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03 Feb 20:07

Video of me recording part of the audiobook for Of Noble Family

by Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m in the studio this week to record Of Noble Family. I’ve been wanting to show you what the recording process is like, but that requires getting permission from the author. Since I wrote this book…

So, Dustin Anderson, my engineer/director, and I set up a Google On Air and recorded us doing the first chapter of the book, starting from getting the mic set with some commentary about what we’re doing and why. This recording is a little odd because it’s a multiple narrator book.

Usually my books are a single narrator, just me. Because a lot of this one is set in an Antigua, there’s a high number of African-Carribean characters. No matter how hard I worked on the dialect, it would sound like a caricature. Also, frankly, if I hadn’t written the books I would be entirely the wrong narrator.

The post Video of me recording part of the audiobook for Of Noble Family appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

06 Dec 06:00

OK, so the basic premise of Eric Flint's 1632 is as follows: an entire Appalachian town, including the heroic local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, gets accidentally transported through the space-time continuum and dropped in the middle of Germany's Thirty Years War. HIJINKS ENSUE.

BECCA: But Eric Flint, why did this town spontaneously travel 350 years back in time?
ERIC FLINT: Oh, whatever, I don't even care. Ummmmm … aliens did it for an art project!
ERIC FLINT: It was a very irresponsible art project and sometime in the future they will get their comeuppance.
BECCA: Will … the aliens ever appear again …?
ERIC FLINT: Nope! Anyway the point is the whole town time traveled, OK? THE WHOLE TOWN.

The experience of reading this book is kind of like having a background chorus of cheerleaders shouting “AMERICA, FUCK YEAH!” in the background at all times. Sometimes the cheerleaders are diegetic.

The good: OK actually it's a whole lengthy sff novel where the protagonists are almost all blue-collar or lower-class and from a rural area, which is extremely rare for the genre and cool to see! It is also actually less misogynistic than it could be – like, while there are a lot of rape threats as part of The Horrors of War and Evil German Mercenaries, all of the female characters from cheerleaders to hippie high school teachers to camp followers get agency, happy endings, and equal opportunity to murder the heck out of the bad guys of their choice with lots of lovingly described weaponry

The bad: First of all, Eric Flint does not believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But second, and more importantly, all that aside it is VERY OBVIOUS that a middle-aged white dude wrote this book.

ERIC FLINT: You know why America is great? Because Americans BELIEVE in the value of human life! Everyone in America knows their life is valuable and worth something!
BECCA: This is a really painful sentence to read right now.

The ridiculous: ...OK I'm just going to have to summarize the whole thing. I can't stop myself!

Our story begins with Our All-American Hero, Mike the Union Leader, hanging out at his sister's wedding.

HEROIC MIKE: Ugh, I hate my new brother-in-law's stuck-up Yankee parents. Total jerks.
DR. JAMES: Hey, Mike, nice to meet you, my daughter's the maid of honor!
HEROIC MIKE: Hey! You're the one black guy in this novel, and you speak with an inner-city accent, so I deduce before you were a doctor you were probably in the army, and before then maybe a juvenile delinquent who committed crimes!
DR. JAMES: Ha ha, yeah, you got me, bro!
HEROIC MIKE: I too was once a juvenile delinquent who committed crimes! Bro!

However this touching moment of male bonding is broken up by, as aforementioned, a FREAK ALIEN TIME TRAVEL ART PROJECT.

HEROIC MIKE: Union buddies, let's go investigate! Everyone who has an illegal firearm, now's a good time to bring it out!
UMWA WORKERS: Ha ha Mike, OK, you got us. Time to get the automatic rifles from the car!
HEROIC MIKE: Dr. James, bro, you can come too!
DR. JAMES: I am just plain delighted to be surrounded by burly white dudes toting massive amounts of illegal firepower. Let's go!

The first thing they discover is a bunch of HORRIBLE RAPIST THIEVING MERCENARIES.

HEROIC MIKE: Well, we're confused by the armor and the thatched-roof villages, but these are clearly BAD GUYS and we have all these massively illegal firearms, so: heck with reading them their rights, let's shoot 'em all!
UMWA WORKERS: Heck yeah!

The second thing they discover is Rebecca, a BEAUTIFUL JEWISH DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, and her ELDERLY FATHER.

REBECCA: I have never seen anything as beautiful as Heroic Mike.
HEROIC MIKE: The feeling is mutual, Hot Rebecca. The feeling is mutual.

Fortunately, Rebecca speaks English, and is able to provide Heroic Mike and the rest of the townsfolk with their date and location.

HEROIC MIKE: I still find it hard to believe that an entire town had a freak time travel accident though...
REBECCA: Ah, that is because you don't have my training in logic and philosophy. If you did, you would see that it is the only solution that makes sense.
HEROIC MIKE: …you're absolutely right. OK, friends, logic and philosophy tell us that we have time traveled! There is probably no way to get home so we'll all just have to get used to it!
THE ENTIRE TOWN: OK, I guess, sure.
HEROIC MIKE: It's cool. We'll just … BUILD AMERICA FROM SCRATCH. Let's start the American revolution 150 years ahead of schedule!
THE ENTIRE TOWN: America, fuck yeah!

HEROIC MIKE: OK, so on the town council I want … a whole bunch of my UMWA buddies, the high school principle, Melissa the token feminist radical high school teacher –
DR. JAMEES: Is this because I'm the token black guy?
MELISSA THE FEMINIST RADICAL: Heck yeah it is! We would like to avoid America's history of being hella racist if at all possible!
DR. JAMES: Given that this is like the one time America's history of racist and otherwise morally dubious acts will be mentioned in the novel … yeah, OK, I'll take it.
HEROIC MIKE: Also I would like Hot Rebecca on my town council also?
MELISSA THE TOKEN FEMINIST RADICAL: I mean, I'm A-OK with there being AT LEAST one other woman, but why?
HEROIC MIKE: Well, all these German refugees we keep finding will need someone to speak for them, so we need a native!
BECCA: But … Rebecca is not a native to the area … and doesn't have at all the same experience as these German refugees …
HEROIC MIKE: Yes but she has training in logic and philosophy and also she is so hot.

HEROIC MIKE: So how are we going to keep this town going?
THE NEW TOWN COUNCIL: It's cool, coincidentally half of us build archaic steam engines for a hobby! We'll just develop, like, a compromise nineteenth-century infrastructure. Lots of factories! Lots of diesel fuel! LOTS OF DEMOCRACY. IT'LL BE AWESOME.
MELISSA THE TOKEN FEMINIST RADICAL: Hell yeah, let's tear down all the palaces in Europe! Vive la resistance!
HEROIC MIKE: Sounds rockin', let's do it.

(SOMEWHERE: A whole bunch of Connie Willis characters are standing in a frozen circle shrieking about the space-time continuum.
NO ONE: hears them.)

HOT REBECCA: So about Heroic Mike...he's super not Jewish, right?
THE ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: True! However! Funny thing about Heroic Mike, his granddad saved MY dad from Auschwitz! Heroic Mike's whole heroic family loves Jews!
HOT REBECCA: a.) iiinteresting, b.) Auschwitz?
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: …I am afraid I am going to have to explain you some things.

HEROIC MIKE: So about Hot Rebecca … she seems kind of cagey, wonder why that is!
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: Well, you know, the Inquisition?
HEROIC MIKE: Wait, what? I thought the Inquisition was aimed at heretics? But Rebecca's not a heretic, she's Jewish! Totally different thing! Not even Christian to begin with!
THAT ONE JEWISH GUY IN TOWN: …I am afraid I am going to have to explain you some things.


SOME SCOTS MERCENARIES: Hey, a bunch of dead bodies and a sign! What's it say?
THE ACTUAL SIGN: WE DON'T KNOW WHO THESE MURDERING RAPING BASTARDS ARE THAT WE PUT HERE. DON'T MUCH CARE EITHER. IF THERE ARE ANY MORE OUT THERE, BE WARNED. THIS AREA IS NOW UNDER THE PROTECTION OF THE UMWA. GO AHEAD. TRY US. [Note: This is the actual sign. I cut out a middle paragraph for the sake of length, but none of this is paraphrased. I just feel that's worth mentioning.]
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: …..I don't know why, because the word 'AMERICA' is nowhere on this sign, but I feel like I can hear someone shouting 'America, fuck yeah!' somewhere behind me …

At this point they are discovered by a bunch of UMWA workers, who are about to shoot the heck out of them...until they find out that these mercenaries are Scottish!

HEROIC MIKE: Wait, we've been fighting mercenaries for this whole book, so friends, why did you just lead a bunch of mercenaries into the middle of town?
SOME UMWA WORKERS: Oh, no, Mike, you got it all wrong! They're cool, bro! They're Scottish!
A UMWA WORKER: My granddad was Scottish!
SOME ACTUAL DIEGETIC CHEERLEADERS: Who do we love? Scots! When do we love 'em? All the time!
HEROIC MIKE: *facepalm *
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: omg this is the best bizarrely appearing magical mystery town ever
SOME OTHER MERCENARIES: Think there's something demonic going on here, Alex?
ALEX THE HEAD MERCENARY: Nah. I mean. Cheerleaders! Clearly great. Gotta be an act of God, dude. Act of God.

ERIC FLINT: So now we're getting to the part that you all care about: the first big battle! Let me tell you all about the difference between modern and seventeenth-century weaponry –
BECCA: Don't care, moving on!

NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: So um in the course of the battle I seem to have rescued Gretchen the camp follower and her family? Did not really have a plan here...
GRETCHEN: I have a plan! Step one: murder the heck out of biggest asshole in the mercenary troupe I was attached to. It's OK, non-assholes are safe from my murderous wrath. Step 2: seduce this nerdy American kid to ensure the safety of my family and position with the conquering army. Step 3: Profit?
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: On the one hand I CANNOT HELP but disapprove of my students hooking up with German refugee girls who are just doing it because they don't feel like they have any other options! This seems like taking advantage! Also, nerdy 18-year-old Jeff is a baby! On the other hand forbidding these kids to hook up with German refugee girls may just enforce the idea that these girls are second-class citizens, which is not any better! SHIT WHAT DO.

BECCA: ...this is a lot more interesting and nuanced than I was expecting this plotline to get. Am I awarding Eric Flint actual points? I think I'm awarding Eric Flint actual points!

NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: Well, I know what to do. Can I borrow a German dictionary? OK. Got it. Gretchen, will you marry me?
EVERY OTHER ADULT: ….nerdy 18-year-old Jeff please don't tell us you think this is true love...
NERDY 18-YEAR-OLD JEFF: Nah, Gretchen needs social status to keep her family safe, and this is a solid way for her get it! Totally get that. And Gretchen seems pretty awesome, and it sets a good precedent for dudes not taking advantage of German refugee girls, and anyway my parents got left behind in the year 2000 so I'm kind of jonesing for an insta-family? Seems like a good reason for a marriage of convenience to me!
GRETCHEN: Yeah, works for me!
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: I mean ... it's not the worst solution I've ever heard, I guess... so, I mean, I can't believe I'm saying this, but three cheers for weddings! Diegetic cheerleaders?
MELISSA THE TOKEN RADICAL FEMINIST: Anyway, Gretchen seems very competent, let's put her in charge of everything refugee-related. She can decide who we keep and who we exile to almost-certain death!
GRETCHEN: Cool! On it! Also, jeans and sneakers? Amazing. Love it.
DIEGETIC CHEERLEADERS: Weddings and America, fuck yeah!

HEROIC MIKE: So speaking of relationships...Melissa, you should totally hook up with my bro Dr. James.
MELISSA: You know what, I should totally hook up with Dr. James.
DR. JAMES: Down for that.

HOT REBECCA: So speaking of relationships...
HEROIC MIKE: Yeah, I guess we'll be having one of those weddings eventually too! But let's wait until we have actual elections so you can run for office under your own name, because somehow you've become the most popular person in town.

And then there's a FOURTH OF JULY PARTY and a PARADE and all the Americans and the German refugees BRO OUT and CHEER IN THE STREETS and everything is great!

ERIC FLINT: OK we're going to take a forty-page break here to talk about King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, why he's amazing, and this fascinating historical battle in excruciating detail!
BECCA: ….Eric Flint, I don't know how to tell you this, but just because Victor Hugo did a thing, that does not mean … you can also do the thing …
ERIC FLINT: Swedish military tactics, fuck yeah!

ERIC FLINT: ...but also, America, fuck yeah! Back to cheerleaders?

JULIE THE HEAD CHEERLEADER: ACTUALLY, by the way, did I mention that in addition to being the head cheerleader, I'm also the best sharpshooter in town and was in consideration for an Olympic biathlon? So I have decided that I'm tired of being a cheerleader and I'm going to join the army!
HEROIC MIKE: Julie kiddo, you know killing people may be emotionally difficult for you and –
JULIE THE ALSO SHARPSHOOTING HEAD CHEERLEADER: Eh, I mean, I've been talking to Gretchen, I feel pretty comfortable with the fact that these guys are assholes. Hey, look, I just shot six of them in the head!
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: ...I think I'm in love.
HEROIC MIKE: She's got a boyfriend, you know!
JULIE'S UMWA UNCLE: On the other hand, he's a dick, so Godspeed, head mercenary Alex.
HEROIC MIKE: Indeed. Court her with the blessing of UMWA. However, before you do so, you might want to get those seventeenth-century teeth checked out.
JULIE'S UMWA UNCLE: Julie's dad is a dentist. He also hates her boyfriend. We're just saying.
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: I will have dental work done without anesthesia … for Julie!
JULIE THE ALSO SHARPSHOOTING HEAD CHEERLEADER: Hmm, sorry, did you say something? Too busy shooting evil German mercenaries in the face.


SENATOR REBECCA: Now that we have television up and running again –
SENATOR REBECCA: NOW that we have television up and running again, and I have learned how to use it, etc., I am going to become the town's first talk show host! As well as its most popular politician, second only of course to my extremely heroic fiance. And in addition –
BECCA: I mean, kudos to you, Hot Rebecca, but –
SENATOR REBECCA: IN ADDITION I have brought all of my immensely wealthy Jewish banking cousins to come invest in our town by promising them religious freedom and political influence. So basically I am the town's most important person in the realms of economics, politics AND entertainment. Pretty good for a distressed Jewish damsel I must say!
BECCA: Yes yes yes great but seriously you got the television up and running again???

Eric Flint: OK but remember how we spent forty pages on Gustav Adolphus fighting a random battle, there was a point to that --
BECCA: No there wasn't!
ERIC FLINT: There was a point and now let's get back to WARFARE and POLITICS with AWESOME KING GUSTAV ADOLPHUS!

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: So … time-traveling town in the middle of Germany, you say.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Totally not witchcraft, you say.
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: Definitely not. Absolutely act of God. For sure.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Weeeeeell, I mean, if you say so...
ALEX THE HEAD SCOTS MERCENARY: And to prove it I brought Senator Rebecca and also my new girlfriend, Julie the also sharpshooting head cheerleader!


HEROIC MIKE: We'll send my girlfriend Senator Rebecca and Julie the also sharpshooting head cheerleader as part of our delegation! They're both really pretty and no one could POSSIBLY think two pretty girls, one of whom can shoot with impossible-for-the-seventeenth-century distance and accuracy and the other of whom is Jewish, could be witches!)

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Wow, look at these super pretty dames! You are absolutely right, definitely not witches. Besides, who needs witchcraft when you can shoot like that?
BECCA: I don't – Eric Flint I – I really don't think you understand how seventeenth-century logic worked –
ERIC FLINT: Shh. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

And then there's some more battles, and everyone gets some crowning moments of heroism, and Richelieu at one point gets involved to send in the most evil mercenaries of all for the CLIMACTIC battle, but our plucky Americans triumph! With the help of surround-sound Reba McIntyre and Senator Rebecca's favorite ANGRY CLASSICAL MUSIC playlist (YES) and of course heroic Gustav Adolphus! And then they form an alliance and technically become part of Sweden's Protestant German empire!

GUSTAV ADOLPHUS' ADVISORS: Yes but I mean Your Majesty are you sure it's a great idea to have an actual democracy literally in the middle of your empire?
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Yes, but you don't understand, from these time-traveling history books I have learned that if we don't change the course of Germany's history someday we will have … THE HOLOCAUST.
GUSTAV ADOLPHUS: Also as a sidenote I'll die in three months which is a fate I would rather avert if necessary.

HEROIC MIKE: But now instead of all those horrible historical things, we will have...America!

So there you go.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
13 Aug 01:17

What would Donald Knuth do?

by John

I’ve seen exhortations to think like Leonardo da Vinci or Albert Einstein, but these leave me cold. I can’t imagine thinking like either of these men. But here are a few famous people I could imagine emulating when trying to solve a problem

What would Donald Knuth do? Do a depth-first search on all technologies that might be relevant, and write a series of large, beautiful, well-written books about it all.

What would Alexander Grothendieck do? Develop a new field of mathematics that solves the problem as a trivial special case.

What would Richard Stallman do? Create a text editor so powerful that, although it doesn’t solve your problem, it does allow you to solve your problem by writing a macro and a few lines of Lisp.

What would Larry Wall do? Bang randomly on the keyboard and save the results to a file. Then write a language in which the file is a program that solves your problem.

What would you add to the list?


23 Nov 18:10

How medieval astronomers made trig tables

by John

How would you create a table of trig functions without calculators or calculus?

It’s not too hard to create a table of sines at multiples of 3°. You can use the sum-angle formula for sines

sin(α+β) = sin α cos β + sin β cos α.

to bootstrap your way from known values to other values. Elementary geometry gives you the sines of 45° and 30°, and the sum-angle formula will then give you the sine of 75°. From Euclid’s construction of a 5-pointed star you can find the sine of 72°. Then you can use the sum-angle formula to find the sine of 3° from the sines of 75° and 72°. Ptolemy figured this out in the 2nd century AD.

But if you want a table of trig values at every degree, you need to find the sine of 1°. If you had that, you could bootstrap your way to every other integer number of degrees. Ptolemy had an approximate solution to this problem, but it wasn’t very accurate or elegant.

The Persian astronomer Jamshīd al-Kāshī had a remarkably clever solution to the problem of finding the sine of 1°. Using the sum-angle formula you can find that

sin 3θ = 3 sin θ – 4 sin3 θ.

Setting θ = 1° gives you a cubic equation for the unknown value of sin 1° involving the known value of sin 3°. However, the cubic formula wasn’t discovered until over a century after al-Kāshī. Instead, he used a numerical algorithm more widely useful than the cubic formula: finding a fixed point of an iteration!

Define f(x) = (sin 3° + 4x3)/3. Then sin 1° is a fixed point of f. Start with an approximate value for sin 1° — a natural choice would be (sin 3°)/3 — and iterate. Al-Kāshī used this procedure to compute sin 1° to 16 decimal places.

Here’s a little Python code to play with this algorithm.

from numpy import sin, deg2rad

sin3deg = sin(deg2rad(3))

def f(x):
    return (sin3deg + 4*x**3)/3

x = sin3deg/3
for i in range(4):
    x = f(x)

This shows that after only three iterations the method has converged to floating point precision, which coincidentally is about 16 decimal places, the same as al-Kāshī’s calculation.

Source: Heavenly Mathematics: The Forgotten Art of Spherical Trigonometry

09 May 16:53

Crisis in Urlia published

by Karl Schroeder

Crisis in UrliaBack in 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a short novel, which they named Crisis in Zefra, about future peacekeeping and the evolution of the military in the 21st century.  Zefra did very well; you can learn more about it elsewhere on my site.  In 2010, they commissioned a second project.

Crisis in Urlia is now published. You can read it online for free or download the PDF.  Where Zefra concentrated on military evolution on the squad level, Urlia is about command-and-control, and includes a vision of a crowdsourced military that some might find downright shocking, as well as side forays into online nations and religions, post-agricultural food supplies, and 3d printed buildings. 

These works view the future through a particular lens (that of the military) but include as broad (practically epic, in fact) synopsis as I could craft of all the changes facing humanity and our environment over the next thirty years or so.  In terms of the rigour that went into them, they're probably my best science fiction.

13 Nov 00:00

Riddles in Linear A - Part I

by (Andras Zeke)
I am pleased to announce that I managed to make a further post on this little blog. In the recent months, I browsed through quite a few original Linear A tablets (I mean, the "original" photographs), in an attempt to make the classification of certain signs more systhematic. Given the paucity of my free time, that project is still ongoing. But in the meanwhile, I also came upon many documents, whose reading and interpretation is quite tricky: Sometimes even well-established scholars were fooled by these muddled tablets. So I decided to share some of these minute discoveries with you, while I keep on analysing the other tablets to get (hopefully) some major results.

Basically, there can be several problems with the reading of a Linear A document (I assumed that you are familiar enough with the Aegean syllabaries in order to be able to read it): First, the tablet can be physically damaged, or be rendered illegible by improper scribal work (erasures, corrections). But even if it is otherwise well readable, the compressed context (and hard-to-interpret words) can make reading a real nightmare. I decided to break this lengthy topic into two parts: so I shall leave the "logical games" for the next time.

To begin, let us take a look at the tablet HT6. This is a tablet with quite a mixed context: Side A lists a variety of commodities (probably foodstuffs: figs and other edible materials) linked to a few names, while the tablet clearly switches to a simple list (of one commodity) on side B. To be more precise, this change in context already starts on the first side, following the entry referring to goods associated to the name DA-QE-RA. All the further entries on side B thus must refer to either PI-TA (bread?) or NI (figs), due to the "continuity principle" (as established by J. Younger). Though we cannot determine the exact goods, it is certain that all the names mentioned are somehow connected to food supplies. A few entries are definitely references to towns. Unfortunately, it cannot be decided whether some of the names are personal ones or all refer to places; though they could also plausibly be a mixture of these two. Nevertheless, tablet HT6 shall be a good example to illustrate how damage (wear, abrasion, breaks and missing pieces) cause problems in reading.

On side B, the first two names are easy to make out, but problems start to mount from the third one onwards. This term (name) spells at first sight as MA-RI-?-I (reading suggested by Olivier, Godart & Younger). It is pretty hard to identify the third sign of this sequence. It looks faintly like a malformed 'I', although the Lin A *28 signs never have a downward-directed right stroke like this. Olivier and Godart tried to suggest 'RE' (this is also how they presented it on the GORILA's official facsimile), but the sad truth is, it is nowhere near *27 (RE) in shape. Because of these difficulties, John Younger did not even try to read this sign. I also suggest the dear reader to ponder a bit on the problem before looking at the solution.

The answer to this question is provided by a simple observation. The table is badly abraded at both of its right and left side on many spots. That's why the baseline of the 'RI' sign is missing. But the same abrasion also covers the lower left end of our mysterious sign. Only a very faint crack is left. Once we draw that small trace with full width, we get the answer. The "mystery sign" is nothing but an ordinary 'KE', a bit damaged, but still legible. One should also note that the 'I' sign is in fact not a plain Lin A *28, but - observing the strokes above its right extension - it is the sign what Godart and Olivier labelled as *28b. Based on its distinct usage pattern, and its undeniable similarity to Linear B *43 (I3 or AI), I would propose to read it as 'JI'. The difference between this and the ordinary 'I' might be negligible, but 'JI' would fit the junctional rules (E-I → E-J) a slightly bit better. These observations yield the reading MA-RI-KE-JI for this name: simply and clearly. Logically, it should be a name, possibly a personal name, being a hapax (though I am not immediately swayed by random parallels like Semitic *mlk = 'king').

But the true riddles just start here! Immedietaly after MA-RI-KE-JI, the text seem to end abruptly. However, the traces of a '1/2' numerical sign following the three clearly visible strokes warns us that the text is probably abraded, but the row is not empty. The faint traces on this part probably belong to two additional syllabary characters, that start the word readable in the next line. The abraded pieces of lines are themselves perfectly compatible with the reading KU-DO-NI. The rest of the phrase reads DA-MA. This is not a compound word: the word-separator dot is small, but clearly visible after KU-DO-NI (placed to the base of the sign, as on side A). While KU-DO-NI is clearly a place-name (= Lin B KU-DO-NI-JA, modern Khania), the meaning of DA-MA is less clear: nevertheless, it does resemble the stem of Linear A words DA-ME [HT86, HT95, HT120] and DA-MA-TE [libation vessel KY Za2]. The following word is equally tricky to read: it consists of merely two signs (the traces before it belong to an 'L2' fraction sign (number), possibly 2/15), but the first one is damaged. Following the traces on the abraded surface, a 'TE' sign would be the most reasonable reconstruction. This yields a name TE-KI, which is - again - a toponym (perhaps denoting the ancient Greek town of Tegea on western Crete, near Khania). The text continues with further putative tomponyms, such as SA-MA [HT10, HT52] and PA3-NI-NA (as on HT93, an adjectival form of PA3-NI [HT85, HT102]). The last two lines also show traces of erasures: the 'MA' sign of SA-MA was erased, and then re-written, similarly, before the PA3 of PA3-NI-NA, there are traces of an erased sign, probably KU, but it was later completely overwritten with numbers belonging to SA-MA.

Tablet HT85
  Statement     Quantity  
A-DU • *307+*307 (women?) •
VIR (people) • DA-RI-DA
PA3-NI 12
KU-RO 66

KI (=KI-RO?) • KI-RA-JA •
PA (=PA-I-TO?) 1
KA (=KA-NU-TI?) 1
DI (=DI-NA-U?) 1
QA-*310-I 1

To verify our corrected list, we should turn to other - much better preserved - toponym lists. The best counterpart could be HT85 (see the table above). Not only many of the terms seen on the second part of HT6 recur here, but their relative order and grouping is also similar. Here, KU-DO-NI is directly followed by TE-KE (=TE-KI), just like on HT6. These two terms also directly stand next to each other on HT13 - the tight association of the two places could be very elegantly explained by the geographic proximity of Khania (Kydonia) and Kissamos (Tegea). But this is not the only pair repeated here. Though a much more obscure term, WA-DU-NI-MI is also paired with RE-DI-SE (=RA-TI-SE?). While I have no idea of the identity of the former, the latter name could easily be a declined form of RA-DU [HT58, probably also on the toponym list HT122], the name for ancient Lato (Lin. B RA-TO), near modern Aghios Nikolaos. RA-TI-SE and RE-DI-SE could both be slightly erroneously written versions of *RA-DI-SE then (c.f. QA-RA2-WA [HT86] which is undoubtedly equal to QE-RA2-U [HT95] as the rest of the two lists are the same). Note that HT 85 also contains plenty of abbreviations. While the sole KI sign on the header of side B is probably an abbrevation for KI-RO (=missing), other single syllables likely stand for well-known places: PA = PA-I-TO (Phaistos), KA = KA-NU-TI (?) and DI = DI-NA-U (?). All these three re-occur on HT97, where two of the three are written out in full (save DI, which is probably DI-NA-U [as on the toponym list HT9]). This slacky habit of Minoan scribes to abbreviate commonly used names is unique to Linear A; Mycenaean Greek scribes using Linear B had more strict rules and names were never abbreviated to a single syllable.

Lists counting persons are just as common in Linear A as in B, but they attempt to be as compact as possible. The scribes were often so absorbed in this goal, that they also sacrificed clarity for shortness, leaving behind considerable ambiguity. In some cases, the context can still help to solve these issues: for example, what could a sign 'NI'(*30) mean? First, and foremost, it can designate a type of goods, namely 'figs'; but it can also abbreviate transaction terms and even names. Because of the context, we can almost be certain that it meant the fruits on tablets like HT6, but it is an abbreviated transaction term on HT88 and HT99 (in contrary to the opinion of J. Younger, these tablets almost certainly count people as shown by the consistently integer values and have nothing to do with figs).

But it is not just the wear of centuries that can cause troubles at reading. The slack of certain scribes is definitely a contributory factor. The tablet HT29 shall be a good example of this. This small clay piece if full of erasures, hastily-written, malformed signs in irregular lines. As the scribe tried to salvage a tablet by erasing its previous contents, he sometimes unconsciously re-used earlier, half-visible strokes. The result is a complex maze of lines, parts of half-erased and rewritten signs. There is no surprise why all scholars had problems when attempting to read this document. But we shall see soon, that some names written on this tablet are fortunately not unique and thereby reconstructible by comparing the sign-groups with those on other, better-looking documents.

When attempting a reading, we already run into difficulties right at the first line. Although the term RU-MA-TA can be read with some effort (this name is also seen on HT99), the upper right corner of the tablet is broken off, preventing us to identify any logogram describing the goods assessed. But the strictly integer numbers themselves already suggest that it may count people; the suspect is just reinforced when finding traces of an earlier, erased VIR sign just at the initial position. So we may relatively safely assume that the numbers refer to people (just as Schoep has suggested) - and as we shall see soon - many of the names (entries) are probably places.

While the fourth term on this list can be easily identified as PA-JA-RE (also found on HT8 and HT88) despite its last sign being missing, the second and third names are a real headache. As they are apparently hapaxes and both miss some signs (on the broken-off segment), they cannot be restored with any level of certainty. And we are also plagued by the fact that some of the visible signs are in fact re-used fragments of erased ones, frequently making them nearly unidentifiable. One of the possible readings of the second line is ?-DA?-QI?, with the 'DA' sign seemingly being a salvaged upper part of an erased *310 one. The last sign here is so malfomed we cannot be certain of its reading, either. I only put 'A' as the hypothetic missing initial syllable, because a word exists on the Khania tablets (KH92: A-DA-QI-RI) that faintly resembles this garbled one.

The third name is much better legible, but it still has at least one initial syllable missing (as judged from the size of the broken fragment). Fortunately, the erasures that make our life hard, now also offer some help. In most cases of tablets with visible erasures (as on HT86), the erased text contains the same or almost the same entries as the latter one. HT29 is no different in this regard. Actually, behind the syllabograms 'DI', 'JA' and 'I', we can regognize earlier traces of the same, hinting that this name was erased, but then the scribe re-wrote it to almost exactly the same spot. Careful examination also reveals that an additional sign was originally also written in this line, right before the other three: judged by its shape, it was possibly JE, so we may use this information to reconstruct this term as JE?-DI-JA-I (still a hapax, and hard to interpret).

From the fouth line, we have an easier job. Not that the signs were written with more clarity: The fourth word reads as either SA-?-RE or SA-?-SI at the first sight. The middle sign was interpreted as a somewhat misshapen *323 logogram by Godart and Olivier. But at a closer look, it rather resembles a hastily-written 'MA' sign (the 'cat head'), to which the sloppy scribe simply forgot to add the ears and eyes. This means that the word recorded here was probably SA-MA-RE, a declined version of the putative place-name SA-MA [HT10, HT52, also SA-MA-TI on HT39]. Again, the erasures reinforce our reading: traces of earlier, erased 'MA' and 'RE' signs are discernible somewhat right from the actual term (this also helps to make clear that the last sign was indeed 'RE', and not 'SI'.)

Immediately thereafter we can see another suspicious term. This was read as ?-KI-TA by J. Younger. Godart and Olivier even labelled the misshapen initial syllabogram with a novel identifier as *340. But this one really looks like the upper half of a well-known *306 sign - of which the lower half was accidentally erased by the scribe, when plowing over the next line to be obliterated. If so, the reading was originally intended to be *306-KI-TA or WO-KI-TA - perhaps unsurprisingly - another place-name. This time again, the traces of all 'WO', 'KI' and 'TA' are also visble under the erasure, shifted rightwards with two positions (partly under the next word).

The last two words appear to be hapaxes, and - as a consequence - difficult to ascertain. The logic of erasures - both A-RE-DA?-I and QA?-DU-MA-NE were re-written while shifting leftwards - still helps a bit. Since there is a nicely visible erased 'RE', and there was clearly an 'I' sign behind the 'DU', it is probable that the sign at the beginning of line 5 is a superimposed image of an earlier 'DA' (that the scribe failed to erase) and another one with a rounded top, possibly 'QA'. Note that originally there was another term after WO-KI-TA (the 'SI' is still visble under the 'RE' of A-RE-DA?-I), but it was later completely removed from the list after a revision. This way, most of the erased remnants of QA?-DU-MA-NE were not overwritten (the earlier 'MA' and the 'NE' can still be found with some effort).

Thus we have seen, that it is possible to read at least some of the names on this garbled tablet. But to decipher the true meaning behind these names, it is obligatory to look at the Zakros tablets. Interestingly, both SA-MA and PA-JA-RE recur on the the same list (ZA10), that lists donors of cheap wine (VINb). RU-MA-TA is also seen in the form RU-MA-TA-SE (declined variant, genitive?) on ZA20. The wide variety of goods per name, their consistent grouping and the considerable geographic distances between archives taken into account, these names are less likely to be persons (unless they are extremely common personal names, unlike even Linear B Greek ones), and much-much more likely to be places. This appears to be a striking difference between Linear A and B: Mycenaeans were more "individualistic", in the sense that their accounting also recorded the names of persons, while it mostly sufficed for Minoans to only state the place of origin or destination when speaking about groups of persons, taxes, gifts, supplies, or other types of deliveries.
20 Sep 17:21

NASA’s Balance Mass Challenge: Using “Dead Weight” on Mars Spacecraft to Advance Science and Technology

NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.

This Challenge requires only a written proposal.

Challenge Reward: $20,000 USD    Deadline: Nov 21, 2014

23 Sep 23:00

NASA Offers Up $20,000 If You Can Think of a Use for 660 Pounds of Dead Weight on Mars Lander - It's a major award!

by Dan Van Winkle

Mars Balance Challenge_Full

The ballast on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory entry-descent-landing (MEDLI) system is very important for science in that, without it, the spacecraft wouldn’t be able to put robots and other heavy objects safely on the surface of another planet. However, it’s not actually very useful to science in that it’s a bunch of extra weight on a spacecraft that could be better used for scientific equipment. That’s where you and your brilliant idea come in.

The MEDLI ejects about 330 pounds of mass before entering Mars’ atmosphere and another 330 pounds during its in-atmosphere descent to shift the craft’s center of balance and make a safe landing as it did with the Curiosity rover. In the future, NASA wants to make sure that mass is pulling its own weight in the science department, so they’re offering $20,000 to the person who comes up with the best idea for science experiments that could be carried out with the ejected mass.

The best part is you don’t even have to be able to carry out your plan. All they’re asking for is a written proposal of your idea with diagrams where applicable, and tons of people have already answered the call. Here’s what they’re looking for as written on the contest page on InnoCentive:

NASA is looking for creative yet practical ideas to find a dual purpose for Balance mass (“dead weight”) that is jettisoned from Mars landers like the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) to balance the spacecraft during entry and landing. Payloads replacing Balance mass should perform some type of scientific or technological function adding to our knowledge base while closely matching the volume and weight characteristics of the original Balance mass. Ideas are welcomed from all disciplines.

You’ve got until November 21 to submit your plan, so go ahead and check out the details on NASA’s new “Solve” website for crowdsourcing solutions to problems in space travel, and then get cracking.

(via, image via NASA)

Previously in life on Mars

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06 Jul 11:43

Surprises and Themes

by pcwrede

A while back, I was talking to an Earnest Young Writer, who informed me with great intensity that the story she was writing had a Theme, and that she couldn’t do anything about certain objections she was getting from her beta readers because that would destroy what she was trying to say. More specifically, she had several plot twists planned out that didn’t take things in the direction her beta readers thought the story was going…and when she told the beta readers this, they universally informed her that what she had planned would not work and that she had to send things in the direction they were expecting. One went so far as to tell her to “toss out your theme and let the characters do what they want,” which was, of course, what the beta-reader was sure they wanted. The writer was quite rightly indignant at being told she had to write her story their way, and wanted my opinion.

What I really wanted to do was tell her that both sides were right. Or wrong, depending on which angle you were looking from.

The writer was, as I said, perfectly right in her basic objection to being told what to write (the plot twists the beta readers expected) and how to write it (“set your characters free!”). She wasn’t starting with characters or an action plot and letting the theme develop out of whatever actions they took, which is how a lot of writers do it. That’s not how she works (at least, it’s not how she worked on this particular story). She started with a specific goal for the story – a theme, something she wanted the story to say. She was also correct to say that the plot twist the beta readers expected/wanted would have ruined the story she wanted to tell

Where she was wrong was in her assertion that she could not do anything about the objections of her beta readers, and should therefore ignore those objections completely.

The beta readers were wrong to say that the writer’s proposed plot twists could not work and would have to be changed. They were monumentally wrong in trying to force the writer to write the story they were expecting, instead of the one that she wanted to write.

But the beta readers were absolutely correct to say that there was a problem, and that as things stood, the writer’s proposed plot twists would not work. They were probably even right about the characters as presented not wanting to do the things the writer insisted they were going to do.

The real problem was that the writer was so focused on her Theme that she wasn’t paying enough attention to the believability of the story she was telling. It was as if she had decided to tell a story about the terrible effects bullying has on its victims, and cast The Terminator as the hapless victim. Of course her beta-readers were expecting a story about the bullies choosing the wrong guy (so very wrong) to pick on! And of course they were disappointed and disbelieving when she said that no, she was telling a story about how bullying can destroy even the strongest personality! She’d set her victim up as so strong that none of them believed she could pull off the changes in his personality that her theme demanded.

This doesn’t mean she couldn’t pull it off, though; it merely means that her readers didn’t believe it based on what they’d seen so far, which meant she needed to put a lot of work into making the story convincing – work she was determined not to even think about, partly because her betas had been so adamant in telling her she couldn’t do what she intended.

But starting with a theme, a specific agenda, or a moral point to make, means that the writer has to spend more time, energy, and attention on the characters and plot, because in order for the theme to work, the characters and plot have to be believable and convincing. Everything has to work together at least as smoothly as it does in stories where the theme grows naturally out of the actions and reactions of the characters and plot. If the writer does it effectively, there is no way the readers will be able to tell that the theme didn’t grow organically.

The other thing this particular write forgot to pay attention to is the power of tropes. There are a whole lot of story conventions and tropes that we are used to seeing over and over in stories. They work a bit like a subliminal sound track – when the music gets ominous, we know someone is sneaking up on the hero; when the bullies decide to pick on The Terminator, we anticipate their complete humiliation. A story-teller who wants to subvert these reader expectations has to work harder than a writer who is playing along with them, because the subversive writer needs to do more than convince the readers that these characters would do X. They have to convince readers that the characters really would do X instead of the Y that everyone is expecting them to do.

If the characters are selected and developed carefully, the readers’ expectations can work in the writer’s favor. If the reader is expecting the characters to do Y because Y is a familiar trope under these circumstances, but the characters just don’t seem like the sort of folks who would do Y, it sets up a certain tension, and then when they actually get to the point and do X instead, the reader gets a double tension release. There will always be a few who don’t like anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of what must happen, and all one can do about them is ignore them. When all one’s beta-readers are complaining about the same thing, however, it behooves the writer to pay attention – not necessarily to their specific suggestions (“Do Y! We expect you to do Y!”), but to setting up the plot and characters so that when X happens, those same readers will believe and accept it even though they were expecting Y.

26 Apr 17:30

A New Plant Has Been Discovered And It’s Basically Mystique

by Sam Maggs


Jennifer Lawrence isn’t the only game in town when it comes to genetic mutants who can change their shape to copy whomever they want (I mean X-Men JLaw, not IRL JLaw, probably). A new South American plant has been discovered with all of Mystique’s shape-changey powers, and it’s pretty rad. 

A woody vine called Boquila trifoliolata, native to Chile and Argentina, has demonstrated a skill called “mimetic polymorphism,” which definitely makes it sound like an X-Man. An ability previously only observed in butterflies, it essentially means that B. trifoliolata can imitate several different host plants after getting all vine-y up in their business. 

B. trifoliolata actually transforms its leaves to match those of its host plant – their leaves change shape, color, size, orientation, and vein patters to match the foliage around it. As soon as the vine hits another plant, boom, those leaves get different – up to ten times the size as other leaves on the vine. Like if Mystique were to suddenly become the Hulk.

The polymorphism is meant to serve as a defence against bugs that think plants are delicious, like weevils and leaf beetles – with anywhere from a 33% to 100% success rate. Researchers have pretty much no idea how the plant does what it does, but I hope they harness it soon. I personally would like to look just a little bit more like JLaw.

(via ScienceMag, image via Don J Schulte)

Meanwhile in related links

22 Mar 21:54

Samus Aran and sexism

The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?

To determine whether Samus is a feminist landmark, it is necessary to examine her history, the culture that birthed her and the storylines in which she has appeared. In the mid-1980s, an idea came to the developers of the original Metroid, an action platformer for the NES. The game’s protagonist was a sexless space marine, totally obscured beneath a powered exoskeleton. “Hey, wouldn’t that be kind of cool,” one team member said, “if it turned out that this person inside the suit was a woman?” Particularly in the ’80s, video games rarely featured female characters in leading roles. The Metroid team played on the assumption that the protagonist would be male; and the result was Samus.

What began as an interesting subversion quickly developed into something more. Metroid II: Return of Samus (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) turned Samus into a real character. In Metroid II, she sets out to destroy the remnants of the lethal Metroid species—only to save the final hatchling, in a touchingly warped maternal moment. Her relationship with this hatchling grew, in tragic ways, with Super Metroid. Samus went through these events mostly in silence; but, when her speaking role was expanded in Metroid Fusion (2002), she was revealed to be an introspective and intelligent character. Yet, in each of these games, the player may unlock a win screen on which Samus appears without her armor, in skimpy clothing. An awkward disparity opens up in Samus’s portrayal.

Inexplicably, this hardened killer has a bikini body: scarless, thin, toned but not intimidatingly muscular. And the player views this body, sans the armor that makes it deadly, as a “reward”. Thus the player switches from sharing agency with Samus to viewing her as a passive object—from being her to watching her, as with Lara Croft in 2013’s Tomb Raider. Samus’s value as a person fades: instead there arises an adolescent male fixation on her sexual difference. Some might claim that Samus’s “reward” outfits are themselves expressions of confident agency. But these screens contradict her reserved personality; and their status as rewards gives them a gratuitous, voyeuristic hue.

Twelve years have passed since Fusion, and the first-person Metroid Prime trilogy (2002-2007) changed Samus in dramatic ways. In Prime, Samus largely became a Gordon Freeman character, a silent cipher for the player. The character-driven storytelling that Metroid had been building toward was replaced by environmental storytelling. Even the voyeuristic win screens were toned down. Other M's version of Samus, though, was talkative and emotional. To those unfamiliar with the trajectory of Metroid before Prime, this seemed like a betrayal of Samus’s character; but really it was a return to tradition.

This misunderstanding helped to create the popular belief that Other M was sexist. The stoic hero of Prime was transformed into a thoughtful character with a strong attachment to her superior officer, Adam. When Japanese games are localized in English, their male characters—like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII or Emil from Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World—are sometimes characterized as “weak”, “sissy” or “emo” by American critics. These characters, like Samus, have vulnerabilities and emotional lives: commonly gender-neutral traits for Japanese characters, which are stigmatized as “effeminate” in America.

To Americans, Samus in Other M appeared to be a cringing sycophant, who could not act without Adam’s—a man’s—approval. She kept her suit’s powers locked until Adam permissed otherwise, no matter how dire the circumstances. But the intricacies of Japanese class culture are often missed by Americans. Superiors, particularly in military scenarios, can receive an almost romantic devotion from their underlings—even and especially when both are men. In Japanese video games, one may find this relationship between characters like Brenner and Will from Advance Wars: Days of Ruin or Snake and The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The interactions between Samus and Adam originate not in misogyny but in a custom of respect.

Well-made characters are specific; not general. They have particular stories and particular personalities. Even when they fill archetypical roles, they are never interchangeable. One is forced to encounter them as people, rather than as stereotypes or as ideological tools. In the fourth episode of Bravest Warriors, the protagonists are listed jokingly (and only somewhat accurately) by type: “the cool one”, “the funny one” and “the girl”. A definitive archetype like “the funny one” can be the foundation for an interesting character, but a role as amorphous as “the girl”—or “the guy”, “the Asian” or similar—is problematic at best.

Creating a general character who “represents” a particular demographic, even with the intention of empowering that demographic, is a dangerous business. It hinges on the colonialist idea that one person can stand in for an entire group. Preferable are specific characters who, in their own particular way, happen to embody traits or to have experiences that are relatable to real individuals. Samus certainly is not the ideal “strong female character” that many feminists demand. But, better than that, she is a great character—one with her own complex, fascinating and particular story.

Indeed, Samus has never been a good poster child for feminist empowerment. For most of her history, she has had problems with objectification. And her story—with the Metroid hatchling, Adam and the rest—has long been too specific to give her ideological clout. However, to a feminism truly concerned with the representation of women, one interesting and particular character is more valuable than a million general (“the girl”) characters. Aside from her voyeuristic hiccups, Samus is revolutionary because she is a good character who happens to be a woman. If more video game writers had the nerve to follow this example, the industry’s misogyny would be a thing of the past.

Still Eating Oranges

31 Jan 17:33

While I was on last week's Yiddish literature binge, I was hugely delighted to discover that besides the Tevye stories, which I knew about, Sholem Aleichem had ALSO written a novel about ACTING TROUPES IN THE YIDDISH THEATER called Wandering Stars.

Wandering Stars begins in the tiny village of Holoneshti, where Reizel the fifteen-year-old cantor's daughter and Leibel the fourteen-year-old rich man's son get their first taste of theater when a wandering troupe comes through, and are IMMEDIATELY STARSTRUCK.

Sadly for Reizel and Leibel, both of them pretty soon end up grounded, which leads to a lot of extremely adolescent woe. There's one hilarious sequence in which Leibel imagines his own funeral in great detail. THEY'LL ALL BE SORRY THEN.

Anyway, these infants devise a genius plan to run away with the theater company! They're talented! They're in love! They're TOTALLY GROWN UPS! It'll be fine!

...and it sort of is, except for the part where the troupe accidentally gets separated because the director is running away from alimony issues with his three ex-wives, so Reizel and Leibel end up in completely different parts of the country.

So basically this is one of those books where the romantic leads get separated a third of the way through and spend the rest of the book wandering around various locations to find each other, helped and hindered along the way by various larger-than-life theater personalities, who are all attempting to make their own fortunes around these two talented kids.

The book follows Leibel more than Reizel, which is actually my biggest complaint because what we do see of Reizel's story is FASCINATING. She starts out as a cross-dressing vaudeville performer! She meets a famous opera singer who becomes her best friend and surrogate mother! IMPORTANT RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN WOMEN that alas we barely get to see. Then she has to deal with rising fame and increasing alienation from her roots and Jewish identity and a struggle to figure out whether her feelings for her violinist partner are actually love or just professional respect coupled with a violin fetish, all of which is also really interesting and barely on the page.

Meanwhile, Leibel grows up to be enormously talented as an actor, buuut also slowly becomes more and more of a self-centered dick. My sympathy for him took a huge hit when we hit the scene where he's confessing his woes to his director's naive sixteen-year-old sister, who has a giant crush on him. It's so great that he can tell her all about his long-lost love! She's just like a little sister to him! TOO BAD THAT LEIBEL GOT HIS DEFINITION OF 'SISTER' FROM JAIME LANNISTER.

However, I forgave Sholem Aleichem everything when we finally got to the end and Reizel and Leibel found each other at last after years of pining, and IT TURNS OUT THEY'VE GROWN INTO HUGELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE AND DON'T END UP TOGETHER AT ALL.

Reizel meets the poor pregnant sixteen-year-old kid that Leibel dumped to go pursue his Rosa Quest and is like "omg Leibel she's adorable! Her baby is adorable! MARRY HER IMMEDIATELY."

Meanwhile, Reizel's violinist fiance -- who seems like a pretty chill dude -- meets Leibel and they become best friends, and then Reizel ditches BOTH of them, and the last thing we see in the book is Reizel writing a mother to her opera singer fake mother all "welp I guess romance is just not for me, so I'm just going to have to continue my wandering life as an international music sensation!" I mean, it's bittersweet, because she still feels so disconnected, but as an ending for the female lead in a novel from 1910 it's actually ... pretty amazing ...

I'm going to conclude by saying my favorite write-up of this book that I've seen is from Goodreads: "as a former theatre kid, i can attest to the reality of the inevitability of incestuous romantic entanglements. this captures it perfectly, even made me a little nostalgic. im glad to know theatre people have been crazy for a while now." GREAT SUMMARY, ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ACCURATE.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
26 Feb 01:11

Fix Science In Half An Hour

by Scott Alexander

You’ve probably heard about the crisis of replication in psychology. The problem is that replication is an unglamorous business; researchers would much rather do the sexier work of pushing forward knowledge with new results.

So we need to make replications more glamorous.

I propose a reality TV show, Replication Lab!, where every week they try to replicate one of the most famous experiments from the past few years.

It starts with the host explaining the experiment, maybe an interview with a very distinguished elderly professor who talks about how confident he is that his results will hold up. The techs chat with each other as they construct the experimental setup about how they’re doing and how their date last night went and how they’re going to avoid the problems that confounded the original study.

Suspense builds as we see the participants come in. Some human interest stories. He agreed to participate because they offered $30, which he’s going to use to buy a present that will win back his estranged daughter’s love. She joined because she’s right on the border of failing her psych class and needs the extra credit to save her dream of becoming the first person in her family to graduate college.

The experiment itself. The suspense is unbearable. We get a running commentary as everything proceeds. Oh man, look how harsh that guy is being on his Milgram Obedience Experiment, can you believe he would do that? That girl in the control condition seems to be running through her Stroop task at lightning speed – how do you think that’s going to affect our results, kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show?

After a tension-building commercial break, we get the results. Everyone is huddled around a computer as the statistician makes the final mouse click, and…oh no, p = .30! Total failure to replicate!

The scene cuts to the distinguished elderly professor’s face as he sees his great discovery going down the toilet. “How do you feel right now?” asks the host, and the professor sputters “I…I’m sure time will vindicate me! I know it!” and then he runs off the set, crying. Our host turns to the kindly-looking bearded scientist attached to the show. “Tell me the truth,” she says “Do you think Dr. Zuckerman’s career is ruined?” “I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be,” says the bearded scientist, shaking his head sadly.

I feel like Mythbusters has probably pretty much exhausted our cultural stock of urban legends by now and could be profitably recruited for this project. I would also accept “Welcome to Replication Lab! With your host, John Ioannidis!”

17 Feb 23:19

"I couldn’t believe that’s how we treat human beings." Witnessing Omar Khadr

by transcriber

"And sitting on a bed that had no blankets, because they’re taken away during the day, in this cold cell sat a very young boy, and that boy was chained to the floor and handcuffed. And in all the many years that I’ve gone to Guantanamo Bay, as I’ve sat facing that young boy and watched him grow up into manhood, I never, ever saw him walk, other than going into the so-called trial. He was always, always shackled to the floor."

Omar Khadr's lawyer Dennis Edney spoke at a Lawyers Rights Watch event in Vancouver in December (The Omar Khadr Case: A Reality Check), and excerpts were recently aired on Canadian Redeye Coop radio. Podcast here, and transcript below the fold.

(P.S. Happy Presidents Day - aka "the asshole in charge of shredding our Constitution," h/t Marcy Wheeler.)

15 Feb 23:57

For a while now I've been meaning to post about Spec 2, which is a ten-episode Japanese cops-investigate-supernatural-conspiracy show. (There is also a Spec 1, but it's only tangentially related? Or maybe Spec 2 is a remake? I'm not actually sure but it's not necessary to see it beforehand, anyway. At least, I hope it wasn't necessary, because I didn't.)

Anyway there is one overpowering reason that everyone should watch Spec 2 and that is TOMA AND HER FACE.

In the depressingly small fictional repertoire of female weirdo genius asshole detectives, Toma is the greatest I have yet encountered BY FAR.

Toma loves making people uncomfortable. BECAUSE SHE'S A JERK. *___*


This is a beautiful set of images I like to call 'Toma trolls murderers for the lulz.'


Only one thing makes Toma happier than being an asshole to murderers, and that is encountering the supernatural. Toma, faced with potentially demonic possession:

Toma of course has a partner and straight man, a cop named Sebumi who has a giant stick up his ass about being demoted down to her weirdo unit.

Except Sebumi is actually secretly a HUGE DRAMA KING who likes climbing onto whatever's tallest and making speeches from on high, so.

Also, why is he always carrying around this brown paper bag? NO ONE KNOWS.


(He's .... trying to open a door. Guess who gets it open?)

SEBUMI HATES HER SO MUCH. (Well, okay, he loves her. A little. Eventually.)

Toma has a nemesis named Ninomae.

Except he's, like, fourteen, which makes him kind of like the murderous Greg Pikitis to her Leslie Knope.

Toma also has a loser ex-boyfriend who won't leave her alone. He steals her dumplings, so obviously he's terrible.

"I'll call you!"

Sebumi and Toma's boss, who is mostly useless:

Mirei, the other main female character, whose brother got shot in Sebumi's tragic backstory incident. I love her because she spends the entire show giving everybody death glares.

That's the main cast, but every episode introduces at least one extremely bizarre new character. Some of my favorites include: Reisen, a psychic who sees the future by biting lemons and reciting magical girl chants!

Poor Reisen eventually ends up kidnapped by Special Forces and forced to play Nintendo all day.

The extremely helpful backup cops!

Satori, a really genki evil telepath!

A priest who's famous on Twitter!



...uh, though for all of Spec's amazing bizarreness and frequent hilarity, I feel I also need to warn for graphic violence, suicide, stalking, a super creepy arc involving brainwashing via mind powers, and the fact that the actual plot makes INCREASINGLY LESS SENSE as it goes along.

And also for the fact that at one point in the first episode Toma spits out a line about only using ten percent of your brain and tries to make it central to the mytharc. WHY, TOMA. DID YOU HAVE TO. ;___;

Oh, well, Toma's face is worth it. SO WORTH IT.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
28 Jan 17:30

LARGE x RARE == DIFFERENT: Why scaling companies is harder than it looks

by Jason


Something interesting happens when you run more than 1,000 servers, as we do at WP Engine.

Suppose I told you that on average our servers experience one fatal failure every three years. The kernel panics (the Linux equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death), or both the main and redundant power supply fails, or some other rare event that causes outage. Does that sound like a bad batting average?

Think about the laptops and desktops you’ve owned. Some last longer than others, but it’s probably something like 2-4 years before the OS locks up or a battery can’t hold a charge anymore. Now consider your laptop is idle the vast majority of the time, whereas our servers are getting pounded multiple times per second, 24/7. Even in the wee hours of American timezones when our pan-company traffic dips to its nadir, we’re running malware scanners, off-site backups, and other maintenance.

So, even if our servers are more hardy than your MacBook Pro, they’re taking 100x the beating, so one failure every three years seems pretty reasonable.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.
–Haiku from FSF

But remember, we have 1,000 servers. Three years is about 1,000 days. So that means, on average, every single day we have a fatal server error.

Not to mention 10 minor incidents with degraded performance, or a DDoS attack somewhere in the data center affecting our network traffic, or some other thing that sets pagers a-buzzing in our Tech Ops team and mobilizes our Customer Support team to notify and help customers.

“Well sure,” you say, “that’s normal as you grow. If you had just 10 servers and 100 customers, you’d have much fewer problems and many fewer employees. Today you have more customers, more servers, and more employees. What’s so hard about that?”

The insight is that that scale causes rare events to become common. Things happen with 2000 servers that you literally never once saw with 50 servers, and things which used to happen once in a blue moon, where a shrug and a manual reboot every six months was in fact an appropriate “process,” now happen every week, or even every day.

Things as rare as, well, you know…


Also, it’s not just problems that morph with scale, but your ability to handle problems morphs too.

For example, a dozen minor and major events every day means 20-50 customers affected every day. Now consider what happens as we try to inform 50 customers. For some we won’t have current email addresses, so they don’t get notified. Some of those will notice the problem and create extra customer support load at minimum, but at worst they’ll post on Twitter about how their website was slow today and WP Engine didn’t even know it. Then our social media team has to piece all this together, attempt to respond, maybe put together a special phone call with that customer, etc..

Or, consider the scale-ramifications of on-boarding 1,000 new customers a month. In that case, it’s likely that any given server issue can affect a customer who has only been with us for 30-60 days. Thus the issue causes a “bad first impression,” which is harder to address than a customer who has been with us for three years and therefore has built up a “bank account of patience.”

All of these aspects of the “solution” side of the process is affected by the same rule of rare events happening regularly, and causing much more work to solve than when the company was small.

The usual response to this is “automate everything.”

As with most knee-jerk responses, there’s truth in it, but it’s not the whole story.

Sure, without automated monitoring we’d be blind, and without automated problem-solving we’d be overwhelmed. So yes, “automate everything.”

But some things you can’t automate. You can’t “automate” a knowledgable, friendly customer support team. You can’t “automate” responding to a complaint on social media, which as our Twitter meister Austin Gunter says is usually a customer’s last resort and thus should always be treated as the very legitimate issue that it is. You can’t “automate” the recruiting, training, rapport, culture, and downright caring of teams of human beings who are awake 24/7/365, with skills ranging from multi-tasking on support chat to communicating clearly and professionally over the phone to logging into servers and identifying and fixing issues as fast as (humanly?) possible.

And you can’t “automate” away the rare things, even the technical ones. By their nature they’re difficult to define, hence difficult to monitor, and difficult to repair without the forensic skills of a human engineer.

Does this mean all our customers have a worse experience? No, just the opposite. Any one customer of ours has fewer problems per month today than a year ago, because we’re constantly improving our processes, automation, hardware, human service, etc.. It’s when you look across the entire company, and the non-linear additional effort it takes to not just improve the average experience, but to manage the worst-case experience, that you appreciate the difficulties.

Does that give high-scale companies like WP Engine an excuse to have problems? No way! In fact, if we’re not constantly improving on all fronts, the scale itself will catch up and overtake us, so we have to adhere to the laws of automation and diligence even more than smaller, slow-growing ones.

But for those of you in the earlier stages of your companies, when you project 5x growth coupled to just 5x the costs (or only 3x the costs because you’ll get cost-savings at scale), you’re guessing low. When you show 5x growth in projections but don’t budget for new hires in areas like security, technical automation, specialized customer service areas, and managers and executives who have trod this path before and come battle-hardened with play-books on how to tackle all this, you’re heading for an ugly surprise.

And with high growth, the surprise appears quickly, and recovery means acting twice as fast again to claw back ahead of the effect.


21 Feb 01:01

Another very Japanese phone booth

by Muza-chan

I was writing some time ago about a Japanese phone booth located inside the Sumiyoshi Taisha from Osaka, with a roof design perfectly harmonized with the shrine’s architecture.

Recently, I discovered another such phone booth, which reproduces the design of the nearby Marugame Castle, one of the 12 still original Japanese castles…

Click on photo for higher resolution:

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 27mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/1000s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 250
Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Kyoto style litter protection, miniature torii

28 Jan 04:11

A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

mechanical chair It is one of the great tragedies of my life that I cannot include this TOTALLY LEGIT steam-powered wheelchair from 1811 in my novels, because it will look steampunk. Even though it is a real thing — or at least was proposed as a real thing and published in Ackerman’s, it is so out of keeping with what people imagine the Regency era to be like, that there’s no way to include it without it appearing to be an invention of mine.

Sure, I could expend energy and wordcount to making people believe that it fits into the story, but they will never, ever, believe that I didn’t make it up. Since I’m not writing steampunk with the Glamourist Histories, it will make the books feel like something that they aren’t. If the plot in Of Noble Family  turned upon it, that might be worth it. Since it doesn’t, I just have to sigh over the chair.

Also… the fact that this was invented by a guy named Merlin?

No. Way. No way could I ever get anyone to buy into it as a real historical thing. The reason people say, “You can’t make this stuff up” is that you can, but no one will believe you.

But oooooh…. Isn’t it cool?

The post A totally legit self-propelled wheelchair from 1811, and I can’t use it in my novel. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

05 Jan 01:56

Mycenaean Floors

raettawy shared with me this insightful article on the unusual floor patterns at the Palace of Nestor, Pylos, and on Mycenaean floors in general.

Mycenaean rulers often had the floors in their megarons (and perhaps elsewhere) painted to represent stone or carpet.  The megaron of Pylos incorporates patterns of both stone and carpet.  Ancient patchwork shows that repairs had been carried out sometime before the destruction and abandonment of the palace around 1200 B.C.  To create the colored, patterned squares, the artists used a grid system of pigment and snapped string like that used on tomb walls in Egypt.

While familiar with the Piet de Jong exaggerated reconstruction of the Pylos megaron (above, first image), I can't remember the last time I'd seen the eagle's-eye view of the floor--though I know I have seen it before.  I certainly hadn't considered how the squares affected how court officials and visitors to Nestor's palace in Mycenaean times would have negotiated the space.  People would have followed the white squares around the central hearth, a bit like moving around a game board.

As to the skewing of the grid's lines, I refer you to the original article.  The author does a far better job explaining the function of the skewing than I can.
26 Aug 11:55

Minoan Board Games

A Minoan game board, found in a corridor in Knossos in 1901:

Minoan chessboard
Sir Arthur Evans referred to it as the "Royal Draughtboard," in keeping with his habit of referring to his discoveries at the Palace of Minos as "royal."  You can read about the discovery of this unique gaming board and how the game might have been played here.

From other archaeological and pictorial evidence, pavement games were popular in Minoan Crete.  The Theatral Area at Knossos, for example, features marks in the pavement of the stands where people could play while waiting for a performance or religious rite, or whatever activity was carried out in that area, to begin.
02 Jan 10:31

Kitchener on our coins? That icon may not mean what they think it means…

by Juliet

As the centenary year of The Great War opens, I see outrage on Twitter and Facebook at the choice of Lord Kitchener’s in/famous recruiting poster for the UK £2 coins to be minted in this year. Don’t people know what atrocities he was responsible for, the objectors cry, throughout his long military career?

Well, since it’s quite likely that a good few folk don’t know Kitchener’s full story, I’m all in favour of them being better informed, if that can be achieved without descending into pointless arguments. The thing is though, as I look at this image, I wonder how my sons will see it, not least since they’re now both of an age which would have seen them shipped off to the trenches a hundred years ago, to do and die and never question why their elders and betters had ordered it.

But that was then and this is now. My sons have grown up reading Johnny and the Dead by Terry Pratchett, and seeing the stage production of Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, and War Horse at the cinema. They’ve laughed through the DVDs of Blackadder Goes Forth and shivered at the intensity of that final scene. They watched Daniel Radcliffe going well beyond Harry Potter in the TV drama My Boy Jack. They’ve been on school trips to the Flanders cemeteries where they were all individually given the personal history behind a stark white tombstone and stood at the Menin Gate at sunset. Causes and Consequences of The First World War has been a staple of their school History curriculum. They’ve studied the War Poets in English Literature. Since we live in Oxfordshire, they see local traffic halted and diverted as hearses bringing dead soldiers home from Afghanistan go by.

What does Kitchener on a coin mean to them? A symbol of a bygone age when the deference ingrained in a class-ridden society saw men slaughtered by the thousand for the sake of a war they’d had no say in? A warning of the dangers of unthinking acceptance of ‘patriotic’ propaganda, most especially spouted by politicians wrapping themselves in the flag, while staying safely distant from bullets and shells? A reminder to look carefully for the self-interest or outdated thinking behind the words and motives of those who will be soliciting their votes in 2015’s general election?

You know, I don’t think I have a problem with them carrying that in a pocketful of change.

18 Dec 01:01

Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden, travel tip

by Muza-chan

Surprisingly for the Western visitor, Japan has actually two winter illuminations: some of them are used just for Christmas, being lit only until December 25, while others are designed especially for the New Year…

Until now, I spent two New Year’s celebrations in Japan, but this is my first Christmas here so I was anxiously waiting to see some of the renowned Christmas illuminations…
My first choice was the Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden, in Tokyo: over 28 million LED lights representing the birth of the universe, a dizzying show that left me breathless!

Travel tip: The Midtown Christmas Starlight Garden lights are on until December 25, 2013, between 5PM and 11PM.

Click on photo for higher resolution:

EXIF Info:

Nikon D700
Lens: 14mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 14mm
Aperture: F/4
Shutter Speed: 1/60s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 4000
KFC Colonel Sanders Santa
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

KFC Colonel Sanders Santa

12 Dec 01:53

For December 11th, [personal profile] enleve asked me about my favorite birthday celebrations and activities. I am actually not much of a birthday-er! (For me. Other people's birthdays are great, and should absolutely be celebrated with pomp and circumstance, although I am epically bad about remembering them and apologize in advance to everyone whose birthdays I will forget over the next year.)

I mean, I have no negative feelings tied up in birthdays -- growing older is great! I am super looking forward to being old and having giant bushy white eyebrows like Merriman Lyon's, it is a dream of mine -- and it is absolutely lovely when people remember my birthday and take the time to wish me a happy one, but I never particularly think to plan anything really dramatic for it. I never throw parties; throwing a party seems to me like the worst and most stressful way to spend any day! You worry about who to invite, and then you worry about whether people will come, and then once they're there you spend the whole time worrying if everyone is having a good time. I hate being the one who has to be responsible for everyone having a good time! It is hard enough to be responsible for myself having a good time.

The past few years [personal profile] genarti has usually come down to visit over the nearest convenient weekend to my birthday, and we have done such exciting things as visit museums and liveblog anime and all the generally delightful sorts of things we usually do when Gen comes to visit, which is pretty much every couple months. So that's like having a birthday every couple months, I suppose! And sometimes I will go out for dinner with roommates or drinks with my grad school cohort on the actual day of my birthday - usually someone else besides me makes that decision, but, I mean, it's a great decision! just making that decision myself feels too much like planning a party and making a fuss - and sometimes, like this past year, I will spend it running around doing twelve other things and not remember it's my birthday until one of my parents calls me.

I will tell you one great birthday though, was the birthday last year when I went up to Boston to see the ballet and a bunch of amazing people surprised me with a Kindle. That is one of the best things that's ever happened to me -- not because of the Kindle itself so much (although the Kindle is GREAT) but because, like, wow, people thought to do something like that for me! WHAT. HOW. How do I know such great people, how is it that such great people think I'm worth the time to plan something like that, how is that even possible!

Oh, also another thing I love doing on my birthday is singing "remember, remember the fifth of November, GUNPOWDER, TREASON AND PLOT!!!" Also before my birthday. As many times leading up to my birthday as possible. Because I feel, personally, that if you happen to be born on a blood-and-thunder holiday with its OWN SONG, you have a real responsibility to embrace that.

One thing I would love to do on a future birthday would be to spend it in the UK and see the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks and CLAIM THEM AS MY OWN.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
25 Nov 13:20

The Day of the Doctor

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t particularly excited for “The Day of the Doctor.” I wasn’t excited about having Ten and Rose back without any of the other companions, and I wasn’t excited about the “War Doctor” and the fact that telling a story with him pretty much meant that it was going to be a Time War story – the Time War being a thing I’ve never been especially interested in, because it’s a part of the tragic weight that made less and less sense as Russell Who progressed. And particularly at a point when one wants to celebrate the show as a whole, all fifty years of it, I didn’t like the idea of fixating on this – well, this tear in the fabric of the conceit of the show, the thing that got the “Lonely God” ball rolling, the thing that Moffat had seemed to be dancing so hard to work around and partially repair: giving the lonely Doctor a family and even a wife; having Oswin erase the memory of the Doctor from the Daleks, so that he was no longer the Predator or the Oncoming Storm. Why take us back to all that?

The answer, of course, is to fix it. (And here’s where I don’t think big enough, because I never thought he’d do it.) He took the ultimate cry of nullity – no more – and turned it into presence: well played, sir. And in retrospect, Moffat has been playing a long game (or at least he's very good at looking like he has been): time can be rewritten; if something can be remembered, it can come back. All the way back to season 5: we’ve been watching these smaller rewritings in preparation for the big one, for the possibility of the return of Gallifrey. And of course it’s Eleven who changes his mind, because it’s Eleven who really believes in that possibility of time travel (“Time mends us. It can mend anything”); because he’s the madman, the trickster, rather than the Lonely God, and he cheats death rather than shouldering its burden; because those extra four hundred years have kept the calculations going and given him the possibility of grace. And because – unlike the War Doctor, who takes the Moment so far out into the desert that even the TARDIS can’t see him; unlike Ten who is at this point traveling on his own – Eleven brings Clara along, and she serves as witness (and as conscience, the way the Moment does). Here’s another rewriting: “I think sometimes you need someone to stop you.” I’d say that more precisely, in Moffat Who, it’s “sometimes you need someone to remind you.” In Moffat Who, the companion doesn’t pull the Doctor back after he’s already done the terrible thing; the companion stops him by reminding him of who he is, and that there’s always another way. Which is another aspect of the long game, all the way back to “The Beast Below” – it’s practically the same setup: kill a starwhale to save thousands; kill a planet to save the universe. And it’s the memory of children that stops it, both times; and both times it’s the companion seeing the third option that the Doctor, maker of hard choices, cannot see. Both times the Doctor is ready to throw away his name as punishment for his crime, and both times the companion says – no. Be a doctor. This is who you are. Which is another reason that it makes sense that it’s Eleven who changes his mind: he’s had four hundred years to grow reaccustomed to hope.

So that’s the meta-angle, all the What It Means for the overarching mythology of the show – but what about the episode as an episode? I thought it was very tightly plotted, especially considering that it was basically two episodes in one (Zygon invasion and Time War story). The guest cast was quite strong, and while I’m never going to be pleased about the whole Queen Elizabeth thing, I did like her cleverness in turning the Zygons’ plan against them by pretending to be one of them. I liked Osgood and her scarf (I had to have this pointed out to me, because I’d already slotted the scarf into the category of “in-joke” well before the end of the episode came around, but I suppose she actually got the scarf from the Doctor, without knowing it?) And Kate Stewart was a treat to see again. In Doctor news, Eleven being all judgey of Ten warmed the cockles of my little heart. (How had I forgotten how annoying Ten could be? I mean, I know “rude and not ginger” is his thing and all, but ugh, it does not make him fun to be around sometimes. And so grandstandy, my word: so quick to pass judgment on Eleven for “forgetting” – which Eleven never actually said, by the way – as though figuring out a way to live with your pain is a terrible thing; as though four hundred years later he should still be mired in grief and guilt and unable even to see past them. Making your pain a virtue – that’s Ten’s thing, not Eleven’s, and I can understand that Ten thinks that moving on is the same thing as forgetting – he’s still too close to it all, and punishing himself for things rather than grieving for them is part of Ten’s modus operandi – but I’m so glad not to still be watching that show.) Seeing the two Doctors together really brought it home to me: sorry Ten, but Eleven is my beloved space idiot; you just can’t compete. (This is honestly no reflection on David Tennant, whom you know I love, and who was perfectly Ten in this episode. It’s not his fault that I fell out of love with the character as the seasons went on.) (Also, Matt fairly broke my heart in the smallest of moments: that little hesitation before stretching his hand out fully to cover the “big red button,” that reticence he often has before touching another person in a fraught moment; the little-boy sadness and compassion in his face when he says “You don’t have to do it alone”; the way he offers himself up meekly, even pleadingly, to Clara’s tearful critique, no bluster at all in his “And who am I?”) (Jenna did a lovely job in that scene, too: I find Clara a little frustrating, because Jenna absolutely sells me on how much Clara cares about the Doctor, but I don’t feel like I’ve really been shown why. But her heartbreak for “her” Doctor was very touching.)

I thought Billie Piper – whom I really hadn’t wanted to see back, through no fault of her own, just not wanting to see Ten and Rose again when I’ve long thought they brought out the worst in each other – was wonderful as the Moment, a bit bonkers and a lot kind, full of gravity and humor and fondness. (Her face at “Same software, different face”! She’s so pleased! And it’s just what the War Doctor needs at that moment, when he declares that he doesn’t know either of the two men before him: to be reminded that the surface might have changed, but not the essentials.) And I quite liked the concept of a weapon with a conscience, one who grows to care about the Doctor. (Yeah, I got a lump in my throat at the bit about the TARDIS noise bringing hope to anyone who hears it – and I loved that the Moment stayed the War Doctor’s hand for just a bit, so that he could hear it for himself.) The episode looked lovely as well, full of expansive location shots, but there was still lots of room for quiet, meaningful conversations between various characters. (I loved the move from the violence of the Time War to the “violence” of a sugar cube splashing into a cup of tea – lovely shot, and a perfect summary of how this show operates.) And I don’t even know what to say about the ending except eeeeeeeee.
09 Dec 19:34

Happy Birthday, Admiral Grace Hopper!

by lambert

Here she is on David Letterman:

14 Nov 12:51

So you guys remember when I read that book about telegraphy and became really indignant that the world had not provided me with heaps and heaps of telegraph romance!

It turns out there is at least one: Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which I would venture to say is probably the most adorable rom-com to be written in 1879.

Wired Love begins with a classic meet-cute, when young telegraph operator (with big dreams!) Nattie accidentally screws up a message she receives from somebody a few stations further down the telegraph line. Pretty soon Nattie and "C" are basically spending all their time at work texting "You're adorable!" "No, YOU'RE adorable!" at each other in Morse Code.

(Of course, since there is no privacy on a telegraph line, every other irritated telegrapher on the stations in between is just like GET OFF THE LINE AND GET A ROOM, UGH. Nattie and C are indeed adorable; nonetheless, I sympathize deeply with all these other telegraphers.)

Besides Nattie and C, there is also a cast of other characters, including:

- Cyn, Nattie's aspiring opera singer BFF, who is WONDERFUL IN ALL WAYS and whom Nattie loves and is also jealous of in the way that you're always jealous of your friends who are achieving awesome things while you feel like you're stuck in place

(Sidenote: a significant theme of this book is about women being ambitious and wanting to achieve awesome things! Not bad for 1879)

- Jo, the Bohemian next door, who buzz-cuts his hair in order not to look like a Romantic poet

- Quimby, hopelessly in love with Nattie and as clumsy as a modern YA heroine, who probably belongs in a Wodehouse novel rather than this book. Sorry, Quimby!

- That Troll At the Telegraph Station Down the Line

Rom-com hijinks rapidly ensue, including several cases of mistaken identity and Big Misunderstandings, but everything turns out all right in the end (well, for everyone except poor Quimby.) There are also several great scenes of people talking secretly together at big parties by tapping out Morse Code with their fingers, and what I believe may be officially the first insinuation of phone sex ever to appear in fiction:

"That any young woman should be so immodest as to establish telegraphic communication between her bed-room and the bed-room of two young men is beyond my comprehension!"

This, from the prim and scandalized landlady, after discovering a ~secret telegraph station~ in Nattie's bedroom. CONGRATS, MISS KLING, you just invented a new genre of porn!

(However, as charming as this book is, it is still not a lesbian telegraph romance, so the field is WIDE OPEN, cough [personal profile] innerbrat cough)

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
30 Oct 14:45

What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like: Hear a Reconstruction That is ‘100% Accurate’

by Dan Colman

ancient greek music

Between 750 BC and 400 BC, the Ancient Greeks composed songs meant to be accompanied by the lyre, reed-pipes, and various percussion instruments. More than 2,000 years later, modern scholars have finally figured out how to reconstruct and perform these songs with (it’s claimed) 100% accuracy.

Writing on the BBC web site, Armand D’Angour,  a musician and tutor in classics at Oxford University, notes:

[Ancient Greek] instruments are known from descriptions, paintings and archaeological remains, which allow us to establish the timbres and range of pitches they produced.

And now, new revelations about ancient Greek music have emerged from a few dozen ancient documents inscribed with a vocal notation devised around 450 BC, consisting of alphabetic letters and signs placed above the vowels of the Greek words.

The Greeks had worked out the mathematical ratios of musical intervals – an octave is 2:1, a fifth 3:2, a fourth 4:3, and so on.

The notation gives an accurate indication of relative pitch.

So what did Greek music sound like? Below you can listen to David Creese, a classicist from the University of Newcastle, playing “an ancient Greek song taken from stone inscriptions constructed on an eight-string ‘canon’ (a zither-like instrument) with movable bridges. “The tune is credited to Seikilos,” says Archaeology Magazine.

For more information on all of this, read D’Angour’s article over at the BBC.

via BoingBoing

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What Ancient Greek Music Sounded Like: Hear a Reconstruction That is ‘100% Accurate’ is a post from: Open Culture. You can follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and by Email.

27 Oct 14:37

The Dragon of the Lost Sea series is always going to be the Laurence Yep fantasy of my heart (and I'm so mad I forgot to nominate it for Yuletide this year!) but now I've finished his City Trilogy, which is also PRETTY CHARMING.

As I said when I wrote up the first book, this is super roller-coaster everything-and-the-kitchen-sink fantasy. An evil industrialist is trying to build a mythological super-weapon to conquer the AU 1940s! The only people who can stop him are a RAGTAG BAND OF MISFITS: a 12-year-old Kushite princess diplomat's daughter who's accidentally sworn her soul to a warrior goddess, her tiny griffin friend, a street urchin who is the reincarnation of the greatest enemy of dragonkind, his equally urchin-y money-loving tanuki bff who would just like to be home in San Francisco, and a world-weary exiled dragon assassin who wandered in from a much grittier book and is constantly wondering how she got stuck babysitting ALL THESE HUMAN CHILDREN, OH MY GOD.

Bit players and supporting characters include the goddess Pele, the god Dionysus, a Sogdian caravan train, a couple of ifrits, a secret Utopian society of foxes and polar bears hanging out in the North Pole, the semi-sentient Aurora Borealis, the North Wind, and an evil vizier. AMONG OTHERS. What I am saying is that THERE IS A LOT GOING ON IN THESE BOOKS.

My favorite, of course, is Bayang the dragon assassin. The development of the emotional arc between her and Accidentally Reincanated Baby Dragon Enemy Leech is really the heart of the story (whenever the story has time in between all the roller-coaster hijinks to have a heart).

BAYANG: Last week I was supposed to assassinate him, but now I have all these urges to tell him to put on a scarf before he goes outside . . .
BAYANG: . . . oh no . . . I think . . . I'm falling in Mom with him . . .

LEECH: Bayang look at me look at me I'm going to go take these dangerous weapons and go flying!
BAYANG: You put those weapons DOWN young man it is not SAFE
LEECH: Also you systematically hunted down and slaughtered every single one of my past lives, so it's kind of hard to actually trust that you have my best interests at heart here :(
BAYANG: I know, our love is star-crossed and can never be :( :(

Why are there not more stories about star-crossed familial love? "Our households are at war, and there is all this terrible history that divides us, but I just want to adopt you!" Can we make this a narrative trope?

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24 Sep 15:00

The Pontiff of No Return

by Benjamin J. Dueholm

“I am a really, really undisciplined person:” This confession, coming from the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics in a much-discussed, lengthy, and gripping interview last week, was not especially surprising to those who have followed the young papacy of Francis closely. From the moment of his election, stories have bubbled up about the unscripted papacy—about phone calls out of the blue to ordinary Catholics, about a mass being moved at the last minute to a juvenile detention center, about a member of the Swiss Guard being ordered to have a seat while protecting the new pontiff. In early statements, he rather mockingly disparaged both Catholic traditionalists (“restorationist”) and Catholic radicals (“pantheist”) and made a remark about salvation and atheists that Vatican spokesmen, like characters in a palace comedy, later had to clarify with a “what the Czar meant to say” sort of statement. “It’s just Francis being Francis,” I found myself starting to think, with a mixture of delight and suspense for what his papacy might entail.

From the beginning, the contrast with his predecessor could not have been more stark: Benedict was meticulous in his public statements, austere in demeanor, and took a rococo approach to vestments. Francis is improvisational, intimate, and dons more basic wear. He has famously eschewed the papal apartment for a room in the Vatican guest house. He drives an old Peugeot.

It’s true that these early departures were—as many progressives who were reluctant to place their faith in the new pontiff pointed out—mostly matters of style. But with the papacy as with few other offices, style truly is substance. The pope plays a uniquely visible function: representing Christ (and the church) to the world. And it was clear early on that the Christ represented by the Archbishop of Buenos Aires would cut a different figure than the Christ represented by the man formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger.

If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

It was less obvious where the new pope stood on doctrinal issues. Until this week it was still possible to imagine Francis wrapping conventional theological views in a charmingly chaotic pastoral style. But the 12,000-word interview, conducted over three sessions and approved in its Italian text by the Vatican, closes that possibility definitively. It is a document that may fairly be called unprecedented. In discussing topics that range from doctrine and spirituality to art and music, Francis gives clear and fulsome voice to the long-muted tradition of theologically progressive Catholicism. On homosexuality, the role of women, and the collegial relationship between the pope and other bishops, Francis spoke carefully but encouragingly for the possibility of development. Doubt and the openness of faith are celebrated; the pope, himself a Jesuit, says that a Jesuit “must be a person whose thought is incomplete.” That there are turns ahead in Catholic faith and life, turns ardently hoped and worked for by some and resisted by others, is a possibility Francis leaves pointedly open.

But more striking than anything he has said about hot-button issues was the way in which he depicted the development of teaching and thought within the church. In facing the world, the church can’t let itself retreat into a “small chapel” for “a small group of selected people”—a clear rebuke to the many advocates for a “smaller, purer church.” “We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.” In an interview full of startling moments, this one stands out for what will likely become a rhetorical trademark of the Francis papacy: he identifies the impulse to separate from and reject the secularized society not with an admirable if misguided holiness, but with mediocrity. This mediocrity seeks only to discipline and correct a “barbarian” world, and to put the church into a posture of defense. But this, Francis insists, is exactly wrong. “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.” There is a difference between the genius of Thomas Aquinas and the “bankrupt” commentators who imitated him. “Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform,” Francis says, citing the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Caravaggio, Chagall, and Dali, “and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.” “In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.”

The interview met with a thunderous cheer from many quarters, believing, unbelieving, differently-believing, and estranged, and took a variety of forms. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross singled out a comment about Wagner’s Parsifal. A friend of mine who hasn’t been to mass in years confessed a desire to go “old-school Irish Catholic and hang a picture of the Pope in my living room.” It is easy to exaggerate the radicalism of his statements; the very next day he condemned abortion as an extension of the “indifference and solitude” to which we condemn the world’s poor. The ideas expressed in the interview are not new or unorthodox. They are thrilling to theological progressives and discouraging to church traditionalists less on their own account than because of the person giving them voice.

Francis inspires admiration or anger because he is supposed to inspire awe. The pope who began his papacy threatening to become a cassocked version of Warren Beatty’s Senator Bulworth has emerged quickly as a more classical, solid figure of reversal. A pope is not expected to wash the feet of female Muslim prisoners, to drive a beater, to live in a guest house, or to compare the church’s doctrine of humanity to the movement from classical sculpture to Dali. The irony of Francis’ young tenure in the chair of Peter is that he has become a hero (or a villain) by subverting the expectations of the very role that makes his utterances significant.

This subversion is unrepeatable. “I feel sorry for whoever has to be pope after Francis,” a theologian friend remarked to me. Having shown that a pope can perfectly well break down the hallowed distance between himself and the people, speak candidly and publicly about his own failings, and fearlessly push his church toward embracing “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel” over a “disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” Francis will leave his successor accountable either to continue doing so or to revert to a fustian papal model that will appear not so much grand and ancient as nostalgic and, to borrow Francis’ word, mediocre. If the next pope drives an old Peugeot, no one will care; and if he brings back all the medieval trappings he’ll look foolish.

In that sense, Francis has already made himself a pivotal figure. In answering his predecessor’s departing challenge to lead the church into a complex modern world, Francis has changed his office and his church. What remains to be seen is whether this modestly-styled, thrilling, frustrating papacy will retain enough awe to effect the renovation it promises.

23 Sep 21:00

How Many Die From Medical Mistakes in U.S. Hospitals?

by Marshall Allen

It seems that every time researchers estimate how often a medical mistake contributes to a hospital patient’s death, the numbers come out worse.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine published the famous “To Err Is Human” report, which dropped a bombshell on the medical community by reporting that up to 98,000 people a year die because of mistakes in hospitals. The number was initially disputed, but is now widely accepted by doctors and hospital officials—and quoted ubiquitously in the media.

In 2010, the Office of Inspector General for Health and Human Services said that bad hospital care contributed to the deaths of 180,000 patients in Medicare alone in a given year.

Now comes a study in the current issue of the Journal of Patient Safety that says the numbers may be much higher—between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death, the study says.

“All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”

That would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease, which is the first, and cancer, which is second.

The new estimates were developed by John T. James, a toxicologist at NASA‘s space center in Houston who runs an advocacy organization called Patient Safety America. James has also written a book about the death of his 19-year-old son after what James maintains was negligent hospital care.

Asked about the higher estimates, a spokesman for the American Hospital Association said the group has more confidence in the IOM’s estimate of 98,000 deaths. ProPublica asked three prominent patient safety researchers to review James’ study, however, and all said his methods and findings were credible.

What’s the right number? Nobody knows for sure. There’s never been an actual count of how many patients experience preventable harm. So we’re left with approximations, which are imperfect in part because of inaccuracies in medical records and the reluctance of some providers to report mistakes.

Patient safety experts say measuring the problem is nonetheless important because estimates bring awareness and research dollars to a major public health problem that persists despite decades of improvement efforts.

“We need to get a sense of the magnitude of this,” James said in an interview.

James based his estimates on the findings of four recent studies that identified preventable harm suffered by patients—known as “adverse events” in the medical vernacular—using a screening method called the Global Trigger Tool, which guides reviewers through medical records, searching for signs of infection, injury, or error. Medical records flagged during the initial screening are reviewed by a doctor, who determines the extent of the harm.

In the four studies, which examined records of more than 4,200 patients hospitalized between 2002 and 2008, researchers found serious adverse events in as many as 21 percent of cases reviewed and rates of lethal adverse events as high as 1.4 percent of cases.

By combining the findings and extrapolating across 34 million hospitalizations in 2007, James concluded that preventable errors contribute to the deaths of 210,000 hospital patients annually.

That is the baseline. The actual number more than doubles, James reasoned, because the trigger tool doesn’t catch errors in which treatment should have been provided but wasn’t, because it’s known that medical records are missing some evidence of harm, and because diagnostic errors aren’t captured.

An estimate of 440,000 deaths from care in hospitals “is roughly one-sixth of all deaths that occur in the United States each year,” James wrote in his study. He also cited other research that’s shown hospital reporting systems and peer-review capture only a fraction of patient harm or negligent care.

“Perhaps it is time for a national patient bill of rights for hospitalized patients,” James wrote. “All evidence points to the need for much more patient involvement in identifying harmful events and participating in rigorous follow-up investigations to identify root causes.”

Dr. Lucian Leape, a Harvard pediatrician who is referred to as the “father of patient safety,” was on the committee that wrote the “To Err Is Human” report. He told ProPublica that he has confidence in the four studies and the estimate by James.

Members of the Institute of Medicine committee knew at the time that their estimate of medical errors was low, he said. “It was based on a rather crude method compared to what we do now,” Leape said. Plus, medicine has become much more complex in recent decades, which leads to more mistakes, he said.

Dr. David Classen, one of the leading developers of the Global Trigger Tool, said the James study is a sound use of the tool and a “great contribution.” He said it’s important to update the numbers from the “To Err Is Human” report because in addition to the obvious suffering, preventable harm leads to enormous financial costs.

Dr. Marty Makary, a surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Hospital whose book Unaccountable calls for greater transparency in health care, said the James estimate shows that eliminating medical errors must become a national priority. He said it’s also important to increase the awareness of the potential of unintended consequences when doctors perform procedure and tests. The risk of harm needs to be factored into conversations with patients, he said.

Leape, Classen, and Makary all said it’s time to stop citing the 98,000 number.

Still, hospital association spokesman Akin Demehin said the group is sticking with the Institute of Medicine’s estimate. Demehin said the IOM figure is based on a larger sampling of medical charts and that there’s no consensus the Global Trigger Tool can be used to make a nationwide estimate. He said the tool is better suited for use in individual hospitals.

The AHA is not attempting to come up with its own estimate, Demehin said.

Dr. David Mayer, the vice president of quality and safety at Maryland-based MedStar Health, said people can make arguments about how many patient deaths are hastened by poor hospital care, but that’s not really the point. All the estimates, even on the low end, expose a crisis, he said.

“Way too many people are being harmed by unintentional medical error,” Mayer said, “and it needs to be corrected.”

This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.