Tuesday, December 18, 2012

How did he?

Cartoons have an equivalent to cyberspace known as hammerspace. It is the place where cartoon characters store and retrieve that stuff (often a hammer or other blunt instrument) they use to comic effect.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sick puppy

A frankly bizarre tale about how unrealistic expectations heaped upon Japan's youth is causing an outbreak of mental illness. My sympathy is with the sufferers but there was also part of me that wondered how that could be used in a story. I've been kicking around an idea for a cruel story that uses (in the right sense of that word) sufferers of OCD as cleaners. Could the folks who obsessively stay in their rooms be used for anything?

The view from the west

The Californian Ideology is the name of a paper about the philosophy (neo-liberalism) that powered the dotcom boom. I'm slightly ashamed to say that I had never heard of it before now but recognise the traits it describes very well. Technology will save us all. Then again...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Aye, eye

A curious post on Ptak about the eyes of John Dee - probably the most famous English magus who was court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I and zealous proponent of mathematics. The article looks at copies of copies of a painting and how that affected one of the details in the image. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pow! Right in the kisser

Again a good series of thoughts about how to depict fights - this time of the hand-to-hand variety not ship-to-ship. I can think of only a handful of authors that do this well. John Sandford is about the best I've read and his trick is to join everything with "and". It gives it a real sense of pace and I've copied it shamelessly. His other virtue is that he has the knack of keeping the details of who is doing what clear. In books that do a bad job of portraying violence I've had to go back and read who did what to whom just to be sure who came out on top.

There's a good point too about how visceral and physical combat is. I have precious little experience of that but often combat as depicted on the page seems more about thoughts and minds that it does a fists and bruises.

Pew pew lasers

More for reference than anything else but this is a great consideration of the problems of space warfare. It's useful as it strives to be realistic and consider techs, particularly for engines, that are plausible rather than fantastical.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Brain shapes

If you were to draw a picture of consciousness, what would it look like? A deep dark pool, a mirror, Futurama's hypnotoad? Benjamin Betts got there before anyone and drew geometrical images of consciousness in a book first published in 1887.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Eat me

Why soul cake Tuesday? This is why soul cake Tuesday. You've got to love any baked good that can wring condemnation from a 16th century English pamphleteer.

Fiction v reality

In Lucifer's Dragon, Jon Courtenay Grimwood imagined the consequences (social, technical and political) of re-creating Venice in the middle of the Pacific using old ships as its foundations and biotech to fill in the rest. With the passing of the Lord of Sealand I wondered what would happen to that idea. Satisfyingly, the idea has not died but been resurrected in a different form - now lots of rich folks are going to build it off the San Fran coastline. Even more satisfying, the main mover behind this particular island dream is Patri Friedman, the son of monetarism guru Milton Friedman. This stuff writes itself.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Zero sum game

A strange story of how mathematics was used in the service of anti-semitism in the Soviet Union and which almost put a stop to Edward Frenkel's career before it got started.

Stuck on three

There's one more reason why it might prove tricky to travel the spaceways at relativistic speeds. As spaceships approach the speed of light, or so this paper claims, interstellar hydrogen turns into intense radiation that fries the electronics in a spacecraft and kills everyone inside. The easy way to get round this is to go slower, but that kind of defeats the object of travelling at close-to-light speeds in the first place.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

What he said

It's everywhere but I feel I need to log the location of the paper that explains what Gustaf Johansen saw when he encountered dread Ryleh.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fix this

A crazy story of what junkies do when natural disasters strike. Essentially, ignore all the warnings, deal with withdrawal then go steal the drugs that will keep you stable until the dealers return.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Va bene

A strange story about the weird additions to Italian that emerged after one of Mussolini's edicts banned all use of Foreign words either spoken or written. That edict posed a particular problem for actors who dubbed movies who had to come up with equivalents for phrases and words that had no real analogue in Italian. Called Doppiaggese (translationese) it led to the coining of lots of new words and phrases. There's more here and here. One of my favourites is 'Grande Giove' for 'Great Scott'.

Samarkand or bust

A great resource here for those who need to know what the western half of the Silk Road was like in the early 15th century. It was written by Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo who travelled to Samarkand as an ambassador by King Henry III of Castile and Leon.

Monday, October 22, 2012


This suggests that some of the first mechanical devices capable of performing calculation appeared in the 18th century. It was done for very specific ends, to help a man blind from a young age carry out mathematical research. The first engines that used steam to do work date from the late 17th and early 18th century so that steampunk might have happened a lot quicker if more people had known about these. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Matchbox menace

Specifications have been written up that allow you to send data using carrier pigeons. Some people have tried sending data this way and it worked (kind of) though was very slow. It took almost two hours to send 64 bytes of data.

What it does show is that, if you get the rules right, they can be instantiated in almost any form you like. AI troublemaker John Searle proposed building a machine out of empty beer cans which would be noisy, spectacular and slow too.

A few years ago James Bridle built a machine to play noughts and crosses out of matchboxes. He can't claim credit for the original idea (that belongs to Donald Michie) but he did make one that works.  The name of this fabulous beast? Menace (Matchbox Educable Noughts And Crosses Engine).

No choice

This is all about HPL so I am obliged to post it here. It's HPL talking about himself in suitably recondite style.

Just sayin'

A different view on what we are doing when we collaborate with all those social networks.

Adult themes

Thanks to Lapham's Quarterly I am now acquainted with John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester - who set a high standard when it came to Restoration debauchery. Perhaps his greatest feat was, while drunk, handing Charles II a copy of a poem he had written that, err, did not paint the monarch in a flattering light. The poem (Danger! Adult words and themes!) is a hoot, with perhaps the most swearing I have ever seen in verse form. Fabulous.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dance away

Hmm. A thoughtful post about the choices we make and how they come to define us, often for reasons that, after a while, no longer make sense.

Browsing fodder

A fantastic way to lose a few hours scrolling through all the crazy stuff that's out in the public domain.

Spooky Scotland

I've never heard of clootie wells before I read this post by Fiona Lang. They are pretty strange, especially the one on the Black Isle (!) in the Highlands. I guess my surprise is how well patronised they are, especially that one. Freaky.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Dark sun

Any self-respecting civilisation is going to put a giant shell round its sun to capture all the energy said star is kicking out. Look for this and, boom, you've got a flight plan for the extra-terrestrials. So that's what some astronomers have started doing.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Data share

A cautionary tale about what can be inadvertently reveal when you participate on social networks. Data mining means nothing is hidden and there are clues everywhere to your life, personality and motivation. What about people who do not participate at all? I wonder if recruiters mind if nothing can be found out about potential hires?

End of days

A suggestion that the slowdown in the US economy may not be down to the financial crisis etc but might be caused by a slow down in innovations. Hmm. I'm no expert but it does have a whiff of "leave the bankers alone" about it. There are some good criticisms of it in the piece too. I'm interested because of other reports I've seen about the limits to growth and what that might mean for society.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hell hath

sounds to drive you mad. According to David Toop. Though, if I've got a pitchfork in my vitals the ambient sounds are not going to be top of my list of annoyances.

Calbrate that

No-one was in any doubt that putting a car-sized rover on Mars was hard and that it took a lot of complicated engineering to do it. But this story shows just how complicated Curiosity is, even the tracks it tyres leaves help its mission. They are a visual cue and clue that helps work out how far it has gone.  Oh, and spell out JPL in Morse code.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Too far

Fox tossing is an example of how distant, culturally, we are from ancient days. But there are also hints of how close we are to those times too. This shows that even back in the 16th century astrology had its nay sayers. The book, Assertionis fidei adversus astrologos, points out that the celestial firmament is a long way away so, y'know, unlikely to influence mere mortals pottering about on Earth. Just saying.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Society and psychology

A useful summary of the history of care and medication that schizophrenics have received plus some suggestions about other ways that it can be alleviated. I think I've read of similar things about American soldiers returning home after a stint in Vietnam. Many were dedicated drug takers while on their tour but the stable home life, even though drugs were just as easy to acquire back home, meant that many could easily shrug off that habit.

Moral maze

We are going to be so boned when we meet an alien intelligence that can out-think us at every turn and prey on our weaknesses. Is anyone preparing for this moment? Or are we destined to be the pet of a benevolent master race?

Vulpes velocity

There are times when I think that people have been much the same throughout history but with different clothes and standards of hygiene. Then I read about something like "fox tossing" and realise that I am very much mistaken. As Ptak notes, one famous fox tossing session in Dresden resulted in the deaths of 687 foxes. How long did it take to catch all those foxes? Was there a plague of them that needed controlling?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

High dead

I've often thought about this but never in so much detail as this document. It details the "grim business" of what to do with all the dead bodies caused by a nuclear attack. Its deadpan language is a treat.
For the first few hours after a nuclear bomb disaster, there will be little time for attention to the dead. 
 I'm happy I found it just because of the site that is hosting it - nuclearsecrecy.com

Hunt the rodent

I really want to believe this story in McSweeney about the vast numbers of giant gerbils that are laying waste to huge swathes of China. There are so many that China is thinking about using lots of eagles to control the population. Just writing those two lines has made me even more sceptical.There's a great discussion about this on Metafilter too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Buy this, but it now

How we are tricked by stores, restaurants and websites into spending more than we want to. It does make me think that when the aliens land we are going to be at such a disadvantage because they will exploit all our weaknesses to manipulate us into doing what they want.

Neat work and networks

A good round-up of Steven Johnson's new book. I'm keen to read it because it touches on the themes I'm interested in - namely, what the heck is going to happen to us now we've got all this network stuff.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Taking orders

These menus that date from the 1850s/60s are from the US but some are from steamboats so I'm prepared to over look that.

Moral laws

From "A Wayside Comedy" by Rudyard Kipling a story first published in 1888. "You must remember, though you will not understand, that all laws weaken in a small and hidden community where there is no public opinion. When a man is absolutely alone in a Station he runs a certain risk of falling into evil ways. This risk is multiplied by  every addition to the population up to twelve -- the Jury number. After that, fear and consequent restraint begin, and human action becomes less grotesquely jerky."

Killing it

A very strange story about how singing My Way in a karaoke bar in the Philippines can get you killed. Gives a whole new meaning to "Tough crowd".

Which Krull?

For a moment I thought mathematics was even stranger (and geekier) than I had imagined as I came across a Krull dimension. Is the name derived from the really rather rubbish 1983 movie Krull? No, it is not. Instead, it is a term from commutative algebra and is one which need not be finite even for a Noetherian ring. So that clears that up.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Titfer tat

I do not use an umbrella, I find the gamp to be a very unsympathetic object. I have developed a prejudice against them as I am quite tall which means that when it rains I constantly have to bob my head like a pigeon to avoid being jabbed in the eye by the pointed end of a spoke.

Also I am vaguely unsettled by their arms - there are too many of them and they have too many joints - and by the leathery sound of the shroud when they are flapped dry. There is too much of a distressed bird about it. In addition, they are hard to fold tightly and keep neat. When using one in a high wind there is the attendant danger of looking foolish as the umbrella is blown inside out. No-one can look elegant tangling with an umbrella or chasing one down the street. 

While there is no sympathy for those splashing after a bowling umbrella, there is for anyone who loses their titfer to a strong gust. For that reason I cover my head with a hat during inclement weather. Nothing outre, just a non-descript baseball cap.

In recent weeks my usual hat has been retired in favour of a new one. I was reluctant to swap as the old one and I have been through a lot together and we have grown used to each other. Like many men I prefer clothes that I have grown into and have adapted to my shape and often wear them in preference to anything smarter.

But that old hat was showing its age. The cloth on the lip of its bill was fraying, around its upper slopes was the ragged circle of a tidal sweat mark and the metal logo of its maker had acquired a greenish tinge reminiscent of verdigris. It never lay flat, smelled when damp and was in sore need of a wash.

The hat's prime virtue was that it was impossible to lose. So many times I was convinced it was lost only for it to turn up in a bag, a pocket or beneath a car seat after an absence of days or weeks. Every time I was happy to see it and missed it when it was gone.

During one of those times when it was adventuring on its own I bought another hat to help protect my head during one of the many, many downpours of 2012. Necessity made me use it but it I never felt happy underneath it as it never seemed to lose its shop-fresh stiffness. It made no concessions to my head and seemed intent on keeping its own shape rather than adapting to mine.

Perhaps it picked up on these feelings because that hat has proved almost impossible to keep. Time after time I've had to dash back on to a train, into a shop or scour the house to find it. Rarely was it where I thought I had left it, a situation that only made me resent it more. It was never in my bag, or so it seemed, even when I was sure that was where I had left it. Every time I left the house with it I was sure this would be the time it would escape and every time it came back with me often with me nursing a slight resentment as I had been forced to retrieve it. Again.

Well, that hat has now got the better of me because it is gone. I am sure I left it on a train and it is now sitting with other discarded headgear in a locker somewhere. It may be harsh to say so but I am glad it is gone because it means I can wear my old hat with a happy heart. With autumn and winter coming on I'm sure we'll be spending a lot more time together.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Rodent gods

The mourning crow I saw in St James Park got me thinking more seriously about the superstitions and religious practices of animals. There's now some evidence, among western scrub jays at least, that they hold funerals (of a kind) for dead birds. at the very least they gather when one has fallen and the first one that attends the scene calls to others to witness the body. The behaviour seems counter adaptive because whatever killed that first jay may still be around and happy to kill any more than turn up.

Then I heard about some of the work BF Skinner did with pigeons that suggested that they can be made to exhibit superstitious behaviour. The methodology used to expose this was a bit cruel (but it's Skinner so maybe that's to be expected) in that he arbitrarily changed when the pigeons were going to be fed and found that they repeated the behaviour from the last time they had been fed. Skinner knew that had no effect on feeding times but the pigeons didn't and soon they were doing the behaviour regularly.

I'm not sure why but I'm more interested in rituals, superstitions and worship among smaller creatures rather than the bigger ones. Mice, in particular. Do mice have any religious beliefs. Mice gods are not entirely unknown among humans. There's Apollo Smintheus (a temple to it exsts on Tenedos), a mice god whose cult flourished for a few thousand years. The other, Kroncha, used to ferry the god Ganesha around. It wasn't really mouse-sized though and started out as big as a mountain.

But I'm more interested in the real superstitions of mice. Like pigeons, they do have them as this write-up shows. It's similar work to Skinner's on pigeons. Though there is a lot of humanocentric projection going on in the work (it seems to me). I wonder what use this would be in the wild. I guess its the beginnings of higher brain functions as they can let their memories over-ride instinct. That seems counter-evolutionary as they it means they may make more mistakes. But that's just one of the curses of being smart, it doesn't make you right more often but it does mean you can be wrong for more complicated reasons.

So mice can have superstitions which leads to them being deluded about the world and opens the door for deities. Plus everything wants to kill them so they must feel pretty persecuted and want to call on supernatural aid regularly.

My guess is that mice, being small and quick would worship something insubstantial and dark. A being that was too quick for cats, that was always ahead of a swiping paw or faster than the snap of a trap could fall. What do mice like to do? Nibble, eat and make little mice. Pretty much. So their god would excel at all those things. Perhaps the crumbs that dropped from its snout would turn into baby mice to keep the species going. Mice are frenetic, fast and scared. They are all about getting away with it. Slipping through the cracks. Finding the crumbs. Surviving. I'm not sure if it would have a name though, unless it was the squeak a mouse makes when it dies. Not with a bang, or a whimper but a hypersonic call for help.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Other ways, other lives

A fabulous, though grim, description of some of the lost/sacrificed places in America. If only for this one line: "Those who are not able to hang on, fall long and hard." It also marks the first time I've read the term "hillbilly heroin". 

Star tracking

A great write up, albeit too brief, of the way that Pacific islanders navigated by the stars.

Colour wheel

This could prove very useful when I'm looking for a novel way to describe a colour. Its multi-lingual too. Though it has to be said that some of the descriptions, subdued fuschia (viola in Italian), are less useful than others.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Damping down

Any story dealing with the near future will have to take account of climate change. There are some obvious elements to this (it might always be raining) but this paper clues me into more unforeseen effects such as the economic impact. Effects on agriculture are obvious but it might mean mass migrations and a suppressed GDP because firms have to set aside funds to pay for insurance or hedge against future calamities.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Modern lifestyles

In light of the comment I posted a long time ago which said that meal times were just a mediated social construct, are links to sites that are deconstructing how to get fit and well. Nerd Fitness and Primal Life. I remember one Iris Murdoch book (The Sea, The Sea?) made much more entertaining by its main character's obsession with food and eating well on a small budget.

Social life

A great short comment about what life and chatter is all about. Privacy is valuable because it stands apart from the times when we are in a group and happy to be there. It gains its power, and importance, from that difference. Take it away, or force me to abandon it, and you lose more than a bit of 'me time'.

Friday, August 03, 2012

History lessons

To paraphrase John Crowley, general laws of history have not had an impact on history, but the history of grand cycles in history has had an impact on history. Plus, there's the intriguing comment that "all the major ecological questions about population dynamics had been answered". Really? Really?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

I like trains

It's the details in this write-up of how to hack transport networks that are most interesting - especially how he nabbed the RFID codes. Cracks are appearing everywhere.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bug hunt

It's Tumblr which irks me but the pictures and philosphy behind it rescue it. Kinda.

Seventh sense

Another post that kicked off some fictional thinking. Folks with magnets implanted in them, for one reason or another, can acquire the ability to spot strong magnetic fields - such as the one generated by the electric fan in a cash register. Some folks have replicated this without going to the lengths of putting something under their skin.

Sneeze guard

This link about scanning tweets and other messages to spot sick folk and avoid them got me thinking. Could be a useful detail.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Did you hear that?

A good guide to sympathetic magic and the Golden Bough by the ever fantastic Lapham's Quarterly.

You are here

I spent quite a lot of time here to cure my ignorance about the galactic/cosmic year. My mind is still slightly blown by not knowing that and that feeling has not been helped by reading more about The Milky Way. Oh, the comments on that first link are great because so many of them are utterly batshit insane.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Colour me stupid

I did not know about this - the period of the Sun's orbit around the galaxy. Which means that when the dinosaurs were strolling around the sun was on the other side of the galaxy. I think.

Hand it over

For a long time I've assumed that progress is measured by the distance mankind puts between itself and its memories. Specifically, the photos, letters, videos, songs and so on that decorate our lives. Historically, those memories, those things, were physically close. In our houses, in old shoeboxes and albums and scrapbooks  stuffed under the bed, in the attic and on bookshelves.

As letters become text messages and emails, photographs become jpegs  and video cassettes turn into .wmv files our distance from them has increased. Some may be held on a phone or camera but increasingly they are in some data centre some where out there and all we know is how to click to see them. They are paradoxically distant and present. Nowhere near us but always at hand.

Peter Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction has made me question my assumption that the distancing process would continue indefinitely. Published in 1996 it suffers the problems you'd expect from a book out a year before Google was founded. One ubiquitous technology in it is the "flek" - a futuristic USB stick with data on it. Lots of data.

From my lofty perch of 2012 I scoffed at the flek when I first read about one being handed over. The more I think about it, the more I'm wondering if he might have been on to something. Or posing problems that I think need resolving.

There's no doubt that we can cram more data than ever into smaller spaces. What's the limit of that? Charles Stross speculates that one day, cue waving of arms, we might be using diamonds and writing one bit of data per atom. Look far enough ahead and it's effectively infinite. Everything can be recorded. Your entire life. My entire life.  They'll need to be roomy as the quality of human experience eats up data really quickly. The most intense experiences eat up about 3 gigabits per second of data, or so some people think.

Does that remove the need for fleks? Maybe not. Right now a lorry full of data tapes barrelling down the autobahn has a higher bandwidth than pretty much any cable we've laid. Those data carrying abilities will improve but in Hamilton's universe where FTL travel is possible, a flek in the hand is far, far faster than beaming it to a planet in that second solar system over there. So, yeah, we might still need those antiquated chunks of matter with data on them.

Any ship sent with that data on it will be a travelling time capsule. Maybe it will take with it all the data from Earth up to the point it launched. That'll get increasingly out of date though might be of interest to any alien races we encounter. More comprehensive than the golden record on Voyager, at any rate. 

For in-system, slower than FTL travel, the maths is very different and it probably makes sense to beam it. Though you'd hope that we'll better the 3500-12000 bps data rate of the current Earth to Mars transmission system. That signal takes 10-20 minutes to go from Earth to Mars but is still much faster than the months it would take humans carrying fleks to make the same trip.

There are obviously upper limits to how much data can be sent through space governed by how much we care about that outpost. There are interesting historical parallels here with the days when a new transmission technology literally outran the horse carrying the diplomatic bag full of imperial papers. But again, a flek or equivalent may not be a bad idea.

There could be social imperatives for using a flek. Maybe you want to keep the data secure so you give it to someone, such as Johnny Mnemonic, to take it for you.  Even if they do not have it in their head they might carry it so they can be sure it stays safe and only gets to the person it is addressed to. It might be so personal that you don't want to trust it to the ether or put it in the hands of an entity, such as the AI piloting a starship, that might look at it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Food for thought

Just by way of an exercise I thought I would put the writing of some well-known authors through the Writers Diet test. The results may well be instructive. Hemingway is first, the opening 133 words from The Sun Also Rises. I was expecting this to be pretty much the ideal for the testing tool. Hemingway is favoured for his brevity, the opening of the book is stand out classic Ernie and he makes great use of words. What's not to like?

The big surprise was that the text "needs toning". The full analysis says it makes far too much use of "be verbs" and has a lot of (gulp) "waste words". Holy crap, I wouldn't like to tell Ernesto he was wasting words. Even sober that would provoke him to violence. 

Second for this wholly unrealistic textual test is James Joyce. I put in the first 158 words of Ulysses with a due sense of treipdation. This, I was sure, would break the test. I often throw up my hands at Joyce's prose. Sometimes in awe, sometimes because I don't get what he's getting at. 

Another surprise. This one was flagged as "lean". Really? I'm genuinely confused by that. I guess that goes to show how good, and modern, Joyce was. Going back and reading those words (Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!) and I can see why it is seen as being so lean. All the words are working hard and the verbs help the story along. 

No test of writing can be complete without Dickens. The first 150 words of Nicholas Nickleby. I had trouble cutting the opening down to 150 because of the circumlocutions, hanging phrases and asides that it was peppered with. 

But that only meant I was not a little shocked when it came back as "fit and trim". Okay. That really does fox me. No-one, at least, none who count themselves a reader and have spent many an idle hour turning the pages of Mr Dicken's books or lugging their great weight between omnibus and armchair, can be so negligent as to forget the weight of words he manages to cram upon each page. 

Next is, of course,  HP Lovecraft. The test has confounded all my expectations so I'm not even going to speculate about what it would make of134 words from The Call of Cthulhu. The verdict? "Lean". The full analysis. "No improvement needed". Right. Hmm.

One last test. This time of text known to be bad. The runner up of the 2011 Bulwer Lytton fiction contest. Iwent for the runner up because the winner was not long enough to be useful. The excerpt is reproduced below in all its glory.

As I stood among the ransacked ruin that had been my home, surveying the aftermath of the senseless horrors and atrocities that had been perpetrated on my family and everything I hold dear, I swore to myself that no matter where I had to go, no matter what I had to do or endure, I would find the man who did this … and when I did, when I did, oh, there would be words.

The verdict? Flabby. Hurrah. Its use of waste words (it, this, that, there) was right in "heart attack territory". Okay. That I can get behind.

There are a few conclusions I can reach from this. Firstly, perhaps the Writer's Test does what it says and can recognise good writing when it sees it. Second conclusion is that it doesn't work and every text put through this will produce almost the same result. Which leads me to my favoured conclusion. The line between good and bad is well demarcated. The line between good, publishable and great is much more blurred. It's easy to get from howlingly bad into the precincts of acceptable and beyond that it becomes less and less about how you write and more about audience. Get that and the rest follows. Popular acclaim is a great rebuttal for sneers about style, semantics and grammar.

Dangerous minds

One good way to attack the AI systems guarding your perimeter is to poison their thoughts. Modify the inputs so they learn the wrong things and are unprepared for the attack you are planning.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Singularity minded

A great chat with Vernor Vinge about the Singularity and how it might come about. I love the fact that he sees SF as "scenario based planning about the future of mankind". Hmm, maybe. Some comments on the Vingean singularity and whether it will happen. His original conception was that he would be surprised if it was not underway by 2030. As ever this needs to be leavened with insights from other smart folks such as Kevin Kelly who distinguishes between thinking and work. Thinking about curing all cancers is one thing, doing the lab and clinical work to actually do that is another. So, sure, we may have a lot of smart machines about with great ideas but its not yet clear whether that will speed up R&D.

Cash and Keynes

The ever splendid Brain Pickings on Keynes and the economic prospects for his grandchildren. Err, except he was gay. Wasn't he? Yes, but he did marry a Russian ballerina later in life. Okay, I did not know that. Anyway, good for the 1930s view of what the future might look like. Interesting for the link to Ray Strachey who wrote The World At Eighteen.


This week's obligatory HP Lovecraft post is an interactive, illustrated, time-shifting map of Providence. It draws on his letters, diaries and stories to build show how the place influenced his life and work. 

Old words

Graffiti from Pompeii.I guess most of these were scratched into the plaster on a wall. Strange how modern some of these sound and how little human obsessions have changed. Though I do wonder who was likely to be writing this graffiti.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steaming great robots

Just because the pictures of this imagined world, called Collidescape, are so pretty. I got th elink from this post which chimed with some of my thoughts about publishing and the future of fiction.

Clever trousers

Who wouldn't want to be wiser and make better choices? We all would. Now neuroscience is helping find out how the wise ones among us are wired up.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More infinite than...

Great write-up on some of the different meaningsof infinity here. A real "ooo" moment when he gets to the explanation of different infinities.

Traffic report

Sites seen during an extensive driving tour of the M1, both north and south carriageways over the weekend of 14 - 15 July 2012.

  • A midnight traffic jam
  • A car on fire, smoke boiling from its rear wheels, but still being driven at speed down the opposite carriageway
  • Four queues caused by car crashes further up the road
  • Seven cars wrecked by crashes. One was a mini that was all but decapitated. The beginning of a very bad day for some poor soul.
  • A coach slewed across the slip road with its rear end blackened and melted by fire.  Its passengers were huddled on the hard shoulder and fire-engines were in attendance.
  • Three times, cars passed me on either side then indicated to join the same stretch of road in front of me at the same time. They approaced then bounced away like magnets.
  • One road rage incident during a traffic jam as people weaved their vehicles across the lanes trying to get ahead in the queue. This meant one van driver cut up a man in a Ford Fiesta. When the traffic stopped again the Fiesta driver hopped out and, eyes popping with rage, banged on the van driver's window and told him what he thought of him. From what I heard it was not complimentary.
  • One lorry cab was dressed in white lights that left an afterimage of a skull when I blinked - or maybe I was wearier than I thought when I saw it.
  • On one long straight stretch of the motorway in the gloom of the night ghosts of warnings flickered through the pixels panels on the overhead information signs. They heralded my progress along the road and I wondered if somewhere in a control room, bored, someone was playing a game with me. 
  • Similar information boards further down the road promised congestion that never arrived.
  • Three hawks hovering over the verge.
  • Rain. Rain like I've never seen before.

Fire team

Authentic and detailed comments from a US Marine, called Keith Marine (!) on how to patrol in Afghanistan and how to recognise different forms of incoming fire and what to do about them. There's good stuff in the comments too, especially about "phantom patrols" which involve hacking the GPS to make it look like the troops went where they should when they just sat it out in the bush.There's plenty of scepticism about the claims but it's an intriguing idea.

Terrorism 101

A thoughtful paper on what terrorists want, why such groups form, who their members are and why they resist change. The conclusions:  they often don't know what they want and tend to make it up as they go along, they form like other social activities do, their members tend to be young, isolated men and women and they persist because their members are friends not because their cause is common.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eat that

I'm almost afraid to try the tool at Writer's Diet - it subjects prose to automatic analysis to see how well it fits with established standards of clarity. I have my problems with this approach but it must be useful to get a basic idea of where a writer is going wrong and where they are getting it right.

Why, God? Why?

One to look into - a research project that looks for the cultural/psychological and evolutionary reasons behind religious belief. Is it prescriptive? Is there going to be a pill that we can take to avoid its effects?
There's a great discussion here. First take-away is that atheism tends to be strong where religion is strong and both are a response to external threats. Ooh.

Dead already

An alternative to those sites that give you a word or a thought for the day - Executed Today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


In general, I am a fan of evolution though my affection for it wears thin in the mornings when my back aches because the disks in my spine are degraded or when I see the bill for the spectacles I must wear because the muscles in my eyes are getting weaker as I age.

I've been wondering for a while what would need to be done to produce post-humans - a race of folk who are fixed and do not suffer the physiological problems that evolution has bestowed upon us. In my ignorance I thought it would not take much. No. That is wrong. I now see there are loads of flaws in the human body.

One of the biggest has to be the pharynx - the design of which means the larynx and oesophagus are very close. So we cannot eat while we breathe, nor breathe while we eat. How many deaths must that contribute to every year? About 4,000 in the US alone. But that's just one, almost everywhere you look in the body there are bugs. These range from the macro (spine) to the micro level (genes).

Some examples...

  • The spine - started out as a suspension bridge but now we walk upright it's acting as a pillar. I'm no engineer but that does not seem like a good choice.
  • Wisdom teeth
  • The tibia - about 50% of stress fractures are of this bone
  • The menstrual cycle
  • The recurrent laryngeal nerve - good for fish. For humans? Not so much.
  • The human body's response to certain sorts of heart failure makes people sicker. A lot of the medicine given to people who have suffered systolic heart failure is to combat these deleterious effects. 
  • John C Avise has written extensively on the basic, built-in problems that can cause diseases. He notes that about 75% of human genes are documented to carry mutational defects associated with one disease or another. Here is the full list.
  • Humans cannot synthesise their own Vitamin C - unlike almost every other animal. The reason? The gene for the enzyme to do this is defective in humans (and many other animals).
So the list of fixes is going to be pretty long. There have been attempts to catalogue (PDF) what would have to change if people were better made.  We would look a bit hobbitish as we would be shorter, fatter and have more ribs to hold all our organs in place. The trachea could be made to project beyond the oesophagus to stop the choking/ breathing problem though that would mean we would sound a bit different.

The big problem with any attempt to bio-engineer a better body (leaving aside the knotty ethical problems aka eugenics) is our complexity. We are starting to know more about what genes build a baby (Hox) but we are a long way from doing anything other than tinkering. Is this why transhumanists emphasise fixes via other means such as better prosthetics?

I wonder what else would change if we were fixed? If those bugs in our biology could be swept away. We'd be healthier and live longer. But a lot of living emerges from our biology. The tides of hormonal change and bodily reactions to what we do or is done to us are the well-springs of our behaviour. Our biology rules, or ruins, our choice of mate. If my happiness with someone is not related to the make-up of their immune system what would I respond to? Alternatively, would everyone be attracted to someone who has an incredibly strong immune system?

My reaction to what you said is determined by the stew of chemicals my brain is steeping in at any point in time. Though there are obviously limits to the range of reactions given my biology. So the fixed would be different. They might seem genuinely strange but also have their own quirks.

Monday, July 09, 2012

And the robot said

From Reddit, so I'm slightly reluctant to post it but the opening quote is great and the ongoing discussion (once you get past the chatter about karma) is very useful, especially the links to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.

Pretty pictures

I stumbled across Golden Age Comic Book Stories a while ago and I now find myself spending far too much time browsing it. Pretty much everyday it posts a collection that has to be browsed.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Is it a bird?

No, and it's not Superman, either. A round-up of phantom airships, mystery aeroplanes and, of course, ghost rockets.

Looking at the loup

I'm coming late to this but just have to record it for the future. The title of the original post says it all - the werewolf faith in 19th century France.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Maths is scary

A useful summary of the different types of infinity. The explanations are great though they made my head hurt a little bit and some of them were stomach-clutchingly strange. Thinking about infinity was so upsetting for Galileo that he stopped contemplating some aspects of it. Perhaps Stross is right in that the lower depths of maths are a place man should not tread.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

After the tears

More on the neurochemistry of emotions, in this case heartbreak. Reading the description of what happens is almost heartbreaking in itself the changes in the brain caused by are "similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers". No wonder the sense of loss is so profound. Ooh, and there's more. A 90 minute video of how smells work.

Number wang

The first thousand digits of pi. The last three numbers of that sequence are 198.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Chemical cry

Useful summary of the different types of tears. Useful for me, anyway. Do they smell differently to each other? That could be useful.

Thinking big and small

A map of the connections between philosophers. I will literally have to stop myself spending the rest of the day playing around with it. Strawson? Where are you?

Word counts

A fabulous list of what people on death row say moments before they are executed. Hmm, perhaps "fabulous" is not the right word. Interesting doesn't seem to capture it, nor does intriguing. Macabre? It's certainly that. Anyway, the most used word is "love". "Sorry" comes in at number four.

In memory

I'm seeing more and more of these roadside memorials. Some come and go within days of a tragic accident but there many that persist for far longer. This one near where I live has been maintained for months. There are places in the UK where they have caused problems but their increasing frequency suggests they are becoming more tolerated. The policies of some local authorities suggests they are getting more tolerant too.
This site lists more than 500 of them in Ireland. There is a register for UK roadside memorials here but it's not very well maintained.

Most of the ones I'm seeing, and I'll try to photograph them when I can, are for traffic accidents. But they have a long history. In Ireland they commemorate where people died during the war of independence and the civil war. I know I've seen them in France and Italy too.

There's research being done into these spontaneous shrines. I didn't know it but there are also "ghost bikes" - bikes painted white that are attached to a spot where a cyclist was knocked down or killed.

I suppose I'm slightly puzzled as to why they mourners set them up and maintain them. I can understand it in a graveyard as that's where the remains are laid to rest. But at the place a person died? Is it because they died there, at that spot? I'd guess that relatives would pass by the spot regularly too. Do they genuflect? Is it so they don't forget, that they have to remember, when there is a danger that they would forget?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Over exposed

 How many murderers share my train on the morning commute? One? Three? Probably none given that every year in the UK there are only 600 of what the police class as homicides.

For those that want to be sure, there’s no easy way to find out unless you are a serving police officer and even then doing that sort of trawl breaks all kinds of laws. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that limits we impose on technology, both legal and technical, help preserve privacy and anonymity.

Not for long. A quick search reveals at least three separate projects to create apps for phones that look at the people around you, identify them and let you know what they have shared about themselves online. Add to that tech which can already read fingerprints from many meters away and you have a system that renders anonymity meaningless.

The net is also really bad at forgetting the information you shared and, just as there are ways to find out the history of a car you want to buy, then there will be ways to look over the history of anyone and everyone.

And just as there are rating systems for restaurants there will be rating systems for people. That might mean difficult, shouty folks get to eat a lot more food with their server's spit in it but might also mean that you, who is often a model of compassion and good manners, can never escape that moment of madness you always regret or that you can never take back the bad things you said in that row because your heart was being broken. You won’t be able to offer an explanation or context to people you never meet but who will judge you anyway. Some people may feel that burn more swiftly than others.

So, in the future your name, nickname, attitudes and habits will be available to everyone. Chances are the youngsters will see privacy as an old-fashioned notion. Already, if we want to pay someone the compliment of listening to everything they say, we’ll take out the earbuds and listen. A few years from now going private may be reserved only for those most special moments.

In the future, but not too long away, when you travel and meet new folks you’ll know a lot about them. And, because they are complicated human beings, you won’t know all of it. Just the crowdsourced summary which may not be all of it, but what people reacted to. And they’ll know the same about you. That might be pernicious.

Now, when we meet new people we usually know nothing about them. We assume that they are decent folks and proceed on that basis. Society proceeds on that basis. Removing that anonymity for an imperfect summary of someone’s behaviour (poor impulse control, needy, passive aggressive, penny pinching) seems a poor bargain.

People will claim that knowing more about someone will not change their opinion and that they will judge those people by their actions not their past deeds. Human psychology being what it is I suspect that will be unachievable. One way or another it will colour the interaction either by over-compensation or deep-dyed prejudice. Could you ever overlook it, if you met a reformed murderer? Would you let them look after your kids?