Thursday, December 27, 2012

Defining yourself

"I want to be a painter." "My dream is to play football professionally." "My passion is writing poetry." Some people choose a dream and define themselves by it. This is noble in its way, but it is often also tragic. The more specific your dream is, the more likely it is that in the end, you will end up missing your goal and feeling dissatisfied with your life.
Your life goal isn't something imposed on you from the outside.  It grows, like a plant, and it grows better the more well tended it is.  But if you pull up all the other plants that sprout up (to better tend to the one that seems healthiest at the moment) you're going to be left with a pretty barren garden if something happens to that plant.
 One way around this is trying to cultivate an interest in everything. Sure, you may not end up the best in the world at any one thing; but wherever you end up, you'll be able to find some happiness there. The nature of economy pushes us towards specialization. Maybe we should try to push back a little bit.
The wonderful thing about our minds is the way they can act on themselves. If your current situation is in conflict with your desires, you can keep trying to change your situation, and that has its own glory. But sometimes, it might be better to widen your dreams. There's a feeling that happens when you first start trying to do this, like you're betraying yourself, somehow. The hard thing to see is that the person standing in that place isn't your self.  It's just a self-portrait that you put there. It's okay to paint new portraits in new places.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Instead of a moon, that earth had another world in its sky. The other world, called Selene, had its own people who lived there (though how they got there is still a mystery to this day.) The people there had their own ways of doing things, their own myths, their own styles of clothing and architecture. Instead of the wool of sheep, they used silk gathered from particularly docile moon-spiders. Everyone knew, pretty much, that Selene was an island in the sky, but until the Middle Ages there was essentially no contact with them. It was around that time that the Selenites invented rockets, and their larger firework shows were sometimes visible from Earth. Soon their rockets grew powerful enough to leave the weaker gravitational pull of Selene and enter Earth's atmosphere. They sent gifts of their strange moon-seeds, moon-spider-silks, moon-wine. This so inspired Earth's inventors that flight technology developed very rapidly; and Leonardo DaVinci, as a young man, built the first balloon-plane capable of leaving Earth and flying through the void to Selene.  (In that space, strange creature swam and were hunted by the Selenites.) For a hundred years, balloon-plane pilots made flights back and forth to Selene, bringing Selenite goods to Earth and Christianity and gold to the Selenites.
However, Emperor Ming saw the Earth people as a threat, and began shooting every balloon-plane he saw out of the sky with his rockets. This blockade continued until the 1800s. Around the time of the American civil war, an earth admiral took his sky-ironclads to Selene and ended the blockade forever.  From that time, there began to be a great exchange of trade between Selene and the Earth. At the turn of the twentieth century, earth artists were drawing inspiration from the glowing paints and oval canvases that characterised Selenite art. The Selenites depicted earth inventions, like steam power and electricity, as manifestations of strange gods.
Tensions between the two worlds grew, however, and in the 1940s the Selenite emperor rained meteors down on the earth. The war between worlds largely took place in space, where the Selenites were gradually driven back. Finally their great space-battleship Luna and two of their cities were destroyed by a devastating secret weapon, and their emperor surrendered. The Selenites accepted the earth admiral as their new ruler, and in return earth helped the Selenites to rebuild.
My grandfathers fought in that war. My father was an airship builder, whose work was threatened by competition from Selenite industry. When I was a young man, I travelled to Selene for a few years and spoke with the moon people in their own language. Selene and Earth have grown to resemble each other in a lot of ways, and yet... when the Selenites draw Earth styles, they get mixed up between centuries and countries and don't really care about it.  They adopt some of our stories, but mix them up with their own myths about space beasts and moon-ghosts. Earth stories, too, have begun to resemble moon-myths. The story of the war and the devastating secret weapon left strange echoes on the products of their culture...

...anyway, that's one reason I sometimes like to watch Japanese shows.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The City

You say you hate the city.
Watch as they climb the subway steps. Do you hear that kid with the accent? Two years ago he spoke no English. He is fighting all usual battles in school, but doing it in a foreign tongue. See that girl, with the piercings? She is desperate to somehow find something deeper and more real than the grey world she sees around her. Look at that guy with a basketball.  Every day he practices for twelve hours and every night he prays for something that will never happen because he is just two inches too short. That one in the suit? He dreams of visiting Peru. The homeless man-- he touched something once, something transcendent, something wonderful, and he keeps going back to the same place to try to get it back, and it keeps getting farther away. Do you see that girl in the sports jacket? She has an entire world in her head. Every one of these people has an entire secret world.  Any of them, if you had lived next door to them at the right time, would have been your best friend. Every one of them is proud, shy, angry, good, tired, cruel, hopeful, a loser and a hero, all at the same time. Each of them knows at least one terrible truth and one wonderful lie.
I think you feel the weight of all that, and carrying it exhausts you. That is not hate, not really; rather a surfeit of love.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Eldritch Collection in 13 volumes

Looking for something to read this Halloween? Every one of these tomes is guaranteed to drive you mad with unspeakable revelations of ancient forbidden knowledge!

De Vermis Mysteriis and Liber Ivonis (The Book of Eibon)
Cultes des Goules and Die Unsprechliche Kulten
The King in Yellow
Massa di Requiem par Shuggay
Du Svardenvyrd
The Book Bound in Pale Leather
The Book of Sand
Necrotelicomnicon aka the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum
The Thousand Nights and One Night (full version)
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Codex of the Black Labyrinth

The 13th volume is a collection of handwritten manuscripts on mathematical philosophy by the following authors:
Georg Cantor
Kurt Godel
Ted Kaczynski
Ludwig Boltzmann
Yutaka Tanayama
C.P. Ramanujam
Felix Hausdorff
Paul Erdos
John Nash
Emil Post

Monday, October 15, 2012

A description of a playground

You approached the playground through a forest of ancient oaks, willows, and sycamores. The path was paved with a changing pattern of stones and colored marbles, growing gradually more colorful as you went along. The path brought you to the gates, made from ribbons of twisted iron, and which were never opened. The only ways in were a drainage tunnel that ran under the wall, fences that could be climbed, or a small secret door only large enough to pass through on hands and knees. We never really found out why the gate was closed. There was a story, told as sworn truth by children to other children, that the place had been built as a private play place by a billionaire for his son, but the boy had died in a car accident and it had never been used since. Nothing was in bad repair, but it had clearly been built to last in the first place.
If you came in by way of the drainage tunnel, one of the first things you would notice was the flyer swing. The flyer swing looked like a cross between a three-wheeled bicycle and one of DaVinci's flying machines. The top of the chain hung from a pyramidal frame that rose easily two hundred feet in the air. The frame stood over a spiral ramp surrounding a bowl that allowed you to pedal as quickly as you could until you reached the edge and then fly off over a stunning drop. When the swing was moving quickly, it automatically oriented itself (through the arrangement of cables attached at the top of the swing) so that you were facing forward no matter how the swing was moving. By throwing your weight around, you could adjust the way the wings were twisted and control your direction (more or less) in midair. After a while it would gradually slow down and come to a rest near the bottom of the bowl.
To one side of the park stood a tall, grassy hill; in the winter it was perfect for sledding down the back. Winding up the front of the hill, though, passing over and under a stairway, was the Long Slide. This slide wound down nearly a mile long meandering path, passing through a cave that glittered with rose quartz and amethyst and running next to a waterfall for a portion of the way. It wasn't the fastest slide (though there was a very fast, steep bit near the end) but it was lined with some kind of teflon material that made it nearly frictionless. That was what made the jumps possible.
The slide, like much of the rest of the playground, was made of a kind of rubbery fake wood that dented on impact and only gradually returned to its former shape. If you tripped and fell, knees and elbows would sink right in for a few inches, cushioning them. A fall from a greater height would cause the material to ripple outward, almost like a liquid, leaving a person shaped dent that would take a few minutes to reform. The older kids would often take advantage of this, jumping from unsafe heights and landing in a three-point crouch during dramatic chase games.
The main body of the playground was built as a cluster of dozens of treehouses, connected by rope-bridges and spiral staircases. Artificial vines were hung in such a way that it was fairly easy to swing from one to the next, Tarzan style. A double-decker rope bridge crossed over the brook that ran down from the waterfall. The largest of the treehouses was the size of a grand ballroom, and the smallest, high up in a tree, held only a single comfortable seat for reading. A hand-cranked elevator dangled from one side.
Over near the flyer swings stood a gorgeous fire-engine red pinnacle of a rocket slide, seven stories tall, and decorated with a sweeping, curling, art deco arrangment of gold tubes that shared design motifs with pipe organs and saxophones. At the top of the rocket, you could look out through the stained glass windscreen at the rest of the park. Every surface of this cockpit (except the fighter-aircraft seats) was covered in buttons, dials, gauges, indicator lights, spinning tape drives, oscilloscope and radar displays, levers, switches, toggles and control sticks. There were deep patterns to these that you could spend all day trying to solve. For example, moving one set of levers back and forth would line up an array of colored lights, causing an auxilliary panel to spring open. This panel played a memorization game similar to Simon, which, when beaten, brought down a targeting computer from out of reach overhead, and so forth.
The slide was not the only way to exit the rocket-- you could also use the zipline, if you were tall enough to reach it. This would bring you to the sandpit. The sandpit was inhabited by pipe-metal lions and dragons. You would sit and pull levers, which were directly mechanically connected to the limbs of these toys, and dig up great plumes of sand with their paws or snap at the other dragons with their teeth. The "sand" itself could be packed like snow, so there were usually the ruins of several sprawling sand-forts. dotted throughout the pit.
The park really turned into something extraordinary as dusk fell. Robust solar panels dotted through the park stored electricity during the daylight hours, and as night fell fairy-lanterns lit up throughout the park. There was enough light that it was safe to play even late into the evening, and in the summer it was densely populated by fireflies, who were drawn to the lights, I suppose. Where the brook ran between the treehouses, powerful red lights hidden in the river rocks turned it into a stream of lava.
There was a single grand house, a miniature castle, really, up at the top of the hill. The house was unfurnished, and more than a little creepy when you went inside (though the roof was a fine place to have adventures). The basement was even more frightening-- for some reason it was littered with bird skulls and broken dolls. There was a sub-basement below that that I stuck my head into, once, where sounds echoed strangely and came back later; sometimes much later. Older boys told of a cellar even below that, but no one I knew had ever set foot in it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A prediction

I just wanted to be on record for predicting that NASA will announce the first earth scale planet in the habitable zone of a sunlike star this month.
My reasons: the Kepler mission is capable of detecting such a planet; their data shows that planets are more common than anticipated; they have had long enough to collect 3 passes of the planet around the star by now; and finally, on October 28 all previously collected Kepler data becomes publicly available. Since they will want to control the release of this information, they have to do it before October 28.

There are two reasons this might not happen. First, one of the ways they justified the extended mission was saying there was too much brightness variation in stars, so they need more passes in front of the star to be sure. That is, they haven't found them yet because the data is too noisy.
The second possibility is that even though planets are more common than thought, earthlike planets may be less common than thought.  That statistical analysis is here:
If there really aren't any to be found, I expect NASA to announce the closest thing to a match they've got this month. If there is just too much stellar intensity variation, I expect them to name the best candidates they have this month.  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

story notes

Some kids are exploring by bike, and find a large fenced in area that seems to have been abandoned over 100 years ago.
They look it up on satellite view, and see subtle strange fractal patterns mixed with more chaotic patterns.
They go back out to the site and find a collapsed tunnel under the wall.
Going through the tunnel they find a dead drilling machine (not this big, but looks something like this).
They notice that it is built in a very strange, almost organic way
they keep exploring the tunnels and realize that the fractal shapes they saw were the tunneling patterns.
they find an active tunneler with a full load and follow it
it takes them to a central factory where they see piles of various metal stacked up, including gold
before they have time to explore the factory, they set off a silent alarm, and get chased off the site by drillers
They take the gold to a store and have it checked out; it is real gold
the store owner asks questions about where they got it, but they don't tell him
they go back to the site but are secretly followed by the store owner.
They explore the factory and realize that it has been running since the 1800s without anyone tending it!
While they are there they find papers that explain how it happened

People who were reading Darwin and Butler and were acquainted with Babbage attempted to build a "clanking replicator"
but they soon realized it is too difficult
instead they got the help of a rich friend in mining and began building a mining machine / factory
it is an incredibly robust (this fact needs to be very convincing) automated factory that produces mining vehicles
these bring back ore which is turned into more mining vehicles
they want to make the vehicles form evolve, but instead settle on evolving mainly the behavior and proportions of the vehicles
those that bring back the most ore are copied (testing Butler's ideas about the heritability of instinct)
The vehicles (through evolution) began to leave tracks that other vehicles could "read" allowing them to work together as a kind of Tur-Mite (Langton's ant) and develop mining strategies of high computational complexity

Because of a war (World War I?) everyone who knew about the purpose of the project died.
The project was left running without any human supervision

different types have evolved for different cooperative functions
possibly some analogy to aphid farming?

As they learn more about the factory, the store owner gets burglars who sell him stolen jewelry to go to the site and collect the valuable metals
They look at his pictures, realize how much money it is, and kill him to take his share ones he tells them where it is
They go in with trucks to try to get the gold, etc. but run into problems with the drillers and tunnels.
They come back and start blowing stuff up to get to the metals
the kids see them and want to stop them, but the bad guys have big guns
but the kids have figured out a little of what the patterns mean, and dig patterns to tell the drillers where to go  to stop the trucks.
they manage to stop the trucks and bring in responsible adults to preserve the factory
the end

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Non-existent book review

Metamorphosis by B. D. Zoo Press, 2003.
Metamorphosis is a cycle of poems about the Transformers, a toy line and associated children's cartoon from the 1980's about robots that can turn into vehicles. (Although comics, cartoons, and other works built up multiple conflicting backstories for these toys, D. largely ignores these.) Despite the silliness of the idea, D.largely plays it straight, treating it as if it were an epic secret history to be taken seriously.
There are 24 poems of varying length, each named by a letter of the Greek alphabet. The first poem, "Alpha," is a creation myth, explaining the origin of mechanical life on the distant world of Cybertron, and introduces the characters Primus and Unicron. It references Genesis, the Enuma Elish, Keats' "Hyperion," and others.
Subsequent poems describe a War in Heaven and fall to earth. From this point on the main characters are Optimus Prime and Megatron. D.'s version of the characters are basically archangels or demigods, immortal Platonic forms that can take a bi-stable mechanical form, but when destroyed continue to exist as a kind of design plan/computer program/spirit. This conceit allows him to explore questions of consciousness and the nature of a mechanical, deterministic world. Their dual nature (spirit/body) is symbolized by the duality of their form (robot/vehicle).
Not all of the poems fit precisely into a larger narrative. In "Eta," the Autobots are described as immigrants, finding a face that fits into America by becoming a worker, a machine. "Omicron" is a riff of Samuel Butler's Erewhon. "Pi" explores the question of whether mathematics is universal or culturally specific by inventing a Cybertronic mathematics as a series of transformations. Other poems are retellings of the myths of Galatea and Daphne. The poem "Theta" is a conversation between an American mechanic and a Japanese scientist about the respective countries' relationships with automobiles and robots. The themes of disguise and change run through all the poems. Puns and wordplay are scattered throughout, bringing a little lightness to the proceedings.
The last few poems are an interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John as enacted by Decepticons and Autobots. In "Omega (Supreme)" the Earth is transformed into glass, recalling Ballard's The Crystal World.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Many gods

There are many gods in that country; but each holds sway for only one day a year. If a person is born on the day of a powerful god, it is considered a misfortune, because they are sure to be overshadowed. What unites these gods is that, though they are known by all, they are not worshipped, for they are acknowledged as belonging to that class of people who, though powerful and immortal, with preferences and activities known to all, are nevertheless unreal.

The most powerful of these gods is the god of the winter solstice.  Children send him petitions, and he is capable of granting wishes. He is said to live in the factory at the top of the world that produces everything, whose vast engines are tended by gremlins that never leave that place. He requires the sacrifice of an evergreen tree, which he apparently abhors.

The god of the spring equinox is the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, El-Ahrairah. He is too fast to ever be seen, and distributes food at random, to those who will seize it.

A dark god reigns at the harvest; he is called Man of the Lantern. He rules all things which resemble a person but are not; the ghost, the corpse, the foreigner, the automaton, the demons and the angels. On this day all are asked to reveal their true character, by donning masks of their own choosing. The ritual is to visit neighbors, terrorizing them into giving up their food for a promise of safety.  But since everyone is doing this at the same time, most end up with about what they started with, except the elderly or infirm.

The other harvest festival is a celebration of a day when the original inhabitants of this land took pity on the first settlers, and taught them the secret of sacrificing a fish so that corn would grow.  They are said to have given them the Cornucopia, the infinite spiral horn of a ram, which gave a neverending supply of whatever the holder desired. The settlers used this as a weapon against the original inhabitants, murdering them and driving them from their land. The day is a celebration of this victory.

In the summer, they hold remembrance of a terrible war, in which they were cut off from their home country and their heritage.  The people gather together and launch rockets to remind themselves of the horrors of war; small children run crying at the noise and the smoke. It is called the day of Loneliness.

Space prevents me from detailing all the others; for example, the day on which lovers exchange depictions of internal organs, or the day of the aard-pig.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

Things are getting better

(average weekly hours worked, U.S.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Unwritten stories


In the near future, maybe 2020, a brother and sister are in the basement, playing with their new toys-- four inch tall remote control androids with cameras in their heads that send information back to VR glasses. Cameras attached to the glasses sense their movements and move the limbs of the robots accordingly.
When criminals break into the house and take their parents and baby brother hostage, they need to send the androids for help, while avoiding being caught themselves. And when help is slow to arrive, they decide the only hope is to take rescue into their own hands.

Lords of Dust and Shadows

An extended family has a tradition that they are the direct lineal descendants of Arthur.  The older family members take it all very seriously-- the story starts off with a coronation after a funeral. They have divided up the state they live in into territories, and each is responsible for the territory that family member lives in, to serve and protect them, especially from supernatural evil, but also with emergency service, crime prevention and so forth.
One young man doubts that there is anything to the stories and the magic that family members claim to have performed. When he is sent on a quest prior to being knighted, he has to decide what world he is going to live in. 
This has a lot in common with another much older story idea that Karen and I worked on.  In that story, some medieval reenactors build a kind of utopian community with a castle. When civilization collapses due to some kind of advanced bio/nano weapon, their community is one of the few to survive intact and capable of sustaining themselves. 

The Magical Toy Store

This is the story that the description (an earlier post) came from. A child and his parents visit the toy store, and he brings home a gift, apparently for free. When he is older and has children of his own, he decides to find out how the store came about and how it can just give away such expensive, handcrafted toys.