The interview that vanished into space

This author interview, in which Mike Chapman asks me some of the best questions Ive ever been asked, fell off the air – possibly swallowed by a Black Hole. It took place shortly before The Evening Lands was due to be published so, for the curious, I have reproduced it here.

Now read on…

Could you tell us a little about your first book ‘The Price of Time’?

The plot grows from the main character’s discovery that she has – not a Guardian Angel, but a Guardian Devil. I’m not religious but the idea came to me through thinking how lucky I have been in life, where so many others have not.

Basically, things keep trying to kill me, but failing! My main character – Verity Player – is in a way my caricature. She, too, has had a string of lucky escapes in life.

When she comes face-to-face with her evil Guardian Stan ‘Satanic’ Mills, she ascribes her lifelong good luck to him.

But such luck has a price. A keen environmental campaigner, Verity has long ago worked out that one simple convention – one ‘custom’ to which we all subscribe – is the force that lurks behind humanity’s apparent headlong rush to destruction.

Now she finds out Mills is its creator.

He intends to let humanity destroy itself and the world while he sits back to watch.  And Verity’s incessant questions as she struggles to find a way to stop Mills’ plan in its tracks land her in further trouble: he tricks her into wagering her most prized possession – her Conscience – on success in striking the first blow against his plan before the clock strikes New Year…

That’s a really interesting idea and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve heard before! It strikes me as having fascinating overtones of old morality tales and of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Someone said it had shades of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ as a matter of fact! And in a way I suppose it has a moral point: where does our urge to do harm – even if it’s not for immediate personal gain – come from? Why does a person whose wealth is already all but immeasurably vast continue, as if desperate, to scrabble for more? What, even though we’re a social species, causes our empathy sometimes to take a back seat or appear absent altogether?

I came across what appeared to be the common denominator. It’s the thing that gives StanMills his power.

Do you think that this empathy failure is something that humanity can overcome?

If we can bring ourselves to accept that lack of empathy constitutes a problem – including for those who suffer from that lack – rather than a trait that accompanies success, and then act upon this knowledge, then yes I think we stand a chance. We evolved to have empathy, and for a reason: as hunter-gatherers we needed to work together in order to survive. Now once again we need to work together on a massive scale, as the recent IPCC report has spelled out in its stark terms. We need to take our empathy to the next level. Physically we can’t evolve fast enough for this, but there are other ways to ‘evolve’.

If you’ve heard of the Dunbar Number – the number of individuals someone is capable of knowing well – for a human being it’s about 150. I find it encouraging that the number of countries at the United Nations is not far over that.

What made you choose to pursue traditional publishing as a route to tell your story, rather than self-publishing?

I think self-publishing works better for people who are natural entrepreneurs – who know all the business ‘tricks’ and can ‘network like a boss’. That’s not quite me. I love to take part in events – my first book-signing was a great success considering I was a complete unknown – but I’m not a natural ‘organiser’ of such things.

In addition, a traditional publisher will be able to get copies into bookshops where the sort of folk who like my story will be browsing.

Having said all that, if what’s on offer from these publishers isn’t suitable, then I’m happy to go the self-published route again.

What sort of people do you think will enjoy your stories?

There’s a generation of people who grew up with science and the environment movement and who – even with mortgages, families, jobs, insurance and all the rest of it – never lost the curiosity and idealism that is every child’s birthright. We’re still out there, looking for answers, and we relate to heroines and heroes like us who are doing the same.

What do you think is at the core of writing good speculative fiction?

A story isn’t a story without relationships that change and progress. Even the opening chapters of ‘The Martian’ with our hero stranded incommunicado millions of miles from home describe relationships: with his former crew who abandoned him, with the unforgiving landscape in which he finds himself, and with his country via the real potatoes brought for Thanksgiving.

On top of this, good speculative fiction needs a ‘premise’ – a ‘what if..?’ that climbs into your mind and stays there asking questions – possibly for the rest of your life. The unfolding dimensions in ‘The Three Body Problem’, plus the relationship between the two civilisations mirroring China’s with the West, for example, or the challenge to the entire nature of perceived reality in ‘The Matrix’…

And of course, all fiction should ideally have you wondering ‘what’s going to happen next..?’ as you turn the pages, all the way through to the end!

I was reading a newspaper article today about how the author felt that cyberpunk as a speculative genre was stagnating because it has nothing new to say about society. Do you think that speculative fiction – that a fantastical world – needs to have a message?

It perhaps needn’t, but it often does have a message, and that’s why it appeals so much to me. As for cyberpunk: like all speculative fiction genres, the fact the ‘obvious’ plots will have already been written up by now just appeals to people like me as a challenge!

Society is moving and changing all the time – our problems are evolving: look at Brexit, Trump and what happened in Brazil. New settings, new characters and new viewpoints can bring whole new ‘variations on a theme’ even if some of the plot elements have appeared elsewhere before.

Which authors are an inspiration to you?

I enjoyed Isaac Azimov’s short stories for their ideas – I used to read them in pockets of spare time during A-levels. I’d put the book down after each tale with a ‘Wow, yes: what if that could happen?’, ‘What would I have done?’ or ‘How can we prevent that disaster..?’ I recall in particular one in which a hyper-slow-motion film of an atomic bomb revealed the face of the Devil. At the height – or depths depending on your point of view – of the Cold War, that really left an impression! I also relished Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Neville Chute…

More recently I enjoyed Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ series, and ‘The Radleys’ (which is set just down the road from where I live!), as well as David Mitchell’s ‘The Bone Clocks’ and Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’.

But very few women have crossed my reading path, either as authors or characters. I recall disappointment at having to ‘be a boy’ most times I stepped into a story or watched a film, but as a left-hander you get used to things being ‘built for someone else’ and just get on with it. Oh but imagine how thrilled I was to meet Douglas Adams and discover – yes – he was my fellow leftie!

If you had to pick just one book or short story – a sort of Desert Island books – which would it be?

Assuming it’s a fiction book, I’d go for ‘The Three Body Problem’. I’ve read it once but I feel that that’s probably not enough to do it justice and I’ve likely missed a lot of subtleties. If I were limited to a short story I think I’d pick E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which is as germane today as when it was written over 100 years ago. It predicted universal mains electricity, the internet, and our complete inability to deal with their possible sudden absence…

Would you say that environmentalism is a key component of your work?

There’s an environmental angle to ‘The Price of Time’, but it’s not the usual one: not energy, or pollution, or global warming – although these all get a mention as Verity’s battle against Mills’ plan darkens towards midwinter. The story turns more upon the things that lurk hidden in our culture – in people’s minds – that make us want to do that damage, or at the very least render us indifferent to it.

In the wake of the Banking crisis, the Panama Papers and other high-rolling scandals I began to wonder: what sort of people are we dealing with here?  That’s how that ‘common denominator’ I mentioned earlier crystallised. What if their antics are all the result of irrational fear – the fear of losing what they have and ‘falling behind’ which Oliver James, in his book ‘Affluenza’, so forensically analyses? What – I turned it into a ‘who’ – stokes that irrational fear?

‘The Evening Lands’ moves on from this and delves into other pressures that face us, particularly in our jobs. The plot was inspired by my reading about Milgram’s obedience experiments as a teen: why would anyone – anyone who hadn’t been literally forced into it – obey cruel orders?  This basic question spawned others: why is so much of the work we do at present useless, or outright harmful? Why, to take things to the extreme, would anyone torture someone – particularly as time after time it’s been shown that softer techniques are more effective for getting information, and in the long run History shows that mistreatment only galvanises the other side?

All of this meant quite a bit of research, some of which I’ve put up on my blog. I even took a brief internet course on P.E.A.C.E., the interviewing technique developed by the police force in the U.K. and (I’m reasonably certain) once used upon me, as a crime victim, in its early days.

Erm, we’ve moved on a bit from the environment haven’t we…

Yep! That’s such a rich answer that I’m struggling to pick the next follow-up question out of the possibilities! With the Milgram experiment, banking crisis and all the other high profile law-breaking that’s come to light in recent years, do you feel then that people are fundamentally good but can be driven by fear?

I think yes – that sums up how I feel about people in general: fundamentally good – ‘a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet’. But that goodness can slip away if people are put in certain types of fear – for example fear of being ‘left-out’ of a social group.

The BBC once ran a series on the unhappy childhoods of top business people and it was a real eye-opener for me. A childhood without unconditional love is absolutely a place of fear, and as Stan Mills puts it when taunting Verity with the latest newspaper headlines, ‘Eton, Harrow; rich and elite, (are) cradles of so much of the country’s irrational fear…’ and these places go on to generate what he refers to as ‘his people’. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that fear of falling forces them to climb to the top, where they can do the most damage.

You’ve been described as a keen physicist. Any particular field?

My Ph.D. investigated the effect of weather conditions on microwave transmissions beyond the horizon: basically either they bend round the curvature of the earth or scatter from air turbulence or rain. It taught me a lot about the weather! After that, I spent about 20 years in research on quite a variety of projects, most involving electromagnetic waves in one way or another – everything from the magnetic fields in motors to communications with satellites.

Other projects included signal processing. One – echo cancellation – took as its starting point a matrix inversion method developed in France in 1795 – yes you read that right! I imagined the mathematician – Gaspard Riche, Baron de Prony – hiding in his garret doing candle-lit calculations as people were rioting in the streets below…

There are plenty of signal processing and wave metaphors in my stories now. People even say my writing looks like waves.

What attracted you to physics as a discipline?

You could say I came for the space travel, stayed for the beauty.

At the age of six I was living in the USA. At that time Americans were in the final throes of the race to put a man on the moon before the Russians, who’d already pipped them to the post on several fronts including Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The whole USA was space nuts, especially us kids.

The views of Earth from space left a lifelong impression on all of us especially as, at the time, voyages to other planets were being seriously touted.

That vision faded, but then along came Physics into my life, which began to let me into the secrets of how it all works.

 A simple (just one frequency, or pitch if youre listening to it) wave, I learned, has so many hidden properties. For example a plot of its gradient – its slope – would reproduce a wave of identical shape, only shifted along. Plot the rate at which that gradient changes and you’re back to the original wave, only inverted: how perfect is that?

The human ear performs complex maths, with waves, and has only recently in historical terms been out-paced by computers. An object can resonate and be heard, or felt, without the quiet wave that drives it being perceptible. Waves, if something like a surface or a wall pins down their boundaries, blossom into elaborate patterns that can be used to describe anything from the ‘tone’ of a Stradivarius to the shape of an atom.

Even our thoughts travel as waves in our brains. But which comes first: the abstract thought, or the physical wave..?

I think this may be the most philosophical this interview series has ever gone! As fascinating as this has been, I think we need to wrap up. If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?

My website lives at:

www.cspillardwriter.co.uk

It has links to a list of free-to-read short stories, and sites where you can buy ‘The Price of Time’ and ‘The Evening Lands’.

The ‘contact’ page sends an email straight to me. I’m also on Twitter: @CandiSpillard.

Finally, thank you for the chance to be interviewed like this – and for asking such marvellous questions!

Book Review: The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time by Philip G. Zimbardo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


What is your attitude to Time? Do you let the past, the present, or the future dominate your headspace? And are there any bad – or good – consequences of this?

Philip Zimbardo (yes, that Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford prison laboratory fame) grew up in a Sicilian family, in New York. At the tender age of six, on starting school, he was struck by the contrasting attitudes to time at his home and in the classroom. The Sicilians lived for the pleasures of today – food, friends; cultural experiences, whereas classroom discipline focused on the future – work hard today to be rewarded by mastery of a skill tomorrow.

This, then, is truly a lifetime’s work.

Zimbardo makes no bones about which perspective he personally prefers as the key to a successful, happy life: the Future perspective, that he learned at school. It gives people the motivation to set aside the immediate pleasures, or the maudlin attachment to the past, enabling one to become everything from a successful businessperson to an enthusiastic environmentalist – not to mention a top professor of psychology.

But even the good Professors admit that a Future perspective has its downside: over-work, the neglect of one’s family and social life and the absence of culture and heritage; the shock, on retirement, of a bleak landscape devoid of work and status. They note that many top figures in business privately admit their lives are ‘empty’, and that a very low ‘Past’ perspective can make one feel rootless or even antisocial.

The second section of the book, then, sets out how you can find some balance in your life. This takes the reader through a personality test (The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory), to find out where you are, followed by a series of ‘How To’s’ for if you find yourself worryingly short of one of the ‘perspectives’ – Past, Present or Future. Ironically, some of the ‘future’ remedies – those involving money and investment – appear a little dated now, as the book was written during the opening throes of the financial crash of 2008. Similarly, mention is made of the ‘marshmallow test’ (can a five year old resist the temptation of one sweet now if promised two in a few minutes) as a predictor of success in later life, but it has since been found that the ability to resist temptation correlates pretty precisely with one’s parents’ social status.

The part I found most interesting was the application of the Time perspective to common problems in the human condition. Many campaigns against self-destructive behaviour (drug abuse, unprotected sex…) are designed by people with a ‘future’ perspective and will sail ineffectively past those who do not share that mindset – the very people, in fact, who are most in need of the advice. A campaign convincing young people that the act of smoking makes them look stupid or ugly, for example, is going to hit the mark much more effectively than one which says they might get cancer in the future.

My only slight beef with this book is that a number of the early chapters sum-up with paragraphs along the lines of, ‘this book will help you…’ – which I found a bit ‘too American’ for my tastes, and that some of the recommended actions seemed a little simplistic and perhaps didn’t take resource constraints – time as well as money – into account as much as they should.




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Book Review: ‘Science and Secularism’ by Dan Dana

Science and Secularism by Dan Dana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


‘Science and Secularism’ is a journey, described three times and in three ways.

It starts with a brief life story – how the author got to the beliefs he holds now. Next come the Haiku sets, evoking his wonder at natural phenomena – a wonder which, he argues here, needs no additional thought of a ‘creator’ of any kind.

The final section sets out the most typical argument in favour of atheism: that there is no measurable evidence for a ‘creator’, nor any logical explanation of how such a thing could exist.


The opening section, with its description of the revelations about different religions, about merging into broader and broader ‘families’ of faith, is a nice sequence – representing literally a broadening of the mind.

The logic is sound: with so many religions, which in some places contradict each other but each of whose followers believe is the ‘right’ religion, which one is right? And whichever it is, the others, if they’re different, must have something wrong with them.

It is rather spoiled by an ambiguity in the third paragraph, near the beginning, in which the sentence structure implies that the adults in the culture to which he was born – or possibly adults in most cultures – had no understanding of Science. Also, to be honest, I wondered how one can breach a moat.

By taking the “there’s a huge variety of religions among people, leading to inevitable contradictions and thus the question of which one is correct” line of argument against religion as truth rather than the more traditional “There is no direct evidence of God” line, the author has also indirectly tackled the “yes but there’s no direct measurement of ‘love’ either – only of the effect it has upon people” counter-argument to the latter. After all, unlike with any ‘God’, all human beings are in agreement about what ‘love’ is, and what it does.

So: is Atheism a faith? The argument posed here is that it is not, because with no direct evidence for any god(s), it’s the most reasonable thing to believe.

The haiku sets are in two sections: Secular, and Science.

Among the Secularism Haiku (sets 1 – 10) I most appreciated the second, with its joke about ‘Not collecting foreign stamps’ bordering on the Zen. Does ‘nothing’ – i.e. the lack of things – have an existence all of its own?

The Science Haiku (sets 11 – 27) evoke the ‘sense of wonder’ the non-religious feel, without the need to invoke a ‘creating power’ of which to be in awe. Even after more than half a century of fascination with astronomy and cosmology some of us, myself included, still feel like “a wide-eyed passenger hurtling through spacetime.”

I loved the wry humour of “this haiku’s not infinite – I’ve reached the edge now.”
The penultimate haiku, in praise of water, which exists in a tiny range of temperatures and makes life possible, included a nice metaphor – Mars’ skeleton key – while the final haiku sets out our stark existential choice.

The Haiku sets are followed by the final section, dedicated to debunking Creationism, the angle taken being that Pandeism (the belief that a creator, having created everything, now becomes the things they have created and so is no longer directly detectable). This has in common with the more conventional religions, the question “where did that creator come from?” The hypothesis of non-linear time is an interesting one – that there was literally no time before the act of creation, in much the same way that you can’t travel further north than the North Pole.

My problem with this final section is that it suffers from the same shortcoming as Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, namely the desire to invoke in the reader awe of what there is in nature, while at the same time taking meticulous care to avoid any spiritual angle, religious or otherwise. This puts a severe limit on the imagery and metaphor, and neglects the observer/writer’s relationship with the world being described – and all good writing is, in one way or another, about relationships.

For an idea of what’s missing, Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, for example, while a scientific and factual description of the world of the oceans, maintains a sense of beauty and awe in the reader by endowing the world described with a certain mystery – as if to say, here is what we know, but also here is our place in it; here is what we have in common with it; and finally an implication that there is always more out there that we have yet to understand. None of this can be done, it strikes me, if one adheres too strictly to the ‘material’ outlook at the expense of all else.
The narrative then turns to Supernaturalism – the mystical belief that entities exist beyond empirically observable reality, outside the laws of nature, specifically the Standard Model of particle physics. The coverage of recent advances in cosmology and other sciences is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, but to me, referring to some phenomena as ‘supernatural’ simply begs the question of what lies outside the standard model but is yet to be explained by a better scientific model.

To those who, like me, have not grown up in a religious milieu, and who’ve not had to ‘escape’ from a religious upbringing, this final section seems a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
However, the Haiku sets and philosophical sections together would make a thoughtful gift for friends who are wrestling with the contradictions between alternative world views – religious and non-religious. Or indeed with the many contradictions between and within religions.




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The world in your living room

This giant inflatable globe – yes, your eyes do not deceive you – featured in a recent publicity stunt for One Planet York. And it speaks volumes about our city that such an item already existed, and all we had to do was borrow it!

Oh, and of course find a way of inflating it, outdoors, for a photo-shoot for One Planet York, and the start of York Environment Week this week.

This website has details of what’s going on.

There are virtual and 3-d events (what is the opposite of ‘virtual’? It’s not fair to say ‘real’ because a virtual event is also real…), so you don’t have to be local to join in.

Book Review: ‘The Ghost Map’ by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


How grim was life in London, with the Industrial Revolution (and for that matter the British Empire) in full swing? Behind the bright, prosperous façade of Regent Street, who were the mudlarks, toshers and the original Dustmen, and how did they live? What kind of landscape did they move through: its sights, its sounds; its smells? The opening scenes of Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’ plunge us right in. They could be straight from Dickens. We even get to meet Karl Marx – or at least, his filthy, squalid rented room.

And what happened when, in the torrid late summer of 1854, cholera struck?

You could almost paraphrase this story as ‘A Vicar, a Yorkshireman, and a bureaucrat walk into a pub’ – because had the rapid growth of London never happened – the very growth that put urban lives in peril – then Henry Whitehead, John Snow, and William Farr would never have met, and the problem of how to stop Cholera in its tracks not have been solved. Or at least, not before tens of thousands in another generation had suffered.

We follow these characters both in their daily rounds of work and in their pursuit of answers – and then irrefutable proof – of Cholera’s mechanism, as they go door-to-door for detailed information in the stricken and incongruously named Golden Square and its surrounding sewage-ridden, impoverished streets.

We find out why the detailed work and irrefutable proof was needed, as we meet the characters of the medical establishment: from a small local committee, through the newly-formed public health apparatus, all the way up to ‘The Lancet’. Why did they doubt this straightforward and obvious explanation which we, nowadays, take for granted: that Cholera is water-borne? What was the fault at the medical establishment’s heart, and how was it eventually overcome? Steven Johnson takes us effortlessly from microscopic, to urban, and worldwide, scale.

Within walking distance of where I live, near his birthplace in North Street, York, is a monument to John Snow – a replica water-pump, complete with removed handle. I picked up ‘The Ghost Map’ through wanting to know the story behind it. It is beautifully and thoroughly told, complete with references and index.

My only tiny gripe would be that it was never ‘translated from the American’ – references to ‘sidewalks’, ‘diapers’ (yes they play a crucial role!) and ‘stories’ (as in, floors of buildings), when talking about Victorian London, can jar a little.

I’d recommend ‘The Ghost Map’ to anyone who enjoys a look into history, a classic detective story and, although it was written in 2006 (making some of its descriptions of contemporary epidemiology and mapping a little dated), a thought-provoking and prescient take on where we are now.

Oh – and the pub? It’s still there. It’s now called ‘The John Snow’.




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Testing Times II – the Result

CovidFromBBC

Imagine an abandoned Army camp stretching over several acres of land. But with a surreal twist: this one happens to be in the expansive car-park between your favourite garden centre (also deserted) and one of those out-of-town places where you leave the car and get on a shuttle-bus into town.

Well – that’s what it looked like as we drove up. I say ‘we’ because I can’t drive: Marvellous Other 1/2 had to do the honours. Which begs the question: how do you get a Covid-19 test if neither you, nor anyone in your household, has access to both a valid driving licence and an actual car? “Home testing kits!” they all cry. We’ll come to that in a minute.

It was 10 o’clock on a breezy Sunday morning. I’d booked in early(!) to avoid the heaving crowds of anxious nurses and care-workers I’d expected, having seen countless news items about how hard it was to access these vital tests.

But as I said, the place was empty: we were literally the only punters! I guess running a car on a nurse or care-worker’s sparse wages isn’t a goer.

A second surprise came when the ‘download’ on my phone (one of those QR codes that looks like a smashed-up chessboard) actually worked. A white-shrouded volunteer scanned it through the car window and, satisfied that I wasn’t some kind of impostor, waved us on.

Other figures held up placards to direct us through a string-and-cone maze, between several small white military-looking gazebos (you’ve seen them on the news, right?). One chap mimed heart palpitations when we looked like not stopping in time. A shout through the window: Could I self-administer the test, or did I need someone to do it for me?

Now as I said, I’ve seen those things on the news. If you think you can push an elongated cotton-bud 8 inches up your own nose – or worse, 8 inches down your throat – without gagging then you are, I’m afraid, seriously mistaken. You’re likely, I fear, to bail after the first inch or so, not reach the places where the virus lurks, and come back with a false Negative.

So I chickened out and asked for help.

Even then it took the poor lass four goes on the throat part before I stopped choking for long enough.

People have apparently been waiting over a week for results from these tests, but I got mine on the Tuesday, and it came as a bitter disappointment:

Negative.

So now, until reliable Antibody tests are available to the general public (those tests, like everything else Covid-19-related here in the U.K., are being ‘ramped up’ even as our Government insists everything’s under control), I must go about my life not knowing whether I might catch, in the next six months or so, an illness that may very well kill me.

Testing Times

Covid19Zoe

This post is unashamedly current, and I apologise.

About a month ago a friend posted me a link to Zoe, a research project investigating the symptoms of Covid-19. They were looking for volunteers make up a Big Data collection to help us all understand our new uninvited guest.

At the time, Government advice was basically ‘If you’ve got a sudden onset dry cough, and/or a high temperature, then you have got IT, and you must take yourself away from human company for seven days. Or possibly fourteen.’

I had just recovered from an evil little bout of sinus agony, accompanied by proper nausea (unusual for me) and the first high temperature I’d had in about forty years. For three days, all I could do was eat (very slowly), sleep, and sit up in bed to post to friends on Facebook.

As the Facebook friends comiserated about life in Lockdown it became apparent that there were fellow-sufferers out there, with a raft of weird symptoms like mine. Which meant that unless we were unlucky enough to have not one but two viruses floating around so late in the year (March had turned to April by then), we might all of us be fending-off the actual Rona.

And here’s the odd thing: all of us with the weird symptoms, but without the ‘dry cough’ and proper fever, were female.

This brought to mind a study, from several years back, about why so many women were dying of heart attacks. That is: more men than women have heart attacks, but once you’re a heart attack victim then being female meant you were far more likely to die. The study found that the ‘classic heart attack symptoms’ that everybody knows by rote (pain in chest shooting down left arm…) are often absent in women. We might just have a pain in the neck, or a headache and nausea, or blurred vision, and then fall over, with no-one any the wiser till after the autopsy.

Perhaps Covid-19 was the same.

I scrolled back to my friend’s post about Zoe, and signed up.

Zoe sends a message every day asking for a log of symptoms.

What’s the point, you may think, now my illness is over?

But Covid-19 is a virus, and like other viral diseases such as Glandular Fever (the cause of my high tempersture all those years ago) it hangs about. I found myself identifying with Paul Garner with his ‘Advent Calendar‘  of symptoms – an unwelcome new surprise for every day.

I got hangovers without drinking anything. I developed an irrational urge for siestas.

On V.E. Day weekend my heart kept jumping beats.

I sent it all to Zoe.

A week later – two days before they become publicly available – I was invited to a test.

I had to wait for the results – and so, I’m afraid, must you.

 

But is it Evil?

 

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For reasons known only to the Great God WIP (Work in Progress, which at the moment is a novel with a botanical theme) I took it upon myself to write a scene from the point of view of a Bindweed.

For this I had to find out more about the Nature of the Beast than the little I already know: that, given half a chance, the thing would outgrow and strangle practically everything on our vegetable allotment (with the noble exception of the Rhubarb, who apparently makes its own weed-killer, and the Globe Artichoke, who is basically just a giant thistle with gourmet pretentions).

Plants communicate with each other, including across species. Not by whispering when we’re not listening (though to be fair this has never been proven), but by chemical messages below the soil, and occasionally above it. I have personally experienced this. Picture the scene: one spring morning I noticed a couple of cheeky dandelion flowers on our lawn. With nothing better to do, I dug the plants up. In doing so I noticed more that hadn’t flowered. And more, and more, until I’d dug up every dandelion I could see. I remember their fragrance – quite strong but not unpleasant.

The following day the several who’d escaped this intended wipe-out were all in brazen flower. I’m still convinced that they knew, somehow, that they were in danger and were doing their level best to make sure someone among them got to make seeds.

Another one from my own experience: watching the bamboo on our allotment bend away from a bonfire we’d lit next to it. You could actually see it move.

And there’s a lab in Australia who have managed to show that plants can find water just from the sound it makes.

So why not write from a plant’s point of view? In checking certain things for research (for example, the technical term for the tubular white roots which form that infuriatingly durable network from which the Bindweed draws its apparently boundless energy) I discovered they are Rhyzomes (Rhizomes in the States) and the plant itself is a Bine.

Bine?

Why had I never heard the term before?

A Vine  – for example a Pea plant or a Grapevine – throws out little curly tendrils to clasp on to whatever it has chosen for support, whereas a Bine – the Bindweed, or indeed our Beans – wraps its whole stem about its support in a helix. The Bindweed helix always turns clockwise (as you lie on the ground looking up, that is), so here in the Northern hemisphere that means it turns against the path of the sun – widdershins, as they say.

It is, therefore, obviously Evil. Which makes it an interesting character to write about, no?

 

 

‘I will choose free will’

free-will.jpg

The more Metal among my readers may recognise the phrase in this title, but we now turn from the apparent perversity of people’s decisions to the even more uncanny matter of the mechanics of how they’re made.

In 1983 Benjamin Libet of the University of California San Francisco set up an experiment to determine the speed with which people take decisions. His volunteers were asked to perform a simple movement, at a time they chose, while a pickup measured the ‘readiness potential’ – a signal in the brain’s motor cortex known to precede physical movement.

Readings by the volunteers of the timing of their decision, from the second hand of a clock, showed that the signal in the motor cortex – of which they were not consciously aware – came half a second before their conscious decision. In other words the decision was made subconsciously and only afterwards did the subjects’ brains construct the perception of freewill.

Argument at once began to rage over how accurate the subjects’ timing readings could be, given that their attention should have been focussed on whether or not to make their move. Experiments in other fields of brain study have shown how a single line of ‘time’ is reconstructed by the brain ‘after-the-fact’ so, it was argued, we still have freewill – it just doesn’t look like it in that one experiment.

In 2009 Jeff Miller and Judy Trevena carried out a new version of Libet’s experiment in which volunteers had to listen out for a tone before making a 2-way decision: press the key or leave it. The experimenters found a ‘readiness potential’ building-up in both cases – press or leave – and concluded that the potential just signified attention, and not decision-making. Our state of attention is not something of which we are fully conscious, though it can of course be controlled with practice.

Libet’s own conclusion about his findings was that the readiness potential signalled preparedness to push the button but nevertheless a person could decide, within the final tenth of a second, not to go through with their decision.

But it could be said that this view – which acquired the nickname ‘Free Won’t’ (as opposed to ‘Free Will’) – just pushes the question one step along by leaving the mechanism for the final ‘restraint’ decision unexplained.

Improvements in measurement equipment – including siting the pickups within the brain – have in some cases shown even longer intervals (up to two whole seconds) between ‘trigger’ signals and apparent decisions.

Arguments still rage then: do we have fully-conscious freewill, or do our decisions bubble up, mostly uncontrolled, from depths we cannot reach?

 

 

The price of obedience II

They twist their hands. They sweat, they grit their teeth. They claw their hair, the battle in their minds playing out on their agonised faces…

And those are just the perpetrators.

And the rest of us – those in the field and those whose connection extends no further than being of the same species – have ever since then been struggling to explain why, nevertheless, in so many cases they press on.

Where does empathy go, or what is it that overpowers it, in Milgram’s experiments?

Milgram himself was the first to be shocked by the outcomes, and the first to put forward an explanation. He proposed that our mind – the set-up of our thought processes – passes through something of a phase change, going from an ‘Autonomous’ state, in which we act entirely of our own freewill, to an ‘Agentic’ state, in which admonitions such as ‘I/the institution take full responsibility…’ (a typical experimenter reply when pressed about the consequences of any harm that might be done) are taken literally. It’s as if some part – not all – of the volunteer subjects’ mind is thinking ‘that pain I can hear isn’t my doing: it’s the experimentor’s’.

The obedience-over-empathy effect is strongest if the experimenter is nearby: hearing instructions via a phone link rather than from someone physically present reduced average compliance from over 65% to under 20%. It’s also stronger if the ‘victim’ can’t be seen. We’re a social species after all and we don’t want to let down (on the one hand) or harm (on the other) those who are near us.

But there’s more.

Dressing the experimenter in casual clothes rather than the classic white lab-coat, and switching the experiment’s location from prestigious Yale to a nondescript building on the edge of town, both had the effect of reducing compliance for an otherwise identical experimental set-up.

Similarly, the sexes of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’ made a difference: men were far less willing to inflict pain upon women. This may be cultural, or it may be older: perhaps our higher-pitched screams, nearer to humankind’s ‘emergency signal frequency’ of a baby’s wail, are simply more effective at their job.

Some spoilsport has even suggested that this explains the Australian result: the women in that study were ‘teaching’ other women, on instructions from a male experimenter. Yes lads, it’s true: we’ll gang up on you if we have to, simply to survive.

What the effect of the clothes and buildings appear to show, though, is that our willingness to inflict pain on others is, in the life of human beings as a species, a fairly modern thing. And that what brought it to the fore was the hierarchical state in which we all live now: we have simply become accustomed to putting our minds into Neutral gear and obeying orders, especially from those who are nearby, no matter the consequences to those who are out of sight.

In the words of laboratory assistant Charity, in the sequel to ‘The Price of Time’ when asked “What would you do?”:

“I’d do what I was paid to do.”