Let’s Go Abroad

The Easter holidays had arrived, and I had decided to visit my parents in Spain (proper Spanish Spain in the mountains, I explain this every time as I subconsciously fear people imagining us as classic Brits abroad. Maybe we really are and just don’t know it). I hadn’t been out that way since I had got my dog the previous summer. I still didn’t have a post teaching plan but was very much looking forward to some down time and maybe putting in some serious thought on the subject.

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Teaching abroad wasn’t an option I had considered seriously mostly due to being kind of over it by this point. However,  as I was in Spain anyway, I emailed the local international school and asked to have a look around. I had no frame of reference for teaching in Spain, what were the conditions like, working hours, salary, student mentality etc, it was worth looking into. The school  were more than happy for me to visit. They gave me a guided tour followed by asking me if I would come for an interview for a physics position they had available immediately. I thought, Why not?, so turned up at beautiful marbled school all shiny and slippery and expensive looking, designed to impress parents into spending large amounts of money to educate their children there.

I gave a spectacular interview.

I never heard from them again.

I didn’t want to work there anyway.

No really I didn’t. The pay was less than the UK, the working hours and holidays were similar, the workload was maybe lighter, there was a language barrier and general differences in behaviour expectations. From my point of view the pupils were chatty and rude. It didn’t seem like a great alternative to teaching in the UK.

So there you are, this isn’t a tale about taking a teaching job in Spain, rather a mini tale of being ghosted by a Spanish school after they asked me to interview.

Immediately after my Spain interview I knew it wasn’t for me so I sat outside in the Spanish sun and googled where in the world is it best to teach. On a random list, somewhere near the top was listed Kazakhstan with a link to a job advert in Astana and I thought why not? So I spent the next hour filling in their application form and sent it off.

This was the one and only application form I had submitted since handing in my notice.

So how’d that pan out? I’ll tell you next time.

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The Futures I Didn’t Choose

I have a “retire by 40” plan.

It’s not very complicated.

It has 3 steps:

  • earn as much as I can
  • spend as little as possible
  • invest as securely and profitably as I am able.

Not particularly ground-breaking I hear you say, but I feel that by having this aim I am more conscious of my financial decisions and so should, in theory, at least end up retiring earlier than if I didn’t have a plan.

Now I didn’t have a job I would need to come up with a new way to earn as much as I could.

Options I considered for my future included:

  • Running away on my boat
  • Mooring somewhere permanently and tutoring
  • Starting a city farm/microgreens farm
  • Starting a small flower shop
  • Starting a small coffee bean shop
  • Teaching abroad
  • Opening an independent cinema
  • Getting another geophysics related job
  • Painting/crafting and selling at markets/online
  • Doing a Masters abroad in Big data or Remote sensing
  • Online study of Big data or Remote sensing
  • Carbooting

Running away

Running away on my boat was tempting, but sadly not a long-term solution on its own. Even without having to pay long-term mooring fees I would need to pay for diesel and the general boat upkeep and so would eventually need some sort of income. I could combine this with selling paintings and other creations or carbooting which may provide sufficient income to prevent using my savings too quickly. Tutoring was also a lucrative side-line, one I had pursued whilst teaching and could easily continue but would require a more stable location or to branch into online tutoring. Irregular methods of income like these could also provide the time for online study giving wider career options in the future, plus I just really love learning new things.

Sadly for now, this is not a tale about escaping the rat-race and living an idyllic life on the waterways, maybe one day.

watercolour boats

Starting a business

With savings in the bank it may have been the perfect time to start some form of business. I spent a fair amount of time researching various ideas. The cinema, although a dream I’ve had for a while, my savings would not cover and I couldn’t find a viable building available on the market. The flower shop idea smelt good and included the perfect perishable product but after considering the early mornings, markets and general hassle I realised I wasn’t actually that interested in flowers. It was at this stage the coffee bean shop idea occurred to me. It too smells great and is a consumable, and in the current age there is a lot of interest in different beans and roasts, I still think this idea could be a good future plan, maybe for my next adventure.

This is definitely not a tale of taking on a brave new business venture in a difficult economic climate, rather a tale of pipe-dreams without any real substance, but who knows maybe one day I’ll flesh one of them out.

A proper job

Re-entering the world of geophysics seemed to many to be the obvious choice. My degree was in geophysics and before I became a teacher I worked for a couple of companies as a geophysicist. The difficulty with this option was that most of my experience was in the oil industry and quite frankly it bored me to tears. I had no intention of returning to a dull, 9-5 office job. Consequently It would be best to gain some current training in a different area of geophysics which lead back to online or university study.

This is also not a tale about doing the sensible, grown up thing and getting a stable job in an industry I’m familiar with. Frankly who would want to write about that, let alone read about it.

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Radial magnetic field at CMB (University of Liverpool)

Studying

Going back to university was tempting as I love getting a new piece of paper with my name on, no really, not being sarcastic, I love getting qualifications. Initially I looked specifically at overseas masters as many of them have no course fees, however most would be costly in other ways, mainly living expenses. So I moved on to considering UK based courses, they weren’t free, but if I studied at a university near a canal network I could live on my boat and so save considerably on living costs. After a bit more thought and a few spreadsheets I concluded the amount spent on course fees, plus living expenses, plus the amount lost due to not earning that year, added up to a sum that would require many years to recoup in theoretical extra earnings. As I mentioned earlier, I love learning new things so I would enjoy the process, but it would likely put a dent in my “retire by 40” plan.

In case you were wondering, this isn’t a tale about becoming a mature student, retraining, fulfilling my potential and achieving my career goals. I mean that might be worth writing and reading about, but nope, just wasn’t feeling it.

So if these are the futures I didn’t choose, what did I do? I’ll tell you next time.

What If? By Randall Munroe – A Book Review

Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions.

What If? is a book I had seen around and wanted for quite a long time, the times I’d seen it I was usually on a self-imposed book buying ban for one reason or another. Eventually I gave in and bought and I’m so glad I did. It comes from the creator of XKCD, a humorous science focused comic (there are some sketches below). It markets itself as answering absurd hypothetical question in a serious scientific way and it really does, the science seems sound and the questions are, as promised, ridiculous. But the best thing about this book is its sense of humour. It’s so easy for a science based book to be dry, particularly when it’s full of theory, but not this one. The captions, notes, measurements, images all raise a smile one way or another.

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If you’re not a scientist and are worried it will be over your head, I think you’ll cope. It’s written in a very accessible manner, explained in a way that anyone with a sense of logic, or passing familiarity with school level science will understand where the solutions are coming from. It’s not filled with numbers and formulas, but more with concepts, ideas and expansion of everyday occurrences, usually the explanations link to experiences the average reader will likely be familiar with. That being said, there were still occasional moments where I would read a sentence and need to read several times before any of the words made sense; ‘If a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth’s surface, would the Earth be destroyed?’

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So what sort of questions are covered by What If? I won’t tell you everything that’s in the book, I’d hate to take away the element of surprise, but I’ll tell you a few of the questions answered:

·  How many humans would a rampaging T-Rex need to eat each day? The sort of question we all want to know the answer to

·  How much force power can Yoda output? Quantifying Sci-Fi for the sci-fi fans out there.

·  If you call a random phone number and say “God Bless you,” what are the chances that the person who answered just sneezed? I love statistics and the maths of randomness so this really appealed to me, and frankly the idea just made me laugh.

·   When (if ever) did the sun finally set on the British Empire? I definitely learnt something here, as a Brit myself this was highly interesting.

Some of the questions do have relevance, though you may struggle to believe me looking at the list above. Some relate to Facebook, data transfer, and computing capacity of humans verses computers. Over all it’s a fascinating collection of questions with equally intriguing answers. Such a wide range of ideas are covered that I frequently learnt new things, some may even come in useful one day, who knows.

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The arrangement of the book in to well defined questions and answers means you can just read the one’s that interest you – though frankly even the ones you wouldn’t naturally be interested in are still fascinating. It also means it’s easy to pick up and put down, it’s not really a binge read type book, I wouldn’t recommend trying to read it all straight, you can’t help but stop and ponder some of the ideas, you’d probably miss out if you didn’t take your time. I read it across a few weeks simultaneously with a fictional book and it worked well or me.

I mentioned the humour in the book, I don’t know why I was surprised by this as I have come across the XKCD comics before and so really should have expected a similar lightness to ‘What If?’ A piece of advice when reading this book, read the notes, read the captions, read every single word on every page as there is likely to be a nugget hiding, even the disclaimer at the start made me smile. Not all of the jokes are hidden, sometimes it’s open silliness. At one point Randall shows his working and final answer using distance measurements in units of giraffes just because he can. The cartoons throughout are also worth taking a proper look at, they have the classic XKCD style to them.

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Throughout the book, on most pages, are little numbered superscripts that direct you to a note at the bottom of the page, as any good scientific document would; If you read these you may find a relevant more heavily scientific piece of information, or instead some nonsense or ramblings from the author. For example on one page the text is as follows: ‘Nobody has ever lost all of the DNA,2’ If you check the note at the bottom of the page you would find the extremely useful information as follows: ‘2 I don’t have a citation for this, but I feel we would have heard about it.’

In between the questions answered are occasional pages of ‘Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox.’ All the questions answered had been submitted by the public, but amongst the ones chosen to be answered were many that were not chosen to be answered, looking at these little collections you can probably see why. Again it helps to keep the book light and manageable.

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So in Summary this book is great, I thoroughly recommend it. It is the most enjoyable science based non-fiction book I have ever read. If you like Randall Munroe, XKCD, science in any way, or just a touch of daftness then I reckon you’d like this book too.

If you want to check out some science based comics from XKCD, the website is http://xkcd.com/

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Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood – A Book Review

My intention of reading and reviewing a book a week has fallen by the wayside. I am still reading though in a less forced manner and am consequently enjoying it more. I have just finished reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood which was first published in 2003. This is the first in her MaddAddam series, a post apocalyptic series set after humanity has screwed up the world through using science to play God. Atwood herself describes the book as speculative fiction and adventure romance rather than sci-fi as all the science described already exists to a certain degree.

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I had heard of Margaret Atwood before, and always in a positive manner. I firmly believed she was a good writer even though I had never read any of her work, such is the effect of reviews. Having now read Oryx and Crake, I still believe this to be true, though that doesn’t necessarily mean I was completely satisfied by the novel.

The novel focuses on Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman. You follow his life as he struggles to exist in this new destroyed world and learn of the cause of the current state through his musings on his past. Even the earliest point of Jimmy’s memory is set in our future, science has developed to the stage of creating new creatures, growing organs, and generally playing God. The elite are those that are scientifically intelligent, all other skills are no longer valued. Those who are of use in the fast evolving world of microbiology and genetic engineering live in little cocoons of apparent safety and normality called Compounds and Modules (I imagine it a bit like the Truman Show), while the unwashed masses live outside the walls, in the Pleeblands, where disease and crime run free.I would explain the plot but there isn’t really one as such, or if there is it’s a bit like Columbo, where your shown the ending at the start and then spend the rest of your time trying to figure out how you got there.

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I am still convince Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer, however her book was not what I expected; true to my usual rule, I refused to find out anything about the book before reading and reviewing which leaves me quite vulnerable to this particular fate. The author throws you straight in to the middle of everything with little to know information, in much the same way you can learn a language through immersion I think Atwood tries to get you to understand her world through immersion also. Words and names like OrganInc and Pigoons, Wolvogs and Rakunks are thrown at you with no explanation, echoes of spoken words come from the past without a known speaker and rules without obvious reasons are stated; gradually as memories are shared and the story evolves most ideas come into focus and a clearer picture forms. Over all I think I quite liked the approach, it was hard at first but the more you read the more it makes sense. I imagine it is a book that will have even more to it reading a second time.

pigoons

Another unexpected side to this book was the language and some of the topics. I don’t know whether to call it coarse, crude, base or gritty, but it certainly isn’t family friendly. It rarely if ever seems to be thrown in pointlessly but over all it had a much coarser feel to it than I had imagined. Sex, porn, snuff, human trafficking and others are mentioned, not in a sexy, explicit sort of way, but in a ‘this is how far humanity has sunk’ kind of way. It’s all written in quite a blunt manner, never glorifying or reveling in any of it, simply as part of the narrative.

The main characters themselves are all very flawed and damaged, when you have gone through and apocalypse that is understandable, but even the early times, when they are children there are may characteristics and manners that are hard to find acceptable. Again I think that maybe Atwood commenting on the state of man at that point. Going back to Atwood’s description of the novel as ‘speculative fiction and adventure romance’, ‘speculative fiction’ is a good name for it. It is quite clearly a vivid picture of how Atwood can see the world getting lost in humanities self importance. ‘Adventure romance’ however I struggle to see. If there is any relationship that could be considered romantic then it is a deeply unhealthy one. The word adventure also seems miss-applied, adventure has such a positive spin to it, there is little if anything positive about the lives revealed in Oryx and Crake.

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So overall I would say that Oryx and Crake is well written. It is gripping, it is clever, it is well researched and developed. The world is fully created, the history well incorporated into the novel and the language is descriptive and emotive. As negatives I must say there seems very little plot, and the ending wasn’t everything I’d hoped it would be, however there are two other books so it may be redeemed yet. The fact that I fully intend to read the other two books may be all you need to know about this one. I will also hunt out the TV series that is being developed when that is available as well.

The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells – A Book Review.

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I am falling behind in my 1 book a week aim which is a shame. I seem to spend a lot of my days doing jigsaw puzzles, and then as I feel going outside once in a while is healthy, and interacting with real people is necessary, I seem to have used up all my anti-social time. It took far longer than it should have for me to come up with the idea of listening to audiobooks while puzzling. I thoroughly recommend it.

I have managed to read a few books lately though I haven’t posted any reviews in a while as I haven’t had much to say about them. However having recently finished listening to The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, and finding it very different to my expectations, I have decided to recommence the reviews. I have had the audiobook version of The Invisible Man for several years, but haven’t got around to listening to it; the avid readers among you will no doubt understand the nature of a ‘To Be Read’ pile, it works the same with audio books, I seem to gather them faster than I listen to them.

How Out of Control Is Your TBR Pile

The Invisible Man (1897) is one of the most famous sci-fi novels ever. It was written by H. G. wells and has innumerable films, TV series and comics based on it. Wells is also known for The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau which also have various media adaptations. Before listening to the book, this was pretty much all I knew. I had heard of the invisible man in the world of comics and superheroes and I vaguely remembered a film adaptation of The Time Machine that was a fun family friendly adventure. Consequently I was expecting something along those lines with this book; some of you will know that’s not what I got.

Invisible_Man_Cartoon_Series

I listened to a free audiobook version of The Invisible Man downloaded from Librivox (link here). The narrator (Alex Foster) was fine; I have no criticisms. I have experienced audiobooks that were hugely enhanced by a great reading, this wasn’t one of them, but on the other hand he certainly didn’t detract from the story, he was perfectly listenable, which isn’t always the case with the volunteer lead readings you find on Librivox.

I’m very well behaved when reading or watching sci-fi with respect to the science. I am willing to suspend logic and reality to an extent to allow the authors to create the new world, and in fact I enjoy the logic of the world they create and generally will allow it to stand without question. After all if science could actually do it, it would be reality not sci-fi. I reviewed Replay by Ken Grimwood and touched on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North last year (link here). In Replay the science isn’t really attempted, and that’s OK, but I was highly impressed with the science element in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; I’ve yet to come across a better developed sci-fi world. In The Invisible Man Wells has also done a great job of explaining his scientific phenomena with a  reasonable explanation of how to make something invisible, in fact this was one of the most satisfying parts of the book from my point of view.

harry august

Now to the story itself. As I alluded to earlier, The Inivisible Man is not a light fun adventure. It’s not even a slightly sinister or dark superhero book. It’s just dark and angry. The main character, the invisible man himself is called Griffin. When we are introduce to him he seems a rather harsh and grumpy however with my preconceptions I felt there would be reasonable justification for this later on. However as the book proceeds you are lead to like Griffin less and less. I clung on to the hope of a sort of redeemable anti-hero for a while but gave it up on that idea about half way through. Griffin is simply selfish, angry and brutish. You may think that is very well done by the author to build such a dislike about a character particularly when you are predisposed to like them, it must have taken very strong writing to create those emotions and I do agree to a certain extent. Griffin is a well developed character.

The main problem I had with the book is that non of the other characters in the book are particularly developed at all. There isn’t really anyone to like or root for. There is a tramp that is controlled by Griffin for a while. You would think you would feel some sort of support, or liking for the tramp but at most I felt a mild kind of pity. The tramp didn’t really have enough of a sense of character to really be noticed. Later Griffin holes up with an old acquaintance, Kemp, who when he realises Griffin’s brutality and unrelenting drive for complete domination, betrays Griffin to the Police. Griffin being angry at being betrayed and now hunted turns his anger on Kemp with the intent to kill. Even Kemp is hard to care about. I did support him in the sense that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, and Griffin was definitely an enemy by then, but there was very little emotion invoked on behalf of Kemp himself.

Overall I can’t say I liked the book, the writing style with a third person narrator I quite liked, the bits of science used to describe various phenomena were interesting, but without a likable, relate-able or redeemable character in sight it just felt like spending several hours in the company of and angry psychopath.

 

Synaesthesia, Or The Crossing of Senses.

Most people would likely agree that we have 5 key senses. We see with our eyes, we hear with our ears, we smell with our nose, taste with our tongue and feel through touch. It seems straight forward enough, however for some of us, that’s not exactly what we experience. There is a neurological phenomenon called synaesthesia in which there is some confusion between senses. For example some people taste sounds, or see pain.

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Some of the better known types of synaesthesia are as follows:

Grapheme-colour synaesthesia – where individual letters, numbers or words induce the experience of a colour.

Chromesthesia – where sounds induce the experience of a colour

Spatial sequence synaesthesia – where numbers and sequences exist in space

Auditory-tactile synaesthesia – sounds induce a sensation associated with touch

Ordinal linguistic personification – sequences, such as numbers, week-day names, and alphabetical letters exist as personalities

Mirror-touch synesthesia – where observation of another person experiencing touch induces the same sensation in themselves

Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia – where sounds induce the sensation of taste

Spatio-temporal synaesthesia – where time is experienced as a spatial construct like a map of the year.

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There are other forms not mentioned, and in fact very little is known about most. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is considered the most common, where as those forms related to taste and touch are considered rarer. What differentiates synaesthesia from mere association is the consistency and lack of thought that goes into it. You can ask someone years later what colour the letter H is and it will likely be exactly the same to them. It can’t be learnt, taught, or got rid of, it is simply the way some people brains are wired.

General consensus on synaesthesia is that it is not a handicap, and can in fact be very helpful specifically in memory related tasks. People with spatial sequence synaesthesia generally have great chronological memory. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, or ordinal linguistic personification provide you with an extra idea you can latch on to remember things by. However in extreme cases people can struggle with sensory overload.

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There are some online tests you can do for some of the more common forms of synaesthesia but for greater reliability they need to be taken multiple times years apart. The one I have completed a few times is for grapheme-colour synaesthesia at synesthete.org. It gives you a full colour range to select the colour you experience for different letters and numbers, testing for consistency and speed; my results are below.

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I myself experience two main types of synaesthesia. One is grapheme-colour synaesthesia, generally considered the most common, and the other is ordinal linguistic personification which is less known about. I had no idea that this wasn’t how everybody experienced life until I was in my late teens. My mum and I could hold conversations about what colour certain letters or numbers were (it seems she has a mild form of synaesthesia also), or when naming cars or any object really rationalising the name by saying it was a red name or a blue name. My red and chrome MG BGT was called Archie for obvious reasons to my mind. It was only when I happened to catch a documentary about the phenomenon that I realised that it wasn’t the standard view of the world.

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When I say I experience things visually I mean for example that the number 4 is a pillar box red, I don’t associate it with red, I don’t mentally link it with red, it just is red, there is no thought that goes into it; it just is. Similarly other letters, numbers and words they have a different visual existence for me than their basic form.

The ordinal linguistic personification I experience most strongly with numbers. The number 6 is awful, like a black hole, controlling and evil, tainting and overpowering everything around it. The number 9 in contrast is like a slightly gloomy, geeky, teenage boy; tall and lanky with spots. The number 7 is my favourite, he’s like a loveable rogue, a con artist but only going after bad guys. They also have colours and this on the whole I find useful. In fact I memorised my bank card pin by colour and have a sense of whether a number is right or wrong by the colour I experience and whether it matches what I remember.

The only problems this has ever caused me is when certain object aren’t really the colour the I experience when thinking about them, or when letters and numbers are all together like post codes or number plates. For example the Olivine is a white word, however the mineral is green. The word Quartz is a black word however the mineral is white. When you’re studying geophysics and have to take exams on mineral properties this can get very confusing. I also get the number 4 and the letter A confused as they are exactly the same shade of red.

There is a novel I intend to read called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass that follows the life of a 13 year old girl with synaesthesia. I believe it’s quite well known in America but harder to get hold of here in the UK.

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Almost Anyone Can Do Almost Anything If They Really Want To.

You can do it.

Almost anyone can do almost anything if they really want to.

I have held this fundamental belief for as long as I can remember. I genuinely feel that physics aside, if you put in the time and effort you can learn, achieve, or do anything at all. I’ve added in the clause about physics, because obviously at no point, no matter how much time effort you put in, are you ever going to fly like superman. Other than that, the trick is putting the effort in, where a lot of us fall down is in not doing so. In my mind I see it as a see saw. On one end you have the desire for the result, on the other the aversion to the work required; whichever one is greater will determine whether you succeed or fail.

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Sometimes you hear someone described as gifted, or a natural in a certain area. Someone is born to run, or they’re a gifted violinist, however I think that detracts massively from the work they put in. Maybe they have a head start, they are physically or mentally better adapted to a particular task but that is not the end. Continue reading

Schrödinger’s Cat, Randomness and Infinite Possibilities

 

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I expect many of us have heard of Schrödinger’s thought experiment concerning a cat, even if we don’t know exactly what it was about. At its most basic, the thought experiment consists of, to begin with a living cat, a radioactive source and poison linked to a radioactive detector, all encased in a box. If the radioactive detector detects any radiation the poison will be released and the cat will die. Continue reading