Saturday 21 December 2013

Christmas Fast and Christmas Present

I have, for many years, held a fast a few days before Christmas. I start at around midnight and take nothing but water (warm water) for thirty-six hours or so until I break my fast with breakfast. I have written about this before, but cannot resist doing so again.

Why do I do it? I'm not entirely sure. I once worked with a man called Aziz Ratansi. An interesting fellow, he told me that he had once suffered from depression and had cured himself by fasting. This intrigued me. Besides, I think we all eat too much; it becomes a habit rather than a necessity or a pleasure. Also, admiring the iron will of great men like Gandhi I wanted to experience starvation, at least the early stages, for myself. And, again, my fast is a counterpoint to the coming overindulgence of Christmas. Strangely, over the years, it has become part of Christmas for me.

I fast alone. I do not mean that I isolate myself in a darkened room or walk off into a dark forest: I just carry on as normal. However, on one occasion my eldest son joined me. He did well until the twenty-fourth hour when he hungrily scoffed everything that he had missed during the day! I am told that I become grumpy during my fasting day - an accusation that I angrily deny. I am taunted sometimes. Years ago, my sons would come to find me after a meal, describe what they had eaten then blow food-laden breath into my face. I almost broke down when they had been eating baked beans.

Breaking the fast has become ritualistic. I carefully prepare my food then lay it out in front of me: cereal bowl to the fore, banana behind, fruit juice to the right, herbal tea beyond. The radio must be turned off and I do not read (I usually do read at breakfast time)). I then sit quietly for a few minutes studying my inner feelings: the slight discomfort in my stomach, the metallic taste in my mouth, the very mild headache. Then, slowly, I raise the glass of juice to my lips. This year I drank cloudy apple juice - glorious. The first sip, so strong in taste, slowly travels over my taste buds gradually invading my entire mouth- wonderful. Then the warm crunchiness of the pecan and maple cereal, so sweet, so textured, so satisfying. Then the  ceremonial stripping of the banana, that wonderful fruit that nature supplies pre-packed, its texture so soft and dense in contrast to the cereal, its flavour unique and delicious. Finally the tea: fennel tea. I drink it every morning and am usually barely aware of it, but on this day my awareness is at a peak, I am instantly conscious of an overwhelming sweetness which almost hides the subtle flavour of fennel, perhaps I should not add the sweetener tablet on fast days.

And then it is all over, I have done it again, back to normal. Fasting is not easy to do, and does not get easier with practice, but I will do it again. It is sort of cleansing, I believe. And it suits my mental outlook. I shall enjoy Christmas all the more for having fasted. Roll out the beer and brandy, the immense roast dinner followed by unneeded Christmas pud, chased down by cheese and port. Mouth-watering.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

My latest book - 3D Futures - got a great review.

I know that most regular readers of this blog are already aware of the launch of my first science fiction novel. However, I can't resist putting the first review up here so that others can read it. Obviously it is a good one (would I put it here if it wasn't?) But I am impressed and delighted by Giulio Prisco's comments. He has clearly read the book fully, not just scanned it to produce a review.

Here it is in full. Alternatively you can access it at his sci-fi website which is called skefi'a - just click. The eBook is still on sale for just under a pound/dollar/euro as an intro price from Amazon and Smashwords. Just click here to see it at my bookshop.

3D Futures: The disembodied, the departed and the dispossessed, by Rob Walters, is a fresh, entertaining and thought-provoking science fiction novel with interleaved stories, including a thriller in a future society of uploads.

The novel is set in the 23th of 24th century, or so I guess from hints in the book: a World Constitution (something that may happen in a few decades) was adopted in 139 Before Separation (BS), and the events in the book seem to take place at least a few decades after the Separation. Read on to find out what the Separation was.

Most of humanity, the Dispossessed, have returned to savagery, with some communities trying to slowly rebuild civilization after the Separation.

En route to the stars to settle a new planet, the spaceship Shi Shen is populated by a few thousands of people, the Departed, mostly of Chinese origins. It was launched by the Chinese Economic Entity, one of the world powers before the Separation.

The Separation: after the development of mind uploading technology, most among the rich and powerful have chosen to upload and become the Disembodied, living as pure software in Cworld, a virtual world running on supercomputers on Earth and in space.

“Research into consciousness had lead to a startling, though perhaps obvious, conclusion: consciousness was simply the total sum of the brain’s activity—its memories and processing capability… It was then a small step to envisage the movement of a conscious persona into a bodiless digital network… [T]he complete physical transfer of a persona into a digital store, and the provision of a sufficiently powerful computer system to support an artificial world in which personas could reside. This world was Cworld, and it promised immortality: an existence without physical danger, disease or ageing.”

Rob Walters is an experienced writer, author of many books of varied genres, but this is his first science fiction novel. In the Introduction, he says:

“In my youth, I read science fiction books avidly, sometimes as much as a book a day. My masters were: Asimov, Clarke, Sheckley, Aldiss, Moorcock, and many others… Later, when I started to fancy myself as an author, I began to realise that the sci-fi genre offered a writer the ultimate freedom in creativity. Nevertheless, I did not feel inspired to tackle a genre which, I suspected, was still dominated by the mentors of my youth.”

For a first science fiction novel, this is a great one. I encourage you to buy the book for 0.99 US$ (yes, 0.99 US$) at Smashwords. You will not regret buying the book: perhaps this is not a Hugo or Nebula winner, but it’s solid, well-thought, and entertaining science fiction for many hours of reading pleasure.

There are four interleaved stories. One sketches the history of the world from our days to the World Constitution, the launch of the spaceship Shi Shen, the development of mind uploading technology, the Separation, and the development of the Disembodied society in Cworld. The other three stories are narrated by Remus, the leader of a small band of Dispossessed, Tali, a young Departed on Shi Shen, and Zimbaud, a Disembodied in Cworld.

I found especially interesting Zimbaud’s story in Cworld. In this thriller, Zimbaud and friends must find and defeat the source of a mysterious influence, a software “corruption” that threatens all Disembodied with madness and eventually dispersal, the disintegration of personal software identity. In the story, which strongly reminds me of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, we see many features of Cworld history, technology, and society, shown in-depth and with attention to detail.

Remus’ adventures, a classical post-apocalyptic “science fiction western,” lead his little band to a settlement where people try to rebuild a functional, civilized community. To ensure the security of their new home, Remus’ band will have to fight the savage Morgants, whose apocalyptic “religion” offers hopes to gain immortality in Cworld… as a prize for slaughtering enough people.

Tali’s thread is the coming-of-age story of a young rebel in the small society of the Shi Shen starship. Planned by the Chinese bureaucracy before the Separation, the starship is governed by a militarized crew with strict authoritarian rules under a benevolent cover, ubiquitous surveillance, and mind-wiping (or worse) for the dissenters. The crew seem to have lost control of the starship, which of course is kept secret from the passengers. Tali and a handful of rebels will take back the control of Shi Shen with the help of a “ghost in the machine,” and perhaps they will steer it back to Earth.

The three story threads, initially unrelated, come loosely together at the end. But there are still many questions to answer and much to be seen in Walters’ 3D Futures universe, and I definitely look forward to reading the promised sequels.

Friday 6 December 2013

Mandela Gone

I read about his death on the big screen of a pub last night. I was out celebrating my return to Oxford with a friend whose wife is from South Africa: that seemed sort of appropriate. We talked about Nelson and the way that he had impacted our lives of course, but I was unemotional; no man can go on forever. This morning lying in bed listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 review Mandela's life, character and achievements, I shed a few tears. In common with so many people I feel that the man, and the fight to defeat apartheid, are part of my life.

Not that my role was at all significant, but every little did help in a battle where good and bad seemed so clearly demarked. I was a member of the Anti Apartheid movement. I read its regular newspaper and travelled to London for demonstrations where I was appalled and frightened by the hunger for violence shown by a minority of the demonstrators and police. I dramatically announced my determination to close my account at the local branch of Barclay's bank because of the company's links with South Africa - only to be told that I was overdrawn! We boycotted South African fruit and cheered at the grand attempts to isolate the regime from sporting activities.

Like so many I watched TV for hours as we waited for Mandela's release from prison. I can still picture the entranceway to that prison where time seemed to stand still until, finally, the great man was allowed out. I failed to go to Wembley when Mandela came to England at last, but was proud that one member of the family, my youngest daughter, was there amongst the crowds to greet him. And what a greeting. I cannot remember how many times Nelson walked to that microphone to speak, only to retreat again and again as the crowd continued to pour out warm waves of adulation. And he handled it so well.

Of course, everyone knows that one person rarely changes history, but Nelson Mandela is, and always will be, the symbol of a new South Africa and the gradual death of racial intolerance.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Historical distortions in virgins' thighs

Warning: this article could be very upsetting to those who believe the virginal state to be perfect or those who believe that they will be presented with a large number of virgins when they meet their maker. In fact, it this blog has little to do with virgins at all and a lot to do with roofing techniques in Spain. The title was chosen to bump up my reader statistics and in particular is an attempt to beat my most popular blog yet which is entitled Prostitutes, oranges and burning babies. A further warning: this article contain disturbing photographs. And a disclaimer: no virgins were deflowered in the preparation of this article.

My late father-in-law, a true gentleman if ever I met one, was a plasterer and roofer. He taught me all that I know about these arcane subjects, though solely based on English practice. How he would have coped with Spanish plaster I do not know – probably dismissed it as “foreign tack”. There are two types: rapido and controlado. The Spanish, with the exception of Speedy Gonzales and their behaviour behind the wheel of a car, are not generally associated with rapidity, yet  their rapid plaster sets like greased lightning. Even the controlled stuff sets in five minutes or less. And their roofs! They are really something else.

Many years ago I bought some farmland together with a ramshackle house built of flint. The house needed complete renovation and Henry, my father-in-law, travelled all the way to Suffolk to help me re-roof the place. It was quite a big job and I learned a lot from doing it. Sadly, a few years later, during one of the big storms, a large tree fell on the house and the roof that we had painstakingly restored had to be ripped off and redone – this time by professionals.

That roof was covered in Suffolk pantiles which were more or less regular in size; they sat on wooden battens, then on roofing felt then on the rafters. In Spain the rafters were traditionally covered in a woven matrix of cane, then a layer of plaster and finally the tiles. Nowadays the plaster and cane is replaced with a layer of concrete, but it is the tiles that I want to talk about and it’s here that we meet the virgins. These tiles are used all over the Mediterranean area, they are roughly half-circular in cross section and about half a metre long, narrowing along their length. A suitable mould for making these clay tiles could therefore be the human thigh.
A well-laid roof looks great and characterises the villages of Spain. They are made from alternate lines of tiles, one line forming the caps, the other the gutters. The gutters are laid open side up and narrow end down, the caps are the opposite. Sounds simple enough, but there are two problems: firstly, how to end the rising edges of the roof and secondly, those virgins had very varied and odd thighs.

I won’t go into the bodge that is used at the ends of the roof, if you are interested have a close look at the photo of my roof, it’s the virgins that I am interested in here. Clearly their thighs varied in width, length, girth and taper. What’s worse some of them were clearly distorted, either by the uncomfortable process of being the mould, an accident of birth or some dramatic accident in the fields (see examples). Or perhaps they wriggled when the cold clay was applied or when the tile maker removed it. Or, more simply, the tileman dropped the moulded clay on its journey to the furnace since the virgins were not baked with the tile (that certainly would have caused a shortage of virgins). Maybe the tilemakers became overexcited when removing the slippery moulded clay. Who  knows?. Just look at the photos if you can bear it.

But were virgins really used in making clay tiles or is the whole thing a fabrication by the overactive brains of the tile layers? I have conducted a simple experiment using myself as a subject. Now, I am not a virgin and that admission may invalidate the whole thing. Nevertheless, I have  endeavoured to fit traditional tiles to my own thighs (see photo). The results are quite shocking. If virgins were used then they certainly possessed very long thighs. Since Spanish ladies of the past were generally short, the long thigh could only be achieved by a shortened calf. Gosh, those ladies must have had a strange gait.