Daenerys Targaryen is modeled on Moses

Friday, April 21st, 2023

Misha Saul suggests that Daenerys Targaryen is modeled on Moses:

  • Born into royalty.
  • Led her people out of destitution.
  • Freed slaves.
  • Works miracles.
  • Suffers trials and doubts and betrayals on the way to the Promised Land.
  • Ends up a hardened warrior, dictator and self-righteous killer of men, women and children.

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

How much does a Pulitzer Prize increase weekly sales?

The 2014 general nonfiction winner, Tom’s River by Dan Fagin, went from 10 copies to 162 copies sold (6,266 copies sold to date) on BookScan. History winner The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor went from 27 copies to 433 copies (3,375 copies sold to date). 3 Sections by Vijay Seshadri, the 2014 poetry winner, went from 11 copies to 81 copies (353 copies sold to date). Megan Marshall’s Margaret Fuller, the biography winner, out in paperback, went from 62 copies to 387 copies (5,038 copies sold to date).

We know that fungi can infect humans

Tuesday, February 14th, 2023

I haven’t watched The Last of Us (yet), but it seems to be based on a scenario I’ve discussed before of how a zombie outbreak could (semi-plausibly) happen:

We know that fungi can infect humans. We also know that fungal networks exist in most of the world’s forests. These mycorrhizal networks have a symbiotic relationship with trees and other plants in the forest, exchanging nutrients for mutual benefit. These networks can be quite large, and there are studies that demonstrate the potential for chemical signals to be transmitted from one plant to another via the mycorrhizal network. That, in turn, means that fungal filaments could perform both vascular and neural functions within a corpse.

This leads us to the following scenario: microscopic spores are inhaled, ingested, or transmitted via zombie bite. The spores are eventually dispersed throughout the body via the bloodstream. Then they lie dormant. When the host dies, chemical signals (or, more accurately, the absence of chemical signals) within the body that occur upon death trigger the spores to activate, and begin growing. The ensuing fungal network carries nutrients to muscles in the absence of respiration or normal metabolism.

Part of the fungal network grows within the brain, where it interfaces with the medulla and cerebellum, as well as parts of the brain involving vision, hearing and possibly scent. Chemicals released by the fungi activate basic responses within these brain areas. The fungi/brain interface is able to convert the electrochemical signals of neurons into chemical signals that can be transmitted along the fungal network that extends through much of the body. This signal method is slow and imperfect, which results in the uncoordinated movements of zombies. And this reliance on the host’s brain accounts for the “headshot” phenomenon, in which grievous wounds to the brain or spine seem to render zombies fully inert.

Eventually, the socialist aspects of the community faded away, and the Herberts ran a general store there

Sunday, January 22nd, 2023

Frank Patrick Herbert Jr. was not born into an aristocratic family and did not receive specialized training as a mentat or Bene Gesserit witch:

His paternal grandparents had come west in 1905 to join Burley Colony in Kitsap County, one of many utopian communes springing up in Washington State beginning in the 1890s. The Burley communards printed their own currency, paid everyone an identical salary, and championed gender equality. Eventually, the socialist aspects of the community faded away, and the Herberts ran a general store there.

Herbert’s father, Frank Patrick Herbert Sr., had a varied career including operating a bus line, selling electrical equipment, and serving as a state motorcycle patrolman. His mother, Eileen Marie McCarthy, was from a large Irish family in Wisconsin. According to unsubstantiated family lore, during Prohibition, Frank Senior, Eileen, and another couple built and ran the legendary Spanish Castle Ballroom, a speakeasy and dancehall off of Highway 99 between Seattle and Tacoma.

Herbert’s childhood included camping, hunting, fishing, and digging clams. At 8 he is said to have jumped on a table and shouted, “I wanna be an author.” His parents were binge alcoholics, and young Frank often had to care for his only sibling, Patty Lou, who was 13 years younger. He had a checkered career at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, including dropped and failed classes. But his career as a writer had already been launched. He was an enthusiastic reporter on the student newspaper. A classmate remembered him rushing into the “news shack” behind the school, shouting: “Stop the presses! I’ve got a scoop!”

In May of his senior year, he dropped out. The following summer he worked on the Tacoma Ledger as a copy and office boy, doing some actual reporting as well. In the fall he went back to school, writing feature articles and a regular column for the school paper. At 17, he sold a Western story for $27.50. He was elated, but the next two dozen stories he wrote were all rejected. In 1938, worried about his parents’ drinking and his 5-year-old sister’s safety in the unstable home, he and Patty Lou took a bus to Salem, Oregon, where they sought refuge with an aunt and uncle.

After graduation from Salem High School in 1939, Herbert moved to California and got a job at the Glendale Star as a copy editor. Barely 18, he lied about his age and smoked a briar pipe to seem older. By 1940 the 19-year-old was back with his aunt and uncle in Salem, and talked his way into an “on-call” job with the Oregon Statesman as a photographer, copy editor, feature reporter, and in the advertising department.

In the spring of 1941, he and Flora Parkinson drove three hours north to Tacoma, where they got a night court judge to marry them. Back in California, he worked once more for the Glendale Star, and in February 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor, he registered for the draft. The next day the couple’s daughter, Penelope Eileen, was born. By July he had enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to Portsmouth, Virginia as a photographer. There, tripping over a tent tie-down, he suffered a head injury that resulted in an honorable discharge. He went back to California, where he discovered his wife and daughter had vanished. His mother-in-law in Oregon wouldn’t tell him where they were. Flora and Frank Herbert were subsequently divorced, and she was given custody of baby Penny.

From 1943 to 1945, Herbert worked as a reporter for the Oregon Journal in Portland. He was writing fiction as well. In 1945 he had his second sale, a suspense story set in Alaska that appeared in Esquire magazine and earned him $200. By August of 1945, he had moved to Seattle and was working on the night desk at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Gone With the Wind is the new improved Vanity Fair

Monday, January 2nd, 2023

Lex Fridman’s reading list doesn’t include William Makepeace Thackeray‘s Vanity Fair, but Steve Sailer’s review has me intrigued:

It’s extremely enjoyable. Despite a fairly rambling plot covering almost 800 pages from roughly 1813 to 1828, it’s a page-turner because the characters and situations are interesting enough that you want to find out what happens.

I’d describe Vanity Fair as the precursor to Gone With the Wind, in that it centers around two young women, the nice but mopey Amelia (the precursor of Melanie Hamilton, played by Olivia De Havilland) and the not nice but more interesting Becky Sharp (Scarlett O’Hara, played by Vivien Leigh).


The male characters in both tend to be army officers who go off to a big battle, Waterloo in VF and Gettysburg in GWTH.

Overall, I’d say that GWTH is the new improved VF, with more memorable characters and settings. Margaret Mitchell always denied having read Vanity Fair, but Gone With the Wind sure seems like a punched up version of Vanity Fair, with Mitchell raising the stakes wherever Thackeray was inclined to let them ride.

For instance, while the British win at Waterloo and so English society mostly goes on as before, the Southerners lose at Gettysburg and soon the old society is, like the title says, gone with the wind. The Southerners need to learn a lot of hard new lessons about life. Melanie and her husband Ashley Wilkes fail to adapt to the new world, while Scarlett, despite her self-centered sense of entitlement and general knuckleheadedness, eventually succeeds.

In contrast, from the first page of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp, a poor orphan, is smarter than the rich people around her. Thackeray points out near the beginning of the book that when she claims to love children that she would soon learn not to make claims so easily disproved. “The little adventuress” seldom learns over the 800 pages because she was already supremely worldly wise from a tender age.

In contrast to Scarlett, Becky is always rational to the point of being cold-blooded. Becky wants material comfort and to rise in status, but she lacks particular passions (until late in the book when she starts to develop a gambling problem). She has no Ashley Wilkes to pine over.

Indeed, Becky is so reasonable that she often behaves surprisingly nicely to the other characters because, having calculated all the factors, she doesn’t see how it could cost her much.

And Mitchell takes Thackeray’s admirable but stiff Captain Dobbin, who is lovelorn over Amelia throughout who foolishly ignores him, and turns him into the pirate king Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), who instead of being lovelorn over Melanie is lovelorn over Scarlett. This creates the 20th Century’s most popular fictional couple.

We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise

Tuesday, December 27th, 2022

C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for The Chronicles of Narnia and then for Mere Christianity, but he’s also known for works like The Inner Ring, Dangers of National Repentance, The Necessity of Chivalry, Equality, On the Reading of Old Books, and The Great Divorce.

I’d been meaning to read his essay on Men without Chests, which opens The Abolition of Man, and, like Brett McKay, I had assumed it meant men without spines, or courage, or manly virtues, which isn’t quite right:

His lament is that modern society makes men without heart.


While the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent — to be more in harmony with Nature. Such training teaches a man to evaluate things as more or less Just, True, Beautiful, and Good, and to proportion his affections as merited. As Lewis notes, this training was considered central to one’s development throughout antiquity.

In the 20th century, it began to be posited that there was not a natural order to the world, and that things did not possess an objective value which demanded a certain response; rather, people simply brought their own feelings to objects, and these feelings are what gave the objects their value. Such feelings were culturally conditioned and relative to particular societies and individuals, and were thus completely subjective. Lewis observes that certain corollaries followed from this conclusion, mainly that “judgements of value are unimportant,” “all values are subjective and trivial,” and “emotion is contrary to reason.”

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and honing the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it atrophied their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The ostensible subject of his essay is “a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’” that he dubs The Green Book, by two amateur philosophers posing as professional grammarians whom he refers to as Gaius and Titius. They present an ad for a cruise as an example of bad writing:

From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible. He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement — that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. There are two men to whom we offer in vain a false leading article on patriotism and honour: one is the coward, the other is the honourable and patriotic man. None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.


I have hitherto been assuming that such teachers as Gaius and Titius do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences it will actually have. There is, of course, another possibility. What I have called (presuming on their concurrence in a certain traditional system of values) the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce. The differences between us may go all the way down. They may really hold that the ordinary human feelings about the past or animals or large waterfalls are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. That position will be discussed later.


But I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy. I think they have slipped into it for the following reasons. In the first place, literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier. To explain why a bad treatment of some basic human emotion is bad literature is, if we exclude all question-begging attacks on the emotion itself, a very hard thing to do.


In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda— they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.


Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.


This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao‘. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself—just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.


Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’.


When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said. He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgement discerned in noble death. He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him. But Gaius and Titius cannot believe that in calling such a death sweet and seemly they would be saying ‘something important about something’. Their own method of debunking would cry out against them if they attempted to do so. For death is not something to eat and therefore cannot be dulce in the literal sense, and it is unlikely that the real sensations preceding it will be dulce even by analogy. And as for decorum — that is only a word describing how some other people will feel about your death when they happen to think of it, which won’t be often, and will certainly do you no good.


It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato.


The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

A while back T. Greer mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists both Dune and The Abolition of Man as required reading and combines their ideas:

Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?

Don’t carry anything you don’t control

Saturday, December 24th, 2022

Alma Katsu — who spent 30+ years working for CIA and NSA and went on to write spy novels, like Red Widow — noticed that — spoiler alert!Andor incorporates spycraft into its story better and more subtly than many spy shows:

Spies Everywhere

Andor made it abundantly clear that when you’re involved in a conflict like this, you are always being watched. There are spies and watchers everywhere. Senator Mon Mothma, who knows her driver is an Internal Security Bureau (ISB) plant, complains there is “a new spy every day at the Senate” as well as at the bank where she is trying to discreetly move funds to the rebellion. Free agents, or volunteers, roam the streets of Ferrix, hoping to luck into information they might be able to sell. It becomes quickly apparent that Luthen, architect of the rebellion, has developed a vast network of spies. Spies are such a given that it’s almost humorous when Saw, leader of a partisan group, becomes outraged when he finds out Luthen even has a spy inside Saw’s own ranks.


Covert Communications

Covcomm is essential to running a spy network: it enables you to communicate securely with your assets without the risks that come with meeting in person (a risk Luthen mentions this when a highly-placed agent that he hasn’t laid eyes on in a year requests a meeting.) Covcomm was featured prominently in the show: we see Bix shimmy up a hidden tower to send broadcasts to the handler on a special transmitter (obviously designed to elude detection by the Empire). On the other end, we see Luthen and Kleya, his lieutenant, in the backroom of their antiques shop, the front for their operations, glued to their receiver, listening for messages from agents dispersed all over the galaxy.

Disguise and Persona

Operations officers often must wear a disguise in order to get to a meeting undetected or slip behind enemy lines. This is less about fooling a close observer than it is about slipping past the enemy’s army of watchers. We didn’t see too much in the disguise department in Andor except for Luthen, and it was like something out of The Americans as he alternated between his true self and his false persona, the proprietor of a high-end antiques shop on Coruscant, for which he dons a flamboyant wig and clothing.

Good Tradecraft

The spies of Andor practice good discipline as they ply their trade, from not carrying commercial communications equipment (“don’t carry anything you don’t control”) and always having an exit strategy (“build your exit on the way in,” Luthen warns Cassian), to the chalk marks on the sidewalk that Kleya follows to know where to meet insurgent team leader Vel.

The Destructive Culture of a Toxic Security Organization

Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the atmosphere and culture of a Gestapo-like security bureaucracy. It is eat-or-be-eaten, and often management is missing-in-action, out of design rather than incompetence. You’re rewarded for affirming management’s viewpoint, not for rocking the boat or pointing out problems. Officers compete for turf and to move up the ladder, all under the watchful eye of ruthless supervisors who are themselves afraid of putting a foot wrong or being eaten alive by their underlings.


Protecting Sources

One of the toughest aspects of the espionage business is the protection of assets. When an important asset is at risk, do you leave him in place to continue receiving intelligence or do you pull him out for his own safety? To what lengths do you go in order to protect that asset?

In Andor, the ISB stumbles across a rebel plan to attack a facility. Lonni Jung, an ISB supervisor and embedded asset for the rebels, tells Luthen that their man is going to walk into a trap. But if the rebels warn the man off, the ISB will see there’s a mole in their midst. Luthen makes the decision to let their man (and his entire squad) be slaughtered by the ISB rather than risk exposing their asset. Andor’s writers did a superb job depicting the sometimes cold-hearted calculations spymasters are forced to make. Not only does this sub-plot reveal a lot about Luthen, but it left Lonni, the embedded asset, with the knowledge that 30 men died to protect him — a sacrifice he didn’t ask for.

Call Me Psi-Electronics

Tuesday, December 20th, 2022

With the Avatar sequel coming to theaters, I was reminded of Poul Anderson’s 1957 story, Call Me Joe, which inspired the avatar element of James Cameron’s movie. The story opens like this:

The wind came whipping out of eastern darkness, driving a lash of ammonia dust before it. In minutes, Edward Anglesey was blinded.

He clawed all of his four feet into the broken shards which were soil, hunched down, and groped for his little smelter. The wind was an idiot bassoon in his skull. Something whipped across his back, drawing blood, a tree yanked up by the roots and spat a hundred miles. Lightning cracked, immensely far overhead, where clouds boiled with night.

As if to reply, thunder toned in the ice mountains and a red gout of flame jumped and a hillside came booming down, spilling itself across the valley. The ground beneath him shivered.

Sodium explosion, thought Anglesey in the drumbeat noise. The fire and the lightning gave him enough illumination to find his apparatus. He picked up tools in his muscular hands, his tail gripped the trough, and he battered his way to the tunnel and into his dugout.

It had walls and roof of water, frozen by sun — remoteness and compressed by tons of atmosphere jammed onto every square inch. Ventilated by a tiny smokehole, a lamp of tree oil burning in hydrogen made a dull light for the single room.

Anglesey sprawled his slate-blue form on the floor, panting. It was no use to swear at the storm. These ammonia gales often came at sunset, and there was nothing to do but wait them out. He was tired anyway.

It would be morning in five hours or so. He had hoped to create an axehead, his first, this evening, but maybe it was better to do the job by daylight.

He pulled a decapitated body off a shelf and ate the meat raw, pausing for long gulps of liquid methane from a jug. Things would improve once he had proper tools; so far, everything had been painfully grubbed and hacked into shape using only teeth, claws, chance icicles, and what detestably weak and crumbling fragments remained of the spaceship. Give him a few years and he’d be living as a person should.

He sighed, stretched, and lay down to sleep.

Somewhat more than one hundred and twelve thousand miles away, Edward Anglesey took off his helmet.


He looked around, blinking. After the surface of Jupiter, it was always a little unreal to find himself here again, in the clean, quiet orderliness of the control room.

His muscles ached. They shouldn’t. He had not really been fighting a gale of several hundred miles an hour, under three gravities, and a temperature of 140 Absolute. He had been here, in the almost nonexistent pull of Jupiter V, breathing oxynitrogen. It was Joe who lived down there and filled his lungs with hydrogen and helium at a pressure which could still only be estimated because it broke aneroids and deranged piezo-electrics.

Nevertheless, his body felt worn and beaten. Tension, no doubt — psychosomatics — after all, for a good many hours now. he had, in a sense, been Joe, and Joe had been working hard.

With the helmet off, Anglesey held only a thread of identification. The esprojector was still tuned to Joe’s brain but no longer focused on his own. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew an indescribable feeling of sleep. Now and then, vague forms or colors drifted in the soft black — dreams? Not impossible, that Joe’s brain should dream a little when Anglesey’s mind wasn’t using it.

A light flickered red on the esprojector panel, and a bell whined electronic fear. Anglesey cursed. Thin fingers danced over the controls of his chair, he slued around and shot across to the bank of dials. Yes — there — K-tube oscillating again! The circuit blew out. He wrenched the faceplate off with one hand and fumbled in a drawer with the other.

Inside his mind he could feel the contact with Joe fading. If he once lost it entirely, he wasn’t sure he could regain it. And Joe was an investment of several million dollars and quite a few highly skilled man-years.

Anglesey pulled the offending K-tube from its socket and threw it on the floor. Glass exploded. It eased his temper a bit, just enough so he could find a replacement, plug it in, switch on the current again — as the machine warmed up, once again amplifying, the Joeness in the back alleys of his brain strengthened.

Slowly, then, the man in the electric wheelchair rolled out of the room, into the hall. Let somebody else sweep up the broken tube. To hell with it. To hell with everybody.

Jan Cornelius had never been farther from Earth than some comfortable Lunar resort. He felt much put upon that the Psionics Corporation should tap him for a thirteen-month exile. The fact that he knew as much about esprojectors and their cranky innards as any other man alive was no excuse. Why send anyone at all? Who cared?

Obviously the Federation Science Authority did. It had seemingly given those bearded hermits a blank check on the taxpayers’ account.

Our protagonist, from his electric wheelchair, controls a slate-blue alien form with a prehensile tail on a hostile planet — using an esprojector from the Psionics Corporation. As I read this, in my copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A, I suddenly realized that psionics wasn’t simply a word for psychic powers, the way it was used in the D&D books of my childhood, but was a portmanteau of psi (“psychic phenomena”) and the -onics from electronics:

In 1942, two authors — biologist Bertold Wiesner and psychologist Robert Thouless — had introduced the term “psi” (from the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet) to parapsychology in an article published in the British Journal of Psychology. (This Greek character was chosen as apropos since it is the initial letter of the Greek word psyche, meaning “mind” or “soul”.) The intent was that “psi” would represent the “unknown factor” in extrasensory perception and psychokinesis, experiences believed to be unexplained by any known physical or biological mechanisms. In a 1972 book, Thouless insisted that he and Wiesner had coined this usage of the term “psi” prior to its use in science fiction circles, explaining that their intent was to provide a more neutral term than “ESP” that would not suggest a pre-existing theory of mechanism.

The word “psionics” first appeared in print in a novella by science fiction writer Jack Williamson — The Greatest Invention — published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1951. Williamson derived it from the “psion”, a fictitious “unit of mental energy” described in the same story. (Only later was the term retroactively described in non-fiction articles in Astounding as a portmanteau of “psychic electronics”, by editor John W. Campbell.) The new word was derived by analogy with the earlier term radionics. (“Radionics” combined radio with electronics and was itself devised in the 1940s to refer to the work of early 20th century physician and pseudoscientist Albert Abrams.) The same analogy was subsequently taken up in a number of science fiction-themed neologisms, notably bionics (bio- + electronics; coined 1960) and cryonics (cryo- + electronics; coined 1967).

Bach likely intended the simple binary dances as teaching material

Monday, December 19th, 2022

I recently heard the famous Minuet in G major, but I had to ask what the name of the piece was — which wasn’t very helpful — and the name of the composer — which was rather confusing:

The little keyboard student said it was by Christian Petzold. That can’t be right. Isn’t it by Bach? Ah, therein lies a tale!

The second Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach was started in 1725. It opened with two harpsichord suites, that is, the Partitas BWV 827 and 830, composed and written down by Johann Sebastian Bach. Anna Magdalena Bach likely received the notebook from her husband in the autumn of 1725, as a present for either her birthday (22 September) or their wedding anniversary (3 December). Nos. 3 to 11 in the notebook are keyboard pieces written down by Anna Magdalena, likely shortly after she was given the volume. No. 3, the first piece after the two seven-movement Partitas, is a Minuet in F major by an unknown composer (likely not Bach), adopted as No. 113 in the second annex (German: Anhang, Anh.), that is the annex of doubtful compositions, in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV). Petzold’s Minuets in G major and G minor, BWV Anh. 114 and 115, are the next two entries in the notebook (Nos. 4 and 5). These pieces may have been brought back from Dresden by Johann Sebastian when he visited this city in September 1725.

Bach likely intended the simple binary dances contained in Anna Magdalena’s notebooks, including the Minuets entered without composer indication, as teaching material, likely rather for his younger children than for his wife.

The Seashell croons and murmurs its music and commercials and private little melodramas for her alone

Sunday, December 11th, 2022

When I first read Ray Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 back in eighth grade, I wasn’t surrounded by people wearing AirPods, but I suppose Walkman headphones were common enough:

Elsewhere in the narrative I described my Fire Man arriving home after midnight to find his wife in bed afflicted with two varieties of stupor. She is in a trance, a condition so withdrawn as to resemble catatonia, compounded of equal parts liquor and a small Seashell thimble-radio tucked in her ear. The Seashell croons and murmurs its music and commercials and private little melodramas for her alone. The room is silent. The husband cannot even try to guess the communion between Seashell and wife. Awakening her is not unlike applying shock to a cataleptic.

I thought I was writing a story of prediction, describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a month ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned.

The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not science fiction. This was a new fact in our changing society.

As you can see, I must start writing very fast indeed about our future world in order to stand still. I thought I had raced ahead of science, predicting the radio-induced semi-catatonic.

In the long haul, science pulled abreast, tipped its hat, and fed me the dust. The woman with the radio-thimble crammed in her ear the other night symbolized my failure to count on certain psychological needs which demanded satisfaction earlier than I supposed.

It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture

Saturday, December 10th, 2022

When Ray Bradbury passed away a decade ago, I remembered reading a borrowed copy of Fahrenheit 451 in one school day in eighth grade. I don’t know whether the teachers failed to notice, or they opted to show some discretion in ignoring my transgression that day.

The novel is often — usually — misinterpreted:

Fahrenheit is not about censorship. It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news.

Ray Bradbury was the atavist’s futurist:

The obvious reading of Fahrenheit 451 reveals a story about censorship. This view lends itself to competing left-right interpretations, making Fahrenheit 451 the unique politically charged book that transcends the controversies of its day and finds welcome in conflicting political camps. Is it about McCarthyism or political correctness? The flexibility of political readings helps explain the 5 million copies in print. But the more subtle and important theme involves passive entertainment displacing the life of the mind. It is less about right-left than about smart-stupid.

Before Fahrenheit 451’s firemen came to burn books, the public deserted books. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” the story’s Professor Faber remarks. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” In attempting to please the masses, publishers took care not to offend the market and produced books “leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm.” Attention spans waned in the wake of competing technology. “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth-century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”

In the novel, people stopped reading before the state stopped them from reading. The predictable result was an ill-educated society fit for neither leisure nor the ballot. Women discuss voting for a candidate because of his handsome looks and abdicate the responsibilities of motherhood by dumping their children in front of television sets. The over-medicated, air-conditioned culture is awash in suicide, abortion, child neglect, and glassy-eyed passivity. Sound familiar?

Bradbury’s unpublished speaking notes from the mid-1950s acknowledge Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon — about the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials — as a major inspiration:

People have often asked me what effect Huxley and Orwell had on me, and whether either of them influenced the creation of Fahrenheit 451. The best response is Arthur Koestler…. [O]nly a few perceived the intellectual holocaust and the revolution by burial that Stalin achieved…. Only Koestler got the full range of desecration, execution, and forgetfulness on a mass and nameless graveyard scale. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was therefore…true father, mother, and lunatic brother to my F. 451.

In one of the great ironies of literary history, Fahrenheit 451 was itself silently modified in the 1960s to make the novel more likely to win school-board approval as a classroom text:

A special “Bal-Hi’ edition, first printed in 1967, retained the typesetting of the first edition, but the text was altered at nearly a hundred points to remove profanity and references to sexuality, drinking, drug use, and nudity.?” This version was never intended to replace the mass-market paperback, but beginning in 1973 the censored text was accidentally transferred to successive printings of the commercial text. For the next six years no uncensored paperback copies were in print, and no one seemed to notice it. Students eventually noted the differences between their school texts and older mass-market printings and brought this mystery to Bradbury’s attention. Since 1979 new typesettings of the restored text and only the restored text have reached print.

When I re-read the novel as an adult, his response to this event had ended up in an introduction that felt oddly prescient:

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles. But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms, and why didn’t I “do them over”?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader. In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature, one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”

The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.” Some five years back, the editors of yet another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant, and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down, and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito — out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch — gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer — lost.

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched, and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like in the finale — Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention — shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

How did I react to all of the above?

By “firing” the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

Every minority feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse.

His mother-in-law convinced him to join the Theosophical Society in 1892

Thursday, December 8th, 2022

I recently watched American Oz, which “explores the life and times of author L. Frank Baum, the creator of one of the most beloved, enduring and classic American narratives”:

By 1900, when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published, Baum was 44 years old and had spent much of his life in restless pursuit of success. With mixed results he dove into a string of jobs — chicken breeder, actor, marketer of petroleum products, shopkeeper, newspaperman and traveling salesman — Baum continued to reinvent himself, reflecting a uniquely American brand of confidence, imagination and innovation. During his travels to the Great Plains and on to Chicago during the American frontier’s final days, he witnessed a nation coming to terms with the economic uncertainty of the Gilded Age. But he never lost his childlike sense of wonder and eventually crafted his observations into a magical tale of survival, adventure and self-discovery, reinterpreted through the generations in films, books and musicals.

One minor point jumped out at me: his mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, convinced him to join the Theosophical Society in 1892:

Matilda Joslyn Gage (March 24, 1826 – March 18, 1898) was an American writer and activist. She is mainly known for her contributions to women’s suffrage in the United States (i.e. the right to vote) but she also campaigned for Native American rights, abolitionism (the end of slavery), and freethought (the free exercise of reason in matters of religious belief). She is the eponym for the Matilda effect, which describes the tendency to deny women credit for scientific invention. She influenced her son-in-law L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz.

She was the youngest speaker at the 1852 National Women’s Rights Convention held in Syracuse, New York. She was a tireless worker and public speaker, and contributed numerous articles to the press, being regarded as “one of the most logical, fearless and scientific writers of her day”. Along with Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Staton, Gage helped found the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. During 1878–1881, she published and edited the National Citizen, a paper devoted to the cause of women. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, she was for years in the forefront of the suffrage movement, and collaborated with them in writing the History of Woman Suffrage (1881–1887). She was the author of the Woman’s Rights Catechism (1868); Woman as Inventor (1870); Who Planned the Tennessee Campaign (1880); and Woman, Church and State (1893).

Theosophy caught my attention years ago. American Oz described it as a way to make Buddhist and Hindu ideas palatable to a western audience. Fans of old-school swords & sorcery fiction can’t help but notice Theosophy’s many mentions of Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis, and reincarnated men evolving through various races from age to age.

How the Billboard Hot 100 Lost Interest in the Key Change

Sunday, November 27th, 2022

Chris Dalla Riva, a musician from New Jersey who works on analytics and personalization at Audiomack, explains how the Billboard Hot 100 lost interest in the key change:

When looking at every Billboard Hot 100 number one hit between 1958 and 1990, we see that the key of G major was a very popular key. This was because the key of G major is easy to work with on the guitar and piano, the two most popular compositional instruments during these years. In fact, across the decades, we see that keys that are convenient to use on these instruments (i.e. C major, G major, D major) are more popular than others that are less convenient to use, like B major and Gb major.

But songs don’t have to be in a single key. In fact, 23 percent of number one hits between 1958 and 1990 were in multiple keys, like “Man in the Mirror.”


The act of shifting a song’s key up either a half step or a whole step (i.e. one or two notes on the keyboard) near the end of the song, was the most popular key change for decades. In fact, 52 percent of key changes found in number one hits between 1958 and 1990 employ this change.


What’s odd is that after 1990, key changes are employed much less frequently, if at all, in number one hits.

What’s doubly odd is that around the same time, the keys that number one hits are in change dramatically too. In fact, songwriters begin using all keys at comparable rates.


So what is going on? Both of the shifts can be tied back to two things: the rise of hip-hop and the growing popularity of digital music production, or recording on computers.


Hip-hop stands in stark contrast to nearly all genres that came before because it puts more emphasis on rhythm and lyricism over melody and harmony.


As hip-hop grew in popularity, the use of computers in recording also exploded too. Whereas the guitar and piano lend themselves to certain keys, the computer is key-agnostic. If I record a song in the key of C major into digital recording software, like Logic or ProTools, and then decide I don’t like that key, I don’t have to play it again in that new key. I can just use my software to shift it into that different key. I’m no longer constrained by my instrument.

Furthermore, digital recording software lends itself to a new style of songwriting that isn’t as inviting to key changes within a recording.


Because songwriters in the pre-digital age were writing linearly, shifting the key in a new section was a natural compositional technique.

The totokia was intended to peck holes in skulls

Thursday, November 24th, 2022

The Tusken Raiders in the original Star Wars wield a peculiar weapon that Luke calls a gaffi stick. It turns out that the gaderffii is based on the Fijian totokia:

According to Fiji material culture scholar Fergus Clunie who describes it as a beaked battle hammer (in Fijian Weapons and Warfare, 1977: p. 55), “…the totokia was intended to ‘peck’ holes in skulls.” The weight of the head of the club was concentrated in the point of the beak of the weapon or kedi-toki (toki to peck; i toki: a bird’s beak). The totokia “…delivered a deadly blow in an abrupt but vicious stab, not requiring the wide swinging arc demanded by the others.” (Yalo i Viti. A Fiji Museum Catalogue, 1986: p. 185) It was a club that could be used in open warfare or to finish-off or execute warriors on the battlefield.

Totakia and Gaffi Stick

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is not an instruction manual

Saturday, November 19th, 2022

In what ways, Casey Handmer asks, does The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and other novels in the genre) fail as an instruction manual?

We know that a Moon city is not a good place to grow plants, that water is relatively abundant on the surface near the poles, and that underground construction is pointlessly difficult. So any future Moon city will have to be structured around some other premise, which is to say its foundational architecture on both a social and technical level will be completely different.

We know that AIs are pretty good at tweaking our amygdala, but strictly speaking we don’t need to build one on the Moon, and I would hope its existence is strictly orthogonal to the question of political control.

Lunar cities, and all other space habitats, are tremendously vulnerable to physical destruction. This means that, for all practical purposes, Earthling power centers hold absolute escalation dominance. No combination of sneaky AIs, secret mass drivers, or sabotage would be enough to attain political independence through force. If space habitats want some degree of political autonomy, they will have to obtain it through non-violent means. Contemporary science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson makes this argument powerfully in this recent podcast, when discussing how he structured the revolutions in his Mars trilogy.

Lastly, the “Brass cannon” story is like “Starship Troopers” – a falsifiably satirical critique of popular conceptions of political control. For some reason, libertarians swarm Heinlein novels and space advocacy conferences like aphids in spring. I will resist the temptation to take easy shots, but point out merely that every real-world attempt at implementation of libertarianism as the dominant political culture has failed, quickly and predictably. This is because libertarianism, like many other schools of thought that fill out our diverse political scene, functions best as an alternative actually practiced by very few people. It turns out a similar thing occurs in salmon mating behavior.