miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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!
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
I've just uploaded another short story:
http://miriam-english.org/stories/meaning_of_life.html

It really is about the meaning of life. I'm not kidding.
I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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:

            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 Alice,
"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 and
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!
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Here is yet another science fiction short story:
http://miriam-english.org/stories/pet.html

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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
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.
http://www.miriam-english.org/stories/Dragon.html

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.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
I've made some small changes to the Companions story -- mainly the badly written opening few paragraphs. I also added the day of the week to each chapter. That could be worked out by reading the text, but I realised it was better if the reader knew from the start of each chapter when the events were taking place -- not because it was particularly important for the story, but simply because it made it a bit easier to read.

Doubtless I'll make further revisions in the near future, and probably stumble across some terrible bloopers. If you find them for me I'll gratefully immortalise your name in the text.

Read and/or download it for free here:
http://miriam-english.org/stories/Companions/index.html
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
If you want to read my latest story, Companions, then pop over to:
http://miriam-english.org/stories/Companions/index.html

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.

miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Last night I set my computer to download on my slow internet connection a number of videos I figured would be interesting. One was a short, informative film on despotism made in 1946 and now stored at The Internet Archive. It is as relevant today as it was when it was made. You can download the 40 MB version here:
https://archive.org/download/Despotis1946/Despotis1946_512kb.mp4

Other formats of the same video (most are larger filesize) can be selected at:
https://archive.org/details/Despotis1946

The documentary uses two scales to test whether a society tends toward openness or despotism: Respect, and Power. Whether these properties are held by ordinary people or are denied them, then this is a guide to the state of the society.

There are two more tests that give an idea of whether a society is moving towards or away from despotism: Economic Distribution, and Information. If these are evenly spread and accessible to all in society then its future looks bright, but if these things are weighted heavily toward a few then it is moving dangerously toward despotism.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
I've been taking part in the April NaNoWriMo thingy called "Camp NaNoWriMo" in order to stop me procrastinating about rewriting my story Companions. So far I've worked on the first two chapters. I'll work on the third today. Each chapter gets uploaded as I complete it. Hopefully I'll finish the story this time.

Here is a button:
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Corruption is a real, creeping problem and many of society's standard tools fail to stop its encroachment. It seems to be destroying democracy in many parts of the world. The USA is a case in point, where it is simply accepted that politicians accept bribes from big corporations. Australia has been hurrying down the same path too. We now don't even raise our eyebrows when a politician lies or steals money or diverts the public good to benefit rich mates.

This has bothered me for some time and I have seen no easy way around it. I've often gloomily wondered if time was up for western civilisation and we need to fall to make way for more vibrant societies. But I don't like that idea because it would hurt many people. There should be some ways to set rules for society that change the way things work. If they are carefully aimed then they could go a long way toward fixing many of society's greatest ills.

Here is an attempt. Please tell me what you think.

Rules for politicians and others who hold positions of public trust


Violating any of these rules would mark an individual as unfit to hold public office and unable to properly serve society, requiring them to be dismissed from office.

Certain people and groups who benefit from positions of power and influence in private industry may have some of these rules applied to them too if they misuse that power and influence to the detriment of larger society.

All companies and corporations should be bound by the first 6 rules as they are not human and must not be allowed to damage society.

* * *

  1. They must not promote hatred against any group, nor use their position to disadvantage any group. 1(see notes below)

  2. They must not mislead the public through lies of commission or omission.

  3. Discussions and debate must be conducted rationally, and answers to legitimate questions must be promptly and clearly given. Failure to answer a legitimate question clearly must be considered a lie of omission. Calling people names, shouting at people, evasion, clouding the issue, obfuscating, and using tricks of emotional persuasion in lieu of logic can not be tolerated in people entrusted with great power. They are techniques for people who are not comfortable with the truth, so unsuitable for those in public office.

  4. Secrets can not be tolerated. Secrecy always invites corruption. Transparency is the only way to prove dealings are honest. Dishonesty and corruption must be made incompatible with positions of power. 2(see notes below)

  5. They must not misappropriate or steal money from the public purse for themselves, their family, or friends. This also applies to goods such as materials, services, or contracts.

  6. They must not accept bribes of money, or favours, or promises of them, in return for actions.

    ---- the items below apply only to people in public office ----


  7. They may not receive gifts, donations, or promise of employment from companies or organisations. All donations must be from individuals only. All donations, no matter how small, must be registered in a public list (amount and donor) easily available electronically for easy monitoring to avoid the risk of bribery. It should be clear that anyone objecting to this has bribes to hide.

  8. During and for a period of 10 years after their term of public office they must not accept any position for money or favours with any private company or non-government organisation. Accepting such returns should be penalised by imprisonment (fining such abusers is no deterrent). 3(see notes below)

  9. They must demonstrate more than a current high-school level of understanding of broad fields of science and history. Modern society depends deeply upon science. Any position of power requires a broad understanding of the sciences. History is important because those who don't understand it are doomed to repeat its mistakes. A high level of knowledge is needed because in today's world ignorance can do far too much damage when coupled with great power. We require a certain level of competence when someone gets behind the wheel of a car or airplane; so it should be for steering a nation.

  10. They may not use, for themselves or their family, private transport, private education, or private health care where public alternatives exist. To hold public office requires that they have that intimate understanding of public systems that only comes with their regular use. Any public official who is insulated from public services can not possibly understand them or that large part of society that depends upon them.

  11. Due to its dangerously divisive nature, religion must not be any part of public office. If religious views are held, they have no place in public and must be kept absolutely private. History shows religion can too easily be used to deceive and to rationalise actions that disadvantage members of other religions and those who have no need for religion. A person in public office must be capable of fairly representing all of society, and one who loudly proclaims their religion is clearly unable to do that.



Notes:

1 [Rule 1] It is sadly predictable that it will be argued that using tax and the law to remove some excessive wealth and power from some individuals and groups "disadvantages" them. This twists the intent of rule 1. History shows that it is necessary to properly tax the wealthy and remove excessive power from those who misuse it in order to prevent disadvantage to large parts of society. Those taxes actually benefit the wealthy. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr put it, "I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization."

2 [Rule 4] This refers to secrets held by those in power. Individuals are entitled to personal secrets, but groups and companies are not -- they are not people. Secrets are widely assumed to be necessary in some circumstances. I have never heard a logical argument for why this could be so. Some activities might only be possible through the use of secrecy, but those activities are almost never in the best interests of society. Those few that might actually help society (I've never heard of any) can be safely relinquished because of the great risk of corruption they always bring with them. Open Source programming has shown clearly that removing secrecy actually increases safety and security. The cult of secrecy is based upon an outdated and dangerous misconception.

3 [Rule 8] This is to prevent the common practice of a public figure making decisions to benefit a group during office and then being rewarded after public life by receiving a lucrative job with them. This is simple bribery and corrupts every level of public office. It must be stopped. It is unfortunate that there will be cases where an ex-official wants to work honestly for a company where they can deliver genuine insight and expertise, but this must be renounced in order to prevent a massive form of corruption continuing unabated. Ex-officials are already well rewarded financially and there are plenty of pro-bono activities that would benefit society.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
What a surprise. Australia's Bureau of Meteorology has put out its annual report on the past year's weather and it's conclusion that 2013 was the hottest on record was completely ignored by climate denialist press owned by Murdoch. Instead, they choose to report on extreme cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere. Seems in their willful blindness they've not noticed that global warming will drive extremes, so that hotter than normal and colder than normal weather can be expected -- like pushing a pendulum harder, it swings further both ways, even though the whole thing moves gradually further to the hotter side. In fact there is tentative evidence that one of the early side-effects from global warming might be a mini-ice age for the Northern Hemisphere, putting Europe and North America under a kilometer of ice for perhaps a century while the Southern Hemisphere continues to bake in rising temperatures. Fun. :(

What a wonderful service Murdoch and his cronies are doing for Australia and the world. Even children who watch Spiderman know "with great power comes great responsibility". The only thing I wonder is when (not if) he and his lackeys will be sued into bankruptcy and hopefully imprisoned for their nasty efforts. It's taking longer than I expected, but I figure it's bound to happen sooner or later. I will be cheering when it does, someone so intent on wrecking the world for short-term profit needs to lose every vestige of that power so misused.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Here's something for your inner geek. The Surplus Shed is having a sale for the next 3 days where everything is 44% off. Want some scientific gear that you just can't find elsewhere? They have lots of optics and gears, as well as plenty of other scientific equipment (check the drop-down list in the top left corner of their pages). These are the people I bought my Scientific American Amateur Scientist CDROM from.

To get the 44% discount you must use the coupon code: SS140201 when ordering.

The sale ends Tuesday 7th January 11:59pm Eastern Time USA (I'm pretty bad at working out time zones, but I think that's mid-afternoon Wednesday for us in Eastern Oz). Hmmm... that's more than 3 days... odd. Oh. Working days. They're not counting the weekend.

I just spent about an hour browsing the microscope, solar panel, robotics, and various other sections. There are a few things there I'd love to buy if I had more spare money. [sigh]
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Am I the only person who wears their underwear and nightwear with the seams on the outside? It seems odd to me that most people wear them with the seams on the inside, next to the skin. Nobody sees your undies, so there doesn't seem to be any rational reason to wear the seams uncomfortably inward.

It is like a house. The exterior wall is smooth, with the battens on the inside. The interior of the house has this reversed, with the smooth walls inside and the battens hidden behind them inside the walls.

I think it's good sense to keep the uncomfortable seams away from your body. Why do people put up with seams pressing against them? Maybe they don't find them as uncomfortable as I do.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
Well, just another couple of hours and NaNoWriMo 2013 ends. My story still has two and a half chapters to go, so I certainly won't be completing it tonight, and I'm okay with that -- disappointed, but okay. I'll continue to write it. I still think it's a good idea, even if I'm the only person in the world who'll think so. :)

I hope those others of you who attempted NaNo this year achieved more than I did. NaNo is really valuable and I'm very grateful for the push it helps me give myself.

Right now I'm off to bed.

Nighty night all.
miriam_e: from my drawing MoonGirl (Default)
I have just gotta have one of these for my Raspberry Pi.

Get it from Adafruit when it becomes available soon.
http://www.adafruit.com/products/1601
They'll even email you when it's in if you want.
Adafruit has the most wonderfully geeky stuff -- nerd paradise. [sigh]
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