Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Educational good news

Approaching the town hall
This is a time of year that is associated with good news, so it is great to be able to bring some good educational news when we are always hearing bad things about schools, universities and Michael Gove. Just over a week ago, though it seems a lot longer thanks to Christmas, I was at Rochdale Sixth Form College's awards ceremony.

Located in the imposing Victorian gothic grand hall of the Town Hall, the event was a celebration of the year's leavers' achievements, the majority now at university, and it turned out to be one of my favourite events of the year. My role was to give a motivational speech and to hand out around 200 certificates, accompanied with the obligatory smile and photo - which sounds like a very repetitious task, but saying hello to all the different students made it surprisingly enjoyable.

With RSFC student of the year
Rhiann Canavan
The reason I say it was good educational news was down to the remarkable achievements that the staff and students have made. Four years ago, RSFC was just a construction site, located in a borough that was one of the worst in the country for sixth form achievement. But in its short life, RSFC has become one of the few sixth form colleges to get an outstanding Ofsted and is rated one of the top colleges in the country.

There are times when it is difficult to be proud to come from Rochdale - but this was definitely one where my home town deserves a few accolades.

Here's to a great 2014 for all of us, but especially for Rochdale Sixth Form College and its leavers, who I had the pleasure to meet a few days ago.

Read more about the college in this article from the Independent.

Monday, 30 December 2013

It doesn't need saving

The graphic that made me grumpy
When I made the remark online 'I sometimes feel that the period between Christmas and New Year is what being retired would be like, but with more tinsel', someone kindly pointed me to the Twixtmas website. The website itself is excellent, promoting the idea of doing something worthwhile with those days - but there was graphic on it that made me slightly grumpy (rare though I know this is).

I've said it before and I will say it again, because it needs repeating. We do not need to do anything to preserve the earth. It is utterly pointless trying to 'save the earth.' I don't say this because I am full of doom and gloom, but because given a few million years (a teeny snippet of time in the Earth's lifetime) our planet can shrug off any environmental messing up we can manage. The earth does not need saving, we do.

Unlike the earth, we need very narrowly fixed environmental conditions to survive comfortably - conditions, incidentally that have been decidedly uncommon in the earth's history and probably will be in the future unless we intervene appropriately. All the 'saving the planet' guff, should really be about saving humanity. And because it is the earth's nature not to spend a huge amount of time in the goldilocks zone where we are comfortable, the chances are that saving humanity is going to involve interfering with nature on a large scale, which is decidedly scary.

I am not saying we shouldn't try to minimise future climate change, because we should. We probably did need some global warming to avoid going back into an ice age (we are currently in an interglacial), but we've had more than enough to do that, and now we need to stop quickly to avoid going too far the other way. But it's certainly not as simple as being green and returning to nature.

So there we have it. Do something great with the period between Christmas and the New Year (I can't bring myself to call it Twixtmas), but don't attempt to preserve the earth. It will just end in tears.

This has been a Green Heretic production

Wednesday, 25 December 2013


Wishing you a happy Christmas and an exciting and inspiring New Year.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Universally Challenged

 Earlier this year I was surprised and delighted to be the answer to a question on University Challenge, the venerable and much-loved quiz show, so I was even more filled with jollity to be asked to appear on the Lancaster team for the Christmas edition of the show, which features graduates with a little more experience of life, the universe and everything, rather than the usual youths. The format otherwise, though, is the same, down to the sizzling quizmastership of Jeremy 'Take No Prisoners' Paxman.

The result of the invitation was a trip to the ITV studios in the glossy new MediaCity development that has transformed the old Salford Docks into something rather glamorous. Across the water, Coronation Street actors smoulder on their new set, while in the main development BBC and ITV come together in a friendly merge that is somehow well reflected in the way ITV makes University Challenge for its old rivals.

MediaCity is worth an exploration in its own right - and we were staying in the Holiday Inn that is right in the middle of the complex - but inevitably the highlight was the filming of the show itself. I was one of the less experienced of the contestants when it came to TV, but even old hands were a little nervous at taking part in such an institution. In total there were 14 teams taking part, of which 4 would go through to the semi-finals, representing a handful of Oxbridge colleges and some of the more modern institutions.

I can't deny I was nervous, but when it came down to it, it was great fun. Our team genuinely enjoyed it in the good old British sense of 'it's the taking part that counts', so win or lose, we were in it for the enjoyment. This helped hugely by the make up of the team - brilliant people one and all. Apart from me, Lancaster was represented by the Daybreak news presenter Ranvir Singh, the film actor (also about to be in Games of Thrones) Roger Ashton-Griffiths and the food critic and TV food judge Matthew Fort. I can say nothing about the result - but we had a truly brilliant experience (probably best of all socialising over a meal afterwards).

If you want to see Christmas University Challenge in action it starts tonight, Friday 20 December, on BBC2 at 7.30pm. Our match against the University of Kent is on tomorrow night, 7.05pm, again on BBC2.
Photo (c) ITV Studios, reproduced with permission

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Diamonds are so last century

Most simple inorganic compounds - think sodium chloride, for instance - are amongst the more familiar substances. But boron nitride, just boron and nitrogen is something most of us have never heard of. Which is amazing when you consider how remarkable it is. Because its electronic structure is similar to carbon it can take all the forms that carbon does, from an equivalent of the wonder material graphene to a diamond substitute - and often it does the job better than the original.

So prepare to get all abrasive as you hurry over to the RSC compounds site to see more on this useful inorganic compound. If you'd like to listen straight away, just click here.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Christmas challenge

Ho, ho, ho!
It's that time of year when we're dashing around madly, but at the same time work sometimes slows down a bit. When better moment to take a break from thrashing around for a little light entertainment.

And so we proudly present the Now Appearing Christmas Mostly Musical Quiz. There is no prize (though do feel free to add a comment saying how you did) - just the satisfaction of knowing stuff. Or not.

No Wikipedia or Google cheating please - just try from the top of your head.

The answers are down below.

1. Why do Rangifer tarandus abound this time of year?

2. How would you distinguish Father Christmas from Santa Claus in an identity parade?

3. A certain rhyme in depth:
a) Which poem introduced Santa's reindeer (a bonus if you can give both titles)?
b) Who wrote it?
c) Five years either way, when was it written?
d) Which two reindeer have variant spellings of their name (a bonus for the variants and why)?
e) Who wrote the poem that introduced a ninth reindeer?
f) Three years either way, when was it written?
g) Who set the poem to music?
h) Three years either way, when was it written?

4. What is a macaronic carol?

5. What date is Holy Innocents Day?

6. A funky music collection of 1582 introduced Christmas hits like In Dulce Jubilo (it dates back to the 13th century, but this made it), Gaudete!, Unto us in Born a Son and the tune of Good King Wenceslas. What was it called? (Bonus for the country it originated)

7. Where was Wenceslas a king, what was his actual name and when did he reign (10 years either way)? - three marks up for grabs!

8. Who wrote Silent Night - a mark each for the two (surnames will do)?

9. Multiply drummers drumming by swans a swimming and take away ladies dancing. What do you get?

10. Time for a Christmas drink...









1. Rangifer tarandus are reindeer (or caribou).

2. Father Christmas wears a full length hooded cloak in either red or green. Santa Claus wears separate hat, jacket and trousers in red with white trim, and a broad black belt.

3. A certain rhyme in depth:
a) Twas The Night Before Christmas - A Visit from St Nicholas
b) Clement Clark Moore
c) 1823
d) Donner & Blitzen / Dunder or Donder & Blixem - the second set (used in the original) are the Dutch words for thunder and lightning
e) Robert L. May
f) 1939
g) Johnny Marks
h) 1949

4. A carol in more than one language, typically Latin and English/ language of your choice

5. 28 December

6. Piae Cantiones - Finland

7. Bohemia, Vaclav, 922-929

8. Mohr and Gruber

9. 75

10. Mine's a pint

Image from Wikipedia, by Douglas Rahden

Monday, 16 December 2013

Science needs hands on

What's happening here? Whatever it is, it's not worth examining
I had the pleasure last week of speaking at event for heads of science from secondary schools in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Before my own session I sat in on their get-together where they were primarily discussing the many and byzantine changes to the exam system that the government and Mr Gove's latest whims have brought about.

Two things struck me as an outsider. One was that, rather than simplifying the exam system, every change seemed to make it more complicated. Rather like the way the tax system has got more and more complex over the years, the exam system, particularly once you take in GCSEs, iGCSE equivalents, GCE, BTEC, requirements for the eBac, the three buckets* etc etc has become a tangled mess. Frankly both could do with a 'start again from the beginning', though I accept that the last thing teachers need is yet another upheaval.

However one specific thing stuck out like the veritable sore thumb. In describing the revised A-levels to be implemented in a couple of years' time, there was a statement that was so bizarre that it could only have come from an arts or history graduate. (What did Mr Gove study?) It seems that in the new A-levels, practicals will not contribute at all to the final grade. Apparently, the government is so obsessed with moving to 'traditional' exams and away from coursework, with that dangerous possibility of influence from the teachers creeping in, that they won't be counting any form of practical examination towards grades, as they can't be sensibly externally marked.

This is just ludicrous. Even if you are 'back to the way it was in our day' mode, practicals played an important part in A-level exams 30 or 40 years ago. Of course there are purely theoretical scientists, but to exclude the importance of experimentation for everyone at age 17 or 18 makes no sense. Practical skills in experiments should be as important in science as maths or remembering formulae - quite possibly more so. Let's face it, Michael Faraday would not have got far with an exam where the grade entirely ignored practical ability.

I am more than mind-boggled, I am fuming. Which means I probably should be in a fume cupboard. But whether or not a student could manage this we will never know, because doing experiments is apparently not significant in science any more.

* Don't ask. But it is the official term.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 13 December 2013

A pun-ishing yet pleasant read

There is a long tradition of humorous fantasy that has followed two broadly diverging paths - a more sophisticated route in the UK (typified by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, whose writing, though apparently science fiction could probably be more accurately classed as fantasy) and a rather less subtle approach in the US.

This American genre varies from the hugely entertaining Amber stories of Roger Zelazny (which are primarily adventures, but maintain the wry humour of a noir detective story) to downright silly but fun romps like Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming (also by Zelazny). But I had not realized quite how far these books could go in intensity of groan production until coming across Board Stiff.

The book was written by Piers Anthony, a long standing member of the SF and fantasy community who may never have been quite in the first rank, but has turned out many readable tales over the years. It was, I admit, with some trepidation that I approached the book when it was offered to me as it is number 38 (no, not a typo) in the Xanth series of novels. It really is hard to imagine someone reaching that number without churning them out (with the exception of Pratchett), but I was willing to give it a go, having been assured that no previous knowledge of Xanth was required.

Overall the experience was surprisingly pleasant. What we have here is a classic quest story, with a likable cast of characters and some impressive tasks to achieve and obstacles to be overcome. I particularly liked the character Astrid, a basilisk in human form, struggling with the conflict of wanting to taste humanity while being deadly to the species. But there is a price to payment which is coping with the numerous puns that litter the book. Practically everything we meet is a pun of some sort, from the strong drink boot rear, to the central character Irrelevant Kandy, who is either ignored if known by her full name, or lusted after if known as I Kandy. Even the central arc of the story concerns puns and their importance to Xanth.

Kandy's name also brings out the other slightly cringe-making aspect of the series, which is a 1950s-esque coyness about sex, which has been codified into a complex running joke. (Babies, for instance, really are brought by the stork, and the sight of a girl's panties causes any man to freeze in his tracks and remain comatose until snapped out of it.) Combined with a very simplistic writing style this will put a fair number of readers off, though I found it tolerable as long as the book is read with the same sort of 'dated approach' mental filter you have to apply now when reading, say, Asimov's Foundation series.

Overall, an enjoyable, lightweight way to spend a few hours. Unless you are true pun-head it is unlikely to give more than passing amusement, but it is, in the manner of the Earth in Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, mostly harmless.

Board Stiff is available from 6 January 2014 and can be pre-ordered before then on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A Question of God

I am delighted to welcome J. S. Watts as my latest guest blogger. J.S.Watts is a UK writer. She has written three books: two of poetry, “Cats and Other Myths” and the multi-award nominated “Songs of Steelyard Sue” (published by Lapwing Publications) and a novel, “A Darker Moon” (published by Vagabondage Press). She has had a long term interest in mental health issues because of family issues and her work in education. She has served on various Mental Health Act panels and been a Mental Health Trust governor. See her website for further details.


I’m actually a little hesitant about writing this guest post. I mean, what’s a poet and fiction writer doing writing for a science based blog? Do I have the scientific chops for this? Also, by choosing to share some thoughts on the tricky subject of religious delusion in the seriously mentally ill, I know I could be treading on thin ice and who knows what lies beneath?

Let me be upfront about a few things. I’m not a clinician, scientist or mental health professional. I’m just a writer who observes things, particularly people, and likes to know what makes them tick. I’m also someone who likes to ask questions – lots of questions. One of my earliest spoken phrases was, apparently, “wasat?”, closely followed by, “why?”. This post is just me pondering and asking questions about what I’ve observed during a close association with the UK’s mental health services through family connections, past professional work in the education sector and voluntary work I’ve chosen to undertake.

My principal question is why does religion seem to feature so significantly in the delusions of people with serious mental health problems? I’ve met people who believe they are God (Judaic/Christian/Islamic variety), a god (South American in this context, but other pantheons would probably serve as well), talk to God and angels, hear demons, have found the answer to eternal life and are being confounded by the Anti-Christ (me, on that occasion). What is it with religion that it finds its way into people’s psychoses on such a regular basis?

Is there a historical link? Once upon a time, people who heard voices might be lucky enough to be acclaimed seers, saints or prophets (unless they were unlucky enough to be deemed witches or possessed). These days, hearing voices is likely to earn you the label of schizophrenic or psychotic. Does the knowledge of past, positive, cultural interpretations of internally heard voices play to our need for illusory superiority and  colour our experiences today?

Are we looking at a social phenomenon? For years humanists such as Julian Huxley have seen religion as a prop or crutch some people are born needing. On the other side of the argument, the Christian Church offers itself up as a refuge and shelter for those in need. In the despair and chaos that can be experienced during extreme mental ill health, is it surprising that religion becomes involved in chaotic mental processes, both as a potential source of salvation and as evidence that life is truly hellish?

Does religious delusion have a physiological cause, running deep in our DNA and hard-wired into our brains? Here, I’m thinking of geneticist Gene Hamer whose hypothesis  proposes that a specific identifiable gene predisposes humans towards  spiritual or mystic experiences. Whilst this theory has had its gainsayers, more recent psychological research by Professor Bruce Hood suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, whilst yet other researchers have found evidence linking religious feelings and experience to particular regions of the brain which can be stimulated to induce feelings of religious euphoria or the sense of a divine presence. Mental illness often has physiological roots and can be caused by the brain’s chemistry malfunctioning, so perhaps the repeated God delusion is just a sign of our mental wiring playing up?

Despite clinical advances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and the phenomenal work of some truly committed and outstanding people, my own observations and the sea of fluctuating and misdiagnoses I have come across, lead me to believe that psychiatry today remains, in many cases, as much an art as a science. For this reason, I am sure, it has proved a source of endless fascination for creative writers from Charlotte Bronte to Sebastian Faulks, with his epic “Human Traces” and the fictionally more successful “Engleby”. Less exalted writers such as myself have also grazed the subject matter. In my dark fiction novel, “A Darker Moon”, one man’s search for himself has both psychological and mythic roots. Like this blog post, the novel raises questions about life, sanity and being human - which it does not claim to answer. The solution to what is delusion and what is true is not a clear one. Indeed, one reviewer who praised the book commented “Each of us will see some form of light at the end of this author's tunnel, but it won't be the same one, the same colour, or even the same destination.” and isn’t that a bit like life itself?

Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that this fundamental ambiguity may also have something to do with the frequency of religious delusions in psychotic episodes. In saying this, I do realise that some people are so ill that the implausibility of believing themselves to be the US President or their wife a hat is immaterial, but for those whose psychosis co-exists with the real world, how can they or their medical advisors prove that they are not God or that the voices they hear are not demonic? You can believe it to be nonsensical and a sign of mental illness, but can you actually prove it? Really? It may be worth remembering that one man’s strong religious belief is another’s ill-advised superstition, can be another’s evidence of mental illness. Surely past historical acceptance of people hearing voices and experiencing divine revelations, when compared with the Roman Catholic Church’s current day belief in miracles and the beatification of modern saints, teaches us that there is still a spectrum of perceptions ranging from religious experience to mental illusion. Boundaries between the two are not as clear cut in the 21st Century as those of us who emphasise the scientific and rational in life would like to believe.

Oh look, there’s that word again, “belief”: a concept that has been central to human existence for millennia, may be hardwired into our brains and our DNA, has extensive social, cultural and historical roots and for many people is as ambiguous as an imprecise psychiatric diagnosis. Even when allegedly well, we argue over it, fight over it and kill for it. Maybe it’s not that surprising, therefore, that such an integral part of the human condition is with us in illness as well as health?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Family history looming large

Image reproduced with the permission
of the Whitaker Museum and Gallery
I have recently had this painting brought to my attention and I couldn't help be fascinated. It's called 'girl at a Preston loom' and it was painted by one William Clegg in 1869. I've no idea if William was a relation - Clegg is a fairly common name in Lancashire - but I can't help be drawn to the image.

Apart from anything else, it was unusual for painters then to represent such lowly figures, so it's a rare example of a painting of what was then a common sight.

But apart from the coincidence of name, it also grabs my attention because my grandmother started work in a cotton mill at an early age and my suspicion is that, though the machines were probably rather larger in Annie Pickersgill's day, the technology was likely to be very similar.

To my shame I can't remember exactly when Annie started work - I know that she began to attend the mill for half days before she left school to get used to it, and I've a feeling that started when she was around age 11 (which would be in 1910). She was certainly no older.

Although I certainly heard tales of camaraderie from my grandma, the mills were not a pleasant place to work. The noise from the machines was intense - communication on the mill floor was largely by sign language - and early deafness was common. If looking at that painting makes you wonder if it was a good idea to be stood in full skirts in such close proximity to whirling, unprotected gear wheels (remember this, next time you moan about health and safety gone mad), you might be inclined to think that the painter was using some artistic licence, but I certainly heard plenty of tales of clothes (and hair) getting caught in the machines, sometimes with dire consequences.

I'm not the kind of person who has a rose-tinted nostalgia for the 'olden days'. It was a horrible way to work, though we probably had to go through it as a nation to haul ourselves out of the earlier rural squalor that most lived in. But equally it's not a time or a way of life we should forget, and I think we should celebrate people like Annie Clegg (as Miss Pickersgill later became) and their work.

The painting is now at the Whitaker Museum and Gallery in Rossendale, though I believe it is currently in store rather than on display.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Shadows Beyond

It seems particularly appropriate with Christmas on the way, when a lot of us have a bit more time to dip into fiction, to be reviewing a young adult fantasy novel in ebook form that would appeal to adult readers as well.

Val Tyler's Shadows Beyond takes us into a world where the teenage Emtani must travel from the only life she has known in a small village to the unknown of the city, where her young sister has been taken as a slave. With grotesque crime lords, a glossy upper city with a horrible secret and a dark underbelly where the Luciphorous Factory leaves slave workers horribly disfigured, it has the feel of a dystopia, but without the total absence of hope that tends to make dystopias ultimately too depressing to be an enjoyable read. Despite all the trials and horrors Emtani and her friends go through, there is a positive side to their experience too.

In some ways this isn't a book I would naturally be attracted to. The fantasy element involving headlets and shadows (you will have to read it to find out what this entails) was difficult to accept alongside the laws of physics. (I know fantasy, by definition, involves things that are inexplicable, but I like to feel that there could be an explanation that we just don't have yet.) However, the author's storytelling skills soon had me swept away, and once I was a couple of chapters in I was hooked and wanting to know how things turned out.

With some clever twists and a relentless, driving action throughout it is a book you will resent having to put down.

See at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Monday, 9 December 2013

What colour is an electron?

What colour is a beam of blue light?
Not long ago I facetiously commented on Facebook that electrons were pink. The next day, an X-ray crystallographer asked me 'As someone with a physics background, what colour would you say an electron is?' I almost fell off my chair. But once I started to think about it, it's a really interesting question - and one that might be worth first approaching by asking another apparently silly question.

What colour is a beam of blue light? The answer certainly doesn't have to be blue. Before I explain why, let's put relativity out of bounds. Once you start moving, colours are moveable feasts - think blue/red shift. But I'm envisaging a much simpler situation. I show you a beam of blue light and ask you what colour it is. I can guarantee you would not answer 'blue'.

To avoid distraction, what I will do is shine the blue light down a cylinder with a black interior, turn the lights off in the room and open a door on the side of the cylinder so you can see the light passing through. What would you see? Nothing. Because in one sense you can't see light. Obviously this sounds bonkers. Light is all we do see. But the point is that when we see that we see light we mean something totally different to seeing, say, a postbox. When I say I see a postbox, what I mean is that the light from, say, the sun, hits the postbox, is re-emitted by the box towards my eyes, and I see the box. So 'seeing' usually means detecting the light that hits an object and comes back towards us. This just doesn't happen with light. Light passes right through a beam of light - it doesn't reflect off it. So we don't see a light beam sideways on.

You may at this point be thinking, 'but what about laser beams and spotlight beams and such? You see those sideways on.' And as the picture above demonstrates, you do. But only because the beam is hitting something in its path - dust, water vapour or smoke, for instance - and some of the photons are being scattered off their path towards your eyes. Otherwise there would be nothing to see.

So bearing this in mind, let's go back to 'What colour is an electron?' My initial thought in response to the crystallographer was that it doesn't have a colour as you could either consider it a dimensionless point or a spread out, fuzzy quantum collection of probabilities, and in both cases the concept of colour is meaningless. But he had something different in mind.

He said that physicists usually think of electrons as blue (perhaps as a result of the Čerenkov radiation given off by electrons in nuclear power plants), and tend to think of positively charged things as red, which is the opposite of the convention he used. He was just talking about arbitrary conventions. But now that I come back to the concept given the insight from 'What colour is a beam of blue light?' I think that maybe there is a real answer.

When we see a postbox as red, what is happening is that the box is absorbing photons from the sun with a range of energies corresponding to the whole visual spectrum (and beyond). Much of the energy from the photons simply goes into increasing the energy of the atoms in the box (effectively warming it up a little), but some of the energy is re-emitted as photons, preferentially in the red range, so we see the box as red. 'What colour is a postbox?' really means 'What energy range of photons are re-emitted by the box?'

Specifically, the particles responsible for that re-emitting are electrons. When light hits an object, the electrons around the atoms in the object absorb the light energy, jumping up one or more levels. The light that comes back off the object, enabling us to see it, is the result of those electrons dropping back down in energy, releasing a new photon or photons. So arguably the colour of the electron is the colour of the light it re-emits. This varies depending on the electron's state - so  you could argue that the real answer to 'What colour is an electron?' is not 'It doesn't have a colour,' but rather 'An electron is a bit like a chameleon. It has different colours depending on the state and situation it is in.'

There's nothing like a silly question to get the brain in action.

Image from Wikipedia

Friday, 6 December 2013

Thinking on your feet when the ground is rolling under them

Here's another guest post from Richard Sutton, who introduces himself: From San Rafael, California on a windy January in 1952, it's been a wild ride. My folks never settled down until long after I'd moved to a cabin I built on a commune in Oregon, but I couldn't sit still -- the wanderlust was in my blood. After college,  I hitchhiked to New York City in 1973. There I met my wife on Canal Street and finally found a home.

I learned my first craft post-college, spending 20-plus years in the trenches of NYC advertising and publicity as a graphic designer, marker-pen-jockey, art director and copy writer. I served the needs of a wide range of clients from corporate multinationals to non-profits and small retail businesses. I now limit my design and marketing work to book covers and collateral marketing for authors. Somewhere in there I began writing fiction and short stories and began trading in authentic American Indian arts. My first novel, The Red Gate, was released in 2009 and three more have followed. The most recent, Troll, is a fictional look at the origins of racism and fear of outsiders in a pre-historic setting.


A number of years past, I was struggling to design a web presence for our family business. It was 1995, and despite my more than twenty years of commercial communications design cred, it was eluding me. Each time I’d lay the elements upon the new page, something would draw my attention and once I returned, it resembled a heap of blocks after a child’s tantrum. Images, blocks of text, graphs and charts, lying in an uncertain, unrestrained heap at the bottom of a seemingly endless page.

I browsed hundreds of sites. Many were rough piles, just like my work. The few with order and sense, were composed mostly of images with little information. I would click away on each image, but none were linked to anything, so I wondered what the point was. Possibly, it was the frustration of these displays of color and form with no underlying meaning that led me to a realization.

Like all designers whose work occurred upon some form of printed page, the only thing we knew was producing communications to be seen in two dimensions. Flat. Linear. Page-wise. These static examples viewed on a screen were an attempt to utilize the existing, rudimentary tools in the html codes, to create sophisticated displays in a new environment. They were two-dimensional thinking stuck in cyber space. Nothing I had learned up to this point prepared me to think in more than two dimensions at once when designing communications tools such as advertising, etc. I had grown up in the universe of magazines, newspapers and books. Package design, even when properly die-cut and assembled, was still created in two dimensional thought space. Up until then, a message would be found, essentially in one place. Digested and absorbed in the same place it was conveyed. A single meal. One-stop.

The world-wide-web (as we thought of it then) required a new way of thinking about presenting information. A technology – print – that had served admirably for hundreds of years, was being eclipsed by something still evolving. It was hard to get a grip on its expanding form, let alone the language that described how it worked.

I slowly learned to use basic html coding, which seemed to reinvent itself every few months. Thus, my good old tool-kit, which contained the most modern forms of really archaic devices, was no longer of value.  Messages were now evolving, adapting things. One-stop was no longer enough. It was more about how long you could hold someone’s attention while introducing new concepts tied into the original message, even if it took them outside and off your point of origin. Effective web communications needed to go somewhere and bring the reader along with it. Designers had multiple dimensions to consider, now: multiple venues at once. Showtime took on a completely new and terrifying meaning as it wasn’t just your own lines or even your own set that could trip you up.

The parameters of what could be done online changed as fast as new technology was introduced. Keeping current became impossible for me, so I learned to stay conversational with the last “current edge”.

Which is where I have remained. I turned away from implementing the newest bells and whistles in my work, to sticking with the primary goals and messages to reach the market segment. One thing I’ve learned to do which before seemed counter-productive, is to view competitors and other connected interest sites as where the edge of my own sites lie. A message I might want to share now has a really wide, tall, deep range of places it can connect with and be reinforced with.

Oddly enough though, the market is not keeping up with the expansion of the message. No. Now, because of the way visit and selection data is fed into huge databases, the most effective marketing is to the narrowest possible slice of market. I’ve learned – and it hasn’t been easy – that I don’t want everyone to see my message at all. No, I only want to make contact with those niches of potential market that are most likely to respond positively. It makes the process so much more meticulous and consigns the “touchy-feely” part of marketing design into little, narrow file folders with very specific titles.

When I began to write fiction for eventual publication, it got even harder to figure out which hat to wear for the job. The marketing of books, especially, has become a much more scientific, data-driven process than it was in the ”Golden Age” of Publishing and Advertising, even as recently as the 1990s. As the means to get a story to its readers have evolved and morphed into a distinctly different process than the publicity plans of the ancients, even the material conveyed has changed. Now a novel, running 450 pages in print on paper, can be delivered to a reader for zero actual cost, beyond the bandwidth needed to transmit the data. No paper, no ink. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns… well few returns.

Today, most marketing efforts for books consist of finding the most receptive slice of market, then making sure that the product is set there in plain sight, as invitingly as possible, including in most cases, sampling before buying as well as interconnected referral networking. Back in the day when I was just getting on my feet as a designer, if you could set up the back page to get them to turn the book over again and open it, you had succeeded.  What an amazing change. If you want to remain thinking on your feet now, you’d better grow several additional ones, as two just won’t cut it anymore. I’m learning the dance, but the steps are complicated!

Find out more about Richard's books at his website.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Infinite musings

Infinity, as no end of people keep telling me since I wrote A Brief History of Infinity is a big subject, so I like to revisit it now and again. One of the joys of doing my talk on infinity, a real favourite of mine, is the way people's minds are duly boggled by the idea that there can be something bigger than infinity. And what's more, you can prove it without a single equation.

Thanks to the great German mathematician Georg Cantor we can establish this painlessly. The first step is to discover the concept of cardinality in set theory. A set is just a collection of things, and set theory is the maths that describes the workings of such collections, and from which all the basics of arithmetic can be derived. Cardinality is a measure of the size of the set, and the important thing to be aware of is that if we can pair off items in two sets so they are in one-to-one correspondence, those sets have the same cardinality - they are the same size.

Take a simple example - legs on my dog, Goldie, and the horsemen of the Apocalypse. I can pair of one leg with each of the horsemen. At the end of the process there are no horsemen or legs unpaired. So I can say the legs and the horsemen have the same cardinality. The clever thing about this is I can do it even if I have no idea how many legs or horsemen there are. (I do. It's four. But I don't have to know.)

So let's move on to infinity. The simplest infinite set is just the integers - the counting numbers. Now if I have another infinite set - for instance all the rational fractions - and I can pair off the items in the set with the integers then the two sets have the same cardinality - they are the same 'size' of infinity. And you can do this with the rational fractions. But not all sets of numbers are this accommodating.

Think of the set of every number between 0 and 1. Every single decimal number. This is also an infinite set, but has it the same cardinality as the integers? If I can set up a simple list of the numbers, it has.

So lets imagine that list, going:


and let's imagine writing out the first few numbers. I can't really do this in order, as after zero we will have

0.000000.... all the way to infinity 1
0.000000.... all the way to infinity 2

which is rather difficult to write out, so we'll scramble the list and come up with something like this:


Now I'm going to add 1 to the first decimal place of the first number, the second decimal place of the second number and so on all the way through. (If it's 9, I'll change it to 0.) So we go from




Now let's pull out those incremented values to see this number:


This is a very interesting number. It's not the first number in the original list, as it differs in the first decimal place. It's not the second number in the list, as it differs in the second decimal place. And so on, all the way through. What we've done here is produce a number that isn't in the list. It actually isn't possible to have a simple list of every number between 0 and 1 - we can't match all the numbers off one-by-one with the integers. The set of numbers between 0 and 1 has a different cardinality to the infinity of the integers - it's bigger.

Enjoy letting your mind boggle at that. This is why infinity is such fun...

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Carolling merrily

It's that time of year when you can't go into a shop without being pounded with Christmas music, and if you are in a choir you will no doubt be polishing up the Christmas favourites.

I have heard people moan about Christmas music - and, yes, the shops overdo it - but I have to confess I love it for a few weeks. I shouldn't, being a picky person, because the weird thing is we don't tend to listen to Christmas music at Christmas. Technically speaking it's Advent at the moment and Christmas starts on December 25, lasting for the traditional 12 days. But in reality, Boxing Day (26 December for those of a non-British persuasion) feels about the last day you want to hear Christmas music. I've certainly had enough by then.

Christmas music divides into three chunks, and my favourite is the least well-known. Firstly we've 'Christmas songs'. The ones you mostly hear in the shops. Everything from 'Let it Snow' to 'Jingle Bells' via 'Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer' for the oldies (did you know the reindeer were only added to the mythos as a result of Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 classic poem 'A Visit from St Nicholas', better known as 'The Night Before Christmas'?) and all those Christmas 'greats' the pop world has foisted on us from 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day' (no, you don't, it would be very boring) to 'Stop the Cavalry' (what?) many of which are ridiculous, though I do confess to a special affection for 'Fairytale of New York.'

Second up are traditional Christmas carols. They broadly split between the really traditional ones - a surprising number of which (Including 'In Dulci Jubilo', 'Unto Us is Born a Son', the tune of 'Good King Wenceslas' and the surprise Steeleye Span hit, 'Gaudete!') come from the 1582 Finnish collection Piae Cantiones - and the Victorian standards like 'Once in Royal' and 'Hark the Herald'.

But the type of Christmas music that really hits me in the gut is the modern carols written for choirs to sing. Some of these are miniature musical masterpieces. Some are well know like the 'Carol of the Bells' used in Home Alone, others relatively obscure but beloved by the choirs who find them rewarding hard work: they can be truly gorgeous. Here's a few of my favourites in no particular order that I'd recommend having a listen to:

  • Bethlehem Down - Peter Warlock (see my earlier post on how this was written to buy beer)
  • Remember O Thou Man - Arthur Oldham
  • Adam Lay Y Bounden - Boris Ord
  • A Spotless Rose - Herbert Howells
  • The Oxen - Jonathon Rathbone (ok, probably technically a song rather than a carol, but a cracking setting of the Hardy poem)
The Oldham piece, which is my favourite, isn't on YouTube, but here's 'The Oxen' - 2 minutes of sheer gorgeousness. Take a moment from your busy day and have a wallow.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sceptics need open minds

Like most people with a scientific background it would probably be fair to call me a sceptic, in the sense that I like to see evidence before accepting something. Science and scepticism go hand in hand - think of the Royal Society motto 'nullius in verba' which the Society translates as 'take nobody's word for it.' Or to put it another way, in one of my favourite modern versions, 'data is not the plural of anecdote.' However, all too many sceptics (including some prominent scientists) misunderstand this and turn these into 'without (controlled) evidence this is not true' and 'anecdote has no value' - both of these are incorrect.

What we've got here is a logical error. These people are going from 'without evidence we can't say it's true', which is good scepticism to 'without evidence it is false'. And while it's true that anecdotes have no value in deciding whether or not a hypothesis is true, they are valuable in flagging up the existence of something worth investigating. 'There's no smoke without fire' is obvious tosh, but 'there's no smoke without a cause' isn't.

I bring this up because of a rather sad interview suffered by the excellent paranormal researcher and sceptic, Hayley Stevens. She was attacked in the interview for not simply denying the existence of paranormal phenomena, with the implication that she was leading people astray and that she couldn't be a sceptic if she didn't simply deny and move on.

This is a bit like saying we should deny the existence of UFOs. But of course UFOs exist. We don't know what every object spotted in the sky is, so some of them are by definition unidentified flying objects. This is a perfectly good sceptical view. If we assume UFOs are alien spacecraft, however, that's very different. Then a sceptic should rightly raise a doubting eyebrow. There is no good evidence for alien visitors, and it is extremely unlikely from all we know about the universe and physics. So without such evidence, the starting point has to be that UFOs have perfectly normal terrestrial explanations (or they are weather/astronomical effects). But it is not scepticism to issue a blanket denial that UFOs exist and to criticise those who dare take an interest in them - that is simply stupid.

This is why I felt that it was okay to write my book about the science of the paranormal, Extra Sensory. It is not in any sense a wide-eyed vindication of telepathy or telekinesis. But to simply state that such things don't exist without examining the evidence is just as unscientific as to believe everything you hear from those who have 'witnessed' such events. Scepticism says we certainly shouldn't believe in something without having good evidence - but to take a stand based on not even looking at the evidence is nothing more than superstition.

Which is not good science or good scepticism.

Monday, 2 December 2013

How a publisher meets his authors

Another guest post by Mark Lloyd. Mark was born in 1972 in the small town of Naas, Co.Kildare in Ireland. He studied at Trinity College Dublin where he was allowed to  escape with a BA (Mod) in Computer Science, Linguistics and French.His poetry has been published in Revival Literary Journal, Microphone On! And Boyne Berries. He is a founding member of The Limerick Writers’ Centre, Limerick, Ireland and a member of the Literature Pillar of Limerick City of Culture 2014.
He founded Pillar International Publishing in 2012, named after his grandfather’s erstwhile company Pillar Publishing Dublin.

Pillar International Publishing, though focusing on edgy and absurd humour, has also published several poetry collections, including Heartscald by Alphie McCourt and I Live in Michael Hartnett (featuring a piece by the late Seamus Heaney). In humorous fiction and non-fiction, Pillar have published works by Rhys Hughes, Robin Walker and Thaddeus Lovecraft. Pillar, in 2014, will publish works by Tony Philpott and Helena Close, amongst others and will introduce Pillar Vintage, an imprint that will re-issue 1940’s fiction and non-fiction.

There are two books that an author will rarely be told to read but should. Alas they are not published by me.

The first teaches the importance of proximity and the second the depth of richness offered by time.

Many years ago I ran a small children’s charity that rolled its stone up the hill every morning in its own inimitable style. We received a great deal of funding from one large state body. We received it every year. Not because our mission was that much more compelling than others but because the people who apportioned the money knew that they would meet me every day in the corridor and every lunch-time in the café. We shared a building. They were not aware that this was a deciding factor in their determinations … but it undoubtedly was.

Dragging ourselves forward to the here and now, two of my writers are with me because of very similar reasons. Don’t get me wrong, their writing is marvellous, bordering on spectacular, but they probably would not have been as appealing to me, as interesting to me, had there not been a compelling and regular point in time where our connections would cross.

The first writer I meet online and in person. I holiday in the same small seaside village. We both support Arsenal. The second writer is connected to me through an online community and through Facebook. We both know that in any given day our paths may cross. Compelling reasons to be interested in each other.

Publishing is about personalities, about relationships. If you recognise this, and you act upon it, then you are more likely to succeed.

Go to networking events. Say hello! Join Facebook groups. Say Hi! Attend workshops and festivals. Invest in people. In return, they will invest in you.

Which leads me to my second point. Time. Writing and relationships grow richer with time. Don’t rush it.

For balance, I also think struggling writers should read:

  • Rum Humour Rum Humor by Thaddeus Lovecraft
  • Last Orders at the Changamire Arms by Robin Walker
  • The Young Dictator by Rhys Hughes

…because I published them. (See Pillar's website for more on these books.)

Friday, 29 November 2013

Masterly suspense

If I am honest, I'm not a great fan of books with a disaster, 'end of civilisation as we know it' scenario. In my teens I hoovered up vast quantities of these from War of the Worlds to Day of the Triffids, and absolutely loved them in my typical teen enjoyment of misery, but as I've grown older I have become increasingly fond of it all ending happily ever after. I think my problem with disaster books (and films) is the cavalier way that millions are slaughtered by the author. We are expected to feel connected to the main character, who usually miraculously survived, but I am always kept at a cold distance, because I am so sad for everyone else, the bit part players who are killed off for the sake of the scenario.

This meant I was a little nervous coming to Kate Kelly's young adult novel Red Rock, as this is 'cli fi' - fiction based on the world being transformed by climate change, and on the whole that's a pretty disaster-laden scenario. I needn't have worried - although the backdrop is of civilisation crumbling in the face of climate change, the storyline is pure action thriller with plenty of mystery and suspense, which soon distracted me from any concern about the fate of the world.

The main character, Danni, is beset by a host of problems, left on her own (or at least with a stranger) in an attempt to escape capture and understand more about the mysterious object (not unlike the one in the hands on the cover) given to her by her dying aunt. The tension rarely gives up for long - this is one of those excellent stories where the reader accompanies the MC on a race against time and the odds.

If I have any complaint it's an unusual one for me - there is not quite enough description. I felt this particularly when Danni visits both Oxford and Cambridge, cities I am very familiar with, yet I was never given enough to know where she was. Particularly irritating was the way she has find the library of a Cambridge college, but we aren't told which. But any frustration from this is washed away as the action pounds on.

Particularly good for a young adult novel is the way that there is a 'bad' character who turns out to not be all bad. For those familiar with that epic of Australian art, Neighbours (what can I say? my children made me watch it), I've always been rather impressed by the character Paul Robinson, who despite being a long-running baddy is at the same time very caring for those who are close to him, and has moments of genuine thoughtfulness to season the self-centred, grasping ruthlessness. Similarly, Red Rock has a character (I won't give it away by saying who) who betrays a friend but then more than makes up for it.

The other surprise was that I rather liked the climate change backdrop. It is never heavily laid on, but both the sad remains of Cambridge, under water when the tide is in, and the casual decay of coastal towns is beautifully handled. It is never trowelled on, but really gives a feel for the depressing reality of a future where climate change is unchecked.

Overall a book that works both as a good, page-turning thriller and one that makes you think.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

For crying out loud!

'Buy organic! It's ever so mainstream.'
'Such has been the trajectory of some of his most cherished causes that decades after lending support to, say, organic farming and alternative medicines, such matters are accepted as mainstream today.' Andrew Roberts on Prince Charles in the Sunday Telegraph via the i's News Matrix

I'm sorry? Does Mr Roberts write the above about Prince Charles with a straight face? If so, he should be ashamed of himself. As should Prince Charles if it's true that his influence has made this stuff more mainstream. Luckily, though, I think that Mr Roberts is at least in part wrong, because the forces of reason are, to some extent holding out against Prince Charles' self-proclaimed attack on the logical and analytical approach of the Enlightenment.

Is organic farming mainstream? I suppose you could say it is in the sense you will find it in the supermarkets, though interestingly it seems to be getting less and less shelf room, which presumably indicates that customers are getting fed up of paying a significant premium for organics. After all, from most supermarkets' viewpoint, organic food is just a way of getting people to pay more for what is essentially the same product. The same view is also true of at least some organic farmers - I have certainly talked to a fair number who went organic because they saw a way of earning more for their produce, not because they backed some sort of spiritual Royal campaign. And good for them - I'm not suggesting they were cynical, merely sensible.

However, the reason people buy organic food is frankly often as fuzzy as the reason they, for instance, would prefer to shop at Waitrose rather than Asda. Not because what the two shops sell is often any different, but because Waitrose gives you that nice warm glow of middle class belonging, where Asda leaves you mixing with more of the common herd. They won't admit to that, of course. They will tell you there are two reasons for going organic - because of health benefits and welfare concerns. Or even to be green.

On welfare, it is certainly true that in the UK, organic animal welfare is very good. There is no reason why it should be any better than a good free range non-organic farm, but at least you have some degree of checking on that welfare done by the Soil Association, or equivalent bodies. (You have to be very careful about imported goods labelled organic, as in a lot of countries there is a lot less checking - if any at all - before that premium 'organic' label is applied.) There is one negative aspect on welfare, which is that the Soil Association encourages farmers not to treat sick animals using homeopathic remedies, so sick animals often have worse welfare on organic farms, but on the whole the regime is good.

The health aspect from eating organic is less sound. There has repeatedly proved to be no taste or nutrient benefits from organic farming. I have always deeply respected Helen Browning, a local organic farmer and bigwig in the Soil Association, who once told me 'The only health benefit we claim for our organic meat is that it is more healthy than eating a bag of doughnuts.' And as I have shown elsewhere the claim sometimes made about organic food having health benefits due to a lack of 'poisons' like pesticide residues is totally spurious.

As for being green, making sure your food is grown locally is the greenest thing you can do, rather than worrying about it being organic. Organic farming methods are usually worse for the environment in carbon emissions, though better in releasing less nitrogen-based pollution. There's not really a lot to be said either way.

As for Prince Charles' other obsession with alternative medicine I hope it is fair to say that this still isn't mainstream. Hope because much of what he champions is such a load of tosh. Two specific examples - as I've previously discussed, a 'tincture' claiming to detox is a load of bull excrement that would work wonders on any organic farm. And as for Charles' favourite, homeopathy, it's hard to think of a way of getting money out of customers that is less dependent on any kind of logic. Again, I don't need to revisit the detail, but I would refer you back to the lack of danger in taking a homeopathic overdose and a proposal for a new more efficient way to produce homeopathic pills.

Thankfully, then, it seems that Prince Charles' 'trajectory' has yet to drag the majority of us back into the dark ages. But it's always worth keeping an eye out just in case. The forces of unreason are ever amongst us.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Dipping a toe in the fiction world

I have long had this suspicion that somehow you aren't a real writer unless you've written some fiction. Clearly this is ridiculous - and yet it's a beguiling feeling.

The first ever book I wrote was a novel (a thankfully now lost turgid science fiction epic, written on the train on the way to school), and I have written at least half a dozen more, which haven't seen the light of day, but I would say are part of my learning to be a writer.

Now, though, I am glad to say, I have a real work of fiction that makes me proud and is published. (I should say I'm already proud of some published short fiction, like my short story in Nature.) It's called Xenostorm: Rising and it's aimed at the young adult market, which is theoretically 11 to 14ish, but in practice is popular with adults too - think Harry Potter in this respect.

This is science fiction, but not in an intrusive spaceships and ray guns way - it is SF that happens to apparently ordinary teenagers with extraordinary results that could transform the world in a shocking way.

The book is available as paperback and ebook from its website, where you will also find details of the Xenostorm game, a fun online puzzle game. At risk of sounding corny, the book should be a great stocking filler for young adult readers.

To give you a taster, here's the opening chapter:


DAVY FORCED a path through the streams of pedestrians flooding down London’s Cromwell Road.

Across the wide street loomed the Natural History Museum, a Victorian forest of pillars and carved beasts thronging around its twin towers. Already visible ahead was the tall town house with his flat on the third floor. Davy’s home – at least for the next few months.

He stopped to unwrap a stick of gum and stared at the plain white house.

When, he thought, had they ever lived anywhere longer than a year? 

Now Davy was in London. Before that Kent, then France and South America. It sounded exciting. But it wasn’t so great when you lived it. Davy had never belonged anywhere. His parents said that their jobs were to blame, but that seemed an excuse. There were plenty of journalists and scientists who didn’t drag their children from place to place. It was almost as if they were frightened of settling down.

Why couldn’t they have stayed on the farm? That was really home.

Davy’s first seven years had been spent on an isolated farmstead, up on the high Pennine moors of Northern England. A cold, wild, wet place – yet one that always felt solid and reliable.

That was how it should be, he thought. Seven years without moving on. There was a dog, Jasper, and everything. It was normal, comfortable. They were a proper family then.

He threw his gum wrapper at a bin by the road’s edge. It fell short, dropping to the pavement.

No one would notice. London was like that. You could be invisible. If only it was the same at school.

For Davy, walking through the school gates with their twisted crowns of barbed wire was a daily ordeal. He knew that somewhere the bullies would be waiting. It was only if he managed to find his best friend Raul first that he would be safe. Then they would leave him alone.

It’d be hopeless without Raul, he thought. There’d be no way to make it through the day. But everyone liked Raul – even the bullies.

Just ahead of Davy a girl collecting for charity stood in the middle of the pavement, chatting to an elderly man. He saw her at the last moment and swerved to avoid a collision. When he looked back over his shoulder, she winked at him, a pretty girl with long black hair. Davy felt a warm flush of embarrassment and looked away at the pavement ahead.

If mum knew about the bullying she’d say ‘Just tell a teacher,’ but it didn’t happen to her. She didn’t know what it was like.

Davy’s mother was the solid one of the family. The person he and his father turned to when things went wrong. A physicist, she wasn’t anything like the stereotype mad scientist. She was good with people, always making friends quickly. But she wasn’t right about everything. She thought anyone could be reasoned with, even a bully.

Why was he a target? It’s not like he was a nerd. He fitted in. Not fat. Average height, almost. Alright, there was his hair, you always got snide remarks about red hair, but not like this.

‘School sucks.'

Oh great, thought Davy, I said it aloud.

He glared at the passers-by, daring them to laugh, but they ignored him.

His iPod reached the end of the track. He slipped it out to skip the next song, that rubbish one with the boring chorus.

He touched the control.


What’s happening? Stop it! Please, someone stop it!

A wave of pure agony blasted through Davy’s skull. It was like a dentist’s drill ripping into his brain. Pressure soared in his head. Jagged bursts of excruciating pain tore down his neck. More and more the pressure built behind his eyes, so much they would surely burst.

Clutching his forehead, Davy dropped to the pavement.

... read on in XENOSTORM: Rising.