Giving it away

The nature of Money itself

News of the issue of a new type of £10 note caused me to look, properly this time, at one of the (relatively) new fivers. The ones whose reverse sides are graced with the portrait of Winston Churchill.

Here he is:


Among other things, Sir Winston is noted for his dry, acerbic wit. In fact, lurking on a bookshelf in our lounge we have a whole book of his aphorisms: “The Wit of Sir Winston”. Its pages teem with astute observations, wry ripostes and pointed put-downs.

So why, I wonder, did the Bank of England in their wisdom choose, as an example of the great man’s one-liners, the quote etched beneath him here?

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat

Does some unknown dark humourist stalk the corridors of the Bank of England?

Are they teasing us  – perhaps alluding to the nature of money itself – with a secret that the rest of us can only intuit?

‘The Matrix’ effect

Matrix background with the green symbols

Seen the film?

Or heard of it?

Well, of course.  Those iconic fight scenes, where Time itself slows down.

Many of us carry a memory of Time slowing down: of calm descending within, allowing us to judge the perfect moment, for the perfect move.

Here’s mine:

I am walking along a well-lit main road in a Navy city, late on a spring evening. My paces bounce; I’m on the way to see my boyfriend. I untie my long hair as I walk; I shake it loose. Someone stops me and asks the time: my watch says five past ten.

That someone then follows me into the darker street where my boyfriend lives. And he starts talking. I notice he doesn’t have short, Navy-style hair. He doesn’t have an identifiable accent. There’s no-one else about. Although I’ve begun to feel anxious, I keep him talking. Because while he’s talking he’s not doing anything stupid. And I’m nearly there anyway.

Then he knocks me off my feet and I begin to fall…

And now fear does something I’ve never known of before, to my time: it stretches it out for me, allowing me to collect my thoughts. As I fall, I think back through the day. Through each thing I have done, all the way back to the morning. Like re-reading a story, backwards. Effect, then cause. Why did this happen? How did I get there? How did I wake up? My boyfriend has a radio alarm. I woke up to the morning news bulletin. In the final item, a girl has been attacked, at some stables somewhere in the countryside, by a stranger, “but he was scared off by her screams.”

I hit the muddy tarmac with a shock. The phrase replays in my mind: ‘he was scared off by her screams’.

And now I realise I’m probably within earshot of my boyfriend’s house. I scream out his name; I give it all I’ve got. I hear it echo down the street.

Nobody comes.

But it doesn’t matter. By the time the scream dies away I am alone again. I pick up my bag and go on my way.

fMRI is a wonderful thing. It has, only recently, enabled us to discover how very real this effect is: not just enhanced memory, but a genuine increase in awareness – in in-the-moment-ness. Adrenaline’s effect is to speed up our bodies, causing a perceived slowing-down of everything else.

We are literally more present – outside the Matrix of our reconstructed Time.

Cover story

Cover of the novel The Price of Time

If folk say the first lines of a novel should, directly or otherwise, pose an inviting question for the reader, then perhaps the same could be said of the cover.

What is the price we pay for Time? Is it our work, that wears us out? Is it biology? Does Time, like the gears of the clock, hold within it some kind of trap? Is there a way out? Is it inevitable that we’re ensnared, or are we in some way complicit?

And who are the two shadowy figures at the edges of the picture..?

The music is reversible…

Two photons have danced together.

And forever afterwards, they no longer act independently of each other.

To use the term from Quantum Mechanics, they have become Entangled. Disturbing one of them will result, in what Einstein referred to as “spooky action-at-a-distance”, in a disturbance to the other. Certain experiments – known collectively as the Bell Tests – have demonstrated that this really happens.

But this can make it seem as if information is travelling between the two at speeds faster than light.

Which, as everyone knows, is impossible in real life.

So what’s going on?

Well, Huw Price and Ken Wharton came up with a possible answer. In 2012 they suggested, wait for it, ‘retrocausality‘: effect, then cause. The experimenter, on configuring the experiment, influences things that have happened in the past.

It’s as if Schrodinger’s Cat got into a Time Machine.

Now Matthew S. Leifer at Chapman University and Matthew F. Pusey at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics have lent this idea some mathematical weight.

Nothing in Quantum Mechanics, they point out, has an ‘arrow of time’: it’s not Thermodynamics; there’s no Entropy, the measure of disorder – or information – which must always increase as time goes by.

Everything in Quantum Mechanics is reversible in time, so why not cause and effect?

Everyone agrees on one thing, though: it’s impossible to send information back in time: only the shadowy influence

The music is reversible, but time isn’t.

Dark Arches


Some places cry out to be settings in a story. The space beneath the brick arches supporting Leeds station as it spans the river is one such.

When I took these pictures it had been even darker than usual: building-work had blocked off the daylight that would have come from the open, south-facing vaults.

I stood on this narrow bridge which spans the river’s four concrete channels, each with its own brick-lined tunnel. What if I were being chased for my life across it: out of breath, heart pounding…


If I leapt  over those railings with their bright orange builders’ netting, down into one of the channels, would I increase my chances of getting away?


Might I mistime the jump? And if I did, would that blue-lit pattern of bricks be the last thing I saw?


The river here is shallow enough to wade in: I can see brickwork under the vees of the waves. Or I could make it to that ledge and through the steel gate.


Lost them!



I slow to a walk in the deserted vaults.

All I can hear is my heart thumping, my laboured breaths.

Four dark tunnels, and the rush from the Aire.

Yes, that’s the river’s name.


Page one power

Twin antennas in Fulford, York

If I were to start a collection of Opening Lines, I’d grab this one first:

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

It’s a belter.

“They do say” that the best opening lines should ask questions. Well: how many questions do you want??

How can London move (and fast enough to chase something)?

Why a small mining town? And what would be its fate if caught?

What dreadful disaster had dried-out the whole North Sea?

And finally, perhaps without realising it, we’re wondering why this spring afternoon is dark. Although there are plenty of dark days in spring in real life, we’re taught from an early age to think of spring as a time of light.

“They do say” also that the first line should be to the story what a tiny fragment of hologram glass is to the complete plate: a glimpse into the whole tale – of what the reader is letting themselves in for.

But there’s more.

When I picked up a copy of Philip Reeve’s “Mortal Engines” and read that first sentence I recalled another famous opener:

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, and April’s supposed to be warm: what’s up?

And to think that “They do say” you should never open a story with the weather…

Time for a Smoke


In days of Old, when meals were finished, the Ladies ‘Retired’ (where to? And in order to do what, precisely?) while the Gentlemen moved to the Smoking Room.

But in these enlightened decades the Winter Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle is open to all paying visitors, and immediately piqued my interest.

Because the Theme of all the decoration within, strangely for a room dedicated to a leisure pursuit and designed while the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, is Time.

Here on one of the four arches, for example, is one of the four seasons: Harvest Time.


And each span is supported by one of four suns with faces, representing Time during one day.

Time: hmm. That stuff which you were supposed, if you were anyone back in those days, to be turning straight into money rather than allowing to go up in smoke.

But perhaps the designer – influenced as he apparently was by William Morris – was being just a little subversive.


More than meets the eye


“Deep Learning”

What is it?

It’s an artificial reconstruction, using a network of “neurons”, of how our brains learn things.

Let’s say I want some imaging software to be able to recognise “a dog”. I set up my empty network, and then “train” it, using thousands of images, each one (correctly) tagged “dog” or “not-dog”.

“Surface” neurons pick up the pixels, the next “layers” down look for colour, lines, etc; some layer below that builds a nest that can identify an eye… and so it goes.

Finally, when it’s let loose on random images, it will be able to tell me whether or not there’s a dog in there somewhere.

But here’s the kicker:

There’s no way, as yet, that anyone can find out how it reaches its decision. There’s no code to look through, you can’t probe it, and it can’t talk.

Even the people who build neural networks can’t know how, exactly, they work. There is, almost literally, a ghost in the machine.

Researchers at Google set out to try and spot the ghost, by taking their image-processing software and running it backwards: telling it to draw a dog, in an effort to reveal the network’s idea of “dog-ness”.

This article includes examples of the kind of image – including the one at the top of the page here – that result.

Everybody says they make no sense.

But to some of us, they’re familiar.

Once upon a time I had a go with LSD. For a few hours, under its influence, I experienced “ideas” resembling these images superimposing themselves upon whatever view my eyes were picking up at the time.

Now I know where those images come from.  I was, without knowing it, witness to the inner workings of my brain going about their business of making sense of what my eyes were looking at.

Those inner workings construct objects, faces, places, even feelings.

There’s more to what we see than meets the eye…



Plants know stuff


Has anyone else ever noticed the smell of freshly-weeded Dandelions?

Half sweet, half pungent: very distinctive…

So: I step out onto the newly-sprung-in-spring lawn.

I dig up every flowering dandelion.

And the next day, as if by magic, all the remaining dandelions are in flower.

I conclude that either:

  1. They’re all one single plant, or
  2. They can smell!

I thought this must be a bit ‘out-there’.

But it’s nothing compared to the latest findings:

Peas can hear water.

And bees.

and hungry caterpillars…

But the bit about growing healthier when being played Mozart remains, as yet, unproven.