Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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This AI did a pretty good job naming guinea pigs

At Gizmodo, something kind of fun: This is What Happens When You Teach an AI to Name Guinea Pigs

Earlier this week, research scientist Janelle Shane got a fantastically unusual request from the Portland Guinea Pig Rescue, asking if she could build a neural network for guinea pig names. The rescue facility needs to generate a large number of names quickly, as they frequently take in animals from hoarding situations. Portland Guinea Pig Rescue gave Shane a list of classic names, like “Snickers” or “Pumpkin,” in addition to just about every other name they could find on the internet. The rest is history.

“I used Andrej Karpathy’s char-rnn, an open-source neural network framework for torch (written in Lua),” Shane told Gizmodo. “I gave the neural network the list of 600+ guinea pig names that the Portland Guinea Pig Rescue assembled for me, and let it train itself to produce more names like the ones on its list….

Some of Shane’s explanation of what she did is absolutely impenetrable to me, but I get the idea of letting an AI train itself to produce “words like these.” The computer actually did a pretty good job. Most of those names are cute and seem pretty well appropriate for guinea pigs . . . though I do wonder about “After Pie.”

And hey, if you’re in Portland and want to adopt a guinea pig, evidently there is no shortage.

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Sentences like fine wine

So, I was re-reading Stray by Nicola Griffith the other day. I meant to just read one particular scene and wound up reading practically everything after page fifty. And then going back and reading the beginning. That happens to me. I don’t know if any of you ever read a book from the inside out, so to speak.

This particular sentence, on page ninety-seven, caught my eye and made me smile with pleasure: The light began to change, thinning from rich afternoon mead to a more sophisticated predusk Chablis which slanted in through the trees and picked up the wings of insects dancing over the surface.

Isn’t that lovely? Really, even writing these hard-to-categorize thrillers rather than beautiful, detailed historical fiction like Hild . . . let me see, the back cover refers to these thriller types as “literary noir,” which I’m not sure I agree with but I see where they’re coming from . . . anyway, Griffith’s literary thriller trilogy is so beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence level, something you just don’t see all that often. And sometimes when you do, the sentences don’t add up to such a satisfying story. I’m thinking here of In the Woods by Tana French, which put me off her books permanently because the quite horrible villain totally got away with ruining a lot of people’s lives and I just . . . ugh, no. (I should add that it is the first book of a series, so maybe things work out better eventually. The first book repelled me so powerfully that I will never know.)

Anyway, I do highly recommend The Blue Place and Stray and Always if you are in the mood for literary thrillers, or even if you aren’t, particularly. Especially if you would like to sink into the pov of a deeply sensual protagonist; I don’t think you see such a perfect sensualist very often. Or of course you should try Hild if you would prefer a long, lovingly detailed historical with a cooler, more cerebral protagonist.

But, today I am (finally) reading a book published, let’s see, back in 2008, Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet. I think I’ve had it on my TBR shelves practically that whole time, and now that I’ve finally picked it up, I am enjoying it much more than I actually expected to. Certainly much more than I usually would with a book that seems to switch to a new pov character practically every chapter, which ordinarily I don’t much like. I’m thinking one of the authors wrote some characters and the other wrote some other characters, kind of like Wrede and Stevermer in the letter game that led to Sorcery and Cecelia, though who knows, it’s just that the voices are so very distinctive. Here are a characteristic couple of sentences from Margrave Royston, who has just been relegated to the country for a particularly unwise indiscretion:

The terrible thing about the country – and this was why I’d left in the first place – is that you can’t spit sideways without hitting a sheep. They’re smelly, cruel creatures, malevolent and unclean.

Okay, didn’t you laugh? Of course you did.

Havemercy is, of course, nothing at all like any of Griffith’s books, except in the way I’m lingering over the sentences. I’m just on page forty right now, and it’s going to take me days to finish this one because I’m going to enjoy lingering over the words. And, I’m pretty sure, the characters. That’s why I don’t mind switching pov often, because the characters are so beautifully drawn.

Stay and Havemercy, as different as they are, offer in this way a similar reading experience. The reading experience is almost wholly unlike that of reading, say, Ringo’s Under a Graveyard Sky and the other books in the Dark Tide Rising series, which I zipped through in doubletime because a) the story just carried me along, and b) there was no temptation to linger over the writing, lovingly re-reading specific sentences for their artistic perfection.

I recently saw some writer, don’t remember who, comment on Twitter that being a writer has made it hard for them to read fiction because they’re so much more judgmental about the writing than they used to be. Other writers were chiming in and agreeing and I am just so glad that this hasn’t been my experience because for me the world is still filled right to the brim with genre fiction I enjoy for one reason or another, whether or not the writing is flawless.

On the other hand, if you’re on the lookout for perfect writing . . . again, I’m just on page forty. But Havemercy might be one to try. Also, Griffith’s books certainly are.

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Radiohead Lyric or Emily Dickinson Phrase?

A delightful post from BookRiot: Quiz: Radiohead Lyric or Emily Dickinson Phrase?

As it happens, Emily Dickinson is probably my favorite poet ever, so this was especially intriguing. Though I would not characterize Dickinson’s poetry as giving voice to “quiet despair” as does Christine Ro in this post, the challenge is still an immediate draw. Can one actually confuse Radiohead lyrics with Dickinson poetry? I am not that familiar with Radiohead, but let’s take a look at this quiz. There are only 15 lines presented; I’ll show them here — click through to see the answers.

the mongrel cat came home holding half a head

inebriate of air

the distant strains of triumph burst agonized and clear

broken hearts make it rain

i felt a funeral in my brain

tie me to the rotten deck

how dreary to be somebody

howling down the chimney

disappointed people clinging onto bottles

he bit an angle worm in halves

why so green and lonely

he talks in maths

the truth must dazzle gradually

get the flan in the face the flan in the face

nobody wants to be a slave

Are any of these at all difficult? A good many are lines from very well known Dickinson poems; putting them in surely makes this challenge less, er, challenging.

Things that Emily Dickinson never used in any poem (you can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m not wrong): mongrel cats, rotten decks, bottles, flan, and slaves. I might not have thought she wrote the line about the worm, though, except I remember the poem clearly, so there’s that. Still. Flan? As if.

I bet I could find a group with lyrics that would be easier to mistake for Dickinson poems. How about Peter Gabriel?

wind was blowing, time stood still

if again the seas are silent

ten coaches roll into the dust

I used this website to look up Gabriel lyrics, btw; I recognize some of his songs, but I couldn’t have pulled lines out of my brain.

I maintain that any of those seem a lot more like Dickinson lines than anything ever written about flan by anybody.

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Good News Tuesday

I’ve seen lots of promising cancer research go nowhere, but eventually someone (multiple someones) is going to come up with some very nice broadly applicable treatment methodology and the big C will get demoted, in lots of cases, to just another medical inconvenience. Maybe this will be one of the keys:

Johns Hopkins researchers say they’ve unlocked key to cancer metastasis and how to slow it

Jayatilaka and a team at Johns Hopkins discovered the biochemical mechanism that tells cancer cells to break off from the primary tumor and spread throughout the body, a process called metastasis. Some 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused when cancer metastasizes. The team also found that two existing, FDA-approved drugs can slow metastasis significantly.

I will just add here that many of us who own dogs with cancer would be happy to test new therapies. Though Dora shows no signs as yet of returning tumors, she does still have a fairly good chance of dying this year. If she does, it will definitely be because of the metastasis of the original carcinoma.

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Jos —

Saying goodbye to a young adult dog is hard, even if you’re sending him off with a wonderful new family. This was arranged months ago, but it was still hard.

I think every dog deserves to be the center of attention in a wonderful family. Once it was clear that Conner was going to grow up substantially more glamorous, it was practically ordained that Jos would be looking for a pet home. Three intact male dogs is a lot. Jos is cute and cheerful and energetic and affectionate, but he is never going to be as handsome as either his father or his . . . let me see . . . half-nephew.

Rather than sharing my attention with a zillion other dogs, Jos now has one playful dog sister and two human children to keep him busy and happy, not to mention mom and dad and various other relatives and friends.

But he does leave a cute, cheerful, energetic, affectionate hole in my life.

Jos as a baby, with a protective Kenya making sure he is safe.

Jos as a teenager, with his father, Ishmael.

Jos, getting into trouble in his unique way.

Jos, all bathed and brushed, ready to be admired by his new family.

Jos, with his new kids, heading off on the adventure of his new life.

Jos, surprisingly relaxed after checking out his new backyard.

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A labor of love

Check this out: All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best: We had to count them all.

The author of the post, Bill Wyman, says: “It turns out that ranking the songs recorded by the Beatles in the 1960s is easy; you put the worst one at the top, and the best one at the bottom.” Heh. Well, I didn’t realize that this was the 50th anniversary of the release of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” but that does explain why I’ve been seeing a few more Beatles references than usual. Also why Sirius XM just added a Beatles station to their list.

Anyway, I am far, far from an expert on the Beatles. But I am amused by this attempt to rank more than 200 songs from worst to best. In case you are interested, but not enough to click through, I will tell you that Wyman ranks “Good Day Sunshine” as the worst and “A Day in the Life” as the best.

If you are interested enough to click through, Wyman has included comments about each entry, plus links and some embedded videos. The biggest surprise to me is how many song titles I immediately recognize, that instantly call up up the song for me. I don’t have a very good memory for songs or song titles and had no idea so many Beatles songs had imprinted themselves on my brain.

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Sometimes you just need to let it go

Check out this article at BookRiot:


My partner and I have been together, more or less, for fourteen years. In that time, I have learned all sorts of odd things about him… However, only one of his weird idiosyncrasies stresses me the eff out: the man doesn’t use bookmarks. Ever.

Now, the author of this post . . . Ashley Bowen-Murphy, I see here . . . makes a good point:

According to him, if he can’t remember where he was in the book, he shouldn’t be reading there. So he will flip backwards through the book until he remembers a key plot point or, in the case of non-fiction, important fact. On one hand, this feels like a pure way to read– it ensures that he really and truly pays attention to all the plot points and arguments made in a given book. On the other hand, ZOMG that is ridiculous!

Okay, yes, it does seem kinda ridiculous to me too. For heaven’s sake, if for some reason you are opposed to using bookmarks, just look at the page and recite “Page 172” before you put it down. Poof, problem solved.

But! Who cares, fundamentally, whether someone else wastes time flipping around through a book searching for where they last left off? It’s their time to waste if they find that kind of thing fun. On a scale where leaving the cap off the toothpaste is, say, a seven, this strikes me as about a minus seventeen.

Kind of an entertaining post, though, and I will assume that Bowen-Murphy really would not put this on her top-ten list of stressful things.

Also, the comments are interesting. There are even one or two commenters who dog-ear pages. Now THAT would be a habit worth complaining about!

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Recent Reading: Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red

So, yesterday I took my car for an oil change, and that’s the sort of situation where a novella seems like a perfect idea. Especially a novella by one of my favorite authors. Thus:

I didn’t make much headway during the oil change because it turned out the guy who did it had his standard poodle with him for the day and she was distracting. Standards are one of my very favorite bigger breeds. Also, the guy got the oil change done in jig time. That means I actually stayed up kinda late to finish this story. I basically never stay up late for any reason other than hovering over newborn puppies, but last night I made an exception.

I don’t much care for the title — “Murderbot” Does not have that certain something I look for in a title. I guess it sounds too grim? The titular character does call itself that, but ironically. There’s a good deal of violence and blood and betrayal in the novella, but the cool voice of the protagonist deemphasizes the violence, so it’s definitely adventure rather than horror. Here’s part of the description from Goodreads:

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid’ — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone…

The protagonist is a construct with both organic parts and tech parts. Definitely a person, it is legally equipment. Generally it’s rented to clients it doesn’t think highly of, by a company it thinks even less of, which as you might imagine has cased it to develop a certain bitter cynicism. Despite this, it can’t help noticing that its current clients are actually pretty nice people. When someone starts trying to kill them all, it gets personally involved … and so the story unrolls, with a fast pace that keeps you involved straight through to the satisfying conclusion.

Coincidentally, the sequel, “Artificial Condition,” became available for pre-order last night. Next January seems a good ways away, but hey, now I can be sure I won’t forget about it. Also, I already know I will enjoy re-reading the first novella before reading the second.

If you like:

I’ve been thinking of Breq from Leckie’s Ancillary series recently, and I must say that Murderbot reminds me of Breq in some important ways. Definitely not human, definitely a person — and actually similar as well in how out of touch it is with its own feelings. This is another take on a nonhuman protagonist who is a good person without ever thinking of itself that way. I think people who appreciated the Ancillary series ought to like this novella quite a bit.

If you lean toward “noblebright” SFF, the niceness of the secondary characters will surely appeal to you. Martha Wells pretty much had to make those characters nice in order to get Murderbot involved in their fate; they also work really well as a counter to the generally grim society we glimpse in the background (the company and most of its clients seem very far from admirable).

I should add, I don’t mean to imply saccharine niceness. These secondary characters are better developed than that, with touches of complexity despite the short (160 pp) format of the story.

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An amusing post from Atlas Obscura —

C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Fiction Was Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight

I too had the most extreme desire to try Turkish Delight after reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I too probably would have been surprised to taste anything close to real Turkish Delight:

Here’s what it really is: a starch and sugar gel often containing fruit or nuts and flavored with rosewater, citrus, resin, or mint. The texture is gummy and sticky, some of the flavors are unfamiliar to American palates, and the whole thing is very, very sweet.

Now, I should add, I have since had a chance to try rose-flavored Turkish Delight, possibly this brand or something similar, and I liked it a lot even though super-sweet things are not necessarily my favorite. On the other hand, I’m a big fan of rose-flavored confections. Possibly as an inexperienced child I might have been less keen on flavors like that than I am now.

Now, here is what Jess Zimmerman was inspired to do: I set out to discover what Americans imagined when they read about Turkish Delight. What kind of candy did we think would inspire a boy to betray his brothers and sisters? … Their answers spanned a whole range of sweet treats—and some surprises.

Click through to read all the rhapsodic visions of what Turkish Delight ought to be.

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