Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A calendar education

When there's an outburst of indignation about a stupid remark made by an elderly person, such as the furore over Tim Hunt's comments on women in the laboratory, it's easy to forget how much we have moved on in the last 40 or 50 years. We are yet to achieve proper equality for women, but it's easy to forget just how strikingly different things were just a few decades ago. Take, for instance, the issue of calendars.

When I was young, every car part manufacturer and plumber's supplier produced an annual calendar with pictures of women in relatively few, if any clothes. Most of these were pretty horrendous productions, though some had pretensions of artiness, and none more so than the calendar produced by the tyre company Pirelli. These weren't the kind of thing that were plastered on the wall of garage workshops, but sought after collectors' items. But still, in the end, arguably objectification. (I admit the line between such things and art is fuzzy. It would be censorship indeed if art were not allowed to portray the human body.)

When I wrote the first draft of this post, my next line about the Pirelli calendars was 'Still, in the end, unacceptable to modern eyes, but very different beasts from the common girlie calendar.' I then took a look online and discovered that they still make the Pirelli calendar in this form. So we've a way to go yet.

Back on topic, I do have to give an accolade to one attempt at being arty on the part of a calendar maker, though. It made me realise that there is a point to poetry - or at least some poetry.

My dad's best friend, Jesse, worked for the chemical giant Ciba Geigy, and somewhere around 1970, he gave me one of their calendars. They had produced their equivalent of the Pirelli output with relatively subtle and arty shots of women, but each was captioned with a couplet from a poem. And some of those lines really got to me.

I can't remember many of them now, but two spring to mind:

All that's best of dark and bright
meets in her beauty and her eyes.

from Byron's She Walks in Beauty and

Annihilating all that's made
to a green thought in a green shade.

from The Garden by Andrew Marvell. Several were from the seventeenth century like the latter, and led me to a fondness for the likes of Marvell and Donne. As I've previously remarked, I don't have a lot of time for poetry, because I'm not the poetry equivalent of a railway enthusiast. Most of the time I don't get it. Possibly because it's much harder to write a half-decent poem than a half-decent novel, so most output is rubbish. But thanks to a calendar of my youth, there a few cases where I do.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell review

So Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is finished and it's hard not to add 'thank goodness'. It was never bad enough not to stick with it, but it came close.

The trouble with adapting an over-long book that is intriguing and irritating in equal measures is that unless you take liberties with the script you end up with exactly the same kind of TV show. And they did. The series could have been condensed from 7 hours to 3 without significant loss.

The good news for those of us who hung on to the end was that the last episode was by far the best - far more engaging than some of its predecessors.

In fact, there was a lot in principle to like about the show. The CGI was surprisingly good, and the actors universally did an excellent job. There were striking set pieces throughout - it's just that for a lot of the episodes there was far more exposition and repetition than there was any real progression to the plot.

The other big problem was that the two most interesting characters - Mrs Strange and Childermass - both seemed underused. I don't know how much this is down to the book - I read it when it first came out and can't remember much about it - and how much it's the adaptation. Many of the other characters, though well acted, were a touch two dimensional.

Another moan is that because, after a very leisurely first six episodes, there was so much crammed into the final one, it wasn't really clear why Strange and Norrell disappeared at the end. The explanation was very short, and muffled to boot.

So, without doubt a brave attempt at a difficult novel to bring to the screen. But could have been better.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Names and associations

Valerie at a serious location, back in the black and white days
As I was sitting on the bus heading for the station the other day, I contemplated the way that associations can completely change how we view a particular name.

This came to mind as the bus headed past Cheney Manor. Given that name alone, my suspicion is that a rather splendid Tudor mansion would come to mind, either in beautifully laid out formal gardens, or possibly going a bit to seed as the owners couldn't keep it up. Definitely a des. res.

But if you know Swindon, you will probably be aware that Cheney Manor is not a distinguished old house, but an area of the town that has seen better days and whose most notable occupant is a small trading estate. The only obvious 'Manor' is one of those not entirely welcoming looking modern pubs. All-in-all, it's not exactly a National Trust tourist destination. (Sorry to any Cheney Manor residents - I'm sure it's a lovely place to live.) Suddenly, given the context, the name feels very different.

I experienced something similar as a student, but with a person's name. From my youth, I had very negative associations with the name 'Valerie'. This may have been because we had someone in our junior school class called Valerie who had an unfortunate bladder condition. Or just because it's one of those names. Either way, it felt like a name to avoid.

Then I met Valerie, who sang in the same choir. Like half of my college (or so it seemed) I fell head over heels for Valerie. And suddenly I couldn't understand my previous attitude to the name. It was a lovely name. Possibly one of the nicest girls' names ever.

Sadly for me and that half of the college, Valerie married a musician from another college, who (it was generally considered in our college) was unworthy. Strangely, soon after, the name was once more one that I really didn't like too much.

As it happens, I now know a couple of exceedingly nice Vals, and that seems a fine name to me. But I'd be grateful if they didn't tell me that it was short for Valerie.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Attend a virtual lasers and accelerators symposium

LA3NET Fellow (see below for silly acronym) Jakob Cramer checking
a magnetic lens for particle beams
Accelerators like the Diamond Light Source and high power laser facilities are at the glamorous end of physics, so what better way to get a taster for some of the amazing career opportunities for scientists and engineers than a symposium for sixth formers exploring this remarkable world?

Unfortunately the symposium at the Liverpool Convention Centre this Friday is sold out, but the good news is that you (or students you teach) can still 'attend' in a virtual way via webcast. That will be available here, and they've even got Brian Cox, so who could resist?

If you'd like some more details, here is the inevitable press release:

Lasers and Accelerators symposium set to inspire next generation of accelerator scientists and engineers says Cockcroft Director

“You could be working at the forefront of human knowledge in a science that is unlocking the mysteries of the Universe and that has applications in healthcare, materials, and drug development among others;” that is the message from the Cockcroft Institute to sixth formers attending the ‘Lasers and Accelerators for Science and Society’ symposium, 26th June 2015.  

There is a shortage of engineers and scientists with skills in this exciting area, and industry is keen that young people consider it as a career.

Professor Carsten Welsch, Associate Director of the Cockcroft Institute in Daresbury, an internationally renowned centre for accelerator science and technology, says that the symposium aims to inspire people with the possibilities of this rapidly evolving science.

He says: “Accelerator science is a young discipline and the people pushing back the frontiers of knowledge are also often only in their twenties. There are real opportunities not only to discover something new but also to see its application in healthcare or industry within a relatively short time-frame.”

With the popular appeal of recent films such as “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything” generating interest in scientists and their work, Prof Welsch is hoping that meeting real scientists involved in blue-sky and applied research will lift the ambitions of students.

“We have chosen speakers such as Professor Brian Cox who are good at making science accessible and that are at the forefront of their fields.  They also include Professor Katia Parodi who has pioneered image-guided radiotherapy for targeting cancer tumours and Dr Ralph Aßmann who is working on a new generation of compact particle accelerators that will be economically viable in new markets.”

Prof Welsch has been leading three pan-European programmes, which are creating fellows with vital skills in particle acceleration, beam technologies and laser science.  Along with their research, the fellows have also enjoyed training in project management, networking and presenting to ensure they are highly employable.

The fellows have each been set challenges by project partners – drawn from industry and research – and the symposium marks the completion of these endeavours.  

Fellows from two of the programmes – oPAC (optimization of particle accelerators), and LA3NET (lasers for applications at accelerator facilities) – will get an opportunity to present their results in a poster session. 

oPAC fellow Manuel Cargnelutti, graduated in 2012 and has a masters in Electrical Engineering. He was initially considering software programming when he saw details of the scheme; “The field of particle accelerators was totally new for me, and the final application is fascinating,” he says. 

“The oPAC programme offers a very unique combination of the industry and science worlds, aiming to improve both technical and secondary skills. This was just what I wanted.”

Posters will include work from the following projects:

Femtosecond x-ray imaging – x-ray crystallography has been widely used to improve our knowledge of the structure and function of many biological molecules including vitamins, proteins and DNA itself, but the technique is limited to materials that can create a crystalline form. Also the samples are static, so it cannot be used to understand the motion of proteins. 

These problems can be overcome using ‘free-electron lasers’ but these are very large, sophisticated facilities, of which there are only a few in the world. 

LA3NET fellow Andreas Dopp is developing a system that generates intense pulses of x-rays that last only a few femtoseconds (10-15 or one millionth of a billionth, of a second) and would be capable of imaging a protein unfolding in real time which would advance our knowledge of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer.

In future this work will help to produce an alternative source of x-rays, with similar properties to those from free-electron lasers, but potentially smaller and cheaper.

A magnetic lens that focuses high-energy particle beams - a particle beam needs to be sharp in order to be effective. LA3NET fellow Jakob Kramer is designing, building and testing a magnetic lens that works with a new type of accelerator, which uses high-power lasers to accelerate a particle beam. This magnetic lens would increase the precision and power of the beam within a more compact accelerator. 

Unravelling secrets of the cosmic jigsaw – we still do not know what 85% of the matter in the universe consists of.  To try and understand this cosmic jigsaw scientists have been working on a ‘standard model of particle physics’ which describes all the fundamental particles we know and their interactions. 

The gigantic Large Hadron Collider was built in order to do experiments that tested the model but now a more advanced accelerator is required to go even further and two oPAC fellows Emilia Cruz Alaniz and Alessandra Valloni are working on this; the design of a new electron-proton collider. 

For those not able to attend the symposium there will be an opportunity to follow the talks via webcast: www.cockcroft.ac.uk/symposium-on-lasers-accelerators-for-science-and-society

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Do writers dream of electric souls?

Having just watched the sometimes excellent movie Ex Machina, I am tempted to wonder if a lot of writers who use artificial intelligence (AI) themes are unconsciously playing out Descartian duality, assuming that we have souls and that, lacking a soul, an AI would act purely selfishly.

Of course, this assumption is not true of all such fiction. In the curious Kubrick/Spielberg handover film AI, the Pinocchio-like AI's search for the chance to be a real boy has as much soul as it does schmaltz. But in Ex Machina, the Ava character (I'll try to avoid too many spoilers) demonstrates an 'inhuman' lack of concern when there was an opportunity to save someone who had cared for and helped her, at no cost to herself.

Would a true AI with human-like intelligence really do this? There are good evolutionary reasons for the existence of altruism and mutualism, and to totally ignore them would not really be logical. Of course it could be that Ava was not an AI at all - one of the big themes of the movie - but merely a machine that was very good at simulating being conscious, in which case such an outcome was perhaps more likely.

I'm certainly not knocking the film (though the ending seemed to forget the tiny problem of the need for power sources). It was great at portraying the kind of culture that pervades organizations like Google, Microsoft and Apple - including the degree to which a search engine company particularly can abuse its position - and there was some genuinely thoughtful conversation about the nature of artificial intelligence, plus good playing by all the leads. But my suspicion is that Ava was intended to be a genuine AI, which despite all the superb CGI, the writer still saw as a tin woman without a soul.

Monday, 22 June 2015

The Time Torch - review

This is a curious but likeable little book. That 'little' is not a condescending remark. The book is physically small - about two thirds of the width of a normal paperback - with large print that means it's almost like reading on a Kindle rather than a normal printed copy.

I am always a little wary about self-published titles, which this is, but it has been well proof read, with no more typos than I see in books from mainstream publishers. What particularly attracted me to it is that it's a story involving a time machine - I love time machines - and the blurb said that it made an attempt to make the science as close to realistic as possible, which got my science writer antennae twitching... and it turns out that this is a reasonable claim.

So we've some interesting science and a satisfying if fairly simplistic plot. The Time Torch was a short enough read to get through all of it on a train journey (it verges on being a novella), and it was entertaining enough in the storyline and intriguing enough in that science content to mean that I genuinely enjoyed the experience.

I have to admit, though, that the book isn't without faults. The main characters aren't particularly likeable. Even though a major plot point is reminiscent of the backstory of Batman, the characters don't reflect the superhero ethics shown in the Spider Man's reflection that 'with great power comes great responsibility.' And the writing style is idiosyncratic to say the least. The author likes to be very specific about some things and lacks sophistication in his writing. To get a feel, here's the opening of the third chapter, where we are introduced to the girlfriend of main character Ben:
Ben rang his girlfriend, Melissa Harper. Melissa was a tall elegant woman with an athletic frame. She was in a smart business suit seated at a table with five other people. She felt her phone vibrate on the table. She had a quick look at the screen and saw it was Ben.
I'm not going to pick out detail, but it's not the most elegant writing and time and time again through the book the essential fiction editor's plea 'Show, don't tell,' is roundly ignored.

As for the science, like any science fiction the plot has to come first, so the physics isn't 100% accurate, but it was a noble attempt and very clever concept. The author starts by telling us that for matter to travel through time is impossible - which is simply wrong, but that's not too much of an issue. Instead, though, our hero sends photons into the past. He uses a general relativity approach (the only potential way we know to get something into the past, so that's good) to get his photons back in time. But the clever bit is that they are in a state of quantum entanglement with photons that remain in the present. When the spray of photons (his 'time torch') hits an item in the past, it shows up in the twinned photons that remain in the present.

This nicely reflects the real experiment in which a picture of a cat was generated using photons that never encountered a cat-shaped slot thanks to entanglement. In practice there are a number of reasons why the approach wouldn't work. Entangled photons lose their entanglement when they interact with atoms. So though it was possible to produce an image of a slot, where the entangled photons didn't hit anything, it's not possible for an entangled photon to hit, say, a person and reflect off her to produce an image from its entangled partner - both because the entanglement is lost and the 'reflected' photon isn't the same one that was emitted by the 'torch'. If such imaging were possible, you could use entanglement to send messages faster than light, which has all sorts of interesting implications and doesn't happen. The other big snag is that general relativity techniques can only send things back as far as the point in time that the device was first switched on, making it impossible to work in the way that was required for the story.

These science notes are minor niggles, though, which are absolutely fine to make the plot work. It doesn't stop the idea of the 'time torch' being very clever, along with the interesting details that you could see into the past, but only in black and white and without sound, giving the fictional inventor some worthwhile challenges.

So what we have here is a really interesting science fiction concept and a reasonable plot, but an undeveloped style. If you can set the unpolished writing aside, it's well worth a go.

You can find The Time Torch at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com on Kindle or at Lulu as a paperback.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Stop blaming police and government

I am getting decidedly fed up of the reporting of the immensely sad case of the three women and nine children from Bradford who disappeared into Turkey, and probably Syria on their way back from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. (I ought to emphasise that we should be doing all we can to get these children returned home.)

I keep seeing press and politicians saying ‘The police didn't do enough to prevent them,’ or ‘The government isn’t doing enough to prevent radicalisation.’ Last night on the news a reporter's main question to someone in Bradford was 'Are you angry with the police?' And a couple of days ago, Baroness Warsi was quoted as saying that the Government was failing to offer sufficient collaboration with Muslim communities in Britain to ensure it could combat the threat of radicalisation.

However, by the time the police need to act it’s too late - the mindset is in place. And should the government need to be thought police? Surely it’s time that a culture that makes a significant number of individuals think it’s okay to act this way undergoes major change? And that can’t come from the government, it has to come from within.

When I taught creativity in large companies, I would sometimes talk to the management and essentially say 'I can come and do the training if you like, but nothing will actually change unless the company culture changes - and that has to come from inside.' It's not enough to have tools and rules imposed from outside, you have to that cultural will to make something happen. And that can only happen if the people involved collectively commit to do so. It's exactly the same here.

We hear a lot, for instance, about the slick Internet videos of ISIS that convince people that places like Raqqa and Mosul are lovely peaceful cities where you can live a much better life than in the UK. Why would individuals believe iffy internet videos over the constant stream of horror images we see on the news, making it clear what IS has in store, particularly for women and children? Surely it can only be because, for whatever reason, these individuals have been brought up to consider anything framed as Islamic, however far it may be from the true religion, to have greater significance than information originating from civil society? That's not down to the police or the government.

There is a very clear lesson that time after time isn't being learned.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

In praise of 'general relativity'

This year marks the centenary of Albert Einstein's groundbreaking general theory of relativity. As the C. P. Snow quote on the back of John Gribbin's excellent book on the topic, Einstein's Masterwork points out, 'If Einstein had not created the general theory (in 1915) no one else would have done so... perhaps not for generations.'

Generally speaking I am in total agreement with Dr Gribbin on all matters scientific (it is dangerous to do otherwise, as he is surely the head of the UK science writing equivalent of Cosa Nostra), but there is one point on which I have to part company.

John gets decidedly vexed when someone refers to 'special relativity' or 'general relativity.' He points out that the correct terms are 'the special theory of relativity' and 'the general theory of relativity', and that the contraction is an abomination, because it is the theory that is special or general, not the relativity.

Now scientists are notoriously picky about definitions to avoid error. But I honestly don't think there is a problem here. No one looks at the word and ponders over exactly what is general or special. And it is a very useful contraction to be able to say 'general relativity' when referring to 'the general theory of relativity', just as we make use of many other contractions to avoid being over-wordy.

The reason this occurred to me is that I had written 'Einstein’s gravitational theory, general relativity' in a book due out later this year. As I was checking the proofs, I thought 'John wouldn't like that.' But it would have read much more clumsily as 'Einstein's gravitational theory, the general theory of relativity.'

I am, technically, without doubt in the wrong. But good communication sometimes benefits from slight bending of precision to gain better effect. So long live special relativity and general relativity.

Now, where are the keys to my fallout shelter?

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Was he right to try to kill me?

The other day a van driver did his best to splatter me on the road... and I'm not quite sure who was in the right.

I was at the yellow arrow, about to cross the road dead ahead from one footpath to the other, on my way to the Post Office. That's the kind of exciting daily life I have.

The van had entered the roundabout at the red arrow, heading in my direction.

It's not clear from the picture, but there is a lot of foliage on the roundabout, and it was only when the van reached about the 3 o'clock position that I saw him. By this time I was already part way across the road, though not past the halfway point.

So the question is - did I have right of way or should I have got back off the road? As it was, I carried on and he clearly thought that I shouldn't be there as he showed no sign of slowing down and just missed me.

Clearly he wasn't correct in not slowing down, whoever had right of way, but what I'm not quite sure about is whether I had right of way once I had started across a piece of road with no traffic in sight? Since I can't be bothered to lay my hands on a copy of the Highway Code, I throw it open to your judgement and wisdom...

Monday, 15 June 2015

Atheism after Christendom - review

At first sight you might imagine that a book titled Atheism after Christendom, written by Simon Perry the chaplain of Robinson College, Cambridge, might be a throwback to the days when it used to be joked that one thing you could be certain about with trendy Church of England vicars was that they didn't believe in God. But despite the book being in praise of atheism, it also manages to be pro-Christianity, because Perry argues that Christianity is atheist. What's more, he argues that 'New Atheists' like Dawkins and Dennett are actually theists. Confused? You may not agree with the author - and I certainly don't on all counts - but his premise is certainly interesting.

There are two keys to that title, because this book depends on very careful use of words. One is 'atheism', of which more in a moment, and the other is 'Christendom'. It's 'after Christendom', not 'after Christianity.' Perry argues that where initially Christianity was considered atheist by the Romans, because it ran counter to the gods of the state - and Perry effectively defines atheism in this way, as denying the gods of your state - with its establishment by Constantine, Christianity became watered down and in that form, as Christendom, provided the state god, so was a worthy target for atheism. However, since the Enlightenment and particularly in a modernist secular society, the Christian god is no longer the god of the state. Instead, Perry suggests, our  modernist state gods are Mars and Venus, as represented by everything from military force and shouty domination on the one hand to commerce and greed on the other. (And these are the 'gods' he suggests the New Atheists follow.)

By contrast, Perry suggests, at the heart of Christianity is acceptance of the 'other' - looking outside ourselves rather than inwards, reaching out to the rest of humanity, the universe and its creator (if it has one). And this, he suggests is the real way forward, the only true justification for existence in what otherwise is a short life with little meaning. He suggests that by taking this approach we avoid the errors of deism - suggesting God could exist, but only starting things off before leaving things alone, the god of the gaps - and of theism, where God is constantly interfering, answering random prayers and has to be held to account for all the horrible things in the universe. Perry's God creates the universe in the way it has to be because there is no denying evolution - violent - but is accessible if we begin to truly care for the 'other' - to consider all humanity of equal importance and to live accordingly. It's not, he says, about 'pie in the sky when you die' but about making our world better with this outward looking stance.

Along the way, Perry throws out a lot that will shock many traditional Christians. He suggests that much of the Old Testament, for instance, that makes it clear that God is a nasty, vindictive mass murderer, is a product of a flawed human interpretation by those who wrote it. And I suspect the majority of Christians' beliefs through the centuries will also be considered flawed, influenced as they have been by the strongly theistic picture that has dominated the church for much of its life.

Some of the specifics in the book I have problems with. There is an assumption throughout that this pursuit of 'otherness' is a good thing, and that the modernist individual-centred approach is wrong. I'm not saying I entirely disagree with this, but I never saw any argument to justify this assumption - it is, as far as I can see, a given. If we accept that for a moment, Perry suggests that the Bible, and particularly the New Testament is built on this acceptance of 'the other' - and yet while Judaism may embrace 'the other' in the form of God, it isn't usually considered a religion with such an outward facing approach to other people. Even Jesus demonstrates this: 'The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”' Is that about embracing 'the other'?

Similarly, I struggle with Perry's attitude to science. While I accept that scientists can verge on scientific imperialism as he mentions, and that the really interesting thing about science is not facts but the exploring, I can't really go for the statement that 'science is simply one means of understanding who we are. There are other equally important and no less valid means of experiencing the world.' It's true in a trivial sense - the joy of seeing a sunrise over a beautiful landscape is an 'important and valid means of experiencing the world.' But it isn't comparable to science, it's a totally different thing. And science is uniquely valuable in many ways. Certainly the author gets in a bit of a tangle when he takes on science, telling us that the LHC enables us to produce and trace the paths of quarks (nope), or when he doesn't spot that black holes aren't observed phenomena that challenge general relativity, but rather were predictions of general relativity that may explain observations.

Overall, the book gives the reader a lot to think about. I don't think that it will be of interest to New Atheists, which is a shame, as a lot of what Perry says about the nature of atheism is very insightful, but they would be put off by the amount of the book that is explicitly Christian. (I do wonder if Perry's dismissal of the New Atheist/Western governments' attitude to Islamic terrorism stands up to the atrocities of ISIS.) However, this is a book that all thinking Christians should read (the left wing politics that it's hard to separate from the original version of Christianity might not go down well in some quarters, though). The only danger for them is that, if they accept Perry's view, they may totally change their viewpoint. Is, for instance, going to church more about Christendom than Christianity? (This is something Perry doesn't address explicitly.)

However you look at it, this is a book to challenge the thinking of atheists and Christians alike, and as such is very welcome.

You can find Atheism after Christendom at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Eleven Minutes Late review

I felt distinctly misled by the blurb on the back of Eleven Minutes Late. I picked the book up from a pile occupying a whole table in a large bookseller, so it must be doing well (especially as I later discovered the book first came out in 2009, and this is only a lightly updated version) and thought it sounded ideal. The bumf made it sound like 'Bill Bryson does the railways' - as a lover of both, I thought it would be excellent. It was very good, but it didn't do what it said on the tin.

The author Matthew Engel, a journalist with the right kind of connections to be able to interview John Major for the book (probably because Engel had been editor of Wisden's, the cricket almanac) starts in the expected vein, taking us on a trip from Penzance to Thurso with a week's railrover ticket in hand. Just the idea of the ticket really brought back the memories - when I was 15, two friends and I bought these and spent almost all of a week on the railway network. However after a couple of shortish chapters, the book settles down to being an analytical history of the messy development of Britain's railways and it is only a good 200 pages later that he finishes of his journey.

Having said that, if you are interested in railways, the history part is very good. It takes a distinctly cynical dive into the politics of railways and is more about that aspect than the nuts and bolts of the permanent way - which is likely to make it interesting to a wider audience than those who just like trains. Engel gives the reader real (and painful) insights into who the railways are in the shape they are in today by tracing a rarely planned and often brainless set of decisions and ideas, from the original railway mania through to the harebrained privatisation that separated track and trains and constantly pushed train operators to apply higher fares.

In fact, when I read the final section where he returns to travelogue mode, I realised I was glad most of the book was the history, because Engel isn't actually great at the Brysonesque bit. He has a couple of tiny vignettes that are entertaining, one featuring what must be the rudest buffet car (sorry, The Shop) attendant ever, but that apart we just get rather dull descriptions of his journey. Provided, then, you come at this book not expecting what it says on the cover, it is great. I would highly recommend it for its history, although it does leave the regular train traveller so frustrated as it becomes pretty obvious that the British political system is never going to get trains right.

I don't know why, but books about rail disasters have always made great reading. (I'm thinking particularly of Rolt's classic Red for Danger.) This is a book about a different kind of rail disaster - the politics, planning and management of railways and is equally compelling. I realised as I typed that sentence why the blurb was made a bit misleading. Would you sell many books about 'the politics, planning and management of railways'? But in its entertaining, curmudgeonly way, this book does the topic justice while keeping the reader happy.

You can find Eleven Minutes Late at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com - also on Kindle at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Press release of the month

I'm no fan of press release journalism, but sometimes a title catches your eye. I mean, who could resist 'World's largest rat eradication project completes baiting'?

So here we go:

On 23 March 2015, despite turbulent sub-Antarctic weather, the final bait pellets were sown via helicopter on the island of South Georgia by an 18-strong group of international specialists known as ‘Team Rat’ in what is the world’s largest rat eradication project to date, funded by small UK-based NGO, the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT).

Only days later South Georgia was announced as the fifth UK Overseas Territory to be included in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This ratification to the CBD was significantly aided by the dedication and hard work of the Trust and its commitment to protect the biodiversity of the island, by ridding it of invasive rodents preying on native seabird populations.

South Georgia Heritage Trust and its USA sister organisation Friends of South Georgia Island are hosting a press conference including members of the now returned ‘Team Rat’. The press conference will provide a comprehensive update on the latest phase of the Habitat Restoration Project which successfully spread 95 tonnes of bait over an area of 364 square kilometres, including a 227 kilometre stretch of sinuous coastline.

There remains a further two year monitoring period before the project can be marked a complete success, but it is possible that South Georgia is now rodent-free. There have already been significant discoveries and sightings of native species recovering on the island which will be discussed during the press conference.

Go Team Rat! And 'Boo!' to invasive rodents. Okay, rats can be a serious problem when accidentally introduced into an environment where they have no natural predators. But am I the only one who is highly suspicious about the gratuitous, and not entirely comprehensible use of the word 'ratification' in the second paragraph? Could we have a PR person with a sense of humour? Probably not.

The press conference is on 25 June, so there may be even more excitement at that point.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Reviews and reactions

A couple of days ago I blogged about the suspicious nature of very short five star reviews. However, a recent revelation, pointed out by the excellent author Sara Crowe, has made me want to return to the whole business of reviewing - specifically what reviews are for and how, as authors, we ought to respond to them.

On the matter of what reviews for, I was struck by a response to my earlier post. Someone said 'Most Amazon "reviews" are not actually reviews anyway, they're about whether or not the reader liked the book, which is something different.' I'm not sure I agree with that sentiment. I'd certainly agree that there's little point a review just saying whether or not a reader liked the book - but I do think it's an important part of the mix.

Some while ago I moaned to a major science journal that did book reviews that their reviews were terrible because they never told you if the book was any good at what it purported to do. All each review consisted of (sometimes at length) was a summary of the science covered by the book. But, for me, a review isn't a synopsis. It certainly should give you a feel for what the book covers, but it should equally be about how well it puts across its content - fiction or non-fiction - and what the reading experience is like. Which inevitably overlaps with whether or not the reader likes the book. All reviews are subjective - get over it.

As far as I am concerned, the point of a review is to help a potential reader decide whether or not to read the book. And to do that, yes, it should give an idea of what the book's about - but it's not the review's job to reproduce the content in précis form. Instead it should tell us how well the book puts that content across, any issues with the book and how it delivers on the promise of its puff, the marketing blurb that attempts to sell it. In reading a review we are looking for informed guidance on whether or not the book might work for us.

Which leads me onto reactions to reviews by authors. I think anyone who has written a book and got a bad review feels an urge to respond (if they are silly enough to read the bad review in the first place). But the vast majority of us take the intelligent step of restraining ourselves, because it is only going to end in tears. To show how horribly wrong responding can be, we have a wonderful case study in the situation Ms Crowe brought to my attention - a Goodreads review of a book called The Boy and the Peddler of Death. Someone posted a one star review, calling the book wordy and pretentious and saying that it didn't live up to the summary, which suggested it would appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones etc. Now at the time, this book had plenty of good reviews too, and an average star rating of over four.

Unfortunately, the author felt it necessary to wade in and attack the review and the reviewer, digging himself a deeper and deeper hole. At the time of writing, just four days after the review was posted there are 2,062 comments, many of them in direct response to the original review, which alone has 15 pages of replies as more and more Goodreads members waded in to defend the reviewer. And still the author kept on digging. The book now averages two stars, and nearly every recent review gives it one star. The author has committed Goodreads suicide.

Now I have heard elsewhere what a nasty, backbiting place Goodreads is, but this incident isn't really a case of trolling. This is a genuine reaction to a shocked potential audience to the author's inability to take criticism and his remarkable inability to see how much damage he is doing himself. (It didn't help that his defence combined ad hominem attacks with pretentious twaddle.)

Personally speaking I rarely read reviews of my books on Goodreads/Amazon, though I can't resist doing so when a book is reviewed in a newspaper (in part to get pull quotes for my website). But if I do dip in to readers' reviews a) I tend to ignore the low scores and b) I would never think of responding. The only time I ever did so indirectly was to flag a review to Amazon because it contained blatantly incorrect information. All that happened is the same person put a variant of the review back on, adding a complaint that it had been pulled in the first place. So even that was a mistake.

As I've said elsewhere, no one likes to get a bad review. It's hurtful. They're slagging of your baby. But as an author, you make the choice to put yourself out there. No one asked you to. And if you do so, you have to accept that not everyone will like your books, sometimes for really stupid reasons, and get over it. Think nice thoughts. Stroke a dog. Read a compensatory good review. But PLEASE don't reply to the review.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Looking in the wrong direction for the next big TV thing

Stuff Magazine gets the wrong message
I read with a total lack of delight in a techie mag that HDR may be the next big thing for TV. Here's my prediction: no it won't.

The fact is that TV makers are really bad at getting into the minds of the ordinary buying public.

We've already seen that disastrously with 3D TV. It is now being phased out, because very few people actually bought it. Very few people could see the benefit.

Now we've got 4K TV (with a lot more pixels) and HDR (standing for High Dynamic Range) vying to be the next next big thing. And I'm not sure they are going to succeed either.

The benefit of 4K is getting far higher resolution images than the current HD, while HDR, an effect you'll find on most modern camera phones, zaps up the contrast, making it less likely that parts of an image will wash out, though in exchange it can produce some very artificial looking colour palettes with an unnaturally rich mix of colours - it has a tendency to make reality look artificial.

Why am I doubtful? Because for the typical, say, 40 inch screen, most viewers are perfectly happy with the picture quality on an ordinary HD TV. In fact many of us don't even care about using the best of that. I can watch the main channels in ordinary broadcast quality or HD - usually I just watch ordinary because I can't be bothered to scroll down to the HD channels. You can see the difference in picture quality if you look for it, but if you are actually watching a programme or film, you don't notice it.

There is no doubt we needed to get to current basic levels to cope with modern screen sizes. But unless the typical screen size goes up to about 60 inch, we really don't get a lot of benefit from going beyond standard HD, and at current sizes, even that isn't really necessary. The fact that you only notice the HD if it's a bad programme/film, so it doesn't grab your intention and you instead spend your time studying the quality of the image, says a lot for how much benefit it delivers.

I'm not sure what the next big thing is for TV - but I don't think it will be about an even flashier image quality. It's far more like to be about getting the back end right - cracking the integration, for instance, of streaming services like Netflix into the user interface, so you don't have to switch from broadcast to iPlayer to Netflix to Amazon Prime, but instead simply look through what's available across the patch that you've subscribed to.

Sorry, TV makers. But 'Mine is bigger [resolution] than yours' isn't a winning game.

Monday, 8 June 2015

The dark side of Amazon reviews

Spot the suspicious reviews
Like any other author I am delighted by good reviews and deeply saddened and wounded by bad ones. And amongst those we have to take very seriously these days are Amazon reviews. It might seem that a good review in, say, a national Sunday paper is far more important than a collection of good reviews on Amazon. And that's true over the weekend the paper was published. In fact when one of my books had huge, enthusiastic reviews in the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday it positively shot up the sales rankings. However, such reviews are transient.

Over time a book will build up a collection of Amazon reviews, and that will be the first point of assessment for many a potential reader. Such reviews probably weigh less for books than, say, reviews of a slow cooker, because as a reader you may well know an author's work and be quite happy to get another book from the same source. However, for many, the Amazon reviews will still be extremely important. We shouldn't read too much into a single review, but when there are plenty, it's usually possible to get a feel for what a book is like.

I've just posted one of my rare very bad reviews, of Stephen Fry's latest autobiography More Fool Me (you can see my review here, but for our purposes, the important thing is it's also posted on Amazon).

Now if you take a look at the Amazon page (I'll give you a link in a moment, but hang on til you've heard the argument), you'll see that all the major reviews - the ones that most people found useful - are one or two star and slagging the book off, just as I did. Frankly, it's very disappointing. But you will also see something rather odd. Although the lead reviews are all negative, the book actually has more five star reviews than any other - 118 five star to 66 at 2 star and 71 at one star. This is the reason it averages three stars, despite so many bad reviews. How could so many people rate such a bad book so highly?

Now take a look at the 'recent customer reviews' down the side of the page (extract shown above). All the five star reviews are just a word or two (apart from one, who doesn't understand the Amazon review system and is actually rating the price and delivery). If you click through to see all the five star reviews, there are certainly some genuine ones - people who just don't agree with readers who have taste, and that's fine. But there also a fair number that are just one or two words.

It could be just a coincidence that a lot of the people who like a book aren't particularly forthcoming as to why they like it. But there is another possible reason. Just like you can buy Facebook likes or Twitter follows, there are companies that will provide you with a set of good Amazon reviews. So if a publisher, for instance, is unhappy by how many negative reviews they are getting, they can balance them out with some cheap and cheerful good ones.

Now I need to stress that I am not saying that this was the case with More Fool Me; I am sure that the short five star reviews are purely coincidental here. But when there are so many short positive reviews (and some are by people who haven't reviewed any other books, or who title their review 'Five Stars' or who only ever leave four/five star reviews) it does look odd.

The way that the Amazon algorithm has shuffled them off to one side in favour of the decent quality reviews is a good lesson for anyone tempted to buy five star reviews - don't waste your money, because they aren't convincing. It's the same with the spam comments you get on a blog. They try to make them sound like real people making real comments, but they sound fake.

I must emphasize, of course, that a short review is not necessarily fake. I was intending to review this book with the single word 'Yawn', but my natural inclination to write overcame the urge. However, get a collection of them on a book that is otherwise being slated and, not surprisingly, people will be suspicious. Click through here and scroll down to the bottom for the reviews to see the effect.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

More Fool Me review

Yawn. Don't bother. Self indulgent stuff. Which is a shame, because I liked Stephen Fry's second autobiography.

I really wonder if the Observer reviewer was reading the same book when (s)he said 'A beautifully erudite and richly entertaining page-turner,' unless they trimmed off 'this isn't.'

One of only four books I've ever given up part way through.

I'm not even giving you links to Amazon. It wouldn't be fair.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Quantum Age Comes of Age

I spent a nervous few minutes this morning in the BBC's Swindon NCA studio, connected down the ISDN line (remember ISDN) to London to appear on the UK's flagship current affairs radio programme, Today, being grilled by the inestimable John Humphrys. Thankfully he didn't want to ask me about David Cameron's performance so far, or the antics of Sepp Blatter and friends, but instead we talked about my book The Quantum Age, which is out in paperback today.

It has quickly become a favourite of my output, both because I love the weirdness of quantum physics - and I have fun exploring that - but also because few of us really think about the impact that quantum physics makes on our everyday life.

At a trivial level, pretty well everything is down to quantum physics, as matter, light and electricity (to name but three essentials) are all quantum based. But there is a more significant reason for calling this the Quantum Age, just as the nineteenth century was the Steam Age. Because are remarkable 35% (or thereabouts - no one seems to be able to trace the source of this figure) of GDP in developed countries would not exist without making explicit use of quantum physics.

So, for instance all electronics - computers, mobile phones, TV, radio, plus all the places electronics has reached into from washing machines to cars - required an understanding of quantum physics in the original design of the electronics. And some - flash memory, for instance, that enables your phone to remember stuff when the battery is dead - makes use of really weird quantum behaviour: in this case, quantum tunnelling, where a quantum particle jumps straight from being on one side of a barrier to the other without passing through the space in between.

What's more, electronics is just the beginning. Lasers and superconductors, for instance, both make use of particular quantum effects. Lasers are already well embedded in our lives. (I reckon I've at least 10 in my house.) At the moment superconductors, which lack any electrical resistance and so can support massive currents and magnetic fields, are mostly used in specialist applications like the LHC, MRI scanners and magnetic levitation trains - but the closer we get to room temperature superconductors, the more applications there are likely to be. And other quantum weirdos, like SQUIDs and quantum computers are waiting on the horizon.

The fact is that quantum physics has had a huge impact on our lives, and that impact is only like to grow. Something I hope that The Quantum Age really celebrates and explains.

Since this is, in part, a celebration of the BBC's quantum revolution, I'll just finish off with another chance to see my little adventure with the BBC's Robert Peston, attempting to explain why quantum physics is so remarkable:

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Why I don't use OpenOffice

Broadly speaking, most professional writers either use Word or a specialist program like the much-praised Scrivener, which is apparently excellent for fiction work. However, every now and then, someone asks me 'Why do you spend all that money on Office, when you can get OpenOffice for free - and you can just export a Word file when you need it?'

People have been saying this kind of thing to me ever since I ran the PC department at British Airways, and my answer has always been the same. If all you are doing is handling lightly formatted text, cheap and cheerful is fine, but as soon as you use the more sophisticated aspects of a word processing program, this kind of transfer becomes risky, and simply isn't worth it.

I've just had a good example of how things can go wrong using OpenOffice. I was sent a document to check as an ODT file - the file format from OpenOffice. It had a series of appended comments. The file doesn't open in Word or Pages, but I tried it in both Google Documents and Textedit and neither showed the comments. No problem - the person who produced it exported a Word document from OpenOffice for me. And, yes, it did have comments - but they had been bizarrely scrambled. The image above are some of the actual comments, rendered utterly unreadable - and none of them pointed to the right bit of body text. It was garbage, pure and simple.

In the end, I had to download a copy of OpenOffice and work on the original with that. As it happens this was fine, because it was this way round - OpenOffice happened to be the standard used by the company I was doing some work for. But almost all publishers, magazines etc. expect material in Word format. And if you are working in OpenOffice, you will have to export your document to Word. Potentially with the kind of result I just experienced.

By all means use OpenOffice for printed documents, or those for internal use. But if you intend to share anything more sophisticated that straightforward text with a publisher, say, in a professional capacity, then think twice about turning up your nose at Word.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The dark side of Footlights

We're used to the Cambridge dramatic society Footlights being a breeding ground for media humorists - the source of many of the UK's comedy greats over the years from Monty Python and the Goodies to the likes of David Mitchell and Richard Ayoade. But what's not quite so well known is the distinct lack of humour exhibited by some of its members back in the heady 1970s.

When I was at Cambridge, probably the most feted Footlights show was a frothy little number called Chox from 1974. The cast featured Clive Anderson (at the same college as me, though I don't think we ever spoke), Geoffrey McGivern, who played Ford Prefect in the radio version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Griff Rhys Jones. And amongst the writers was Douglas Adams himself.

Now I confess that I never saw Chox - to be honest, to most of us, the Footlights crew were considered a bit up themselves, though clearly some of them turned out okay. In fact it was much more trendy to go the Medical Society review, which was widely thought to be more edgy and genuinely funny. And this was never more so than it was that year. Because, in a stroke of genius, the Med Soc gang used a very similar poster to Footlights, but added a load of red spots, and named the show Pox.

Brilliant humour, yes? Only the funny guys at Footlights didn't see it that way and either sued, or at the very least threatened to sue. (It's a long time ago - details on that are a bit fuzzy.) Either way, it was hardly the right way to respond to an affectionate spot of snook cocking. The Med Soc show itself was mixed, but certainly had some decidedly funny bits. I've no idea if it produced any famous funny people - a lot do start off as medics - but I just think it's useful to put the glamorous associations of Footlights into context.

Monday, 1 June 2015


The other day I got a piece of junk mail that made a bit of a change from the dubious deals and diet supplements: 'THE FIRST FREE ENERGY GENERATOR' it proclaimed, and just to rub it in, 'Humiliates top scientists.'

Well, there's nothing I like better than humiliating top scientists* and what's more, apparently this energy generator 'violates all the laws of physics', which is even more fun. So what would this involve? If you look up 'free energy generator' on Google you'll find lots of examples claiming to be just this - but overall it is a worrying concept.

The obvious problem is conservation of energy, one of the most fundamental aspects of physics. You have to be a little careful with conservation of energy - it does require a closed system, and we patently don't live in a closed system, so it's easy enough to get 'free' energy in the sense that the Sun is pumping vast quantities of it in our direction and doesn't expect to be paid for it. Similarly, a 'free energy generator' could just be a way to steal energy from someone else. It's perfectly possible to light a fluorescent strip light by earthing it near a high voltage power cable - but you aren't producing energy from nowhere, you are just acquiring (to put it euphemistically) a small amount from the power company. Which they probably aren't too enthusiastic about.

However, this kind of 'free energy' device is usually supposed to get energy from nowhere, so we are indeed talking breaking conservation of energy - and you might as well throw in perpetual motion, because the one implies the other. And that's a bit worrying because things have to come from somewhere... so where is the energy coming from? (You could also get a bit excited about the great German mathematician Emmy Noether's proof that conservation of energy was equivalent to symmetry in time, but that's probably too subtle to be useful here.) Energy conservation isn't always obvious, because energy can change forms and so become apparent where it wasn't obvious before - but in the end, this has to be one of the best established and easiest to support natural laws.

More dramatic still is the claim that this device violates ALL the laws of physics. I can't even begin to imagine what something that did that would be like. Of course, the concept of 'physical laws' is a little fuzzy. It really dates back to a time when it was assumed that God was in charge and these were the laws he laid down. A law requires the same thing to always happen in the same circumstances - in practice this can never be proven, but is a good assumption. However if all physical laws are broken, it would seem likely that the universe as we know it would fall apart, which doesn't sound too healthy. I'm not sure free energy is worth that consequence.

In the end, I refer the con men to that classic science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein who regularly pointed out TANSTAAFL. Not a shouty Scandinavian delicacy but: 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch'.

* Actually there are plenty of things I like better than humiliating top scientists, this was just rhetoric.