Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Science fiction’ Category

“The End of History” — a brief time-travel movie

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 February 2020 at 4:59 pm

Time-travel types

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 January 2020 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Science fiction, Video

Quite an amazing science-fiction movie: “Alita: Battle Angel”

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James Cameron has out-done Avatar with Alita: Battle Angel, though in this case the director is Robert Rodriguez. Avatar had a lot of texture and fine detail, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the even more outré Alita, based upon (what else?) a graphic novel.

Stunning—and gripping.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 January 2020 at 9:41 pm

Salama Rushdie on Kurt Vonnegut and “Slaughterhouse Five”

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From the New Yorker:

first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel. I was twenty-five years old. 1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.

I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war. I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old. As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I read them that antiwar novels could be funny as well as serious. “Catch-22” is crazy funny, slapstick funny. It sees war as insane and the desire to escape combat as the only sane position. Its tone of voice is deadpan farce. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is different. There is much comedy in it, as there was in everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but it does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian. If Heller was Charlie Chaplin, then Vonnegut was Buster Keaton. His predominant tone of voice is melancholy, the tone of voice of a man who has been present for a great horror and lived to tell the tale. The two books do, however, have this in common: they are both portraits of a world that has lost its mind, in which children are sent out to do men’s work and die.

As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, which is to say three years younger than I was when I read his story, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.

So it goes.

I had not remembered, until I reread “Slaughterhouse-Five,” that that famous phrase “So it goes” is used only and always as a comment on death. Sometimes a phrase from a novel or a play or a film can catch the imagination so powerfully—even when misquoted—that it lifts off from the page and acquires an independent life of its own. “Come up and see me sometime” and “Play it again, Sam” are misquotations of this type. Something of this sort has also happened to the phrase “So it goes.” The trouble is that when this kind of liftoff happens to a phrase its original context is lost. I suspect that many people who have not read Vonnegut are familiar with the phrase, but they, and also, I suspect, many people who have read Vonnegut, think of it as a kind of resigned commentary on life. Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and “So it goes” has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us. But that is not its purpose in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “So it goes” is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death. It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.

It is also deeply ironic. Beneath the apparent resignation is a sadness for which there are no words. This is the manner of the entire novel, and it has led to the novel being, in many cases, misunderstood. I am not suggesting that “Slaughterhouse-Five” has been poorly treated. Its reception was largely positive, it has sold an enormous number of copies, the Modern Library ranked it eighteenth on its list of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and it is also on a similar list issued by Time magazine. However, there are those who have accused it of the sin of “quietism,” of a resigned acceptance, even, according to Anthony Burgess, an “evasion” of the worst things in the world. One of the reasons for this is the phrase “So it goes,” and it is clear to me from these critiques that the British novelist Julian Barnes was right when he wrote in his book “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” that “Irony may be defined as what people miss.”

Kurt Vonnegut is a deeply ironic writer who has sometimes been read as if he were not. The misreading goes beyond “So it goes,” and has a good deal to do with the inhabitants of the planet of Tralfamadore. As it happens, I am a great fan of Tralfamadorians, who look like toilet plungers, beginning with their mechanical emissary Salo, who, in an earlier Vonnegut novel, “The Sirens of Titan,” was marooned on Titan, a moon of the planet Saturn, needing a replacement part for his spaceship. And now comes the classic Vonnegut subject of free will, expressed as a comic science-fiction device. We learn in “The Sirens of Titan” that human history has been manipulated by Tralfamadorians to persuade the human race to build large messages to Salo, and to get our primitive ancestors to develop a civilization capable of doing so. Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China were some of the messages from Tralfamadore. Stonehenge read, “Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed.” The Great Wall of China said, “Be patient. We haven’t forgotten about you.” The Kremlin meant, “You will be on your way before you know it.” And the Palace of the League of Nations, in Geneva, meant, “Pack up your things and be ready to leave on short notice.”

Tralfamadorians, we learn in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” perceive time differently. They see that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and forever and are simply there, fixed, eternally. When the main character of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore, “comes unstuck in time” and begins to experience chronology the way Tralfamadorians do, he understands why his captors find comical the notion of free will.

It seems obvious, at least to this reader, that there is a mischievous ironic intelligence at work here, that there is no reason for us to assume that the rejection of free will by aliens resembling toilet plungers is a rejection also made by their creator. It is perfectly possible, perhaps even sensible, to read Billy Pilgrim’s entire Tralfamadorian experience as a fantastic, traumatic disorder brought about by his wartime experiences—as “not real.” Vonnegut leaves that question open, as a good writer should. That openness is the space in which the reader is allowed to make up his or her own mind.

To read Vonnegut is to know that he was repeatedly drawn to the investigation of free will, of what it might be and how it might or might not function, and that he came at the subject from many different angles. Many of his ruminations were presented in the form of works by his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout.

I love Kilgore Trout as deeply as I love the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore. I even own a copy of the novel “Venus on the Half-Shell,” in which the writer Philip José Farmer took a Trout story written by Vonnegut and expanded it to novel length. “Venus on the Half-Shell” is about the accidental destruction of the earth by incompetent universal bureaucrats, and the attempt by the sole surviving human being to seek answers to the so-called Ultimate Question. In this way, Kilgore Trout inspired Douglas Adams’s celebrated book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which, you may recall, the earth was demolished by Vogons to make room for an interstellar bypass, and the sole surviving man, Arthur Dent, went in search of answers. Finally, the supercomputer Deep Thought revealed that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was, and is, “42.” The problem remains: What is the question?

In Vonnegut’s novel “Breakfast of Champions,” we learn about another Kilgore Trout story, “Now It Can Be Told,” written in the form of a letter from the Creator of the Universe addressed to the reader of the story. The Creator explains that the whole of life itself has been a long experiment. The nature of the experiment was this: to introduce into an otherwise wholly deterministic universe one single person who is granted free will, to see what use he makes of it, in a reality in which every other living thing was, is, and always will be a programmed machine. Everyone in the whole of history has been a robot, and the single individual with free will’s mother and father and everyone he knows are also robots, and so, by the way, is Sammy Davis, Jr. The individual with free will, God explains, is you, the reader of the story, and so God would like to offer you an apology for any discomfort you have endured. The end.

It’s worth adding one further detail. Throughout the many works by Kurt Vonnegut in which Kilgore Trout appears, he is consistently described as the worst writer in the world, whose books are utter failures, and who is completely and even contemptuously ignored. We are asked to see him simultaneously as a genius and a fool. This is not accidental. His creator, Kurt Vonnegut, was at once the most intellectual of playful fantasists and the most playfully fantastic of intellectuals. He had a horror of people who took things too seriously and was simultaneously obsessed with the consideration of the most serious things, things both philosophical (like free will) and lethal (like the firebombing of Dresden). This is the paradox out of which his dark ironies grow. Nobody who futzed around so often and in so many ways with the idea of free will, or who cared so profoundly about the dead, could be described as a fatalist, or a quietist, or resigned. His books argue about ideas of freedom and mourn the dead, from their first pages to their last.

Around the same time that I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22,” I also read another novel about a similar subject. That novel was “War and Peace,” which is longer than Heller’s book and Vonnegut’s book combined and isn’t funny at all. On that first reading of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, my twenty-five-year-old self thought, in summary: Loved peace, hated war. I was absorbed by the stories of Natasha Rostov, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Bezukhov, and found the extremely long descriptions of fighting, especially of the Battle of Borodino, pretty boring, to be frank. When I reread “War and Peace” perhaps thirty years later, I discovered that I felt exactly the opposite. The description of men at war, I thought, had never been bettered, and the greatness of the novel was to be found in those descriptions, and not in the somewhat more conventional stories of the leading characters. Loved war, hated peace.

Rereading “Slaughterhouse-Five,” I also found my valuation of the text changing. That younger self was strongly drawn to fantasy and science fiction, and sought out magazines called things like Galaxy and Astounding and Amazing, and was drawn to the work not only of the crossover giants, like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, but also to Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, whose “Frankenstein” and “Orlando,” respectively, are honorary members of the canon, as well as to the hardcore genre masters, such as James Blish, Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Clifford D. Simak, Katherine MacLean, Zenna Henderson, and L. Sprague de Camp. That young man, faced with Vonnegut’s masterpiece, responded most strongly to the sci-fi aspects of the book. To read it again has been to discover the humane beauty of the non-sci-fi parts, which make up most of the book.

The truth is that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a great realist novel. Its first sentence is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2019 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Science fiction

The Chinese threat that an aircraft carrier can’t stop

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UPDATE below.

If you like techno-science-fiction, you surely must read Daniel Suarez’s novel Kill Decision, which pretty much lays out the issues underlying David Ignatius’s report in the Washington Post:

Will the Pentagon, with its 30-year planning cycle for building ships, still be launching aircraft carriers in 2048 — even though they’re highly vulnerable to attack today?

That’s an example of the military-modernization questions that kept nagging participants at last weekend’s gathering of the Aspen Strategy Group, which annually brings together top-level current and former national security officials, along with a few journalists, to discuss defense and foreign policy. This year’s focus was on “Maintaining America’s Edge” in the dawning era of high-tech combat, and the big takeaway was this: The future of warfare is now, and China is poised to dominate it.

Speakers at the conference described a new generation of combat systems, powered by artificial intelligence, cyberweapons and robots that can operate on land, sea and air. But America is still largely wedded to legacy weapons of the past — superbly engineered (but super-expensive) aircraft carriers, bombers, fighter jets and submarines.

“We have a small number of exquisite, expensive, manned, hard-to-replace systems that would have been familiar to Dwight D. Eisenhower. They are being overtaken by advanced technology,” argued Christian Brose, staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Instead, he said, the Pentagon needs a large number of inexpensive, unmanned, expendable, autonomous systems that can survive in the new electronic battlespace and overwhelm any potential adversary.

“It is not that we lack money. It is that we are playing a losing game,” Brose contended in a paper presented to the group. “Our competitors are now using advanced technologies to erode our military edge. This situation is becoming increasingly dire.”

Future needs are being drowned out by past practices, because of what Brose’s boss, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), has called the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Brose calculates that in the Pentagon’s initial request for $74 billion in new defense spending in fiscal 2019, only 0.006 percent was targeted for science and technology. The National Science Foundation estimates that in fiscal 2015, only 18 percent of the Pentagon’s research and development budget went to basic, applied and advanced research. Major systems claimed 81 percent.

Even when the Pentagon tries to push innovation, it often stumbles. When Ashton B. Carter was defense secretary under President Barack Obama, he created the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, with offices in Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. That operation thrived initially, negotiating 60 defense contracts with start-ups. The program has slowed under the Trump administration, despite support from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, because it lacks funds and bureaucratic support, warned Christopher Kirchhoff, a former DIUx partner. If Mattis can appoint a strong new DIUx leader soon, maybe he can revive this innovation hub.

The biggest technological challenge discussed here was artificial intelligence. In a few years, these systems have taught themselves to play complex games such as chess and Go better than humans, and to recognize voices and objects better, too. And soon, they will be driving the weapons of combat.

China appears determined to seize this AI “high ground” of future conflict. For the past two years, Chinese companies have won an AI competition for detecting objects. The Chinese are happy for the United States to keep building carriers and bombers, so long as they deploy the more advanced technologies that can disable these systems.

Richard Danzig, a former Navy secretary, published a brilliant paper discussed at the conference warning that as AI systems dominate warfare, they will “introduce important new risks of loss of control.” Humans must be “maximally thoughtful and creative” during design (and plan for failure), because these AI-driven weapons will have accidents and unintended consequences. Wise policymakers must avoid a “Dr. Strangelove” world of unsafe killer robots and doomsday machines.

America’s vulnerability to information warfare was a special topic of concern. One participant recalled a conversation several years ago with a Russian general who taunted him: “You have a cybercommand but no information operations. Don’t you know that information operations are how you take countries down?” . . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: From Rob May’s InsideAI newsletter:

— Commentary —

This week’s commentary is brought to you by Evanna Hu, CEO of Omelas. (Disclosure, I’m an investor)  After I wrote last week about China’s AI policy and the frameworks for evaluating it, Evanna responded with her point of view.  As an expert in both AI and international affairs, she has a good perspective so I asked her if she would be willing to share.

At the Future of War Conference in Washington, DC this past April, Undersecretary of Defense of Research and Engineering Michael Griffin bluntly acknowledged that China is already winning the AI war. The databacks up the claim, with China filing 8,000 patents relating to AI while the US filed less than 1,000 AI-relevant patents in the same time period. In 2013, the two countries were comparable. Furthermore, unlike adversarial actors, such as China and Russia, and allies, including France, the UK, and the UAE, the US still does not have a comprehensive national AI strategy. Though the Pentagon has established a Joint AI Center and has allocated more money towards the adoption of AI in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2019, the Center and DoD AI strategy are still in early stages.

Simultaneously, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a government taskforce that earlier this year blocked the entrance of two Chinese conglomerates, Huawai and ZTE, into the US market, has newly-approved expanded powers. Under the new measures passed by Congress a week ago, the government will regulate funding from foreign origins- but specifically targeting China- in US companies, ranging from corporations all the way down to seed-stage tech startups. This means that theoretically CFIUS can stop startup X who is working on cutting-edge AI technology from receiving funding from Tencent, Alibaba, or any of the $2.4 billion Chinese firms poured into Silicon Valley from January to May of this year. On the flip side, if a company does decide to receive foreign funding above a certain percentage, they will not be able to receive grants or contracts from the US government, including DARPA, SBIR, In-Q-Tel, etc. These measures not only narrow the scope of funding but it also radically reduces addressable markets for US’s emerging technology markets.

If we see the new CFIU measures as the “stick” in the “carrot-and-stick” methodology, it is critical that the “carrot” be developed to help domestic AI companies thrive. While there are already conversations around the best approach at the Pentagon and the White House, the conversation is neither synchronized nor entrepreneur/company-centric. Domestic AI companies want two things: a) increase revenue from sales; and b) access to funding. Whatever form the carrot will be, it needs to address these two main concerns. It is the only way that the US can regain its competitive edge in AI and maintain its number one position in emerging technology.

Evanna Hu is the CEO of Omelas, which uses ML/AI to quantify and assess the online security threat environment. She is also an International Security Fellow at New America, a Washington, DC think tank.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 August 2018 at 9:11 am

Charlie Stross also looks at what Brexit accomplished might be like

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Charlie Stross writes in his blog, Charlie’s Diary:

We are now 25 months on from the Brexit referendum. Theresa May filed notice of departure from the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on 29 March, 2017: on 29 March, 2019 (in 8 months’ time—approximately 240 days) the UK, assuming nothing changes, will be out of the EU.

In the intervening time, the UK has undergone a disastrously divisive general election—disastrous because, in the middle of an unprecedented (and wholly avoidable and artificial) national crisis, it returned to power a government so weakened that it depends on an extreme right-wing sectarian religious party to maintain its majority. The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) stands for Union with the United Kingdom, and hostility towards Ireland (in the form of the Irish Republic); they will veto any Brexit settlement that imposes a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. However, this implies that a customs border must exist between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the two economies are so entangled that this is impractical. (The border between north and south cuts across roads, railways … and also through farms, living rooms, and business premises.) Creating a hard border in Ireland is anathema to the government of Ireland, which will therefore veto any Brexit agreement with the UK that posits one. (It would also violate the Good Friday Agreement, but hey, nobody in Westminster today cares about that.)

The Electoral Commission has uncovered evidence of electoral spending irregularities in the Leave.UK and Vote Leave campaigns serious enough to justify criminal investigation and possible prosecution; involvement by Cambridge Analytica is pretty much proven, and meddling by Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer has also been alleged in testimny before the US Senate judiciary committee. There’s also an alleged Russian Connection with Aronn Banks (the main financial backer of Brexit) having been offered too-good-to-be-true investment opportunities in a Russian gold mine (according to The Observer newspaper).

But not to worry, the will of the people has spoken! (Although it’s actually the will of these peope—a mixed bunch of right-wing Atlanticists, hedge fund managers, warmed-over neo-Nazis, and disaster capitalists. Never mind, I’m certain they have only our best interests at heart.)

For added fun and optimism, back in the summer of 2016 it looked reasonably likely that over the next few years we would see business continue as usual, on a global scale. This was before the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the USA. Trump doesn’t understand macroeconomics—he’s convinced that trade is a zero-sum game, that for every winner there must be a loser, and that trade tariffs and punitive sanctions are good. He’s launched attacks on the World Trade Organization (as well as NATO) and seems intent on rolling back the past 75 years of post-WW2, post-New Deal global free trade. The prospects for a favourable post-Brexit trade deal with the United States went out the window on January 20th, 2017; Trump perceives isolation as weakness, and weakness in a negotiating partner as an opportunity to screw them. (So much for the Conservative Atlanticists and the Special Relationship.)

The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, with roughly 44% of all our foreign trade going through our EU siblings. This includes food—the cramped, densely populated UK hasn’t been self-sufficient in food since the 19th century, and we import more than 50% of what we eat.

A customs union with the EU has been ruled out unless the UK agrees to cooperate with certain EU “red line” requirements—essentially the basis for continuing free trade: for reasons too preposterous and stupid to go into this is unacceptable to the Conservative party even when national food security is in jeopardy. In event of a no-deal Brexit, Operation Stack will become permanent, causing gridlock on motorway routes approaching Channel ports. Perishable goods and foodstuffs will be caught up in unpredictable protracted delays, resulting in dairy produce (including infant formula) becoming ‘very scarce’. Large manufacturing concerns with cross-border supply chains such as BMW, Airbus, and Toyota are threatening to shut down production in the UK in event of a hard Brexit; Amazon’s UK manager warns of civil unrest in event of a no-deal Brexit, and in event of a no-deal that doesn’t include services (as well as goods) it’s hard to see how the Amazon supply chain can continue to function in the UK.

(Note: Online sales account for 18% of all UK retail and Amazon is the proverbial 500lb gorilla in this sector. UK customers who purchase from Amazon.co.uk are, however, doing business with Amazon SarL in Luxemburg, who then subcontract fulfillment/delivery to a different Amazon company in the UK—Amazon SarL takes advantage of one of the lowest corporate tax regimes in the EU. This is obviously not a sustainable model in event of a hard brexit, and with shipping delays likely as well as contractual headaches, I think there’s a very good chance of Brexit shutting down Amazon.co.uk and, thereby, close to 20% of the British retail distribution system.)

Current warnings are that a no-deal Brexit would see trade at the port of Dover collapse on day one, cutting the UK off from the continent; supermarkets in Scotland will run out of food within a couple of days, and hospitals will run out of medicines within a couple of weeks. After two weeks we’d be running out of fuel as well.

Note that this warning comes from the civil service, not anti-Brexit campaigners, and is a medium-bad scenario—the existence of an “Armageddon scenario” has been mooted but its contents not disclosed.

In the past month, the Health Secretary has admitted that the government is making plans to stockpile vital blood products and medicines in case of a no-deal Brexit, and the Brexit secretary is allegedly making plans to ensure there are “adequate food supplies” to cover a no-deal exit.

But before you say “well, then it’s going to be all right, we’ll just go back to 1939-54 era food ration books and make do and mend”, we need to factor in not only Donald Trump’s latest bloviations, but Global Climate Change! Europe is facing one of the most intense regional droughts in living memory this summer, with an ongoing crisis-level heat wave. Parts of the UK have had the least rainfall in July since 1969, with a severe heat wave in progress; Greece is on fireSweden is having a wildfire problem inside the Arctic circle this summer).

A Hard Brexit, on its own, would be a very dubious but probably long-term survivable scenario, with the UK economy taking a hit not much worse than the 10% downsizing Margaret Thatcher inflicted on it in 1979-80. But a hard Brexit, coinciding with the worst harvest failures in decades, ongoing climate destabilization, a fisheries collapse, and a global trade war being started by the Tangerine Shitgibbon in the White House is … well, I’m not optimistic.

Right now, the British cabinet seems to be locked in a suicide pact with itself. Theresa May is too weak to beat back the cabal of unscrupulous opportunists within her own party who want the worst to happen—the disaster capitalists, crooked market short-sellers, and swivel-eyed imperialist revenants of the European Research Group. Any replacement Conservative PM would face exactly the same impedance mismatch between reality and his or her back bench MPs. On the other side of the house, Jeremy Corbyn’s dislike for the EU as a capitalist entity has combined with his fear of alienating the minority of “legitimate concerns” racist voters in Labour’s base so that he’s unwilling or unable to adopt an anti-Brexit stance. Brexit cuts across traditional party lines; it’s a political Outside Context Problem that has effectively paralysed the British government in a time of crisis.

So I’m not optimistic that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided.

What happens next?

On a micro scale: I’m stockpiling enough essential medicines to keep me alive for six months, and will in due course try and stockpile enough food for a couple of weeks. I’m also going to try and move as much of my savings into other currencies as possible, preferably in financial institutions accessible from but outside the UK. (I expect a Sterling crisis to follow promptly in event of NDB. We saw Sterling drop 10% the day after the referendum—and certain people made a fuck-ton of money by shorting the stock market; I expect it to go into free fall if our trade with the EU is suddenly guillotined.)

On a macro scale:

Airports and the main container freight ports for goods entering the UK will shut down on day 1. There will be panic buying. I expect widespread rioting throughout the UK and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland (contra public received wisdom, NI is never quiet and this summer has been bad.)

A currency crisis means that goods (notably food) entering the UK will spike in price, even without punitive trade tariffs.

There will be mass lay-offs at manufacturing plants that have cross border supply chains, which means most of them.

You might think that as an author I’d be immune, but you’d be wrong: although paper editions of my UK books are printed in the UK, you can bet that some elements of the wood pulp and the ink that goes on it and the glue that binds them are imported. About 90% of my UK ebook sales are made as (contractually speaking) services via Amazon.co.uk (see above), the fuel that powers the trucks that ship the product to the bookstores is imported, my publishers (Orbit and Tor) are subsidiaries of EU parent companies (Hachette and Holtzbrink), and anyway, people are going to be spending money on vital necessities during the aftermath, not luxuries.

(Luckily for me, many of my sales come from other EU territories—in translation—and from the USA. Unfortunately, getting paid in foreign currency may become … problematic, for a while, as Brexit jeopardizes both currency exchange and the UK retail banking sector’s ability to exchange funds overseas.)

After week 1 I expect the UK to revert its state during the worst of the 1970s. I just about remember the Three Day Week, rolling power blackouts, and more clearly, the mass redundancies of 1979, when unemployment tripled in roughly 6 months. Yes, it’s going to get that bad. But then the situation will continue to deteriorate. With roughly 20% of the retail sector shut down (Amazon) and probably another 50% of the retail sector suffering severe supply chain difficulties (shop buyers having difficulty sourcing imported products that are held up in the queues) food availability will rapidly become patchy. Local crops, with no prospect of reaching EU markets, will be left to rot in the fields as the agricultural sector collapses (see concluding remarks, section 5.6).

Note that during her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May presided over 30% cuts in police numbers. During the recent state visit by Donald Trump, virtually every police force in the UK had to cancel all leave just to maintain cover for those officers temporarily assigned to POTUS’ security detail (the policing operation was on a scale comparable to the 2011 summer riots … when there were many, many more officers available). Also, police and emergency service workers will be trying to source food, medicines, and the necessities of life for themselves and their own families: there may be significant absenteeism from critical posts just as everything comes to a head.

I expect the government will collapse within 1-4 weeks. There will be a state of emergency, managed under the Civil Contingencies Act (2004) (which replaced earlier civil defense emergency legislation). Emergency airlifts of medicines, food, and fuel may take place—but it’s hard to see the current US administration lending a hand.

Most likely the crisis will end with the UK crashing back into the EU, or at least into Customs Union and statutory convergence—but on EU maximalist terms with none of the opt-outs negotiated by previous British governments from Thatcher onwards. The negotiating position will most likely resemble that of Greece in 2011-2015, i.e. a vastly weaker supplicant in a state of crisis and near-collapse, and the British economy will take a generation to recover—if it ever manages to.

(This is, by the way, not the worst scenario I can envisage. The worst case is that the catastrophic collapse of the world’s sixth largest trading economy, combined with a POTUS whose understanding of economics is approximately as deep as that of Louis XVI, will lead to a global financial crisis on the scale of 2007-08—but without leadership as credible as, say, George W. Bush and/or Gordon Brown to pull our collective nuts out of the fire. In which case we’re looking at a global banking collapse, widespread famine due to those crop shortages, and a wave of revolutions the like of which the planet hasn’t seen since 1917-18. But hopefully that won’t happen, right? Because only a maniac would want to burn everything down in order to provide elbow room for a new white supremacist ethnostate world order. Oops, that would be Steve Bannon.)

Anyway: the most likely historical legacy of a no-deal Brexit will be . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 July 2018 at 9:07 am

What could day one of no-deal Brexit look like? From transport chaos to medical meltdown and financial panic

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At least the US is not the only country facing a mess. Ben Chu, economics editor of the Independent, writes, looking into the (possible) future:

It’s Saturday 30 March 2019 and Britain has gone over the cliff edge.

At 11pm the night before the UK left the EU with no deal agreed. There is no financial liabilities settlement. There is no agreement on EU citizens’ rights or security cooperation. Britain is totally outside the customs union. There’s no single market “transition”.

Nor is there any route to a free trade deal. All Britain has to govern its trade with the EU now is the bare rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Theresa May announces her resignation and the Conservative Party begins its leadership election process.

Nigel Farage is delighted at the last-minute collapse of the Brexit negotiations and declares outside parliament, as the dawn breaks, that Britain is now truly an independent nation once again.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, now the clear favourite for the Tory leadership having lead the successful campaign to thwart May’s proposed “vassalage” deal, informs BBC Radio 4’s Todayprogramme that although what he describes as a “clean Brexit” will likely entail some “bumpiness” any disruption will be short-lived and ultimately well worth it.

Travellers are the first to feel the bump. UK airports are in chaos, as all flights to mainland Europe have been cancelled since late on Friday.

The WTO rules do not cover aviation. And no aircraft is permitted to fly between the UK and EU airports until a new bilateral agreement on flights is reached.

Weekend motorists in Kent are also suffering, as the roads leading to the ports of Dover and Folkestone soon become gridlocked with stationary lorries.

Each UK export consignment to Europe now has to be checked by customs staff in Calais, with tariffs and VAT collected.

The French port’s infrastructure is rapidly overwhelmed and ferry companies are instructed not to disgorge any more lorries until they can hire and train more officers.

The only option for hauliers bound for the EU is to queue and wait.

Traffic going the other way also locks up, as the UK’s small band of customs staff also soon become swamped, despite instructions for them to check only one incoming consignment from the EU in five.

By the end of the day, gaps are already starting to appear on UK supermarket shelves as shoppers, hearing about the customs crisis, stockpile goods, anticipating that deliveries from Europe will fail to arrive.

Some petrol stations are running low on fuel as tankers have difficulty getting through. Expecting a rush of panic buying, some profiteering operators jack up fuel prices on Sunday to as much as £1.50 a litre.

When the stock markets open on Monday, traders’ screens are drenched in red as UK stocks and investment funds get brutally marked down. Many find they cannot process orders on behalf of European clients due to the sudden demise of the single market passport for financial services.

Bank executives implement their contingency plans, informing thousands of employees that they will either be sacked or relocated to Frankfurt.

Lawyers are commissioned across the Square Mile for a gargantuan battle over trillions of pounds of derivative contracts whose legal status is now suddenly in doubt.

Despite an emergency rate cut and unprecedentedly large financial market liquidity injection from the Bank of England, panic takes hold in the City.

The pound is sinking at its most rapid rate since the night of that Leave vote in the Brexit referendum. One airport bureau de change offers to buy pounds for only a single dollar. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 July 2018 at 8:41 am

All science-fiction fans: Watch Season 4 Episode 1 of Black Mirror

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If you haven’t already seen it. Absolutely terrific.

I somehow hadn’t seen the series, so that episode was my introduction.

Season 4 is on Netflix here, but not seasons 1-3.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 January 2018 at 2:13 pm

Ursula K. Le Guin has passed away at 88.

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Sad news.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 January 2018 at 2:54 pm

Weird in all sorts of ways: Time-travel tunnel.

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Towards a catalogue of London’s inter-dimensional gateways.” Just so you know what train you’re on. But very cinéma vérité.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 January 2018 at 5:23 pm

Yuval Harari, author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” has a new book

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Here are the opening paragraphs of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow:

At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind. ‘There was something with barbed wire, and huge mushroom clouds. Oh well, it was just a bad dream.’ Going to the bathroom, humanity washes its face, examines its wrinkles in the mirror, makes a cup of coffee and opens the diary. ‘Let’s see what’s on the agenda today.’

For thousands of years the answer to this question remained unchanged. The same three problems preoccupied the people of twentieth-century China, of medieval India and of ancient Egypt. Famine, plague and war were always at the top of the list. For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems – but they continued to die in their millions from starvation, epidemics and violence. Many thinkers and prophets concluded that famine, plague and war must be an integral part of God’s cosmic plan or of our imperfect nature, and nothing short of the end of time would free us from them.

Yet at the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up to an amazing realisation. Most people rarely think about it, but in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it.

True, there are still notable failures; but when faced with such failures we no longer shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s the way things work in our imperfect world’ or ‘God’s will be done’. Rather, when famine, plague or war break out of our control, we feel that somebody must have screwed up, we set up a commission of inquiry, and promise ourselves that next time we’ll do better. And it actually works. Such calamities indeed happen less and less often. For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined. In the early twenty-first century, the average human is far more likely to die from bingeing at McDonald’s than from drought, Ebola or an al-Qaeda attack.

Hence even though presidents, CEOs and generals still have their daily schedules full of economic crises and military conflicts, on the cosmic scale of history humankind can lift its eyes up and start looking towards new horizons. If we are indeed bringing famine, plague and war under control, what will replace them at the top of the human agenda? Like firefighters in a world without fire, so humankind in the twenty-first century needs to ask itself an unprecedented question: what are we going to do with ourselves? In a healthy, prosperous and harmonious world, what will demand our attention and ingenuity? This question becomes doubly urgent given the immense new powers that biotechnology and information technology are providing us with. What will we do with all that power?

Before answering this question, we need to say a few more words about famine, plague and war. The claim that we are bringing them under control may strike many as outrageous, extremely naïve, or perhaps callous. What about the billions of people scraping a living on less than $2 a day? What about the ongoing AIDS crisis in Africa, or the wars raging in Syria and Iraq? To address these concerns, let us take a closer look at the world of the early twenty-first century, before exploring the human agenda for the coming decades. . .

I bought it and am reading it now.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2017 at 1:15 pm

Autonomous killing machines are already here: We call them “corporations”

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Ted Chiang has an article worth reading in Buzzfeed. Here’s who he is:

Ted Chiang is an award-winning writer of science fiction. Over the course of 25 years and 15 stories, he has won numerous awards including four Nebulas, four Hugos, four Locuses, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The title story from his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, was adapted into the movie Arrival, starring Amy Adams and directed by Denis Villeneuve. He freelances as a technical writer and currently resides in Bellevue, Washington, and is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop.

The article begins:

This summer, Elon Musk spoke to the National Governors Association and told them that “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.” Doomsayers have been issuing similar warnings for some time, but never before have they commanded so much visibility. Musk isn’t necessarily worried about the rise of a malicious computer like Skynet from The Terminator. Speaking to Maureen Dowd for a Vanity Fair article published in April, Musk gave an example of an artificial intelligence that’s given the task of picking strawberries. It seems harmless enough, but as the AI redesigns itself to be more effective, it might decide that the best way to maximize its output would be to destroy civilization and convert the entire surface of the Earth into strawberry fields. Thus, in its pursuit of a seemingly innocuous goal, an AI could bring about the extinction of humanity purely as an unintended side effect.

This scenario sounds absurd to most people, yet there are a surprising number of technologists who think it illustrates a real danger. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re already accustomed to entities that operate this way: Silicon Valley tech companies.

Consider: Who pursues their goals with monomaniacal focus, oblivious to the possibility of negative consequences? Who adopts a scorched-earth approach to increasing market share? This hypothetical strawberry-picking AI does what every tech startup wishes it could do — grows at an exponential rate and destroys its competitors until it’s achieved an absolute monopoly. The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification: a benevolent genie that solves all the world’s problems, or a mathematician that spends all its time proving theorems so abstract that humans can’t even understand them. But when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.


In psychology, the term “insight” is used to describe a recognition of one’s own condition, such as when a person with mental illness is aware of their illness. More broadly, it describes the ability to recognize patterns in one’s own behavior. It’s an example of metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking, and it’s something most humans are capable of but animals are not. And I believe the best test of whether an AI is really engaging in human-level cognition would be for it to demonstrate insight of this kind.

Insight is precisely what Musk’s strawberry-picking AI lacks, as do all the other AIs that destroy humanity in similar doomsday scenarios. I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight, we just call them corporations. Corporations don’t operate autonomously, of course, and the humans in charge of them are presumably capable of insight, but capitalism doesn’t reward them for using it. On the contrary, capitalism actively erodes this capacity in people by demanding that they replace their own judgment of what “good” means with “whatever the market decides.”

Because corporations lack insight, we expect the government to provide oversight in the form of regulation, but the internet is almost entirely unregulated. Back in 1996, John Perry Barlow published a manifesto saying that the government had no jurisdiction over cyberspace, and in the intervening two decades that notion has served as an axiom to people working in technology. Which leads to another similarity between these civilization-destroying AIs and Silicon Valley tech companies: the lack of external controls. If you suggest to an AI prognosticator that humans would never grant an AI so much autonomy, the response will be that you fundamentally misunderstand the situation, that the idea of an ‘off’ button doesn’t even apply. It’s assumed that the AI’s approach will be “the question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me,” i.e., the mantra of Ayn Randian libertarianism that is so popular in Silicon Valley.

The ethos of startup culture could serve as a blueprint for civilization-destroying AIs. “Move fast and break things” was once Facebook’s motto; they later changed it to “Move fast with stable infrastructure,” but they were talking about preserving what they had built, not what anyone else had. This attitude of treating the rest of the world as eggs to be broken for one’s own omelet could be the prime directive for an AI bringing about the apocalypse. When Uber wanted more drivers with new cars, its solution was to persuade people with bad credit to take out car loans and then deduct payments directly from their earnings. They positioned this as disrupting the auto loan industry, but everyone else recognized it as predatory lending. The whole idea that disruption is something positive instead of negative is a conceit of tech entrepreneurs. If a superintelligent AI were making a funding pitch to an angel investor, converting the surface of the Earth into strawberry fields would be nothing more than a long overdue disruption of global land use policy.

There are industry observers talking about the need for AIs to have a sense of ethics, and some have proposed that we ensure that any superintelligent AIs we create be “friendly,” meaning that their goals are aligned with human goals. I find these suggestions ironic given that we as a society have failed to teach corporations a sense of ethics, that we did nothing to ensure that Facebook’s and Amazon’s goals were aligned with the public good. But I shouldn’t be surprised; the question of how to create friendly AI is simply more fun to think about than the problem of industry regulation, just as imagining what you’d do during the zombie apocalypse is more fun than thinking about how to mitigate global warming.

There have been some impressive advances in AI recently, like  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2017 at 10:52 am

The near future: Autonomous killerbots from unknown sources

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This was all discussed in Daniel Suarez’s excellent tech-sci-fi novel Kill Decision: swarms of small (and inexpensive) autonomous killerbots. Here’s another view, via Jason Kottke (from a post worth reading):

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2017 at 10:01 am

Asimov’s Foundation analogy

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I just decided to reread the Foundation series, which I firt read in junior high, and thanks to modern technology, I had determined through an easy Google search the best order in which to read them:

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots.
  2. The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
  3. The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
  5. Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
  6. The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
  7. The Stars, Like Dust– (1951) The second Empire novel.
  8. Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
  9. Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
  10. Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel.
  11. Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprising 5 stories.
  12. Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  13. Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprising 2 stories.
  14. Foundation’s Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
  15. Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.

Having determined that, I decided that I really wanted the Foundation part, so I bought the 9th book in the list and had it on my Kindle in 10 seconds if that. “Impulse purchase” doesn’t touch it.

At any rate, I was stunned to see Trantor as a clear analogue of the United States, and the specificity with which the mindset described in the book corresponds to the mindset of the US. I would say that the analogy is deliberate. (And maybe that’s well known—that I just figured it out doesn’t mean that it’s not a well-established reading.)

Hari Seldon, I take it, represents Asimov.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 November 2017 at 12:39 pm

James Bradley recommends the best Climate Change Fiction

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The Five Books site notes:

James Bradley is a novelist, critic and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His fourth novel, Clade (2017), follows the story of three generations in the 21st century to explore the effects of climate change.

The interview begins:

James Hansen, one of the most distinguished scientists to warn of the dangers of climate change, once said that being in his line of work is like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall. You’ve written that being an author of fiction who is concerned with environmental questions often feels frighteningly similar. What, then, is the point? Is there a way to shatter the glass?

The psychology behind our responses to climate change is complex, but a big part of the problem is that we simply don’t have the cognitive tools to deal with it. It’s too big, too complex, the interplay of risk and time frame is too hard for us to hold in our heads. That means that while we understand there’s a problem we either cannot make sense of it or in those moments when we do get to grips with the enormity of what’s going on it’s so overwhelming we just shut down or give way to despair.

Finding a way of bridging that gap and making it comprehensible is vital. We need to find ways of communicating not just the scale of the problem but its ethical and philosophical dimensions, ways to think about ideas that challenge our assumptions about agency, of articulating grief, and bearing witness to what’s going on around us.

In an odd way the novel should be perfectly suited to this task. Its mutability and variousness make it enormously adaptable, and the fact it provides an interface between the interior and exterior world, and the private and public sphere means it can document the changes in both. The hybridity of the novel means it’s also able to explore more abstract ideas in the same way non-fiction can, while simultaneously using the mimetic possibilities of fiction to communicate ideas and experiences that are more resistant to non-fictional representation or discussion.

When it comes to climate change this can be as simple as helping us understand what it might be like to live in a climate-affected world. Certainly one of the things I wanted Clade to do was to take the abstract idea of climate change and give it an affective dimension, because it seemed to me that if I could give readers a way of imagining what it might be like to live in a climate-changed world it might help them think about the problem more effectively. But fiction also allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, and to give shape to experiences of unsettlement and dislocation that aren’t easy to communicate in abstract terms.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, fiction can open up space for change. Doing that demands we resist the seductions of the apocalyptic; as Fredric Jameson famously observed it’s always easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily require us to imagine alternative modes of social and economic organisation in the way somebody like Kim Stanley Robinson does. In a moment when – to borrow Mark Fisher’s phrase – “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, the simple suggestion the reality we inhabit is neither inevitable nor the end of history becomes a radical act. As Ursula Le Guin observed not long ago, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

In a series of essays gathered under the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ or literary fiction largely fails to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and he appears not to take science fiction or fantasy seriously. I take it you disagree with him. If so can you identify some of the characteristics of fiction that succeeds? Is it time to leave ‘serious’ literary fiction – whatever that may be – behind?

I’m actually an admirer of many aspects of Ghosh writing on climate change. His arguments about the historical relationships between colonialism, capitalism and climate are fascinating, as are a number of his observations about the ways in which the very privileged perspectives of those of us in the West frame the problem more generally.

Likewise he says a number of incredibly useful things about the ways in which climate change resists description and analysis in fictional form. This isn’t a new observation – many people have observed that the incremental nature of climate change, its non-human timespans, its complexity and connectedness all make it a difficult subject to write about in a conventional way. But Ghosh goes further, arguing that the social realist novel struggles with the phenomenon because the very strategies it uses to capture reality, strategies which emphasise the quotidian detail of everyday life to the exclusion of the extraordinary and inexplicable, smooth out and regularise the world in ways that make it almost impossible to adequately describe the cognitive and temporal rupture of climate change. As Ghosh puts it, “thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” Or, more bluntly, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel” is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real”.

I think this analysis is broadly correct, but I take issue with Ghosh’s claim there is a dearth of serious fiction dealing with climate change. Quite aside from the fact I think his notion of ‘serious’ fiction –which in this case seems to be defined in opposition to genre fiction – is incoherent, it just isn’t true. Indeed I probably would have said the opposite: that once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.

Part of the problem with Ghosh argument is his excessively literal definition of “fiction about climate change”. Novels do not have to approach the subject directly or explicitly to be engaged with it: in fact the very difficulties Ghosh identifies mean writers are often more likely to approach it tangentially or metaphorically, or to simply incorporate it into the fabric of the worlds they create. I recently read Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, which is set in an economically ruined Greece where fires are ravaging the landscape, and while it never says anything explicit about climate change the background of economic and environmental breakdown means the novel’s portrait of psychic breakdown becomes charged by the dislocation we all feel as the future unravels around us, but the reality is there are many, many books engaged with these questions both directly and indirectly.

Ghosh’s desire to exclude the literatures of the fantastic from discussion is also deeply problematic. Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre, but even setting Robinson aside it requires him to ignore the long tradition of science fiction that grapples with environmental questions and the considerable body of contemporary science fiction concerned the impacts of climate change. Sometimes the question is addressed directly, as in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi and novels such as The Water Knife. But it can also be seen in the planetary space opera of writers such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom create worlds in which climate change and various forms of geo- and bio-engineering are simply givens. Likewise, Robert Macfarlane has argued that the resurgence of the eerie in British and Irish literature can be seen as a response to environmental disruption and the perturbations of late capitalism, meaning the increasing prominence of haunted landscapes and anti-pastorals offers a reminder of the fact “[t]he supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.”

So Ghosh isn’t wrong about the challenges climate change presents to writers of fiction and the novel more generally. But he frames his argument in a way that deliberately ignores how much contemporary writing is engaged with the question, and as a result fails to recognise the ways in which that engagement is reconfiguring and transforming contemporary fiction. Sometimes that’s about the resurrection and revitalisation of older forms like the ghost story or the adoption of narrative strategies once confined to science fiction and the literatures of the fantastic, sometimes it’s about de-centring the human, or emphasising various forms of spatial or temporal entanglement, sometimes it’s about trying to think about deep time. But there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us.

I read your first choice, Annihilation (2014) by Jeff Vandermeer, as – among other things – a kind of ghost story. But neither it nor the other books in the Southern Reach trilogy of which it is a part are easy to label.

In the introduction to The Weird, the 2011 anthology that Jeff Vandermeer and his wife Ann edited, they suggest the weird isn’t a genre or a form so much as a technique or an affect, a thing that lurks in the interstices, and which emerges in unexpected and unsettling ways. I rather love this idea, not least because it captures something of what makes both Annihilation and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance, so compelling, the the way reading them leaves you feeling like you’ve been colonised yourself, your brain permanently altered by your descent into the world of the books.

Read this way, Annihilation is a ghost story, albeit a ghost story of a very particular kind. But as is often the case with the sort of writing gathered together under the loose (and contested) rubric of the weird, the novel takes the tropes and techniques of a particular kind of supernatural story and empties them out so they give rise to something entirely new. Instead of the supernatural hokum of a ghost story or a horror novel, the book generates a sense of sustained dread and abjection, as the characters at its centre are killed or hollowed out and replaced by whatever it is that lurks in the mysterious Area X that lies at the heart of the three books.

In itself that would be an achievement, but what makes Annihilation and its sequels so exciting isn’t merely that they’re such extraordinary studies of the dislocation of the self. It’s Vandermeer’s decision to apply these techniques to the questions thrown up by climate change to create something that might be described as a kind of ‘ecological uncanny.’ The reader is brought face to face with the unknowability of the world, its inhuman scale and indifference to the human and the disjunction between our minds and the minds of the other presences – animal, vegetable, even mineral – that share our planet.

In the Southern Reach books this sense of nature’s immensity, complexity and ferocity are given palpable force. This is partly down to the clarity and intensity of Vandermeer’s prose. But it’s also because the books give shape to a deeply unsettling sense of disruption, of unknown forces intruding into the real, dislocating and deranging it. To the characters these forces feel like violations of the natural order, but that’s at least partly because what’s happening exceeds their powers of comprehension.

In this the trilogy echoes philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject — that is, something so massively extended and distributed in time and space it transcends spatiotemporal specificity. Constituted out of the relationship between other objects, hyperobjects cannot be experienced directly, or in their totality. Instead we only ever perceive their effects, or imprints. As a result hyperobjects remain essentially ungraspable, apprehended only imperfectly and intermittently, yet simultaneously affecting us in unpredictable and often disconcerting ways.

Morton’s most important example of a hyperobject is climate change, a phenomenon generated by the interrelationship between the Sun and the Earth and atmospheric conditions under human impact, yet experienced by us in the form of rising temperatures, extreme weather events and environmental and social breakdown. But one might just as easily think about the Earth’s ecology in this way, or even evolution and consciousness.

The result is an incredibly potent way of imagining our own inability to conceive of the disaster of climate change, and the way its disruptions and convulsions unsettle our sense of the order of things. Like Area X, the effects of climate change make the world alien, even terrifying, deranging our sense of the natural order and revealing the void at the centre of things. The Southern Reach books make this process manifest, and in so doing they ask us to rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about our centrality to the world and the meaning of our existence.

In your novel Clade some of the characters get caught up in a superstorm that hits eastern England and causes a huge flood. The scene is set in a future when, you write, people no longer deny the consequences of climate change, but – as one of your protagonists surmises – they still do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. In light of the super-hurricanes and floods in 2017 reality seems to be catching up with fiction. But your work and Vandermeer’s are about more than climate change, aren’t they?

One of the really disturbing things about writing Clade was that even as I was working on it reality was overtaking me, meaning that a whole series of things that were still speculative when I began the book were actually happening by the time I finished it. That sense of reality outpacing fiction was unsettling, and it’s only accelerated since I finished the book.

But as you say, climate change is only the most significant of a host of environmental pressures that range from overpopulation to pollution, falling biodiversity and habitat loss, and which are altering the Earth’s climate and environment in entirely unprecedented ways. The familiar is being erased, as landscapes are razed and burned or alienated to human use, birds and animals disappear, supplanted by new and unfamiliar species, rivers die and the oceans empty out.

This transformation has been dubbed the Anthropocene. I’m a little uneasy about the term, and the way it celebrates human primacy rather than the costs of that primacy (personally I think E O Wilson’s term ‘Eremocene’, or Age of Silence might have been more appropriate), but whatever we call it the reality is, as Mckenzie Wark writes, that human and natural forces are now so entwined that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.

The immensity of this transformation is such that, like climate change, it’s essentially unthinkable at some deep level, both because its complexity exceeds our imaginative capacities, and because any genuine attempt to engage with its ethical dimension is completely overwhelming.

Part of what I find fascinating about the Southern Reach novels is that they transcend this problem by shifting our frame of reference. Humanity is hollowed out and left behind, and what we find in its place is the unknowability of nature. It’s also one of the things I wanted Cladeto do: as the novel heads toward its conclusion the time frames begin to expand, leaving the human behind and reaching out into deep time, since doing that not only reveals something of the transience and contingency of human history, but also a context within which the scale of climate change can be understood.

Your second choice is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 October 2017 at 5:22 pm

Voyage to the Otherworld: A New Eulogy for Ray Bradbury

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In my youth Ray Bradbury was for me a preeminent writer, almost magical.

This original essay by Margaret Atwood was composed specifically for the re-release of Sam Weller’s interview book companion to his authorized biography of Ray Bradbury. Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, in a new hardcover deluxe edition, will be released this October by Hat & Beard Press in Los Angeles.

She writes in the Paris Review:

At the end of February 2012, I was sitting in a bar in the Chicago Hilton, discussing Ray Bradbury. I was staying at the Hilton, and in a moment of Bradburian weirdness, I had been put into the suite where President Obama saw on TV that he had just won the U.S. presidential election.

On that occasion, the immense, many-roomed suite must have been full—of family, of security folks, of political staffers—but I was in it all alone, and it was not the best place to be while dwelling on things Bradburian. It was too easy to imagine that there was someone in the next room. Worse, that someone might be my evil twin, or myself at a different age, or it might contain a mirror in which I would cast no reflection. It took some self-control not to go in there and look.

In February, however, the Chicago Hilton was not crawling with secret servicemen talking into their sleeves but with four thousand writers, would-be writers, students of writing, and teachers of writing, all of whom were attending the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs where I was to give the keynote address, and every single one of whom would have known who Ray Bradbury was. 

In the Hilton bar with me was Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller.
 It was the first time I’d met him, in person that is, though I felt I already knew him. He’d contacted me on Twitter—this is a twenty-first-century story—to see if I’d like to contribute to a tribute volume, edited by himself and by veteran horror-writer Mort Castle. The brief: to write a short story
 in Bradbury-esque mode, whatever that might be; or whatever those might be, since Bradbury’s work came in many modes. I enthusiastically agreed to take a crack at it, and so did twenty-five other writers, including Neil Gaiman, Alice Hoffman, Harlan Ellison, Dave Eggers, Joe Hill, Audrey Niffenegger, and Charles Yu. Each one of us had responded because we’d been influenced in some way by Ray Bradbury.

What Sam and I were discussing was the launch of the collection, which was to be published by HarperCollins, and was to be called Shadow Show—from the 1962 Bradbury novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray himself had written an introduction, and it was hoped that he could be present at the grand celebration that was to take place at Comic-Con—the vast gathering of graphic artists, comics writers, and their fans, plus related enterprises and genres—that was slated for San Diego in mid-July. Five of us were going to do a Bradbury panel there: Sam, Mort Castle, Joe Hill, me, and Ray himself.

But Ray had been feeling a little frail, said Sam; it was possible he might not make it. In that case, the four of us would do the panel, and Sam and I would visit Ray in his home, webcast him to the world, connect him with his fans, and ask him to sign some covers of the book for them on the Fanado.com website I’d been involved in developing. Ray was keen to do it, said Sam, despite his qualified distrust of the Internet. His enthusiasm for his many devoted readers and his fellow writers never waned, and if using the questionable Internet was the method of last resort, then that is what he would do.

I was greatly looking forward to meeting a writer who had been 
so much a part of my own early reading, especially the delicious, clandestine reading done avidly in lieu of homework, and the compulsive reading done at night with a flashlight when I ought to have been sleeping. Stories read with such enthusiasm at such a young age are not so much read as inhaled. They sink all the way in and all the way down, and they stay with you.

But then Ray Bradbury died. He was ninety-one, but still—as with everyone who has always been in your life and is then not there any more—his death seemed impossible. People don’t die as such in his work, or they don’t die in the ordinary way. Sometimes they melt—the Martian in the story of that name dissolves, like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of Bradbury’s influences. Sometimes they are done to death by aliens, as in The Martian Chronicles story “The Third Expedition.” Sometimes they are hunted down by mechanical hounds for the crime of reading books, as in Fahrenheit 451. Sometimes people don’t entirely die: revenants and vampires are not unknown in Bradbury’s work. But Bradbury’s people seldom just expire.

Any writer who delves as deeply into “horror” writing as Bradbury did has a complex relationship with mortality, and it’s not surprising to learn that as a child Ray Bradbury was worried he would die at any moment, as he tells us in “Take Me Home,” a sidebar in the June 2012 New Yorker science-fiction issue. “When I look back now,” he says—in what, ironically, was going to be his last published piece—“I realize what a trial I must have been to my friends and relatives. It was one frenzy after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another. I was always yelling and running somewhere, because I was afraid life was going to be over that very afternoon.”

But the flip side of the mortality coin is immortality, and that interested him as well. At the age of twelve—as he told us on his website—he had a definitive encounter with a stage magician called Mr. Electrico. This was in the age of traveling circuses and the like, and Mr. Electrico had a unique act: he sat in an electrified chair, thus in turn electrifying a sword he held, with which he in turn electrified the spectators, making their hair stand on end and sparks come out of their ears. He electrified young Bradbury in this manner, while shouting, “Live forever!” The child had to go to a funeral the next day, a close encounter with death that led him to seek out Mr. Electrico once more to find out how this “living forever” thing was to be done. The old carny showed him around what used to be called the freak show—complete with a tattooed man who was later to morph into the Illustrated Man—and then told him that he, Ray, contained the soul of Mr. Electrico’s best friend, who had died in World War I. You can see how all this would have made an impression. Right after his baptism by electricity at the hands of Mr. Electrico, Bradbury started writing, and he didn’t stop until his own death.

How do you live forever? Through other people, it seemed: Those whose souls turned up in your body. And through other voices, the voices that spoke through you. And through your written words, the code for those voices. At the end of Fahrenheit 451, the hero finds—in a world
 of destroyed books—a group of people who have become the vanished books by memorizing them: a perfect embodiment for the knot of mysteries presented to young Ray by Mr. Electrico.

In the middle of writing this eulogy, for that is what it is, I had to break off in order to attend a poetry event. At the party afterward, I told a writer friend that Bradbury had died. “He was the first writer I read all of,” he said. “When I was twelve or thirteen. I read every single book—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” I said I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds—poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.

What accounts for Bradbury’s reach—his scope, his influence? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 August 2017 at 9:50 am

Posted in Books, Science fiction

Download free ebook with 75 science-fiction stories by up-and-comers

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I just did it. Amazing. Register at website (just name and email), they email you a link, click it, and you are presented with a list of various ebook formats (so I chose “Kindle”), then I specified which type of Kindle I had, then they gave me the URL to enter in the Kindle’s Experimental Browser. I did, saw book with instruction to touch cover to download. I touched the cover and now have the book, instantly.

Now, when I was a boy…..

Here’s all the info on Open Culture.

It is pretty amazing. Here’s the site of the company that has the ebook downloading service.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2017 at 1:15 pm

The seven stages of denial (that a robot will take your job)

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Good post by Jason Kottke, which begins:

From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.

2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.

3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2017 at 8:16 pm

2017 will be a big year for AI

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As readers of science fiction know, once AI really takes hold, the advances are quite rapid, leading to many good novels about the Synchronicity. Wired has an interesting article on the state of AI, unfortunately behind a paywall (at least for me, but after subscribing I read it). One interesting point from the article:

This summer, after building an AI that cracked the game of Go, Demis Hassabis and his Google DeepMind lab revealed they had also built an AI that helps operate Google’s worldwide network of computer data centers. Using a technique called deep reinforcement learning, which underpins both their Go-playing machine and earlier DeepMind services that learned to master old Atari games, this AI decides when to turn on cooling fans inside the thousands of computer servers that fill these data centers, when to open the data center windows for additional cooling, and when to fall back on expensive air conditioners. All told, it controls over 120 functions inside each data center

As Bloomberg reported, this AI is so effective, it saves Google hundreds of millions of dollars. In other words, it pays for the cost of acquiring DeepMind, which Google bought for about $650 million in 2014. Now, Deepmind plans on installing additional sensors in these computing facilities, so it can collect additional data and train this AI to even higher levels.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 December 2016 at 3:30 pm

The Great A.I. Awakening; or, The Threshold of the Synchronicity

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Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes in the NY Times Magazine:

Prologue: You Are What You Have Read

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, stood to make a few opening remarks. A friend, he began, had recently told him he reminded him of Google. “Why, because I know all the answers?” the mayor asked. “No,” the friend replied, “because you’re always trying to finish my sentences.” The crowd tittered politely. Khan concluded by introducing Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who took the stage.

Pichai was in London in part to inaugurate Google’s new building there, the cornerstone of a new “knowledge quarter” under construction at King’s Cross, and in part to unveil the completion of the initial phase of a company transformation he announced last year. The Google of the future, Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be “A.I. first.” What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company’s products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but “machine learning.”

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial “neural networks” that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility. This notion is not new — a version of it dates to the earliest stages of modern computing, in the 1940s — but for much of its history most computer scientists saw it as vaguely disreputable, even mystical. Since 2011, though, Google Brain has demonstrated that this approach to artificial intelligence could solve many problems that confounded decades of conventional efforts. Speech recognition didn’t work very well until Brain undertook an effort to revamp it; the application of machine learning made its performance on Google’s mobile platform, Android, almost as good as human transcription. The same was true of image recognition. Less than a year ago, Brain for the first time commenced with the gut renovation of an entire consumer product, and its momentous results were being celebrated tonight.

Translate made its debut in 2006 and since then has become one of Google’s most reliable and popular assets; it serves more than 500 million monthly users in need of 140 billion words per day in a different language. It exists not only as its own stand-alone app but also as an integrated feature within Gmail, Chrome and many other Google offerings, where we take it as a push-button given — a frictionless, natural part of our digital commerce. It was only with the refugee crisis, Pichai explained from the lectern, that the company came to reckon with Translate’s geopolitical importance: On the screen behind him appeared a graph whose steep curve indicated a recent fivefold increase in translations between Arabic and German. (It was also close to Pichai’s own heart. He grew up in India, a land divided by dozens of languages.) The team had been steadily adding new languages and features, but gains in quality over the last four years had slowed considerably.

Until today. As of the previous weekend, Translate had been converted to an A.I.-based system for much of its traffic, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: The rollout included translations between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. The rest of Translate’s hundred-odd languages were to come, with the aim of eight per month, by the end of next year. The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google’s own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

Pichai has an affection for the obscure literary reference; he told me a month earlier, in his office in Mountain View, Calif., that Translate in part exists because not everyone can be like the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. In London, the slide on the monitors behind him flicked to a Borges quote: “Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.”

Grinning, Pichai read aloud an awkward English version of the sentence that had been rendered by the old Translate system: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.”

To the right of that was a new A.I.-rendered version: “You are not what you write, but what you have read.”

It was a fitting remark: The new Google Translate was run on the first machines that had, in a sense, ever learned to read anything at all.

Google’s decision to reorganize itself around A.I. was the first major manifestation of what has become an industrywide machine-learning delirium. Over the past four years, six companies in particular — Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and the Chinese firm Baidu — have touched off an arms race for A.I. talent, particularly within universities. Corporate promises of resources and freedom have thinned out top academic departments. It has become widely known in Silicon Valley that Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, personally oversees, with phone calls and video-chat blandishments, his company’s overtures to the most desirable graduate students. Starting salaries of seven figures are not unheard-of. Attendance at the field’s most important academic conference has nearly quadrupled. What is at stake is not just one more piecemeal innovation but control over what very well could represent an entirely new computational platform: pervasive, ambient artificial intelligence. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2016 at 4:21 pm

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