Sunday, October 21, 2018

Skull Month, week 3: Brain and brain!

I admit it. Sometimes I make obscure cultural references just to make my kids wonder what's wrong with their mother.

One of the things I sometimes say is, "Vagel, I'm coming!" It's from Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need duology. One of the characters is a master mage gone mad, and he has a tendency to hop through mirrors while yelling to another master mage that he's on his way. (The Watchers in the audience are saying, "I knew that!")

Another phrase that pops into my head occasionally is, "Brain and brain! What is brain?" I expect more folks will get this one -- it's from the opening episode of the third season of the original Star Trek. The episode is called "Spock's Brain" and in it, a crew of marauding women procure said brain from Spock's head and make off with it. Kirk and the gang track them back to their home planet, where they discover that the women -- who are called Eymorgs -- have installed Spock's brain as a sort of planetary CPU.

In case that doesn't refresh your memory, here's a four-minute condensed version that I found on YouTube:

As you can see, uninstalling and installing a brain requires advanced technical knowledge, but it's clear the Eymorgs don't have any. In order to complete their task, their leader must don special headgear called The Teacher. The device temporarily imparts sufficient information to the leader so she can do what needs to be done. It's kind of like cramming for a test. And Mr. McCoy must resort to using the same device to put Spock's brain back where it belongs.

Supposedly this is the worst episode of the series. I have no opinion either way -- other episodes annoy me more -- but it does underscore the way the original Star Trek was a creature of its times, particularly when it comes to portraying women.

Don't get me wrong -- the series made great strides for women. Uhura, who was both black and female, was a bridge officer, and the voice of the computer was female. One presumes there were more women on the crew than just Uhura and Nurse Chapel, although we never see them -- or at least I don't remember seeing any. (Yes, I know that Majel Barrett was both Nurse Chapel and the computer's voice. And yes, I know she was married to Gene Roddenberry.)

But then there's Kirk's constant womanizing. And you also get the story lines like the one in "Spock's Brain," in which the women are dumb bunnies who are looked upon by their male counterparts as "givers of pain and delight." To be fair, the men don't appear to be any brighter. Why "the builders" -- the ancestors who built the underground facility where the Eymorgs live -- thought it would be a good idea to keep their descendents stupid is a question for the ages.

Be that as it may, I find this women-as-other attitude in a lot of early science fiction, and it keeps me from appreciating it as much as I otherwise might. For example, I enjoyed Robert Heinlein's early work, but then he started relying on horny old Lazarus Long as a deus ex machina who got him out of every plot hole. And I remember thinking when I read Dune that Frank Herbert didn't have much use for women.

I get that these guys were writing for other guys, or for themselves. But still I'm glad that science fiction has progressed to the point where women are captaining starships instead of asking what a brain is.

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These moments of brainy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

This post may be in eleven dimensions.

Maybe I'll make this brain month. Last week I talked about knitting my sugar skull cowl; the skull, of course, houses the brain. So today I'm going to peer inside the skull at the brain, or something very like it.

geralt | CC0 | Pixabay
I admit that I don't make an effort to stay up-to-date on scientific breakthroughs, so I wasn't  surprised to learn that this bit of news slipped through the cracks last year: A couple of experts in algebraic topology (who knew that was a thing?) published a paper in which they described the brain as being capable of thinking in eleven dimensions. These dimensions don't actually exist, mind you. What the researchers did was apply algebra to the firing of neurons in a rat's brain, and kept track of the number of neurons involved in a particular stimulation. The connection between two neurons, as between any two points, is a line, which is two-dimensional; when more become involved, in what researchers call a clique, the interaction becomes three- and four-dimensional (the fourth dimension being time). When cliques begin interacting with one another, though, they routinely operate in seven dimensions and even up to eleven. Mathematically, at least. It's not something tangible, and the clique connections dissolve when the information exchange is done. One of the researchers likened these virtual structures to sand castles that fall apart at the next high tide. Another thing: cliques form around empty space, and this researcher speculated whether those empty spaces are where memories are stored.

I'm no scientist, but I can't help but wonder whether those empty spaces are not so much storage pods for memories as crucibles for creativity. Sometimes when my brain catches hold of an idea and begins pinging it around inside my skull, making associations on the fly, it feels a little like I'm building something out of thin air. A virtual sand castle, maybe?

I wondered whether these eleven-dimensional structures had anything to do with neural networks, so I looked it up -- and they don't. A neural network is a set of algorithms that allows computers to make decisions based on evolving sets of data. Neural networks are supposed to mimic human brain activity -- but they're pretty clearly primitive compared to the sort of thing these researchers in algebraic topology have found.

Anyway, the mathematicians behind this are affiliated with the Blue Brain Project, which aims to create a digital simulation of the brain. It's been in operation since 2005 and it's headquarted at a university in Geneva, Switzerland. The organization plans to simulate a rat brain first, and then move on to simulating the human brain.

If rats can model eleven dimension in their tiny rat brains, it makes you wonder how many dimensions humans can do. Maybe more! Or maybe less. Time, I guess, will tell.

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These moments of multi-dimensional blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Knitting skulls as relaxation.

I'm skipping past the opportunity to write a topical post this week. The Supreme Court nomination process has stressed me out so much that I've been knitting every evening. So I'm going to talk about my latest project -- which, if not topical, is at least seasonal.

Alert readers of hearth/myth have figured out by now that I have kind of a thing for sugar skulls. So last year, when a friend showed me a pattern for a Day of the Dead cowl that featured colorwork sugar skulls, I was determined to make it. And then I got busy with other stuff and never started it.

Last weekend, I got together for a knitting session with that friend and another one, and the cowl pattern came up. We decided it would be a perfect project for the three of us to work on at the same time, with the goal of finishing it by Halloween. A cowl out of worsted weight yarn does not take a long time to make -- even if it's not plain knitting. Plus it gave us an excuse to go to the yarn store.

You can click here to see what the project looks like. (I'm not posting the photo because I don't have the rights to it.) The rainbow-striped yarn used in the original has been discontinued, but we thought a variegated yarn would be a decent substitute. A knitting blogger used variegated yarns for both the main color and background color -- and then she swapped them and made the cowl a second time. That gave me an idea: What if I made my cowl reversible?

The technique is called double knitting, and I've been intrigued by it ever since Amy began using it to make things for her fellow Ingress players. Essentially you knit two fabrics -- one the negative image of the other -- at the same time. The resulting fabric is double the thickness, which is not a bad quality in a winter cowl.

Anyway, it's going pretty fast. I've already finished the bottom half of the skull, including the nose hole, and am about to start on the eye sockets. Here's the side with the dark background. There are plain stripes at the bottom and a flower-motif border under the skull.


And here's the reverse.


I'm really pleased with how it's going. In fact, I should have enough yarn left to make a hat to match. I'm not sure whether I'll finish the hat by Halloween, but we'll see.

I'll post photos when the cowl is done.

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Publishing news: Speaking of Halloween, I'm pleased to announce that I have a story in Boo! Volume 5, a.k.a. A Fifth of Boo! My story is called "The Atherton Vampire" -- it's a prequel to the vampire novel I've been working on off and on. A bunch of other awesome writers also have stories in this volume, including Laurie Boris, JD Mader, and Mark Morris, and proceeds are going to cancer research.

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These moments of double-knitted blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

I believe survivors.

I don't want to write this post.

It's already been a tough week for many of us who have suffered abuse in the past. Survivors of sexual abuse have had the worst time, I expect; a lot of them have been triggered by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony against Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Her account of what happened to her at a party 30 years ago brought up memories -- for some of them, memories they'd thought long buried.

The good news, if there is any, is many of the folks -- both women and men -- who were triggered sought help. The National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by the Rape, Assault and Incest National Network (RAINN) saw its traffic spike by more than 200%. (The hotline is still open, by the way; you can call 1-800-456-HOPE any time.)

None of the junk I went through would qualify as sexual abuse, thank goodness. There was one time in college when I was on the receiving end of an unsolicited dick pic. Some guy came up to us at a bar (Nick's English Hut in Bloomington, Indiana) and offered to show us a photo of his "friend" -- and then did. He'd even framed it. Unbelievable. Seriously, gentlemen -- if you have a photo of your junk, keep it to yourself.

Anyway, it never went beyond him shoving the photo at us, which is nothing like what Deborah Ramirez says Kavanaugh did to her when they were in college. And yet I still remember it, 40 years later.

Still, I learned this week that when it comes to triggers, abuse is abuse. I mentioned in my memoir, Mom's House, that one way I learned to cope with the emotional and verbal abuse I endured as a child was to binge eat. This past Thursday, I spent the day at work avoiding live video coverage of the hearings; instead, I read live blogs of the proceedings to keep up. I might as well have watched the video. I went home Thursday night, ordered a pizza, and ate the whole thing.

The lines between types of abuse aren't clear-cut. After all, abusers typically use more than one tactic to keep their victims on the string. "Don't tell anybody -- this will be our little secret" is, of course, emotional abuse.

Anyway, I'd rather be doing just about anything than writing this post. I'd rather be telling you more about my most recent vacation and how it relates to that #escapevelocity thing I talked about a while back. Or I could be writing about my new knitting project, in which I've adapted a colorwork cowl pattern to double knitting. Heck, I could be working on that cowl right now.

But it's important for us to keep talking about this stuff, no matter how painful. For me, that dick pic is wrapped up with the anger and humiliation I felt when my brother teased me, and it's also attached to the memory of a radio station program director who told me, with a straight face, that women shouldn't work morning drive (from 5:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m., the most lucrative time slot for air talent) because studies had shown that nobody wants to wake up to a woman's voice. Which I took to mean that hearing a girl on the radio in the morning would remind our male listeners of their unresolved stuff with Mom.

And then there was the time when I was covering an event while pregnant and a local businessman told me he was sure I was carrying a boy, because I looked happy, and every woman was happier with a little Peter inside her. He thought he was hilarious.

I swear to all the gods, I am not making this stuff up.

Which is why I believe Dr. Ford and Ms. Ramirez. I believe any women -- and any men -- who didn't come forward when the thing happened, 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, because they were embarrassed or too young or didn't think anyone would believe them, or maybe they did tell someone and weren't believed, and now some of the details are fuzzy. But the pain is seared into their souls.

I wish I didn't have to write this post. But I'm not going to shut up about this stuff. Because the only way to make it stop is for us to keep making noise.

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These moments of noisy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.