Mathematics and Me

Fear of mathematics is common. Many of us experience it and there is is a page in Wikipedia titled Mathematical Anxiety. An aversion to maths is almost a badge of honour for some. People who would be embarrassed to admit to indifference to art, music, or literature often have no hesitation in proclaiming they are unable to understand maths.

I was in that category myself for many years. I think this was at least partly the result of bad teaching. My earliest memory of maths at school is of being a member of a class, aged perhaps six or seven, chanting the multiplication tables in chorus. Rote learning without insight remained a feature of maths for me for many years afterwards.  Continue reading.

Update on Kindle

I posted my reasons for buying a Kindle reader about 18 months ago (see A Reluctant Conversion to Kindle). I haven’t changed my mind since then but I have upgraded to the Oasis. This is expensive but I’d say worth it, for two main reasons: the larger screen and the buttons for moving forward and back.  There are other minor adantages as well, such as the option to turn off the touch screen.

“Dirty Old Town” from “Informer” on BBC1

I found the rendition of ‘Dirty Old Town’ on BBC1’s ‘Informer’ particularly attractive but I couldn’t see anything in the credits to show where they got it. I spent much of a day learning how to extract and edit the sound track from the programme (an interesting and probably useful exercise) but eventually I located what seems to be the source on Youtube, sung by Esther Ofarim. If you’ve looked for it yourself you can find it on Youtube.

 

There are other versions of the song by the same singer, Esther Ofarim, on Youtube but I preferred this one.

Fake rhino horn to disrupt the market

In today’s Start the Week one of the contributors, Prof. Fritz Vollrath, said that he and his colleagues have developed fake rhino horn and have published the method in the hope that this will help to disrupt the market in poached horn.

I’m delighted to hear this because the idea had occurred to me years ago and I wrote a letter about it which was published in the Independent. I’ve also blogged about it subsequently but had no idea how to publicise it further, so it’s excellent that it’s now happening.

Climate change protests

I’ve blogged before to support the current protests by schoolchildren and university students about climate change. I’ve recently acquired my fifth grandchild and this brings the necessity for change more vividly than ever before my mind.

Some peoole say that taking  a day off school will prejudice a pupil’s chances of getting a good academic qualification. I don’t know if that is true, but even if it is, today’s children may not have a world worth living in unless something effective is done about the headlong rush to irreversible ruin of the planet.

 

 

Why are some of your books free?

 

 

 

Introduction

This question is really part of a larger one, which is why do I self-publish? Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: it isn’t because I can’t get published by mainstream commercial publishers.

In the past I’ve had seven books published in this way, both fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve abandoned that route now, as have many other writers.

Why self-publish?

In a word, disillusionment. The science writer John Horgan explains why he decided to self-publish his latest book. “After I got the idea for Mind-Body Problems in 2015, I pitched it to a few agents and editors and got chilly responses. Fuck ‘em, I thought, and wrote the damn book anyway.” My feeling precisely. Mainstream publishing ain’t what it used to be.

In recent years I’ve gone down the self-publishing route entirely, for similar reasos, with eight books produced so far. All are available elecgtronically as e-books and most are also in hardcopy as paperbacks (on Amazon and Lulu).

But why are some of them free? Don’t you want to make mooney from your writing? (‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money – Samuel Johnson,) I certainly don’t dislike receiving the payments I get for these books from various sources.

Still, pace Johnson, there are other motives for writing, such as being read. This has prompted Horgan to make his latest book free, and I’ve done the samd with three of mine.

This isn’t as quixotic as it may appear. The sad fact is that you are very unlikely to make much money from any of the books you self-publish unless you are extremely lucky or willing and able to invest a lot of time and effort in marketing your work, which I’m not.

That may be discouraging, but don’t think that you’ll do a lot better if you take the commecial route. Mainstreame publishers these days make little if any attempt to publicise and market your book, and the cbances that you will make even a modest income from writing is small unless you have a specific audience in view (as in the case of a standard textbook, for example).

The changing face of publishing

This is a consequence of the fact that the independent publshers who used to exist have virtually all been swallowed up by giant international conglomerates. Things were very different when my first book, a novel, was published by Chatto & Windus in 1967. My editor was one of the directors, Cecil Day Lewis, who shortly afterwards was appointed Poet Laureate. After my book was accepted I went to see him in his Central London office and he asked me if I would allow him to edit my manuscript for publication, assuring me that I could trust him to do a good job! He also said he thought I had married too young (something which I think he had done himself).

Two decades later things had changed a lot but some of the original publishing houses still maintained their independence. One of these was Victor Gollancz Ltd, which published a book of mine in the 1980s.

I got to meet the Managing Director, Livia Gollancz, the daughter of Victor Gollancz, the founder of the firm. She had been a fine concert musician and became a publisher reluctantly, when her musical career ended owing to ill-health. She was a tall imposing woman who I think ran the firm rather imperiously. She took the decision to publish my book herself, but that wouldn’t happen today. Such decisions are now made on strictly commercial grounds by accountants. Publishing today

If you have a book published commercially today you are most unlikely to meet any of the directors. In fact, you may not even get an editor, which explains the shoddy standard of some of the books I read nowadays.

Conclusion

The moral of the story is that if you want to write, go ahead and dso, but don’t count on its making you a fortune or even a modest income.

 

 

A note to translators

I frequently receive requests to provide a link to a page where someone has translated one of my articles. I assume these are mostly student exercises but up to now I’ve been happy to do this, However, I’ve found that the translations only remain available for short periods, usually a month or less, which means that my site accumulates numerous dead links. This is likely to prove bad for my Google ranking. I’m not prepared to keep checking that the links are still live, so I regret that in future you are welcome to translate my pieces in accordance with the Creative Commons Licence but I won’t be providing a link unless the translation is to appear on a website where I can assume that it will not be ephemeral.

 

John Horgan on The Templeton Foundation

I just came across John Horgan’s piece on The Templeton Foundation. In 2005 he was invited to be one of the first batch of Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellows in Science and Religion. This involved spending several weeks at Cambridge University, listening to scientists and philosophers talking (‘pontificzting’) about science and religion. As an added inducement he would receive $15,000 in addition to all expenses.

Understandably, he accepted. The article tells us what happened and also how he feels about the organisation now.

Although there were no conditions attached to his attendance at least one offcial thought that some reciprocation was implied.

She told us that the meeting cost more than $1-million, and in return the foundation wanted us to publish articles touching on science and religion. But when I told her one evening at dinner that~— given all the problems caused by religion throughout human history~— I didn’t want science and religion to be reconciled, and that I hoped humanity would eventually outgrow religion, she replied that she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship. So much for an open exchange of views.

If, like me you’ve always wondered about the foundation, you will find this article interesting.

Horgan’s site has a lot of other interesting articles; well worth exploring.

 

New light on the origin of complex life?

The story of how the first complex nucleated cell (eukaryote) arose is a fascinating one – see Nick Lane’s Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of life. An article related to this has now appeared in New Scientist.

This describes the discovery of an archaeon (an organism that looks like a bacterium although it is really quite different) in deep water off the coast of Japan.  It lives in association with at least one and probably two other kinds of microbe.  The crucial event in eukaryote generation is thought to have been the swallowing of a bacterium by an archaeon, and the scenario described in the article looks like the kind of situation where this might occur. However, that doesn’t answer the really important question: was this a one-0ff extremely unlikely event or something that was more or less bound to happen sooner or later?

Given the fact that it eukaryotes appear only comparatively recently in the course of evolution, it still looks likely that it was a lucky fluke, in which case there is probably plenty of life in the universe but almost all of it is at the microbial level of complexity.