Friday, 31 October 2014

I Scry With My Little Eye


A fun experiment for all to try!

You’re bored, right? How about a dare? How about you look into a mirror on Halloween night and say something creepy? Maybe the Lord’s Prayer backwards? Or just say 'Bloody Mary' five times?

No? What, you think you're going to see something scary? Go on. I double dare you.

See, the thing is… It works. It really does.

I tried it.


First: the science bit

Your senses can be a terrible way to judge truth. It’s hardly news, but here are some of my favourite visual illusions to illustrate just how bizarre yet compelling these illusions can be...

In this one here, keep your eye on the cross and watch as the lilac circles vanish, and all that is left is a moving green circle that IS NOT REALLY THERE.

Next one! Stare at the centre of the image and move your head closer to the screen and further away, and remind yourself that it is a static image, not an animation.

Finally, watch the middle of the spiral for 30 seconds or so, and then look at something else. Your own hand, maybe. Do not freak out. Your hand is fine.

I’m guessing someone has made Halloween-themed versions of these. (And if not WHY NOT?? Slackers!) Clearly anyone of a ridiculously credulous and superstitious nature would be exposed to some severe heebie-jeebies as a result.

But hold on! Don’t think yourself immune just because you don’t consider yourself ridiculously credulous and superstitious - after all, nobody thinks of themselves that way. Ten minutes of being locked in the dark with some unknown thing, and most of us would crumble.



Fun for all the family

So, we come to the meat of our meal: Bloody Mary, the traditional ‘game’ of looking into a mirror in a dark room and scaring the bejeezus out of yourself. In some tellings, it’s no less than the devil who will appear behind you, ready to take your soul.

How old the Bloody Mary tradition is I don’t know, but there does seem to be a clear link with mirror-divination and scrying.

The set-up is simple enough. Sit in a dimly-lit room facing a mirror. You need to be able to see the detail of your face clearly. (Candle light is traditional, and the placement of the candle behind you is suggested, but I found that I could see bugger all that way. I had it in front of me, just to one side.)

Next, look at your own face. After a reasonably short time, you will see things. And they may be terrifying. Look long enough, and hideous gargoyles and demons await you.


Sounds great! Where do I sign?

Here is the Wikipedia link for the ‘game’.

Note that one of the explanations given for the effect is Troxler’s fading, which is exactly the same mechanism as in the lilac-circles illusion (the first one linked to above). But now we're not just talking about little lilac circles - we're talking about parts of a face vanishing, and our finely-tuned facial recognition systems scream at us that we’re seeing something that is just plain wrong.

If Troxler’s fading is the best explanation (I reasoned) then the most important thing would be to fix the eyes on one spot and try not to blink. The tradition isn’t very specific about technique, but when looking at a face it's more natural for your gaze to shift from eye to eye and around the features, rather than lock onto some fixed point, making the effect unlikely to occur.

The longer you can manage to fix on one spot, though, the stronger the effect could be. Those gargoyles and demons might be within reach. So I gave it a shot…


What happened to me

No doubt about it, I came away impressed. Troxler’s fading was, I think, the key mechanism. I was very aware of parts of my vision ‘dropping out’, and of how that effect lead directly to the more unnerving aspects of the experience. Small movements of the eye away from the fixed point could break the effect at once, while rigidly fixing the gaze meant the effect came on very quickly.

But what did I see? I'll list the notable results of various attempts...

The first thing that happened was that my eyes, and the region around them, seemed to brighten. The eyes were staring, and angry.

Next came a clear aging effect, which is commonly reported; my face looked haggard. Yes, more than normal.

My nose lengthened into a hook, and the staring eyes started to scowl.

The eyes darkened, malice within them. My right eye became an empty socket. Everything else disappeared, then: a blank face, staring back, leaving just the angry eyes.

My mouth widened, stretching out as my nose hooked again.

One of the most impressive moments: both eyes became empty holes, and I beheld an eyeless corpse. And not my corpse, mind. Someone else.

The experience was rounded off by an ancient malign face staring back at me, twisted and deformed.

(Oh, and then I thought I saw a spider on the wall behind me, just as the candle went out, but ignore that.)

Overall, it was a fascinating thirty minutes. I suspect I won't do it again.



As for my soul?


Well, it was perfectly safe, and I promise I wasn’t possessed. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I did record my session if anyone is interested. Forgive the poor quality (low lighting is a key part of the process) and the rough-and-ready editing to remove the lengthy pauses and chop 30 minutes down to 6.






Anyway, I have to get going - things to do! The Guardian of the Abyss awaits! Hail Choronzon!

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Returned first review


The first review of my adaptation of The Returned has arrived.


"...an addictive read. It’s one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in a long time."

"I read it in just 24 hours, resenting any attempt to take me from it, such as work, food and sleep."

"...written by a hugely talented author who has real flare for spinning a supernatural tale. I cannot wait for Acolyte, the provisional title of the superb Reviver sequel."

"[a] truly unputdownable, jawdropping novel."


I'll take that!

So, you were wanting something to read at Halloween? Go on, buy a copy...

And don't forget, the Kindle version of The Reviver is just £1.19 at the moment, complete your Halloween experience!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Returned

My second book has just been published: the novelisation of French hit TV show The Returned.


I really enjoyed writing this - a whole new experience, to take somebody else's baby and turn it into a novel. I worked damn hard on it, and as always I hope it's a compelling read.

I'd love to hear from those fans of the show who read it. It's a faithful adaptation, but not slavishly so, and I'll be interested to know if readers like the differences.


Now, people keep asking me when the Reviver sequel will hit the shelves, and currently it's set for this June. That's only a year later than originally planned!

But, yeah. I feel an apology is in order. OK, I did write a whole other book in the meantime, but the major rewriting on Reviver #2 took far longer than I'd expected.

I think that's a general rule of writing. I can just picture my editor's expression every time I sent her another earnest email saying 'it'll just be another two weeks! Promise!'

Sure it will. Ahem.

It's coming, though... The original title Acolyte may change, so watch this space.

Meantime: buy a copy of The Returned! If you don't, they'll put me back in the cage again.

On Sunday night I'll be in London to present an award at the London Horror Festival. I'll report back afterwards and let you know how I get on with that dreaded 'public speaking' thing.

Oh yeah, almost forgot - the Kindle price of The Reviver is £1.19 at time of writing, so now's a great time to buy a copy of that, too, if you haven't already. Cage, see? Remember the cage.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Off to Loncon3...

I'm off to London on Thursday for Loncon3, which is hosting the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. Plenty of interesting panels and gatherings going on over the five days of the Con, and I think I'm looking forward to it. Or I might be dreading it.

Not sure.

Confession: I'm not a social person. Indeed, since going full time as a writer last September my inner hermit has gone from strength to strength, and what limited conversational abilities I possessed have almost completely atrophied. Managing to string five words together coherently is now a *win*, but my special skill is that if I do somehow stumble onto a promising thread, I'll go with it however tedious or inappropriate it turns out to be, and ramble on about stuff until I realise I don't even agree with what I'm saying and finally drift into awkward silence.

Compounding this is the way I struggle to remember names, faces, or indeed any important information. Also, my powers of concentration fail me. You know that bit in Spaced where Daisy's having the job interview and all she can think about is the theme from Magic Roundabout? That.

So, Loncon3 is an opportunity to "sharpen" (salvage) my social nous. Wish me luck!

My wife has extracted a promise from me that I don't just stay in my hotel room every day and pretend to be finishing my next book. I'll do my best. I'll be in the Autographing area on Thursday from 1.30pm, so if you're around do pop along and say hello!

Meanwhile, I just spotted this:


which, given that there's this:


makes me wonder just how often this kind of thing happens in the world of publishing. You know that awful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover that bagged so much press last week? If that reappears as the German cover of Lord of the Rings, do not be surprised.

 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

And the winner is...


 
 
This year Reviver had the honour of winning the Audie Audiobook award in the Paranormal category, and it struck me how it was very much a shared honour – author, narrator, production team.

Look behind the Audie in the picture above and you’ll see a BAFTA, one that I was lucky enough to be presented with at the 2012 Video Game BAFTAs for Shogun 2: Total War. This is a more extreme case of shared honour – the development team had about 150 people. Only three get to accept the award on the night, and I was one of the few who got to shake the mighty hand of Dara O’Briain. (You can catch it on YouTube. Spot the moment where my wife (at home) was yelling at the TV for me to take my hands out of my pockets…)

But there’s an important point to be made here. With the BAFTA, I was part of a large team; with the Audie, I was part of a small team. The thing is, with Reviver the novel, I was also part of a team.

My ‘shared honour’ description in the first paragraph above is missing some people. Whenever you see the word ‘author’, don’t think of it as one person. Really, the creation of the text is a team effort. Agent, editor, copy editor, early readers – they all make a huge contribution to the final text, and without the help of a great editor a book is never going to shine.

Even once the text is locked down, the rest of the team comes into play: publicist, sales, design, and more.
Everyone who has a hand in the creation of a book deserves credit. I’m the jammy bugger who gets to take the award home...

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

You've gotta love Google Translate...


The paperback of the Spanish edition of Reviver is coming out in June:



The tagline 'la muerte no los hara callar' is based on 'Death won't silence them', which the original UK hardback used.

Google Translate renders this into something that makes me smile:


Death does not make you shut up


Now we know what to put on the cover of Book 2!


No such luck with the German edition, which is out in August; the subtitle is translated simply as 'Whispers of the Dead'.




Saturday, 12 April 2014

Too much fruit and veg is bad for you, says study

You remember the study that suggested the 5-a-day fruit and veg advice should really be 7-a-day? Or even 10-a-day?

Well, I just read a study that suggested – using exactly the same methodology – that 7-a-day is WORSE for you than 3-a-day. Yes, THREE a day.

And you know what?

It was the same study.



The current coverage of the Tamiflu scandal (and £500 million fraud) is one example of science being misrepresented for gain, but the recent paper suggesting that the current five-a-day fruit and veg advice should be changed to seven-a-day was another example.

And while not in the same ballpark of atrocity, it is, I think, worth pointing a shaming finger at.

While some media reports suggested the study had problems, there was a glaring issue that meant the researchers – or at least, whoever wrote the press release – should hang their heads in shame, as should the media for not calling them on it.

Because when it was time to create a press release, they took one result from their paper and went for the spin that would get the one thing they really wanted: media coverage.

Here is the paper.

Their conclusion is actually fairly reasonable. The problem is when the press release says this:

‘The study findings imply that even those who do get their recommended quota, need to eat more’, they say. ‘Is it perhaps now time for the UK to update the ‘5 a day’ message to ‘10 a day’? they ask.


This is nonsense, and it is intentionally provocative nonsense aimed at ensuring news coverage.

(Let's face it. This is how researchers get their grants.)

Hopefully, this is especially good news to all you evil parents who thought you were damaging your kids by only managing to give them 3 a day. You are not evil. Tired, but not evil.

I’ll remind you of the study. Take 65000 people, ask them about their lifestyles, and check back in eight years to see who died.

Then, try and work out (adjusting - somehow - for age, education, BMI and others) if the risk of death correlates to intake of fruit and veg.

The media tended to quote one set of figures that suggested that, relative to the baseline risk-of-death of people who ate very little fruit and veg (less than 80g a day), your risk of death decreased as follows (portion=80g):

Eating 1-3 portions a day: reduced by 14%
Eating 3-5 portions a day: reduced by 29%
Eating 5-7 portions a day: reduced by 36%
Eating 7+ portions a day: reduced by 42%

Wow! Look at that! Eating 7+ is 42% better! It’s 6% better than 5-7, and is 13% better than 3-5! And that’s science!

But not so fast.

The media were always going to focus on the most extreme of their results, and to suggest it’s quite so clear-cut is a teeny bit of a fib.


First, there is the simple fact that averaging out results can be uninformative at best, and at worst can be damaging. The results – and hence the advice – could be very different for men and women, for example, which is the case for the advice on daily calorie intake.

Luckily, the researchers give us a few of these alternatives, restricting the results to certain groups and seeing how the figures look. And they all pretty much say the same thing, right?

Wrong.

The most striking example was obtained by restricting the study to what they call never-smokers: people who have never smoked regularly, which was almost half of the study population.

The headline for this is very different: too much fruit and veg is bad for you.

What? How? The figures are as follows:

Eating 1-3 portions a day: reduced by 6%
Eating 3-5 portions a day: reduced by 24%
Eating 5-7 portions a day: reduced by 28%
Eating 7+ portions a day: reduced by 23%

The first thing to note is the big jump at 3-5, going from 6% to 24% reduction, which is encouraging for those of us who try but fail to hit the five. Then, 5-7 gets a modest improvement, with a 28% reduction. But look carefully at what happens next. The 7+ group have a… 23% reduction?

Yes, the 7+ group do worse than the 3-5 group.

The simplistic conclusion from this result would be that eating seven-plus portions, for non-smokers, is WORSE for you than eating 3-5 portions.

Now, the researchers were happy to suggest that public health policy should change based on a 6% difference in one set of results. Yet in another set of results, with a 5% difference that seems to imply that eating more than seven-a-day is a BAD idea, they don’t mention it.

(Note that the non-smokers had a much reduced risk anyway, so all these figures are relative to a baseline that already has a far lower risk of death than in the general case. That's right, folks - if worrying about not eating enough veg made you so stressed you needed a fag, you have just been the victim of the Universe's twisted sense of humour.)

It would be fascinating to see the figures for the have-been-regular-smokers group, as well as the current-smokers group, as they surely have to show a much larger positive effect for 7+ than even the media-friendly overall result showed.


Also, as the media did typically suggest, the idea that you can successfully adjust the figures for age, social class, BMI, etc (and, as in one great phrase in Table 5, “adjusted for age, sex, social class, cigarette smoking, BMI and all other fruit and vegetable variables”) is stretching things somewhat.

That kind of statistical messing-about might be useful to show that there is an effect, yes, but to suggest that the result is then something people can directly apply to their own situation is misleading. Because you have adjusted the figures.

As far as I can see, the paper itself doesn’t even go into detail on what magical techniques achieve this untangling of variables.

Now, I’m no statistician, but I suspect there’s more than one way to do it, which would seem to offer the opportunity for endless after-the-fact tinkering until you get the results you want or expect. Which is handy.

Add to this the fact that several different analysis methods were used, producing notably different results. Also, the media-quoted stats excluded people who had died within one year, in an attempt to exclude those who were seriously ill and hence may have adopted some emergency dietary changes (which would make healthy food unfairly correlate to being very sick). It would be interesting to know if the choice of a one-year cutoff was made because it led to the best results... Also, though - it was a shame that the public health questionnaires they got their data from hadn't asked pertinent questions about people's actual health, like 'have you dramatically changed your diet recently because of health issues', say, or 'are you really really ill'?



Last but not least: another problem is how broad the 95% CI ranges are.

In the figures given, they provided 95% confidence intervals. These (sort-of) are the expected range of the ‘actual’ values for the figures they give (more accurately, we would be 95% sure that another similar study would produce figures in those ranges).

Broad ranges are bad news… and these are broad.

For the headline figures, we have the following percentages quoted, here with the 95% CI ranges:

1-3: 14% (5%-21%)
3-5: 29% (19%-37%)
5-7: 36% (24%-47%)
7+:  42% (29%-54%)

These are pretty wide ranges. They’re all basically plus-or-minus 10%. If we had another study showing 29% across the board for everything from 3 and up, it wouldn’t contradict these results.

At all.

And they say we should change public health policy based on this?

Of course they do.

That way, it’s news. Any other way, and the study just gets ignored.






NOTE: Some of the figures in the paper are clearly incorrect. For example, the introduction quotes 48.4% of those in the study as having never smoked regularly, in a sample of 65226, yet the figure quoted as the sample size in the never-smokers result was 43973, which is actually 67.4% of the sample.

Also, one of the analyses quotes a study size of 84,894 participants. Out of the 65226 taking part.

Another point, though: Imagine how much fun it would be to have all this data publicly searchable…

(And yes, I do have a deadline approaching, which is why I ended up spending two hours reading a paper on vegetables...)



EDIT: I just noticed that in their results table, one of the sets of results is labelled 'physical activity years only', and those results are amazing compared to the others - I mean, they're really the best set of results they have, overall.

So, what does 'physical activity years only' mean? It must be meaningful, right? Maybe it rules out really old people who don't get around so much?

No. What it means is this: out of the years the data was collected (2001-2008),  only in some of those years were there questions asked about physical activity levels (2002, 2003, 2004, 2006).

So, that amazing set of results is for, really, just a RANDOM SUBSET of the data. The physical activity questions have nothing to do with the actual results. It does, though, give them a better hook to hang the results from than just 'random years which made the results look great'. They should have tried all possible combinations and subsets, maybe there would have been something even more misleading impressive.


 

EDIT: I also just noticed that my description of the study itself was wrong: the data came from surveys done over 2001-2008, but all the mortality data came from 2013.

In other words, the people surveyed in 2001 had an extra seven years to die compared to those in 2008. I don't think they specified how many deaths were recorded for each of the survey years, but I would be willing to bet that the people in the 2001 study showed the most deaths.

They also don't specify if the dietary habits showed any trends across each year, but it would be worth looking to see if fruit&veg consumption in 2001 was typically lower than in later years, since that would almost certainly be the year that would experience the most deaths, thereby biasing the link between deaths and lower consumption.