Dark Arches

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Some places cry out to be settings in a story. The space beneath the brick arches supporting Leeds station as it spans the river is one such.

When I took these pictures it had been even darker than usual: building-work had blocked off the daylight that would have come from the open, south-facing vaults.

I stood on this narrow bridge which spans the river’s four concrete channels, each with its own brick-lined tunnel. What if I were being chased for my life across it: out of breath, heart pounding…

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If I leapt  over those railings with their bright orange builders’ netting, down into one of the channels, would I increase my chances of getting away?

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Might I mistime the jump? And if I did, would that blue-lit pattern of bricks be the last thing I saw?

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The river here is shallow enough to wade in: I can see brickwork under the vees of the waves. Or I could make it to that ledge and through the steel gate.

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Lost them!

Phew!

 

I slow to a walk in the deserted vaults.

All I can hear is my heart thumping, my laboured breaths.

Four dark tunnels, and the rush from the Aire.

Yes, that’s the river’s name.

 

Page one power

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If I were to start a collection of Opening Lines, I’d grab this one first:

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”

It’s a belter.

“They do say” that the best opening lines should ask questions. Well: how many questions do you want??

How can London move (and fast enough to chase something)?

Why a small mining town? And what would be its fate if caught?

What dreadful disaster had dried-out the whole North Sea?

And finally, perhaps without realising it, we’re wondering why this spring afternoon is dark. Although there are plenty of dark days in spring in real life, we’re taught from an early age to think of spring as a time of light.

“They do say” also that the first line should be to the story what a tiny fragment of hologram glass is to the complete plate: a glimpse into the whole tale – of what the reader is letting themselves in for.

But there’s more.

When I picked up a copy of Philip Reeve’s “Mortal Engines” and read that first sentence I recalled another famous opener:

“It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Clocks don’t strike thirteen, and April’s supposed to be warm: what’s up?

And to think that “They do say” you should never open a story with the weather…

Time for a Smoke

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In days of Old, when meals were finished, the Ladies ‘Retired’ (where to? And in order to do what, precisely?) while the Gentlemen moved to the Smoking Room.

But in these enlightened decades the Winter Smoking Room at Cardiff Castle is open to all paying visitors, and immediately piqued my interest.

Because the Theme of all the decoration within, strangely for a room dedicated to a leisure pursuit and designed while the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, is Time.

Here on one of the four arches, for example, is one of the four seasons: Harvest Time.

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And each span is supported by one of four suns with faces, representing Time during one day.

Time: hmm. That stuff which you were supposed, if you were anyone back in those days, to be turning straight into money rather than allowing to go up in smoke.

But perhaps the designer – influenced as he apparently was by William Morris – was being just a little subversive.

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More than meets the eye

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“Deep Learning”

What is it?

It’s an artificial reconstruction, using a network of “neurons”, of how our brains learn things.

Let’s say I want some imaging software to be able to recognise “a dog”. I set up my empty network, and then “train” it, using thousands of images, each one (correctly) tagged “dog” or “not-dog”.

“Surface” neurons pick up the pixels, the next “layers” down look for colour, lines, etc; some layer below that builds a nest that can identify an eye… and so it goes.

Finally, when it’s let loose on random images, it will be able to tell me whether or not there’s a dog in there somewhere.

But here’s the kicker:

There’s no way, as yet, that anyone can find out how it reaches its decision. There’s no code to look through, you can’t probe it, and it can’t talk.

Even the people who build neural networks can’t know how, exactly, they work. There is, almost literally, a ghost in the machine.

Researchers at Google set out to try and spot the ghost, by taking their image-processing software and running it backwards: telling it to draw a dog, in an effort to reveal the network’s idea of “dog-ness”.

This article includes examples of the kind of image – including the one at the top of the page here – that result.

Everybody says they make no sense.

But to some of us, they’re familiar.

Once upon a time I had a go with LSD. For a few hours, under its influence, I experienced “ideas” resembling these images superimposing themselves upon whatever view my eyes were picking up at the time.

Now I know where those images come from.  I was, without knowing it, witness to the inner workings of my brain going about their business of making sense of what my eyes were looking at.

Those inner workings construct objects, faces, places, even feelings.

There’s more to what we see than meets the eye…

 

 

Plants know stuff

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Has anyone else ever noticed the smell of freshly-weeded Dandelions?

Half sweet, half pungent: very distinctive…

So: I step out onto the newly-sprung-in-spring lawn.

I dig up every flowering dandelion.

And the next day, as if by magic, all the remaining dandelions are in flower.

I conclude that either:

  1. They’re all one single plant, or
  2. They can smell!

I thought this must be a bit ‘out-there’.

But it’s nothing compared to the latest findings:

Peas can hear water.

And bees.

and hungry caterpillars…

But the bit about growing healthier when being played Mozart remains, as yet, unproven.

 

Make-your-mind-up time

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An evil genius has sat me in front of two buttons: one to the left and one to the right.

Unlike the choices we face in the upcoming election, these two are exactly equivalent: neither will do anything, good or bad.

They’ll just get pressed, by me, when I make my mind up.

All I’ve to do is decide which to press.

And press it…

Now the killer.

If the said evil genius happens to be imaging my brain at the time, the brain imagery will illuminate my decision several seconds before I reckon I’ve made it.

To give an idea of scale, reaction time (the time I’d take to drop an unexpectedly hot object, for example) is under a fifth of a second.

So if other decisions – for example whether or not I hit out at someone who looks to be threatening me – are also made subconsciously, then where does that leave freewill?

To be fair, this isn’t the first finding along these lines.

And Benjamin Libet, the author of that first study, came up with a possible way-through for freewill:

it could be our freewill that determines whether we don’t go ahead with a decision made unconsciously, he proposed.

But not everyone agrees…

 

When words change the shape of Time

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I’m imagining trying to describe Time to someone who has never experienced it.

Perhaps it’s a line. A road, a river; or is it more like a store of grain?

Do we walk along it, drift down it, or do we keep it in bags and use it up?

What if the shape of time depends on which language is being used to describe it?

Some cultures regard time as circular.

Thousands of cultures have flourished and died out before now. They might have had languages that shaped time in ways that we’ve never thought about, or could perhaps not even imagine.

So when they told their stories – and a story has to be built on the shape of time – these, too, for all we know, may have taken standard forms very different from our classic ‘build-up of tension to a climax, then resolution’ template.

This blog is about writing fantasy, and about Time, and about some of the things that show up when the two of these collide.