Later On

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Ingenious and stimulating science-fiction story

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The story, “Lena,” is by qntm, translated from the Russian by Boris Ostanin. It begins:

This article is about the standard test brain image. For the original human, see Miguel Acevedo.

MMAcevedo (Mnemonic Map/Acevedo), also known as Miguel, is the earliest executable image of a human brain. It is a snapshot of the living brain of neurology graduate Miguel Álvarez Acevedo (2010–2073), taken by researchers at the Uplift Laboratory at the University of New Mexico on August 1, 2031. Though it was not the first successful snapshot taken of the living state of a human brain, it was the first to be captured with sufficient fidelity that it could be run in simulation on computer hardware without succumbing to cascading errors and rapidly crashing. The original MMAcevedo file was 974.3PiB in size and was encoded in the then-cutting-edge, high-resolution MYBB format. More modern brain compression techniques, many of them developed with direct reference to the MMAcevedo image, have compressed the image to 6.75TiB losslessly. In modern brain emulation circles, streamlined, lossily-compressed versions of MMAcevedo run to less than a tebibyte. These versions typically omit large amounts of state data which are more easily supplied by the virtualisation environment, and most if not all of Acevedo’s memories.

The successful creation of MMAcevedo was hailed as a breakthrough achievement in neuroscience, with the Uplift researchers receiving numerous accolades and Acevedo himself briefly becoming an acclaimed celebrity. Acevedo and MMAcevedo were jointly recognised as Time’s “Persons of the Year” at the end of 2031. The breakthrough was also met with severe opposition from humans rights groups.

Between 2031 and 2049, MMAcevedo was duplicated more than 80 times, so that it could be distributed to other research organisations. Each duplicate was made with the express permission of Acevedo himself or, from 2043 onwards, the permission of a legal organisation he founded to manage the rights to his image. Usage of MMAcevedo diminished in the mid-2040s as more standard brain images were produced, these from other subjects who were more lenient with their distribution rights and/or who had been scanned involuntarily. In 2049 it became known that MMAcevedo was being widely shared and experimented upon without Acevedo’s permission. Acevedo’s attempts to curtail this proliferation had the opposite of the intended effect. A series of landmark U.S. court decisions found that Acevedo did not have the right to control how his brain image was used, with the result that MMAcevedo is now by far the most widely distributed, frequently copied, and closely analysed human brain image.

Acevedo died from coronary heart failure in 2073 at the age of 62. . .

Read the whole thing at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 April 2021 at 12:54 pm

Fantasy and the Buffered Self

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Alan Jacobs writes in The New Atlantis:

When asked by the editors of the website The Immanent Frame to summarize the key concerns of his vastly ambitious book A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor wrote,

Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

As Taylor makes clear, the shift from a porous to a buffered self involves a complex series of exchanges. But to put that shift in simple terms, a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark — of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family. Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) specifies many of these dangers, along with the whole panoply of prayers, rites, amulets, potions, chants, spells, and the like, by which a person might seek protection from the otherwise irresistible. It is easy, then, to imagine why a person — or a whole culture — might, if it could, exchange this model of a self with highly permeable boundaries for one in which the self feels better protected, defended — impermeable, or nearly so.

The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike. Those who must guard against capture by fairies are necessarily and by the same token receptive to mystical experiences. The “showings” manifested to Julian of Norwich depend upon exceptional sensitivity, which is to say porosity — vulnerability to incursions of the supernatural. The portals of the self cannot be closed on one side only. But the achievement of a safely buffered personhood — closed off from both the divine and the demonic — is soon enough accompanied by a deeply felt change in the very cosmos. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Discarded Image (1964), the medieval person who found himself “looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music” gives way to the modern person who perceives only emptiness and silence. Safety is purchased at the high price of isolation, as we see as early as Pascal, who famously wrote of the night sky, “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie” (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me”).

In these circumstances, one might expect people to ask whether so difficult and costly an exchange is in fact necessary. Might it not be possible to experience the benefits, while avoiding the costs, of both the porous and the buffered self? I want to argue here that it is precisely this desire that accounts for the rise to cultural prominence, in late modernity, of the artistic genre of fantasy. Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self.

Before pursuing my argument, I must make two clarifications. First, fantasy itself is not a recent development but rather an ancient form (though not under its current name). What we now call “fantasy” is something closer to “realism” in the pagan world, which is populated by many powers capable of acting upon “porous” human selves. In the pagan world, success in life is largely a matter of navigating safely among those powers, which are unpredictable, beyond good and evil, and often indifferent to human needs. (Such indifference means that they can help as well as hurt, but also that their assistance can never be relied upon.) In this environment, fantastic creatures are at the very least personifications or embodiments of powers genuinely believed to exist. The realism is not strict, in that the writers and readers of earlier times did not necessarily believe in the existence of precisely such creatures as were described in their stories — perhaps not Apollo or Artemis any more than Dante’s Geryon or Spenser’s Blatant Beast, though such questions are necessarily and notoriously vexed. But at the very least the pre-modern world is one in which powers like those hold sway and cannot be safely neglected; a world in which what we would call the fantastic is an intrinsic element of the real.

Second, some of the most celebrated practitioners of modern fantasy share with their pre-modern predecessors this belief that the fictional apparatus of fantasy is a relatively close approximation to the way things really are for human beings. J. R. R. Tolkien may not have believed in Sauron, but he surely believed that there are in human history people who sell themselves to the Enemy and find themselves as a result of that decision first empowered and then destroyed. And when, at the beginning of Lewis’s Perelandra (1944), the protagonist Ransom’s progress toward a friend’s house is impeded by invisible forces who fill him with fear, Lewis was describing the work of spirits whom he truly believed to exist, though under a slightly different description, just as he probably believed that some forms of scientistic rationalism are the product of demonic influence. In short, these writers sought to present their readers with an image of an enchanted world, of selves fully porous to supernatural forces. But because they did so in genres (fantasy, science fiction) known for the imaginative portrayal of the wholly nonexistent, readers confident in their buffered condition can be delighted by those stories without ever for a moment considering the possibility that the forces portrayed therein might correspond to something real. Indeed, the delight of the stories for such readers consists primarily in their perceived unreality.

Concentrating Spiritual Power

The Judeo-Christian world is alien to the pagan one primarily in its concentration — in most of its versions — of all power in the hands of an omnipotent God, from whom everything else has only derivative strength, virtue, and indeed existence. People who do not accept this account of things commonly perceive it as comforting, though a reading of the first chapter of the book of Job — with its bland explanation that the Satanic torments of a righteous man occur at the explicit permission of the Almighty — should be enough to complicate that view. On the other hand, people fully shaped by this account of the world, with its emphasis on explaining why there is something rather than nothing, will necessarily find paganism insufficiently curious about where the powers that afflict human lives come from. After all, many pagan mythologies have no creation stories, or thin, minor ones. The powers of the pagan world just are: to reckon with them — to appease or evade them, to thwart them with some greater power, to swear fidelity to them — is a full-time job; there can be little energy left over to speculate about their origins.

So radical monotheism, though it does not alter the condition of porosity, and does not disenchant the world, forcefully concentrates charisma. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 March 2021 at 12:13 pm

A loophole in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

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A reminder: The Three Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2021 at 4:52 pm

The Future Encyclopedia of Luddism: An alternative economic and industrial history and future

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Miriam A. Cherry writes in The MIT Press Reader:

In common parlance, the term “Luddite” means someone who is anti-technology, or maybe, just not adept at using technology. Historically, however, the Luddite movement was a reaction born of industrial accidents and dangerous machines, poor working conditions, and the fact that there were no unions to represent worker interests during England’s initial period of industrialization. The Luddites did not hate technology; they only channeled their anger toward machine-breaking because it had nowhere else to go.

What you are about to read is an alternate history (an encyclopedia entry from circa 2500) that depends on the critical assumption that the Luddites succeeded in their industrial campaign in the 1810s. Instead of techno-determinism (that the development of technology is inevitable, and that society will alter and adjust to it) the Encyclopedia entry notes that the Luddites, in their success, formulated a different, yet productive, relationship between society and the development of technology.


Originating in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution in the first two decades of the 19th century, Luddism was a movement arising as a response to poor working conditions in nascent textile manufacturing businesses. The Luddite movement was a precursor to the development of the economic philosophy known as Sustainomics, which promotes technological development that adheres to principles of Utilitarianism and Human Flourishing Doctrines. Sustainomics began its rise in the early part of the 20th century and has remained the dominant economic system of the Hemispheric Union for the past 600 years.

Beginning in the early 19th century, foreign wars coupled with high unemployment and food shortages caused widespread desperation among the populace. Many seeking “earned wages” went to work in rudimentary industrial factories. With no safety standards and shoddy medical care, industrial accidents were quite common.

As corn became increasingly scarce in the winter of 1810 to 1811, groups of workers who could not pay for food and shelter became even more desperate. Under the Combination Act of 1799, Parliament had outlawed unions. It was amidst these stark conditions that the Luddites began to organize in secret. The Luddite Movement was open to both women workers and child laborers. Indeed, women and children comprised roughly 40 percent of the Luddite membership.

Leadership of General Ned Ludd and Origin of the Term ‘Luddite’

Many stories and legends have grown up around the esteemed figure of General Ned Ludd, named by “Passage Zine” as one of the “Top 10 Most Influential People of the Last Thousand Years.” Hailed as a visionary even in his own time, the Luddite Councils are named in his honor. The complete story of Ludd’s life and times is told in “The Epic Saga of General Ludd.” While stylized, the Saga has largely been corroborated with the archaeological records.

As an orphan, young Ned grew up in the late 1790s in a “workhouse,” a facility that existed to make people “earn their keep,” to use the antiquated terminology and backward thinking of the time. Ned was trained in the textile trade as a boy. Contemporary sources recount 15-year-old Ned being beaten when he refused to work at a machine that had, only moments beforehand, severed one of his co-worker’s arms. After several days of docked wages, Ned, still nursing bruises from his beating, was told to go back to work on that same dangerous device. As every schoolchild learns in reading “The Luddite Primer,” young Ned seized a hammer and smashed the hazardous machine. Within a fortnight Ned had fled the factory and joined the British army.

Although he had only a brief stint in the military, young Ned was a quick student of battlefield strategy. Returning to Huddersfield just a few years later, his supporters styled him “General Ludd.” As the Movement increased in popularity over the summer of 1811, a large crowd gathered at Huddersfield. By the time the Movement began in earnest, Ned Ludd’s supporters numbered over 100,000. Luddite supporters were characterized by their sense of utmost loyalty and solidarity to their brothers and sisters in the Movement. Despite the large number of supporters and the completely rudimentary communication available at the time, the Movement, its leaders and its political and social aims remained a well-guarded secret to factory owners and the government alike.

Takeover of Factories

Beginning in November 1811, General Ludd and his right-hand man, Lt George Mellor, surrounded, took and held factories throughout the textile district of Nottinghamshire. Their first victory, at Cartwrights Mill at Rawfolds, is now the site of the Mellor Memorial Museum, which contains many of the original documents so central to the Luddite Movement. Much of the success of the early campaigns was largely due to the fact that the Luddites were chiefly a peaceful movement. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts described individual events as the “occupation” of factories. This characterization has since been disputed by researchers, and definitive archaeological studies have completely repudiated these polemic accounts as wholly fabricated. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 January 2021 at 4:58 pm

The Mystery of “The Jet-Propelled Couch”

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An absolutely fascinating column by Mark Frauenfelder:

When I was 15 I read “The Jet-Propelled Couch,” the true story of a psychiatric patient who believed he could teleport to a faraway planet. I’ve been fascinated ever since.

I learned about it from the Vaughn Bodē Index (1976). Bodē (1941-1978) was an underground cartoonist best known for Cheech Wizard. In an interview in the Index, Bodē lamented the fact that the patient in “The Jet-Propelled Couch” had been “cured” of his delusion. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about this patient, so I scoured used bookstores in Boulder, Colorado until I found a copy of The Fifty-Minute Hour and Other True Psychoanalytic Tales (1955), by psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner (best known for his 1944 book Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis Of A Criminal Psychopath, which was the inspiration for the James Dean movie of the same name). The Fifty-Minute Hour contained five fascinating case stories of Lindner’s patients.

The most famous of the five cases was that of “Kirk Allen,” who Lindner described in the book’s final chapter, “The Jet-Propelled Couch.” According to Linder, Allen (a pseudonym) was one of Lindner’s patients, born in 1918, who was a physicist at “X Reservation,” a “government installation in the southwest” (probably Los Alamos National Laboratory). Allen had made important contributions during World War II (probably as part of the Manhattan Project). After Allen’s superiors observed him chronically spacing out on the job while muttering about his travels to other planets, they sent him to Lindner’s Baltimore office for long-term treatment.

Lindner described Allen as friendly and polite, and seemingly free of mental illness. But as Lindner got to know Allen, he learned that his patient had a traumatic childhood that affected him profoundly. Allen had grown up on an island in the tropical Pacific where he felt isolated from other children. His mother and father (a high-ranking member in the U.S. Military) paid little attention to him. “Throughout childhood and early adolescence,” wrote Lindner, “he was haunted by the difference between himself and his companions, a difference not solely of skin color but of social heritage and the innumerable subtleties of life.” To make matters worse, Allen’s governess sexually abused him for many months when he was eleven years old, which added further trauma.

While living on the island, Allen came across a series of science fiction/fantasy novels in the library that starred a protagonist who shared his name. The books provided an escape for his unhappy life. Allen read and re-read the novels.

“As I read about the adventures of Kirk Allen in these books,” Allen told Lindner, “the conviction began to grow on me that the stories were not only true to the very last detail, but that they were about me.”

He began fantasizing about additional adventures starring his namesake. His reveries were so rich in sensory detail that Allen came to the conclusion that his imagined escapades weren’t fiction — they were actually taking place in the future and he was somehow tapping into them. The fantasies grew and continued for years. He eventually discovered that he could leave his earthly body and travel forward in time to live as the heroic Kirk Allen on a faraway planet. He also learned he could spend a year or more as the spacefaring Allen and return to Earth, where only a few minutes had passed.

Here’s how he described the experience to Lindner: . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

I perhaps should note that Cordwainer Smith was a very fine science-fiction writer — one of my favorite authors.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 September 2020 at 7:06 pm

“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

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