Review: Vacuum Diagrams – Stephen Baxter

I wish I could do justice to this book by writing it as beautiful review as it deserves, but I’m exhausted and feeling terrible after a bout of food poisoning from a terrible burger bought at three in the morning in Leeds at the end of a friend’s stag do over the weekend.

So apologies to Mr Baxter. I read Vacuum Diagrams during my honeymoon a couple of weeks ago and didn’t want to wait any longer to write happy words about it.

This is a wonderful book, exploring celestial history, from the universe’s birth to its premature death in four million years time. It’s effectively a collection of short stories, bound together by a framing narrative set in the sixth millennium; a bit of a history-through-characters sort of a thing. Frankly, I found the ideas more engaging than the characters for the most part, with a few major exceptions, and I was happy to immerse myself in the world-building, to the extent that one or two of the character-based stories rather felt like they got in the way.

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Go buy it, it’s lovely.

The world-building though, good grief. It was an absolute delight being led through Baxter’s infinite universe(s), endlessly inhabited, endlessly textured. Some of the ideas put forward are genuinely stunning: alien civilisations in the first microseconds of the universe, before physics as we know it have come into being, humans living at the extremities of collapsed stars, planets folded into themselves through further dimensions… That’s not even the weirdest or most shocking stuff in there. Despite the horror and dread of the xeelee and the photino birds, it’s a universe I’d love to spend exploring forever in a spaceship, but I’ll have to make do with exploring it on paper.

I read this book before the main body of the Xeelee sequence on recommendation, so I’ve got all that to come. Awesome times!

So read this book. I’m sorry this review wasn’t more elegant, (apologies again to Stephen Baxter). Read the book. Read it. I love it. You will too.

Now I’m off to fall asleep on the couch. Goodnight.

The Avalanches – Colours, with added Blade Runner, neural networks and daydreaming AI

Crikey, The Avalanches have a new song out! And even crikeyer, it’s really lovely! And strange. Definitely strange. It sounds like a really beautiful, balmy day at the beach after drinking a Long Island Ice Tea and getting slightly too much sun… But in a good way. Alternatively it sounds like Groove Armada bred with 60’s pop music then got fed through an AI deep dream or a neural network or something… But also in a good way.

There are vocals, and I can’t work out if they’re reversed or not. Perhaps they’re both? It’s like a song-as-a-vibe sort of thing, and it’s not a million miles away from their sound around the time of Since I Left You, except it’s probably less frenetic.

In essence, it’s an Avalanches song – it’s bizarre and really wonderful and incredibly evocative but extremely difficult to describe with any degree of specificity.

Just give it a listen, I’ve decided it’s my beach song for 2016.

Also below the music video, I’ve posted two other videos to give you an idea of what I was talking about regarding AI deep dreaming and neural networks. It’s trippy and it’s so amazing. The 21st century is crazy.

 

Below is the brilliant “tears in the rain” scene from Blade Runner run through a neural network then reconstructed and it’s hauntingly incredible. There’s an article about it here, which is well worth a read:

And here is a video of Google’s AI’s deep dreaming which is just cosmic:

Review: A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking

Well, it took me a month or so, but I finally finished reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It was an absolutely fascinating read, and in places it was transcendentally enlightening. 
I have to admit, certain chapters did require multiple reads through, but this is most certainly not a comment on the quality of Hawking’s writing, which is uniformly amusing, engaging and generally excellent. It is down to the fact that when this man sets out to define the universe, he’s not messing around with philosophy (a love of mine, but a study which in a scientific age is too sparse on absolutes and experiment to be of much ontological use); he’s going to tell you how the current body of scientific knowledge suggests it bloody well works. I’m 100% sure what we’re given here is about as simplified as it can get without undermining the facts, but even so it’s tough going at some points.
This is partly due to the fact that much of the universe absolutely boggles our monkey minds. The nature of black holes or the actual scale of the universe is so far outside the typical context for human experience that there is no useful was to even analogise it. There is no “a black hole is like-” because nothing else in the universe is a uniform, infinitely dense, collapsed point of spacetime. There is no “the universe is as big as a-” because the universe is functionally infinite. Similarly with the other end of the spectrum. Just as the enormity of the universe is mind-bending, so too is its complexity. What you see every day as wood or water or a dog or whatever is just incomprehensibly complicated on so, so, so many levels. So yes, all of that is one of the large reasons my head repeatedly fell over during reading.
The other is due to the necessarily extremely mathematical nature of the science of physics. I’m reasonably confident that a physics student would be quite happily at home with much of the mathematical rationalisations in A Brief History, but in several cases, but found myself just having to take Prof. Hawking’s word for it. I’d get to a point in an explanation where he’d say “therefore” and I often found myself thinking something along the lines of “oh shit, I wish I’d taken in more of the preceding three hundred words”. 
LUCKILY, these situations were actually surprisingly rare. For giving you a feel for how the universe works, where it came from, where it is going and what the dickens it’s all for (spoiler alert: probably nothing. It is because it is because it is because it is ad infinitum), this has to have been one of my favourite reads, up there in terms of “good grief that makes so much sense now” with Why Does E=mc2?: (And Why Should We Care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

It’s a beautiful, insightful and surprisingly funny read by a man whose mind is, frankly, intimidating in its alacrity and size. 
So go and read it, if you haven’t already. Just keep a notepad to hand, and a willingness to be humbled in the face of an endless mind and an even bigger universe.

A New Dawn

I’ve had a fun few years over on Tumblr, with my blog there, Human Friendly, but I felt the yearning for a change and a move away from the kind of Twitter-style social media. I felt like, as is often the case of Facebook, I was becoming so obsessed with reader numbers and “likes” and whatever that I was actually avoiding writing anything or putting anything out through fear of negative feedback, or, worse, NO feedback. On top of that, I have found myself steadily becoming more and more aware of the time-sink of websites which encourage passive scrolling. In my case these websites were Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. I have felt an increasing need for interaction which takes engagement and focus. Facebook can be utilised in a focussed way, as can Reddit, to an extent, but Tumblr and Twitter are intrinsically passive in a way I no longer enjoy. I see the appeal, and for a long time I was a huge fan, but now I see them more as I see television. Entertaining but mostly immaterial.

That said I’m not some judgemental wanker who sees them as worthless. I know those people and they’re awfully tiresome. No. If you love Twitter and Tumblr, you friggin’ go for it! Enjoy them! It’s everybody’s internet and it’s an endlessly faceted tool, I’m sure as hell not the guy who gets to tell people what it’s about.

But I digress. I wish to make my new internet home here.

So here I am. In two weeks I am thirty. My name is Charles Hay. This is my new blog.

And here is a stunning timelapse video of Earth from space because humans are amazing and our home is beautiful.