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.