Category Archives: Timeline

AI in space… or, how close are we to Slate?

There has been a whole bundle of space news this week – so much, in fact, that I had to temporarily postpone my series of going through how the different planets have been portrayed in fiction. Instead, I picked a couple of key stories which most appealed.

The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
The western side of Cerealia Facula, from an altitude of about 21 miles (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)

The first – and much the shorter – is to do with the Dawn space probe. Readers may remember that a few months ago, the decision was taken to use the remaining fuel to lower the orbit as far as safely feasible. This means better images (and results from other instruments) as the orbit now goes down as low as about 20 miles. The first pictures have started to appear, and very striking they are, and over the next few months I expect that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the surface chemistry. The first approach to Ceres revealed enigmatic bright spots on the surface (known as faculae), which are now recognised as salty deposits of carbonates – the largest such deposits away from the Earth, in fact. But do they ooze up through cracks and fissures from deep underground, or is there a reservoir of brine just below the surface? It is possible that the new low orbit wil shed light on this.

But the main story-telling event of interest was part of the contents of the Soyuz shuttle which docked with the ISS a little while ago. As well as three crew and a bunch of science experiments, a mobile AI called CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile Companion) arrived…

CIMON - the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)
CIMON – the first AI crew assistant for spaceflight crews (Airbus/NASA)

CIMON is powered by the IBM Watson software, has a digital “face”, and is capable of interacting with the Station crew via facial expressions, emotions, and voice.  Excitingly – so far as I am concerned – CIMON is European in origin, having been developed by Airbus. The enclosing shell was 3d printed, and weighs about 5kg (which only matters if it collides with something, as the ISS is routinely in microgravity). It wil remain free-flying and able to navigate to the various parts of the ISS at need.

CIMON has several purposes – first, it gives the internal neural networks plenty of new material to learn from, but the intention is that the crew will work with the AI to find collaborative solutions to problems. The science objectives are listed as:

The Pilot Study with the Crew Interactive MObile companioN (Cimon) is a technology demonstration project, and an observational study, that aims to obtain the first insights into the effects on crew support by an artificial intelligence (AI), in terms of efficiency and acceptance during long-term missions in space. Spaceflight missions put the crew under a substantial amount of stress and workload, and it is thought that AI could provide operational support to crew members.

So although CIMON can certainly provide early warning of particular categories of technical problems, and will assist with a number of predefined experiments, the goal is to provide social interaction.

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

Which brings me, naturally, to Slate! Slate, the main persona AI in Far from the Spaceports, is several generations of AI beyond what we enjoy today. Voice assistants like Alexa, Google Home, Siri, Cortana and so on are currently Earth-tethered in the sense that the software and database needed to comprehend and respond to a user’s request lives in cloud-based servers here on the planet. Even a trip to the moon (just over a second light signal time each way) would seriously strain conversational ability, and a trip out to the asteroids – say half an hour signal lag – is entirely out of the question. I don’t know whether CIMON relies on Earth-based data to understand what the astronauts will say, or whether a data source has been uploaded to the ISS itself. Keeping tethered to Earth would certainly be feasible at the ISS orbital height – but to go further afield we will need to crack the problem of large-scale localised data storage (maybe using DNA?).

I’ve never committed to an exact year for the events of Far from the Spaceports or Timing, but my feel is something like a century. I feel that probably I have been a little too cautious with this, and that in reality there’s a fair chance that AI having close to Slate’s capabilities could be around within my lifetime. On the other hand, my guess is that human colonies out at and beyond the asteroids won’t be around for a few years after my guess, so maybe it evens up!

Meanwhile, here’s a YouTube video (at for those getting this through email) showing part of CIMON’s development…



New timeline events

Cover - The Flame Before Us
Cover – The Flame Before Us

Over the weekend I spent some happy moments updating the Kephrath timeline page with the events in The Flame Before Us. This proved to be a little more tricky than I had anticipated – the entire action of the book takes place in rather less than two months, so I had the problem of managing a whole lot of overlapping events.

But that is all done now so everything is up to date!

Over the next few weeks I will be doing a short study of each of the four strands contained in the book – Tadugari and Anilat from Ikaret, Nikleos and Kastiandra of the Sherden, the Mitsriy scribe Hekanefer, and Labayu, who originally comes from Kephrath but is living in the town of Ramath Galil, rather to the north of the area he knows. I’m not quite sure of the format yet but as usual there will be a blend of history and fiction!

Kephrath timeline

Some months ago (Timelines and maps, January 2015) I talked about setting up a timeline + map for my Kephrath stories. At that time I was just using some third party pages for which I entered data in some convenient form and then linked to a remote web page. This time around I have done it properly and used a proper Javascript library ( within the context of my own web site – check out for the result. The link is also in the blog menu above…

Some events from In a Milk and Honeyed Land and Scenes from a Life, plus surrounding history
Some events from In a Milk and Honeyed Land and Scenes from a Life, plus surrounding history

Fundamentally this works in exactly the same way as the third party pages, but of course I now have much more direct control over the content and appearance. Basically the source data is supplied in a format called JSON – easy to grasp and prepare, but rather strict and unforgiving about the details of formatting. The JSON data includes not only the events themselves – dates and descriptions – but also the details about colours and layout.

The latest version of Google maps allows you to remove modern artifacts such as roads, country names, and the like, so is ideally suited for me. Or indeed many of my historical fiction co-authors who write about various times in the past.

So far, key events are in place for In a Milk and Honeyed Land, and Scenes from a Life. I am currently in the process of entering the additional data for The Flame Before Us – this book covers only a few months of time, unlike the two earlier books which spanned a considerable number of years. So the dates will be rather squashed together. But of course the beauty of the system is that as I write more books, the new fictional history – and any relevant actual historical events surrounding it – can simply be added in.

The start of The Flame Before Us, plus surrounding events
The start of The Flame Before Us, plus surrounding events

Remember: !

Timelines and maps

I spent part of the holiday season exploring a few online tools for visualising the time and/or space of books. There are plenty of these that allow you to hook up a web page to some sort of data source – Google spreadsheets or direct data entry are the favourites – behind the scenes this gets turned into something called JSON which works beautifully with web page displays, but is not very readable… as a user you don’t really care about that though.

For the more technically minded of us, there are freely available code libraries that you can incorporate into your own website (but not into most blogs because of the restrictions that most apply regarding scripts). I will probably look into these sometime as – perhaps inevitably – none of the already-prepared ones quite does what I want. To remind myself, if nobody else, one such library is But more of that another time.

There were two variations I looked at – simple timelines, and timelines which also display related map data for a combined time + space representation. I only considered ones which allowed BC dates since otherwise they would have been entirely useless to me.

Timeline only
Kephrath events - timeline onlyAfter looking at several I ended up with

Yes I know it is a silly domain name, but that’s what you sometimes get online!

Positive things:

  1. The colour scheme is highly configurable
  2. You can set up different “categories” and use these to colour code the entries – in my case the colour coding is mainly by book, but also with separate colours for historical and biographical notes
  3. There are options to change the way the events are displayed – separate stripes per category, different numbers of vertical bands, etc – even a sort of pseudo 3d display
  4. It is free – at least for a single timeline, though you have to pay if you want to set up multiple timelines

Negative things:

  1. They don’t let you embed the result in your own web page (unless you pay)
  2. The display always opens at the first event, which in my case is well before the events that I want people to start with
  3. There are still things you cannot configure (like text colour)
  4. Data entry gets progressively more frustrating the more entries you set up (since it is all typed directly into text boxes and the like), and I’m not sure there is an easy way to set up a real data source
  5. There’s no map

Timeline plus map
Kehrath events - timeline and mapThere are not so many of these, and I chose

This gets closer to what I wanted, but is still not perfect.

Positive things:

  1. The map resizes itself automatically to fit your geographic needs
  2. The integration between timeline and map is pretty good, and you can load the screen at any event you choose
  3. Data entry scales well since it is based on a Google spreadsheet rather than manual entry
  4. It is free
  5. There is an easy way to embed the result into your own web page

Negative things:

  1. There are very few configurable colour options, and in particular all map pointers are the same colour so you cannot discriminate easily between threads
  2. The map itself cannot be configured to show less information, so in particular you cannot hide modern placenames

The problem of modern names, boundaries, etc was one which I faced some years ago with a mobile app to explore early alphabetic developments, and found at the time that ESRI maps, unlike Google, can be configured to show only geographic features rather than human infrastructure. This is where the Google timemap library would come in handy… among other things it allows you to switch between different map providers. And I am sure that you can configure the look just however you want. This can be a project for when The Flame Before Us is finished!

Now those of my friends who write historical fiction could quite easily do something similar here – any date range from remote past into the future can be accessed, and the geography of the planet has – for the most part – not changed so very much over the range most of us write about.

And writers of science fiction or fantasy could fairly easily make use of the timeline aspects of this, though I do not yet know if timeline dates can be configured to say something like “Star Date 12345”. However, the map aspect might be a problem. Some books make use of non-standard geography, like erratically appearing islands (such as Borschland) which, as yet, Google and the other map providers have overlooked.

Other books are set on different planets altogether. I guess a truly dedicated writer with the necessary technical skills could write their own map tile server which would define the necessary worlds (rather like Google have done with their Moon and Mars variants of Google Earth).

So where am I going to take this? Well, I think it is a good way to present something about the book. I will be adding in new bits and pieces as they become available and time permits. And later this year I intend putting in the work to customise the map, colours and so on.

But I also think it needs a bit more than just the raw data. Some photos of relevant places would be nice, or maybe links to book extracts or character studies. The timeline, even when enhanced by the map, is only a first step into a visual exploration of the books.

More updates – and the birthday giveaway has not yet ended!

First and foremost, it was my very great pleasure to read a review this morning on Goodreads – an extract follows

Flowing, eloquent descriptions of the region, traditions, music, and writings of the people of those times immerse the reader. I felt as if I were there, standing at “the high place” with the world spread out before me, walking in an ancient olive grove, hearing the soothing notes of a lyre. I wanted to be there, to be part of the exhilarating festivals, to share in the people’s sorrows, to face their challenges with them. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, yet I hated to see the book end.

Considering the depths of emotion explored, the lessons conveyed, and the story told, “In a Milk and Honeyed Land” is an astonishingly easy read. More than that, it’s utterly beautiful.

For the full review, check out Goodreads. As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled to find this! Meanwhile, here are some (modern) olive trees in the region of the four towns…

Olive grove in the region of the four towns

The birthday giveaway continues – some of the free download tokens have gone but others still remain, so if you want to receive a download token and instructions how to use it please contact me at soonish. Electronic copies only, I’m afraid, as the physical soft- or hard-back versions are not included in this.

So meanwhile… updates continue over at the Kephrath site. Some of them are just geeky things to bring the web technologies used up to date – the shiny new rotating news feed on the home page is one such, and the book review filter at is another. But as well as that I finally got the timeline page out at It’s fairly basic at the moment but from this point on I can enhance it as time permits.

Keep watching for more changes…


Another short post today as much of my time this week has gone into overhauling bits and pieces of my online writing presence! For one thing, the information pages of this blog are now much more comprehensive than they used to be. My Shelfari listing got dusted off and improved, and both the Kephrath and Matteh Publications sites have had minor tweaks.

My last remaining endeavour for this round is to set up a timeline indicating where each piece of writing fits into place, and what was going on in the wider world at the time. That should be fun, and the whole issue of timelines and chronology was one of the main things that started me on the PhD in the first place. It ended up being quite a minor part in the end, with issues of literary style taking the foreground, but the interest has never entirely left me.

By way of introduction, here is a rather simple version of the end results (all dates are approximate)…

Egyptian New Kingdom starts, Egypt begins expanding into Canaan.

Vigorous expansion of Egyptian territory in Canaan. The basic policy of leaving loyal city rulers in place and discouraging regional alliances is set up and never significantly changed.

Amarna period in Egypt
The Lady of the Lions

Reign of Rameses II, provincial conquests retained but not extended. Military activity declines through this reign.

In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Egyptian foreign policy focuses increasingly on the richer and better defended coastal lands.

The Man in the Cistern

Scenes from a Life

Egyptian military presence disappears from Canaan for the better part of two centuries, but strong trade and cultural influence continues. Internally Egypt splits into several competing regional factions. In the province of Canaan local rival kingdoms (including the Israelites) establish themselves.

c. 1100
New Kingdom ends, Third Intermediate Period begins.