Tag: geekiness

Back in the saddle

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So, after a month of near-eclipse (wedding-related, to be fair), I’ve started to work on a new short story.

And, of course, I stopped halfway through and started researching planet-building. Right now, I’m onto my tenth webpage of research, and counting…

Today’s experiments

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-taught myself (not that there’s much involved) how to use VNI to input Vietnamese characters. Basically input numbers in addition to letters in order to add the diacritical marks (slightly non-intuitive, but I prefer numbers to the other method, which involves inputting extra letters/symbols). OK, that’s this week’s distraction, now I have no excuse to go back to my lessons…

-tried a slightly different phở recipe (see, I can use VNI *grin*). H was happy; I, less so. I think using the vegetarian broth as the basis for a phở bò is a bad idea. Yes, kind of obvious, when you think about it. We have veggie broth at home because it’s more versatile, but it’s just not phở without the meat broth… (beef, in this case. Never was a fan of the chicken version). Let’s see if I can find some without MSG… (yes, I could make my own beef broth, but I seldom have 3 hours to cook broth, so shortcuts are nice).

-also, am self-teaching myself Python, on the H’s recommendation that it’s a more versatile language than bash scripting, which is what I used before. I can see his point: it’s more practical, more readable, and it’s portable, which is darn handy. Go Python.

How to tell the geeks from normal people

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H and I are preparing the signs for the tables at the wedding reception. Just so you see the context: there are 24-25 tables, and every one of them has a name so people can find it. All the tables have related names, what is called the “theme” of the wedding (for instance: species of goldfish, islands, famous doctors[1]). Every table has a 4-page leaflet on it for orientation purposes. The first page bears the name of the table with about two paragraphs of explanations (example: if all the tables are named after famous doctors, every table has two paragraphs of doctor biography), and the inside has the menu (which comes in three flavours: French, English and French children’s menu).

Me: “So we’re agreed on this, I’m sending the layout to the parents so they can comment on it.”
H: “Yup, looks good to me with this colour choice.”
Me: “And then I’m stopping until we have the green light from them. I still have to write 23 bits of text for every table, and if we change the layout I’d have to go over all 24 documents and change the layout for every single freaking one of them. *pause* It’s kind of a shame you can’t apply a global layout across documents.”
H: “I bet you could use a Python script to generate an RTF file according to your specifications.”
Me: “I don’t speak Python. Maybe VBA? *pause* Hang on, theoretically, all we’d have to is look in the master document, find the anchors where the bits of text are, and then do a standard substitution from the command line, using sed or something like this…”
H: “…”
Me: “You’re right. Let’s not go there.”


[1]I’m not spoiling the “theme” of the wedding until we get closer to the date. You’re free to guess, though :=)

Brief tech update

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Urk. The spam comments have grown so numerous (hundreds in a few days) that I can no longer check them individually. Hope this doesn’t affect legit commenters here. (and I guess I ought to feel flattered at the attention).

The LJ crossposting is misbehaving a little–it sometimes turns itself off for no particular reason. Some fiddling will inevitably happen…

Also running into a few issues with scheduled posts, which might end up in double posts until I work out the system.

But, overall, the brand new WordPress seems spiffy (and I like the new colour scheme for the CMS backend. Much easier on the eyes).

Does anyone know if there are tools for managing tags and categories? Specifically, I wanted to merge several tags into one automatically, and/or migrate tags to categories. Any ways to do this which don’t involve massive amounts of love labour?

Fun habits of non-native speakers

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So, Eastercon is approaching: this year, it’s at the Radisson in Heathrow, the same place where I attended my first convention in 2008 (also an Eastercon)–and my first real experience at socialising in English on a massive scale (I went to Bootcamp and WOTF before that, but I’d never actually dealt with so many people in such a small amount of space).
My first Eastercon will always remain etched in memory as the moment I realised that being fluent was one thing, but being a non-native speaker came with a few annoying side-effects. Here are a few:

  • Unintentional idiomatic language:
    English is full of idioms–and it’s made worse by the fact that I have to reckon against a lot of local variations (the ones I know most are UK and US, but I bet I miss out on a lot of others, too, like Indian English and Australian English). Now, I generally know what a given idiom means; but the reverse–knowing that I’m using an idiom when I’m writing–is a lot less obvious. For instance, in Harbinger of the Storm, I have references to “bean counters” that are precisely that: dried beans used as die and counters for the patolli game. However, of course, the word has the other, far more common meaning of “accountants”, providing for much unintentional fun…
  • The cocktail party effect (or lack thereof):
    You might not know what the cocktail party effect is. It’s a little magic trick of the brain: when you’re talking to someone in a noisy environment, your brain will automatically edit out the background noise (even and especially if said noise includes intelligible conversations), allowing you to focus on the person(s) you’re speaking with. It’s invaluable in parties (hence the name), but also in restaurants, bars, and other kinds of social functions.
    Sadly, I’m completely immune to it in both English and in Spanish, the languages I speak as a non-native. I think it comes from those hours of classes that forced me to listen to the language in order to understand it (and to fill in little summaries to make sure I’d made out the meaning of the words correctly). Now, when I hear people speak, I have to make a pass at understanding it. Even if it’s a conversation that’s completely unrelated to me. As a result, pub-time with me? I might look a little bewildered if the pub is particularly noisy. It’s not because I don’t care what people I’m saying–but rather because I’m trying to disentangle the current conversation from the four others happening at the neighbouring tables.
  • Spelling issues:
    Ah yes. I think part of that one comes from the fact that I’m a visual person, and part of it from the fact that I’m a latecomer to English (I only started investing heavily in it at 16 or so). The most obvious effect of that one is that I will need a long moment to process when you’ve spelled a word. At, say, signings, it’s a little more problematic than I anticipated. I live in terror of the day I won’t have understood someone’s spelling out of their name, and will inscribe a book to the entirely wrong person.
    The other side effect is related to the other way around: if you’re pronouncing a familiar word in a way that I don’t expect, I’ll blank it out as “this funny word I can’t figure out”, even though I quite possibly know that word already. This happens a lot with French words or with words I’ve only seen in writing. I don’t seem to have quite the same flexibility for pronunciation as I have in French: figuring out alternative spellings for words I don’t recognise right off the bat has never worked out for me.
  • Accents:
    That one often puzzles my BF. I can understand a lot of the more common accents (Scottish, Irish, Australian, etc.), because I sat for my Cambrigde Certificate of Proficiency back when I was 17, and that part of the training for that included listening to a text which would necessarily be in an accent of the Commonwealth. However, somewhere along the line to fluency, I lost the ability to understand the accents of non-native speakers: someone speaking English with a heavy French accent is going to be very painful for me. I remember we went to a panel at the 2005 Worldcon, which had four native English speakers plus a Japanese man. I couldn’t make head nor tail of what the Japanese guy was saying; my BF, however, couldn’t understand the natives, but could deal with the Japanese accent just fine. I think that for him, all non-native accents are somehow kindred, no matter how different they might be from French. For me, they’re just… too unusual to be parsed, I guess.
    (it’s not that bad, though. A few hours are usually enough for me to pick up a new accent and add it to my repertoire. I had a lot of trouble understanding Jetse de Vries‘ Dutch accent when we first met, but by now it’s become second nature).

So… is it just me? Do you share some of those, or know people who have the same issues? Are there other pitfalls when you’re a non-native?

Fun with computers, part N

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So, back to the semi-regular schedule… Today’s fun thing: the BF’s internet provider apparently upgraded their antivirus system with a faulty patch, which classified 90% of all incoming mail as spam, notified the sender that the mail was spam, and erased it from the servers.
(yes, go figure).

Several mails have been eaten past recovery. Hopefully nothing too important. The BF is (understandably) fuming; I’m left wondering how on earth they thought an antivirus that erases mails would be a good idea. They’re trying to throw up a smokescreen by saying that they don’t keep viruses for security reasons, but that still leaves the question of what happens when the antivirus is wrong. I suspect you’re screwed. What a great concept…

Mind you, my own internet provider puts spam in an “undesirable folder” which is only available through their clunky online email software, so it’s only marginally better.

A (brief) weekend in London

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So… Took Friday off, and dragged the BF to London, in order to see the Aztec exhibition at the British Museum.

Friday was the obligatory trip down memory lane, specifically of South Kensington and our old house–which felt very weird, especially when walking in front of the French lycée. It was followed by a wonderful Indian dinner with Seb Cevey and Jane in Brick Lane. Tried a random Bengalese dish with mango, which turned out to be wonderfully sweet (and not really spicy).

Saturday morning was Forbidden Planet, aka the bookshop of doom. I had almost succeeded in emerging with only one book (an omnibus edition of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books), when the BF suggested innocently, “Are you sure this is all you want?” Whereupon I stupidly turned around to stare at the “New Releases” rack, nabbed a signed copy of Elizabeth Bear‘s By the Mountain Bound, caught a glimpse of Daryl Gregory‘s new The Devil’s Alphabet, which made me decide to buy his Pandemonium
At least I only got three books. *whimper* (I also got the chance to see some of Angry Robot‘s most recent releases on the shelves, eye-catchingly placed).

In the afternoon, we went to meet up with VDer Stephen Gaskell and Elle for a look at the new “We Are Astronomers” show at the Greenwich Royal Observatory. The show itself didn’t feature ground-breaking science, but the presentation was awesome, with very cool illustrations and pseudo-3D effects that look pretty good when spread over the dome of a planetarium. Much, much fun. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have dinner with Steve, but it was a great afternoon all the same.

And finally, Sunday, aka the day for which we’d booked the exhibition tickets.

All I can say is “wow”. They had really gathered a lot of cool pieces. A particularly geeky moment included my bending over a glass case peering at a codex and going, “This can’t possibly be the real Codex Mendoza“. (it was). They had the Codex Duran too, the Codex Borbonicus, the Great Temple dedication stone (yes, I realise I’m gushing and that you probably don’t know what they are. It’s like having most of the major artefacts in a very small room. With only a handful of people so you can stare all you like). And I actually got to see a sculpture of an ahuizotl (a creepy water-creature that plays a big part in both my novels) as well as artefacts linked with Tizoc, an Aztec emperor who also features in the novels.

The items themselves were pretty nicely presented with plenty of context, even if, on multi-object displays, it wasn’t always obvious to see which tag corresponded to what. And while I loved the scaled model of the Tenochtitlan sacred precinct (which had me pointing, “Oh, look, Acatl’s temple is here, and this major location in the book is here”…), I could have done without the dramatic trails of blood on the temple staircases, especially since most of the temples didn’t actually have the sacrifice stone. It felt pretty cheap. But overall, it was an awesome exhibition, and I’m glad we got tickets and saw it before it finishes.

And then we hit the exit and the souvenir shop, and it was Forbidden Planet all over again.

In addition to lots of Aztec-themed souvenirs (the mug with the “Five Movement” glyph really had me hesitating), it also had books. Whole bookshelves of them. The BF was very understanding and let me browse for half an hour, writing down the names of authors and books that looked interesting. In the end, I stuck to three books again: the catalogue of the exhibition, which like all British Museum catalogues is amazingly detailed with lovely pictures and plenty of extra information (and a handy index), Karl Taube’s and Mary Miller’s The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, the closest to a dictionary of symbols I could find (with illustrations), and Michael E. Smith’s The Aztecs, which has interesting considerations on crafts and agriculture as well as daily life.

On the minus side, I got to drag the aforementioned souvenirs through the rest of the afternoon–which meant a Chinese noodle restaurant and part of the rest of the British Museum (the Enlightenment gallery, which chronicles the history of science in the 18th and 19th century, and an exhibition on Japanese culture throughout history). But it was well worth it.

And since I never got to see the Chinese ceramics, I’ve made a mental note to come back to the British Museum next year :=)

(I have some genre-related stuff to catch up to as well, but that will have to wait until I have defeated the Giant Pile of Laundry To Be Ironed)

What Stargate isn’t telling you about science…

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aka Common Myths about Science That Bug The Hell Out Of Me:

A scientist develops a great new invention in his lab on his own.
It used to be possible, but the days of great geniuses and polymaths like Newton and Descartes are past. Nowadays, it needs a team to develop anything. Most scientists work in teams, and so do most engineers. Someone might still have this amazing idea and make a breakthrough, but a complete prototype on his own? Not possible, as this involves several different areas of competence (see the point just below, too). Also, having people with similar competences to check what you do is usually a Good Idea, if only to make sure you’re not making any mistakes.
Just for the record, a simple prototype for a demonstration, built from scratch, should require at least a dozen people to handle the various aspects of the job. And that’s a bare minimum–like your student association building a robot for a competition. A company would have far, far more people designing the thing.

On a related subject: the scientist who knows everything about every field. He/she was trained in aeronautics, but is also a dab hand at biology, and chemistry too, when needed (I’m looking at you, Sam Carter).
Again, the days of polymaths is past. It’s possible to have vague knowledge of a lot of subjects, but to be able to make deep and sophisticated calculations in various divergent fields… You can’t be proficient in more than 2-3 connected areas (the BF had a wider education than most, and is still only proficient in physics and somewhat knowledgeable in computer science. He sucks in biology or mechanics. I’m good at computer science, reasonable in applied maths electronics, and suck at everything else).

The scientist(s) who has this great and amazing idea, and builds a prototype in a few days or a few weeks. Frequent bonus: the prototype survives field use and turns out to be perfectly operational.
Here’s the deal: developing anything is a long and drawn-out process, and field conditions are not a joke (sand that gets everywhere, weird temperatures… Your average materials are often going to take it badly). Building a prototype, even as part of a team, is more likely to need a year than a few weeks. And I’ll eat my hat if that hastily-conceived prototype is actually up to field conditions unless God takes a personal hand in the matter…

The aforementioned prototype is taken for an experiment, and no one keeps any backup anywhere. When it’s destroyed, people complain that they won’t be able to rebuild it.
Er, yes, OK. Sometimes it has happened. But this is BAD planning. Most companies/army research centres have backups and document every step of the prototype production. Not being able to rebuild it at all smacks of incompetence.

The scientist is setting up an experiment in field conditions, make modifications to the setup, and takes ages to relaunch the experiment (this usually happens when the bad guys are firing on the scientist’s position)
If you have, say, an electrical circuit and you’ve just rewired it with a few components, you don’t actually need to spend ages typing on the computer to make it work. It should be the equivalent of flicking a switch, and if you need more than a few seconds, I’ll start wondering about your actual skillset…

On a related subject, the scientist sets up an experiment in field conditions, and appears to have no idea what they’re going to do when the experiment fails.
Experiments have a protocol. They are actually prepared. You just don’t show up with your new shiny equipment and start fiddling with it in the thick of the action. Otherwise, the likelihood is that it won’t work, or worse, that you’ll fry something. And if you’re a good scientist/engineer, you’ve considered the fact that it might not work and have thought of one if not several backup solutions. Fiddling is all well and good, but the sad fact is that it’s seldom effective.

The scientist solves what looks like an amazingly complicated problem to the profane, but is actually quite a basic problem.
This is obviously a case of writerly misdirection and/or lack of research, but it’s really annoying when you happen to know a little about the subject matter (and nothing kills my trust in an SF show faster than this). The most recent example of this was Sam Carter bragging about writing an algorithm that searched through a database for words composed of a particular set of 18 symbols. This is a trivial problem (all the more so if the database is sorted, which they’ll have done if they have any brains).
A bonus case of this is when people start misusing scientific concepts. If I hear “logarithmic decrease” again, I’ll scream (a logarithm is a function that actually increases, and it’s also the one that has the slowest possible growth, so I’m not quite sure what a logarithmic decrease is supposed to be except obfuscation).

See, this is why I can’t watch most shows that are all about the cool science. I need characters to distract me 🙂

What about you? Any common misconceptions that drive you up the wall when you watch movies/series?

Fun with series

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About 2 chapters and a bit into Harbinger of the Storm, and already struggling with continuity issues. For starters, I know I worked out all the dates for Servant of the Underworld using my trusty Aztec calendar–unfortunately, I lost the file somewhere in transit between my old laptop and the new mac. Bottom line, I’m rereading the manuscript and hoping for clues that will tell me when exactly everything was taking place…

Also, fun activity of the day: work out maths. If you know the European year for something (say, 1481), and the Aztec sacred day for something in the same year (say, One Movement), what is the European date? It’s trickier than it sounds, mostly because the Aztec system is so weird.

For starters, you have two calendars: one is the solar year, which is 365 days, and, like in most civilisations, is separated into months, in this case eighteen months of twenty days plus five “empty days”.

Then, overlapping it, you have the sacred or religious calendar, which is 260 days long. This is the one that has the cool day names like Seven Serpent, Two Jaguar and so on. It’s the one in which the divinatory records were made, and hence the one in which a lot of the dates come from. It doesn’t really have months: “Serpent” is a daysign that recurs every twenty days. The calendar goes something like this: you have thirteen numbers, and twenty day signs. You increment both simultaneously until you run out of numbers, wrap the numbers around to 1 while continuing to number the day-signs to 20, then wrap that around to 1, while continuing to count the day numbers to 13, and so on…
Simply put, if I use a second set of numerals for the day signs instead, the count goes 1-1, 2-2, … 13-13, 1-14, 2-15,… 7-20, 8-1, etc.
In full names, it goes all over the place: One Crocodile, Two Wind, Three House… Thirteen Reed, One Jaguar. Two Eagle, … Seven Flower, Eight Crocodile… It’s not quite as disorganised as it looks like: the key is not counting the months, but going instead for the trecenas, the groups of thirteen days that go from one to thirteen (in the example above, the first trecena runs from One Crocodile to Thirteen Reed, and the second trecena starts on One Jaguar).

Now, the Aztec Calendar lets you enter a date in Julian or Gregorian calendar, and gives you the Aztec date for this day (in this case, the solar year, the trecena, and the sacred day). The key is then working out where you are in the year, and how far ahead you have to advance to reach your goal of day One Movement in the year 1481 (which is solar year Two House). In practise, I worked out the trecena for the day One Movement, and how distant it was from the trecena for my random date (basically, for the maths geeks, count in increments of 13 modulo 20, which gives you the number of trecenas, ie the number of days, which you then convert back into months).

If that sounds painful and confusing, that’s because it is. But it worked–I now know where in the year the book is supposed to be set 🙂