Tuesday, 18 September 2018

This is a draft cover for my new collection of short stories and poems. The revised title will be Milton Marmalade's Remarkably Silly Stories for Grown-ups, and the cover will be very stylish when it's finished.

Here is the copyright notice, because I thought the usual copyright notice a bit dated:

Remarkably Silly Stories are all copyright, all rights reserved, and if you steal my stories and I later get famous my lawyers will certainly be after you. 
My lawyers are called Bloodfang & Wolf and they have a reputation. If you go into their office on a full moon you will find yourself at the front desk where a very pretty woman sits. In one corner is a carved wooden candlestick holding a fat off-white church candle, its tiny flame guttering ineffectually. 
You see the woman by the moonlight streaming through the gothic windows. She is wearing a black dress calculated to show off her figure, in which roundness in all the right places is emphasised by an almost unfeasably small waist. She has raven hair and her eyes are pools of darkness. Though she is beautiful you feel for a moment as though you are staring into the soul of an animal. 
You ask to see one of the partners but she tells you ever so sweetly that since it is a full moon neither of them are in. However she assures you that your case is in the best hands and anyone who steals your work will be sure to regret it. Somewhere outside you hear a scream which you think may be a fox or maybe not. 
Because she is smiling at you, and also because her low cut dress suggests breasts of surpassing wonder, you think about asking her out on a date. The moonlight casts a glint on one of her unusually sharp canine teeth.
You lose your nerve and find yourself out on the pavement again wondering quite what happened. The fox, or whatever it was, screams again, briefly, then there is silence. 
Check back again soon for updates on the book, which will be pocket-size and as affordable as printing costs will allow.

Friday, 14 September 2018

The world turned upside-down

Ibn 'Arabi refers to The Reality, meaning (as far as I can tell) that God is objectively real and implying that our subjective states are just that - their reality is partial and dependent on something larger.

In our post-Enlightenment world we tend to view the world the other way up, as though our subjective beliefs were the touchstone of reality. We see, as St Paul says, 'through a glass darkly.' Or as Xenophanes has it, 'Only the gods see things as they are, but for us it is a woven web of guesses' (cited in Popper, The World of Parmenides). We are so habituated to seeing the world as it were upside-down that we take materialist explanations (chemical changes in the brain etc.) as more real than the experiences themselves. We think we are phenomenologists but our post-Enlightenment discourse is full of mechanistic hypothesis.

It is difficult to think outside the materialist paradigm. If we met something greater than ourselves we would reduce that to a chemical change in the brain, even though we know that experience forms and reforms the brain through neural plasticity. Causation works in both directions. Delusions and hallucinations occur, but not everything that we experience is illusory. Sometimes we don't know which way is up.

For this reason we don't understand Parmenides. His Way of Truth is his approach to reality, and his Way of Illusion (a reputedly large work now mostly lost) described what we would think of as science.

Does that mean we should abandon science? Assuredly not, because that which belongs in the material realm can correctly be dealt with by the methods of the material realm. Fantastical notions are still subject to appropriate demolition.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Some thoughts about pedantry

Pedants enjoy deprecating 'bad' uses of English. I am myself one such, acutely aware of 'correct' and 'incorrect' language.

I was brought up, for example, to believe that the word 'deprecate' meant to curse or abominate, and that 'deprecate' was often wrongly used when 'depreciate,' to belittle, was intended. I had a vision of cursing with bell, book and candle.

Now, however, the Oxford Dictionary, while acknowledging that the origin of 'deprecate' is from roots meaning 'to pray against,' states that it means 'to express disapproval of' or 'to depreciate.' Another piece of pedantry dies, like dried seaweed on the shore of usage.

As has always been the case, language mutates and diverges. An early English king had to send an interpreter to accompany a mission to Northumbria. Reality TV, Facebook and the fact that English is no longer the official language of just one island mean that we have the conditions in which the only things holding the English language together are precisely the media in which all its variations are expressed.

Might I recommend David Crystal's very entertaining The Stories of English? Some patterns of speech deprecated in their time are now normal even for pedants, and the earlier preferred alternatives sound stilted or odd.

Crystal argues that in Chaucer no single regional accent had more prestige than another. The precedence of Received Pronunciation I think has to do with political and commercial power being centred in the South East of England, the dominance of the Midlands during the Industrial Revolution not having lasted long enough to make more northern accents associated with power and success. Needless to say there are many regional dialects such as in the Caribbean that have never had prestige despite having their own poets.

It is worth remembering that Chaucer was himself establishing an underdog language (English) as an acceptable vehicle for serious literature, and Robert Burns tried to do the same for Scots English.

The function of language is to convey meaning. If it does so unambiguously then one can argue that it has done its job. If Shakespeare bent the rules it was probably because he was looking for a particular effect on the ear, and that has to do with the music of language. Some scholars have suggested that early pre-humans might have sung rather than spoken, and it is also the case that we hear repeated spoken phrases as music, so the effect of language is both to convey meaning and to convey a feeling.

If we are looking for quality in language then we need to look beyond what happens to be fashionably 'correct' in our small corner of the vast English-speaking world. Rather we need to write and speak for clarity, and for the all the techniques of rhythm, assonance and rhetoric that make language a pleasure to read and to hear.

Meanwhile the majestically protean English language ebbs and flows leaving us mere pedants behind like bleached driftwood in the littoral zone.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Random awesomeness elsewhere

Since I have been silent for a while and have nothing much useful to say right at this minute I thought I'd direct your attention to some random awesomeness that I discovered by chance on the web. There you go. Genius.

Friday, 20 April 2018

On the mild depression that accompanies mild illness and how to fix it

This morning the author of The Inflamed Mind, Edward Bullmore, was interviewed on Radio 4 about his book, just out this month. He says that it may be not merely that one is depressed because of the effects of being ill, but that inflammation as such can cause depression. That at any rate was my understanding from the interview.

Bullmore described having 'flu and feeling, as he put it, 'blue' - so far so ordinary - but then speculated upon whether it is the inflammatory process rather than just the symptoms which cause that low mood. Apparently 30 per cent of depressed people have raised inflammatory markers when tested.

Of course as stated on the programme, association does not prove causation, but it's an interesting idea which could lead to new therapeutic interventions.

For myself, I recall feeling unaccountably depressed one day, one of those times when everything seems grey and pointless. The things that usually stirred me to enthusiasm gave me no joy or any desire to do them. In the words of Shakespeare, 'How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!' (Hamlet Act I scene 2, 129-34)

Then I realised that I was coming down with a cold or some-such mild viral illness. I told myself that it was my body that was ill and that I was not depressed at all. That I did not feel like doing the things I normally enjoy was merely that my body needed to rest. All I had to do was accept the situation and understand the needs of my body. By re-framing the situation in this way I was immediately free of the depressed mood.

Now of course I am not claiming that this approach will cure severe depression. It may be, as others have said before, that depression is a sign that there is something not right, something needing to be fixed, and that might be something deep, long-lasting, emotional, and not easy to remedy. Even so there may be merit in treating depression as a signal that something needs to change, rather than only a condition to be suffered.

'Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?' (Hamlet Act III scene 1)

Monday, 19 February 2018

The mermaid frontispiece for Sir Henry Herring's account of St Doris Island

Mermaid at St Doris Island, showing Drake's Golden Hinde, flying fish and a sea monster

The print is now available! Read on to see it.

You may remember the above sketch by Martin Dace for the frontispiece of Sir Henry Herring's book, 'Seynt Doris Ilande,' subtitled 'Seynt Doris, an Iland in ye Westerne Indies, its Historie Geographie & divers Marvells founde therein together with a Description of its Aboriginall Salvages, set down in all Veritie by Henry Herring, Earl of a Bit of Cornwall and not the Other Bit, who went with Francis Drake, Kt. in the XXI year of the reine of Her Glorious Majestie Queen Elizabeth whom God preserve. Printed and sold at St. Doris-by-the-Fishmonger Churchyard, London MDLXXXXIX.'

(Takes breath.)

The sketch is of course an attempt at a modern reconstruction of the original. I have the book somewhere but unfortunately it is in a box or perhaps a cupboard somewhere, and as frequently happens with things I put in a safe place I've no idea how to find it. Martin did the sketch from the description in my novel, 'A Mermaid in the Bath,' as follows:

'The frontispiece facing the title page showed a woodcut, primitive and wonderful, of a volcanic island fringed with palm trees, in the distance a little ship much like Drake's Golden Hinde and dominating the foreground a triumphantly naked mermaid.'

I am happy to report that not only is this pretty close to my memory of the original, but also that it has now been fully realised as a lino print. Here it is:

The mermaid at St Doris Island, together with Drake's Golden Hinde , a sea monster and four flying fish

This is now available as a limited edition print on Japanese Kitakata paper (buff coloured) or Shoji (white) from Martin Dace's Etsy store.

Friday, 16 February 2018

More about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies - some things to avoid

I have previously written a brief introduction to Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies generally, and since then I have been tinkering about using small amounts of my own money. Although I do not profess to be anything like an expert in this area, and certainly what I write should not be construed as financial advice, I thought that one or two of the things I have found out might be of use to other beginners.

I first put a modest sum into Bitcoin in July 2017, more to see how the whole thing worked than in the expectation of huge gains. The sums are in any event small by comparison with money earned in my proper job. My initial sum had quadrupled (in terms of GBP) by early January 2018 (the peak of a speculative bubble probably caused by stories of vast fortunes made by others in the past reaching the general public) and has now fallen to about 2.8 times my initial speculation. The ups and downs of major cryptocurrencies (and all those I have looked at) roughly copy each other so far, irrespective it seems of merit.

There are now hundreds of tokens and cryptocurrencies. Some of these are of doubtful value and some are so-called 'pump and dump' schemes, where a new token is offered and promoted, the value of the token then spikes owing to speculation, and the owners then cash in and disappear. Some, however, appear to offer genuine utility and a few will probably change the way we do business in currently unimaginable ways, much as the internet has changed our lives over the past two decades. What we don't know is which ones will become the Googles and Amazons of the future, and which ones will disappear, as happened to so many startups in the dot-com bubble.

I cannot predict the future, nor do I believe anyone who claims to do so, so all anyone interested in any sort of investment can do is to invest on merit. A tulip bulb bought at the right price at the right time could make a fortune in 17th century Netherlands, but bought at the wrong time at the wrong price could equally lose a fortune. The question is, is the value of a tulip bulb fundamentally equal to that of a house or not? If not then don't buy. If speculating in cryptocurrencies, the best one can do is look for those with genuine utility and hold on.

Not all cryptocurrencies are actually currencies, although the tokens do have a market value. For example, a token called Po.et (POE) is intended to allow writers and artists to establish copyright and licensing on the blockchain. POE and many other tokens are built on the Ethereum platform, which itself has a token with its own market value (once again, beware: don't use the Ethereum wallet from the download on the Ethereum.org front page; it doesn't work for ordinary folk but there are people who play with it and also can't get it to work and I've no idea why they spend time on it).

What would (for me at any rate) be immediately useful would be a way of making transfers into and out of different local currencies for the purposes of paying for things abroad and for sending money abroad. Anyone who has done either of these things will know that bank charges can be excruciatingly high - around 15GBP minimum to send any amount, and an unfair exchange rate at the airport or worse at a hotel (I was charged 10% in a Barbados hotel).  What if instead one could load up one's debit card with Bitcoin and convert to local currency without using the banks as intermediaries?

I have reported before on cryptocurrency contactless payment systems in the pipeline. However caveat emptor: some of the Bitcoin debit cards on offer actually have charges just as bad as those I should like to avoid. In the meantime there are non-crypto ways of achieving cheap money transfers, one of which I have tried successfully in sending money to India (GBP to Rupees): Transferwise. Another I am testing is Glint, for everyday purchases in different currencies - but I won't be able to verify the real cost until I am next abroad. Rather than using cryptocurrencies, Glint allows the user to convert between local fiat currencies and a notional amount of gold. Both are available as smartphone apps.

[NOTE: at the time of writing this blog has no affiliate links and makes no money from any links. Nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice.]