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?

I’ll answer this question in a moment, but it’s really tied in with why I’ve moved from being published by mainstream publishers to self-publishing, so I’ll start by saying something about that.

Publishing as it used to be

My first book was a novel, The Sacred Malady, which came out in 1967. In those days most publishing houses were independent enterprises but they have now virtually all been swallowed up and digested by large international conglomerates.

My novel was published by Chatto & Windus and 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).

A changing scene

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. We talked about a book she had published, The Teachers of Gurdjieff. It was by a pseudonymous author, “Rafael Lefort”. She didn’t know his real name but he had told her that she could get in touch with him if it was ever essential.

She believed the book to be an authentic account of a journey in Central Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment, which now seems to me extremely doubtful. (Lefort was almost certainly Idries Shah, the writer on Sufism who had earlier, with his brother Omar Ali-Shah, imposed on Robert Graves to collaborate in a ‘translation’ of a probably non-existent manuscript of the poems of Omar Khayyam.)

Publishing today

My later books didn’t bring me into contact with any directors as editors;  in fact, nowadays you are lucky if you get an editor at all. Even to to find a publisher in the first place is becoming increasingly difficult. In the past the decision to publish a book might be taken on a whim by one of the directors, but today it is governed by purely commercial considerations and is largely in the hands of accountants. All of this makes for a pretty unsatisfactory outlook for authors.

The science writer John Horgan 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.”

Self-publishing

My feeling precisely. So far I’ve self-published seven books, both as e-books and paperbacks, and I have no thought of going back to mainstream publishing. None of them has made me a fortune, of course, but most of them continue to sell some copies. But if you look at my list you may be surprised to see that three of my books are available as free e-books. Why are they  free?

In the first place, making a book free isn’t as big a sacrifice as you might think. The sad fact is that you won’t 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 seem depressing, but don’t think that being published commercially is very different. Contrary to what many authors suppose,  in most cases mainstream publishers these days make minimal if any effort to promote your book. This means that you are unlikely to make your fortune by writing, no matter whether you are published commercially or self-publish.

There can however be indirect benefits from self-publishing. I’ve produced a medical acupuncture textbook which I use on the courses I run for health professionals, and it costs me far less to print this than I used to pay to buy copies of an earlier textbook that had been brought out by a mainstream publisher.

As I don’t depend on my writing income to make a living my main reason to produce books is to be read. More than that, I’m in favour of making information as freely available as possible, which is why I support the academic protest against Elsevier’s restrictive practices (see the Cost of Knowledge). It’s also why some of my books are free: they deal with ideas I think are important and I want them to be read as widely as possible.

One of these books, Making Word.doc Files on Linux, describes how to use free software to make a file that will be accepted by Smashwords. This is my small contribution to the free software movement, which I’m strongly in favour of.

The other two books are on ideas that have been important to me for more than sixty years. Essentially, they are about the nature of belief, and therefore lie on the margins of religion.

The first, Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, is a personal account of my journey through a couple of totality belief systems to a position best described as metaphysical naturalism.

The second, Religion, Language, Narrative and the Search for Meaning, is about the puzzling question of why religion exists and why, despite the best efforts of Dawkins, Dennet and company, it probably always will.

Both books, incidentally, also exist in print form on Amazon.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simplicity, minimalism, KISS…

Introduction

A long time ago I read a poem, ‘Alexandria’, by Lawrence Durrell which contained the lines: “As for me I move/Through many negatives to what I am.” That has stayed in my mind ever since and recently it’s occurred to e that it describes an attitude that has grown in me over the years: a taste for minimalism. Looking back, I seem to see my life as a long succession of relinquishments.

I certainly see it in the way my use of computers has evolved. But there are other examples too.

For instance

One is music. Given the choice, I’d rather listen to chamber music or soloists than to an orchestra. And I have a taste for minimalism in music too; for example, I like Steve Reich’s Drumming.

I prefers small gatherings to large parties.

Then there’s my teaching of acupuncture. I’m an advocate of what is often called Western Medical Acupuncture (WMA), which is based on the modern understanding of how the body works (and fails to work) instead of the ancient Chinese ideas. I’ve been involved in acupuncture for over 40 years and in that time I’ve progressively tried to simplify it. We don’t need the traditional apparatus of “points” and “meridians”, for example.

Of course, this should not be taken too far. WMA relies on the modern understanding of the nervous system, and that is a boundlessly complicated subject, but it’s a necessary kind of complication whereas the Chinese stuff is unnecessary. As Einstein may or may not have said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

What about religion? I was brought up as a Catholic and that’s a pretty complicated faith. Later I got involved with Hinduism, which is even more complicated. But really I’m more sympathetic nowadays to Buddhism, although even here there are differences; Theravada Buddhism is relatively simple compared to Mahayana. Naturally, I prefer Theravada; however I’m not a Buddhist.

In fact I’ve now left all of this behind. My life seems to have been be a process of progressive simplification. Another poem which I read many years ago – I think it was in a BBC magazine of the time called The Listener – was on this theme of abandoning more and more things. The concluding lines, quoting from memory, were these: “all of it a practice run/For doing without myself”.

I could go multiplying examples of this inbuilt search for minimalism almost indefinitely, The problem isn’t finding enough examples, it’s finding too many. Which is of course exactly what I want to avoid.

Useful resource: Wikipedia’s Style Page

I’ve just been looking at  Wikpedia’s Style Page. Some of this is specific to Wikipedia but quite a lot has application to writing more generally.  See, for example, “weasel words”,  “expressions of doubt”,  “clichés and idioms”.  I think the late F.L. Lucas, whose Style has been my main guide for many years, would have approved.

Useful resource: Human evolution – an online journal

I’ve recently come across the online anthropology journal Sapiens which is well worth a look. Plenty of interesting articles, particularly on human evolution (click the three vertical lines at top left).  Thanks to John Hawks for alerting me to this.

Currently the topics covered include the discovery of a fragment of Denisovan skull in a Tibetan monastery and and a putative now hominin speces from the Philipines, Homo luzonensis, which may be connected with the so-called Hobbit from Flores.