24 August 2011

Click is ten years old!

Photo courtesy of Paul Clarke (and that's me on the far left).

Some of you may know that I am one of the reporters on BBC World Service radio's technology show, Click (formerly known as Digital Planet, formerly known as Go Digital). Last night was this wonderful show's tenth birthday and so to celebrate, the BBC organised a special live recording in front of an audience at the radio theatre at Broadcasting House in London. I was kindly asked to be a guest to talk about technology in India, and it was a huge treat. Not only did I get to catch up with Digital Planet alumni, including producer Michelle Martin and presenter Tracey Logan, the audience was also treated to the sight of weekly star contributor Bill Thompson in a very smart tuxedo. Presenter Gareth Mitchell was his usual brilliant self too, as was producer Colin Grant, so if you missed the programme please do make a point of listening to it this week on the radio or online. It's worth it just for the sound of musician Sarah Angliss on the theramin, playing the Click theme tune.

23 August 2011

Geeking it up in Edinburgh

I've wanted to go to the Edinburgh Festival since I was a kid. Last year I managed to catch the fireworks at its tail end, but this year I hit the jackpot and was right there in the heart of the action as a guest of the International Book Festival. My first event, with novelist Siddhartha Deb, was sold out and big fun (including Siddhartha admitting to me afterwards that he's a "failed geek" (!) and promising to buy my book). If you'd like to get a flavour then download this week's Guardian Books podcast, in which we tell Claire Armistead what we think about technology and revolution, especially in light of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign in India.

On Sunday I was thrilled to be on a panel with science superstars Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Keith Campbell, debating the future of science in Scotland (although this did turn into more of a discussion about Dolly the cloned sheep and her siblings). What became clear is that journalists and writers play an important part in both encouraging a scientific culture and making sure the public understand science and technology without being afraid. As Keith mentioned, it's easy to skew the facts, which is why it really helps for writers to have a background in science or engineering. That said, the cultural gulf between the humanities and the sciences must be improving, given the great questions we had and how many people turned up. I hope we get to see even more science represented on the programme in Edinburgh next year.

Other than that, I caught a few shows (including the brilliant Bad Bread), ate a couple of tattie scones, drank some great champagne, and wandered around magnificent Edinburgh. Thank you to everyone who came to see me, bought my book, or said hello.

18 August 2011

London Science Book Club 4

Last night was the latest meeting of the London Science Book Club. It should have happened last week but the London riots put the kibosh on that plan. Only two of us managed to turn up yesterday. Nevertheless, we had a lively discussion and plenty of space on our massive table in the empty cafe.

Our pick for this month was Marcus Chown's Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You. It's a lovely little book (fewer than 200 pages) but it does require your absolute concentration. Quantum theory is perhaps the most difficult and mind-bending of all the sciences, and it's particularly tough to make sense of it without the aid of formulae and diagrams... which makes Chown's achievement all the more impressive. That said, I can't say that we understood everything. One of our group read it twice and still wasn't comfortable with explaining the concepts to someone else. I read it once, and even though I felt more enlightened by the end, I still don't really understand the difference between a fermion and a boson either.

Even so, we would definitely recommend this book to others. It comes closer to explaining quantum physics and cosmology in an accessible way than anything else we've read. Plus it has loads of fun quotes (including a great one from Woody Allen) and footnotes (did you know, for example, that black holes didn't become popular amongst researchers until someone gave them their name?). And it has inspired at least one of our group to read up about quantum theory more deeply and research the lives of characters like Thomas Young (of double-slit experiment fame).

Our next book club pick is Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. So look out for our review in October!

16 August 2011

Saving the arcade

I happen to live not far from the London Trocadero near Leicester Square. And as any young Londoner will know, the Trocadero is famous for its games arcade. I spent my 18th birthday there, back when it was still pretty slick (in fact I played Laser Tag there on my 30th birthday last year too). But sadly, over the years it's slowly degraded into something resembling a scene from Blade Runner. The escalators are frequently broken, the candy-strewn floors stick to your feet, and there are machines shoved into corners where machines should never be. And then about a month ago I learned that the legendary Funland at the heart of the Trocadero had given up the ghost altogether... and closed down.

I can't explain why this left my heart so heavy, because I never went to the arcade anymore anyway. But I felt as though I'd lost something important. And this inspired me to record my latest piece for Click, the technology radio show on the BBC World Service, on the future of the games arcade. Home consoles are so impressive these days that arcade designers have found it tough to keep up. In countries like the UK they're being replaced by slot machines (the crack cocaine of gambling) or being ditched altogether.

But don't despair because big gaming companies, including Sega, as well as a few young upstarts are planning to save the arcade. And they were at the Digital Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Conference recently to discuss how. To find out their plans, tune into Click tonight at 7.30pm BST or catch it when it goes online on the BBC website.

Extra news: Next week marks the tenth anniversary of Click (I started reporting for it when it was still called Digital Planet, but before that it was called Go Digital) and the producers are organising a special live show from the fabulous radio theatre at Broadcasting House in London, hosted by the wonderful duo, Gareth Mitchell and Bill Thompson. Among the panel of Click contributors during the show will be me, so please do tune in to the BBC World Service at 7.30pm BST on Tuesday 23rd August.

7 August 2011

A free extract... just for you

It's shaping into a really fun summer. I went to my first Skeptics in the Pub meeting in Camden in London last week to talk about Geek Nation. Many thanks to Sid Rodrigues for the invite and for the brilliant questions, not to mention to everyone who sweated it out in the evening heat, bought a book and laughed at my anecdotes.

I have a few more events lined up this year, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the British Science Festival in Bradford, and Sheffield's Off the Shelf Literary Festival. So book your tickets now because I'd love to see you there. And if you'd like to keep up to speed with what's happening around Geek Nation, including photos and press coverage, then please also join the Facebook group (394 fans and counting!).

In the meantime, my amazing publishers have kindly put up a chunky extract from Geek Nation on their website for free. Yes, you read correctly. Not many people know about this, so I'm sharing it with you, my blog readers, because I know you'll appreciate it the most. For access, just click on the extract link on this page or click here to download the PDF directly.