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Sep. 20th, 2018 @ 02:30 pm Seveneves
So. Neal Stephenson's recent-ish doorstop about the moon blowing up and the earth becoming uninhabitable, and humanity jump-starting a space settlement to continue the race until the earth's surface recovers. He did write short books once, but not for decades now IIRC :)

The near-future space stuff is all interesting. Sometimes it feels a bit on-the-nose, "I learned about this interesting thing, now I'll force it into my book", but as a look at what humanity could potentially build if countries threw ALL their resources at it, and what an ongoing settlement in space might realistically look like, it's very interesting.

The politics references are a bit tedious. Both the "oh look, geeks resent politics, yes, politics even of a few hundred people is a giant sewer" is probably... plausible, but feels over-done. And the references to earth politics, we get another big dump of libertarians-aren't-exactly-right-but-don't-we-empathise-with-them-lots, which I sympathise with a little bit, but am also massively critical of. And the female US president is an interesting character, and god knows I don't expect us presidents to automatically be nice people, but her naked ambition and cynical manipulation feel like they came out as criticism of a female president *at all*.

He does successfully introduce many female characters -- I haven't counted, but the titular Seven Eves are seven of the most major characters, who all happen to be female.

The post-timeskip "what space settlements look like after 5000 years" was interesting, but felt much less likely. And a bunch of other stuff that happened felt MUCH less likely.

Can you really produce a closed underground system recycling oxygen and carbon dioxide, growing plants under electric lights, all powered solely by geothermal power?

I think epigenetics means "magic ways experiences an organism has as an adult can affect what their children inherit, i.e. basically all hereditary biology that's additional to DNA". But Neal Stephenson seems to think it means "magic ways an organism can suddenly change as an adult and become a significantly different organism". Is that right??

I'm annoyed by, AFTER the seven eves, we revert to current-stereotypical-gender-roles at least somewhat. I do suspect there are SOME inbuilt reasons for that. But after that cultural bottleneck, you didn't think it might be interesting if we DIDN'T have those assumptions?

And I'm annoyed by "oh no, the last seven members of the human race disagree what children to engineer -- lets all just do our own thing and create seven eternally distinct tribes." They couldn't find ANY more compromise than that? Stuck in a small habitat, all the different offspring didn't immediately interbreed?

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Sep. 20th, 2018 @ 02:24 pm Worth the Candle
Worth the Candle is another loooong webfic, adjacent to several rationalist stories, but much less in-your-face about it.

It chronicles the main character, a teenage GM whose best friend has just died, thrust into a secondary world that seems inspired by a giant mash-up of all his different roleplaying campaigns.

It covers the basic ground of levelling up and dealing with immediate quests in a fun way, but I love the way the various characters grow and become much more complicated.

It wins the Anton Macgyver award for the "most surprisingly beneficial potential use of an apparently useless special power" :)

And the as-yet-unnamed award for portraying a realistic, relevant therapy session, not just someone shouting at the protagonist what's obvious they're fucking up but it was glossed over, but verbalising the realistic and difficult details of the relationship between the main character and the character he's dating, which should have been obvious but weren't, and don't immediately go to "fixed" or "fixed, backsliding, fixed, backsliding", but are clear they're things they can work on, but it will be difficult.

Thanks to DRM for making me aware of it.

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Sep. 14th, 2018 @ 09:53 am The Friday Five: Weather Extremes
1. Have you ever experienced a hurricane firsthand?

No. Britain is blessedly free of natural disasters of all types. And no bears, poison ivy, dangerous snakes, etc, etc either. Or, I guess I was *in* England in 1987, but I don't remember it.

2. Have you ever experienced outside heat over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celcius)?

In butterfly enclosures. I think the hottest outside was in a heat wave in southern Croatia, I think that was... over thirty? Probably not forty? But I can't remember exactly.

3. When and where was the coldest temperature you have ever experienced?

Probably -5 to -10 one night in England, or something similar visiting northern france or southern sweden. Cold enough to notice, but not like you get in many places.

4. Is your household prepared for a possible power outage of two to seven days?

No. That is, if it's JUST our house, we'd probably be fine. When my parents house flooded we made do quite a while without power, but obv we could buy food, candles, etc. It means a lot of indoor camping, or going to stay with a friend or bnb, but we have resources for that.

If it's power to the whole city, then no. It happens sufficiently rarely it hasn't seemed worth having a plan for.

Although with Brexit looming and negotiations failing, the risk is not specifically power, but supply chains breaking down, and people are asking, "at what point do we make sure we have food for a couple of weeks?" If the situation doesn't improve that will become a necessary precaution. (And much worse for people with specific needs, e.g. medicines.)

5. Do you have a go bag?

No. I tend to keep some cash in my wallet so I can buy things for a couple of days if there's a problem with my bank account, but more from habit than planning. I could grab a change of clothes, phone charger, ID, etc in half an hour or less, I've done that enough when I go on holiday, but I don't have a specific "I need to leave in minutes, is there one thing I can just grab".

It seems sufficiently unlikely that that's a problem I'll need, it would be a little bit helpful to have it, just in case, but not enough to make the effort of keeping it current. If the city was more likely to be evacuated all at once, or if I was likely to be deported to a country where I'd be executed, it would be a much better idea, but as it stands, if I needed to evacuate in a hurry, I could probably stay with friends where not having toiletries, clothes, cash would be an inconvenience not a disaster.

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Sep. 9th, 2018 @ 10:29 pm Making Mistakes and it being OK
Someone who often says worthwhile things on tumblr reposted a post that had a lot to say about people's tendency to respond to criticism with exaggerated self-hatred, and why that can be such a problem.


Hopefully I'm not AS horrible as the people described, but this has often been a problem for me :(

But the post went on to describe how you SHOULD respond to criticism. Which I *sort of* knew, but I'd not actually seen written out like that, and realised I'd been missing... many parts.

(It's a sort of amazing freelance therapy judo to criticise people for refusing to hear criticism, and having them listen.)

In particular, that even if someone makes a serious criticism, it's ok, or often helpful, to ask for or take time to fully process it.

Which seems... like usually a very good idea?

But in the quest for exaggerated self-criticism, I think my brain had latched on to the idea of immediate self-flagellation, and appropriate several otherwise-wise exhortations to support it. Something like, "if you hurt someone, it's up to THEM to know how much harm is inflicted, not you, and up to them what reparation or apology would or would not be accepted, and don't try to deflect that with apology or self-justificaiton"

Which is all necessary, but I think, is possibly intended to be filtered through a common sense filter. Like, consider the likelihood that if you've hurt someone, there's a large reservoir of harm which you didn't notice or didn't want to acknowledge, based on what they say and your knowledge of the situation. But you don't ALWAYS have to come to the conclusion 'yes', if all the indications are that the other person is being a bully, or mistaken, or is cross about something else unrelated to you.

(Does that sound right?)

Whereas I always felt obliged to rapidly scramble to accept all blame, which when I don't actually understand what someone is hurt by, can be catastrophically counterproducive, as I get things even wronger, or resent that I need to take all the blame onto myself when I don't feel like that's right and end up letting my resentment show :(

My brain keeps saying, "but if it's a serious criticism, it's really unacceptable to just say 'i'll think about it', that sounds like you're dismissing it." But apparently, not usually?

And in fact, if I allow myself a more measured response, that's almost certain to be much much better for other people, both in my ACTUALLY GENUINELY accepting VALID criticism, and also in my accepting mistakes when maybe it wasn't really anyone's fault, or is mostly due to the other person's appropriate but not-really-due-to-me anger without going into a self-hatred-spiral.

And it seems like, that's what most people do in practice, and the right answer about how you SHOULD respond is just to do that, even as I have lingering fear of "not taking people's criticism seriously enough".


After all, when I'm actually in the wrong, I don't always hate myself that much, only when it's an unexpected accident :(

My intellectual brain tells me that's the only way to run social interaction, and I should do the less-harmful thing, even as my emotional brain is screaming at me that I'm not following the "rules" I described earlier and will eventually cause harm to people by reacting insufficiently seriously to criticism some time I don't expect it.

I've tried to talk about how other people react to criticism and if I should react the same way before, and generally got blank faces. But I'm now thinking that might have been more "I don't understand, this is too much about feelings you have and most people don't" or "I don't understand, that's so obvious I don't know how to describe it" and not "don't do that."

But now I'm thinking, it's sufficiently obvious, I need to do it, whether I can explain it to other people and have them agree or not. Even if I wish "asking everyone else what they do and doing that" worked as easily as I always feel it should.

Mistakes and apologies

I find a lot of confusion about what's a "mistake" and what's an "apology".

My brain tends to generalise too much.

I see a spectrum of mistakes and apology, something like:

1. I had nothing to do with this but I'm sorry it happened to you, e.g. "sorry your relative died"
2. I had no way of preventing it but inadvertently precipitated it, e.g. "oops, sorry" when someone wasn't looking where they were going and walks into you
3. I couldn't *reasonably* have prevented it, e.g. "oops, sorry" when both people were a normal appropriate amount of careful but bump into each other (assuming people accept that that occasionally happens and being more careful isn't a worthwhile trade off)
4. I didn't do anything unusual, but I really should be more careful, e.g. "oops, sorry", when you walked into someone not looking where *you* were going
5. I did that deliberately, but I didn't realise how bad the consequences were going to be.
6. I did that on purpose, if I'm going to apologise I need to damn well not do it in future.

I tend to describe all of those as a mistake or apology, but think of a "real" mistake as somewhere in the middle and a "real" apology as what's appropriate to the bottom half. But I know other people use the words in different ways.

In particular, if someone hurts you in a fairly small way, it's reasonable and sensible to display an amount of upset proportional to the harm done *to you*, and ignore whether for them it's a habit or an aberration. You don't really have any way of knowing different, and it's not your responsibility to figure it out by yourself. (Whereas for big things, like if it goes to court or something, the intention can matter.)

But that if you do inadvertently hurt someone, it's reasonable to apologise and intend to avoid THAT PARTICULAR COMBINATION OF CIRCUMSTANCES. Like, if you usually sit in a normal way, but you accidentally kick someone because they were hiding under your desk, you might make a mental note "IT like to come fix the cables without warning, don't be careless sitting down". But, DESPITE all the advice about what makes a sincere apology, you might apologise, but carry on the rest of your life without significantly increasing the amount of caution you display when you sit, even if EVENTUALLY you may find some other circumstance where it also hurts someone.

Even though, advice about a sincere apology says to change behaviour and, to me, a promise to change your behaviour mean to change the behaviour that led to the accident, which since you didn't know whether that would come from sitting at work, or home, or on a bus, or in the cinema, would have meant a massive increase in caution EVERYWHERE. But it's ok not to do that?? (Is that right??)

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Sep. 9th, 2018 @ 09:58 pm Assorted Highly Positive Reviews
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Liv knew she wanted this game for ages, and I wasn't sure but immediately fell in love with it. It's based on Portuguese Islamic-derived ceramic tilings. All the parts are absolutely gorgeous, the tiles are fairly simple design on simple plastic, but they feel sooo tactile and are sooo beautiful.

The gameplay is collecting tiles to fill out a grid, and blocking the opponent from doing so, but the rules are really quite simple, and the strategy really quite complicated.

Trail of Lightning

By an urban fantasy by Rebecca Roanhorse, who won the Campbell Award and Best Short Story Hugo this year. Set after global warming causes catastrophic ocean rises and political cohesion in America dissolves, in the newly evolving and ironically-drought-ridden Diné nation from what had been the Diné (Navajo) reservation.

The protagonist is a monster hunter. It's interesting to read a story with some of the immortal figures like Coyote who've shown up in other fantasy novels I've read, but by an author who presumably knows the original stories better.

City of Brass

By S. A. Chakraboty. An early 19th century Egyptian con-woman discovers she has Djinn heritage and is immediately sucked into complicated multi-sided supernatural politics between factions of Djinn, and other more powerful immortals, and not-exactly-Djinn, etc.

If, like me, you like supernatural politics, history of Djinn through Islamic dominance, to before to their capture by Solomon, all the way back to the early world, this might be the book you've been waiting for.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the real-world cultures depicted and drawn from, but it felt very much like characters actually being there, a wide variety of people.

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Sep. 9th, 2018 @ 09:41 pm Learning by experimenting and making mistakes even when you know the right answer
This is perhaps obvious but something I've only slowly put into words.

Learning typically isn't about ONLY doing something right. It's by trying different ways and SEEING which work and if not, how they fail. I think my brain naturally gravitates towards topics like maths where there IS a right answer, and knowing the right answer is valuable.

But even then, you understand a problem much better if you've seen simple examples of it, if you try various ways of proving it and see where they prove insufficient, then if you just start with someone giving you a proof.

I think because I have a great tendency to feel bad about making mistakes. I often need to make an effort to give something a go, if I know not immediately succeeding will seem like a failure -- even though I find experimenting and playing with something without pressure to succeed fun like most people.

I have as many examples from fictional protagonist-and-mentor relationships as from real life, but I'll try to be specific.

This is why children need both good/safe behaviour modelled, but also, to have times when they can (within reasonable limits) experiment with making decisions for themselves. Both in how to interact with the physical world and how to interact with other humans.

I naturally found code switching difficult, because I naturally felt there should be a "right way" that would just always be ok (I know, I know :)). But it makes sense to have space to say, "ok, go and do whatever and adults won't police it much unless it goes too far". But that doesn't HAVE to be, the adults saying "don't do this" and then ignoring infractions provided they meet the unstated scope, which is what I find hardest. That's merely a common way the situation arises naturally, when adults (or people's bosses, or citizens' law-makers) make good-in=abstract rules and then compromise when it seems to make sense, it could happen deliberately instead (except that more of the exceptions would be people who assume you can always go 30% beyond what the rules allow learning that you can't, instead of people who assume you always need to keep the rules never learning anything).

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Sep. 9th, 2018 @ 09:07 pm Last random notes from Channel Islands holiday
When you go somewhere, you often notice lots of *little* things.

The post boxes are the same -- but blue. As are the phone boxes, except a few are yellow for reasons. There was a postcard of a set of four or five phone boxes in rainbow colours, I'm not sure if that was retouched or a photo of a physical art installation.

On Guernsey, they use numberplates in the most literal sense, of numbers from 1 to 99999 with no extra letters. At some point they allowed leading zeroes, and leading double zeroes, and I think even '0'. Low
or interesting numbers are auctioned off to pretentious pricks to raise money for the local government. There's a few other special cases like '1' being reserved.

The animal avatar of people from Guernsey is a donkey. Of Jersey is a toad.

Unsurprisingly, but a little sadly, for fairly small islands, they are suffering plenty of house price inflation and car congestion.

Guernsey and Jersey are both the principle islands of their corresponding Bailiwick, in this case a collection of islands, originally deriving from their control by a Bailiff. Guernsey's includes most of the other other islands you've heard of. Jersey is a bit more populous but iirc its corresponding balliwick includes few other islands.

On Guernsey the buses are quite good (although as always my impression is probably coloured by the fact that, where I LIVE I often want to travel into town in the evening and weekends, whereas on holiday I more usually travel during the working day). Partly because it's quite simple -- quite a lot of places are round the coast, so a lot of buses follow the coast, and then cut through one or two places on the way back.

On Jersey, they tried, but there's a lot more places you want to get to, so we ended up getting confused by buses that only ran once or twice a day, or were diverted in a bit of an ad hoc way for a big fete.

I was sad about my mobile phone. I completely hadn't realised that the islands are not actually in the EU (although they have to comply with a lot of regulation anyway for practical reasons), and that giffgaff don't provide free roaming there.

And, as always, I get confused, because you DO get a helpful text advertising the prices, but it's always aimed at someone who doesn't see much difference between the regular prices and 400x as much, it doesn't say WARNING INTERNET UNUSABLE DISABLE DATA ROAMING NOW. This is why I only leave a small amount of credit on my phone in addition to the goodybag, because when something goes wrong, it's inconvenient, as opposed to just devouring money infinitely. I wish there was a setting where I could enable FREE data roaming but completely disable paid data roaming, as there doesn't seem to be a middle ground between "free" and "usury", and save my credit for occasional texts and phone calls. At least, free wifi is becoming common enough it's not a big deal any more.

"Not being in the EU" is also ticklish in other ways. There's a fair finance industry, which is one of the biggest things keeping the island's economy buoyant. But I suspect is borne up by tax dodging enabled by being sort-of-not-really in the UK/EU. And when I'm listening to someone describing hundreds of years of eking out a living under constant risk of uk-continental wars and contradictory laws, it sounds like "fair enough, make your money where you can". But from other perspectives, it feels like global tax fiddles are one of the biggest blights on the world economy, and I don't blame local economies who become entrapped with them, but I'm not happy about it either.

We missed the hottest sun, but it was still really nice to see the countryside, and the sea, in a mix of sun and shower. Standing on the ferry's observation deck was really lovely.

We went on a walking tour of St Petersport in Guernsey, which is often a good way of getting to know what local people consider notable tourist places, which a lot of the information above came from.

And the Guernsey museum. They had a little history of the island. A folklore exhibition which was fascinating for what was in common and different with bits and pieces I've picked up from different places. And an exhibition of Victor Hugo's art. He lived in political exile on Guernsey for a while, and wrote a novel inspired by it (Travailleurs de Mer/Toilers of the Sea). His art, mostly brief but evocative sketches, looks -- well, exactly what you'd expect Victor Hugo to look like.

We also saw the Jersey museum. A mix of historical stuff, from ancient to recent. Random things stood out to me, like a history of bathing, with some early black-and-white film. It's amazing how slightly-different but really-similar people look. Some scary things from the WWII occupation.

And joined on to it, a reconstructed 19th century merchant's house. But what was fascinating was not so much the house, as I've seen similar things before, but the coincidence of my reading some books set around then just before, and imagining people living there. And the way they set it up -- recreating the moment when the house was first abandoned, by a fairly wealthy family then consumed by debt, auctioning the house and all the contents, everything in the house with an auction label on. But the auction stopped at the last moment by their creditors, who feared they would do a flit from their debt. And video screens of the family members, explaining their position in the crisis. Not just "debt", but the husband was hounded for his political views, and idealism in being a doctor providing cheap or free (but possibly questionable?) medical services.

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Sep. 3rd, 2018 @ 02:28 pm Assorted reviews
Some Russian litrpg book

This reversed the premise of many litrpg books in that it imagined, what if someone found rpg mechanics applying in real life -- able to see people's stats, able to level up, etc.

It was pretty interesting reading about his random slice of life living in contemporary Russia, putting his life back together after his girlfriend left, befriending the guys who hang around his building, learning to see meaning in life again, getting a job as a sales rep.

I'd hoped to see more interesting levelling up, but although it does reasonably well, there's not that much there before the end of the book.

Disney's Atlantis

This is another of Disney's "we produced lots of really interesting animated movies lots of people just didn't notice" like Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch.

Loosely Jules Verne-y, the film is set in 1914. Milo Thatch is a young employee of a museum, frustrated that he mostly keeps the boiler running, when he really wants to search for the city of Atlantis. Eventually he gets his chance, there's a lot of adventure, things go wrong, etc, etc.

There's definitely things that could be improved, but a lot is really impressive. The plot is quite dramatic, without being obvious right from the start. There's quite a diversity of characters -- there's not an equal gender balance, but there's quite a lot of characters, and they manage 30-40% non-male, instead of exactly one love interest. And the characters are all varied and interesting in character and background. And a lot of the film is about what the Atlanteans want, not about them being passive recipients to the exploration expedition's decisions.

I didn't know this beforehand, but apparently lots of the cast were famous and the film pioneered various animation things.


Liv wanted this game for ages, and I thought I'd like it too even though I wasn't as sure, but it's really good. By a well-known designer, it's really beautiful, easy to play, but hard to win.

Based on Portuguese tiles, in turn inspired by Islamic Iberian art, all the pieces are gorgeous. Each round you have twenty tiles of five colours, distributed between five kilns, and you take it in turns to take all tiles of one colour/design from one kiln, moving the rest into an empty area in the middle of the table. Or, you can take all tiles of one colour/design from the centre.

The tiles you take go on in one of five rows in your staging area, with lengths from one to five. Any excess score negative. At the end of each turn, each complete row is discarded, with one tile being moved to the same row on your 5x5 wall. Each row of your wall can only have one tile of each colour, once that colour is present you can't put any more tiles of that colour into that row in your staging area.

And you get points for forming various lines on your wall.

But there's a lot of strategy in prioritising choosing the tiles that help you place on your wall where you'll get points, but not getting stuck with tiles you can't place.

And it's surprisingly quick to play even when you think.

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Sep. 3rd, 2018 @ 02:11 pm John Dies at the End
Oh gosh, this book is hard to describe. It started as a web serial, and was eventually published. By David Wong, who, if I got this right, is executive editor at Cracked.com. David Wong is a pen name he adopted for his online writing, and also wrote into these stories as the main character.

It's a riotous embracing of style over coherency. The main character and his friend, John, are two flaky drop-outs who've stumbled into a position as trouble-shooters of various sorts of occult problems.

I hear the film adaption stops there, with a "random slackers save the world" plot, with them blundering from one crisis to another endlessly well-meaning but endlessly screwed up.

The book does more although it's hard to describe what. The underlying reality isn't especially more coherent, there's various sorts of occult happenings that don't seem completely consistent with each other. But there's a lot more going on with the characters. As someone points out, you start by pegging David as the responsible one and John as the screw up. But in fact, David is better at holding a job, but John is better in almost every other way, nicer to people, better to his friends, less bitter, etc.

It's often funny. It's occasionally terrifying.

For a book called "John dies at the end", it kept me guessing all the way through whether, well, John would die at the end, which is a pretty impressive achievement.

I'd lost track, apparently I did read his unrelated novel Futuristic Violence and Men in Fancy Suits before, which likewise had a so-so plot but really great characters and intermittent but great humour.

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Sep. 3rd, 2018 @ 01:56 pm Books!: The Lie Tree
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I'd been meaning to read this for ages, and it was really awesome.

The main character is the daughter of a minister, a famous archaeologist, shortly after Darwin published the Origin of the Species. He is taking his family to an island, I think a fictional one, but situated near the real channel islands, to help in some newly uncovered archaeological find.

She is fascinated by her father's work, and educates herself a lot, whilst resenting that she's judged against the standards of a dutiful, conforming daughter instead.

It was complete coincidence I was reading when I was on the channel islands.

The minister is an important character, but equally important is the main character's mother, tasked with running everything about the household, from one angle seeming remote and bossy, from another angle, excelling at the tasks life set to her. And the servants, native to the island, with varying degrees of unease at this new strange family they're supposed to be living with. And her uncle, easy-going, but jealous of his brother-in-law's success. And the various other people associated with the dig, the gentlemen officially sponsoring it, and the women who have one reason for another for being involved, all with their own weaknesses and own problems.

And the premise, which is spelled out on the back cover, that via her father's work she finds a tree reputed to feed off lies, and begins experimenting with it.

I really enjoyed it, mostly the pure people aspects, but also the potentially fantastic aspects. If anything, the one problem I had is that the potentially fantastic elements stand in contrast to the main characters' scientific dedication.

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