Category Archives: Science

More about Polly… and Pluto besides

Today’s blog is mainly about the mp3 conversation extracts from Timing, which I talked about last week. And right up front here are links to my favourite two…

  • On board Rydal’s ship, the Heron… http://datascenesdev.com/Alexa/voicefiles/All_Extract_A.mp3
  • On board Parvati’s ship, the Parakeet… http://datascenesdev.com/Alexa/voicefiles/All_Extract_C.mp3

 

While talking about Timing, it seems a good idea to remind everyone about a recent review which captured neatly a great deal of what  was trying to convey in the story: “a story that provides questions as well as answers, thrill and satisfaction, and an adventure that can’t be beat“.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks they’ll be uploaded to YouTube, but for now they are just audio links included below and on the appropriate blog page. You’ll find more about this below. In passing, there’s a small prize available for the first person who correctly spots what’s wrong with the voice selection for Chandrika! Also, and unrelated to that, you’ll hear that not all of the voices are equally successful. I shall continue to tweak them, so hopefully the quality will steadily improve.

But before that, NASA just released two YouTube videos to celebrate the two year anniversary of when the New Horizons probe was at nearest approach to Pluto and Charon. They have turned the collection of images and other telemetry into flyby simulations of the dwarf planet and its moon, as though you were manoeuvring over them. Both the colours and the vertical heights of surface features have been exaggerated so you can get a better sense of what you are seeing, but that aside, it’s as close as most of us will get to personally experiencing these places.

  • Pluto: https://youtu.be/g1fPhhTT2Oo

  • Charon: https://youtu.be/f0Q7O7TZ7Ks

OK, back to Polly. As well as specifying which of several different voices you want, you can give Polly some metadata about the sentence to help generate correct pronunciation. Last week I talked about getting proper nouns correct, like Mitnash. But in English you also get lots of words which are spelled the same but pronounced differently – homonyms. The one which I ran into was “minute”, which can either be a unit of time (min-nit) or something very small (my-newt). Another problem case I found was “produce” – was I expecting the noun form (prod-yuce) or the verb (pro-deuce)?

In all such cases, Polly tries to guess from context which you mean, but sometimes guesses wrong. Happily you can simply add some metadata to say which you want. Sometimes this is simply a matter of adding in a tag saying “I want the noun”. Other times you can say which of several alternate senses of the word you want, and simply check the underlying list until you find the right one. And if all else fails, there’s always the option of spelling it out phonetically…

 

 

More about AI and voice technology

A couple of weeks ago I went to a day event put on by Amazon showcasing their web technologies. My own main interests were – naturally – in the areas of AI and voice, but there was plenty there if instead you were into security, or databases, or the so-called “internet of things”.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Readers of this blog will know of my enthusiasm for Alexa, and perhaps will also know about the range of Alexa skills I have been developing (if you’re interested, go to the UK or the US sites). So I thought I’d go a little bit more into both Alexa and the two building blocks which support Alexa – Lex for language comprehension, and Polly for text-to-speech generation.

Alexa does not in any substantial sense live inside your Amazon Echo or Dot – that simply provides the equivalent of your ears and mouth. Insofar as the phrase is appropriate, Alexa lives in the cloud, interacting with you by means of specific convenient devices. Indeed, Amazon are already moving the focus away from particular pieces of hardware, towards being able to access the technology from a very wide range of devices including web pages, phones, cars, your Kindle, and so on. When you interact with Alexa, the flow of information looks a bit like this (ignoring extra bits and pieces to do with security and such like).

Alexa information flows (simplified)
Alexa information flows (simplified)

And if you tease that apart a little bit then this is roughly how Lex and Polly fit in.

Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)
Lex and Polly information flows (simplified)

 

So for today I want to look a bit more at the two “gateway” parts of the jigsaw – Lex and Polly. Lex is there to sort out what it is you want to happen – your intent – given what it is you said. Of course, given the newness of the system, every so often Lex gets it wrong. What entertains me is not so much those occasions when you get misunderstood, but the extremity of some people’s reaction to this. Human listeners make mistakes just like software ones do, but in some circles each and every failure case of Lex is paraded as showing that the technology is inherently flawed. In reality, it is simply under development. It will improve, but I don’t expect that it will ever get to 100% perfection, any more than people will.

Anyway, let’s suppose that Lex has correctly interpreted your intent. Then all kinds of things may happen behind the scenes, from simple list lookups through to complex analysis and decision-making. The details of that are up to the particular skill, and I’m not going to talk about that.

Instead, let’s see what happens on the way back to the user. The skill as a whole has decided on some spoken response. At the current state of the art, that response is almost certainly defined by the coder as a block of text, though one can imagine that in the future, a more intelligent and autonomous Alexa might decide for herself how to frame a reply. But however generated, that body of text has to be transformed into a stream of spoken words – and that is Polly’s job.

A standard Echo or Dot is set up to produce just one voice. There is a certain amount of configurability – pitch can be raised or lowered, the speed of speech altered, or the pronunciation of unusual words defined. But basically Alexa has a single voice when you use one of the dedicated gadgets to access her. But Polly has a lot more – currently 48 voices (18 male and 30 female), in 23 languages. Moreover, you can require that the speaker language and the written language differ, and so mimic a French person speaking English. Which is great if what you want to do is read out a section of a book, using different voices for the dialogue.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

That’s just what I have been doing over the last couple of days, using Timing (Far from the Spaceports Book 2) as a test-bed. The results aren’t quite ready for this week, but hopefully by next week you can enjoy some snippets. Of course, I rapidly found that even 48 voices are not enough to do what you want. There is a shortage of some languages – in particular Middle Eastern and Asian voices are largely absent – but more will be added in time. One of the great things about Polly (speaking as a coder) is that switching between different voices is very easy, and adding in customised pronunciation is a breeze using a phonetic alphabet. Which is just as well. Polly does pretty well on “normal” words, but celestial bodies such as Phobos and Ceres are not, it seems, considered part of a normal vocabulary! Even the name Mitnash needed some coaxing to get it sounding how I wanted.

The world of Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the in preparation Authentication Key) is one where the production of high quality and emotionally sensitive speech by artificial intelligences (personas in the books) taken for granted. At present we are a very long way from that – Alexa is a very remote ancestor of Slate, if you like – but it’s nice to see the start of something emerging around us.

Friday June 30th was International Asteroid Day!

Artist's impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression of asteroid (NASA/JPL)

And no, I hadn’t realised this myself until a couple of days before… but NASA and others around the world had a day’s focus on asteroids. Now, to be sure most of that focus was looking at the thorny question of Near Earth Objects, both asteroids and comets, and what we might be able to do if one was on a collision course.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

But it seemed to me that this was as good a time as any to celebrate my fictional Scilly Isle asteroids, as described in Far from the Spaceports and Timing (and the work in progress provisionally called The Authentication Key). In those stories, human colonies have been established on some of the asteroids, and indeed on sundry planets and moons. These settlements have gone a little beyond mining stations and are now places that people call home. A scenario well worth remembering on International Asteroid Day!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

While on the subject of books, some lovely reviews for Half Sick of Shadows have been coming in.

Hoover Reviews said:
“The inner turmoil of The Lady, as she struggles with the Mirror to gain access to the people she comes in contact with, drives the tale as the Mirror cautions her time and again about the dangers involved.  The conclusion of the tale, though a heart rending scene, is also one of hope as The Lady finally finds out who she is.”

The Review said:
“Half Sick of Shadows is in a genre all its own, a historical fantasy with some science fiction elements and healthy dose of mystery, it is absolutely unique and a literary sensation. Beautifully written, with an interesting storyline and wonderful imagery, it is in a realm of its own – just like the Lady of Shalott… It truly is mesmerising.”

Find out for yourself at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

Or chat about the book with Alexa by enabling the skill at the UK or US stores.

Colonising Mars?

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, has made no secret of his plans for facilitating a colony on Mars for a long time now. But last September, in a public presentation, he explained it all in considerably more detail. The reasoning, and the raw logistical figures behind it, are still available. His credibility is built around the SpaceX programme. This in turn is based on a concept of reusing equipment rather than throwing it away each launch, and it has had a string of successes lately. The initial booster stage now returns to a landing platform, there to go through a process which recommissions it for another launch.

SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)
SpaceX booster stage returning to land (space.com credit SpaceX)

Quite apart from any recycling benefits, this then allows SpaceX to seriously undercut other firms’ prices of putting satellites into orbit. It still couldn’t be called cheap – one set of figures quotes $65 million – but that’s only about one sixth of the regular cost. If you’re happy to know that your equipment is going into orbit on a rocket that is not brand new, it’s a huge saving. Every successful launch, return to base, and relaunch, adds to buyers’ confidence that the procedure can be trusted.

But the big picture goes well beyond Earth orbit. Musk believes that the best way to mitigate the risks of life on Earth – global warming, conflict, extremist views of all kinds, and so on – is to spread out more widely. In a recent lecture, Stephen Hawking has said essentially the same thing. And in Musk’s  vision, Mars is a better bet than the moon for this, for a whole cluster of reasons including the presence of an atmosphere (albeit a thin one compared to here) and a greater likeness to Earth in terms of gravity and size.

So reusable rockets into Earth orbit are simply a starting point. Once you have a reasonably-sized fleet of such things, you can build larger objects already in space, and fly them over to Mars when the orbital positions are ideal. The logic of gravitational pull around a planet means that the hardest, and most energy-intensive part is needed to get you from the surface up to a stable orbit. Once there, much gentler and longer-lasting means of propulsion will get you onward bound.

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

To take a contemporary situation, NASA’s Dawn probe is currently orbiting the asteroid Ceres. Its hydrazine fuel, which powers the little manoeuvring and attitude thrusters, is nearly exhausted. The mission control team are trying to decide on the best course of action. In its current high orbit only a few months of fuel remain. A closer orbit, which would give better quality pictures, would use it up in a matter of weeks. But using the main ion drive, a different power source altogether, to go somewhere else would probably give a few years of science. Fairly soon we should hear which option they have chosen, and where they consider the best balance is between risk and reward. The message for here is that staying close to a planet, or taking off from one, is costly in terms of fuel.

So Musk reckons that over the course of a century or so, he can arrange transportation for a million Martian colonists. In terms of grand sweep, it is so far ahead of anyone else’s plans as to seem impossible at first sight. But if all goes according to his admittedly ambitious plan, the first of many journeys could take place ten years from now. He – and I for that matter – might not live to see the Martian population reach a million, but he certainly expects to see it firmly established.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

With Far from the Spaceports, its sequel Timing, and the work-in-progress provisionally called The Authentication Key, I deliberately did not fix a future date. It’s far enough ahead of now that artificial intelligence is genuinely personal and relational – sufficiently far ahead that it is entirely normal for a human investigator to be partnered long-term on an equal basis with an AI persona. None of the present clutch of virtual assistants have any chance at all of this, and my guess is that we are talking many generations of software development before this could happen. It’s also far enough ahead that there are colonies in many locations – certainly out as far as the moons of Saturn, and I am thinking about a few “listening post” settlements further out (watch this space – the stories aren’t written yet!). However, I hadn’t really thought in terms of a million colonists on Mars, and it may well be that, as happens so often in science fiction, real events might overtake my scenario a lot quicker than I thought likely.

Back with Musk’s proposal, one obvious consequence of the whole reuse idea is that the cost per person of getting there drops hugely. This buy-in figure is typically quoted as something like $10 billion. But the SpaceX plan drops this down to around $20,000 – cheaper than the average house price in the UK. I wonder how many people, given the chance, would sell up their belongings here in exchange for a fresh start on another planet?

I was wondering what image to finish with, and then came across this NASA/JPL picture of the Mars Curiosity Rover as seen from the Mars Orbiter (the little blue dot roughly in the middle)… a fitting display of the largeness of the planet compared to what we have sent there so far.

Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)
Mars Curiosity (blue dot) as seen from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA/JPL)

Birds of intelligence

Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)
Cover, The Genius of Birds (Goodreads)

I often think about – and blog about – machine intelligence, both its current state and future possibilities. But artificial intelligence is only one small field of study in a very large and open-ended terrain. News articles on the topic of possible extraterrestrial intelligence are relatively common, even though we have not yet detected anything that can confidently be ascribed to alien sources. Closer to home, we still don’t really understand the spectrum of human intelligence in all its different manifestations, including emotional and social astuteness as well as problem solving and pattern matching.

To add to that, I’ve been reading a fascinating book exploring the various kinds of intelligence seen in the bird world – The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. Perhaps many of us have watched videos of tool-using corvids such as the New Caledonian crows (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbSu2PXOTOc), or grey parrots demonstrating feats of speech and language comprehension going way beyond simple repetition. But avian intelligence goes well beyond these exploits, which we instantly relate to because they mirror human acts and occupations.

For a long time it was thought that since birds have no cerebral cortex, they were necessarily incapable of reasoning and abstract thought. The cortex appears in the tree of life after mammals and birds parted company. But recently it has become clear that birds simply use a different organ in their brain – the dorsal ventricular ridge, which in fact develops from the same part of the embryonic brain in a bird, that the cortex does in a mammal. The way that neurons cluster, connect, and participate in learning is the same in a bird brain as a mammal. Basically, both the birds and the mammals had to adapt to new circumstances after the natural disaster that killed off the dinosaurs – and they did so using remarkably similar strategies. The different biological frame of the two families disguises many places where a common solution has emerged.

What has this to do with writing? Well, birds can be routinely found in my science fiction stories – I assume that at minimum the more adaptable ones would find ways to survive as we spread out beyond Earth. It’s interesting to speculate which ones will accompany us.

Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale
Robin near Dungeon Ghyll, Langdale

This post is far too short to describe in any detail all the various ways in which birds display intelligence. If you want an overview of that, I recommend the book! But in brief, birds show their intelligence in a variety of ways, just like humans do. There are huge differences between species – corvids are good at problem solving, sparrows and members of the tit family are excellent at group dynamics, chickadees can remember and accurately mimic hundreds of sounds, Arctic terns are prodigiously good at navigation, herons spend considerable time and effort training their young in the art of catching fish. And so on. We tend to notice the exploits of birds which most resemble our own – like crows and parrots – but it’s always worth taking a step back to question our own blind spots. Even the birds we often dismiss as particularly stupid, often have some particular faculty at which they excel.

But as well as variation between species, individual birds of the same kind differ in particular ways. One is bolder, another more cautious. One solves particular problems much more easily than his or her siblings. Again, not very different from human beings.

Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)
Lord Vishnu riding Garuda in the form of a bird, by Raja Ravi Varma (Wikipedia)

It’s a sobering thought. Along with a handful of animals, a few birds have found their way into folklore. Odin had his ravens. Several Egyptian and Indian deities have bird emblems or companions. Hawks and eagles have frequently being used as symbols, though more often for their martial prowess than their wits. But by and large, we have rather looked down on birds, especially in the last century or so, imagining that their behaviour was driven purely by instinct rather than rationality. With the cumulative weight of evidence that has emerged over the last few decades, ancient anecdotal tales are metamorphosing into a consistent picture.

So while we’re trying to find intelligence out elsewhere in the galaxy, or to build it with our own hardware and software, let’s also give a thought for the surprisingly clever and adaptable creatures who already share our environment.

As for play? The final video is of a snowboarding crow in Russia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dWw9GLcOeA)

Language and pronunciation

Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon
Half Sick of Shadows Alexa skill icon

I’ve been thinking these last few days, once again, about language and pronunciation. This was triggered by working on some more Alexa skills to do with my books. For those who don’t know, I have such things already in place for Half Sick of Shadows, Far from the Spaceports, and Timing. That leaves the Bronze Age series set in Kephrath, in the hill country of Canaan. And here I ran into a problem. Alexa does pretty well with contemporary names – I did have a bit of difficulty with getting her to pronounce “Mitnash” correctly, but solved that simply by changing the spelling of the text I supplied. If instead of Mitnash I wrote Mitt-nash, the text-to-speech engine had enough clues to work out what I meant.

So far so good, but you can only go part of the way down that road. You can’t keep fiddling around with weird spellings just to trick the code into doing what you want. Equally, it’s hardly reasonable to suppose that the Alexa coding team would have considered how to pronounce ancient Canaanite or Egyptian names. Sure enough the difficulties multiplied with the older books. Even “Kephrath” came out rather mangled, and things went downhill from there.
Amazon Dot - Inactive
Amazon Dot – Inactive

So I took a step back, did some investigation, and found that you can define the pronunciation of unusual words by using symbols from the phonetic alphabet. Instead of trying to guess how Alexa might pronounce Giybon, or Makty-Rasut, or Ikaret, I can simply work out what symbols I need for the consonants and vowels, and provide these details in a specific format. Instead of Mitnash, I write mɪt.næʃ. Ikaret becomes ˈIk.æ.ˌɹɛt.

So that solved the immediate problem, and over the next few days my Alexa skills for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us will be going live. Being slightly greedy about such things, of course I now want more! Ideally I want the ability to set up a pronunciation dictionary, so that I can just set up a list of standard pronunciations that Alexa can tap into at need – rather like having a custom list of words for a spelling checker. Basically, I want to be able to teach Alexa how to pronounce new words that aren’t in the out-of-the-box setup. I suspect that such a thing is not too far away, since I can hardly be the only person to come across this. In just about every specialised area of interest there are words which aren’t part of everyday speech.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

But also, this brought me into contact with the perennial issue of UK and US pronunciation. Sure, a particular phonetic symbol means whatever it means, but the examples of typical words vary considerably. As a Brit, I just don’t pronounce some words the same as my American friends, so there has to be a bit of educated guesswork going into deciding what sound I’m hoping for. Of course it’s considerably more complicated than just two nations – within those two there are also large numbers of regional and cultural shifts. And of course there are plenty of countries which use English but sound quite different to either “standard British” or “standard American”.

That’s for some future, yet to be invented, dialect-aware Alexa! Right now it’s enough to code for two variations, and rely on the fact that the standard forms are recognisable enough to get by. But wouldn’t it be cool to be able to insert some extra tags into dialogue in order to get one character’s speech as – say – Cumbrian, and another as from Somerset.

Life elsewhere – for real and in fiction

Artist's impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)
Artist’s impression of an exoplanet (NASA/Caltech)

A few days ago there was an international conference held at Stanford University, at which dozens of scientists gathered to discuss how current instruments might be fine-tuned to scour nearby planetary systems for the signs of life. This in itself is a huge step forward from the situation in my teens. Back then, although people were still landing on the moon, probes to explore other planets were somewhat hit and miss, and the only thing we could do about other planetary systems was speculate. I remember earnest debates about the probability that planets might be reasonably common, but solid information was totally lacking.

Three recently confirmed planets - artist's impression (NASA/Caltech)
Three recently confirmed planets – artist’s impression (NASA/Caltech)

Then in 1992 the first planet outside our solar system was confirmed, by means of the small variations in light as it moved periodically between us and its star. Such planets are now called exoplanets, and known ones range in size from smaller than Earth, to much larger than Jupiter. The count has continued to climb, and we now recognise around 3500 of them, with another 1000 or so candidates being evaluated. The optimistic estimates of the past were correct – it seems that planets are everywhere. The search has steadily refined, and has now moved from the basic question of “are there any planets?”, through to the more subtle issues of “what are they like?” and “could anything live there?” Some are (in stellar terms) very close, including at least one circling Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us.

Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)
Cover, The Black Cloud (Goodreads)

Science fiction writers have swayed in both directions. EE (Doc) Smith was lavish in his depiction of extraterrestrial life, especially in his Lensman series in which multitudes of planets teemed with intelligent life forms of huge variety. Asimov, on the other hand, assumed a galaxy which had planets for sure, but with essentially no life other than humans. I have read that this was because John Campbell, the editor of the magazine he contributed to – Astounding Science Fiction – was hostile to the idea for both scientific and literary reasons. Be that as it may, Asimov painted an empty universe throughout his life, and in his extensive writings hardly ever touched on the chance of meeting alien life.

In general, authors have tried to think across the whole spectrum of alien response. Fred Hoyle’s Black Cloud described a life form which was scarcely even aware that planetary life was possible. Solaris (by Stanislaw Lem, spawning two films) was based around a sentient ocean, and the rather unpredictable responses of people encountering it.

Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)
Cover, War of the Worlds (Goodreads)

Well known first-contact films have, as a rule, dwelt on the possibility that aliens would be hostile. Starship Troopers, Independence Day, Predator, and the sundry Alien films have all supposed that our dealings with extraterrestrial life would be violent and difficult. It is a lineage that goes back to HG Wells and War of the Worlds. Arrival is a recent counterexample, where the hostility was in the minds of us humans rather than the newcomers. Star Wars set a trend for wild diversity, though it is striking that humanoid life forms tend to be in charge!

Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)
Captain Kirk and the silicon-based Horta (Wikipedia)

Television series, with the need for ongoing plotlines, have been more varied. Star Trek again assumed that we would find lots of variety, and even the original series explored the possibility of silicon-based life. Alien species here might be friendly, hostile, or indifferent, and you never knew what to expect. Other series have followed this pattern, steadily eroding (for the most part) the idea that humanoids are automatically the best).

Meanwhile, the quest for what is actually out there continues. Nothing has been found yet which would unequivocally indicate life exists outside our solar system: what we can say is that the preconditions for it are very abundant.

Superstition

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

I’ve been thinking on and off about superstitions for a little while now, and it’s clear from other people’s blogs that I’m not alone in this. Synchronicity, perhaps.

To be clear, I see a big difference between superstition and religious faith, and I’m not going to be critical of either. They both are built around the conviction that actions in the here and now are not just casual and without consequence. Instead, they carry weighty implications which resonate in both natural and spiritual worlds. Religious people can be superstitious, and non-religious people can be superstitious – though the rational constructions of each of religion, atheism, and science are typically hostile to such practices. People of any religion or none might throw a pinch of salt over their shoulder, or uncross knives in a drawer, or say “white rabbits” at the start of a month, or avoid walking on the divisions between paving slabs!

Religious thought tends to be more systematic, with a careful body of thought surrounding its core principles. Whether embedded in a written or oral tradition, faith encourages theology – rational exploration of the hinterland of a central mystery which itself eludes the possibility of capture. Superstition is based around individual actions which do not necessarily build into a coherent whole. Each such action serves a specific purpose, often placatory, and doesn’t have to be combined with anything else.

Hawthorn
Hawthorn

One of the fascinating things about superstitions is that they are often tied to particular situations. Often this is to do with place – some specific deed must be done in a specific place in order to be effective. So we have all kinds of special places – trees, bodies of water, hills, and so on, often quite separate from the deeply sacred foci of religious thought. A wishing well might be found only a short distance from, say, Stonehenge, or the temple at Karnak.

But as well as a special place, there are special things to do or items to use. Maybe special words to use. For today, out of all the superstitions in the world, I want to focus briefly on leaving gifts of metal. Most old towns in England – and no doubt elsewhere as well – have a wishing well where people leave coins. Often these days the coinage is collected and given to charity, but the impulse is, I believe, much older and much less thought-through than making a donation to a worthy cause.

A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)
A Bronze Age axe hoard from Galicia, Spain (Wiki)

Back in the Bronze Age in northern Europe, metal items were regularly deposited in large quantities in streams and rivers. We find tools, weapons, scraps of spare metal, jewellery and so on – the whole gamut of artefacts. In some cases these might possibly be understood as a ritual deposit of weapons, either captured from some enemy or, perhaps, being ‘retired’ after the death of the wielder. In most cases we just don’t know the reason.

What we do know is that over time this developed into a veritable industry in its own right. We find huge deposits of tools, typically axe heads without the shaft, carefully buried or placed in piles. These represent a huge investment of time and effort – the ore had to be dug, the metal prepared and moulded, and so on. But in many cases these are not items at the end of long and faithful service – they had never been used in either war or peace, and often the metal was far too soft to be useful in any sphere. These axes were made just to be disposed of.

It’s hard to think of a reason for this, given the limited resources available to the societies of the time. Often we humans have indulged in conspicuous consumption and waste, just to prove we can. Perhaps these axe deposits were an offering to placate someone or something. Perhaps the return of metal to the Earth was seen as closing the cycle of extraction. It’s an open field for guesswork, but for today I’m going to link it with the long lineage of metal gifts which also surfaces in wishing wells.

Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria
Coins hammered into tree near Grasmere, Cumbria

But there’s another similar modern habit which – at least in my mind – is connected to this. It is the habit of hammering coins into trees. In some places you can find hundreds of coins all driven into a stump or old tree – the pictures are from Cumbria, between Grasmere and Rydal, but you could find similar scenes in many other places. I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about these trees to start with – but as one person after another follows suit then the place starts to gather its own perceived value.

So the ancient tradition of giving back metal to the planet, whether in water, underground, or attached to a tree, is very much alive still in our century! I wonder which existing superstitions we will take into the future with us, and which new ones we will invent?

Cumbrian voice skills and Martian course corrections

Grasmere Lake
Grasmere Lake

My first piece of news today is by way of celebration that I have been getting some Alexa voice skills active on the Amazon store. These can now be enabled on any of Amazon’s Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Dot or Echo. One of these skills has to do with The Review blog, in that it will list out and read the opening lines of the last few posts there (along with a couple of other blogs I’m involved with). So if you’re interested in a new way to access blogs, and you’ve got a suitable piece of equipment, browse along to the Alexa skills page and check out “Blog Reader“. I’ll be adding other blogs as time goes by.

Cumbria Events Logo
Cumbria Events Logo

The second publicly available skill so far relates to my geographical love for England’s Lake District. Called “Cumbria Events“, this skill identifies upcoming events from the Visit Cumbria web site, and will read them out for the interested user. You can expect other skills to do with both writing and Cumbria to appear in time as I put them together. It’s a pity that Alexa can’t be persuaded to use a Cumbrian accent, but to date that is just not possible. Also, the skills are not yet available on the Amazon US site, so far as I know, but that should change before too long.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

In the process I’ve discovered that writing skills for Alexa is a lot of fun! Like any other programming, you have to think about how people are going to use your piece of work, but unlike much of what I’ve done over the years, you can’t force the user to interact in a particular way. They can say unexpected things, phrase the same request in any of several ways, and so on. Alexa’s current limitation of about 8 seconds of comprehension favours a conversational approach in which the dialogue is kept open for additional requests. The female-gendered persona of my own science fiction writing, Slate, is totally conversational when she wants to be.

It all makes for a fascinating study of the current state of the art of AI. I feel that if we can crack unstructured, open-ended conversation from a device – with all of the subtleties and nuances that go along with speech – then it will be hard to say that a machine cannot be intelligent. Alexa is a very long way from that just now – you reach the constraints and limitations far too early. But even accepting all that, it’s exciting that an easily available consumer device has so much capability, and is so easy to add capabilities.

Artists's impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)
Artists’s impression, MAVEN and Mars (NASA/JPL)

But while all that was going on, a couple of hundred million kilometres away NASA ordered a course correction for the Mars Maven Orbiter. This spacecraft, which has been in orbit for the last couple of years, was never designed to return splendid pictures. Instead, its focus is the Martian atmosphere, and the way this is affected by solar radiation of various kinds. As such, it has provided a great deal of insight into Marian history. So MAVEN was instructed to carry out a small engine burn to keep it well clear of the moon Phobos. Normally they are well separated, but in about a week’s time they would have been within a few seconds of one another. This was considered too risky, so the boost ensures that they won’t now be too close.

Now this attracted my attention since Phobos plays a major part in Timing – it’s right there on the cover, in fact. In the time-frame of Timing, there’s a small settlement on Phobos, which is visited by the main characters Mitnash and Slate as they unravel a financial mystery. This moon is a pretty small object, shaped like a rugby ball about 22 km long and about 17 or 18 km across its girth, so my first reaction was to think what bad luck it was that Maven should be anywhere near Phobos. But in fact MAVEN is in a very elongated orbit to give a range of science measurements, so every now and again its orbit crosses that of Phobos – hence the precautions. This manoeuvre is expected to be the last one necessary for a very long time, given the orbital movements of both objects. So we shall continue getting atmospheric observations for a long while to come.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Some space news

I ran out of time this week to do much by way of blogging, so here are three bits of space news which may well make their way into a story sometime.

Stop Press: just today NASA announced that a relatively close star (39 light years away) has no less than 7 planets approximately Earth size orbiting it… see and the schematic picture at the end of the blog.

False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)
False colour image of the area of interest (NASA/JPL)

Firstly, the Dawn probe, still faithfully orbiting the asteroid Ceres, has detected complex organic molecules in two separate areas in the middle latitudes of the dwarf planet. The onboard instruments are not accurate enough to pin the molecules down precisely, but it seems likely that they are forms of targets.  The analysis also suggests that they formed on Ceres itself, rather than being deposited there by a meteor. The most likely cause is thought to be the action of warm water circulating through chemicals under the surface. Some of the headlines suggest that this could signal the presence of life, but it’s more cautious to say that it shows that the conditions under which life could develop are present there.

Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)
Recent cratering on Mars (HiRise camera, U Arizona)

The second snippet spells difficulty for my hypothetical Martian settlements. This picture was captured by the Mars Orbiter and shows two larger impact craters surrounded by a whole array of smaller ones. The likely scenario is that one object split into a cluster of fragments as it passed through the Martian atmosphere. This of itself wouldn’t be too surprising, but inspection of older photos of the same area shoes that this impact happened between 2008 and 2014. No time at all in cosmic terms, and not so much fun if you’d carefully built yourself a habitable dome there.

The problem is the thinness of the Martian atmosphere. It is considerably deeper than our one here on Earth, but hugely less dense. So when meteors arrive at the top of the layer of air, they don’t burn up so comprehensively as Earth-bound ones. More of them reach the surface. Even a comparatively small rock has enough kinetic energy to really spoil your day. Something that will need some planning…
Artist's impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)
Artist’s impression of Kuiper Belt object (NASA)

Finally we zoom right out to the cold, dark reaches of the outer solar system. A long way beyond the orbit of Pluto there is a region called the Kuiper Belt, and out in the Kuiper Belt a new dwarf planet has recently been found. It goes by the catchy name of 2014 UZ224 and it took nearly two years to confirm its existence. Best estimates are that it is a little over 300 miles across – about half the size of Ceres. I’ve never sent Mitnash and Slate out anywhere like that – it’s about twice as far from Earth as Pluto, and the journey alone would take about four months one-way. I do have vague plans for a story set out in the Kuiper Belt, but appropriately enough it’s some way off yet. But even at that distance, you’re still less than half a percent of the distance to the nearest star… space is really big!

Schematic picture of Trappist-1's planets
Schematic picture of Trappist-1’s planets