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.

He knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

After visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver visits the grand academy of Lagado:

This academy is not an entire single building, but a continuation of several houses on both sides of a street, which growing waste, was purchased and applied to that use.

I was received very kindly by the warden, and went for many days to the academy. Every room has in it one or more projectors; and I believe I could not be in fewer than five hundred rooms.

The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.

I went into another chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible stink. My conductor pressed me forward, conjuring me in a whisper “to give no offence, which would be highly resented;” and therefore I durst not so much as stop my nose. The projector of this cell was the most ancient student of the academy; his face and beard were of a pale yellow; his hands and clothes daubed over with filth. When I was presented to him, he gave me a close embrace, a compliment I could well have excused. His employment, from his first coming into the academy, was an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva. He had a weekly allowance, from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.

I saw another at work to calcine ice into gunpowder; who likewise showed me a treatise he had written concerning the malleability of fire, which he intended to publish.

There was a most ingenious architect, who had contrived a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation; which he justified to me, by the like practice of those two prudent insects, the bee and the spider.

There was a man born blind, who had several apprentices in his own condition: their employment was to mix colours for painters, which their master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my misfortune to find them at that time not very perfect in their lessons, and the professor himself happened to be generally mistaken. This artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole fraternity.

In another apartment I was highly pleased with a projector who had found a device of ploughing the ground with hogs, to save the charges of ploughs, cattle, and labour. The method is this: in an acre of ground you bury, at six inches distance and eight deep, a quantity of acorns, dates, chestnuts, and other mast or vegetables, whereof these animals are fondest; then you drive six hundred or more of them into the field, where, in a few days, they will root up the whole ground in search of their food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their dung: it is true, upon experiment, they found the charge and trouble very great, and they had little or no crop. However it is not doubted, that this invention may be capable of great improvement.

I went into another room, where the walls and ceiling were all hung round with cobwebs, except a narrow passage for the artist to go in and out. At my entrance, he called aloud to me, “not to disturb his webs.” He lamented “the fatal mistake the world had been so long in, of using silkworms, while we had such plenty of domestic insects who infinitely excelled the former, because they understood how to weave, as well as spin.” And he proposed further, “that by employing spiders, the charge of dyeing silks should be wholly saved;” whereof I was fully convinced, when he showed me a vast number of flies most beautifully coloured, wherewith he fed his spiders, assuring us “that the webs would take a tincture from them; and as he had them of all hues, he hoped to fit everybody’s fancy, as soon as he could find proper food for the flies, of certain gums, oils, and other glutinous matter, to give a strength and consistence to the threads.”

There was an astronomer, who had undertaken to place a sun-dial upon the great weathercock on the town-house, by adjusting the annual and diurnal motions of the earth and sun, so as to answer and coincide with all accidental turnings of the wind.

I was complaining of a small fit of the colic, upon which my conductor led me into a room where a great physician resided, who was famous for curing that disease, by contrary operations from the same instrument. He had a large pair of bellows, with a long slender muzzle of ivory: this he conveyed eight inches up the anus, and drawing in the wind, he affirmed he could make the guts as lank as a dried bladder. But when the disease was more stubborn and violent, he let in the muzzle while the bellows were full of wind, which he discharged into the body of the patient; then withdrew the instrument to replenish it, clapping his thumb strongly against the orifice of then fundament; and this being repeated three or four times, the adventitious wind would rush out, bringing the noxious along with it, (like water put into a pump), and the patient recovered. I saw him try both experiments upon a dog, but could not discern any effect from the former. After the latter the animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a discharge as was very offensive to me and my companion. The dog died on the spot, and we left the doctor endeavouring to recover him, by the same operation.

I visited many other apartments, but shall not trouble my reader with all the curiosities I observed, being studious of brevity.

I had hitherto seen only one side of the academy, the other being appropriated to the advancers of speculative learning, of whom I shall say something, when I have mentioned one illustrious person more, who is called among them “the universal artist.” He told us “he had been thirty years employing his thoughts for the improvement of human life.” He had two large rooms full of wonderful curiosities, and fifty men at work. Some were condensing air into a dry tangible substance, by extracting the nitre, and letting the aqueous or fluid particles percolate; others softening marble, for pillows and pin-cushions; others petrifying the hoofs of a living horse, to preserve them from foundering. The artist himself was at that time busy upon two great designs; the first, to sow land with chaff, wherein he affirmed the true seminal virtue to be contained, as he demonstrated by several experiments, which I was not skilful enough to comprehend. The other was, by a certain composition of gums, minerals, and vegetables, outwardly applied, to prevent the growth of wool upon two young lambs; and he hoped, in a reasonable time to propagate the breed of naked sheep, all over the kingdom.

We crossed a walk to the other part of the academy, where, as I have already said, the projectors in speculative learning resided.

The first professor I saw, was in a very large room, with forty pupils about him. After salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a frame, which took up the greatest part of both the length and breadth of the room, he said, “Perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge, by practical and mechanical operations. But the world would soon be sensible of its usefulness; and he flattered himself, that a more noble, exalted thought never sprang in any other man’s head. Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”

I made my humblest acknowledgment to this illustrious person, for his great communicativeness; and promised, “if ever I had the good fortune to return to my native country, that I would do him justice, as the sole inventor of this wonderful machine;” the form and contrivance of which I desired leave to delineate on paper, as in the figure here annexed. I told him, “although it were the custom of our learned in Europe to steal inventions from each other, who had thereby at least this advantage, that it became a controversy which was the right owner; yet I would take such caution, that he should have the honour entire, without a rival.”

We next went to the school of languages, where three professors sat in consultation upon improving that of their own country.

The first project was, to shorten discourse, by cutting polysyllables into one, and leaving out verbs and participles, because, in reality, all things imaginable are but norms.

The other project was, a scheme for entirely abolishing all words whatsoever; and this was urged as a great advantage in point of health, as well as brevity. For it is plain, that every word we speak is, in some degree, a diminution of our lungs by corrosion, and, consequently, contributes to the shortening of our lives. An expedient was therefore offered, “that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express a particular business they are to discourse on.” And this invention would certainly have taken place, to the great ease as well as health of the subject, if the women, in conjunction with the vulgar and illiterate, had not threatened to raise a rebellion unless they might be allowed the liberty to speak with their tongues, after the manner of their forefathers; such constant irreconcilable enemies to science are the common people. However, many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things; which has only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man’s business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged, in proportion, to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us, who, when they met in the street, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burdens, and take their leave.

But for short conversations, a man may carry implements in his pockets, and under his arms, enough to supply him; and in his house, he cannot be at a loss. Therefore the room where company meet who practise this art, is full of all things, ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.

Another great advantage proposed by this invention was, that it would serve as a universal language, to be understood in all civilised nations, whose goods and utensils are generally of the same kind, or nearly resembling, so that their uses might easily be comprehended. And thus ambassadors would be qualified to treat with foreign princes, or ministers of state, to whose tongues they were utter strangers.

I was at the mathematical school, where the master taught his pupils after a method scarce imaginable to us in Europe. The proposition, and demonstration, were fairly written on a thin wafer, with ink composed of a cephalic tincture. This, the student was to swallow upon a fasting stomach, and for three days following, eat nothing but bread and water. As the wafer digested, the tincture mounted to his brain, bearing the proposition along with it. But the success has not hitherto been answerable, partly by some error in the quantum or composition, and partly by the perverseness of lads, to whom this bolus is so nauseous, that they generally steal aside, and discharge it upwards, before it can operate; neither have they been yet persuaded to use so long an abstinence, as the prescription requires.

He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them

Monday, March 23rd, 2020

While visiting the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver finds himself “little regarded,” because of his unimpressive mathematical and musical abilities:

On the other side, after having seen all the curiosities of the island, I was very desirous to leave it, being heartily weary of those people. They were indeed excellent in two sciences for which I have great esteem, and wherein I am not unversed; but, at the same time, so abstracted and involved in speculation, that I never met with such disagreeable companions. I conversed only with women, tradesmen, flappers, and court-pages, during two months of my abode there; by which, at last, I rendered myself extremely contemptible; yet these were the only people from whom I could ever receive a reasonable answer.

I had obtained, by hard study, a good degree of knowledge in their language: I was weary of being confined to an island where I received so little countenance, and resolved to leave it with the first opportunity.

There was a great lord at court, nearly related to the king, and for that reason alone used with respect. He was universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid person among them. He had performed many eminent services for the crown, had great natural and acquired parts, adorned with integrity and honour; but so ill an ear for music, that his detractors reported, “he had been often known to beat time in the wrong place;” neither could his tutors, without extreme difficulty, teach him to demonstrate the most easy proposition in the mathematics. He was pleased to show me many marks of favour, often did me the honour of a visit, desired to be informed in the affairs of Europe, the laws and customs, the manners and learning of the several countries where I had travelled. He listened to me with great attention, and made very wise observations on all I spoke. He had two flappers attending him for state, but never made use of them, except at court and in visits of ceremony, and would always command them to withdraw, when we were alone together.

I entreated this illustrious person, to intercede in my behalf with his majesty, for leave to depart; which he accordingly did, as he was pleased to tell me, with regret: for indeed he had made me several offers very advantageous, which, however, I refused, with expressions of the highest acknowledgment.

On the 16th of February I took leave of his majesty and the court. The king made me a present to the value of about two hundred pounds English, and my protector, his kinsman, as much more, together with a letter of recommendation to a friend of his in Lagado, the metropolis. The island being then hovering over a mountain about two miles from it, I was let down from the lowest gallery, in the same manner as I had been taken up.

The continent, as far as it is subject to the monarch of the flying island, passes under the general name of Balnibarbi; and the metropolis, as I said before, is called Lagado. I felt some little satisfaction in finding myself on firm ground. I walked to the city without any concern, being clad like one of the natives, and sufficiently instructed to converse with them. I soon found out the person’s house to whom I was recommended, presented my letter from his friend the grandee in the island, and was received with much kindness. This great lord, whose name was Munodi, ordered me an apartment in his own house, where I continued during my stay, and was entertained in a most hospitable manner.

The next morning after my arrival, he took me in his chariot to see the town, which is about half the bigness of London; but the houses very strangely built, and most of them out of repair. The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags. We passed through one of the town gates, and went about three miles into the country, where I saw many labourers working with several sorts of tools in the ground, but was not able to conjecture what they were about: neither did observe any expectation either of corn or grass, although the soil appeared to be excellent. I could not forbear admiring at these odd appearances, both in town and country; and I made bold to desire my conductor, that he would be pleased to explain to me, what could be meant by so many busy heads, hands, and faces, both in the streets and the fields, because I did not discover any good effects they produced; but, on the contrary, I never knew a soil so unhappily cultivated, houses so ill contrived and so ruinous, or a people whose countenances and habit expressed so much misery and want.

This lord Munodi was a person of the first rank, and had been some years governor of Lagado; but, by a cabal of ministers, was discharged for insufficiency. However, the king treated him with tenderness, as a well-meaning man, but of a low contemptible understanding.

When I gave that free censure of the country and its inhabitants, he made no further answer than by telling me, “that I had not been long enough among them to form a judgment; and that the different nations of the world had different customs;” with other common topics to the same purpose. But, when we returned to his palace, he asked me “how I liked the building, what absurdities I observed, and what quarrel I had with the dress or looks of his domestics?” This he might safely do; because every thing about him was magnificent, regular, and polite. I answered, “that his excellency’s prudence, quality, and fortune, had exempted him from those defects, which folly and beggary had produced in others.” He said, “if I would go with him to his country-house, about twenty miles distant, where his estate lay, there would be more leisure for this kind of conversation.” I told his excellency “that I was entirely at his disposal;” and accordingly we set out next morning.

During our journey he made me observe the several methods used by farmers in managing their lands, which to me were wholly unaccountable; for, except in some very few places, I could not discover one ear of corn or blade of grass. But, in three hours travelling, the scene was wholly altered; we came into a most beautiful country; farmers’ houses, at small distances, neatly built; the fields enclosed, containing vineyards, corn-grounds, and meadows. Neither do I remember to have seen a more delightful prospect. His excellency observed my countenance to clear up; he told me, with a sigh, “that there his estate began, and would continue the same, till we should come to his house: that his countrymen ridiculed and despised him, for managing his affairs no better, and for setting so ill an example to the kingdom; which, however, was followed by very few, such as were old, and wilful, and weak like himself.”

We came at length to the house, which was indeed a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture. The fountains, gardens, walks, avenues, and groves, were all disposed with exact judgment and taste. I gave due praises to every thing I saw, whereof his excellency took not the least notice till after supper; when, there being no third companion, he told me with a very melancholy air “that he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form as modern usage required, and give the same directions to all his tenants, unless he would submit to incur the censure of pride, singularity, affectation, ignorance, caprice, and perhaps increase his majesty’s displeasure; that the admiration I appeared to be under would cease or diminish, when he had informed me of some particulars which, probably, I never heard of at court, the people there being too much taken up in their own speculations, to have regard to what passed here below.”

The sum of his discourse was to this effect: “That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair: that as for himself, being not of an enterprising spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms, to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did, in every part of life, without innovation: that some few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

His lordship added, “That he would not, by any further particulars, prevent the pleasure I should certainly take in viewing the grand academy, whither he was resolved I should go.” He only desired me to observe a ruined building, upon the side of a mountain about three miles distant, of which he gave me this account: “That he had a very convenient mill within half a mile of his house, turned by a current from a large river, and sufficient for his own family, as well as a great number of his tenants; that about seven years ago, a club of those projectors came to him with proposals to destroy this mill, and build another on the side of that mountain, on the long ridge whereof a long canal must be cut, for a repository of water, to be conveyed up by pipes and engines to supply the mill, because the wind and air upon a height agitated the water, and thereby made it fitter for motion, and because the water, descending down a declivity, would turn the mill with half the current of a river whose course is more upon a level.” He said, “that being then not very well with the court, and pressed by many of his friends, he complied with the proposal; and after employing a hundred men for two years, the work miscarried, the projectors went off, laying the blame entirely upon him, railing at him ever since, and putting others upon the same experiment, with equal assurance of success, as well as equal disappointment.”

In a few days we came back to town; and his excellency, considering the bad character he had in the academy, would not go with me himself, but recommended me to a friend of his, to bear me company thither. My lord was pleased to represent me as a great admirer of projects, and a person of much curiosity and easy belief; which, indeed, was not without truth; for I had myself been a sort of projector in my younger days.

Plundering words from India

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

As I mentioned, I’ve been enjoying the audiobook version of Sharpe’s Tiger, and I was surprised to learn that the word loot was borrowed from Hindi. It’s included in this list of words English owes to India:

A – atoll, avatar
B – bandana, bangle, bazaar, Blighty, bungalow
C – cashmere, catamaran, char, cheroot, cheetah, chintz, chit, chokey, chutney, cot, cummerbund, curry
D – dinghy, doolally, dungarees
G – guru, gymkhana
H – hullabaloo
J – jodhpur, jungle, juggernaut, jute
K – khaki, kedgeree
L – loot
N – nirvana
P – pariah, pashmina, polo, pukka, pundit, purdah, pyjamas
S – sari, shampoo, shawl, swastika
T – teak, thug, toddy, typhoon
V – veranda
Y – yoga

Most of those are clearly Indian, but plenty surprised me — bandana, catamaran, cheetah, cot, cummerbund, dinghy, jungle, and pundit.