Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Science Fiction at its finest - The Thing Itself - Review

This latest book from the master of intellectual science fiction, Adam Roberts, is a mind-bending delight - and nothing like the combination of the title and the cover suggests (yet even this deception is not entirely straightforward). Anyone versed in the genre would instantly make the leap, with the combination of 'The Thing' and a polar setting, to the classic science fiction film The Thing - and indeed Roberts does make a passing bow to this in the opening of the book. However, the monster in the movie is about as crude as they come - here, what we experience as alien is both horrible and transfigured as a possible reality for the concept of god.

Another classic theme we meet in the book is SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - but, once again, Roberts subverts the standard genre concepts. Here what is alien is not just not-human, but involves a different perception of the universe itself.

The way that Roberts makes this near-impossible portrayal of something truly alien come to life is to invoke the work of Immanuel Kant, where the 'Thing Itself' in the title is not so much a monster in the manner of the movie, but Kant's concept of the 'Ding an sich', which seems to be rather like Plato's world outside the cave where we only perceive via the shadows we see in the cave. However, in Kant's case this is taken to an extreme, where human perception of aspects of the universe like space, time and causality are simply our veneer on the underlying 'thing itself' which could be perceived totally differently by an alien species.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, it can be in places. There certainly is an awful lot of exposition and discussion of Kant and the relevance of his ideas to physics - and the implications of finding a way of messing around with the 'modalities' we perceive like space and time. In fact, while I'm in warning mode, I ought to also say there's a lot of sex of various ilks, and the book has my least favourite structure for a novel, having a main storyline in alternate chapters with a series of apparently unconnected chapters set in other times and places. I always find with this kind of structure that I want to get back to the main thread and tend to skip-read the intervening chapters - not helped in this case by one of them being written in a Joyce-like stream of consciousness that I really couldn't be bothered with.

So, without doubt this book is sometimes hard work. But it repays the effort of reading because it is so cleverly written (those apparently unconnected chapters slot nicely in by the end), because nothing is what you expect it to be, and because the idea of taking Kant's metaphysical waffling and turning it into science fiction is absolutely genius, producing one of the few ever glimpses I've ever seen of something truly alien in science fiction. And part of it is set in Swindon. What more can you ask?

I ought to briefly say something about the 'science fiction' label. One of the reviews quoted on the back of the book says 'in the tradition of Swift, Orwell and Atwood', which smacks to me of someone in typical literary fashion considering that something is 'not really science fiction' if it is well written and clever. It's a bit like the way I was recently interviewed about science fiction by a journalist who said that something I referred to presumably wasn't science fiction because there were no ray guns and spaceships. I am absolutely sure that Adam Roberts would proudly say that this book really is science fiction, and so he should, because this is classic SF material.

I can say without any doubt that this by far the best science fiction book I've read all year. I can also say that it won't be to everyone's taste - so don't blame me if you don't like it - but to some it will be a revelation of what science fiction can be. This is the kind of science fiction that should be winning the Booker Prize. Simple as that.

The Thing Itself is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Monday, 28 December 2015

A fair amount of dribbling - review

If you don't enjoy book reviews, I must apologise: as I work through my Christmas gift pile there will be quite a few.

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson, so his new tour of Britain, The Road to Little Dribbling was an essential for me. I absolutely loved the way he gave an outsider's view to both delight in and be infuriated by Britain in his original Notes from a Small Island, and I expected more of the same. And to a degree I got them.

As usual with a Bryson book there is a mix of anecdotes, fascinating factoids and shrewd observations. I must admit these days I'm a little more suspicious of his content after reading he does fabricate a tad, and certainly his factoids are occasionally a little adrift from reality, but on the whole he knows his stuff, and this is the kind of book it's very difficult to resist reading out little snippets to friends and relations as you go. (In fact, I didn't resist.) Bryson manages once more to entertain most of the way, with a mix of enthusiasm for Britain and the good aspects of British values, and pointed remarks when we get it wrong. He has a clear and genuine love of the British countryside and knows what makes an attractive town. And at least one anecdote is genuinely gripping.

However, there are some issues. At times it seems as if what he really wants is Britain in the 1950s. He moans, for instance, about menus with fancy food and pesto, wanting us to go back to prawn cocktails and black forest gateaux... but at the same time he eats a lot of Indian food, which you wouldn't have been able to get back then. In reality British food has never been better, and this is just faux nostalgia. It's a bit like the way in his US books he longs for the old moth-eaten motels (which his family detest). It works there, because he's only half-serious, and because he has his family to put him right. Here, traveling on his own and taking it all pretty seriously, he just sounds strangely misplaced.

Bryson also moans about the demise of small town shops - which is sad, if inevitable - but also seems to moan about all the cafes that have sprung up, despite seeming to spend a lot of time in them. And it's just silly to bemoan the passing of old gentlemen's outfitters, which he admits he would never shop in, simply because they are quaint. It's not that he's missing the target when he shows how a lack of funds has meant that, for instance, many seaside towns have declined, but to equate this with 'everything was better in the past' isn't a useful or realistic observation.

The other complaint I have is that he doesn't give us the same degree of visit as he has in other books. It all seems a little routine and summary, perhaps because he has done some of it before. So we don't really get much of a feel for many of the places he visits, nor the same kind of delight at recognising quirks of places we know. He does at least, however, upgrade Cambridge in his opinion, after slating it in his first book in comparison with the far less attractive Oxford. (I may be biassed in this statement, but I genuinely find Cambridge far more pleasant to stroll around.)

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot still to like about this book. But it is a little too mired in the past - he's not that old - and there's too much of a feel that Bryson is doing it by numbers. I'm still giving it a 4 star rating, but only because the systems don't generally allow a 3.5.

The Road to Little Dribbling is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Quick Christmas Quiz

It's that time of year when no one can be bothered to do any real work. So here's a few little Christmas challenges for you. Answers down the bottom.

1. Which well-known Christmas song is almost always performed as just the chorus without the less familiar first verse starting like this:



2. Just mixing up my imp nieces? What Christmas delicacy am I cooking?

3. The Twelve days of Christmas song has 11 what?

4. Which Christmassy Poirot story by Agatha Christie is set in the fourteenth century manor house Kings Lacey (bizarrely made a 1920s building in the TV version)?

5. Ilex and Hedera. Not two rejected reindeer but...?

No Googling, please - all your own work.

While you get your answers together, the ad break...

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If you enjoy a little mental quizzing, there's only one book to get your hands on this Christmas:


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And here come the answers:

1. White Christmas
2. Mince pies
3. Pipers piping
4. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding
5. Holly and Ivy

Thursday, 17 December 2015

What is a science quiz book?

If you are panicking about last minutes presents, I can (in an entirely unbiased way) heartily recommend my bargain priced science quiz book How Many Moons Does the Earth Have? You can get it at book stores, Amazon.co.uk and (with free worldwide delivery) Book Depository. But there has been a certain amount of confusion about what's actually in it.

The book is divided into two 'quizzes' - each has six rounds of eight questions, plus two special rounds with things like pictures questions and puzzles. So you could use it in a traditional pub quiz format. But the main intention is just to read through and enjoy testing yourself, so it's much more than just a collection of questions and answers. It's probably best if I come up with a specific example, and as an anonymous commenter berated me about doing a Santa-related post yesterday, I know exactly which one to give.

A question page looks like this, with the question itself and a few 'while you're thinking' factoids... but the answer is over the page, so you can sort out your answer before peeking.


As we don't have a page turn on the blog
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I'll give you a moment to think
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Before you scroll down
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As the equivalent of a page turn
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So it's not just the answer, but also an exploration of the topic in a little more detail, plus a book where you can read more (all the referenced books are detailed at the back).

In case you've now realised this is something you need to buy for those last minute gifts, here's the purchase details again: you can get it at book stores, Amazon.co.uk and (with free worldwide delivery) Book Depository.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Santa logic

I was impressed to read some impressively logical thinking about movies featuring Santa Claus / Father Christmas the other day. You know the kind of film I mean. Those like Elf and The Santa Clause, where cynical adults who don't believe in the jolly rotund fellow get their come-uppance. There's a distinct logical flaw in these movies.

Before I disclose the gaping hole, I need to address an obvious objection to my endeavour. Surely to worry about logic in a merry seasonal fantasy misses the point? However, I've always argued that, while fantasy can clearly change whatever rules it likes, once the nature of the fantasy world is established, it should be logically consistent. This is why I don't have trouble with vampires and werwolves and slayers and magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because that is the part of the rules of the world. But I do have a bit of an issue when a hobbyist manages to come up with a robot that is all but indistinguishable from a human being - because the technology in Buffy is the technology of our world, and that just isn't possible.

So back to the Santa flaws. (It's just one flaw really, but 'Santa flaws' sounds much better.) The article I was reading (sadly I've lost the link) pointed out that, in these films, Santa Claus is real and goes around the world delivering (at least one) present(s) to good children on Christmas Eve. That's fine. That's part of the premise of the movie. But bearing in mind these presents magically turn up in everyone's house each Christmas morning, why would anyone not believe in Santa? That just doesn't make sense. And without logic, the magic falls apart.

Ho, ho, no.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Beware Star Wars expectations

If you have managed to avoid the Star Wars hype so far, you live in a concrete bunker, and only read this blog when someone pushes a printed copy under your door. I couldn't even escape it on the train to Bristol this morning, as one of my fellow passengers had a ringtone of the Star Wars theme and a text message alert of R2D2 blurping. The novelty value soon wore thin.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved the original Star Wars film. I saw it three times and even got an abridged version of the first act on 8mm film (no, we didn't have DVDs back then). My favourite computer games ever were those in the X-Wing series. However, I am convinced part of the reason the movie was so good was that, like most science fiction fans, I went along to see it with almost zero expectations. I knew it was going to be Saturday Morning Cinema, 1920s space opera schlock. And it was - but what took me by surprise was that it was absolute brilliant Saturday Morning Cinema, 1920s space opera schlock.

At roughly the same time, another science fiction movie came out - Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For that, I had huge expectations - and as a result it was a disappointment. I now quite like the film (at least, in the version where Spielberg trimmed the endless hours of characters making copies of Devil's Tower), but back then, with expectations rampant, it was a depressing let down.

To be honest, I don't know if I can be bothered to go to the new Star Wars movie - but if I do, it will be with expectations suitably lowered. That way, I hope that I will have the same transformative thrill as the first time round. But for all my Star Wars obsessed friends, please (please) don't expect too much. I don't want you grumpy all through Christmas.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Idiocy labelled science

I do like something irritating to wake my brain up on a Monday morning, and today the best newspaper in the UK (genuinely), the i, managed to do this with a double whammy.

They ran a story in which the only 'news' was that an astronaut's dad had said something stupid, and then had the nerve to label the story 'science'.

The entire basis for the story was a comment from the father of British astronaut-to-be, Tim Peake. His father, Nigel, is quoted as saying 'I'm more worried about him driving home on the M27. That's far more dangerous, believe me, than going up there.'

So, in what sense is this news or science? The only vaguely scientific thing in the story was the extreme misuse of statistics, which we'll examine in a moment, and though I'd rather we had astronauts in the news than X-Factor winners (I'm pleased to say that I neither know nor care who won), I really have very little interest in Nigel. I'm sorry Nigel, but I don't.

How about those stats, then? Is a trip on the M27 far more dangerous than riding a space rocket? You might not be shocked to discover that the answer is 'No, it isn't.' After a lot of fibbing over the years, NASA had to admit that the risk of dying on any particular space flight is about 1 in 100. How does this compare with the M27? I don't have specific stats, but lets look at the nationwide figures*. These put the chance of dying on any particular car journey as less likely than 1 in 23 million.

I know which is more dangerous, believe me, and it's not the M27.

* Statistical honesty: the figure I give for chance of dying on a road journey is wrong, but it is likely to be too high a risk, rather than too low. Two figures I used were dubious. I based my number on the UK road deaths figures, which includes pedestrians and cyclists, neither of whom are relevant here. Also, in the five minutes I was prepared to dedicate to researching the data, I could only find UK figures for vehicle miles, not vehicle journeys. I divided this by the average journey length (just 7 miles - get on your bikes!), but this would not produce an accurate figure for vehicle journeys. However, it's close enough for the purposes.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Do car engines need to be so inefficient?

Car engines could be a lot better than they currently are. This is not some oil industry conspiracy, but a simple reflection that the design is pretty creaky. It has been around a long while. And, of course, cars are currently about as green as something that isn't very green at all.

It's remarkable that the internal combustion engine, the heart of travel industry still, is so impressively inefficient. Around 25% of the energy generated from the fuel is actually used to move the car.

Eventually I have no doubt we'll all be driving electric cars - we're just waiting for a shift in battery technology that seems pretty close on the horizon. (If I had the money, I'd be driving a Tesla right now.) But there are bound to be decades of gradual transition when we still need to make use of fossil fuels.

I've had pointed out this remarkable project to produce an engine that should increase efficiency of an internal combustion engine more than twofold. It's a turbine-like design, but a variant that reduces the complexity of technical problems with turbines, plus has only one moving part.

Will it work? To paraphrase Scotty on Star Trek, I'm a writer Jim, not an engineer. Clearly the claim in the video that this could 'reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 20 per cent in the next five years' is not viable. Given that a prototype doesn't exist yet, it's hardly going to change the world in five years. What's more, the website is somewhat vague about what fuel the engine uses, but I'm guessing LPG, in which case it's not just a matter of needing new cars with new engines, but also a distribution network for a fuel that isn't currently widely available. Even so, the prospect of an internal combustion engine that is so much more efficient than current designs is an impressive one.

You can find out more at www.tomorrowsengine.com


Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Ten most influential movies?

Poster for one of my top 10 ten influential SF movies
 (Image from Wikipedia)
As a result of the recent publication of Ten Billion Tomorrows, examining the interplay between science and science fiction, I recently did an article with Business Insider on what I consider to be the ten most influential movies.

I'm not going to list them here - you can find out in Business Insider's fun article,  but I did think it worth mentioning the way that I selected them.

It all depends, of course, on what you mean by 'influential.' If, for example, you meant 'shaping the way Hollywood viewed science fiction', then I would have to have included Star Wars, which dragged SF kicking and screaming out of the B movie slot. But instead I was looking at movies that were (or will be - two were from 2015) influential on individuals to take an interest in science or become scientists.

This explains two woeful omissions, if I had been attempting just a 'best science fiction films' list - Metropolis and Blade Runner. Both were extremely impressive visually. Lang's Metropolis set the look of the future for many, and had that early humanoid robot. And Scott's Blade Runner similarly defined a new, gritty look for other future-set films. However neither were the kind of movie that would get a watcher all excited about science - they are both dystopian and present science and technology as something close to evil.

Another film that has had much acclaim that I didn't include was Interstellar.  But I didn't feel I needed to include that, as Contact was the original for much of the science and I felt that Interstellar tried to hard visually, losing the storytelling.

At least one of the films in my list is hard to justify, except that it's one of my favourite films (and it includes some concepts that are rare in science fiction in the movies). I'd also say that there's an element of provocation there. After all, what's the point of a list like this if you don't argue with it.

So feel free to tell me I was wrong...

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Bumper book day!

Rather embarrassingly, two books I have been involved with are published today. The first is Ten Billion Tomorrows. Like many people involved with science I was (and am still to some extent) an enthusiastic reader of science fiction as a teenager. In this book I explore the relationship between science and science fiction.

It's not always what we expect. Clearly science fiction is inspired by science, the clue's in the name - but what happens the other way round? There's a tendency to think of science fiction as predicting the future, at which it is, frankly, very bad. The vast majority of 'predictions' from science fiction, even from impeccable sources like 2001 a Space Odyssey have had a terrible hit rate. Luckily, though, that's not what it's really about. Science fiction uses the threats, challenges and experiences generated by science and technology to ask 'What If?' - to see how humans react in the face of those provocations. That being the case, we don't see science fiction predicting the future, we see it inspiring individuals to become scientists and sometimes pushing them in particular directions. Not necessarily to make a science fiction concept a reality, but to make use of the vision it gives.

I didn't want the book to be just a collection of hundreds of different science fiction concepts, so I focussed on a relative few, from robots and recreated extinct life to tractor beams and artificial intelligence, and looked at the differences and similarities between the science fiction image and the reality in science and technology. I hope this will appeal to every science and science fiction fan. You can find out more (and order a copy!) from the book's web page.

Second off the blocks is Ten Physicists Who Transformed our Understanding of Reality, the brainchild of astronomer Rhodri Evans, which I co-authored. The idea was to take a list of the 'ten greatest physicists' and give a short scientific biography of each. Part of the fun was debating that list. We intentionally didn't choose our own but went for an existing one, so we could have the enjoyment of disagreeing with some aspects of it. (Come on, it puts Einstein fourth.) But whether or not it's the ideal ten (counter to our hearts, we suggest that we really should have dropped both Marie Curie and Richard Feynman), they're a fascinating bunch who have all contributed to our understanding of the world around us, with stories that could be better known.

Find out more (and buy a copy if you fancy) from the book's web page.

Finally, although out a few weeks now, I ought to get a mention in of my science quiz book, How Many Moons Does The Earth Have. It's an ideal stocking filler (at the time of writing the paperback was available at less than £5 - bargain or what?), designed for those difficult to buy for people (or, even better, for yourself). The idea is that you get to test yourself against loads of fun questions, turning the page to see the often surprising answer, and then having a page of interesting expansion on the answer, so it's far more than just a Q and A. From acid-taking-elephants to those nominal moons, there's a whole lot going on in there.

Find out more and buy a stack for easy presents (or just buy it for your own entertainment) at the book's web page.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Gendered science

Anyone who has had young daughters will know that the chances of them going through a pink-loving phase are pretty strong. It may be purely a matter of peer pressure, but those horrible Barbie pinks are likely to become part of your life. We'll come back to this preference, but the reason I bring this up is a result of thinking about gender preference for scientific subjects.

 I think I am right in saying without checking (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong) that biological sciences have more female than male undergraduates and postgrads, where the reverse is true of physics. There's a lot of debate as to why this happens. Neither subject, of course, is exclusive. I know plenty of male biologists and female physicists. But there is a bias. This was echoed by the general public according to a recent YouGov survey, which asked the oddly worded question:
One hundred years ago, on November 25th 1915, Albert Einstein presented his general theory of relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Which of the four main branches of natural science do you personally find most interesting?
I say 'oddly worded' because that first sentence smacks of the psychological tactic of priming. It may have just been intended as context for asking the question, but it's always dangerous to provide information before asking a question as it can lead to the answer being biassed by the wording.

Here are the results:

By Gender%TOTALMaleFemale
Biology271538
Chemistry675
Physics203110
Earth science212220
None of them161517
Don't know101010


And, what a surprise, there's an impressive gender switch between biology and physics. It would have been interesting to have seen maths as well, to see if the same preferences obtained. But why? Is it something about the science itself? Could it be how the subjects are taught at schools? Could biology give more context, for instance, where physics provides little idea of history or reason for taking particular approaches? Or is it as much a result of unreasoned peer pressure as the love of Barbie pink? I suspect that these are the main potential contributory factors to shaping these statistics. A lack of role models is sometimes given as a potential reason, but this seems a dubious argument, as there are plenty of male role models in biology, but we still see an opposing bias there, because the media try hard to give female role models in sciences in general these days, and role models seem more likely to influence those studying the subject than a general opinion survey like the one above, yet the bias was clearly there too.

I don't know what the answer is. I certainly don't claim to have one. But it's interesting.

One other small observation - it's sad to see that when the data is split by age (as you can if you follow the link above), interest fell away with as respondents got older. Come on oldies: science is for you too!

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Gladiator-at-Law - review

I have a horrible feeling there will be plenty of younger science fiction readers for whom the names of Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth mean nothing, but for those of us of a certain age they are among the greats.

I've just re-read this classic title, Gladiator-at-Law. It's over sixty years old (I see on Amazon.com you can buy the June 1954 Galaxy Magazine part of it first appeared in), and yet apart from a few niggling details, it is as fresh as ever. This bread and circuses dystopia, with an early focus on the dangers of corporations and lawyers having too much power is superbly crafted. It's a page turner, but thoughtful as well.

Those niggles? There are inevitably technology flaws - in this case, most notably the use of microfilm to store data. And, as is common for writing of the period, the female characters mostly fit within limited stereotypes (although some of the younger female characters are pretty violent). While you can argue also with aspects of the embedded morality tale, the fact is that this book does everything you want from good science fiction, at a tremendous pace and with lots of content.

I don't want to give too much away, but I can almost guarantee it will exceed expectations - and where some themes may now seem quite familiar, chances are they were novel at the time, because this was pretty much groundbreaking stuff.

Recommended. Available secondhand from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, though ridiculously it doesn't seem to be in print.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Are the majority of voters in the UK in favour of EU exit?

If you've read a fair number of my blog posts, you'll be aware that I am always a little suspicious of statistics used in the news, and I think it's worth regularly digging a little deeper to see what lies beneath those numbers, and whether they really tell us what the media say they do.

A little over a week ago, there was a fair amount of coverage to say that for the first time, possibly influenced by the Paris attacks a few days before, there was a majority of voters in the UK in favour of leaving the EU. But was that really true?

After a bit of digging (none of the newspaper reports I looked at had a link to the data) I found the results from the ORB International survey. (It's on page 8, as this is a summary of a range of surveys.) The survey was of 2067 people and, indeed, 52% were in favour of leaving over 48% against. But there are two issues here. Can we be sure that such a tight margin is representative when we blow that 2067 up to the 45 million or so voting population, and what about the 'don't know's?

The survey doesn't provide error values (though some of the other surveys in the report do), but if they did, I would be very surprised if they didn't allow for a couple of percentage points in inaccuracy - so there could still be a majority the other way. The survey does tell that around half of the population would be likely to say that they would vote against, but it isn't accurate enough to tell us that we have crossed a line from 'most for staying in' to 'most for leaving'.

However, the more interesting aspect is the 'don't know's. The survey didn't give the option of 'don't know' or 'undecided.' I guess the argument was that this won't be an option on the ballot paper in 2017 (or whenever the real decision is made). But the trouble is, probably over a year out from the vote, when we haven't yet heard the full arguments from both sides, there will be a lot of floating voters. Previous surveys suggest that numbers are in the 15-25% range. So, in effect, there could be 500 or more of those votes cast in this poll that weren't correct. That's a huge error, and it really says that we just haven't got a clue.

Is the survey useless? No, though I wish they would include 'undecided'. We do get a feel from the series of polls that there has been a drift towards a 'get out of the EU' decision. But what certainly is the case is that this poll does not show, as the headlines claimed, that the majority of voters are now in favour of leaving the EU.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If I had a pound...

A recent piece in the Economist proudly proclaims The Real Future of Electronic Literature. I read this and groaned. I have read so many times how the electronic platform will allow a transformation of literature - yet there is a very good reason that most of these forms drop by the wayside. They are novelties that aren't as good as just reading a boring old book, whether in paper format or as an ebook.

As the Economist piece points out, modern story-led video games are the closest we have to a true electronic book that truly makes use of what the medium can offer. And, of course, they have been a huge success. But they are very different beasts in terms of the investment required to produce them than is a novel. In fact, they are probably closer related to that other alternative medium form, the movie. And just like movies, games will always be relatively small in number and no challenge to the written word because the market is so different.

The Economist article is partially driven by the book Arcadia, which I reviewed here. As I pointed out then, I really couldn't see the point of the interactive version (you can see more details of the interactive app and download it here), which essentially divides the book into bitesized chunks where the reader can decide on the sequence they are read. As I pointed out then, 'As a reader, I don't want to do the author's job for him. I want to be led - that's the whole point of reading a book. If I wanted to write my own book I would, and often have.' It's just unnecessary work for the reader with no discernible benefit. And it doesn't really add to the experience.

We've seen all sorts of enhancements to the book suggested. There were CD-ROM interactive books, most successfully probably the Encarta encyclopaedia. Now long gone. There have been ebooks with soundtracks, like the Byook. Never quite made it. And there have been interactive books for tablets, like Solar System for iPad. I very much liked this app when I reviewed it, but even then it felt like a novelty. It was fun to play with, but I couldn't possibly have read it 'cover to cover.' And interestingly this kind of app seems to have gone into terminal decline. Pushed hard on the release of the iPad, these interactive books did well for the first couple of titles. but since then they have not sold particularly well and, because they are costly to make, have never had a wide range of titles.

Realistically, if we want ebooks that are more than just an electronic copy of a paper book, with interactivity and all those good things, we need a format that is easy, quick and cheap to add to the basic words and pictures. Arguably the closest we have come to that is a blogging platform like Blogger, where Now Appearing is hosted. It might not be sophisticated, but there is a form of interactivity in the links you'll find above, and it's something I can do as a writer without employing an expensive designer for months. But anyone expecting the Economist-style revolution is, I think, living in interactive book cloud cuckoo land.

It ain't going to happen.

Monday, 30 November 2015

What are small publishers thinking?

I gather from the excellent i newspaper that this has not been a good year for [book] publishers, with 128 going out of business compared with 81 the previous year. I assume these are mostly smaller outfits.

The article blames the rise in use of ebooks, with failing publishers struggling to make books available in this format. This is both sad and baffling. I have been published by both large and middle-sized publishers and in my experience the smaller companies are much lighter on their feet and able to quickly adapt to new opportunities like ebooks. 

Admittedly, the chances are many of the failed companies were one person and a dog publishers, rather than mid-sized operations, but I'm amazed that these days, when ebook publishing is so much easier than it was even 5 years ago that the failed companies weren't on top of the state of today's publishing. I do wonder if it could be that too many of them were rather prissy about ebooks as somehow inferior to the printed page, refused to get into bed with Amazon - which you have to when it is the dominant ebook player - or didn't understand how to use the flexibility of pricing that ebooks bring.

Whatever the reasons, it's a shame - and a lesson for anyone thinking of getting into publishing: this isn't a game for those who are resistant to change.


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Homecraft Book - review

This is the time of year when many of us are looking for good presents for those difficult-to-buy-for people. I have done my bit for this cause with the science quiz book How Many Moons Does the Earth Have (traditional shameless plug), but even I, through gritted teeth, have to admit that not everyone would greet a science book in their stocking with a cheery smile. And if that's the case, you are recommended to get hold of The Homecraft Book by Ann Hathaway.

In case there's a suspicion that the Hollywood actress is following her colleague Ms Paltrow into telling us how to run our lives, this was the pseudonym of an Irish writer of home tips. Written at the end of the Second World War, the book has been edited by the author's grandson, who has the even more unlikely pseudonym of Thaddeus Lovecraft. 

The reader knows that there is a fun trip ahead when seeing the 'mostly non-lethal advice' comment on the cover, reinforced by being informed that we won't need to have a maid (or a Hoover). Some sections are marvellous read aloud, preferably in a Joyce Grenfell voice, e.g. 'use two dusters at the same time - one in each hand when dusting your rooms. You'll find you can do your work much more quickly'. (And don't forget to 'paint your cork tablemat with enamel, cheerful and easy to keep clean.')

Realistically, this isn't the kind of book you are likely to sit and read from end to end as it does contain a lot of lists for advice, for instance on mending everything from the household bucket  (using putty) to getting rid of cracks in china (the secret is an application of the anything but harmless quicklime). But it is a great title to dip into and to get a feel for a very different world from our disposable society. Back then, make do and mend was essential - an approach that arguably we can learn a lot from.

Appealing both to older readers for nostalgia reasons and younger trendy folk for its ironic appeal, I expect the book to do very nicely this Christmas.  And you will be pleased to know that there is even a section on making the most of your Christmas festivities. Available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Damned if you do...

I am, as I not infrequently do, feeling rather sorry for the Church of England. This most inoffensive of religious organisations is being lambasted by certain parts of the media and by atheist bloggers for an attempt to place an advert in cinemas alongside the showing of Star Wars this Christmas.

Now I confess that my knee-jerk reaction was much the same as those who want the ad not to be shown. It didn't seem quite right as not everyone in the audience would appreciate it. To quote a spokesperson for the company responsible for the advertising, Digital Cinema Media: 'Some advertising - unintentionally or otherwise - could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faith and indeed no faith at all.'

However. When I actually think about this action rationally, I am less happy with the decision. First of all, I am never comfortable with any curtailment of free speech, unless said speech is inciting a crime. Too many people find it far too easy to restrain free speech because it offends them. I'm sorry, but there is, and there never should be, a human right not to be offended. 

The other point that seems to have been missed is that this was not a documentary, it was an advertisement. Many kinds of advertisements offend me. I am offended by shops bombarding us with Christmas advertising in November. I am offended by advertising for sugary drinks and food. I am offended by advertising for films and games that feature gratuitous violence. But no one considers my offence a reason to ban the advertising. 

Of course I am not arguing that anyone should care about the (genuine) offence I feel about this advertising, but rather wanting to call into question whether avoiding offence is a suitable justification for pulling a Christian ad at Christmas. The Church of England is reportedly baffled at the decision. I'm not, because I am aware of the increasingly strident calls never to say or do anything that could possibly cause offence to a small but very vocal constituency. But I am saddened. 

In case you want to find out what the fuss is about, here's the offending advertisement in all its offensive glory (and let's face it, in the still you see before the video plays, Justin Welby does not look happy):



Monday, 23 November 2015

Five writing lessons from a master

No, I haven't got delusions of grandeur - the master in question isn't me. However, I do quite often get asked for writing hints and tips, and I think there can be no better example to point an enquirer to for fiction guidance than Joss Whedon.

If you were expecting Steinbeck or Proust or Shakespeare, you might not know who Whedon is. His first big success was as a writer on Toy Story, and he's now involved in the Avengers series of films, but his personal masterpieces, to my mind, were a set of TV shows, including Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse and, most notably, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

I can almost feel those with literary inclinations fainting with shock. How can real writers who pour their soul into books learn anything from a screenwriter? And you may well also be writhing at the mere title of the show, but anyone familiar with Buffy will tell you that this programme was far more than the name suggests. I am sad for a new generation coming up who may never watch the show because they think it will be too dated. And yet the mere fact that many writers love Buffy (and they do) suggests that more lies beneath than the title suggest, and that reflects Whedon's guiding hand.

So here are my five six Buffy-driven tips to make fiction more appealing:

  1. Invert expectations and clichés - this is the very essence of Buffy. Whedon's concept was to take the cliché of a monster chasing and killing young women and invert it to have a young woman chasing and killing monsters. It is so effective and can be applied in all kinds of ways. A lack of such inversion is the limitation of many comic book stories that have reached the screen - they rarely get away from expectation, especially in their villains. It is also why I've been pleased by the two Netflix Marvel adaptations, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which show signs of a Whedoneseque attitude to expectation.
  2. Avoid the obvious hero - Buffy's central cast of main characters, sometimes self-referenced as the Scoobies (pop culture references are another Whedon speciality) are mostly the outsiders, looked down on by the other characters. The troublemakers, geeks, socially inept and even that most difficult of heroes for Americans to accept, an Englishman. We all know the English characters in US dramas will be bad guys, and occasionally this is even the case in Buffy, but surprisingly often they aren't.
  3. Embrace ambiguity - things are rarely what they seem in Buffy. When a rather fluffy-brained person becomes a vampire, she remains a rather fluffy-brained person, despite also being evil. Buffy was one of the first examples of recognising the true ambiguity of being a superhero, which Buffy effectively is. She can't live a normal life. She doesn't do well in school and when her friends go to university, she doesn't cope and ends up with a dead-end job in a burger joint. Even one of the truly unpleasant characters, Spike, becomes both a source of humour (I refer Buffy fans to the moment it Tabula Rasa where he has lost his memory, tries to work out who he is, and realises that he is English) and an unlikely ally for the good guys.
  4. Humour works in the most unlikely places - talking about humour, most Buffy newbies thinks a Buffy fan can't be serious when they say that one of the main reasons they like the show is its humour. Surely, the newcomer thinks, a show like this is all schlock and horror. Where does the humour come in? Yet Whedon uses humour all the time, particularly in the dialogue. And it works wonderfully.
  5. When it's working well, do something different - the greatest episodes of Buffy work because they are unexpected. For me, three of the best are an episode which has almost no dialogue whatsoever - a shock in a show so dialogue-driven as Buffy, an episode that becomes a musical (I know this has been done in other US shows, but never as well as here), and the episode after Buffy's mother's death - where this horror show has no incidental music (stunningly effective), and no horror elements other than the characters' reactions, except in the last couple of minutes.
  6. Play the long game - I know the title said five lessons, but I couldn't resist throwing in a bonus one. Although most Buffy episodes work standalone, the show has always had impressive story arcs that run through a whole season. Where these are particularly effective is when an element that belongs to the arc is thrown in without explanation and then ignored for the viewer to store away, perhaps for several episodes. Two examples I'd give are a season where military characters suddenly appear and take down a monster without any explanation, and the occasion where we suddenly discover Buffy's teenage sister, living at home and clearly having been part of everyone's lives for many years, even though up to this point she has never appeared or been mentioned.
If you've never come across Buffy, I hope I've whet your appetite to take a look (the first season is the weakest, but you need to start at the beginning, and it picks up hugely in season 2). If you know your Buffy, I hope you will think back to the impressive writing guide that it provides.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Pump up your physics (in German)

 I've heard about a new project from Germany, aiming to make physics more approachable. With a background in natural sciences and industry, Ottmar Koegel works to support foundation issues in teaching science in Germany: Pumping Physics is his baby.

His idea was to pick up on the kind of exercise-based learning that is found in musical instrument training, making the educational side more fun with a mix of illustrations and real-world scenarios, providing straightforward multiple choice questions to test and learn.

At the moment there is no English version, but for English readers, here's a taster (the translation is not a polished one).

More importantly, for any German readers, you can find out more about the book and see some of the actual examples at the Pumping Physics website.

I don't think this kind of approach is ideal for a popular science audience - I admit, the English example above was one of the less technical, but some of the questions do expect the reader to do some calculation and formulae work, so it feels more like a friendly textbook than popular science. But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting project, currently for the German speaking audience.

The book will be available in December.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Why French flags are fine

Many people have changed their Facebook image to incorporate a French flag, in solidarity with the French nation over the atrocities in Paris last week. I certainly don't think we should be critical of people who haven't - I haven't, for one. There are a number of reasons for not doing so, but one objection that I think is suspect is the kind made in this article by Nathalie Bonney on the Good Housekeeping website.

The broad argument is that to show solidarity with the French this way is parochial. There have been thousands of people killed by terrorists this year, and yet no one is putting up flags of other locations. (Actually, not no one - one of my Facebook friends has made his own Lebanese flag cover for his Facebook photo.)

I have two problems with this complaint. One is that it seems petty to discourage someone from doing something positive for one group because they aren't doing something positive for another. It's a bit like saying 'I would never give any money to Cancer Research because I'm not giving anything to the British Heart Foundation.'

The response from supporters of the objection, I guess, would be that the argument is more nuanced than that. They don't have an issue with showing solidarity with France, but it's not fair that it took an atrocity in France to generate this kind of response from Facebook, and there wasn't an option for previous atrocities.

I would suggest this reflects the false 'small world' impression given by the modern media and many commentators. Because we can see disasters happening anywhere, we think that it is possible to have exactly the same attitude to an event wherever it happens - but that is totally unnatural and if we are honest and not self-deceiving, it is impossible to truly do. The fact is, I will always feel closer to, and more affected by, a disaster in my family than one to someone else who lives down the same street. And I will be more affected by a disaster to someone else in my street than to someone who lives in London. And I will be more effected by a disaster in Paris, a place that I have regularly visited and that has strong cultural ties with the UK than I would by a disaster in the Middle East.

We can't feel the same about everyone and everywhere. This doesn't mean we ignore things outside our own neighbourhood, but it is entirely natural, and should not be a matter for criticism, that we put more weight on events that are closer to home, physically or culturally. To try to feel exactly the same about everybody and everywhere is both inhuman and impractical, leading to a cold, thin porridge of a response. or universal outrage with no focus.

So, while, as it happens, I have not added the French flag myself, I think entirely fine that other people have, and consider the criticisms misjudged and unnecessary.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The seat of evil


An office chair, today
Many years ago, when I worked for a large airline with the initials BA, I had a back problem, which due to some problems pinning down exactly where the physical sensations were coming from led to a fairly unpleasant time. (Suffice to say that it was only diagnosed as a back problem after I had been asked to attend an STD clinic.)

With some excellent exercises from a physiotherapist, the most embarrassing of which appears in my murder mystery novel A Lonely Height (great Christmas gift - shameless plug), the back pains came under control, and disappeared altogether many years ago.

Now the pains are back, if you'll pardon the circular expression. And I think I know why.

Ever since I started working for myself I've had a good quality office chair (I think I'm on my third now) with effective lumbar support. Even though I can often spend most of my working day at the computer - with frequent breaks, of course - I never have back problems. However, since September I have been rolling up to the University of Bristol two days a week to perform my duties as an RLF Fellow. And the office chairs, as illustrated, lack any back support.

I ought to stress I'm not picking out the University of Bristol for criticism here. I think this is still typical of many office chairs. But it is just surprising how a mere two days a week on one of these contraptions can bring it all back. Thankfully I haven't forgotten the exercises, and they have helped a lot already. But if you are a desk worker who suffers from back problems, do see if your chair could be the cause. You don't, in my experience, need one of those fancy kneeling chair thingies. Just a bit of decent back support can make all the difference.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Tearing of hair - the sequel

Not long ago I reported on a piece in the Metro paper claiming that a 'maths theorem could pave the way for installer travel.'

I was delighted to receive an email from one of the paper's young authors, Ivan Zelich, pointing out that the media had distorted his message.

The Metro carried a quote from Zelich that read 'The theorem will contribute to our understanding of intergalactic travel because string theory predicts existence shortcuts in space, or so-called "wormholes" to cut through space.' However, I'm told that this 'quote' was never said. Zelich pointed out 'I actually meant the following, and you will understand how it could be misinterpreted':
The main lemma we developed to prove our theorem was highly projective in nature, which indicates to us that it could be generalised to possible more complex structures in high dimensional projective spaces. Since we are talking about applications, I would like to find a way, after such generalisation, to link this in order to understand the structure manifolds better and perhaps ultimately find something new to help aid (super-)string theory. 
Why does this help with intergallactic travel? 
It doesn't really show us a link with it, but of course solutions to one of Einstein's equations is a bridge, called wormholes if you will. 
And with planetary travel, structures etc... the Fermat point is the minimal possible sum of the distances from the vertices of a triangle, and this has been generalised to polygons, so I said there may be connections there.
This is certainly very different from the story as reported, though I was confused how wormholes came into it at all, as the Einstein-Rosen bridge came from a paper in the 1930s based on the general theory of relativity long before string theory was a glint in a physicist's eye. A further clarification from Zelich was to say that he did not mention intergalactic travel 'They asked me about it.' Which makes it puzzling as to why the media types thought of it. He then added, in danger of revisiting exaggeration 'What I meant to say was that if we understand the universe and this solution is true, then we have these short cuts in space. If the theorem is generalised it could have implications in algebraic geometry, and the leap I suggested was from isopivotal cubics to algebraic cubics in high projective spaces, which to my knowledge are important in the mathematics behind string theory.'

As I suggested in the original post, the main problem here is the way that the media exaggerates science stories to make them more eye catching. It shouldn't have been necessary. I would have been happy as a science journalist with 'Teenagers come up with theorem that could be pivotal in major physics theory,' even though my suspicion is that string theory is a dead end that will fade away over the next couple of decades.

However I do hope that the teenagers have also learned an important lesson - a lesson that working scientists and university PRs also need to learn - that it can be dangerous to give the media the tools with which to misinterpret you, because, given the opportunity, they surely will.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Bonkers Dice World

Mmmm! Dice World!
I've just come across this short video that intercuts an interview I did on the book Dice World with a few remarks from one of my talks on it.

The filmmaker seemed to take to heart the idea that Dice World is all about randomness by randomly inserting odd little asides. I can't decide if it's clever or just bonkers...











Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Why I don't wear a white poppy

I have the perfect upbringing to wear a white poppy today. My father was a Manchester Guardian reader who encouraged a healthy distrust of the establishment and had little time for the military. None of my friends or blood relations served in the armed forces - you have to go back to the First World War to find any relatives who did. Yet I always wear a red poppy.

I understand where the supporters of the white poppy are coming from, and I absolutely support their right to wear it, but I think they miss the point. You can't re-write history, and it doesn't make sense to throw away the symbolism of the red poppy. If you are aware of its conceptual origins you know that it has nothing to do with triumphant militarism and everything to do with a tragic human sacrifice, even if that sacrifice has sometimes (if certainty not always) been justified.

If I am honest, I'd much rather the poppy, as a symbol of remembrance, were separated from the Royal British Legion, an organisation that certainly can slip into an over-emphasis on glorifying the military. A crass example of this is the folly of a Legion-produced photo of young children holding huge poppies with T-shirts saying things like 'Future Soldier'. Not to mention the saccharine and unsettling marching spectacle of their 'festival of remembrance'. 

For me, though, the red poppy transcends its establishment associations and remains the symbol of so many ordinary men and women who gave so much for the rest of us, whatever the wisdom, or lack of it, exhibited by the generals and politicians. And because of this it remains for me the best symbol of remembrance. 

Monday, 9 November 2015

When physicists say many processes are independent of time, are they cheating?

A lot of physicists like to say that time doesn't exist. This is, to be honest, showing off, and they don't really believe it. (If they insist they do, wait until dinner time and see how they react to not being fed because dinner time doesn't exist.) However they have a number of different arguments to support their claim, one of which is that many physical processes are totally reversible as far as time is concerned, showing no interest in the 'arrow of time.'

A classic example of this is a pair of pool balls which head towards each other, collide and bounce off each other. They will point out that if you run a video of the event in reverse, it is indistinguishable from the video shown running forward. The direction of time is irrelevent. However, in making this assertion they are cheating, both subtly and in a very big way.

The subtle cheat is one that they will admit, but get around. You can point out that in traversing the pool table and in hitting each other, the balls will lose energy due to friction and the heat and sound generated in the collision. So the balls will be travelling slower after the collision than they are before. All you need do is measure the speed on the two journeys, and they video is no longer reversible.

True, say, the physicists. But for the purposes of the experiment we are assuming frictionless pool balls that lose no energy on collision. We understand that these don't really exist, but this is an acceptable simplification.

While you can argue whether or not this is truly acceptable, however, there is still the big cheat. It's what is called, in a different kind of experimental setup, cherry picking. Cherry picking is where you choose the results (consciously or unconsciously) that match your desired outcome. It can be a real problem in science, and one that good modern scientists are very strong on avoiding. However our (imaginary) physicists are cherry picking in the pool ball experiment too. Because they have selected only the frames of the movie that support their argument.

Pool balls do not, suddenly and for no reason, hurtle towards each other. Someone had to give them a push. So the full movie of the event should include that initial push. Show the entire movie backwards and it is very clear that the process is not symmetrical.

I ought to stress that there is still plenty of useful science that can be done by making this kind of cheat/simplification. But I also think that scientists have to be very careful to remember that this is what they are doing, and that in the real universe their models are supposed to represent, it is impossible to apply such a simplification. Otherwise it becomes very easy to confuse a model with reality.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Book of Magic - Review

I have always been fascinated by magic, whether in its use in fiction or beliefs about magic. As I read more popular science than anything (and because I was sent a review copy) I had got it into my head that this was a book on the practice of and attitude to magic from a scientific, analytical viewpoint - looking at what was believed and why they believed it. However, the actual book was very different from this, and I suspect it will only appeal to a very narrow readership.

What Brian Copenhaver does is to take a series of texts: biblical, medieval and renaissance (but no modern ones) that reference magic in some way and gives us a brief commentary on each (usually just one paragraph) before quoting the document at length. I am sure from a scholastic viewpoint this is useful and may even be important, but I really can't see why it is being published by Penguin in a manner that implies it is for a general readership, because it certainly isn't.

So unless you have the patience and the interest to read a whole string of obscure and verbose medieval documents, it probably shouldn't be on your to-read list.

If you are the kind of person for whom this should be on your to-read list, The Book of Magic is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Sound of tearing hair

Not long ago I mentioned the evils of science exaggeration. It's all too easy for journalists, often aided and abetted by either university PRs or scientists themselves, to make over-the-top claims. I think I've just come across the most dramatic example of this I've ever seen.

'Teenagers' maths theorem could pave the way for interstellar travel,' screams the headline. No, it really, really couldn't. There's a lot to be said for that Metro masthead 'news... but not as you know it'. Though to be fair, they were by no means alone in making this claim.

The origin of this hysterical unlikelihood was a geometry paper by a pair of 17-year-olds. The fact that Xuming Liang and Ivan Zelich produced the paper, published in the International Journal of Geometry is certainly newsworthy. But the leap from Generalisations of the Properties of the Neuberg Cubic to the Euler Pencil of Isopivotal Cubics to Starfleet is considerable.

Here is the phrase that does all the damage. 'The theorem will contribute to our understanding of intergalactic travel because string theory predicts existence shortcuts in space, or so-called "wormholes" to cut through space.' The quote is from co-author Zelich. But the journalists involved don't seem to have given any thought to the possibility that a 17-year-old could be good at geometry without knowing too much about life, the universe and PR.

The first problem with that statement is that string theory doesn't predict wormholes. It doesn't predict anything - that's one of the problems with string theory. Nothing predicts wormholes actually exist, but general relativity does provide a potential mechanism for them with the proviso that they would be  pretty well impossible to travel through. But even if string theory did predict wormholes, so what? String theory is not at this stage a useful scientific theory for anything, and may well end up being discarded. And even if it that weren't the case, a geometry theorem does not somehow turn string theory into an interstellar transport mechanism. To put it politely, it's baloney.

Perhaps slightly more with-it journalists than those on the Metro would have raised an eyebrow at Zelich's other quote 'It also helps finding minimal possible math between certain planets based on their structure,' which I've read ten times and still haven't a clue what it means.

So, thanks to the wonders of science exaggeration, what was a really good story - teens publish impressive original geometry paper - has become a truly naff example of non-science reporting. Nice.