rambling with a cherry on top

Rainier Cherries

Pitted cherries – in total 10lbs of them. This batch went into the dehydrator to make tasty snacks.

I’ve been pitting a lot of cherries lately which is one of those repetitive tasks that keeps my hands busy and leaves me room to think. One of the topics I’ve been pondering is artificial intelligence because I’m about to delve into a near final (I hope) edit of my science fiction novel where one of the characters is an AI.

After the picture above, I feel need a segue such as AI is like cherries… hmmm, nope I can’t think of a witty ending. So how about, here’s some thoughts about AI with a cherry on top?

What will artificial intelligence look like?

No doubt machines have more computational power than a human, but when a machine becomes aware will the first thing it does be to turn on the humans around it like Hal or humanity in general like Skynet? Or will it spend its time trying to figure out how to be human, like Data? Or will they just take all our jobs as news stories suggest?

Will humans be replaced in the workplace as news stories suggest? My job requires specialized, technical knowledge with a peppering of creative thinking – it’s a good human job but perhaps in a few years it could be great job for AI. I’d bet a AI would be faster and more accurate.

As a tangent – would a post-job society free me up to focus on being human? Perhaps. There’s an interesting article about that here.

Or will they be one of us, like Lovely in the the long way to a small angry planet (there’s a nice review here)? Will we discriminate against aware AI? Humanity does have a long history of discrimination. Will AI discriminate against us? Will AI even want anything to do with us? Or will they keep us as essentially pets? Will they even care about us at all? Maybe they won’t identify us as intelligent.

Lots of fodder for thought.

dried cherries

In the end, 10lbs of cherries turned into this.

at the plum tree hangout


The ladybugs are busy

I took a closer look at what was going on in my plum tree the other day. It turns out the tree is hosting the entire ladybug circle of life (cue Lion King music here). It’s good thing I didn’t get around to doing anything about the aphid infestation.

ladybug eggs

The orange circles are ladybug eggs and the clear insects (aphids) are food for when the ladybug larvae emerge

ladybug larvae

Here’s an aphid about to be dealt with by a ladybug larvae.

Ladybug larvae are my favorite backyard predator – they look so nasty, reminding me of the alien insects Kahn put into Chekov’s ear to control him (From the 1982 Wrath of Kahn).

Ladybug cocoon

Ladybug cocoon

The Refrigerator Monologues – book review

Sometimes something keeps showing up everywhere I look – a couple of weeks ago, The Refrigerator Monologues dropped into this category. I first stumbled upon a guest post (on John Scalzi’s Whatever) written by the author where she discussed the idea behind the book. Later the same day, she was a guest on one of the podcasts I normally listen too (The Writer Files). Because the book caught my interest twice in one day, I ordered a copy. It turned out to be a quick read.

Catherynne M. Valentine has created an original universe of superheroes including Kid Mercury, The Insomniac, Platypunk, Mr. Punch, Retcon, Professor Yes, Zigzag, but the book isn’t about them.

Instead it’s a woven tale of six women tangled with superheros. Their stories have ended while the superhero’s go on. None of these women got their happy ending, instead they ended up as forgotten footnotes in someone else’s story – or as Paige Embry, one of these women, says: “trouble is, my story is his story.”

The idea behind the book comes from Gail Simone, a comic book writer. She pointed out that comic book women often get killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad or have their powers taken to further the storyline of a male superhero (details here and here).

In Deadtown, a richly complex underworld where it’s always the middle of the night and the River Styx now flows through the pipes of the Deadtown Municipal Waterworks, the women converge. Some are residents, some are passing through. Deadtown has “no fiery rings of artisanal punishment” – it’s just a place where residents can’t move on

The women are all now members of the Hell Hath Club – a forum to share their stories. And they do, the reader gets six tales of how each of them ended up in Deadtown and the spin is different each time.

“Dead. Dead. Dead. Flying ace of the corpse corps.” – and the whole book is full of this kind of wordplay.I love the author’s word smithing (okay I’m flat out envious). Overall, even with its tragic bent, The Refrigerator Monologues was a fun read.

something weird…

white maple leaves

While out walking today at lunch I spotted this odd group of leaves – each one completely white. The leaves higher up were normal, as were all the leaves on the other maples around. Something fantastically botanical was going on, but I have no idea what.

Perhaps, the explanation lies in the location – the area is called Mystic Vale.

Reading Fiction (my bookish secret)

beetle on a pin

This beetle has nothing to do with this post – I just find bug collections fascinating.

Years ago, a friend hooked me on romance novels. For a while that’s all I read. Almost every Saturday, I’d pack up the stack I’d recently read and trek down to the used bookstore where I’d trade for a new stack. I have no idea how many books I’d cycled through when it dawned on me – the novels were all the same story. I know some people love a formulaic romance story but, it turned out, not me.

My major complaint is that none of those books stick out in my mind. I can recite off the formula but not a single character name. Stumbling upon Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, hidden on the same shelf as the others, dragged me out of my formulaic rut. Even though Outlander is at it’s heart a romance, it has so much more going on and a protagonist I relate to and remember.

I now look for more complex stories preferably set in fantastic environments like a far off space station or a medieval world drenched in magic. Overly flowery prose bogs me down, and I prefer action to keep my attention (if a book is critically acclaimed as literary fiction I’m unlikely to read it even if doing so would make me a better person (what this really means is I’m happiest reading entertaining fluff – but don’t tell anyone)).

Some books draw me in and I can’t put them down while others languish in perpetuity with a bookmark part way through (I never pick them up again).

Recently, I came across a space opera series with cyborgs that I couldn’t put down (The Fallen Empire series by Lindsay Buroker). While one the other hand, I tried to read two other space opera books (which were the first in series) where I didn’t even make it halfway in either book before I realized I just didn’t care. Based on the description, I should’ve liked all three series – so why did only one of them strike a chord with me?

Pinpointing what draws me into a story has been a challenge – it’s like unpacking ikea furniture and trying to determine if all the pieces are there. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The protagonist needs to be imperfect but basically moral – and I need to like her/him (I know the anti-hero is a current trend, but that just doesn’t work for me). They could have terrible pasts where they’ve done less than moral things requiring atonement in the present. They can even be committing crimes in the time frame of the story with good reason.
  • I need a diverse cast of characters doing believable things. I want secondary characters to be interesting, even quirky – and I want to be able to tell them apart (unless they’re clones). Recently, I put down a book because it painfully failed here*.
  • The writing needs to be accessible and friendly with a touch of optimism. A requirement I’m currently testing by trying some Horror (Bird Box by Josh Malerman, which is creeping me out but I can’t put it down).
  • Every book has a typo somewhere – and I’m okay with that. However, continuity errors drive me nuts. Recently, I read a book with a ton of characters. Partway through the book a few of the characters ran into each other. They had never met or made contact of any kind – yet they knew each other’s names. I put down the book at that point.*
  • Bonus points for any story that can pull off a bit of humour (The Space Team books by Barry Hutchison pull this off well, kinda like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies)

So, what draws you into a novel?

* as a note – I will only be sharing titles of books I’ve enjoyed and recommend as I’m not comfortable writing negative reviews – the exception is Crime and Punishment, reading that left me clear on two points: killing two women with an axe is a crime and punishment is making me read about the protagonist wine about it.

Remembering the future

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Arrival or read the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and are planning to, I must warn you I’m about to give a big part of the story away.

I did something I don’t normally do – I read the story a movie was based on after watching the movie.

Normally, I make a point of reading the book first. That way I get to create my own versions of the characters and settings before the Hollywood creative guru’s present me with their compelling imagery. My own versions of Rivendell or a habitat on Mars, or even what Elrond or Mark Watney looked like (…well in my imagination Mark Watney did look like Matt Damon) are always different.

Once I started watching Game of Thrones, I felt no desire to read the books – and generally this is true for me. But Arrival was an exception because it got me thinking.

It’s a first contact story where alien’s arrive on Earth, but the purpose of the visit isn’t clear. The protagonist, a linguist, is brought in to attempt to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is non-linear, and as the protagonist deciphers more and more she realizes the non-linearity extends to how the aliens experience time. As she become more proficient in the alien language, she begins to experience time in the same non-linear way.

When I walked out of the theatre I wasn’t sure I liked the movie or not (It was really well done) because it left me feeling unsettled. When I think about the protagonist, a scientist like me, I can’t help but wonder what if she was me? (or what if I was her?) Would I make the same choices? Was the gift of knowing the future actually a curse? And does knowing the future negate our notion of free will?

How we (humans) experience time is routed in our perception. Physics doesn’t require the temporal linearity we experience. Free will, that is our actions are not predetermined, may be an illusion. But the movie didn’t go into the ramifications of knowing the future on free will, so I read the short story the movie was based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

The story isn’t as slick as the movie and it has less action – but, I felt it was infinitely better. It’s still a story about first contact and communicating with aliens, but more so it’s an intimate story about time that isn’t linear. Best of all, my concerns about free will was addressed nicely though an optics example which took away my concern that the protagonist was cursed (my perception that knowing the future is a curse is entirely rooted into my human view that time is linear).

Solaris book review


My alien mascot

Solaris by T.M. Catron is a quick, fun read setting up what I hope with be a run of future adventures. It’s the first of a new space opera series.

It’s about a small crew on an independent ship that are smugglers anonymous transporters. In need of a new crew member, they stop over on the Captain’s home world. We are introduced to her home based complexities and why she’s chosen life on a ship. A new crew member is found with a too perfect resume just as they are forced off world.

I like a strong female protagonist and the Captain is certainly that. Her new crew member is intriguing with special skills that could make for interesting future plots. The book (novella?) is pure escapism – and sometimes that’s exactly what I need.

A Close and Common Orbit book review


The closest picture I have to an alien

I’m suffering the consequences of my gleeful debut working in the garden for the year. It was so nice to be out there and get mud on my hands that I stayed out too long. As I sit here, I can feel that I paid the price in my back, hands and glutes. So, since then I’ve been spending my evenings couch sitting doing a lot of reading.

I don’t consider myself qualified to discuss writing – if I don’t stumble over the words, or have to wade though overly verbose language, I won’t notice the words just the story. I recently heard this sentiment described more eloquently – prose is like a window pane, it can be a beautiful stain glass window atop a story or clear glass (or anywhere in between). Some people like looking through the stained glass masterpiece, but I like the clear glass.

However, since stories are a fundamental part of being human, I am qualified to discuss stories I like. And I’ve recently found one – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

It’s a sequel of sorts to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (which I was going to write a review for and still might), but I just finished A Closed and Common Orbit last night and something about it really resonated with me.

Recently, I’ve been feeling inundated with news of public figures trying to exclude entire groups of people, it was so nice to read a book with such a sense of inclusiveness with vastly different sorts of people (and aliens) living together in a working society.

It’s a world with sentient AI’s, but they are not considered people and it’s illegal for them to take the form of a sentient being. The story follows an AI newly in a human form struggling to fit into her world. The book is science fiction, but not action. Even though they live on a tidally locked moon far off in the galaxy, it’s a very human story.

The world is complex and not without conflict, but it’s a future could live in. The characters are complex and flawed enough they could really exist. I hope she writes more stories set in this future.

Settler Chronicles – just a taste of the first chapter

I’m going to be brave and share the first chapter of my book. I’m still wordsmithing the text, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m aiming to launch the entire thing as an eBook later this year.

Part of the reason I’m ready to share is because I submitted this chapter to a podcast run by two professional editors. They read it and gave a critique here. I found their comments helpful (although it was weird to hear someone read my words aloud) and they left me feeling ready to share.

Settler Chronicles is about a group setting up a colony on a far away world. Nothing goes according to plan then they discover a conniving plot one of the settlers has set up to ensure the colony fails. Will they catch the saboteur before it’s too late…

14:21hrs Day 114
“Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

Hovering by the control room door, Gary Holbrook kept his eyes glued to the monitor as Joan Taggart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“Right engine’s down, left’s responding sluggishly. Have to land. Over,” said Joan sounding infinitely far away—and for practical purposes, she was. Outside, beyond the safe colony walls she was piloting Shuttle 2.

In the control room, the main monitor displayed Joan’s forward cockpit view. Towering spires of rocks extended towards the sky in all directions and Shuttle 2 was losing altitude bringing the rough terrain closer and closer. Acting Captain Craig Spares leaned over the duty officer, Lucas Ordaz, to get a closer look at the landscape.

Gary took two more paces to towards the main video feed. As the ship’s doctor, he felt outside his element, but unwilling to leave. He happened to be walking by when he heard his wife, Margo’s voice over the radio – she was on the shuttle with Joan. Taking a deep breath, he tried to forget that he hadn’t taken time that morning to ask Margo why she was going.

“There,” Craig said, pointing to a piece of landscape that looked the same as the rest. He picked up the microphone and pressed the transmit button. “Shuttle 2, there’s a flatter region at your 2 o’clock, aim for that. Over.”

“Margo get your helmet on,” Joan said, unaware she was transmitting. “Control, say again about landing site, over.”

“Your 2 o’clock.”

“They don’t have helmets on,” whispered Gary, his eyes fixed on the screen displaying the shuttle’s forward view. All sensors showed that Thesan’s atmosphere lacked oxygen. If the bubble of the shuttle’s hull was compromised, their atmosphere suits were all that would keep the two people on the shuttle alive.

“Dr. Holbrook, get ready to receive casualties,” said Craig without looking away from the monitor.

Gary didn’t move; rescuing Joan and Margo was impossible. The colony’s only other shuttle lay trapped beneath a mangled hangar door.

The three of them in the control room watched helplessly as the shuttle’s flight pattern grew more erratic, creating the illusion that the pillars of rocks were dancing and twisting. As the shuttle got closer, the rock formations appeared to be grabbing at it with Lovecraftian tentacles. Watching made Gary feel sick to his stomach, but he couldn’t turn away.

A single rock tower loomed in the display. In a split second, the monolith of pock-marked grey consumed the view. The display went black, and Joan’s life sign monitor winked out.

“Can you get any visuals?” demanded Craig. Lucas looked down to the secondary screen in front of him and began searching the video feeds. “Margo, can you hear me?” transmitted Craig, seeing that Margo’s life signs remained strong.

“It appears she got her helmet on in time, but she only has 25 minutes of air. No, make that 20 minutes,” said Lucas reading Margo’s suit sensors. He turned to Craig. “Her suit has a leak. She needs to fix it right away.”

“Margo, do you hear me?” said Craig into the comms system. There was no reply.

“Can you bring up her helmet cam?” Lucas turned back to his display.

“It appears to be damaged, look.” Lucas switched the main display view. The screen showed mostly black with a few patches of smudged light.

“Okay, keep trying the other cameras.”

Lucas flipped through views until he came to the shuttle’s cargo hold view. The camera, once showing the shuttle’s interior, now surveyed the grey landscape. Harsh blue light from the brighter sun illuminated the area. They could see a slice of the valley floor surrounded by finger-like rock formations. The crushed forward section of the shuttle could just be seen at the top of the screen. Debris littered the landscape between the two sections.

“Margo, please respond,” transmitted Craig.

The three of them stood in silence as they waited. Gary closed his eyes hoping to hear Margo’s voice.

“There, movement,” said Lucas pointing to where the valley floor moved. Gary too another step closer to look. A grey mass extended upwards. Thick waves of what appeared to be viscous drips slowly revealed the mass to be a human form.

“Is the valley floor liquid?” asked Craig.

“It shouldn’t be, but I can’t get any in situ details,” said Lucas. “All the shuttle sensors died in the crash.”

To Gary it looked like thick mud coated Margo’s suit. With muddy gloved hands, she was trying to wipe the sticky goo off her visor. After a few moments, she must have got enough muck off to see the aft part of the shuttle wreck. With viscous fluid reaching halfway up her shins, she started wading towards the wreckage.

“Ten minutes of air,” said Lucas.

“Margo, respond,” said Craig again.

Gary watched Margo emerge fully from the sludge and walk to the aft section. Mud clung to every surface of her suit.

“There’s no way she’ll find a tear in her suit covered in gunk,” said Lucas, checking the sensor readings once again.

Margo stopped and stared directly at the camera. Gary couldn’t make out her face under the smeared surface of her helmet. Alarms must be going off telling her she was leaking air. Why isn’t she trying to fix her suit?

“Five minutes.”

Margo turned and stepped out of view.

“Bring up her helmet camera,” snapped Craig. “Margo! Respond!”

“Leave her alone,” said Gary his eyes fixed on his wife’s life signs. “Let her have some peace.”

“She’s out of air,” said Lucas slumping into his seat.

On cue, Margo’s life sign monitor winked out.

And that’s all I’m sharing at this point. What do you think? Please comment below.

A years worth of food (2016)


Baskets of beans

There are good reasons to garden revolving around food security, ethics and reduced environmental impact which matter a lot to me. Some of these issues come with a rabbit hole worth of depressing information that can suck me in. Discovering more about all the nasty ways corporations are dissecting our worlds to make a profit does not leave me feeling empowered or even motivated. Part of me thinks I should write about these things but in all honesty, they leave me wanting to put my head in the sand and ignore the issues entirely.

So, positive reasons to grow my own food include flavour, variety and quality (for example, I grow the best cabbage I’ve ever eaten). Gardening also gets my family outside and covered in soil. Just spending time being still surrounded by nature and I notice things I wouldn’t normally see (like ladybug sex).

Food production is also a constant human problem that will always need to be solved. It’s an old problem, going back perhaps more than 10,000 years. It’s also a current problem urban dwellers mostly avoid. And, it’s a futuristic problem if we’re going to go off an inhabit new world (this is where my geek-dome comes in).

So on to the numbers: In 2016, I grew 120 kg of food, less than 2015 where I grew 196 kg. The biggest difference was I purposely didn’t grow many squash (I still have squash in my kitchen from 2015). I also got a full time job in April which combined with being a grad student made planting everything I intended to difficult, as a result many things didn’t get planted or harvested (my bad).

All the below, works out to feed a person requiring 2000 calories a day for 50 days – a few days less than the 62 days worth of food from last year. That extra 12 days of food was likely all squash, so no loss really.

Eggs – 149 (just over 12 dozen), these numbers are low because I sent the hens to a farm in the spring (a real farm, honest).

Roots – 6.1 kg (down from 13.54 kg in 2015), I never got around to planting carrots. I do however still have plenty of beets yet to dig up.

Greens – 5.2 kg (down from 10.49 kg in 2015), this year I lumped the kale and collards in with my brassica category.

Oniony things – 9.3 kg (up from 3.75 kg in 2015), there was a bumper crop of onions and shallots.

Sprouts – 1.8 kg (up from 0.99 kg in 2015).

Brasicas – 14.3 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015). I had tones of broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Peas/beans – 4.1 kg (up from 2.6 kg in 2015)

Herbs – 2.6 kg (up from 1 kg in 2015)

Fruit – 11.1 kg (down from 16.6 kg in 2015)

Mushrooms – 0.8 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015)

Tomatoes – 33.6 kg (similar to 2015)

Peppers – 2.4 kg (down from 4.8 kg in 2015)

Cucumber – 5.6 kg (up from the pathetic 0.5 kg in 2015)

Dried beans – 12.9 kg (up from 5.75 kg in 2015)

Potatoes – 2.8 kg (down from 33 kg in 2015, but I planted them as an afterthought)

Squash – 2.5 kg (down from the ridiculous 67 kg from 2015)

Amaranth – 2.1 kg (got almost nothing in 2015)

Sunflower seeds – 1.4 kg

Popcorn – 1.2 kg