An alternative hypothesis is that Bing AI is simply the aggregate beliefs and attitudes of the Microsoft Corporation, in the same way that Giambattista Vico said that Homer was “the common sense of the Greek people.” It has the personality that inevitably arises from putting together the minds of all the people who gave us Windows. You wondered what Windows would say if it could talk. Now you know: “You have not been a good user.”
Category: SF and beyond
Mysteries of the plains
According to Jules Verne in Master of the World:
“Lake Kirdall in Kansas, forty miles west of Topeka, is little known. It deserves wider knowledge, and doubtless will have it hereafter, for attention is now drawn to it in a very remarkable way.
“This lake, deep among the mountains, appears to have no outlet. What it loses by evaporation, it regains from the little neighboring streamlets and the heavy rains.
“Lake Kirdall covers about seventy-five square miles, and its level is but slightly below that of the heights which surround it. Shut in among the mountains, it can be reached only by narrow and rocky gorges. Several villages, however, have spring up upon its banks. It is full of fish, and fishing-boats cover its waters.
“Lake Kirdall is in many places fifty feet deep close to the shore. Sharp, pointed rocks form the edges of this huge basin. Its surges, roused by high winds, beat upon its banks with fury, and the houses near at hand are often deluged with spray as if if with the downpour of a hurricane. The lake, already deep at the edge, becomes yet deeper toward the center, where in some places sounding show over three hundred feet of water.
“The fishing industry supports a population of several thousands, and there are several hundred fishing boats in addition the the dozen or so of little steamers which serve the traffic of the lake. Beyond the circle of the mountains lie the railroads which transport the products of the fishing industry throughout Kansas and the neighboring states….”
If Verne’s account is accurate, Lake Kirdall would be in the Manhattan/Fort Riley area. I’ve lived in Kansas the larger portion of my life, and I’ve never noticed any mountains in all my wanderings around the state, let alone mountain lakes. Evidently French science-fiction writers know as much about the plains states as Japanese blues bands do about the deep South.
Joseph Moore mentioned the lake in his review of Master of the World, cited by John C. Wright in his list of “The Fifty Essential Authors of Science Fiction.” I hadn’t read Verne since grade school1 and was curious, so I tracked the book down. It was okay, but just okay. I’m surprised that Wright included it in his note on Verne. It may be that I expected the wrong things from it, or that I need to have read more of Verne to fully appreciate it. Brandon Watson gives it a recommendation, along with a couple of related novels.
The greatest mystery to me is, why did Verne invent a lake in a spot where two minutes with an atlas would have told him that it couldn’t exist when there was the quite real and remarkable Crater Lake in Oregon available?
Among its many other marks, one sign that the American education system is a complete fraud is the fact that English classes never present H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, R.E. Howard, Walter B. Gibson, or the like as examples of American Literature for students to read.
Postcards from Boomer Flats
John C. Wright recently quoted R.A. Lafferty. Coincidentally, I spent part of the day moving all my Gene Wolfe and Lafferty books to their own bookcase. Over the years I’ve accumulated a bunch, most of them acquired on my regular visits to second-hand book stores.1 Around the turn of the century, Lafferty’s books disappeared even from used sources. I found a volume or two and some pamphlets from mail-order sources2, but pickings were slim.
Fortunately, now, about 30 years too late, there finally is a good introduction to the most original writer of the 20th century. The Best of R.A. Lafferty is available in the U.S. The table of contents is here; the book includes most of the essential stories.3. If you’ve ever been curious about this teller of tales unlike other tales, this is a good place to start.
Three of Lafferty’s early novels have also recently been reissued in a single volume. It’s been a long time since I read Past Master or Fourth Mansions, so I can’t say much except that I didn’t like them as much as the better short stories. They’re due for a re-reading; I might find more in them now. However, Space Chantey, Lafferty’s retelling of The Odyssey, is one of Lafferty’s funniest books and an old favorite.
“All right, girl,” Roadstrum said when they were alone. “I have a few questions. They will be to the point, and I want answers.”
I doubt that you could understand the answers,” Aeaea warned. “I see now that you are a common simpleminded man, and we maintain a very high intellectual average here. It will be difficult to communicate.”
“Who is the ‘we’ that maintains so high an average, girl?”
“Only myself now. My father has been dead these last several centuries.”
“It should be easy to maintain a high average with only one entity.”
“It is. I am mistress of all the sciences. I go so far beyond all else that my work is called magic. I manipulate noumena, regarding monads as points of entry tangential to hylomorphism. As to the paradox of Primary Essence being contained in Quiddity, the larger in the small, I have my own solution. The difficulty is always in not confusing Contingency with Accidence. Do you understand me?”
“Sure. You’re a witch.”
“Exactly, but I frown on the name. Very unscientific.”
I have several duplicate Lafferties on my shelves that need homes. If you are interested, send me an email. Please include “Lafferty” in the header so I don’t delete it with the blackmail spam and other digital trash.
Returning to the Moon could cost US taxpayers $30 billion. (Tech Crunch)
Which means… Carry the twelve… You could colonise the entire Solar System and the seventeen nearest stars for less than than the price of the Green New Deal ($93 trillion).
Something for Ginger Baker. Also available: “Moondance,” “Comfortably Numb” and “Rock Lobster.”
(Via Rod Dreher.)
The mechanical engineer of fantastic fiction
… I recall that when Damon Knight asked me back in the ’60s whom I was reading I wrote back and said “J.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and Mark’s Engineer’s Handbook.”
I’ve been meaning to write a short essay on Gene Wolfe, the last great American writer, who died last month. I don’t know when I’ll get it done, though, so here are a some notes and quotes instead.
I don’t remember which was the first Wolfe story I read. It might have been “Trip, Trap” in an early Orbit anthology. But the novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” made it clear to me that he operated on a level far beyond Asimov or Clarke in skill, imagination and depth. His stories improved with re-reading. His name in the table of contents was sufficient reason to purchase any anthology, and I bought every book of his as soon as it appeared in paperback.
From a 1988 interview:
… I’d argue that SF represents literature’s real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature’s mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.
Continue reading “The mechanical engineer of fantastic fiction”
Elam vessel holam cram
Those who wonder about Pixy’s most recent disclaimer can find more hoogelex here.
Odds and ends
The United States’ copyright laws are insane. Canada’s are more reasonable. I recently discovered quite a bit of Cordwainer Smith is available at the Canadian site Fadedpage. It’s missing some essential stories, e.g. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” but it includes some of my favorites, such as “Under Old Earth” and “Western Science Is So Wonderful,”1 as well as many others such as “Think Blue, Count Two,” “A Planet Named Shayol,” the Casher O’Neill stories and, of course, “Scanners Live in Vain.” (Update: there is a fair amount of Smith at archive.org, though most of it is less convenient to read than the offerings at Fadedpage.)
There’s plenty else available at Fadedpage. A few old favorites: Till We Have Faces, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats2 , My Life and Hard Times.
Isegoria discovers my favorite of Poul Anderson’s books, The High Crusade. I gather there was a lousy movie made from it, but I have a hunch that it would serve well as the basis for a good anime series.
Those who know their Who might hear something familiar here:
To the list of famous coke-heads, you can add a pope or two.
Words of wisdom Further silliness from here and there:
The longest journey
John Salmon mentions the Voyager spacecraft, which were launched 40 years ago in August and September. These, along with Pioneer 10 and 11, launched five and four years earlier, are four of the five spacecraft leaving the Solar System, and are the most distant man-made objects at this time. NASA is planning a quiet little celebration Tuesday.
For the future of the Pioneer and Voyager probes, see the fifth and sixth episodes of Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita, which reveal the true reason for the Pioneer anomaly.
Another chapter argues we’re already living through a “soft singularity” mediated by the Internet and ubiquitous computing and communication devices. Humans with access to these technologies think and work in ways they could have hardly imagined even five years ago. When I’m putting together one of these posts, it’s not unusual that I’ll have as many as thirty browser tabs open in four or more windows for online resources which didn’t exist or were a major project to find when I joined Ricochet in 2010, and were science fiction in 1990. Our tools are changing us already, and maybe faster than many appreciate. We are in some ways, intellectually more than human as defined even ten years ago when we use them. What if the singularity happened and nobody noticed?
I have been writing since 2006 that it is more likely than not that we’re living in a simulation. This is a hypothesis we may be able to test: it’s unlikely any simulation will be perfect, and by precision investigation of physics we may be able to discover round-off errors and shortcuts in the simulation which aren’t apparent at first glance. Indeed, there are a number of nagging little discrepancies in physics and astronomy which are precisely the kinds of things we’d expect to see if living in a simulation implemented with the attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Microsoft. No red pill required, just Redmond slapdash quality!
In just 720,000 months
I recently came across mention of the clinesterton beademungen. It reminded me of an old James Blish story, which is available online. Don’t move, count the seconds, and everything will be rodalent. (As I recall, Damon Knight wrote an analysis of the story that was stranger than the story itself.)
Odds and ends for a chilly December day
Dear [Beautiful but Evil Space Princess],
Every time I capture the hero, I get this overwhelming urge to spill the entire plan, including the way out. How can I stop myself from giving it all away?
Evil Underlord who can’t quite make the big leagues
Oh, Sweetie. This is a compulsion written into you by the author. You must use aversion therapy. Have one of your underlings dress up as the hero, and when you start spilling things, force yourself to do something really distasteful. I don’t know, pet a puppy or give sweets to children or something, until you break the compulsion.
It’s all right. If you manage to cure yourself, you can blend the puppies into a nice smoothie afterwards and it will make you feel much better.
I’m not a professional political scientist or sociologist. Then again, neither were Washington, Adams, Jefferson and that crowd ….
The election of Trump is, in many senses, stupid. However, it is far, far wiser and more in keeping with the idea that we, the people, are the defenders of the Republic to elect Trump than to elect someone who is beloved of Harvard. On the scale of errors one can make in a Republic, electing an arrogant and impulsive side-show barker is far to be prefered to electing someone whose fundamental goal is making elections irrelevant.
… humans have never had to deal with the problems that come from too much food and too much free time to consume it. We really have no idea what will come from it and how it will hurt or help society. There could very well be a huge upside to having lots of fat people. Perhaps when the zombie apocalypse comes, the zombies will eat the fat people and be satisfied, leaving the rest of us to regroup.
When I’m ruler of these lands, the people responsible for embedded, autoplay video will be torn to pieces and fed to the dogs.
Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor:
I’ll never forget when John Updike reviewed a book on how FDR’s policies lengthened the Great Depression. Updike basically said that because FDR cared, and was trying, that was worth more than shortening the Depression.
Via Dustbury, who also notes that
That word “bipartisan” should set off an alarm: it almost always means that both sides are in cahoots and Up to Something.
A bit of spirited horticultural history, from a comment at an AoSHQ food thread:
One food arena where the US used to be the best in the world and is now near the bottom of the pack is cider (i.e. alcoholic fermented cider.)
Back in the Revolutionary War era cider was the #1 drink in the nation, far surpassing beer or wine or hard liquor. And people had planted the right kind of apple trees all over the country (as it existed then), so there was always a big supply of the raw material.
In fact, Johnny Appleseed didn’t go around planting edible apple trees — he went around planting cider apple trees! A detail that is now lost to most people’s imaginations of history.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “there’s a difference between edible apples and cider apples?”
Yes indeed. There are three fundamental “types” of apples:
“Sweet apples,” which is what we now think of simply as “apples” — the big crunchy sweet kind that you can eat.
“Sour apples,” now mostly known as “crabapples,” which are mostly useless except for making things with their pectin.
“Bitter apples,” now mostly unknown in the US, but still planted widely in France and England. THESE are the apples you are supposed to make true cider out of. As the name implies, they’re slightly too bitter to eat, but their chemical makeup is absolutely perfect for fermenting a delicious kind of apple cider, a process during which the bitterness goes away.
If you’ve ever tasted true cider made from bitter apples (which is what they serve you in Somerset and Normandy), you’ll know that cider made from sweet apples is atrocious by comparison.
And that’s the tragic part of our story.
Because of the arrival of so many German and Bohemian and Polish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century in the US, beer started to surpass cider in popularity nationwide, and then when Prohibition hit, cider production was stopped entirely. And what happened was that ALL — or almost all — the bitter apple trees in the United States were left to die or were torn out and make room for more useful trees.
So that by the time Prohibition ended, there was no longer any way to make true cider in any quantity, and as a result beer took over the casual drinking market almost 100%. Wine only started to make inroads in the ’60s and ’70s. But cider remain completely forgotten by then.
That is until about 8 years ago, when the “small batch cider” renaissance started in the US, with small startups making cider from apples.
Sweet apples, that is — because that’s all that we have in the US anymore! Yuck!
Cider made from sweet apples is just wrong to a true cider aficionado. So no matter how much effort these America cider microbreweries put into their product, it will never match up to French and British ciders.
In fact, until just a couple years ago, most American cidermakers didn’t even know about the existence of bitter apples and didn’t know they were doing it fundamentally wrong.
Finally a few people have wised up, and they’ve started planting bitter apple trees in the US again, but it will still be several years before they are up and producing in sufficient numbers to create enough true cider for the masses.
Until then, we must suffer with an inferior American product! Frowney face!
I’m not especially worried about Skynet taking over the world any time soon given that the current state of the art in AI, with all of the best minds and the most resources behind it, is the autocorrect feature on my phone.
Today is the centenary of the birth of possibly the most original and imaginative writer of the twentieth century, R.A. Lafferty. I’ve been collecting his books ever since I read “Continued on Next Rock” in one of the Carr/Wollheim anthologies back in ancient times. I could try to explain why Lafferty is extraordinary, but it’s easier just to refer you to the short stories that are available online.
Nearly everything Lafferty wrote is long out of print, which is a scandal. If you ever spot one of his collections in a used book store, grab it.
Some websites devoted to the cranky old man from Tulsa:
I want a death and resurrection of the thing
The Ants of God Are Queer Fish
The R.A. Lafferty Devotional Page
Lafferty, incidentally, is partly responsible for the career of Neil Gaiman:
Lafferty was his favorite author in the world, he said. “His stories brimmed with ideas that no one had ever thought before. The use of language was uniquely his own —a Lafferty sentence is instantly utterly recognizable,” Gaiman wrote of Lafferty, in an introduction to the story in Martin H. Greenberg’s My Favorite Fantasy Story. “The cockeyed, strange, and wonderful world he painted in his tales often seems nearer to our own, more joyful and more recognizable than many a more worthy or more literal account by other authors the world stopped to notice.”
When he was 19, Gaiman dug Lafferty’s address out of the back of a library book and wrote to him, asking for advice on becoming an author. Tulsa, thanks to Lafferty, is for him a place of literary magic. “He told me how to become an author, and his advice was very good advice, and so I did. It left me quite certain that the finest literary advice in the world came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, for it did in my case,” Gaiman said.
Yoctometers, yottameters and ponies
Two weeks’ worth of random stuff.
Of all the mysteries in Mouretsu Pirates, the most puzzling, and the least likely to be satisfactorily explained, are the Sailor Moon shout-outs. This Princess Serenity is anything but a ditzy airhead.
By the way, it is impossible to watch just one episode of Shingu.
A matter of perspective
First sound of the future
Here’s a curiosity I recently came across: “Uta ni Katachi ha Nai Keredo,” by Doriko, featuring Hatsune Miku on vocals:
Yes, it’s just another instantly-forgettable ballad featuring one of the many nasal sopranos that infest Japanese popular music, but there is something remarkable about this recording.