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    Friday, 15th May, 2015
    10:52 am
    posting a recent short story here because the net is misbehaving


    by Miriam English

    Pet pointed to a light streaking across the night sky. "Look! A meteor." She didn't actually use the word "meteor" because she had lost her real parents when she was very young and didn't know much of her human language. She used the equivalent word from Mother's language. Mother had rescued and raised her.

    Pet was human, in her twenties, had smooth, brown skin, and long, curly, black hair. Mother was a native of this planet and looked like a woolly mammoth — she was almost that big and had a long, thick, shaggy coat like one, but her enormous round head had a meditative, contented face like a sloth's.

    Each evening Mother and Pet lay together here on this flat rock overlooking the valley to watch and listen. This world had no moons or lights from technological civilisation so night was always dark. Tonight there were no clouds so the stars were especially sharp and beautiful. But without clouds the night was colder than usual. Pet pulled Mother's shaggy gray hair around her for warmth and snuggled closer in beside Mother's neck. She felt, rather than heard, the very low sounds Mother would call out, talking with others of her kind beyond the valley, even beyond the horizon. Low frequency sounds can easily travel for great distances. Mother's people lived sparsely on their world, yet all remained in constant contact through their infrasonic, rumbling conversations, passing messages on, from one to the other in a huge planet-wide network. Mother would then translate the conversations for Pet into sounds audible to human ears. Mostly Pet and Mother used Mother's language when talking to each other, but when a human word would suit they used it. Mother intentionally continued to use what little human speech she could, in case humans visited this world again; her hope was that Pet would be able to talk to them and rejoin her people.

    Mother told her what she was hearing from others. It wasn't a meteor. It was a spaceship and it had landed near the remains of the colony Pet's people had built all those years ago.

    Pet stood excitedly, "My people?"

    Mother slowly stood also, "No. Sorry little Pet. We must go to the cave. They are Hunters."

    Pet's stomach suddenly felt hollow. She whispered, "Here again." She clenched her fists.

    "Come little Pet. It is not safe here."

    They moved as quickly as possible, Pet running ahead and Mother ambling on all fours. They went around the side of the hill, under the great fern-like trees to Mother's cave. The entrance was obscured by giant mosses and ferny plants, and they pushed their way past the damp vegetation into the dry and relatively warm cave interior. There were no lights or furnishings. Mother could always see well enough by the feeble infrared light of her own body heat leaking through her thick coat, but Pet radiated so much heat she lit the cave like a lantern. Pet, of course, being human, was quite blind in the cave, but had perfected the skill of clapping her hands and judging distance by the echo. She'd spent every night for most of her life in here so knew it intimately anyway.

    Several hundred years ago this had been a shallow cave, but over time Mother had extended it, as her people have always done, by gradual digging, just a little each night. Some of the mountains were riddled with tunnels, carved out over millions of years. Mother's cave, being relatively new, only extended a short couple of hundred meters, into the mountain and had only the one way in. The single entrance gave it less chance of being found, but meant that if discovered they were trapped. There was no threat to Mother's people native to their planet, but the Hunters had come a few hundred years ago from another world and Mother's people had learned to take precautions against the blood-soaked visits every few decades. The Hunters never stayed for long, and left no colony of their own. They didn't eat those they killed, but slaughtered, mutilated, took trophies, and left again. Killing seemed to be some kind of perverse sport to them.

    Pet was pacing back and forth in the dark, her fists clenched, her mind going over these horrible creatures and their return. She was angry and very scared.

    Mother said, "Please, Pet. Do not worry. We will be safe here."

    "They should not be allowed to do this. How can you just accept it?" She felt tears coming and that annoyed her further. She wiped the tears away angrily.

    Mother gave a calming rumble. "We don't believe there is any solution other than letting time run its course. The problem takes care of itself. Those that put great effort into war, that consider soldiers noble, that think force solves problems, that love weapons, they tend to die out by exposing themselves to violence. Those who love peace and are wise enough to prefer nonviolent lives tend to survive in increasing numbers even though some are killed by the mad ones. If the peaceful members of a species are unable to do this, then the species exterminates itself. It is unavoidable."

    "But that could take many, many lifetimes!" Pet shouted, her voice loud and echoing in the dark cave.

    "Yes. On a small island it happens quickly. On a large continent it is slow. But the situation with the Hunters is different. They have access to other worlds. Their boundaries are less defined. Perhaps the Hunters attacked the landing party of a peaceful spacegoing species and stole their technology. They don't seem to be smart enough or cooperative enough to develop the technology themselves. If so, then the people who accidentally gave the Hunters access to space should have been more careful. It would be best if violent species were confined to their planet until they have either outgrown their violent infancy or destroyed themselves."

    "So the Hunters could remain a threat forever?"

    "No, there will always be the pressure to become less violent — violence always increases the risk of death to the violent individual. Peace tends to increase the lifespan. So even though the Hunters have escaped the bounds of their planet, the pressure to be peaceful still operates — much reduced, but still there. It could take millions of years, but they will eventually become peaceful or die out."

    "Someone should do something about them."

    "What can be done?"

    "Take their space travel technology from them. Kill them to stop them hurting other peaceful people."

    "Willingness to kill is counterproductive. And forcibly exterminating the Hunters eliminates their potential to become a peaceful species."

    "I still think someone should do something to stop the Hunters killing."

    "The Hunters are doing it. The most violent ones kill themselves, the less violent ones survive better. Patience, little Pet. Interfering just makes things worse, not better. Come, little Pet." She reached out a big leathery paw, pulled Pet to her and wrapped her big, warm, furry arms around her. "Please sleep, small one. We are safe here."

    Nestled between Mother's neck and shoulder, with Mother's long fur blanketing her, Pet was warm, but spent a very restless night. She kept thinking she heard the approach of the dreaded Hunters. She was scared and angry. Those monsters had killed her parents, had wiped out the colony, and had murdered countless numbers of Mother's people. They might one day find the homeworld of Pet's people... if they hadn't already. Her thoughts suddenly chilled her. She might be the only one of her kind left anywhere.

    Pet feared these creatures terribly, but hated them more. She couldn't stop thinking about the aftermath of previous visits. She and Mother would investigate a suddenly silent friend some valleys away, only to find them gutted and dismembered and missing some toes or teeth taken as trophies. Such events left her trembling with nausea and revulsion. Pet had barely any memories of the extermination of the human colony, but the horror stayed fresh. She could vaguely remember her parents' daily attempts to communicate with enormous, friendly Mother being suddenly interrupted one day by sounds of explosions and cries, and she could remember Mother having tucked her into the warm neck-pouch and ambling as fast as she could into the dark forest, all the while murmuring that she must be calm and quiet, that bad people had hurt her family and wanted to hurt her, that they needed to get away. Pet had been terrified. Now, around twenty years later the fear remained, but anger had grown with it.

    Before daylight Pet crept out of the cave and made her way awkwardly in the darkness toward the remains of the human colony, where the Hunters now were.

    By the time the sky began to lighten Pet had crossed a valley and a hill. She was about halfway to the site and still had no idea what she going to do. All she knew was that she burned with hatred and desperately wanted to find a way to destroy these vile creatures — to kill as many as she could.

    She was about to step out from under the cover of trees to cross a small meadow at the bottom of the valley when she heard the sound of one of the Hunters' small scout flyers approaching. Without thinking she grabbed a pole that was a fallen stick-palm, hefted it and when the scout screamed into view, threw the pole into its jet intake. There was an explosion. Fragments of metal and stick sprayed out, shredding shrubs and small palms. The scout nosedived into the trees behind her and was torn apart. Pet ran to the site of the crash. One of the hunters had been ripped to pieces on impact with a tree. The other was lying broken on the ground, not moving. Pet picked up a sharp stick and moved warily closer. Its four thin legs were crushed and bent askew and the main, flat body was seeping blue liquid where a stick had penetrated between the large, overlapping scales. The creature's eyes were closed. The nasty pincers and thin, soft, short tentacles on either side of its mouth were not moving. She stepped closer and touched it with her stick. An eye fluttered open and stared glassily at her, causing her to step back involuntarily. Then, remembering the murder of her people and many of Mother's people, she growled, stepped forward, and thrust the stick deeply into the creature's eye. The tentacles stiffened, the pincers widened, then both relaxed.

    Pet felt sick. Turning away, she continued grimly on her previous path. Once more at the edge of the trees, she looked around in the early dawn light to see if all was clear, scampered across the meadow and began climbing the last hill. She knew that when she reached the top of this hill she would be able to see the Hunters' landing site.

    On the crest of the hill she crawled under the cover of some shrubs and lay there watching the encampment below. The Hunters were fast-moving on their four thin legs, and their overlapping plates of armour made them seem safe from attack. They carried small catapaults slung under their wide, flat heads. The tentacles near their pincers could reach down, pull the device out to fling a small, explosive ball. The Hunters seemed to be as violent to each other as they were to other creatures. It seemed to make no sense. A couple of times she had seen fights break out among the creatures. Others would form a circle around the opponents. In the first fight she saw, one of the fighters had quickly killed the other by jumping on its back and, gripping the other's head in its pincers, gradually tore the other's head off. On the other occasion the "winner" bit its opponent's legs off before standing on it and sinking its long, curved pincers neatly into the other's head. The several onlookers stepped back a few paces and used their little tentacles with their catapaults to pelt small explosive balls at the victor, blowing bits of the creature all over the area. The group then dispersed as if nothing had happened. Pet watched, thoroughly revolted. These creatures were insane.

    After a couple of hours of watching, she got a shock when her foot was grabbed. Before she could react Mother dragged her backwards away from the edge of the hill, lifted her by her foot and stuffed her into the pouch under her enormous, round head, then hurried back down the hill, away from the Hunters' site. When Pet started to protest, she was told to be quiet. Noise risked them both being killed.

    When they were far enough away to be able to talk quietly, but without slowing, Mother told Pet how disappointed she was in her.

    Pet said angrily, "I want to make them pay for what they did to my people and yours. I was looking for a way to attack them."

    "I thought you had a good mind. I now doubt that. I saw what you did to the creatures on the scout craft."

    "They deserved it."

    "You do not understand what you have done. You have given the Hunters what they love most. Have you realised yet what they do? Killing is valued highly by them. By killing two of their people you are now a prized catch. You have condemned many of my people to death because the Hunters will put much more effort into killing anything in this area in an attempt to find the prize. You have not slowed or discouraged them; you have renewed their interest in killing my people."

    With a shock, Pet understood. Her heart sank. "I'm sorry Mother." She jumped out of the pouch, stumbled from Mother's forward motion then started to run back the way they'd come, but Mother reached out with a back paw and tripped Pet over. Before Pet could scramble to her feet again Mother had turned and gripped one of Pet's arms firmly in her big leathery paws. Pet protested, "Let me go. If I let myself be caught by them they won't be so interested in killing your people."

    "Your death is not a solution. I've already warned my people. We will hide until the Hunters leave. Stop being a danger to both of us. Come now."

    Pet sighed and climbed back into the pouch and Mother resumed her run through the forest, pausing a few times along the way to take cover under fern trees when a scout craft shot overhead.

    After some hours of traveling this way they came to the crest of a high rocky hill, the top of which was a great heap of giant boulders. It was almost devoid of vegetation. Mother's pace slowed, having to wend her way between the enormous rocks. Finally she stopped at a massive boulder that sat on three others. There was a space between the great boulder above and a gigantic flat rock beneath — enough space for mother to crawl in on her belly. The other side of this shelter looked out high over the steep hillside they'd just ascended.

    Pet left Mother's pouch and took in the vast panorama. "Why have we come here?"

    "We would not be safe at our cave. A line drawn from the Hunters' landing site to the wrecked scout ship points straight to it."

    Pet's face reddened. "I'm sorry," she said meekly.

    Mother grunted. "There is a larger cave behind us hidden under the boulders. We will sleep there at night, and during the day we can come out here and watch the Hunters and warn my people."

    In the misty blue distance Pet could see the Hunters' landing ship. Suddenly she saw a flash and a cloud appear on a far hill and some little while later a muffled boom. Several minutes later another flash and smoke in a valley, then another delayed boom.

    With a feeling of forboding, Pet asked what they were.

    "The Hunters are finding and killing my people."

    Pet moaned. She pressed her knuckles into her face and whispered, "My fault."

    Mother said softly in her deep rumbling voice, "All we can do is wait."

    Pet said bitterly, "I wish they could all be destroyed. Bloodthirsty people like them don't deserve to live. The world would be a better place without them."

    "Oh, little pet. If that was so then I would not be here and neither would you. Your temper and thirst for revenge shows your species is still immature and violent. A hundred million years ago, in my people's infancy, we were ferocious and loved to fight. If we had been exterminated at that time we would never have become a people who love peace, knowledge, and wisdom. We came close to destroying ourselves many times before we learned the lesson: anger, hurting others, destruction... these are never the solution to anything; they are actually the problem."


    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/328661.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Saturday, 2nd May, 2015
    8:05 am
    fossil fuels, and reducing the need
    Almost every technology we have relies upon fossil fuels. We need to work out ways to break that chain of dependency. I don't count using oil to make plastics as an example of a bad thing, but I do see the use of oil as fuel to run the processes in making that plastic as bad. Plastics are amazing materials that we should value more. Correctly used they are light, flexible, resilient, non-toxic, and can last thousands of years, potentially being handed down to our descendants. Using them for disposable items is obscene.

    We could use solar furnaces instead of oil and coal for almost all industrial processes that currently require fossil fuels, but it does require effort. And it would help to have a government which is not corrupt and whose heads are not buried in the sand.

    The most important change is to design our buildings properly. We've been building them badly for thousands of years and it feels like we've learned almost nothing over that time. They are our biggest standing consumer of energy -- much worse than transport. We need to insulate and light them sensibly so that they need as little additional heating, cooling, lighting, and shading as possible. It is actually easy to do.
    ● Clerestory lighting and skylights, and ponds or other reflective surfaces oriented correctly outside windows can greatly reduce the need for artificial lighting.
    ● Insulation and passive convection heating and cooling, can vastly reduce energy needs, especially if a sunroom is used to gather heat in cold climates, and appropriately calculated roof eaves ensure light is admitted in winter, but not summer. Strategic placement of deciduous trees can also help in this respect.
    ● Building underground, if designed with sensible lighting and heating/cooling can bring great improvements to many aspects of homes and commercial buildings:
    - better thermally insulated
    - greater thermal mass (so they change temperature slowly)
    - much better sound insulation (play the drums without upsetting the neighbors)
    - double use of your land (you can still use the land on the "roof")
    - safety from bushfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and if designed right, even floods
    - better protection from thieves and other hostile invaders

    Any other thoughts?

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/328400.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Tuesday, 14th April, 2015
    11:08 am
    first color map of Ceres
    NASA has released a map-style image of the surface of the planetoid Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The image was compiled from pictures taken by the highly successful Dawn robotic spacecraft. It's still pretty low resolution because although it's now in orbit around Ceres, it's still a long way from its surface. I'll be eagerly waiting for closer and higher resolution images over the coming months.

    One of the things that has caught everybody's attention is the appearance of some extremely bright spots on the surface. Nobody has any real idea what they may be, although that doesn't stop people suggesting possibilities. This is much more fun than betting on stupid horse races or elections. My hunch is that they're ice.

    The image NASA released has, for some inexplicable reason, swapped the low frequency light (infra-red) with the high frequency (blue). I've swapped them back again to give a better idea of what it looks like. Remember this is color enhanced and the planetoid probably looks more like a gray sphere with only the slightest hints of color. Remember also that the reddish areas indicate heat rather than actual red. To see the craters properly imagine the light coming from the left.

    For some reason LJ no longer seems to respect sideways scrolling images, so throws my entire page out of whack, so I give a couple of reduced images here and put the full-sized ones behind a cut.

    Read more...Collapse )
    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/327950.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 26th December, 2014
    7:34 am
    my book "flying"
    A few days ago I had some ideas to expand a couple of paragraphs in a particular part of my story flying. Not being able to remember exactly where the section was where I wanted to insert it I started re-reading the book from a little over halfway through. At the risk of sounding immodest, I have to say I was amazed at how many fresh and unusual ideas I'd managed to put in my story. This pleased me greatly as I'd previously been too close to it to be able to judge it well -- I'm still unable to judge whether it is terribly good as a story for anybody other than someone who thinks like me. I deliberately flout the "rules" of storytelling because I think they are restrictive and boring, however this might mean that nobody apart from me (and my Mum) can be bothered to read my stories. :)

    One thing that bothers me is that flying begins in a very innocuous fashion, which would mislead many readers into thinking it is something that it isn't. This has made me wonder if perhaps I should add a kind of prologue to give the reader a foretaste of what I consider the best parts of the book... or whether I should simply leave it as a surprise. I created the book cover to give some impression of what lies ahead in the story. Could that be sufficient, I wonder?

    It is, of course, free to read or download from my website at:

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/327242.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Wednesday, 10th December, 2014
    12:19 am
    Noah and the flood
    It's hard to understand why the Christians would promote and make a film about the biblical story of Noah and the flood. It seems to me it should be as much of an embarrassment to them as the creepy story of Job where god screws over his biggest fan as part of a childish bet. But the flood story is far, far worse as a moral lesson. This god is so bad at what he does that he becomes annoyed that the experiment he made isn't turning out the way he intended, so instead of repairing the situation by, oh I don't know, perhaps reasoning with the people he created and providing a good and moral example, he instead decides to murder everyone. Yes, all those babies and puppies and sheep and songbirds were just so evil they all had to be killed.

    What the hell kind of story is that??? It's psychopathic. Their god is so impatient with his failure that he drowns everybody instead of actually addressing the problem. And of course this solution works so well, because the first thing god's model person, Noah, does afterward is to go off to a cave with his daughters for a drunken incestuous orgy. Also, let's not forget all the subsequent insane violence of the rest of the bible. This god, if he existed, would be an utter disaster area -- not only murderously short-tempered in the face of his own failure, but totally inept at repairing that failure. Why would anybody with even a scrap of morality want to worship such a god?

    This is exactly the kind of hare-brained, half-thought-through story that makes it crystal clear there could not possibly be a biblical god. It is so obviously the product of fearful, superstitious, ignorant savages. Thank goodness it is fiction.

    What amazes me is that everybody knows this story, but they focus solely on the ludicrous idea that two of every animal could possibly fit in an ark, and they completely miss the morality of a god that murders all the children and all the animals because it's easier than fixing his broken mess. It's not just a stupid story, it's malevolently evil.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/327008.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 5th December, 2014
    2:18 pm
    Banana Pi
    Yay! My Banana Pi computer arrived today, just one week after ordering it online. Very cool. It cost me just AU$ 69.02. The shipping from China was free.

    It's like the famous Raspberry Pi (which I also have), but considerably more powerful. One of the nicer surprises is the ability to plug a 2.5 inch SATA drive directly into machine.

    I've just downloaded one of the several versions of Linux operating systems made for it and will try it out tonight if the thunder storms don't move in first.

    ADDITIONAL: Having tried it out, I'm a little surprised at the amount of energy it requires. My power source only supplies 1 amp -- at 12 volts  5 volts that's 12 watts  5 watts. The Banana Pi works on that, but just barely. The display cuts in and out. It really needs an electricity source capable of supplying 2 amps. I don't know how much of that it will draw, but the extra capabilities of the Banana Pi appear to have a much greater energy cost. I originally wondered if I should have bought the (more expensive) Banana Pro, but with onboard WiFi it would have sucked even more electricity.

    I'm hoping next week to have a solar panel suitable for running this (or another computer) plus my 12 volt, 9 watt screen. A monocrystalline 20 watt panel is $70, and a 40 watt panel is $130. I already have three small 12 volt, 7.2 amp-hour batteries that I already use during thunderstorms to power some other very low energy computers.

    This is the season for floods and week-long blackouts. I should get this organised soon.

    CORRECTION: Sorry. I was fiddling around with 12 volt batteries, and forgot that the Banana Pi runs on 5 volts. (I use a 12V DC to 5V DC adapter.) I've corrected my numbers above. Power consumption looks a lot more sane now.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/326512.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 14th November, 2014
    3:49 pm
    Mandelbrot Set - AK Dewdney's article in Scientific American 1985
    In 1985 I received my latest issue of Scientific American (I'd been buying it every month since I was about 12 years old, back in the early '60s). I was excited by the beautiful image on the cover that illustrated the subject of AK Dewdney's latest Computer Recreations column. One of my favorite regular parts of Scientific American. I didn't realise that this issue would change my life. It would introduce me to the Mandelbrot set -- a mind-bending geometrical shape which, unlike circles, rectangles, triangles, etc, had a finite area enclosed by an infinitely long perimeter. Let that sink in for a moment.

    The shape extends less than 2 units in any direction from the center of the plane (0,0) but the boundary that encloses this finite area has infinite length. It manages this seemingly impossible feat by having an edge that is infinitely wrinkled. You can zoom in on any part of the edge and it displays more and more detail the further you go, deeper, deeper... forever. It is a fractal.

    However the article was less about this than about the extraordinary, scintillating beauty of the shapes to be found and the ease with which they can be created.

    To this day I have never found a more accessible and easy to understand description of how to generate your own mandelbrot set and how to embark on your own journeys deep within it.

    I remember feverishly making notes during work that day (I must have been a much worse employee than usual), then on closing time rushing home, eager to try out my rudimentary program on my computer. At less than 1 MHz speed, my lovely little computer was thousands of times slower than even a cheap, crappy computer from nowadays, and the images took overnight to grow on my screen. I was over the moon.

    I want to digitise many of the documents that had great impact on me while growing up. This one is now done and uploaded to my website:

    I don't know if Mr Dewdney's wonderful columns are collected in book form. I certainly hope so, because I'd love to buy it. If I'm able to find it online (probably on Amazon) I'll link to it below.

    Edit: The article I so painstakingly digitised [groan] is available for free download from Scientific American at: http://www.scientificamerican.com/media/inline/blog/File/Dewdney_Mandelbrot.pdf

    Edit 2: I found it. A K Dewdney's book The Armchair Universe is a collection of his columns from Scientific American. Unfortunately it is only available in dead-tree format, not ebook. A pity.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/326311.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 7th November, 2014
    7:27 am
    happy stories?

    Does anybody know of a story (film, book, short story) that is entirely uplifting? That is, one that has no bad people, no trials and tribulations, no obstacles the main character has to overcome -- just a story that is unrelentingly happy.

    Many of my favorite films come close, such as "Whispers of the Heart", "Amelie", "Clueless", "Jersey Girl", "The Lake House", "The World's Fastest Indian", "Damsels in Distress", "What's Up Doc", but all have significant downers in the story.

    Does anybody know of a story that is up all the way through?

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/326007.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Saturday, 1st November, 2014
    11:11 pm
    Doing it again this year. If I keep this up for another decade I might just produce something saleable. :)

    This year I'm doing something a little different. I'm attempting to rewrite and finish a story I started back in 2008 for NaNoWriMo, Critically Damaged, but had only got a couple of chapters written. I think the problem was two-fold. I let real life intrude so was unable to make enough time to write. And I didn't think I could pull the story off.

    I only realised the latter reason a few days ago when I was starting to fret. I phoned up my Mum and was worrying to her about how I could possibly create a couple of parts of the story. When I was explaining to her about one particularly troublesome part, where a main character behaves really badly, Mum simply asked "Does your character have to do that? I wouldn't." I was about to answer that the story requires it; without it, there would be no reason for the rest of the story. Then I suddenly realised that wasn't true. She need not do it. And I realised it didn't ring true for me either. How did I ever think I could write something that was so counter to my own natural inclinations?

    So suddenly I was off the hook for one of the two major difficulties in the story. And the other big problem? I think I'm working it out. We'll find out this month if I'm correct.

    Not sure if I'll post this online as I go...
    If you'd like me to post chapters as I write them, let me know here and I'll do so.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/325855.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Sunday, 5th October, 2014
    3:22 pm
    how the brain works
    I just watched a wonderful talk by Nancy Kanwisher titled "A neural portrait of the mind". (My internet connection is really slow and I can no longer use the TED Talks website since its recent changes so I've given the direct download link to the lowest resolution, 512x288, version there.)

    Recently, in the course of a conversation with an old friend I've known for many years, she said something that surprised and dismayed me. She said that what separates good thoughts and bad thoughts is that they have different frequencies (perhaps making an analogy to a radio in being able to tune in different frequencies). I attempted to correct this misunderstanding by describing how the brain is laid out, and that what distinguishes various thoughts and feelings from each other is actually connection -- the wiring map of the brain. In terms of the way the nerves in the brain respond, the sensation of the taste of a strawberry is exactly the same as the blueness of the sky, the pain of a bee sting, the sound of a birdsong, the luxuriantly moist air of a rainforest, the sense of space looking out from a high cliff, the pleasure engendered by a baby's bubbling laughter, the tingling protective pleasure I derive from patting my doggie friend Nata. What makes all these things different is where in the brain they happen. It is architecture, the way these messages connect to each other via the wiring that is important.

    A number of times in the past I've heard people say, somewhat mystically, that the frequency of the thoughts is what makes them unique -- their vibration -- and that this explains telepathy. Of course, if pressed on this topic they generally have no real understanding of what is meant by "frequency" or the other mystical term often used, "vibration".

    The original meaning of those words is very easy to understand. Frequency is how often something happens in a certain amount of time. For instance the frequency range of the human ear is roughly 10 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz. That is, you can hear sounds that are the result of air molecules being pushed back and forth as slowly as 10 times a second, which is a very low buzzing sound, to 20,000 times every second, making a very high pitched ringing. Frequency can describe much slower things too -- the frequency of my visits to town is roughly once every couple of months.

    But when people speak with mystical intent of "frequencies" in the brain they seem to have a vague magical notion. I think it's fostered by a lack of understanding of what electromagnetic waves are, and how radios "tune in" to particular frequencies. They see it as a magical kind of thing, even though they probably know there is a logical explanation for it. Their magical lack of understanding is what allows them to believe in telepathy. They think that these "frequencies" can be broadcast.

    I could explain that electrons are like those little paper windmills we all made as kids and would run with, delighting in how they rotate as we move them through the air. Electrons do something similar. As you move one along, its magnetic field rotates around it. Just like the little paper windmill held at arm's length and swished back and forth, it will rotate one way when moved in one direction then rotate the opposite way when moved back. If you move electrons back and forth in a wire alternately one direction then the other (alternating current, abbreviated to AC) then the field around it also rotates first one direction then the other. These changes try to happen in the electron's field all at once everywhere, but change can only propagate outward at the speed of light (about 299,792 kilometers per second), which although it is very fast is not instant, so you can imagine these reversals in the fields rippling outward as waves at the speed of light. But just as electrons affect the magnetic fields around them, it works the other way too, and a little like rotating propellers on airplanes can move the planes along, changing magnetic fields can move electrons. So when these electrons' magnetic (electromagnetic) fields change, rotating back and forth, they push electrons to move in a similar way to the ones that generated the changing field in the first place. If the electrons are in a conductor then they move easily, producing a weak alternating current. If we connect together some specially designed conductors (for example, a capacitor which resists low frequencies and a coil which resists high frequencies) so that they resonate with a particular frequency the way a guitar string resonates when plucked, then we can select one frequency of electromagnetic waves out of many being transmitted. This is, in a very simplified way, is how a radio tunes in a radio transmission. I could try to explain this, but I fear most people's eyes will glaze over and they'll stop listening after the first sentence... after all, this is science, right? One thing we all learned at school is that science is boring and hard to understand. But science isn't boring, and it is actually thrillingly easy!

    Anyway, if people understood this I think it would go a long way to dispelling mystical notions such as telepathic waves that might be transmitted and received. However I am always depressed by the number of people who believe in gods and homeopathy and spirits, so I have little hope that many will even attempt to really understand the reality of the world we live in, preferring instead, one of magical notions.

    It just amazes me that we live in an era of scientific advances that far outstrip anything that has gone before, but that most people have little more understanding of the modern world's wonders than someone from the dawn of civilisation thousands of years ago. So sad. I don't see this as anybody's fault, in particular, nor do I look down on the people who lack this knowledge. But it does worry me. Greatly.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/325378.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Tuesday, 26th August, 2014
    8:51 am
    request for advice
    During September I've decided to illustrate one of my short stories or the first chapter of one of my novels. You can find them all on my stories webpage.

    If you have a preference for any of my stories and would like to see it in graphics please let me know. I am having a hell of a time deciding which one would most benefit from it.

    I'm hoping the result will be like a comicbook, though not necessarily quite like the standard format. I'm still working that out too, but given my drawing style (if I have one) I doubt it will look like a normal comicbook; probably more like a heavily illustrated story.

    Help me decide which one to illustrate, please.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/325216.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Monday, 25th August, 2014
    12:47 am
    I've chosen Arvixe to host my pages and email
    Why on Earth did I stay so long with GoDaddy? Their settings and configuration pages are a mess, spread over dozens of pages without any standard way of accomplishing anything, and it is extremely difficult to find help.

    Arvixe gave me much more space, bandwidth, domains, email accounts, at less cost! Their configuration software is easy to use and centralised, they have lots of easy-to-access help documentation with a search function that works, and the most wonderful customer support I've ever encountered. They have a ticketing system, email support, a voice chat support system, and my favorite: the forums, where patient, friendly, helpful staff are surprisingly quick to answer your questions.

    They offered to transfer the files for me, but I needed to do it myself because I'm making big changes to my file layout. Because of my reorganisation I'm expecting some bad links and broken images for a little while.

    Website works.

    Email works.

    Yay! I'm back, baby!

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/325069.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 22nd August, 2014
    8:31 am
    my website is down for renovation
    If you happen to visit my website over the next 4 or 5 days you'll find it is inaccessible. That's because I'm currently shifting to a better service provider.

    When everything is back up, it will still be at the same address, though some of the items in the site will have changed position because I'm taking the opportunity to reorganise things more logically too.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/324796.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Monday, 4th August, 2014
    9:03 am
    chickens and eggs problem
    I just came across this old problem:
    If one and a half chickens lay one and a half eggs in one and a half days, how many eggs do nine chickens lay in nine days?
    Everywhere I've looked people work it out mathematically as 54 eggs, but I work it out logically as 81 eggs.

    The problem is, most people ignore the realities of the situation. An egg can be half laid, and a half a day is a perfectly useful unit of time, but half a chicken is useless and can't lay anything, so one chicken has to be laying the one and a half eggs in one and a half days, which is the same as one chicken laying one egg per day. So 9 chickens over nine days produce 81 eggs.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/324418.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Wednesday, 30th July, 2014
    6:43 pm
    The Meaning of Life - a short story
    I've just uploaded another short story:
    It really is about the meaning of life. I'm not kidding.
    I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/324329.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Sunday, 27th July, 2014
    11:43 am
    text unwrap revisited using sed again
    Every now and then I look again at the problem of unwrapping text that has lines within a paragraph broken by a line end, but paragraphs separated by a blank line. Here is an example from the beginning of Lewis Carrol's book, Alice in Wonderland at Project Gutenberg and how it can look on a display not wide enough for the lines:

                ALICE was beginning to get very tired of sitting
    by her
    sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or
    twice she had
    peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no
    pictures or
    conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought
    "without pictures or conversations?"

    So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could,
    for the
    hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid) whether the
    pleasure of
    making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up
    picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink
    eyes ran
    close by her.

    Strangely, there's no purpose-built tool that I could find to perform this deceptively simple-looking task.

    I first approached this in 2010 and wrote a quite convoluted sed command to do it. It was made ridiculously difficult by sed's inability to see newline characters on a line unless the next line was read in after the current one, which meant setting up a loop to read in lines until a blank line is found. This is an absurdly wasteful way to use sed as it already loops implicitly over the whole file anyway -- this is part of its beauty.

    Later, I found unwrapping text could be much simplified using awk because I could tell awk to read a whole paragraph as a single record by setting its record separator to a blank line (RS=""). Unfortunately something about this short script inserted annoying spurious blank lines at the beginning and end of the file. This became even more annoying when I used it as a kind of macro for a text editor because it now inserted the blank lines above and below the selection.

    Just a few days ago I realised a very simple way to do the job using tr to translate all the newline characters to something exceedingly unlikely to be found in a file, such as ASCII character 1 (\x01). Then I could convert pairs of character 1 found together back to two newlines, preserving the paragraph separators, then convert all the remaining newlines to spaces. Add a tiny bit of extra pattern matching and any spaces and/or tabs before or after the single newlines are removed too.
    tr "\n" "\x01" | sed 's/\x01\x01/\n\n/g ; s/[ \t]*\x01[ \t]*/ /g'
    This worked really well, but had a small bug. It collapsed triple newlines (double blank lines) down to doubles (single blank line). Double blank lines are often used as section breaks in texts, so losing them was a Bad Thing.

    Yesterday I happened to look online to find the latest version of sed (v4.2.2) at ftp://ftp.gnu.org/gnu/sed/
    It has some nice improvements, best of which (to my mind) is the ability to use the -z option to change how sed defines a record. Instead of being stuck with reading in records only terminated by newline characters, now with the -z option it can use the zero byte character as a record terminator. This is great! Now I can read a whole file in as a single record and manipulate the newline characters. In the example below I also use the -r option to force extended regular expressions, so I don't have to escape parentheses with backslashes, making it much easier to read. Unfortunately, limitations of regular expressions (regex) still make this more difficult than it need be, but life suddenly becomes much simpler:
    sed -z -r 's/[ \t]*\n[ \t]*/\n/g; s/([^\n])\n([^\n])/\1 \2/g'
    First I get rid of the spaces and tabs on either side of newline characters, then comes the incredibly simple command (which I've put in bold) to replace a newline with a space if it doesn't have another newline on either side.

    No spurious lines inserted and it preserves double blank line section breaks too. Yay!

    How simple is that!

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/324048.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Monday, 21st July, 2014
    6:02 pm
    Pet - a short story
    Here is yet another science fiction short story:

    This one's about 6 pages long and feels like some of the old science fiction stories I used to love as a kid.

    Let me know what you think.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/323734.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Tuesday, 8th July, 2014
    5:01 pm
    Sympathy for Pests - a short story
    Here's another short story:
    Sympathy for Pests

    Let me know what you think.

    An aside: If you think the technology being discussed in the story sounds like thorium nuclear reactors, yes, I've been reading a lot about them lately.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/323448.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Thursday, 3rd July, 2014
    8:33 pm
    Dragon - a short story
    Trying to map out a larger story and not doing so well, I tried freeing up my mind by popping out a short story on an entirely different topic. I'm quite happy with it. I hope you enjoy it. It's very short -- only a few pages.

    One of the things I always admired about Alice Sheldon (she usually wrote as James Tiptree Jr) was her genius for writing short stories. It always saddened me that she seemed unable to apply that same talent to writing novels. Her longer form stories never quite had the same sparkle that shone in her short stories. I used to wonder how that could be. I can't help feeling that my novels are something of a disappointment, but I'm very pleased with some of my short stories like this one, Dragon. Perhaps I'm just not meant to write longer form stories.

    One of my favorite writers, Janet Evanovich, wrote eleven novels before she finally sold one so I promised myself that I'd try to write that many before making final judgement.

    In the meantime I'll still write short stories. I have plenty of ideas. Hopefully I'll never run short on them.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/323105.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)
    Friday, 2nd May, 2014
    2:43 pm
    Companions - finished first draft
    If you want to read my latest story, Companions, then pop over to:

    You have four choices:
    1. read it online as a single page
    2. read it online as a page per chapter
    3. download it as a single zipped page
    4. download it as an epub ebook for your phone or ebook reader.

    The story is, surprise, surprise, about different kinds of companionship (family members, friends, lovers, human-human, human-AI, human-dog, AI-dog) in a near future where AIs are fairly common. I examined a bunch of ideas that interest me. I hope they don't bore everyone else.

    AIs are, of course, Artificial Intelligences. They are the minds inside robots and androids, and in some cases don't have bodies.

    There are probably lots of problems with it. If you let me know of any that you find I'll be very grateful. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think, even if you can't make your way through it all 83 pages.

    (Crossposted from http://miriam-e.dreamwidth.org/322605.html at my Dreamwidth account. Number of comments there so far: comment count unavailable)

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