Tuesday 6/5/14

I am now aiming to post here more frequently because I shouldn’t neglect those who read my blog and because it is useful for me in many ways. I get a walk down then back up the hill in Papagianades, which adds paces to my pedometer and assists towards my weight loss program. The discipline keeps me returning to my laptop and writing, which is what I am supposed to do. Also, while they seem inclined to chat, neither of the genial hosts at ‘The Avli’ (The Yard) speaks much English, so this is a good place for me to practise my steadily growing Greek vocabulary.

Now, on that last subject, I’m now using mnemonic clues and other techniques to stick stuff firmly in my mind. I reminded in this of my father’s ‘joke’ that enables one to remember the first 5 numbers in French. If you know them then, ‘Three cats went out in a leaky boat…’ Anyway, I’m making up my own clues for this language because sometimes you can make so few connections to English. Othigo, for example, means I drive, though it’s not pronounced precisely as you see it here.

One word that evaded me yesterday was the future tense of ‘I sit’. The present and past are, respectively, kathomay and kathisa, while the future tense always starts with a tha, which is the Greek version of ‘will’ or ‘shall’. When I was groping in my memory for this future tense verb and not finding it I made the assumption, based on other words I’d learned, that the future was tha kathiso. Wrong! It’s tha katso. Annoyed that I’d managed to forget this (if briefly) I made up something to imbed it in my mind. We once had a cat we named Fatso, so I now have in my mind ‘Fatso the cat will sit – tha katso’. Sounds daft I know, but it works.

Another I’m trying to memorise is paratiro which means ‘I observe’. Since I know the Greek word for window and it’s similar – parathiro – I now have ‘I observe the window’ paratiro to parathiro. But of course you’re getting no real sense of the emphasis on certain letters here, or of the confusion concerning those letters. Greek, for example, has far too many versions of ‘i’. It has yota, ita and ipsilon, plus epsilon-yota and omicron-yota. It also has two versions of o, some strange dipthongs and other combinations of letters, along with letters that don’t exist in English at all like psi, ksi and khi. Here’s one for you to be going along with next time you take a trip to Greece: mi, pi, alpha & rho in sequence µπap (MPAR) is ‘Bar’ because M&P at the start of a word make B, and the way to remember this is ‘MPs make busy bees’.

Still, this is all good fun and, apparently, learning a new language is one of the best mental exercises going. So, all those reading this and thinking, ‘When the hell is he going to get back to writing and talking about science fiction?’ can rest assured that I’m giving my mind a good workout and I’ll hopefully be approaching my work with some new muscles.    

Fun with a Scorpion

Yesterday when I took my walk to Handras I set out in shorts and t-shirt because the sun was shining and I expected the temperature to just climb, but cloud steadily thickened. As I approached that village I was pretty sure I was going to get rained on and it occurred to me that while I didn’t mind getting a bit wet since it was still warm, the Greek/English lexicon, sheet of paper with Anna’s latest lesson on it, wallet and notebook in my man-bag might not appreciate it. I started looking for a plastic bag, damning myself for not sticking to my idea of always carrying a spare because wherever you go here Greeks will give you gifts of fruit and veg. (I digress: on one of my first walks here a pickup stopped beside me and the old guy behind the wheel waved to the back and held up three fingers. I took three mandarins out of the back, thanked him, and enjoyed them on the way home.)

The first plastic bag I found had fur and other icky substance stuck inside so had probably contained a dead cat. I passed on that one. The next I picked up was clean so I put the vulnerable items in that then back in my man-bag. Rubbish in general, including plastic bags, is never in short supply here and is strangely lacking in the tourist photos. On many occasions I’ve had my Jaws moment while swimming only to see a carrier bag sliding by under water.

Rumbles of thunder ensued and I did get rained on but not enough to bother me much. Back home, with the weather clearing a little, I set about varnishing woodwork then tidying the garden and other areas surrounding the house. This done I read Greek for an hour before deciding that maybe it was time to fire up that USB microscope that has been sitting on my shelf for 2 or 3 years. I connected it to my laptop, opened camera app, then looked around for the slides. I couldn’t find them anywhere so had to pack the microscope away again and instead watched the Sopranos.

This morning I was determined to make a concerted search for those slides after a walk to Lithines. However, it was grey and pouring with rain and has only eased off now at 9.30. Foregoing my walk I began rummaging through drawers – always traumatic because every item has a memory attached. I threw stuff away and relocated it, then finally found the box of slides in a cobwebby mess behind my desk. Time to set up the microscope again…

Here’s Mr Scorpion in place:

And here are some shots of him, respectively the sting, part of the main body and one claw.

This is my first effort. I would have liked a lower magnification so as to get a detailed picture of the whole thing but at x20 this is the lowest of the main settings which then go up to x80 and x350. Here’s x80 on the sting, while x350 is just a difficult blurry mess I won’t bother with.

Maybe if I take a series of shots at different points along its body I can paste together a whole picture in one of the other programs I have available? That’s a project for another time. I also need to get hold of the kind of slides I remember from my childhood (when my parents bought me a very good microscope for maybe my 10th birthday). These slides have dished recesses in them so you can put in a droplet of filthy water and watch fascinating diatoms zipping about, and the app will allow me to take video clips of them.

There you go: it is now confirmed that I am a weirdo.

The Windy Moon

I caught a bit of Who Wants to be a Millionaire last night and really wish I hadn’t. The question I heard was, ‘Which of these do you find on Earth but not on the Moon?’ and the choice of answers was: sunlight, gravity, craters and wind. I stood there with my mouth hanging open listening to two ‘celebs’ debating whether or not the Moon has gravity, then one of them stating quite firmly that there was wind up there. In the end they made the sensible decision not to commit to an answer and take the money and run.
Now, I really don’t expect people to know the names of the main moons of Jupiter or to even be able to recite the order of the planets in the Solar system, but a little basic scientific knowledge would be good. But then, I was showing a lack of basic scientific knowledge too because they couldn’t hear me while I was shouting at the television.   

Sooty Moths

Funny, I was waffling on about natural selection and evolution to Caroline the other night (after watching a program about how plants altered Earth) and the example I chose was the peppered moth. Today I found myself reading an article on just that. It never occurred to me that the process went into reverse after the clean air act.
I have to add that this is one of the best current proofs of the theory of evolution/natural selection going.

Mental Fat

Well how things change. After deliberately avoiding rant sites over the last few weeks and concentrating on science I’m finding my attitude changing. I read a copy of the Daily Mail this morning and just flipped through it: Cameron and Milliband getting shouty, bored, move on, more politics, yawn, stuff about religion, you lost me there, don’t give a shit (never did), vague interest in some articles, losing it halfway through. Sod it, I’ll twitter some nonsense, write a blog post and then concentrate on what I was working on yesterday: the motivations of Penny Royal, Earth Central and a weird character called Tuppence.
We know that if you exercise your body in a particular way it gets stronger in that way: if you run a lot you get better at running, if you lift weights a lot you get better at weight lifting. But the same applies to the mind: it has muscles that can be exercised. Concentrate on doing crosswords and you get better at it as you learn the convolutions of the cryptic puzzle-maker’s thought processes. Concentrate on Sudoku and you exercise the number and pattern recognition parts of your brain. Read a lot and you get better at reading – your vocabulary increases and you can digest larger concepts. 
These are all fairly obvious, but there are other muscles operating (or perhaps a better description might be neural routes or programs – I’m simplifying here). Where do you get your ideas from? I am asked – as all writers are. Well, I’ve been bench-pressing with my imagination so it’s getting stronger. How is it you can write so much every day? Because I’ve been doing it a lot, guys. Ever worn a hole through the space-bar of a keyboard? I have.
And then we come to the not so great aspect of the mind. It can get as lazy and as stuck in damaging routines as the body. By perpetually following those routines they become hard-wired and dominant. They’re mental fat, they’re the result of the mental equivalent of sitting on the sofa eating biscuits and watching TV when you know you really need to swap out the chocolates for raw carrots and go for a run. They can be addictive and just like physical sloth they can be more difficult to defeat as you get older. In the end, trying to think differently can be one of the most difficult things to do, perhaps, on each individual occasion, more difficult than foregoing that Mars bar and making yourself do twenty sit-ups. 

Piltdown Man

Just for those of you that might not have heard of this, here’s how scientific fraud can put us back years. it also seems to be an episode from which little has been learned.

Whoever perpetrated the crime, it is considered to be one of the most damaging scientific hoaxes of all time, because it set the development of evolutionary theory back for years while researchers labored pointlessly to integrate a fake skull into the fossil record.

From The Skeptic’s Dictionary, which rather amused me considering the stance there on other matters (I put the bold bit there):

Because of the public nature of science and the universal application of its methods, and because of the fact that the majority of scientists are not crusaders for their own untested or untestable prejudices, as many pseudoscientists are, whatever errors are made by scientists are likely to be discovered by other scientists. The discovery will be enough to get science back on track. The same can’t be said for the history of quacks and pseudoscientists where errors do not get detected because their claims are not tested properly. And when critics identify errors, they are ignored by true believers.

Scientists were fooled by this hoax for 40 years, until the weight of other finds finally drove some of them to take a close look at the skull itself, and find out it was a fake. One can hope things might work faster in this Internet age.

Wonders of the Solar System

I’ve been enjoying ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ because of Professor Brain Cox’s enthusiasm for science, for his relish of the great things we have achieved in throwing spacecraft millions of miles out to expand the frontier of human knowledge. It’s been good to see some of the newer pictures from that frontier and of course to see the superb graphics created. The program hasn’t really told me anything I don’t know – it’s really a Solar System basics class for those unaware of things like the order of the planets or how many planet Earths you could drop into Jupiter’s red spot, or generally what conditions pertain on each world. But it has seemed to be a return to the good BBC science program untainted by political ideology.
I mean, at one time I used to love Attenborough’s Life on Earth programs, but now I cannot watch them without feeling the urge to throw something at the TV when he delivers his regular-as-clockwork homilies about how we are destroying the planet with our profligate globally warming ways.
The first few episodes of Wonders of the Solar System remained pure enthusiasm and science so I watched with some trepidation when I realised this latest episode was about the ‘thin blue line’ – about planetary atmospheres. I enjoyed the stuff about Mercury’s lack of atmosphere leaving it open to direct meteorite collisions  and vast temperature changes, the stuff about Earth’s magnetosphere protecting it from the solar wind and how deep in Jupiter the pressure turns hydrogen into a metallized liquid. But then, with the inevitability of tax rises on petrol, booze and cigarettes, we got to the greenhouse effect, and Venus.
Cox gave a brief description of how the greenhouse effect works, perhaps annoying the faithful by pointing out how without it we would be freezing our butts of in temperatures 30 degrees lower than they are now. He then went on to say that the temperature on the surface of that world is hot enough to melt lead, apparently because of its CO2-laden atmosphere. I was there rooting for Cox because he did seem a little embarrassed to be mentioning this, and I was hoping he would also go on to point out some of the rather large elephants in the room.. But no, all we got was some nonsense about Venus being in the same ‘region’ of space as Earth. Rather disappointing really.
No mention then of how Venus being 26 million miles closer to a giant fusion reactor called the sun might have some bearing on its temperature. No mention how a ground level pressure of 93 times that of Earth’s might have an effect too, or that Venus receives over a thousand Watts per square metre more solar radiation than Earth. Nope, it’s all those Venusian coal-fired power stations.
I like to think that this was the minimum deal with the Devil Cox could make to ensure he would present the program. I like to think this was the minimum he could say to calm the political demagogues at the BBC so as to enable him to zip off to Africa to experience an English Electric Lightning jet flight straight up at 5 gees to the limits of the atmosphere to observe that ‘thin blue line’, or race across the Namib in a 4×4 to do a small piece about the sands of Mars, or race a speed boat across a lake to gather up some methane whilst talking about Saturn’s moon, Titan.

Anyway, I’ll continue watching the program, and just hope that the homilies are out of the way…  

Thing You Need to Know.

Karl Popper on falsifiability:
A property of any proposition for which it is possible to specify a set of circumstances the occurrence of which would demonstrate that the proposition is false. Falsifiability is the crucial feature of scientific hypotheses: beliefs that can never be tested against the empirical evidence are dogmatic.
Bertrand Russell’s teapot:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
If there is no way of proving something wrong, it’s not science. And if you can’t prove something wrong, that doesn’t make it right. Can you think of prime fat contemporary examples of both of these? I certainly can.

The Whatever Blog

I’ve just been reading some highly entertaining posts on John Scalzi’s blog. The first is What to Know When You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work which certainly raises a chuckle or two and is now highly relevant to me. At one time I used to do this but, now, it’s just not worth the aggravation, the bottom line being, why should I forgo paid work to do this when the result might well be a wounded artiste bleeding all over me? And no, I’m not going to pat you on the head and say, “Good boy!” The second post is Ten Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing which is again highly entertaining but in this case points a finger squarely at the me of about thirty years ago. This kind of post is often criticized for undermining the kind of self belief that enables someone to eventually become a successful writer, however, the ones who succeed are the kind who read something like this and simply don’t stop. I stuck a reply in there to that post (in the comment overflow), pointing out that the bar is set by those who have struggled for decades to get where they are, and only rarely does anyone leap that bar without equivalent effort and determination. It’s a rule, I feel, that can be applied to success in just about any walk of life.