Thursday, 31 October 2013

Islands of birth and rebirth

Thanks to Nik Morton for a guest post suitable for Halloween. Nik spent 23 years in the Royal Navy as a writer, and after retiring from the Navy went into IT. He moved to writing for and editing magazines and now lives in Spain where he is concentrating on writing.

GUEST POST

Malta is rich in history and scenic attraction. I first visited the island in 1967 when our ship HMS Zulu docked in Valletta harbour. I hadn’t been in the Royal Navy long – joined two years earlier. In those days, approaching foreign ports was always exciting. I’d been fascinated by Amsterdam, and Gibraltar was breath-taking. But Malta was something else again. The grandeur of the Grand Harbour has not diminished over the years – it’s still one of the most photogenic scenes I’ve come across.

Going ashore in civilian clothes, I toured the island by local buses. They’re economical and cover virtually the entire island. On one journey, I got to the fish-tail of the island and caught the ferry across to Gozo, only in time to come back again. The islands comprise, Malta, Gozo, Comino, Cominotto and Filfla, comprising about 313 square km.

Some years later, in 1974, I was drafted to the RN Hospital, Mtarfa and lived with my new bride Jennifer in the city of Rabat, overlooking the verdant valley, the hospital in plain sight. Here, I conjured up the first ideas for a modern-day vampire novel set in Malta. Life, work and other commitments meant I didn’t progress with it.

Malta has museums of old bones, rocks, and pottery that tell of early times. In about 3,800 BC stone-age man lived in the rocky countryside in caves. His life was dominated by the sun which he saw rise early from the sea and soar overhead until it finally settled again into the sea at night. Birth and rebirth. The climate combined with the daily sun provided a bountiful gift. So to perpetuate this cycle they erected temples to the Goddess of Fertility. Using simple stone tools they built complex edifices of massive stone blocks at Hagar Qim, Mnajdra and Ggantija. At Hal-Saflieni they cut into soft rock, creating the underground temple of the Hypogeum.

As the centuries progressed, sailors, travellers and tradesmen emerged, and the island was on their route of exploration and trade. The first documented history of the islands was about 1400 BC, when Phoenician galleys carrying 200 men each sailed into harbour. They brought with them their language and customs. The galley designs still can be seen in the luzzu fishing boats that work at sea, as well as the dhajsa (diso in naval parlance) that served as water taxis in the harbour.

Malta was invaded time and again – Greeks, Etruscans and Carthaginians, amongst others. Then around 200 BC the Romans arrived. Under the Romans the islands flourished and it was during this period that the apostle Paul was on his way for trial in Rome when he became shipwrecked, cast ashore on Malta’s northern coast. He stayed for three months and began the long tradition of Christianity that is still evident wherever you look on the islands; apparently, they have a church for every day of the year.

By 800 AD the Arab empire was expanding and the islands came under their rule; it was a peaceful transition. The Arabs brought new farming techniques, shrubs and trees that would transform the land. Barren fields were altered, becoming fertile, with abundant vegetation. This rich period lasted almost 200 years until Roger the Norman took Malta to make it the southernmost outpost of the Norman conquest of Europe. Many fortifications still found on the island hark back to this time.
By 1530 the islands had passed into the fiefdom of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He granted the islands to the Order of St John, who’d recently been driven out of Rhodes by the armada of Suliman the Magnificent. He asked the Knights for rent, one falcon a year.

The knights strengthened the fortifications, especially around Grand Harbour.

In May 1565 the Turkish fleet arrived; 200 ships carrying 40,000 troops and a battery of artillery. Facing them mustered 700 knights and 7,000 Maltese volunteers and mercenaries. Defeat seemed inevitable. Brave defenders held on for four months until a relief force arrived from Sicily. The Turks fled for home, an utterly broken force, having sustained a loss of more than 30,000 men.

In case the islands were again invaded, fortifications continued, and the city was renamed Valletta in honour of the great Grand Master, La Vallette, who had repulsed the Turks.

By the end of the 18th century, the knights had mostly forgotten their religious calling and taken to a life of luxury and decadence. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte sailed into the harbour on his way to conquer Egypt. The knights surrendered without a fight, and the order was dissipated. The Maltese soon found that their new French overseers were merely intent on pillaging the islands, so the Maltese sought the aid of the English. In 1800, Nelson blockaded the harbour and the French garrison surrendered. This ushered in 160 years of British rule.

That’s a very brief history of the islands. It’s rich in prehistoric temples, neolithic sculptures and grand old cities like the silent city of Mdina, which was begun in Roman times. Many historical or fantasy TV and movie films have used these places as backdrop, not least Gladiator and Game of Thrones.


Once retired to Spain, I found time at last to concentrate on the novel I’d always wanted to write. The intervening years meant that I could do the story justice. This became Death is Another Life. I have also written the screenplay of the book.

A lengthy flashback to 1573 in my novel features two knights who succumb to the wiles of a female vampire and become undead as well. They survive to the present day. A small excerpt:
“Indeed,” he said, pressing her hand on his chest, where she felt his heart beating. “I’m one of the undead. But we’re in unknown territory, my dear. Though I have lived long, I still crave to live longer.”
Maria shook her head. “I’m finding it hard to get my head round this. I mean, you’re over 400 years old –”
“Yes, and the sunlight plays havoc with my skin. I have to use barrier creams.”
She started. “Your reflection–”
“Yes, what about it?”
“You have one!”
He laughed, the sound echoing. “A myth. Some laws of physics can’t be broken by the supernatural.”
“Garlic – does it repel you?”
“Only if I hadn’t eaten it at the same meal as you.”
“Your skin – you mentioned barrier creams. Does that mean–?”
“No, sunlight won’t turn me into a pile of dust. It will age my skin, though.” He stroked his chin and grinned. “And as this skin has to last me quite a few centuries, I’d rather it didn’t suffer too much. I’m more fortunate than those sufferers of porphyria, who are confined to a life of darkness; anything stronger than a 40-watt lamp and the skin will shrink under scalding blisters. Necrosis of the skin is not uncommon. Acute varieties of the ailment can be very painful.”
“That rings a bell. I think it’s treated with blood. In fact, wasn’t porphyria used as a scientific explanation to support the existence of vampires?”
He nodded. “A pint or two of heme can ease the symptoms. Yes, heme as in hemoglobin.” He smiled. “Of course, there’s no basis in fact that porphyria is in any way related to vampirism.”
She couldn’t resist an exasperated, “Are any of the stories true about vampires?”
“Some.” 
I’ve used real places in the islands for the dramatic scenes, whether that’s the impressive church in Mosta, with its unsupported dome, the silent city of Mdina, the prehistoric sites of Mnajdra, Hagar Qim, and  Ghar Dalam. The fascinating streets of Valletta, the delightful karozzin carriages that pose a lethal threat, the salt pans on Gozo, all figure in the book, as do Gozo’s church of miracles at Ta Pinu and the eerie Calypso’s Cave. Combined with the vampirism is black magic, of the Dennis Wheatley variety, dark and ugly, even touching upon the ‘the Buxen’ of 1778 in Venice.
Jennifer and I have been back to Malta a number of times. It’s a fascinating destination and I can highly recommend it – without the black magic and vampires, of course!

Find out more about Nik and his book at his website


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Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hip pip USA

It's quite popular to knock the USA. And there is no doubting that politics there has got into an awful mess, and from Europe it's very difficult to understand why there is such an aversion to universal health care, or such a love for the gun. But I feel in our relationship with America we are in danger of falling into that dangerous trap of relationships where you always spend time niggling and pointing out fault and never find time to say how great the other person is. 

I say this because we shouldn't forget there's a lot to like about America. Pretty well every American I've met has been a warm, friendly, helpful person, and I'm delighted to count a lot of Americans among my online friends and/or readers of my books. 

There's a lot to be said too for American culture. We might moan about Hollywood's attitude to the rest of the world and occasional schlockiness, but the fact is the US makes some great films, music, TV shows and more. You won't hear me moaning about Halloween or school proms being imported over here - I think they work well and are fun. And no one could doubt the huge contribution the US has made to science and technology.

Then there's American food. I love a proper hamburger, good Tex Mex is probably amongst favourite cuisine... And I could go on at length. (Of course there are aberrations like US chocolate and spray cheez (sic), but I'm talking about the good US food).

So don't just point out the problems, inevitable with any foreign affair. Remember the good side of the United States as well.

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Physiological Facts Concerning the Female Pheromone

Time for another guest post. Robin Walker was born in Worcestershire, and after reading Classics at Cambridge, he emigrated to the then Rhodesia with my family. A few years later, he joined the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a cadet, retiring as a District Commissioner in 1980, by which time Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe. His book, Last Orders at the Changamire Arms, was published last month by Mark Lloyd of Pillar International Publishing. It's a humorous account of his last years in the ministry, and the great people he was privileged to meet and work with. He has written a novel, also laced with humour, on the life of the Greek hero, Herakles, probably better known as Hercules. Apart from that, he is engaged in beating his head against traditional academic walls with his fresh approach to the similes of Homer's Iliad.

GUEST POST

American research has come up with an interesting angle on fishing. It has brought to light an idea I have been hooked on for some while, and that is that women anglers catch more fish than men (nice little ambiguity). Apparently, when a woman plunges her hand into the tin wherein she keeps her bait she passes on the scent of her female pheromones to its contents, so that when she skewers her worm to the hook and casts it into the water, the poor creature so reeks of the stuff that he passes it on to his immediate surroundings. Now, if, while the worm is lighting up a cigarette to while away the time, a fish swims into the vicinity, it finds the scent of the worm so mind-bending it goes into a frenzy and gobbles up everything in sight, hook, line and sinker. Worm and cigarette.

There's nothing fishy about all this. It's true.

Even worms fall under the spell of these phenomenal, female pheromones and will fight each other to the death just for the privilege of first place on the hook. Indeed, I once saw a worm so overcome by the scent of a lady angler that it whipped off its coat, being careful to fold it up before laying it on the grass, dived into the river, and emerged moments later, swimming furiously towards the bank and trailing in its wake one of the biggest wahoos I've ever seen. Or was it a golden orfe?

You can find out more about Robin's book on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

I ought to say in a spirit of scientific balance, that I couldn't find any proper research to support the female pheromone fishing theory (it may be out there, but I haven't seen it), so this story needs to be taken with a fairly hefty pinch of ground bait. BC

Monday, 28 October 2013

A curate's novel

Every now and then I'm sent a review request for a novel that catches my eye, and this was the case with Kiss Me, Hadley by Nick Macfie. Featuring a news agency reporter who goes undercover in an illegal casino in Hong Kong, but with a comic twist, it sounded rather intriguing. I was a bit disappointed when the book came as it has the look and feel of print on demand (though the layout and editing is fine), which never feels quite like a 'real' book, but I managed to ignore this.

The reality of reading Kiss Me, Hadley was entirely curate's egg. Let's do the good bit first. Macfie is great at the setting, really getting us into the sleazy casino world and particularly making Hong Kong come alive. The action scenes, especially those set in a casino, are engaging and pull the reader along effortlessly. These parts of the book are great, and if somehow they could be extracted and interlaced with better dialogue and modified in the ending, this could be a brilliant read.

However. I don't know if it's because the author is trying too hard to be funny, but the dialogue is a disaster. Almost always when two characters converse their conversation meanders all over the place, is full of non sequiturs and simply doesn't make any sense. It doesn't read like a conversation at all. It is just very strange and spoiled the book for me.

As for the rest, leaving aside the totally bizarre involvement of the Conservative Party (don't ask), the ending doesn't tie things up well enough, leaving the very dramatic and puzzling final game at the casino totally unexplained. Macfie sets up lots of things that need explaining and then doesn't bother to do so, which is frustrating.

When it's going well, Macfie reminds me of the best of Leslie Thomas without the sex scenes. That might be what Thomas was best known for, but he was very good at putting a tragicomic main character in dangerous and/or exotic circumstances and making it a cracking good tale. Macfie can do this too - but without serious surgery on that dialogue, the book just doesn't hold up.

You can see more about Kiss Me Hadley at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

Friday, 25 October 2013

Bob who?

I know I am going to infuriate some musical tastes here, but I really don't get the appeal of Bob Dylan.

Part of the problem is likely to be that, musically speaking, I am a child of the 70s rather than the 60s. I didn't buy my first album until 1970 (admittedly that was the Beatles, but it was late Beatles), so I never felt any of the emotional attachment that many do to the whole ethos of the 60s - but what that means is that I listen to Dylan as music per se, and to my mind he comes up wanting.

My modernised folk (I think folk rock is too heavy a term) heroes would be Simon & Garfunkel and Al Stewart (who I saw perform last Saturday - at age 68, he is still going strong, unlike certain croaky elderly types, naming no names). For me they are streets ahead of Dylan. Now don't start moaning to me how my choices are much too light and fluffy, and not meaningful enough. I'm talking about their merits as songwriters, not as revolutionaries. Don't be an intellectual snob.

Why don't I like Dylan? Well, it doesn't help that I can't stand the harmonica, but basically I have three problems. He can hardly sing, there's just a sort of blaring croak that makes the present day Paul McCartney sound musical. (Oops, named that name.) Secondly I can only understand one word in three. There's no point being deep and meaningful if you can't enunciate. And finally his 'tunes' are monotonous, often literally. It's like listening to a goat trying to sing.

Now don't complain if Dylan's your musical hero. There is no objectivity in music appreciation. Just as I managed to wind up a lot of people by pointing out what a load of rubbish opera is, similarly I'm sure this will hit a tender spot with some. But this is my subjective opinion, which when it comes to music is all you can possibly do, and is just as valid as any other.

If you haven't heard Al Stewart, or only know Year of the Cat, one of the reasons I like him is he does a lot of songs with historical content. I wanted to include one of my all time favourites, Josephine Baker, as it is so simple yet evocative, but it doesn't appear to be on YouTube, so I am instead popping in one of his more engineered numbers, Antarctica, in part to share something he said at the concert, which was that despite apparently being about the attempts to get to the South Pole, this is a really a song about a woman who didn't find him attractive.



One more, to show a more straightforward history song, Lord Grenville, but also one that's interesting to demonstrate Stewart's humour, as I hadn't spotted into recently that musically it's a tribute to Space Oddity, but once you realize that, it's pretty obvious.



Image from Wikipedia

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Artists, scientists and stretching things

I'm going to be running a series of guest blogs over the next few weeks and the first is from Sue Guiney. According to Sue: 'I'm a writer of fiction, poetry, plays. I'm a teacher of fiction, poetry, plays. Born and raised in New York, I've made my life in London with my husband and two sons. I'm grateful for it all.' I had the pleasure of doing a science/literature event with Sue a couple of years ago and loved her book Tangled Roots.

GUEST POST BY SUE GUINEY

It seems to be festival season around here. Bankside, London, is in the midst of the Merge Festival, which is the local immersive arts festival. Its aim is to provide a series of events which showcase and draw on the rich heritage and contemporary culture of this area of London's south bank.

Last night I went along to a demonstration and networking evening where artists and scientists came together to chat, drink wine, amaze each other with the incredible ideas we all have, and especially to watch a demonstration of the Kirkaldy Testing Machine. I can not begin to tell you how incredibly cool this was.

The Kirkaldy testing works is a purpose-built Victorian era building which was built specifically around this enormous industrial age hydraulic masterpiece in 1874. Proudly declaring above the door
Facts not Opinions
the first experiments took place here on iron and steel to determine their breaking point.



Thanks to the Kirkaldy Museum for this
photo of David Kirkaldy
So, imagine a large, Victorian brick building with its ground floor housing an enormous labyrinth of pipes and wheels and weights and counterweights and pulleys and levers, stray pieces of metal lying around the floor, weird things hanging from the ceiling, anvils and hammers and then, once it got started, all manner of clanks and grinds and screeches. Magnificent. Last night, they were testing a piece of sculpture created by James Capper, an artist who creates kinetic sculptures based on industrial machinery, inventing new forms and functions for these machines while he's at it.

I was in heaven. This appealed to all my knee-jerk "Gee Mr Wizard" impulses. A room full of weird stuff with a roomful of quirky people all trying to explain and reimagine it. It's interesting to me how I do rather quietly nurture this weird side of my personality. I know I talk a lot about Cambodia and music and teaching, but various aspects of science are continually cropping up in my work. There was my recent contribution to the anthology of science-fiction poetry, Where Rockets Burn Through. There was my first novel, Tangled Roots, with its lost cosmological physicist. And the medical sciences are lurking everywhere in both A Clash of Innocents, and the soon-to-be-released, Out of the Ruins.

Clearly, I love science. But what I love just as much is the magic that happens when science meets art and when scientists meet artists. I think we find each other both funny and fascinating and are equally in awe of what we do and how we think. I love being part of this dialogue between two groups which, when I was growing up, kept themselves separate and were kept at a silly distance.

Question:  What do you get when you lock a group of artists and a group of scientists in a room?
Answer:  



Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Wash your brain to avoid spreading false ideria

I hate the term 'meme', because I think there is a very poor parallel between genes and ideas (and it's a cringe-making word), but it can be quite handy when referring to a phenomenon that is very common online. It used to mostly happen through emails, but these days it is more likely to be a Facebook 'share' because it is easier to do.

Typically you get a message from a friend that either warns you of something dire ('Don't open a message like this! It's a computer virus!' or 'Don't use this product, people have been killed by it'), or says 'like this picture and something amazing will happen' (it won't), or tells you something outrageous that really underlines your suspicions about someone in the public eye (most recently that Michele Bachmann wants to ban Halloween).

By all means pass this kind of thing on if it's true - but just as it's a good idea to wash your hands to avoid spreading nasty bugs, so it's a good idea to 'wash your brain' by doing a quick check before passing on these nasty messages.

I'd suggest three quick checks, which can be done in a few seconds. This can a) prevent a red face when you discover you were duped later and b) avoid these silly messages clogging up the e-waves. So:
  1. Do a quick search on Snopes. This long-running urban legend site is particularly good on the kind of message about viruses and evil products that do the rounds.
  2. Also do a quick search on Waffles at Noon. Though not as comprehensive as Snopes, this site is often better on picking up the latest silliness that is spreading via social networks. Here's Waffles on that Bachmann story.
  3. Do a quick Google search. If it is a hoax, there will probably be a clear reference to this on the first page. I did a Google search on 'Michelle Bachmann halloween' and apart from the delight of finding out you can get a Bachmann halloween costume, it was rapidly clear that this was a hoax. (You may wonder how there can be a video of her speech (the bottom item on the picture below) - this is because it's a video showing a still picture with a man reading 'her' words.)

We all get caught out occasionally, but by using these simple checks you can minimize the embarrassment.

Incidentally, as 'memes' are clearly more like viruses or bacteria than like genes, perhaps we should call them miruses or ideria. Just a thought...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Putting sport into perspective

More important than games
There was a lot of fuss in some sections of the news recently about runner Mo Farah having problems because someone pushing a child's buggy in the park where Mo was trying to train wouldn't get off the path to keep out of Mo's way.

Now I'm sure Mo is a nice guy, and was very polite, and there certainly shouldn't have been the fight that ensued. But I also am sure that the media outrage that poor old Mo had to suffer so much by not having the path to himself because of this unreasonable father was ridiculous.

Let's get the picture in perspective. Mo is very good at a game, the playground game of 'Who can run fastest?' He's one of the best people in the world at this particular game, and that's lovely for him. But compared with keeping a baby or toddler safe, it is a totally worthless activity. It's fine in its place. If he had been training on a running track and the father and started pushing his pushchair round the track, then of course Mo would have had every right to ask him to get out of the way. But this was a public park, paid for by public money so the public could enjoy using it for, say, pushing prams - not a sports training facility. And for that matter, feet are much better at getting along on grass off the path than buggies are. If anyone was going to get out of the way, it should have been Mo.

When our twins were young we had a double buggy and quite often it would be difficult to get along the footpath because some idiot had parked on the pavement far enough in that there was quite a narrow gap between the car and a wall or a hedge. Well, I'm sorry, again the children came first. Rather than go into the road, I would happily scrape my buggy along the side of their car, bash into their wing mirror and generally be as vigorous as possible, because I was in the right place and the car wasn't, and because babies matter more than cars.

So don't ask me to have any sympathy for Mo. He did not have priority because he was the 'big I am' sportsperson. In the right place - and this was the right place - children should always come first.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The honourable physicist

CERN's Alpha Project mentioned below - image courtesy of CERN
I had a very interesting exchange with a physicist the other day which I think really helps underline the difficulties of getting science right.

I had asked this person 'do you have any personal expectations (or even hope!)' about the outcome of an experiment. His response was 'As an experimentalist, I must be completely unprejudiced about
the outcome of our experiments. So I don't have any expectations.'

Now, in answering one part of my question he was entirely correct and proper. But as far as the other part goes, assuming he is a human being and I wasn't communicating with a robot, he is fibbing. The right and proper part is having no expectations. We now recognize that it is very important that an experimental scientist does not prejudge the issue and expect an experiment to come out a particular way. This is because there is plenty of evidence of the 'experimenter effect' where an individual's expectations colour their interpretation of the data.

The archetypal experiment designed to demonstrate this kind of unconscious experimenter bias was a trial undertaken in 1963 involving albino rats and, more importantly, young scientists who believed they were experimenting on the rats, but in truth were themselves the experimental subjects.

Robert Rosenthal and Kermit Fode of Harvard University set up an experiment where twelve psychology students were given five rats each to test on a simple T-shaped maze. All the rats were from the same stock, but one group of the students was told that they had especially bright rats, naturally suited to solving mazes, while the other group was told that their rats were of a less able strain that struggled with maze solving. Those with the bright rats were instructed that their animals would show clear learning during the first day of running the maze and after that their performance would improve rapidly. The subjects with the “dull” rats were told that their experimental subjects would provide little evidence of learning.

Both “types” of rat (bear in mind that all the rats were identical in ability) did prove to have performances that improved over time, but every day over the five day trial the “bright” rats were recorded as performing better than their peers, achieving successful runs up to twice as frequently as the “dull” rats, and getting to a successful conclusion significantly quicker than their supposedly slow counterparts.

When dealing with bright rats, experimenters could have encouraged them more, given them more positive handling, which could have influenced actual performance. This is unlikely to be a problem with a physics experiment. However - and this applies to all kinds of experiment - true improved performances were not necessary as the experimenters could easily have biased the results, even though they could be totally unaware that they were distorting the data.

One possible approach that would shift the results to match the experimenters’ expectations would be if they counted borderline runs as successful with bright rats, but not with dull ones. They might also have decided to be selective about which results to record because of some apparently sensible reason (perhaps the rat was distracted by a loud noise), cherry picking positive results. And there are other, more subtle ways available for experimenters to fool themselves.

So even though some of the greatest scientists in history have had a tendency to ignore adverse results because they knew their theory was right (Newton is a good example), it is isn't an appropriate thing for a modern scientist to do. The physicist I was emailing was absolutely right to have no expectations.

However, the reason I suspect my contact of fibbing is that it's one thing not to have expectations and it's another not to have hopes. The only kind of scientist who could be totally devoid of hope and simply carry out an experiment as a wholly neutral observer has lost his or her humanity. You might think they shouldn't care about the outcome, that all outcomes should be equally interesting, but the fact is that all outcomes aren't equally interesting - at least this is true in many cases. And to pretend otherwise is a subtle form of deceit.

Take, for instance, the Alpha experiment at CERN. If everything goes to plan, phase 2 of this may well tell us in the next few years, the answer to a question that has fascinated physicists for a long time. Under the influence of gravity, does antimatter act the same as ordinary matter, or does it feel an opposing force? Would it float up rather than fall to Earth? We just don't know, because we've never had enough antimatter to measure the very weak pull of gravity.

Now, the emotionless robot scientist, the hypothetical textbook scientist, doesn't care which outcome we get. Each has exactly the same reward value - it is a result, tick, move on. But I don't think any human can honestly say they wouldn't get a thrill if antimatter acts as if it was experiencing antigravity and is repelled by massive objects. That would be just so much more exciting than if it acted like ordinary matter.

That being the case, while I can only commend the scientist I was emailing for his lack of expectations, I am very sad if he truly was without hope.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Is it time to get rid of faith schools?

There has been a lot in the news about the dire failure of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby, mostly debating whether this shows that the Conservative free school policy is flawed, or whether this is merely a blip, because more free schools are outstanding/good than are traditional schools. However there are some aspects of the problems there -  limited curriculum, segregation and inequality of treatment of boys and girls (and female teachers) - that could just as easily be put down to this being a faith school.

I really wonder if the time has come to ask if we should allow religious groups to dictate what goes on in a school at all. It's not that I oppose religious freedom, but I do wonder if it is appropriate for religions to be indoctrinating children at school, at the age when they are most likely to take religious instruction as fact, rather than question it and decide if it is appropriate for them as adults would do. If parents want to encourage their children into their faith themselves, that's one thing, but coming from an 'official' source like a school is very different.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there aren't many excellent religious schools. We've all heard about parents turning up at church with the sole intention of getting little Hermione into the local faith school because the education there is so excellent. But I am not sure that this is a good enough reason to keep this strange religious/educational crossover going.

I haven't experienced this directly. I didn't go to a faith school, and neither did my children, but I have known people who have and certainly did receive something of an indoctrination while attending. This seems to be less of a problem with C of E schools in my indirect experience - but it certainly often seems to be the case with, for instance, Catholic and muslim schools.

Faith schools simply don't fit with modern British society, any more than we would expect to be looked after by nuns in a hospital. The trouble, I suspect, is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats don't want to change things to avoid offending ethnic minorities, while the Conservatives are worried about upsetting Jemima and Oliver's parents. But perhaps it is time that these anachronistic establishments were done away with.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Hanging on by fingernails

One of the big benefits of Netflix has been bringing to me some excellent US series that I haven't tried before. Although a little hokey, and suffering from the 'Charlie Hungerford syndrome*', I have very much been enjoying watching Fringe, and recently got to the finale of season 2, which has a whopping great cliffhanger. I would like to respectfully ask makers of US TV shows not to do this.

Here's the thing. I absolutely love shows with a story arc - ones where as well as the specific story of the episode there is a building theme that runs through the whole season. The show that most springs to mind for bringing this to my awareness is Buffy, though I faintly remember being captivated by The Fugitive and The Invaders as a child, both of which I think had arcs.

But here's the thing. As we all know, TV scheduling is a ferocious, dog-eat-dog business that rarely deals fairly with its viewers. I mean, come on, they cancelled Firefly, one of the best shows I've ever seen. So any show might not come back after the end of the season. Which means if you leave us on a cliffhanger, we could be frustrated and bitter for the rest of our lives. Joss Whedon was able to deliver some satisfaction with the movie Serenity closing off Firefly, but this is a rare opportunity. If Fringe had ended forever with Olivia in the mess she's in at the end of season 2, I don't think I could ever have forgiven the makers.

So be kind, show producers. By all means leave lots open and available for future seasons, but don't leave the main characters in peril in the finale. It's just not cricket, or even baseball.


* The Charlie Hungerford syndrome refers to a UK TV series called Bergerac in which one secondary character seems to be involved some way or other in practically every crime investigated by the eponymous main character. In Fringe, Walter seems responsible for practically every new invention (in any science or technology) known to man, something that seems to be parodied in the 'storytelling' episode in season 2.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Nature news

Not this Nature
No, when I refer to Nature I don't mean that estimable scientific journal - this is the real thing. According to a report by a charity only '21% of children aged 8-12 are "connected to nature".' This study has to be one of the worst ever made of this sort of subject, so much so that I would suggest it has the potential to get some of its findings totally back to front (though this doesn't prevent the BBC reporting it with a totally straight face).

I have two big issues with this study. One is sample selection, the other is criteria.

But first let's see what the shocking headline results were. That 21% value was based on having 'realistic and achievable' connection with wildlife and the natural world. Apparently 27% of girls were at or above this target, but only 16% of boys. There were also regional variations. Wales did worst, while London was best in England. Urban children had a slightly higher connection than those living in rural areas. Immediately that rings some alarm bells. I have lived both in towns and in a country village, and I can tell you for certain that the country village children had a much more immediate connection with nature - so what's going on?

Okay, first sample selection. We are given no information how the main sample was made up. The only information on selection given is that that 'realistic and achievable' target was based on the average scores of children visiting RSPB sites or who are junior members of the RSPB. But if that example of selection is anything to go by for the whole, there is an issue. Because children visiting RSPB sites etc. are a very particular subset, with a very particular approach to nature that would be very different, I suspect to a much more connected farmer's son who enjoy shooting a few pigeons for fun. Their selection of the control sample is likely to be hugely biassed towards middle class urban tree huggers.

The other problem I have is the definition of a natural connection, which apparently included:


  • Empathy for creatures
  • Having a sense of oneness with nature
  • Having a sense of responsibility for the environment
  • Enjoyment of nature
I really struggle with some of these. 'Having a oneness with nature'? Pass the sick bag. Anyone who thinks they 'have a oneness with nature' hasn't a clue about the natural world which has just as much unpleasantness as it has fluffy bunniness. (Those bunnies probably have myxomatosis, after all.) Let me suggest some alternative criteria that might come up with a different urban/rural split:
  • Walks to school through a field
  • Has seen an animal die
  • Understands the importance of pest control
  • Knows the impact of the seasons
  • etc.
It's so arbitrary. 

Don't get me wrong, I do think not enough children are really exposed to nature. When I was six my mother was doing teacher training to be a biology teacher and we used to spend our weekends searching for pond life and tracking down wild rabbits. It was a great introduction to the natural world. I also had a friend who had a sheep farm (old fashioned enough not to have running hot water) and saw the raw side of nature that way. For that matter, we played out in nature every day, largely unsupervised by adults, a great way to learn. Far too many of today's youngsters spend too long in front of the TV and games console - or playing team games in artificial environments - or indulging in other urban pastimes. But I think visiting RSPB sanctuaries and establishing a 'sense of oneness with nature' is not what it's about and won't generate the next generation of naturalists and nature lovers.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Read the words, guys!

No, not this Gravity.
I was slightly disappointed though not at all surprised to see that the BBC has given the movie Gravity (no relation to the excellent book of that name) a plug by entering that hoary old debate, 'Can science fiction ever get the science right?'

The article points out that while 'many critics' (who, of course, are mostly scientists?!?) have praised the film for its scientific accuracy, US astronomer and science promoter Neil deGrasse Tyson has 'several issues with the accuracy of Gravity's portrayal of space.'

Frankly, most of the issues Tyson raises (satellites usually go west to east, but the debris goes east to west; Sandra Bullock's hair doesn't float around in microgravity - never heard of gel, Neil?) are trivial, though there is a more significant point that somehow you get the ISS (at 250 miles up) and Hubble (at 350 miles up) in line of sight of each other.

To be honest these issues are pretty trivial compared to what happens in many sci fi extravaganzas. The article refers to an asteroid in Armageddon that appears to have full Earth gravity, while one of my favourites is the Star Trek TNG movie (can't remember which) where the saucer section of the Enterprise crashes on a planet with no power. Now this thing weighing megatonnes would glide like a brick. Yet the structure remains in one piece, and all that happens to the crew is they get bounced around a bit (as they still hadn't seen the road safety film about wearing seatbelts). No metal structure like that could stay in one piece after a crash like - and they would all be splatted. End of story.

However, I don't generally moan about this (or the time travel issues in Looper) because of a pretty obvious reason that I've mentioned before. Just read the words. 'Science fiction.' Get it? It's fiction. Made up. A story. Now it's perfectly reasonable to expect moviemakers and authors to do their best with the science. But there comes a point where the storytelling is more important. If the science gets in the way of the story, then it's fine to tweak reality, as long as you are then consistent with your tweaking. Story has to win over scientific accuracy in fiction.

Of course a lot of these errors aren't for the benefit of the story they are just laziness or bad research. And in that case it's really a matter of degree. It's reasonable to expect a basic consistency with reality, but you really can't expect moviemakers to get every last detail right. (The third nut from the left on the Hubble is gold, not silver!!!) Otherwise you become the nerdy person who points out that in the episode of Downton, the locomotive shown would never be seen in that part of Yorkshire (or whatever). Sorry, yawn, yawn, yawn. Don't care. It's not significant. Nothing to see here. Let's get on with the story...

Monday, 14 October 2013

It's on the cards

For a long time now, I've had a bit of a problem with credit (and debit) cards. Not mine, other people's. Before you call the police, I haven't been walking off with them, but I do want to be able to handle them. Because every now and then someone will ring me up, or approach me when I'm selling books, and say 'Do you take cards?' and I have to say 'No, just cash or cheques.'

Until recently the UK solutions for simple card acceptance have been decidedly second rate. As most of them don't accept chip and PIN, you can't use them with VISA. But now I've signed up for WorldPay Zinc which does all the main cards (except American Express), and so far I'm very impressed.

You can take cards over the phone via their website, and you can take cards on the spot using a little chip and PIN device that links to your smartphone by Bluetooth. There's a fee of £59.99 to buy the reader (but see below for a discount), but apart from that, all you pay is 2.75% of the transaction - there is no flat fee as with Paypal, and there is no monthly subscription.

They have a promotion on at the moment if you use this link to go to the WorldPay Zinc site and/or type in this promotional code: FR497816 when registering you will get £20 off the WorldPay Zinc keypad. (And I get a reward too.) Which can't be bad.

So far, very pleased with it.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Constellation upgrade

Every now and then astronomers moan about being mistaken for astrologers. But to be honest, it's not so surprising. Apart from the words sounding rather similar, until surprisingly recently most astronomers doubled as astrologers (even though they didn't believe in it), because that's where the money was. But the other reason the confusion occurs is that astronomers are a sentimental bunch, insisting on hanging onto things long past their sell-by date. You can see that with the reaction to the downgrading of Pluto, but the reason they get in a tangle with astrologers is the way they insist on referring to the ancient constellations.

Of course any astronomer worth his or her salt will point out that constellations have no significance in reality, they are just a pattern in the stars as seen from Earth, and the stars in a constellation are usually nowhere near each other. But the way they still keep using them is as if chemists insisted on putting the chemical elements into classes of earth, air, fire and water. Most of the old constellations have no value and just lend confusion to the science and credence to the woo that is astrology.

Of course, by now, were there an astronomer in the room, she would be piping up, 'Yes, but they are still useful as a reference framework and to help beginners locate stars.' But honestly most of them aren't. A handful are worth keeping. The W of Cassiopeia, for instance, is easy to spot, as is Orion and the Plough. But almost all of the rest with their ludicrously badly fitted animal/human images? Total waste of time.

What we need is for someone to look at a good, clear night sky and identify other readily identifiable geometric patterns, like that W or the shape we see as Orion. Then give those nice memorable names, not that classical stuff. And then we would have constellations that do what they are supposed to do, act as visual pointers, while getting rid of the embarrassment of the association with astrologers and still having those 'twelve signs of the zodiac'. What about it, astronomers? Otherwise you are just encouraging this:




Thursday, 10 October 2013

Answering big questions from little people

What do David Attenborough, Noam Chomsky, Derren Brown, Bear Grylls, Miranda Hart, Heston Blumenthal (oh, and me) all have in common? They've all contributed to a great little book where assorted folk give answers to questions about life, the universe and everything by young people aged 11 and under, pulled together to form a solid little hardback. And to make things even better, the profits from the book go to the NSPCC.

Opening it at random, I can discover:
  • What is DNA?
  • How come planes don't crash in the sky?
  • Why are bumble bees disappearing?
  • Why do stars twinkle?
  • and
  • Who killed the last dodo?
Although the answers are phrased to be suitable for primary school children, many of the questions will entertain and test any reader. (Speaking of tests, there are some fun little quizzes towards the back.) The topics aren't all science - Miranda Hart, for instance, answers Why is it funny when someone farts? (okay, that is probably psychology, but there are also, for instance, history questions) - but science does rather dominate, which apart from anything reflects how interested young people are in science. If only we could keep that interest alive.

The only real criticism I have is the deeply unsatisfying answer to 'What is the whole point of science?' given by biologist John Gurdon, whose entire reply (to a 7-year-old) is 'Science makes continuous advances in the quality of life.' That's really not good enough.

It's a great project that I'm proud to have been part of, and makes a lovely present for primary age children.

You can see more at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com (hardback and Kindle).

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Bull fight

Because of taking another step in their ongoing legal battle, the former owners of the Chymorvah B&B in Cornwall, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, are once more in the news.

These are the people who refused to provide a double room to a pair of civil partners because they believe that sex outside marriage is a sin. I think there is a real problem with their position.

Leaving aside the fact that it seems ridiculous that anyone can impose their own religious rules on someone who is not a member of that religion (note the fuss in the news at the moment about a school allegedly imposing headscarves on non-muslim teachers), there seems to be a fundamental imbalance in the Bulls' position. Let's say, for argument, that they were right that sex outside marriage is a sin. I'd suggest that this is not a reason for refusing to let a room to someone.

After all, Christianity tells us that we are all sinners - so why pick on a very specific (and let's face it, relatively harmless) kind of sin? To pick a couple from the Ten Commandments, surely they should also be banning anyone who covets their neighbour's ass, or to bring it up to date, their neighbour's Porsche? (Carefully selected marque there to prevent myself from sinning, as I don't like Porsches. Now if my neighbour had an Aston Martin it would be a different story.) And how about honouring your father and mother? Shouldn't they be checking that everyone booking a room sends flowers on Mothering Sunday?

Alternatively, how about the good old seven deadly sins? Did they ensure that no one booking a room indulged in gluttony? Did they ban obese people, for instance? What about sloth? That rules out ever letting a room to a student.

This may seem to be trivialising the situation, but it really isn't. These are clear sins as far as the Christian faith is concerned. You can't pick and choose - it should be all or nothing. And as the Bulls seem to have ignored attempting to prevent every other sin, it is bizarre that they felt justified - and continue to this great length and expense - in trying to pre-empt the possibility that this one, particular sin be committed under their roof.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Replica shirt rant

Okay, I haven't had a good rant in a while, so batten down the hatches, me hearties.

I hate seeing men, especially paunchy middle-aged men, in replica football shirts. To me it is both incomprehensible and stomach-churning.

It's different with children. If we can accept seeing our children dressed up as Power Rangers, say (that's what it was in my children's day - substitute current alternative), there's no reason why they shouldn't also dress up as football players. But grown men do not have the excuse of fantasy play.

Why on earth do they shell out as much as £50 for a shiny replica of a match shirt, and then wear it to go shopping at the supermarket, or for a pint down the pub? It looks hideous. This is a uniform, designed for a specific purpose - it simply doesn't work as a casual shirt. And they don't make it any better by either having a real player's name or their own on the back of the shirt.

I also question why they feel the need to wear these things. I admit I have a disadvantage in trying to understand this as I have absolutely no interest in watching sport, and none of the tribal togetherness that would make me want to join in by wearing my team's fancy dress costume. I simply don't get it. But I appreciate that lots of people do - even so, it's hard to see what they feel they are getting out of wearing their wannabe shirts, apart from looking an absolute prat. Surely, I can but hope, they don't think that somehow it gives them some of the player's athleticism and vigour. Watching the shirt slither its way over their pot-bellies really doesn't give this effect.

These shirts are naff, over-priced and pointless. Instead of buying next season's shirt, they should get themselves a decent bit of casual wear and give the remaining 50% of what otherwise would have been profit for the money grubbing companies to charity. Or stick it on the lottery. Or in a savings account. Anything, in fact, rather than wearing that ridiculous tat.

Rant over. Sigh.

Monday, 7 October 2013

About About Time

At the weekend we went to see About Time, the latest rom-com from Richard Curtis. Not my typical movie fare, but it did involve time travel in what was, in a very subtle way, a remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral. There will be spoilers, but I will give plenty of warning of their arrival if you haven't seen it.

I'm quite happy to watch this kind of thing as brainless entertainment, but when it enters my territory I expect a little rigour in the time travel, which wasn't entirely present. Even so, I recognize this is fiction, and at that it is fantasy, not science fiction, so I am prepared to give it more leeway than, say, Looper. True science fiction time travel, using technology, started with H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, but About Time belongs to an older tradition, where the trip takes place effectively by magic, whether it's as a dream or, as in Mark Twain's famous time travel book, by being hit on the head.

In About Time, the magic is achieved by going into a cupboard, clenching the fists, and thinking of a time and place. Fair enough, I say - I'm quite happy to watch a fantasy movie, as long as the plot is consistent, and that's where I think Curtis falls down a little. I'll explain why after the spoiler break, but before I do, I ought to say there's a reason I call it a remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral. It's not just that it has a tongue-tied middle class British male main character (who sounds remarkably similar to Hugh Grant in the voice-over narration, but thankfully comes across as less of a twit in his character) and a more together American female main character. There actually are four weddings and a funeral - though the weddings are subtly concealed.



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Don't read any further if you haven't seen the film and want to see it

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The problem I have with the time travel is that even fantasy should be logically consistent. Curtis sets up the very clever dilemma of 'have another child or be able to visit your late father', but then totally demolishes the reasoning for there being a dilemma. Supposedly the idea is that when the MC went back and fixed his sister's life, his baby changed from a girl to a boy, because it only takes subtle differences in the environment to result in a different sperm getting through. So he goes back and unfixes things for his sister and low and behold his child is back to the way she was. But actually the influence of any surrounding action like the sister business would be far lower than the simple subtle difference in physical conditions at the moment the egg was fertilised. He still wouldn't get the same combo. It couldn't be fixed.

Because of this, his last trip back, with his father to his childhood, would have resulted in the same issue with both his existing children. They would have been changed. It simply doesn't make any sense.

If, on the other hand, we accept it was ok for him to go back to his boyhood, because the episode was so isolated that it wouldn't change anything later, it totally takes away the threat attached to visiting his father after his father's death/birth of a later child, because he could simply go back to one of the many times his father was locked away reading and would have no influence on the future. He could visit his father as often as he liked.

I admit there is an element of breaking a butterfly on the wheel here, worrying about this level of detail, but fantasy should work within the confines of its own rules. Once it starts breaking those rules, it doesn't even work as fantasy any more, it is just a mess.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Death of a colony

It's fashionable to criticize friendships made online as second rate, but as my friend Henry Gee (met via Nature Network) has pointed out, in reality it often leads to 'real world' events and encounters that make it every bit as rich as going down the pub. Personally I have only ever been members of three online communities - Nature Network, a blogging/social network set up by the journal Nature; BWBD, a forum for bloggers with book deals; and Litopia. As it happens all three are now defunct or nearly so, but the one I particularly wanted to mourn here is Litopia.

Litopia was by far the biggest of the three and was set up by my former agent, Peter Cox, as a kind of extension of his agency, but interfacing to the world through an open (and very large) forum for writers published and hopeful to get together, compare notes and generally support each other. As such, for several years it worked very well, and there are a range of writerly people around the world I now count as friends who I would not have met without it.

Unfortunately Litopia suffered from regular upheavals, some due to personality clashes with large egos involved, some due to misuse of the environment or to over-heavy moderation. In the end, there was an almighty row and it was 'temporarily' taken down. In a sense it was inevitable, as Peter, who largely funded the whole enterprise from his own pocket, had a different idea of what Litopia was for than most of those involved.

This take-down happened some while ago, but I am only commenting on it now because it seems clear that this temporary suspension has become permanent. Litopia isn't coming back. The good news for Litopians who miss their online friends is that there are ways to get together online still and many of the old faces regularly do - but I still think the passing of this worldwide meeting place is sad, a bit like an often-used pub closing down, and as such it is important to mark its passing. 

A lot of people got a lot out of Litopia - for me it was mostly the social aspect, as writing can be an isolated business where you don't meet others doing the same job. For others it was a major boost to their writing, with free (if sometimes ferocious) criticism available of their works in progress. So farewell, Litopia. You started a lot of good things.

I ought to point out that Litopia's sister, Radio Litopia, a collection of podcasts and web-based broadcasts on writing and the wider communication world is still up and running and can be found here.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Ebooks and skip-reading

Said ebook opening.
(Is it just me or is there no way to have
the cover full screen in iBooks?)
The other day I was stuck somewhere with nothing much to do. I had finished the book I had with me, but I had my iPad about my person, so I fired it up and opened a book I had downloaded some while ago in Starbucks' nice little Apple collaboration where they have those weekly little cards that allow you to get a free book, tune, TV programme or app.

It proved sufficiently engrossing that I read about 1/3 of it on my train journey from Cardiff to Swindon. But it did make me wonder if ebooks and page turners were a dubious combination. The thing is, I tend to skip-read fiction at the best of times. I will slither my eyes across a descriptive passage, getting a general feel without bothering with the detailed words. I'm sure it's very sad for authors who have spent hours crafting that beautifully drawn setting, but I just want to get on to something happening.

What I found with this book was that I was doing it more than usual. I was getting through an iPad page in just a few seconds before flicking onto the next. In that time I was getting all the dialogue, all the essential plot details and a feel for the descriptive bits. It was quite addictive, flicking forward, soaring through it. It really did seem that the combination of relatively short pages and the ability to so easily flick on encouraged this naughty way of reading.

Now this wasn't great literature, it was a popularish title and an easy read. But my suspicion is that whatever I read on the iPad I will read less thoroughly than I would if it were a paper book. I haven't noticed it before as this was the most extreme example, but on thinking about it, I suspect it is true. And I don't know if I should be sad that the growth of ebooks means that more of us are likely to be reading books in this rather summary fashion more frequently.

On the other hand, it would mean I could read some of the more poseurish literary novels in about 10 minutes, as I would constantly be flicking and never hitting any substance. So perhaps it isn't so bad after all...

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Late Pig and the Daily Mail

Whatever your politics, it's hard not to feel sympathy for Ed Milliband when the Daily Mail makes such a scathing attack on his late father, and if the Mail intended this to turn people off Labour, I suspect it has backfired in quite a big way.

Part of the problem with any such headline-based spat is that we get immediate knee-jerk reactions to 'the man who hated Britain' and yet actually the picture is much more nuanced, something that has struck me while reading a book by one of my favourite authors, Margery Allingham.

Let's be clear - I do not agree in any way with the late Ralph Milliband's politics. I think Marxism is a dire system that more than throws the baby away with the bathwater. It is ill thought out and destructive. But popular British books from Milliband senior's formative period really do demonstrate that there were things to hate about Britain back then. I've commented before on the casual racism in Dennis Wheatley's books. We may still have some problems with race, but the British attitude back then, which considered even as close and kindred a nation as the Irish to be sub-human, was well deserving of hatred. And in the Allingham book I'm reading at the moment, another aspect we've pretty much forgotten now rears its very ugly head.

The book in question is The Case of the Late Pig. It should be classic Allingham, written in the 1930s, but in fact it is one of her weaker books about Albert Campion, in part because she chooses to write it in the first person with Campion narrating, which means we lose the wonderful contrast between his apparent foolishness and actual cleverness. But another problem for me is a truly hateable concept at the core of the story.

A major player in the book is the local Chief Constable, very local by modern standards, dealing with a tiny police force. Campion treats this man with a huge amount of respect and deference, despite the fact that he is clearly a complete idiot and incompetent. What we forget about Britain in the 1930s, and I'm sure one of the things that Ralph Milliband hated, was that we were expected to defer to such people simply because of their status and class. It didn't matter how awful they were at their job, Allingham makes it clear that this bumbling ineptitude should be treated with affection, because the Chief Constable (an ex-army officer, of course) was the right kind of person. Thankfully this attitude has entirely disappeared, with the exception of some people's ridiculous attitude to the royal family. But it is a powerful reminder of what the country the young refugee Milliband was brought to was like.

So, yes, let Ed defend his dad, and tell us that he loved Britain. But it's not all black and white. There was plenty not to love that has got a whole lot better since. And we shouldn't forget that.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Very good advice from Goodreads

I tend not read reviews of my books on Goodreads or Amazon. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't appreciate people writing them - I do. But while I tend to make use of good reviews in the press, for instance quoting them on my website, all reading a Goodreads or Amazon review can do is slightly inflate my ego (if it's good) or make me feel really grumpy (if it's bad).

I was looking at the Goodreads widget, something you can put on your website to point people to Goodreads reviews of your books (which, as I said, I don't want to do, but hey I was curious) and I noticed the top review shown for my book A Brief History of Infinity was a 2 star one that started off pretty damned miserably.

I couldn't help but be sucked in and looked at the rest (which, true to form, made me feel grumpy). But I was then cheered up by some superb advice from Goodreads at the bottom, discouraging authors from responding to a bad review. They are so right. It is tempting, and I know some people who have succumbed and done it - and they all regretted it. I would certainly never do it. I once had a review removed from Amazon because it was a downright lie and irrelevant to the book it was supposedly reviewing - and Amazon took it down straight away. But even that probably wasn't worthwhile, as the same person then put up another negative review, this time also crying foul because his last one had been taken down.

It's fascinating because this is totally different to the advice of what to do if a customer complains about your service as a business. In that case it is best to respond (and generously at that), because if you recover the situation you win a strong supporter. But bear in mind the crucial difference. When customer service goes wrong we are talking about something that can be fixed. But when someone gives you a bad review we are simply dealing with someone whose doesn't like what you've written. You won't win them over by arguing - or by sending them a present. They still won't like your book. So grin and bear it. If you find that impossible to do, don't look at these reviews. Your blood pressure will thank you.

It is worth repeating Goodreads' wise words below:
Ok, you got a bad review. Deep breath. It happens to every author eventually. Keep in mind that one negative review will not impact your book’s sales. In fact, studies have shown that negative reviews can actually help book sales, as they legitimize the positive reviews on your book’s page. 
We really, really (really!) don’t think you should comment on this review, even to thank the reviewer. If you think this review is against our Review Guidelines, please flag it to bring it to our attention. Keep in mind that if this is a review of the book, even one including factual errors, we generally will not remove it 
For more on how to interact with readers, please see our Author Guidelines.
If you still feel you must leave a comment, click “Accept and Continue” below to proceed (but again, we don’t recommend it).