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More watchy goodness, mostly courtesy of TED:

Rebecca Saxe: How we read each other’s minds – actually about the  business of making accurate, predictive models of each other’s minds in our own. They’ve localised the ability to a particular segment of the brain, the Right Temporo-Parietal Junction (RTPJ) – verified by manipulating it to vary people’s capacity to understand what’s going on for each other. Quite literally mind-boggling, in several senses; very scary; and absolutely must-watch if you’re at all interested in the ways we relate to each other. I’d be fascinated to know if there is any gender-differentiation between men and women in the development of the RTPJ – and whether there’s any observable difference at birth, given the current state of gender neuroscience which seems to say that the differences between male and female brains in infancy are very few indeed.

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Um, this. Contains spoilers, but odds are you’re not going to play the game concerned (or if you are it’s probably already been spoiled for you elsewhere).

On March 19th I posted about the idea of a non-political Creative Commons license. Talking about it with various people since, it’s clear it won’t work, and lends itself to some serious abuses in more totalitarian jurisdictions.

BUT I stand by my point that what appeals to me most about the NC license is not the chance to insist on payment for the right to use the work in commercial derivatives, but the right to block certain corporations from using my material to advance their agendas, and that I would like a way to do the same with other, non-commercial groups.

So could we make a Non-Promotional license work? I.e. you are free to use this work to produce further work which is primarily creative or educational in purpose, but if the derivative work is primarily aimed at promoting some external objective, such as encouraging buying a particular product, voting a particular way, or adopting a given set of values, you need my permission again.

Problems: distinguishing between education and advocacy can sometimes be difficult. Even creative speech can have a very distinct agenda. The increasing encroachment of marketing into what would traditionally fall under the aegis of art (eg product placement) can mean that even the most easily excluded agenda, sales of a product, is hard to exclude completely. I’d have no problem with the license simply prohibiting use of the CC-NP material in a derivative that contains product placement, though…

Need to think about it more.

In which the Professor Dr Dr Dr Baron recounts the unfortunate consequences of blamelessly inspiring romantic feelings in unusual subjects.

Those select few acquaintances with whom I share the full range of my scholarly and academic interests know that I am not a man to engage in anything by halves, and least of all the pursuit and publication of Truth. In addition to being the cause of my famous detestation of all forms of exaggeration and hyperbole (to which end I have formed with my friend the Baron Munchausen the Teutonic Society of Strict Adherents to Veracity – we publish regularly from the Igelfeld seat, and you may address all requests for subscription there), it is also the reason that I hold the record for the most memberships of and subscriptions to philosophical societies and periodicals of all kinds. Unlike my dear friend the Baron, who although redoubtable in both fields is a military man before he is a scholar, I have always placed my love of Learning ahead of my inclination to Triumph, though thankfully the two imperatives have never yet come into conflict and indeed I have been flattered by some that it is such humble sagacity as I possess which is the secret to my extraordinary success in all endeavours. Because of this allegiance to Truth, I hold that the ebb and flow of nations’ alliance and war are as the shadows of clouds scudding over the Eternal Verities, and that therefore the pursuit of Knowledge must continue unabated; hence, I continue to participate in all learned societies regardless of whatever temporary state of hostilities may exist between the nations wherein I possess title or holding and the nations wherein the aforesaid societies are active. Certain skeptical scallywags express uncertainty as to whether my memberships are genuine or merely for show, as they doubt I could feasibly maintain the volume of correspondence required; to these ninnies I merely reply that the true scholar can not only dictate multiple letters at once in the manner of Caesar or St Catherine of Siena, but, if he is willing to slightly compromise his high standards of penmanship, can also teach himself to write simultaneously with both hands and if need be with both feet, an omnidexterity which can also serve him well in numerous other endeavours.

Pray excuse my divagations; such patently ill-informed attacks on my honour would not bear answering, except that I cannot allow such obvious falsehoods go unchallenged when correcting them also offers the opportunity to share techniques which may be used by others in their own scholarly pursuits. The tale in question is that of how for a full month my membership in every scholarly society dedicated to the study of the past was suspended; the narration thereof necessitates some reference to a period which contained some of my more remarkable adventures, but rest assured that I shall gloss over those events which are not strictly compatible with the meanest understandings of plausibility.

The period in question is a time I spent in the Platonic realm, where reside the Ideal forms of which our mundane world contains only inferior reflections, as they were copies cast with greater or lesser care from a die. The means by which I arrived in Platonia is difficult to relate, requiring as it does an understanding of existence not easy to communicate in the limited languages of the Real, especially to those who have not resided in or at least directly experienced the Ideal. In any case, certain scholars to whom I have confided my experiences more fully have suggested that my entry into that hallowed realm would not necessarily be duplicable by others; they believe, and I report this disinterestedly as a theorem offered by exceptionally learned men and women, that it was only an extreme proximity in nature to the Ideal of Manhood that made it possible for me to be assumed into Platonic being at all.

Whatever the case, while there I made the acquaintance of a certain Number. For reasons which will become apparent I cannot now name this Number (but should anyone seek to imply that this is for scandalous cause, I shall pull his nose and demand retraction on pain of a trouncing as solid as I gave the Sultan’s 1st, 3rd and 11th Janissary Companies on the unfortunate occasion when they mistook me for the thief of the Pyramids of Giza); but, without venturing into wholly ungentlemanly detail, following some trifling demonstrations on my part of new mathematical techniques and formulae which I devised ad libitum during our conversation, this Number conceived an admiration for my person which became so passionate as to diverge from the Ideal of Platonic Love, such that this Number’s residence on that exalted plane of being was imperilled. This being the realm of the Ideal, the truth that a Man such as myself could never return affections of such nature to a Number, no matter how charming, was apparent and unavoidable; the Number, despite all the best efforts of gallantry, chivalry and courtesy (both my own and the Platonic incarnations of said Ideals) to offer consolation for the unfortunate truth, became heartbroken and decided to retire from interaction with the world.

The consequences of this reordering of the Platonic realm were manifold, though I did not discover them until my return to mundane existence, which was not until a great many more extraordinarily interesting events had transpired, some of which may even be relatable in this limited account of my life; but I cannot explain the nature of these changes without finding some way to name the Number – albeit indirectly, as its actual name can no longer be spoken in any language. However, in my philological researches (and I confess that the study of language has always occupied one of the softest posts in my manly breast; I hope that future adventurer-scholars of my line will find more time to devote to such research than can be afforded a gentleman confronted with the imperfect world of today) I believe I have found traces of the Number’s passing from the mortal realm in the English language, and I will use said terminology in the following account of the changes wrought by the Number’s cloistering of itself.

For reasons that will become apparent, I must note at this point that I was born in the Umpteenth Century – the one after the 17th, but previously prior to the 18th. In point of fact, I had been born at ump-umpteen and ump-point-ump-recurring seconds on the Umpth of Umptember, Umpteen Umpty-Ump, a datum which I believe may have played a part in the fatal attraction I exerted upon the Number Ump.

(Those who would point out that the Umpteenth Century would, under current naming schemes, actually have been the years 1701 to 1<Ump>00 are merely displaying their ignorance of the fact that the current disordered naming schemes are a further result of this upheaval. Previous to Ump’s retirement, the century of Christ’s birth was known as the CD, or Centennio Domini [in English, “the Century of Our Lord”. Ed.]. The “First Century” was, like the first floor, the first one above the base, meaning the years 100-199 AD – and yes, this also is accurate as the same principle applied to the year of Christ’s birth, which was simply the Anno Domini, and the first year AD was the year after that. Perhaps now you begin to understand the full confusion unleashed by this unfortunate case of heartbreak, and the overwhelming influence wielded upon mortal affairs by events in the Platonic realm.)

As a consequence of my notable birthdate, when I sought to return to the secular world, the celestial beings overseeing my translation back into worldly form were thrown into confusion. My absence from mundane existence during the great reordering consequent upon Ump’s withdrawal meant that I had been overlooked by the beings responsible for such matters, giving me no fixed time of origin. As a consequence I was sent hurtling through time and space for a considerable period of my lifespan, occasioning some remarkable experiences (the least of which I may relate at a later date), while the appropriate divine authorities determined at what point I should be deemed to have begun my life. In the end, they decided that it was simplest if all instances of the numeral Ump in my biography were replaced by the numeral 7, which explains both my fortunate contemporaneity with my good friend the Baron Munchausen and my ability to have experienced more (over a century’s worth) than should be possible for one apparently born in the year 1777.

(I relate this purely in order to resolve the necessary anxiety felt on my behalf by all persons of a character sufficiently fine to be my readers, and not in order that, knowing the date of my birth under the new numbering scheme, noblepersons conscious of their genteel duties of reciprocity to an author whose work they admire should be obliged to send birthday gifts to the Igelfeld seat. Such insinuations are a scurrilous insult to both my motives and those of my readers, none of whom could possibly be so base as to have failed to ascertain the date and send gifts in any case.)

But my own personal travails were, of course, the least of the consequences of the Number Ump’s disappointment. As the attentive reader will have observed, the Number Ump had previously held its station between the Numbers 7 and 8, and had originally been accorded responsibility for good fortune in all numerological systems; its retirement saw the adjacent numbers forced to split this duty between them, with the 7 shouldering the burden in Occidental lands and the 8 becoming the lucky number of the Far East.

Additionally, many of the world’s peoples had originally had Ump days in a week; the Divine Numerocracy, sharing in that quality of mercy which marks the Deity, had opted to commemorate the period of the world’s creation by granting most such nations the shorter, 7-day week, but as many days are unfortunately rather stupid (and who among us has not known singularly doltish days?), a considerable number became confused and either failed to find their place in the revised calendar or remained wandering around outside it, which explains the phenomenon experienced by so many people of days either appearing from nowhere or vanishing without a trace when one was certain they were there in front of one. (I have heard the term “squodge” used to describe this phenomenon, with February 29th designated an official Squodge Day to mark the existence of these hemeral rogues.)

But perhaps the most drastic consequence for the world of the absence of an entire Number was the tremendous crowding of the events of history into a suddenly-reduced span. The loss of 4,641 years from each 10,000 years of the passage of time – not to mention an entire 34-day month and another 36 scattered days within each remaining year – made for tremendous overcrowding of both history and archaeology, as any student of either can confidently attest. This overcrowding is certainly the cause of the tremendous ferment of change and activity in the world in the past 200 years, between the beginning of the 17th Century and the end of the 18th; presumably now that we have entered into the 1800s the world will slow down and change less drastically, at least until the 1870s, and with the backlog cleared most of the 20th Century will be positively tranquil. (Similarly, one can only assume that events at the end of the last millennium remain largely lost to written history because everyone was too busy scrambling to keep pace with events to actually write them down.)

This regrettable compaction of history is the reason my activity in the world’s societies of historical and archaeological scholars is suspended for an entire month each year, despite the fact that I in no way behaved dishonourably towards the Number Ump, and indeed did all I could consistent with the claims of truth and nobility to prevent its self-sequestration. (That this is so is proven by the fact that these events transpired at the Platonic level, and therefore it were literally impossible for me to behave in less than an Ideal fashion.) The injustice is mitigated only slightly by the fact that the month chosen is my birth month of Umptember, which at least no longer actually takes place, effectively meaning there is no lapse whatever in my ability to contribute to Scholarship. The principle is the thing, however, and as no true gentleperson can fail to insist on fighting for a just principle, regardless of the odds for or against, I invite you to write on my behalf to any such Society in which you enjoy membership.

In this first excerpt from the memoirs of Professor Dr Dr Dr Baron Dietrich-Johanna von Igelfeld, he encounters the War-Pie of Mars, possibly giving rise to later legends of disc-like objects disgorging grey person-like creatures.

In number of combatants, the War of the Pie is the second-smallest war ever recorded (the smallest being a war which for various reasons I had to conduct against myself, and in which I was wholly victorious from all three sides), though in scope of consequence it is among the most momentous in history. The fact that it had only two participants might lead one to suppose that it should at best be called the Duel of the Pie, but for reasons which will become apparent such appellation is wholly inadequate. Despite its importance, it has heretofore been little-known because until now I, the sole survivor, have in the interests of modesty confided the tale only to a very small number of close friends, and to my physicians on the basis that they have a professional need to know.

Whilst traversing the Sahara Desert in an effort to experience and document the legendary Simoom, that destructive desert wind which brings death to so many (I had in mind a scheme whereby I would capture samples of the Simoom for grafting onto the Arctic winds of Siberia, and vice-versa, thereby moderating the weather of both regions and rendering them habitable), I quite literally stumbled upon what appeared to be an unusual rocky outcropping. Fascinated by the presence of solid stone in this sea of sand, and curious as to how it had managed to weather the constant abrasion and dramatic daily changes in temperature, I stooped to inspect my discovery, only to see it lurch suddenly upwards, flinging me back. As I regained my feet, a vast area of sand before me was lifted and then flung in all directions as a gigantic circular object raised itself from its bed of sand. Initially I suspected it to be the newest progeny of the enormous turtles said by certain Oriental sages to carry the world (and each other) on their backs in a column of infinite depth (reproduction being one of the few pastimes available in such constrained circumstances, I was certain such progeny must exist); but as it shook off its silicate blanket, the object revealed itself to be an animate Pie of tremendous size. The protrusions over which I had stumbled, mistaking them for rocks, were in fact the decorative trimmings around the edges of the colossal pastry, and looking more closely I saw that where they had not been exposed to the elements they were wickedly sharp and serrated – only the erosion of centuries on the section on which I had caught my foot had saved me from losing the extremity altogether.

Memory stirred within me, and as I observed the object lurching towards me, my suspicions were confirmed by rippling motions of the upper crust of the Pie indicative of activity within. Whilst engaged in certain researches of a confidential nature with the goddess Venus, she had mentioned during an interlude that her occasional partner in the sport of Greco-Roman wrestling, the god Mars, had a burning desire to outdo the goddess Minerva and take her place as the deity not merely of battle and war, but of strategy and cunning. Alas for Mars, his was not the most original mind – this being indeed the root cause of his problem – and so his various attempts to usurp Minerva were consistently disastrous. One example Venus gave of Mars’s unfortunate endeavours was his attempt to duplicate the stratagem she imparted to Prylis (and not that braggart Odysseus, who though certainly cunning expended at least as much effort in stealing the credit for others’ accomplishments as accomplishing anything himself) at Troy, that of the famous wooden horse. After several failures simply producing more gigantic wooden horses, Mars first branched out into other animals (the Carthaginian Giraffe being the only one that achieved any success whatever, as when the deception utterly failed its neck could at least be used as a siege ladder); when he finally realised that wooden animals were clearly going to fool nobody, he wracked his brains for a more compelling lure and had the only remotely creative thought of the entire project, which can perhaps be summarised most succinctly as “everyone likes pie”. To this end, he bullied Vulcan out of his forges and used them to bake the largest pastry of the Classical period, the little-known War-Pie of Mars. Unfortunately his typical lack of forethought betrayed him again; not being familiar with the baking of pies, he simply asked Vesta for instructions and substituted an army of Sparti zealots for the apple filling, sealing them in before the cooking, with the result that those who did not drown in the sauce were baked to death. When Vulcan, eager to reclaim his workshops and pleased at the opportunity to humiliate one who had wronged him repeatedly, pointed out the flaw in Mars’s plan – or perhaps the term is recipe – Mars flung the half-cooked War-Pie away in a fit of rage and stomped off to foment pointless violence in Asia Minor.

Clearly I had discovered the final landing-place of the War-Pie; and equally clearly, Mars had been wrong to discard it with such haste, though the world owed Vulcan a debt of gratitude for causing him to do so. Landing in the desert it had lain dormant with nobody to conquer, but now I had clearly awoken both it and its filling of Sparti. Whether it was an unusual property of men sprung from the sowing of dragons’ teeth, or simply the result of its creator’s Olympic power, death by baking had not vanquished the army within. Indeed, centuries of exposure to Saharan heat and dryness had finished the baking of the Pie to an adamantine hardness, as I ascertained with several experimental strokes of my sabre. From a vent at the peak of the Pie, the grey, shrivelled head of a baked Spartus protruded; he spied me, bellowed a war-cry, and he and a swarm of his comrades-in-arms began to spill forth from the opening, charging across the crust towards me as the Pie itself lurched and lunged, attempting to crush me under its momentous bulk.

As a brief aside, you may wonder why I began this account by stating that the War of the Pie had only two participants when an entire army of mythical combatants was a party to the struggle. I can only reply that there are two reasons. One is that nobody would account the filling of any pie as anything other than a subordinate part of the said pie, and while one might legitimately argue that a countless horde of legendary warriors deranged by centuries of isolation and bent on overrunning the world is worthy of note in accounting the odds of any battle, gentlemanly modesty requires that one choose the less self-aggrandising method of reporting one’s exploits. The second reason is that it was clear to me that the Pie itself was my primary foe, as my response below will demonstrate.

Thinking quickly, I recalled a conversation I had had with the World Serpent Jormungandr whilst exploring the depths of the Marianas Trench in search of the Queen of Sheba’s wedding ring. Contrary to popular report, the Serpent is a sensitive, genteel soul who deeply regrets the role it is obliged to play in the events of Ragnarök, and we conversed at some length across the full range of philosophies. In the course of the conversation, the Serpent shared with me the fact that its brother, the Fenris-Wolf, had expressed some anxiety about its ability to perform the duties required of it at the end of the world, viz. the swallowing of the sun, in light of recent scientific discoveries about the true size of astral bodies. The Serpent, keenly sensitive to its fraternal responsibilities, had volunteered to act as second to the Fenris-Wolf in discharging these obligations, given the ability it shared with many serpents of dislocating its jaw to swallow seemingly impossible objects, and had been practising certain esoteric techniques which enhanced these capacities further. In return for my comprehensive update on the world’s sciences, arts, politics and fashions, in addition to a small amount of manly gossip, the Serpent volunteered to teach me these techniques, and never one to refuse any increase in Knowledge, especially of such exotic nature and from such an eminently qualified teacher, I accepted gratefully. I had little thought that this knowledge would one day save my life and possibly the entire civilised world, which serves merely to underscore (for such ignorant readers as may doubt it) the value of scholarship for its own sake.

As the dread Pie approached, I bethought me of my undersea lessons in ingurgitation, and quickly rehearsing the techniques I had learned, opened my mouth and began to expand my gape to engulf the Pie in a single swallow, as biting into the Pie would clearly only release more Sparti. Unfortunately, this was no simple feat of alimentation; although the dryness of the climate had prevented the pastry from becoming excessively mouldy, the warriors within had still putrefied to some degree before the sauce had dried up completely, and in any case Sparti do not make a pleasant filling for a dessert pie. Thankfully, I was able to ingest and retain the Pie entire, leaving scattered around me only a century or two of the murderous Sparti who had managed to charge off the crust before I swallowed it. I considered throwing a rock into their midst in Cadmian style to foment internecine violence amongst them; but, it being clear to me that I had eaten the third-largest meal of my life, and having drawn my sabre already, I opted to take the exercise required to dispatch them personally. Alas, their numbers were insufficient to entirely work off the meal, which I am still in the process of doing, as you may have deduced from my noble girth; and a meal including several legions of undead dragonspawned warriors is one which will tax the manliest of digestions, as until they are entirely consumed they do battle over each meal as it arrives, as the military ear can deduce from the noises emanating from my waistcoat after I dine.

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