Friday, 30 December 2016

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste review

Malcolm Pryce is rightly known for his wonderful novels setting a Sam Spade-like, world-weary detective in the hell-hole of crime that is Aberystwyth, with druids as gangsters and good time girls in Welsh national costume. In these books, Pryce creates a fantasy world that is totally bonkers, and yet works remarkably well. His new creation, the railway detective Jack Wenlock, might seem at first glance to be more of the same - and the book does have some of the same kind of absurdity with, for example, a group of nuns who go mysteriously go missing from a train and rampage across Africa - but 'Hail Mary' Celeste is several degrees closer to reality than the Aberystwyth books, and both benefits and loses from this.

The plus side is Pryce's affection for the Great Western Railway. His lead character might be odd in the extreme, but it's hard not share some of Wenlock's love for the old-fashioned ideals of the railway (admittedly without being given a mother fixation on a locomotive). Pryce captures the emotional intensity that the railways have held for some, even giving a bit part to a young Doctor Beeching, already a hater of the railways, and culminating with an appendix to the book that lists over 2,000 stations that Beeching recommended closing in his report - this has the same kind of nostalgic heart-pull as that Flanders and Swann song that lists some of the evocative station names that were closed.

There's also more character development here than in the Aberystwyth books, where most of the players are set in aspic. This is a story of lost innocence - Wenlock begins by believing that the state and the powers that be are caring benefactors, but comes to realise that they ruthlessly take an 'end justifies the means' approach. At the same time he goes from being a child emotionally to understanding love for the first time. I also truly delighted in some of the details in the interspersed excerpts from the '1931 Gosling Annual', particular the 'Answers to readers' letters', where we never see what was written, but from the answers it seems the readers mostly wanted to create mayhem and murder.

In some ways, then, this is a book with a closer attachment to reality than Pryce's earlier novels (the Goslings might not have existed, but a lot of the GWR detail is real) and with stronger character work. And I did very much enjoy it - but for me it lacked the edge of the Aberystwyth books which create a parallel universe that is whole and works on its own merits. In this book the grotesque is half and half with reality, and somehow that made it a little less satisfying. Nonetheless, Pryce has demonstrated once again his mastery of seeing the world differently - and if there are more Jack Wenlock books to come, I look forward to reading them.

The Case of the 'Hail Mary' Celeste is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Here's the Flanders and Swann song I was thinking of:




Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Bete - Adam Roberts ****

For a long time, my taste in science fiction writers was limited to the favourites from my youth. The likes of Asimov, Blish, Brunner, Clarke, Heinlein, Kornbluth and Pohl. About as trendy as I got was Zelazny. But lately I've discovered two who have re-invigorated my love of SF - Iain M. Banks and Adam Roberts, both combining style and entertainment with superb ideas that really make you think.

The opening of Roberts' novel Bête had me spellbound. The cow that a farmer is about to kill is pleading for its life - and the scene is handled brilliantly. So too are conversations exploring the borderline between AI and consciousness. If an animal is made apparently intelligent by an implanted chip, is it the chip that is intelligent or the animal... or neither?

Some of the rest of the book worked well for me as well. The surreal conversations, packed with popular culture quotes (some of which I got) were fascinating. However, I'm not a great fan of disaster novels - I loved Wyndham as a teenager, but rather grew out of the callousness of the whole concept; the action that takes place throughout Bête is a disaster novel scenario, even if, this being Roberts, it is given all sorts of unexpected twists. So it's my fault, rather than the book's that I was fascinated by that opening scenario and the main character (especially as a friend is an ex-organic dairy farmer), but for me, it would have made a brilliant short story or novella, rather than requiring the rest of the book.

So Bête is not one of my favourite Roberts novels, even though the bits that really got to me comprised some of the best SF writing I've ever seen. Let's be clear, every Roberts novel is worth far more than most post 60s SF - and I strongly encourage anyone who likes science fiction, or the philosophy of AI to read this book. It simply wasn't in my top five.

Bête is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

The Shockwave Rider review *****

I've recently re-read one of my favourite SF novels from the 1970s, John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, and it has more than lived up to expectations.

Okay, like any book using future technology it gets some things wrong. Its early 21st century tech is mostly too advanced (but then they still use tapes to store information). However, this book absolutely sizzles with ideas, some taken from Alvin Toffler's far effective readable futurology book, Future Shock.

Just one example - the protagonist is in the business of creating digital worms to make changes to the net. At the time (1975), not only was ARPANet, the internet's predecessor very limited, the first actual network worm wouldn't be launched for another 13 years (Brunner originated the term in this novel).

Brunner also creates a stunning dystopian society, where the US government/major corporations (hand in hand) manipulate what could in principle be an exercise in effective distributed democracy - the public Delphi boards used to suggest solutions to problems and predict outcomes - to keep the population in check.

There's far more to it than this, and though the ending wraps things up a little too neatly (I'm afraid the bad guys would almost certainly have won), this remains a brilliant net-based SF novel.

Even better it comes here with two other Brunner novels as a bonus. The Traveller in Black is a short fantasy novel - a little vague for my liking, but still rather nicely explains the disappearance of magic from the world. The Sheep Looks Up generally gets better reviews than Shockwave Rider, and it certainly tries to do something more grandiose, but for me it's not as good a story. Even so, it's another example of Brunner doing something original and showing that science fiction should not be confined to a ghetto.

Brunner is now a largely forgotten author, but he really shouldn't be.

The Shockwave Rider is available in the collection John Brunner SF Gateway Omnibus from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bad food nostalgia

There are times when I have a little twinge of nostalgia for the times when food in the UK was mostly terrible. These days we relish a huge range of cuisines (though interestingly, by far the majority are non-EU - from Europe only Italian and to some extent Spanish have a significant hold nationwide). But I'm talking about the time when cooking a Vesta curry was the height of exoticism.

This was all brought back to me by an advert I've just seen for a range of frozen roast dinners. They have one unifying theme. It's not the high quality meat. It's not the beautifully cooked vegetables. It's the fact that they're all smothered in the uniform, brown-flavoured gravy of my youth, Bisto.

Ah, Bisto! Wondrous memories...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Can someone explain the logic of jaywalking as an offence?

Image by Transguyjay from Flickr
There's a lot I like about America. But something I really can't get my head around is the US assumption that human beings are unable to cross a road without help, and treating it as an offence if they attempt to do so.

As a European I struggle to understand the US attitude to gun control. To allow so many thousands to be slaughtered each year simply to uphold a small part of the constitution which is both out of date and arguably misinterpreted - a constitution that has already been amended many times - just doesn't seem right to us. However, despite this, I can admire part of the thinking behind the right to bear arms - that we shouldn't allow an overbearing government to take control of individual's decision-making more than we can help.

So, bearing in mind that Americans are prepared to allow thousands of their friends and relations to be killed each year to uphold the individual's ability to stand up to the state... why do they meekly allow the government to tell them that they are unable to look left and right, make sure there's no traffic coming and then cross a road wherever they like? Why do they accept the imposition of fines and humiliation, simply for failing to give in to the dominance of a light that says 'Walk' or 'Don't Walk' - or by crossing somewhere that isn't a designated crossing?

I ought to stress that I have never had this problem myself. I am not lashing out because I got caught. It simply occurred to me this morning, as I crossed a dual carriageway with the pedestrian crossing lights on red, because there wasn't a car in sight in either direction that it's not exactly rocket science.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Einstein and Father Christmas

It's that time of year when scientists get dragged into silly press releases, usually by a PR company wanting to push a product, though this one seems to be a bit different. I first heard about this from Chris Evans (n.b. I do not listen to him by choice), who announced that Einstein had finally solved the problem of how Father Christmas/Santa Claus gets round all the world's children and down chimneys. My immediate muttering was that this was pretty impressive, given Einstein's been dead over 60 years and I was going to leave it at that. But then read one of the articles based on the press release (I assume).

It tells us that according to Dr Katy Sheen, a physicist in the geography department of Exeter University, it would all work if Father Christmas travelled at 6 million miles per hour. This would get him around the world in time, and, as a bonus, (enter Einstein) 'drawing on Einstein's special theory of relativity' Dr Sheen worked out that he would shrink in the direction of travel, and 'at Santa's speed the shrinkage in so extreme he will appear invisible.'

Leaving aside whether or not 'appear invisible' is oxymoronic, there are two issues here. First let's assume Dr Sheen is right, and the relativistic contraction is significant. This would also mean that time dilation would be significant. So by the time he got round everyone, there might be issues with him having moved well into the Earth's future.

However, in practice that isn't a problem, because the shrinkage argument falls apart. If it's literally true, it doesn't help because, as the newspaper article pointed out (but Chris Evans didn't) the shrinkage is only in the direction of travel - he'd be as wide as ever sideways. But just how big would the effect be at 6 million miles an hour? It certainly sounds very fast. It's around 9.66 million kilometres per hour, which is 2.69 million metres per second. Fast or what? But the speed of light is around 299.8 million metres per second. So Father Christmas is only travelling at 0.008c.

The formula for the contraction is not complex. It's the original length x square root (1-v2/c2).

So that makes Santa's new front-to-back size 99.99% of what it was before. Not very helpful. Given the relative closeness of 269 to 299, I do wonder if the intention was for him to be 100 times faster - but every newspaper story I can find uses the low number (I couldn't find the original press release).

Am I breaking a butterfly on the wheel? Probably. But there would have been nothing wrong with giving a more realistic velocity. I've got mixed feelings at the best of times about these wacky science stories - it's all too easy to make it sound as if public funded scientists are wasting their time on trivia. But if you're going to do it, at least do it in a way that makes sense.

Update - Katy Sheen has kindly pointed out that the i misquoted her - the disappearance was due to Doppler shift, not Lorentz contraction - though the speed was quoted correctly, and so the contract effect would certainly not help with chimneys.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Was I too harsh?

I'm always delighted to see statistics being mangled, as it's good fun untangling them. Sometimes, though, they're such a mess that it's hard to do anything other than mock.

This was the case with a story reported by the online magazine ShortList. it claimed that '120,000 leave voters have died since Brexit.' That seemed an impressive claim, so I took a look at the analysis, apparently sourced from the Twitter feed of someone called Steve Lawrence, who is an architect:

One statistical no-no jumps out here without even seeing where the data came from. We're being given figures in the 16-18 million range, based on some interesting manipulation which includes several estimates. Yet the values are given accurate to 1 - note how the big totals end in 9 and 5. You can either present a spuriously accurate number like these and provide an error range, or, less likely to mislead, you can round to your error level and still give an error range. What you can't do is give these as actual numbers, as done here.

I complained, saying amongst other things 'No one knows how many leave voters have died - and there is no sensible statistical method to discover that number.' A commenter, Robert Fuller, was quick to take me on:
There's a perfectly sensible statistical method: Let me have a go right now:
1. Source the number of people over 65
2. Source the death rate of over 65s
3. Multiply the death rate by the population and the time
4. Now split that figure based on the exit polls.
repeat for each age group.
Done.
Hmm. I'm afraid I was quite firm in response - and here's where I'm asking whether I was too harsh:
Woah, slow down their, tiger. So we’re taking polls we know were wrong and somehow combining them with other figures to produce numbers given to an accuracy of 1 in 16 million? Could you explain the statistical technique used? Feel free to be technical, I’ve got a Masters in the area. Which technique do you use to merge a poll which doesn’t have ages attached with age-based data sets? 
To be fair, I only addressed a couple of the issues with his description, but it seemed enough.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Are we all everyday climate change deniers?

In a recent article in the Guardian, Alice Bell asserts that 'we're all everyday climate change deniers.'

To be honest, I get a bit irritated when a journalist asserts we're all anything. Firstly it implies a ludicrously over-simplified homogeneity in society. And secondly how can she possibly know what I am? We've never met. But knowing the ways of newspapers, I am going to give Bell the benefit of the doubt that she may never even have seen that headline - because the message of the article is nowhere near as meaningless.

Bell suggests that by giving in to despair and not talking about climate change, we are de facto deniers. Clearly at the most basic level even this is silly - she is talking about climate change. I am talking about climate change. So how can we all be doing this? And it's also comparable with the tendency to label anyone with political leanings slightly to the right of your own a fascist to give the label 'denier' to everyone who doesn't spend every waking moment talking about climate change. Life does need to go on - or there wouldn't be an issue to talk about. There is more to life than climate change. (Whisper it, there's even more to life than science.) But there is no doubt that in our obsession with the political changes shaking the Western world we have tended to put climate change to one side, so we can concentrate on, say, having fun pointing out the failings of Donald Trump, complaining about Brexit or moaning about Remainers.

So while I think the 'deniers' label is unnecessary and wrong, there is no doubt we need to keep climate change in the forefront. As I've commented several times, human nature is such that we won't take sufficient action until things get significantly worse. And those who deny that this action will require technology to take carbon out of the atmosphere and/or reduce solar intensity arriving at the Earth's surface are just as much climate change deniers as those who pretend it isn't happening. But we should be talking about it, we should be cutting down emissions, we should be flying less and driving less - and we should be investing in the technologies that will enable us to get out of this. That's renewables, nuclear and carbon removal/solar reduction technologies.

We might not all be climate change deniers, but we do need to do more to keep pushing it up the agenda.

This has been a green heretic production

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Hands off the beard

A beard can clearly be seen
My suspicion is that it's one of those times of year when newspapers print silly stories (actually, given this year's news, that's been all of 2016). And this mean that the PR industry goes into overdrive producing press releases to feed the appetite for the quirky.

Yesterday I received a missive from BV Media, telling us that a company called London Offices surveyed 1,000 UK office workers and discovered that Beards at work are now a major turn-off say 61% of female office workers.

We don't have access to the actual survey details, so it may well be low quality in sampling etc. However, I feel I have to stick up for beardies. We've had enough prejudice in the past. Infamously, when Gordon Gould was developing his laser, he was refused security clearance - and one of the reasons for the refusal was that two of his referees had beards, so were clearly subversive.

In fact, when you read the detail, even the press release has to reveal that its headline is totally inaccurate. The 61% figure was for women who said that an 'unkempt beard' was a 'big irritant'. (By comparison only 10% of men did.) That's a very different proposition to beards in general. And though, for instance, 25% of women felt their company had lost business due to employees' beards (versus just 1% of men), again this was 'due to a bearded colleague's appearance.'

It seems that the objection is primarily due to ill-kempt or over-long hipster beards, not beards per se. There are always going to be a few people who don't like beards at all, just as some don't like very short/long hair, or tattoos or even the most basic piercings. But it seems that, on the whole, as long as we keep our beards neat, we are not going to bring Britain's businesses crashing to their knees. Phew.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The joy of physics in Exeter

This is primarily to give a thank-you to those involved in organising the Festival of Physics in Exeter on Saturday. But also to reflect on what such an event does so well.

In a recent editorial for the newsletter of the Popular Science book review site, I said:
I suspect you'll agree with me that science isn't boring - yet we've all got plenty of friends who turn off the moment that science is mentioned. I'd suggest that two of the reasons for this is that we teach science back to front, and we forget the importance of narrative.
When I talk at schools to children under 13 or so, they pretty well all love science. But something horrible happens after a couple of years at secondary school. It becomes a drag. I think this is because we teach secondary science with entirely the wrong result in mind. We teach it as if we are preparing them to be scientists. This means starting by building up the basics, step by step, in a systematic fashion. I'm almost asleep already. Of course this is essential for those who will study science at a higher level - and can be caught up in a couple of weeks by anyone who does. But it misses such a huge opportunity.
If, instead, we taught the interesting bits and the applications - real, modern science, not Victorian basics, far more of the students would stay interested. Of course they couldn't, for instance, do the maths required to handle the field equations of relativity - but there is no reason why we can't teach the concepts of the general theory and really grab their attention with everything from GPS to time machines.
That second aspect of narrative also ties into what the science education is for. If, like popular science, our science lessons gave context, talked about the people involved in the science and the history as well as the applications, there is far more opportunity for storytelling. And that's how people are wired to learn. Suddenly, the science becomes much more accessible.
I'm not saying it's a universal panacea. But if we taught science to give people the kind of interest and grasp that popular science readers have, rather than as trainee scientists, I think we could dismiss that 'boring' myth forever.
I had a reader query whether this was really true - had I checked out a modern science curriculum? Surely it wasn't like this anymore? So I took a look at the AQA GCSE physics curriculum and, unfortunately there is still a fair amount of truth in my assertion. The requirements were very much about getting the basics of Victorian physics. Neither 'relativity' nor 'quantum' appeared anywhere in the document.

That means there's so much to be gained when a body like the Institute of Physics puts on event like Saturday's with lots of interesting material and fun topics for all ages. The audience was a brilliant mix from children through to pensioners - and I hope you will watch out for similar opportunities coming your way (there's apparently one in Bristol next March).

I don't know if we can change the nature of school science, because it's not about tweaking the curriculum, it's about a fundamental change in what school science education is for. And that could only come from government. But I do know that events like the Festival of Physics go a good way to countering any negatives that might emerge from the curriculum - so let's have even more!

Monday, 28 November 2016

Till the Fat Lady's Sung review

There's a strong traditional strand of British humorous writing where a male protagonist gets themselves into various scrapes as they attempt to take on the difficulties of social life - especially so when they don't quite fit. The outstanding examples of writers in this genre were Leslie Thomas, now well out of fashion, and Tom Sharpe, whose more extreme and grotesque versions of this type of situation comedy have perhaps survived better.

Terry White has contributed several twenty-first century titles in the same vein. An early contribution, Till the Fat Lady's Sung (shouldn't that be 'Til?), finds his hero, Marcus Moon, struggling to balance his laddish existence with his banker-like and ludicrously heavy drinking mates, his job as a civil engineer and his life with a doctor, who he clearly loves, but for whom he struggles to have totally dedicated feelings.

Moon and his girlfriend Charlie are a bit too successful and normal for a typical Thomas/Sharpe main character, but the various characters that Moon meets with the potential to scupper his plans and his love life are very much from the comic grotesques tradition. Most significant is a power-mad extreme left-winger who sets out to take over a building preservation charity to add weight to a political campaign - in fact, we see part of the action from her viewpoint, which can be a little confusing when the switch is made back to the first person narrator Moon. Left-wing machinations are balanced by chinless inbred right-wingers and a totally bonkers sailor, who plays an unexpected part in the story. Another archetype of the genre is a dominant vicar's wife, who Moon first accidentally knocks off her bike and then appears to have dubious intentions when he is caught fiddling with his flies near her dogs.

Despite appearing to be self-published (more on that in a moment), the book was well proof-read, and White is an assured writer who knows how to use words. Even so, the lack of a formal editor was present, not in the technical writing, but in the way that the author was allowed to get away with being far too generous with those words. Moon's inner monologues sometimes go on for an age and every situation is too wordy. Part of the essence of this style is getting things to move on snappily, and that can't happen with so much thinking going on.

I would also say that the approach sometimes felt old-fashioned, both in the ingrained sexism of the male characters and some of the language used by Moon, which felt more like P. G. Wodehouse than a modern version of Sharpe. Despite that, though, I can't deny that I enjoyed the book, rattled through it quickly and am happy that I have a second (and somewhat slimmer) volume to move onto.

A quick comment on the publishing approach. This comes through in three points - the cover images are dreadful, the print is poor (every third spread is fine, but the rest are far too faint) and no one has told the author that the UK standard is single quotes, not double ones. However, these are all minor issues and don't get in the way of the reading. I got through the book mostly on the train and it's ideal fodder for that kind of a read. This isn't life-changing literature, but provided you can cope with that sexism, it is entertaining.

Till the Fat Lady's Sung is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.


UPDATE - A short review of the sequel, The Horns of the Moon:

 This is the second 'Marcus Moon' novel I've read after Till (sic) the Fat Lady Sings. Once again, the protagonist Marcus Moon, a civil engineer, is up against various challenges to get through a project - in this case dealing with a huge engineering deal in Oman at the same time as coping with an evil businessman's attempt to ruin Moon's firm - and a hopeless employee with a pushy mother.

The big thing that Fat Lady Sings had going for it was that it had a bit of a feel of a Tom Sharpe style farce. Here everything is toned down a bit, and the civil engineering is more to the fore. Oddly, I found the engineering bit in the previous book really interesting, but here it was a bit too dominant. While the business battle with the bad guy was engaging, I also found the hopeless employee part a little odd. Something that was notable in the earlier book was a tendency to P G Wodehouse style language, out of place in a book set in the present. Here, the P G Wodehouse remarks have almost disappeared, but the hopeless employee's mother - a relation of Moon's business partner, is a pure Wodehouse pushy aunt, which just seems out of place in the amount of deference she was given. The acerbic Moon would simply have told her where to go.

Not a bad book by any means, but not one of the stronger entries in the series.

The Horns of the Moon is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Why do we let culture and religion overrule equality?

I am somewhat to the right politically of many of my online friends - this isn't entirely surprising as many of them are academics, where I have a business background. But that doesn't make me a conservative with a small C. In fact those fairly close to the centre of politics on either wing are probably least likely to suffer less from conservatism on the matter of equality versus culture and religion than those who sit firmly on one side or another. Right wing conservatives want to preserve their own culture, while left wing conservatives want to preserve everyone else's culture but their own, probably due to an existential guilt over the imperialist past.

However, I truly can't understand how we justify the way that we unthinkingly put religious and cultural demands above equality. Who decides which should have the upper hand? You can see why, in the past, when a particular religion had a huge hold on a country this might the case, but should that still apply in the 21st century?

So, for instance, do Catholics and Muslims really deserve the right not to allow female priests or imams? Is it acceptable that Church of England vicars won't perform same sex marriages?  Note that to question this is not in any sense a matter of suppressing religion. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be religious or should be prevented from practicing a religious faith - just that it's not clear why following a religion gives you the right to overrule aspects of equality that are broadly accepted by society. We already limit many of the practices of religion (stoning adulterers, for example), so it's not clear why this particular aspect gets ignored - unless it's that the establishment is conservative with a small C.

This move to equality extends beyond religion to wider cultural applications too. Why should Masons, for example, be allowed to prevent women from joining their lodges? (Not that I can imagine many would want to join.) The only reason I can see that we allow culture and religion to have an override on equality is unconscious conservatism. And perhaps one good thing that could emerge from an era of political upheavals is that we can re-examine assumptions like this.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Review - Who Killed Sherlock Holmes?

After reading two entries in Paul Cornell's 'Shadow Police' series, I couldn't resist moving on to the third within days of finishing the previous title. Who Killed Sherlock Holmes sustains the approach of its predecessors, mixing the fantastic, driven by the strange capability of London to capture and magnify human remembering (and sacrifice), with straightforward police procedural.

By the end of the book the mix works very well, with a lot that has been left hanging from the previous two novels resolved - but along the way it was decidedly hard work. This is because most of the main characters are, for various reasons, miserable and suffering throughout the book. Although this certainly gives the characters challenges to face, it can result in rather dour reading material.

As Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved so well, by far the best way to deal with the apparently impossible challenge of integrating the fantastical and the everyday is through humour. And humour was behind a lot of the resilience of the characters and interest in the plot in the first book. But here, things are so bleak for so long that is hard to really enjoy the book until you make it to the last few chapters.

Even so, the resolution is well handled - and there is clearly a lot more to mine here, if Cornell chooses to do so. He has moved an interesting character from the sidelines into the spotlight, which bodes well for future books. As long as Cornell can keep the mood a little more variable in future titles, rather than keeping things so uniformly bleak, we can look back on Who Killed Sherlock Holmes as a necessary low point to work through and get on with enjoying the rest of what is still one of the best urban fantasy series of the moment.

Who Killed Sherlock Holmes is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Did an old advert ruin a classic song?

When I was young, an unlikely product was regularly advertised on TV which some accused of ruining a great song. It was what we'd now primarily call kerosene - aviation fuel - but then was the more humble paraffin. But it wasn't because we all had private jets back then. If you were allowed to watch commercial TV (more conservative households considered ITV to be the work of the devil and stuck to the BBC) it would only take someone to sing four rising tones in a major key to the jaunty words 'Bum bum bum bum' (no, really) to come up with the response 'Esso Blue!'

This wasn't, of course, the song in question, but more of that in a moment. Esso Blue was the leading brand of paraffin in the UK and it was bought in large quantities, because back then most of us didn't have central heating. (We got it when I was 11.) In the winter, a room or two were heated by open fires, you might have had an electric wall heater in the bathroom - but if you wanted heat elsewhere, you'd probably haul in the paraffin heater. These things sound deadly - presumably they put out all sorts of noxious substances - but we survived somehow.

However, Esso didn't limit themselves to the poetic drama of 'Bum bum bum bum' - they had another advertising trick up their sleeve which would provide an earworm to this day. They took the old classic 'Smoke gets in your eyes,' and subtly transformed the words for advertising purposes. For this reason, long before I knew it was an existing song, I could sing 'They asked me how I knew/It was Esso Blue./I of course replied/"With lower grades one buys*,/Smoke gets in your eyes."'

However, despite this, I have to answer 'No' to the question in this post's title. The advertisement didn't ruin a classic song - it merely brings back powerful memories many years later.

* They don't make adverts like they used to. When did you last here a non-ironic 'one' in an advert?

Monday, 14 November 2016

Could Trump's election be the impetus we need to do something about climate change?

Don't get me wrong - I'm no Trump supporter. But his anti-climate change stance could provide the pressure that's needed to get a meaningful plan put in place to tackle this pressing world problem.

A while ago, a website labelled me a green heretic, by which they meant that I thought it essential we use science, technology and economics to tackle green issues, rather than relying on fluffy bunny, feel-good gestures. I was delighted. We need more green heresy - and I think Trump could be the stimulus to make this happen.

Climate change is real and a huge threat to the future population of the world - I'm sorry, deniers, but the science is solid, it's only the models dealing with how fast it will hurt us that are subject to question. It will be a disaster unless we do something about it. (I ought to say, though, that you needn't worry about saving the planet. The Earth itself will shrug whatever we do off in a few million years. It really doesn't care. This is about saving humanity.)

I'm afraid for all their meetings involving vast numbers flying around the world, the scientists and politicians trying to sort this out have not got the right balance. And worse, they don't understand people. We humans are capable of being aware that something is bad for us and still carrying on doing it. (Big Mac with a double espresso martini, anyone?) It's not enough to make scary predictions and agree to limit something you only have limited control over. We need to be investing more right now in two things. In energy sources that don't produce greenhouse gasses - both classic 'renewables' and nuclear - and in technology to actively reduce the temperature or take greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. At the moment, both of these essentials are underfunded.

It's a matter of pragmatism. Even without the Trump effect (I am not referring to farting cows), we will overshoot what we need to do. And now it could be even worse. So stop assuming it's enough to be scary and appeal to doing the right thing and start taking practical steps to mitigate it. That means more money for research. Not just from governments either. It's great that, for instance, Bill and Melinda Gates are putting so much into Malaria research. But this is an even bigger problem long term - and we should see some more billionaires shedding their billions for their children' sake.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that we can leave everything to other people and get on with our lives as usual. We should continue (or start) doing our collective bits - and I try to as much as the next person. I recycle, I've cut my domestic energy use to about 1/3 of what it was, I use public transport when I can and I've only flown once in the last 20 years (care to match me, academics?) We need this as well - but on its own it isn't enough.

So, while I don't deny that the election of President-elect Trump is liable to make things get worse faster, it may just be the wake-up call we need.

Friday, 11 November 2016

If I only had...

In amongst the spam and oddities that appear in email there is occasionally an official one that causes some confusion - and I got such a mail today. It was from the DVLA, and as far as I can tell it was genuine. And it was advertising an auction of personalised car registrations.

Impressively, it was a personalised email too, as it was suggesting my company might be interested in a specific numberplate. But the initials on the numberplate were ABR an my company initials are CUL - which seemed a pretty hefty miss. Then I realised that the targeting of the email was cleverer than I had thought. After all, the 'C' in the company's initials stands for 'creativity. I was supposed to read the whole numberplate, not just the first three letters. I don't was a personalised numberplates - I think they're tacky. But if I did, I would have got excited if I only had...





Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Review - The Severed Streets

I was so impressed with Paul Cornell's London Falling, that I've had to buy and read the sequel, The Severed Streets within days - and it doesn't disappoint.

In the first book, a motley crew of three police officers and an analyst discover the dark magic lying beneath London. This second 'Shadow Police' title (I'm not sure about that series name) takes them deeper into the weirdness that lies out of sight to most, as a series of rich men are slaughtered horribly with a razor. All this takes place alongside ant-capitalism riots and a police strike, leaving London a place that's best avoided.

In reviewing London Falling, I said:
imagine a combination of a modern version of The Devil Rides Out, a dark police procedural and a sprinkling of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and you might come close
Here were discover why that last comparison was particularly apt (I had no idea, honestly) - because Neil Gaiman is a character in this book and the suggestion is that the book version of Neverwhere was inspired by his experiences.

I ought to stress that this book is nothing like Neverwhere - it's much more gritty, without the comedy (though Cornell can't resist a Sweeney joke at one point), and tries to establish what a set of unconventional coppers would do faced with the discovery of an occult world.

There's some good character progression here from the first book. Three of the four main characters have experiences that enable us to see far more of their characters, while a fifth, mysterious character on their side is given a little more exposure. The situation the officers find themselves in is dire - it's difficult to see how they are going to survive this one and it is as much of a page turner as its predecessor.

I liked The Severed Streets very much, though I don't think it's quite as good as the original. This is because some of the subplots don't work quite as well, because the introduction of a real person like Gaiman feels wrong, and because the police inspector's experience in the second half sits uncomfortably with the style of the rest, shocking though it is. Nevertheless, this book cements Cornell as the UK's new master of this kind of urban fantasy... and I've already ordered volume 3.

The Severed Streets is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.



Monday, 7 November 2016

There's lies, damned lies and political pie charts

There's been a graphic doing the rounds which, according to the Independent 'Remain supporters are using to invalidate the decision to leave the EU.' It looks like this:

The yellow segment is the those who voted to leave. Look how small it is compared to the whole set of public who could, in principle have voted. (Blue is remain and the two grey bits are people who didn't register, and registered but didn't vote.) This is being taken as disproving the idea that Brexit is 'the will of the people' as worked up Brexiteers tend to blather, because it appears to be a minority decision.

Unfortunately, those who use this chart simply don't understand the statistics that arise from a voting system like ours. You could never definitely say what the will of the people is for sure unless you force everyone to vote. Look at this chart below. Here the grey section is the equivalent of the yellow section above - it's the people who voted for the actual outcome. A far smaller slice.


Terrible, isn't it? Clearly not democratic. Yet the grey section is the percentage of people voting for the government in the 2015 election.

The fact is that unless you do make it a legal requirement to vote, you have to assume that those who don't vote don't mind the outcome and can't be counted. It's the only possible sensible thing to do - and because of that, the way these pie charts are being used is manipulative and wrong. I don't mind you arguing for or against Brexit. Each has powerful arguments. But I do mind if you are going to misuse statistics.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Get your shades on for my new book

 I'm really pleased I've been able to follow up my science quiz book How Many Moons does the Earth Have? with a second volume - What Colour is the Sun? It was just as much fun to write - and I hope equally enjoyable to read. What's more it's a great stocking filler - on Amazon at the moment it's just £5.49.

Although it's not how most will use it, there are two pub quiz style science quizzes in there, each with six standard rounds and two bonus rounds, which combine pictorial and puzzle solving work. However, it's written to make reading through it fun. Each of the 96 main questions has the question plus some supporting factoids on one page and the answer, plus a page of further reading on the next. So you can test yourself on each question - then find out more.

These aren't the kind of question you'd get in a science exam (thankfully) - they're more the quirky kind of questions you get on QI, with the bonus that science is right more often. So you'll find out, for instance:

  • Why do hands and feet go wrinkly in the bath?
  • What is a chiliagon?
  • What is measured in slugs?
  • Which scientific term is the most commonly used noun in written English?
  • What would win in a fight between T. rex and Godzilla?
  • Who can breath metals and still survive?
  • … and many more, including, yes, What colour is the Sun? (which QI gets wrong).





In case you are of the US persuasion, you'll be pleased to know that you don't have to suffer that weirdly spelled cover - you've got the more familiar spelling.






To give a feel for how the book works, here's one of the 'question' pages with its factoids:


... and here's the start of the answer page (there's more):



To find out more or buy in either paperback or ebook form, just pop over to the book's web page.

Warning. Shades may be needed to cope with this cover.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Moonshine statistics

The moon (in case you aren't sure what we're talking
about). Image from Wikipedia
A seriously dodgy statistic from that renowned historian of science Cherie Blair, just had me jumping up and down in the coffee shop. She proclaimed in an article in the i newspaper:
'It took less than 40 years to put a man on the moon.'
'Really? did it really? And how the heck did you work that out?' I nearly shouted.

Leaving aside whether or not it should have been 'fewer than 40 years', let's try to pin it down. The first manned moon landing was 1969, so assuming 'less than 40' is 30-39 years that puts us approximately between 1930 and 1939. I'm struggling to find anything that fits that date. Tsiolkovsky's Investigation of Outer Space Rocket Devices was published in 1903, Goddard was flying rockets by 1915 and published his paper A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes, where he suggested a rocket would reach the moon 5 years later. And, of course, rockets themselves had been around far longer.

Putting aside the age of Homo sapiens as the best 'it took n years...' date (after all, you can't put a man on the moon without a human), I'd say there are only really two sensible time periods. It's either 8 years - the time between Kennedy's 'this will be done in the decade of the sixties' speech and the landing, or it's around 280 years from Newton's Principia being published, as that provided all the science required and the rest was just a matter of engineering.

I don't offer these periods seriously, but rather to illustrate what a daft idea it is to say 'it took less than 40 years...' History rarely works like this - history of science and technology even less so. As statistics go, it's moonshine.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

London Falling - review

I've never been a great fan of what most people think of as fantasy, typified by Game of Thrones. I can cope with a few classics like Lord of the Rings, and some variants like the Amber series, but for me, the kind of fantasy that is really exciting is set in the real world where something then goes adrift, introducing fantastical elements. And that's exactly what happens in London Falling by Paul Cornell.

The first 30 pages or so could be a straightforward, gritty police procedural featuring undercover cops. But suddenly and dramatically the main characters' universe is pushed askew. It's hard to describe exactly what results, but if  you imagine a combination of a modern version of The Devil Rides Out, a dark police procedural and a sprinkling of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and you might come close.

Four individuals - a detective inspector, two recently undercover officers and an intelligence analyst - are pulled into a world where a kind of magic dependent on the sheer depth of London history makes the impossible happen. This is genius on Cornell's part. Pretty much always in this kind of urban fantasy it's a group of unqualified misfits (think the Scoobies in Buffy) who have to sort out the occult threat. The authorities get left out of it, because they just wouldn't understand. But Cornell makes those misfits work for the police, and so they are trying to use traditional policing methods alongside a gradual growth in understanding of the arcane requirements needed to deal with an ancient character who is obsessed with West Ham Football Club.

If that sounds a fairly light concept, it's a contrast to the darkness of the theme, where their main foe's power is derived from boiling young children alive. And that's just the beginning of the horror.

Just occasionally I found the inner monologues of the main characters hard to follow, especially when they were beginning to get a slight feel for what they were facing, but were still mostly confused. But that really didn't matter as the book has enough page-turning momentum to keep the reader moving on.

All in all, the best fantasy book I've read all year, and I'm delighted to discover there are two more books featuring the same police group to get my teeth into. Recommended.

London Falling is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Friday, 14 October 2016

A new low in tabloid science reporting

Every now and then I have to sit down and breathe deeply when seeing a tabloid science headline that is about as far as the truth as is possible. Usually such headlines use a kind of bait and switch mechanism where the headline proclaims something dramatic, but the article makes much weaker claims, or points out that most scientists think this is a load of tosh. (Even New Scientist rather likes doing this.) But the Daily Express has come up with an outright winner where the article backs up the headline with a story that bears little resemblance to science as we know it.

Let's see if we can spot what's a little iffy with this 'Scientists discover what existed BEFORE the beginning of the universe' article:
  1. Scientists have not 'discovered' anything. That means finding something. What has happened is someone has come up with a model that produces these results. It's a bit like confusing having a business plan with being a billionaire.
  2. We read in the article 'they discovered what came before this universe was.. another universe or more accurately another "cosmological phase".' See above re what a discovery is. In reality they've made an educated guess based on a model.
  3. But best of all, we read 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Whoa - Paul Baldwin, the writer of this piece seems to know an awful lot the rest of us don't. We don't know the universe is infinite, we don't know it's cyclical and we don't know it has always existed in one of four stages. The rest - 'Despite' - is true.
When we get on to quotes from the scientists involved it all settles down. All they talk about is their model, not the universe itself. They point out their model avoids singularities, which is a nice to have (though hardly unique).

So, as a guide for intrepid tabloid hacks, here's the main thing to remember. A model is just that. To say that universe is like X because someone has a model of it is like saying a child can destroy Westminster Abbey by standing on it, because someone built a model of the abbey out of matchsticks and that's what happened when a child stood on the model.

Let me finish off with that sentence again, because it fascinates me. It has all the attraction of a slow motion traffic accident. 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Wow.

10 ways clickbait marketers get our attention - number 10 is amazing!

  1. See number 10
  2. See number 10
  3. See number 10
  4. See number 10
  5. See number 10
  6. See number 10
  7. See number 10
  8. See number 10
  9. See number 10
  10. By promising something like this. But they never deliver.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

A farewell to time travel?

I recently had pointed out to me that all my efforts in writing How To Build a Time Machine (aka Build Your Own Time Machine) were wasted because time travel is apparently impossible - at least according to this new theory which suggests that 'now' is defined by the extent of expansion of the universe and new time is only created with that expansion.

Thankfully, we don't need to worry too much. To begin with, the idea the theory presents of 'now' being defined by the state of expansion of the universe seems strangely detached from the fundamental idea in relativity that simultaneity is relative - the author seems to postulate a universal 'now' - which just doesn't exist.

And for that matter, it's a bit late to say that time travel isn't possible, because it is always happening on a small scale - relativity makes it inevitable. Tell the Voyager 1 probe, which has travelled over a second into the future that time travel isn't possible.

So even though the TARDIS or the Back to the Future DeLorean will certainly never work, there's no need to write off time travel.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Dad skills nonsense

I've now heard twice in a news context about the way that men are poor at 'dad skills'. I really don't care about whether or not this true. But what worries me here is how spurious the data is that produces this kind of news piece.

The 'news' was based on 'a survey of 2,000 men.' But we can't tell from this the quality of that data, nor do we tend to think about how the question is asked can have an influence on the result. 

In this particular case, I have seen the original questionnaire. Participants were asked to pick from a list of 50 'skills' by ticking a box (online) alongside each skill. I would be very surprised if most participants did not pick out the handful of skills they thought represented them best, producing a 'men are bad at dad skills' result. No one really wants to tick 50 boxes. I suspect the result would have been very different if they had started with all the boxes ticked and asked participants to untick the ones they were bad at.

Now, this was just a fun questionnaire - though you do have to ask why it has ended up in the news so much. But the same concern applies to any such data. Whenever we are presented data which supposedly represents people's opinion, we should be able to drill down to see exactly how the participants were asked the questions, as it can have a huge impact on the outcome.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Bonkers billboards

On my drive home from the centre of Swindon I pass a couple of billboards which have recently, once again, displayed a very mysterious message (one shown here*). It's a bizarre and pretty much meaningless message, yet someone has spent a lot of money on it. Billboard advertising is not particularly cheap.

You might think that it means Apple is going to sue us every time we mention an apple, but according to the website that seems to be related to the posters, it is all based on a bizarre pseudo-legal claim, with no basis in law, that your birth certificate means that you handed over your name to the Crown/government, and it is then illegal to use your name without their permission.

There have been absolute shedloads of discussion of these things on the internet - plus quite a few websites making the claim supporting this idea that you do not have legal ownership of your name. I'm not going to link to these for reasons discussed below, but you can easily find them if you wish. As far as I can see there can only really be three reasons behind this.

One is that there is a very rich conspiracy theorist who genuinely believes that the legal registration of our names is a state control measure, and we should therefore identify ourselves as WibblyWoo73, justifying all those silly online names we give ourselves before we get older and realise how stupid they look.

The second is that this is a vast clickbait/phishing programme, and the whole idea of it is to get you to look at one of their websites, which then plants something malicious on your computer. If so, it's a very expensive way to do it, compared with sending out spam emails or putting fake giveaways on Facebook. The only thing to be said for it is that spam tends to capture the naive, while this approach will catch the curious, and the two sets are by no means identical, so it would widen the scope of the scam.

And the third? It's the most expensive practical joke you ever saw, and all of us who are writing about it are falling for it hook, line and sinker.

This has all been going on now for some time - we had another outbreak of posters last year. Apparently the Advertising Standards Agency thinks the posters are harmless, so they may well continue for some time to come. Silly season fun, or dangerous misdirection? You pays your money and you takes your choice.

* I did not take this picture while driving.


Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Generating music

It's every teenager's duty to find music that his or her parents will hate. (I was discussing this with a daughter the other day, and it's very difficult these days, because parents' music is less different to that of their kids. My prog rock was worlds away from Bing Crosby - but unless my children liked rap, which they don't, it's hard to find any of their music which I don't find acceptable. However, I digress.)

I struggled with achieving something suitably distasteful, as my first love was classical, and I was very lukewarm about the obvious rebel music of my youth, punk, except in smartened up versions like Blondie and Toyah. But I eventually discovered the perfect choice in Van der Graaf Generator.

The dismal songs, the wailing sax and Peter Hammill's despair-filled rough vocals fit the bill entirely. Along with other student fancies such as difficult novels and Stockhausen, I gave up VdGG when I fully embraced adult life, but in the last few years I've come back to them (just the Generator, not difficult novels or Stockhausen). It's partly the surprising lyricism that lurks amongst the nihilism) - but it's also because it just sounds right again.

So I was delighted to lay my hands on the new Van der Graaf Generator album Do Not Disturb, even if a little saddened that it may be their last. The reformed group (they've done several 21st century albums) sadly lacks the saxophone, but that apart, there's plenty of the same delightful nihilism. It could be Nietzsche on vocals. Overall the sound is probably a little more approachable than it used to be - but it still might frighten your granny.

Highlights for me were the stark simplicity and weirdness of Room 1210 and the driving Forever Falling with (dare I say it) a touch of King Crimson about it until the vocal kick in very late, the contemplative, 12-tonish Shikata Ga Nai and the classic VdGG sound of Almost the Words.

It's not for everyone, but take a listen to My Room from the earlier Still Life album below for a taster if you feel at all intrigued.

Do not Disturb is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.







Monday, 3 October 2016

We're all descended from slave owners

A recent Guardian article made a dark comment about the past of the British royal family. Jamie Doward tells us
Most royals are proud that they can trace their lineage back centuries. But princesses Beatrice and Eugenie may be reluctant to delve too far into their past. New analysis reveals that Prince Andrew’s daughters are the direct descendants of a major slave-owning family.
I've got a bit of news for Jamie. He too is a descendant of a major slave-owning family.

You may wonder how I know this, because I've never met Jamie, nor do I know anything about him or her. But I can make this claim with confidence because we all are descendants of major slave-owning families. One of the fascinating revelations in Adam Rutherford's book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Has Ever Lived, is that if you are of European origins, then you are a descendant of everyone alive at the start of the eleventh century who has living descendants. Every one of them. And plenty of them would have been slave-owning families.  (If you aren't of European origin, don't feel smug - the same goes for your ancestry, it's just the timescale may not be identical.)

On the plus side (if that's the right way to look at it), Jamie and the royals (and the rest of us) are also descended from slaves. And kings and queens. In case you doubt this can be the case, it's all about the combinatorial explosion. Go back a couple of dozen generations and if all our ancestors were unique we'd need many more than were alive back then. In reality family trees are not the neat linear things we are familiar with from genealogy - they are far more tangled and messy.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of looking back into ancestry and feeling pleased or guilty about what is found. We are not responsible for the behaviour or culture of our forebears. And the reality of our genetic background shows just how silly it is to think otherwise.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Alarming logic

I am faced with a small but satisfying logical puzzle in my office at Bristol University. When I come in first thing (actually, even if I come in about 10), the alarm is often set. In fact, the first time I ever entered the building the blasted thing started beeping at me, and no one had bothered to tell me there was an alarm. So now, as I belatedly know the code, I unset it. But the puzzle is - how and when does it get set?

I certainly never set it on leaving. I wouldn't know how to, and anyway I have no way of knowing if the building is empty. It's a tall, old house - my office is on the second floor and I can often spend the entire day here without seeing another inhabitant, though I regularly hear them. The same uncertainty must surely apply to any ordinary resident. So how is it done?

In principle it could be automated. To be safe, there would have to be motion sensors in every room, which as far as I can tell there aren't. So if it is automatic, perhaps they just assume there's no one here after, say, seven pm and set it. Pity the person trying to put some serious work in. The alternative is a security person pops in and does it. But if so, would he or she really bother to ascend the four flights of stairs to my room, night after night, when there's never anyone here? I somehow doubt it.

So it looks like it's likely to be a case of set the alarm and fingers crossed. Remind me not to work late.


Friday, 23 September 2016

Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine - review

I've never tried that US favourite of combining peanut butter and jelly (jam, for those who use proper English), but sometimes unlikely combinations do work well together - and that's the case here, where neuroscience professor and medical doctor Tom Solomon manages to bring together Roald Dahl's life story and medical popular science. Don't be put off by the university press publisher - this is not a heavy title.

The thing that links the topics together - the sandwich for the peanut butter and jelly - is Dahl's stays in an Oxford hospital, when Solomon was a junior doctor there. The two struck up a friendship, and Solomon very effectively makes use of their conversations as leaping off points both to take us through Dahl's fascinating life story and the medical incidents that peppered the author's life. We also get a few of Solomon's own experiences (if anything I'd have liked more of these), though it's not long before we are back with Dahl.

Apart from Dahl's own medical experience through to his final injection of morphine from Solomon, which included being rebuilt after a traumatic plane crash in the Second World War, Dahl's family had more than its fair share of medical tragedy. Two of his daughters died in his lifetime - one aged just seven from measles complications, his first wife had a serious stroke, and his son's pram was hit by a car, resulting in a serious brain complication, which led to Dahl helping to design a new kind of valve to reduce pressure on the brain and contributing to a paper in the Lancet.

According to Solomon, Dahl was always curious about medical matters, and they occur regularly in his writing as well as his family experiences. Whenever anything medical comes up, Solomon takes us through the detail of what's involved - though this is in no way a morbid book, lifted as it is by Dahl's life story. I'm personally not a great audience for medical matters (I can't even watch a medical drama on TV), but with a bit of judicious skipping of the more detailed medical aspects I still managed to thoroughly enjoy this book, both in finding about more about this remarkable author, and also in the sensitively handled conversations in the hospital - boosted by Solomon's recent visit to Dahl's home town - all of which really give the reader a sense of being there.

It's an oddity of a book, but one I am very glad that I read - what's more, all the author royalties are going to Dahl's favourite charities.

Roald Dahl's Marvellous Medicine is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Sugary science?

Sucrose - image from Wikipedia
It is well known that the cigarette companies were aware of the dangers of smoking long before the general public, yet spent large amounts of money on attempting to counter the science. Similarly, many of the oil companies have actively sponsored attacks on global warming. Now it appears there is a new bad guy on the block - the sugar industry.

It is only in the last few years that we have displaced some of our concern about fat in the diet to take on sugar as a dangerous substance to over-consume. And it's easy to assume that this awareness also took the sugar industry by surprise. But research undertaken by the University of California, San Francisco suggests that the US sugar giants were aware of the risks of sugar consumption as far back as the 1950s.

To make matters even worse, the paper tells us
Together with other recent analyses of sugar industry documents, our findings suggest the industry sponsored a research program in the 1960s and 1970s that successfully cast doubt about the hazards of sucrose while promoting fat as the dietary culprit in [coronary heart disease].
This is astounding if true. Not only was the risk from sugar played down, but it appears that the sugar industry used a distraction technique by overplaying the role of fat.

There's the possibility here of tobacco-style mass law suits. But what interests me more is whether or not US big business (Europeans do it as well, but not on the same scale) is still playing this kind of bait and switch game with our health. We know that the oil companies are still trying to play down climate change - but what about the food industry? Or pharmaceuticals?

I'm no enthusiast for conspiracy theories, but this kind of behaviour defies belief. Don't these people have children?

Monday, 19 September 2016

Listen to the infinite

I don't think it's particularly surprising that my bestselling book so far is A Brief History of Infinity. Infinity is just one of those topics that grabs your interest, not because it necessarily has any impact on your everyday life (though thanks to calculus, it does), but because it's genuinely mind boggling and has fascinated people for millennia.

Now, philosophy professor Adrian Moore is bringing a touch of the infinite to your ears with a 10 episode series of surprisingly bite-sized 15 minute programmes, starting today at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 (or listen later on iPlayer).

I know Adrian does a great job, as I appear in episode 5 on Friday, so I've seen him in action. It was also fascinating to discover that Adrian was inspired with an interest in philosophy by the same teacher who inspired me to write the book - it's really true what they say about a great teacher.

So buckle in to your radio/computer/phone or however you get hold of it for a fun ride...


Friday, 16 September 2016

Splice the mainbrace and read me a novel

Image modified from Wikipedia
Last year I had the pleasure of appearing at the Manx Literary Festival alongside other, more stellar literary luminaries including Chocolat author Joanne Harris. Generally, I find Joanne's words of wisdom on the writing life spot on - particularly her recent campaign to get writers paid for appearing at literary festivals (I'm pleased to say we were paid for the Manx Festival). However, I've got mixed feelings about her recent, interesting piece on piracy.

Don't get me wrong. I absolutely agree that piracy is wrong. People should pay for a book (or borrow it from a library) if they want to read it. I am not in any way condoning piracy.  Book pirates should be locked up and the key thrown away. Full stop.

The only point I'm not sure about is whether piracy is as much of an issue with books as it has been for music. There are two big reasons for this. One is that when music piracy was at its height there were glossy sites like Napster to get the free downloads, while there weren't easy ways to get paid downloads. By comparison there are easy way to get paid ebooks (though some publishers still stupidly price them as if they are hardbacks - I have some ebooks priced at over £13), but the pirate book download sites tend to be sleazy sites that feel as if they are going to give you a virus, and in many cases they will.

The other reason is the demographic of the customer base. The kind of people who tend to access the most music also tend to be the kind of people who are most likely to download pirate material. But the kind of people who read lots of books tend to be the kind of people who shy away from pirated stuff and prefer to be legitimate. It's a generalisation, I admit, but I think it holds true pretty well.

I get tens of alerts a week that pirate copies of my books have been put up. I used to pass these on to the publishers, who muttered that half of them didn't work anyway, but they'd work through them. Now I tend not to bother. I could be wrong, of course, but I genuinely believe that I am not losing many sales at all to pirates, and as such it's not a big issue for me. I still hate it. I still want it to stop. But for most authors I doubt that it has a huge impact on earning a crust.