* Minx System Blog *

January 27, 2304

Irony Are Us

Hi folks!

Until we get this blog sortled out [That would be "sorted". I think that Zixie's translator module is a bit out of whack. — Pixy] you can find great-grandma's entries up hear [It also appears to have trouble with homonyms.] and honourable ancestor's [A loose translation, I suspect.] down below. Or click on the archives. 22nd century entries are gran Trixie's; 21st century is the old dude. [As I said, a loose translation.]

Enjoy your stay, and watch out for the ice weasels!

Zixie Misa
Pixy's Planaria Plantation
Paradise Cove
Epsilon Eridani C
27 January 2304

Posted by: Zixie Misa at 02:53 PM | Comments (4728) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

January 25, 2104

When Dreams Become Reality

I said goodbye to my grandfather today.

No! Wait! He's not dead or anything!

Although for most of the next eighty years he will be as close to death as anyone has ever come and survived.

My parents and my brother and I took the maglev up to Cape York, and then the shuttle flight to Bukit Raya in Borneo. Yes, the Beanstalk.

It's my first time in space, since it's not exactly cheap, but this time the Eridani Project was picking up the tab. It's more of a public relations gesture than anything else, but I'm not about to complain!

The trip was fun, the maglev shooting us up the length of the Australian East coast in under five hours, then the 7X7 whisking us to Borneo at three times the speed of sound. The ride was so comfortable and quiet that I simply fell asleep and missed seeing anything of Borneo from the air, though I understand it was mostly cloudy anyway. There's a reason that rainforest is called, well, rainforest.

And then the Beanstalk! The ride itself was nothing exceptional, but the view! Silently climbing up through the clouds and bursting into the sunlight, seeing the whole world spread out below. Well, mostly just seeing clouds at first, but then mountains and jungle and cities and the ocean. And then sunset, a few minutes of brilliant pink and orange fire followed by total darkness.

And stars! The stars, brighter than I've ever seen them before, set against the perfect velvet blackness of space. No longer twinkling, since by this time we were already thousands of kilometres above the Earth. More stars than I could count, and the Milky Way, and...

I fell asleep again. As fast as the Beanstalk cars move, it's an awfully long trip up to Borneo Station. It's nearly 36,000 kilometres up... Less the three kilometres of Bukit Raya and the Beanstalk Tower. A regular transit takes eighteen hours in either direction, though I understand the emergency cars can travel twice that fast.

B-Station was both larger and more crowded than I'd expected. With over 5,000 people arriving to see off the Asimov, things were rather hectic, and we were stuck in line for nearly two hours before we could be assigned a (tiny!) room. Mind you, even the outer ring of B is only at 0.6 gravities, so standing in line wasn't as much of an ordeal as it might have been. (I only weigh 33 kilos! Ha ha! Take that, Melinda!)

Since the Beanstalk can only shift about 3,000 people a day with its present complement of cars, people had been arriving for the past several days, and there were several more cars to come after us. All the guided tours of the station were booked out, but I did get a chance to visit one of the public observatories, and look out at the Asimov.

It looked like a toy, really, because there's no sense of scale in space. It floats there, matching orbit with Borneo Station, but some kilometres distant. When I got hold of one of the small telescopes and took a closer look, though, it leapt out at me. Obviously, it can't be small, with 272 people on board, even if only a dozen or so will be awake at any one time during the trip. There - that's the port side docking bay, which serves two of the Asimov's four shuttles. Since each of the shuttles is over 90 metres long, and the docking bay takes up just a small fraction of the length of the ship...

That thing is big.

You can get the stats off the Net if you like. It's 760 metres from stem to stern, half again as long and three times the mass of either the Heinlein or the Clarke, and it carries as many crew as the previous two starships put together. And in there somewhere, in a small, cold room, is my grandfather.

He's been asleep, actually, for over a week now. We said our real goodbyes then, in his last visit to the surface. We had a picnic up at Barrenjoey, and later on my Uncle Harry popped in with his kids. And we all laughed and hugged and - I have to admit it - cried a little at the end.

And now he's a popsicle, among 243 popsicles. 29 crew are left awake for the launch, along with another 22 specialists who will be picked up by the C. J. Cherryh once the ship crosses the orbit of Mars.

The launch itself wasn't anything spectacular. A splash of champagne that could only be seen through the station's telescopes, brief flare of the attitude jets (they can't use the main fusion drive this close to the station), and the Asimov, drifting ever so slowly away into the night.

The real show won't come for six weeks, when the great light-sails are unfurled and the laser launch arrays orbiting near Venus begin boosting the ship on its way to the stars. And then he'll be gone.

Except... Three years and three months from now, he'll have his first waking period. For six weeks he'll be responsible for the ship's computer systems, and then he'll go back into hibernation, waiting for his next rotation among the small waking crew.

In three years time, the Asimov will already be 350 billion kilometres away, and it will take two weeks to send him a message from Earth, or for grandfather to send a message back.

It's a little jarring to realise that he's not really gone, that I will talk to him again. And one day I hope to even see him face to face, as we walk side by side along the shores of the ocean of Paradise, the planet we knew as Epsilon Eridani III.

Posted by: Trixie Misa at 10:26 PM | Comments (582) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

Forever In A Dream

Gather 'round, kids, 'cause today I'm going to tell you about the Spike.

The what?

The Spike. Also known as the Technological Singularity.


You see, about a hundred years ago people noticed that technology was advancing faster and faster, and the rate at which this advancement was accelerating was itself accelerating, forming a super-exponential growth curve.


If you looked at, say, the 1990s, technology had advanced as much in the past decade as in the previous two, or in the entire century before that. And it would advance as much again in the next three or four years.


So they plotted this on a graph, and stood back and looked at it. And around about 2050 A.D. - some time in the middle of the century, anyway - the curve went, to all intents and purposes, vertical.

What does that mean?

That means that technology was advancing faster than anyone could keep up. The new aircar you bought in the morning would be obsolete by lunchtime and a museum piece by the afternoon. And people were changing too, changed by the technology. If you took a day off from school to nurse a cold, you'd come back the next day to find that all your friends had advanced degrees in mathematical physics and you were still struggling with seventh-grade trig.

Cool! But - hang on - I'm still struggling with seventh-grade trig. What happened?

Well, it's more a case of what didn't happen. The Spike didn't happen.

Some people think that the basic idea was flawed; others point out that one of the key requirements for the Spike, computers with human-equivalent intelligence - still hasn't been met, and suggest that the Spike may still be waiting for us in the middle of this century. I'm not convinced by either group, so for now I'll concentrate on what the thinkers of the 20th and 21st wrote about it.

And put that away unless you brought enough for everyone.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.
        —Vernor Vinge, 1993
Although the ever-increasing rate of technological advance was first highlighted by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book Future Shock, it wasn't until 1993 and Vernor Vinge's paper The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era that the idea really caught the public interest. [Editor's note: This paper can be found online for 21st century readers here.]

Vinge pointed out that given a small set of assumptions, the technological singularity was not merely likely but inevitable - and rapidly approaching. His estimates in 1993 were that it would not come sooner than 2005, and probably not later than 2030. Others fiddled with the numbers a little, based on assumptions about the difficulty of the problems involved and the exact nature of the growth curve, but most of the dates fell between 2025 and 2050.

So what happened? Given that the Spike is now running at least 50 years behind schedule, where did we go wrong?

Let's start by examining the mechanisms Vinge proposed for driving the Singularity.

The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):
  • There may be developed computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)

  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.

  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.

  • Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.
  • The first three possibilities depend in large part on improvements in computer hardware. Progress in computer hardware has followed an amazingly steady curve in the last few decades. Based largely on this trend, I believe that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years.
            —Vernor Vinge
    In 1993, progress in computer hardware had indeed been following a steady curve for at least three decades, since the creation of the first integrated circuits in the early 1960s. But even in 1993, there were signs of trouble: The cost of new fabs (as the factories that built the integrated circuits were called) was rapidly increasing with each new generation of chip technology (called nodes). And the cost of development of the new nodes was also increasing.

    This trend not only continued but accelerated over the next decade, with the cost of a new fab rising into the billions (a great deal of money at the time) and all but the largest companies either forced to form partnerships to maintain competitiveness, or forced out of the market entirely.

    At the same time, the race to develop ever faster and more powerful chips faltered. The new enemy: Heat.

    At 130 nm and 90 nm physics begins to work against the designer in regard to power. In previous technology generations, just moving to the lower geometry produced a significant power reduction. Going from 0.25 micron to 0.18 micron lowered the voltage from 2.5 to 1.8 volts, a drop of 0.7 volts. This factor alone could make up for a host of power problems. But future technologies will have voltage levels hovering consistently around 1.2 to 1.0 volts. Changing to a newer technology will provide little benefit to the power budget. Also at 130 and 90, the static or quiescent leakage becomes larger. Thinner gate oxides deliver the speed, but they do so at the price of increased leakage currents. For the foreseeable future process technology will not provide a meaningful solution to the challenge facing power.
            —EE Times, 15 January 2004
    For more than 30 years, chip designers had been given a free ride by the process specialists. Each new technological node was not only smaller and faster, but used less power. By the 180 nanometre (or 0.18 micron) node (the size represents the size of the smallest features in the silicon chips), this was no longer true. Chips were smaller and faster, but without other changes, they now consumed more power than before. More power meant more heat. And that heat had to be removed, or else the chip would malfunction.

    Huh? You lost me.

    What do you mean? Where did you get lost?

    Where you started talking about manometers.

    Nanometres. Oh well. Let's put it this way.

    For more than thirty years, computers had been getting faster and cheaper, and anyone projecting the curve forward could see the day coming when a computer with the calculating and memory capacity of the human brain would become available. In the first years of the 21st century, though, the laws of physics began to intervene, making progress very much more difficult.

    The curve began to flatten out.

    Vinge was comfortable in his predictions because he saw multiple paths leading to the Singularity, three of them backed by a decades-long track record. The fourth - biological brain engineering - was a long shot.

    But all three of the likely paths relied on the same curve, exactly the curve that was starting to flatten out just as Vinge was writing his paper. Although computers continued to improve, and human-computer interfaces in particular - the growth curve was no longer super-exponential; no longer leading inevitably toward the Singularity. Indeed, for much of the 21st century the growth was close to linear.

    And it was linear because, just as past improvements allowed ever greater resources to be brought to bear on the next advance, so the advances became ever more difficult. Sometimes advances came more easily, allowing a brief flowering of technological growth; sometimes they were relatively intractable, leading to years of stagnation.

    Today, altough we do indeed possess computers with more processing capacity than the human brain (and systems with more memory capacity are commonplace), we don't - yet - have anything resembling a human intelligence embodied in a machine. Vinge did in fact consider this possibility:

    Well, maybe it won't happen at all: Sometimes I try to imagine the symptoms that we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to develop. There are the widely respected arguments of Penrose and Searle against the practicality of machine sapience. In August of 1992, Thinking Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate the question "How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks". As you might guess from the workshop's title, the participants were not especially supportive of the arguments against machine intelligence. In fact, there was general agreement that minds can exist on nonbiological substrates and that algorithms are of central importance to the existence of minds.
    In fact, Searle's arguments were largely discredited even then, and Penrose's hypothesis of a quantum origin for human intelligence was purely speculative. There still seems to be no fundamental roadblock towards high-level machine intelligence. It's just that it's hard.

    And that's what killed the Spike. The Technological Singularity relied on the assumption that we would have ever-increasing computational resources to address the problem of, well, increasing our computational resources, but that the problems we would have to solve would not increase at the same rate. When it turned out that the complexity of the problems increased as fast as - or even faster than - our ability to solve them, the inevitable Spike turned into the gentle hill of progress.

    And instead of the transhuman era, we ended up with a very human era indeed.

    Posted by: Trixie Misa at 12:20 AM | Comments (80) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    January 24, 2104

    Paint And Patches And Memories And Dreams

    They say that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is held up by its paint.

    It's not literally true: The original structure is apparently still sound and would stand up fine on its own. But there's an element of truth nonetheless: The thin-film nanofiber cloth treatments that have been applied over the past several decades have a cumulative tensile strength far greater than the original steel. They have almost no strength under compression, of course - they simply fold up under load.

    The paint that you buy in a can and apply with a brush or roller contains nanofibers too, although they are much shorter and aren't cross-woven like the Bridge treatments, which have to be made on site and applied with special equipment. They have other properties, of course: You can write on them with crayon and simply wipe it off; they don't discolour or flake; many of them can actually change colour on demand; some can emit light, either sunlight absorbed by day and re-emitted, or light generated from an electrical supply by billions of tiny diodes. The efficiency is pretty bad because less than 5% of the diodes end up connected and facing the right way, but what do you expect for the price?

    The treatment of nanotechnology in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and its complete absence from Trading in Danger has made me think about the way we take it for granted in our lives. How far it's come from its beginnings a century ago, and how far short it falls of some dreams of that time.

    We've come to expect that clothes won't tear or wear or fade, that they'll come clean with the most cursory of washings, that they are cheap and comfortable and will change colour to co-ordinate with our shoes. And that given our measurements and a selection of styles, any tailor can produce a full summer wardrobe in a matter of minutes.

    But on the other hand, we - most of us, anyway, those who aren't wealthy enough to own a tailoring system themselves - do have to go to a tailor to get new clothes; we can't simply push a button and have them appear from a nano-assembler. (As in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, for example.) And even those who do own a tailoring system need to order the appropriate bolts of cloth and load them in, because making those is as far beyond the capabilities of the tailoring system as the Bridge's nano-film treatments are beyond cheap supermarket glowpaint.

    In medicine, we expect a spray or injection of specialised nanites to help fight infection and repair tissues when we are injured. But these merely assist and guide the healing process, rather than replace it. Anything that's not immediately fatal can almost certainly be repaired as good as new - with the exception of head injuries.

    The characters in Diamond Dogs inject themselves with nanomachines to enhance their mathematical ability, and the effects are dramatic, turning relatively normal people into towering mathematical geniuses overnight. (And effectively rendering them asocial, something I've also noticed among regular mathematicians.)

    This is so far beyond our present abilities that it looks like a dream. We can repair the damage caused by a stroke, cure and clean up after any number of degenerative diseases. A broken spinal cord is a mere nuisance today, something that will keep you in bed for a week, and keep you from running the marathon for two. A century ago, it would mean paralysis for life.

    If you manage to get sick, you go to the doctor and you get cured. It's as simple as that.

    But implanting new skills with an injection? There are research programs into using nanotechnology to boost overall brain function, but nothing even remotely so specific. I mailed one of my professors about this, and he replied that It is almost certainly possible, but we do not presently have the knowledge required to even research this type of technology. Which is what I thought, but I'm not a doctor of neurophysics and he is.

    Still, medical nanotechnology has vastly improved our health, and has extended our life expectency to the point that no-one currently knows what it is. People in the most technologically developed countries die mostly by accident or by choice. Estimates currently range from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty years - and it's climbing by more than a year per year, so even those estimates are largely meaningless.

    The widespread adoption of nanotechnology has occurred in four fields. Two I have mentioned before - materials, and medicine. The other two are manufacturing, about which I know little, and computers.

    The computers we have today are the product of nano-scale self-assembly. They are simply too complicated and too densely functional to be made any other way. A memory chip that you buy at the store to plug into your phone or into your console at home holds fifty petabytes of data. Which is kind of absurd, since it would take a year and a half to load that much data onto it. Or copy it off, once it was loaded. But they make them that way because they are so cheap to produce that it makes no sense to produce anything smaller.

    It's not quite as true of central processors, since they are structurally far more complicated than memory crystals and very much harder to assemble. And the amount of power required - and so heat produced - is roughly proportional to the number of calculations performed per second, so you can't simply scale them up without regard for anything else. Nonetheless, my console at work is more powerful than all the computers in the world of a century ago.

    When my grandfather was born, all of these seemed like dreams as distant as mathematical-talent nanites or faster-than-light travel seem to use today. And yet we take them for granted. This can of paint was produced by Moore Industries. Who was this Moore? Did he invent glowpaint, or did she steal the invention and grow rich from it? The Net would know, but I have breakfast to make.

    Posted by: Trixie Misa at 11:18 PM | Comments (2480) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    The Present Is Made Of The Dreams Of The Past

    I love my job at DreamChannel, I really do, but it comes with a catch. To move upwards into better - that is, more interesting - roles, you have to know an awful lot. My BSc minor in psychology is enough for me to keep my job doing QA on subassemblies (which is better than the call center or admin jobs I had before), but if I ever want to move into anything more creative or more technical, anything more challenging and rewarding, I need to get a higher degree. Not for the piece of paper, mind you, but because those jobs need knowledge I just don't have.

    That's why I'm working on my Masters in Psychology at night school. A PhD in Neurophysics or Computational Psychology would be even better, but either one would take eight years or more - and tensor calculus makes my head hurt. It's an approved course, so as long as I keep my grades up, DC is covering all the costs. (Did I mention that I love my job?)

    Anyway, along with the Psych I'm taking a major slice of literature. DreamChannel is always looking for new stuff to produce, and if I ever get burnt out on the technical side, it would be good to be able to fall back to Creative. I've already managed to get some attention up there - as I've mentioned before, they used me as the template for D'Artagnan in the new Three Musketeers production. Since that grew out of last year's French Lit. course, I'm paying more attention than ever.

    My favourite this year is English Lit.; more specifically L1172 Millennium Fiction: Science Fiction from 1990 to 2010. I've read quite a bit of SF in the past, and I was expecting to breeze through this... And I'm not, quite. Most of the authors we've been assigned I've never even heard of; it turns out that what I'd been reading had either been far more recent - or rather older, the so-called Golden Age stuff that my father raised us on - and not from that period at all. On the other hand, it makes for some very interesting reading.

    Our latest assignment was a choice of two books: Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon or Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds. Both books look forward to a future that seems a little - strange - by today's lights, but for very different reasons.

    Trading in Danger is much closer to the Golden Age stories than is Diamond Dogs. Our heroine, Kylara Vatta, is drummed out of the officers' cadet school on a minor charge, and is hastily sent off planet by her family (who own a wealthy trading group) until the scandal blows over. Since she's not totally in disgrace, they send her off not as a passenger, but as a caretaker captain on an old ship heading off to be scrapped.

    Heading off to be scrapped. Heading off to another star system to be scrapped. And the whole plot hinges from that. Must forget laws of physics and economic reality. Okay, the book posits cheap faster-than-light travel (and expensive FTL communications). Every author is allowed one such assumption, as long as they then keep to the rules they've set. That's how the game of Science Fiction is played, after all. You change one thing, and then ask What if?

    Trading is an adventure story, rather than a hard-SF (either hard-physics or hard-sociology) analysis of the impact of FTL travel and communication. I think our professor likes to throw these things at us just to see what we can get out of them. So Captain Ky heads off on the doomed starship, takes a contract on the first planet she reaches to deliver a load of agricultural machinery on consignment (Shipping! Agricultural! Machinery! Between! Stars! No, bad brain, stop that.) and heads off the buy said machinery.

    Only her interdimensional packet spliffler (warp drive) breaks down when the ship pops out at the other end, so she's stuck there until it can be repaired or replaced. And there's no used agricultural equipment available, so she has to buy new, and since she didn't even secure a deposit, her funds are going to be stretched pretty thin.

    (Yes folks. On the entire planet, famed throughout the sector for the manufacture of tractors and combine harvesters, there is no used equipment to be found anywhere. Someone bought it all. All of it. Really.)

    Aaaanyway, Ky buys the premium-price shiny new rotary disk harrows and threshing machines, breaks them down into little bits, shuttles them up into orbit and loads them onto the ship. Meanwhile she is trying to find someone to replace her spliffler. Only she can't quite afford it.

    And then war breaks out. Just when she is trying to contact the family company to secure a line of credit, someone destroys the system's ansibles (a term coined by Ursula Le Guin, who I have read) and interstellar communication is cut off. So Ky is trapped in a war zone with a load of farm implements, no money, and a busted spliffler.

    Her ship ends up being commandeered by the mercenaries fighting one side of the war (or, as far as I can tell, not fighting at all) to act as a day-care centre for the senior officers of the other ships caught in-system. Only some of these officers are Not What They Seem, and they launch a mutiny to take over Ky's ship.

    And here is where my willing suspension of disbelief blew a fuse. The mutiny relies on the fact that the ship's control systems have effectively no security whatsoever, that there is no monitoring of the passengers, there are no security doors, nothing that any basic airliner has. And beyond this, there are no weapons on board. It would have made sense if, when they were boarded by the mercenaries, all the weapons had been confiscated, but there weren't any in the first place. Not even soft weapons, not even a stun gun or a tangle gun. So Ky has to face down the mutineers armed with a miniature crossbow that one of the crew just happens to be use for target shooting.

    To say that the plot is contrived is to lose a great opportunity to use the word - um - the words not only contrived but really annoyingly contrived.

    Also, in the middle of the story, it seems that Ky's brain got wiped clean and reloaded, as part of a medical procedure following a head injury. Just struck me as being a little, y'know, you did what to her what? Maybe people in the early 21st thought that wiping and restoring someone's memories would someday become a straightforward operation.

    Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days is a very different book; so different that I think Professor Carrol set the two texts together just to amuse herself. There's no single central what if that tweaks a law of physics here (although there is one object in the first story in the book that appears to defy physical law); instead, it's a case of What if we went out into the universe - as science knows it today - and found some really weird shit?

    The book is made up of two novellas, called respectively (no surprise here) Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days. Diamond Dogs is essentially a puzzle story: The Blood Spire is a mysterious alien artifact set on the surface (well, not actually set on the surface; this is the object I mentioned that defies physical law) of a barren alien planet called Golgotha. Inside the Blood Spire is a series of mathematical puzzles of ever increasing complexity. Solve the puzzle - by picking the right symbol - and a door opens letting you progress deeper into the Spire. Get it wrong - or take too long to solve the problem - and you are punished.

    Outside the Blood Spire are the remains of those who got it wrong.

    It's not an easy read - not because it's poorly written, because that's not the case at all - but because some very nasty things happen to the characters. For example, the most sensible and (to me) sympathetic member of the exploration team gets reduced to a red smear due to the team leader's insistence on testing the Spire's reaction when the time limit expires. Another team member gets quartered - as in, bisected horizontally and then vertically.

    On the one hand, the writing is both clear and evocative of the unhuman nature of the Blood Spire. And the universe described is one that we could in fact be living in. The star ship the characters use to travel to the planet of the Spire travels substantially slower than light, taking decades to arrive. It's significantly faster and more advanced than anything we have, but it's a question of degree rather than nature. Similarly, they have far more sophisticated nanotechnology - the team installs nanites in their own brains to improve their mathematical skills - but again, this is a question of engineering rather than one of scientific principles. (Well, I think so, but as I said I'm not a doctor of neurophysics. Yet.)

    On the other hand, the characters are mostly unattractive, some extremely so - and also rather stupid, for all their mathematical aptitude:

        "Well?" Celestine said. "What the hell's keeping it up?"
        Forqueray took a step under the rim. "No fields, not even a minor perturburation of Golgotha's own magentosphere. No significant alterations of the local gravitational vector either. And - before we assume more sophistication than is strictly necessary - there are no concealed supports."
        Celestine was silent for a few moments before answering. "All right. What if the Spire doesn't weight anything? There's air here; not much of it I'll grant you. What if the Spire's mostly hollow? There might be enough buoyancy to make the thing float, like a balloon."
        "There isn't," Forqueray said, opening a fist to catch the cam, which flew into his grasp like a trained kestrel. "Whatever's above us is solid matter. I can't read its mass, but it's blocking an appreciable cosmic-ray flux, and none of our scanning methods can see through it."
        "Forqueray's right," Childe said. "But I understand your reluctance to accept this, Celestine. It's perfectly normal to feel a sense of denial."
        "That what we are confronting is truly alien. But I'm afraid you'll get over it, just the way I did."
    Never mind alien, you bozo! This thing contravenes fundamental laws of physics as they are known in the story. That alone, never mind what's inside, would bring scientific teams buzzing from every reach of human-occupied space.

    It's a great story, but more than once I wanted to reach into the page and smack someone over the head. Most often the aforementioned Childe, who is the leader of the group. The story is more about the reactions of the characters to the Blood Spire than it is about the Spire itself; unfortunately, most of the characters are, by any standard measure, insane.

    Turquoise Days introduces us to another alien artifact, in this case the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide semi-sentient ocean of alien nano-machines with a propensity for fiddling with people's brains. Celestine from Diamond Dogs obtained her remarkable mathematical skills from immersion in a Pattern Juggler ocean on another planet.

    Naqi is a researcher studying the behaviour of the PJs; though it doesn't appear that she or any of her fellow researchers are actually learning very much, as opposed to just collecting data for the sake of collecting data. Naqi's peaceful life is disrupted twice, first when the Pattern Jugglers eat her sister, then again when a starship arrives bearing a team of fellow researchers who are Not What They Seem.

    And Naqi has an adventure.

    And that's it, basically. Turquoise Days is neither as striking nor as unsettling as Diamond Dogs. We learn more of the Pattern Jugglers than we do of the Blood Spire, though again what we learn is all what and little why, which is fine in physics but unsatisfying in a story. The only point that strained my credulity was when the PJ-sea rose up to swat a low-flying shuttle out of the sky, but I'd hate to say that it's impossible.

    I would, regardless of the character flaws of the, uh, characters, recommend Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days to anyone interested in what people in the early days of the 21st thought the future might be like, and what it might indeed still turn out to be.

    As for Trading in Danger, it's a passable amusement, but if you find contrived plots to be off-putting, this is one to avoid.

    Now I just have to rewrite all of that in twice as many words and submit it for class on Tuesday.

    Posted by: Trixie Misa at 03:40 PM | Comments (185) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    To Sleep, Perchance To Dream

    Woke up this morning from the first sound night's sleep I've had all week. As some of you will already know, my compiler has been drifting out of calibration over the last few months, and last Saturday it refused to lock in at all. Even at a 1:1 setting I couldn't get it to sync.

    You know what that means. No fastsleep, no DreamChannel - and I get it for free too! - no...

    I don't know if all of you use sleep compilers; it seems that these days everyone starts using them the same day they enter school. I didn't get my compiler until I was sixteen, and it's a hand-me-down from my grandfather, who gave it to me when he qual'd for the Eridani mission. It's an older style unit, built like a tank - it weighs more than I do! - with hospital-grade filtering and diagnostics. I couldn't afford a compiler like that on my salary, not in a hundred years.

    Anyway, 3 am Saturday, just logged off from my volunteer work in Karelia, and I settled down for a good night's sleep. Set the wakeup for 7, set the ratio for 2.2, which is about as high as it's been willing to go lately, put on the headset and lay back and...


    So I get back out of bed and take a look at the 'piler, and the telltale has gone orange from one end to the other. It had been taking on a bit of a lemon-lime tint lately, but this is a big shift. The diagnostics tell me Unable to establish synchronisation. Please refer to the manufacturer or an authorised recalibration centre.

    Which is just great. I have to be up again in four hours and I have a defective compiler.

    Well, nothing for it. I tell the house to give me a yell at 7 am and lie back down to sleep.


    You guessed it. Okay, I've been using the thing for seven years now, but I hadn't realised just how dependent I'd grown on it. Anyone who's been out camping overnight could have told me this - in fact, some of my friends have probably mentioned it. But it's one thing to be out in the wild staring up at the stars, and another thing to be lying in bed, staring up at the darkness -

    Totally. Unable. To. Sleep.

    'Round about six I left a message with my friends begging off from the day's outing, and about half past seven I finally conked out. I woke up at a quarter to five in the afternoon. Just like that, my whole day was gone. I don't know how people ever managed to live this way. I don't know how I ever managed to live this way.

    I soon found out that that was nothing. When you count everything up, my day job and my night school classes and travel to the office and back again and my volunteer work for the Karelian State Library, that's sixteen hours gone from most days. Since I need some time to wash and eat and stuff like that, there's no way I can get enough sleep without the 'piler. The chemist gave me some little pills to help me sleep - yes, chemicals! - and they worked, but they left me feeling drowsy in the morning. So, yes, more chemicals to wake me up. At least my co-ordinator at the Library was gracious about me needing to take some time off; and I don't think they even have sleep compilers in Karelia.

    On top of that I had to organise for someone to pick up the compiler and take it in for calibration. And then I had to go in to the hospital myself, because one of the leading causes for not being able to sync with a compiler (or any neural headset) is brain abnormalities - like a tumour, or a stroke.

    Oh. My. God.

    But no, as it turned out, I was fine, and I even got company medical to pay for it. I wasn't due for a scan for another year, but they said not to worry about it. I love my job!

    And in the end, for only half the price of a brand new set, I have my grandfather's sleep compiler back and working again. DreamChannel and all.

    A good thing too, because they're running the new all-girl production of The Three Musketeers this week, and I'm D'Artagnan! Well, they used me as the template, anyway; I haven't qualified for acting work yet.

    See you in your dreams!

    Posted by: Trixie Misa at 08:42 AM | Comments (3633) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    March 29, 2005

    Note To Self

    Do not read The Bleat at work this week.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 11:37 AM | Comments (191) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    January 31, 2005

    Strawmen without Straw

    In my previous post, I acknowledged that I was attacking strawmen, at least to some degree; I had made up some comments to represent the arguments of the Left which weren't actual literal verbatim quotes, as such.

    I needn't have worried.

    Little Green Footballs links to a report of a democracy protest in Spain - an anti-democracy protest.

    And Glenn Reynolds links to Steve Stirling's fisking of comments at Democratic Underground - comments that are, if anything, even more extreme than the ones I made up.

    My strawmen have retired with their feelings hurt.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 12:01 PM | Comments (32632) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 11, 2004

    Irony is Dead, Man!

    I just got ten twelve spam comments to a single post. Advertising spam-blocking tools. And four more to another post.

    Maybe I should change the name of my blog to "Ambient Idiocy".

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 12:02 AM | Comments (439) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 10, 2004

    Blitz to the Max

    BlitzMax is out!*

    Blitz Basic is a fast and very neat Basic compiler for Windows, mainly designed for writing games. The developers have now taken it, stretched it in several new directions (it's object oriented**, and uses OpenGL for all its graphics**), and expanded it to support Mac and Linux as well. Just $80 gets you all three versions. I wonder if it has any sort of database support, because if BlitzMax as fast and easy to use as Blitz Basic, and runs on Linux, it will be a very useful tool indeed.

    Update: No database stuff. Oh well. In fact, the library included with BlitzMax is very spartan by today's standards.

    * Sort of. Currently only available for MacOS X, but the Windows and Linux versions are due soon.
    ** This is a good thing.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 12:09 PM | Comments (12) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 09, 2004

    Burning The Midnight Bandwidth

    Now that those election thingies are over and things have returned to normal (whatever that means), we suddenly have a whole lot of bandwidth to spare, so with your help I'm going to burn through a whole lot of it very fast. To that end, here are a bunch of nifty - if large - anime music videos you can download.

    The first one, dedicated to LeeAnn, is Stop the Rock # It's just Apollo 440's song, with, well, you'll see.

    One of the things too many AMV creators get wrong is combining a great idea and clever editing with a lousy song. No such problem with Elvis vs. Anime # It's an animated version of the clip for the remixed version of A Little Less Conversation. Great song, cool video.

    Jungle Wa Itsumo Hale Nochi Guu is one of the standout anime series of the last couple of years, and footage from the show is used to great effect in Hale's Mom. # That's pronounced "hah-lay", by the way, not "hail". Hale is the little boy, the strange little girl with pink hair is Guu, and the woman who looks like Hale is Hale's mom, Weda. The song: Stacy's Mom, by Fountains of Wayne.

    Moving more into the novelty category, we have the Bounty Hunters Who Don't Do Anything # Video is from the brilliant series Cowboy Bebop, music is The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything by Relient K. It's a brilliant combination.

    Then we have Jinnai and the Bugrom Live # The song is Hubba Hubba Zoot Zoot! by Carumba, and amazingly enough it even sounds like Jinnai. The video is from El Hazard; the original OVA series of which is a minor classic, but this video is taken from the TV series, which ripped out half the plot and stretched the remainder from 7 episodes to 26. I mean, they removed the shadow people, which meant that the three-sided conflict was watered down to a straight good-vs-evil battle, and all the political scheming went with it, and without the shadow people to kidnap Princess Fatora they decided to remove her too, so we didn't get the whole cross-dressing deal with Makoto, and that meant you didn't get the scene with Makoto and Alielle exploring their gender roles. Not to mention the travesty of what they did to poor Ifurita, demon goddess of destruction... Never mind, just watch this clip.

    And speaking of gender roles, I Wish I Was A Lesbian # No, that's the name of this clip. And of the song, which is by Loudon Wainwright III.

    The Excel Pop Up video # takes Jewel's Standing Still and gives it the treatment it so richly deserves and only Excel Saga can deliver.

    Men in Black II # takes on a whole new look at the hands of VicBond007, with help from the anime series The Big O. Masterful editing in this one.

    The last two are more for the anime fan than the casual viewer, but here I go anyway: Eva Bebop # which replaces the opening credits for Neon Genesis Evangelion with something that will be strangely familiar to fans of Cowboy Bebop. If you've seen both series, you'll recognise the insane genius involved; if not, then... not.

    And finally, its the Lord of the Yen trilogy #, which transplants the characters from Azumanga Daioh into Tolkien's great work. The brilliance here is in the casting. Of course Sakaki-san is Aragorn, and that means that Kaorin is Arwen. And Osaka and Chiyo-chan as Frodo and Sam, and Nyamo-chan as Gandalf. And then there's Elrond, and Gimli, and Gollum, and Saruman... Quite remarkable. It's a huge file, but it runs for over nine minutes, and the video quality is excellent.

    Enjoy! (Oh, and click on the # to go to the appropriate page for each video at AnimeMusicVideos.org.)

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 08:14 PM | Comments (24) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    Wrong Way, Go Back!

    Expression Engine is not the future of mu.nu. It simply isn't designed to handle what we do. It could be done - EE is nothing if not flexible - but it would be terribly awkward.

    So tomorrow, I get to convert Ambient Irony to MT3. Yay. It's either that or go back to writing Minx...

    Damn. Now I have to scroll sideways again.

    Update: Back to MT 2.6 for now. Moof.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 05:18 PM | Comments (163) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 08, 2004

    I Do Not Like It, Sam I Am

    I don't think I like Expression Engine very much. Not in a boat, and most certainly not with a goat.

    It works, it's very flexible, it's amazingly awkward to configure and use, and it's slow as a wet week at delivering pages. If you turn template caching on - which you need to do individually for each template in each blog - it's only as slow as a wet Tuesday, but caching has its own drawbacks. (The cache isn't fully automatic, so when you change certain things you have to manually clear the cache before it shows up.)

    And the user inteface screens have that charming designed-for-IE bug where no matter what screen size you have, they are always this much wider than your screen - so you have to scroll sideways to click on the submit button.

    To be fair, you don't normally spend that much time fiddling with the configuration of your blog once you have it working. Templates, maybe, but not the low-level fiddly bits. The annoying thing is that EE comes with the low-level fiddly bits set all wrong for what we want to do at MuNu, and you can't just throw a switch to make it right, you have to run around fixing and, um, fiddling.

    I'll stick with it for a while and see how it goes. Now I just need to scroll to the right because the Update button has hidden itself again.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 05:16 PM | Comments (99) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 06, 2004

    Today I'm A Daisy

    Lina just got promoted to Astronaut!

    This post is not expected to make sense to people who are not fans of both Deborah Conway and The Sims 2. (And if you are also a fan of The Slayers, you will be horrified delighted to hear that Amelia got promoted to Counter Intelligence. And has anyone else noticed that the career question you get in Counter Intelligence is a no-win situation? Heads you lose, tails you lose, don't toss the coin - you lose.)

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 08:53 PM | Comments (186) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 05, 2004

    No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

    I thought I'd be good and wash the dishes instead of sitting here playing the Sims. So I stack the dishes on the counter, open the cupboard to get the detergent, and then crash-crash-crash-tinkle.

    Well, that's four dishes I'll never need to wash again.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 12:06 PM | Comments (13) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 04, 2004

    Just A Gigolette*

    So that's how you make easy money in the Sims. Make friends with someone rich, then invite them to move in.

    I'll have to try that on my single-mom-with-three-kids family, who are struggling a bit.

    * Most of my current Sims are female.**
    ** Feel free to psychoanalyse in the comments. I don't mind, you're probably right.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 02:27 PM | Comments (965) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 03, 2004

    Air RAID

    Fedora Core 3 supports RAID 6, which allows for two sets of parity, so it allows you to keep going even if two disks die unexpectedly. Which would have come in useful back when.

    Meanwhile, there are lots of MuNu nominations in the 2004 Weblog Awards. You know what to do!

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 10:50 AM | Comments (5) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 02, 2004

    No Shit, There I Was

    Playing Sims 2, and my computer blows up. Just goes bang and the magic smoke comes out the back. So I had to go into buy mode and replace it, because heaven forbid my sims go without their online chat for even a minute.

    Meanwhile, my banana is on its way, in the form of a Gainward GeForce 6600GT Ultra1960XP GS VIVO. (Or "Bob", as he is known to his friends.)

    Oh, and the koala has been defeated by TKO after leading on points for the first three rounds.

    Update: We have banana!

    Update: Auugh! The koala snuck up behind me and bashed me over the head with a chair! Cheat! Cheat!

    Update: Pow! Dropped a piano on that furry nuisance, and he's now so much koala puree.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 07:42 AM | Comments (13) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    December 01, 2004

    Reboot, Reinstall, RedHat

    The cure to all of life's little Windows ills. What used to be known as "Service Pack 7.2".

    Which is to say, I got my new video card, the Radeon 9250, which I must point out is a considerable downgrade from my old Radeon 9600XT, but is also considerably cheaper. Installed it, which involved rebooting (since my machine had crashed again), uninstalling the drivers, rebooting, reinstalling exactly the same drivers, and rebooting. Three reboots for swapping a video card is actually pretty good going for Windows.

    Fired up Sims 2, and used the Pleasants of Pleasantview as my guinea-pigs. Life for the Pleasants soon took a turn for the worse, and within five minutes of coming under my malign neglect they had managed to burn down the kitchen, taking out Mr Pleasant and one of the teenaged daughter Pleasants. Mrs Pleasant came along just as the fire burned itself out and called the fire brigade, who showed up to find no fire and fined her 500 simoleons. Surviving teenage daughter wanders downstairs at this point at makes herself a bowl of Cocoa Pops for breakfast - the fridge being the only part of the kitchen to survive - completely ignoring mother's hysterics.


    As for the 9250 - it's not the card I'd recommend for playing Sims 2. At 800x600 resolution, it's sort of adequate, but that's a crummy resolution. Judging by the specs it's about half the speed of the 9600XT, and that seems to be reflected by the game. So a 6600GT, which is, again by the specs, twice the speed of the 9600XT, should be just the ticket.

    Anyway, I'll just go and cancel out of Pleasant Manor so that they don't have to stay dead, and let it run for a while to see what happens.

    Oh, and I spent the day fighting with a koala. More on that later.

    Update: It seems to have been the card. No more crashes... Yet.

    Update: Sims 2 at 800x600 on a cheap graphics card is better than Sims 2 that crashes every ten minutes. If it doesn't work, it doesn't matter how fast it goes.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 05:49 PM | Comments (291) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

    November 30, 2004

    ctrl-shift-c intprop censorgridsize 0

    Over the weekend I finally got around to installing all my essential software on my rebuilt Windows box, and so I at last got a chance to play with Sims 2.

    For about fifteen minutes. Then my computer crashed. And again ten minutes after that. And again twenty minutes after that, and five minutes after that, and... so on. The screen freezes, or goes black, or drops me back to Windows, or when I'm really lucky the machine just reboots.

    I thought maybe the power supply wasn't quite coping, what with the three new hard disks I added. I pulled out a couple of cards I wasn't using (video capture and second network card) and it seemed to be going longer between killing my sims, so yesterday I ordered a shiny new 480W power supply and this morning I installed it.

    As you can probably guess, it wasn't the power supply.

    So, now I have a problem. This is the second video card I've had trouble with in that machine. The first one locked up all the time, even when I was just scrolling a web page. The replacement has been reliable enough until now; I can use it all day for applications and web stuff and watching videos without even the hint of a hiccup. But it sure doesn't like Sims 2.

    I could buy a fancy new video card, which would make things faster - except that AGP, which is what I have, is fast being replaced by PCI Express, so if I buy an expensive video card now it's not going to have a very long life. And this is the second time I've had problems with video cards in this machine, so what if it's not the card? If I spend hundreds of dollars on a new card and it doesn't work either, I won't be a happy bunny. Now, a few times I have got actual errors back from the video drivers, so I'm sort of confident that it's the card, but what if the chipset on my motherboard is slightly wonky? But then, it runs fine for days when I'm not using 3D graphics.


    Fortunately, I'm currently building a couple of systems for work right now. So I've ordered myself a cheap Radeon 9250, and if that works at home I can then put it in the new work machine and expense it, haha! And then go on the waiting list for an Nvidia 6600GT, which is currently a yes, we have no bananas sort of thing.

    Posted by: Pixy Misa at 08:57 AM | Comments (159) | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)

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