We'll Obtain It

Addison makes the great Stoic say—
"'Tis not in mortals to command success;
But we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it."
But the spirit of Romance and Christendom, the spirit which is in every lover, the spirit which has bestridden the earth with European adventure, is quite opposite. 'Tis not in mortals to deserve success. But we'll do more, Sempronius; we'll obtain it.
—G. K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World
It is often said, because it is often said and with no better basis, like every other halfwit urban legend, that the melancholy and pessimism and "Long Defeat" attitude found in Tolkien, is Christian. But...no it's not. It's pagan. It is found in Tolkien's models, but they were mostly Anglo-Saxon bards who'd learned a bunch of pagan poetry and noticed that Wotan's doomed struggles are an awesome literary theme. In the most Christian of European romances you do not find that element, you only find it when they're consciously aping a pagan model. Hence it's found in the Romantics, who lamented the "Enlightenment" entirely in favor of the Renaissance (e.g. their theory of monarchy, which is purely that of the Dominate era of Rome—if you suggested "divine right of kings" to the medievals they'd probably kill you for blasphemy).

The attitude is pagan, Stoic and Norse and oh by the way Buddhist, that dissatisfaction about the impermanence of things is kinda two of the three marks of existence that are only the, y' know, essence of Buddhism. The Christian attitude is different. Before Christendom lost its nerve in stupid nostalgia for the Roman Empire, the attitude in its literature was entirely the opposite of that fatalistic, all-enduring resignation; it was a solid tissue of defiance of "fate" from one end to the other. E.g., De Troyes's "Érec et Énide" is generally considered to derive from Aeneas and Dido. Only instead of getting abandoned and killing herself while swearing an enmity that causes one of their civilizations to be destroyed, Enid frees captives, saves her husband's life several times, and becomes a queen. And every time she saves her husband's life? She does it by disobeying his orders. Just a bit different.

That quitter Romanticism crap is far more the quasi-paganism of the Sandalpunk Era ("classicism" has good connotations which are undeserved by "let's turn off our brains for 200 years, and just do Greco-Roman cosplay instead") than the Christianity of the Middle Ages.

Seriously, 12th-century Europeans were not yet brokenhearted from their failure to defend the East, and had not yet lived through the plague or destroyed themselves with the Reformation Wars; they just had the fairest social system, the best hygiene, the greatest architecture, the most productive agriculture, and the most advanced manufacturing in the history of the world. They were the first to abolish slavery, recognize the legal adulthood of women, or attempt to curtail war atrocities. Hence why their literature lacked any melancholy deriving from their own failures: they were still succeeding.

You might say that their later heartbreak showed they were naïve. But their whole breakdown was caused by losing their nerve, and deliberately reverting to their previous way of doing things. The melancholy in Tolkien is Romanticist, that is, born of a movement jaded from the Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolutions. None of those things would ever have happened if not for the resurrection of Roman Law; even the Plague could've been withstood, if Philip the Fair hadn't seen an advantage, during a succession dispute, to resurrecting Iron Age patriarchy and the Dominate-era theory of the executive.

Some of the modern West has a similar optimism, to which Tolkien's Norse Stoicism is contrasted, despite the fact his is the less authentically Christian attitude—though the moderns mostly come by it through being a sham Gospel (not to say what Buddhists would call a false refuge). We abolished slavery very late in our own territories, and abet it to this day elsewhere; women were essentially minors in our laws well into the 20th century (till the late 1980s in Switzerland); while the medievals failed to protect the East, we failed to protect it a thousand times more (the Soviets did far worse to Eastern Europe and Central Asia in four generations than the Ottoman Turks did in twenty-four). Again, the Crusades, which are supposed to show the brutality of the medievals, killed 1.5 million people, over 300 years; the quintessential war of our era killed 70 million people over 6. The medievals may have been naïve to think their culture was a basis for optimism; but if they were, we are much more naïve (specifically, 275 timesnote).

I close as I opened, with a quote from What's Wrong with the World, quite possibly the most famous quote from it and one of Chesterton's most famous quotes period.
Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.


Spot Check (Mostly Genre and Gender)

Random thoughts and reality check, on the aforementioned topics to the aforementioned degree.
  • I think all you need to know about where far too many people are coming from, is summed up in a comment I read on one of those articles about "sexism" in games (by which they mostly mean "Japan refusing to go along with fads in the Western games industry"). The comment was, "FemShep is the best female character I've seen in a long time."

    Know what the joke there is? FemShep is the female version of Shepard, in Mass Effect. Only...Shepard is canonically male. FemShep is a re-skin and dub of a character written as male. Being a re-skin of a man automatically takes FemShep out of the running for "best female character", like being a re-skin of Peach takes Daisy out of the running for "best Smash Bros character". It is a gender-feminism self-parody, and I have no indication the person who said it meant it other than sincerely.
  • You will hear, in discussions of things like various kinds of nudity in anime, or the fact tentacle hentai exists because of censorship (which is true), that the Japanese had no nudity taboo prior to Westernization. Which...if that were true, why did they wear clothes? They had different nudity taboos, although not that different if your country was never Puritan; but does anyone actually think "I was seen naked, now I can never be married" was a concept originating at the Meiji Restoration?

    We actually do know, in quite some detail, what the sexual ethics and modesty concepts of pre-Meiji Japan were. They were the standard Neo-Confucian ones, not the free-loving utopia people seem to be imagining. For instance, in urban Japanese society, it was kinky for a man to be in love with his wife, or a woman to enjoy sex with her husband. A married woman was the mother of her husband's heirs, not his lover in any sense at all. That was actually the case up until the "kasutori literature" movement—which is named after the cheap rotgut vodka they had to drink because of post-war shortages.
  • Much was made of a conservative writer, at the time, claiming that the first Mass Effect's sex scenes made the game pornographic. It is true that they're not explicit. But...why do they exist? Leaving to one side whether you ever need to depict sex in real time, graphically or not, in fiction (you pretty much don't, at least 98% of the time it's as unnecessary as blow-by-blow pooping scenes), interspecies sex is a thing like faster-than-light travel, i.e. almost entirely impossible.

    Only, we grandfather in FTL for the simple reason it lets our plots happen. Interspecies sex advances no plots whatsoever. If your work has, as a major suspension-of-disbelief issue, something only included to excite prurient interest? It may not actually be porn but it's in the same spirit; it may not require societal outcry but it should be called out on its breathtaking puerility. I mean seriously, what are you, in tenth grade?

    Oh wait, these are the people who brought us Dragon Age. Stupid question.
  • Hey, uh, you know the whole "Chosen One" idea? And how people always link it to Joseph Campbell-Hero's Journey-monomyth? Yeah. Um. Which mythic heroes are actually "chosen ones"? Because I can't think of any.

    Seriously, all the mythological heroes I can think of who remotely conform to the Hero's Journey model are not "chosen" in any meaningful way, any more than they were "chosen" to be omnivorous apex predators. Because their heroism is usually just a part of their nature—because they're usually the children of gods. Their mothers might've been chosen, but them? No, they're just going into the family business.

    I have a feeling there's also some kind of misplaced syncretism mixed up in here—Moses and the rest of the prophets are "chosen" in some sense, for example, and that's a common misconception about what being "anointed" means (hint, the "oint" part actually shares a root with "ointment"), but Judaeo-Christian figures otherwise conform quite poorly to the "monomyth".

    The whole "Chosen One" concept seems to have been chimerically hacked together out of scraps of other concepts, and I'd really like to know where it comes from. I'm thinking "post-Tolkien fantasy made it up to avoid having to figure out why this schlub's our hero", actually.
  • Much is made of how everything nowadays—movie posters, for instance, and increasingly movies themselves—is orange and blue. It's gotten to the point where pointing it out is annoying, like being the guy who says there's no sound in space (rockets shouldn't be laid out like barges, either, but how often do you hear about that?). But how come nobody ever asks about the other options?

    See, orange and blue work well together because they're opposites. There are two other sets of opposites on a six-color wheel (and we really consider there to be only six colors, since English thinks "blue"/azure/cyan is the same color as "indigo"/blue)—yellow goes with purple and green goes with red.

    But we can't use yellow and purple without looking like the movie was sponsored by the Sinestro Corps (seriously, think how many villains have "purple and yellow" as their color-scheme). And red and green is Christmas. Our civilization brought this blue and orange apocalypse upon itself, by already having its alternatives bound to emotional hotkeys.
  • Mars One is a company that claims to be recruiting people for Mars colonization (hence the name), and purporting to make the whole thing profitable by having the colonists' training, and the colony itself, become a reality show. Let's just say people (okay, Cracked writers—they do count as people before the law) have compared that company's ads to North Korean propaganda films, for a reason.

    Namely, ain't happening. The Moon at its furthest is 135 times closer than Mars at its closest, and we realistically won't be setting foot on the Moon again for a decade at least. We probably won't be able to reach Mars till sometime after the mid-century mark. And there are very real reasons to want a manned presence on the Moon (it's much easier to build spaceships in 1/6 Earth's gravity, just for one). Mars, on the other hand, is basically a useless gravity well with bad weather (planet-wide dust storms with 60 mph winds that can affect entire seasons), the very last place a spacefaring culture as rudimentary as ours has any business in.
  • It is interesting how stupid or dishonest or both many people are, or rather it is galling, given that they then dare to argue with you. A while back I was discussing medieval mores with a person, who claimed that the Church considered the "missionary" position the only licit sex-act. I asked him to produce the Church document which made this claim.

    He linked me to an 11th-century (I think) Italian comic poem wherein the woman-on-top position is regarded by all the characters as kinky. I'm sorry, I'm pretty sure a Church document and a farce in verse are two different things, but then again I'm not mentally disabled. It's like if a 29th-century person should claim that this society considered pastry capable of consenting to sex, and when asked to produce a legal document as evidence, offers American Pie.
  • And seriously, Tolkien's protagonists are not Chosen Ones, not in the literary sense. There is a sense, of course, in which the Bagginses are "chosen" (by Manwe or directly by Eru Iluvatar), but the only person who talks about it that way is Gandalf, who you will recall is in the retinue of that first guy and thus has an "inside baseball" view of the matter. But Gandalf talks about everyone else being chosen, too—Gollum is as much a chosen one to him as Frodo is, remember.

    As far as the Hobbits themselves, and everyone else who isn't one of the Ainur, are concerned, the Ring is simply the duty that happened to fall to Bilbo and Frodo, the way that another Ring is the duty that happened to fall to John-117. Nobody says the Chief is a Chosen One (although Cortana is his Gandalf—she even died on a bridge fighting a big scary godlike thing, and we all know she ain't gonna stay dead).


Magic Numbers

I wonder how the societies in a fantasy setting like D&D's would be modified by magic. Would, for instance, magical healing lower the infant mortality rates to modern levels? Since we're generally assuming magic isn't a new thing, would purify food and drink being zeroth level have removed the necessity for alcohol? Civilized peoples, including to an extent in Mesoamerica, have alcohol tolerance because they would all have died of dysentery if they'd had to drink their cities' water. With the town priest able to purify water, the selection pressure for alcohol tolerance might never have arisen (they'd still make booze, of course, but they'd be more prone to alcoholism, as are the Irish, Scandinavians, Native Americans, and Russians, who were not urban enough for alcohol to be a survival mechanism until shortly before modern sanitation was invented).

A part of it depends on how common healing magic is. That article about the real-world breakdown of D&D stats, that I've mentioned before, gives 5% of the population as being "adventurer" material. Assuming an even distribution of ability scores, only 1/6 of those would be capable of casting priest spells (some paladin spells can do the same things, and they're powered by Charisma rather than Wisdom, but the other requirements make all paladins a statistical anomaly). So that gives us one person capable of casting priest spells for every 120 people, and of those, half might choose to be druids. There is, therefore, one priest per 240 people. Now, that all by itself looks like 4.2 healers per person, which is the doctor-patient ratios Italy's healthcare system gets, but remember, those people are mostly 1st-level priests, they can cure wounds and detect poison but they can't remove disease or neutralize poison, they're basically emergency room nurses.

No, to approximate modern medicine you've got to wait till 5th level, which is when clerics can cast remove disease, a 3rd-level spell. And 5th-level characters, as that article says, are Einstein or record-breaking athletes, you pretty much can't assign them a percentage. (The healers can slow poison, using delay poison, at 3rd level, since it's a 2nd-level spell.) Possibly, and in a rather modern touch, the few 5th-level healers (who are, remember, Jonas Salk) might write scrolls with remove disease, which are then distributed to major centers staffed by lesser healers, who cast the spells with a level check (since they aren't capable of casting that spell on their own), thus introducing a chance that treatment fails. Also, those healing centers might well charge 375 gp for the use of the spell, or maybe they'll be charitable and charge only the 30-120 gp that casting a 3rd-level spell would cost. Of course, all of those healers, 1st level and up, can cure wounds, so realistically the only way to die from injury or accident is to do it quickly enough that a cleric can't be brought to bear. (1 in 5 child deaths is from an accident, despite modern medicine, so that would greatly increase their survivability right there.)

Arcane spellcasters would make up twice the percentage of the population that divine do, and there's no druid-cleric split. Basically, 1 person in 60 is an arcane spellcaster, although almost all of those are only 1st-level. But they can do as much damage as a smallish siege-engine with burning hands, and as much as throwing knives (only at 3-4 times the range and 100% accuracy) with magic missile. The few 3rd-level casters can also turn invisible. The very, very few 5th-level ones can demolish entire buildings with fireball and lightning bolt. So realistically, the warfare of this setting is going to be 18th century, not 20th—even if you do have units made up of 1st-level mages, and a few 3rd-level elite agents who can escape unseen after they fulfill their missions, there's not going to be any carpet-bombing, there simply aren't enough mages capable of casting spells that do the right kind of damage. Basically mages would be grenadiers or elite riflemen, and the ballistae, battering rams, and catapults are still going to be the major siege engines. There's no issue of protecting castles against fireballs for the same reason no 19th century military worried about Nikola Tesla coming up and shooting them with lightning bolts, that's about the frequency of 5th-level characters.

So...huh. Looks like all the naysayers, myself included, were wrong. It's entirely plausible to have a setting where magic is real but that doesn't play out too differently from a real-world setting with that level of mundane tech. And actually "like the 'Middle Ages' [i.e. the Renaissance] but with better sanitation and nutrition" is pretty much the setting of most fantasy. They often even involve more alcoholism than real Europe did (because drinking problems are a convenient source of tacked-on drama the characters can angst about).


Ten Thousand Item Post

Random thoughts. A ten thousand item shop (i.e. countless items) is what they call a dollar store in China (also sometimes Japan, though "100 yen shop" is more typical nowadays).
  • Remember how I once said (here) that elves' usual depiction as markedly less sexually dimorphic than humans—e.g. an average female elf in D&D 3E stands 5' and weighs 84 lbs, while a male stands the same and weighs 89—doesn't go with their depiction as free-loving hippies? Yes well I crunched the numbers on, e.g., chimps and bonobos. A male chimp averages 109 lbs, while a female averages 86 lbs; a male bonobo averages 103 lbs, while a female averages 66.

    Now, because elves have human proportions and chimpanzees have ape ones, we're just going to go by the cube-root of the mass ratio to get the new heights; we can just leave the mass ratios alone. And plugging in the male elf's 5'/89 lbs to chimpanzees' female-to-male ratios (79% the weight, thus 92% the height) should give us elf females who stand 4'7" and weigh 70 lbs. Plugging them into the bonobo ratio (64% the weight, thus 86% the height) should give us elf females who stand 4'4" and weigh 57 lbs.

    No, the canonical elf's ratios (males 106% as heavy as females) are, as I said, precisely those of jackals.
  • The Maya, as previously mentioned, didn't have fractions. Oddly enough, though, the Aztecs did, sort of. They were at least groping toward the rudiments of the concept when people who had algebra showed up and rendered it moot; their conception of fractions was somewhat like what seems to be in play in Babylonian math. It's odd, in part because the Maya had genuine writing, and the Aztecs didn't, they were still at the rebus/mnemonic "you've got to already know the gist of it to understand it" proto-writing stage. Then again the Hindus invented roughly a third of our math, and their language wasn't written until sometime after the founding of Rome.

    Incidentally, the reason we know the Aztecs were beginning to come up with the concept of fractions, is we've got some of their land-surveying records (remember, the Spanish mostly only destroyed ritual manuals—and remember the rituals in question if you want to know why). They were top-notch geometers; the great Postclassic Mayan center, Chichen Itzá, seems to have mostly been built by artisans who weren't Mayan, but Nahuatl (Toltecs, presumably, given the time-frame). Being an artisan was fundamental to the Nahuatl civilization's self-concept, to the point where "toltecatl" means "artisanry" (as contrasted with "chichimecatl", literally "being a northern savage" and idiomatically "squalor"). It's no wonder those guys got good at surveying.

    Of course, since they used to have dealings with the Maya, you do wonder why they didn't say, "Wait, you're writing down, like, the actual sounds you say? Let's adapt that for our language, rather than having to play Pictionary whenever we have to read something!"
  • I'm changing the orthography of the word "khàngaì" to "khângây". I'm redoing their language (or rather the one of their languages that shows up), so that instead of using tone to distinguish lexemes, it distinguishes inflections—instead of being a tonal language, the pitch of a word marks things like noun case or verb mood and tense. And I thought, since the folks in question are basically wolves crossed with songbirds, that I'd have the morphology be not merely tone, but actual music.

    I haven't ground the kinks out yet, but I think I'm going with a sentence being in a minor key makes it declarative, and major key interrogative. Also think I'm gonna have adjectives be on the same note as their referents, and probably have verbs harmonize in some way with their subjects (maybe different harmonies for active and passive verbs?).

    I also know I'm gonna have one of them say that the reason that language is the one they use for interstellar trade has less to do with the nation that speaks it being somewhat dominant, than with it using pure notes rather than chords, which their vocal anatomy makes pronounceable, like birds' does (and yours doesn't, that's why so much vocal music involves group harmonies). I think one of their other languages has the verbs be chords of the notes their subjects and objects are in. The Bantu languages and a lot of Mesoamerican ones (and South Athabascan ones, which might be due to Uto-Aztecan influence, I don't know enough Tlingit or Carrier to tell) use constructions that basically work like "The boy the girl he-loves-her".
  • I'm honestly the type of person who worries over whether aliens have the right anatomy for the sounds I gave their language—for instance, most things other than mammals don't have hard palates (crocodiles do, because otherwise their prey would kick them in the brain on the way down their throats). I wonder how talking birds pronounce palatalized sounds—do they maybe do vowel-glides instead? Most things other than baboons and the apes don't have uvulas (and I may actually mention that the structure in zled mouths that makes their "uvular" consonants doesn't quite look like a uvula, although it sounds close enough for our purposes).

    Zledo can't pronounce F or V (they render those elements in human languages as ɸ and β), and the only glottal sound they have is the stop (their H is actually a velar—IPA x—just like the J in Spanish). One can imagine that an alien race might pronounce F with the upper lip on the bottom teeth—is that a lateral labiodental?—which I'm gonna call an "underbite F". I think I might give the khângây that pronunciation. A species with a wolf-like tongue might have trouble with some of the alveolar sounds, since the tip of its tongue would be floppy; it might pronounce T as Th and D as Dh (but presumably still as stops, i.e. they'd basically have a Mexican accent in that regard).
  • My whole family (well, with one exception) are getting obsessed with Death Note. And I realized what I don't like about it, something I did actually touch on in my thing about it, the 12th post on the whole blog. Namely, I'm a science fiction writer. Death Note completely ignores the implications of the existence of Kira. Not just the cosmology is unexplored—usually shinigami serve an ecological function in the cosmos, these ones are basically just cow-tipping rednecks—but even worse, the sociology.

    Basically Death Note suffers from the same problem as In Time, which has a world where immortality is the medium of exchange and, instead of exploring how people change when death is no longer a certainty, they chuck hoary class-war chestnuts at us. Death Note ignores the implications of its setting in favor of police procedural and highly stylized intrigue. How does some brat setting up as a knockoff of the Spectre, and everyone knowing he did it, affect everyone? Yeah, they talk a bit about crime rates dropping, but Kira doesn't only kill criminals later on, he kills anyone who crosses him, and tries to take over the world's political system. And at that point, we discover Death Note is every bit the "all conflicts are resolved with a children's card game" setting that Yu-Gi-Oh! is, it's just that the children's card game is "the civilian police system". Probably the moment Kira killed someone overseas, definitely the moment he went after an official of another country, he ceased to be a criminal, and became a national security threat.

    Most of the things Light uses to hide hinge on the police system—he has sufficient plausible deniability RE: being Kira that they can't get probable cause to search him. Now, leaving to one side that Japanese cops aren't actually sticklers about that kind of thing, "probable cause" don't mean jack to people whose job is more likely to involve the phrase "extraordinary rendition", let alone the people who don't have to bother to outsource that. It would realistically take less than a week from the first time Kira made foreign officials fear for their national sovereignty to the moment when Light finds the barrel of a black-ops pistol shoved in his mouth.
  • Oddly enough, Canadian English has more branches than American, even though Canada has about 11% the people. But there are four big divisions of Canadian English: Western and Central, Maritimes, Newfoundland, and Northern. Meanwhile, there are only three divisions of American: Midwest, Northeast, and everything else is Southern.

    Incidentally, most Canadians probably speak Western and Central, which I believe is also what TV and radio are mostly in, but there are three other divisions of Canadian English even if one of them is the dominant one. In America, our TV is in Midwestern, albeit a very deracinated variety that shades towards the western end of Southern. It's also somewhat interesting why everything that isn't Midwest or Northeast is Southern, namely that most of our western settlement was by ex-Confederates, either trying to start over after the war or trying to escape Reconstruction (postwar occupations suck to live under).
  • While I stand by my assertion that the concept of shinigami existed in Japan prior to the Meiji era, because it's mentioned in an 18th century play, I do think we have to acknowledge they're not much of a god in a cultic sense. No, instead, they're basically a jinx—as are the binbôgami (poverty gods) and the ekibyôgami (pestilence gods). All three, in turn, are probably just subclasses of magatsuhi no kami, the "gods of days that bear calamity".

    They probably functioned something like Sapientia and Fortuna and so on, in Roman literature—most of them aren't so much actual gods as they are rhetorical personifications. If the Romans were doing a litany of all the gods (as the Japanese occasionally list the eight hundred myriad), they might list such personifications, but they didn't really have any cult except sometimes as the handmaids of gods who aren't just named after the thing they're the god of (as the magatsuhi no kami serve Izanami no Mikoto).

    I think a lot of the time the terms are just applied to people, rhetorically, i.e. "With the extra repairs, that klutz is our god of poverty."/"Thanks for giving me your cold, plague-god!"/"Why is every TV detective a god of death?"


Thinking About Thinking...Machines

Thoughts on robots and AI (well, one of 'em's really more about automation).

This is post 479, which is a prime. It is also a safe number (it is equal to 2p+1, where p is also a prime), the sum of nine consecutive primes (37 + 41 + 43 + 47 + 53 + 59 + 61 + 67 + 71), a Chen prime (because if you add 2 to it the sum is either prime or the product of two primes, in this case 481 = 13 × 37), and a self number (which is a number that is not equal to any other number added to the sum of its own digits, i.e. 32 is not a self number because 32 = 25 + 2 + 5).
  • During one of the chick-flick terminal-patient scenes in Halo 4, Cortana says this:
    I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn't real. I know it because the emitter's Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size. I know because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star. But for all that, I'll never know if it looks real... if it feels real...
    Only...the way that you know it doesn't look real is that its Rayleigh effect is disproportionate and its stellar cycle is too symmetrical. If a human was sensitive enough to tell you it didn't look real, that would be what he was talking about, he just probably couldn't define it that precisely. If Cortana had a body with temperature sensors, the difference produced by that disproportionate Rayleigh effect (it would have an effect on the heat of the "sunlight") would be perceptible to those sensors; a human who reported that sensation didn't "feel real" would be reporting the same thing, they, again, just couldn't define it like that.

    This is key for the portrayal of AI (always assuming we suspend our disbelief about how they're logically impossible): nothing about being made of meat is special. An android might have more awareness of how he senses things than you, although the program that is his mind may be so massive that it has to run on separate hardware from those sensors, just like yours does (that's what the autonomic nervous system is, the other hardware). Fundamentally, though, he's still sensing the same things, and his experience of sensing them is comparable to yours. To, that is, the extent that any other person's experience of sense-perception is comparable to yours—just like how you can't describe color to a blind man, you have no way of knowing that anything another sighted person sees is anything like what you see, except in relation to physically quantifiable things. You can diagnose that a person can't distinguish the red wavelength from the green one; you can never be certain that his experience when he sees "blue" is anything like yours.

    Or to wrap it in buzzwords, there fundamentally would be no difference of "qualia" for a true AI, any more than there is for an alien or for another human being. There would only be the quantitative differences in function and sensitivity between the sensory apparatus, which exist also between humans.
  • What tropers call a Logic Bomb, seen e.g. here, is silly. Most people acknowledge that. What most don't seem to do is try to figure out what it should do. Most likely the AI would deal with it the way computers deal with divide-by-zero errors. Actually, a contradiction in terms is basically the logical equivalent of a not-a-number error, if you think about it.

    It occurs to me, true AI would be an absolute bitch to come up with exception-handling for. One problem, for example, is that the human mind seems to prefer resumption over termination, which is apparently a bad idea with computer programs. Also our exception-handling for major things appears to take the form of mental illness (for minor things, well, that's probably what "humor" is).
  • I realized, my workaround for getting "strong" AI is not just the handwave to have what I wanted in the story (even though "integrate your handwaves into the plot" is pretty much half of what science fiction is). It's also an important element of a theme that several other elements of my book also explore. Namely, science is not religion. If you thought science and religion were in conflict (rather than being engaged in a deadly game of "sea lion and squirrel"), or if you thought science now could answer questions once answered by religion, then you are guilty of what analytic philosophers call a category error.

    To put it one way, and use Soviet slogans to mean their opposite—always a delight—"The Earth is blue, but there is no God out there." Because space is not Heaven. 1600 years ago, St. Augustine mocked the kind of God you people think science can substitute for, and so did the Neoplatonists he learned philosophy from, 200 years before that. There's a reason every SF attempt to hijack the religious impulse is basically just a retread of Cosmism, which is just a retread of Gnosticism (as is everything in Transhumanism that's not directly copied from the Cosmists). Fundamentally they're thinking like the Manicheans (also Mormons and Scientologists), to whom "spirit" is actually ultra-rarefied matter, and who could seriously talk about spiritual "places"—and mean it literally, not just as an analogy for condition-of-being.

    Also, would you people please get a different set of ideas? Gnosticism is the Team Rocket of worldviews. Except Team Rocket is occasionally cool.
  • The "demographic winter" currently looming over the developed world is actually less of a problem than it seems...provided the developed country in question has low immigration, anyway. Then, instead of "watch your society transform into a colony of a different one, before your very eyes", it's more a matter of "certain hiccups as the old people die off". For one thing, most of the countries where declining birthrates don't go with high immigration have relatively small welfare states—in Japan and South Korea, old people get much more of their incomes from private savings and private pensions, so there won't be nearly as much of a social-security crisis.

    And (in case you were wondering why I bring it up here), the other thing is, any personnel gaps created by the demographic shifts could be covered by automation. Especially because Japan is currently massively overstaffed. You ever wonder why they still do so much business on paper, or why most of their gas stations aren't self-service? (Wait, let me back up: Japan is actually weirdly low-tech in a lot of ways. They do lots of business and record-keeping on paper, often with forms filled out by hand, and the majority of their gas-stations are still full-service.) It turns out it was all in order to create lots of make-work jobs for their populace, which might have something to do with why their unemployment is 4.1% (ours is 7.5%). Thus, a lot of those jobs? Not needed; the people they were keeping out of trouble will be put to better use elsewhere.

    Also, while it's probably true that, as that article says, the Japanese go a bit too far in classifying any programmable industrial machinery as "robots", the fact is that that's not much broader than the definition used by the rest of the world. I've actually worked with a programmable robot arm (my high school had a cool tech program, though I didn't take much of it), and the thing was honestly not that much different from the laser-etcher at the other end of the classroom.
  • I am fascinated by something that may well be the dumbest thing in all of Star Trek. Yes, guess what, that hole had a bottom. Also, it's not what you're thinking. Know what the dumbest thing is? They let Data play poker. That is, they let a being that not only doesn't show emotions, but hasn't got them, play a bluffing game. Not only does he have no tells, but he can probably hear their pulses change and see their body temperatures fluctuate when they bluff.

    I mean, seriously people. You've got a better chance beating Data at chess than you have at poker, and the human vs. computer chess ship has pretty much already sailed by our time. There would probably be a sign hanging over poker tables in any setting with AI, "Senses must be set to human norms and emotional programming must be present". Failing that, you don't get to play poker. Same goes for cyborgs (no that's not discrimination, it's a game, we handicap in games—anyone who doesn't understand that probably also thinks it'd be awesome for adults to play tackle football against peewee players).

    Of course, you're not going to be playing poker anyway, as I said here. You're going to be playing MonHan.
  • I always get weirded out when AIs/androids in things, that clearly have self-awareness, are asserted to not have souls. Now, admittedly, "soul" as commonly used is restricted to rational souls (animals, plants, and inanimate objects have "souls" as philosophers understand the concept, but not the same kind), but the AIs in question are rational. "Soul" just means "that which makes it what it is"; that which makes a rational being what it is, is, ipso facto, a rational soul.

    There's also, often, a lot of grandstanding about "oh, do we have the right to create intelligent beings with souls?", but, uh, apart from the fact you can do that without getting out of bed (if you know what I mean, nudge nudge wink wink), is the fact you have a multi-million dollar fertility industry mass-producing the aforementioned beings. While, by the way, destroying a very hefty proportion of the embryos it creates. And let's not even get into you people's strange idea that reproductive cloning isn't as bad as being cloned for spare parts. No, sorry; there's not a single argument against the creation of AI that doesn't go double for half the things we're already doing.

    As I've said before, when speculative fiction starts saying stupid things about ethics, it generally means that an intelligent discussion might step on something the writers are in favor of.
  • It's debatable whether or not the "neural net" method of trying to do artificial intelligence is a good idea—is it necessary to mimic the function of a human brain rather than making an ad hoc program from the ground up on more conventional hardware? Certainly it seems just as sensible and probably simpler to just create a program designed to do what people's minds do rather than to mimic the physical means by which they do them. But let's leave that to one side. Certainly any computer you could upload your mind to would need to work like your original hardware.

    Assuming that neural nets are the way to go, the human brain contains 100 billion neurons, about 3 trillion glial cells, and about 125 trillion synapses. The neurons are more important than the glial cells, and the synapses are probably more important than the neurons, but we can't say that any of them are trivial. So if you assign a single bit in a computer to one of those three things, you wind up with 128.1 trillion bits, or 14.5633 terabytes (the whole Library of Congress is usually quoted as being 20 terabytes). Only...brains aren't binary; what neurotransmitter carries a "signal" appears to be at least as important as what the "signal" is. Thus one perhaps ought to treat each cell not as a bit...but as a single line of code. Microsoft Windows, the single most complex computer program mankind has ever produced, is 40 million lines of code—3.2 million times smaller than the code necessary to code for braincells.

    Oh, it gets worse. Any time you've got code, you get coding errors. The industry average is between 10 and 50 (I averaged the several averages I found and got 38.75) per 1000; the best we've ever done (1 in 10,000—at NASA's Software Assurance Technology Center at Goddard Space Flight Center) was in highly specialized aerospace applications, not horrendously fuzzy things like natural-language processing, and in incredibly controlled conditions.

    That mind-uploading that they said was just around the corner? Leaving the unbelievably bad metaphysics to one side, and even if we had any way to code for anything remotely like "3 million times as complex as Windows", you'd still have to code each mind individually. The troubleshooting for each one would cost as much as the entire Space Shuttle program, and we'd still be basically giving you a stroke as an unavoidable part of the process. Similarly, with AI proper, every one of 'em gets Fetal Alcohol Syndrome simply as a door-prize. Even without the logical impossibility, AI (and mind-uploading) is still on par with faster-than-light travel—as in, we can just barely conceive of ways to do it at all, and so far none that are feasible to our, or any conceivable future, civilization.
  • How to work around this in science fiction? Well, you could have the audience's suspension of disbelief, that gets you AI, cover for the fact it's not feasible even if it weren't impossible. But personally I find that inelegant. In my book, the first AI basically did cost as much as the Space Shuttle program, although my AIs aren't built on a neural net model (the alternative, to approximate human levels of cognition, would still need to be that complex). But when it succeeded (by cheating), the AI had heaps of processing power and lots of spare time—and the company that made him wanted to make more. So they used him to code more of them, and double-check their coding.

    It's bizarre to me, by the bye, that people think that an AI copied from another one, or from a human (I mean the "neural-clone" type, like Cortana, not an uploaded mind), would in any sense "be" the same person. Hell, the question's actually whether an uploaded mind can really be regarded as the same person, or did you just neural-clone someone and wipe their brain at the same time? See also the metaphysical issues with Star Trek's transporters (it really is a boon neither one is possible). But I think the whole "copied from the other mind, therefore is same person" comes, oddly enough, from our lacking a belief in reincarnation. Watch an anime some time, you doofuses! (If you make an error that watching InuYasha would've prevented, it's time to take a break.) Even if one assumes reincarnation (for which one must either assume Platonic dualism or Buddhist anatman), the whole of the identity is not the same; Kagome isn't Kikyô, and Siaoran isn't Watanuki.

    Then again the fact there's more than one person in humanity at all is weird—Averroes really ought to be right, and we all share only one mind and soul. That Aquinas nevertheless said he was wrong, because of the observed phenomenon of human individuality, is why Aquinas' civilization invented science and Averroes' didn't. See also Buridan's response to peripatetic objections, when he said the celestial bodies were made of the same substances as the Earth and were themselves "worlds" (Aristotle says the Earth is the only world, and the celestial bodies are a radically different substance). Namely? "God can make as many worlds as he likes."


Spot Check III

Reality check and random thoughts. All, I think, mostly about the real world.
  • The perp in a crime manga I was reading was trying to say "the winners write the history books", and said how America and Japan both killed people in World War II, but only Japan got charged with war-crimes. Now, the guy's an ass, and they never for a moment pretended he was doing anything but making bad excuses, but they should've laughed in his face. The reason Japan got charged with war-crimes and America didn't is because Japan committed lots and lots of war-crimes, and America committed them only sporadically.

    Aside from Unit 731 and Nanking and the comfort women and so on, is the fact that China lost the same percentage of its population in that war as Japan did—but, aside from the fact China's losses represent ten times as much actual killing (being a much more populous country), Japan's deaths were only 29% civilian, while China's were 70%. Korea lost a slightly lower percentage, and roughly 2/3 the raw numbers, compared to Japan's...but Korea had no military, it was a Japanese vassal. The Philippines lost probably the exact same number of civilians as Japan, but that outnumbers their military losses 13 to 1.

    Interestingly, if it were a European crime-comic and the guy were a Neo-Nazi, he could've asked why the Nazis got charged with war-crimes and the Soviets didn't, and would've been quite unanswerable—the only answer is, "Because the Soviets won," they were every inch as bad as the Nazis, in some ways worse. But no way no how is European media ever going to admit that Communism, as an ideology, produces the exact same results Nazism does (actually the average German soldier was nowhere near as bad as the average Russian one, in that war).
  • Men's rights weenies have a term for men who, pretty much, remotely acknowledge that there is any unfairness to women in our society, or deny that this is a Dave Sim straw matriarchy set up entirely to benefit women. They call it "white knighting", because much like the undergrad identity-studies courses their entire discourse is copied from, they use nouns as verbs ("'damseled' women").

    But, uh, dudes? (I was going to say "gentlemen", but, I mean, come on.) Watch a damn movie sometime. If you use comparisons to chivalric fiction as a pejorative, you are not the good guy. I don't care how much repurposed Marxist gender-feminism you dress it up in, the fact is you're whining that the girls have it easier—like a six-year-old boy. Perfect fairness and equality is not possible in a cosmos made of matter; while, obviously, gross injustices should be corrected, the only society where men don't have a harder time than women is one where women have a harder time than men.

    If you were actually worthy to call yourselves men, this wouldn't need to be explained. Man up.
  • The colloquial Cantonese for white people is gwáilóu, literally "monster uncle" (as in Japanese, "uncle" is the common Cantonese word for a middle-aged man). Several other Chinese languages, among other languages, refer to white people by words involving ghosts, fairies, or other spooky things. Know why? Because we're damn weird-looking, that's why.

    I mean, consider. When every other human being you have ever seen has black or gray hair, and black eyes, and then you meet people with yellow hair and blue eyes, or orange hair and green eyes? That's freaky. There seems to be no compelling reason that it couldn't just as well have been blue hair with yellow eyes or green hair with orange eyes.
  • I am ordinarily against spelling reform, but only because it is usually meaningless pedantry that doesn't understand that phonetic spellings date. It is permissable if it removes an ambiguity (ambiguity is actually one of my reasons for opposing phonetic spelling). And if it still preserves the etymology (another thing phoneticist fetishism blithely, not to say blitheringly, ignores), so much the better.

    This is occasioned by people using "lead", pronounced "lεd", to mean the past tense of "lead", pronounced "li:d". If it's spelled like that but pronounced "lεd", it means "mildly neurotoxic heavy metal". So plainly, the solution is to spell the present tense as "lede", like the beginning paragraph of a newspaper article, since that means the same thing (it is in fact the same word, respelled precisely in order to avoid this ambiguity). Then its past becomes "led" again, most naturally.

    Also? "Read" should be spelled "rede" in the present and "redd" in the past. "Rede" currently means "advice, council", but both it and "read" have the same root—the Old English for "interpret", hence both "discern the meaning of phonetic symbols" and "determine the optimum course of action"—and are pronounced the same. Yes, I know it's mostly used by Wiccans for their ethical adage—the one they copied from Aleister Crowley, who copied it from a Rabelais satire completely out of context.
  • And thought of Rabelais reminds me, because he was a Christian humanist, that humanism of any kind involves putting second things first. Man is not the measure of all things, and any attempt to make him so just results in misery. Renaissance and "Enlightenment" humanism made adult women legal minors, brought back slavery, and paved the way for the bloodiest wars in human history (until another wave of humanists topped them in the 20th century); Neo-Confucian humanism made it kinky to be in love with your wife rather than a prostitute or a teenage boy, and persecuted any religion it couldn't turn into a state propaganda-arm (it also was one of the bloodthirsty humanist ideologies of the 20th century).

    The fact of the matter is, when human values are subordinated to more transcendent ones, human values benefit—the medievals not only gave women unprecedented rights and abolished slavery, their biggest wars killed vastly fewer people than the wars of the "humanist" era (e.g. 300 years of Crusades combined with the Hundred Years War—which was 116 years long, we're rounding here I guess?—killed about 60% as many people as the accurately-named Thirty Years War alone)note. Buddhism has never successfully been made the basis of civil life, but in the one serious attempt to do so (the early Goryeo era of Korea), slavery got abolished and, again, women actually had legal rights.

    The trouble is that human values and human aims—let alone the tiny artificially-restricted subset of them that "humanists" always work from—cannot be made the sole basis of human life, individually or in a "greatest good for the greatest number" kind of way. Human life, after all, is a thing that happens in the real world, a place that is not of human manufacture, and which does not give a damn about human aims. Maybe if instead of "humanism" we called it "marginally sapient ape-ism" you'd see the trouble?
  • Seeing a dustup between a Japanese nationalist and a Korean one was amusing for me—because neither one of them was a linguist, but they were debating linguistics. And like many Cargo Cultists aping motions whose significance they cannot comprehend laymen with a smattering of half-understood theories filtered through pop culture and political ideology, the Korean was trying to claim that a language's sound-inventory is related to how "advanced" or "primitive" it is. Namely, he was trying to say that the fact Japanese is purely (C)V(n) makes it primitive compared to Korean (whose syllables are (C)V(C)(C)).

    Only...Japanese is only orthographically limited like that. In actual speech it has markedly more variety than Korean. The Japanese word for "like" is pronounced "ski", that is it starts with a by-God biliteral; the word for "is" is "des", i.e. it ends on a fricative. Korean words cannot end on fricatives, syllables that end with sounds that are fricative in other positions end with stops word-finally. And if we're holding languages' orthographies against them, no Korean syllable starts with a vowel, they have to use "Ng" as a null-consonant syllable-initially (all of which leaves to one side that Korean's structure is not syllabic in the first place, unlike the Chinese their linguists blindly copied, but moraic, like that of Japanese, Turkish, and Finnish).

    It's a silly debate anyway, though, because if having a lot of consonants makes your language "advanced", the most advanced language in the world is Georgian, which can put up to eight consonants in a row. Of course, it also has a syntactic alignment more typical of Stone Age cultures of the New World and Australia—is phonetics more or less indicative than grammar? And that's the point: in actual fact, of course, neither consonantal complexity nor ergativity means anything—all languages are as "advanced" as all the others, though some are (to borrow biological terminology) more "derived" than other, more "basal" ones. The idea that stacking consonants means you're advanced is probably a legacy of colonialist scientific racism, given Indo-European languages do it far more than those of most of the Europeans' subject peoples.