Something about me

I recently released my latest ebook (Miranda’s Demons) which is a little like my effort at writing a “War and Peace” and I thought I should give some background somewhere as to where the series I have been writing came from, and why. At first sight it looks like a culmination of some of my previous ebooks, and in particular, my two trilogies, but oddly enough, Miranda was written first (although it has had a lot of revision since then). What had happened was that I had been involved in a major commercial deal that involved making the first chemical to permit low-cost high-temperature plastics, but the supply agreement from the New Zealand government for the raw material turned sour and on top of that there was the late 1980s crash, and as the dust settled, I was rather cash-poor and I had plenty of spare time. This supply agreement arose because the New Zealand government had arranged for a plant to convert natural gas to petrol through the Mobil process, and this made a byproduct called durene (1,2,4,5-tetramethylbenzene) in large amounts. This was a one-off opportunity because the conversion plant was built and it was large. While we had been trying to get the supply agreement in the first place, I had spent quite a lot of time in the presence of very senior politicians, and I also got to be a Director of two ICI companies, so I became aware of quite a lot of the good and the bad of both. So, I decided to write, and obviously it had to be other than “close to home”, but I wanted to take advantage of what I had seen. That also applied to the settings. I had been to all of them, except one, and, of course, the rest of the solar system. The reason for picking on Miranda was that it is a really weird place, and it had just been visited by Voyager 2. In a sense, this was my effort at offering a tribute to NASA and JPL.

I needed a plot, so I picked an alien invasion at the end of the 23rd century. Earth had to be technically primitive compared with them, but to make everything a bit easier, I decided they should be a reasonably small number, and battered from a previous war. I also wanted to get away from the obvious stereotype alien, because I wanted the reader to have some empathy for them. The next step was to have some traitorous humans, and it is these that are the cause of the war. Then the next step was to invent an economic future, and also a political structure to replace our republic-type systems. What I did was to take some comments from J K Galbraith, and extrapolate them so far that he might not even recognize them! The idea was, corporations start behaving like countries, except they have “what they do” type boundaries rather than geographical boundaries. Originally, these corporations were supposed to have behaved reasonably, but they had degraded. I must also add that under no circumstances should the antics of the characters in this book (or any other I have written) be takes as examples of what happens. Some of these people are really bad; that is what is needed for a story, but they are completely imagined.

So I wrote, and eventually had something resembling a monster. I sent it off, got rejected, and about the third rejection I realized that at least some revision was required. In some back-story, I had the end of the Soviet Union at 2018. (I thought 30 years in the future was safe. It never occurred to me it was going to fall when it did.) What I eventually did was pull a lot of back-story from it and this provided material for the two trilogies. Even so, it is still a long book. Given publishers will not consider anything significantly over 100,000 words from a new author, this could never have been published the traditional way.

For those interested in me, here is a link to the latest bio I have written:

Assisted death

In New Zealand, unlike some other places, assisted death has some probability of the assistant being charged with homicide, and recently the question of assisted dying was raised by a legal case initiated by a lawyer Lecretia Seales, who was dying as a consequence of an inoperable and untreatable brain tumour. Her case was, she wanted to be permitted to have a doctor assist her death when the pain became intolerable without the doctor being liable for being charged with homicide, and her case was based on the Bill of Rights. In the end, Justice Collins refused her case, based, correctly in my opinion, on the fact that the Courts are there to implement the law, and not to change it. Justice Collins argued that it is the role of the politicians to change the law. As it happens, the politicians have had this issue raised many times, but they invariably ignore it. Lecretia happened to be known by relations of mine by marriage, and I have written letters to papers on this issue, and this post summarizes the arguments I believe are relevant.

To be clear here, the arguments I am putting forward apply only to the case of people with terminal illness that cannot be cured, there is pain that cannot be avoided, and no improvement is reasonably in sight.

First, why do the politicians duck the issue? In my opinion, because they fear losing votes from the minority that hold life sacred and are prepared to vote on that single issue alone. That is the curse of our form of government, which is in fact, if not in name, a Republic. A republic form of government is where the people elect their representatives; a democracy is where the people vote on the issues. More on politicians and governance in later posts. However, one comment here: the government is prepared to spend $26 million on a referendum on whether we should have a new flag. Why cannot a question be included where polls suggest 70% of the population would approve of a change? Is not letting the people vote an example of the democracy we claim to have?

The case for assisted death is simple: why should people have to put up with insufferable pain? The counter argument that there is palliative care does not apply because if that works, there is no pain. A recent survey of doctors carrying out palliative care showed that in a few per cent of the patients there was clear and intense pain, no matter what, and for some of the others, pain was avoided only by putting the person into such a sedated state that they were unaware of their surroundings. Exactly what is the point of that? What is the real difference between death and being totally unaware of your surroundings, from the point of view of the patient. The problem arises when the palliative care no longer works, and the evidence is incontrovertible that this happens for the unfortunate few. Exactly how many examples of “insufferable pain” there are is unclear because only the clearly worst cases will be acknowledged. That is because it requires a confession that palliative care has failed, and doctors are usually unwilling to admit they have failed. I believe the solution is simple: it is the person suffering the pain that determines whether it is sufferable, and not someone else, who really has no standing in the specific death.

There seems to be an argument, Let nature take its course. Well, we do not do that in general. The people that make this argument presumably die young with the pain of rotten teeth, but I suspect, hypocrites that they are, they go to the dentist. Similarly, I expect they will have surgery when an appendix flares, and take various pharmaceuticals to alleviate various troubles. We interfere with nature frequently to make our lives better, so why not improve them by stopping things that make lives worse?

There are a number of other arguments against assisted death, such as people will rush to it. As far as I know, there is no evidence of that, and in any case, it should be available only to people for whom there is no reasonable possibility of a cure. There is the argument that relatives will push for it. Again, there is no evidence, but again the assistance should only be available for people who are lucid enough to ask for it, or to set down the conditions in a living will. One of the more callous arguments that turned up in the Seales case was that if granted, more people with insufferable pain would request it. Why should a person bear insufferable pain? We do not allow our pets to. There are also examples of patients who do what they can to kill themselves rather than suffer, and, perforce, make a rather more unpleasant ending of it. There is one other point. If the patient knows he can pull the plug anytime, he can stop worrying about future pain and better enjoy what time he has left. Is that not desirable?

To me, there are two questions. Why should the views of others, of religious, “moral” or whatever origin, be imposed on those who are suffering? Why should not the purpose of medicine be to maximize the quality of life, including the quality of the end of life? We all die; why not make it avoid long and unnecessary torture? What do you think?

As a final comment, Lecretia died within 24 hours of hearing of the failure of her case. I am writing this to give her final case perhaps a little more meaning.

The Greek Economic Crisis

A recent short item in the journal Nature (vol 321, p6) described the Greek government raiding any spare cash in Greek research institutes and universities to stave off financial collapse. All cash reserves must be transferred to the Greek central bank. Part of what is of interest is that Nature apparently regards science as somewhat different from everything else. It is not, and the only claim it has on the public purse is that countries with a strong science sector have stronger economies, although of course there is the question, which is the horse and which is the cart? Leaving that issue aside, why has this happened? Basically, it seems the problems that the Greek government faces has persuaded only too many Greeks with cash to ship it out and put it in some bank other than a Greek one, so Greece has simply run out of cash. They must be really desperate if they have to resort to raiding the spare cash of research institutes, though, as characteristically they are invariably cash-strapped and only keep cash to pay the various bills.

The most obvious act that Greece should take is to immediately withdraw from the Euro zone and default. Yes, the default is basically dishonest, nevertheless Greece has no possibility of paying back its debts, and to stay on course it has to borrow more to pay back the interest. In short, the prescription from the Euro zone is nothing less than a pyramid scheme to favour their banks. Greece should get out now. As it stands, everything that Greece earns will go to overseas banks. Greeks are no longer working for themselves, unless they default. Apart from death, when something is inevitable, it is invariably better to face it rather than to let it make the problem so much worse.

So, who is responsible for this? The first and obvious culprit is the Greek government, which has persistently spent more than it earns. Actually, this disease is common to most countries, but Greece has taken this to extremes. Moreover, everyone has known about it. But there are other villains. Greece should never have joined the Euro zone, and as I understand, the only reason it was admitted was that one of the big New York banking institutes produced documentation that was at best overly optimistic, and at worst, fraudulent, that let Greece in. In any case, overly optimistic is a pale description compared with what eventuated. The second set of villains was the European banks, who lent all this money. Either they had to know it was impossible for Greece to repay it, or they were negligent and did not do the work a banker should do.

Whatever the reasons, I rather doubt that Greek research institutes are holding enough money to make a significant contribution to the problem. This act is a little like taking a penny to buy the cartridge to shoot yourself in the foot. What apparently is going to happen is the research institutes will be unable to pay their power bills. Whether Greek science can help Greece get out of their bind is a unclear, but what is clear is that unless Greece can improve its economy, it is always going to be in this bind. But it also must get out of the Euro zone. The likes of Greece keeps the Euro lower, which strongly helps Germany and other more powerful economies, but at the expense of the Greeks.

Machine editing assistance: AutoCrit – review (2)

In my previous post, I mentioned AutoCrit as an editing tool to help authors. I tried it out on several chapters of my next novel, Miranda’s Demons, and here are my thoughts. But first, a little about the novel. A badly damaged alien battle fleet arrives in our solar system and war results, however, a greedy part of humanity sides with the aliens, and could be the cause of the war. The book is about how the aliens’ presence and the war affects a variety of different people on Earth and Mars, both in the ensuing war, and in what happens later. Because the story involves a large number of people in a large number of locations, and is also about the political future of the planet, with no bloating (in my opinion) it comes in at over 310,000 words. What AutoCrit does was outlined in my last post; this post shows some of its strengths and weaknesses.

All went as I intended Pacing and variation. (You may not agree as to whether it is good, but what is there was intended.) While “said”, “asked” and “replied” were by far the greatest number of Dialogue tags, I was a little surprised at the number of infrequently used tags. Part of this is due to my deliberate use of ellipsis. Thus ” . . ” X smiled. The purist will say you cannot smile speech, but what I mean is “X said with a smile”. The purist may object, but the meaning is clear and I am trying to keep the words down, nevertheless, I changed many of them. I also found the odd clanger, e.g. “Harry exploded”. Probably not optimal use of the language! Well done, AutoCrit.

AutoCrit claimed I had too much passive voice, as indicated by the use of too many “have, had, were, was”. The book is written 3rd person past, and I am happy to include past perfect and past progressive, which requires this set respectively. Also, the story is largely focused on protagonists trying to decide what to do next, and analyse what they see and accordingly I use a lot of subjunctives, which means a lot of “were”. AutoCrit does not analyse for subjunctives or conditionals, as far as I could work out. However, yes, I am happy to include the passive voice where the writing is passive. I was also informed I had too much tell. Apparently indicators were “could”, “there”, “know”, “it” and similar words. The use of “know”, as an example, probably arose from the strategy discussions – do you know or are you surmising? However, yes, I do have more tell than some want. I do it mainly to cut down on the number of words, because “tell” can use a fifth of the words required for “show”. The important thing (in my opinion) is to show the important parts of the story, and tell the bits the reader ought to know, but do not need to know the details. At this stage I should add that Tolstoy is one of my favourite authors.

Clichés were interesting. AutoCrit found “brought together” (matter and antimatter), “Black hole” (it was the cosmological object) and “in the red” (That had me puzzled, but it turned out to be “in the rediscovered Double Bay”. Sydney-siders may smile at that one!) As for redundancies, wishing someone “Good luck” was highlighted. The point of this is, AutoCrit finds things, but the onus is on you as to what you do. Do not just accept it.

Of the Word Choice menu I was happy with what it found, except for generic descriptions. Words like “very”, “suddenly”, and I was not aware I used them so much. Back to editing. The repetition was interesting, especially repeating uncommon words. AutoCrit warned I used Eridani too often in one chapter. This is a puzzle because it ignored “Epsilon” (Epsilon Eridani is a star that a protagonist speculated as the origin of the aliens.) “Thirty-four” was overused (that is the number of alien ships.) Some highlighted uncommon words: independent, Tasman (sea), executed, Jane, grams, cocoon, barrier, excluded . . . I think AutoCrit is a bit tough finding unusual words, but I am pleased to see “epsilon” is a common word! (Given the first chapter starts with Harry with a project to study the magnetosphere of Uranus, this section had fun there, finding copious uncommon words.) Nevertheless, repetition will be very valuable for many authors, because it finds “favourite words” – words that are a fall-back when writing lazily.

However, the most useful feature, from my point of view, is the Compare with fiction menu. What this did was to compare with standard fiction. Yes, I had to attack some adverbs but I generally ignored the tell indicators. Why? Because it is what I wanted to write. The adverbs I deleted were lazy ones.

So, overall? It is definitely a useful assistant, but you must not woodenly rely on it. What its strength is it finds mechanically. That means, no personal “softness” that can otherwise creep in. Its memory is also better for what went before. Of course, it says nothing about plot development; that is your problem.

Declaration of interest: I have no financial interest whatsoever in AutoCrit, and I do not know any of the people involved in it.