Sunday, October 28, 2018

The final brain post, and a plea for kindness.

This post will be somewhat disjointed. I promised y'all I would post the sugar skull cowl when I finished it. As Samhain, Halloween and Día de los Muertos are all coming up this week, I need to do that today. But my head and heart are elsewhere right now, and I imagine a lot of you feel the same way. I'll get to that in a minute.

First, the cowl. Double knitting turned out to be perfect for this project. As you may recall, the idea behind double knitting is that you end up with a double-thick item that has a colorwork design on one side and the negative image of it on the other side. You knit both layers at the same time. It's a fun technique that I'll likely do again someday.

Here's the finished product:

I put some corkscrew fringe on top of the hat for fun.

I find that which side I wear depends on the color of my coat or jacket. With my navy blue quilted coat, I've been wearing the multicolored background. With my brown jacket, I've been wearing the side with the blue background showing.

Of course, it's now supposed to be 70 degrees on Wednesday. Maybe it'll be cold enough in the office for the cowl.

As I mentioned, Samhain is coming up this week. Many Pagans consider this our New Year's Eve. As the Wheel of the Year turns, Samhain marks the start of the dark half of the year, a time to go within ourselves and contemplate our personal harvest and what we might want to accomplish in the year to come.

It's also said to be one of the times of the year when the veil between worlds becomes thin. That makes it easier to reach those on the other side -- magical beings as well as those who have gone ahead of us in death. The veil doesn't thin all at once, for an hour at the stroke of midnight on Halloween or anything like that. It's a gradual thing. I've even heard some folks say that in general, the veil is thinner now than usual. 

Anyway. I don't mean for this to sound dramatic, but several days ago I received a message from the other side that I'd like to share with you. Here it is: It's going to get worse before it gets better.

I was dismayed but not surprised. Our country -- as well as much of Western society -- has been deteriorating pretty steadily into two polarized camps, and those in charge don't seem inclined to lead us out of it. In fact, they're egging us on. It gets them votes, after all, and keeps them in power.

And so just this past week, we've learned that someone thought it would be a good idea to send pipe bombs through the mail to many liberal political leaders and some news organizations. And just yesterday, someone thought it was a good idea to take a gun into a synagogue and shoot a bunch of old people -- some of them survivors of the Holocaust.

A lot of us are sick at heart over this poisoned atmosphere we're all living in. How do we clear the air? It's like we're at war with one another. How do we stop the madness?

The Associated Press talked to Robb Willer, a sociology professor at Stanford University. Willer calls this "the question of our time:  Are we going to choose to continue the war, or are we going to choose peace? And we don’t know yet what the answer to that will be, because while a majority of Americans are fed up with the extremity of our political divisions, it does feel like we’re stuck here." And then he says, "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Gee, I've heard that somewhere before.

I know this is going to sound like liberal snowflake claptrap, but you know what would fix this? If we all just decided to be kind. I'm serious -- that's all it would take. Be kind to everyone you know and everyone you meet. Assume the best instead of the worst. And if someone is trying to scare you into hating someone or a group of someones, ask yourself why. 

There's an election coming up on November 6th. It's too late to register in most jurisdictions, but if you're not registered and you still can, do it. Then cast your vote on election day -- or sooner, if they'll let you. But don't vote out of fear. Vote for kindness. It may sound like the weenie option, but I'm pretty sure it's the only thing that will save us.

These moments of bifurcated blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Get out and vote!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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