Wednesday, 31 August 2016

book review: Every Heart a Doorway

Seanan McGuire.
Every Heart a Doorway.
Tor. 2016

There are adventures to be had in fantasy lands. But what happens when you come back from Fairyland, or Narnia, or wherever? How do you readjust to Mundania? Can you readjust? Or will you break, fruitlessly searching for your lost life, your true home?

Eleanor West runs a boarding schools for those children who can’t readjust. Their parents think them damaged, or wayward, or mad. Eleanor knows better, having herself returned from a Netherworld. Most learn to cope, in the company of those who understand. A few, a very few, find their way back. But when new girl Nancy arrives, dark things start happening, and the school itself is threatened. Is Nancy the source, or the trigger, of these events?

Life After Fantasy has always struck me as an issue. The scene at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the Pevensie children return home after decades in Narnia, always horrified me: they had been adult royalty; how did they cope with being ordinary children again? Jo Walton tackles this issue in her wonderful short story, Relentlessly Mundane. Here Seanan McGuire tackles it differently, in a 170pp novella.

Despite wanting to go to Lewis’ Narnia (for the Talking Animals, if not for the sexism, racism, classism, bad theology, and shoddy plotting), and to Phillips’ Fairyland, I didn’t find myself attracted to any of the Netherworlds described by McGuire. (And I don’t think that’s just because there are no Pauline Baynes illustrations, or that I am half a century older than when I read the originals.) However, that lack of attraction is not a problem: it just serves to illustrate how everyone is different, and what is hearts-ease for one may be horror for another. But, consistently, Mundania is home for none.

This is not a typical school story, as it does not dwell on any lessons, except for some interesting Netherworld classification schemes. Nancy as new girl allows for some expository passages, but not that many. The tale focuses mainly on the deadly goings-on that threaten the school. And even there, we do not get a lot, since this is a novella. But McGuire does paint vivid pictures of the various main characters, and the very different homes they wish to return to. I wish this was a novel rather than a novella, and you can’t say fairer than that.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

maps lie

Map data plots usually lie – here are several approaches to plotting the same geographical data.

Brexit, Bremain, the world did not end so dataviz people can throw shade and color

This is not the best way to show the data (depending what you want to show)

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Wednesday, 17 August 2016



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Friday, 12 August 2016

autodidact physicists

Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder on engaging with autodidacts (and why she doesn’t think of them as “crackpots” any more).
What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

jokes mean things

Scalzi knocks it out of the park.
A person saying “it’s just a joke” isn’t always an asshole. But assholes are almost always happy to say “it’s just a joke” to make it look like the problem here is you. So when someone says “it’s just a joke” to you, that’s your cue for skepticism. Jokes mean things. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t understand the uses of humor, or is hoping that you don’t.

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Wednesday, 10 August 2016

tattered and worn

I am definitely of the “books should be read/used” camp, but I don’t smash them up quite this much (and I cannot bring myself to write in them: PostIt notes solve that problem :-)

Bloggess : Sometimes tattered and worn = loved

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Tuesday, 9 August 2016

red and green

Red-and-green era vintage Meccano, used to make a differential analyser. Cool! Unlike in many cases on the web, do read the comments, too!

My own Meccano set was of a later blue-and-yellow era, and a few of the pieces were even (shudder) plastic. And I too very much regret getting rid of mine – I had a number 9 set.

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Monday, 8 August 2016

my brain hurts

I think the best sentence to test an AI system’s ability to understand is the (possibly apocryphal) newspaper headline:
Shell Found on Beach

I think the best sentence to break an AI is now:
Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.

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Sunday, 7 August 2016

anthem to the multi-verse

Seen in New Scientist’s Feedback section:
“Multiverse theory is a lot like the national anthem,” writes Carl Zetie. “In theory there are many ‘verses, but in practice we only ever experience one.”

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Saturday, 6 August 2016

film review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Remember the days when there was only one in-flight movie, which you didn’t want to watch? Well, nowadays there’s a whole raft to choose from, mostly ones you don’t want to watch, and some you feel a little curiosity about. This was how I ended up watching Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on a tiny screen with scratchy sound, several miles up in the sky on a nine hour flight.

I’ve not read the book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that is. I have, of course, read the original zombie-free Pride and Prejudice, and watched the BBC dramatisation. But I’m not a zombie horror fan in general (despite rather enjoying Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series), so I was a little dubious.

However, this is fun. It is played completely straight (for the most part) as a historical romance, just in a context where there are zombies roaming the land, and everyone is trained in martial arts to protect themselves. It has the ‘same’ underlying plot as the original: Elizabeth Bennett is prejudiced against the proud Darcy, but they each learn the error of their ways.

The zombie context changes the flavour of the romance, however. (You don’t say?) Despite the standard trope of Mrs Bennett trying to get good marriages for her daughters, all five of the Bennett sisters are experts in Chinese-style martial arts (rather than the more aristocratic Japanese-style). Darcy’s eye-patch wearing aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a renowned zombie hunter, and the dastardly Wickham is up to something more sinister than elopement. Matt Smith as the oily Parson Collins hits all the right notes. There is some of the original dialogue, marginally altered for context, although delivered in different circumstances: Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal contrasts dialogue and action brilliantly. The zombie apocalypse finale and heroic rescue does deviate somewhat from the original.

This is pure nonsense, but the straight way it is delivered, and the clever interweaving of the original and the zombie plot makes for fun viewing. It readily passes the Bechdel test, as various of the female characters talk about martial arts and zombie killing (in addition to prospective husbands). I was somewhat distracted by the economic viability of the scenario: how did the peasants grow the food given they had no protection from the roaming zombies? But nevermind; I enjoyed this, and it was definitely engrossing enough to while away nearly two of those nine hours in flight.

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Friday, 5 August 2016

eyes firmly closed

O.M.G.  A rich source of nightmares!
China's glass walkway opens in Tianmen mountain

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

reducing class mobility

RIP maintenance grants. It’s one more move to keep the poor from education
But such analysis ignores the cultural attitudes towards debt in many working-class communities. The ingrained attitude that you never borrow money acts as a barrier to many who would otherwise like to study.

Indeed.  I am incredibly privileged.  When I went to university, waaay back in the day, there were no fees, and (my parents were so poor that) I got a full maintenance grant.  (£660/yr, which was enough to live on without needing more than a summer job.)  And my parents, despite being rather bemused at whatever it was I was doing (I was the first in the extended family to go to University), were fully supportive (morally, if not financially).  But if I'd had to borrow money, no way would I have done it.

I despair at what similar kids are going through today.

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Wednesday, 3 August 2016

science is global

I haven't actually visited all these countries.  However, I am writing a conference report, emphasising that #ScienceIsGlobal, and used this website to produce a map of contributors.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

solar beats coal, but gas beats both

More solar power that coal powered electricity in the UK this May, but each is only a small fraction of the total.
Solar just made more power than coal in the UK for the first month ever

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Monday, 1 August 2016

7cm a year

The introduction of the railways led to global time.  The introduction of sat nav does the same for position.
Australia plans new co-ordinates to fix sat-nav gap

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