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.