast, with the magnet we are usually putting the piece of metal in from the outside, so it is less obvious that we are giving it potential energy than if we start with the metal stuck to the magnet and drag it away before letting go.

I am sure I will be caught out again this way. When you are thinking on your feet, unless you are working in a subject day to day, it's easy to get into rabbit-in-the-headlights mode and fail to come with a sensible answer. But it won't stop me giving that open request for questions. What I've got to work on is saying 'I'm not sure, I'll check and get back to you,' rather than woffling as I tend to...

Monday, 1 October 2012

The unbearable heaviness of being Welsh

Eight booklets? No, just four, twice.
I'm not Welsh, but the title of this post refers to a reflection that to do business in Wales seems to carry a painful overhead.

Over the last couple of years I've been working with an excellent project called CIME which has been bringing the sort of business creativity support than can usually only be afforded by big companies to micro-businesses in the south west corner of Wales.

The project has just finished, and as part of the wind up, a pack was produced with a booklet on the different contributors with hints on creativity, plus three well-written booklets on creativity techniques and applications by consultant Derek Cheshire. These are very professionally produced and look extremely smart, and probably quite expensive.
Read all about me...

Anywhere else, that would be it. But because it's Wales they have had to duplicate all the documentation in Welsh. So instead of getting a pack of four booklets, you get eight booklets. Whatever your language, half of those are going straight in the bin. But more to the point, I can appreciate the value of the Welsh language, but I think to be so rigid about requiring all this kind of documentation to be bi-lingual is simply a huge waste of money.

It's fine if we are talking government forms - but it's a different matter for booklets from a project like this. There needs to be more flexibility, the option to choose whether to go for a single language or both, depending on your audience.
... in Welsh

As it happens, this project was funded by the EU, so had plenty of money for this kind of thing (in itself, perhaps an indictment of EU projects) - but, really, Welsh people. Would you rather your money was spent on duplicating every document in sight, or on services like schools and health? Just wondering.

For that matter, just think of the impact on the environment. Half these booklets you can absolutely guarantee are going to be thrown away without being looked at. That's really thinking of the environment, isn't it?

Since this was the finale of CIME, I'll leave you with a fun video from one of my sessions featuring the 'visual minutes' taken by a couple of enterprising art students.