Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rolling Cigarettes In the Dark

For those who feel some completely inexplicable and obscure need to read my blog -- search-engine traffic outnumbers "real person" traffic by about 50 to 1 -- I should provide some narrative.

Rolling cigarettes in the dark is not something most people will want to try for themselves, and in fact, most people would simply give up or cheat. I didn't have a choice; I had to keep my eyes shut and not peek. No, the lights weren't out. However, opening my eyes would have been a true adventure in irritation which I would would classify as epic. It was easier to just think about what I was doing, and enjoy the infallibility of good understanding and lots of practice as well as thinking things through in advance, and paying attention to sticking to the plan.

Why bother, the Astute Reader might ask?

Sometimes you can just do whatever, whenever, and sometimes you have limitations. My limitation was that I was in the first 12 hours of recovery from cataract surgery.

I was recommended to a very good doctor and took the recommendation. Unlike quite a lot of my recent encounters with the Medical Industry, this was a private practice almost of the old school, where you get the specialist that you need, rather than the staff physician the Health Maintenance Organization's beancounter administrators decide they can afford.

Intake was tolerable, probably actually better than that, as I am generally nervous as a cat and the less people I have near me the better I feel. Yet being treated as if I were something other than even more meat to be processed, this was very settling. These folks exuded professionalism and competence, and it's hard to say which was the more reassuring of those two qualities; the combination is a winning one.

Surgery itself? After prep, and some discussion with the anesthesiologist, off we went to the operating room and away we went. This was far different from my horrid experiences with dental anesthesia in earlier years, which experiences were so horrid that I preferred to get a recent liver biopsy with only a local anesthetic, and was perfectly conscious for the fascinating experience of tonic spasm as the diaphragm was penetrated. No, those old dental anesthetists might have not had the right juice to work with, or they were being a little sloppy. When the dentist knocked me out for my wisdom tooth extractions, darkness dropped onto me like being in a car wreck, and the way my face, jaw, and neck felt when I awoke, it felt like I'd been in a car wreck. This experience yesterday was far different.

I'm not sure how happy I would be about having an anesthetic sneak up on me with little cat feet, anyplace outside of a surgery. However, in surgery, it's probably best that it sneak up on you rather than smash you down like you ran your car into a wall. I have to admit that listening to the conversation during the surgery wasn't something I was expecting, but the local anesthetics in the eye were quite effective so I just lay there, which was clearly the best course of action.

Post-operatively, once home, I sat around and tried to watch TV for a while, but the anesthetics wearing off in the eye were doing very weird things to my receptor nerves -- weirdness about equivalent to the special effects in the "trip sequence" in 2001: A Space Odyssey -- I figured I might as well take my tired self off to bed.

One little thing, though... when the local anesthetics wear off, about 4 hours post-operative, the incision (through which they vacuum out the old lens and insert the new one) in the eyeball isn't healed. The nervous system interprets it, at least in my case, as a tiny ball of steel wool rolled up somewhere under my upper eyelid.

Let's just say of this experience and situation, that sometimes it is not just appropriate, but truly good to cry. And, if you smoke them, to smoke a cigarette... to give you something to do with your hands other than try to hold them still and away from your eyes.

But lo and behold, I am down to the very last of my hand-rolled cigarettes. That means I need to roll more.

As it turns out, trying to open one eye while experiencing the "squeeze and cry" reflex for dislodging foreign object is not something one can do without increasing that reflex. You can use your hand ot hold open the lid of the unaffected eye, good for finding your way around, but you can't do anything two-handed that way. So I just got all of my necessities into place, took a final look, and then did everything by touch.

Use a large box top as a rolling surface. Rub a handful of tobacco between the palms, and anything that's left in the palm gets snipped up with manicure scissors, and repeat rubbing and cutting until all of the shake is about the same grain and size.

Now we're ready to roll. And what do we know about our brand of cigarette papers? As you open the pack, you can peel off a dozen or so sheets at a time, and if the packet was opened upwards, the gummed edges of the paper will be downwards. Peel off a sheaf, place the packet to the side, and flip over the sheaf to leave the gummed eduges upwards to the ceiling and towards the top-left corner of the boxtop that's keeping everything in one small work area on a footstool.

Noted in passing, all of this is done with both eyes closed, weeping copiously from the one eye, which still feels like there's a little ball of steel wool up under the eyelid. Yay. As long as I don't move my eyeballs, or try to open the lids, at least it's a little ball of steel wool that's just sitting there, rather than scratching.

Peel off one paper, carefully, setting back the sheaf exactly where it was. The thumb holding the single sheet has the index finger on the gummed side, so set it down and pick it up the way you'd hold a curved paper ready to roll. Curve the paper. You've done this so much you hardly need to look at it anyway.

You know the size of the pinch of tobacco, so you pick it up and place it in the paper. From there, it's more about feel and practice, anyway. Repeat as necessary. Hey, almost forgot about the little ball of steel wool, right?

Keep on going until you run out of tobacco. You've been laying down finished "rollies" in a column in the right lower corner of the boxtop, so pick one up from one end of the column, and trim off a millimeter or two from one end, and set it in another column. Once all of the "rollies" are in the second column, turn the boxtop 180 degrees and repeat the process.

Now that you've got all of your cigarettes trimmed at both ends, carefully feel for their center point, and cut the cigarettes in half and line up the cut segments. By the time you're done, you have about30 "half-smokes", and can start transferring them to a carry case.

Now, it helps that I don't have a beard, because these things are too short to light without singeing your nose hairs. Also, I get about three drags off of them before I douse them.

Of course, this has taken up a fair amount of time, working blind, and the horrid itching is almost tolerable. And if I should find myself waking up in the middle of the night and need to calm my nerves, I can do that by smoking; doctor's orders included "no alcohol and don't sign any legal documents for twenty-four hours".

In bed, not that I'm sad or anything, I cry myself to sleep. At least the one eye cries as I eventually fall asleep, and then I wake at 2:30AM. Itching slightly less. Have a smoke. Go back to sleep. Wake at 3:30AM. Have a smoke, itching is slightly less. Go back to sleep. Repeat every hour on the hour until about 6:30 or so at which time I can actually sleep a few hours straight through. Amazingly, when I wake up, the itching is almost completely gone, my pillow is literally almost soaked through with tears, and when I turn on the light -- at low intensity -- I can actually see through the new lens.

The new lens is plastic, and it is transmitting far more light than the old one did, not surprising as the last lens was getting so fogged over that it had to be removed.

Differences between the old lens and the new one include: much more light is getting through. The light is far more blue, about the same degree of change as between a room well-lit by warm yellow incandescents and a room grossly over-lit by old-school florescent tubes. I think this right here could save me a lot on the electricity bills.

This being merely the first day after surgery, there is nothing so near nor so far, nor anywhere in between, that I can get to focus. According to the doctor, in about two weeks this should be all settled in to wherever it's going to be, and whatever lenses will be needed can be fitted at that time. Meanwhile, I need to learn to forget the whole notion of focusing that eye on anything at all, since the inserted lens is not flexible and no amount of trying to focus will work. It'll be all in the external lenses. If all went as hoped, I'll only really need glasses for reading, and if I can read again anywhere near as well as I could only two years ago, that'll be just fine.

And of course, the really important thing: I can save lots of money by hand-rolling my cigarettes, even if I can't look at what I'm doing. Even in my 50s, it seems, I can learn a new skill, or how to exercise an old skill in a new way, or under a new handicap. I already learned how to do it one-handed back when I broke my hand during the 2008 District 4 MoCo Special Election.

[Culture of Chaos III] Economic Musings for the Masses

Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help.

This particular article is mostly history and speculation, but a bit of imaginative and fictional material may creep in.

Perhaps you'd like to jump to the previous chapter?

Friday, June 4 2010, was the year's second worse performance at the Wall Street markets.

Closing down by 323 points at the Dow Jones Industrial Average, at 9932 points rounded, with comparable losses across the board, this was a bad start for June after one of the most miserable May performances on record, characterized by increasing market volatility with triple-digit day-to-day oscillations on a steady but slow downward trend.

People in the business of market analysis -- and especially those involved with day-to-day trading -- tend to point to the influence of various reports such as the data on housing starts, new home sales, sales of existing homes, percentage of borrowers "underwater", and occasional unofficial but well-founded speculations on the "shadow inventory" of homes held off of the market to attempt to support prices. That "shadow inventory" is really particularly worrisome as sooner or later the actual figures will either become known, or capable of being accurately "guesstimated". At that point in time, true market forces will begin to affect the marketplace, rather than the smoke-and-mirrors of the present Schrödinger's Cat scenario, and re-adjustments will occur.

Yet despite our ability to document the day-to-day and month-to-month causes-and-effects of this-or-that marketplace event or trend, I think a lot of people are failing to see that these are possible inevitable symptoms of a transformative shift in economic paradigms.

After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the migrations of the barbarian nations and their migratory wars with and conquests of the natives of the former western Roman Empire significantly reduced the population in some areas, and in the east, the Plague of Justinian came in wave after wave from the mid 500s to about 750 in the Christian Era ("CE"), ultimately killing perhaps 50 percent of the population. From 750 or so onwards, the growth of population remained unrestrained by at least this particular extremely virulent plague.

By the 1100s or so, in the remnant Empire of the East -- the Empire in the West was in most parts either invaded by the Moors or engaged in constant warfare with them -- the population increased steadily even as the Empire bankrupted itself with an endless war in Iraq and Iran fighting the Sassanid Persian Empire. The social structures changed. Where once the Roman Citizen was proud and independent, as free as they wanted to be so long as they did not break the imperial laws nor violate the edicts, they were eventually reduced to serfdom, required to enter only the profession of one or both of their parents, and generally forbidden upon pain of death from traveling more than about 10 miles without a special permit. These conditions of social stratification, overpopulation, and general destitution of the public treasuries were remedied by the arrival of the Black Death, a series of waves of bubonic plague which wiped out entire townships, depopulated many cities by from a quarter to half of the residents, and which may have vacated as many as three-quarters of all farms.

Eventually, there was no society left to enforce social stratification, and nobody much left to enforce notions of rank, or even of property in many cases. Perhaps most importantly, rather than having a dearth of materials and limited concentrations of wealth along with an excess of labor, now there was a dearth of labor and vast surplus instead of horrid scarcity.

With a dearth of labor, and material surplus, mechanism and engineering became less valuable than people. Rather than solving problems by working excess peasants to death, problems were solved by the application of engineering and craftsmanship, knowledge of new materials and techniques spread, and the general standard of living for the times swept upwards. The Renaissance had begun.

In 1520, Hernan Cortés brought smallpox to the New World and within a generation, between half and 90 percent of all Natives had died. In some regions, mortality approached 100 percent quite closely, with quite frequently only one survivor per village. Often, this would be a lone hunter returning from a long hunt. Such was the effect of the smallpox virus on the natives that they would simply sit down and die on the spot, and practically liquefy, as the virus would reproduce in every last cell due to the utter lack of immunity to the entire class of virus. In people from the Old World, the horrible pocks and pustules -- which still killed one-of-three infected -- were in part the result of centers of infection becoming surrounded and somewhat encysted by the immune response.

By the time the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, most of the dying was complete, even that far north. The settlers arrived in a nearly-depopulated land, with room to expand and with a superabundance of game, which had overpopulated with the vanishing of their primary predator, the natives.

For centuries to follow, the history of the Americas -- of the US and of Canada in particular -- were histories of settling mostly-uninhabited lands and harvesting a superabundance of resources. The economy was generally an "economy of surplus" and the political environment was one of nearly absolute freedom and liberty. If people didn't like the local economy or politics, they could simply move on. They could find fresh fields or un-hunted forests beyond the next hill or river or mountain range. If people were troublemakers they could be driven out of one town, and they could go live in the wilderness or head on to the next town. If people found a local community stifling or repressive, they could move on.

Yet eventually the country became settled, later than expected in this case largely due to the advent of effective birth-control technologies. Yet settled they have become. Our competitive demands for certifications of professionalism from accredited universities limit career options in a way not qiute so blatantly oppressive as in the later years of the Roman Empire, when people were required to enter the profession of their parents. Our system of massive debt and personal credit obligations over lifetimes is less blatantly oppressive than the later years of the Roman Empire when persons were prohibited on pain of death from traveling more than 10 miles from the manor of their lord and when actually moving a household was legally unthinkable.

Yet we are overpopulated, and our resources -- from land to food to clean water to sanitation to fuel to medical access -- are increasingly limited to the population as a whole, if not necessarily restricted evenly from all. We have moved from an "economy of surplus" to an "economy of scarcity" and are perhaps drifting into an "economy of poverty".

At any rate, we are no longer in a "frontiers and colonization" economic and social model. Our economic model is falling extremely rapidly into "steady-state and recycling", and our political model is likely to follow. Yet with our North American traditions of liberty and freedoms of movement, it's not going to be easy for the very rich to turn the rest of us into chattel and vassals.

But you have to expect them to try.

[Culture of Chaos II] Aerogel from Nanohell

Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help.

Perhaps you'd like to jump back to the previous chapter?

Questions occasionally arise in the lecture audience: "Okay, we've heard of this Singularity; but can you give us an example of what it will be like?"

Everyone who asks me about this thinks that they've got me stumped, so I always first answer with the paradox that should have left me stumped.

"Well, of course you'd think that nobody could provide an apt simile for the Singularity, as by definition it's a transformative event (or sequence of events) after which the world is so transformed that it can't be comprehended or expressed by anyone living before that time or event. Yet, this isn't entirely true when it comes to providing a simile or metaphor or allegory by which we can understand some elemental condition or system which would be expected to be present in the weltgeist after the Singularity.

"The example I like to use", I continue, to the amusement of whichever student or attendee has offered their question so as to watch me squirm, "is that of the formal dessert known as the Baked Alaska."

I pause to savor the expressions on the faces in the audience. The stumpee has stumped the stumper.

"And no," I say, "I am not suggesting that the future is like fried ice-cream. I am saying that the way we have to look at the Singularity is about the same way as people experience their first Baked Alaska.

"A person's first Baked Alaska is generally experienced as a comic novelty, a tasty confection of juxtaposition, a feast of opposites. It's even better as a Bombee Alaska, where it's doused with cherry cordials and then lit on fire. A flaming fried ice-cream cake may be tasty, and it may be seen as an exercise in creativity and culinary finesse, but ultimately the Baked Alaska is deeply disturbing and should almost strike terror into the minds of thoughtful people everywhere.

"Sure, fried ice-cream is a reality.. but why? -and even more worrisomely... who the heck would think up such a thing?"

I pause for dramatic effect and, out in the audience, someone takes the bait. "But how do these questions about the nature of fried ice-cream affect our understanding of the Singularity?"

"Well," I tell them, "it's like this: until you've heard of a Baked Alaska -- and perhaps you'll first hear of one when someone puts one down on the table in front of you -- most people can't possibly have ever had the least little thought about fried ice-cream. It's just not something that the normal mind can conceive. Yet having conceived of fried ice-cream, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable. It's tasty. Yet it's not something that you would consider as having historical inevitability.

"The Singularity, thus, can be predicted just as reasonably, based on historical inevitabilities, as you could comparably predict fried ice-cream. Imagine that it's your birthday and your friends drag you out to a fancy restaurant. You know you'll be having dinner and entertainment, but unless you've filched a copy of the party itinerary, you cannot possibly know, nor even reasonably expect with any specificity, that before the evening is over, you will be presented with a plate full of fried ice-cream.

Thus, the future, the inevitable Singularity, is made of Baked Alaska. You can look at a bowl of ice-cream and reasonably predict that there will be flavored variations. There will be chocolate, butterscotch, fruit flavors, etc. And you can reasonably predict, from looking at a cake, that there will be everything from sponge-cake to pound-cake to flatbreads to angel-food cakes. But you can't reasonably predict that someone will put a Baked Alaska on the plate in front of you and then light it on fire. It's totally unpredictable and doesn't stand to reason, yet there it is, and damn tasty, too."

The inevitable heckler chimes in, right on cue: "But what if we don't like fried ice cream. Flaming or otherwise, dontcha know."

"Fried ice-cream," I shoot right back at him, "doesn't give a rat's about what you do or don't want. And neither does the Singularity. And both of them could wind up on your dinner table with very little warning and not much reason to expect it. So always be prepared to confront that for which there is no adequate preparation. Look at it another way: when the future arrives as a tsunami, your only hope is to know how to surf."

I could do that lecture in my sleep. I occasionally dream about it. It's sort of like those old TV shows where the peak of comedy was some clown getting a pie in the face, only in my dreams, the world is in whiteface and a Brooks Brothers suit and gets a 5000-pound Baked Alaska dropped onto it from orbit at 20 miles per second. It's not pretty and it always wakes me up. Fortunately I keep a supply of frozen twinkies on hand for just such occasions. If nothing else works, they can revolt me back to sleep.

The Astute Reader may rightly surmise that anyone who even conceives of eating frozen twinkies, for any reason at all, might have other vile habits. Mine is that in general I am a slob. I learned exactly one thing from living in a fraternity-house, other than that I generally can't stand frat-boys, and that was the ideal of washing your dishes before you eat off of them; you can't guess and probably don't want to know how well the person at the sink before you did the dishes. So, I tend to get a bit cavalier about sanitation sometimes.

It's not as bad as you might think. I eat a lot of stuff from cans, and microwave dinners, and it's all pretty much the exact serving size to suit me, so I eat every last bit, rinse the containers with some slightly soapy water and then let the containers pile up until recycling day.

Sometimes, though, I do eat things like cheese sandwiches or bagels with cream-cheese, and with these I just shake the crumbs from the paper towels into the trash can, and recycle the paper. No muss, no fuss. Where I really fall down is the occasional meal that I actually cook.

Due to a situation best left undisclosed, I have developed something of a talent for microwaving meat. The trick is to get the right cut. Usually the cuts labelled "marinade" or "stir fry" come out pretty well. Just pop it into a microwave safe bowl, generally some variation on Pyrex. Then cook until close to done on half heat, on the turntable. More or less two minutes per pound to get it into the range where it's necessary to actually watch it cook. A hint: if it looks fully cooked, it's going to be a bit more than well-done by the time you eat it. This isn't a problem since you've just steamed it to death in a covered glass bowl; it's not going to go dry.

This lack of things getting dry applies to almost anything in a covered glass bowl. Including whatever juices get steamed out of the meat. So, maybe you're thinking of making some gravy with the juice? Just cover the bowl after you take out the meat.

Look, it's meat juice, for sure, but it's just been heated to boiling in a microwave, it's not going to go bad overnight. My problem stemmed from the fact that I'm a slob, and sort of lazy, can't get motivated, and for the better part of a week that meat juice was sitting there in its covered glass bowl, at room temperature. Maybe my subconscious was wondering how long it takes a bowl of meat juices in a glass bowl to go bad. I figured at some level that if stuff started floating on the surface, I'd just hold my nose, add chlorine bleach and soap, and flush the whole mess down the toilet.

One day I walked past it, thinking that today was the day I'd go to the store and buy some bleach -- I had used the last of the old bottle the week before, in a long-overdue cleaning of the commode -- and as I glanced inside the scary glass bowl, I noticed it seemed... foggy inside. A closer look -- without opening the lid, of course -- revealed that there was a fine structure of filaments, very fine, almost transparent, filling up all of the parts of the bowl that weren't filled with liquid. Eeek, I thought to myself, and headed out to the store to buy some bleach.

For some years now, the local government's efforts have combined with the proximity to the National Institutes of Health to turn the nearby "I-270 Corridor" into an economic and research powerhouse in biotechnology.

Quite co-incidentally, the day after I was bleach-shopping, one J Craig Venter -- who led the team that developed the technologies to sequence the human genome -- announced the creation of the world's first synthetic life-form, Mycoplasma laboratorium.

At the time, however, I was thinking more about comparable local researches into nanotechnology. Specifically, I was thinking about nanotubes, specifically about organic membrane nanotubes. Maybe even microtubules. Then again, I was also thinking about aerogels.

This got me to wondering: mycelial cords in fungi form root-like structures, not entirely different from the incredibly fine wispy structures in the air over the nutrient broth in my impromptu petri dish, but ordinarily they penetrated nutrient layers, rather than building structure in gas pockets.

This was almost like animations I'd seen of self-assembling nanotech structures. A self-assembling nanotech aerogel? Not utterly implausible, but taking place in a glass bowl half full of rotten meat juices I'd let go bad in my kitchenette?

When I got home, the fogginess inside the dish had increased, I thought. So I put on some rubber gloves, opened the gallon bottle of Clorox, and held my breath as I opened the tpo of the glass bowl and sloshed in the full-strength bleach.

I let it sit for a while, washing my hands in both detergent and a splash of bleach. Then I went back, sloshed some bleach down the sink into the drain, and poured the contents of the bowl into the sink as well. I then poured more bleach and detergent onto the mess. The foggy network of very fine filaments -- sort of like a three-dimensional space-filling web made by a thousand invisible and hyperactive spiders -- flattened into a sort of spongy mass against the drain filter screen. I added more bleach.

After washing again, and watching the stock market sag again -- still -- I added more bleach, donned the gloves again, and pulled the filter screen from the sink, and took it to the toilet and flushed it down.

Trust me, worse things have been flushed down the toilets in the region. Back in the mid-1990s, someone managed to flush a couple of gallons of active transposonation reagents down a greywater drain that led directly to Rock Creek, which is tributary to the Potomac River. I should hasten to add that there is no scientific evidence linking this to the scary phenomenon of Intersex Fish in the Potomac. Yet this is just another bit of weirdness that has gone down the drains in the region to wind up in the city water supply.

Chemicals, drugs, hormones, a measurable caffeine and cocaine content, all of those things are in the Potomac, and who the hell knows what's in the sewers leading to the waste-treatment plants, and in the greywater/stormwater drain pipes.

I'm just hoping that the stuff I flushed was sufficiently killed by the bleach I lavished on it... otherwise, I am imagining all of the air pockets in the local sewers filling up with some really weird nanotech-seeming foggy-looking aerogel-like tracery of possibly-alive webbing, growing thicker and thicker.

Eventually it might find a way out.

[Culture of Chaos I] Watching the Defectives

Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help.

Drinking too heavily isn't good for the liver, but sometimes it's good for the soul. It all depends on what sort of drunk you are... and why exactly it is that you're drinking.

I've read a lot of great science fiction, and I try to keep modern. Back in the day I loved Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, and lesser-known yet no less influential and original writers such as Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson. Later, the so-called Cyberpunks came along, writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Greg Egan, and many more. There are so many modern writers out there now, producing so much excellent work, you could spend a lifetime reading and being plunged into new depths of thought in spectra of the colors beyond imagination. Nowadays, I'm working my way through Charles Stross and Peter Watts.

Stross likes to throw a little bit of mindfuck at the reader, now and then. For example:
An ancient hypothesis of the original pre-Singularity civilization, a zimboe [as opposed to a zombie --ed] was a non-self-conscious entity that acted just like a conscious one: it laughed, cried, talked, ate, and generally behaved like a real person, and if questioned, would claim to be conscious -- but behind its superficial behavior, there was nobody home, no internalized model of the universe it lived in. (Singularity Sky, Stross, Charles)

The Singularity, of course, in case you hadn't been paying attention, is a tipping point, or point of no return, in which the world changes to the point where nothing that comes after can be quite understood by anyone who came before that point. That the Singularity is coming isn't science fiction, except to people who've never thought about it. Zimboes, in other words. Anyone who actually has an internalized model of the universe they live in, however incomplete or inaccurate that model, has noticed that things are changing -- changing fast! -- and having noticed that, has to wonder where all of this change will lead, and what other changes may come.

This sort of speculation has gone mainstream quite long ago, first becoming doctrine of the US think-tanks since the time of Vannevar Bush and his seminal book Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy . Bush didn't describe the Singularity, and indeed may have somewhat blunted the onset of that. Atomic energy could have been expected to launch the Singularity, but the way it has been used is not transformative. A hydrogen bomb is still a bomb, and people can understand a bomb. Nuclear electrical power generation is really just a better heater driving the same sort of turbines that have been used since the very first steam-powered electrical generation plant came online.

Yet things are coming that will transform life beyond our present comprehension, possibly beyond our ability to comprehend.

There is nothing in our modern life that could not be comprehended -- in gestalt if not in detail -- by a Roman from the days of the Early Republic. They almost certainly would not understand the engineering, and the materials would be unfamiliar, yet the uses of things and the tasks performed would be comprehensible, although likely seen as legends become real.

A television is clearly a scrying glass; the internet, an oracle (however daft an oracle), and the modern cellphone is a combination of the two. A lorry or tractor-trailer are simply very large wagons, moved by magic rather than crass horses. The Honda ASIMO robot is a metal servant, and the vacuuming robot Roomba is a mechanical snuffling hound that breathes dust into itself, instructed by sorcery as it has been, to the task of cleaning. A 747 Jumbo jet taking off for a flight beyond the horizon at an altitude barely glimpsed? Chariot of the gods, without a doubt, though strangely harnessed to transporting women and men and their goods. The point being, long before any such things were possible, people have told tales in which such magics were commonplaces to the gods, and often encountered by lucky or unlucky mortals. They are not beyond human ken, not even to someone freshly returned from the Trojan War.

Far more confusing would be the way that people lived. Such things as the division of labor and the size of cities would take a lot of explaining, but they could be explained. Literacy could be taught, and some degree of mathematics; logic and rhetoric are respectively older than mankind and as old as the capacity for articulation and grammar. YouTube needs no explanation, yet elicits such a sense of wonder and excitement: ten million plays by ten million playwrights, for better or for worse, available to be seen by an audience of hundreds of millions. Theater, in some form or another, is possibly older even than grammar.

Yet one thing will certainly be passing strange to the man brought forward in time from ancient Athens: how small indeed has become the world, and how many are the people in it.

Since a widespread understanding of the approach of the Singularity has entered the academic mainstream, science fiction is taking a limited number of thematic tacks cutting across a variety of headwinds blowing at us from the future.

Yet there's really only one beginning to any history of any fictional future... the Singularity. And almost all of science fiction written after we heard of the coming Singularity starts out concerned with the lives of people who are still (more or less) human being only because they were, or are descended from people who were, far from the Singularity when that line was crossed.

Peter Watts has been writing some truly excellent stuff. I strongly recommend his novel Blindsight, which was on the short list for piles of awards and which he has graciously decided to share with us online. A warning to the audience: if you aren't fairly well-versed on everything from philosophy through neurochemistry to abnormal psychology and beyond, it's quite possible that this book will make little sense. If, on the other hand, you're a well-rounded post-grad whose favorite day of the week is the day your subscription to Nature arrives chock-full of submissions (for peer-review) written by your lab-partners from back in Uni, if you read this book and it doesn't punch your timecard for you, you've probably had tenure since the Great Depression and your sole pleasure in life is crushing the enthusiasms of the young-and-earnest with merciless critiques of footnoting stylistic errors.

To make the long story short, much of the theme might be summarized as "perhaps our notions of the utility of mainstream self-awareness are a trifle overvalued", with a strong undercurrent of "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro".

Mr Watts also does a really quite fascinating take on the vampire, well worth reading for that reason alone, if you're a fan of the genre. The vampire knows fighting and predation in the same way that an idiot-savant autist knows numbers. The autists don't think about numbers, they don't do calculations in their head, they don't look a pile of sand and "guesstimate" sand-grain density and pile size... they know those numbers and they know them like you know the sun is shining on you. The vampire can juggle with its eyes closed, similarly, because it doesn't have to see the balls, it knows how hard it tossed them and in what direction; and there's only on place the ball could be at any given time, and such is the vampire's physique and coordination that it can just reach out directly to the only place the ball could be in its trajectory, and launch it again into another trajectory, which trajectory thereafter the vampire will also know rather than calculate.

The Zimboes (as opposed to the more-traditional Zombie) from Mr Stross's work -- they pass the Turing Test but live in the world without understanding it in a thoughtful and reflective way -- aren't too far from Mr Watt's vampires, at least in the matter of understanding why they do what they do, and how that relates to anything other than the instant act.

Yet these are all fictional creatures, aren't they? Aren't they totally unlike anything in the real world?

Perhaps they are, and perhaps, not so much.

I've known people who got good enough grades, got a job, got a life and got married, raised kids, and their kids have kids and so it goes. Life is life, and you don't need to be self-actualizing or even self-aware to be an evolutionarily successful species. Yet some of these people are full of questions about life, the universe, and their place in it. Many, and these are the ones that worry me, have no such questions and indeed could be said to be filled with a cold and unyielding certainty about life, the universe, their place in life and the universe, about everything.

Yet if you try to ask them what they believe, how they conceive the world, how do they understand the universe, eventually they will be forced to confront their own self-unawareness and their lack of an internalized model. It's a rare admission you'll get from them once you manage to put them into that corner, and it's even more rare in that anyone or anything has actually gotten through to them. They don't offer an explanation, a theory, an admission of ignorance, or even a request that you stop bothering them. If you're astute, this is the point where you realize that they've failed the Turing Test and that you're talking more to a very well-equipped simulation than to another actual person. They don't challenge what you're saying, they don't agree or disagree. It's tempting to anthropomorphize and say "they've realized that they've reached their intellectual limits", but that is anthropomorphism, they haven't actually realized anything. That is the whole problem.

When they say "I don't know what to tell you", that's the same thing as if your computer tells you "file not found". It's not that they're stumped or baffled and words have failed them, that's just their way of saying that they have no pre-programmed response and also don't have the conceptual tools to create a comprehensive situationally-appropriate response. 404. File not found.

I see this more and more often, in more and more people: 404, file not found. You can talk about politics and you can talk about the economy and you can talk about the sports teams and then you can ask some question such as "how does that make you feel, and why". 404. File not found. Ask them any question that requires them to create an internalized model of their world or the people in it, to perform operations in that model, and to give you back results of operation on that internal model.

Do it to them enough times, and instead of a blank look and "I don't know what to tell you", and you'll get back something like anger accompanied by the statement "I don't want to talk about it". That last bit bothers me. It means that they had to create enough of an internalized model to understand that they are being tested and that this was enough of a strain to make them angry. Or perhaps they've created enough of an internalized model to understand how very different they are from "real" people.

Like a lot of people, I can feel the Singularity coming.

Are these people firewood for Hell at the end of The Day Everything Changes? Are these the ones with the best hope for survival?

What concerns me the most is not that these people may perish, or survive, the Singularity.

I think that they may be what's bringing it.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

[Review] The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

This is very brief, but I have to give a glowing recommendation to all of you science-fiction and horror fans. Rent the Blu-Ray version of "The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)", winner of "Best Film Not in the English Language" at the 65th British Academy Film Awards, as well as winner of many other awards and nominated for even more. Moreover, for students of the language, it's in a very clear and "high" Spanish, with much of the Castilian accent to be heard.

Briefly, Antonio Banderas stars as a mysterious and reclusive doctor of some obvious wealth. In his palatial villa is a locked room, under constant surveillance by many cameras. In the room is a very lovely woman (the heartbreakingly lovely Elena Anaya), practicing yoga, wearing nothing but a form-fitting full-body suit, of the type worn by victims of extensive burns. It is quickly seen that she is a captive, and suicidal. Before long, the doctor needs to do some stitching along with other touching that isn't exactly what is expected of a doctor with his patient.

We are slowly drawn in to the strange and almost loving relationship between the doctor and his captive patient, and then in the aftermath of a scene of lovemaking, we are taken back to six years earlier, and see how this relationship came to be. It's shortly after this that the viewer will start getting the creeps. I am not easily impressed by most horror film, but halfway through the show I was muttering "you twisted bastards". I had to stop to have some drinks, and then I was prepared -- I had thought -- for the rest of it. I wasn't.

With exceptional production values, some of the best names in the Spanish-language film industry, and with Antonio Banderas exuding a smoldering Latin menace and portraying the most demented of steely resolve, with all actors performing magnificently in a script that goes places that would frighten Hitchcock, this is nothing less than the best-ever thinking-man's Frankenstein for sick fucks. It is raw if subtle horror with no flashes, bangs, or crashes and probably all the more frightening because of the depth of its quietness.

As science fiction it's exceptional and far too believable as both science-fiction and as horror. This one deserves more awards for artistic excellence if not for subject matter. Run right out and rent it and do not let your kids see it. Hell, this isn't fit for most adults.

If this is what the Spanish film industry thinks of as a Mad Doctor Movie, the world must demand more Mad Spanish Doctor Movies.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

[Mythos XXI] Zombie Computers and Homeless Demons

With apologies to HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Charles Stross. Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help, if only in the area of English reading and comprehension.

Perhaps you'd like to jump back to the previous chapter?

In many -- if not most -- places, a milling crowd of shabby demonically-possessed zombies, covered with gutter filth and reeking of napalm, would cause a bit of a ruckus. But in the parking lot of Aspen Hill's Big K-Mart, they blended right in with the morning mob of homeless illegal aliens milling about in the hopes of drive-by unscrupulous employers giving them a day-labor gig.

The main difference between the zombies and the day-laborers was that the day-laborers weren't actually evil, and the zombies weren't interested in flooding the oversaturated market for unskilled labor. Aside from that, they looked about the same. The zombies had been protesting the "unfair treatment" of the Home Depot across Georgia Avenue from the impromptu pick-up corner, and this "unfair treatment" consisted in being banned from the property for purposes other than actually shopping at the store. Since this blanket ban had seriously disrupted a labor racket in which "organizers" provided very large individuals to make sure that the waiting laborers took turns in good order -- not incidentally paying the very large individuals 30 percent of their untaxed cash earnings from loading up construction vans and trucks -- this sudden dearth of untraceable income funding the "immigrants rights" organizations put a crimp in the plans of said organizations, hence the organization of the May Day protests nationwide, and the May Day protest in the parking lot of a just-vacated facility formerly housing a large advanced-weapons research and development unit of a major transnational defense contracting firm.

And of course, we all know what happened: malevolent alien software, downloaded from incomprehensible dimensions beyond time and space and stored on EPROM for future study in development of advanced weapons systems, got into the heads of about a thousand of these protesters.

Zombies, as commonly conceived, don't actually exist. There are plenty of things that can look and act like zombies, ranging from the original zombi -- a stupefied outcast or small-time criminal maintained in a trance by a combination of drugs, superstition and brain-damage -- to the so-called "zombie computer", which is a networked computer which has been hacked and usurped without the knowledge of its owner, generally used for purposes of spamming, though frequently that spam carries a payload designed to hack and usurp the computational resources of recipient machines.

The zombies now milling about among the homeless illegal aliens seeking day-labor gigs were somewhere between the classic zombi and the modern concept of the zombie computer. They had been on drugs, powerful entheogen drugs that had suppressed their brains' normal defensive filters. They had also been hacked and usurped by a hacker, although the hacker was assault software that hostile aliens had downloaded through a transdimensional gate into a pile of read-only memory that wasn't attached to any real processors.

The aliens had expected to decompress their software into a global telecommunications network; it was a reasonable presumption on their part that such a network would underlie any civilization that could open a transdimensional gateway to their realm. it was a feat of pure paranoia in the most positive sense of the term, that those who opened the gateway defended against such an attack by creating the gate within a sort of probability shield, and by leaving the target memory chips attached to a processor far too underpowered to do more than make the memory look like a potentially useful target.

This was the transdimensional warfare equivalent of a Bot Herder spamming his entire repertoire of cracking payloads to a bogus masqueraded network of two Altair 8800s and thinking that they'd be cracking an entire large corporate office-complex's world-routable Class B network's 65,536 state-of-the-art PCs.

Of course, this did not result in a remote-controlled spammer's dream of a Class B Bot Net cheerfully replicating itself to every IP-capable machine on the global internet, devouring firewalls and cracking routers and even prying open out-of-band linkages to things like console teletypes. No, all of the cracking payloads were etched right to read-only memory, as expected and intended, but with no capable processors attached. This could not have been expected or the aliens probably wouldn't have bothered.

Yet now the alien software was in an environment where processing was available and really quite effective, if limited to the low and unexpected speeds of an carbon-based protoplasmic systems.

May Day, May 1 2010, was the day that the protesters were taken. Sunday May 2 was the day that special forces spent napalming everything inside and beneath the former offices of the defense-contractors. Monday May 3 was the first morning that the zombies were seen milling about within the ranks of the homeless illegal alien day-laborers hoping for drive-by employers who would never come; the electromagnetic pulse that had put the global telecom networks outside the reach of the hostile alien software had also killed every motor vehicle within range of that localized but intense blast of disorganizing radiations. The oversight agencies who were starting to get a solid idea of how close they'd come to the Eschaton were deeply restricting the flow of traffic and goods -- and particularly, of information -- in and especially out of the affected area. The day laborers would not be getting any work today, and the stores would not be open for business as usual.

The day laborers, being self-sufficient and resourceful enough to have survived becoming indentured servants after being trafficked as human cargo into the region, quickly decided that if the power was off to the neighborhood and also to their cellphones, it was probably not working for the burglar-alarm systems at any of the local stores, and with K-Mart right there, why not do some after-hours shopping? When the sun went down, they broke into the giant department store, and though they did not recognize them for what they were, they took the zombies with them.

When they were done loading up on free food, clothing, and sporting-goods, they headed back to their homeless camps in the woods surrounding the cemetery across Connecticut Avenue, and they took the zombies with them, there, as well.

Of course, the zombies were quite dangerous, harboring as they did their compressed payloads of inimical alien software From Beyond. Yet by this time they were well adapted to their situation, and the software within them recognized that it itself had much adaptation to do, not merely adaptation of the hosts at the cellular level and then at the organ structure level; it also "understood" that it needed to adapt to its situation as a collection of crippled weapons-modules embedded in substandard mobile units operating on the fringes of an alerted and hostile society.

As dangerous as were the zombies, as dangerous as they'd be once the shattered demon distributed among them was able to make them make it whole again, far more dangerous were the EPROM chips which had escaped destruction by the electromagnetic pulse, mostly because those chips had been within a metal box within a metal box in a five-foot concrete underground storm drain.

By May 2, that box and those chips were no longer in Aspen Hill, though they were not far away. By sundown of Monday May 3, that box and those chips were in the back of a FedEx truck headed for the airport. Tuesday, May 4, saw that box unloaded in the mailroom of a New Jersey import-export firm, where the manager of the mailroom and warehouse had an interesting sideline in IT contraband that operated within the more mainstream sideline trafficking in arms-for-drugs, which latter sideline was his unofficially-tolerated cover for the IT contraband trade.

It was the afternoon of Thursday, May 6, before he got around to finding an old machine that could accept the EPROM chip he decided to try.

It was just terrible luck that he had even hooked up the modem to the old slow analog phone lines and it was even worse luck that the resident software on the old slow hard-drive included an early online-trading program, formerly owned by the sort of high-powered trader who never changes their password.

By mid-afternoon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen over a thousand points.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

[Mythos XX] Flaming Zombies and Bargain Catastrophes

With apologies to HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Charles Stross. Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help, if only in the area of English reading and comprehension.

Perhaps you'd like to jump back to the previous chapter?

Wall Street, somewhat predictably, does not much care for zombies.

Zombies have been the bane of Wall Street for quite some time now. Witness, for example, what happened the last time the financial and investments industry harnessed zombies; the "unstoppable" commoditized debt obligations ("CDO") sure did stop, and dragged down most of Western Civilization, or at least those parts of Western Civilization with which the finance and investment industry concerns itself. Foreclosed properties practically litter neighborhoods all around the world.

Aspen Hill, Maryland, is not immune to the the fallout from that. Looking backwards, it really is almost comical how firms such as Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs were able to create their zombies and actually get other people to invest in them. I can imagine the sales pitch now: "Hey, look it's a zombie, it cannot die, it's not going to stop moving, it's harnessed and it's headed in one direction," and people bought into it, because after all, zombies in fact cannot die and they are awfully single-minded. Yet the investors didn't seem to understand that while they cannot be killed because they are already dead, zombies will keep single-mindedly moving in the same direction only so long as there are two conditions met. First, they have to have the notion that in a certain direction they will find something to eat, and secondly, they have to have not decomposed. Although zombies are almost unstoppable, they are in fact dead and as they are dead, they will rot. Eventually there won't be enough muscle left to work the bones and the zombie can no longer move. The difference between various Wall Street firms is easily summed up, thus: "it's easy to win a bet that harnessed zombie will endlessly pull a cart down the road if you dangle some brains in front of it, but you have to know to bet right on how long it will last before it goes ripe and too mushy to pull". Goldman Sachs more or less sold the zombie equivalent of "day old bread" to investors and bet that the zombies could not pull the cart across the finish line, so to speak. Either way, they got paid. Further, they didn't have to live with the smell of the zombies rotting everywhere as they lay where they fell once they'd gone far enough past their expiration date. Wall Street Fat Cats can afford live help. So to speak.

Zombies, of course, are merely an allegory, an extended metaphor, but when you're dealing with Wall Street -- or a lot of other sectors of society or phenomena within those sectors -- the allegory is often extremely applicable. Next time you're thinking of investing, ask your broker "You're not trying to sell me a zombie that's near its expiration date, are you?" and although they are well-trained to look at you as if you are mad to ask such a question, they'll actually be thinking 'oh fuck, why do I get all of the Shrewd Customers". Then they'll stop trying to sell you tranches of "unstoppable" Commercial Real Estate and convince you to do something sane but very low-yield instead, such as buying 20-year Treasury notes so that unless the world ends, you'll actually have money left when it's time for you to retire.

Meanwhile, to return to the allegory, zombie remnants litter the neighborhoods in the form of homes in foreclosure, or repossessed and put out on an already saturated market. In Aspen Hill, Maryland, we were an epicenter for origination of subprime mortgages. The banks are pretty leery of lending anyone any money and if you want to buy here, you can buy very inexpensively in terms of the price you pay for 60-year-old houses in a neighborhood in partial decline. You will have to pay a very significant downpayment and you will not get "flexible" terms; you'll be purchasing with a very traditional mortgage on the shortest terms they can press.

Of course, people drive into Aspen Hill looking for these bargains, and they realize that they'll be getting an excellent deal mostly because the neighborhood has become desirable because of the low cost of housing. It did not become desirable because the neighbors are rich or because the streets are well-maintained.

Even without a plague of actual zombies, the place had become a "slumburbia" and clearly was headed down the slide towards full-on ghettodom. Yet we did get zombies, more or less, and as for the zombies, they weren't picky about where they lived, if you want to call that living. No, for the zombies, it was even more serendipity, just good luck for them, that Aspen Hill, Maryland, was so littered with foreclosed homes, with lots and lots of places for zombies to hide.

On May 1, protesters had been infested by malevolent alien software downloaded from beyond time and space and stored on EPROM for future researches into advanced weapons systems. Shortly thereafter, most of the EPROM had been destroyed by a very powerful but localized electromagnetic pulse. Some of the EPROM, however, had been removed in a bank-vault crew heist in which the crew had tunnelled in from a five-foot concrete pipe that fortuitously had buried a stream beneath the basement of a former defense facility being mothballed as staff was relocated to a consolidated and far-more-secure new office complex elsewhere.

That EPROM was incredibly dangerous, should it ever be connected to the global telecom networks. Yet as dangerous as that was, it was locked in a metal box inside another metal box, which aided in its dread preservation from the cleansing radiations of the electromagnetic pulse that wiped the majority of the EPROM, along with all transistor-equipped anything within about three miles radius of the balloon-lofted pulse antenna. So long as the EPROM couldn't connect to the networks, it wasn't a problem.

More immediately, the problem was the protesters, about 1000 of them. They had been using Salvinorin A, an entheogen drug, in slight overdose. This "peace pill" had stripped away the natural filters that ordinarily provide physical entities some defense against direct control by the sort of non-corporeal entities that have been called Djinni, or Chindi, or even -- mostly by those who have actually fallen (in whole or in part) victim to one or more of them -- Deity.

What most people would perceive -- if they perceived it at all -- as "the still, small voice of conscience" or the whisperings of temptation, what a schizophrenic might perceive as disembodied voices screaming insults and commands, these thousand or so protesters perceived as first a tickling as the alien software probed for usable elements of a potential host operating system, than as a rush from Beyond as the alien software established protocols, escalated through handshaking to modem training, and downloaded large parts of itself to the protesters, who by this time weren't protesting anything. The alien software had quickly located the brain's pleasure center and was prodding it as hard as it could. As their minds were usurped to the point where the malevolent alien 'wares could rewrite elements of genetic code to set the body into motion building alien structure within the hosts, they felt nothing but the ultimate rapture that they could possibly feel, even as the alien code permanently disabled the "god filters" of their temporal lobes.

The alien warez were mostly exceptionally compressed, and generally speaking, far too large to decompress into a single human mind's ultra-short-term memory from which it would have to be absorbed and incorporated into the full intellect. The warez could try to download a module at a time, so to speak, into the small-but-fast short-term memory, and that was what it was doing after it downloaded the compressed payload into long-term memory, where it could not be decompressed nor processed in the compressed format. Many of the modules had been transferred, but not enough, when the electromagnetic pulse severed the link as it destroyed the EPROM reservoir from which it had been radiating. Yet if enough of the now-possessed protestors could put their minds together, so to speak, there would be sufficient communications bandwidth, processing power, and especially available short-term memory available to decompress the entire "seed" payload. Probably six to ten individuals would be required for this successful "communion".

How unfortunate, thus, for the goals and intentions of the alien software, for it to have downloaded itself into a mass protest, a demonstration for worker's rights and against enforcement of immigration laws, which was well and truly surrounded by a police SWAT team and dozens of additional officers, who were suddenly very agitated and ready to respond to anything and everything, as all of their electronics had suddenly gone dead.

This is what you get for fucking around with implacable alien gods from incomprehensible universes in other dimensions: Really Bad Shit Happens.

Really truly: don't try this at home.

SWAT gets reinforced by special forces who have special orders, to by whatever non-nuclear means are necessary, keep anything resembling the demonically-possessed (or even deeply religious) from getting anywhere near any communications equipment more complex than banging sticks on trashcans.

SWAT drives zombies into vacated former defense-contracting and research facility, uses flamethrowers and large amounts of flammable liquids to incinerate zombies and drive them deeper into the compound. Unfortunately for all concerned, at least some of the zombies may have stumbled onto the tunnel in the basement through which the bank-vault crew had heisted their alien-infested EPROM. If that's the case, zombies have traveled both upstream and downstream through the five-foot concrete drain pipe, beneath and beyond the police and military cordon around the commercial core of Aspen Hill, and exited directly into the nearby residential neighborhoods... where there are lots of vacant and foreclosed single-family detached residential dwellings in which to hide. Or, depending which way these putative and hypothetical zombies might have turned had they in fact escaped into the tunnels, they might emerge at the northern corner of the intersection of Connecticut and Georgia Avenue, at the stormwater retention pond next to the Wendy's burger joint. From there, they could easily invade Wendy's, a couple of gas stations, and the immense expanse of the Big K-Mart store, and the crime-ridden apartments and condominium developments just beyond.

Which, of course, is exactly what most of them did.