Friday, November 21, 2014

"The Universe on Time"

In the Hyades cluster, the scanners on Dustin's StarSkipper trilled as the background radiation spiked. Pirates fired on the small starship as it skipped away from Pyxis. And when landing upon 73852-Detura, Dustin fended off swarms of spiderbees with his Blastomatic.

Smeared with ichor, reeking of scorched hydrocarbon, and sprouting a third arm from his torso, Dustin staggered up to Sir Phineas Weatherbottom's country estate, clutching a crate large as himself.

"I'm sorry," the holobutler said, "the lord is hunting on Hydra Prime. Can you attempt delivery tomorrow?"

Dustin hung his head. "I hate it when the nobility pays C.O.D."


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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kreider on Busyness and Creativity

On The New York Times' June 30, 2012, opinion page, Tim Kreider (We Learn Nothing) discusses how busyness can prove inimical to creativity. Excerpts:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” ...

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration -- it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.
Read the whole thingI like how Kreider says, "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice" [emphasis added]. Of course, we know that idleness can be any one of those things. I wish he would've added that idleness can describe a state of mind as much as an activity level. See, more than just boasting, busyness often scales to one's period in life. I challenge anyone with children under the age of six to truthfully claim their day-to-day existence isn't cluttered with schedule-stretching ephemera. Still, I think Kreider's on to something. Though we can't always clear our calendars, we can make space in our skulls. Whether driving or cleaning, mowing the lawn or making dinner, there are plenty of periods where we can shift our minds into neutral. So turn off the radio. Power down the television. Unsubscribe from the podcast. Let your mind be idle, and see if you don't soon find yourself with a surfeit of creativity.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Dafne Cholet; Hat Tip: Stephen Parrish)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Despite Crooked Themes, Horns Stands Tall

Associations are hard to shake. Just ask actor Daniel Radcliffe, a.k.a. "The Boy Who Lived," the kid in the cupboard under the stairs, Mister Harry Potter. Shaking the image of himself as the cinematic incarnation of J.K. Rowling's boy wizard would require more than a bit of boldness, which seems exactly what he's trying to do with the on-screen version of Joe Hill's Horns. I'm sure Hill himself understands the struggle. The son of chart-topper Stephen King, he dropped his last name in order to be taken seriously as a writer.

Horns begins with a dead girl. A year has passed since beautiful Merrin Williams was raped and murdered down at the old foundry, and everyone thinks her longtime boyfriend Ignatius Perrish committed the crime. The unrelenting suspicion and loss of his beloved have turned Ig's life into the proverbial living hell. He didn't do it. He has no idea who might have. He can't conceive of a way to move on with his life. So one night gets besotted at the place of Merrin's murder, urinates on a figurine of the Virgin Mary, and wakes the next morning with a savage hangover -- and a pair of horns sprouting from his skull. Yup, horns, just like the sort you'd see on Pan or Mr. Tumnus. Ig can't precisely remember what else he did during the night, but he knows one thing: The horns make anyone near him divulge their darkest desires and reveal to him their wrongdoings with just a touch of skin upon skin. As Ig skulks through a town where everyone hates him, he begins to formulate a plan. He's going to use the horns to find out who murdered Marrin and make him pa.

I truly admire Hill's desire to make his own way in the writing world. Still, you can't help but see some of his famous father's influence in Horns. Hill goes after pop-Catholic conceptions of Christianity will all the gusto and depth of a college sophomore worshipping at the altar of /r/atheism. Near as I can figure, the main thematic thrust goes something like this: The church thinks sex and booze are bad (plus God has that whole "existence of evil" thing to explain), but the devil likes to party, so Old Scratch is obviously the good guy and Yahweh is an impotent geezer if he even exists. Yeah, hook a turbine up to Milton's grave and his outraged spinning could provide a clean form of energy for years to come. Critiques just roll off the pen. Copulation wasn't the original sin, and theodicy has numerous answers to the problem of pain, and ...

Eh, never mind. You didn't come to Horns hoping for a systematic theology, did you? You wanted a page-tuning, pulse-pounding good read -- and that's exactly what you'll get.

While the book's themes might be weak, all the other elements of Horns stand tall as a century-old redwood. King's books have a reputation for bloat, and while Horns isn't exactly lean, you can tell that Hill has meticulously plotted and carefully characterized the whole thing. The trailer for Radcliffe's film version makes it out to be comedic horror, but the book is much more a portrait of love and loss, of extended suffering and rough justice. Hints of mystery, surreal fantasy, noir, and even literary fiction color the scary bits. And the ending, well, it'll make you neglect your pillow time. Sure, the religious stuff gets wonky, but with one exception, I can honestly say I enjoyed this outing with Hill more than any with his father.

(Picture: CC 2007 by philippe leroyer)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Crash Into Deep, Uneven Snow

I missed out on a lot of great books in the nineties for bad reasons. Ender's Game slid by me because, to my teenage eyes, John Harris' iconic cover made it look like the kind of Sahara-dry hard SF I hated. Kangaroos in top coats looked a little too weird even, so I passed on Gun, with Occasional Music. The Giver didn't get more than a glance, because what was up with that hoary old guy? Bad reasons one and all. I had an even worse rationale for bailing on Neal Stephenson's 1992 dystopia Snow Crash at the halfway mark: Having just discovered William Gibson's gritty world of surgically altered razorgirls and hologram-throwing confidence men, I'd convinced myself that cyberpunk shouldn't be funny. And funny is just one of the many things that Snow Crash happens to be.

In the near future, America has shattered into a kaleidoscope of conflicting corporate confederacies. Franchised nation-states stipple the landscape, popping up like mushrooms on ground left fallow following the near-utter collapse of the United States' government. After that catastrophic failure, America excels at only four things in the global marketplace -- movies, music, software, and Mafia-managed, high-speed pizza delivery. Hiro Protagonist (yes, you read that correctly) has worked in two of them, starting as a freelance cyberspace programmer and diversifying into 'za when corporations got into the microcode game. Pizza delivery is a remarkably violent field. Fail to get to your address within the promised thirty minutes and it'll cost you your life. It's dangerous work that'll only grow riskier for Hiro, who wears body armor and Japanese swords while on his route, when he almost fails a delivery one day. That near brush will bring him into close contact with skateboard-surfing highway couriers, cybernetic attack dogs who can break the sound barrier, an Aleut assassin with his own personal atomic bomb, a religious megalomaniac with plans for world domination, and a drug called snow crash that can hack the human mind.

Like I said earlier, Snow Crash is about as far from the grimdark school of speculative fiction as you can get. I mean, just look at the main character's name, not to mention the way he dubs himself The Deliverator while ferrying double pepperoni pies around Los Angeles. Hiro is a proud graduate of the CosaNostra Pizza University, his roommate fronts a band called Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns that plays ditties such as "Control Rod Jam" and "Radiation Burn," and (given the lack of a functioning justice system) convicts walk around with POOR IMPLUSE CONTROL tattooed across their foreheads as a warning to others. Pretty wacky and enjoyable if you take it for what it is -- well, most of the time. Despite the silliness, Stephenson is obviously a brilliant guy. I just wish he hadn't devoted about a third of his narrative real estate to eccentric theories about the interconnectedness of spirituality, neurology, and linguistics. If Wellhausen, Dawkins, Chomsky, and Peter Enns decided to write a unified theory of What Faith Does, you might end up with the prime plot mover of Snow Crash. It's every bit as stilted and shoehorned in as it sounds, what with it being surrounded by whip-smart prose and bloody interludes where a Really Bad Guy impales people with homemade harpoons. Still, you have to take a novel for what it is. Though Snow is uneven, it's deep and enjoyable. Crash right on in.

(Picture: CC 2005 by Steve Jurvetson)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Tapson on Tales and Totalitarianism

Over at Acculturated, Mark Tapson discusses how American pop media helped one North Korean teenager survive totalitarianism. Excerpts:
Park Yeon-mi was nine years old when she and the rest of her school were forced to attend the execution of a classmate’s mother. The poor woman’s capital crime was that she had lent a smuggled South Korean movie to a friend.

Under the brutally repressive regime of the insane Kim Jong-Il (now succeeded by his son, the insane Kim Jong-Un), “there were different levels of punishment” for such a crime, says Park. “If you were caught with a Bollywood or Russian movie you were sent to prison for three years but if it was South Korean or American you were executed.” ...

As a teenager, it was Hollywood love stories that opened Park’s eyes to the literal and spiritual impoverishment of her native country, she told The Guardian. Among her favorite movies were Titanic and Pretty Woman. “Everything in North Korea was about the leader, all the books, music and TV,” she said. “So what was shocking to me about Titanic was that the guy gave his life for the woman and not for his country -- I just couldn’t understand that mindset ...

“All the foreign movies we saw about love affected me and my generation,” said Park. “Now we no longer want to die for the regime, we want to die for love.”
Read the whole thing. I grew up in a household where pop culture was, if not exactly a problem per se, hardly the best way to spend one's time. And you know what? I completely understand that sentiment in an age where ballads about butt size and blendings of gospel music with one-night stands manage to top the charts. Still, still, still, even the shallowest songs, movies, and music can't escape a salient fact: All communication is charged with propositions, with truth claims about what is good or ugly, right or wrong, worthy of praise or ridicule. Such propositions -- however trite they may seem -- inspired Park Yeon-mi to resist tyranny. In the end, I'm not sure there's such a thing as utterly inconsequential art.

(Picture: CC 2007 by (stephan))

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Talebones"

Note: The following story is part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas' annual Halloween short-fiction roundup. It also represents something of a departure for me, having been composed within 48 hours and subject to minimal editing. Be kind, enjoy, and have yourself a very spooky All Saints' Eve.

Bones spoke to Jenny.

She discovered the gift -- if gift it was -- at the age of five. Her brother, Samuel, had been excavating in the backyard with a red-bladed Ames True Temper shovel. A foot down, he accidentally disturbed the grave of one Fluffymump, a former favorite feline. Some surreptitious digging, a quick bend and snatch, and he whirled, shouting, "Hey, Germy, catch."

Fluffymump's sepia skull landed in Jenny's outstretched hands.

Naturally, she screamed and ran upstairs to her room. Naturally, Jenny's father bent Samuel over his knee and given him three sharp whacks. Naturally, Jenny's mother followed close after to offer consolation and chocolate chip cookies only just taken from the oven. But that was where expectation ended. Jenny's mother couldn't get in her room, because the five-year-old had somehow wedged her dresser against the door. When Jenny's father finally managed to shove it open (toppling the dresser, which gouged a fist-size hole in the drywall), he found her curled in the corner, rocking. She was inconsolable, screaming when anyone touched her, whimpering when they didn't. They'd whispered about doctors, but within half an hour or so she asked for a glass of milk, told Samuel she'd forgiven him. Her parents were relieved. A disturbing reaction, but understandable given the thoughtless prank and a little girl's sensitivity.

Of course, they got it entirely wrong.

Stop and imagine the scene. Jenny's hands coming up instinctively. The feel of a strange, hard smoothness smacking skin. Then the sour-sweet stench of decay, the thing thought to be a ball rearranging itself into a terrible orb of fur-flecked bone. Your own experience can probably carry you that far. What it can't impart is the sound of shrieking brakes, the feel of your spine shattering under an impossibly huge and heavy blow, the salted-iron scent of your life's blood spreading across tarry blacktop. Jenny experienced all of it in an instant and suddenly knew Fluffymump didn't die in her sleep as her parents had said. Sensitive? Hardly. Only her innate girlish grit kept her sanity from snapping right then and there.

Not that the experience left her untouched. Within weeks, she became an uncompromising vegetarian who shuddered over baby-back ribs and fish fillets, although not for the reasons which others imagined. On a field trip to the science museum, she gagged and clutched at her throat after playing with the sealed sensory box, writhing on the floor until the EMTs arrived. (She soon recovered, and an investigation of the box revealed it contained only jacks, dried beans, a twist of burlap, and a chicken femur polished shiny by countless small hands.) She passed high school biology with a C-, owed entirely to her unwillingness to participate in any dissections. She refused to attend her grandfather burial, unable to convince herself that the faint murmurings she heard while walking a stone-stippled graveyard were entirely in her imagination.

College proved better. College offered more in the way of options. Jenny went out of state. She stayed far away from the physical sciences and majored in accounting. She roomed with a pair of vegans in the town's historic district, dwelling in an old row house with red-brick walls, three tiny floors, and a basement so old the concrete had begun to crumble. Linebacker-large Lana and pixie-petite Maryanne wouldn't think of questioning her choice of diet. They were older and activists. They wore hemp and unbleached cotton. They argued passionately for global implementation of China's one-child policy and the outlawing of all forms of animal testing. They were political in a way Jenny had never experienced.

"Look, I know it's a cliche," Lana said more than once over meals of tofu or edamame or spaghetti squash. "But think about it. Personhood is defined by the ability to enjoy your existence, to prefer to continue your life. Why restrict that definition to just humans? Can it be for any reason other than speciesism?" Her first thundered against the table. "Meat really is murder. Maybe our society needs a taste of it to understand."

"Don't mind her," Maryanne always said. "She's all talk."

Jenny didn't mind. Her choice, though, owed less to ideology than psychic survival. She acknowledged the benefits of easily available protein and loved a juicy hamburger. But any fleck of marrow secreted in ground chuck might bring the stunning thunk of a slaughterhouse bolt gun to her forehead. Not that she wanted to explain. Such a cross wind of opinion would surely whip stormy Lana in a full-fledged tempest and (she suspected) agitate even serene Maryanne.

So she said little and listened much. She attended to her studies. And in her junior year, she met a boy.

Dr. Soumitra Ghosh had a reputation amongst accounting majors for being tough but fair -- but mostly tough. Still, Jenny wanted to graduate early, and it fit into her schedule, a once-a-week night class. "I do not hand out A's," Dr. Ghosh said during the very first class. Jenny skimmed the syllabus. Deferred compensation, depletion, gross income exclusions -- everything she'd studied before, simply in more detail. She glanced at the other students scattered around the room, only a dozen, a bad sign for a professor's popularity. Her gaze lingered on the square-shouldered young man sitting to her right. His curling hair was the color of coal, his high cheekbones cut as if with a chisel, his eyes slate gray. While she watched, his pen beat a staccato tattoo on the desk and his shoulders clenched, relaxed, clenched again. Nervous.

While Jenny was packing, she heard a throat being conspicuously cleared.

"Uh," said the young man. "Hi. Um, look, I'm embarrassed to ask this, but you seemed to know what's going on."

Jenny raised an eyebrow. "It's just tax accounting."

He grimaced. "I know, right? But that example on property dispositions had me completely confused."

"Didn't you take ACG 6730?"

"It wasn't listed as a prerequisite."

"Everyone in the department knows you need it if you're going to take anything with Dr. Ghosh."

He sighed. "Great. See, I'm not from the department. I'm on the entrepreneurship track, but I was hoping to graduate this semester. It's the only class that fit."

Jenny found a smile teasing the corner of her mouth at the utter dejection on his face. "Looks like you're going to need a tutor."

"Guess so. Maybe the registrar has a list or something."

Jenny swallowed, her heart suddenly stuck six inches above her sternum. "Or I could ... help you out with the basics. It's not too hard once you get the hang of it."

He beamed like a cloudless sunrise. "You are awesome. Got time now? I'm starving, and there's a KFC on campus. My treat."

Jenny hedged. "How about coffee?"

His name was Marc. His mother was British, his father Iranian, and he'd shocked them both by deciding to go to school in the states. He'd shocked them more when he said that the U.K. was an economic train wreck waiting to happen, had miserable weather and worse food (unless you counted fish and chips, and you couldn't eat that for two meals a day each and every week), and he only planned to return on holidays. He'd already sketched out a plan to open a Culver's franchise in every state on the eastern seaboard within a decade.

"I have a bit of an aggressive personality," he explained. "So, we can do this again? And, by the way, you know you have beautiful eyes, right?"

They accomplished very little in the way of studying.

Marc insisted on walking her home, and tried kiss her. Jenny waved him off, laughing. After their third rendezvous, she let him. After the sixth, the thing that broke their lip lock was Maryanne whipping open the front door.

"Cute guy," said Maryanne once they were both inside. "You going to marry him? Have a bunch of kids?" Her small shoulders shivered with ill-controlled rage.

"I don't know. I just met him a few weeks ago. What's the matter with you anyway?"

"The matter with me? Haven't you been listening to what we've been saying? The reproductive drive lies at the root of anthropocentrism, the nexus of all the major problems this planet is facing. And there you are, living with us, listening to us, and then acting like a breeder behind our backs --"

"Maryanne, stop, please," Jenny interrupted. "You're starting to scare me. Where's Lana?"

Maryanne turned away, placed her hands on a side table bearing a jumble of keys, a heavy pewter candlestick, a bowl of stevia-sweetened mints. "At one of her meetings."

"Do you know when she'll get back? Because I think we should talk about this. I respect you both and your ideas, but I need to live my life."

Maryanne chuckled, a sad sound. "Talk. It always comes down to that. Lana likes it, talking about small steps and incremental change. She's all talk. I told you so."

"Incremental change doesn't sound so bad."

"Exponential is better. Pull out the weed by the root. I'm not all talk."

And her hand closed around the candlestick, whipped around, and struck Jenny on the head.

Jenny awoke in the dark with a blood-red pulse hammering behind her eyes. She knew her hands and legs were bound. She knew she was in the basement. She knew Maryanne, with her normally quiet demeanor, was stone crazy in a way that went beyond politics. She knew she would soon come down the steps with a box cutter.

She knew all this because the bed of bones upon which she was pillowed told her so.

Five women all approximately her own age. Five drawn by the allure of cheap rent in the historic part of town. Five women either supportive of, indifferent to, or repulsed by their roommates' beliefs. Five women whom Maryanne had found were in romantic relationships. Five women who, for the sake on an idea, were secreted away in quicklime in a crude ossuary cut into the basement's concrete floor and covered by boards and gravel until another was ready to join them.

Their bones spoke to Jenny. They poured out anger and outrage, horror and hurt. And Jenny, teetering on the brink of madness, did something she'd never done before: She talked back. She explained the rope around her wrists and the gag in her mouth. She told them about Marc and her studies. She described her parents and Samuel and Fluffymump as she'd been when she was alive. When words failed, she began to cry. And when the tears ceased, she realized that even the bones had grown silent.

She felt something move underneath her. She heard a sound of clicking, as if of the mandibles of some enormous chitinous creature. She saw a rectangle of light appear around the door at the top of the stair, saw it widen as it opened, Maryanne's silhouette framed within it.

Then things began to happened.

Later, the police officer tasked with the unenviable task of writing up the report would concoct a theory about a group of mysterious assailants who had broken in to the bungalow, although their motivations remained a mystery. It had to have been a "they," because position of the victim's body -- if victim you could call her -- showed she'd been flayed alive with her own X-Acto knife. (The officer so surmised, because forensics could find only her prints on it.) Reconstructions of the scene indicated at least a half-dozen assailants and that the death had been ... prolonged. The strangest part, though, were the bones that had been scattered about her, a jumble of remains from the murders of missing college coeds over the past three years. Their appearance had the authorities baffled. The sole survivor, one Jennifer Hartswick, could shed no light on the matter, claiming to have been unconscious throughout the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Isaacson on a New Paradigm for Artificial Intelligence

In the September 27-28, 2014, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson (The Innovators) talks about code cracker Alan Turing, thinking machines, and a new paradigm for artificial intelligence. Excerpts:
These questions [about free will] came together in a paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," that Turing published in 1950. With a schoolboy's sense of fun, he invented a game -- one that is still being played and debated -- to give meaning to the question, "Can machines think?" He proposed a purely empirical definition of artificial intelligence: If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, then we have no meaningful reason to insist that the machine isn't "thinking." ...

At Applied Minds near Los Angeles, you can get an exciting look at how a robot is being programmed to maneuver, but it soon becomes apparent that it has trouble navigating an unfamiliar room, picking up a crayon and writing its name. A visit to Nuance Communications near Boston shows the wondrous advances in speech-recognition technologies that underpin Siri and other systems, but it is also apparent to anyone using Siri that you still can't have a truly meaningful conversation with a computer, except in a fantasy movie. A visit to the New York City police command system in Manhattan reveals how computers scan thousands of feeds from surveillance cameras as part of a Domain Awareness System, but the system still cannot reliably identify your mother's face in a crowd.

All of these tasks have one thing in common: Even a 4-year-old can do them.

Perhaps the latest round of reports about neural-network breakthroughs does in fact mean that, in 20 years, there will be machines that think like humans. But there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). For years, the idea of the sentient computer has permeated science fiction. (Think William Gibson's Wintermute or Arthur C. Clarke's Hal 9000.) In fact, I'd argue that it's moved from trope to cliché. What's more, few genre writers have ever stopped to critically consider the concomitant concepts of such a view, such as how the increasing physical complexity of the material brain can ever result in an immaterial mind or why focused thought sometimes seems to reshape gray matter. Here's to hoping Isaacson's paradigm of computer/human partnership gains popularity not only for creativity's sake, but so that more people can start considering big questions.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Saad Faruque)