Styles in Word Processors

A Dark and Stormy Night

I use LibreOffice Writer for writing my stories and for other similar writing tasks. It’s free and it runs on Linux, and it does everything that Microsoft Word™ does and probably more.

I haven’t got anything against the current version of MS Word. It’s a very good program, but it isn’t free, it doesn’t run on Linux, and I’m not keen on the interface, as it is, in my opinion, needlessly complex. But then again, I’ve not used it much.

I have used MS Word extensively in the past, and my memories of using it are not pleasant ones. I’ve lost work that I have done in it on many, many occasions. although that was many, many years ago!

However, in spite of my preference for LO Writer over MS Word, I’m always on the lookout for something else. After all, these fine products are general purpose word processors, and I wondered if there were programs designed to specifically write short stories and longer works.

And of course there are. Many of the writing programs only run on Windows, and I prefer Linux, but I decided to give the Windows-based software options a chance. Who knows? But sadly, I’ve found that the offerings are disappointing when compared with LO Writer and MS Word.

Many of the programs that I’ve looked at are not pretty, but if they work, does that matter? They don’t have as many features as MS Word or LO Writer, but again, if they do the job, so what? No, the real reason for my disappointment is related to the way that I work. It’s all about ‘styles’.

A ‘style’ is a collection of rules which describe how the document should appear. There are subsets of these rules, which apply only to parts of the document. For instance there will be rules for paragraphs, other rules for whole pages, and rules for the whole document. Once set up to the writer’s satisfaction, they should be applied automatically as the author writes, and the author then doesn’t have to worry about making the story or whatever look good, as it happens as if by magic!

Say you are writing, something, anything! You starting typing and the words appear on the screen, and your thoughts appear in concrete form. They are a certain size, a certain colour, and they are in a particular font. A font is the collection characters that, in this case, is shown on the screen in the editor.

They are also in a particular position on the screen. In the WordPress editor that I am using at the moment each paragraph that I type will appear as a paragraph on the page that the user will eventually read. In this case the lines of type will all start at the same distance from the left of the screen. Technically, all the lines in a paragraph are ‘left aligned’.

I’ll just mention here that all modern word-processing editors try to show the text as it would appear in the final result, whether it is in print or on a screen. This doesn’t matter so much for an email, but it is crucial for a story or novel which will be printed or read on a small device. What the screen shows should close to the required result.

Left alignment of all the paragraphs is fine for web pages, but I prefer a different arrangement for paragraphs in my stories, whether my story is read on a device or on paper. I prefer that the first paragraph in the story, chapter, or scene is left aligned, but that subsequent paragraphs are indented a little. You can see the effect in any of my stories, which you can find in this part of my website, and also in the image below.

To achieve this, I use ‘styles’ in my word processor. Without getting too technical, a paragraph style describes how the paragraph should look. For example it describes what font should be used, what size the characters should be, their colour, and how the lines are laid out, and many other things.

To save myself work I start with the ‘default’ style, which will be laid out more or less like the paragraphs in this post. I copy it and give it a name like ‘paragraph no indent’, and save it. It inherits all the settings from the ‘default’ style, even the fact that it is based on the ‘default’ style.

Then I copy the ‘paragraph no indent’ style and call it ‘paragraph ident’, tell it to indent the first line, and save it. Now that I’ve got my styles I link them together. I change the built-in ‘Heading’ style so that, by default the next style is ‘paragraph no indent’. I change the ‘paragraph no indent’ style so that by default the next style is ‘paragraph indent’ and finally I change the ‘paragraph indent’ style so that the next style is still ‘paragraph indent’.

Indentation Example

That all takes a minute or two and is harder to describe than to do. I then save the whole thing as a template. So I can open a new document and type a heading, assigning it the ‘Heading’ style. When I hit enter a new paragraph will automatically be created with a style of ‘paragraph no indent’. After I’ve typed the first paragraph and hit enter, another new paragraph is created with a style of ‘paragraph indent’. All subsequent paragraphs will have a style of ‘paragraph indent’.

Sounds complex? It isn’t really, and I only have to do it once. If I start a new document from the template all the styles are already there, so I can just start typing. And suppose for some reason I wanted all the indented paragraphs to be in a different font in a particular document. If I didn’t use styles I would need to go through my document and change the fonts by hand. But I can just change the font in the ‘document indent’ style, and all the indented paragraphs would be changed, in a second.

This is the big deficiency that I have found in most story writing software. The programs either do not allow the use of custom styles at all, or the custom styles are not easy to use.

Where the story writing software programs do excel is in organisation of the writing process. Most story software allows you to make notes, define characters, storyboard the story, and it breaks down the writing process into chapters, scenes, and so on. It also links all these things together in a logical way.

I’m impressed, but I don’t work that way. I often don’t have a clue what the story is going to be about until I’m actually writing it. I don’t know if a character who turns up is going to be pivotal to the story or whether he or she is just a spear carrier. I don’t have chapters or scenes in my mind. They just happen. This style of writing is known as ‘seat of the pants’ writing, and I’m firmly in that camp.

Many other writers prefer to plan out their writing projects to varied levels of detail, and may take longer to plan a story than to actually write it. I suspect that the whole process takes about the same amount of time, whichever camp you fall into – ‘planner’ or ‘pantser’.

One of the most popular of the story writing packages is called ‘Scrivener‘. It runs on Windows and Mac only, so it wasn’t really on my radar, and if you are a planner (who works on Windows or Mac), then it may suit you very well. From a quick look over, it seems to me that Scrivener can take your minimally formatted document when it is complete and can then ‘compile’ it into a format that suits you, with all the styles that you might desire.

Once again, I don’t work that way. I like to see roughly what I am getting as I write. And surely, if you want to make a change after the document has been compiled you will need to make the change and then re-compile?

To be fair, Scrivener advertises itself as “everything you need to craft your first draft”, and it is suggested that you use another program for the final formatting, but from what I have seen of it, Scrivener actually seems to be much more than that. You can compile your story so that it can be used to create a paperback. And you can compile the same story to be suitable for an e-reader, and you could also generate a PDF of your story. That feature is pretty cool!

But, Scrivener aside, the story writing packages don’t impress me much, because of the style issues, and the other facilities that they provide I wouldn’t find much use for. So, I’m sticking with LibreOffice Writer for now.

Photo by Janusz Hylinski from FreeImages

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Three More Stories

I’ve been doing other things, mainly fiddling with this web site, but I’ve also been writing some more stories in the Mage and the Boffin series. Here they are!


When Alan is threatened “everything flickers” and he finds himself in a strange new place. He will have to start again from next to nothing. No home, no friends, no money. He needs to find someone who can help him make sense of it all.

The Dichotomy

The Mage and the Boffin go to Hell. They have an interesting talk with the Devil, and they talk about the Great Dichotomy. The Devil is friendly enough until he reveals his true nature.

I am the Apocalypse

A pandemic sweeps the world, and Mack holes up in his apartment. But has he isolated himself in time?

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.

Pet – A Journey

The Road
The Road (Photo by Tyler Kellen from FreeImages)

Imagine a world where men are much less intelligent than women. What would it be like? Would the men become little more than pets, or would they still be able to hold their own in a relationship? What would such a relationship look like?

I’ve written a story about a couple, Jess and Pet, who live in such a world. The story is available here. It’s in a number of parts, and each part is less than 3,000 words long.

Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.

Some of my stories have been published on Amazon (as eBooks and paperbacks) and Kobobooks and Smashwords (as eBooks). Here are the links to my Author Pages on those sites.

Three New Short Stories

The Girl, the Boy, and the Dragon

Idris was a dragon. Not a huge, fierce, fire-breathing dragon. No, Idris was a tiny, two weeks out of the egg, baby dragon, who had lost his mother. Fortunately Idris had met a young human, Jim, who was on the run, though he’d committed no crime. Jim didn’t know how to return Idris to his mother, but fortunately he had a plan.

Download the short story as a PDF here.

How to Save a World

How do you stop mankind from wiping itself out through constant war? Why, you form a special team to use their talents to change the mindset of the leaders and persuade them that diplomacy and trade are a better answer to conflict than constant war. If that isn’t enough there’s one other course of action that will bring peace to a troubled world.

Download the story as a PDF here.

The World Within

Fi seems to be just like any young girl just starting University, but she isn’t. She has a secret. Fi does her best to fit in, and quickly settles into Varsity life. She finds that her new friends, Jess and Felix, also have a secret, one which comes between Jess and her boyfriend, Mark. Fi quietly tries to find out what Jess’ problem is, at first without success.

Download the story as a PDF here.

These three stories will eventually form part of my next “Mage and Boffin” collection of stories, to be published on Amazon and Kobobooks. Here are the links to my Author Pages.

[Please note, I’ve decided to share my stories here only as PDFs. If you would prefer a different format, for example, an ePub file, just let me know through my feedback form.]

Writing and Arrogance


Have you ever written a word and wondered if you spelled it right? You say to yourself, “That word looks weird!” But the spellchecker doesn’t underline the word. It must be right, mustn’t it? I typed “arrogance” above and it looked wrong, but it is right.

Anyway, that is an aside. As I’m taking a break from the GIMP and Blender, I decided to do some writing. I had an idea in mind, but when I started to write, another story decided it wanted to be written. I mean this seriously, though, obviously stories can’t actually decide anything. It just feels like that.

I had vaguely thought of submitting the story, when I had finished it, in a competition, but it got longer and longer and by the time I had tied up all the loose ends, it had exceeded the competition limit. Rats!

So, I took a copy of the story and set about shrinking it. That’s not too hard, in practise, but it does change the story. I got it down below the limit, but then I had doubts about whether or not it was good enough in the shrunken version. Or for that matter the full version.

Reducing the Size
Reducing the Size

So I asked my daughter.  I didn’t show her about the story, but I asked her questions like “How would you react if this happened….” At the end she said something which shocked me. She said something like “It has to be really different from <a TV series>, otherwise it is not worth writing.”

My story did have similarities to the TV series. Was it different enough to make it interesting? It’s a lot of work, blood, sweat and tears, to write a story. Now it appeared that, not only do I have to ask myself, “Is it good enough?”, but I also have to ask myself, “Is it too similar to anything else?” Ouch!

OK, I took that on board and I’ve parked the abbreviated version for a while, and I’m working on the slightly longer version. I’ll see if I can polish the shorter version until it glows like a pearl later maybe.

This is Weka
This is a Weka. He came up in a search for “short” and “long” for some reason.

So, around the time that I was revising the shorter version, I came across several web pages which categorised adverbs as bad. If a famous writer like Stephen King thinks that adverbs are bad, then they must be bad, right? Well, I invite you to go on a search for articles about adverbs and writing, and while they mostly stop short of demonising adverbs, the consensus is that it is best, and usually more descriptive, if you don’t use them.

OK, I’m convinced. Mostly. So I had a look at my stories and replaced or removed as many adverbs as I could find. That added a few dozen words to each version, so I still had work to do to get the short version down to the limit. Oh well.

This is where the arrogance comes in. (The word still looks weird!) I’ve never read any articles or tutorials on how to write stories. I always just sit down and write. I don’t have even so much as a skeleton of a plan, and indeed, my stories often end up in places that I hadn’t even thought about when I started. I have generally been thinking about the story for some time before I start. I usually have a character or characters in mind and one or two scenes (for want of a better word).

Wooden Dragon
Dragon without her rider

Maybe the lead character sits on her dinosaur at the top of the mountain pass and contemplates the view before she descends to the peace conference. Or the big battle. She and I will find out which it is as she follows her friends and comrades down into the valley.

So, I searched out a few articles on how to write a story. I’d expected them to all insist on a plan or a synopsis. A character list, a world for them to interact in, and a reason for them to interact. Days, weeks, maybe months before I would get to write a word.

Of course some do suggest that sort of thing, and sometimes they even suggest using spreadsheets! For the record, I’ve tried that, even before I read the articles, before I’d written much at all. It seemed logical. Get the ducks in a row and you can knock them off one by one.

It might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. As my story grew, it deviated from my plan, and I didn’t go back and change it. Change it? I didn’t even look at it. But it did give me a start.

People on a Beach
People on a beach. (The logos imply that they are probably filming turtles)

OK, the Prince didn’t rescue the Princess from a dragon. No, the Prince rescued his Prince from a forced marriage to the Princess, who was pleased because she was über-friendly with the strapping female leader of the Guard. Only the Princess’ parents were miffed.

I might use this seed of a story sometime. But it started with the idea of someone rescuing someone from something, and I was already vaguely dissatisfied with standard boy saves girl and they fall in love thing. That’s just the Hero Syndrome. Boring. The above scenario still uses the syndrome, but it does give it a bit of a twist.

But anyway, he said, returning to the point, I discovered that the articles on how to write a story were full of useful advice, including in some cases, suggesting the avoidance of adverbs. Who knew? Well not me obviously.

Problem or Puzzle

The articles were full of good advice, techniques for pressing on when you are stuck, which is something that doesn’t happen to me. Many of them emphasise the trio of people, problem, and place.

What I mean by that is that almost every story needs characters. Oh, of course they needn’t be human. Almost every story needs a reason for the characters to interact, and they to have somewhere to interact.

Take the film “Lost in Space“. The ‘people’ were the Robinson family, together with the Robot and Doctor Zachary Smith. The ‘problem’ was that, because of Smith’s actions they had crash landed on an alien planet and couldn’t make it home. The ‘place’ was obviously the alien planet. Consideration of these three components no doubt helped the writers of the series. I’ll bear that in mind in future.

I’m going to read more of these “How to Write” web pages, to see what I can glean. It was arrogant of me to think that they had nothing to offer me. If I come across something that seems to me to be extra useful, I may write about later.

Alien landscape
Alien landscape

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.


Japanese writing
Japanese writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve written about my process or lack of one when writing these posts. They sort of grow from an idea, a seed, a notion, a comment on something I’ve read. I rarely have a plan. I rarely have even an intro in mind and I definitely don’t have a finish in mind.

Mostly I write these 1000 word posts. In the past I’ve written some poetry, much of which I can reread without wincing too much. I’ve had goes at writing stories, technical articles and philosophical pieces of various lengths. I’ve never published any of this stuff, as I’ve never considered it good enough to be worth the effort. Or maybe I’m just lazy.

My success in keeping the blog going for over 250 posts has encouraged me. I’ve lately been writing something which I hope to make novel length, and I’ve learnt a few things.

When I thought about writing something novel length I researched the topic of novel writing a little. I found that a useful length for a novel is around a hundred thousand words. The number doesn’t scare me, as I’ve written around 250,000 words in this blog, admittedly spread over five years or so. If I write 1,000 words a day for one hundred days, that’ll do it. (Yeah right!)

The Majestic Hotel - - 654966
The Majestic Hotel – – 654966 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advice about novel writing is scary though. You have to a plot, a timeline, a list of characters, and so on. Yikes! Then I stumbled upon a method called the snowflake method. The author writes that you still need the plan, the character biographies, and spreadsheets! Spreadsheets for goodness sake! But his overall concept attracted me. It’s based on a fractal called the Koch snowflake curve.

The Koch curve is easy to draw. First you draw an equilateral triangle, then you divide each side into three. On the middle bit you construct and outwards facing triangle. Then you erase the middle thirds of the original triangle and bingo, you have a six pointed star. Then you repeat this process a few times and end up with a fuzzy six lobed figure – the start of the Koch curve. Since this is a fractal you could do this forever and produce a rather boring snowflake shape.

A Koch curve has an infinitely repeating self-...
A Koch curve has an infinitely repeating self-similarity when it is magnified. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

THAT process I could work with. Unfortunately when I read further on, as I said above, the author recommends spreadsheets, and character biographies and so on. I find that very off putting.

I had an idea, right from the start, for the main theme, the crux if you like. I had a main character. I had some of the development of the story, and some of the locations that the story took place in. And a scary fate, which led to the key story line. All good. But no supporting characters and no real way to go from premise to conclusion.


I decided to just go for it. While spreadsheets and lists sound like a good idea, I don’t think that I could work that way. So I just started.

I set up the main character in the prime location and I wrote his story. I filled in his back story, and suddenly he had a companion! I’m not too sure where she came from but the main character needed her. She knew the fate of the main character, and became close to him in spite of it. A potential reader, should the story ever get finished, is only given hints as to what that fate is.

In some sort of seismic story shift the main character became the son of the character facing the scary fate, and the father also acquired a partner. The son would also face the same fate but long in the future.

Now I had four characters needing a back story. Slowly but surely the female companion of the main character took over and became the main character. How did that happen? She quickly acquired a family who were mostly less important characters. Well, at the moment that’s true, but who knows? Certainly not me, and I’m writing the damn story!

The female main character had a female friend from the start. Well, from when she appeared that is. Originally the friend was going to serve as a brash contrast to the quietness of the female main character, but she swiftly mellowed to be just a bit more lively than the female main character. The friendship between the two girls became deeper and they became true BFFs. That meant that the friend had to come along with the now main character and soon developed her own story lines in parallel to her friend. She even gained a male partner of her own.

The main male character’s mother, the wife of the character who was the original main character also blossomed into a major character. She had to mentor the female main character and her origins became relevant so she also developed a story line.

Queen Wilhelmina & Juliana
Queen Wilhelmina & Juliana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pause for thought. Oh yes, an additional theme running through the story is an unknown technology that enables a few things. If all goes well, it will remain a secondary theme and won’t crucially change any of the story line. It won’t be a magic bullet, and the characters will have to work hard to figure it out, like real technology. It won’t save any lives or change the characters into god like beings, if I have anything to do with it. But what do I know? I’m only writing the story. At the moment there only the merest hint of a link between the technology and the fate awaiting the main male characters.

So, at around 40,000 words, aiming for 100,000, where am I? Well, I started with one male character and an idea, but the girls have largely taken over, which is weird. They are strangely chaste – no sex scenes thank the little gods, but they are passionate – think Jane Austen. The girls outshine the boys in almost all departments. A gay couple appeared from nowhere. The BFF is poised for a major story thread. A couple of minor characters are begging for a story line, and I need to step back and review what I’ve done so far.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been illuminating. It’s sort of like the snowflake method of perpetual refinement, and sort of like sheer random development, a mind dump put into words. I can only wonder where it will take me from here.



English: Feathers and wedges are being used to...
English: Feathers and wedges are being used to split a large slab of sandstone. A three pound sledge hammer is being used to drive the wedges into holes drilled in the stone. The crack is just visible as a ragged line connecting the holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Trust me, I know what I’m doing”. Sledge Hammer’s famous line encapsulates many things about trust in its seven words. The ironic twist is that the first iconic series ends with Hammer saying the words as he tries to dismantle an atomic bomb. He is not successful!

Trust is a belief that the person or thing that is trusted can be relied upon to do what is promised. There is trust between you and the bank. You trust them to look after the money that you hand over to them to invest and maybe pay you some interest. You also trust them to give you the money back when you request it. There may be conditions on the investment, such as minimum deposit periods or maximum withdrawals, interest rates and so on, but fundamentally you can get you money back.

California Bank & Trust Building in LA
California Bank & Trust Building in LA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly the bank may loan you money, under conditions, which you can use to purchase a house, or a boat, or for any other reasons. They trust you to pay back the loan sooner or later, together with interest, and have the right to pursue you through the law if you don’t repay it.

The money in your pocket requires you to trust in it. After all the value of ordinary coins and notes in terms of the metal and paper is negligible, although gold sovereigns are nowadays worth much more than their nominal one pound sterling. Every coin or note represents something much more nebulous than the distinct coins and notes. Early notes had a “promise to pay” written on them, with the signature of a financial authority to encourage people to trust in them as money.

English: .
English: . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hammer’s exhortation implies that his companions don’t trust him, which is ironic because, in a back-handed, gun-related way, he usually did. As is evidenced by the way that he encouraged a suicidal jumper to abandon his intents by shooting chunks out of the ledge that the jumper was standing on. His companions’ distrust was related to the non-standard way that he approached problems and their prior knowledge of his previous actions in such circumstances.

As in Hammer’s case, when two or more people interact, they need to trust each other in many ways. Threats are promises of harm, and there may be promises of benefits. Two people may form an alliance against a joint threat, and in such a case they need to trust each other. Each one trusts the other to back them up.

English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower
English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often conditions are written down in the form of a contract. All the things that are expected by both parties, that are promised by both parties, or as many of them as can be, are written down, and both parties make their mark or sign the document. The contract can be authorised by a third-party or each party may merely carry away a copy of the document.

A contract strengthens the trust between two parties. If a contract in place, goes the reasoning, then all parties know exactly what is required of them, and what the consequences are if one party or another doesn’t do what is required. If there is complete trust between two parties, then no contract would be required, of course, but there never is complete trust.

Embed from Getty Images

However we trust other people all the time without contracts or other documentation. In fact we are sometimes too trusting. Sometimes nefarious characters arrive on our doorsteps and we let them in if they, for example, claim to be from the Gas Board. It is recommended that we always ask for proof of identity if someone who we don’t know knocks on the door. Of course we have to trust the proof of identification if any is proffered, and it could conceivably be faked.

This brings up and issue about trust – we can never be absolutely sure that we can trust someone. We could know someone very very well and still not be absolutely sure that we can completely trust them. The extent to which we cannot completely trust them may be very very small of course.

English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for con...
English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for contribution to clauses of Armenian hictory Русский: Викиорден Вардана Мамиконяна за вклад в статьи по истории Армении (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We cannot even completely trust someone when we have a contract with them. Unexpected occurrences may occur which are not covered by the contract, but relate the the matter that the contract covers. If one of the parties to the contract dies then what happens to the provisions of the contract? Well, there are laws, of course, that relate to contractual matters and it may be that lawyers are needed to sort such matters out.

There’s another sort of trust, other than trust between people. We trust the laws of science. If we throw something up into the air we expect it to come down again. We expect and trust that the sun will come up tomorrow, and it appears that we are justified in our trust. Through many millennia we have trusted that the whole is a sensible logical place where everything has a cause and cause and effect go hand in hand.

Embed from Getty Images

There is a dissenting voice and that voice is the voice of religion. Religions espouse the concert of miracles, that is occasions when the laws of nature are violated, as for instance, water is changed to wine, or a flood covers and destroys the whole earth.

We may trust that the world is a logical place, but we cannot prove that it is. If we keep throwing stones into the air, it is conceivable that one might not come down again. While we can verify that throwing stones into the continues to work, we may for some reason experience a case where the stone does not fall to the ground again.

Embed from Getty Images

If the stone doesn’t come down, our instinct is to look for a reason why it did not, rather than suspect that the law of gravity has been repealed. We trust the law of gravity. The stone may have lodged on a roof of course, or been caught by a passing bird. After we have considered all the possibilities then we might suspect that the law of gravity as we know it has failed.

So we pass it over to the physicists to look into the matter, and they would ponder and experiment, and eventually, we hope come up with a modification to the law of gravity to cover our “special case”. And we can trust the law of gravity again. For now.

Animation showing the motion of a small body (...
Animation showing the motion of a small body (green) in an elliptic orbit around a much more massive body (blue). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, the question arises, when we have found out all that there is to know about the Universe and so be able to predict anything with 100% accuracy. Well, suppose our knowledge of the laws of the Universe is 80% accurate. There’s an old adage that says that the first 80% of anything takes 80% of the time, and the remaining 20% also takes 80% of the time. In other words it is feasible that we could know all the laws of the universe and be able to apply them, but there probably isn’t enough time.

In the meantime, I’m going to trust that the sun is going to come up tomorrow, as, after all 80% is still pretty good!

English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò
English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Consciousness continues to amaze and elude

Embed from Getty Images

I make no excuse for returning to the topic of consciousness. It’s a phenomenon that, apparently, everyone experiences, and almost certainly some animals experience it too. However, it is the ultimate in subjectiveness. No one except yourself knows how you experience consciousness.

It can’t currently be measured and we can only detect it by the behaviour of a person. The old chestnut of a comatose patient coming round with hovering relatives and medical staff is familiar to all. “He’s coming round!” says a person at the bedside as the patient’s eyes flicker and his muscles twitch.

English: Man in coma still not responding to s...
English: Man in coma still not responding to stimuli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a reliable way of determining consciousness. People have surfaced from comas or anaesthetics and have reported that contrary to the physical evidence they were in fact conscious for at least some of the time when they were comatose. Also, deep brain scans have shown changes which may indicate that the patient was responding to question in that his brain patterns changed, which has led to a medical furore. There is disagreement as to whether or not the changes in the brain indicate that the patient was in fact conscious.

Definition of “Conscious”

a. Characterized by or having an awareness of one’s environment and one’s own existence, sensations,and thoughts. See Synonyms at aware.

b. Mentally perceptive or alert; awake: The patient remained fully conscious after the local anesthetic was administered.
2. Capable of thought, will, or perception: the development of conscious life on the planet.

The fact that consciousness is an objective phenomenon (so far as we can currently tell) means that we can only subjectively assess if it exists in a person. Even if a person behaves as if he or she were conscious, feeling pain, drinking beer, doing all the things that a conscious person would do, how does one know that this person is actually a conscious person? It is conceivable that what looks like a person is a sort of zombie, programmed to behave exactly like a conscious person would behave.

English: zombie
English: zombie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(These philosophical zombies are not like the usual cinematic concept of a zombie – they look like ordinary people, they have not died and revivified, bits do not fall off them, and they don’t have a hunger for brains. It’s a technical philosophical term).

The short answer is that there is currently no objective was to tell. Everyone except yourself might be a zombie. Erm, although I subjectively know that I am not, which might mean that I am the only conscious person in a world of zombies. It’s probably simplest to argue, that I am conscious, and I appear to be little different to everyone else, so it would be silly to argue that everyone else is a zombie. It’s much more likely that we are all subjectively conscious in our own heads.

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Consciousness appears to be an aspect of the brain/mind. If parts of the brain are destroyed, or momentarily shocked by a blow, consciousness ceases and the person becomes unconscious. As above, though, it is conceivable that a person might not be able to move or respond, but still be conscious in the prison of their skull. It sounds like a particularly unpleasant fate.

Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the brain/mind, because there does not appear to be a particular part of the brain that is related to consciousness as such. I think that it is fair to say this, though I haven’t delved into the subject much recently, though I do read things as I write these posts. In doing this I read an article on The Time website which hits many of the same high notes as I’ve hit here. It’s nice when I find an article that does that!

Emergent (software)
Emergent (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An emergent phenomenon is something like a family or a sports team or a termite nest. The emergent phenomenon is not implicit in individual members of the family or the sports team or the termite nest, but all the members make up a new entity which has an identity of its own.

Emergent phenomenon rely on the synergistic effect of all the members working in a concerted way to achieve more than a single individual can achieve by themselves. (Emergent phenomenon are not restricted to social interactions – water is wet, though an individual water molecule cannot really be considered to be wet in itself).

Synergy-reaching-with-kite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It follows that, just as the higher animals band together into families, bands and packs, which is an emergent phenomenon seen in humans societies, that the brains/minds of some animals are likely to experience the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, as they behave as if they do. It is highly unlikely that consciousness only evolved in one species, though of course it is possible.

Opponents of the idea that animals may exhibit consciousness suggest that we are anthropomorphising when we detect conscious behaviour in animals, and that they may be be zombies (in the philosophical sense of the word), and that the apparent consciousness is merely behaviours that are instinctive.

English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczare...
English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczarek niemiecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, no one knows for sure if animals do experience consciousness or not. I rather feel that it is likely that they do, and the extent to which they do is determined by how sophisticated their minds and brains. Certainly, I feel it is unlikely that consciousness is controlled by a genetic on/off switch and that it evolved in animals in the same way as any other trait, that is gradually, and our near relatives on the genetic tree are to some extent at least conscious.

If this is so, then consciousness in animals other than ourselves inform ethics – we should treat animals as if they are conscious beings, as far as we can. I read a science fiction story once in which every being on the earth got a boost in brain function as a result of the earth leaving any area of space where a brake was put on brain function by some physical field or similar phenomenon.

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The human race immediately became super-intelligent, and apes became at least as intelligent and conscious as we were. Also other animals, which we used as food sources became to some extent aware. As the story ended one of the characters was musing on this fact and suggested that maybe a religion of self-sacrifice could be given to these animals so that we could continue to eat them. I’d suspect that, more likely, the human race would become vegetarian! Or possibly, as suggested in the story, we would employ the apes to do the dirty work for us.

Animal husbandry
Animal husbandry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Fran...
Terry Pratchett, Park Branch Library, San Francisco, on tour promoting the 34th Discworld novel, “Thud!”, in a book signing organized by Booksmith. This was before the 1 1/2 hour chat – Pratchett arrived early and, with grudging efficiency, settled down to sign some books beforehand to get some of that out of the way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s an apocryphal story of an eminent lecturer (some say Bertrand Russell) giving a lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the centre of the Home Galaxy, the Milky Way, when someone objects and states that the earth is a flat surface, balanced on the back or a turtle.

The lecturer questions what it is that the turtle is standing on, and the objector states that the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle. The lecturer asks what the second turtle is standing and gets the answer “It’s turtles all the way down“.

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It’s always struck me that the objector’s argument is paralleled by the lecturer’s own argument. The moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the Home Galaxy, the Home Galaxy orbits the Local Cluster of galaxies. It’s orbits all the way down.

Of course the lecturer’s world view is a lot more sensible than the objector’s world view, wouldn’t you say? Well a confirmed sceptic would be dubious about both claims, but the man in the street assuming he wasn’t by chance a turtle believer would probably side with the lecturer.

Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories
Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the current view of the universe as espoused by the lecturer is fairly recent in historical terms. Sir Isaac Newton and his near contemporaries (both in Britain and elsewhere) cemented the physical view of the world as the paramount paradigm. Again it’s worth noting that Sir Isaac and co did not completely ditch the mystical view of the world. He was very interested in alchemy for example, though this could be considered to be a rational belief at a time when the field of chemistry was still relatively immature.

Sir Terry Pratchett took the turtle theory and ran with it in the Discworld series of books. What would life be like on a world shaped like a disc, carried by four elephants, on the back of a gigantic turtle? This is the basic premise of Pratchett’s books, which I enjoy immensely.

P Elephant
P Elephant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously, sort of, such a world cannot be ruled by the laws of physics, so it is ruled by the laws of magic, which seem parallel the physical laws in some ways. Pratchett’s Discworld clockwork is run by magic, not by physics. Indeed one of the characters muses on the magical laws and wonder whether or not there might be “another way”.

Threading the Discworld books and the Discworld universe are certain key characters, the first of whom is the failed wizard and professional coward Rincewind, from the first Discworld book “The Colour of Magic”. Rincewind’s quest for a quiet life is forever dashed by circumstances which often result in Rincewind escaping from some life-threatening situation or other by the skin of his teeth.

Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The ...
Rincewind as illustrated by Paul Kidby in The Art of Discworld. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rincewind’s case is watched over by Death, who describes himself as an “anthropomorphical manifestion” and who looks after a room full of “life-timers”, huge hour glasses containing the sands of a person’s existence. When the sand runs out, Death appears to the person and with a sweep of his scythe cuts the person’s lifeline. What happens then varies, but usually the person or soul travels over a dark plain.

Rincewind’s lifetimer apparently looks as though it was constructed by a glass blower with a bad case of the hiccoughs, and Death has ceased to wonder when Rincewind will die, but merely retains a “professional interest” in Rincewind’s exploits.

Death (Discworld)
Death (Discworld) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thousand words cannot do justice to the inventiveness of Pratchett’s Diskworld. It is peopled by trolls, dwarves, werewolves, vampires, heroes (professionals of course), wizards, witches, talking dogs, a smell with its own personality, druids, priests, gods and godesses and many many other characters.

Over the series of books the geography of the Diskworld as are some of its physical (or maybe that should be “magical”) properties. The geography is centred socially in the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, and physically by the Hub Mountains (home of the Ice Giants and “Dunmanifestin”, the home of the rather down market major gods of Diskworld).

The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last ...
The Discworld gods as they appear in The Last Hero , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is, as can be seen from the above to be a complex one, interleaving and referencing many well-known myths and legends which Pratchett weaves into enthralling parodies of the originals.

For example, the heroes that Rincewind and others encounter are mostly bumptious self righteous individuals who seem to possess very little in the way of intellect. They win because they are heroes and heroes always win in the end, not because they are shrewd campaigners.

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An exception to this model of hero is Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde. These ancient heroes are shrewd and survive because they have decades of experience in not dying. The overcome a bunch of martial arts experts by using there experience by not being there when the martial arts experts makes a move.

Pratchett references all sort of myths, legends and stories and often delves deep into the roots of the myth. He traces the roots of the “Father Christmas” myth in the book “Hogfather” back to one bloody version of the possible roots of the myth.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding...
Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Perhaps an evolved version of the Swedish Tomte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His coven of witches who appear in several books harken back to Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth and also to other witch myths, such as (supposed) pagan myth of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Shakespeare of course, like Pratchett is tapping into earlier myths.

The adoption of the alternate reality scenario allows Pratchett to tap into all these myths and legends and to mix and match them with similar myths and legends and put them up against present day society. There is for example the Last Continent of XXXX, obviously a reference to current day Australia, the social problems of immigration, typified by the Dwarves who are mild mannered at home, but who turn into drinking, carousing menaces singing about gold when they immigrate to Ankh-Morpork.

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Pratchett’s strength were to be able to draw on all these myths and legends and to build engaging stories around them. Even if you don’t know the legend, you can enjoy the characters and the story, and recognise the parallels with the real world.

You can enjoy the stories of the three witches turning the tables on card sharks who try to take advantage of three little old ladies, for example. Or the invention of surfing by the Burser of the Unseen University when the faculty find themselves offshore of the Last Continent (aka XXXX). Or sympathise with Death when he becomes disenchanted with his role as an “anthropomorphic manifestation” and takes a holiday.

Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen Unive...
Mustrum Ridcully as he appears in Unseen University Diary 1998 , illustrated by Paul Kidby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You do all this while enjoying the marvellous stories. RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. You will be sorely missed.

Time waits for no man

time travel
time travel (Photo credit: flyzipper)

Time is an odd thing. We say it passes, but it sometimes feels more like we are travelling through. As the old joke goes, we all travel through time – at a rate of one second per second.

While that might bring a smile, it does raise a question about time travel, because if one travels through time, one presumably travels through it at some rate or other, say ten years per minute. The problem with that it is that we are measuring a rate, which is a change of some variable with respect to another, but in this case we are measuring the rate of change of time with respect to time as well.

English: Acceleration as derivative of velocit...
English: Acceleration as derivative of velocity along trajectory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time intervals over which the traveller is passing are measured in the usual way by a clock, but how does the traveller measure his time by? He could carry a clock with him, which he could then use to estimate his progress along the standard time scale. In other words the time traveller would somehow have to carry his own time scale with him which is different to the usual time scale.

Illustration of a light cone, based on Image:L...
Illustration of a light cone, based on Image:Light cone.png (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Einstein’s Special Relativity shows that, in a way, we do carry our own time frames around with us, and if we are in motion relative to some other frame then time passes differently the two frames.  Of course, to simply travel in time, we would not want to travel in space, so we can’t use Special Relativity to allow us to use a different time frame, so far as I can see.

Also, we can only travel forward in time by using this loophole. No matter how fast we move relative to someone else, we both move forward in time, so we can’t use Special Relativity to go back in time and kill dear old Grandad.

The Grandfather Paradox
The Grandfather Paradox (Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold)

Einstein’s General Relativity considers that space-time (the conjunction of space and time) possesses curvature, and some theories use this to allow backwards time travel. However these solutions produce “closed time-like curves” which is not so much time travel as a time loop, perhaps like the loop in “Groundhog Day” where Bill Murray’s character repeatedly awakes to the same day.

groundhog day!
groundhog day! (Photo credit: NapaneeGal)

It appears that we need to look further for some way to travel in time. If we can’t use current physics, we will need to consider something more “science fiction” than modern physics. Of course science fiction time travellers don’t seem to explain their travels in more than a cursory way, because, after all, the mechanism is only secondary to the story line.

Time Machine Clockwork
Time Machine Clockwork (Photo credit: Pierre J.)

Two different possible mechanisms spring to mind.

Firstly, one way is to assume a sort of parallel world. A time traveller can enter this parallel world from any point in time and re-enter the standard universe at a different point, earlier or later in time. The traveller travels in time by analogously travelling in space in a world which has its own space-time with one of its space dimensions parallel to the conventional world’s time dimension.

parallel worlds
parallel worlds (Photo credit: aloshbennett)

Secondly, the author can conjecture a viciously curved space-time so that the characters can, at certain locations, move from one part of space-time to another part of time which is either earlier or later in the time dimension. Typically the character will “step sideways” or something to jump between times, either with the help of a machine or maybe not.

HELP ME HELP MYSELF! (Photo credit: eyewashdesign: A. Golden)

One such tale of the second sort is “By His Bootstraps” by Robert A Heinlein, is which the main character passes through a portal to a distant future, only to entangle himself with later (and, relatively, earlier) versions of himself. He encounters a mysterious character who identifies himself as “Diktor”.   I’ll leave it there, as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it yet.

By His Bootstraps
By His Bootstraps (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An example of the first sort is “The Corridors of Time” by Poul Anderson, where the main character is recruited into a war raging up and down the “corridors of time”.

Most stories, however, don’t specify in more than a cursory way the physics that is supposedly employed by the time traveller.

Train travel
Train travel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The effects of time travel are what is explored by these stories. If the traveller goes back in time he or she must interact with the world at the earlier time from when he started. There are time stories in which the traveller changes things so the state of the future time from which he can is changed.

Future World 2012 (Explored)
Future World 2012 (Explored) (Photo credit: Scottwdw)

This is the premise behind the Terminator series of films, where the Cyborg assassin (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to kill the mother of John  Connor, the leader of the rebellion against the killer machines. Obviously, in the future from which the Terminator comes, John Connor is born so the Terminator is trying to change the future from which he comes.

The Terminator
The Terminator (Photo credit: Dunechaser)

The obvious paradox here is that the Terminator risks changing the future into one in which he was never created. In which case he would not be able to come back in time to kill Sarah Connor.

The other sort of time travel story treats time as if it were immutable. Any events that happen are eventually shown to have logically been the consequence of the time travel in the first place. For instance, the mysterious stranger on the street turns out to be the time traveller, keeping an eye on the earlier version of himself. All is explained so that the stream of events is logical both from the time sequential point of view and also from the point of view of the traveller. The aforementioned “By His Bootstraps” is a story of this sort.

The Mysterious Stranger
The Mysterious Stranger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it possible that events in the past could have changed? We would not know it! As far as we would be concerned the past event would have have always happened, since there would be a temporal progression from the past event to our current time. Of course the language is tricky here, as it does not handle such matters as changes to the past.

Einstein's Theory Fights Off Challengers (NASA...
Einstein’s Theory Fights Off Challengers (NASA, Chandra, 04/14/10) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

To use the physicists’ favourite analogy of a rubber sheet, if time is considered to be along one dimension of the sheet, and space along the other, then an event which changes the past is like someone pulling a point on the sheet to one side, which affects all the points from both the future and the past of the point which has been moved. But the sheet itself remains intact.

Rubber sheet undergone drying in smoke. Three ...
Rubber sheet undergone drying in smoke. Three versions are there in the picture. 1. Fresh sheet. 2. Little dried in sun light. 3. Dried in smoke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, I think that this scenario is unlikely. There doesn’t seem (at the present time) any physical mechanism by which time travel could be achieved, and even though it appears that time travel is logically possible (under the sort of scenario as in “By His Bootstraps”) in a deterministic universe, the simplest conclusion is that time travel is most likely unachievable in this universe.

A "jumpgate" of the X Universe, part...
A “jumpgate” of the X Universe, part of a space-travel network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)