Sunday, 26 July 2015

Tunnel Vision on the Internet and How to Avoid it.

Someone once told me: 'If everyone is looking one way then look the other.'

I remember doing this at Stonehenge and was amazed.  Everyone else was looking at these big stones arranged with effort and skill unimaginable with the technology of the time and I looked at the fertile plain surrounding them, the many burial mounds and the flow of traffic from the nearby road.  Also the military exercise that was under way in the woods nearby.

That was why Stonehenge was there: it was the centre of trading, farming and a safe place to live. More than a place to watch the sunrise, it was where a community grew and so did it's influence, it was a seat of power and that power didn't come from a ring of stones, despite what many New Age folk would like to believe.  Like a palace or cathedral isn't the power, but the sign of the power.

The Internet is an ever expanding realm of information and yet most people hover round a few islands of comfort without plunging out into the ocean of information.  Ask yourself how many websites did you visit today?  Were they the same ones as you visited yesterday?  Google will point you to what you want, Wikipedia will have an article on the subject that you want to learn about, but, and it's a big BUT, is it re-enforcing your beliefs and telling you what it's telling everyone else?

I write and paint, I'm also a creative - I am an engineer - and if you do the same as everyone else, collect the facts everyone else collects you will do what everyone else does.  It's like reading the same newspaper (or news sites) everyday.  Your best mate is telling you the news you want to hear.  Me, I read stuff I from the other guy's point of view, just in case the other guy is right.

If you want to be creative you need to find what others don't, see the world anew or at least sideways.  Look where everyone else isn't looking.  Often you'll be surprised, sometimes horrified.  In my researches I once discovered a propaganda site preaching hate and showing terrible things to justify other terrible things.  That was an extra education for me.  That's a warning:  you will find things off the beaten path and sometime it'll be a tiger ready to bite you.

Here are my top tips for avoiding tunnel vision on the Internet.

1. Avoid Wikipedia

It's a great tool, but it's where everyone goes.  Use it to validate other searchers, but check you aren't in a Wikipedia loop where it was the source for a site that is a source for Wikipedia.  There is the notorious 'Flange of Gorillas (or baboons)' issue.  Look up its derivation and be surprised.
How to avoid this look for the references, find an expert's name and search on that.  Make sure the expert hasn't used Wikipedia too.

In my blog entries you'll often find a useful links section.  It rarely points to Wikipedia. I do use it, it is a good tool, but I will try to find something deeper.

2. Move off Google's First Page

Apparently when people search the Internet, they use Google and few go beyond the first page of results.  If you want to do something different click on the second, third or tenth page.

3. Try other Search Engines

Google is great tool, but if you want different and new try other search engines, compare them to see if they come up with the same answers as Google.

My personal favourites are:
www.duckduckgo.com - it doesn't track you, so it can't learn what you like.
www.dogpile.com - it searches other search engines so you can spot the well worn trails.
www.ask.co.uk - it follows a different sort of logic

Related to my last post Space is too Big for Rockets but not for Humans why not search on 'How to Build a Canoe' and compare results.

Want some more ideas, why not try the Search Engine List?

5. Find an Enthusiast's Site

I propose you find many of them so you can compare what they are saying.  Have you noticed there is a lot of 'compare' in this article?  Not, very subtle, I know, but you need to check and check again.  Especially if it is something you already 'know' to be true.  You'll be amazed what you think you know isn't right at all; for example: by the time Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic most people knew it was round and had known that for a very long time.  What makes a good story isn't necessarily true.

I was researching European unarmed combat techniques, which sadly vanished under the popularity firearms.  I found this site: www.thearma.org which is a really well constructed and researched site.  It was a real eye-opener and very educational.  I didn't stop there.  One of the things that makes this site a good one is that they list their sources of information, so of course I could research some more.

6. Find an Enthusiast

There are people who are full of enthusiasm for their subject and want to share it.  Try science clubs or night school classes.  If you're interested in history, there are re-enactment societies. Where I live, where you have to wade through history in big boots, there are dozens of groups who put on displays.  These guys are the best educators I know.  Often, after the display or show, they'll be open for the general public to wander up and have a chat.

From a Roman group I learnt the Romans could make spring steel and had an understanding of magnification.  I also got to try on armour and handle a gladius (sword) and pugio (dagger).  That is something the Internet can't do.

From a Victorian re-enactor I learnt that corsets become more flexible - that's a relative term - the longer you wear them because body heat effects the stiffening material (bone or steel).  Oh yeah and floor-length skirts wick up water from wet grass so although not fashionable working folk had shorter skirts for practical reasons.

7. Start your Search with a Book

Go and find a book on the subject.  Often they have more depth and validation than Internet sources. Hey I'm just writing this as I go along, which is the core of most of the Internet.  What I am writing has not been vetted, checked or even edited by anyone else (apologies for any spelling errors).  Books have editors, professional readers and non-fiction ones often have knowledgeable reviewers too, though with the rise of self-publication, that may be less true than it used to be.  It helps with the fact checking.

8. Talk to your local Librarian

Librarians know a lot, not just about books, but the local community too.  They will not only help you find the books you want, even if you didn't know you needed them.  They will also know about local societies, up-coming exhibits and other things that will help you find new information.  Don't forget your local museum either, they are a gem of knowledge in every town.  When did you last go into yours?

I realise I'm finishing my list of ways to avoid tunnel vision on the Internet by saying don't just look on the Internet.  I did say at the start the best way to see something different is to look in the opposite direction.  Off-line is as opposite as you can go.  Happy researching.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel…and 6 Good Ones

Anne R. Allen's Blog: 6 Bad Reasons to Write a Novel…and 6 Good Ones: by Anne R. Allen S o you think you want to write a novel? You're not alone. According to a New York Times study done a decade a...



Anne R. Allen's blog entry is the best one to summarise why I write.  Rejections and all the other set backs, can't stop that endless sleet of ideas and characters.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Space is too Big for Rockets, but not for Humanity

On the 14th July 2015 a space probe, New Horizons, shall whiz by Pluto gathering data.

Travelling at 58,536 km/h (36,373 mph) that seems like it's really fast, except the solar system is huge and it took nine years to reach its destination.

Just in case you don't appreciate the scale of space, here's some mind boggling facts:

London, England to Sydney, Australia is 16,983km (10,553 miles).

The little spacecraft has travelled over 294,412 times the distance approximately 5 billion km (3 billion miles).

Our nearest star is over 4 light years away so it would take New Horizons around 74,000 years to get there. If it were heading in the right direction.

Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is the furthest human object from Earth and, at the time of writing, it is almost 20 billion km away.  It's faster than New Horizons yet it will take 40,000 years to reach a star.

Even travelling at the speed of light it would take roughly 18 hours to reach where Voyager 1 is from Earth and it's just 'crawled' past the outer reaches of our solar system.

Here's one more fact, New Horizons couldn't carry enough fuel to slow down to study Pluto for more than a fly-by photoshoot or it would have been too heavy to travel so fast.

Yep, Space is big and our rockets are not good enough.

Even our way of getting to low earth orbit, 500 to 800 km (310 to 500 miles), involves huge cylinders of fuel weighing hundreds of tonnes to deliver a handful of said mass to where humans want it. Mostly we throw those cylinders, the engines and the electronics involved away on the journey up there.  Someone once described it as building an airliner then throwing it away on the journey until the seat is the only thing that reaches the destination.

We could be more inefficient, but we'd really have to try very hard.  That said it's still the best method we have.  Yes, there are many engineers trying to solve this challenge and make things better.  SpaceX  is working on reusable vehicles.  Airbus Defence and Space, who are the behind the Ariane launchers, unveiled their Adeline concept recently exploring  being less wasteful.  Then of course there is the joy-ride of Vrigin Galactic.  I'm less certain that's going to lead anywhere.  Our exploring ancestors never crossed oceans for the fun of it.  Christopher Columbus's business plan was as important as his navigation.

Our means of travelling the solar system, let alone to other star systems is awful.  They are slow, expensive, dangerous and the only option we have.  Does this mean we'll be forever trapped on our little blue dot, occasionally, when the politics is right, desperately jumping the void when one part of humanity wants to prove something to another part of humanity?  I hope not.  Though showing off is a billion times better than us killing each other to prove a point.

As a SF fan, engineer and dreamer it saddens me.  Surely we must be able to do better?

Stories like Star Wars and Star Trek have humanity, or a flavour there of, zipping to stars in no time at all, yet we can't do it.  NASA used to have a site called Warp Drive When, which explored all the theories of going far faster than rockets and why they were not yet practical.  Pick your search, say 'methods of travelling faster than light' to see what are the latest ideas are.  Complex, expensive and energy hungry, none of them are likely soon and very few, if any, may be possible in the future.

None of them are as easy slipping a pack on your back or harnessing a mule to find the trail yet explored.  It could be argued that the rockets of today are like the galleons of yesteryear, complex, expensive and dangerous.  If we go back to Columbus his ships were rentals.  You can rent a rocket, if your pockets are deep enough.

So are we stuck?  Setting aside the political inclination because the expense tends to lead to governments being involved and humanity's general mood can switch from inward looking to outward looking in the blink of an eye, I think no.

Humans expand their influence.  I don't mean politically, I'm mean we tend to spread out.  Wandering tribes tends to villages, villages tend to cities, cities to nations and nations to unions of nations (as much as we maybe uncomfortable joining with are age-old enemies).  We will fill up this planet and we will need more resources and space.  There'll be cities in skyscrapers, ones underground and others floating on the sea, but eventually we'll look straight up.  Hopefully we're realise it's a better investment to visit new worlds than buy more killing tools to claim someone else's living space.  I truly hope that.

How will we do it with our feeble rockets?  I don't know how, but I know we will.  How do I know this?  Because of canoes.  

Canoes are about the worst way of travelling an ocean.  Fragile things you'd be foolish to risk your life to on a long journey over the deep sea.  They are very slow, just like rockets.  However, our ancient polynesian cousins did just that.  If, dear reader, you are a modern polynesian then max respect to your ancestors.  They built awesome canoes, but canoes nonetheless and slowly, island by island explored the biggest ocean on our planet.  Here's an excellent article from the Smithsonian about how they did it.

So successful were they some modern scientists couldn't believe they did it.  Thor Heyerdahl who built a boat to drift in the opposite direction tried to prove a counter theory.  He invoked the thing I hate most: accident achievement.  Nope these great explorers set their minds to it and did it, no accident at all.

That's how we will do it, space rock by space rock leaning to live in places we've never lived before, probably changing ourselves so much so our cousins from elsewhere think we're far too different to be the same people.  We'll do it with 'rubbish' rockets until the solar system is teeming with life and then, ever so slowly we will reach out for the stars.

Along the way we might work out how to go much faster because the mind that invented canoes eventually came up with rockets and they're the best canoe we have.

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