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?