It’s All Hallow’s Eve

Saturday, October 31st, 2020

I’m still surprised by how much I’ve written about Halloween and horror over the years:

I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death

Friday, October 30th, 2020

I finally got around to reading the horror classic The Monkey’s Paw, arguably the trope codifier of the admonition to be careful what you wish for. (Some of us learned this lesson the hard way after receiving a magical wish while playing Dungeons and Dragons.)

In the story, old Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert receive a visit from Sergeant-Major Morris, back from India after 21 years in the army:

“I’d like to go to India myself,” said the old man, just to look around a bit, you know.”

“Better where you are,” said the Sergeant-Major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass and sighning softly, shook it again.

“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers,” said the old man. “what was that that you started telling me the other day about a monkey’s paw or something, Morris?”

“Nothing.” said the soldier hastily. “Leastways, nothing worth hearing.”

“Monkey’s paw?” said Mrs. White curiously.

“Well, it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps.” said the Sergeant-Major off-handedly.

His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him again.

“To look at,” said the Sergeant-Major, fumbling in his pocket, “it’s just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy.”

He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously.

“And what is there special about it?” inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table.

“It had a spell put on it by an old Fakir,” said the Sergeant-Major, “a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”

His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

“Well, why don’t you have three, sir?” said Herbert White cleverly.

The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.”I have,” he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.

“And did you really have the three wishes granted?” asked Mrs. White.

“I did,” said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

“And has anybody else wished?” persisted the old lady.

“The first man had his three wishes. Yes,” was the reply, “I don’t know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”

Read the whole thing. It’s short.

Its wrongness would so annoy him that he’d tear it all up

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

I haven’t read William Gibson’s Burning Chrome collection in decades, but I remember enjoying “Dogfight” — which I did not remember was co-written by Michael Swanwick:

One writer had control of the story for a month, during which he could write as much or as little as he wished. He do anything he wanted with it. Change the plot, change the characters, put things in and take things out. There were a couple of small details that Gibson took out that on the next pass I put back only to have him take them out, back and forth several times until at last Bill won. When you’re working with somebody good, this can be a very exciting process.

On one of those passes, I came to a section that could only be written by Gibson. Luckily, from my collaborations with Gardner Dozois, I knew what to do. With Gardner, I had only to write a bad imitation of his style and its wrongness would so annoy him that he’d tear it all up and, with enormous labor, write it the proper way. So I wrote a bad William Gibson pastiche and sent it back to him, confident he would redo it from top to bottom.

One month later, I got the story back, expanded, with not one word changed in the pastiche section. In the accompanying letter, Bill was effusive with praise for that section.

Oh crap. I knew that if I let that section go through unchanged, the deficiencies that Bill was blind to would be as obvious to the critics as they were to me. Only, because it was written in Bill’s voice (almost), blame for this would fall not on me but on him. And people would conclude that, whatever Bill had once had, he’d lost it.

So I spent much of that month laboring mightily to bring that section up to his standards. I succeeded, I believe, but oh man that was not fun.

(Hat tip to Travis Corcoran.)

Rarely are science fiction stories written by credentialed scientists

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

John C. Wright highly recommends The Hidden Truth by Hans G. Schantz:

It is a gem of a book, a rare find, combining a charming coming of age story, diamond-hard science fiction speculation, a conspiracy thriller, a touch of trenchant political commentary, and, uniquely, a challenge written into a science fiction book of the reigning scientific orthodoxy of the day.

Rarely are science fiction stories written by credentialed scientists. Even more rare is one that proposes a revolutionary theory that questions the historical and theoretical roots of the standard model of modern physics, and no other book does so in the context of an action thriller.

[...]

If you liked Heinlein style juveniles, with their young men learning lessons about personal responsibility and integrity of character, and seasoned with brief avuncular lectures on topics ranging from electromagnetic theory to economic reality, then you are likely to enjoy this book.

[...]

Rumor has it that the author, Hans Schantz, is hard at work on the final volume, A HELL OF AN ENGINEER, but a hefty amount of public interest, and some book sales of the first three in the series, might stoke the fires under this boiler, and give him the spirit needed to complete the work in a reasonable time.

Overperforming and underperforming, momentarily dazzling but ultimately deflating

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Sianne Ngai became the most influential literary theorist of her generation by becoming the professor of gimmicks:

The summer before she enrolled at Brown University, Sianne Ngai got a job as a waitress at a restaurant called the Magic Pan. “This was an era of Reagan and gourmet jelly beans,” she recalled. In a word, it was the ‘80s.

The Magic Pan was committed to satisfying a newly sophisticated American palate. The restaurant specialized in crepes — an exotic European product — at prices low enough for upwardly mobile middle-class families to feast on them.

What was “magic” about the Magic Pan was its method of preparing the crepes. The front of the restaurant was devoted to a piece of culinary theater. The cook on display would dip the bottom of a copper pan into crepe batter. She would then place the pan, upside down, over a flame. On the underside of the pan the crepe would cook to crispy perfection.

Wander into the back of the restaurant, however, and a less spectacular picture reveals itself. After the crepes had browned on the copper pans out front, they were taken to the kitchen and stored in refrigerators. To assemble an order, a staff member would scoop filling into a cold crepe, fold the pancake over, and microwave the dish. In front: warm light, rugs, copper pans. Backstage: pungent smells of broccoli and cheese, creamed seafood, and other fillings; the incessant hum of microwaves.

This now-defunct crepe restaurant dramatizes the structure of the gimmick: an object that is at once overperforming and underperforming, momentarily dazzling but ultimately deflating. Gimmicks, Ngai writes, are “overrated devices that strike us as working too little (labor-saving tricks), but also as working too hard (strained efforts to get our attention).” In the front, the Magic Pan featured ostentatious labor — working too hard — with the “magic” of those flipped copper pans. In the back, it relied on labor-saving techniques — working too little — with its microwaves and refrigerated food. And what is a crepe but an overrated pancake?

In Theory of the Gimmick (Harvard University Press, 2020), Ngai tracks the gimmick through a number of guises: stage props, wigs, stainless-steel banana slicers, temp agencies, fraudulent photographs, subprime loans, technological doodads, the novel of ideas. Across its many forms, the gimmick arouses our suspicion. When we say something is a gimmick, we mean it is overrated and deceptive, that you would have to be a sucker to fall for it. Yet gimmicks exert a strange hold on us. As with a magic show, we can enjoy the gimmick even while we know we are being tricked.

Ngai, a 48-year-old professor of English at the University of Chicago, has slowly been building a reputation as one of America’s most original and penetrating cultural theorists. She has done so by revitalizing the field of aesthetic theory. To some critics, this domain of philosophical inquiry has long seemed fusty and archaic, overly beholden to 18th-century debates. The categories of the sublime and the beautiful, as theorized by Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, continue to shape how we make sense of aesthetic experience.

Ngai’s contribution has been to take marginal, nonprestigious aesthetic categories, such as “cuteness,” and treat them with the same seriousness traditionally afforded to the sublime and the beautiful. In her debut book, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2005), she analyzed a set of “minor” negative emotions, including irritation, anxiety, envy, and paranoia. Ngai chose not to focus on the classic aesthetic emotions: states like sympathy, which offer the possibility of moral growth, or passions like terror and anger, which promise cathartic release. Instead, she studied weak, morally unattractive feelings associated with situations of powerlessness. “If Ugly Feelings is a bestiary of affects,” she wrote, “it is one filled with rats and possums rather than lions.”

In the same spirit, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012) named the “cute” (think Hello Kitty), the “interesting” (think conceptual art), and the “zany” (think Lucille Ball’s frenzied attempts to wrap chocolate or do ballet) the dominant aesthetic categories of late capitalism. “Cuteness” captures the mix of tenderness and aggression we feel for commodities — our desire for cute things to hug, squish, cuddle, fondle, crush, and dominate. The judgment that something is “interesting” conveys our hesitant and minimal responsiveness to novelty and change against a background of sameness. (Imagine a series of photographs of filing cabinets, and you will get a sense of this coolly rational aesthetic, which evokes processes of circulation and exchange.) The “zany,” seemingly fun but actually stressful, highlights the shifting boundaries between playing and laboring, work and nonwork, that characterize today’s emotionally strenuous service labor.

Our Aesthetic Categories made Ngai a star. “Once you see the relationship of aesthetics and late capitalism as Ngai wants you to see it,” the critic Merve Emre, an associate professor at Oxford University, has written, “you cannot unsee it.”

Excellent moviemaking, but risible history

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

Three years ago Ed Realist noted that “Gone with the Wind is going through hard times right now.

If in a year or three it’s banished from TCM and movie revival houses and the AFI top 100 (much less the top 10 position it now holds), I won’t be surprised.

Gone with the Wind is not one of his favorite historical films — he considers it “excellent moviemaking, but risible history” — but he considers Mellie was one of the greatest feminist characters of all time. (I’d consider her a strong female character, but not a feminist.)

I’m not sure when I first realized that Melanie Wilkes, played by the great Olivia De Havilland, was the tremendous feminist model that others saw in Scarlett. I do know that from the first time I watched it to now, I preferred Melanie. Sometime in the 90s, though, I realized that she, not the tempestuous Scarlett, is the exemplar of a powerful female character. De Havilland’s Melanie is, in my view, one of the five great feminist movie roles of all time (the others: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Faye Dunaway in Network, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

This came up because Olivia De Havilland just turned 104 years old!

Gone with the Wind is back on HBOMax, by the way. I’ve been meaning to listen to the audiobook.

At least Anne Frank got a book deal

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

Pollyanna gets a bad rap, Lenore Skenazy argues:

Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the “At least Anne Frank got a book deal!” outlook Pollyanna calls the “Glad Game,” a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn’t need the crutches, so — hooray!

I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart — and manipulative.

The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn’t mind the attic room — just look at that view! — and soon she’s out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who’s been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they’re stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere — a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow’s stuffy bedroom as well.

By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?

“Pollyanna is nice to the people you don’t want to be around and therefore makes them nice,” says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn’t hate them and isn’t hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn’t. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.

[...]

They may feel angry and aggrieved, but is life really that bad? Or is it just their ornery, self-pitying interpretation?

Pollyanna brings CBT to the town. And lately, some parents are bringing Pollyanna’s lesson into their homes. “I deliberately made my husband and daughter, who’s 13, watch it with me,” says author Alina Adams. “I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my first seven years there. Growing up, the attitude was ‘it could always be worse.’” Her Soviet upbringing made American life one big Glad Game for Adams.

[...]

Me? I’m a proud Pollyanna convert. You can play the sad game, the mad game, or the Glad Game. Only one is any fun.

2,750 years of achievement by the top tier of homo sapiens

Monday, June 8th, 2020

Ethan Morse opens his “detailedreview of Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment with this warning:

There are reasons to read this book and not to read this book.

First, the not-reason. From the title, Human Accomplishment details the successes of humans from 800 BCE to 1950 — 2750 years of achievement by the top-tier of homo sapiens. Statistically speaking, the average person will neither contribute nor perform anything absolutely significant to society. (They may contribute some relatively significant, but nothing absolute.) This book serves as a stark reminder of this fact. Some are uncomfortable with this and prefer to live thinking that they have or eventually will have a profound impact on the world, which is perfectly fine. Don’t read this book nor this review. Done.

Now, the more compelling to-reason from another perspective. From the title, Human Accomplishment details the successes of humans from 800 BCE to 1950 — 2750 years of achievement by the top-tier of homo sapiens. Conveniently compiled in a single 668-page book (which includes the main body chapter, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index), Murray objectively (more on the use of this term later) lays out the crowning moments of the human race in science and the arts. No need to go through volumes of text wondering if your favorite author is considered among the best ever (hint: they’re probably not). Instead, consult this book and find out who the best ever are among sciences, philosophy, art, technology, and literature.

Lots of intrigue punctuated by long pauses to zoom in on the faces

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan, or DD, hasn’t dominated the ratings there for years, but it started rerunning its 78-party Ramayan during the nationwide lockdown:

Doordarshan viewership has since jumped to hundreds of times regular levels in some slots, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers, according to television ratings company Broadcast Audience Research Council of India. The series is set to end this week.

Suman Nagalia, 69, loved Ramayan when it first came out in 1987 and is now watching it again with her children and grandchildren. Her extended family of eight enjoying it together has helped reassure her during the nationwide shut down.

Ramayan

The television show’s brightly lighted scenes stuffed with colorful characters and extras in wigs, heavy makeup and bright costumes bring to mind grand old movies like “The Wizard of Oz.” The pace is more telenovela: lots of intrigue punctuated by long pauses to zoom in on the faces of actors reacting.

Ramayan Viewing

The new generation of Ramayan fans are sharing Ramayan memes on Twitter and TikTok videos of kids lip syncing dialogue and families worshiping the images of the gods by putting garlands near their televisions. There is even a hashtag, the #Ramayaneffect, to describe, for example, how children are purportedly more respectful after watching the show.

Arun Govil, 68, the actor who starred as the hero Ram, experienced adulation during its first run but says it has reached a new level this time as possibly even more Indians are watching it than in the ’80s.

He had basically ignored social media until last month, when the followers on his Facebook account shot up to more than one million. He started posting life-lesson videos for them and has been swamped with messages.

Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is all shot on iPhone 11 phones from the homes of the production team

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020

Apple’s streaming service is posting free short episodes of its Fraggle Rock reboot, Fraggle Rock: Rock On!, each Tuesday, but what’s especially interesting — at least to this silly creature — is how it’s being produced:

“In accordance with the Covid-19 ‘Safer at Home’ guidelines,” Apple writes in a release, “Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is all shot on iPhone 11 phones from the homes of the production team and individual artists from all over the U.S.”

The digital release has generated more revenue for Universal than the original Trolls did during its domestic theatrical run

Tuesday, April 28th, 2020

Last month, as the nation’s movie theaters were days from closing down, Universal Pictures decided not to postpone the release of Trolls World Tour, but to make it available as a digital rental for $19.99:

Three weeks later, “Trolls World Tour” has racked up nearly $100 million in rentals.

With nearly five million rentals in the U.S. and Canada, the digital release has in three weeks generated more revenue for Universal than the original “Trolls” did during its five-month domestic theatrical run, according to a person familiar with the matter. Its performance has convinced Universal executives that digital releases can be a winning strategy, and may diminish the role of theaters even after the pandemic passes.

[...]

For Jeff Shell, head of the film studio’s parent division, NBCUniversal, the campaign to experiment with the digital marketplace known as premium video on demand, or PVOD, had been a goal long before he ascended to his current job, four months before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

[...]

For studios, the prospect is especially alluring because they retain about 80% of the digital rental or purchase fee — compared with about 50% of box-office sales.

Universal has made more than $77 million in revenue from “Trolls World Tour” domestic customers so far. That means “Trolls World Tour” has generated about $95 million in rental fees from nearly five million customers since its release, based on revenue figures cited by the person familiar with the matter, who didn’t dispute the estimate.

The same amount of revenue during a theatrical run would have required a box-office gross of $154 million, or about the final tally of the original “Trolls” movie. The sequel cost about $90 million to produce.

The original “Trolls” collected $153.7 million at the domestic box office. Universal received about $77 million of that total; about half stayed with theaters.

It is unclear how the $20 rental strategy will affect future sales of “Trolls World Tour” DVDs and digital downloads. Researchers at Universal found 51% of people who rented the sequel said they would have “definitely” seen the movie in theaters. About one-fifth said they rarely or never rent movies from digital services.

The title set digital records at platforms operated by Amazon.com Inc., Apple and Comcast’s own Xfinity service. The movie benefited from a market largely devoid of competition, since studios have postponed most releases, and families sheltering in place are seeking things to watch together.

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Good isn’t stupid, or weak, or nice, Rick Stump argues:

I had spent my early years reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, Andre Norton, Le Morte d’Arthur, and (especially) the stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers. Heck, I read Vance’s Lyonesse before I read The Fellowship of the Ring.

The great thing about the books that I read first and most, from the Twelve Peers to The Return of the King, was that they all give a very clear idea of what is meant by good and evil, especially within the milieu of fantasy, be it literature or tabletop role playing.

The Twelve Peers, John Carter, Allan Quatermaine all shared a few traits — they were brave, they were honest, the protected the weak, and they were decisive. They also laughed, had close friends, drank, and fought. But they also were champions of the weak, loyal friends, fierce enemies, and able to judge others by their words and deeds rather than being bigoted (John Carter not only has friends of all of the races of Mars he forges close ties between them for the first time in millenia; Allan Quatermaine admires and supports Umbopa/Ignosi long before he learns he is a king; if a man is a good fighter and a Catholic his past is his past to the paladins.

Note that I didn’t mention King Arthur or his knights here. This is because in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (and unlike the earlier source material) Arthur and most of the rest are actually cautionary figures; Arthur is a deeply flawed man and poor king who begets an illegitimate son with his own half-sister, then kills all of the newborns in his lands trying (and failing) to hide this sin; Merlin is capricious and advises Arthur to hide his sins through mass infanticide; Lancelot is portrayed as not very clever and, essentially, a plaything of Guinevere who believes his sins are not sins because the queen says so; Gareth is underhanded and deceitful in his quest for fame and tries mightily to break his chastity; the list goes on. Suffice it to say that Le Morte d’Arthur was written during the Wars of the Roses and was meant to be a warning about men who claimed to be good but were not. It is truly unfortunate that Malory’s work is so popular that many modern readers mistake the figures in his version of the stories as examples rather than warnings.

And I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the confusion some have over how to play good — modern culture is saturated with King Arthur and the Knights as being exemplars of knighthood when they weren’t.

[...]

I am far from the first guy to point out that Good is not Weak. C. S. Lewis directly addressed this more than once, perhaps most famously in this quote,

“Then he is safe?” asked Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Didn’t you hear what she told you? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or this one, more detailed is less famous,

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.”I am dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.

“May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Both of these quotes from C. S. Lewis are concerning Aslan the lion who is a stand-in for Jesus Christ. Lewis was eager to dispel the mistaken concept that being good means being soft, weak, or harmless.

[...]

Traditionally, while demons might be able to overwhelm any human they stood no chance against angels and typically fled at their approach. While movies like The Prophecy and Constantine change this in the hopes of good storytelling they skew the traditional concept of the power of angels and nerf them pretty badly.

In the bible when an angel appeared to a human their mere presence was so overpowering that the first thing they usually said was a variation of ‘don’t be afraid’. John Milton mentions this in Paradise Lost, book IV, when he wrote, “Abashed the Devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.”

Medieval books of magic warned would-be summoners to never attract the notice of an angel and certainly never to summon one, because angels would destroy them for attempting to make pacts with evil and their power was so vast no warding circle could stop them.

Apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

The far future might be Post-Malthusian or Neo-Malthusian:

On a long timeframe, there are three coherent views of where history is going: we might escape Malthus forever, and our wealth and happiness compounds ever faster above subsistence; we might be locked around new Malthusian barriers, with higher low-hanging fruit that’s all been picked nonetheless; or history might end. You can write a story about the end of the world, but you can’t make it a franchise: either the world ends or it doesn’t, so eventually you have to stop writing.

The two fictional universes the best exemplify the two visions of the future are Warhammer 40,000 and the Culture series. Like all far-future science fiction, they both start in the present, pick a few technological and social trends, and apply several millennia of compound interest to see what happens next.

In the Culture novels, improvements in physical and software technology reach the point that all essential work can be done by robots, whether they’re hyperadvanced Roombas, tiny Predator Drones, or superhumanly smart ship-based Minds. There’s no need for laws or conflict; when everything is free, there’s nothing to fight over. The Culture has conflicts with other societies, but given their immense productive capacity, victory is inevitable. In The Player of Games, for example, The Culture wants to absorb the empire of Azad in order to treat the Azadians more gently than the emperor does. They could overwhelm it militarily, but they think that’s less elegant than subverting the empire from within.

The world of Warhammer 40,000 is… not that. It’s grim. It’s dark. It’s so much of both that the term grimdark was coined to describe it. W40K’s universe, like that of Culture, is superabundant, but only in suffering and terror. The moral center of the Culture is the Minds, which give humans diverting and amusing tasks. The moral center of W40K is the God-Emperor, who is slowly dying over millennia, kept alive by life support and human sacrifice. Technology exists, but science has been forgotten; their engineers are just an elaborate cargo cult. Fermi estimates of the size of the empire range from trillions to quadrillions of people, but their enemies are tangible manifestations of abstract forces like War, Disease, and Excess. The plot of every Warhammer story is a bleak, bloody retreat ahead of an inevitable loss.

The body counts in these universes vary wildly. In one Culture story, the main character has been away from his homeworld for years and years. He asks for recent news, and learns that the most shocking event of the last few years was an accident in which two people died. In W40K stories, million-casualty terrorist attacks are background noise, and the heroes tend to commit murder about as frequently and casually as the average person checks Instagram.

[...]

To some extent, you can explain the different traits of these universes by the intents of their authors: Iain Banks wanted to imagine what a socialist utopia would be like; Games Workshop wants to produce novels that encourage people to buy pricey game figurines.

But you can also run them through an theoretical lens: in the very, very long-term, do we live in a post-Malthusian world, or a neo-Malthusian one? It’s a topic I’ve explored in the past. Literal Malthusian math no longer applies; we’re not constrained by arable farmland any more. But meta-Malthusianisms are everywhere. As it turns out, when people don’t spend every waking hour eking out an existence in grinding poverty, they find other things to do.

[...]

At the Malthusian limit, the value of a human life rounds down to zero. If you’re either starving, worried about starving, or fighting a war that’s ultimately driven by resource limitations, your ratio of QALYs to lifespan takes a dive. In the other direction, if you’re a hedonic utilitarian — and Iain Banks was an atheist utopian socialist, which tends to eliminate everything but pleasure from the telos menu — then prosperity ratchets up the value of a human life to unfathomable proportions. Banks is making a reasonable extrapolation here; as countries get richer, more of their incremental wealth gets spent on healthcare despite severe diminishing marginal returns.

This variance in values is reflected throughout both books. In the Culture novels, characters are constantly changing their appearance, job, and gender. In Warhammer, too, characters change their appearance — a conceit of the stories is that extended contact with evil causes physical mutations. Intra-Culture conflict is rare and polite (characters argue, even with Minds, but those arguments all have the tone of a loving parent telling a 19-year-old to choose a less practical, more fulfilling college major). In Warhammer, the conflict is constant; the nominal good guys are antiheroes at best, who profess a code of authoritarian values (duty, sacrifice, religious fanaticism, xenophobia) but also hypocritically fail to live up to it. Interestingly, both series tend to have protagonists who are fundamentally loyal to their society, but for opposite reasons: characters are loyal to the Culture because it gives them anything they could possibly want, which makes it the best place it could possibly be. It’s entirely conditional loyalty. In the universe of W40K, loyalty is expected, and unconditional; the reward for intense loyalty is dying in a more interesting way.

Oddly enough, even though Warhammer 40,000 reads as simplistic and the Culture as sophisticated, W40K is the more introspective of the two. Iain Banks was a nice left-wing guy who liked the idea of technology making the world a better place. I don’t know how every Warhammer writer feels, but the whole thing was originally meant as a parody of dark and gritty science fiction. It just turned out that if you took the most extreme parts of that genre, and 10xed them, you got something people absolutely loved. So Banks has a love-love relationship with his creations; he only wants his universe to have conflict so his characters will have something to do. The W40K writers may absolutely loathe their protagonists, and take immense satisfaction in their gory deaths and moral corruption. The way this plays out is that Banks will give his villains halfhearted justifications for going to war against the Culture, whom Banks thinks of as a bunch of fundamentally very nice people who just want to invite every sapient being to their interplanetary orgy. Meanwhile W40K villains make some pretty good points about how crummy it would be to live in a galaxy-spanning police state with widespread misery, zero respect for human rights, and demons.

Both universes are fictional. Moreover, they’re genre fiction, and most of W40K’s literary output qualifies as pulp. They’re good intuition pumps, though. If you extrapolate from the present and don’t get to the apocalypse, one of them is directionally true. Either technology and society improve in a self-reinforcing way, until we reach a future state that rounds up to utopia, or the post-Malthusian period that started around 1800 will end some day. We’ll lose something — social technology, natural resources, all electrical devices — and find that we’re so far beyond our newly-lowered carrying capacity that we simply can’t recover. History doesn’t end, except in apocalypse. Civilization is either a divergent function or a convergent one; it’s either compound interest or a Martingale bet. If you’re building the future, it’s good to pause, think of which part of the function has the biggest exponent, and see what another few millennia of compounding will do.

The mind can go either direction under stress

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

Maria Konnikova (Mastermind) makes an embarrassing confession — well, to science fiction fans:

Until last week, I had never read Dune. I wasn’t even aware that I was supposed to have read Dune. Nor did I know I should be embarrassed at the failure. Consider me properly chastised. Fifteen or so years too late, I have finally finished the book that calls itself — on the cover of the 40th anniversary edition — “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I will say that I was surprised by the accuracy of some of its insights into the human psyche, especially when it comes to our ability to deal with stressful situations.

Paul Atreides and his mother, Jessica, find themselves alone on Arrakis, the inhospitable desert planet, and Paul makes the most of their circumstances:

Instead of panicking at their isolation, he remarks, “I find myself enjoying the quiet here.” This, just before a journey that might well kill them both. His mother doesn’t quite buy it, but she does think to herself, “How the mind gears itself for its environment. The mind can go either direction under stress — toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.”

Decades of psychological research have proven her to be quite correct. The story begins in 1949, with Donald Hebb. (Actually, it begins much earlier, but you need to start somewhere.) Hebb — a student of Wilder Penfield (who found that stimulating different areas of the temporal lobe during open-brain surgery could elicit different memories and sensations) and Karl Lashley (who quested for the engram, or the location for a specific memory, in the brains of rats) — believed that memories are stored by virtue of repeat association: an action causes activity in a cell, which in turn excites a neighboring cell. With each repetition, the connection between these two cells is strengthened, and over time, the cells become associated with one another, so that the activation of one predictably causes the activation of the other (as Carla Shatz memorably described it in 1992, “cells that fire together wire together”). These strengthening connections are now known as Hebbian plasticity, and Hebb’s idea, Hebb’s postulate.

But Hebb goes a step further than actual sensory experience. As he famously wrote, “You need not have an elephant present to think of elephants.” The thought itself can be enough to trigger the type of association that comes with learning. In other words, Paul Atreides need never have been in this specific desert environment in order to react as he does. It is enough for him to have trained his mind for that particular reaction, toward the positive and away from the negative, for the reaction to take place in reality.

Hebb’s work has since been expanded on, refined, and modified, but the general principle remains the same: training matters when it comes to how we learn and what we remember. Habit is king. Hebb’s postulate explains much of the logic behind such phenomena as Pavlovian conditioning (bell plus food equals salivation; fast forward to bell alone equals salivation), Skinnerian conditioning (pull lever, get pellet, learn to pull lever for pellet), fear conditioning and desensitization (think James Watson and poor Little Albert, or James Ledoux and scary snakes), and visual learning (Hubel and Wiesel and monocular deprivation in cats — no visual stimulus during the critical period makes for blind felines). Of course, it’s far more complicated than a single postulate, but the basic process is all about how our brains are trained, by our external and internal environment both, to respond to various situations in a predictable fashion.

Jessica, however, doesn’t just talk about training. She also brings in stress. Here, too, she is correct: where you will see the effect of the synaptic bonds most openly is under highly emotional conditions. There, habit memory — the same type of procedural memory that you use when you do something that you’re skilled at, like drive a car or perform an integral function of your job — will take over, and declarative memory — or that memory that functions when you memorize something or when you’re still learning a new skill — will recede into the background. Nothing like stress to distinguish real habit from what you wish were habit.

In one study, participants who experienced a stress condition — the cold pressor task, where one hand is submerged in freezing (0-2 degrees Celsius) water for three minutes — reverted to habit when performing a forced choice task – whereas those who were not stressed were able to perform admirably on new contingencies. Specifically, habit was chosen at the expense of goal-directed performance when choosing what food to eat: a food that had previously been devalued or one that had not. Stressed individuals chose to eat the same food they had been eating to the point of over-satiation, while non-stressed individuals chose to diversify their food choices.

So, not only does stress inhibit new learning, but it pushes the brain to fall back on those habits of mind that are second nature. Of course, the process can vary from person to person — and it’s important to remember that stress follows an inverted-U function; that is, performance under stressful conditions actually improves up to an optimal point, and then drops off dramatically as more stress is added — but in general, stressful conditions are not the best for trying to assimilate new information. Indeed, chronic stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain intimately involved in memory formation and consolidation) and can aversely impact the dopaminergic reward pathways in the brain, so that we overvalue rewarding outcomes and are impaired in our ability to learn about negative outcomes. In other words, were we to land unprepared in the arid desert of Arrakis, we’d be in bad shape, indeed.

Humans are remarkably adaptable. Paul learns quickly to appreciate the positive aspects of his new surroundings, to enjoy the quiet and value the beauty of the new landscape. But he could have just as easily shut down, spiraling into a negative feedback loop and losing his cool entirely. In fact, had he not had prior mental training to dealing with just such stressful contingencies, he would have likely done so; certainly, he would not have been in a position to learn a new positive coping mechanism in the heat of the moment.

The Kindle edition of Dune appears to be on sale for $1.99 at the moment.

My feelings on Dune are mixed, but it’s definitely a thought-provoking novel.

Lone Rick and Morty

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

The new Rick and Morty Samurai & Shogun short is an homage to classic samurai movies — and hyper-derivative anime, as well:

The “classic” it borrows most from is (or was) known in English as Shogun Assassin:

Now it’s known as Lone Wolf and Cub.