He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Machines have developed the ability to understand, process, and even translate languages:

In recent years, much of the research in machine learning has focused on the algorithmic concept of deep neural networks, or DNNs, which learn essentially by inferring patterns — often patterns of remarkable complexity — from large amounts of data. For example, a DNN-based machine can be fed many thousands of snippets of recorded English utterances, each one paired with its text transcription, and from this discern the patterns of correlation between the speech recordings and the paired transcriptions. These inferred correlation patterns get precise enough that, eventually, the system can “understand” English speech. In fact, today’s DNNs are so good that, when given enough training examples and a powerful enough computer, they can listen to a person speaking and make fewer transcription errors than would any human.

What may be surprising to some is that computerized learning machines exhibit transfer learning. For example, let’s consider an experiment involving two machine-learning systems, which for the sake of simplicity we’ll refer to as machines A and B. Machine A uses a brand-new DNN, whereas machine B uses a DNN that has been trained previously to understand English. Now, suppose we train both A and B on identical sets of recorded Mandarin utterances, along with their transcriptions. What happens? Remarkably, machine B (the previously English-trained one) ends up with better Mandarin capabilities than machine A. In effect, the system’s prior training on English ends up transferring capabilities to the related task of understanding Mandarin.

But there is an even more astonishing outcome of this experiment. Machine B not only ends up better on Mandarin, but B’s ability to understand English is also improved! It seems that Willans and Goethe were onto something — learning a second language enables deeper learning about both languages, even for a machine.

How Winchell Chung forged the first Ogre

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

When he was a high school student in 1975, Winchell Chung ordered the game Stellar Conquest through the mail from an ad in Analog Magazine:

Metagaming Concepts, the parent company of Stellar Conquest, advertised their fledgling newsletter called The Space Gamer within the game. For no particular reason, I doodled some starships in my subscription letter. Metagaming was so starved for artwork that they printed my drawings in the second issue and asked for more. I did quite a bit of art for subsequent issues. They later commissioned me to create illustrations for game manuals.

In 1976, he was commissioned to do the art for their new game, Ogre:

Studying the rules revealed that the Ogre had two big guns, six smaller guns, twelve antipersonnel weapons, six missiles, and zillions of tank treads. Oh, yes – the rules also mentioned that an Ogre would be facing an entire army. The frightening implication was a solitary Ogre possessed firepower equal to said army. This is the sum total of the information with which I had to work.

In addition to designing the Ogre, I also had to create the various army units as well. Different types of tanks, armored hovercraft with jet engines instead of propellers, and troopers clad in powered armor.

Now came the research phase. I checked out from the library every single reference book that had pictures of tanks. I filled page after page of newsprint paper with rough sketches from those pictures. Fortuitously, my high school art teacher was a WWII tank expert and I shamelessly picked his brains about tank construction, battle tactics, design philosophies, and related matters. I immediately noticed that the Ogre had similarities to the Bolos from Keith Laumer’s novels. That did not help much since Laumer was vague on the details and the book cover illustrations were uninspiring.

Yeah, that does sound fortuitous.

About this time I showed these and other drawings to my art teacher. He noted that the deep indent between the heavy tank’s cupola and the body was “shot-trap city,” that is, it would funnel incoming hostile fire into the fragile connection between cupola and body. As an off-the-cuff remark, he said it would be nice for the Ogre to have a telescoping sensor boom so it could hide behind a hill and peek over it.

I thought I would take a break from the Ogre design and instead work on the cover art composition. I roughed out the placement of the design elements, and almost without thinking I sketched in the Ogre. Right before my eyes everything gelled. I knew the Ogre had lots of tread units, so I placed parallel tracks. I placed a telescoping sensor boom. I placed a pair of stumpy primaries in oversized ball mounts. Most important of all I used the sloping front. Suddenly there was the classic Ogre “look”: the massive invulnerable appearing front, the signature sensor boom, and the twin primaries looking like huge evil eyes. It was impressively scary.

Mr. Jackson sent directions for alterations, annotating a photocopy with red ink, and I made the alterations. But the basic design was established at that point and has not changed for over 40 years.


The game is now in its sixth edition.

Combining endurance and strength training has always been tricky

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

Combining endurance and strength training has always been tricky, because of the “interference effect” between the two types of workouts:

The classic study on concurrent strength and endurance training was published by Robert Hickson in 1980. After ten weeks of seriously intense endurance training, strength training, or both, the verdict was that strength training didn’t hinder endurance gains but endurance training did hinder strength gains. Here’s what the strength changes in the three groups looked like (from a graph redrawn by University of California Davis researcher Keith Baar in this paper):


One explanation of the interference effect goes something like this: Resistance training activates a protein called mTOR that (through a cascade of molecular signals) results in bigger muscles. Endurance training activates a protein called AMPK that (though a different signaling cascade) produces endurance adaptations like increased mitochondrial mass. AMPK can inhibit mTOR, so endurance training blocks muscle growth from strength training.


There’s now emerging evidence of an alternate molecular-signaling pathway in which metabolic stress — not just from endurance training but also from other triggers like caloric deficit, oxidative stress, and aging — hinders muscle growth. This alternate pathway involves a complex series of links between a “tumor suppressor” protein, another protein called sestrin, and various other obscure acronyms. But details aside, what’s particularly intriguing about the hypothesis is that it’s highly sensitive to the presence of the amino acid leucine, which binds to sestrin and triggers the synthesis of new muscle protein. And this, Baar says, suggests some strategies to beat (or at least minimize) the interference effect.


Does workout order matter? In the traditional mTOR versus AMPK picture, you’re better off doing endurance before strength training. That’s because the endurance signals only stay elevated for about an hour following exercise, while strength signals stay on for 18 to 24 hours. But in the revised picture, where metabolic stress is the key, the order of workouts is less important than your energy balance.

Finally, it’s important to point out that you shouldn’t stress about this unless you’re training pretty damn hard. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not doing endurance training four or more times a week, or pushing your workouts (i.e., sustaining above 80 percent of VO2max), you’re unlikely to be hurting your strength gains.

Tomorrow you’re going to be a star

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Variety coined the term “casting couch” back in the 1930s, when Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck had a regular 4 PM meeting for his “trysts” with starlets:

Years later, in 1975, Newsweek would do a story titled “The Casting Couch” in which it quoted the words on a plaque above the couch in the office of a Tinseltown producer in the 1950s: “Don’t forget, darling, tomorrow you’re going to be a star.”

The mag wrote, “Contemporary starlets no longer take sex-on-demand lying down.”

But things didn’t change then, and they haven’t changed now.


Marilyn Monroe once famously wrote in a memoir about the sexual predators in her industry. “I met them all,” she said. “Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”

Movie moguls have preyed on the ambition of young hopefuls seemingly since the beginning of celluloid.

Actress Joan Crawford, who got her start in the 1920s by dancing naked in arcade peep shows, only advanced her career by sleeping “with every male star at MGM — except Lassie,” quipped fierce rival Bette Davis.

According to ReelRundown.com, “Even at the peak of [Crawford’s] career, rumors continued to surface about how her loathed mother forced Crawford to work as a prostitute, make blue movies and sleep her way to the top.”


Studio head Louis B. Mayer “terrorized Hollywood’s women long before Harvey Weinstein,” according to a recent headline in the UK’s Telegraph.

Mayer would direct a 16-year-old Judy Garland to sit on his lap, whereupon he’d palm her left breast while telling her, “You sing from the heart” — a creepy anecdote Garland recalled in a memoir.

And an 11-year-old Shirley Temple got her first — and, she thought, hilarious — peek at the male anatomy courtesy of MGM producer Arthur Freed, who once dropped his pants during a meeting. Temple burst into laughter at the sight and was promptly ordered out of the room.


Actress Joan Collins, warned by Monroe about the “wolves” in Hollywood, also wrote in her memoir that she missed out on the title role in 1963’s “Cleopatra,” which went to Elizabeth Taylor, because she wouldn’t sleep with Buddy Adler, the head of 20th Century Fox.

“I had tested for ‘Cleopatra’ twice and was the front-runner,” she said. “He took me into his office and said, ‘You really want this part?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I really do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘then all you have to do is be nice to me.’ It was a wonderful euphemism in the ’60s for you know what.

“But I couldn’t do that. In fact, I was rather wimpish, burst into tears and rushed out of his office.”

Other stories are even darker.

“Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski initially had sympathy when pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969.

But then details emerged of how he gave a 13-year-old aspiring actress champagne and Quaaludes before having sex with her during a photo shoot in 1977, and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office stepped in.


Eighties child stars Corey Feldman and Corey Haim also have said they were given drugs and “passed around” by male higher-ups when younger.

Feldman told The Hollywood Reporter that Haim, who died in 2010 at age 38, “had more direct abuse than I did.

“With me, there were some molestations, and it did come from several hands, so to speak, but with Corey, his was direct rape, whereas mine was not actual rape,” he said. “And his also occurred when he was 11. My son is 11 now, and I can’t even begin to fathom the idea of something like that happening to him.”

The UK’s exam-focused educational system is similar to the one in China

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Puzhong Yao graduated with first class honors from Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and received an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He looks at the Western elite from a Chinese perspective — with particular attention to idea’s from Robert Rubin’s autobiography In an Uncertain World:

It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school. My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again. Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade. But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles.

I studied economics at Cambridge, a field which has become more and more mathematical since the 1970s. The goal is always to use a mathematical model to find a closed-form solution to a real-world problem. Looking back, I’m not sure why my professors were so focused on these models. I have since found that the mistake of blindly relying on models is quite widespread in both trading and investing—often with disastrous results, such as the infamous collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. Years later, I discovered the teaching of Warren Buffett: it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. But our professors taught us to think of the real world as a math problem.

The culture of Cambridge followed the dogmas of the classroom: a fervent adherence to rules and models established by tradition. For example, at Cambridge, students are forbidden to walk on grass. This right is reserved for professors only. The only exception is for those who achieve first class honors in exams; they are allowed to walk on one area of grass on one day of the year.

The behavior of my British classmates demonstrated an even greater herd mentality than what is often mocked in American MBAs. For example, out of the thirteen economists in my year at Trinity, twelve would go on to join investment banks, and five of us went to work for Goldman Sachs.

He goes on to describe his “success” at Goldman, what he really learned at business school, etc.

Eric Garner’s daughter has heart attack without being “choked” or tackled

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

How should the police handle a large man who won’t comply? That’s what I asked when Eric Garner, a large man indeed, refused to comply with NYPD officers, got taken down with a headlock, and ended up under a dogpile — where he had a heart attack and died. This was described as an unarmed black man being choked to death.

Now his daughter, Erica Garner, has suffered her own second heart attack, severe enough to cause brain damage, without being “choked” or tackled. It’s pretty clear that there’s a family history of heart disease.

I still don’t know how the police should handle a large man who won’t comply, especially if he’s at risk of a heart attack.

Non-consensus and right

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

If you aspire to do something legendary, Mike Maples argues, the biggest breakthroughs come from pursuing insights that defy conventional wisdom:

In the startup world, this translates to having what PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel calls a “secret” or what Benchmark co-founder Andy Rachleff would describe as an idea that is “non-consensus and right.” Before diving into why this is true, let’s summarize these two views.

From his days as a Stanford student, Peter Thiel was influenced by the French philosopher René Girard. I learned of his work a little over a decade ago and loved it. One of Girard’s fundamental ideas is that human desire is mimetic, which means that most of our desires come from our observations of the desires of other people, rather than the desires we generate internally for ourselves. There are lots of implications to this for society, and Peter describes them in his book Zero to One as they relate to startups. The first is that the vast majority of us act out of mimetic desire as if by reflex, starting early in life. We compete for trophies. We get rewarded in school for giving the exact answers the teacher is looking for, but we are often discouraged from providing answers that are too different. “Successful” people often double down on this by seeking education at prestigious Universities, by earning high-paying jobs, and by using the money to live a lifestyle that is broadly desired and admired. It becomes so ingrained in most people’s thinking that it no longer seems to be a conscious choice.

The problem with mimetic desire is that it’s the wrong “personal operating system” for coming up with a breakthrough idea — it is by definition an incrementalist view of the world that emphasizes following the rules and outcompeting others, rather than re-inventing the rules and transcending competition. His second point is that most of us, having been programmed by mimetic desires our entire lives, find it hard not to be reactive to what others are doing. As an investor, I can relate to the many pitches with multiple competitors in a matrix, and their product has more checks than all the others. A typical “mimetic” person will think this way. But a non-conventional founder will notice that chart and immediately two words will come to mind — mindless competition.


Andy Rachleff views unconventional success through a slightly different lens but with the same broad takeaway. Andy’s argument, influenced by Howard Marks of Oak Tree Capital, goes as follows: Startup ideas have two dimensions. On one dimension, you can be right or wrong. On the other, you can be consensus or non-consensus.

Wrong is always bad. Obviously, if you are wrong, you are wrong. That’s bad. You fail. But being right is not enough.

Most people don’t realize that if you are right and consensus, you are usually not successful enough to make a significant impact. Your startup might be onto a good idea that has customers eager to adopt the product. But as your company races toward product/market fit, it encounters severe obstacles. Because the opportunity is widely believed to have promise, multiple me-too competitors are funded by me-too VCs. As competition floods the market, prices erode, sales cycles lengthen, and more money gets poured into the sector. These markets often turn into a VC funding arms race, and each round of financing comes with massive dilution for the founders and employees. In the meantime, potential acquirers gain increasing power to choose among many worthy and well-financed competitors when they consider M&A opportunities, further capping the upside for founders and employees.

The word simply has no meaning

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

William Buckner, a student of Evolutionary Anthropology at UC Davis, says that we’ve been romanticizing the hunter-gatherer:

Why do people in societies with substantially greater life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, greater equality in reproductive success, and reduced rates of violence, romanticize a way of life filled with hardships they have never experienced? In wealthy, industrialized populations oriented around consumerism and occupational status, the idea that there are people out there living free of greed, in natural equality and harmony, provides an attractive alternative way of life. To quote anthropologist David Kaplan, “The original affluent society thesis then may be as much a commentary on our own society as it is a depiction of the life of hunter-gatherers. And that may be its powerful draw and lasting appeal.” One might think that if avarice, status hierarchies, and inequality are peculiarly modern phenomena, then maybe they aren’t part of human nature, and with the right kind of activism, and enough forward-thinking individuals, such problems can be readily solved by changing the culture.

Conversely, to look across human cultures and notice that even the smallest and most ‘egalitarian’ societies are still plagued by problems of violence, sexism, xenophobia, and inequality may be disheartening for many political progressives and anthropologists dedicated to social justice. These problems are not new — in fact they are very old indeed — and they cannot simply be wished away or made to disappear with misleading commentary. But there is a concern that acknowledging the deep roots of many human social ills is to excuse them, or to concede that they can never be mitigated or overcome. This is not only defeatist, it is completely misguided. Recent human history is undeniably a story of enormous progress. If global declines in child mortality, hunger, violence, and poverty, and increases in life expectancy do not represent progress, then the word simply has no meaning.

Doc, how do I know where I should shoot?

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

James Williams, M.D. was teaching a class with Mas Ayoob, when one of the students, a probation and parole officer, asked, “Doc, how do I know where I should shoot?

“It’s easy,” I replied glibly. “Go to med school, do a residency in critical care, practice in ICUs and ERs for about 20 years, and you’ll know exactly where to shoot the bad guy.”

Williams went on to design his “tactical anatomy” courses to answer that question less glibly:

Any hunter knows that to harvest a deer for your family’s winter meat you have to kill it cleanly. We train new hunters about deer anatomy, and teach them to place their bullets in the vital organs. Because if you shoot the deer any old place, it is likely to run off, wounded. It may well die, but if it is able to run a mile into the woods, its death will be a tragic waste. So we learn as hunters to stop the animal where we shoot it, by shooting it in the vital organs.

Now, lion hunters face a different problem than deer hunters. A wounded lion won’t just crawl off into the brush and die; it will turn on you and attack. In this case, the hunter’s need to stop the animal in its tracks isn’t just because he fears losing the meat; he fears losing his own life to the slashing fangs and ripping claws of a 400-pound killing machine!

The defensive shooter is more like a lion hunter than a deer hunter, because the consequences of failing to stop a violent felon are akin to those of failing to stop a charging lion. We don’t want the attacking lion or felon to stop hurting us eventually; we want him to stop hurting us now.

So if you are faced with a violent, attacking, predatory felon, how do you make sure you stop him before he can cause you grave bodily harm, or even death?

The simple answer is that you have to shoot him where it counts. And the common ideas of where it counts are often wrong.

B27 Police Qualification Target Overlaid with Anatomical Structures

To incapacitate a human being — to make him incapable of violent action — by gunshot wound (GSW) your bullets have to do serious damage to his vital organs. In my very extensive experience (and this is backed up by the medical literature, by the way) there are only two reliable ways to incapacitate a man by gunshot: either shut down the Central Nervous System (CNS, brain and high spinal cord), or shut off the supply of oxygen to the CNS.


The only two reliable target zones, then, are: first, the CNS itself, and second, the pumping system that supplies oxygen to the CNS, the heart and the plexus of Great Vessels above the heart.

Funnily enough, these are the same anatomic targets the hunter uses, whether deer or lion.

God Jul!

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Please enjoy these yuletide posts of Christmas Past:

With a very limited set of clues, smart guys managed to get key facts about European prehistory roughly correct

Monday, December 25th, 2017

Gregory Cochran mocks the inexorable progress of science by contrasting old, outdated archaeology with what followed:

In 1939, archeologists and prehistorians seem to have thought that agriculture was brought to Europe by a gracile Mediterranean people, and was in large part spread by their expansion. They thought that the Corded Ware culture was Indo-European and probably originated in South Russia.


A lot of this stems from Gordon Childe’s work – for example The Aryans, published in 1926. Understand that this was all before carbon dating, and before a tremendous amount of modern archaeological work, including much of the work in the Balkans.

Archaeology took a different path in the 1960s and later. Archaeologists became very uncomfortable with the idea of migration, colonization, conquest, and prehistoric violence. I say this without really understanding its inner nature: I personally am made quite uncomfortable by the thought of dinosaur-killing asteroids or Yellowstone-scale megavolcanoes showing up in my neighborhood, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking that they occurred. I don’t get it.

The low point in acceptance of the reality of prehistoric violence seems to have occurred in the 1970s, according to Lawrence Keeley (War before Civilization). In those days, a log palisade with a 9-foot-deep ditch surrounding a frontier Neolithic village was explained as expressing the “symbolism of exclusion.”

Theories that disallowed migration (let alone conquest) became more and more popular with time. I can find examples of grown human beings suggesting that the Anglo-Saxonization of England need not have required any actual Anglo-Saxon immigrants at all.


With a very limited set of clues, smart guys managed to get key facts about European prehistory roughly correct almost 90 years ago . With tremendously better tools, better methods, vastly more money, more data, etc, archaeologists (most of them) drifted farther and farther from the truth.

Cochran cites Carleton S. Coon’s The Races of Europe, which makes the following points — in 1939:

  1. The Caucasoid race is of dual origin consisting of Upper Paleolithic (mixture of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals) types and Mediterranean (purely Homo sapiens) types.
  2. The Upper Paleolithic peoples are the truly indigenous peoples of Europe.
  3. Mediterraneans invaded Europe in large numbers during the Neolithic and settled there.
  4. The racial situation in Europe today may be explained as a mixture of Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans.
  5. When reduced Upper Paleolithic survivors and Mediterraneans mix a process of “dinaricization” occurs which produces a hybrid with non-intermediate features, epitomized by the Dinaric race.
  6. The Caucasoid race extends well beyond Europe into the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa.
  7. “The Nordic race in the strict sense is merely a pigment phase of the Mediterranean”, created by the combination of Corded and Danubian elements.

Coined in 1889 by US newspapers

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

Discussing how a Taser works reminded me of the word electrocution, which was already an old, established term by the time my parents were warning me not to stick things in the electrical socket, but which was a darkly cute portmanteau when it was coined:

Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from “electro” and “execution”, but it is also used for accidental death. The word is also used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity. The term “electrocution,” was coined in 1889 by US newspapers just before the first use of the electric chair in 1890, originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word “electrocution” eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity.

Apes and goats and poultry conjoined

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Rudyard Kipling’s The Eye of Allah features an artist in a monastery who illuminates his copy of Luke with new devils than the usual “apes and goats and poultry conjoined”:

‘No matter! Now for your own tricks, John,’ the tactful Abbot broke in. ‘You shall show the doctors your Magdalene and your Gadarene Swine and the devils.’

‘Devils? Devils? I have produced devils by means of drugs; and have abolished them by the same means. Whether devils be external to mankind or immanent, I have not yet pronounced.’ Roger of Salerno was still angry.

‘Ye dare not,’ snapped the Friar from Oxford. ‘Mother Church makes Her own devils.’

‘Not wholly! Our John has come back from Spain with brand-new ones.’ Abbot Stephen took the vellum handed to him, and laid it tenderly on the table. They gathered to look. The Magdalene was drawn in palest, almost transparent, grisaille, against a raging, swaying background of woman-faced devils, each broke to and by her special sin, and each, one could see, frenziedly straining against the Power that compelled her.

‘I’ve never seen the like of this grey shadowwork,’ said the Abbot. ‘How came you by it?’

Non nobis! It came to me,’ said John, not knowing he was a generation or so ahead of his time in the use of that medium.

‘Why is she so pale?’ the Friar demanded.

‘Evil has all come out of her—she’d take any colour now.’

‘Ay, like light through glass. I see.’

Roger of Salerno was looking in silence—his nose nearer and nearer the page. ‘It is so,’ he pronounced finally. ‘Thus it is in epilepsy—mouth, eyes, and forehead—even to the droop of her wrist there. Every sign of it! She will need restoratives, that woman, and, afterwards, sleep natural. No poppy juice, or she will vomit on her waking. And thereafter—but I am not in my Schools.’ He drew himself up. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you should be of Our calling. For, by the Snakes of Aesculapius, you see!’

The two struck hands as equals.

‘And how think you of the Seven Devils?’ the Abbot went on.

These melted into convoluted flower—or flame-like bodies, ranging in colour from phosphorescent green to the black purple of outworn iniquity, whose hearts could be traced beating through their substance. But, for sign of hope and the sane workings of life, to be regained, the deep border was of conventionalised spring flowers and birds, all crowned by a kingfisher in haste, atilt through a clump of yellow iris.

Roger of Salerno identified the herbs and spoke largely of their virtues.

‘And now, the Gadarene Swine,’ said Stephen. John laid the picture on the table.

Here were devils dishoused, in dread of being abolished to the Void, huddling and hurtling together to force lodgment by every opening into the brute bodies offered. Some of the swine fought the invasion, foaming and jerking; some were surrendering to it, sleepily, as to a luxurious back-scratching; others, wholly possessed, whirled off in bucking droves for the lake beneath. In one corner the freed man stretched out his limbs all restored to his control, and Our Lord, seated, looked at him as questioning what he would make of his deliverance.

‘Devils indeed!’ was the Friar’s comment. ‘But wholly a new sort.’

Some devils were mere lumps, with lobes and protuberances—a hint of a fiend’s face peering through jelly-like walls. And there was a family of impatient, globular devillings who had burst open the belly of their smirking parent, and were revolving desperately toward their prey. Others patterned themselves into rods, chains and ladders, single or conjoined, round the throat and jaws of a shrieking sow, from whose ear emerged the lashing, glassy tail of a devil that had made good his refuge. And there were granulated and conglomerate devils, mixed up with the foam and slaver where the attack was fiercest. Thence the eye carried on to the insanely active backs of the downward-racing swine, the swineherd’s aghast face, and his dog’s terror.

Said Roger of Salerno, ‘I pronounce that these were begotten of drugs. They stand outside the rational mind.’

‘Not these,’ said Thomas the Infirmarian, who as a servant of the Monastery should have asked his Abbot’s leave to speak. ‘Not these—look!—in the bordure.’

The border to the picture was a diaper of irregular but balanced compartments or cellules, where sat, swam, or weltered, devils in blank, so to say—things as yet uninspired by Evil—indifferent, but lawlessly outside imagination. Their shapes resembled, again, ladders, chains, scourges, diamonds, aborted buds, or gravid phosphorescent globes-some well-nigh starlike.

Roger of Salerno compared them to the obsessions of a Churchman’s mind.

‘Malignant?’ the Friar from Oxford questioned.

‘“Count everything unknown for horrible,”’ Roger quoted with scorn.

‘Not I. But they are marvellous—marvellous. I think——’

The Friar drew back. Thomas edged in to see better, and half opened his mouth.

‘Speak,’ said Stephen, who had been watching him. ‘We are all in a sort doctors here.’

‘I would say then’—Thomas rushed at it as one putting out his life’s belief at the stake—‘that these lower shapes in the bordure may not be so much hellish and malignant as models and patterns upon which John has tricked out and embellished his proper devils among the swine above there!’

‘And that would signify?’ said Roger of Salerno sharply.

‘In my poor judgment, that he may have seen such shapes—without help of drugs.’

‘Now who—who,’ said John of Burgos, after a round and unregarded oath, ‘has made thee so wise of a sudden, my Doubter?’

‘I wise? God forbid! Only John, remember—one winter six years ago—the snow-flakes melting on your sleeve at the cookhouse-door. You showed me them through a little crystal, that made small things larger.’

‘Yes. The Moors call such a glass the Eye of Allah,’ John confirmed.

‘You showed me them melting—six-sided. You called them, then, your patterns.’

‘True. Snow-flakes melt six-sided. I have used them for diaper-work often.’

‘Melting snow-flakes as seen through a glass? By art optical?’ the Friar asked.

‘Art optical? I have never heard!’ Roger of Salerno cried.

‘John,’ said the Abbot of St. Illod’s commandingly, ‘was it—is it so?’

‘In some sort,’ John replied, ‘Thomas has the right of it. Those shapes in the bordure were my workshop-patterns for the devils above. In my craft, Salerno, we dare not drug. It kills hand and eye. My shapes are to be seen honestly, in nature.’

The Abbot drew a bowl of rose-water towards him. ‘When I was prisoner with—with the Saracens after Mansura,’ he began, turning up the fold of his long sleeve, ‘there were certain magicians—physicians—who could show—’ he dipped his third finger delicately in the water—‘all the firmament of Hell, as it were, in—’ he shook off one drop from his polished nail on to the polished table—‘even such a supernaculum as this.’

‘But it must be foul water—not clean,’ said John.

‘Show us then—all—all,’ said Stephen. ‘I would make sure—once more.’ The Abbot’s voice was official.

John drew from his bosom a stamped leather box, some six or eight inches long, wherein, bedded on faded velvet, lay what looked like silver-bound compasses of old box-wood, with a screw at the head which opened or closed the legs to minute fractions. The legs terminated, not in points, but spoon-shapedly, one spatula pierced with a metal-lined hole less than a quarter of an inch across, the other with a half-inch hole. Into this latter John, after carefully wiping with a silk rag, slipped a metal cylinder that carried glass or crystal, it seemed, at each end.

‘Ah! Art optic!’ said the Friar. ‘But what is that beneath it?’

It was a small swivelling sheet of polished silver no bigger than a florin, which caught the light and concentrated it on the lesser hole. John adjusted it without the Friar’s proffered help.

‘And now to find a drop of water,’ said he, picking up a small brush.

‘Come to my upper cloister. The sun is on the leads still,’ said the Abbot, rising.

They followed him there. Half-way along, a drip from a gutter had made a greenish puddle in a worn stone. Very carefully, John dropped a drop of it into the smaller hole of the compassleg, and, steadying the apparatus on a coping, worked the screw m the compass joint, screwed the cylinder, and swung the swivel of the mirror till he was satisfied.

‘Good!’ He peered through the thing. ‘My Shapes are all here. Now look, Father! If they do not meet your eye at first, turn this nicked edge here, left- or right-handed.’

‘I have not forgotten,’ said the Abbot, taking his place. ‘Yes! They are here—as they were in my time—my time past. There is no end to them, I was told . . . . There is no end!’

The story, from 1926, qualifies as science fiction, or alternative history, and even ends with a rather Twilight Zone twist. Kipling did quite a bit of research for the story.

Carlos Slim slashes New York Times holdings

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has long held an enormous stake in the New York Times, but now he plans to slash his holdings:

Billionaire Carlos Slim is planning to sell more than half of his 17 percent stake in the New York Times Co. to U.S. hedge fund investors, reducing his sway over one of the world’s most influential publishers.

Slim’s businesses earlier this month sold $250 million of mandatory exchangeable trust securities in a private offering that gives the buyers a claim on a 9 percent stake in the New York Times, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The newspaper’s shares have surged more than 50 percent since Slim boosted his stake in 2015 and became the biggest shareholder.

The deal, which was referenced in a Dec. 6 statement but has gone largely unnoticed, means that when the securities mature three years from now and they automatically convert into Class A shares of New York Times, Slim and his companies will be left with about 8 percent of the publisher’s shares, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the information is private. In essence, the billionaire created a trust, pledged New York Times shares to it, locked the shares up for three years, then sold rights to that stock to investors.

Slim built his stake in the New York Times after lending the company $250 million in 2009 to help it get through the financial crisis. In 2015, he exercised stock options to become the Times’s biggest single investor in a display of confidence in the company even as readers and marketers flocked to the Internet where content is often free and ad rates are cheaper.

With the smaller stake, he’ll lose some of the power he had to vote for Class A directors, a group that can include no more than a third of board members. The Ochs-Sulzberger family — the paper’s controlling owners — hold Class B shares that give them a firm grip on the company. Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. will retire at the end of this year after a quarter-century of overseeing the newspaper. His 37-year-old son, A.G., will take over.

Transferring the shares through the hybrid instruments allows Slim to take advantage of deferred tax payments until the transaction is completed, the person said.

My passive investments seem even more passive now.

The world’s work and the men and machines who do it

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

The War Nerd Iliad emphasizes the alienness of the ancient Greeks, which reminded commenter Graham of the classic sci-fi he’d read — which reminded me of an author whose work pervasively influenced science fiction and fantasy:

Poul Anderson, a leading American science fiction writer, has these words to say about one of his predecessors: “He is for everyone who responds to vividness, word magic, sheer storytelling. Most readers go on to discover the subtleties and profundities.” His colleague Gordon R. Dickson calls him “a master of our art.” The man they are praising was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th. He wrote of new inventions and future wars, and warned of the social consequences of technological change. And he exerted an immense influence on modern science fiction.

They are not speaking of Jules Verne (1828-1905) or of H.G. Wells (1866-1946). True, both names come immediately to mind when we seek the roots of science fiction. When Hugo Gernsback founded the first real SF magazine in 1926, he filled out the early issues of Amazing Stories with reprints of their stories. The writers who shaped modern science fiction, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, read Verne and Wells as boys. But today their works have achieved the status of classics: much honored but little read. It was their contemporary Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who has exerted the most lasting influence on modern science fiction. And it was Rudyard Kipling of whom Poul Anderson says, “His influence pervades modern science fiction and fantasy writing”.

Like Verne and Wells, Kipling wrote stories whose subject-matter is explicitly science-fictional. “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.” portrays futuristic aviation in a journalistic present-tense that recalls Kipling’s years as a teenaged subeditor on Anglo-Indian newspapers. “The Eye of Allah” deals with the introduction of advanced technology into a mediaeval society that may not be ready for it.

But it is not this explicit use of science and technology in some of his stories that makes Kipling so important to modern science fiction. Many of Kipling’s contemporaries and predecessors wrote scientific fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle are among them. Yet echoes of their work are seldom seen in today’s science fiction. Kipling’s appeal to modern readers lies instead in his approach and his technique.

The real subject-matter of Rudyard Kipling’s writing is the world’s work and the men and women and machines who do it. Whether that work be manual or intellectual, creative or administrative, the performance of his work is the most important thing in a person’s life. As Disko Troop says in Captains Courageous, “the most interesting thing in the world is to find out how the next man gets his vittles”.

This is not a view shared by most of 20th-century literature; nor is Kipling’s special sympathy with the work of Empire. This may explain why Rudyard Kipling has received less attention from the literary establishment than his writings deserve. But he was an enormously popular writer, especially among working people. Even to this day he is widely quoted, often by people who would be shocked to learn the source of the colorful expressions they so often use. Today’s science fiction writers find their audience among the same strata of society that in Victoria’s time read Kipling: adults engaged in the shaping of our world and young people exploring what life has to offer.

Kipling’s writing embodies an attitude toward that work that places its satisfactory completion above convenience, desire, and comfort in the scheme of things. This attitude toward work and duty is also characteristic of modern science fiction. It places men and women in the role of creators and maintainers, rather than victims. It prefers exploring the intricacies of the craftsman’s vision to indulging the subtleties of the narrative voice.

This exaltation of work and duty may be unfashionable in literary circles today, but no technological society can flourish without it. Science fiction may not be essential to the survival of Western civilisation; but some literary tradition that embodies its essential attitudes will always accompany humankind on its road to the stars. The influence of Rudyard Kipling will be writ large upon that literature, whatever form it may take, for many years to come.

Kipling faced the same technical problem that the modern science fiction writer faces: the need to make an alien time and place understandable to his audience. Whether the scene be India under the British Raj or Mars under the Solar Federation, the reader needs to know the essential differences in biology, technology, and sociology that govern the characters and their actions. This information needs to be provided without interfering with the narrative. The reader wants a story, not a lesson.

John W Campbell, the magisterial editor who shaped the Golden Age of science fiction, considered Rudyard Kipling the first modern science fiction writer. Kipling, he explained, was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story. He was thinking here of “With the Night Mail”. When this pseudo-journalistic account of transatlantic dirigible traffic first appeared in 1905, the text was accompanied by weather advisories, classified advertisements, shipping notices, and a wide range of other snippets intended to suggest that the tale was in fact appearing in a magazine published in 2000. All this stage business was extraneous to the story, strictly speaking; but it did help to establish the setting.

Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on. In his earliest stories and verse he made liberal use of footnotes, but he evolved more subtle methods as his talent matured. A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.

Modern science fiction writers and their readers have become so accustomed to this sort of thing and so dependent on it that it has made much of the genre literally unreadable to many who have not learned its reading protocols. Samuel R Delany has observed that a statement that is meaningless in mimetic fiction (such as “The red sun is high, the blue low”) can be a matter of simple description in science fiction, and a statement that could only be metaphorical (“Her world exploded”) might be meant as literal fact in SF. It is this divergence in the way words are used, rather than any particular exoticism of subject-matter or the use of experimental narrative strategies (here SF is usually very conservative), that separates modern science fiction from the literary mainstream. And all this began with Kipling.

It is certainly a matter of fact that Kipling’s works are immensely popular among SF writers. Allusions to Kipling in story titles and quotations from his verse may be found throughout the genre. Autobiographical essays and story introductions widely acknowledge Kipling as a favorite writer and a major inspiration. David Drake and Sandra Miesel have assembled two anthologies of stories written under the influence of Kipling, accompanied by introductions in which the likes of Poul Anderson, L Sprague de Camp, Joe Haldeman, and Gene Wolfe describe the impact that reading Kipling has had on their own writing. (Heads to the Storm, and A Separate Star: A Science Fiction Tribute to Rudyard Kipling were both published by Baen Books in 1989.)

But the best way to understand why Kipling has exerted so great an influence over modern science fiction is to read his own work. Begin with Kim, the most successful evocation of an alien world ever produced in English. Follow the Grand Trunk Road toward the Northwest Frontier, and watch the parade of cultures that young Kimball O’Hara encounters. Place yourself in his position, that of a half-assimilated stranger in a strange land; and observe carefully the uneven effects of an ancient society’s encounter with a technologically advanced culture. SF writers have found Kim so appealing that several have told their own versions of the story: Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy and Poul Anderson’s The Game of Empire are two of the best.

Then look at Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, two collections of linked stories in which Kipling brings incidents of English history and prehistory to life, both for the children for whom the books were ostensibly written and for their elders. One could classify them as time-travel stories, thus bringing them into the taxonomy of science fiction. But their real relevance lies in the careful evocation of time and place, echoed in so many later stories by other writers who bring a modern observer into direct contact with earlier days.

And by all means read Kipling’s own science fiction stories. Most of these were collected in Kipling’s Science Fiction (New York: Tor Books, 1992), edited by the late John Brunner, a noted British SF writer. But anyone with access to the standard collections of Kipling’s short stories will be able to find them.

I’ve discussed As Easy As A.B.C. before.