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Category — Science & Technology

An Electric Car (at least part of the time…)

There is a time when old­er vehi­cles start to become rather expen­sive to keep run­ning, and with both our main vehi­cle, a 2001 Free­lander, and our sec­ond car, a 2001 Focus that was a gift from friends, hav­ing had expen­sive or poten­tial­ly expen­sive prob­lems recent­ly (and the Free­lander has very near­ly done the equiv­a­lent of going to the Moon), we thought it was time to con­sid­er some­thing rather newer.

As we are try­ing to become rather green­er in our lifestyles, an elec­tric vehi­cle would be the ide­al. But frankly, as it stands today, we can’t get the range from a ‘pure’ elec­tric vehi­cle to do the sort of things we need to do (which includes a 200-mile round-trip once a week in my case, and more occa­sion­al long-dis­tance trips, for exam­ple to Scot­land). So the obvi­ous thing to do was to look at hybrids. There is no way I could con­sid­er buy­ing one new (and in fact I haven’t bought a new car since the 1970s, when some­one wrote it off for me a few weeks after I bought it. I have this fun­ny idea about not adding any new cars to the road…).

But what kind of hybrid? The obvi­ous was one of the Toy­ota mod­els. They’re built in the UK as far as I know, and they have a rep­u­ta­tion for excel­lent build qual­i­ty. But again, even a sec­ond-hand Prius was rather more than I had in mind price­wise. The next one down was a used Auris hybrid, and a very nice-look­ing car it is. A friend who knows the car said it behaved very well and was actu­al­ly rather nippy.

How­ev­er, although the Auris deliv­ers good fuel effi­cien­cy – some­where in the 75 mpg range I believe – it, like its bed­fel­lows, is nev­er a strict­ly “elec­tric vehi­cle” – the wheels are dri­ven by a com­bi­na­tion of inter­nal com­bus­tion engine (ICE) and elec­tric motors. So you can nev­er turn the ICE off. But while we need­ed a car that could do longer jour­neys (I would like ulti­mate­ly to get us down to one car if at all pos­si­ble), a lot of our dri­ving is around Cam­bridgeshire and envi­rons. That meant that anoth­er type of hybrid was actu­al­ly more suit­ed to our require­ments: a PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Elec­tric Vehicle).

In a PHEV, the wheels are always dri­ven by elec­tric motors. This is a Good Thing as the dri­ve train is much sim­pler (and thus, one hopes, more reli­able) and much more effi­cient than all that engine-and-gear­box stuff. And you just put your foot down and go. The vehi­cle is pow­ered by bat­ter­ies, and you recharge them by plug­ging it in. But, and it’s an impor­tant and pos­i­tive ‘but’, when the bat­ter­ies are exhaust­ed, an on-board ICE kicks in, dri­ving a gen­er­a­tor to con­tin­ue pow­er­ing the dri­ve for as long as there is fuel avail­able, essen­tial­ly turn­ing it into the equiv­a­lent of a diesel-elec­tric loco­mo­tive – a ‘series-hybrid’ if you like (though by some def­i­n­i­tions, a ‘hybrid’ has to have both sys­tems able to dri­ve the wheels). And because the ICE is only run­ning a gen­er­a­tor, it can always run at the most effi­cient speed, which saves an enor­mous amount of fuel to begin with. Over­all, you get the ben­e­fits of an elec­tric vehi­cle – no fos­sil fuels are used as long as you don’t exceed the elec­tric-only range; and it’s qui­et, pow­er­ful and extreme­ly eff­i­cent – with­out the range anx­i­ety. And when you are dri­ving on the ICE, you get superb fuel efficiency.

There are not very many of these kinds of vehi­cles around in the UK. Dis­count­ing the new Mit­subishi Out­lander PHEV ver­sion and the BMW i3, both of which are well out­side our price range, you’re left with two: the Chevro­let Volt and the Vaux­hall Ampera. Chevro­let and Vaux­hall are, of course, both Gen­er­al Motors, and these are basi­cal­ly the same vehi­cle, the Volt being the orig­i­nal, released in MY 2011. The Ampera is the Euro­peanised ver­sion of the Volt. GM don’t use the term ‘hybrid’ for the vehi­cle: they pre­fer E‑REV, or ‘Extend­ed Range Elec­tric Vehicle’.

Chevy is being wound down in the UK. And while Volts have been very suc­cess­ful in the US (and remain so – a new ver­sion comes out next year), nei­ther vari­ant did tremen­dous­ly well in Europe, despite the Ampera win­ning a bunch of awards includ­ing Car of the Year in 2012, the year it came out here: there are about 6,000 on the road. It seems like­ly that this is because they were rather expen­sive when new – up in the fair­ly-large-BMW brack­et while being a mid-sized rea­son­ably lux­u­ri­ous hatch­back. So I was expect­ing this to be out of range too… but not so! Although they have held their val­ue pret­ty well, I was able to find a cou­ple of 2012 Amperas – one not too far away – that we could actu­al­ly afford. And fol­low­ing a test dri­ve, we went for it. Pre­vi­ous­ly owned by the deal­er­ship own­er’s wife, it has been very well looked after; and it’s a very cool-look­ing Sum­mit White.

I stud­ied the forums and oth­er infor­ma­tion sources thor­ough­ly before pur­chase, and as far as I could dis­cov­er, it is one of the most reli­able vehi­cles GM has ever pro­duced: a known small risk of bat­tery fire was fixed before the vehi­cles were even made for Europe; and while there is a known issue with a rather impor­tant bear­ing, only about 1–2% of vehi­cles have it fail and the prob­lem and its solu­tion are well-doc­u­ment­ed. Accord­ing to a clean­tech-ori­ent­ed friend in the US, the Volt own­ers she knows are very pleased with their purchase.

amperaThe vehi­cle is extreme­ly pleas­ant to dri­ve, smooth and qui­et, and even when the petrol engine final­ly kicks in, it’s still smooth and qui­et and the per­for­mance (which includes its rather impres­sive accel­er­a­tion) vir­tu­al­ly unim­paired. The lit­er­a­ture quotes the pure-elec­tric range as “25–50 miles” – and that’s exact­ly what you get, depend­ing on dri­ving style and whether you have the heat­ing on or not. On my first dri­ve I got 48.8 miles out of the bat­tery. The next day, leav­ing ear­ly on a cold morn­ing, it went down to a mere 36 (tip: ‘pre-con­di­tion’ the dri­ving com­part­ment before leav­ing, while it’s still plugged in, which you can set it to do automatically).

The vehi­cle keeps a record of life­time fuel effi­cien­cy. When I bought it, it was 110mpg (with 35,000 miles on the clock). I now have it up to 111. And indeed, as I expect­ed, trips around Cam­bridgeshire can be made entire­ly on bat­tery pow­er – and if I can charge the car while the solar pan­els are out­putting sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than we’re using, that oper­a­tion is essen­tial­ly free. Even on my week­ly 200-mile round trip I man­aged over 90 mpg, thanks to being able to charge the car at my des­ti­na­tion (where the Direc­tor of Mar­ket­ing has a Tes­la and is hap­py to share his charg­er) as well as at home. This knocks spots off a con­ven­tion­al Hybrid Syn­er­gy sys­tem. The car is learn­ing what mileage I get from the bat­ter­ies. When I first charged it, it esti­mat­ed my bat­tery range as 26 miles. It now thinks I’ll get 46. And that’s pret­ty much what I get.

chargerIt made sense to have a car charg­er fit­ted to the wall next to the dri­ve­way, rather than stick a cable out of the win­dow, and there is a Gov­ern­ment OLEV sub­sidy scheme that pays for a good chunk of the instal­la­tion of a charg­er. I got mine (left) from Charge­Mas­ter PLC in Luton, who were great to deal with – and hav­ing pro­posed a date, they actu­al­ly came a cou­ple of weeks ear­ly thanks to a can­cel­la­tion. Charg­ing the car from flat using the sup­plied EVSE (Elec­tric Vehi­cle Sup­ply Equip­ment), which plugs into a stan­dard domes­tic sock­et, takes about 6 hours at around 11A charg­ing cur­rent. How­ev­er if you have a charg­er installed, you can charge in about 4 hours at 16A.

220px-SAE_J1772_7058855567The Volt/Ampera has what is called a Type 1 (or J1772) con­nec­tor (right), a fair­ly com­pact latch­ing plug that goes into the left front of the vehi­cle. 220px-VDE-AR-E_2623-2-2-plugHow­ev­er most of the charg­ers you find in the wild in Europe are equipped with what are called Type 2, or Men­nekes con­nec­tors (left). It made sense, there­fore, to get a cable from one to the oth­er so I can charge the vehi­cle at a pub­lic charg­ing point at the des­ti­na­tion (there is rather less point charg­ing ‘on the road’ as the charg­ing rate is only about 16 miles an hour, and that’s what the ICE is for!). Hav­ing this cable in the back of the car, it made sense to have a Type 2 sock­et on the home charg­er instead of the more usu­al teth­ered Type 1; and while I was at it, I future-proofed myself by get­ting a 30A charg­er in case friends with a Tes­la call round or we upgrade down the line.

I would note when it comes to pub­lic charg­ing sites, although there are quite a lot of them (more all the time, and many will take a Type 2 plug), they all belong to dif­fer­ent net­works that gen­er­al­ly don’t have exchange agree­ments. As a result you may find you need a pack of RFID cards from the com­mon net­works and wave the right one over the charg­er to unlock it. In fact 85% of charg­ing is car­ried out at home, and as I note, I won’t nor­mal­ly be plug­ging-in at motor­way ser­vices, but I still want to be able to use a pub­lic charg­er at the end of a long jour­ney, so hav­ing those cards (sev­er­al of which are free) is prob­a­bly worth doing.

(Main pho­to: Gen­er­al Motors/Vauxhall)

April 26, 2015   No Comments

Solar panels — a year on

We want­ed to install solar pan­els for years — in my case decades, since I was involved in the “Alter­na­tive Tech­nol­o­gy” mag­a­zine Under­cur­rents in the 1970s. In the past, the idea of a solar PV sys­tem has just been too expen­sive (friends down the street paid £15,000 for their sys­tem just a few years ago), but we’d been watch­ing prices fall until, by the mid­dle of 2014, it looked as if prices had fall­en to an afford­able level.

We inter­viewed four com­pa­nies and it quick­ly became evi­dent that the height of the roof would­n’t allow the con­ven­tion­al 16 pan­els in two rows “por­trait” style that is com­mon for a 4kWp sys­tem – they would have to be mount­ed too close to the top and bot­tom of the roof (you need 500mm clear­ance all round — oth­er­wise you can risk less sta­bil­i­ty in high winds). We could, how­ev­er, man­age two rows of six, “land­scape” style. The com­pa­nies we talked to var­ied in the amount of work they did spec­i­fy­ing the instal­la­tion, and I regard actu­al­ly get­ting up into the loft and tak­ing real mea­sure­ments as an indi­ca­tor that the installer is worth considering.

The lim­i­ta­tion of 12 pan­els imme­di­ate­ly made the choice a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple one. We need­ed high effi­cien­cy pan­els, and the Sun­Pow­er design, it was easy to see from the data sheets, was not only supe­ri­or in engi­neer­ing terms (they are not only more effi­cient, but they have a stur­dy back­plane sys­tem with no bus­es run­ning down the front of the pan­els, mak­ing them less prone to dam­age; and if a cell does get dam­aged, it does­n’t take the whole row out or worse), it also enabled us to install a sys­tem that would deliv­er a lit­tle under 4kWp from just 12 pan­els. Per­fect! Two com­pa­nies out of the four had offered us Sun­Pow­er pan­els. One was an enor­mous sup­pli­er in the Mid­lands that in fact I would rec­om­mend for any­one look­ing for a com­mer­cial instal­la­tion, but they were rather expen­sive — sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than any of the others.

inverterWe select­ed our sup­pli­er, Solar­works of Laven­ham in Suf­folk, who have been installing renew­able sys­tems since 1983. Just a cou­ple of weeks lat­er the scaf­fold­ing arrived and while it was set up, Solar­works fit­ted the invert­er – an ABB “Uno” sin­gle-phase mod­el – and asso­ci­at­ed switchgear in the clos­et under the stairs (see pic­ture left — note the black rotary switch bot­tom right, which is a prop­er DC iso­la­tor on the input path from the pan­els — which were still to be hooked up when this pic­ture was tak­en). Above the AC iso­la­tor on the left is the Gen­er­a­tion Meter. The next day, they installed the mount­ing rails on the roof. Because our pan­els were to be mount­ed hor­i­zon­tal­ly, the rails were ver­ti­cal and each of the 12 was attached to a dif­fer­ent rafter, giv­ing excep­tion­al strength.

The fol­low­ing day, the pan­els went up, and as soon as they were con­nect­ed, by mid-late after­noon – in two strings of six each – the invert­er was indi­cat­ing that we were gen­er­at­ing 3.6kW of elec­tric­i­ty. And the sto­ry has con­tin­ued, with the sys­tem reg­u­lar­ly gen­er­at­ing more kWh than we use in an aver­age day. This year, we saw the out­put exceed 3.7kW as ear­ly as March! (Which sur­prised me in fact, as you would have thought there would be loss­es between the 3.9kWp nom­i­nal pan­els and the invert­er.) The instal­la­tion, just after com­ple­tion, is shown above.

We’re very pleased with the results and would rec­om­mend both Sun­Pow­er pan­els and Solar­works as an installer.

We sub­se­quent­ly had our old Fer­ran­ti rotat­ing-disc import meter replaced so that it would­n’t go back­wards. The lat­ter sounds like a cool thing but actu­al­ly isn’t, because you are already being paid for the elec­tric­i­ty you are export­ing and the elec­tric­i­ty sup­pli­er can claim it back ret­ro­spec­tive­ly; plus I want­ed a mod­ern meter with an LED indi­ca­tor on to which I could strap a counter for metering.

geo2The meter­ing sys­tem I installed came from Geo (Green Ener­gy Options) in Cam­bridge. It mea­sures the pow­er out­put from the pan­els (via the flash­ing light on the Gen­er­a­tion Meter), the amount import­ed from the Grid (via the flash­ing light on the new Import Meter), and the raw cur­rent flow in or out of the build­ing (from a clip around the main pow­er input cable), and cal­cu­lates a range of data from those raw inputs. Very nice. On the dis­play shown here, the blue curve rep­re­sents the out­put from the pan­els (quite good for an over­cast day, I think) and the orange is the amount of ener­gy we’re using – these val­ues are shown numer­i­cal­ly in the cen­tre left of the dis­play. The lit­tle blue arrows at the bot­tom show we are export­ing elec­tric­i­ty, and the lit­tle green wave­form above the wattage dis­plays indi­cates that we have enough “free” pow­er to run a major appli­ance such as a wash­ing machine or dish­wash­er, with­out effec­tive­ly pay­ing for it; and on the right is our elec­tric­i­ty usage so far today and how much our income from gen­er­a­tion and our spend have been. The sys­tem is con­nect­ed to the Inter­net so you can remote­ly mon­i­tor sys­tem per­for­mance via the Web.

Our elec­tric­i­ty sup­pli­er is Ecotric­i­ty, and set­ting up for their Microtric­i­ty scheme to receive the Feed-in Tar­iff (FiT) was sim­ple to do. Now they are often bank­ing with me, and have had to revise my elec­tric­i­ty pay­ments down sig­nif­i­cant­ly as a result.

Hav­ing had the pan­els installed for almost a year, it looks as if we are run­ning some­what ahead of sched­ule as far as these pan­els pay­ing for them­selves is concerned.

April 25, 2015   No Comments

Changes at the top of the page

More or less since we moved this site from being a con­ven­tion­al sta­t­ic web site to a Word­Press envi­ron­ment based around the The­sis meta-theme, the head­er image has been ran­dom­ly select­ed: each time you vis­it­ed the site, you would see a dif­fer­ent image.

This is actu­al­ly very easy to do — there is a tuto­r­i­al here — and it’s worked well. How­ev­er, the oth­er day I thought it would be rather neat for the head­er to con­sist of essen­tial­ly a slideshow of the avail­able images, gen­tly crossfading.

One of the neat things about Word­Press is that there are a great many plu­g­ins out there, many of them free, which you can locate to do things like this. For the Radio Riel site, I used a plu­g­in called the Smart Slideshow Wid­get, for exam­ple (it replaced a rather fid­dly flash slideshow that I used on the old RR site). The wid­get appears in the left side­bar to dis­play a con­tin­u­ous and ran­dom­ly-rotat­ing set of logos for the sta­tion’s spon­sors. How­ev­er, this sys­tem only pro­vides a wid­get: you can’t use it for a head­er image.

Go and search Word­Press plu­g­ins for slideshows and you will find a great many, but most of them are a lot clev­er­er than I want­ed. I just want­ed to be able to stuff a set of images in a fold­er and have them dis­play for a set peri­od and cross­fade over a set time. I def­i­nite­ly want­ed to avoid flash (if I did­n’t, I already have the tools to cre­ate flash slideshows, but flash is… a pain). This left me essen­tial­ly with Javascript as the way to do the cross­fad­ing, and JQuery (already run­ning on this site) or one of the oth­er libraries will do that and lots more.

Many of the slideshow sys­tems used the stan­dard Word­Press media upload sys­tem, which again was rather more than I need­ed. I start­ed to install one of them and noticed that it messed with the Fea­tured Image fea­ture of Word­Press. This rather warned me off, as I am already mess­ing with the Fea­tured Image capa­bil­i­ty to get it to work with The­sis — I’m using Word­Press Fea­tured Image for The­sis Theme from The­sis­tut, and I did­n’t want to mess that up. And any­way, it was more com­pli­cat­ed than I needed.

I final­ly found what I was look­ing for in the form of Cimy Head­er Image Rota­tor from Mar­co Cim­mi­no. The plu­g­in gives you some use­ful dis­play options, such as a “Ken Burns Effect” instead of a sim­ple cross­fade — that’s the ros­trum cam­era effect used exten­sive­ly by film-mak­er Ken Burns, notably in his land­mark series The Civ­il War (and now appar­ent­ly a require­ment for any PBS doc­u­men­tary), where rather than sim­ply dis­play a sta­t­ic image, you gen­tly zoom in on it. The plu­g­in also lets you include a cap­tion and a link — either for all the images or for each.

The plu­g­in has an upload fold­er (and you can actu­al­ly upload addi­tion­al files right in the plu­g­in, which was a bonus) and once you’ve defined the para­me­ters you get a bit of code to copy and paste into the appro­pri­ate The­sis hook (if you’re using The­sis), in my case the hook after the head­er. I replaced the exist­ing ran­dom sta­t­ic head­er code with the new piece and it worked straight away.

Of course I want­ed to tweak it a bit. I need­ed to change the size and posi­tion of the head­er image pan­el a lit­tle, which was easy, and want­ed to alter the way the cap­tions were dis­played. The default is a lit­tle black lozenge (aka a round-cor­nered box) at the cen­tre bot­tom of the image with the text in white. I tried drop­ping the lozenge and using a CSS drop shad­ow in black behind the text to pop the cap­tion out of the image, whether it was dark or light, but the drop shad­ow was­n’t strong enough to do the job on real­ly pale back­grounds. Even­tu­al­ly I low­ered the cap­tion to just under the image and made it black.

More tricky (and unsolved cur­rent­ly), I want­ed to move the cap­tion to be ranged left  rather than cen­tred. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the cap­tion is posi­tioned with respect to the entire brows­er win­dow, and I have the page cen­tred in the win­dow so if you enlarge the win­dow you get more air around the page equal­ly on either side. This is fine if the cap­tion is cen­tred, but if it isn’t, you can’t define the loca­tion of the cap­tion rel­a­tive to the image. I will sort this out anoth­er day. In the mean­time, enjoy the pics.

October 19, 2012   No Comments

Pitfalls of Facebook Page Tabs

I recent­ly had occa­sion to cre­ate a cou­ple of Face­book Apps for a client, to be accessed from tabs under the main time­line image on a busi­ness page.

There are plen­ty of tuto­ri­als around on how to do this, but I found a cou­ple of pit­falls that don’t seem to be men­tioned in the write­ups I’ve seen.

Face­book Page Tabs

One of the many things that has changed about Face­book recent­ly is the way that tabs on Busi­ness Pages are han­dled — this hap­pened from April this year.

To begin with, you can no longer set up a tab as a land­ing page so non-fans who arrive at the page see it auto­mat­i­cal­ly: tabs are sim­ply list­ed with thumb­nail images under the head­er image. And while the con­tent was pre­vi­ous­ly lim­it­ed to 520px width, you can now choose 810px wide as an alternative.

I was cre­at­ing the very sim­plest of Face­book Apps: ones that sim­ply call what is essen­tial­ly a web page that gets embed­ded in a Face­book page with the Face­book equiv­a­lent of an iframe. The basic tuto­r­i­al on this pro­vid­ed by Face­book can be found here.

To do this, you log into Face­book as a Devel­op­er (https://developers.facebook.com) using your usu­al cre­den­tials. Just to right of cen­tre in the blue Face­book strip at the top of the page you’ll see “Apps”. Click this link and it shows you any apps you have cre­at­ed pre­vi­ous­ly and there’s a but­ton top right called “Cre­ate New App”.

As described in the tuto­ri­als, you need to give your new app a Dis­play Name that appears beneath it on the Page; a unique Name­space; and a sup­port con­tact email address. Then from the pop-up menu “Cat­e­go­ry”, choose “Apps for Pages”. For this sim­ple app, that’s all you need in the top sec­tion. The tricky bit is next.

Select­ing how your app inte­grates with Facebook

You now select how your app inte­grates with Face­book. Select­ing “Page Tab” is obvi­ous. You give the Page Tab a name; and sup­ply secure and non-secure URLs. These point at the web loca­tion where the HTML con­tent you want to dis­play insert­ed on the Face­book page can be found. Pro­vid­ing a secure URL (ie one accessed via https:) is manda­to­ry. It does­n’t seem to mat­ter if the two URLs point to the same place, but I would sug­gest it’s a lot eas­i­er if they can, and your serv­er is set up to serve both secure and non-secure content.

It may not be oblig­a­tory, but it turns out to be sim­plest if the URLs point to a direc­to­ry in which the desired con­tent is the default page: in oth­er words, call your page “index.html” or what­ev­er your serv­er is set up to serve as default, and put it in a direc­to­ry, for exam­ple one named after the appli­ca­tion. So you might have a URL like “http://myserver.com/facebook/welcome/” — in oth­er words, the URL points at a direc­to­ry. This is what you want to enter into the Page Tab URL slot: with the for­ward-slash on the end.

You don’t need to pro­vide a page tab edit URL. What you prob­a­bly will want to include is a 111 x 74px image to appear in the box under the head­er on the main Face­book Page.

In addi­tion, select the width of the insert­ed HTML mate­r­i­al. You can use the orig­i­nal 520px width or the new 810px. Remem­ber that whichev­er you choose, the HTML will be dis­played on a blank white page with a Face­book blue strip at the top and lit­tle else: it should work visu­al­ly in this envi­ron­ment. It turns out that the width is not quite as straight­for­ward as it appears, as will be seen below.

On the face of it, you’re now done as far as the Face­book side of the set­up is con­cerned. Wrong. There is anoth­er step you need to take, and that is to click the check-mark next to “App on Face­book”. This asks you to enter Can­vas URL and Secure Can­vas URL. Enter exact­ly the same URLs as you used above. This step is not obvi­ous (don’t you just need to select Page Tab? No.) but if you don’t do it, you will get an error 191 when you try to add the App to a page. I have not seen this doc­u­ment­ed any­where: have you? And if you look up Error 191, you’ll find that absolute­ly every­one gets this error and that nobody has sug­gest­ed that fill­ing in the “App on Face­book” tab is the solu­tion, or what should go in there.

Once the above has been com­plet­ed, you can go off and cre­ate your mini-pages that will be stored at the URLs above and will be dis­played in an iframe on the Face­book page when vis­i­tors click on your app tab.

You can cre­ate the HTML in your favourite edi­tor: I use Dreamweaver, but you can even cre­ate it in the Post Edi­tor in Word­Press, then click the HTML tab in the Edi­tor and copy the code out, save it in a file with the right name, and upload it to the server.

In my case I had a 520px-wide x 775px high image and I sim­ply placed it cen­tred on the page and cre­at­ed a local image map to allow me to make it click­able, with dif­fer­ent parts of the image tak­ing vis­i­tors to dif­fer­ent URLs on the clien­t’s main web site. The clien­t’s for­mat involves black back­grounds, and the image had this, so I set the page back­ground colour to black too, just in case. This proved to be inadvisable.

Adding the App to a Page

Once the page con­tent is in posi­tion on your serv­er, you are essen­tial­ly done, and you can go back to Face­book and enter the spe­cial URL that allows you to select which of the Pages you admin­is­ter the App should be added to. Why this isn’t eas­i­er is beyond me. A but­ton would have been nice. The URL is:

https://www.facebook.com/dialog/pagetab?app_id=YOUR_APP_ID&next=YOUR_URL

You get the App ID from the Set­tings page of your App, in the top sec­tion. The “Your URL” is the tricky bit. It’s the Can­vas URL, and this is why it needs to be there. If it isn’t, then what­ev­er you put in there, you’ll get the 191 error, which seems to relate to where the app redi­rects you to when you click on it.

All being well, though, you will get a nice lit­tle page that allows you to choose one of the pages you admin­is­ter and add the App to the Page. You can then go to the Page and move the order of the tabs around to suit you (the “Pho­tos” tab has to be first, for some rea­son, but you can move the oth­ers by swap­ping them around).

When 520px is actu­al­ly 512

If you cre­at­ed the page the way I described above, with an image and imagemap, you will notice straight away that it has­n’t quite worked. The same is true if you sliced your image into bits, each with its own linked, and posi­tioned them with a table. You will (prob­a­bly, I assume it was­n’t just me) see hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal scroll bars. WTF?

By sim­ply reduc­ing the width one pix­el at a time I dis­cov­ered that both scroll bars go away if you set the width to 512px. Nowhere have I seen this doc­u­ment­ed, so I would be fas­ci­nat­ed to know under what cir­cum­stances this appears. So I trimmed the image a lit­tle so that it was 512px wide and lo! It worked!

And now you run into anoth­er lit­tle aes­thet­ic issue. You’ll recall that I had my image on a black back­ground. So I look at my image on the Face­book page and I notice a black strip down the left-hand side. It turns out that this strip is 8px wide. Hmmm. The image has to be 512 or it shows scroll bars, but it is placed in a 520px-wide space. Odd. Not only that, the image is ranged right in the space, even though the HTML cen­tres it on the page. This appears to be the case what­ev­er image posi­tion­ing you use.

As a result, I had to remove the black back­ground from the page, instead set­ting it to white, the back­ground colour of the Face­book page. Nobody will notice that the image is 8px to the right.

June 15, 2012   No Comments

Christmas(ish) At Beamish

When­ev­er I’m in the NE of Eng­land, I try to get over to Beamish - “The Liv­ing Muse­um of the North”. It’s a won­der­ful place built around a road/tramway loop on which run vin­tage bus­es and trams.

On this occa­sion (20 Novem­ber) I was up for the week­end to go to Lumiere in Durham, so nip­ping over was a chance I could­n’t miss. It was fog­gy on leav­ing Durham but approach­ing Beamish the sun came out and it was gor­geous­ly sun­ny until the dri­ve home, when the fog closed in again.

Dif­fer­ent sites around the tramway loop recre­ate dif­fer­ent eras, each cre­at­ed from build­ings that have been lov­ing­ly trans­plant­ed from their orig­i­nal sites: the Town, for exam­ple, is Edwar­dian, with a Bank, a gor­geous Mason­ic Hall (rebuilt with the help of the Masons, appar­ent­ly), a Co-Op depart­ment store, sweet shop/factory and lots more. It also has an adja­cent Steam Rail­way and sta­tion and a steam-pow­ered fairground.

The Pit Vil­lage is per­haps some­what ear­li­er, and fea­tures a col­liery and a rel­a­tive­ly new addi­tion: a coal-fired fish & chip shop that uses beef drip­ping to cook with, result­ing in utter­ly tasty meals that you have to queue for twen­ty min­utes or so to get, it’s so pop­u­lar. Yet anoth­er area, Pock­er­ley, is more Geor­gian, with a Wag­gonway that fea­tures steam locos from the ear­li­est times and Pock­er­ley Old Hall. I’ve talked about Beamish before, here.

From this time of year until Christ­mas itself, Beamish is hav­ing a series of Christ­mas week­ends, includ­ing San­ta’s Grot­to some­where over by Pock­er­ley I think, com­plete with snow, an ice-rink in the Col­liery Vil­lage (above), and dec­o­ra­tions up in the Town.

I had to pop into some of the ter­raced hous­es, sev­er­al of which con­tain busi­ness­es, such as a solic­i­tor’s and a den­tist — the tor­ture cham­ber itself is shown below. In those days you would have had the option of (unreg­u­lat­ed) nitrous oxide (with a fair risk of death) or cocaine as anaes­thet­ics, the lat­ter effec­tive­ly remov­ing your short-term mem­o­ry, so things hurt but you did­n’t remem­ber it (rather like intra­venous Val­i­um it would appear, which I always loved as an adjunct to den­tal operations).

Anoth­er house includ­ed peri­od Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions in the front room.

Across the street is a lit­tle park, with a band­stand, and there was the Mur­ton Col­liery Band prepar­ing to play some suit­ably sea­son­al music, which they pro­ceed­ed to do beautifully.

Here’s some video of extracts from their programme:

The band was formed as the Mur­ton Gospel Tem­per­ance Blue Rib­bon Army Band in 1884, and play­ers were request­ed to wear a blue rib­bon on the sec­ond but­ton of their waist­coats. They became Mur­ton Col­liery band in 1895. When the col­liery closed, the band became self-sup­port­ing — and it still is today. They’re also one of the few remain­ing bands to con­tin­ue to call itself a ‘Col­liery Band’, and they still proud­ly march through the vil­lage dur­ing the Durham Min­ers Gala and Armistice Day. I don’t know about you, but brass band music and Christ­mas do seem to go togeth­er rather well.

There was time for a good wan­der around and trips on some of the trams — includ­ing a 1930s enclosed dou­ble-deck­er Black­pool tram, which is tech­ni­cal­ly a lit­tle late for their re-cre­ations but very impres­sive — and I had some good chats with the tramway staff, notic­ing that they wore the arche­typ­al “wheel and mag­net” emblem of British Elec­tric Trac­tion (lat­er to become the par­ent, sur­pris­ing­ly, of Red­if­fu­sion Tele­vi­sion) on their caps. The shop at Beamish should sell those cap badges — I would have bought at least one.

Final­ly it was time to head off on the 3+ hour home, and soon after get­ting back on the A1 the fog closed in, and it end­ed up tak­ing a good deal longer than that. But it was a great day out.

November 23, 2011   No Comments

75 Years of BBC Television

Wednes­day 2nd Novem­ber saw the 75th anniver­sary of the open­ing of the BBC Tele­vi­sion Service.

To com­mem­o­rate the event, the BBC held a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion at Alexan­dra Palace, where the Ser­vice opened.

Orig­i­nal­ly, the inten­tion was to hold a spe­cial Open Day on the 2nd, at which mem­bers of the pub­lic would be able to vis­it the stu­dios and see audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions. How­ev­er this was even­tu­al­ly moved to Novem­ber 5–6, leav­ing only an inter­nal BBC event hap­pen­ing on the actu­al day.

I man­aged to obtain an invi­ta­tion, for which my thanks to the ebul­lient Robert Seat­ter, head of BBC His­to­ry, and tech­nol­o­gy jour­nal­ist Bill Thompson.

The invi­ta­tion said “3:45 for 4pm” and as a result I found myself in the Alexan­dra Palace Tow­er end car park well in time for the off, giv­ing some time to take in the views over the city, expe­ri­ence the con­tin­u­al wind and enjoy some dra­mat­ic skies over this “Palace of the Peo­ple” locat­ed at the high­est point in North London.

When the BBC decid­ed on Ally Pal­ly as the site for the new BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice in the wake of the Sels­don Report in 1936, the place was already decay­ing some­what. It’s a process that has con­tin­ued since BBC Tele­vi­sion left here sev­er­al decades ago, and although the team now fronting the Trust that runs the site today is incred­i­bly, and impres­sive­ly, enthu­si­as­tic and upbeat, there is no way it can be oth­er than an uphill strug­gle in these aus­tere times. But you can’t say they aren’t try­ing hard and I wish them every success.

The BBC still main­tains active offices in the block under the mast. But instead of enter­ing through the doors there, adja­cent to the GLC blue com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque on the wall, we were motioned into an entrance along to the left, up a met­al ramp and into what had orig­i­nal­ly been the Trans­mit­ter Hall. It may be not­ed that this was prob­a­bly not the first, but pos­si­bly the last, time that any­one had the bright idea of plac­ing a pair of pow­er­ful VHF trans­mit­ters and a pig­ging great set of trans­mit­ting anten­nae right next to a set of tele­vi­sion stu­dios full of sen­si­tive equipment.

Inside, the room had been dec­o­rat­ed with pan­els against the walls, each car­ry­ing infor­ma­tion and images of some aspect of Ally Pal­ly TV his­to­ry, and a free-stand­ing pho­to dis­play of his­tor­i­cal images, main­ly pro­vid­ed by the Alexan­dra Palace Tele­vi­sion Soci­ety. A jazz quar­tet played suit­able 1930s style music; servers glid­ed among the assem­bled invi­tees dis­pens­ing water, orange juice or Prosecco.

We had the chance to min­gle and chat, and I was very pleased to meet TV cook Zena Skin­ner, who prob­a­bly coined the phrase “Here’s one I made ear­li­er” — though in her case she real­ly had made it ear­li­er, her­self; I also met Pro­fes­sor Jean Seaton, the BBC’s Offi­cial His­to­ri­an and Pro­fes­sor of Media His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­min­ster; and talked briefly to John Tre­nouth, Tech­nol­o­gy Advis­er to the BBC Col­lec­tion, whom I met dur­ing his time at what is now the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Bradford.

In the cen­tre of the room, a make-up table and lights were set up, where var­i­ous young women were being made up using the colours required by the Baird System.

When the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice was estab­lished, the Gov­ern­ment required two tele­vi­sion sys­tems to be used. On the one hand was the all-elec­tron­ic Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem, which offered 405 lines, and on the oth­er was the Baird electro­mechan­i­cal sys­tem which deliv­ered 240-line tele­vi­sion. Ear­ly on, it became evi­dent that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was sig­nif­i­cant­ly supe­ri­or, but it had been Baird who had tire­less­ly pro­mot­ed tele­vi­sion as a con­cept, and lob­bied the GPO over licens­ing and the Gov­ern­ment to leg­is­late for a Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice. Baird high­light­ed the fact that his was a British inven­tion – though it could equal­ly legit­i­mate­ly be claimed that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was British. Almost cer­tain­ly the Gov­ern­ment deci­sion, a typ­i­cal British com­pro­mise, was made at least in part to avoid sug­ges­tions that they were turn­ing down a British inno­va­tion, the deci­sion man­dat­ing the use of both sys­tems on an alter­nat­ing basis for six months before a choice was to be made before the two. The prob­lems expe­ri­enced with the tech­no­log­i­cal dead-end of the Baird mechan­i­cal scan­ning sys­tem result­ed in the deci­sion — in favour of Mar­coni-EMI — to be made after just three months.

Baird Tele­vi­sion actu­al­ly used two sys­tems. The fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of both was a “fly­ing spot scan­ner” in which, almost com­plete­ly counter-intu­itive­ly, the scene was scanned with a spot of light and pho­to­cells col­lect­ed the light reflect­ed from the sub­ject. The “Spot­light Stu­dio” used noth­ing more than this; the Inter­me­di­ate Film Tech­nique used a con­ven­tion­al film cam­era, exposed film from which was then passed imme­di­ate­ly through devel­op­er and high­ly poi­so­nous cyanide-based fix­er (par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty when it got loose), then scanned with a a fly­ing spot actu­al­ly under water. The fly­ing spot scan­ner was very sen­si­tive to red light, so if you were appear­ing in the Spot­light Stu­dio, you need­ed the spe­cial make up: black lip­stick, blue eye-shad­ow and a pale white face. Very neo-Goth. You checked it by look­ing through a red gel.

This was the make-up that was being applied to the young ladies at Ally Pal­ly on the 2nd. Appar­ent­ly the idea had orig­i­nal­ly been that BBC Lon­don would be send­ing a crew up to cov­er the par­ty, but they had pulled out and the job was left to an enthu­si­as­tic team from BBC News School Report.

Mean­while, we were treat­ed to wel­com­ing pre­sen­ta­tions: by the PR gen­tle­man from the AP team, and from Robert Seat­ter, who encour­aged us to relin­quish our glass­es and pro­ceed upstairs to Stu­dio A.

There were two main stu­dios at Ally Pal­ly orig­i­nal­ly, one above the oth­er. Stu­dio A was the Mar­coni-EMI stu­dio, while direct­ly above it was the Baird stu­dio, Stu­dio B. You can’t go into B today, because it’s rid­dled with asbestos and things are like­ly to fall on your head. But Stu­dio A is acces­si­ble. At one end of the room is a tableau rep­re­sent­ing the pro­duc­tion of the mag­a­zine pro­gramme Pic­ture Page, which ran from 1936–39 and 1946–52 and was ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed by Joan Miller.

Around the room are assem­bled old TV sets, and var­i­ous exhibits in the room itself includ­ed an EMItron cam­era, which John Tre­nouth of the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Brad­ford kind­ly removed the lid of so we could have a look at the innards (sans tube).

In Stu­dio A we were treat­ed to a cou­ple of brief audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions, the first assem­bled main­ly from clips from the film doc­u­men­tary Tele­vi­sion Comes To Lon­don, which was made to tell the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice sto­ry in 1936. Rebec­ca Kane, the MD of Alexan­dra Palace Trad­ing Ltd, intro­duced Michael Aspel, a news­read­er at AP dur­ing the peri­od when BBC Tele­vi­sion News was based here, to cut the cake.

And what a cake it was: made in the form of an old bake­lite tele­vi­sion with a pic­ture of Alexan­dra Palace on the screen, deli­cious­ly thick icing and suc­cu­lent innards. Very nice.

After that, we all wan­dered around Stu­dio A and chat­ted to each oth­er. I got into an amus­ing dis­cus­sion about the way in which the Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice closed down at the start of the Sec­ond World War, on Sep­tem­ber 1st, 1939 – about which a num­ber of myths have arisen, most of which are incor­rect (includ­ing the per­pet­u­a­tion of the main myth in Alan Yen­to­b’s Imag­ine doc­u­men­tary, re-shown on Wednes­day) – see The Edit that Rewrote His­to­ry on the Trans­d­if­fu­sion Baird site, which includes a num­ber of arti­cles on tele­vi­sion pri­or to 1955.

And then we grad­u­al­ly sloped off home.

See also:

The birth of tele­vi­sion: the “Baird” microsite at Transdiffusion

75 years on from BBC tele­vi­sion’s tech­nol­o­gy bat­tle — a nice piece by John Trenouth

BBC Cel­e­brates 75 Years of TV — Nick High­am vis­its Alexan­dra Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 5, 2011   No Comments

Nuclear Power You Can Trust?

Hav­ing been involved in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in one way or anoth­er since the 1970s, I’ve always been in the “anti-nuclear” camp.

Indeed, I think I was the first per­son to cre­ate an Eng­lish ver­sion of the famous “Atom­kraft? Nein Danke” logo – for the cov­er of an edi­tion of Under­cur­rents mag­a­zine – a mag­a­zine that was into renew­ables (main­ly of the DIY vari­ety) before a lot of peo­ple. (You can read some copies of it here.)

Of course there are plen­ty of rea­sons to be wary of nuclear pow­er – of the cur­rent vari­ety at least.

  • There’s the ques­tion of ener­gy secu­ri­ty: Ura­ni­um does­n’t come from here, we have to import it, or reprocess oth­er peo­ples’. So although I gath­er there might be deposits off the British coast, it does­n’t seem at this point to help decou­ple us from poten­tial prob­lems with depen­dence on over­seas sources.
  • There’s the prob­lem of nuclear waste dis­pos­al, though some peo­ple (James Love­lock for exam­ple) are con­vinced that this can be done safe­ly and permanently.
  • Nuclear pow­er as we cur­rent­ly do it is absurd­ly inef­fi­cient. What you do is you let radioac­tive decay heat some water and then pass it through tur­bines. It’s just like a con­ven­tion­al pow­er sta­tion, except you heat the water dif­fer­ent­ly. I can imag­ine the effi­cien­cy is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less than 50%. What­ev­er hap­pened to inno­v­a­tive direct con­ver­sion tech­nolo­gies like MHD (Mag­ne­to­Hy­dro­Dy­nam­ics), where, for exam­ple, you can run a plas­ma back and forth in a mag­net­ic field and pull elec­tric­i­ty direct­ly off the plas­ma, in a kind of flu­id dynamo? The Sovi­ets had some pilot plants gen­er­at­ing sev­er­al megawatts. What happened?
  • And there’s the risk of dis­as­trous acci­dents, like Cher­nobyl, Three Mile Island and now Fukushi­ma, which can poten­tial­ly spread sig­nif­i­cant amounts of irra­di­at­ed mate­r­i­al over a wide area, with poten­tial health effects like increased long-term can­cer risk and oth­er prob­lems beyond the direct effects of radi­a­tion poisoning.

Counter to the last of these, there’s the fact that remark­ably few peo­ple have actu­al­ly been affect­ed by radi­a­tion from nuclear pow­er plants. Many, many few­er than have been killed or injured by coal-min­ing acci­dents and oth­er fos­sil-fuel-relat­ed dis­as­ters. If Ger­many was as sen­si­tive to risks to life from bac­te­ria as it is from nuclear pow­er, it would have closed down the organ­ic food indus­try by now. But instead, it’s clos­ing down its nuclear plants, which, as far as I know, have not caused any deaths at all, unlike the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed beansprouts.

But of course, it’s nev­er as sim­ple as that.

The fact is that right now we need low-car­bon ener­gy sources, and quick­ly, to com­bat the threat of anthro­pogenic (human-cre­at­ed) glob­al warm­ing (AGW). There is no doubt about the threat of AGW, and I’m not going to enter­tain dis­cus­sion about it here. Sorry.

Much as I am in favour of renew­ables, and much as I like the sight of ele­gant, vir­tu­al­ly silent wind tur­bines dot­ting the land­scape (and I would as hap­pi­ly have some in the field behind my house as James Love­lock would have a nuclear waste stor­age facil­i­ty behind his), the fact is that renew­ables are almost cer­tain­ly not enough, and we need some­thing more to replace our age­ing and hor­ri­fy­ing­ly destruc­tive car­bon-spew­ing fos­sil-fuel pow­ered gen­er­at­ing sta­tions. Nuclear is the obvi­ous option, so after years of tak­ing an anti-nuclear stance, I am chang­ing my mind. And in doing so find myself aligned with peo­ple like George Mon­biot and Pro­fes­sor Lovelock.

In my opin­ion, even if we did no bet­ter in the inter­na­tion­al nuclear pow­er indus­try than we have done to date, any threat to human life from nuclear pow­er, past, present and future, is as noth­ing com­pared to the bil­lions whose lives are threat­ened by AGW and will be over the 50–100 years ahead.

I will be a lit­tle con­tro­ver­sial and say that in my per­son­al view (and I am not a nuclear pow­er expert, so may be wrong), the cur­rent lev­el of nuclear pow­er tech­nol­o­gy is much safer than the chain that ends in a con­ven­tion­al fos­sil-fuel-dri­ven pow­er sta­tion. That, to me, is not the question.

Instead, the ques­tion is, can we trust any­one to build, main­tain and oper­ate nuclear pow­er sta­tions safe­ly?

You could argue that by and large, the answer to that ques­tion is yes. Nuclear pow­er as it is prac­tised today is in fact extreme­ly safe com­pared with fos­sil-fuel gen­er­a­tion. But there is a bit of a knife edge here. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, how­ev­er intrin­si­cal­ly safe the cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy is, the fact is that I do not trust for-prof­it cor­po­ra­tions to do the job prop­er­ly. I am not even sure I trust gov­ern­ments. They will always be look­ing to cut cor­ners and save mon­ey, time or what­ev­er else, and the result will be a great­ly increased risk. Take a look at this:

 

This is the seg­ment on nuclear pow­er from Adam Cur­tis’s Pan­do­ra’s Box series on some mis­us­es of sci­en­tif­ic research. I’m a big fan of Cur­tis’s work (although I have some issues with his lat­est series, All Watched Over By Machines of Lov­ing Grace) and I think the above is spot on.

So, I think the tech­nol­o­gy of cur­rent nuclear pow­er is fine in the­o­ry, but we are going to screw it up in prac­tice. How can we have our cake and eat it? What we need is a method of nuclear pow­er gen­er­a­tion that you can’t screw up [very easily].

The answer just might be hint­ed at in this arti­cle from, of all places The Mail On Sun­day, a paper I would nev­er have thought I’d find myself rec­om­mend­ing in, er, a month of Sun­days. It’s also rec­om­mend­ed by the cli­mate-scep­tic Glob­al Warm­ing Pol­i­cy Foun­da­tion. Talk about strange bedfellows….

The piece is about the “Elec­tron Mod­el of Many Appli­ca­tions”, or EMMA. Here’s the arti­cle. Research into this tech­nol­o­gy is going on in Cheshire and it might just pro­vide the key to one method of using Tho­ri­um in a reac­tor to gen­er­ate elec­tric­i­ty – assum­ing the UK gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues fund­ing the research prop­er­ly, which I doubt. Here’s the begin­ning of the piece:

“Imag­ine a safe, clean nuclear reac­tor that used a fuel that was huge­ly abun­dant, pro­duced only minute quan­ti­ties of radioac­tive waste and was almost impos­si­ble to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t sci­ence fic­tion. This is what lies in store if we har­ness the pow­er of a sil­very met­al found in riv­er sands, soil and gran­ite rock the world over: thorium.

One ton of tho­ri­um can pro­duce as much ener­gy as 200 tons of ura­ni­um, or 3.5 mil­lion tons of coal, and the tho­ri­um deposits that have already been iden­ti­fied would meet the entire world’s ener­gy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike ura­ni­um, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less tox­ic. Hap­pi­ly, it pro­duces ener­gy with­out pro­duc­ing any car­bon diox­ide: so an econ­o­my that ran on tho­ri­um pow­er would have vir­tu­al­ly no car­bon footprint.

Bet­ter still, a tho­ri­um reac­tor would be inca­pable of hav­ing a melt­down, and would gen­er­ate only 0.6 per cent of the radioac­tive waste of a con­ven­tion­al nuclear plant. It could even be adapt­ed to ‘burn’ exist­ing, stock­piled ura­ni­um waste in its core, thus enor­mous­ly reduc­ing its radioac­tive half-life and toxicity.…”

Now read on.

It seems to me that this tech­nol­o­gy could answer many, if not all, of the envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns about the accept­abil­i­ty of nuclear pow­er. Of course I want to read the full report that is appar­ent­ly soon to be pub­lished, and no tech­nol­o­gy comes with­out draw­backs (or unin­tend­ed con­se­quences for that mat­ter), but pre­lim­i­nary accounts, like the one above, seem to offer promise.

For more on oth­er pos­si­ble uses of Tho­ri­um for pow­er gen­er­a­tions, see this Wikipedia arti­cle. You’ll see it’s not entire­ly prob­lem-free – but then noth­ing is.

*Head­er image from MensPulpMags.com

 

June 21, 2011   No Comments

Re-learning basic life skills

I remem­ber clear­ly one of the first pieces of real­ly use­ful infor­ma­tion I ever got from the World Wide Web.

It was back, prob­a­bly, in the ear­ly-to-mid 1990s, when I was essen­tial­ly cod­ing HTML by hand, as one had to do. The pre­vi­ous year, I’d com­plet­ed a demon­stra­tion of what a mag­a­zine I was work­ing on at the time might look like on the web as a method of inter­na­tion­al elec­tron­ic dis­tri­b­u­tion instead of send­ing Page­Mak­er files to var­i­ous loca­tions via AppleLink, and the client had liked it. I was inter­est­ed in find­ing out how to make it, and oth­er sites, look better.

I stum­bled upon the web site of a design­er and dig­i­tal typog­ra­ph­er. My mem­o­ry sug­gests (though I could be wrong about this) that he was David Siegel, the design­er of the Tek­ton font, who was demon­strat­ing tech­niques for mak­ing your web pages look halfway decent from a design point of view, long before the advent of CSS and oth­er web lay­out tools. That would make this in 1994 — I designed my first web site the pre­vi­ous year. Siegel went on to write the best-sell­er Cre­at­ing Killer Websites. 

In those day, the idea of the web was that it car­ried infor­ma­tion, and that infor­ma­tion had a struc­ture and hier­ar­chy — dif­fer­ent lev­els of head­ings, text and so on — and as long as you iden­ti­fied those struc­tur­al ele­ments accord­ing­ly, that was all you did: the view­er decid­ed what the fonts were and what the page actu­al­ly looked like.

But it’s not  web site design I’m talk­ing about today. On one of his pages, I found a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing set of illus­tra­tions. They were sole­ly there to show how you could lay them out, but they were on the sub­ject of how to tie your shoelaces.

Now you would­n’t think there was a lot to learn about tying your shoelaces. It’s a life skill we learn real­ly ear­ly. We also, I sus­pect, learn it essen­tial­ly the same way. The page not­ed that the prob­lem with this was that shoelaces, espe­cial­ly those round-sec­tion nylon ones, tend­ed to come undone very eas­i­ly. The dia­grams showed a bet­ter way, that stopped this from hap­pen­ing. In a nut­shell, what you do is instead of going once round and through, you go twice round and through. It’s not nec­es­sary to go into any fin­er details, as you’ll dis­cov­er in a moment.

I imme­di­ate­ly tried this, of course, and it worked! And that’s how I’ve tied my shoelaces ever since. Well, until the oth­er day.

Back in 1994, I real­ly nev­er thought that I would be re-learn­ing how to tie my shoelaces. But I am all in favour of learn­ing new things — even if that means un-learn­ing old things. So at the age of 43 or so, I learned this basic life skill all over again, and used it all the time for the next sev­en years or so.

The method he described has some issues, I should point out. The big one is that if you are unlucky how you pull an end to undo them, you can end up in a very com­plex knot that can take a while to untie. This, of course, will hap­pen when you are in a hur­ry, or in the dark. But the ben­e­fit of the tech­nique out­weighed the downside.

Then the oth­er day, I was get­ting to know the shiny black new Box­ee Box I acquired. I’ve had Box­ee on the lit­tle Mac Mini con­nect­ed to the TV as a media cen­tre type com­put­er for ages but nev­er used it that much. But with the Box­ee Box it all becomes much more acces­si­ble and, give or take a few bugs which I am sure will get fixed over time, it’s a very impres­sive piece of kit.

One of the main ways of access­ing con­tent with Box­ee is Apps, and one of them is for TED Talks. TED stands for Tech­nol­o­gy, Enter­tain­ment and Design. It’s a non-prof­it that holds two inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences a year where some amaz­ing speak­ers talk about some amaz­ing things — you can learn more about them here. Their slo­gan is “Ideas worth spread­ing”. It’s where I first heard about the com­pa­ny Bet­ter Place, for exam­ple, and their amaz­ing­ly sen­si­ble idea of hav­ing swap­pable elec­tric car bat­ter­ies so you don’t have to sit around while they charge (you can see the video here).

On the front page of the Box­ee TED app is a set of pan­els pro­mot­ing a selec­tion of talks. One of them was from Ter­ry Moore and it’s called How To Tie Your Shoes. I won­dered imme­di­ate­ly if he was show­ing what I might call “Siegel’s tech­nique”. Well, he’s not. He’s show­ing you a new way of doing it that also does­n’t come undone — and does­n’t have the risk of knot­ting. It’s in fact both sim­pler and bet­ter. In essence, instead of going once round anti­clock­wise, you go once round clock­wise, and get a stronger form of the knot (note that if you’re left-hand­ed you may already be doing this). But don’t let me say any more: just watch the video. It’s only 3 minutes.

[vod­pod id=Groupvideo.9234779&w=425&h=350&fv=vu=http://video.ted.com/talk/stream/2005/Blank/TerryMoore_2005-320k.mp4&su=http://images.ted.com/images/ted/tedindex/embed-posters/TerryMoore-2005.embed_thumbnail.jpg&vw=320&vh=240&ap=0&ti=1150&lang=eng&introDuration=15330&adDuration=4000&postAdDuration=830&adKeys=talk=terry_moore_how_to_tie_your_shoes;year=2005;theme=ted_in_3_minutes;theme=new_on_ted_com;theme=hidden_gems;event=TED2005;tag=Culture;tag=Entertainment;tag=demo;]

There are in fact loads of ways of tying your shoelaces. This web site sug­gests at least 18 pos­si­ble knots and also describes the tech­nique dis­cussed above.

June 19, 2011   No Comments

A sad day for virtual Frank Lloyd Wright fans

The Frank Lloyd Wright Vir­tu­al Muse­um in Sec­ond Life is wide­ly regard­ed not only as a won­der­ful reviv­i­fi­ca­tion of the lega­cy of Amer­i­ca’s great­est archi­tect, but as one of the major points of inter­est in Sec­ond Life and one held in high regard by archi­tects and those of an artis­tic bent, many of whom are drawn to vir­tu­al worlds.

The FLWVM con­tains fas­ci­nat­ing exhibits on the life and works of Frank Lloyd Wright, 3D vir­tu­al recon­struc­tions of his key build­ings, and much more, and it’s host­ed by knowl­edge­able and help­ful staff. For the last year or so there has been a licens­ing agree­ment in place between FLWVM and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foun­da­tion, the organ­i­sa­tion that con­trols Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy.

One of the Foun­da­tion’s goals is to “Pre­serve the works, ideas, and inno­v­a­tive spir­it of Frank Lloyd Wright for the ben­e­fit of all gen­er­a­tions” – one of the things that the FLWVM def­i­nite­ly does. I was very much sad­dened and sur­prised at the deci­sion announced recent­ly, there­fore,  by the Foun­da­tion not only to ter­mi­nate its licens­ing agree­ment with Vir­tu­al Muse­ums, Inc, who run the FLWVM, but also to issue a Cease and Desist order effec­tive­ly requir­ing them to close forth­with. The Vir­tu­al Muse­um will there­fore close on Decem­ber 10 unless some­thing hap­pens to change that.

You can read more about the sto­ry sur­round­ing this deci­sion here in Prim Per­fect Mag­a­zine’s blog, and the let­ter sent to sup­port­ers of the FLWVM by the Chair of Vir­tu­al Muse­ums, Inc, Ethan West­land.

As a result of that deci­sion, I was moved to write the fol­low­ing email to the Foun­da­tion via their con­tact email address, info[at]franklloydwright.org. If you agree with me, you might want to do the same.

I was sad­dened to hear today of the immi­nent clo­sure of the Frank Lloyd Wright Vir­tu­al Muse­um in the vir­tu­al world of Sec­ond Life as a result of your Foun­da­tion with­draw­ing its exist­ing licens­ing agree­ment with Vir­tu­al Muse­ums Inc and appar­ent deci­sion not to renew it.

I was involved in a TV pro­gramme about the vir­tu­al muse­um some months ago and was excep­tion­al­ly impressed at the work they have been doing pro­mot­ing the work and lega­cy of Amer­i­ca’s great­est archi­tect in new areas of tech­nol­o­gy. It seemed to me at the time (the show went out just as the orig­i­nal licens­ing agree­ment was being signed) that the licens­ing arrange­ment was a per­fect idea in that it enabled the Foun­da­tion’s work and goals, and an aware­ness of the work of this great man, to be extend­ed into new realms with health and vigour.

I am thus extreme­ly dis­ap­point­ed that the Foun­da­tion has decid­ed to take the mea­sures, not only of fail­ing to rene­go­ti­ate the licens­ing agree­ment or some oth­er mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial agree­ment allow­ing the Vir­tu­al Muse­um to con­tin­ue, but with the addi­tion­al step of issu­ing a Cease and Desist order effec­tive­ly caus­ing the Muse­um to close immediately.

From what I have heard about this deci­sion, it appears to me that the Foun­da­tion has been labour­ing under the mis­un­der­stand­ing that as a result of the licens­ing agree­ment, the FLWVM some­how assumed respon­si­bil­i­ty not only for its own cre­ations based on copy­right designs and con­tent owned by the Foun­da­tion, but also those of com­plete­ly uncon­nect­ed third par­ties. I note this as a result of the fact that the Cease and Desist order was appar­ent­ly sent to the Vir­tu­al Muse­um and not to Lin­den Lab, the cre­ators of Sec­ond Life; nor did it take the form of a DMCA take-down order addressed to Lin­den Lab – the usu­al course of action in the case of per­ceived copy­right infringe­ments in the vir­tu­al world.

I would strong­ly urge the Foun­da­tion to recon­sid­er its action in this case and con­sid­er instead re-open­ing nego­ti­a­tions with Vir­tu­al Muse­ums Inc with a view to reach­ing a fur­ther mutu­al­ly-ben­e­fi­cial licens­ing arrange­ment that would allow the Frank Lloyd Wright Vir­tu­al Muse­um – wide­ly regard­ed as a prime exam­ple of the great pos­si­bil­i­ties of vir­tu­al worlds in pro­mot­ing art, cul­ture and design – to con­tin­ue oper­at­ing, con­tribut­ing so effec­tive­ly as it does to the lega­cy of this great man.

If you’re a Sec­ond Life res­i­dent and you want to vis­it the Muse­um before it clos­es on 10 Decem­ber, this link will tele­port you there.

December 3, 2010   1 Comment

When does ‘Skepticism’ become dogma?

For some con­sid­er­able time, I’ve been a staunch fol­low­er of those, like Richard Dawkins, who oppose estab­lished reli­gions and favour an evi­dence-based approach to our under­stand­ing of the world. Indeed, I think reli­gion has caused more death, pain and suf­fer­ing in the world than almost any­thing else and we would all be much bet­ter off with­out reli­gious privilege.

I am actu­al­ly more con­cerned with oppo­si­tion to reli­gion than I am with athe­ism. As far as I’m con­cerned, of course there isn’t any ‘evi­dence’ for God; thus God is hard­ly amenable to the sci­en­tif­ic method and is pure­ly a mat­ter of per­son­al belief. And tempt­ing though it might be to think oth­er­wise, my view is that peo­ple should be free to believe what­ev­er they like as long as it does­n’t restrict my abil­i­ty to do the same. Hav­ing stud­ied a lit­tle occultism in my time, I know that beliefs are very pow­er­ful things.

They are very pow­er­ful, too, in areas that are more amenable to sci­en­tif­ic enquiry, such as in the case of homœopa­thy. I am quite cer­tain in my own mind that homœopa­thy is to be dep­re­cat­ed, and that “there’s noth­ing in it” in phys­i­cal terms. The idea that water can con­tain the “mem­o­ry” of spe­cif­ic sub­stances, but not all the oth­er sub­stances that have passed through it at one time or anoth­er since the dawn of time (and still con­tain that even when the water is removed) seems ridicu­lous to me on a phys­i­cal level.

On what we might call a “mag­i­cal” lev­el, how­ev­er, it’s fine because belief sys­tems are very pow­er­ful indeed and should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed. The sci­en­tif­ic name for this par­tic­u­lar mag­ic, in the case of homœopa­thy, is “the place­bo effect”, and it can lit­er­al­ly work won­ders. The fact is, how­ev­er, that there real­ly is noth­ing else to it, and for the Nation­al Health Ser­vice in the UK to spend mon­ey on place­bos when it could spend it on med­ica­tions that have been proved to have an objec­tive effect, I find absurd. It is also absurd that vast amounts of mon­ey can be made by var­i­ous com­pa­nies sell­ing “homœo­path­ic” reme­dies that have noth­ing in them. (The real chal­lenge as far as I am con­cerned is how do we har­ness the unde­ni­able pow­er of the place­bo effect with­out being dis­hon­est and uneth­i­cal. How­ev­er, this is not the pur­pose of this article.)

I am whole­heart­ed­ly behind the “skep­tics”, there­fore, when they pile in on top­ics like homœopa­thy, snake-oil “alter­na­tive” or “com­ple­men­tary” reme­dies of one kind or anoth­er and oth­er exam­ples of heinous woo, like “bomb detec­tors” based on dows­ing (poor­ly-under­stood dows­ing, not prop­er­ly imple­ment­ed at that, though I doubt that made any dif­fer­ence) that appear to quite lit­er­al­ly kill people.

I’m in the audio field and noth­ing annoys me more than tales of spe­cial rocks or wood­en coathang­ers that, when placed on top of audio com­po­nents or in your lis­ten­ing room respec­tive­ly, will alleged­ly make them sound bet­ter. I do not believe that elec­trons must pass through a cable in one direc­tion only, or that they have to be “flushed out” from time to time by apply­ing DC to them. Nor that speak­er cables need to rest on ceram­ic pylons. In par­tic­u­lar, I believe that dig­i­tal audio does you no harm and even if it did, “applied kine­si­ol­o­gy” would not tell you any­thing about it.  And so on.

I am also firm­ly on the side of sci­ence when it comes to anthro­pogenic glob­al warm­ing. Indeed, there real­ly isn’t an oppos­ing view on this of any mer­it in the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty, and not because any­one is dis­cour­aged from look­ing or any of those oth­er ‘denial­ist’ accu­sa­tions, but because alter­na­tive the­o­ries just don’t have the evi­dence behind them. This is an exam­ple of one of those top­ics (like cre­ation­ism) where bal­anced cov­er­age ought to reflect the sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus, and oppos­ing argu­ments not sim­ply be giv­en equal time. Equal time is not bal­ance: it rep­re­sents bias towards the view dep­re­cat­ed by those best-placed to know, as I have not­ed else­where.

“Alter­na­tive med­i­cine” is impor­tant, because you are mess­ing with peo­ple’s lives. I have lost more than one friend because they were per­suad­ed to take woo reme­dies instead of get­ting prop­er treat­ment. The afore­men­tioned “applied kine­si­ol­o­gy” when used to “detect” aller­gies, for exam­ple, might be dead­ly. As far as I am con­cerned, there’s a name for “alter­na­tive” or “com­ple­men­tary” med­i­cine that works: it’s called “med­i­cine”. And you find out if it works via clin­i­cal tri­als, sys­tem­at­ic reviews of results pub­lished in peer-reviewed jour­nals and the rest of the panoply of the sci­en­tif­ic method as applied to med­ica­tions. Homœopa­thy gen­er­al­ly fails on these tests, for exam­ple, and its occa­sion­al suc­cess­es seem to rely more on “bed­side man­ner” and oth­er place­bo-relat­ed effects than any­thing else. Yes, I am aware that “big phar­ma” pulls tricks on what appears in the jour­nals and so on, but I am also aware that “big alter­na­tive phar­ma” is at least as duplic­i­tous (and big) and two wrongs don’t make a right.

How­ev­er, I get rather more uneasy when “skep­ti­cism” approach­es sci­ence’s bound­ary areas. (I am real­ly not sure what the argu­ment is for call­ing it “skep­ti­cism”, by the way: as far as I am con­cerned it’s sim­ply a US pre­ferred spelling that’s — as often is the case — clos­er to its clas­si­cal ori­gin than the way we spell it in Britain. I find the answer giv­en in this arti­cle rather weak.)

Para­psy­chol­o­gy is a par­tic­u­lar case in point. Over the years I have large­ly over­come my ini­tial dis­like of James Randi’s assump­tions that unknown things are auto­mat­i­cal­ly the result of fak­ery because he and his asso­ciates (see the James Ran­di Edu­ca­tion­al Foun­da­tion site) are so on the mon­ey about so many things, and excel­lent at expos­ing the char­la­tans who are out to make a dis­hon­est buck. But today the atti­tude there, and in many oth­er skep­tic envi­ron­ments, seems to me to be that the para­nor­mal is a con and thus any prop­er sci­en­tif­ic study of it is equal­ly at best not worth­while and at worst a con too. I am sure a great deal of “pop­u­lar” para­psy­chol­o­gy indeed is. But all of it? Prop­er “sci­en­tif­ic” para­psy­chol­o­gy? I tend to think not. You could say exact­ly the same about psy­chol­o­gy, for exam­ple, not to men­tion oth­er “soft­er” sci­ences like eco­nom­ics. But few peo­ple do.

As far as I am con­cerned, para­psy­chol­o­gy is a real and valid area of sci­en­tif­ic research. I am lucky enough to be acquaint­ed with two peo­ple with PhDs in the field, and although they came to rather dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions about it (and I believe do not get on with each oth­er), their work and my own study of pub­li­ca­tions in the field over some years sug­gest to me that it real­ly is worth prop­er research. I am also aware that there have been dubi­ous pieces of work in the field over the past cen­tu­ry — as there have been in a great many areas of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery — and the odd bad apple is not a good rea­son to den­i­grate an entire field.

The big prob­lem in para­psy­chol­o­gy, it seems to me, is that while, over a cen­tu­ry ago when the para­nor­mal first began to be stud­ied sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, the big ques­tion was, “Do psy­chic pow­ers and/or phe­nom­e­na actu­al­ly exist?”, the answer today, as it was then, is, “We sim­ply don’t know”. That must be a rather depress­ing con­clu­sion for para­psy­chol­o­gists: that their field has­n’t got any­where since the foun­da­tion of the Soci­ety for Psy­chi­cal Research in 1882.

Susan Black­more (whom I recall, hope­ful­ly cor­rect­ly, as being respon­si­ble for the above obser­va­tion) is no longer work­ing in the field (today she works in con­scious­ness stud­ies), but her account of her expe­ri­ences in para­psy­chol­o­gy, In Search of the Light, is def­i­nite­ly worth a read.

I would be very sur­prised if she was of the opin­ion that the para­nor­mal was a scam and that every­one work­ing in the field was to be vil­i­fied and treat­ed as a char­la­tan. As far as I recall, her last word on the answer to the Big Ques­tion of para­psy­chol­o­gy was indeed “We don’t know” — despite the fact that she encoun­tered her own share of dubi­ous research dur­ing the time she was involved. Para­psy­chol­o­gy research inevitably involves a lot of sta­tis­tics, and occa­sion­al­ly peo­ple fid­dle the num­bers. I seem to recall that the odd astronomer and med­ical researcher has been known to do this too, how­ev­er the result has not been to dep­re­cate astron­o­my or med­ical research. Instead you sim­ply tack­le the per­pe­tra­tors, who are in a tiny minority.

Thus I find it annoy­ing, to say the least, when “skep­tics” take the posi­tion that we know the para­nor­mal does­n’t exist and that it’s all char­la­tanism. It’s sim­ply not the case: we do not know that. It isn’t even that there’s no evi­dence of psy­chic phe­nom­e­na: it’s that the evi­dence is incon­clu­sive. That is not the same as say­ing it does­n’t exist. There is per­haps an argu­ment for look­ing at what is most like­ly to move the field for­ward from the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of what might appear to the lay observ­er to be an impasse, but I am sure para­psy­chol­o­gists have plen­ty of ideas in that subject.

There are oth­er areas, and peo­ple work­ing on the fringes of sci­ence who have not been treat­ed par­tic­u­lar­ly well, and, I think, unde­served­ly. It’s been sug­gest­ed that Dr Rupert Shel­drake was dis­hon­est­ly treat­ed in the mak­ing of Richard Dawkins’ series Ene­mies of Rea­son. Lynne McTag­gart, author of The Field and The Inten­tion Exper­i­ment, who may be known to many peo­ple via the film What the Bleep… has been tak­en to task by Ben Goldacre as a result of what she claims was an error by some­one else , fol­lowed by unwar­rant­ed criticism.

Now, I have a lot of time for Ben Goldacre. I put up video of his excel­lent pre­sen­ta­tion at last year’s Open­Tech con­fer­ence and I’ve sent him funds to sup­port his Bad Sci­ence web site. I think that by and large he does a won­der­ful job. But he does seem to me to have over­stepped the mark here. Equal­ly I also have issues with inter­pre­ta­tions of mod­ern sci­ence — of quan­tum mechan­ics in par­tic­u­lar, such as those of Fritjof Capra or those in What the Bleep… — that go beyond those of most rep­utable sci­en­tists in the field. But… I’ve nev­er liked the Copen­hagen Inter­pre­ta­tion and pre­fer the Trans­ac­tion­al Inter­pre­ta­tion of Cramer, which is hard­ly main­stream, so who am I to talk.

Sci­ence has dra­mat­i­cal­ly increased our knowl­edge of how the Uni­verse works and with­out it we would be in a state worse than the Dark Ages (it’s also got us into some big trou­ble, but that’s not what we’re talk­ing about here). It’s one of the tools to help us demol­ish super­sti­tion and espe­cial­ly, in my view, the dan­ger­ous, destruc­tive, evil and dead­ly super­sti­tion of religion.

But sci­ence does not have all the answers and nev­er will, because there is always more to dis­cov­er. In addi­tion, sci­ence moves for­ward by new hypothe­ses being pre­sent­ed, and test­ed by exper­i­ment, that give us answers that fit the facts bet­ter than what we pre­vi­ous­ly thought. The last thing it needs is to not look at some­thing because an a pri­ori judge­ment (ie one that does­n’t involve doing any actu­al sci­ence) asserts that said ‘some­thing’ does­n’t exist.

Just because you can use fak­ery to make some­thing appear to exist (such as a psy­chic abil­i­ty), it does­n’t mean that it does­n’t exist. You could use fak­ery to appear to send an audio mes­sage from here to the oth­er side of town, but that does­n’t mean that tele­phones are impos­si­ble. It does­n’t even make them less like­ly. And don’t give me any of that Occam’s Razor stuff.

Occam’s Razor in essence sug­gests that the the hypoth­e­sis embody­ing the fewest new assump­tions is most like­ly to be the cor­rect one. To most peo­ple, the idea of telepa­thy, par­tic­u­lar­ly in asso­ci­a­tion with tele­phone calls, is rather famil­iar, so the idea that you might guess cor­rect­ly who is call­ing you on the phone via telepa­thy is not an unlike­ly hypoth­e­sis at all (let’s not get into whether it’s telepa­thy or clair­voy­ance now, thank you). That it is regard­ed as unlike­ly to be thought pos­si­ble by sci­en­tists might result from the fact that they know more about how things work than the lay-per­son, and thus have a bet­ter idea (pub­lic opin­ion is so wrong on so much sci­ence); but it could equal­ly mean that they don’t regard it very high­ly because it’s not cur­rent­ly favoured as an expla­na­tion. In which case, how are you going to find out if it ought to be favoured if you don’t look, and say instead (with­out hav­ing looked) that it must be some­thing else? There is some­thing cir­cu­lar here.

The hypoth­e­sis we con­sid­er to be the most rea­son­able may depend on what we know, but that real­ly isn’t suf­fi­cient. To re-wire a pre­vi­ous anal­o­gy: if, dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry, I told you I could trans­mit a sound mes­sage instan­ta­neous­ly from here to the oth­er side of town, would the idea that I might be using a new, cur­rent­ly unheard-of inven­tion called the tele­phone be the hypoth­e­sis embody­ing the fewest new assump­tions? I don’t think so. It would, how­ev­er, have been the cor­rect one.

It seems to me that in para­psy­chol­o­gy, as in oth­er “fringe” areas, you need to prove things a lot hard­er than you would in more con­ven­tion­al fields, and this Occam’s Razor thing is the rea­son. If ordi­nary sci­en­tif­ic stan­dards of proof held for para­psy­chol­o­gy, there would be no ques­tion that it exists. How­ev­er because the claims made are extra­or­di­nary, the proof must be extra­or­di­nar­i­ly rig­or­ous too. I am not entire­ly sure that this atti­tude is jus­ti­fied, espe­cial­ly when it seems as if spe­cial efforts are made to ensure it stays that way. It becomes a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. Extra­or­di­nary to whom? To peo­ple who have already made up their minds. If the evi­dence is incon­clu­sive (which I believe to be the case in para­psy­chol­o­gy) rather than non-exis­tent, then what’s required is bet­ter, more rig­or­ous exper­i­men­ta­tion, not no exper­i­ments at all.

There’s an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion between Dr Shel­drake and Dr Richard Wise­man which men­tions this top­ic on the Skep­tiko web­site. And again, inter­est­ing­ly, Dr Shel­drake appears to encounter a rather unhelp­ful atti­tude to open inves­ti­ga­tion from Dr Wise­man, the lat­ter again being some­one I nor­mal­ly have a great deal of time for. It real­ly piss­es me off when peo­ple I regard high­ly seem to me to “let the side down” in this way (Dawkins, Goldacre, Wise­man, I mean you).

We real­ly need to be care­ful about this stuff. We do need to be open to new ideas and not enter­tain a fixed, inflex­i­ble view of the way the Uni­verse works: that way lies sci­en­tism, a per­ver­sion of sci­ence into dog­ma that is as far from the sci­en­tif­ic method as is reli­gion. We need to be search­ing for the truth, not try­ing to score a point (I hate it in politi­cians: I hate it in sci­en­tists). We need to avoid set­ting arbi­trar­i­ly high hur­dles for proof just because we don’t like what is attempt­ing to be proved: the rea­son­ing behind such appar­ent evi­den­tial prej­u­dice has to be sound and transparent.

Here’s Shel­drake on “Skep­ti­cism”:

“Healthy skep­ti­cism plays an impor­tant part in sci­ence, and stim­u­lates research and crit­i­cal think­ing. Healthy skep­tics are open-mind­ed and inter­est­ed in evi­dence. By con­trast, dog­mat­ic skep­tics are com­mit­ted to the belief that “para­nor­mal” phe­nom­e­na are impos­si­ble, or at least so improb­a­ble as to mer­it no seri­ous atten­tion. Hence any evi­dence for such phe­nom­e­na must be illusory.”

Now don’t get me wrong: most of the time I’m with the “skep­tics” — even if they can’t spell. But what I would not like to see is for the word “skep­tic” become syn­ony­mous with what McTag­gart calls “Bully­boy Sci­ence”. Instead I would advise true “scep­tics” to do their best to avoid dog­ma and keep an open mind.

An inter­est­ing response to the appar­ent over­en­thu­si­asm in the skep­tic camp is the estab­lish­ment of the web site Skep­ti­cal Inves­ti­ga­tion, which attempts to redress the bal­ance some­what. It has five sec­tions cov­er­ing “inves­ti­gat­ing Skep­tics”, “Con­tro­ver­sies”, “Open-mind­ed Research”, “Sci­en­tif­ic Objec­tiv­i­ty” and “Resources”. I by no means go along with every­thing on the site, but it is very much wor­thy of study. Approach it with an open mind, wontcha.

Fur­ther reading:

September 18, 2010   3 Comments