Monday, 24 April 2017

Come back C. P. Snow

I rarely see the Daily Telegraph, but at the weekend I was at the house of someone who takes it. I couldn't help become a little incensed at an opinion piece by someone called Christopher Booker, bemoaning the 'dumbing up' of University Challenge. Given the proximity to the world marches for science, I couldn't help comment on the piece.

Famously, C. P. Snow once made a big thing of the 'two cultures' of the arts and sciences, pointing out that people from the arts side expected a well-educated person to have a good knowledge of the arts, but themselves expressed a kind of smug satisfaction in their ignorance of the sciences.

I could be wrong, but it's difficult not to read Booker's use of 'particularly' as essentially saying 'I expect everyone to have a good knowledge of the arts, but having a good knowledge of the sciences is for specialist weirdos.' The reality is that the science questions are no more specialist than the arts ones - but they might appear to be if you have the kind of prejudice that Snow identified.

In the last decade or two it has occasionally been put about that Snow's assessment no longer applies, but it seems it's alive and well, at least in the pages of the Telegraph.

Friday, 21 April 2017

How far can you see with the naked eye?

My quiz books How Many Moons Does the Earth Have? and What Colour is the Sun? are all about asking science questions with interesting or intriguing answers, so I was delighted when a reader, Simon Bartlett, asked about how realistic one of my answers was.

The question here (from How Many Moons) was 'What is the furthest you can see with the naked eye?' The traditional answer to this is to point out that you can see at least 21 miles (33 kilometres) across the English channel, and it's said that you can see a candle on a truly dark night about 10 miles (16 kilometres) away. However, I wanted to challenge this by pointing out that you can see the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye (assuming a dark night and good eyesight), and that's around 2.5 million light years. So, bearing in mind this is usually the standard marker for maximum distance naked eye astronomy, I plumped for that. However, Simon felt this should be considered a bit further:
In answering the question 'What is the furthest you can see with the naked eye?', [don't] you answer address a different question, namely 'How far away is the furthest object I can see with my naked eye?' An object brighter in the visible spectrum but further away could still be visible, so I would suggest that the furthest the naked eye can see is limited by two things, neither of which I actually know - how bright is the brightest object visible in wavelengths we can see, and how far away would it have to be to be red-shifted in order to make it no longer visible? 
In reality neither of these questions I am supposed to have addressed is ideal. The figure I give for the Andromeda galaxy is a good default maximum as it’s the most distant object you can see with the naked eye under normal conditions - and that, in effect, delivers the furthest you can see. However, in extraordinary circumstances - when a big enough supernova is at its brightest, for example - you could see further still. Even then, though, there is going to be a limit to the range, as the power drops off with the square of the distance away, so you would need an exponential increase in brightness for an object to still be visible. The brightest known supernova to date, ASASSN–15lh (now possibly not a supernova at all) is described as having about 20 times the output of the Milky Way - which for our purposes will do as an order of magnitude comparison with the brightness of the Andromeda galaxy. This means you could push back the distance by a factor of around 4.5 and still see an object of this brightness with the naked eye - so we’re talking about maybe 11 million light years. There are brighter things than supernovas, notably quasars, but a lot of their output does not reach us in the visible spectrum - and they are also immensely distant, so they aren’t going to be seen with the naked eye. The brightest detected quasar, 3C273 is surprisingly bright given it's about 2 billion light years away, but would apparently need an 8 inch telescope to see it - not exactly naked eye stuff.

So my answer certainly wasn't wrong - it still makes sense as one answer to a 'most distant naked eye sighting' - but there's more to be got from that question.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Gender neutral titles miss the point

According to news reports, the bank HSBC will allow customers to choose from a whole range of gender neutral titles such as Mx, Ind, M, Mre, and Misc. Some may moan about political correctness gone mad - I would argue it doesn't go any where near far enough. Why do we need to give organisations our 'title' at all?

As far as I can see the only point of using a title is to establish your place in a feudal society - they really should have no place today. Whenever I fill in an online form I leave the title box untouched - yet all too often, the organisation makes it a non-optional selection. I don't want them to label me. It really irritates me, for example, when the programme for an event calls me Mr Brian Clegg. I'm not Mr Brian Clegg. I am Brian Clegg. And why someone who is, say, having a one-off online relationship with me should need a title is baffling.

Some of you may be thinking, 'Ah, but if you don't give a title, they can't write to you formally.' But why do we need a title for that? If you want to write to me informally, put 'Dear Brian' (or in an email etc. just put Hi or Hello - that will do just fine). If you want to be formal put 'Dear Brian Clegg'. That's my formal name.

Not only does dropping the title do away with the feudal system (no longer emphasising that I am not Sir Brian or Lord Clegg), it is automatically as gender neutral as my name allows, which surely is as much as anyone can ask. If you want a totally gender neutral name, then it's simple enough - you can change it by deed poll, either with registration for £36 or for free if you don't want registration (see the government's site). Or just give the initial of your first name as your first name. Either way, doing away with the title strips away the label that you have a particular gender.

Please don't complicate our lives with more titles, HSBC. Get rid of them altogether and then you really will have made a step forward.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

What Reality Frame?

I'm delighted to say that my latest book, The Reality Frame is now available as a truly lovely hardback and ebook - the cover picture really doesn't do it justice.

I suppose the obvious question is 'What Reality Frame?' The book is about relativity and frames of reference - effectively the way we look at things/the position we look at them from.

It looks at how we've moved from very absolutist views to making much more use of relativity in science, and to do this, I use what I hope is a fun and novel approach of building a toy universe from scratch, adding in various properties to see what part relativity has to play.

Unlike your standard physics book, I don't stop with an inanimate universe, but go on to add life and creativity. This is partly because frames of reference are hugely important in these cases too. But also because, in the process, I wanted to help establish humanity's place in the universe.

We have a tendency to do ourselves down, pointing out how small and insignificant we are in a vast universe. But that doesn't take in the wide span of human achievement. In this I'm hoping to reflect the wonderful Ascent of Man series/book by Jacob Bronowski.

Please take a look at the book's web page to find out more.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Avant garde should encourage rebellion

The term 'avant garde' (literally something like 'vanguard' or 'advanced guard', implying being ahead of the pack and outside of the usual boundaries) is one that is proudly adopted by some art. And I think that's fine - but I also think that the artists in question need to expect that their audiences may abandon the reverence that is usually adopted by the audience for traditional art.

Image from Wikipedia
This occurred to me when a friend was describing attending a play at Bristol's fairly avant garde Old Vic Theatre. Apparently the performance was of a Samuel Beckett radio play, and as Beckett had specified it should never be staged, they told the audience that they had to wear blindfolds. Thinking about this, I realised that my immediate reaction, had I been in the audience, would have been to have cheated and taken the blindfold off once they got started. Because once you break the rules as an artist, why should your audience be forced to stick to the rules? It seemed to me that it was just as acceptable for me as an audience member - as art, if you like - to take off my blindfold as it was for the performers and/or the late Mr Beckett to insist that I wear it.

As I wasn't there, I don't know how the artists would have reacted. I do know that on other occasions when the audience has not behaved as expected, the answer has been 'not very well.' This was certainly the case in one of the early performances of one of Stockhausen's more approachable pieces, Stimmung. In the piece, lasting about an hour, a cappella performers sing a single chord. However, it is a genuinely interesting piece because they vary how they sing the notes throughout - using different octaves, sounds and words, tones - I really rather like it. At the performance in question, the audience members started to join in, singing in their own notes in the chord. Now, to me, that's brilliant. But apparently those involved (I can't remember if it was Stockhausen himself or just the performers) were furious and stopped the performance.

As I quite regularly go to Bristol, I'd also say the same goes for those who add things to Banksy paintings. The whole concept of painting on walls is breaking the rules - so you can hardly complain when someone else does the same thing. In some cases where a Banksy has been 'defaced' I think the result is an improvement. In others it's borderline. The image shown here has according to Wikipedia been 'defaced with blue paint'. Actually the 'defacing' is quite effective as it looks as if someone has shot at the people with a paint gun, which itself could be interpreted artistically (in fact, I didn't know it was 'defaced' until I looked it up). Admittedly if all someone does is scrawl a tag over it, it's not a great contribution. But even so, I'm not sure we have any right to complain. If someone does it to a conventional piece of art in a gallery, that is totally unacceptable. But if you really want to be avant garde, then you should go with the flow when it comes to others contributing. Get antsy about it, and it shows that underneath you are still very conventional.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Time to end April fool news

Last Saturday saw the usual spate of 'April fool' spoof news stories - but I think it's time this practice stopped.

In the early days, these stories were delightful. I remember seeing a re-run of the Panorama spaghetti harvest film as a child (probably on its 10th anniversary) and loved it. At university, I read with glee the Guardian's superb San Seriffe feature with all the wonderful detail of this supposed travelling island nation. However, I'd say the news reporting world has changed in two ways that make the whole business not so funny - and when we get flooded with these stories, many of them lack the originality and sheer madness of these early attempts.

The first change is the rise of comedy news sources like The Onion and The Daily Mash. They churn out several such stories a day - we really don't need extra ones on April 1. And then there's the rise of post-truth, fake news reporting. And that brings it home that it's not acceptable for a proper news outlet to lie to us just because they think it's funny to do so. To take a trivial example, my favourite newspaper, the i, ran a story that Southern Rail was going to start standing-only carriages to pack more people in. I simply took that as fact - it wasn't silly enough to do its job. As it happened I saw the 'retraction' on the following Monday, but if I hadn't, it would have become fake news for me - and 'Bur we were just being funny, not lying' isn't a good enough reason for doing that to your audience.

So let's give it a miss next year. Please? Yes, fine, I don't mind the occasional, large scale extravaganza like the spaghetti harvest or San Seriffe. But stop with the barrage of silly little stories that could all too easily be true.

If you've never seen the spaghetti harvest, this mini-documentary shows the original material and fills in some of the context of it being put together. It's only 4 minutes and well worth enjoying:






Monday, 3 April 2017

Amazon Echo review

For several months now I have had Amazon's Echo devices, with the Alexa voice-operated assistant in the house. To test their effectiveness, I have the two main Echo variants - Echo and Echo Dot, plus a small Phillips Hue smart lighting system to see how the Echoes interact with home automation. I'll take each separately, starting with the full size Echo.

Amazon Echo

The Echo looks like a wireless speaker until you use the trigger word 'Alexa', at which point a funky blue glowing ring appears on top to indicate it is listening (the glow even attempts to point towards your voice). The Echo can cope with a vast number of 'skills' - responses to voice commands - from playing music to ordering an Uber taxi. Some of the skills are excellent, though I think it's fair to say that 95% of them are either too local to somewhere in America or too pointless to be of any use.

Our most frequent use of the full-size Echo is playing music and radio. We opted for access to Amazon's full 50 million+ music library just on the one device, which costs a reasonable £3.99 a month. This is excellent whether you want to listen to some new release, select a playlist or dig out a prog rock classic. As I demonstrate in the video at the end of the review, it's not so good with classical music, where it struggles with the idea of something being 'by' a composer (as opposed to a performer), doesn't like non-English titles and is too song-oriented to easily select long pieces. There is a way round it - you can set up a playlist on your computer with anything you like in it, then the Echo will play it. There's also easy access to internet radio - say 'Play BBC Radio 4' and you're away.

It might seem trivial, but the hands-free manipulation of music and radio (especially if you're cooking) is very effective. Outside of these uses, our main other ways of employing the Echo is as an information source or for home automation. (No need to Shazam an unfamiliar piece playing from its library, by the way - just ask Alexa who it is and she gives the details.) Among Alexa's talents are being able to read the opening of a Wikipedia entry, giving a local weather forecast, converting Fahrenheit to Celsius (useful if you have a US recipe) and more. She'll also tell you a (bad) joke or respond wittily to some queries. We also use Alexa to set timers, which again is great in the kitchen.

To test home automation, we've tied the Echo in to the Phillips Hue lighting in the utility room next to the kitchen where the Echo is located. It works fine - you can ask Alexa to turn the light on, off or to a desired level. But it's only really an advantage when you're not near the light (you can control Alexa from the opposite end of the kitchen). Otherwise it feels a lot more work than just pressing a switch. Also, Alexa insists on saying 'Okay' when she's done the automation task, which becomes irritating.

Of the other skills that felt like they might be useful, most are just too restricted to be useful. So, for example, I can check the trains on my usual route or the traffic on my usual journey... but I don't commute, so I don't have a usual route. I can order the last thing I ordered from Just Eat... but I can't remember what it was, and usually tweak the order. I can get an Uber... but we don't have Uber here. I can ask Jamie Oliver for a recipe... but not for a specific meal - I have to choose, say, a chicken dish and then hear what's on offer and choose one. Alexa can add items to a to-do list, shopping list or a Google Calendar, but this is quite messy in practice (she can't delete items, for instance) and I don't find I use this at all.

For me the main Echo is worth it as a hands free music and radio speaker, with a bit of info retrieval thrown in. The sound quality is fine for kitchen listening. A definite plus.

The Echo is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Amazon Echo Dot

The Dot looks like the top cut off the full size Echo and is extremely good value for what it does. In effect it has the same capabilities as the main Echo, but only a tiny speaker, so it's no better for playing music than a mobile phone. We tested ours in the living room where this limitation isn't too much of a problem, as you can ask the Dot to pair with a Bluetooth speaker (in our case, a TV sound bar) and play through that (once you've set it up, it's simply a matter of saying 'Alexa Connect'), which then produces excellent sound.

In practice, we've found this Echo far less useful. We tend not to play music or listen to the radio in the living room much, so our use is limited to the occasional information request and automation. This is more useful than the single bulb in the utility room, as Alexa is in charge of two table lamps which she can turn on/off together or separately and it is easier to use the automation than going from table to table.

One disadvantage here is that Alexa is quite often fooled by the TV. Several times a week she will leap in, trying to answer a question she thinks the TV has asked her. The first times this happen are decidedly spooky... then it just becomes irritating. Still - it is incredible value for what it does.

The Echo Dot is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Phillips Hue

Although not part of the Echo system, I ought to say a few words about Hue in its own right. This consists of a central controller linked to you wifi and individual bulbs that are also linked, meaning you can control those bulbs from a smartphone app. The system works well with Echo, but also has some great features standalone. From my phone, I can control the light bulbs in the system, switching any of them on and off or dimming them with a slider. (If I had fancy coloured bulbs, I could also do colours, but I stuck to white.)

By default you can only do this within the house, but if you register with Hue's system, you can also do it remotely via the internet. I find the best part of this extended facility is that it can detect when you are coming home and it's after dusk and will automatically switch selected lights on - so you never come home to a dark house.

We have also installed a Hue wall switch in the utility room, which gives on/off and fade controls for that light. The Hue bulbs we have in table lights are easier to control via the app or an Amazon Echo than manually, but the single bulb in the utility room often seemed harder to deal with that way, so now we have the option to do this manually, without disabling the remote control, which would happen if we used the wall switch.

I don't think I'd ever extend it to the whole house - but it's excellent having this available in our test rooms.

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

Is it for me?

I wouldn't get rid of our home automation, and would happily extend it to include, for example, a smart thermostat. We love our main Echo as a music player/hands free radio, but a lot of the extra 'skills' seem more for show than practical purposes. So it's restrained enthusiasm all round.

Here's that video again, attempting to get Alexa to play Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht:




Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Bye bye to the English pie

Call that a pie? Image from Google
Recent arguments on the radio about what a 'pie' is have proved very entertaining. Apparently there are those who claim something can only be a pie if it is entirely encased in pastry. They should listen to Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty. The character claims words mean whatever he says they mean. He's not quite right - it's not down to a single arbiter. But words in English certainly do mean whatever they are generally used to mean. And those meanings change. A living language evolves. Try to set it in aspic and it becomes a museum piece.

Those who argue for the pastry-surrounded pie are confusing language and branding. It's fine to set rules for the official name for a product or brand. But, in English, a pie means whatever people call a pie. Hence our ability to refer unashamedly to shepherd's pie or cottage pie, neither of which have any pastry whatsoever.

When I give talks on writing, I point out a number of 'errors' that are disappearing because the language is evolving. For example, some pedants object to using 'their' when referring to an individual. But the trouble is, the language doesn't have a singular equivalent. So we end up with the clumsy formation 'A student must learn his or her foundation material in the first year.' Before long, 'their' will have entirely replaced 'his or her' - and good riddance.

Similarly, when I talk to scientists they still unanimously think that 'data' is plural. So they insist on saying 'The data are now ready for processing.' The rest of the world has realised that data is a singular collective noun and we should say the far more elegant 'The data is now ready for processing.' Scientists will catch up eventually, but they tend to be conservative, so it will take a while.

Some changes are truly painful to those who have been brought up with the original version. Remember the outcry over the 'appropriation' of 'gay'. I'm sure when 'a norange' started to transition to 'an orange' there was muttering in the streets. And I share the pain over some language changes. Yet in the end, I accept that evolution is an irresistible force and it's better to go with the flow and enjoy the ride.

So all together now, to a tune by Don Maclean:

'Bye bye to the English pie,
If language don't evolve it is going to die...'

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Never say never... but...

Definitely not electric (image from Wikipedia)
It was a little eyebrow-raising to see that a company called Wright Electric is claiming that they will have electric planes flying between London and Paris in 10 years. While we genuinely should never say 'never' with technology, I think the probability is so low that it would be well worth betting against it.

In part, this is a simple competitive edge issue. If the technology existed, it could certainly only cope with short range hops - hence London to Paris. Unfortunately, this is already a highly competitive route because Eurostar offers a far more pleasant journey than flying with similar or better city centre to city centre times. It's not the ideal route to introduce new flight technology on.

Even if London to Paris is attractive, though, this assumes, though that we have coped with 'if the technology existed.' The big problem here is battery technology. I have no doubt at all that batteries will get better in the next few years. But the difficulty faced by a plane, as opposed to a car, is the sheer weight of batteries to provide the same amount of energy as aviation fuel.

Kerosene packs a fearsome amount of energy into a relatively small mass. This is why the 9/11 attack was so devastating - it was the energy in the planes' burning fuel that hugely increased the impact. To get a feel for the difference, kerosene has around 100 times* the usable energy per unit mass as a typical laptop (or car) battery. A plane simply can't afford to carry the extra mass that would be required to be fuelled by batteries. To make the London to Paris electric plane feasible would require at least a 20 times improvement, and quite possibly a 50 times improvement in the energy density available from batteries. This may well happen at some point. But to have it developed on a timescale that allows commercial planes to be using it in 10 years is incredibly unlikely.

I worked for an airline when we were just starting to put computers into planes for cabin management and entertainment. They always ended up being antiquated devices, because the safety requirements for aviation rightly require a long period of being bedded in - typically the tech was at least 5 years old by the time it got into the sky. This means we would need this kind of improvement in just a handful of years to make a ten year horizon viable. So if anyone's up for a bet and will offer decent odds, I'm happy to take it.

This has been a green heretic production

* This figure is about 7 years old, and as battery technology is always advancing it may well be only 90 times by now, but I don't have the latest figures. But batteries haven't changed much in capacity during this period.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Review - The China Governess - Margery Allingham

I am a huge fan of Marjory Allingham's Campion books - but even so, I have to say this is probably one to avoid, unless, like me, you want to have read the entire canon. One of Allingham's late contributions, written in the 1960s four decades after the first Campion books, it lacks the joie de vivre of the earlier titles. It's over-long, and very slow - in fact it verges on the dull in places.

That's not to say it's entirely without interest, but what interest there is remains specialist. It's a sociological museum, with its stiff, emotionally retarded upper-middle class characters, who we are supposed to sympathise with, but who mostly repel. By today's standards it is also horribly un-PC about 'mental defectives'. Some readers will, I suspect, be outraged - but you do have to see this as a fascinating uncovering of just how things were in the early 60s. We tend to look back and think of the sixties as being all hippies and free love and rebellion, but we have to remember this was less than 20 years after the end of the Second World War, and the whole point of what happened in the 60s was a reaction to this establishment stiffness.

Perhaps most fascinating is the reaction of older family members to a historical black sheep in their family. Where in the current TV show Who Do You Think You Are there is a kind of horrified delight at, say, finding a murderer in the family's past, here it causes genuine pain and anger. The family's way of dealing with unpleasant things is to pretend they don't exist. Sadly, though Campion does act as a kind of operational fairy godmother to make things happen (eventually), we see very little opportunity for his usual skills - and Lugg is sadly extremely underused.

So, definitely not a book to read as an introduction to Campion - only worth going for if you do want to see just how uptight and sad the upper-middle class was in the early 1960s.

The China Governess is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Is dark matter disappearing altogether?

A few days ago at a talk, I mentioned in passing that in a few years' time we may no longer think that dark matter exists. (In the unlikely event you've not heard of it, dark matter is a hypothetical kind of stuff that only interacts with ordinary matter through gravity, which is thought to exist because large collections of matter, such as galaxies act as if they have more matter in them than they should have.)
A galactic cluster that provides more
gravitational lensing that its ordinary matter
predicts. (Image from Hubble via Wikipedia)
After the talk, a handful of teenage physics enthusiasts collared me and said 'Surely you don't think dark matter doesn't exist?' After asking them not to call me Shirley, I admitted I was a dark matter sceptic. But I felt their pain. When I was their age, the steady state theory of cosmology was still an accepted challenger to the big bang, but its star was fading fast. I preferred steady state in part because it seemed to be a more elegant theory and in part because one of its originators was my teenage physics hero, the remarkable Fred Hoyle. I was genuinely upset when steady state was pushed out of consideration. Science may be objective, but it doesn't stop us from having emotional attachments. 

I'd say for the first time since it became widely acknowledged, dark matter is in danger of being replaced as the best accepted theory within a decade. There has been one challenger for a while in the form of MOND (Modified Newtonian Dynamics), but critics are quick to point out it doesn't explain all the phenomena ascribed to dark matter. (To be fair dark matter isn't 100 per cent either, but that's by the by.) However, there are now at least two other alternatives that explain the behaviour of large collections of matter to some degree without the need for a new type of stuff.

One suggestion is painfully simple - it takes a microscope to those innocent words in the first paragraph 'should have'. The existence of dark matter is based on guestimate of the amount of conventional matter in galaxies and other large collections of space stuff. It is, without doubt, a good guestimate, based on best current knowledge. But the reality is that the calculation has to involve estimation based in part on theory, and that leaves room for error. It only takes a small correction to make dark matter disappear. Again, there are of holes left by making this assumption, but it's a potential line of thought.

The second suggestion is a lot more sophisticated (so some theoreticians may prefer it). The concept of emergent gravity, where gravity is somewhat like thermodynamics in emerging from statistical behaviour, rather than being a true underlying fundamental force, has been put forward by some as a way of providing a mechanism to do away with dark matter. As this semi-technical article by Sabine Hossenfelder shows, there are still significant problems for this explanation, but it is without doubt another strand.

At the moment, then, nothing has knocked dark matter from its 'best accepted theory' perch. But it has never been so strongly challenged. We always need to remember that science is not about black and white, absolute fact, but establishing the best theory we can given the current evidence. Dark matter could recover from its wobble, just as the big bang did with modifications that brought it into line with current data. But there is no doubt that we exist in cosmological (and particle theory) interesting times.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Poor Pret

Image from Wikipedia
I always find it amusing when the bosses of large companies demonstrate an impressive lack of understanding of market forces. A few days ago, the HR director of sandwich/coffee chain Pret a Manger told a parliamentary committee 'I would say one in 50 people who apply to our company are British', citing this as a reason they need to continue having access to cheap foreign labour. She also said that she didn't think pay was an issue, despite a starting package of around £16,000 in London, as after a few years you could earn a lot more.

Picking this apart, I've a few issues with this argument. I don't have any evidence for that 'I would say one in 50' (don't you find 'I would say' suspiciously vague?) - is it true at all? Is it only true of central London stores? Or is that a countrywide average? Without data it's impossible to say. But let's take it at face value. What the market is really saying is that the rewards aren't good enough for the job, and they can only maintain that £16,000 starting salary (resulting in £84 million profit in their results for 2015) by employing people for whom an amount it's difficult to live on in any expensive location seems a lot of money because they come from a country where that is a large pay packet (or they're doing the job for other reasons, such as learning a language).

If the supply of cheap labour dried up there's a simple solution. You put up your starting salary until you do get enough people applying. If you have to put it up so much that you don't make a profit, you don't have a viable business model. That's what market forces are about.

Companies like Pret have had it easy to date, because they operate in a 'pile it high, sell it expensive' market. Their staff costs per head are low, but they sell premium products (i.e. ones where a small increase in cost results in a considerable increase in price). The world is changing, and poor Pret feels sorry for itself. I'm afraid I can't join in the sobbing.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Learn from history, don't delete it

Colston Hall (image from Wikipedia)
I'm coming towards the end of two years spending two days a week working at Bristol University. I've had a wonderful time, and have come to love this little gem of a city, getting to know it far better than I did before. One thing that has become obvious is the way that some Bristolians are torn apart by their heritage. Because this is a city that was, to some degree, built on two trades that are now abhorrent - the slave trade and tobacco.

As you go around the city, there are names you often encounter: Colston and Wills. The first refers to Edward Colston, a prominent slave trader and the Wills dynasty was behind the eponymous tobacco company, now part of Imperial Tobacco. Such is the negative feeling that there is currently a petition (2136 signatures at the time of writing) to have the city's premier music venue, Colston Hall, renamed. But I think those who support the petition are wrong.

You don't make the past go away by hiding it - but you can prevent lessons being learned by doing so. History is fundamentally important: I wish it got more priority in schools. There's a reason that Auschwitz was not obliterated. The past should not be forgotten.

There is, of course, a big difference in feel between a former concentration camp and a building that apparently glorifies someone once involved in an occupation that we now despise. However, I don't think it would be right for Bristol to attempt to sanitise itself this way. It's an action driven by guilt, and guilt for something that happened in your city's past is a waste of energy. Instead, I suggest this should be turned  into something positive. We shouldn't be petitioning for Colston and Wills to be forgotten. It would be far better if the city insisted that major buildings bearing such names should be required to have a prominent, permanent exhibition explaining where the money came from, and at what cost.

That's what history is for. Not something to feel guilty about, apologise for and then attempt to erase. It should be brought out, made very visible and used to learn lessons for the future.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Why it isn't easy being green

Yes, please, if Tesla would like to give me one
(Image from Wikipedia)
As someone with real concern for the environment, I am convinced that electric cars are the future, and the sooner we can get rid of petrol and diesel, the better. When I was younger, my fantasy car was an Aston Martin - now it's a Tesla.

However, as an official green heretic, I have to point out that, like almost all environmental decisions, it's a bit more complex than it first appears. We need to apply logic as well as emotion. Electric cars (and trains, for that matter) are great in terms of emissions - provided they use electricity that itself is produced in an environmentally friendly fashion. It has been pointed out that in Germany, which has an aggressive 'get rid of petrol cars by 2030' policy, there could be a resultant increase in carbon emissions.

The trouble is that Germany is pretty well incapable of being totally green in its electricity production by 2030, because of its irrational decision to close its nuclear power plants. What about wind and solar? They're coming on - but nowhere near fast enough. In fact, Germany has had to slow down its wind expansion because the existing wind supply is already proving disruptive to the grid because of its irregularity. The more you depend on wind, and to an extent solar, the greater need there is for supply that can be switched in quickly to cover troughs in generation.

As a result of the short-sightedness of their supply policy, if Germany does achieve 100 per cent electric cars by 2030 its carbon emissions will go up, due to the extra emissions from the dirty generation that will need to be used to support it.

I am not saying they should hold back on the electric vehicles - on the contrary, I hope we take a similar view of pushing the move to electric vehicles in the UK. (And reversing the terrible decision to cut short the electrification of GWR's trains before reaching Bristol Temple Meads.) But such a policy needs to go hand-in-hand with a transfer of generation to non-emitting sources - which at the moment almost certainly means having more nuclear in the mix as well as more wind and solar.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

No dark ghosts

The nation's favourite TV physicist, Brian Cox, has caused a bit of a ruckus amongst those who like a good ghost. Cox has often, if incorrectly, been represented as saying, as in this letter in the i newspaper, that ghosts don't exist because the Large Hadron Collider 'hasn't found them.'

I ought to stress by the way that many headlines were misleading. The Metro, for example, led with 'The Large Hadron Collider has proved that ghosts don't exist, Brian Cox claims.' It is very difficult to prove something doesn't exist, especially ghosts. To begin with, we need to assume that ghosts are natural rather than supernatural. If the supernatural exists, physics can't help - so as a starting point we need to make this assumption. And even then, as the old saying goes, absence of proof is not proof of absence.

Thankfully, the LHC is not spending any taxpayer money on disproving the existence of ghosts. Instead, Cox was referring to a puzzle that the concept of ghosts presents. If they are natural, then they appear to be some form of insubstantial energy interacting with matter (i.e. us). This immediately rules out, for instance, the dark matter that Mr Wilson mentions in his letter, because dark matter (if it exists) only interacts with ordinary matter via gravity. We see ghosts, which means we need electromagnetic interaction. If ghosts depended on particles like those of dark matter than aren't detectable by the LHC, we also couldn't see them.

Now it's not that there aren't insubstantial energy particles that interact with matter. Photons of light fit that bill. But no existing particles (or, probably more accurately in the minds of physicists, no existing quantum fields) can somehow keep a structure together to make up an insubstantial ghost and at the same time interact with matter. So there has to be something else if ghosts are to exist. And what Cox is point out is that it's surprising that there is no evidence from the LHC supporting the existence of this new stuff. If it interacts with matter in a haunting, it should also be within the range of LHC experiments.

It's not beyond the wit of science to imagine a whole new kind of quantum field/particles that have restrictions that would prevent them appearing in LHC experiments but do allow them to do what ghosts do. Which is why we can't say that the LHC proves ghosts don't exist. However, to require such a major modification of our best model of what stuff is (the standard model of particle physics) would need strong, scientific evidence. And that simply doesn't exist.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The political correctness blues

I'm not a great fan of political correctness (PC) when it comes to some of its current excesses, such as getting all worked up about Mexican restaurants handing out sombreros. However, if there's one man who can single-handedly push me into the PC camp, it's 'journalist' Kelvin MacKenzie. I am proud to say that I have never bought a copy of the Sun newspaper, but my favourite paper, the i, has a daily 'News Matrix' section where it quotes snippets from other papers, and I came across this impressive rant from MacKenzie:
For far too long, the PC brigade have got away with it. Nothing derogatory can be said about multiculturalism, the excesses of "feminism", climate change, the poor and their responsibilities to stand on their own two feet.
I don't know where to start on that sloppy bit of writing. Firstly it's poorly written for something published in a national newspaper. It shouldn't be 'the PC brigade have' but rather 'has'. In the second sentence he misuses a list by grouping together things that simply don't fit together, such as 'the poor and their responsibilities'. But, of course, the real distaste here is for the content.

The bit that stands out is "feminism" - in inverted commas. This is aggressive punctuation, similar to the way I referred to MacKenzie as a 'journalist' in the first paragraph. In my case it was a suggestion that it isn't an appropriate label, and MacKenzie is giving feminism a kicking by using those inverted commas. However, that's just the start. While I do agree that there is a tendency to use PC to avoid sensible criticism of multiculturalism, feminism etc. it is absolutely bizarre to lump a scientific topic like climate change in with cultural movements or a group of people.

I don't think there is enough free speech in this country, and I don't think that being politically correct should ever prevent free speech - but equally, there's nothing politically correct about arguing back when people make a remark you don't agree with. By all means criticise aspects of these things (I say 'aspects' ; as I don't think you can actually make derogatory remarks about climate change, any more than you can about gravity, just about the actions we take to deal with it) - but don't call free speech 'getting away with it'.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Are cliffhanger chapters acceptable?

I'm pleased to say that I have just published the fourth in my Stephen Capel murder mysteries, A Twisted Harmony, and I've done something I never thought I would: at the end of the book, I've tagged on the first chapter of the follow-up novel An End to Innocence, which will be published in the autumn of 2017.

When I read a book and hit one of these 'bonus' chapters at the end, I tend to feel a little cheated. This is because I rarely bother to read them, so it feels like the book is shorter than it appeared to be. And the reason I don't read them is because I don't like books to leave things dangling. Inevitably, reading just the first chapter of a book leaves the reader in suspense, potentially for a long time. (It's that US habit of ending a TV series on a cliffhanger until next season.)

I made the decision to do it this time for two reasons. One is that I already really liked the way the new book was shaping up in my mind, so I wanted to get started on it straight away. And the second is that the new book continues straight on from A Twisted Harmony without any break.

So, in essence, A Twisted Harmony has two endings. You can stop reading at the conventional end of the book, where you get a nice, tied-up-loose-ends finish. Or you can continue to the bonus chapter and get yourself into cliffhanger territory. The choice is the reader's. And that, I hope, makes all the difference.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Go Go Govey

Perhaps because I've always hated team sports (to watch or play), I've never really understood the tribal politics that makes people consider politicians to be either wonderful or entirely terrible, with nothing in between. So I'm rather pleased to be able to totally agree with Michael Gove about something. Let's be clear. Gove made some ludicrous decisions while in charge of education, and acted in a totally unprincipled fashion in the post-Brexit shenanigans. However, I've just read an article by him that I can only give my whole-hearted support to.

In today's Times (I don't usually read it, but Waitrose won't give me a free i) Gove argues for the removal of charitable status from private schools. As he says, it's absolutely ridiculous that these bastions of privilege don't have to pay VAT, get an 80 per cent exemption from business rates... and apparently taxpayers even subsidise their quasi-military cadet forces. Surely there can be no reason for this to continue?

So come on, Tory-haters. Let's have three cheers for Michael Gove. (Here's the full article, which apparently you can read online if you register.)

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Molly Zero review

Revisiting some of the SF favourites from my youth, I've just read Molly Zero by Keith Roberts. This came from the second phase of Roberts' career. He started out with sub-Wyndham SF disaster novels like his The Furies featuring physically impossible giant wasps, but then wowed the literary world with his bucolic alternative history novel, Pavane, set in a modern day Britain where technology was held back to the steam level by a controlling Catholic church.

Molly Zero also feels like an alternative history novel, though it isn't. We meet the eponymous schoolgirl heroine being sent by train from the 'Blocks', where she was brought up, to another location. This could easily have just been another Brave New World derivative, but it's far more. My 1970s copy has a huge plot spoiler in its blurb (as does at least one of the Amazon pages) - I'm not going to do that, but I am about to discuss its main theme.

This book proved a particularly appropriate re-read in 2017 as, despite being a very readable adventure story, it is a fascinating study of a society that decides to withdraw from globalism. What seems at first a straightforward dystopia is, in fact, the playing out of the idea that globalism inevitably leads to rampant consumerism and eventually the attempt of governments or corporations to build empires - which then leads to mass slaughter and untold horrors. In response, British society is cut off from the world and managed by an elite. Molly experiences a number of different versions of isolationism, and though we may dislike them, we are challenged to think what really is the best approach.

So far, so brilliant. There are a few issues, though. Roberts takes the brave decision to write in the second person - so Molly is referred to throughout as 'you'. The idea of this style is to immerse the reader, but I find it really grates on me - though, to be fair, by about 50 pages in I was noticing it less. Some of the situations Molly find herself in feel rather stereotyped (though arguably they are designed to be so by the elite). I think Roberts struggled with Molly's sexuality in a way that wouldn't be an issue for a modern writer. And the ending is odd. I really can't decide whether it's terrible or very clever.

While probably not the equal of Pavane, this is a really interesting and thought-provoking book that manages never to let the message overwhelm the narrative. I'm very glad to have revisited it.

Molly Zero is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com

Monday, 20 February 2017

Are academics environmental hypocrites?

A lot of my friends on social media are academics - mostly scientists - and it sometimes seem they spend more time jetting around the world to conferences or other events than they do in the lecture theatre or undertaking research. I find this odd, as they are, on the whole, also the kind of people who are concerned about the environment. Of course, they will always come up with justifications for these jaunts, but do those excuses really stack up?

As far as I can there are broadly five reasons for flying off to distant parts:

  • Attending conference lectures/seminars
  • Poster sessions
  • The ability to network with other academics
  • To undertake onsite research (e.g. an astronomer viewing an eclipse, a marine biologist visiting a coral reef, or an archaeological going for a dig)
  • A free jolly to somewhere exotic
Let's see how each of these stacks up as justification for the massive carbon footprint that goes with being a jet-setting academic.

Attending lectures - Oh, come on. I attended conferences in my youth. You'll get one or two good talks and the rest will be dreary drones where the incompetent speaker reads his or her ludicrously over-crowded Powerpoint slides. Badly. Ridiculously easy to replace with videos/shared Powerpoints.

Poster sessions - I must admit, these didn't really exist to the same extent when I went to conferences, but I have been to a couple, and again, a virtual online poster session could work much better. You could be guaranteed to have interaction with the poster owner via an online conversation, when at the event you often can't get to the popular people to speak to them.

Networking with other academics - For me, this is probably the only justified reason for conferences. Online networking is definitely second-best. However, given environmental concerns, I'd say this is not a good enough reason for all that flying. I network with authors around the world, some of whom I've never met in the flesh, very effectively online. And when we do get a chance to meet up, because someone's in another country anyway, it's a great bonus. There's no reason why academics can't do the same.

Undertaking onsite research - This may seem to be the one there's no getting around. Except it's perfectly possible to do so. Remember, we are undertaking research on Mars without scientists taking trips there. But that's an unfair example. In some cases remote technology is well-established already. Most astronomy observations are remote these days. Is there really any need to to travel to see (say) a partial eclipse? (See illustration - incidentally, I'm not singling out this individual, it's just the first Facebook post of an academic trip I came across.) In other cases like the archaeology dig or the marine biology you probably do need a human doing the job - but why not let local academics collect the data and work with it remotely? Unless, of course, you hold the view that local academics are not up to your standards - which seems rather worrying. (Of course you could always move to a local university yourself - one-off travel is less of an issue.)

A free jolly - Ahem.

Have I oversimplified things? Certainly. There will always be good reasons for some academic travel. Nonetheless, the majority of current travel is arguably unnecessary and I suspect that most academics don't give enough consideration to the environment when making their travel plans.

This has been a Green Heretic production.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

My musical battle with Alexa

I've had a couple of Amazon Echoes in the house for a while now. I will review these remarkable voice-activated devices fully in a while, but I just wanted to share an experience that shows we're still quite a way from being able to interact freely by voice with a computer.

It's widely acknowledged that Alexa, Amazon's equivalent of Siri, has some syntax limitations. It occasionally takes two or three tries to get it to do what you want, as it's nowhere near as flexible as humans in understanding the different ways to ask for the same thing. But this example involved a very simple command that is meat and drink to Alexa - playing a piece of music.

Usually, Alexa is great for this. I have the option that allows me to dip into Amazon's 50 million plus database of tunes. So to pull up, say, the latest Ed Sheeran, is the work of moments. I can even ask for something as obscure as one of Rick Wakeman's less popular prog rock albums. (Mmm, The Myths and Legends of King Arthur! Kitsch or what?) However, stray into classical music and things can get a little more tricky.

One of the problems, is the tendency when naming a track by a popular beat combo to say 'by' where what is meant is the performer, not the composer. But worse still are the issues when the composer dares to give the music a foreign name.

For your amusement, I have put together a little video of my attempts to get Alexa to play Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Incidentally, this isn't me trying to be difficult. One of the joys of having this kind of music library available is that you can pull up something on a whim. I was cleaning the kitchen and remembered, out of the blue, hearing a bit of Verklärte Nacht once and thinking 'Mmm, I like that.' So with Amazon's vast library at my fingertips I asked for it. Once or twice. And then a few more times. (The video is a recreation.)

Incidentally, if you think I'm cheating and asking for something that isn't in the library, so Alexa will get confused easily, it is there. I used old fashion web technology to look it up and put it in a playlist with a name Alexa would understand, and it played fine. And in case you feel the urge to complain, as I say on the video, I know that Verklärte Nacht is not from Schoenberg's twelve tone period. That was intended to ironically flag up that Alexa didn't understand Schoenberg - but even humans sometimes can misinterpret a spoken command.

Take a look at my musical battle with Alexa:




Monday, 13 February 2017

Review: Roadmarks - Roger Zelazny

Already sadly half-forgotten, Roger Zelazny was one of the best science fiction/fantasy writers in the generation that came after the golden era greats like Asimov, Heinlein, Wyndham and Clarke. He often wrote in a science fiction - fantasy crossover known unimaginatively as science fantasy, which seems to have almost disappeared as a genre - and why it can be so good is demonstrated masterfully his short novel Roadmarks. It's science fantasy in that it operates like science fiction, with logical, science-based content providing the setting, but it contains a couple of off-the-wall elements that don't have any scientific basis. Arguably, the one area science fantasy has flourished is in superhero stories - but Zelazny's are far more interesting.

Although Zelazny is probably best remembered for his highly entertaining Amber fantasy series, Roadmarks is significantly more sophisticated in its approach. To begin with it's not totally clear what is going on - in a good way. You just have to go with the flow as you go from chapter 2 to chapter 1, then the next chapter 2. Objects and people seem to change without reason - but all will become clear in what is one of the best time travel stories I know. Interestingly, time travel really doesn't play much of an active part in the story, despite being the backbone of its setting. The way it is used is wonderfully casual - at one point, for example, we meet an ex-crusader making a living by washing car windscreens.

The book's one flaw is something that dogs much of Zelazny's work (and may be why he wrote with co-authors so frequently) - he appears to have been rather a quick and dirty writer. It feels like he dashed off a book, then wanted to get onto the next project. I frequently complain that books are too long, but this one could have been a bit longer. The ending for example, though effective, seems rushed. The whole thing could have done with just a little more work. But that doesn't stop it being a gem of the genre. Rereading it for the first time in 20 or more years has inspired me to go out and hunt up some more vintage Zelazny - he was, without doubt, a master of the craft.

Roadmarks is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com, but only used from Marketplace. Shockingly it appears not to be in print.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The rise of the proof-reading robots



You can't pick up a newspaper these days without seeing dire warnings that the robots are coming and are going to take our jobs. Often this dire warning is aimed at manual labour or taxi drivers or burger flippers - low paid jobs. Yet the real benefits to automation for companies will be stronger if they can replace workers getting higher financial rewards.

Any author will tell you that they are slightly in awe of editors who can go through copy word by word and spot all the little errors and foibles an author is prone to*. And the best ones are very canny about specialist areas, dealing with all kinds of technical gubbins. This editing process is an essential to creating a quality book. But some publishers appear to have decided that the role is a waste of money and can be automated.

A friend of mine is writing a book for an academic publisher.  I won't tell you which publisher it is, but their name begins with Spring and ends with er. It's a book on a technical subject and the author has just got the detailed edit back to check. It is nothing short of horrendous. It has clearly been done by a piece of software, rather than a person. Many of the corrections are downright idiotic. For example, whenever (s)he mentions 'potential energy' the edit has corrected this to 'potent energy'. And it's not even as a Word markup with the option of rejecting the 'correction' - it has just been changed.

I'm not saying that this kind of editing will forever be beyond the capabilities of a machine. And practically every professionally published book I've ever read has had a couple of errors slip through - so a competent machine providing another layer of checking would be great. But right now, this is nothing more than a joke. The technology is simply not up to it.

The poor author I mentioned is in a quandary. (It's not me, by the way!) Should (s)he reject the edit entirely and say 'Do it again!'? You have to be quite confident in your position in the author-publisher relationship to do this. Or should (s)he painstakingly work through and correct all the 'corrections'?

It's not an easy call.

* As I'm sure all good copy editors know, you can end a sentence with a preposition in you want to.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Counting on your fingers

It was interesting to see in today's paper that a neuroscientist is chiding teachers for preventing children from counting on their fingers. The practice is apparently frowned on because it is childish and it was assumed that it prevents internalisation of the numerical processing.

Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University is quoted as saying 'Teachers are stopping children using their fingers at a ridiculous age - four or five - so that has to change.' She point out that when we work something out mathematically, the brain maps this onto fingers - and better maths achievement goes hand-in-hand with better finger perception.

I think she possibly stretches this a little too far by saying 'It explains why musicians, particularly pianists, typically have a higher level of understanding of mathematics' - but apart from anything else, to discourage the use of a readily available resource seems crazy. I am happy to admit that if I am asked by a website to input the sixth character of a password I don't use regularly, I will count the letters off on my fingers - it just makes a good outcome more likely.

This whole business was also interesting as I open my new book Are Numbers Real? with a fictional account of numbers being 'invented'. It is perfectly possible to count using set theory without having numbers, and initially I suggest, the fingers might have been used as a tally - so folding fingers over as you count goats (say) out and repeating the process as you count them in. You don't need numbers to realise your hands are different if  you've lost a goat. But then it's not a huge step to realise that rather than describing the problem by showing someone your hands, you can give a name to the finger configurations - referring, say, to a 'hand' of goats. And the tally has started the transition into numbers.

We don't know how it actually happened, but it's hard to believe that fingers weren't involved in the development of numbers - making this particular dispute poignant. You can read more about my goat system (and the weird way that the maths managed to become detached from reality yet remain useful) in Are Numbers Real. And you can read the Stanford paper here.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency review

I was more than a little wary to see that Netflix had issued an eight-part series 'based on' the Douglas Adams titles Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, especially as these novels are very British, where this is a US-based series - but with a couple of quibbles, the result was very pleasing, sufficiently so that I've got through the whole thing in a couple of evenings. (It helped I was home alone.) And surprisingly this is because the TV show bears hardly any resemblance to the original books.

There's something very odd about Douglas Adams's output. I'd suggest that each of his fictional series - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dirk Gently - only properly works in one format. The HHGTTG was a superb radio series, but for me seemed forced by comparison in book form, was so-so on TV and disastrous on film. When it came to Dirk, these were novels of ideas (in part cobbled together from unused Doctor Who scripts). They were far better books the Hitchhiker novels, but seemed flabby when the BBC attempted a TV version.

The reason I'd say that the new Netflix Dirk works so well is that it takes the single, bonkers, underlying concept of the holistic detective plus a dash of the Adams humour, and throws away pretty well everything else. The gap is filled by bolting on aspects of Twin Peaks, Orphan Black and even the brilliant movie, Galaxy Quest. It probably should have been a disaster, but it works remarkably well.

Those quibbles? I don't like series endings that are all about setting up the next series. And, in places, the director would have benefited from reigning in the acting, which is often over the top. But we've got an interesting core group of characters revolving around the eccentric, thankfully still English character of Dirk himself, and a storyline that has some delightful concepts. (A weaponised kitten? Come on!) There is time travel. There is detection. There is quite a lot of gore. And there's the pleasure of a plot that seems all over the place, only to gradually fall into place.

I'm looking forward to the next one (already commissioned)...

Monday, 30 January 2017

How a crystallographer is responsible for my marriage

A crystallographer (not my tutor)
Image from Wikipedia
I was giving a talk at Bristol University last Wednesday about randomness and probability, based on my book Dice World. Following it, I got an email asking if I was really suggesting that everything that happens to us is just random, even, for instance, meeting someone and falling in love?

My response was that there is a mix of chance and choice. Chance is behind a meeting, but each party in such an occurrence then makes a series of decisions - choices - that influence the outcome. (You can argue whether those decisions are themselves pre-determined or if there really is free will, but I that's getting too philosophical for me.)

I gave my questioner the example that I would not have met, fallen in love with and married my wife if my tutor at university had not been a crystallographer.

When I started my Natural Sciences course at Cambridge I was expected to take four subjects. Three were pretty obvious - maths, physics and chemistry. But for the fourth I really wanted to do experimental psychology, as it sounded fascinating. But then I had a meeting with my tutor who, frankly, bullied me into taking crystalline state as my fourth topic. I hated the subject and dropped it as quickly as I could.

However, in an alternative universe where he had not interfered, I would have taken experimental psychology. With what I know of myself now, I believe I would have made that my specialist topic for the third year. And that means my career path would have been totally different. I wouldn't have gone on to do a Masters in operational research. As a result I wouldn't have got a job at British Airways. So I wouldn't have ended up living in a town called Langley, on the outskirts of Slough, which was handy for my place of work. And that was where I met my future wife.

I want to stress again that I'm not arguing for a life where everything is totally ruled by chance. But if we fail to acknowledge how much chance, randomness, luck - whatever you want to call it - sets up the starting position from which we have to make our decisions - we are living in a fantasy world.

Find out more about randomness, probability and their influences on our lives in  Dice World.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Breaking Breaking Bad

Netflix does all it can to understand its customers from what they watch, but I think in my case they will be more than a little confused as I have watched over 70 episodes of Breaking Bad. Yet I have never seen a single full episode of this 62 episode series.

Just in case anyone isn't aware of it, Breaking Bad has been one of the huge successes that Netflix has had with drama series. It features chemistry teacher Walter White, who takes to crime to support his family when he is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I suppose you could describe it as a dark comedy drama. And behind my unusual viewing pattern is the magazine Good Housekeeping. What else?

For many years now, I have written occasionally technology pieces for the magazine (my first editor was the delightful Aggie MacKenzie of 'Kim and Aggie from How Clean is Your House' and Storage Hoarders fame), and my most overwhelming task has been to do a large scale review of laptops (over an extended period) for their online site. Bearing in mind that GH is not BitCruncher Monthly, I wanted any measures I used to be ones related to the kind of things ordinary users actually do on their laptops. Readers are relatively unlikely to be hardcore gamers or running intensive data manipulation programs. So to assess battery life, rather than use a battery life app, which inevitably takes a very abstract, artificial approach, I decided to test the impact of watching an episode of Breaking Bad with the screen on full brightness.

Watching videos is one of the most battery intense activities many of us make, so this seemed an ideal approach. The downside is that I was dependent on the manufacturers' battery gauges, which aren't always incredibly accurate, but all were given the same 100% starting point, and in the end a subjective measure is arguably desirable because it reflects actual user experience.

So, over 70 laptops have sat on my dining table, each watching the same episode (episode 2) of Breaking Bad. (If you're a burglar, I ought to stress I am no longer doing this testing and don't even own a laptop myself. And they weren't all there at the same time.) Frankly, I am now sick of Breaking Bad. To be fair, I haven't ever sat through that episode end to end. But I've watched the opening two scenes every time as I use them to judge video quality. (There's an excellent closeup of a tap in dim lighting in the first, and the second has both a caption and a wide shot of scenery with a vivid colour range, so it's a good test.) I have seen the closing scene (the one with the little girl and the gas mask) every time. And for some reason I have seen the scene with the bathtub far more than I want to.

People keep telling me I should watch Breaking Bad because it's great. And I'm sure it is. But, honestly, I just can't face it. And anyway, it would probably confuse Netflix's algorithms even more.

Monday, 23 January 2017

It's not the media's fault we don't know our MEPs

There was a letter in the i newspaper at the weekend from a former Lib Dem MEP candidate, agreeing with an earlier letter that few people know the names of their MEPs. 'Whose fault is that?' asks Charles Bidwell of Oxford. Well, apparently Mr Bidwell gave lots of briefing papers to the local press, which they ignored, although I'm sure they were fascinating - so apparently it's all the fault of the media.

However, I'd suggest Mr Bidwell entirely misses the point. Even if the media was full of details of our local MEPs, we still wouldn't know who they were. Because they have no significance to us.

I know who my local MP is. I've emailed him a good number of times and spoken to him face to face on several occasions. I've asked about some local issues, which he has taken action on, and I've joined with others in writing to him about key national issues, which I can't say for certain has changed his opinion, but at the very least I can feel sure has been considered when he has voted for things that affect us in parliament. I know who my MP is, because he can do things for me locally, and represent me in national votes which will make things happen.

Now let's contrast that with my MEPs (I presume under the confusingly complex system I have more than one, but I haven't a clue who they are). What can they do for me locally? Nothing whatsoever. They aren't representatives who do work in a constituency. What advantage will I have from bending their ear about matters facing Europe? None whatsoever, because their role is not to represent their constituents and sway decisions like a real MP. Why should I know their names?  We have no point of connection.

Even amongst fervent remainers I'm sure there are many who, in their heart of hearts, wouldn't miss their MEPs. Because they really aren't part of our lives.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

An SF cracker - review

After enjoying Jack Glass and being blown away by The Thing Itself, I have been familiarising myself with the back-catalogue of science fiction writer Adam Roberts, and Yellow Blue Tibia is a cracker.

At first sight, the plot starts brilliantly but veers into the farcical. It begins just after the Second World War with Stalin bringing together a group of Russian science fiction writers to create a new menace to unify the people, a fiction that is then rapidly concealed - so far, a wonderful idea. But the menace the writers create seems to start becoming real an increasingly unlikely events. What Roberts manages to do, though, is to weave the same kind of magic as my favourite fantasy author, Gene Wolfe in his real-world set fantasies. When you read a Wolfe book, you know the whole thing may seem absurd, but somehow it will eventually all come together, even if you have to read it several times to real get into the depth of it. Similarly, Roberts manages in the end to tie together the unlikely and absurd threads in a way that makes a sense given some understandings of physics. It's a bit like my maths supervisor at Cambridge used to say: 'No one gets it immediately, but let it wash over you and eventually it all makes sense.' And it's very rewarding when it does.

Having said that, I don't want to give the impression that the book is a hard read. Unlike The Thing Itself, which does take some work, rewarding though it is, Yellow Blue Tibia is an easy read which works as a kind of absurd adventure story most of the time. The protagonist Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky is a great creation who would fit easily into a comic novel - of which there are elements here - but there is far more going on too. Even though this is a book dealing with 'radiation aliens' invading the Earth, the only thing I wasn't quite sure about is that much of the action takes place around the time of the Chernobyl accident in 1986 (reactor 4 acts a significant backdrop at one point), by which time Skvorecky, who suffered in the Second World War, then practically destroyed himself with alcohol, is well into his sixties, yet he seems capable of action man activity that can rival Schwarzenegger (though remarkably, even this could be explained by the book's central premise).

This is an excellent introduction to Roberts - or, for that matter, science fiction if you think it's all Star Wars and space battles. As for that title, even this comes with a twist, as it's what a phrase in Russian sounds like to the English ear. Putting the English version into Google Translate and getting it to speak the Russian clearly announces the title of Roberts' book - a trick it's almost impossible to risk showing off to someone. A cracker, indeed.

Yellow Blue Tibia is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.