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 and

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 and

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.