Monday, 28 March 2016

Mancunicon Eastercon - Monday

The last day of the Mancunicon Eastercon started (after the traditional mushroom-rich breakfast) with a panel on The Deeper the Grief, the Closer to Life?, or “the cheerful panel”, about grief, death, and other forms of loss.  Grief is due to loss; death is the most common loss, but you can be grief-stricken over the loss of a pet, some much loved artefact, or separation from a person or place, or even in anticipation of loss, especially due to slow dying and dementia.  The loss is a loss of a part of yourself, and you have to restructure yourself. Hence rituals for death: funerals, wakes, provide community support.  Revenge is a plot device to avoid dealing with grief.  The classic five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  SF tries to deny death with immortality or time travel, but this can lead to grief due to the inability to die.  Death is a subtext of all the new Doctor Who.  Much of Tolkien is the world grieving for a lost way of life. Authors can feel loss on finishing writing a book: leaving all those characters behind.

Then our final item was Farah Mendlesohn in conversation with Guest of Honour Dave Clements.  This covered his professional life in astronomy, and his fannish life in conrunning.

We debated whether to stay for a final item, but decided instead to hit the road and drive home.

So, another Easter, another con.  As ever, this one was full of fun, interest, cleverness, and unexpected information.  Next year, in Birmingham!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Mancunicon Eastercon - Sunday

The first item for Sunday at the Mancunicon Eastercon was a panel on Terraforming Planets and Living in Space in SF, excellently chaired by Helen Pennington, who used a sequence of well-designed questions to move her panelists through an interesting discussion.  The scope gradually increased, from bases in orbit, to the moon, solar system planet, and beyond.  Ian McDonald is taken with the idea of moon bases, because people on earth would be able to look up and see the lights on the moon.  We could try terraforming Venus with earth extremophiles: take a few litres of silt from the deep sea tranches, and see what happens; it could destroy any Venusian life, thereby following a long earth tradition.  The discussion moved on the economics of generation ships, travel between colonies, and how to contain diseases (you can’t).

The panel If You Don’t Scream You’ll Laugh discussed how to blend horror and comedy. There were varied attempts to define both horror and comedy, which led on to a definition of cognitive dissonance.  Both horror and comedy are a tone that can be used in any genre.  By adding a layer of comedy, it is possible to go deeper into the dark, and laughter can be a reaction to unease: black humour is daring the audience to laugh.  Horror can sometime be unintentionally funny when it just gets ridiculous.  Humour is cultural: Americans laugh at Hamlet.

Next came a panel on Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon.  Since I’ve been reviewing (nearly) all the book I read for (nearly) 20 years, I was interested to see what people thought of reviews. One of the panelists writes his reviews for exactly the same reason I write mine: to help us remember what we have read.  The panel drew a distinction between an opinion, a review (a supported opinion), and a critique (a more objective, analytical review).  You don’t have to enjoy, or even read, a book to enjoy a good critique of it.  (So my own pieces range from opinions to reviews, and are definitely not critiques.)  Blog reviews aren’t important for sales: a terrible review in the New York Times will sell more books than a great review on a blog.  But some Amazon reviews are in fact critiques: seek these out; the 1 star and 5 star reviews are telling you what the reviewer thinks; critiques will tell you whether you will like it.

Next was Kari Sperring in conversation with Guest of Honour Aliette de Bodard.  This covered a range of topics from demons in her fictional Paris, to Vietnamese language and cooking.

This segued nicely into a panel on Food, Glorious Food – Cooking in SF&F.  One panelist, describing moving house: I had 120 boxes, 115 were books, half of which were cookbooks; the other 5 boxes were kitchen equipment.  Aliette de Bodard noted that the recipes on her website get as much traffic as her books.  Even when fiction includes food, which it doesn’t often (books can include not a single meal), it rarely talks about cooking it.  There are some earth species that eat infrequently: maybe some aliens eat only once a week?  What about cooking in zero g?  Most cooking techniques rely on gravity.  And, of course: To Serve Man.

After this, it seemed appropriate to round off the day with a nice meal with friends.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Mancunicon Eastercon - Saturday

Saturday at the Manchester Mancunicon Easter science fiction convention started in the traditional way, with a cooked breakfast including a generous serving of mushrooms.  We then made the mistake of returning to our 4th floor room, to pick up our stuff for the day.  It was a mistake, because the 23-floor hotel has a paltry three lifts and no (usable) stairs.  After a 20 minute wait, seeing lifts fly by, or full lifts stopping, we finally managed to squeeze in one.  But because of this we arrived late for the 10am session (Dave Clements’ talk on How Space Science Happens), to find the room packed to overflowing.  So we went to the Art Show instead.  And didn’t make the mistake again of trying to use the lifts during the day.

So the first talk of the day for us was Rachel Dickinson’s BSFA lecture on Crafting the Future: Ruskin, Textiles and Visions of Futures Past.  As usual at EasterCons, the annual BSFA lecture was excellent.  Ruskin was all about individual making aesthetically good and beautiful choices, particularly through choice of textiles and clothing: a universal interest, for everyone wears clothes, which should be comfortable, functional and attractive.  He contrasted individual-based craft work with the mass produced products of the grim, dark textile mills blighting the landscape around Manchester.  What was fascinating was the reaction of the mill owners: some wrote to Ruskin explaining that they would go out of business, with accompanying loss of employment for their workers, if they followed his approach.  He was aware of the issues, and wanted people to follow the overall picture, if not all the details.  Is this a more realistic vision today?

After the BSFA lecture was the annual George Hay memorial lecture, sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation.  This year Colin Wright spoke on The Mathematics of Juggling.  Hilarious, brilliant, a technical tour de force (complex juggling while talking!), and with some deep maths to explain the patterns, leading to the deduced need for a time-travelling ball.  He’s going to be a hard act to follow.  The admiration was a two way street: he complimented the audience for getting all his technical and SF jokes.

Next came a talk by Verity Allen, on Designing the Supercomputer for the World’s Largest Radio Telescope.  The radio telescope is the proposed Square Kilometre Array, and it will produce a truly prodigious amount of data: 5 thousand Petabytes/day (1 PB = 1000 TB) initially, then up to 100 thousand PB/day if phase 2 gets built.  This amount of data offers interesting engineering issues, covering input, storage, buffering, memory bandwidth, and processing.  And they need to architect the system for hardware that hasn’t been invented yet.

Then off to hear Ian Whates in conversation with Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough.  This included discussion of why she went into teaching (the grant was better than the alternative wage) and her pupils’ reaction to being shown The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her ex-father-in-law coming to live with her while he was dying, and, sometime, her books.  Hilarious and eye-opening.

The Ecology of Doctor Who had Smuzz talking through how stories in Dr Who were alternately mirroring, or pointedly ignoring, a variety of ecological issues happening in mundania, backed by relevant clips (once the technology started working).

And continuing the Dr Who theme, we wrapped up the Saturday with  An Adventure in Time and Space: 53 Years in 53 Rels: the entire Dr Who canon performed by five people in 53(ish) of your earth minutes.  Rib-achingly funny, and clever.  The Reduced Shakespeare Company has a lot to answer for!

Friday, 25 March 2016

Mancunicon Eastercon - Friday

We left our friends to drive into the centre of Manchester to the Easter science fiction convention.  The con is in the Deansgate hotel, which recommended the snappily-named adjacent NCP Manchester Great Northern Warehouse car park for parking, at the special con rate of only(!) £12/day, reduced from the standard £20.50/day.  This car park is accessed from Watson Street.  We discovered there is another Watson Street, in the suburbs, thanks to the sat nav.  So we arrived a little later than planned, but still in good time.

The first session I attended was a panel I was on: the Comma Press sponsored (Don’t) Ask the Scientist.  This revolved around bad science in SF, and whether the author has a responsibility to get the science right.  I caused a minuscule amount of controversy by saying they didn’t – but I did add that they do have a responsibility to be honest.

Next was a panel on Twisting the Story: about the different kinds of plots twists, and how to do them well.  One writer revealed their secret: “I once discovered I needed a twist.  So I went and read the book as it was so far, reading as if I knew author had set up a brilliant twist. And I found one!”

Ian McDonald at Mancunicon
Guest of Honour Ian McDonald was interviewed by Peadar Ó Guilín.  He spoke about how he sets his novels in places where he can go and do tax-deductible research: Brazil, India, and the like. His latest novel is set on the moon…

The panel Revealing History, Revealing Now examined whether the history in historical fantasy or alternate history fiction needs to be right.  (Clearly “being right” is a perennial theme in the SFnal community.)  And if you make a change, particularly to introduce a fantastical element, you need to think through the consequences of that change: it will affect the rest of the world, too.  The important point is that the real history is usually much richer and more diverse and stranger than the history we are taught, and that is enough to make readers think the author has it wrong.  Beware governments who try to control the history curriculum: look carefully at what they want the children to believe about where they and others have come from.

In the evening we had the panel What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, or, good ways to kill a lot of people.  After the panel introduced themselves, they realised a problem: none of the panellists is really an expert in mega-death.  Or maybe that’s not a problem…  The discussion riffed off solar flares, disease, revolutions causing famines, resource exhaustion, asteroids, nuclear war, bioweapons, climate change, ice ages, super-volcanoes, rogue black holes, gamma ray bursts, and Vogons.  We don’t have the ability to reboot civilisation after a global catastrophe, and so we need to colonise space to avoid most of the problems.  Just your standard apocalyptic scenarios, then.

We rounded off the evening watching a session of Whose Line is it Anyway?, with various improvised scenarios.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

to Pluto, and beyond

Before going to the science fiction Eastercon in Manchester, we are staying with some friends. The weather forecast for Thursday was essentially “heavy rain all day” (both the Met Office web site and BBC weather app were in agreement on this), but as we looked out of the window, we saw no rain.  So if we wanted to go anywhere, we needed something that would allow us to dodge possible showers.  Our friends naturally have local knowledge, so suggested Jodrell Bank: it has a visitor centre (sorry, Discovery Centre), and some nice gardens.  We piled into the car.

When we arrived, it still wasn’t raining, so we walked round the radio telescope itself.

the Lovell Telescope

There were some outdoor exhibits, including a pair of large parabolic dishes a 100 metres or so apart.  Speak into one, and you can be heard at the other, as clearly as if you are standing right beside the person.

Around this point we noticed some small metal discs embedded in the grass with the names of  the inner planets by them: I can now say that I have stood on the moon!  These discs were to scale in size: further off we could see Jupiter and Saturn were not metal discs, but large circular flower beds of daffodils.  The discs were also to (a different, much smaller) scale in distance; we knew we would have to walk far to find Uranus and Neptune.  So we strolled off to find the outer planets in the gardens.

We were in for a pleasant surprise:

Pluto on the planet path trail: yay!
And not just Pluto.  As the map shows, Eris is also included.  However, we declined to travel off-path to this particular Trans-Neptunian Object: it was too muddy.

Neptune, Pluto, and Eris: red dots not to scale on the map!
Although it still wasn’t raining, it was definitely cold, so we went into the visitor centre.

a gorgeous room-size hand-crankable orrery:
Mercury, Venus and Earth are visible; the other planets are at the ends of ever longer rods
Then we had a cup of tea, and went to the gift shop, where we discovered that Pluto wasn’t for sale:

Pluto’s been erased
As it turned out, it never really rained all day: excellent weather forecasting there!

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

get thee to a rockery

On our way from York to Manchester, travelling to the science fiction Eastercon via friends, we stopped off at Chatsworth House in the Peak District national park in Derbyshire.  We didn’t go in the house itself, but wandered round the gardens (which I find much more interesting).

The formal gardens have a magnificent cascade.

looking up the cascade

looking down the cascade from inside the folly; the house to the right is covered in picturesque scaffolding
Although much of the house was covered in scaffolding, certain nearly-scaffolding-free views could be glimpsed.

the beech hedge hides the scaffolding
There was a lot of magnificent beech hedging.

beech wibbles off into the far distance

English stately home gardens usually go in for a lot of yew hedging, rather than beech.  Here the yew had its own idiosyncratic style.

I found these somewhat disquieting; they are clearly waiting to pounce
In addition to the cascade, there was a huge kinetic metal water feature, that opened and shut as the water ran through it.

‘Revelation’ kinetic water sculpture by Angela Conner; open state
For all this, the part I liked best was the rock garden.  With big rocks. Very big rocks.

scrambling through the rock garden
looking up at the rock garden
As can been seen from the photos, the gardens haven’t started flowering yet (although there were hosts of daffodils), and the weather was somewhat grey.  Yet the gardens were gorgeous. I’m sure they are stunning later in the year.  And a lot busier.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

book review: Being Mortal

Atul Gawande.
Being Mortal: illness, medicine, and what matters in the end.
Profile. 2014

We are all going to die. Hopefully, we will live a long and healthy life first. But the fear is always of a slow, lingering, undignified death. In this deeply moving and thought-provoking book, physician Gawande demonstrates why modern medicine is not set up to cope with the inevitability of death.

Much medicine is about heroic acts that, through strict treatment regimes, violent surgery and toxic drugs, make us better, after we have suffered through the warfare between illness and cure. Death is failure. But people who are nevertheless dying will not get better: medicine offers only the debilitating warfare, with no peaceful recovery after. All pain, no gain. Only failure.

Is there an alternative to the standard end-of-life route of incarceration in a nursing home, made subject to loss of independence and an infantalising regime of “doctor knows best”, accompanied by ever more violent interventions, culminating in dying in a sterile hospital bed while attached to tubes and beeping machines?

Gawande describes his discovery of this alternative: patient-centric palliative care, carefully discovering what the patient wants from their remaining time, and ensuring they get that: time at home, time with family, time to enjoy what time is left, medical care appropriate to that, and, if it is what is wanted, further interventions.

And the consequences of this approach, of providing the patients what they want, of not insisting on providing the fullest medical interventions possible, are possibly counter-intuitive:
[pp177-8] A landmark 2010 study from the Massachusetts General Hospital had even more startling findings. The researchers randomly assigned 151 patients with stage IV lung cancer ... to one of two possible approaches to treatment. Half received usual oncology care. The other half received usual oncology care plus parallel visits with a palliative care specialist. .... The ones in the study discussed with the patients their goals and priorities for if and when their condition worsened. The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.
So end-of-life medicine needs to change to incorporate quality of current life, not just quality of later (here, non-existent) life. And quality of life nearly always means independent living, and dying, at home. We need to move from second stage medicine to third stage:
[p192] Scholars have posited three stages of medical development that countries go through, paralleling their economic development. In the first stage, when a country is in extreme poverty, most deaths occur in the home because people don’t have access to professional diagnosis and treatment. In the second stage, when a country’s economy develops and its people transition to higher income levels, the greater resources make medical capabilities more widely available. People turn to health care systems when they are ill. At the end of life, they often die in the hospital instead of the home. In the third stage, as a country’s income climbs to the highest levels, people have the means to become concerned about the quality of their lives, even in sickness, and deaths at home actually rise again.
Gawande, with a combination of heart-rending, and heart-warming, case studies, and hard medical data, argues convincingly for this change, and for an extension of the palliative care approach. It is more humane, it improves quality of life and lifespan, and, if more argument is needed, it is cheaper.

Some may be concerned that allowing people to choose not to undergo medical procedures might lead to people feeling they have to choose this route so as “not to be a burden”. But many of the people Gawande spoke to who had chosen to go the route of more interventions, had done so not because they wanted to, but because of pressure from their families who, understandably, didn’t want them to die.

This is an important book that should be read by all people involved in delivering medical care, all involved in medical policy, and all who will one day be at the end of their own lives.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Monday, 14 March 2016

proving negatives

 The Problem With Evidence-Based Policies
Suppose there are no significant differences ... It would be wrong to assume that you learned that tablets (or books) do not improve learning. What you have shown is that that particular tablet, with that particular software, used in that particular pedagogical strategy, and teaching those particular concepts did not make a difference. 
...the [Randomised Control Trial] movement has had an impact equivalent to putting auditors in charge of the R&D department
[via Danny Yee's blog]

Additionally, this phrasing reminded me of a story I heard many years ago, about the impossibility of proving a negative:
Have we proven that reindeer cannot fly? No, of course not. We have only shown that on this occasion, under these conditions of atmospheric pressure, temperature, radiation, at this position geographically, at this season, that these 1000 reindeer either could not or chose not to fly.
The or chose not to cracks me up.

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Wednesday, 9 March 2016

the invisible hamburger antipattern

A great talk about the website obesity crisis:
I want to share with you my simple two-step secret to improving the performance of any website.
1. Make sure that the most important elements of the page download and render first.
2. Stop there.

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Monday, 7 March 2016


Researchfish – profoundly changing global research assessment
but possibly not in the ways you might want.

It’s certainly profoundly changing my blood pressure.

If you have no idea what I’m on about, THINK YOURSELVES VERY FORTUNATE.

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Saturday, 5 March 2016

book review: Time Reborn

Lee Smolin.
Time Reborn: from the crisis in physics to the future of the universe.
Penguin. 2013

Physics has a curious relationship with time. Most laws are time-reversible; famous ones that aren’t, like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, are approximate and emergent from underlying reversibility; in relativity a universal time cannot be defined consistently, and instead provides us with a static space-time. It’s almost as if physics doesn’t believe time exists.

Smolin is having none of that. For him, time is the fundamental property of the universe, whatever else may emerge. We are not flies caught in the amber of a static space-time; time itself is real:
[pxiv] The future does not yet exist and is therefore open- We can reasonably infer some predictions, but we cannot predict the future completely. Indeed, the future can produce phenomena that are genuinely novel, in the sense that no knowledge of the past could have anticipated them.
How can he say this, when all the physical theories seem to point in the other direction? His argument is that those theories are local, and cannot be simply extended to apply to the entire universe. Those theories assume that crucial parts of the process must be outside the region they describe:
[pxxiii] All the major theories of physics are about parts of the universe—a radio, a ball in flight, a biological cell, the Earth, a galaxy. When we describe a part of the universe, we leave ourselves and our measuring tools outside the system. We leave out our role in selecting or preparing the system we study. We leave out the references that serve to establish where the system is. Most crucially for our concern with the nature of time, we leave out the clocks by which we measure change in the system.
This is what Smolin dubs the traditional Newtonian paradigm of doing “physics in a box”. It rests on some underlying assumptions:
[p44] We should be aware that this powerful method is based on some powerful assumptions. The first is that the configuration space is timeless. It’s assumed that some method can give the whole set of possible configurations ahead of time—that is, before we watch the actual evolution of the system. The possible configurations do not evolve, they simply are. A second assumption is that the forces, and hence the laws the system is subject to are timeless. They don’t change in time, and they also presumably can be specified ahead of the actual study of the system.
If all the possible states of the system are predefined, and the laws under which the system evolves are predefined, then time does seem to be nothing more than an accounting variable: which of those states the laws say the system is currently occupying. What if the possible states of the entire universe aren’t predefined, because its laws aren’t predefined?

Smolin argues that this Newtonian paradigm, powerful as it is, cannot be extended to provide a theory of the entire universe.
[p97] The universe is an entity different in kind from any of its parts. Nor is it simply the sum of its parts. In physics, all properties of objects in the universe are understood in terms of relationships or interactions with other objects. But the universe is the sum of all those relations and, as such, cannot have properties defined by relations to another, similar entity.
It is not a simple task to make a truly universal theory: one that doesn’t just apply to every part of the universe, but that applies to the whole universe at once.
[p104] The challenge we face when extending science to a theory of the whole universe is that there can be no static part, because everything in the universe changes, and there is nothing outside of it—nothing that can serve as a background against which to measure the motion of the rest.
He also argues that our current theories are approximations: physicists pretend that the system inside their box is an isolated system, unaffected by the rest of the universe, and they go to a lot of experimental effort to make that approximation as good as possible. Good approximations make effective theories, but they are only as good as their assumptions (energy ranges, for example). These approximations inevitably break down whenever a theory is extended to encompass the entirety of the universe.

So the timeless nature of isolated, local, approximate theories cannot be taken to imply that the universe itself is timeless.

Having argued that the laws cannot be extended naively to imply a timeless universe, Smolin also argues that there is no reason to assume that the laws themselves are timeless.
[p121] The notion of timeless laws also violates the relational principle that nothing in the universe acts without being acted on. If you choose to except the laws of nature from this principle, seeing them as something outside the universe, you put them outside the realm of rational explanation. To make laws explicable, we must consider them as much a part of the world as the particles they act on. This brings them into the purview of change and causality. They become explicable only when they participate in the dance of change and mutual influence that makes the world a whole.
Smolin explicitly links this view with his proposal for an evolutionary universe, where a new universe is born in each black hole, with its laws of physics being a mutation of its parent’s laws, as explained in his earlier work, The Life of the Cosmos. Smolin is a Leibniz fan: as well as following Leibniz’ relational view, he uses the Principle of Sufficient Reason: that everything must have a reason or cause, to show that the laws must also have a cause, an explanation. I wonder: do random mutations to the laws of physics obey this principle? (In passing: I was amused to discover that Smolin was introduced to Leibniz’ ideas by Barbour, but has come to rather different conclusions.)

This mutational view does not mean that Smolin thinks the laws, despite being changeable by mutation, are set at the beginning of the universe, and fixed thereafter. He gives an example of how a quantum system might be free to choose a result in a situation for which there is no precedent:
[pp147-8] These two features of quantum systems let us replace the postulation of timeless laws with the hypothesis that a principle of precedence acts in nature to ensure that the future resembles the past. This principle is sufficient to uphold determinism where its needed but implies that nature, when faced with new properties, can evolve new laws to apply to them.
    Here’s a simple illustration of the operation of the principle of precedence in quantum physics: Consider a quantum process in which a system is prepared and then measured, and assume that this process has occurred many times in the past. This gives you a collection of past outcomes of the measurement: X many times the system said yes to a question, and Y many times it said no. The outcome of any future instance of that process is then picked randomly from the collection of the outcomes of past cases. Now suppose that there’s no precedent, because this system has been prepared with a definite value of a genuinely novel property. Then the outcome of the measurement will be free, in the sense that it is not determined by anything in the past.
Smolin suggests that this principle of precedence could be subject to experimentation, by preparing some genuinely novel quantum states, and measuring them. I’m not sure of the scope of the system’s freedom, however. What about all those more advanced alien races who have already done these experiments? Do those set precedents? Also, the second time a measurement is done, there is only a single precedent from which to select randomly; this seems to imply determinism.

I like his idea of explicable evolving laws; although I still wonder, does a random choice fit with the principle of sufficient reason? And I must admit, I’m not sure why these “principles”, of sufficient reason, of precedence, of whatnot, are allowed to be timeless and universal, when nothing else is. He mentions the need for meta-laws, laws to say how the laws change, but doesn’t go into this as deeply as I wanted. Are the meta-laws timeless? If so, why? If not, what governs their change? I didn’t get the answers here: Smolin refers his book with philosopher Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time; maybe the answers will be there. For the time being, I have a few new ideas for student projects: growing cellular automata or graphs with rules that depend on configurations, and only deciding on the rule when a new configuration is seen.

Smolin finishes up with more social concerns. He explains that our notion of the fundamental laws of nature as being timeless leads to a damaging distinction between the timeless natural (hence good and right being changeless) and the ephemeral artificial (hence bad and wrong being change). Rather, everything changes and evolves, and we should embrace that fact.
[p257] How can we get rid of the conceptual structure of a divided and hierarchical world separating the natural and artificial? To escape this conceptual trap, we need to eliminate the idea that anything is, or can be, timeless. We need to see everything in nature, including ourselves and our technologies, as time-bound and part of a larger, ever evolving system. A world without time is a world with a fixed set of possibilities that cannot be transcended. If, on the other hand, time is real and everything is subject to it, then there is no fixed set of possibilities and no obstacle to the invention of genuinely novel ideas and solutions to problem.
This is a clearly written and thought-provoking book. It makes plain some issues with physics, and its thesis, about time and change, opens up some fascinating possibilities. Well worth the read.

For all my book reviews, see my main website.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

does it ever stop!?!

This is hypnotisingly amazing!

[via The Bloggess]

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