Brian Clegg's Blog, page 2

October 13, 2017

Every mail program has its pros and cons, but I find one function particularly valuable - the ability to snooze.

I try to keep an empty email inbox - this is it at the moment:













... so when I process my mail I typically bin it, respond to it immediately or file it. But quite often I want to put something aside and deal with it at a future time. And that's where the snooze option comes in so handy. In the software I use (Airmail 3).

Given this kind of email:









with a quick swipe or a right click + select I can choose to snooze, with a whole range of options on what to do with it:


















... it disappears, the comes back into the inbox after the selected delay. It really has transformed the way I manage email.
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Published on October 13, 2017 03:57 • 20 views

October 10, 2017

We seem to be in Philip K. Dick heaven at the moment, with the Electric Dreams short-story derived series currently on Channel 4, a third season of the excellent The Man in the High Castle on the way on Amazon and, of course, Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to what's generally considered one of the most impressive SF movies ever, (incredibly loosely) based on Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

I went to see Blade Runner 2049 at the weekend, in all the glory of IMAX - and, as everyone says, it is visually stunning. But, sad to say, there's also no doubt that it is sexist - women are almost always portrayed in relation to men, and though there are some interesting female characters, it's notable that we only see, for example, advertising for female virtual companions.

Despite this, it's a film that has interesting things to say about AIs and androids. And most of all, I think there is one significant defence of the sexism.

The original movie was released in 1982 - 35 years ago. It was set in 2019, the year after next. Now, quite clearly, 2019 will not be like the world of Blade Runner. So what to do when making a sequel to it? Clearly, the decision was made to take the world of Blade Runner as an alternative universe. This is flagged up by, for example, showing us prominent logos of brands which were big in 1982, but either don't exist anymore (Pan Am, for example) or are not the force they once then (Atari). This isn't our (hopefully) more enlightened world. This is the sexist world of the original Blade Runner, carried forward in time.

So, personally, while concerns about its approach to women need voicing, it's perhaps not as bad as it appears.

If you've not seen anything to do with it, take a look at the trailer:

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Published on October 10, 2017 09:12 • 55 views

October 2, 2017

Not an electric airliner
(Image from Wikipedia )The budget airline Easyjet got a lot of publicity recently by announcing that it had formed a partnership with Wright Electric, a firm hoping to make electric airliners. But was this impressive forward thinking and environmental planning on behalf of Easyjet, or a lavish splash of greenwash?

There is a huge problem with making an electric airliner (as opposed to a very lightweight, short range, small electric plane). Kerosene - aviation fuel - is brilliant at packing in energy. Against a conventional lithium ion battery, kerosene stores away around 100 times as much energy per unit weight. So to replace, say, 50 tonnes of fuel would require 5,000 tonnes of batteries.
Don't get me wrong. Battery technology is improving all the time - and that ratio will get significantly better. But the 10 year timescale that Easyjet was talking about seems impossibly short to achieve that kind of improvement in energy density. It may be possible eventually, but we're talking a revolutionary technology that we don't have a clue about at the moment, not a simple factor of two or three improvement as may well be possible with current technologies. That just wouldn't make for good enough batteries to power airliners.
Cars are different, of course. I love electric cars. My dream car has gone from being an Aston Martin to a Tesla. But there are a couple of things to be aware of in making the jump from cars to planes. One is that it takes vastly more energy to get a 100 tonne aircraft up into the sky (and keep it there) than to move a car along the road. The other is that when they publish range for electric cars, it's very variable due to, for example, ambient temperature. You might find yourself with 100 miles less range than you expected. That would be decidedly embarrassing at 30,000 feet - so you would need far more spare capacity than in a car.
The other big drawback to this whole idea is that even its proponents suggest it would only work for short flights - but high speed rail is increasingly making those unattractive. It's like making a better gas light around the time when electric lights are starting to become common.
So, I'm afraid, the verdict is that this is pure greenwash - it's PR not progress.

This has been a  green heretic  production.
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Published on October 02, 2017 04:20 • 47 views

September 25, 2017

I'm very pleased with my new book  Cracking Quantum Physics . It's a chunky, beautifully produced, heavily illustrated little book, designed to give beginners an idea of what quantum physics is all about.

In over 300 pages, mostly in easily digestible two-page spreads, it covers everything from our first thoughts about the nature of matter through to possibilities for quantum gravity.

One thing I do need to address, as it has already caused John Gribbin to raise a sarcastic eyebrow is the sub-title 'You, this book and 200 years of sub-atomic science.'

This book is part of a series of 'Cracking' books (Grommit) and they all have this kind of format in the subtitle, for which the author has no input.

I sort of get what the 'you, this book and...' bit means, even if it is a trifle cringe-making, but the part John was surprised about is '200 years of sub-atomic science.' What could this possibly refer to?

Arguably the first definitive sub-atomic science came in a number of discoveries that suggest bits could break off atoms or be particles that were less than atoms. These could include:

Hittorf's 1869 observation of cathode raysBequerel's 1896 discovery of radioactivityJ. J. Thomson's 1897 suggestion of the existence of the electron... but it's difficult to use even the most shaky arithmetic to get 200 years out of any of these.
I asked the publisher, and their justification is that 'Although the book starts in ancient Greece, I didn’t think anyone would be convinced by a strapline that said "2,500 years of sub-atomic science", so I thought the early 1800s was a more likely start point given Dalton’s introduction of the weight of atoms... Although not ’sub-atomic’ it is where the story gets going and gives us a nice meaty number.'
However, I think we can go one better than this by using Dalton, for which the round figure of 200 doesn't work too badly. Although we refer to Dalton's 'atomic theory', there is an implicit sub-atomic order in the (often incorrect) atomic weights that Dalton published. Without some kind of sub-atomic structure, it's hard to see how the relative weights of atoms could possibly vary by round numbers. 
So actually, despite my first puzzlement and admittedly with a touch of sophistry, I don't think it's too bad a subtitle after all. 

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Published on September 25, 2017 04:27 • 56 views

September 10, 2017

Safe space?I don't usually listen to PM's Saturday version, which tends to the populist, but I was in the car yesterday for most of a really interesting exploration of the way that students having problems at university, particularly with mental health issues, can get into a terrible state without their parents knowing, as the universities can't or won't pass on information to parents about, say, a student who doesn't attend lectures, or fails to hand in essays, because of data protection issues.

I understand the argument, but it strikes me that universities are not being exactly even handed in their approach. On the one hand we had a university representative effectively saying 'Once they are 18 they are adults, this means that someone else [i.e. parents] can't see information about them.' And a little later we were told that some universities have sophisticated monitoring systems that register every time a student goes to the library, attends a lecture or fails to hand in work. But surely, once they are 18, the university shouldn't be able to collect/see such information about them?

This point was not raised, but I suspect that the universities would say 'Yes, but they signed something saying it was okay for us to do this.' Yet at the same time we had an academic saying that it would be difficult to let students sign something saying that it would be okay for the university to alert their parents if something is going wrong. What if they changed their minds, she asked? So? What if they changed their minds about the university knowing each time they went to the library?

This sounds very much like double standards, and universities being happy to work around data protection when it's for their benefit, but not when it's for student welfare. According to the programme around 90% of first year students would like their parents to be alerted if something seems to be going wrong. Perhaps it's time a little of those fees the students are amassing as debt should go to supporting them better?
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Published on September 10, 2017 01:32 • 21 views

August 20, 2017

I've recently made an executive decision to add science fiction to the Popular Science book review site. For some time now I've been doing SF reviews on this blog, but it seemed more sensible to move them over to the science book review site.

In part, this is because there was already some fiction on there. I'd featured a number of SF (and maths fiction) books which claimed to concentrate on serious science, using fiction as a way to get it across. So, the borderline was already a little fuzzy.

It's also the case that many popular science readers (and scientists) enjoy reading science fiction too - so why not put them together? The Popular Science site will still carry just as many reviews of popular science books - but with a little added SF to spice things up.

To kickstart it, I've duplicated all the SF reviews from this site, and will be going live with the first all-new fiction review this week.

I'll still continue to review other fiction (e.g. fantasy or crime) here that doesn't fit with the science remit. I hope you agree this is a sensible move - do take a look and feel free to let me know either way!
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Published on August 20, 2017 04:40 • 41 views

August 18, 2017

I've a couple of copies of my latest mystery novel, An End to Innocence on a Goodreads giveaway - details below. If you're a Goodreads member, you can put yourself in the running with a click.



 

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    Goodreads Book Giveaway
 

   
        An End to Innocence by Brian Clegg
   

   
     
          An End to Innocence
     
     
          by Brian Clegg
     

     
         
            Giveaway ends August 25, 2017.
         
         
            See the giveaway details
            at Goodreads.
         
     
   
   


    Enter Giveaway



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Published on August 18, 2017 02:00 • 5 views

August 17, 2017

Communication is essential for any business or organisation - and the internet has made the need for written communication even more demanding. Yet most staff working in those organisations will have had no help with their writing skills since school.

I'm delighted to be part of a new venture, Writing Project, set up by but separate from the Royal Literary Fund. It has on tap a fantastic collection of writers, providing a cornucopia of professional experience in every form of writing, all adept at making written communication sing.

Writing Project offers a range of services, notably audits of clients' written material and workshops - there are some example of the workshops offered below, though these can be tailored to the clients' needs.

This venture has been under development and gradually taking shape for a couple of years, led from centres in Bristol and Birmingham, though its reach is UK-wide. It's worth consideration by any business or organisation that is serious about its communications.

Here are the workshop topics:

Our tailored writing workshops develop writing skills and stimulate confidence at work. All our trainers are professional published authors with at least two years' experience in writing skills development. A workshop can last from two hours to a full day, or longer. This list of workshops is not exhaustive and we'll be happy to create a workshop especially for you.
You’ll come away with a new approach to writing and the confidence to write effectively. Get in touch to find out how we can help (our numbers are below).

Who Are You Writing For?
Knowing your audience is crucial. This workshop will help you communicate clearly and concisely to the people you want to influence. Participants will learn key writing and editing skills and boost their confidence in shaping their message for different clients/stakeholders.

Use More Engaging Language
There's often too much jargon and over-used vocabulary in professional communications. This workshop will experiment with fresh language and explore the use of metaphor and simile. It aims to provide tools for more engaging phrase- making and find alternatives for tired and unimaginative phrases.

Edit Yourself Better
Save management time by creating better first drafts. Using examples from your organisation, and others generated during the workshop, this session provides practical techniques for effective editing. Learn to re-structure, summarise, and make documents more accessible to your target audience. Experiment with editing your own and colleagues' writing.

Understanding Your Narrative
Narratives define who we are and what we do. Organisations need stories that clearly depict what they represent, why they exist, and where they are going. This workshop will help you define your story and express it memorably. We will look at how to foreground your USP and other stand-out elements of your organisation within a coherent narrative that will engage your customers and stakeholders.
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Writing Press Releases
Snappy, factual, story-driven: press releases must be all these things if they are to grab a journalist's attention and get your message across. This workshop focuses on how to identify your core message, craft punchy headlines, and construct press releases that the media will want to publish.

Email Etiquette
Casual and friendly? Precise and official? Somewhere in between? This workshop discovers how to set the appropriate tone for your emails, both in-house and to other organisations. Explore the question of language register, how to establish authority and show tact in response – and learn how to self-edit before hitting 'send'.

Blogging and Social Media
Who do you want to engage? What image do you want to project? How do you find your desired audience and communicate your message in a tone that will keep them on your side? Participants will experiment with different voices and tones to attract interest, and discover techniques for building a compelling online presence as well as keeping up the momentum.

Writing Marketing Documents
Learn how to fine-tune public documents to attract and win over your target readership. Based on your organisation's own marketing/PR materials, this workshop shows how to hone your style and tone to convey the optimum public image/brand identity.

Note-taking Techniques
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you collect and collate. This workshop looks at ways to analyse information as you record it, and how to be strategic, concise and accurate in your note-taking. It also looks at selecting for relevance and priority in your notes, so that you can put what matters first.

(Charity professionals) Bid Writing and Grant Proposals
If you're seeking funding, this workshop will help you create powerful and effective
bids, proposals, and letters to potential donors. Written communication skills will be honed and polished through an understanding of the process, attention to structure, clarity of intention, and imaginative ways to engage different audiences.

(Creative industries) Writing an Artist Statement
An artist statement is one of the most important pieces of writing an artist or maker
produces. Learn how to present your work and yourself in the best possible light and shade. This session will show you how to design a template that is adaptable to different audiences and revisable as your practice evolves throughout your career.

To talk about your writing needs or book a Writing Project workshop, get in touch with Julian Evans or Meg Sanders at writebetter@writingproject.co.uk or phone 07811 323664 or 07813 785424 
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Published on August 17, 2017 06:01 • 10 views

August 11, 2017

The latest self-pubbed Capel
novel, An End to Innocence I've been a professional writer for over 20 years, but when I first started to get into writing, I wrote a number of novels which, despite getting positive feedback from publishers, never made it into print. For a long time they languished in the electronic equivalent of the back of a drawer, but the relative ease of modern self-publishing made me wonder if it was worth digging them out - and it has been a really positive experience.

I've now published five of my Stephen Capel detective novels - three written way back when and just updated to introduce trendy aspects such as mobile phones, plus two written over the last couple of years. I used Amazon's Createspace platform, and though it appears somewhat overwhelming to start with, if you take it steadily it is surprisingly painless.

For the interior of the book, I've used the Createspace formatted Word template on offer to download, which provides a very professional looking layout. The default page size is 6x9, but that's rather large for a typical mass market paperback, so I opted instead for 5x8. One early lesson from getting a printed proof is to go for cream paper rather than white, which yells 'self published' at the reader.

Similarly, for the cover I made use of a template - the PDF version - which I read into my graphics editor and used as a backdrop layer to set up the cover. It is possible to use a built-in cover designer on Createspace, but assembling your own allows for a lot more flexibility.

Once you've got the basics in, it's really important to print off a proof copy, both to make sure the layout works well and so someone else can proofread it - one thing the professional publishing process has hammered into me is that it's very difficult to spot all the mistakes in your own writing, and a proofreader makes all the difference.

Then it's just a matter of a final on-screen check and pressing the button to get publication in motion. (There's a bit more fiddling around over pricing and distribution, but it's straightforward.) You can have a finished copy of your book dropping through the letterbox within a few days. And your book can get to your readers even faster as a few more clicks sends it through to KDP - the Kindle development platform, providing a professional ebook finish, again via Amazon. One useful tip here picked up from the pros, is it's a good idea to do a slight variant on your book interior for the Kindle version, moving the copyright page to the back of the book.

Then all you have to do is make the world aware of your book - the hardest part, I suspect. I've had very positive feedback from readers who aren't friends and relations - but it is difficult to become visible in this kind of market. Even if the books don't become bestsellers, though, it's great that there's a chance for people to see them rather than leave them at the bottom of that fusty virtual drawer.

If you're interested, you can see all my fiction offerings here, mostly at the bargain prices of £6.99 for a paperback and £1.99 for a Kindle copy.
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Published on August 11, 2017 01:56 • 29 views

August 4, 2017

Every now and then I like to re-read an SF classic, and there are rarely safer hands to be in than those of Pohl and Kornbluth. I was surprised as I got into it that I couldn't remember a thing about this book - I suspect it's because despite featuring a number of 'adventure' scenes, it is so cerebral. And that is a limitation - but its one that reflects a daring and impressive piece of writing.

Wolfbane starts with what seems to be a fairly straightforward 'rebel in a straight laced society of the future' storyline, with the 'What's in it for me?' main character Glenn Tropile getting in trouble in a society where everything is buttressed by ritual and formality - but that's just the beginning. We get an Earth that has been ripped away from the solar system, just about kept alive by the Moon, recreated as a sunlet every few years. And we have some of the most enigmatic and alien aliens I've come across, pyramids that rarely move and that harvest people to use as components in their technology.

There is drama here, when Tropile is threatened with death by having his spinal fluid drunk - and when the main characters are taken to the aliens' base and attempt to win back control of their world and lives - yet even that battle for survival has a strangely detached character, in part because, by now, some of those people have ceased to be truly human.

So don't pick this book up if you want a page turner or beautifully crafted characterisation, but as a science fiction novel of ideas, despite its inevitably dated feel - the original version dates back to 1959 - it is up there with the best. Writer and SF enthusiast Edmund Crispin comments on the back that it combines 'Pohl's sensibility and Kornbluth's ruthlessness' - I'd say that Kornbluth had the upper hand if that's the case, as this one of the purest and most ruthless pieces of science fiction writing I've ever encountered.

Wolfbane is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com
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Published on August 04, 2017 06:12 • 11 views