Obvious, Sublime, Ridiculous


A. AI is fundamentally a model of how humans think. It has to be, because the only example of ‘intelligence’ with which we are familiar is human intelligence. (The same can be said of the concept of ‘artificial.’) As a model, AI is going to tell us what we tell it to tell us. It simply can’t do otherwise. People who understand how models really work understand this limitation – it is obvious.

Concern over AI getting too intelligent and deciding it doesn’t need us puny humans any more is misdirected. The idea that an independent meta-human intelligence will arise, Athena-like, as an emergent property from anything we can build is fantasy. Our idea of meta-intelligence is as limited as our idea of Superman: just as Superman is, fundamentally, a man, just stronger, faster, and incorporating better versions of human tech (laser eyeballs, flight), an AI is – must be! – imagined to be fundamentally human intelligence, only more so – faster, able to process more data at a pop, able to draw connections and conclusions farther and faster. And even this remains fantasy – we have no idea how all this works, but since it does in humans, it must work in our model! The dogma that the human mind simply is a machine demands it.

Putting these two ideas together and acknowledging the limitation inherent in them: What AI may eventually produce is a very fast, very large process that will – must! – be a model of intelligence and the world as the model builders imagine those things to be. AI will produce what its builders tell it to produce.

What we need to be concerned with, then, is not some imagined mysterious, emergent power of AI that no one can control or predict; what we need to be concerned with is what the builders of AI believe and want. That’s what AI will give us. It will give us nothing else. The surprise will be for the builders, as AI demonstrates what they, the builders, truly believe and want.

Leslie Nielsen? The AI running Robbie the Robot seems very human in this classic retelling of Shakespeare’s the Tempest.
How did Anne Francis never get cast as Catwoman? Where was I? Oh, yea, AI…

B. In traditional, by which I mean, obsolete, warfare, an aircraft carrier is the bee’s knees: one modern carrier projects force like nobody’s business. Trouble is, those suckers are expensive: the USS Gerald R. Ford ran a sweet $13 billion to build. And, to make matters worse, a single cruise missile can sink one – Tomahawk cruise missiles, for example, only cost $1.9 million each. You could determine that you needed to launch 1,000 cruise missiles at the Gerald R. Ford to make sure one got through to sink it – and have spent only a bit over 10% of the cost of the carrier to eliminate it. And there are other ways of taking out carriers, such as submarine attack, which are similarly cheaper than building one in the first place.

Knowing this, no carriers go galivanting about unaccompanied. Carriers travel in carrier groups, which include destroyers, frigates, a guided missile cruiser, sometimes submarines – which, all in, will run you $20-$30 billion per group to build, and billions more per year to operate. The main goal of the carrier group is to keep the carrier from getting sunk. So, now, you’ve invested $20-$30 billion, plus billions more per year in operating costs, just to be able to project force along the world’s coasts.

If you wanted to sink a carrier, and had 1,000 cruise missiles at you disposal, and the carrier group was an astounding 99.9% effective in stopping those cruise missiles – you win. But it’s way worse than that:

“The exercise was called Millennium Challenge 2002,” Blake Stilwell wrote for We Are the Mighty.

It was designed by the Joint Forces Command over the course of two years. It had 13,500 participants, numerous live and simulated training sites, and was supposed to pit an Iran-like Middle Eastern country against the U.S. military, which would be fielding advanced technology it didn’t plan to implement until five years later.

The war game would begin with a forced-entry exercise that included the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Marine Division. When the blue forces issued a surrender ultimatum, Van Riper, commanding the red forces, turned them down. Since the Bush Doctrine of the period included preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, Van Riper knew the blue forces would be coming for him. And they did.

But the three-star general didn’t spend 41 years in the Marine Corps by being timid. As soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them and hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-ladened speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His code to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer.

In less than 10 minutes, the whole thing was over and Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper was victorious.

Micah Zenko provided some context in a piece for War on the Rocks. “The impact of the [opposing force’s] ability to render a U.S. carrier battle group — the centerpiece of the U.S. Navy — militarily worthless stunned most of the MC ’02 participants.”

from National Interest, Oct 15, 2019

So, in a war game, a Marine general was given the resources of an Iran-equivalent power and told to take on the combined might of a large chunk of the US Navy – and, using the few missiles at his disposal, plus suicide speedboats and civilian boats and aircraft, took them out in 10 minutes.

Lt. Gen Paul Van Riper. For real. Damn. My only issue with this: nowhere I can find listed among General Van Riper’s assets ‘armored battle goats’. Because – well, because. As hard as it is to imagine, he somehow won without them.

Um, oops. As Sun Tzu so aptly put it: to know your enemy, you must become your enemy.

No reason I’m thinking about this. What could possibly go wrong? I’m sure our current president, what with his razor sharp intellect and surrounded as he is by Top Men Humanoids, has this sort of thing completely under control, no matter who the enemy might turn out to be in this best of all possible worlds.

BBQ talking points for people working in Indigenous ...

C. Been under the weather due to circumstances well within my control that I, nevertheless, failed to control. Something about making sure prescriptions got filled before health plans flipped. Dolly Parton once quipped: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” Does it take a lot of brains to be this stupid? No, I think I just have a talent for it.

But much better now! Will get back to the writing soon. No, really! Haven’t totally neglected it, but not going gangbusters, either.

D. Looking like we might have an epic fruit season out in the front yard micro-orchard. This past winter, I was better about clean-up, trimming, fertilizing, and spraying copper fungicide. Also watering a bit more, as we only had 40% of average rainfall this season:

  • Fig tree has lots of breba figs on it
  • Cherry tree has several times as many cherries as last year
  • Pomegranate just starting to bloom, looking beautiful
  • Our latest additions, two blueberry bushes, seem to be doing well – one is covered in fruit and blossoms, the other has less but is growing vigorously
  • 4-in-1 pear tree, devastated last season by that loathsome leaf curl fungus, is now looking pretty good, with way, way too much fruit setting – I’m going to need to thin by about 80%!
  • My two little peach trees are doing well. Last year, one caught the leaf curl from the pear tree next to it, and lost all its fruit and leaves, but recovered enough to put out enough leaves to survive – it actually looks good, and has a fair amount of fruit on it. The other peach, a dwarf variety, is insane:
This picture doesn’t even capture how much fruit is packed onto these little branches. I’m thinning as I go, need to take more than half of them off.
  • Apricots are doing very well, too

The nicest thing: the Minneola tree our late son Andrew grew from a seed as a child is, for the first time, covered in blossoms:

You can kind of see it.

This tree is over 15 years old. Last year was the best ever – about a dozen fruit. Now, if even 10% of the blossoms set fruit, we’re looking at many dozens. The fruit is good, nice and sweet.

Andrew wrote a poem about it (it was presumed to be an orange tree at the time):

My Orange Tree by the Wall
by Andrew Moore

My orange tree by the wall
For many a spring and fall
Has grown and grown and grown
And done nothing much else at all

But then in spring one day
I shout ‘hip hip hooray!’
For blossoms it shows me
And oranges it grows me
For many a long summer day

E. Further updates as events warrant.

Lawncare and Leprosy

Just looking for a catchy title for more exasperation.

As a distraction from the steady rain of naked emperors and their fawning sycophants and courtiers and the sheep they intimidate into line, I’m putting in some serious lawn care time, and writing. Only partially effective. What’s sticking in my brain is the awareness that about 90% of my relatives are firmly on the Corona Train of Doom. These are for the most part well educated and intelligent people, who seem to firmly believe they are ‘following the science’ that they’ve never looked at and wouldn’t understand if they did. They just so *certain* they’ve got a bead on things.

This item is something you can buy, in bulk if necessary, from actual trophy retailers. And it seems to be assumed that getting this trophy would not only not increase the juvenile suicide rate but rather actually make a child feel *good*. These people 1) are not from this planet, and 2) have never won anything worth winning in their lives.

A seriously cultivated lack of self-awareness. I’m thinking masks are the ironic completion of the participation trophy culture. You want to be an outsider? Someone who doesn’t even get a participation trophy, that proves that the authority figures love you as long as you, well, participate?

(Aside: I am in some ways a very competitive person, mostly manifested in sports. What seems missing from the equation: Running the real risk, sometimes even near-certainty, of losing is a huge part of what made it fun and satisfying. If you win, it’s worth winning; if you lose, you went up against good competition and got to prove yourself, even if just to yourself. The worst thing: playing in games you’re supposed to win easily. Winning is thus nothing to be proud of, while losing is embarrassing. Didn’t these people ever see “A Nice Place to Visit”?)

Several times now, I’ve drafted letters to the family explaining why me and mine are not panicking, why we don’t wear masks or social distance unless we will get innocent people in trouble for it (like a church or a store – it’s not their fault, but they will be made to pay). But – I always, so far, stop before sending it. I just don’t know if it will do anything other than increase the already significant distance between me and mine and these particular relatives. Maybe it’s an act of mercy? I just don’t know.

Writing suffered greatly this week, as I was busy and distracted after a very productive weekend. Picked it up again this morning, and added another maybe 2,000 words to It Will Work. Started in on the ending, just barely scratched the surface. At 12K words at the moment. I am paying the price for not having done enough thought-smithing up front – the end, which I thought I had worked out, is a little bit gappy, holey like an old rag. Thus, I’m setting myself up for fairly monumental rewrites just getting it to flow and not leaving massive holes. Oh well – first novel, the important thing is to get stuff down. On, Teb! On!

The Saga of the Back Lawn doesn’t get much ink around here, and not only because I can practically hear your eyes glazing over through the interwebs. It’s neither as much fun nor as picturesque as the Endless Brick Project of Doom. Here goes, if you’re feeling penitential: when we bought this house lo these 25 years ago, it had a pretty decent back lawn, certainly adequate for anything you’d want a back lawn for, such as running and rolling around on it with children.

Then, back in 2005, made the large, perfectly clear with 20/20 hindsight, poor decision to put on an addition. At the time, home prices were ridiculous and rising – no matter how well I did financially, a home better enough than what we had to make it worth moving was just too big a stretch. But those same factors made it easy to borrow a ton and add on, so we did – and got it done just in time for the housing market to collapse. So, our starter home is our home, at least until we move out of state.

So, second major error: hired a long time friend of my sister’s as the general contractor. He’d done a bunch of work for her, she seemed happy with him. He lied about his licensing, was always sharing fantasies about timing, and was just a slapdash horror. Part of his style was to simply use the back lawn as his staging area, and just destroy it. Not talking just about killing the grass – the soil here is quite clay, and, when they were done, it was packed down as hard as rock, and covered with crap. I couldn’t bring myself to pay any more money at that point, and so, for several years, the backyard sat, a useless disaster. Finally, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I was up to tackling it. It’s only maybe 40′ X 30′, so it’s not like a major project. Cleaned it off, amended the soil some – but didn’t, alas, rototill the living heck out of it.

So, every year since, I try to do something to improve the lawn. As of last spring, it looked pretty good – right up until the end of May, when the warm, dry weather kicks in and the 1/4″ root depth before it hits solid clay means it mostly dies off. By the end of the summer, it’s pretty pathetic. It looks great in April!

This year, after surveying yet another dreary looking lawn, decided what the heck, let’s get serious. It had rained enough that I could dig in the clay, so I picked the ugliest patch, about 6′ X 20′, and just dug it up by hand, turned the soil, added manure and gypsum, let it sit for a few days, then seeded and watered it. Total time invested might be 5? 6? hours. So far.

If this works, I’ll do another similar patch next year, and it 2-3 years, should attain lawn Nirvana. Right?

As I type, I can see a bird on the lawn eating seed. This, I can stand – anything short of a significant flock is unlikely to eat enough to make any difference. BUT: if I had the appropriate verminator, I’d be shooting some squirrels. Damn things have to dig anywhere I’ve loosened the soil – garden, planters, pots, and now, lawn. I hate squirrels. At this rate, my new patch of lawn will be pock-marked with squirrel holes. Furry little bastards.

Next week, I’ll see if I have anything less trivial to write about.

Update Schmupdate.

Yes, I’m still alive.

A. Spring is almost here. My seasonal affective disorder – the fancy, victim-centric way of saying sunlight and warmth make me happy – is crashing to a halt. Yay me. California is very beautiful. It’ll be hard to leave.

Doing a little garden prep.

Stuck some flowers in some planters. Yay me.
View from the front porch, soon to be much greener. Turned some beds, laid down some fresh compost and bark.
Like the Dutch angle? Peaches blooming; Apricots working on it. Cherry & pear not yet. Tiny bb sized figs peeking out.

The Insane Endless Brick Project of Doom lurks, but I need to do work on the lawn and paint the house, too….

B. On the writing front, been watching Successful Indie Author Five-Minute Focus by Craig Martelle, the 20 books to 50K guy. He recently did a thing on how many things one should work on at once. Short answer: it depends, but he finds three things the most he can productively work on at once, and must have one as the primary focus with a deadline. This seems about right to me, and pretty much what it has boiled down to.

C. With that in mind, top focus: It Will Work, with a self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2021. Added a couple thousand usable words plus a bunch of outlining and a little research (mostly, looking up names – the names are mostly plays on words from Mauri mythology and Greek. Because they are.) It’s up to 10,000 useable words as of today.

The backup projects are Understanding Science and Black Friday, the first of which is on hold until I get stuck/finished with It Will Work, the second of which I’ve done a little more research on and some additional outlining, but is basically in the bullpen warming up. So, I’m still enthusiastic. My in-bed-as-I-fall-asleep reading is Morte d’Arthur and the Mabinogion, for that Arthurian book, so I’m mentally working on that as well, even if putting nothing in writing yet. And I’m making a habit of thinking through plot points if I wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep. Works both way: by not thinking of the current and accelerating Fall of Western Civilization, I get back to sleep faster, and I have in fact worked through some plot points. Win-win!

Hit my first (since getting on this current writing jag back in January) wall: On It Will Work, got stuck on how to deal with the inescapable infodump I need in the middle chapters. There’s just some critical backstory/worldbuilding that has to take place, no way around it. I’ve tried to be clever about working needed information into the story more or less naturally, but this was not happening here. After sleeping on it, just had one of the minor characters tell the protagonist something about the history of my aliens, then will have some action, and then have some other character tell him the rest. All in all, it’s going to be about 3,000 words of backstory/worldbuilding spread across maybe 10,000 words of story. Just reading it back, it doesn’t seem like too much – but what do I know about writing books? The 1.5 million+ words I’ve written over the last decade are 90% blog posts…

D. Speaking of blog posts, keep adding to the drafts folder. I was, in fact, writing posts over the week I’ve been gone – just not finishing and posting posts. Because I started thinking, and, well, what good ever comes of that?!?

On a Lighter Note: UPDATE

Taking Sunday off from worrying over the current state of post-Weimar Germany our fine nation, at least until I go to Mass and am forced to assume the face diaper of compliance in order to not get our parish fined out of existence…. Let’s talk writing! Huzzah!

“I knew it!!”

A. Now have 6 short stories finished, as in: not going to edit any more unless at an editor’s instruction. Three are bleh, 1 is OK, and 2 I really like. The two I like add up to over 20K words – half a pulp novel’s worth. One, The White Handled Blade, a modern-day Arthurian YA type story that a couple of the Loyal Readers critiqued for me a couple years ago (Thanks again!), is almost begging to be the first part of a series of stories featuring Lynnette Redlands, a 15-year old American living in Wales in the heartlands of Arthurian lore with her older sister Ness and their father, who teaches at a nearby university on a fellowship. They discover, in the words of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart: It’s all real. Adventures ensue.

I’ve lavished a lot of care on a bunch of characters who I now love, seems a shame not to have them do more stuff. Write three more of these roughly the same size, and I’d have something I never dreamed I’d write in a million years: a YA novel(ish) starring a teenage girl. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting…. (Yes, I mixing movie references. Sue me.)

The approach: take one or more of the (very weird) Welch Arthurian stories, and reimagine them in a modern world (yea, real original idea) where the Roundtable still exists – as a standing committee at a small Welch college. Heck, the last story could be fighting the daemons of Diversity – fell, indeed – as they attack the College! Cliffhanger!!

The problem, here, is that while I’m a fan of Mallory, and enjoyed White’s Once and Future King a lot, I’m hardly some sort of Arthurian geek. This whole YA-based on Arthurian legend stuff seems to be a well-trod and highly worked field. Do I run a risk of violating some sort of canon? Not losing sleep over that. The comforting, if absurd, though: maybe I could be the Raymond Chandler of the genre? You know, the bored and highly educated Englishman, who, being a great writer and all, took detective pulps and made them into literature? Ya know? Humor me. Of course, he’d read a bunch in that genre first…

The other is a little fairytale called Seed Music, set in the same universe as my generations ship novel but a couple centuries after the colonists arrive at the Systems. I’m using fairytale in roughly the same sense C.S. Lewis used it to describe That Hideous Strength.

They’re both highly superverse, if that even needs saying.

Of the 4 remaining short stories fragments, two are fairly far along. I should finish them up, on principle. Then there are two others little more than Ideas with a couple pages of text attached; then there’s another folder and a list containing maybe a dozen ideas or very rough sketches. Plenty to work on.

B. Novels, on the other hand… Percolating in the back of my mind for 2-3 decades now is not exactly a story, but a world. Within this world, I’ve come up with ideas for a number of stories, 2 of which I’ve even written. BUT the big framing story, the who, what, how, and why of the whole thing, is not coming together for me.

I’ve mentioned rabbit holes and the hard science vs handwavium issue. I would like whatever science I throw out there to be plausible enough to not take the 1% of my potential readers who care about such things out of the story.

Which brings us to rocket science. I would really like it if my generations ship could, via acceleration to near-light speed and the resulting time dilation, get my colonists where they’re going before the people who set out as children are all dead. Because reasons. One can play with calculators that do the math: pick a distance, plug in an acceleration factor, and they will spit back how long the trip will take from both the on-board (dilated) and home planet view, and what your top speed will be.

Nice. The one I was playing with today also spits out how much fuel you’d need to accelerate and decelerate a ship of specified mass – you must flip your ship and fire your drive for as long as it took to get up to full speed in order not to simply fly by your target system. The more massive the ship, the more fuel you’ll need – and mass is going to be almost equal to fuel for any near-light speed ship.

If your trip takes 100 years, you’ll be firing your engines for a good portion of 100 years. At least, that’s the assumption. I’m going to play with it, to see how long at a given acceleration to reach a speed where the time dilation is enough to keep my young characters alive long enough to arrive at their destination as old people. That’s what I’m concerned with.

Then: how much fuel do I need, which almost translates to: how massive is my ship? In hydrogen fusion, about 0.008% of the mass is converted to energy; in an antimatter reaction, it’s 100%. So, we’d need some sort of antimatter creation thingy that can crank out a lot of the stuff – or something else.

I spent hours reading up on this. Creating antimatter, turns out, is almost trivial if you happen to have a nice big accelerator, and are happy with unimaginably tiny amounts that, with the proper application of superconducting magnets, you can hang onto for about 0.17 seconds before it annihilates itself by contact with regular matter. So, how about this – spit-balling here – you start with millions of gallons of nuclear salt water and a set of nuclear reactors. Some small portion of your reactors’ power is used to get your nuclear salt water drive going, but most of it is used to power accelerators and anti-matter rifles, let’s call them. How it works: (very well, than you) is that the accelerators are bombarding something – the walls of the hollowed out asteroid in which all this is located? – thereby creating a bit of antimatter. That antimatter is captured by magnetic fields that fire it (thus, antimatter rifles), in its microseconds of existence, into the combustion chamber of the nuclear salt water drive. You then have an antimatter drive: the nuclear salt water fuel is replaced by (much, much more efficient) antimatter annihilation. The mass of the ship itself is consumed as raw material as it is superheated and flung out, equal but opposite wise , in the matter/antimatter annihilation.

Hey, it’s *something*, as in: not just a bunch of handwavium. There’s a tiny spec of science in there! No, really! makes it all better.

And (almost) nobody will care.

C. Grabbed a military sci-fi series for $0.99 off Amazon, written by one of those 20 Novels to $50K people, just to see what it was like. Very much Dent, Lester Dent style, full of sound and fury, with the protagonist in a world of hurt by about page 3, which is about as far as I’ve gotten. While I do love me some stories where stuff done blowed up good, I also love me some Canticle for Leibowitz style storytelling – slow-paced, but full of character development and table-setting. Can’t we all just get along?

Slightly more seriously, the story starts with Our Hero already in a tough spot, and engaging in playful banter with her crew, and getting out of it by blowing the living heck out of some aliens. Like, by paragraph 3. Then, we have some exposition, some by way of telling us what people are doing, some just flat out ‘here’s how it works’ sections. More banter to establish the heroine as a Tough Broad with a sketchy past, who takes no guff and has trouble with authority. Then, disaster #2 – oh, no! How do we get out of this?

Judging by this very short sample, the writing is perfectly workman-like and functional. Dude can write, in other words. And, if I picked up a book expecting Mil-SF action, I’m getting what I paid for. So, there’s that, and that ain’t nothing. There’s probably a bigger audience for it than there would be for the more – introspective? complicated? amateurish? – stuff I like to write.

Basically, setting the obvious disparity of talent and skill aside, on a conscious level, I want to be a blend of Cordwainer Smith, Heinlein (from his non-dirty-old-man period) and maybe Mike Flynn? Capturing wild ideas, adding some action, but allowing room for some love of history and melancholy to occasionally shine through?

The muse, however, goes where she may, and fights against the goad. I’m probably the worst judge of what I’m actually doing.

Finally, need to make sure I don’t let a day go by where I don’t write something new, in addition to whatever rewrites and research I may fell compelled to do. All this is stuff I should have learned 45 years ago. Better late than never. As a friend pointed out, if I start now, by the time I’m 82, I will have been at it for 20 years!

D. The Caboose, our youngest, is trying in this time of (insert lighter description of our current time than any I can come up with), to reach the rank of Eagle Scout. Since the bulk of normal, healthy activities that might otherwise occupy a Scout’s time are banned or severely circumscribed, he’s working on some cooking activities. His troop, which of course can’t meet in real life, are holding virtual ‘Chopped’ style cooking contests.

While as a contest it doesn’t really work – how are you judging food you can’t taste? – as dinner it is excellent. A couple nights ago, our 16 year old prepared a dinner of pork tenderloin roast on a bed of wild rice covered in a savory cranberry sauce, with creamed spinach on the side.

It was really yummy. The cranberry sauce, for which he sautéed onions and herbs, then added and reduced chicken stock & red wine, then added fresh cranberries, was way good, prefect on the pork. The spinach – well, as son pointed out, any recipe that starts with melting a cube of butter its pretty likely to be good.

As the youngest by quite a bit – 6.5 years – he had older siblings cooking around him while he grew up, which, as sometimes happens, seems to have unconsciously disinclined him to cook himself. Now that his siblings are not around much anymore and he’s a little older, he’s following in their cook/foodie footsteps.

And we get to enjoy it.

Updated Writing Update

A week ago, before the dawn of the Crazy Years and all his pomps and vanities, I posted an update wherein I recounted the gripping tale of having spent 20 hours going through all the fiction I’d written over the last roughly 5 years, finding, formatting, and organizing it. It’s now all tidy. Got everything in OpenDocs on my slightly more secure laptop and on a 2T backup drive.

Yay me.

In the past week, I have gotten more fiction written than in the previous year, for a gain of maybe 4-5K words net, with some fairly extensive rewrites.

I also grabbed some files for the education research projects I go on about here, but have not gone through them. Huge number of notes, drafts, and sources. I think I have more stuff on GoogleDocs, I need to do a thorough search. The amount of work needed to get all THAT stuff organized will be in the same ballpark as the fiction. Sigh.

The goal is to have everything organized, not in GoogleDocs, in a more or less consistent format, with local backup. So far, so good. Not to be a drama queen, but I want to be able to go full samizdat in the unlikely event that becomes necessary. I don’t want anymore stuff out there where our tech lizard overlords can look at them.

The big question: how soon and how well will our new Winston Smiths do their jobs? I often do download and format* the old books I find on the web – the internet is really cool, sometimes – but mostly I just have links. Part of me is going: oh, come on! Nobody is going to take down all that old boring, stuffy stuff with single-digit downloads, of interest to only the geekiest of geeks! But – could some pensive child, in an excess of zeal and caution, cause the Internet Achieves to cease to be? Or, like Herod, decide everything that might someday be a threat needs to die now?

But that is for another day.

Finished one old short story, about 5,000 words, and just have the denouement (if that idea even applies to a short story) to put in on another of about 8,000. Somehow, the first two I choose to finish are both about guys pining after their gals, more or less – in space! Alas, in neither does anything much blow up good. Spaceships and robots do get smashed – that’s got to count for something, right?

On the novel front: Yikes. On the one, got a ream of references, notes, outlines, characters names and arcs, and descriptions of planets, ships, and so on. But, reviewing this stuff, noticed what I don’t have is any clear outline. What I do have is more or less vague ideas for a story that might take place over 3-4 books, describing the goings-on on a generational starship and the planets the colonists settle. I’m torn between looking stuff up to get the science more or less plausible, and just ladling on the handwavium. The Heinlein vs. Bradbury approach. How does it work? Very well, thank you.

Ex: What’s important for the story is that the ship works, that it can get a 100,00 colonists to strange new worlds to colonize within a couple centuries. How it does so just needs not to take one out of the story. Buuuut: the design of the ship does figure into the story. A lightsail or magsail is appealing, but isn’t plausible for the kind of acceleration needed; having orbital lasers push it is kinda a fun idea – but also doesn’t work in the story for reasons. So I started with the sort of not-quite plausible set up used on the Sparrow – an asteroid hollowed out as a ship, that consumes itself in some sort of fancy ion drive.

Nuclear Salt Water Engine. Like the 50s vibe to this illustration.

Handwavium. But then, read up on nuclear salt-water rockets (NSWR), which I had somehow not heard of before. Very cool, and produce the level of thrust to at least within an order of magnitude or two that one would need to get up to the significant percentage of light speed – which is what you need. So: what I’ve done so far is create a sort of hybrid ship, a nickel-iron cigar a couple kilometers long, with nuclear reactors being used to ionize and accelerate the asteroid itself as fuel. But for near sun work and help braking when they get where they’re going, add a lightsail and maybe a magsail as well. Do I work NSWR drive into the story? So that I and the 1% of potential readers who might appreciate a little plausibility are a little more happy?

If so, this morning after a cup of coffee, I’d probably stick with the hybrid idea: inside the hollowed out ship are nuclear reactors, a million tons of water, tons of salts of enriched uranium and plutonium. Maybe they unfurl the solar sail and mag sail (one or the other? Do more research and decide? AHHHH!!!) while still in the inner system, then, once they have slowly spiraled their way out a bit, fire up the NSWR drive….

And, there you go: HOURS will be spent getting this right – and it doesn’t actually matter to the basis of the story. BUT IT’S COOL!!! Multiply this by some factor for other tech and science I don’t understand (I’m Rocket Maaaan!!) and, um, I could be tied up for a while. Meanwhile, the actual plot is laughable. Stuff happen. In space. To loveable and hateable characters. I think. Probably better figure it out pretty soon.

Anyway, something I didn’t expect: as the political scene spirals deeper into 1984-land to the applause of the bleating sheep, I find writing a great distraction and comfort. When the world gets to be too much, I can retreat (with an inner chuckle) to a world where a hapless engineer finds himself hanging from a wire a thousand meters above a canyon floor on an ice moon named Flee orbiting a gas giant called Tough Nut, because it seemed like a good idea to this woman art critic, who is falling for him but he’s clueless, as a means to help him get his music degree while rubbing the noses of some pompous artists in their own stupidity. Or a world where a beloved mother of 10, who happens to command an army of drones and bots called spiders helping to construct a spaceship, is hiding a dark secret with a deadline. Or where a fat man in his underwear, who happens to be heir to an empire, is exiled by the queen mother to a planet completely covered in a single life-form that tastes like mashed potatoes, and is awaiting his next shipment of butter.

You know, the usual.

To stay sane and not hate anyone, I try to keep in mind the helpful image of sheep without a shepherd. That’s us, me as much as them. I may have a clue or 2, but, still, I’m a dumb sheep like everybody else. Castigating people who have been terrified by their false shepherds for not thinking things through is like blaming panicked sheep for running the flock off a cliff. It’s horrible, but they are (mostly) not to blame. Those false shepherds have a millstone or two in their furfures, however. If they’re lucky to get off that easy.

The thoughts of many hearts are being revealed these days.

“And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; 35And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35

Holy Mother of Mercy, pray for us! Heavenly Father, remember your promise of mercy. For Your Name’s sake, for the glory of your Son, in the Power of Your Spirit, have mercy on us!

* I’ve grabbed key old books that have been scanned into electronic form from some library copy with all sorts of marks, smudges, and stamps on the pages, not mention hard line returns. They are messes. In very bad cases, I will have the pdf and the OCR versions open side by side, in order to better verify my guesses at the text. While trying to read them, I will often start correcting & formatting as I go, because the messiness drives me crazy. This only doubles, at least, the amount of time it takes me to read these books. Obsessive much? Me?

Couple Links & Observations

Apropos of nothing.

First off, SF&F has a long and often even noble tradition of describing dystopian futures. Here’s Zachary Denman, a British guy making short sci-fi videos – that’s what they say they are – on the 2nd Person Tube. Wild speculations that, were they said seriously about right now, instead of a distant made-up future, might get one into trouble. Nonetheless, like all made-up fictional type stuff, they might provide some small insight into how people are thinking and feeling now. For example.

Second, a bit of conventional wisdom, I’ve heard, is that one should fight to the death, if necessary, when first being kidnapped. While in some traditional circumstances, your kidnappers will need you alive, and so you might bet on getting ransomed or released eventually, in other, more pathologically or politically motivated grabs, chances are poor you’ll ever get out alive once you’ve been stuffed in the back of the black SUV. Besides, “The initial phase of a kidnapping provides the best opportunities to escape.”

Third, for some reason this thought from Solzhenitsyn springs to mind:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

Gulag Archipelago

You’re checking in to see what Sarah Hoyt and William Briggs are on about these days, right? John C. Wright happened to be taking a little walk with some friends on the 6th when some possibly interesting stuff happened.

Funny how unimportant the virus seems at the moment. In and of itself, I mean.

One last thought: although I have not slept well since March, one thought, a feeling, really, I can’t shake: this will all turn out better than we have any right to hope. Watching the Hindenburg go down in slow motion for going on 10 months now, seeing predictions of political, financial, and social doom come true, watching – most depressing of all – a large percentage, probably a majority, of people just go along and get angry with you if you don’t – well, it’s been interesting. But as I mentioned before, I had this vivid dream (I am a Joseph after all) where something utterly unexpected occurs just as all hope is lost. Weird. And, when I can focus enough to really pray, calm settles in. So, make of that what you will. Maybe it’s days, maybe it’s years, but everything is alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Desensitization and Projection

Just watched a video where visual effects artists critiqued the CG and practical effects on some show called The Boys.

Well. So this is what the kids are watching these days. Further evidence they’ve lost their minds.

I turned 12 in 1970, so, in some way, movies from that decade were among my first experiences of grown up story telling. This one movie I remember from early in that decade had an antihero who casually murders or leaves to die a number of people. The one that sticks: some woman was gagged, bound, and thrown into the trunk of a car; the protagonist walks away as the car rolls into the water and sinks.

12 year old me was shocked. I might have missed what that women did in the movie that might explain the antihero’s actions, but I couldn’t fathom just letting her drown.

And so on, movie after movie. Between the lack of patience I developed from attempting to watch irrational TV shows and the horror I felt at some movies, I all but stopped consuming those media. When my then girlfriend dragged me to see Star Wars in 1977, I went only because she insisted. The last movies I can remember seeing in a theater before that were Andromeda Strain (1971); 2001 (1968); Towering Inferno (1974); Afterwards, I caught Close Encounters (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and I think I saw Rocky (1976) later. As far as I can remember, anything else I saw from the 70s was on TV or in an arthouse at later dates.

The Towering Inferno (1974) | Disaster Movie World
Not just a metaphor for the modern world. This was not a good movie. Robert Redford was in it = totally forgot that.

You probably noticed that I skipped all the supposed classics from that era., sometimes called the greatest era of movies in history. Some were easy to miss, since I didn’t drive for the first half of the decade and so was limited in my opportunities. But even after I got my license, movies were way down my list unless they had an interesting Sci Fi premise or tie-in. I just didn’t find ‘serious’ portrayals of casual murder attractive; hated it, in fact.

Star Wars did blow my mind. Given the level of dreck passing for great movies – oops, I mean, cinema – at the time, my expectations were below low. But it delivered, visually stunning (we forget how awesome it looked. Jaw dropping.) with characters you cared about and a story that, as a fairytale, made sense.

Yes, millions of people die in that movie, mostly on Alderaan and the Death Star, but plenty get shot or otherwise disposed of. But, in keeping with the fairytale style, you know, where a hundred perfectly fine princes can die trying to rescue the princess before the *right* prince comes along, death is treated rather impersonally. Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are hardly spared a glance of mourning, for example. Hey, Luke has a beanstalk to climb! No time for emotions! And the deaths are mostly highly sanitized, again, after the fashion of the genre. No spurting blood or long death agonies; no twitching storm trooper corpses.

Recently rewatched Rocky (picked up a DVD for $1) and it was kind of painful. The pacing is odd; in between the fairytale, dark stuff is going on. But – when I first saw it, I was excited – the good guy has a satisfying moral triumph, loyalty and effort are rewarded, we even get a little true love. Beautiful. The contrast with the usual 70s fare was enough to elevate it for me.

Basically, my movie tastes have not changed since then, except that I’ve seen A LOT of kids movies: I want cool premises, characters I can care about, and, well, stuff that blows up. I don’t want nihilism, bad guys that are just misunderstood, and definitely don’t want ambiguous or our and out evil endings.

So, back to the video. The Boys contains several spectacular scenes where – heads explode. Lots of heads explode. In gruesome, exquisitely-filmed detail. Of course, I have no context, and, of course, these scenes were chosen for the quality of their effects, not their morality. But it’s hard to imagine a context that would make them any more palatable. Part of what makes the scenes shocking and horrifying is their otherwise pedestrian normalcy – a woman is having a calm discussion with two other people – and her head explodes; there’s some sort of town hall meeting taking place when, one after another, heads explode, blood and flesh are plastered all over the people and walls…

Exploding heads were not the worst of it. The most horrifying scene these visual effects artists reviewed was of a protest rally, thousands of people in the street with signs, etc., protesting, it seems, the extent these superheroes/ supervillains use their superpowers to do stuff outside any control or rules. So, in flies the local Superman-equivalent, in red, white, and blue, planting his landing right next to a woman being heckled by the crowd. Somebody flips him off. He reacts by using his laser visions to slice the guy in half – and to mow down hundreds of protesters. The camera lingers on the mangled, bloody corpses. The VFX dudes admired the artistry of it all.

Utterly shocking. That insult would be met with mass murder is one thing, but the moral inversion is even more stomach-turning, if possible. Making the clean-cut white guy dressed in the colors of Old Glory slaughter people on a whim is another type of fairytale, a demonic one. Like the Handmaid’s Tale (which I have only heard about) and V for Vendetta (which I saw in the theater. Silly me.) the writers invert and project. What was the last time in the West religion used the power of the state for wide-spread persecution? Cromwell? Or perhaps the English persecution of the Irish that lasted well into the 19th century? That one is a bit off base, since it was one nationality/religious group persecuting another nationality/religious group, not Religion beating up on reasonable people as moderns imagine themselves to be.

In the fevered imaginations of the Left, the Spanish Inquisition looms large. Yet, over its whole centuries long existence, the Inquisition didn’t kill or torture as many people as Pol Pot, Mao, or Stalin did in a routine day. And that was centuries ago. Unless we want to consider Communism and its conjoined twin National Socialism as religions – I would be down with that – religious persecutions in the West are ancient, comparatively minor (e.g., Salem witch trials), or both.

But such religious persecutions are the norm under our enlightened betters. That whole liberté, égalité, fraternité crowd were sure into killing people for their religious beliefs. The French Revolution thus set the standard for our self-appointed betters, for how those who worship Reason (at, least, say they do) treat those who worship Truth.

This is not news to anyone likely reading this blog, and, in fact, this sort of moral inversion was well established in Sci Fi by the time The Matrix made it cool. Lest we forget, those ‘lots of guns’ were used to mow down the innocent guards in an office building lobby, and the equally blameless soldiers. We know, because the movie goes out of its way to tell us, that those who are not with us – quite literally, those who are not woke – are the enemy, even if they don’t know it. Thus, guards and soldiers plugged into the Matrix, with no way to know it or even suspect it, are gunned down in cold blood without a second thought, with all the gee-whiz and cool the artistry of the filmmakers can bring to the scene.

Thus, for decades now, with only brief interruptions such as Star Wars, we have been bombarded with efforts to make us see how cool it will be when the good guys gun down all those mean people who don’t agree with us. What started as a casual disregard for life in the 70s has become positive glee at killing off those whose beliefs don’t match ours. And it ain’t the Right doing this.

Lord, have mercy!

Fuel & Tunnels

My wife says I should try to meet Elon Musk. Riiiiight. Her reasoning: I seem to think like him, in the sense that I notice what seems to me overwhelmingly obvious things that, for whatever reason, completely escape the notice of almost everybody else. This ignores the difference in native intelligence – I’m a pretty smart guy, but not in Mr. Musk’s league – and, most important, work ethic – I can and have happily whiled away hours and days at a time without achieving what Musk gets done before breakfast on a bad day. Having known people like that, the kind of people who rest by thinking about solutions to some other problem, I get tired just thinking about it.

Couple cases in point: For decades, my longsuffering spouse has heard me rant about how solar is largely meaningless without vast improvements in storage: until you can save the power on nice sunny days for use at night and on cloudy days, we (collectively) still need traditional power generation capacity at or near current levels. All solar would do is allow us to throttle down on occasion.

Musk founds Tesla and buys SolarCity, in order to develop adequate battery storage systems for meaningful solar power systems.

For decades, my wife has heard me speculate on the need for more traffic tunnels. With the advent of tunnel boring machines, which not only dig the tunnel, but install steel-reinforced concrete liners at the same time, scale and improved efficiencies should enable more and more traffic problems to be addressed by cutting more direct routes that simply go under or through obstacles.

There was a period of half a year when I commuted from a rural area nestled against Mt. Diablo, from where it took about a 10 minute drive to get into civilization. Then, from civilization, the 5 mile drive to work took over half an hour. I had to take a route that is one of only three ways to get from the bedroom communities along the Bay and Delta down to the freeways that take you to Silicon Valley. So, at 7:30 in the morning, lines of traffic traced back over the hills, which then had to merge with other traffic and head down surface streets for about 7 miles to get to the freeway.

A direct route would run smack into Mt. Diablo. Actual routes skirted the mountain, or otherwise went miles out of the way. I would regularly say to my wife: if you threw 6 lanes worth of tunnels through Mt. Diablo from the Delta to San Ramon on the 680, all this traffic could get where they’re going without having to flood the surface streets, making my 10 minute local drive take 45 minutes.

Musk founds the Boring Company.

TMI, but it does show modern tunnel boring machines in action

I’ve long discounted space travel. The economics simply don’t add up. One way to think of the problem: best case (SpaceX’s Starship and Super-heavy booster) it takes about 45 tons of fuel on the ground to put one ton of fuel into low earth orbit. So, if you want to go somewhere, Mars, say, you’ll need 45 times as much fuel to get to the starting line (low earth orbit) as it will take you get to and return from Mars.

Which is a lot of fuel. The Super-heavy booster holds 3,000 tons of fuel, and burns effectively all of it to get Starship 100 miles up. Starship then burns almost all its fuel to get the rest of the way into orbit – with only a max of 150 tons of cargo. You’d need something like 1,000 tons of fuel to get Starship to Mars from low earth orbit – and that’s just a 1-way ticket.

So, to go to Mars using the most efficient and practical methods now in development, you need to launch your spaceship into low earth orbit, then launch about 1/2 a dozen more refueling ships, each burning about 5,000 tons of fuel to get enough fuel to your orbiting Mars bound ship to get it to Mars – but not enough to get it back to earth.

On the plus side, fuel is (relatively) cheap. Haven’t heard yet how they plan to keep the fuel – methane and liquid oxygen – supercooled and liquid while all this refueling is going on, but that’s an engineering problem. The hammer I have is economics (if I wanted an academic title for my expertise, I’d be an Applied Microeconometrician) and so I’ll bang on the economics of the thing.

The challenge is daunting: first, you must fund the development of the tech; then, fund its deployment; then fund its ongoing operation. If the goal is building a self-sustaining settlement on Mars, I cannot imagine how the economics could possibly support that. You’d spend a trillion dollars to get a 1,000 people on Mars, huddled inside probably underground habitats, doing – what, exactly? Mining feedstock for a methane and LOX plant so that they can go home? And? “Outside” is no more hospitable than the surface of the moon. There’s nothing on Mars worth anything like what it would take to get it and send it back to earth….

Musk becomes a billionaire so that he can fund the initial development out of pocket. He comes up with StarLink, a broadband from anyplace on earth system that, it turns out, should generate billions in revenues per year – and is deployed using the rockets he’s developed. He comes up with a series of uses for Starship, each of which has potential revenue streams attached to it: bulk LEO lifter, moon lander, super high speed point to point transport, each with subspecialties under them. If even a few of these things work out, SpaceX will have the revenue streams needed to build a fleet of Starships, without any being attached to a Mars colony.

Well? Could it work? My gut level analysis is: No. A Mars colony would have to be a massive, nation or planetary level, vanity project. Economically, it does not now make sense. The complexity and risk, not to mention expense, associated with refueling LEO spaceships from earth for interplanetary travel looks prohibitive. The chances for any profits from space are fanciful. (The idea that you’ll just go snag asteroids rich in rare elements is – optimistic.)

But…. What if you could refuel from space? The moon has water, it is said, from which methane/LOX can be made. Getting fuel from the moon to orbit is vastly easier. Better yet, there are comets made up of the needed feedstocks…. All you have to do is lasso one….

Or maybe Venus? Drop a factory into orbit, scoop up (somehow) some of that sweet CO2 atmosphere, and boom! (figuratively! I hope!) you’re ready to go.

Best of all, invent Hobartium – that’s the room-temp superconductor from Mike Flynn’s Firestar series – and unfurl the mag sails!

Surprising breakthroughs are made, so this isn’t totally a fantasy. But for now, it’s fuel from earth – and that’s not a pretty sight.

My wife imagines me having this chat with Elon Musk. I imagine he’s thought of all this and more. It would be fun. Not sure what the point would be . Evidently, he likes to hire people who dream big and execute. I’m half-way there!

Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons

In this classic Cordwainer Smith story, Benjacomin Bozart, a Master Thief from the impoverished planet Viola Siderea, has been trained from birth to rob Norstrilia of stroon, a drug that grants eternal life and is therefore the most valuable substance in the galaxy.

With a minimum of info dumping, Smith’s stories drop you into a complex, baroque world with thousands of years of history. Part of the fun is getting your feet under you as you read. Only by reading a bunch of his stuff do you get a good idea of what’s going on, but the air of mystery, that there’s a lot more going on than is expressed, is part of the charm.

Today’s prescient plot point of interest is the trip wire in the title – the weird name and intentional misspellings are a trap. If anyone within the galaxy searches for that exact phrase, the agents of the Instrumentality are alerted – that phrase is the name of earth’s ultimate planetary defenses, and is known only to the Norstrilians.

This story was first published in 1961. Smith posits vast libraries that can be searched for specific terms, and that the authorities can monitor searches for bad think. The authorities also put disinformation in the data, preventing Bozart from learning what he wanted to know, and in fact egging him and his entire planet on to their doom.

In the story, Bozart searches his own planetary library, not realizing agents of the Instrumentality have placed their tripwires there as well. The final twist is that Bozart thinks he’s the Master Thief on the royal scam of a lifetime, who will bring back enough stroon to make his planet wealthy. Instead, he, and by his actions his entire planet, were being lead into death for Bozart and centuries of slavery for his planet. Bozart murdered a Norstrailian child to get the information, so the vengeance of the Instrumentality is on some level understandable, but even within the story, some of the Norstralians question the justice of their acts.

YouTube and Facebook are purging information that contradicts the party line on the COVID hoax, and making sure searches bring up sources acceptable to the ‘experts.’ Any bets they stop there?

Updates: D&mn Virus, etc.

A. When I say ‘functionally innumerate’ I mean unable or unwilling to understand what a set of numbers mean. This is distinct from the ability to do math, but obviously related. Thus, you do get model builders and people with the title: scientist, who may have learned a lot of math, but are nonetheless functionally innumerate: they lack the ability or, worse, the interest, to try to understand what it is they’re looking at.

I’m guessing 99% of people are functionally innumerate in this sense. To such people, a thousand, a million, a billion and a trillion are just big numbers, with maybe a vague notion that each step is bigger in some unclear manner from the one before it.

Thus, when you say: “100,000 Americans may die of COVID 19,” all the innumerate hear is: big, scary number. The functionally numerate immediately think: “accross how big a population?” And: “compared to what background death rate?”

Then, we perform a little math – in our heads, because we’re just trying to get an idea of scale. We also suspect with near-certainty that any such numbers are going to be sloppy, so getting the result accurate out to a bunch of decimal places isn’t worth the trouble. Just ball-park it, see what we’re talking about.

So: the US population is about 330M. The 2020 background death rate is about 0.888% (that’s a UN estimate based on trends over decades, prior to the COVID 19 outbreak.) So, let’s see: a 0.1% risk of death = 1 in 1,000 Americans dying – from COVID 19 which would mean 330,000 dead, right? So, if we think 100,000 people will die this year from COVID 19, then our COVID death rate is right around 0.03%.

Thus – and this is an absolutely simple minded analysis, since no disease affects every group in a populations the same way – 100,000 COVID 19 deaths would increase the imaginary typical American’s risk of dying this year from 0.888% all the way up to 0.918%.

The functionally innumerate cannot grasp that this is trivial, that we’ve gone from just under 9 people out of 1,000 dying to just barely over 9 people out of 1,000 dying. The hypothetical average American’s risk of death has not increased to any meaningful degree. They still see that big, scary number, 100,000, which, in their minds, might as well be 1,ooo,000 or even 100,000,000. It’s just a scary thing, that is all.

This is before the obvious caveats: e.g., that 60% (most likely; not all states report this, but based on the rest of the West) of the deaths are nursing home patients. Not *just* the elderly, but the elderly who are sick enough to be incarcerated, and have a median 3 to 15 month life expectancy once they become incarcerated. In other words, COVID 19 is generally killing people who were, sadly, going to die soon anyway. So, reduce that 0.03% by, say, 50% – now (remember, we’re just ballparking here) that’s around a 0.15% increased chance of death – from a background rate of 0.888% up to a COVID-added rate of 0.903% – this is what the functionally numerate would call ‘noise’ – a level of change that’s probably well within the sloppiness of the underlying numbers.

And the most obvious caveat of all, something known from the very earliest analysis done in China, and confirmed EVERYWHERE: If you’re younger – like under 65 – and healthy, your chances of dying of COVID 19 are, effectively, 0.

BUT: not zero! So the occasional seemingly healthy person will catch (or be more or less plausibly assumed to have caught) COVID 19 and, tragically, die.

These deaths, of seemingly healthy people, is, at most, 5% of the deaths. I get this number by looking at something reported out of New York: 95% of the victims had (usually multiple) pre-existing morbidities. That would mean 5% of COVID victims are otherwise healthy. Again, we’re spitballing here, could be off, but, based on everything I’ve seen, not by a whole lot.

Thus, out of our 100,000 assumed deaths, 5,000 would be people who weren’t already seriously ill. Thus, we can cut the risk of a healthy person dying of COVID 19 down to 1/20th of that .015% – now we’re really in background noise territory.

BUT: our intrepid ‘news’ media is stone guaranteed to find every one of those deaths and make sure we all know about them. And the functionally innumerate will see those incredibly rare cases as PROOF we’re all going to die if the government doesn’t save us.

And even this is before the issues around what is being counted and how, which puts another level of downward pressure on any risk numbers. The risk to anyone not already toeing the threshold of St. Peter’s Gate is: 0. As in, nada. As in, wear a helmet, because a meteorite might hit you in the head level risk.

So, we have our well-schooled yet functionally innumerate population absolutely terrified COVID 19 will kill them unless the government forces all the mean people to behave like political prisoners – just as they, themselves, are proudly behaving! – or else we’re all going to die!

And don’t get me started on much fun it is to get lectured about ‘the science’ by the scientifically illiterate, who are basically the same people.

Bottom line: if we were believably talking about half a million dead, maybe – maybe – we could justify the so far hidden but not therefore any less real cost of the lockdown on the health of all those millions of people who have lost their jobs, strained their relationships, and had their risks of stroke and heart attack raised with their anxiety levels. Kids getting beaten by stressed out unemployed parents; old folks needlessly terrified into a heart attack; borderline alcoholics going all in due to despair; depressed people killing themselves. These are just as real risks, and more widespread and serious, than anything posed by COVID 19.

B. Possums. Got possums in the backyard. When I turned the compost, which is in a box set on bricks on the ground to keep it more level, and got to the ‘floor’ which becomes the ‘top’ when you flip it, I flushed out 3 young possums hiding there. I was startled, and said a bad, bad word.

I like nature’s little creatures as much as the next suburban kid who never had to deal with them on a farm, but – nah. I’ve put in a nice garden, and don’t need possums deciding that my fruits and vegitables look good, once they’ve finished eating the oranges off our neighbor’s tree. Judging from the peels under the compost bin, that’s what they’re now living on.

A few years back, I paid unconscionable money to have an expert trap and remove a family of possums from under my shed. Don’t want to do that. But the options do not inspire confidence. Maybe I should borrow a dog for a week or two?

C. Regular reader J. J. Griffing commenting on my review of John C. Wright’s Phoenix Exultant, recommended The Far End of History, a story by the same author, that involves one of his best characters from the Golden Age trilogy: Atkins, the last soldier. I recommend it, but only after reading a bit of the trilogy so you have a better idea of Atkins.

So, was thinking I’d list some of my favorite John C. Wright characters, and ask you all: who’d I miss?

Order is not a ranking. Maybe we could do that later?


D. Less concerning than the possums, but more immediate: something is eating a lot of my little plants, but not the usual suspects as far as I can tell. Little holes in the leaves, which, in the worst cases, leave lacework leaves that then die. Don’t see any caterpillars, or any bugs at all, really, but do see vast numbers of sow beetles and pill bugs – we seem to have both in great numbers. In our compost bin, they have found their perfect environment, and have bred accordingly. Thus, when I sift out some compost to add to the plants, I see thousands of them crawling around in it. Then, I imagine, removed from their copious supplies of rotting materials in the compost bin, they start in on the live leaves.

Or maybe it’s some other bug? There are sure plenty of suspects around. Earwigs, some other crawlies I don’t recognize. I tend to go very light on the chemicals.

Franco Folini / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Sow beetles and pill bugs, known by a hundred local names, are cool in themselves – not insects, but crustaceans more closely related to lobsters than bugs. Also found out your basic garden varieties can live 3 years, and that closely-related species, some huge, live in the oceans.

Nonetheless, I may have to find a way to reduce their numbers pretty soon, while I still have live seedlings in the ground. Or figure out what else is eating them.