The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers

Tuesday, May 21st, 2024

OpenAI last week introduced its Sky voice, which sounds suspiciously like Scarlett Johansson’s disembodied AI voice in Her:

Johansson said she had been contacted by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman in September 2023 about the company hiring her to provide the voice for ChatGPT 4.0. She said she declined for “personal reasons.”

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine that my closest friends and news outlets could not tell the difference,” Johansson said. “Mr. Altman even insinuated that the similarity was intentional, tweeting a single word ‘her’ — a reference to the film in which I voiced a chat system, Samantha, who forms an intimate relationship with a human.”

Johansson called for legislation that would protect individuals from having their name, image or likeness misappropriated. “In a time when we are all grappling with deepfakes and the protection of our own likeness, our own work, our own identities, I believe these are questions that deserve absolute clarity,” she said. “I look forward to resolution in the form of transparency and the passage of appropriate legislation to help ensure that individual rights are protected.”

Asked for comment, OpenAI sent this statement from Altman: “The voice of Sky is not Scarlett Johansson’s, and it was never intended to resemble hers. We cast the voice actor behind Sky’s voice before any outreach to Ms. Johansson. Out of respect for Ms. Johansson, we have paused using Sky’s voice in our products. We are sorry to Ms. Johansson that we didn’t communicate better.”

The Johansson-soundalike ChatGPT voice was the basis of a joke on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, aimed at her husband, Colin Jost, co-host of Weekend Update.

Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson Before his first year of college, Rob Henderson had never even been to a musical, he explains (in Troubled):

No one I knew from Red Bluff had ever been to one. But it seemed like everyone on campus had seen Hamilton, the acclaimed musical about the American founding father Alexander Hamilton. I looked up tickets: $400.

This was way beyond my budget. So in 2020, I was pleased to see that five years after Hamilton’s debut, it was available to view on Disney+. But suddenly, the musical was being denigrated by many of the same people who formerly enjoyed it, because it didn’t reflect the failings of American society in the eighteenth century. The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, even posted on Twitter that “All the criticisms are valid.” This reveals how social class works in America.


Once a piece of art becomes mainstream, elites must distance themselves from it and redirect their attention to something new, obscure, or difficult to obtain. The affluent relentlessly search for signals that distinguish them from the masses.

A former classmate recently told me that he didn’t enjoy Hamilton but never told anyone because everyone at Yale loved it. However, once the musical became unfashionable, he suddenly became open about his dislike of it.

It tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments

Friday, March 22nd, 2024

Troubled by Rob Henderson As he browsed various online forums trying to learn about college, Rob Henderson came across a book published in 1983 with an intriguing title: Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell:

The book claimed that the criteria we use to define the tiers of the social hierarchy are in fact indicative of our own social class. For people near the bottom, Fussell wrote, social class is defined by money — in this regard, I was right in line with my peers when I was growing up. We thought a lot about money. The middle class, though, believes class is not just about the size of one’s pocketbook; equally important is education. The upper class has some additional beliefs about class, which I would later come to learn.


Kyle arranged for me to stay with his law-school friend the night before the [two-week Warrior-Scholar] program [at Yale] began. When I arrived at Michael’s residence in New Haven, he introduced me to his cat.

“His name is Learned Claw,” Michael said. “We named him after the legal scholar and judge Learned Hand.”

I’d never heard of this judge before. My mind jumped to Paul Fussell’s book about social class. He wrote that upper-middle-class people often give their cats names like Clytemnestra or Spinoza to show off their classical education. I was glad I’d read that book. Even though I didn’t know who Learned Hand was, at least now I knew that he was someone a person with a classical education should know about. I kneeled down to pet the cat, making a mental note to look the judge up later.

Billings Learned Hand had, at least as of 2004, been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.

Henderson befriended one of the tutors, a recent Yale graduate:

One evening, I saw him watching something on his MacBook. He told me it was The West Wing and insisted that I watch it. I had never seen this show, nor did anyone I know watch it. But when another tutor overheard him recommend The West Wing to me, she nodded vigorously, saying I had to watch it. I made a mental note to check it out once I finished the program.


As I worked my way through the first season, I had an uncomfortable realization: The West Wing is not very good.


The show had the pacing of a ’90s TV drama, and the way the characters spoke seemed strange to me (I’ve since grown to enjoy “Sorkinese”; Molly’s Game was one of my favorite movies of 2017).


In fact, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin explained in an interview with New York Times columnist David Brooks that the pilot episode generally wasn’t well received. But, according to Sorkin, it tested “extremely well” with certain audience segments: households that earned more than $75,000 a year, households where there was someone with a college degree, and households that subscribed to the New York Times.

What the will and ambition of a ‘kid’ can do with the experience and aptitude of a GOAT

Thursday, March 7th, 2024

Jake Paul is set to fight former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in a boxing match that will be livestreamed on Netflix, on July 20, from the AT&T Stadium in Texas:

“It’s crazy to think that in my second pro fight, I went viral for knocking out Nate Robinson on Mike Tyson’s undercard,” Paul said. “Now, less than four years later, I’m stepping up to face Tyson myself to see if I have what it takes to beat one of boxing’s most notorious fighters and biggest icons. Within just two and a half years of founding MVP, we’re about to produce the biggest fight in history, a fight in the biggest NFL stadium in the US, broadcast live, on the biggest streaming platform in the world – a testament to all we’ve accomplished in such a short amount of time. Whether you’re tuning in on Netflix or showing out in person, whether you’re team Paul or team Tyson, or whether you’re a lifelong boxing fan or watching your first fight, you’re not going to want to miss this event. I could not be more excited to make this amazing fight available to all Netflix subscribers alongside the hardest hitter of all time, Mike Tyson, on Saturday, July 20th. My sights are set on becoming a world champion, and now I have a chance to prove myself against the greatest heavyweight champion ever, the baddest man on the planet and the most dangerous boxer of all time. This will be the fight of a lifetime.”

“I’m very much looking forward to stepping into the ring with Jake Paul at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas,” Tyson said. “He’s grown significantly as a boxer over the years, so it will be a lot of fun to see what the will and ambition of a ‘kid’ can do with the experience and aptitude of a GOAT. It’s a full circle moment that will be beyond thrilling to watch; as I started him off on his boxing journey on the undercard of my fight with Roy Jones and now I plan to finish him.”

Life without a state is dominated by custom

Saturday, March 2nd, 2024

Dune (Movie Tie-In) by Frank HerbertMark Koyama notes that his most downloaded academic paper on SSRN is a yet to be published book chapter on the political economy of Frank Herbert’s Dune:

We should first ask: do fictional universes need a political economy that makes sense? Absolutely not. But to have lasting value, I think it helps that they at least ask important political economy questions.

An episode of the Rest is History, Romans in Space: Star Wars, Dune and Beyond touch on these issues. Holland and Sandbrook note that the original Star Wars trilogy were given a patina of sophistication and historical depth by references to the “old republic” and the “senate”. Star Wars didn’t have a coherent political economy, but these hints gave viewers enough material to reconstruct their own imaginary histories. The problem with the prequel trilogy (the dire Disney remakes have different problems) is that they filled in the backstory and they did so in a particularly flat and inept way.


Paul Atreides is the quintessential “great man”. One of what the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle called

“…the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterners, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain….”


The intellectual depth of Dune as a novel comes from Herbert asking: what happens to a society that gets its great man or hero? Herbert’s answer is

“No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero”

This is why David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation fails. In that adaption Paul really is the promised one: his victory makes it rain on Arrakis. There is no sense of the tragedy that inevitably accompanies a fulfilled prophecy.

So why does Paul fail? I would argue that he inevitably fails because he cannot overcome fundamental institutional and geopolitical constraints that he confronts. While this is, of course, the message of Dune Messiah, more can be said about these institutional constraints.

The political economy of the galactic empire is a form of what Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast term “limited access orders”. Limited access orders are a form of government that achieve a measure of peace and society order through the creation of economic rents for elites.


Like oil riches, spice produces a resource curse. It leads to the concentration of autocratic power both on the planet and in the galaxy at large. While Harkonnen rule is clearly the most oppressive, the Atreides also rule the planet in an authoritarian manner. The empire Paul conquerers following his victory at the end of the first novel is at least as oppressive and even more violent than the previous Corrino empire.

In Herbert’s novels, history follows cyclical laws which humans can bend but not overcome. The Fremen freedom fights are destined to become invader and oppressors of other planets. Ecological and geographic factors weigh heavily as does Herbert’s Jungian understand of human psychology and myth. Together this saves the novel from being pure escapism.


As I note in my article, we can view the Harkonnens and the Fremen as representing two polar forms of organization. The Harkonnen represent the brutal leviathan state. They are associated with slavery, torture, and oppression. Through history despotisms, such as that of the Harkonnen’s, have been a common though extreme form of government.

In contrast, the Fremen represent a society without a state. Far from being a libertarian utopia, however, life without a state is dominated by custom (“water debt”, “the bond of water” etc.). And Fremen customs are harsh and unforgiving as the desert of Arrakis.

The Atreides, particularly Duke Leto, offer a possible middle ground. I think of this as roughly corresponding to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call “the narrow corridor” between rule by society and rule by the state.


In Dune Messiah, however, and in the other sequels, this sense of hope is shattered. The liberation offered by Paul results in a new and insidious theocratic despotism.

This can explain why Dune is so popular whereas the sequels that Herbert wrote have a much smaller and more niche following. The former provides a conventional heoric narrative. In the latter, structural and societal forces dominate, and the consequences of Paul’s heroic quest are transitory or malign.

Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday

Wednesday, February 14th, 2024

As I’ve noted before, Valentine’s Day is an odd holiday. Saint Valentine is the name of fourteen different martyred saints — and the one whose feast falls on February 14? We don’t know anything about him, beyond his name, except that he was born on April 16 and died on February 14. And he was removed from the Catholic calendar of saints in 1969.

In fact, it doesn’t look like Saint Valentine was associated with romantic love at all until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Parliament of Fowls in 1382 in honor of the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

And that reference probably was not to February 14 — mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be mating in England — and Chaucer appears to be making up a fictional tradition that never existed.

The notion caught on though, and we see it mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and John Donne’s Epithalamion a couple hundred years later.

Around that time Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene gave us a rhyme that should sound familiar:

She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

It inspired the modern cliche Valentine’s Day poem, which appeared in Gammer Gurton’s Garland in 1784:

The rose is red, the violet’s blue,
The honey’s sweet, and so are you.
Thou art my love and I am thine;
I drew thee to my Valentine:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you.

Packard couldn’t figure out how to progress the tale and asked his kids what should happen next

Saturday, January 13th, 2024

Cave of Time by Edward PackardInteractive books weren’t a completely new idea before Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA), but they weren’t popular:

There was a romance novel from the 1930s, where the reader decides which suitor the protagonist marries with dozens of possible endings. Several high-concept stories arrived by the 50s and 60s, like Raymond Queneau’s surreal Story As You Like It or Robert Coover’s explicit and unsettling The Babysitter. Celebrated for their uniqueness, none of these caught on beyond their novelty, and were purely adult fare. It wasn’t until a lawyer teamed up with a young writer to find a way to bring this idea to bookshelves across the country.

Edward Packard came from a family deep in the legal business, but practicing law was never something he truly cared about. While his passion was writing, Ed’s children’s books were never picked up by publishers. His fate changed one evening in 1969 while making up a bedtime story for his two daughters about a character named Pete. Struck by writer’s block, Packard couldn’t figure out how to progress the tale and asked his kids what should happen next. When both girls answered differently, he realized Pete was never the protagonist – it was his kids living those adventures firsthand in their imaginations. Immediately, Packard knew he was onto something.

Ray Montgomery had just started Vermont Crossroads Press in 1970, after cutting his teeth writing roleplaying scenarios for Clark Abt, a pioneer in educational games. The Yale and NYU grad had aspirations larger than his employer and ventured out to make a name for himself in publishing. When Packard walked into his office with a draft of Sugarcane Island in 1976, Montgomery saw great potential that perfectly aligned with his interests. “I Xeroxed 50 copies of Ed’s manuscript and took it to a reading teacher in Stowe,” Montgomery said in an interview from 1981. “His kids — third grade through junior high — couldn’t get enough of it.”

Sugarcane Island became the best-selling book of the upstart publisher, moving over five thousand copies, but they were still an unknown entity in a crowded landscape.

It was this point where things started to get messy for Packard and Montgomery. Both writers saw a a potential for larger success beyond the small Vermont publishing house, and the two pursued greener pastures, independent from each others ventures. Packard published two CYOA-style books in 1978 under Harper imprint, Lippincott. Meanwhile, Montgomery’s agent managed to obtain a six-book deal from Bantam in 1979, with the caveat that Packard must be involved. Cooler heads prevailed, and the duo came together to split the deal and workload.

Similar to the origin story of Sugarcane Island, Packard turned to his kids for story ideas. His daughter, Andrea, told him about her summer escapades spelunking, and her desire to wander solo to explore more. She imagined a tunnel that could transport her to another time or place, and her dad loved it! Andrea scribbled more notes, and ultimately ideated the first published CYOA book, “The Cave of Time.”


A fortuitous mistake resulted in Bantam overprinting this inaugural entry, and the publisher remedied its overstock by donating 100,000 books to schools and libraries throughout America. This charitable act guaranteed their target audience would have no problem discovering the book, transforming CYOA into a household name practically overnight.


Sales dwindled until the company flew the white flag in 1998, ending with book #184, Mayday, which Packard co-wrote with the person responsible for the very first title in the franchise, his daughter Andrea.

Steamboat Willie was the third Mickey Mouse film to be produced

Saturday, January 6th, 2024

Steamboat Willie finally fell out of copyright this year:

Steamboat Willie was the third of Mickey’s films to be produced, but it was the first to be distributed, because Disney, having seen The Jazz Singer, had committed himself to produce one of the first fully synchronized sound cartoons.

The Jazz Singer is famous for being the first “talkie,” or, technically, “the first feature-length motion picture with both synchronized recorded music and lip-synchronous singing and speech.” I don’t remember seeing it or any references to it growing up — except for some cartoon spoofs that didn’t make any sense to me at the time:

The film depicts the fictional story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a young man who defies the traditions of his devout Jewish family. After singing popular tunes in a beer garden, he is punished by his father, a hazzan (cantor), prompting Jakie to run away from home. Some years later, now calling himself Jack Robin, he has become a talented jazz singer, performing in blackface. He attempts to build a career as an entertainer, but his professional ambitions ultimately come into conflict with the demands of his home and heritage.

Even the non-blackface numbers feel quite dated:

Steamboat Willie could have entered the public domain in four different years:

first in 1955, at which point it was renewed to 1986, then extended to 2003 by the Copyright Act of 1976, and finally to 2023 by the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (also known pejoratively as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”).

Like The Jazz Singer, Steamboat Willy features a song associated with the old minstrel shows:

”Turkey in the Straw” is an American folk song that first gained popularity in the 19th century. Early versions of the song were titled “Zip Coon”, which were first published around 1834 and performed in minstrel shows, with different people claiming authorship of the song.


The title of “Zip Coon” or “Old Zip Coon” was used to signify a dandified free Black man in northern United States. “Zip” was a diminutive of “Scipio”, a name commonly used for slaves. According to Stuart Flexner, “coon” was short for “raccoon” and by 1832 meant a frontier rustic and by 1840 also a Whig who had adopted coonskin cap as a symbol of white rural people. Although the song “Zip Coon” was published c.1830, at that time, “coon” was typically used to refer to someone white, it was only in 1848 when a clear use of the word “coon” to refer to a Black person in a derogative sense appeared. It is possible that the negative racial connotation of the word evolved from “Zip Coon” and the common use of the word “coon” in minstrel shows.

Although Steamboat Willy just fell out of copyright, Walt Disney posted it to YouTube 14 years ago:

Gollum’s appearance had never included any description of his size

Thursday, January 4th, 2024

The Swedish language edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit from the 1960s was illustrated by famed Moomins creator Tove Jansson (and edited by noted children’s author Astrid Lindgren). It turns out that Gollum’s appearance had never included any description of his size, so Tove produced this:


Tolkien went on to amend the text, adding a description of Gollum as “a small, slimy creature.”

Nobody finishes books

Friday, December 29th, 2023

Nobody finishes reading his books, Paul Bloom admits:

How often do people make it to the end of books? The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg did some number crunching, looking at the passages marked by Amazon Kindle readers and estimating what percentage of them finished. This percentage is what he calls the Hawking Index, named after Stephen Hawking’s notoriously unread book A Brief History of Time.

The Hawking Index of Hawking’s Brief History is just 6.6%.

I blame…the system. Authors are expected to write non-fiction books that are about 70,000 to 100,000 words long. Maybe this was a reasonable length in the past, but now there are too many other distractions in the world, too much TV and film and social media, and few of us have the Sitzfleisch anymore for that kind of long book.

Time After Time

Friday, November 3rd, 2023

When I recently revisited H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the 1960 movie, I noticed that Max also had Time After Time, a 1979 movie I enjoyed watching on TV as a kid, in which Wells builds a working time machine, which his surgeon friend uses to escape to the future, because he is, in fact, Jack the Ripper. It’s an excellent premise for a Hollywood movie, and Malcolm McDowell does an excellent job playing a Victorian proto-nerd, even though he doesn’t look at all like the real Wells — or sound like him:

While preparing to portray Wells, McDowell obtained a copy of a 78 rpm recording of Wells speaking. McDowell was “absolutely horrified” to hear that Wells spoke in a high-pitched, squeaky voice with a pronounced Southeast London accent, which McDowell felt would have resulted in unintentional humor if he tried to mimic it for the film. McDowell abandoned any attempt to recreate Wells’s authentic speaking style and preferred a more “dignified” style.

Wells is expecting to find a socialist Utopia in 1979, but his nemesis shows him the news:

Palestine terrorists carried out their threat and began shooting the first five of 106 Israeli schoolchildren held hostage…

We’ve just received word that Mayor Margolin of Columbus was shot…

Jack also shows him football and a war movie, before commenting that, in this future world, you can just walk into a shop and buy a rifle or revolver — which pulled me right out of the film, because, of course, that was perfectly legal in England in 1893, when they left. Sherlock Holmes routinely shoves a revolver in his pocket, after all. U.K. firearms laws came about in the 20th Century:

The Pistols Act 1903 was the first to place restrictions on the sale of firearms. Titled “An Act to regulate the sale and use of Pistols or other Firearms”, it was short, with just nine sections, and applied solely to pistols. It defined a pistol as a firearm whose barrel did not exceed 9 in (230 mm) in length and made it illegal to sell or rent a pistol to anyone who could not produce a current gun licence or game licence, unless they were exempt from the Gun Licence Act, could prove that they planned to use the pistol on their own property, or had a statement signed by a police officer of inspector rank or above or a Justice of the Peace to the effect that they were about to go abroad for six months or more. The Act was more or less ineffective, as anyone wishing to buy a pistol commercially merely had to purchase a licence on demand over the counter from a Post Office before doing so. In addition, it did not regulate private sales of such firearms.

The legislators laid some emphasis on the dangers of pistols in the hands of children and drunkards and made specific provisions regarding sales to these two groups: persons under 18 could be fined 40 shillings if they bought, hired, or carried a pistol, while anyone who sold a pistol to such a person could be fined £5. Anyone who sold a pistol to someone who was “intoxicated or of unsound mind” was liable to a fine of £25 or 3 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. However, it was not an offence under the Act to give or lend a pistol to anyone belonging to the two groups.

Oddly, when they travel to the future, they don’t end up in 1979 London, but 1979 San Francisco, and, despite the premise that Wells expects Utopopia and finds something quite different, the 1979 San Francisco they show is clean and beautiful, at least until Wells goes into a hospital emergency department to check on Jack, who had been hit by a car. This is not the San Francisco of Dirty Harry — or of today.

I also found it odd that Wells goes to exchange his 15 pounds sixpence for $25.50 and only seems mildly surprised that the exchange rate was nowhere near the five-to-one ratio that held for a century, outside of major wars, and he never comments on prices being 100 times what he might expect, especially since he lived in an era with no inflation.

The majority of people on a trauma call just stare at the dying

Tuesday, October 17th, 2023

On X (formerly Twitter), Eric Hoel commented, most of the timeline consisted of short videos of war crimes. I find comments about X (formerly Twitter) interesting, because “the timeline” isn’t a thing. My timeline wasn’t full of gruesome imagery — and I didn’t have to play any videos that suggested sadistic violence.

But I will admit to getting drawn into a few violent videos, after seeing them referenced repeatedly:

In the past few days, it’s been clips from the incursion into Israel, but it is now common to see what is effectively a short snuff film every day online, even when there is no war, no invasion, and without looking for them.

Call them “snuff clips.” Someone stabbed on the street in New York. Or shot in the back of the head at a crosswalk in Chicago. Or a soldier pleading with a hovering drone in the Ukrainian war. If you log on, you will be shown. And consequently many of the political debates that have dominated our culture over the past years have been based on graphic videos, even just domestically.

So my question is: Just how familiar should a polity be with death?

That is an interesting question, because we don’t want a polity that’s naive about how violence works, demanding that police stop violent criminals without hurting them, etc., but we also don’t want a polity demanding immediate, thoughtless action, in response to the latest outrage.

Anyway, Hoel starts with the problematic and uncomfortable truth that bloodsport is the most entertaining of all sports:

We humans, we apes, are most interested in violence, in its drama and potential and stakes. Now-a-days it is common to think, because of our screens and our phones and our technology, that we have beaten boredom, and that we are the most entertained any civilization has ever been. Wrong. Imagine the setting sun over the colosseum as two men fight to the death in the sand. You and your friends are drinking wine and eating bread, candies, nuts. Every thrust, every exhausted recovery, is so filled with meaning you cannot look away. Spectating a football game is incomparable. It turns out sitting in the stands drunk watching people die was popular, and has always been popular, because it really is titillating, thrilling, dramatic, an infinite jest, to watch other people in life and death situations. Left to our own devices, bloodsport is a global minimum we humans fall into unless some specific ideology or religion acts as a barrier for our fall.

Regardless of what exactly the barrier was — maybe it was our liberal order, maybe the greater cultural relevancy of religion, maybe just the idea of America as representing historical progress — in the world I grew up in, by which I mean America in the 1990s and early 2000s, watching death openly was frowned upon. It was beneath us as a culture.

Make-believe violence has been big business for a long, long time, and the 1980s were the heyday of violent action movies.

Perhaps, he suggests, one could argue that the rise of the snuff clip genre is a visual corrective:

Maybe we shouldn’t think that violence unfolds like the movies where one guys beats up three, or where women regularly throw some big dude using judo, or whatever. Where you can do something, anything, against someone with a gun. The truth is none of that happens in real life. It all occurs really fast. The people most likely to react in such situations are usually aggressive young men, often to their own demise. But most people just stand there, and then they’re dead.

One time in college I shadowed on an ambulance, and the EMTs told me that the majority of people on a trauma call just stare at the dying. They don’t even call 911. “The stare of life” was their gallows humor term for it.

The stare of life.

He’s not comfortable with this informative facet of violent videos and sees them as more like the Roman gladiatorial games — but the problem with gladiatorial games is putting people to death for your own amusement, not being curious about violence.

Any new set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety very easily attained, seem to lead to as a rule to Degeneration

Sunday, October 8th, 2023

I recently revisited H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, first the audiobook and then the 1960 movie. Wells coined the term “time machine” and codified the trope of using a high-tech machine to travel through time, rather than “traveling” through dreams or visions.

Wells’ future darkly twists the utopian socialist vision of Willian Morris’s News from Nowhere:

In the novel, the narrator, William Guest, falls asleep after returning from a meeting of the Socialist League and awakes to find himself in a future society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. In this society there is no private property, no big cities, no authority, no monetary system, no marriage or divorce, no courts, no prisons, and no class systems. This agrarian society functions simply because the people find pleasure in nature, and therefore they find pleasure in their work.

One of the dark twists reflects what Wells had learned from one of his professors, Ray Lankester:

“Any new set of conditions occurring to an animal which render its food and safety very easily attained, seem to lead to as a rule to Degeneration.” Degeneration was well known in parasites, and Lankester gave several examples. In Sacculina, a genus of barnacles which is a parasite of crabs, the female is little more than “a sac of eggs, and absorbed nourishment from the juices of its host by root-like processes” (+ wood-engraved illustration). He called this degenerative evolutionary process in parasites retrogressive metamorphosis.

When The Time Machine was published in 1895, The Guardian wrote in its review:

The influence of the author of The Coming Race is still powerful, and no year passes without the appearance of stories which describe the manners and customs of peoples in imaginary worlds, sometimes in the stars above, sometimes in the heart of unknown continents in Australia or at the Pole, and sometimes below the waters under the earth. The latest effort in this class of fiction is The Time Machine, by HG Wells.

It didn’t occur to me that the subterranean Morlocks were based, in part, on Wells’ own early-life experiences in the working class:

His own family would spend most of their time in a dark basement kitchen when not being occupied in their father’s shop. Later, his own mother would work as a housekeeper in a house with tunnels below, where the staff and servants lived in underground quarters. A medical journal published in 1905 would focus on these living quarters for servants in poorly ventilated dark basements. In his early teens, Wells became a draper’s apprentice, having to work in a basement for hours on end.

The 1960 film sheds the socialist-evolution theme of Wells’ novel for a series of vignettes of worse and worse wars, leading humanity to live underground. It’s not clear how the guileless Eloi evolve under those conditions, but they still hypnotically return to the shelters when the air-raid sirens call out.

The Eloi of Wells’ story are childlike, and the 1960 film portrays them as blond, Californian proto-hippies, but Yvette Mimieux, who plays Weena, the one named Eloi, is hardly androgynous.

I started wondering if a modern remake would have reality TV-star Eloi of indeterminate ethnicity, communicating through gestures and phatic expressions.

In the original novel, Wells simply refers to his protagonist as the Time Traveller. The 1960 film has his friends call him George. The name “H. George Wells” can be seen on a brass plaque on the time machine.

This brings us to The Invisible Man, which I also revisited recently, which features a certain Dr. Kemp, whose studies are interrupted by the sound of gunshots:

After five minutes, during which his mind had travelled into a remote speculation of social conditions of the future, and lost itself at last over the time dimension, Dr. Kemp roused himself with a sigh, pulled down the window again, and returned to his writing desk.

The TV set always needed something and so did Barbie

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2023

Philip K. Dick’s “The Days of Perky Pat” came up recently, because it inspired elements of Fallout, but I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t see countless references to it when the Barbie movie came out, because the story was clearly inspired by the doll:

It was the Barbie-Doll craze which induced this story, needless to say. Barbie always seemed unnecessarily real to me. Years later I had a girl friend whose ambition was to be a Barbie-doll. I hope she made it.


“The Days Of Perky Pat” came to me in one lightning-swift flash when I saw my children playing with Barbie dolls. Obviously these anatomically super-developed dolls were not intended for the use of children, or, more accurately, should not have been. Barbie and Ken consisted of two adults in miniature. The idea was that the purchase of countless new clothes for these dolls was necessary if Barbie and Ken were to live in the style to which they were accustomed. I had visions of Barbie coming into my bedroom at night and saying, “I need a mink coat.” Or, even worse, “Hey, big fellow…want to take a drive to Vegas in my Jaguar XKE?” I was afraid my wife would find me and Barbie together and my wife would shoot me.

The sale of “The Days Of Perky Pat” to Amazing was a good one because in those days Cele Goldsmith edited Amazing and she was one of the best editors in the field. Avram Davidson of Fantasy & Science Fiction had turned it down, but later he told me that had he known about Barbie dolls he probably would have bought it. I could not imagine anyone not knowing about Barbie. I had to deal with her and her expensive purchases constantly. It was as bad as keeping my TV set working; the TV set always needed something and so did Barbie. I always felt that Ken should buy his own clothes.

In those days — the early Sixties — I wrote a great deal, and some of my best stories and novels emanated from that period. My wife wouldn’t let me work in the house, so I rented a little shack for $15 a month and walked over to it each morning. This was out in the country. All I saw on my walk to my shack were a few cows in their pastures and my own flock of sheep who never did anything but trudge along after the bell-sheep. I was terribly lonely, shut up by myself in my shack all day. Maybe I missed Barbie, who was back at the big house with the children. So perhaps “The Days Of Perky Pat” is a wishful fantasy on my part; I would have loved to see Barbie — or Perky Pat or Connie Companion — show up at the door of my shack.

What did show up was something awful: my vision of the face of Palmer Eldritch which became the basis of the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. which the Perky Pat story generated.


I found in the story “The Days Of Perky Pat” a vehicle that I could translate into a thematic basis for the novel I wanted to write. Now, you see, Perky Pat is the eternally beckoning fair one, das ewige Weiblichkeit — “the eternally feminine,” as Goethe put it. Isolation generated the novel and yearning generated the story; so the novel is a mixture of the fear of being abandoned and the fantasy of the beautiful woman who waits for you — somewhere, but God only knows where; I have still to figure it out. But if you are sitting alone day after day at your typewriter, turning out one story after another and having no one to talk to, no one to be with, and yet pro forma having a wife and four daughters from whose house you have been expelled, banished to a little single-walled shack that is so cold in winter that, literally the ink would freeze in my typewriter ribbon, well, you are going to write about iron slot-eyed faces and warm young women. And thus I did. And thus I still do.

Anything can become a full-time job if enough people are paying attention

Sunday, September 3rd, 2023

Matthew Mercer is the most famous Dungeons & Dragons player in the world:

Critical Role is a miraculous success, with 2 million YouTube subscribers and an additional 1.3 million followers on Twitch. Critical Role’s first season, called “Vox Machina,” ran for 115 episodes over the course of two-and-a-half years, demolishing the meager expectations of the eight-player cast. Those episodes, often four hours in length, were produced by the digital media brand Geek & Sundry, but in 2018 — when Mercer reconvened the Critical Role crew for a second season — they did so as a fully independent LLC, called Critical Role Productions. With that, his leisurely nights around the table officially transformed into a for-profit endeavor.

The pivot paid off in spades. A 2021 data leak out of Twitch confirmed that Critical Role is one of the richest channels on the platform, generating a mammoth $9.6 million in revenue between 2019 and 2021. The show has quickly become a fixture of the geek-media ecosystem and is blessed by a litany of third-party investments. There are now Critical Role novelizations, comic books, and most notably, an animated Amazon Prime television adaptation.


Mercer has his own theories about why Critical Role struck oil. He believes the troupe came together at the right time, during the dawn of the livestreaming revolution, when the world was still adjusting to what was possible with this brand-new hyperspeed broadcasting medium. It also helped that they all, including Mercer, were voice actors of some renown before signing up for the campaign. (Ashley Johnson, who has appeared in all three seasons of the show, is best known for playing Ellie in the acclaimed The Last of Us video games, and Travis Willingham, who serves as CEO of Critical Role Productions, has stepped into the booth to portray everyone from Sandman to Thor for Marvel.) The stars each had a robust presence on social media, which they dutifully funneled toward their newly formed Dungeons & Dragons series. One of the great revelations of the 2020s is that anything — even a weekly tabletop group — can become a full-time job if enough people are paying attention.