Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Tudors

We’ve been watching the BBC2 series The Tudors, and thoroughly enjoying it. I have also been considering how much things have changed in the last 500 years, and how very much they’ve remained the same.

Treaties were made and broken faster than Kyoto resolutions and generally they were just an excuse for the upper echelons to go on an extended jolly. Rising members of Court were sent to Europe for negotiations which of course involved lots of big feasts, hunting trips, gifts and the purchase of essentials like jewels and silks and such. Alliances forged throughout all this led to numerous unnecessary wars whose justification most found difficult to fathom. If anyone wanted to rise in Court he had to loudly declare his adherence to current accepted belief, before finding out who to bribe. Corruption, plotting and nepotism were not where they system went wrong, they were the system.

I guess they lived a little more frenetically than we do. You would, wouldn’t you, seeing people dying all around you from unknown causes, and knowing that you’ll be lucky if your own span extends beyond the age of forty, and that’s before taking into account what might happen to you if you step on the wrong toes. Nowadays we at least stand less of a chance of being barbecued for our beliefs, that now being the territory of foreign fanatics rather than the state. And a small lesson to learn from this, and other historical dramas, is that those who rule have always stolen from the ruled, and probably always will. There has never been a time when things were better, and the corruption we see today has a long historical tradition.

Depressing thought, but a good series.

From Crete

News from the Cretan front. Damnit, I put my back out and have been walking about like an 80-year-old for the last three days ... hang on, my apologies to 80-year-olds, my Mother is 83 and gets about a damned sight faster than I have been lately. And no I didn’t do it while digging a hole, nor did I do it while lifting something heavy. As always with this sort of thing I turned at just precisely the wrong angle at the wrong speed in the wrong direction at the wrong phase of the Moon. Or something. Caroline did the same thing last year just sneezing.

I have, therefore, not achieved a great deal of work on the house. I did come up with an idea for getting across our garden, which at present is always in one of two states: dust bowl or mud bath. Here attached is a picture of slabs I’m making from beach stones cast in concrete, in a mould carved from insulating foam. About three-quarters of a bucket of mix goes into each – the remainder I use to cement some more stones on our garden wall around the back.

What else? Still cloudy and cool on some days up in the mountains, though mostly it’s bright sunshine and a temperature above 20. Down in Makrigialos, as ever, the temperature is always a minimum of 4 degrees higher. Did we move to the wrong area? No, later on those living down there will be in mosquito hell and will need the air conditioning on so they can sleep at night. Interesting thing about the mosquitoes: their population explodes with the influx of tourists then, when the tourists go, a huge hungry population of the buggers remains to compete for a much reduced food supply.

Everything is growing madly, the only seeds I’ve planted yet to germinate being chilli and aquilegia seeds. We’ve got radishes, lettuce, rocket, onions and carrots coming up in a raised bed, and in pots and elsewhere: coriander, basils, cherry tomatoes, sweet peas, snapdragons, coleus, lupins, some local succulents (don’t know the name) and various cottage garden mixes (and other stuff I can’t remember right now). I’ve attached pictures of these, along with a picture of one of our garden visitors. You get no sense of scale with that last picture – the little monster is only a centimetre long.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Started Zero Point

Okay, this is a first; I started the new book Zero Point on 16th April. This is a first because I have never before actually recorded when I’ve started a book, only when I’ve written the last line. 3500 words done thus far (yeah, I know, but I had holes to dig in the garden, seeds to plant, walls to scrape off and repaint etc) and, all being well, I’ll soon be getting on with my 2,000 words a day five days a week.

Other stuff to occupy my mind: planting a pomegranate tree, obtaining a big plastic container and burying it in the garden for the grey water, and translating a leaflet detailing a garden health plan here. The last comes from a guy who sold me pomegranate trees in Sitia. The simple exercise of going to him and buying four trees (some for friends) at a price I already knew, took half an hour whilst he told me everything I must do to plant them and look after them. He then had to detail stuff about a further two plants I bought – a cucumber and a melon. I have to wonder how he makes any money when an explanation for two simple plants at a total of 90 cents rambled on for ten minutes. Later he caught Caroline and I walking back to our car, and gave further explanations, along with the leaflet. You gotta love this place.

It’s nice to note that the banana tree I planted last year, which was a brown dead looking mass when we came back, is now throwing out new leaves. Also, in the same part of the garden, an avocado tree (about four inches high) has survived. This last comes from a meal of avocado and prawns eaten about two years ago – the pits shoved in a pot outside.

So, all the planes across Europe have been grounded for about a week. I didn’t realise until I saw the location of the volcano on a map just how close the thing is to Britain. Some people are stranded here too, though sitting in the sunshine drinking beer as they await notification of their flights. I don’t have any memory of this sort of thing happening in my lifetime and wonder what other effects there will be. Certainly, the European economy doesn’t need this right now, but what about the weather? I guess we can all be assured that the global warmers will have something on which to blame this coming year’s cold.

We walked to a place called Etia a couple of days ago. This is an old Cretan village containing a restored Venetian villa (and a taverna). People who buy houses there can restore them, but only to the period of the place, though I suspect that doesn’t mean mud roofs and no electricity. We had a nice meal in the taverna, with a couple of beers, then walked back, picking wild gladioli and flowering broom (shit, there went my street cred).

Still no joy with the Internet. I’ve put my name forward as one of the hundred required to get broadband up here. The woman, Marita, who I said could put my name down, tells me that we only need to find about 90 more...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jon Sullivan cover for Polity Agent

Here's Jon's take on Orlandine from Polity Agent. Brilliant stuff yet again!

More Zero Point Stuff.

The three Zero Point Energy books progressed to a stack in the hall – ready to go down to one of the bars in Makrigialos that keep books to loan out to customers – but then I decided to bite the bullet and have another go with them. There’s certainly some interesting real science in them, like the Casimir effect, Casimir batteries, the possibility of solid-state rectification of ZPE and the Alcubierre warp drive. The problem I have is sorting the nuggets of gold from the crap-heap. The book that first detailed the stuff above included a piece by one Richard Boylan Ph.D suggesting that declassifying ZPE technology would be a good thing – that would be the ZPE tech the Americans obtained from ‘Star Visitors’, which included antigravity tech. Oh dear. It all read very coherently, but it was like a post I once read on the Asimov’s message board – a perfectly coherent explanation by a guy of why he believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

This sort of stuff puts me in mind of the state of play a few centuries back as real scientists researched electricity, magnetism and electric fields, and as new technology began to result from them. Whilst the real scientists worked with real problems and conducted real research, a whole crop of pseudo-scientists grabbed these new shiny toys and attributed to them the kind of properties previously attributed to holy relics, bathing at Lourdes or rubbing yourself down with damp celery to cure leprosy. Newspapers of the time were full of adverts for electrical or magnetic treatments to deal with every ailment from gout to cholera. Of course out of that crap-storm came some real stuff, like X-rays, ultraviolet light skin treatments (I choose those because we’ve been watching Casualty 1900s).

Here, according to the book I’m reading now, are the paradigm camps regarding ZPE:

1. Quantum physics is wrong. Quantum events can be explained classically using self-fields. ZPE does not exist.

2. Relativity is wrong. A material-like ether exists.

3. Quantum physics is correct, but ZPE is a theoretical artefact; it is not real.

4. The ZPE physically exists, but its magnitude is too small to be an appreciable energy source.

5. The ZPE physically manifests large fluctuations, but they cannot be tapped because of entropy; they are random and ubiquitous like a uniform heat bath.

6. The ZPE is a manifestation of chaos in an open nonlinear system. Under certain conditions it can exhibit self-organisation and therefore become available as a source.

7. The ZPE is a 3-space manifestation of electric flux from a physically real, fourth dimension of space. It can be twisted into our 3-space yielding alterations in the space-time metric. It can be tapped as a source, and doing so locally alters gravity, inertia and the pace of time.

I think I can live with number 7, just so long as the tech doesn’t come from greys from Alpha Centauri or secret Nazi projects, just so long as there are no homeopathic, acupuncture or crystal healing miracles involved, just so long as the Zero Point Field isn’t God and our souls don’t transmit to the fourth dimension when we die etc etc etc.

More Crete Stuff.

Still no luck with the Internet – it turns out that OTE just don’t provide it up here in the wilds. Basically they provide it where there will be sufficient users to pay for it and, since our village with its population of 60 has only two people who are likely to use it, I don’t see it arriving in a hurry. Our only option would seem to be something from Vodaphone, which I’m guessing is expensive and limited. Ah well. The plus side of this is that though my communications will be intermittent and my posts here not as frequent as previously, I won’t have my work interrupted by the Internet.

However, my work is being interrupted by something else. Despite asserting that I would never put games on my computer, I’ve done so. I’m playing various hidden object games and am presently on Mortimer Beckett and the Time Paradox. If I work at it I can kid myself that this is research...

It turned cold here for a few days and, since we were running low on wood and needed to keep the stove burning, I made some enquiries about buying some more. Gulp. 150 Euros for a pick-up truckload. I guess I have to remind myself that back in Britain, over ten years ago, a pick-up full of cut wood would cost £50 and, compared to Crete, Britain is covered with trees and full of people who use gas and electric heating. Here, when it’s cold, the chimneys are smoking constantly.

I bought the wood from an Albanian living here who, like them all here, has a Greek name as well as his Albanian one. His name here is Vangelis whilst in Albania he’s called Angelos. I don’t get that, since the latter is also a Greek name. The Albanian who did some work on our house is Yorgi to the Greeks but I call him by his real name: Miri, or Simira. A similar thing happened to me when we first came here. Our neighbours couldn’t quite handle Neal so renamed me Nico, yet they were perfectly alright with Caroline. Go figure.

Incidentally, look out for some Greek names and references in future books from me. In The Technician, for example, there’s an AI called Ergatis, which in Greek means ‘worker’.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Zero Point Energy ... or Not?

So, the first book of my new contract is to be called Zero Point. In the past I’ve read fragments about zero point energy and thought it seemed like a good science fictional tool I could employ. My plan was for the title to have a double meaning. Zero point energy would be employed as an inertia-less drive for a space ship, whilst there would also be a link to certain ‘year zero’ events I don’t really want to go into here. I therefore bought some books about zero point energy so as to learn more about the subject.

Oh dear.

I started reading then failed to finish three books on the subject. The impression I get is one of wish fulfilment, of, as one scientist has noted, ‘the modern equivalent of the search for a perpetual motion machine’. There’s plenty of science involved and zero point energy, according to current theories, does exist, but when I start reading about its connection to Chakra points and acupuncture, homeopathy, the soul and the ‘energies that bind us all together’ I start to consider whether the book might better serve as fuel for our stove here. That was one of the books. Another one started rambling on about how zero point energy would solve global warming, whilst another referred to Nazi technology and secret projects on American air force bases, and I put it aside before Area 51 got a mention too.

It seems to me that using zero point energy might be about as daft as having my heroes gunning each other down with lasers powered by cold fusion – also connected to zero point energy.

Now, I know, from the ‘Who Reads My Books?’ stuff here, and other contacts with readers, that an awful lot of you work in proper science-based professions. I know there’s a good chance that one physicist, two biochemists/geneticists and hundreds of high-function IT people will be reading this. I also know that there will be many others who love SF and understand science (the two are inextricably linked) who will be reading this. So tell me, what is your opinion of zero point energy?

Farlander -- Col Buchanan

Having attempted to read a couple of fantasy books within the last few months, and having failed, I was beginning to wonder if I was going off fantasy. Those other books felt derivative, laughably serious about what to me seemed plain silly. Maybe I had lost that vital ability to ‘suspend disbelief’ with fantasy? However, reading Col Buchanan’s Farlander I realised that no, I wasn’t going off fantasy, I’d just gone off the stuff that failed to engage me. I would still be able to enjoy something like Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, or anything by Gemmel, or Zelazny, or any number of excellent books I’d read before.

I’m a lot less tolerant nowadays. Life is too short to put up with a book that doesn’t come up with the goods. I know that if I haven’t been hooked within the first few pages it’s unlikely to happen, and if I’m still uninterested by the end of the first chapter it’s time to put the book aside. Two pages in to Farlander I was hooked and a chapter in I knew I wouldn’t be putting it aside.

Considering previous discussions about covers here I have to say that the picture on the front was too reminiscent of Star Wars and, when I discovered that the disposable soldiers of the Empire of Mann wore white armour and that the monkish swordsman Ash would be taking on an apprentice, I was a tad dubious. But the writing kept me engaged; kept me wanting to know more. As I continued to read I felt that Buchanan was attracted to fantasy toys, picking them up and giving them a shake, then realising they weren’t good enough for the story he wanted to tell, and discarding them. Throughout this there are scenes, tropes, characters and influences from other works – here a bit of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, there some definite Gemmel, over there a taste even of Robert E Howard, and as ever a little bit of urban fantasy too – but in the end Buchanan makes them his own.

Farlander is the first book of a series, but reads well enough on its own. I’ll certainly be reading the next book, for I have a feeling that it’s going to be even better. Nice one Mr Buchanan.

On or In Crete

So here we are on Crete, or perhaps in Crete – I start to wonder about the distinctions when learning Greek since, the tourist phrase book tells me ‘sto, stin, stis’ translate respectively as ‘to the, at the, in the’ and in that respect is definitely a rough guide. Anyway, the house, though showing signs of damp with paint bubbling on some walls, at least hasn’t been leaking. This time we didn’t have to spend hours mopping dried mud from the floors – washed from the old internal stonework of the house because that’s how they built houses in Eastern Crete until the 1950s when, so I am told by a local, they actually started using a wonderful new invention called concrete.

However, as the previous picture I put up here showed, we did have plenty to do in the garden. It took us about two days to clear the jungle, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that as well as the nigh indestructible geraniums and yukkas, other plants had survived, including strawberries, one nasturtium and broad beans. We’ve now planted masses of seeds and eagerly await the first radishes, rocket, and other salad veg. I’ve squashed my first scorpion too – one of the joys of Cretan gardening.

Yesterday we ventured into Sitia to make enquiries about getting Internet up here at the house. We went to OTE, which is the Cretan equivalent of BT, since as yet we don’t even have a phone line. Having heard stories from others about them being sold a dial-up ‘package’ (the set-up is different here) because broadband was not possible, then later being sold broadband and unable to get the money back on that dial-up package, we were determined we would only have a phone line put in if we could get broadband too. No way did we want to end up paying the 15 Euros a month line rental without it.

As usual enquiries were hampered by the language barrier, my Greek being enough to make simple requests and understand simple replies, and the guy’s English being good, but just not quite enough. So, OTE could not provide broadband, but maybe Cosmote could at 30 Euros a month. Does Cosmote work up there? Um, I don’t know – we don’t have a phone line – if you can’t provide broadband, how is it some other company can? And why is it that you can’t provide it up in our village when people we know, in an even remoter village in the mountains, can get it (after having to pay for that dial-up package)?

I’m still none the wiser. Is it the case that Cosmote provide wireless broadband in certain areas? Is it the case that OTE just don’t deal with broadband, that you have to go to another company, and that they are like BT before they started providing broadband? Did the guy in the OTE office want to screw me for a dial-up package first (paranoia is very easy here)? Time to make further enquiries and our first port of call must be Stelios, the Cretan who sold us our house, speaks very good English, and knows the system here.

I really need that Internet. Working here, like this, using the Gecko Bar’s Internet connection is not enough to keep me on top of things.