The Year of the Rat

On June 19th I’ll make a presentation of The India Road to the British Historical Society of Portugal, one of the various clubs and societies the British expatriate community have created for themselves in Portugal. I’m always struck by the capacity of the Brits to self-organize into citizen associations—in Portugal alone I’ve presented my first book at the St. George’s Society, the Archaelogical Association of the Algarve, and now the Historical Society.

The remarkable thing about these societies is not that they exist, but that they endure. Other nations try to emulate this model, but don’t usually succeed, at least not in longevity—the U.S. are the obvious exception.

I’ve seen quite a few book presentations, and they all take the same road. Address the author’s motivation, then describe the book itself, often by reading excerpts.

I do not. I show a set of slides that focus on the four pillars of the discoveries. These were science, politics, courage, and commerce.

An image from José Bensaúde's book on the declination angles of the sun. Bensaúde, which means good health in Portuguese, is clearly an adaptation of a Jewish surname.

An image from José Bensaúde’s book on the declination angles of the sun. Bensaúde, which means good health in Portuguese, is clearly an adaptation of a Jewish surname.

I paste these keywords into the image above; courage represents the endeavour, not only of navigation but all the supporting activities, both up and downstream, if you excuse the pun. I love the caption of ‘O rayo virtual’, the virtual ray—sounds like something out of Captain America. Part of the Marvel myth is the death ray gun—it looks suspiciously like the mating of a Luger, an AK-47 magazine, and a lemon squeezer. Maybe the magazine is filled with juice and you die from heartburn.

When I present my book, I dissect each of those concepts in turn, animating old maps, books I found in the Library of Congress, wonderful animations of the night sky from some superb (dare I say it) French software. But like Donald Rumsfeld, I try to avoid death by Powerpoint.

With diagrams, it’s very easy to show the reversal of the ‘mausim‘ in the Indian Ocean. The monsoon’s a little late this year; if Vasco da Gama was sailing east from Malindi in 2013, he couldn’t have left on the 24th of April, as he did in 1498.

The research for the book really was a combination of old and new, from the musty books sponsored by the ‘Junta do Ultramar‘  to Google Earth charting of routes and distances. A number of my readers commented that maps would have been a welcome addition to the book. Both in the English and Portuguese versions, the publishers hesitated to add these for cost reasons.

As far as I can tell at this point, being a novice to digital reading, the Kindle system at least does not deal well with images. When a book is published on Amazon, as was the case for Atmos Fear, and earlier for The India Road, the table of contents is hyperlinked, but there are no rules for pagination.

Because you read on devices where the screen real estate varies greatly, a page is what you see on a screen, although the legacy paradigm that a book has a certain number of pages is (for the moment) preserved. Undoubtedly, the number of words is a better metric, but it’s not something we’re used to. Pictures tend to leave large blank spaces on the page, and landscape and portrait modes differ greatly in the way they render images.

For both books I’ve written, I have a text file of approximately the same size with research notes, i.e. of the order of ninety thousand words. Many of those are not my own, but excerpts from books, websites, maps, and so forth.

For instance, the original idea behind Atmos Fear, that a small decrease in gravity would have a major impact on transportation, and therefore on the world oil market, was subjected to the cold scrutiny of physics. Moving vehicles with ground contact need to counteract both air resistance and rolling resistance. The energy drawdown of each depends on the type of vehicle, and on the speed. Rolling resistance becomes more important for larger, slower moving vehicles—and that’s where plot development centered on lower gravity might fit nicely. Oh, and big, slow vehicles do include tanks.

As with anything, facts first, followed by opinions. Otherwise, as the Perfect Prince’s Mathematical Junta observed when considering Columbus’s plan to reach the Indies via the western route, you typically provide a set of ‘opinions, completely uncontaminated by facts.’

Writing is a natural consequence of reading, and no one should think they cannot do it. In the case of either of these books, but more so for my first book because of time travel, it was a hugely enjoyable exercise in vicarious living.

When digital books mature, I’d love to produce a version of The India Road that hyperlinks some of these information sources, builds others into the text, and provides a much more immersive experience of the factual side of the book (which I estimate as 90% or above, particularly as regards events, times, and places). Maps on the web are free.

Sometimes the bear will eat you. Clip from an animation of how Portuguese sailors read the time at night. The guards, particularly Kochab, the forward guard of the 'buzina', or horn (Ursa Minor) prevented the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) from eating the pole star (circled in the figure).

Sometimes the bear will eat you. Clip from an animation of how Portuguese sailors read the time at night. The guards, particularly Kochab (circled, center), the forward guard of the ‘buzina‘, or horn (Ursa Minor) prevented the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) from eating the pole star.

It was the year of the earth rat when I finished The India Road. This week the friendly rodents, always well represented (and undoubtedly eaten) on King John’s ships, made the news for another reason: apparently rats, and a host of other vermin, masquerading as mutton, have been consistently sold to consumers in China. I’ve heard of mutton dressed up as lamb, but this is ridiculous.

The Middle Kingdom doesn’t do things by halves—nine hundred arrests, twenty thousand tons of fake meat products. In these days of austerity, ten million Portuguese would eat for a week!

Puts European horseplay to shame.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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