We went out on a short shopping trip yesterday afternoon. We bought some baby stuff (Fiona’s first dress) and some books (Tricia Sullivan’s Maul, amongst others). I would also have picked up a copy of Sarah McLachlan’s new album, Afterglow, but her record company seems not to have released it in CD format. Bummer! Instead, they’ve released it on some kind of shiny CD-sized disc that can only be played on “Home stereo equipment” and PCs running certain specific versions of Windows. Bummer! So I bought Start Something by the Lostprophets instead.

Yes, there are ways of getting around copy-protected discs and DRM-locked music files. But standing in the shop yesterday afternoon I was struck by an overwhelming wave of apathy. I love Sarah McLachlan’s music, and I would love to listen to her new album, but I really can’t be arsed trying to figure out how to get the songs off of the copy-locked CD and into iTunes. Because that’s the only way I listen to new music nowadays: we don’t have a stereo in our living room any more, we just have my PC and some speakers. The CD might work in my car’s CD player, but that’s not much use if I want to listen to the disc while reading a book on my sofa.

I feel like a PS2 owner who wants to play Halo but can’t, because it’s an XBox exclusive title. Is this the future of music? Platform exclusives, and platform incompatibility? If so, it sucks.

Psi Testing, part 2

In case anyone was in doubt about the entry I wrote the other day about psi testing: it was a joke.

The Remillard Institute for Metapsychic Research does not exist, and “Milieu Theory” is a reference to Julian May’s Galactic Milieu and Pliocene novels. (The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Nonborn King, The Adversary, Intervention, Jack The Bodiless, Diamond Mask, and Magnificat) These novels deal with the emergence amongst humans of “metapsychic” powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, coercion, farseeing, redaction (mental healing), and creativity. Intervention is the linking book between the two series, and is set partly in Edinburgh. Hence the joke.

The photos of Fiona with electrodes strapped to her head are real, but I took them while she was having her hearing tested. Now this is very cool and 21st century: the audiologist stuck plastic headphones over her ears, and attached electrodes to her head. A computer played sounds of varying loudness and frequency through the headphones, and then the electrodes measured her brain’s response to the sounds. It’s a more sophisticated version of ringing a bell and watching to see if the baby twitches.

And yes, Fiona’s hearing seems to be just fine.

Interestingly, Edinburgh University actually has a real department of parapsychology, where they perform genuine, serious research into psychic abilities and phenomena.

Personal Search

I regularly find myself thinking, “I know I read a web page about [XYZ] last month, but where the hell was it?” I may be able to remember certain key phrases, and these sometimes help me find it again by using Google or some other search engine. Sometimes I can also find the page by doing a full-text search on my browser cache. (I use the “Find in Files” functionality of TextPad, because Windows’ own search is too slow.) But that doesn’t help if I was looking at the page more than a week or so ago, because it will have dropped out of the cache. (I have my cache set to 1GB.)

What I would really like is “Personal Search.” This would take the form of an extra option on a search engine that would alow me to restrict my searches to only the pages I have visited.

I don’t think it would be too difficult, technically. First of all, you would have to have some mechanism of reporting to the Search Engine Company (SEC) whenever you visit a page on the web. I think the Google Toolbar might already do this. Likewise, it shouldn’t be too hard to build something for Mozilla that would perform this task.

The Search Engine Company would then have to record this page view in a database, and associate it with your personal browsing history. It wouldn’t have to store the whole page itself, because chances are good that the page has already been spidered and is present in its main index already. If the page is new to the index, it will have to be added. (No big deal, and this even adds value to the main index as a whole.) Because the SEC only needs to store a list of URLs (and probably timestamps, too) against a user ID, this wouldn’t even take up impossible amounts of disk space.

Next, the SEC has to implement the search filter: whenever I do a search with the “only show results for pages I’ve visited” checkbox ticked, this should limit the search results appropriately, based on my browsing history. And voilà! My own Personal Search results.

There are a couple of down sides to this idea, though. For one, it requires the SEC to keep a complete track of my browsing activity. Depending on legal jurisdictions, this history could be used in ways I’m not entirely happy with. The scheme would have to have some way of turning off indexing completely, or for the duration of a browser session.

Secondly, not all web pages can be indexed by the SEC, and not all pages should be indexed by them, either. (For example, newspaper or magazine archives that require subscriptions.) There isn’t just the preference of the end user (me) to take into account, but also the preference of the web site owner. As a result, I may find that there are still gaps in my Personal Search. However, I think these gaps would still be less annoying than not being able to get back to web page XYZ that I remember from last month.

Finally, there’s a question of cost. To a certain extent, search engines fulfil a public service to the population of the Internet. “Personal Search” would be a service that I imagine people might be willing to pay for. After all, it means you don’t have to manage an enormous search index on your own computer. I could keep all the pages I’ve ever visited in a cache somewhere, but I really don’t want to spend a couple of hundred pounds on disk space every year.

It all sounds too easy. Can someone tell me now why this wouldn’t work? Or alternatively, can you tell me if there are any search engines out there that do this already?

Psi Testing

When babies are born, they undergo all sorts of tests to make sure they’re fit and healthy. There’s the standard APGAR test, which checks for Activity, Pulse, Grimace, Appearance, and Respiration. Then there are blood tests to check for a variety of syndromes that can’t be detected during pregnancy. All throughout the first two days, the baby is weighed, measured, poked and prodded, and passed from doctor to consultant to specialist to midwife dozens of times.

The most interesting test Fiona had, though, was an optional one: psi testing. Not everyone wants it, and it’s certainly beyond the scope of the NHS to provide it for all parents. However, the Remillard Institute (a privately funded Canadian research body) is currently sponsoring a trial programme at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and we were offered the opportunity to take part.

It was all very sophisticated. Dr. MacDonald, the pediatric parapsychologist, attached a set of sensors to Fiona’s head, neck, and throat, and hooked her up to a so-called “cerebro-inductive rig.” The rig stimulated Fiona’s brain directly, and measured the response immediately. Her results showed no reaction for for Psychokinesis or Farseeing, but strong potential for Creativity, Redaction, and particularly Coercion. Cool!


I hadn’t realised that the field of pediatric parapsychology was so far advanced. We chatted to Dr. MacDonald about psi and Milieu Theory for a while afterwards, and she explained how the cerebro-inductive rig is only a very recent development. Until just a few years ago researchers couldn’t test babies or young children, because they had to rely on spoken, facial and physical reactions from the subjects themselves. Babies are obviously not capable of giving that kind of feedback.

It turns out the trial programme at ERI still has another three weeks to run, so we’ve set up an appointment to get Alex tested as well. It’s not something we need to do (we’ve already found out the hard way that he’s high-Coercion), but it’ll be interesting to find out if he has the same combination of psi abilities as Fiona, or if he’s likely to wreck the house with emergent PK when he hits adolescence.

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Rejection and the Slushpile

Teresa Nielsen Hayden on rejecting manuscripts:

“Anyway, as I was saying, it realio trulio honestly isn’t about you the writer per se. If you got rejected, it wasn’t because we think you’re an inadequate human being. We just don’t want to buy your book. To tell you the truth, chances are we didn’t even register your existence as a unique and individual human being. You know your heart and soul are stapled to that manuscript, but what we see are the words on the paper. And that’s as it should be, because when readers buy our books, the words on the paper are what they get.”

Nobel Peace Prize Nominations

To those who are dismayed and upset over the news that George Bush and Tony Blair have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this year: don’t worry too much. It’s not as bad as you think.

First of all, receiving a Nobel Peace Prize “nomination” is not like an Oscar “nomination.” According to the web site of the Nobel committee:

“In recent years, the Committee has received well over 140 different nominations for the Peace Prize. (The numbers of nominating letters are much higher, since many are for the same candidates.)”

The nominations are reviewed thoroughly by the committee and their advisers, and eventually they are narrowed down to a well-considered short list of candidates, from which the eventual winner is chosen. A Nobel Peace Prize nomination is therefore much more like the letter from a movie studio proposing a certain film, or actor to the Academy for an award.

Now, take a look at the list of people from whom the committee will consider nominations:

  • Members of national assemblies and governments
  • Members of international courts of law
  • University chancellors; university professors of social science, history, philosophy, law and theology
  • Leaders of peace research institutes and institutes of foreign affairs
  • Former Nobel Peace Prize laureates
  • Board members of organisations that have received the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Present and past members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (committee members must present their nomination at the latest at the first committee meeting after February 1)
  • Former advisers at the Norwegian Nobel Institute

We’re talking thousands of people worldwide. Now bear in mind that there has always been a certain proportion of people who thought that going to war on Iraq was a good thing, and that somehow Iraq has benefited from being occupied by an invading army, and being placed under colonial rule. It is therefore inevitable that someone from some national assembly, university, court, or research institute would think that Bush and Blair are the greatest thing since sliced bread walked the earth. Hey, even Hitler was nominated for the Peace Prize back in 1938.

The reason this whole nomination thing is news now is because the deadline for nominations was yesterday (1st February), and because some knucklehead wilfully ignored the Nobel Committee’s strong request that nominators keep silent about who they have nominated. The knucklehead in question is right-wing Norwegian MP Jan Simonsen. Ask yourself the question: why would he deliberately go against the wishes of the committee? Could it be because he is a publicity-seeking weasel in search of political favour? Hmm, could be!

Remember that Bush and Blair were also nominated in 2002 and in 2003. They didn’t win then, either. Looking at the situation in Iraq right now, the Nobel Committee would really have to be blind, insane, or intolerably corrupt to award them the prize. This is not the case.

Blair and Bush have no chance of winning the prize this year. The nomination is nothing more than political wind.

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