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?

You?

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.

Update: April – the Month That Was (bricks, flowers, a certain minor disease)

A: A happy, holy and blessed Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. True story: When I went to Italy as part of an art program in the 1980s, we we visited a number of smaller towns around Florence. Can’t remember exactly which one we visited on May Day (Lucca? Somewhere…), but we found ourselves in the middle of a somber little parade in the medieval town plaza. We watched mostly middle-aged men in their Sunday finest go by, each wearing a red carnation.

Duomo di Lucca, Cattedrale di San Martino. Maybe here?

Communists. It was a little, um, odd. Then we went into the duomo, in front of which this parade had taken place. As I looked around and prayed a little, one after another of the men from the parade came in, took off their red carnation, and laid it at the foot of a statue of Our Lady. A nice pile of carnations was formed over the next half hour.

Someone, it seemed to me, was very unclear on the concept: Communism, the Catholic Church – pick one? They don’t really go together. But it seems Italians – and I love Italians – are not as troubled by niceties of consistency as I am. Or perhaps they see some consistency on a level that escapes me. Or – one can never rule this out – they’re basically crazy?

As a 20-something punk, this little moment has stuck with me ever since, and helped form my take on the world . People – hard to figure, sometimes.

B. Due to Sarah Hoyt linking to this post on Instapundit, I saw basically a year’s worth of blog traffic and a couple year’s worth of visitors over the course of a couple days. (Not saying all that much – my beloved regular readers are treasured, but few). Perhaps this kicked me up a little in Google’s algorithms, or maybe – I flatter myself – the blog picked up some more readers – In April, most days got over 100 views, even after the 5-figure spike was well past.

So, if you are a new reader, welcome! If the skewering of bad Science!, the history of schooling, curmudgeonly commentary on current events, reviews of SF&F and other books, and the occasional home improvement project and Catholic shout-out are your cup of tea, you belong to a very, um, select group – and this here’s a blog for you!

C: Bricks. We left it here:

That tub up top I use when I want to soak bricks in water so that I have longer to move them around before they suck enough water out of the mortar to make it stiff. This morning, I noticed what looked like a stick floating in it – a lizard had fallen in! poor thing! I dumped him out – he was alive, seemed OK.

Today, I’m hoping to finish this little piece up. Here’s how it stands now:

Once I cap the little towers in the corners, we will put potted plants on top of them, and long wooden planters in between. Something from this selection:

Nasturtiums, self-seeded from last year, on the back patio.
Those two wooden boxes in the middle are sized to fit atop the sides of the project. Wildflowers have been planted in them.

Should look nice. I wanted pots and wooden planters so that, come Christmas, I can move them and set up the Nativity scene there. Then on to the south wall/planter.

D: Planted a little herb garden in a wine barrel half. It’s sitting off the patio a couple steps from the pizza oven and the back door out from the kitchen. Previously grew herbs on the south side of the house, not handy if you’re in the middle of cooking. (Huge batch of oregano is still there. Will see if I can transplant some closer.)

Basil in the back. The skewers are to remind me of the divisions until the plants come up: Thyme, sage, chives, cilantro, green onions.

E: Big stress here at the casa: our older daughter is to be married on May 30. Our unctuous, reptilian governor has continued the lockdown in the face of all objective evidence. This means the church and the venue for the reception are closed. On the off chance we do get to hold something (the marriage is going to take place on the 30th no matter what, even if it’s just bride, groom, priest and witnesses) have cleaned up the back yard, trying to make it look spiffy-ish:

Have a lot to do in the front yard, where my brick obsession has made quite the mess, but at least the plants are coming in strong:

Rosemary, nasturtiums, honeysuckle along the street. Fruit trees in the background.
Tomatoes, between the fig to the right and the cherry behind.
Apricots.
Figs.

In a month, maybe we’ll have some flowers or at least plants in all those pots and planters, to be distributed around. If we can do anything.

If you are the praying kind, prayers for our poor, stressed daughter would be appreciated. Thanks.

F: Don’t think I’ve ever posted on food per se – too much of that out there already – but this is maybe odd enough to be interesting. Somebody gave us a turkey months ago, don’t remember why, and it sat there tying up freezer space. Saw this guy on Youtube do something interesting, and thought – I should try that, get rid of that turkey:

Deboned and stuffed turkey:

Yes, it is time-consuming and not all that pleasant to debone a turkey, but, then again, carving a regular turkey can be some work as well. I did a poor job: the trick is to not cut the skin, which, when you roll it, is what keeps it all together. I tried to use a very cheap filleting knife that we’ve had forever, but it wasn’t up to the task, you need a very sharp tip to the knife, and this one just wouldn’t keep an edge. Got my eye on a Victorinox boning knife, if I ever do this again.

And I just might. However much trouble I had up front, it was very nice to simply cut slices without having to worry about bones and with a nice dollop of sausage stuffing right there in the middle. And it cooks a lot faster, too. FWIW.

G: Something proposed in a com box discussion here with Darwin Catholic, a man whose analytic abilities I respect: will COVID 19 result in more deaths in 2020 than would have otherwise occurred? I say: no. He says: yes, at least 75K. Now, even 75K is a tiny number on a population of 330M, but it should be noticable: the UN predicted around 2,930,400 deaths in the US from all causes before the current kefluffle. So: an additional 75K puts us a little over 3M. (Darwin wants to do a lot more math, with weighted average mortality over 5 years – OK by me, although I’m not sure what the gain in accuracy would be).

More important, and more obvious: the minimum number of dead with a continued lockdown was estimated at 100-240K just weeks ago. As the lockdown is eased or eliminated in more sane states, they theory goes, those numbers should get higher. So, anything short of about 3.03M lillion dead should be seen as an obvious fail, as far as any predictions go, and, realistically, anything less than 3.2M or so should lay a thick coat of egg on the face of the panic mongers. Not that they don’t already have lies in place to cover this.

The trouble here, as Dr. Briggs discusses here, is that the mitigation steps themselves have begun to kill people. First off, if biopsies and follow-ups for serious diseases, and the usual rounds of check-ups and screenings during which problems are routinely uncovered, are delayed, and thus problems are not discovered and treated promptly, prospects for those people are worsened. Some people will die. Same goes for some elective or non-critical treatments – something that looks non-critical today can get critical if pushed off enough.

But, by far, the major risk of death from COVID 19 is quickly becoming the psychological stress of lockdown and subsequent job losses. Suicide, taking stupid risks, drug abuse, domestic violence – these are real, and really kill people.

Is it enough to offset the ‘savings’ we might get from retarding the spread of *ALL* communicable diseases for a few months (insofar as that works. Not always and everywhere, that’s for sure, but some)? The longer the insanity of the lockdown drags on, affecting 330M people, not just the 1M cases of COVID 19, even a slight uptick in lockdown-related deaths could offset all gains. What a disaster, in terms of lives and morals. We want to believe we are not killing people with the lockdown, and so we do believe it. But we are, and it means nothing to us.

Someone somewhere should be putting together very targeted lawsuits against the people responsible for the government’s suspension of of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free assembly and, effectively, unlawful seizure of our wealth without any due process or review whatsoever. I’m saddened so many people accept this without a hiccup. Does it not occur to them that the patriotic need to be brave and face our enemies and risk death to defend our freedoms is still required, even if the enemy is a *&^% virus?

Book Review: John C. Wright’s The Golden Age

Short and sweet: The Golden Age, first of a trilogy, is fun book, set thousands of years in the future yet strangely appropriate to our own time. Packed with memorable characters and Wright’s usual boatload of fascinating ideas. Read it now.

This book, along with the rest of the trilogy – The Phoenix Exultant and the Golden Transcendence – were about eye-high, when I’m seated, in the bookcase to my left where the SF&F I’m supposed to have read by now is kept. The education stuff, once seated in my office, is above eye level straight ahead, and thus easier to ignore…

Just finished rereading this, noticed I’d never reviewed it. Reminds me of Lord of the World in one critical respect: it asks the question – what if things work out? What if the promised Golden Age is indeed brought about by human effort? Benson sets his story right about now, and the ‘technology’ that succeeds is centralized control of everything – a plausible enough fantasy for the earliest years of the 20th century, before WWI, the Russian Revolution, WWII and the Cold War made it seem too fantastical. Wright sets his story many thousands of years into the future, and gives hints about all the wars and troubles humanity went through to get there, but, by this time, (almost) all people – vanilla and enhanced, and machine intelligences, and collective minds – believe they are in a Golden Age, free from want and violence, free to enjoy fantasies both mundane and esoteric.

Both Benson and Wright address: What could possibly go wrong?

One exception is our protagonist, Phaeton, son of unimaginably brilliant and rich Helion, who is attending the once-in-a-millennium months-long party known as the Transcendence. Here, along with entertainments and competitions, possible future scenarios for the next thousand years will be presented for public approval. These scenarios are worked out by the Peers – the richest, most powerful minds in the Solar System, of which Helion is one – with the aid of sophotechs – strictly computer intelligences that run everything for maximum human comfort and freedom, after a fashion. Once a consensus on a desirable future is reached, the sophotechs will do whatever is necessary to make it happen.

Technology has advanced to the point where no one need see or experience or remember anything they don’t want. Depending on individual wealth, a person might live in a vivid construct of their own design, produced and managed by their own sophotech, if they’ve got one. Individuality is expressed in what kind of construct one chooses to live in, and under what rules. Should it be ‘realistic’? Should all pleasures and pains be enhanced? Beautiful? Under what standard of beauty?

A person can choose where to be within these various constructs, whether to see things as they appear to the naked eye, to filter out unpleasant things, to add more pleasant things, or to simply become immersed in a complete dreamworld. People can chose to see the world from other people’s ‘perspective’ – that is, within the constructs and rules other have chosen. Memories and minds themselves can be recorded, stored, transferred, and destroyed.

All sophotechs cooperate in creating the Earth Mind, which is the greatest intelligence in the Solar System, who keeps everything pleasant and peaceful, and to whom all turn for guidance.

The sophotechs will not, however, interfere with human desires that are merely self-destructive. Private rights, including property rights, are pretty much absolute. It’s a libertarian paradise, up to a point. The Peers are unimaginably wealthy, and like it that way. People routinely join group minds, which is, effectively, suicide after the manner, but much more pleasantly than, being assimilated by the Borg. Or submerge themselves in a dream world from which they can never be reawakened.

Phaeton quickly realizes something is wrong in his beautiful dreamworld, something he can’t quite remember. Wandering the vast parklands created for the Transcendence, he encounters a cryptic old man who offers a few baffling hints, and a strange blue Neptunian. The Neptunians are among the few who aren’t enraptured by the current state of affairs, and thus live past Neptune out where they can enjoy a degree of freedom – miserable (by comparison) lonely freedom.

The Neptunian tries repeatedly to get Phaeton to accept some seemingly harmless direct mental interactions, to grant some direct access to his mind, which Phaeton rejects. The Neptunian hastily departs just as Atkins, the last soldier and the one mind in the Oecomene left who can wield deadly violence for the state, shows up, and yet another cryptic encounter befalls Phaeton.

The story then deploys the amnesia device: protagonist wanders from clue to clue, trying desperately to discover what he has forgotten. He discovers his memories are locked away somewhere, and that he agreed to their removal, and agreed not to retrieve them…

Wright fertile imagination always supplies many characters to his stories. Here, among many others, we meet Gannis, a group mind and an adversary, Daphne, Phaeton’s wife, Helion, his tragic father, and, best of all, Radamanthus, the house sophotech for Helion’s and Phaeton’s manor house. Radamanthus has a wonderful sense of humor, appearing in the constructs sometimes as a portly butler, sometimes a geometric figure, but, usually, as a penguin.

The book ends with what is almost literally a cliffhanger, after a trial scene reminiscent of the climax of heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. On to the Phoenix Exultant.

Flash Fiction: Unwanted

“Let’s just do it, man.”

That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.

What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?

We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.

“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”

Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.

But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!

“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.

I was impressed.

“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.

If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.

“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.

“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.

“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.

“Why her? She’s a pain.”

“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”

Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.

The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.

It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.

I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”

“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.

Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”

The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.

“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.

“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”

Pause. “2146. April.”

“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?

“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”

“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”

The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.

Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.

“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.

“What the hell’s a Chevy?”

At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.

“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”

“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”

“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”

“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”

“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”

“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”

Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.

“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”

“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”

Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”

Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”

“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”

“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”

“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”

In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.

We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.

Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.

It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.

Links & Weather & SciFi (oh my!)

Yep, no school or economics today. instead:

Item 1: William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, has built an interesting model of viral outbreaks over time, and mapped the coronavirus outbreak against it. Here’s his Update III. Bottom line: recognizing that all statistical analysis is conditional on the quality of the data (among other things) and that some parties (China) might not be telling the exact truth, it looks like this is pretty much a typical viral outbreak, worse than some, not as bad as others.

This analysis is worth the read merely to see how a philosopher/statistician evaluates data. I’m am grateful to another statistician, Mike Flynn, for having made the point that ‘fact’ comes from ‘factorum’ (or whatever the correct Latin form is) and means: a thing made. Facts most definitely do not speak for themselves; rather, they speak for the assumptions and mechanisms used to create them. Trivial example: it is a fact that water boils at 100C – +/- the accuracy of the thermometer and skill of the observer, measured in a traditionally sanctioned manner (at sea level, under normal atmospheric pressure, etc.) PROVIDED the water is sufficiently pure (as determined by conventional measurements of purity) and so on a so forth.

Dr. Briggs brings out some of the less obvious factors forming the facts, here. I’ll belabor one: diagnoses do not equal incidents. Incidents proceed according to their own logic; diagnoses depend on how and how much testing is being done, and on whom, and on the quality (false positive and negatives abound in many tests). Turns out that, until the first diagnosis, the ratio of infections to diagnoses is infinite; then, the ratio, which can never be known (there will always be undiagnosed cases, usually lots of them!) will be thought to be falling – more and more cases are diagnosed, while the number of infections is – who knows? Eventually, unless we’re all going to die of this, the rate new cases are diagnosed will fall, eventually hitting near zero. Of necessity trailing diagnosis, the number of dead will rise and fall as well. Eventually, everyone with the disease will either die or get better. We can then make a guess as to the mortality rate – but will never know it, because the number of people infected will never be known.

Slightly less obvious: a similar pattern will happen every time the infection spreads to a new area: initially, as tests are administered, the number of diagnoses will rocket upward, only to level off and fall over time. This kind of spreading can mask what’s really going on, as falling numbers of cases and deaths in one area are offset by growing numbers of cases in newer outbreak areas.

IF – and no one, least of all me, will know this until this is all over – the coronavirus acts like any other typical flu-type virus, once the weather gets nice, this outbreak will quickly disappear. Sunlight will kill it, people will get out more and thus provide less opportunity for infection in crowded places, and, in general ‘flu season’ will be over.

IF – again, always conditional on assumptions and information – this coronavirus is nothing unique, the whole outbreak should be over in a few months. Caution is always prudent; panic is always an invitation to the unscrupulous to seize more power.

Item 2: The Great Storm of 1605. Turns out climatologists have coined a name for the once every 100-200 year storms that drown California and the West: ARkStorms. (The ‘AR’ stands for Atmospheric River). Cute, huh? I’ve mentioned this here. Thanks again to Mike Flynn, who first mentioned the Great Storm of ’62 and got me interested.

The last ARkstorm was over the winter of 1861-1862, where it rained for 43 straight days, turned the entire Central Valley into a lake, put Sacramento under 10′ of water for months, turned the entire L.A. basin into a big swampy lake, and otherwise wreaked havoc all across the West and down on into Mexico.

Climatologists and geologists have taken ocean bed cores off the California coast, and found these 100-200 year events that laid down far, far more sediment that is typical. The scary part: back in 1605, it seems there was an ARkStorm that put the 1861-62 one to shame – at least 50% larger.

Wow. That would be bad. And we’re due. This year, however, we’re back to drought gloom and doom after 3 years of near-normal to excellent rain and snow, as we’ve only gotten about 30% of season average so far, when we average about 75% by now. Still need around another 10″ of rain to get to average – unlikely. That this kind of weather – a near completely dry February – happens maybe 30% of the time doesn’t seem to register with some people.

Item 3: There was this excellent sci fi story I read once years ago, where a colony on an earth-like planet named Cygnus (I think) experienced an unprecedented storm, which caused havoc in all sorts of interesting and tragic ways. Of course I can’t find it now, I thought the title was something like After the Storm, but that’s a Hemingway story… Anyway, wonder if the author was thinking of the Great Storm of 1862?

Item 4: If I ever get around to writing more fiction, I’ve got to name a character Hacksilver Smith.

Classic SFF Book Review: The Metal Monster

Metal monster sharp.jpg

Short and sweet: This novel appears on John C. Wright’s list of essential SF&F reading (I’m working my way through the list here), for good reason. Cool story, presenting in 1920 images and concepts that reappear in such things the Machine City in the Matrix and the Borg. Well worth the read, and available free through Project Gutenberg.

The over-the-top yet fun prologue I affectionately mocked here. A Dr. Walter T. Goodwin, fresh off a trip to the Himalayas, charges the author with recording and spreading the unbelievable tale he is about to tell him.

Part of the charm of this book is the lovely, over the top (by degenerate modern standards) language. It’s a bit of a vocabulary quiz, at least for me, full of delightful, colorful words I did not know, but do now. And Merritt layers on the history and science, circa 1920, to give the story versimilitude. Here’s a taste:

For almost three months we had journeyed; Chiu-Ming and I and the two ponies that carried my impedimenta.

We had traversed mountain roads which had echoed to the marching feet of the hosts of Darius, to the hordes of the Satraps. The highways of the Achaemenids—yes, and which before them had trembled to the tramplings of the myriads of the godlike Dravidian conquerors.

We had slipped over ancient Iranian trails; over paths which the warriors of conquering Alexander had traversed; dust of bones of Macedons, of Greeks, of Romans, beat about us; ashes of the flaming ambitions of the Sassanidae whimpered beneath our feet—the feet of an American botanist, a Chinaman, two Tibetan ponies. We had crept through clefts whose walls had sent back the howlings of the Ephthalites, the White Huns who had sapped the strength of these same proud Sassanids until at last both fell before the Turks.

Over the highways and byways of Persia’s glory, Persia’s shame and Persia’s death we four—two men, two beasts—had passed. For a fortnight we had met no human soul, seen no sign of human habitation.

(“Impedimenta” is definitely going into the quiver.)

Goodwin has gone to do some botanical research in the remote mountain valleys of the Himalayas. The hills are alive – with Americans. Can’t hardly turn around without meeting some. Goodwin and his cook/guide run into Dick Drake, son of an old science buddy. They decide to travel together.

Things get weird. Or weirder. First off are bizzare atmospheric phenomena that defy description and any sort of natural explanation. Goodwin tries a little early 20th century handwavium on them, something about high mountains and inversion layers, but Drake isn’t buying it. Then they come across what appears to be a gigantic footprint, perfectly geometrical, that has crushed the stone beneath it into what appears to be a surface machined flat. Finally, the two explorers and their guides follow an ever-narrowing mountain crevasse into a huge green bowl shaped valley, stumble upon some ruins.

A mysterious despair grips them, a tangible effect of the place. As they struggle their way out of the valley and the emotional pall, they run into more of Goodwin’s old friends, Martin and Ruth Ventnor, brother and sister scientists. Ruth is of course lovely, and she and Drake promptly fall in love.

Ruth and Martin are fleeing some Persians, like from 24 centuries ago, an ancient civilization still alive in this secret, remote place. But that’s not all that worries them. In the ruins, Ruth shows Goodwin some small metallic cubes, spheres and other geometric forms. Goodwin picks one up to examine it, and is quickly confronted by many others, who stack and form themselves into a little vaguely animalish shape and threaten Goodwin until he drops the one he’s holding. The little shapes disappear into a crevasse in the floor of the ruin. They are living metal creatures of some sort, who coordinate their actions in a sophisticated ways, forming and reforming shapes as desired.

The Persians attack! An army more than a thousand strong descends upon our heroes, trapped in the mountain valley. Our team, with guns, is doing serious damage, but cannot defeat so vast an enemy. Up from the crevasse arises a goddess, tall, stately, glowing. At her gesture, the humans gather round her, and the crevasse vomits forth vast numbers of the metal creatures, who form themselves into a killing machine, and exterminate the Persian force….

And it builds from there. If you like fantastic action, detailed word-painting in the 19th century tradition, and surprise endings, this is a book for you. Fun stuff. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out.

Writing, Updates, a Link

A. Finished one story that’s been rattling about unfinished for years, about a musician who doesn’t know he’s an artist, and an artist who knows he is. In space. With cool tech. And bureaucratic intrigue. And with some literal cliff hanging

I still like it, 3 days later. This is an achievement of sorts, whether of growing confidence or self-delusion, I don’t know. Now need to find some place to submit it, but I think I’ll let it sit a few more days first.

The coolest, most encouraging part of all for me is that this is the first story I’ve *finished* finished in the grand SciFi world that has been rattling around in my head for a decade or two. Have draft-like objects of a couple more stories, some outlines of couple more, and an incomplete outline and many pages of notes to what is looking to be a multi-novel series. (I can’t write one novel, but I can *plan* a series. Pathetic.)

In my head I call this world ‘the Systems’, a lame but functional title. It centers around a trip made by a generational ship to a three star system, where two of the stars are stable little suns, each having nice inhabitable planets and moons. These two orbit each other, and together orbit a third, more distant star, which is not so stable, but somewhere along the path to being a red giant.

Cool made up tech

The underlying future tech stuff is nothing screamingly original, although I of course try to make it cool; the interest for me is in how one would maintain a sustainable, liveable culture under the mentally and emotionally harsh conditions of the original trip, how people would deal with decades-to-centuries long terraforming exercises after the trip, and how successfully people can transition from epic explorers/conquerors of new worlds to – what? So, you won! Hurrah! Now what? You farm, or just hang out while the bots take care of it for you?

I’m attempting to deal with the central problem Star Trek solves by its most egregious handwavium: in a super cool high tech socialist paradise, what do people *do*? Some tiny percent explore strange new worlds, etc., but most, it is implied, become Trobriand Islanders, only with better toys and manners. They have no hope to better themselves or the world in any objective sense, so they raise yams, figuratively, and screw, trade ‘art’ to reinforce social standing and improve self-esteem , and scheme for enhanced social position.

Talk about Hell. I want to look at this in more detail.

The main challenge for very amatuer and inexperienced me is setting up the overall arc of the stories. It’s fun to fill in once you know where you’re going, but, for me at least, I have to know the destination. I’ve started writing out character arcs for major characters, which can run thousands of words each, but does help me get clear. The plot itself has 4 major incidents, where character is revealed and Rubicons are crossed; I must know how each of about 8 characters deal with them….

One very cool thing: I had a major plot point for which a sympathetic mom had to do something pretty terrible. I’d gotten hung up on that for a long time – why did she do that? Then, months later, I figured out why. Weirdly gratifying.

Another thing: so far, all the most interesting characters are women. Plenty of men, and plenty of derring-do to go around, but so far, it’s the women (and girls – children figure prominently in this) who are most interesting. To me, at least. This will likely change as time goes on.

Anyway, fun and frustrating. At this rate, I’ll be almost done by 2035 or so…

Then made the mistake, maybe, of rereading the last story I finished, a couple months back, which story, in a fit of reckless enthusiasm, I even submitted for an anthology.

Well. I sure can write some trite, awkward stuff, I can. Sheesh. I’m embarrassed by it. Making it better would not have been too difficult, but I seem to have needed some space to see it.

We are assured that humility is a good thing – I’m going with that. And I’m working on cleaning up and finishing some other half-finished stories. See how it goes.

B. As obsessively dedicated readers with long memories here may recall, I lead a religious ed group down at the local parish called Feasts & Faith. Each week, I give a talk/slide show about the week’s feasts, including the saints days. We try to have appropriate snacks, such as foods and drinks from the countries the saints are from. Many big or locally important feast have foods and activities associated with them already, which makes it easy.

The point of all this is that the Church gives us the saints as models and leaders, and the liturgical year lays them out for us in convenient and persistent small doses. There’s really is nothing happening to us today on a personal, political or ecclesiastical level that some, usually large, number of saints have not already gone through. Temptations? Betrayal? Political oppression? Church corruption? Reading the lives of the saints tells us these things are nothing new, they happen in every age, and will be with us until the Second Coming. And, most important, that people did get through them faithfully. I also, you’ll be shocked to hear, digress into long discussions of history, in order to provide some context. Doing the research for these meetings has been very enlightening.

So I was pleased to read this post from David Warren. A sample:

Among the uses of the Catholic (and Orthodox) cult of saints, is the groundwork they provide for the student’s sense of historical time. The saints arrive in succession, some earlier than others. Yet each is a figure who comes from outside time, and leads us, as it were, back where he came from. There is no “progress” from one saint, or generation of saints, to another. Each is sui generis — one of a kind — and each is “perfect,” by which we don’t mean entirely free of sin but complete to a purpose.

In their immense numbers they provide a constellation of light to our dark world, invisible to most but visible to many. The liturgy brings one after another into view, to serve as searchlights of us: thousands or millions of “little Christ lanterns” spread as the stars from horizon to horizon.

The custom of assigning saints to functions, of naming “patron saints” for trades and activities, sufferings and conditions of life, should be self-explanatory. To the faithful, of course, it is more than just custom. The Christian faith was from its origin extremely practical. (“Do this, in memory of me.”) To say, as they teach in our schools today, if they teach anything besides juvenile delinquency and despair, that the cults within our religion are “pagan survivals,” or “old superstitions,” is all very well; so long as we realize that this misses the point entirely, as all acts of malice tend to do.

C. The Endless Front Yard Brick Project is slowly progressing. Did have one of those moments that is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time: Leading down from the front porch, which is already complete as far as brick paving goes, will be a gate and two steps down into the front yard orchard. For some reason, I have been wildly overthinking this. Curved footers on weird radii, lots of holes, steel and concrete, hard-to-stake out forms – every time I thought about it, it got more complicated. Been putting it off for like 2 years now.

The encouraging part: once I stopped making it into the Great Wall in my head, a good and very simple solution presented itself. Just not that complicated. So, on the encouraging side, I think I can knock it off in a couple days with a minimum of digging and concrete pouring; on the discouraging side – why do I work myself up into knots trying to make things hard? If only this were a rare event…

Further updates and pictures as events warrant.

PAST

I slept, and wept, and slept again, the black bracelet on my ankle tethering me to my PAST – Personal Assayed Sentence Tracker. I had such high hopes, back when I’d managed to deactivate it and sneak aboard the longship. I watched the parasol unfurl, catching the sun like a breaking wave, and the superconducting magnetic loop spool out, kilometer after kilometer, stealing momentum from every passing charged particle.

But it was the ion drive I felt, from the floor of the forward storage area where I’d stowed away. Four massive nuclear reactors inside the asteroid, which the L2 shipyard had worked into a three-kilometer long iron/nickle cigar, reducing chunks of that cigar into superheated plasma. Ion drives fired that plasma fuel out at near-light speed. Unlike the sails, those babies could produce enough delta V to feel. I felt their silent rumble in my belly pressed against the composite hull.

I avoided discovery for months. During those months, as the ship spiraled away from earth, slowly gaining speed as it deployed first the parasol, then the magsail, then the ion drives, the 576 legitimate passengers and crew were too busy or distracted to notice. There were crates of food, back up in case anything went wrong with the hydroponics. There was, thankfully, a toilet and shower. There were even spare clothes. So I was pretty comfortable and could mitigate my boredom by looking outside, at least at first. After we’d reached system escape velocity and straightened our course, the view didn’t change much.

They eventually did find me. They knew I was a stowaway at a glance. They knew I was a fugitive by my PAST. After threatening that they’d just let me age out and die on the trip, the crew decided to slow-grow me, just like the legit passengers. Spent 243 years, relative time, out like a light, in a box I shared with bots that trimmed my hair and nails every year or two. Slow-grow isn’t no-grow.

That’s how I came to wake up as we dropped into orbit. They’d checked my criminal record, and were thinking it it might not be safe just dropping me with the other colonists. That’s when I started to get a hint that maybe my escape wasn’t an escape at all. Maybe the feds had let me walk, hoping I’d stow away and get permanently out of their hair. Things had gone a little too smooth.

Anyway, the bots were programmed to wake us up, and give us a light trim and a manicure and pedicure whenever the ship dropped into orbit. To make sure everybody is ready to go and all. The crew never thought to override it for me. So, before they could even miss me, I, clean-scrubbed and with lovely nails, stole a landing craft.

I just take things, see. It’s me being me. I also sometimes use a little too much force. I don’t think I killed the landing bay guard, but sometimes things happen. I dragged my PAST onto a craft, set the auto landing, jimmed the craft release, and proceeded to land.

The bastards. This planet is a paradise, at least to look at. Water is very good, almost sweet. Lots of edible plants. But there are no animals here, just plant after plant. Green as hell.

I thought, hey, I’ll drop down early, hide away somewhere, and wait for the colonists to set up shop. Then I could live like I always have, and still pick up a few things from the colony when the urge arose.

But the colonists never came. Crew must have determined that this rock wasn’t good enough.

Landers are just that, landers. They aren’t shuttles. The last I heard from the longship was a message that I’d been convicted of stealing a lander and putting a guard in the hospital, and sentenced to being banished to this rock. Then radio silence.

It was just after sunset when they left me here. I cursed the specks of light glinting off the longship, visible in the darkening sky. I watched until distance and the horizon swallowed her up.

Thus I sleep and weep. That’s two escapes that weren’t escapes. I’d fallen for it like a rookie.

Then, this morning, the ankle bracelet fell away. Signal from the longship, is my guess. Did the bastards always know how to do that? Good thing, too, as the chow on this planet is not only bland, but you need to eat a lot of it. Something about a mismatch of my enzymes and the chemical bonds in the alien plants. I’m effectively grazing all day long.

Eat that much green, and the spore starts piling up. It’s not pretty. Same thing works in reverse: whatever biological activity is at work here decomposing dead plants, it doesn’t work too fast on human waste. I’d probably go nuts, if I weren’t already a bit of a sociopath.

Like the longship leaving Sol, I’m spiraling out away from my original camp. Funny thing – once in a while, I go back to visit my PAST. It’s all I’ve got.

AI, AI, Oh.

Old MacBezos Had a Server Farm…

Free-associating there, a little. Pardon me.

Seems AI is on a lot of people’s minds these days. I, along with many, have my doubts:

My opinion: there are a lot of physical processes well suited to the very fancy automation that today is called AI. Such AI could put most underwriters, investment analysts, and hardware designers out of a job, like telegraph agents and buggy whip makers before them. I also think there’s an awful lot of the ‘we’re almost there!’ noise surrounding AI that has surrounded commercial nuclear fusion for my entire life – it’s always just around the corner, it’s always just a few technical details that need working out.

But it’s still not here. Both commercial nuclear fusion and AI, in the manner I am talking about, may come, and may even come soon. But I’m not holding my breath.

And this is not the sort of strong AI – you know, the Commander Data kind of AI – that gets human rights for robots discussions going. For philosophical reasons, I have my doubts human beings can create intellect (other than in the old fashioned baby-making way), no matter how much emergent properties handwavium is applied. Onward:

Here is the esteemed William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, taking a shot at the “burgeoning digital afterlife industry”. Some geniuses have decided to one-up the standard Las Vegas psychic lounge routine, where by a combination of research (“hot readings”) and clever dialogue (“cold readings”), a performer can give the gullible the impression he is a mind reader, by training computers to do it.

Hot readings are cheating. Cons peek in wallets, purses, and now on the Internet, and note relevant facts, such as addresses, birthdays, and various other bits of personal information. Cold readings are when the con probes the mark, trying many different lines of inquiry—“I see the letter ‘M’”—which rely on the mark providing relevant feedback. “I had a pet duck when I was four named Missy?” “That’s it! Missy misses you from Duck Heaven.” “You can see!”

You might not believe it, but cold reading is shockingly effective. I have used it many times in practicing mentalism (mental magic), all under the guise of “scientific psychological theory.” People want to believe in psychics, and they want to believe in science maybe even more.

Briggs notes that this is a form of the Turing Test, and points to a wonderful 1990 interview of Mortimer Adler by William F. Buckley, wherein they discuss the notions of intellect,. brain, and human thought. Well worth the 10 minutes to watch.

In Machine Learning Disability, esteemed writer and theologian Brian Niemeier recounts, first, a story much like I reference in my tweet pasted in above: how a algorithm trained to do one thing – identify hit songs across many media in near real time – generates an hilarious false positive when an old pirated and memed clip goes viral.

Then it gets all serious. All this Big Data science you’ve been hearing of, and upon which the Google, Facebook and Amazon fortunes are built, is very, very iffy, no better than the Billboard algorithms that generated the false positive. Less obvious are people now using Big Data science to prove all sorts of things. In my gimlet-eyed take, doing research on giant datasets is a great way to bury your assumptions and biases so that they’re very hard to find. This, on top of the errors built in to the sampling, the methodology and algorithms themselves – errors upon errors upon errors.

As Niemeier points out, just having huge amounts of data is no guarantee you are doing good science, in in fact multiplies to opportunity to get it wrong. Briggs points out in his essay how easily people are fooled, and how doggedly they’ll stick to their beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. You put these things together, and it’s pretty scary out there.

I’m always amazed that people who have worked around computers fall for any of this. Every geek with a shred of self-awareness (not a given by any means) has multiple stories about programs and hardware doing stupid things, how no one could have possibly imagined a user doing X, and so (best case) X crashes the system or (worse case) X propagates and goes unnoticed for years until the error is subtle, ingrained and permanent. Depending on the error, this could be bad. Big Data is a perfect environment for this latter result.

John C. Wright also gets in on the AI kerfuffle, referencing the Briggs post and adding his own inimitable comments.

Finally, Dust, a Youtube channel featuring science fiction short films, recently had an “AI Week” where the shorts were all based on AI themes. One film took a machine learning tool, fed it a bunch of Sci Fi classics and not so classics, and had it write a script, following the procedure used by short film competitions. And then shot the film. The results are always painful, but occasionally painfully funny. The actors should get Oscar nominations in the new Lucas Memorial Best Straight Faces When Saying Really Stupid Dialogue category: