Monday, 24 May 2010

Wordle of Elsie Smith

go to to make your own... thanks wordle.

Apologies to my reader for the substantial lag in posting. This will be remedied when I have more time. Honest.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Dengue fever

Dengue is a mosquito-borne virus which affects some 50 million people a year. A report by the BBC blames climate change for the growth in Dengue:

"Some scientists say climate change is to blame, with rising temperatures and increased rainfall boosting the number of mosquitoes, which carry the disease."

However, another piece by the BBC says it is overpopulation, slum conditions and air travel that are to blame. A much more plausible explanation. It is far too easy to point the finger at climate change without a shred of evidence. However.

It was actually a third BBC report on Dengue that I was searching for when I came across those two articles. Entitled 'Lame' mosquitoes to stop Dengue, the piece explains how a team of scientists has genetically-engineered male mosquitoes to carry a dominant gene that prevents flight muscles from forming in the female. Original article: [Female-specific flightless phenotype for mosquito control, Fu et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 22nd 2010] (free access to pdf of article)

Now, will it work? Will releasing sterile males into an outbreak population (or an endemic one) reduce the numbers of mosquitoes? At first sight, the plan seems flawless. We can release thousands of males (they don't bite, remember - only the females do), each carrying a little time bomb - a genetic one. Each female that mates with one of our males will produce two kinds of offspring: males with the inhibitor gene but that are unaffected by it, and females that can't fly, and thus can't feed, or reproduce. What's not to like?

The plan does have potential, but it is most likely of short-term effect. Natural selection is a wonderful thing, and there will be very strong selection against our males (because they produce half as many viable offspring as a non-modified male). The question really is whether such hi-tech solutions are really of any point, when cheap environmental solutions could be put in place much more easily and with permament effect.

For instance, putting lids on water butts might be an effective way to reduce standing water for mosquitoes to breed in (if this sounds naive, it shouldn't - Dengue is present in built-up areas, including relatively affluent ones). Clearly such an approach is laughable where waterways are little more than open sewers... but building new sewage systems not only combats Dengue, it combats a bunch of other stuff too.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Freerice results

Results from recent Freerice experiment, where I "donated" 1000 grains of rice a day for ten days to see whether my vocabulary improved. Here are the best levels I obtained in the sequence:

Thursday 21st 51
Friday 52
Saturday not tested
Sunday 50
Monday 51
Tuesday 52
Wednesday 53
Thursday 51
Friday 51
Saturday 51
Sunday 52

No obvious trend. Have I consciously learned any new words? The only two that spring to mind after a fallow period are:

i)Cenote (a sinkhole)

ii)Ceruse (skin whitener containing lead)

It is tricky to improve your level, even if you know most of the words - every time you get one wrong, you drop down a level. To go UP a level, you have to get three right in a row. So if reaching level fifty you get three right, you go to level 51. Two more correct and you're still on 51. One wrong and you're back to 50. So, in essence, you need to get more than 5 right for every 1 wrong. Quite tricky.

My next challenge will be to donate one day's worth of rice (20,000 grains). That will be 2,000 correct answers (I usually do 100). Not sure when this will happen but it will, soon.

Climate scepticism on the rise

Last week the BBC reported that climate scepticism is on the rise. Between November and February there was a 10% increase in the proportion of people who don't believe in global warming, from 15% to 25%. Now, why?

i) What we might call the no-brainer. We've had a cold winter in the UK. Therefore there is no global warming. With logic like that, it's no wonder we're still the world's greatest Empire.

ii) The "Climategate" emails. Why does every scandal have to have the word "gate" appended? I know, it's because of the Watergate building. Well maybe we should call it the "WaterClimate" conspiracy for a bit of variation. Was there anything to disprove global warming in these emails? Not really. Enough to paint the scientists concerned as human beings, i.e. not the ivory-tower ascetics we might have suspected they were. You didn't expect that? H'mm. Steve McIntyre's blog has good coverage of these (though some would say it is not entirely neutral). You can get the raw emails here.

iii) The Himalayan glaciers. The Internation Panel picked up on a story that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 and put it in their state-of-the-end-of-the-world report. Trouble was, the story had no basis in science. Whoops.

iv) The slow drip of confusing allegations by sceptics. "The Proxy Data are wrong." "The Hockey Stick is an invention." "Carbon dioxide is already saturating in the atmosphere." "Use a trick to hide the decline." (the latter from the Climategate emails). (See ClimateAudit again for these; RealClimate has the orthodox view.

v)The UEA, host of the Hadley Centre (Climate Research place), found to have dealt wrongly with the Freedom of Information requests by sceptics searching for a global conspiracy.

Well, that's quite a bit of negative press. To address item i) alone for now. You know the problem? It's simple. If we have a mild winter, experts are wheeled out who say (or are made to say by journalists) things like "we'll expect more weather like this with climate change." Ditto summer heatwaves. They're due to global warming, as are storm surges and rainstorms leading to floods.

Then we have unseasonally cold weather, the folks in the public put two and two together and work out that the same causal attachment should be made between climate and all spells of weather, not just the ones that fit the picture that the media now expect. All of which is nonsense, but natural.

So next time there is a heatwave, listen out for any voices mentioning global warming. There will be some.

The other items on the list will have to wait for another day, but I will address them all in time.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Per capita carbon emissions vs GDP

One thing that has always concerned me about climate change is the way the government’s approach has whiffed sharply of hypocrisy. In the UK, we are going to have new runways, we are said to need 240,000 new homes a year, and car manufacturing is trumpeted as Definitely Good for the UK. On the other hand, Govt. is always talking about CO2 like the world will end if we dare to so much as breathe out. So, which is it to be? Go after CO2 emissions or let the economy grow? Politics seems to be an attempt to dodge a falling rock by moving both directions at once. It’s impossible. You have to jump one way or the other. Which way they jump, I have never really minded (I just would like the Grey Suits to be consistent – either consistently determined to grow the economy come what may, or consistently determined to cut CO2. Then we can vote according to which view we like. Just be honest, guys.)
What of the “low carbon economy”? Can there be such a thing? Can growth come at the same time as CO2 is cut?
I’ve just compiled some data to find out. It turns out, if history is a predictor of any sort, that growth at the same time as cutting CO2 is impossible.

The graph (click it for clearer version) shows year-on-year changes in per-capita CO2 emissions against the deviation in global growth from what the IMF term the global recession level, i.e. 3%. Which way you should plot this could be argued. Perhaps it should be the other way around, with CO2 emissions driving GDP growth. In either case, the line is the same, as is the conclusion: When the global economy grows, per-capita emissions grow. “Sustainable Growth” is a politician’s myth. We can have Sustainability or Growth. Not both.
One caveat: there is a possibility that some of the two data sets actually have the same source. For example, some carbon dioxide emissions might be estimated by economic activity. This shouldn’t be a problem, because the raw number for CO2 (its atmospheric concentration) is well known, and population size ought to be independent of GDP. Ought to be. I just don’t know exactly how the data was produced.
Data sources:
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre
IMF economic database

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Baby names, Character names

A name is an important attribute. Not just for people, but for characters in stories too. When writing fantasy, there are a number of naming options available to a writer. Some of these:
(i) Invent one. The perils of this approach are many. Firstly it may sound stupid. Secondly it may be unreadable. Take some of the names in Iain "M." Banks' The Player of Games: Jernau Morat Gurgeh and Yay Meristinoux. Then we have a machine called Mawhrin-Skel and one called Chamlis Amalk-ney. Yark! (Terry Pratchett satirizes this approach in The Colour of Magic with Lio!rt and K!sdra (or somethings similar)).

(ii) Use a fashionable one. Peril: the possibility of becoming dated. Not a serious consideration for aspiring writers, I suggest. But I wouldn't advise using Olivia or Grace or Ruby, names that are extremely popular today but may not always be so.

(iii) Use a popular classic. Jack will still be popular in one hundred years. It just will. Peril: a sort of blandness, I suppose. A smudging across of all the other Jacks your reader has read about.

(iv) Use a rare classic. In His Dark Materials, Pullman uses the names Will and Lyra. The peril here is of the name potentially being seen as old-fashioned. On the other hand, there is the possibility of setting a trend.

An excellent resource for names is at the Office of National Statistics, where you can download spreadsheets of boys' and girls' names for 2008. The only thing you don't get is any names that were used fewer than three times (to protect confidentiality, apparently). There are more than 7,000 girls' names here and more than 5,000 boys'. So if you're having a baby or naming a character, this is a good place to look. (75 girls were named Lyra in 2008, and there were 202 Wills.)

I already have a name for the main character of my next MS: Edison (which I now see was used 22 times in 2008). But I need a name for the second character, a girl...

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

St. Disgusting's Gyratory

Rejoice, citizens of sunny Norwich. Soon the Conduit of Despair known as St Augustine's Street will soon become Unidirectional. It looks as if the pavements are going to be wider, too. Which is good. Because at the moment the layout deters the casual pedestrian, who has to tiptoe along a razor's width of path as juggernauts hurtle past, threatening to suck him or her clean into the road.

Residents of Northern Norwich may be lightly agitated to note that their part of the city is now open countryside.

Video courtesy of the County Council.

Monday, 25 January 2010

More on Submissions -2

Having earlier covered the extravagant unlikelihood of getting an agent, I have some more cheerless news for would-be writers.

In 2006 The Times sent the opening chapters of a novel to a variety of agents and publishers. And not a new writer's try, either, but the beginning of a Booker prize winner, VS Naipaul's In a Free State.

Not one of the agents or publishers approached recognised the talent they were holding in their hands. We know possible reasons why: the subjectivity of what is "good" and the sheer numbers of submissions...

'Carole Blake, of Blake Friedmann, receives up to 50 novels a day but takes on just six new authors a year. “We have two book agents and we’re pretty full,” she said. “So unless something leaps off the page as amazingly commercial or literary, it is very unlikely we will take new clients on.”'

I make those odds about 6 in 18,000, or about 1 in 3,000, strikingly similar to the odds I mentioned in a previous post. (Assume that when The Times says novel, it means the opening of one.)

So if you have had a polite rejection, you are in good company. A Booker prize winner has had the same treatment (or a virtual one, at least). A new writer should get used to the realities of the craft.

Be prepared for a long winter.

Thursday, 21 January 2010


Freerice was established a few years ago as a way of getting advertisers to feed people. It tests your vocabulary with a simple game - for every synonym you identify correctly the advertiser donates 10 grains of rice to the World Food Program. Not only does it exercise your brain, it also feeds the hungry! What could be better?

Whenever I go to the site I have always tried to donate 1,000 grains (i.e. get 100 answers correct), reasoning that 1,000 grains would make a meal for someone. However, I now read on Wikipedia that it takes 20,000 grains to feed one person for one day. So I'm donating a snack at best.

Anyway, what about the vocabulary-building element of Freerice? Is it better than a free lunch - is it a free lunch that also makes you smarter?

I'm going to test myself every day and see whether my best level goes up, as a test of this. Of course, it may be simply that I am able to memorise some of the words I have recently seen (i.e. if the Freerice program keeps repeating the same words). However, I'm going to give it a go.

Today's effort (best level for 1,000 grains total donated): 51/60.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Covering Letter

I have already talked about one aspect of a submission pack, the synopsis. But what about the covering letter?

First of all, the covering letter is going to be brief. Our hassled agent’s assistant is not going to want to read three or four pages of even the best letter writing. My view is that all that needs to be said can be said on one page. Taking into account the addresses, salutations, farewell, signature and Enc, we’re talking about half a page of detail. And it’s no good reducing the font size or the line spacing. 12-pt font, double-spaced lines, and you must say all you want to in half a page. Everything must exude professionalism. That means no typos. Grammar all checked. So, what should be included?

(i)What have you written? Title, genre, length, and target age.
(ii)A plot summary in one or two sentences.
(iii)Why your MS captures the zeitgeist, or why it is a timeless classic, or what it is that is new and unique about it. Who is going to read it, and why. Is there series potential?
(iv)Who you are. What is your experience of writing? What is there to indicate that, even if your book is excellent, you are any more than a one-hit wonder? Are you dedicated to becoming a writer, come what may?
(v)What state is the MS in, i.e. is it complete and ready to read?

All in half a page.

More on the covering letter later.

Solomon Curve

Everyone knows that Solomon Grundy was born on a Monday, had a few adventures and died on Saturday. But what about the Solomon curve?

The Solomon curve is a fascinating and initially counter-intuitive relationship between speed and the likelihood of collisions. It says that the absolute speed of your vehicle is not the most important determinant of how likely you are to be involved in a crash – the difference in speed between your vehicle and the average speed of the traffic is.

In other words, if everyone is speeding, it may be safer to speed rather than to stick to the speed limit. The explanation is in the number of manoeuvres that are required per unit of time or distance – overtaking, for instance. Thus, a slow tractor is serious hazard because it forces other vehicles into making a manoeuvre. Also, because manoeuvres often happen at slow speeds (like turning into a side road), a turning vehicle (an obvious hazard) has a lower speed than the average for the road.

Friday, 15 January 2010

More on Submissions

Wherever an aspiring writer looks, there he or she will find depressing advice about submissions. The first thing that everyone says is: “Don’t bother with publishers. There’s no hope that a publisher will even read your covering letter, let alone your sample chapters. Get an agent.”

The next piece of advice is, if anything, more depressing. “The odds of getting an agent are akin to those of getting struck by lightning.”

Ann Coburn in this how-to about writing for children mentions odds of 3000:1 for one agent (one new writer after 3000 MSS and 12 years). Another agent received 300 MSS a week for 20 years and took on 3 writers (i.e. odds of 300x52x20 to 3, or about 100,000:1). With odds like that, lightning strikes seem to make a not-too-frivolous comparison.

Of course, the two numbers (3000:1 and 100,000:1) are quite different. One refers to MSS read, the other to MSS received. In other words – and this is completely non-scientific guesstimation, based on the memories of two agents – there is only a 1 in 30 chance of getting your MS read, and a 1 in 3000 chance that your MS, if read, will be taken on by the agent.

And this is calmly overlooking the possibility that the agent may not be able to sell the MS to a publisher. The odds of this are a further unknown (but are certainly much shorter than anything else I’ve mentioned).

So, to the point at last. Your submission (and mine) is going to land on the desk of a hassled assistant whose job it is to winnow the oppressive pile in front of them down to a manageable size, before skim-reading the survivors and passing one or two onto the agent to assess. What we are not going to do is give our lovely assistant any reason to throw us out of the pile, right? That means following the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter. At least then we won’t go straight in the bin without at least being glanced at.

When the agent’s assistant glances at us (I’m going along with this personification, because it seems true somehow), what will they see? Generally, and there are exceptions:

i)Covering letter


iii)3 Chapters of the MS

I’ve already talked about the synopsis. In the next few days I will address the remaining two items in the submissions kit.


Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Eisenhower

A bad plan is better than no plan at all. A saying which I have always, possibly wrongly, attributed to Napoleon (although if he indeed said it, he said it in French...)

I love it when a plan comes together. Hannibal (he of the A-team, not the Carthaginian general)

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Writing the Synopsis

Writing a synopsis of your work ought to be easy, right?

Well, not for me. It took me about half a dozen goes at a synopsis of Elsie Smith to come up with something that I was remotely happy with.

The problems of writing a synopsis are fairly obvious. You have to compress an entire book into a single page. Enough must be on view on that one sheet of paper to sell your story. Not everything that happens in the plot can be included – some things will have to go. Which ones, and how to decide? Is there room for any discussion of character traits? What about the conclusion of the book – do you really want to give away the ending in a single-page summary?

So much so obvious. Any writer should be able to summarise their work. Just pick out key facts, arrange them in a series, and you’re there. Easy in theory: but every time I started to write the synopsis for Elsie Smith, things quickly went wrong – I ended up with what sounded, baldly stated on a page, like a series of clichés. Elsie Smith is not clichéd. So why did the synopsis come out sounding like it was?

Here’s how one attempt began:

“The world is empty and silent.

Britain is gone. The USA is gone. Civilisation itself has gone. By day the world is an eery, ghostly place, full of rusted cars long abandoned and mouldering buildings falling into ruin. Wild creatures are all that move – but behind blacked-out and boarded-up windows, mad figures lurk and wait for nightfall. There are no prey for the vampyres any more: all are dead, or, like them, in tormented undeath afflicted with the curse of unquenchable thirst…

Only on one isolated island are there survivors. Here a few hundred souls eke out a precarious existence, battered by fierce Atlantic storms and beset by boatloads of vampyres from the mainland.”

Appalling. I’ve used nearly half a page, haven’t mentioned Elsie Smith or anything about what actually happens. It didn’t matter how I started, I always felt that I had to paint the setting first, and that always wasted nearly half the available space. Carry on like that and I’d be looking at two sides at least.

I don’t usually put the ending in my synopses. But I read somewhere on the net that you should, and having read that, I knew at once that this was so. Why? It is the difference between getting someone to read your book for pleasure (blurb on the back of it) and getting someone to read it with a view to selling it to someone else (your approach to an agent, who has to know how an editor will receive it).

That being the case, I hit upon a theory. What if I started the synopsis at its end? Just write down the ending. Then go back a step and put down the important thing that happened before the end. Six such jumps and I was back at the beginning. OK, so I still had a page and a half, but it read a lot better. The opening bit was reduced from the quote above to this:

“Civilisation has been destroyed by a plague of vampyres. Only on one remote, windswept island do people remain.”

Conclusion: there is no room for description in the synopsis. There is very little scope for character traits. “Determined and dutiful” was all I could fit in for Elsie. For Zero, “arrogant and flamboyant.”

One thing about synopses: to write one, you must know what your book is about. If that sounds silly (“You’ve just written the damn book, how can you not know what it’s about?”), it’s not meant to. It’s possible to write a book without ever considering what it’s actually about.

UK Road Deaths, 1930-2008

The graph shows the number of people killed on UK roads between 1930 and 2008. As you might expect, there is a general decline. The smooth nature of the line from 1930-1980 is due to XL smoothing the data, which is only available for 5-yearly intervals for this period.

Somewhere in the middle there (1983 to be precise) seatbelts were introduced. There is no obvious effect.

Now, when we bear in mind that traffic levels have increased hugely from the beginning of the series to its end, it's obvious that the roads are actually amazingly safe.

If you plot the number of deaths per unit of traffic, a much smoother decline can be seen. If the roads were as dangerous now as they were in 1955, there would be more than ten times more fatalities on the UK's roads.

Rather insanely, globally, more than a million people die on roads each year. This is a rather difficult number to comprehend. More on road safety statistics later.

WHO page on traffic accidents

Data from Department for Transport

Friday, 8 January 2010

Exoplanets 1

The Kepler probe has announced the confirmation of its first five planets. Kepler (which was launched in March 2009) detects planets by measuring the dimming of their parent stars when the planet passes between them and the probe.

Four of the five are larger than Jupiter. All are very close to the parent star (of the order of a twentieth of the Earth-Sun distance, or about eight times closer than Mercury), so hellishly hot, with an orbital period of half a week.

This first clutch of planets might seem rather disappointing for a mission whose objective is to look for Earthlike planets in temperate orbits – but there are very good reasons why the easiest planets to find will be giants in close orbits.

Imagine I am standing some distance from you swinging a ball around my head by a string. Now, you can only see the ball when and if it passes in front of my face (this analogy works best if I am just a disembodied head). What properties of the ball/string/swing make it likely that you will see the ball?

Clearly if the swing doesn’t pass between us, you’ll never see it.

If the ball is large, there’s more chance you’ll notice it if it DOES pass between us.

If the string is short, the ball will pass between us frequently, giving you more chance to see it.

These three characters have a great deal to say about how many of the planets that are out there can be seen by Kepler. It also helps if the parent star is dim (if my face is face-sized, not like a hot-air balloon).

So the upshot is, Kepler is limited in the proportion of planets it can see and what kind of planets they are likely to be. The Kepler team worked all this out years ago, of course. For an Earthlike planet around a Sunlike star, the chance that Kepler will spot it is 1/200. As Kepler monitors 100,000 stars, if every star has an Earthlike planet, we’re looking at 500 planets. If only 1 in 100 systems has an Earthlike planet, that comes down to 5 detections. (Assuming for the moment that the monitored stars are all quite like the Sun.)

Kepler Mission Site

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Elsie Smith

The first idea that I had for this book was this. I am writing a fantasy. Therefore, I can have whatever I want, go wherever I want, make whatever happen I want. So I decided to have a plague of vampyres wipe out humanity. Yeah! Take that, humanity. What next? Well, there have to be some survivors...
Survivors. The next obvious question is, who are these survivors, how do they survive, where do they survive? All questions with a variety of possible answers, but mine were, respectively: a rag-tag bunch of refugees (the ‘lucky’ ones), by the skin of their teeth, on a remote, tiny island.
Next question: who’s the main character going to be? What will happen to them? (The Plot). Will their character change over the course of the book? Well, because of the target audience, the main character kind of has to be a teenager, right? The sex of the main character has a bearing on lots of things – how other characters treat them, for a very good example. Elsie Smith is a girl, if you hadn’t guessed. Because this is a fantasy, and as its author I can make anything happen, I’m going to take her from the little island back to the mainland, where survival is impossible... or almost impossible. It is just about possible to survive by a combination of luck, skill and bravery: so our character has a thorough test.
Other characters? Well, a companion. No companion, no one to talk to, no conversation. Arguments are more interesting than chat, so let’s have them not get on. Let’s have the companion be a boy, too. Let’s have his character be diametrically opposed to Elsie’s, and have him be a mass of enigma (why is he called Zero? Why does he have an apparent death-wish?).
Why do Elsie and Zero have to journey to the vampyre-infested mainland? Why, because they have to rescue someone. There has to be a reason to risk everything in this enterprise, for Elsie at least, so let’s have the lost person be her sister, and have Elsie driven out anyway.
Whether Elsie and Zero succeed in their quest – well, that’s not, in the end, the point of the story. The point is what happens to Elsie, how what happens changes her as a person.