Friday, 19 August 2016

Wonderful things

Although most of my work remains in the non-fiction arena, I'm an enthusiastic writer of both crime and science fiction, and as far as SF goes, I have a number of short stories published. The journal Nature, which carried my story Wonderful Things, put together an interesting podcast, intertwining input based on my story and reflections on an opinion piece from Nature proper, both of which concern the very long-term future handling of nuclear waste.

You can read the short story here, and you can listen to the podcast here - the segment is only a few minutes long, accessed from the 'One million years from now' play button on the left hand side of the page once you've clicked through (see illustration to right).

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Thinking Musically - review

It's difficult to know exactly how to classify Thinking Musically. It isn't a science of music book, though it does have a small amount of scientific content. Nor can it really be considered a basic music theory book, given it never mentions musical notation. I can best describe it as a book that gives a feel for what's going on in music without getting technical, so the reader can get think through, for instance, why some music sounds happy and other pieces sad, simply as a result of choosing a particular 'palette' of notes.

We start with some basics on the nature of sound and pitch. These are illustrated using wiggly side to side (roughly sinusoidal) waves to represent sound waves. Uri Bram and Anupama Pattabiraman qualify this by saying 'This is the easiest way to imagine what a wave looks like, even if it's not 100% accurate.'  That's fine, but it really wouldn't have been hard to explain that in reality sound is a compression wave, with alternating squashed up and thinner air, so the model waves they use could be considered a picture of higher and lower pressure areas.

The tone throughout the slim volume (I read it in a couple of hours) is light and conversational. This mostly works well, though when the authors resort to humour it can be rather wince-making, as when they suggest twanging a rubber band repeatedly close to someone's ear, then say 'What, you actually did it? We were kidding. Oh dear.' Oh dear.

I liked the way that Bram and Pattabiraman emphasised the importance of relative pitch, illustrating it with a coffee shop cups metaphor, and showing how, for example, semitones cannot be equally spaced but depend on that relative spacing. To be honest, though, I got a bit bored by the lengthy description of how the notes fit on a piano keyboard and how they are named. However, things got interesting again once we got onto scales, especially when exploring the way that different but consistent spacing sequences separate major and minor, though why the authors had to drag the obsolete tonic sol-fa system in, I'm not sure - it only served to obscure.

Something that came through strongly in this section was a need for wider context. Almost all references were to pop music, which led to the suggestion that almost all Western music uses the conventional scales - but this ignores pretty well all serious music pre-Bach (when, for example, in one period music was often effectively written in a different key in the same piece depending on whether the line is ascending or descending) and much serious music written post 1900 when traditional scales are often ignored. In fact, all the way through I felt I'd like a bit more. For instance in page 75 there's a reference to the tritone interval, considered the work of the devil (figuratively) in the Middle Ages, but just 7 pages earlier, the authors highlight the striking second note of the song Maria from West Side Story, without pointing out that the interval that makes it sound so dramatic... is a tritone.

All in all, this is a really interesting little book (perhaps a little overpriced for its length), presenting music basics in an interestingly different way, but it could do with a little filling out with context - both in musical history and, perhaps, some more stories about composers and musicians much as a good popular science book might tell us about scientists - to keep the interest going.

Thinking Musically is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Are those clip-on lenses worth it? - review

I don't know about you, but I've always wondered if those clip-on lenses for smartphone cameras were worth using. I've had a chance to try a couple out, and here's what I thought:

A modern smartphone has a camera that is more than adequate for most of the everyday snaps we take - and having the camera with you all the time more than outweighs any disadvantage from having a single, non-zoom lens. But there are occasions when you really would like to have a telephoto lens to get closer to the action, or to take a landscape shot, homing in on a particular detail. Although you can zoom digitally, this drastically reduces the resolution, often producing fuzzy pictures.

The clip-on telephoto lens I tried, the niftily named Havit HV-MPC04, provides a decent optical 2x telephoto to get in closer to your subject without noticeable loss of quality. It's a good looking lens and produces clear, effective shots (in the photos alongside, the side-by-side photo shows the straight camera image and the same image with the telephoto lens in place). The lens, which comes with a cap, attaches easily to a clip, fitting over the top of the phone as shown. By looking through the lens itself it's easy to see when it's aligned with the phone's camera, and then the camera is simply used as normal.

The lens comes in a robust if surprisingly large hard case, making it easy to pop in the pocket and have ready for use. The make-or-break here is whether you are prepared to carry the separate lens with you all the time, and to take the time to remove it from the case and clip it on when you want to take the relevant shot.

I suspect I won't carry it all the time, but I will have it with me on occasions I feel I might need to get that telephoto image - on walks, for instance, or on holiday - and I am sure that my photographs will be significantly better as a result. A 2x magnification may not seem vast, but for shots of scenery or wildlife it will seriously improve the final image.

The Havit HV-MPC04 is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.



I also tried out a wide-angle lens from the same manufacturer (the Havit HV-MPC03), which is very similar in concept, but gives a wider view. The case and operation are identical and here's the side-by-side view with the basic camera shot on the left.

I think I'm likely to use this less than the telephoto, but it will sometimes come in for those shots - for instance of a building in a city - where you can't get far enough away from the subject.

The Havit HV-MPC03 is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing review

Because it's from a university press, I must admit I expected Streaming, Sharing, Stealing to be a somewhat dull economic textbook - but in reality it is a great read and a cracking business book, giving the clearest explanation I've ever seen of what is happening to three arms of the entertainment business - book publishing, music and TV/film - in the face of the internet/digital revolution.

In that sense the title is misleading, as it seems to suggest that a major focus is music sharing and piracy. This is certainly is covered, but is dismissed as the relatively easy part. Like most of the analysis in the book, here Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang make sure that their views are backed up with as much experimental data as possible - and there appears to be good evidence that piracy isn't too big a deal, provided it's made easy to get access to legal digital versions in a timely fashion. It's where the publishers/networks either have poor online access or delay it til after, say, a DVD or hardback comes out that problems arise.

However, the main issue that Smith and Telang cover is the challenge that book and music publishers and the film studios/TV networks face in dealing with the internet giants. As the authors point out, the entertainment industries coped fine with new technology throughout the 20th century because they had control of the source material and distribution, and so were complacent when faced with the internet. But here, several major changes came together - Smith and Telang draw a parallel with the 'perfect storm' - and the old big names are potentially in trouble. The authors show how Amazon, iTunes and Netflix (as key examples) mean real trouble for those who used to pull the strings, particularly because of the newcomers' access to customer data, and ability to give customers what they are looking for, rather than just put out what they think customers might want and hope.

The analysis is often brutal and displays some outcomes from experiment that might surprise the publishers. For example, they found that when ebooks or digital versions of TV and film came out at the same time as DVDs and hardbacks, the overall take went up, but if they were held back to let more expensive DVDs and hardbacks have first shot - which was the traditional model used by most publishers and studios - digital sales plummeted, because digital users didn't buy the hardback/DVD instead, but either got a pirate version or just went for something else.

As well as individual lessons like this, the book does offer a little hope for the beleaguered publishers and studios as long as they can change their mindset - but it also seems likely that they will be like Kodak in the photography business, leaving it too late. As the authors make clear, it's not enough for individual publishers or studios to have their own online store, because few customers actually know or care who their favourite author/band is published by, or which network or studio produced what they want to watch. The only hope is if the content providers can band together and have a joint digital location with timely releases. But this doesn't augur well, as the the one attempt the networks have made, Hulu, has been shackled, forcing advertising and late releases on it.

If you are interested in the media and how the digital age is threatening the old world and transforming our entertainment environment, you need to read this book.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Ticket to Ride: Europe - review

If, like me, you have no interest in the Olympics (or even if you do) you might feel for the need for a distraction - and if you do,  I can heartily recommend the Ticket to Ride board game.

For between two and five players, the game involves building rail routes across Europe. To build the routes you need cards with appropriately coloured wagons, picked up two at a time as a go in the game, and there are various additional considerations to cover, such as a set of specific routes you need to build if you are to have a chance of winning (allocated by randomly selected cards), and a bonus for the player with the longest single route at the end of the game.

The play is an excellent balance of luck (how you build your route is dependent on which cards you pick up) and strategy/tactics, meaning that a good player will usually win, but a less skilled player can win occasionally, so doesn't feel it's pointless to try. You don't have to be interested in trains, by the way - that part is almost incidental - it's effectively about building a network.

To begin with it seems almost impossible to remember everything you are trying to do, but players soon develop strategies that make for a good chance of winning... if it weren't for your opponents. With two taking part there is relatively limited interaction between the players, though even here one will often block the other - with four or five playing, the whole blocking business becomes a major part of the game. If someone gets in your way, you either go round them (and hopefully block them back), or can use a station to piggyback on their line - but this loses you points and means you can't get the longest route.

A two player game typically takes about half an hour, with time increasingly proportionately with number of players. It's addictive and great fun - highly recommended. You can also get other areas of the world, and expansion packs that add extra rules and complications.

Ticket to Ride: Europe is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Friday, 12 August 2016

The joy of passphrase

I have come across several articles in the last day or two saying that we don't need to worry about remembering impossible passwords like K@tn1p anymore, because it has been discovered that passphrases - simply longish text phrases without gaps - are just as difficult for hackers to work out as those ridiculous passwords.

This may be true - but there are still some issues with passphrases. One is remembering just which of your favourite phrases or lines from poetry or whatever you used. Was it 'ivegotthisterrificpaininallthediodesdownmyleftside' or 'theearthismostlyharmless'? What if you misquote your phrase when you set it? And while a random guessing program may struggle to identify my phrase as 'allscienceiseitherphysicsorstampcollecting', might this be an easy guess to someone familiar with my writing?

Most of all, though, how many times are you going to type in 'tobeornottobethatisthequestion' only to be told YOUR PASSWORD MUST CONTAIN AT LEAST ONE CAPITAL, ONE NUMBER AND ONE WEIRD CHARACTER, SO DO IT AGAIN, IDIOT

Yes, it probably is a good idea, but maybe not the universal panacea those articles seem to suggest.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Grammar dilemma

MGS did me proud - but we don't need more
(as it happens it's not a grammar school now)
There is some talk of the government allowing expansion of grammar schools (high schools that only admit the brighter students, not the US use of the term) - which I suspect would be a terrible idea.

Like Theresa May, I benefited from a grammar school education and loved it, and had I not attended Manchester Grammar School, it's highly probable I would not have got into Cambridge. But the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it's typical bad analysis driven by individual experience, rather than a proper critical assessment.

As far as I can see there are two problems with grammar schools. The biggest is that they are fine for those who attend - but the remaining students who get sent of to what were called secondary moderns, in effect a second class school, suffer from this process. As a result of a single test - one that is typical of the type of test that only monitors the ability to pass that test - children are separated into sheep and goats. Families are divided. And you can say all the nice words you like about how there is no 'second best' - the fact remains that the non-grammar schools, whatever they choose to call them now, get a lower quality of teaching staff than the grammars and become educational dead ends.

The second issue is that all the actual data-driven evidence points to very little enhancement of that key driver for the supporters of grammar schools (or so they say), social mobility. When comparisons are made with comprehensives, there is little difference on the measures generally used.

It might sound as if there is an inconsistency between my comment about going to Cambridge and the previous paragraph. I was the first from my mostly working class family to go to university, and MGS helped me get to that hallowed location. The reason I say this is that what I do think is true is that grammar schools were better at taking on private schools in providing the kind of edge the top universities are looking for in a candidate.  I would still have gone to university, but not to Cambridge. And that is a different measure from social mobility. I think it says more about the unfair advantages provided to private school students than it does about the benefits of grammar schools.

I'm not against streaming. Comprehensives should, and often do teach different ability students in different ways. And just because you are great at, say, maths and science, doesn't mean you'll be good at languages. Streaming is a much more flexible tool than selective schooling. But grammar schools, I would suggest, are designed to address entirely the wrong problem - how to compete with private schools. And they should be entirely removed, not encouraged.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Sandlands - Rosy Thornton - review

Traditional holiday reading involves the huge, wrist-bending saga, but my favourite books to take away on a break are collections of short stories. There's something about the ephemeral nature of short stories that fits perfectly with that strangely detached-from-reality feeling of being on holiday. This year I'm opting for three very different collections: The Collected Stories of Grace Paley, Rogues - an SF and fantasy collection edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois - and, first, Sandlands by Cambridge academic and novelist Rosy Thornton.

It's a bit of generalisation, but I'd say short stories fall into two broad categories - there are mood pieces, which don't necessarily have much of a story, but give the feel of a place or time or person, and there are twist-in-the-tail pieces, where we think we know what's happening, but at some point, often near the end, we find that things are very different from expectation. Many of Rosy Thornton's stories in Sandlands are an interesting hybrid, where a lot is about a sense of place (that place mostly being Suffolk, near Aldborough), but the twist in the tail becomes more of a connection in the tail, where something occurring in that distinctive landscape suddenly and intimately ties into an aspect of the protagonist's life.

This is distinctly reminiscent of the importance of location in the work of one of my favourite authors, Alan Garner. Garner's mostly Cheshire landscapes influence and inhabit his characters, and there is no doubt that Thornton also brings the East Anglian countryside and its inhabitants in that particular corner of Suffolk - both human or animal - into the storytelling to have a powerful effect on the protagonists' lives. As the cover suggests, one of those animals is a barn owl, whose ghostly presence acts as a kind of mute guardian - but there is also a white deer, an injured fox and many more to add to the collection. Another frequent theme running through the stories is death, though not in a morbid sense, more as another of the everyday fixtures of life close to the land.

It's difficult to review individual stories, because to describe them in any detail can give too much away. However it doesn't do any harm to pick out some little points - I was particularly impressed with the link in the tail of the story featuring the fox, which also brings in the sogginess of an East Anglian landscape feeling the brunt of climate change (not to mention the impact of sea level rise). And the story involving the owl, again like the best of Alan Garner, has a poignancy that spans time as well being imbued with the sense of place. The variety was excellent, whether it was an electronic ghost story for the twenty-first century or a sadly rare story that brings in one of my favourite places, Cambridge, where the stark University Library plays its part (though the Suffolk coast is still more important).

Just occasionally the link in the tail was slightly predictable - although I loved the almost tangible atmosphere of a story mostly set in a church tower ringing chamber, I saw the ending coming a mile away. There was also a story where an academic stood in for vicar on maternity leave, where the concept was wonderful, but the overall feel was let down by inaccurate details of village church life - rather than a single stand-in, key to the story, such gaps are in practice dealt with using a hotchpotch of cover from local clergy - and the idea that a village PCC would be able to offer funds to regularly subsidise events the way this one does just doesn't ring true.

These, however, were small isolated points that only surface for the very picky reader in an otherwise delightful landscape of story. And, of course, one of the joys of a short story collection is that even if one story isn't quite your cup of tea (I should emphasise I enjoyed even those two), another one will be along soon with a totally different protagonist and storyline.

All in all a wonderful collection that will play with your emotions, deliver over and over, and often make you pause at the end of the story to savour its impact. 

Sandlands is available from amazon.co.uk now and amazon.com from October 2016.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Does antimatter matter?

Cloud chamber image of the first observed positron
(Source: Wikipedia)
When I was a teenager and ill I used to revert to childhood reading - Famous Five and the like. Recently confined to bed with norovirus, I found that all my brain could cope with was guff such as the output of Dan Brown, so I gritted my teeth and read Angels and Demons. As always with Brown, most of the 'fact' content of the book was anything but factual. However, I thought it would be worth a quick trip into the nature of the central McGuffin of the story, antimatter. It may be Brown's super bomb and the power source of the fictional USS Enterprise, but it is real.

Antimatter is like the familiar stuff that makes up our world, but charged particle have the opposite charge (it's a little more complicated with uncharged particles). Instead of negative electrons, antimatter has positive anti-electrons, better known as positrons. Replacing positive protons in the nucleus, an anti-atom would have negatively charged anti-protons. It’s possible in principle to do anything with antimatter that can be done with ordinary matter. You could build an anti-table or an anti-house on an anti-world as long as you can handle the material. Antimatter has mass and behaves much like ordinary matter does (though as mentioned previously on this blog, it's just possible that it doesn't have quite the same attitude to gravity). But don’t expect to go out and buy some. Doing anything practical with antimatter is tricky. When matter and antimatter get together, both are destroyed, converted into pure energy.

The simplest reaction between the two is when an electron and a positron combine. The mass of the particles is converted into energy in the form of two photons of light (gamma rays), the amount predicted by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 – the energy produced is equal to the combined mass of the particles multiplied by the square of the speed of light. Because of this tendency to annihilate, very little free antimatter is found in the universe - at least anywhere we can see.

There is still a debate about where all the antimatter has gone. The Big Bang, starting with pure energy, should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, which then could wipe each other out, reverting to a universe full of energy. That this didn’t happen is usually explained by assuming that subtle differences in the properties of matter and anti-matter meant that there was a little extra matter left over. As few as one particle in a billion may have survived the initial matter/anti-matter wipe-out. But that was enough. However, this story is speculative at best at the moment.

The amount of energy generated from the interaction of matter and antimatter is vast. One kilogram of matter/antimatter coming together would produce around 1017 joules (1 with seventeen 0’s after it). That’s the energy output of a decent sized power station running for six years. However, don't expect, as Dan Brown appears to think, that antimatter is a new and wonderful power source. It's just a way to store energy - it takes significantly more energy to make the antimatter than is released when it annihilates. It's not a source of energy in the way a fuel in the way that sunlight or gas or radioactive materials are - instead it's more like a battery where you can store a vast amount of energy in a very small space. It's a battery with serious attitude.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Celebrating pure research

There is often a degree of desperation in the way that some scientists try to justify expenditure on pure research by pointing out spinoff benefits. Such benefits certainly exist, but often they are spurious as a justification, because it would be easily possible to derive the same benefits for far less money. The fact is that fundamental research is important in its own right and its proponents shouldn't attempt this kind of indirect benefit claim.

I was struck by this recently when reading a not-atypical defence of the expenditure on CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, by saying 'the biggest impact of CERN on humanity has not been the discovery of the Higgs boson but rather the invention of the World Wide Web.' The author went on to point out how much commercial business the web generates.

I'm afraid this is both iffy justification and bad history of technology. I'm not doing down what Tim Berners-Lee achieved. But the web, or something like it, was a technology waiting to happen. The internet was already well-established. The whole idea of hyperlinked documents goes back to Ted Nelson's work in the mid-60s. The architecture might have turned out subtly different, and CERN certainly kickstarted things, but something like this was on the (hyper)cards.

It's difficult, but I think scientists need to be brave and should not try to justify this kind of work in terms of its spinoffs, any more than NASA should try to do this in its occasional feeble attempts to excuse expenditure on a space programme by the spinoffs. We should be finding out about our universe because it's what makes us human and makes life worthwhile. Let's celebrate pure research, not try to turn it into a weakly argued generator of novelties.

Monday, 1 August 2016

At Cross Purposes - Review

This is a narrow focus review: if, like me, you are fond of church music and the Anglican cathedral choral tradition (something I was introduced to age 18 on joining a Cambridge college chapel choir), read on.

Most of us are probably aware that the big cathedrals have professional organists and semi-pro choirs, working at the highest levels of musical performance. In his memoirs, Michael Smith, organist and choirmaster at Llandaff Cathedral from 1974 to 1999, gives the inside story of what was often a battle to maintain such singing standards. This might sound a touch dull - and there certainly are many small and personal events in this 400 page book, but for those who are interested there are also some fascinating stories, from a murder to legal threats, conspiracy and downright managerial incompetence.

LLandaff was unique among the Welsh cathedrals in keeping up a full scale cathedral choir contribution, singing services six days a week, with a choir of boys and men. The men, as at most major cathedrals, were paid a relative pittance for a job they loved, in theory in combination with accommodation and other opportunities, though the accommodation part was one of the many battles Smith would have with the management of the cathedral: the Dean and chapter.

In keeping the cathedral choir going through many musical successes, Smith had two big problems. One was the bizarre setup at Llandaff: the cathedral was also a parish church, and effectively operated with two separate management structures, even two choirs and totally separate services. This inevitably led to clashes of priority and finances. The other, even bigger, issue was that the management of the relationship between Smith and his employer, the Dean and chapter, was disastrous. Rather than talk about things, everything seemed to be done through letters - which usually seemed to be entirely ignored by the management side. This led to Smith's house becoming dangerously in need of repairs, a total mismatch of salary to other cathedral organists and constant battles over every little detail from who paid the phone bill to a dodgy piano. Other problems arose from the cathedral choir school, which provided the boys for the choir and whose management also seemed both to have serious issues and to be at odds with the school's role as a choir school.

What also comes through strongly is the way that Smith's devotion to a tradition remained constant while society's views gradually shifted, resulting in some unfortunate clashes, all documented here. I can relate to this change in attitude. When I was at school, I sang in a highly rated choir that provided the boys' parts for pieces performed by the HallĂ© Orchestra and the regime was strict. I can remember things being thrown at choir members who weren't paying attention and others getting detentions just for turning to round to see who had come into a room during a choir practice. Smith never resorted to this kind of  regime, but getting a choir to a professional level requires a professional approach, which he had both to his choirs an the music examinations he supervised - and in both cases, towards the end of his career, he was probably unfairly censured for his strictness, at one point being suspended for several months over highly inflated allegations.

Bitterness is a major part of this memoir - combining someone who, I suspect, was always going to be quite a difficult employee with terrible management, leading to a disastrous inability to communicate and get things done. Yet despite that, magnificent music continued to be made. Occasionally an inflexibility comes through that suggests this wasn't entirely one-sided. Smith was, for instance, incredibly reluctant to perform anything in Welsh, despite this being a Welsh cathedral. And he occasionally displayed the musical preferences of a different age when the big hymn books refused to print Welsh tunes because they were too lowbrow: this comes through when he considers the great Welsh tune Blaenwern more suited to a chapel than a cathedral. Yet at the same time there was no doubt that Llandaff was punching far above its weight musically thanks to Smith's efforts.

Whether he is describing conducting wonderful anthems and choral works, gadding around the country and abroad to conferences and to administer music examinations, or taking up Kleeneze sales and market research in an attempt to bolster a meagre income, there's a poignant honesty in these memoirs. It's not a laugh a minute - at times the annual cycle of events can seem to go on for ever - but if you are interested in how this great musical tradition somehow survives against remarkable odds, it's well worth reading Michael Smith's account.

At Cross Purposes is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

You can hear Michael Smith's choir in action here in a rather fuzzy recording:

Friday, 29 July 2016

Too much or too little change?

This isn't a post about Brexit per se - though I am pleased to discover that as yet the sky seems not to have fallen in - but about an interesting paradox.

I was listening to David Aaronovitch's programme about how remainers feel now, broadcast on Radio 4 last night. After a range of interviews, there was a discussion with a couple of people in the studio. One of the questions asked was whether they thought that the same result would have happened in 10 or 15 years time. As Aaronovitch pointed out it's not as obvious an outcome as you might think. The typical reaction might be 'No, because many of the older voters will have died off, so the younger voters, weighted to remain would triumph.' But, of course, it's entirely possible that as younger voters got older they might change their mind - and in 10 to 15 years, the EU might be in such a mess that withdrawing would be even more popular.

However, the paradox arose in a comment analysing why older voters might be more in favour of leaving the EU, which was put down to their being more uncomfortable with change, and so less happy about the way the UK is changing as a result of being in the EU. There could, indeed, be some truth in this. But here's the thing. Leaving the EU is change. A vote for remain was actually a vote to avoid change. Bizarrely, the argument seems to be that apparently in order to move away for change, leavers voted for change. I suspect the driver was not so much a fear of change (the classic metropolitan elite view of what happened) as a desire for change. Whether or not that change is a good thing is an entirely different issue - but change we certainly got. (Unless we're a Labour party leader, of course.)